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Silkworms, Longhorns, and Power: How the Immaterialist Delusions of the West Fueled the Exploitation of the Global South

Tim LeCain, Montana State University (USA)

Given the vast scale of global climate change, some scholars have in recent years suggested it is necessary and essential to embrace the human species as a whole as a category of analysis. Others have countered that to speak of humans as a species risks erasing the sharply varying degrees of responsibility different peoples and regions bore in causing and benefiting from global warming and other problems. In this paper, I suggest that a neo-materialist understanding of the material roots of human power in other organisms—specifically, silkworms and cattle—offer a means of preserving the species as a useful category of analysis while still highlighting these pervasive inequities. By understanding power as a phenomenon that emerges from the human engagement with material organisms and things, we can ask why some nations of the Global North were able to exploit material things whose origins were often in the Global South for their own benefit. Specifically, I argue that it was the European (and in a related manner, Japanese) embrace of a radically immaterial understanding of human culture and power that fueled this differential success—a success that has now reached a new pinnacle of immaterialism with the neo-liberal faith in the virtues of a supposedly frictionless global capitalist markets. The advent of global warming and the (unfortunately named) Anthropocene Epoch is now, however, revealing the self-defeating illusions of western immaterialism, pointing us towards a profoundly egalitarian conclusion: that since all power fundamentally derives from the material non-human world, its benefits (and responsibilities) should logically accrue not to any nation or group, but rather to the human species as a whole.


May 30, 2018


Internationales Kolleg Morphomata
Weyertal 59

50937 Köln

Timothy J. McCain is author of the recently published book "The matter of history. How things create the past"