Two Cthulhus

At the beginning of every essay, a writer has to decide how familiar their intended audience is with the terms they’ll be using. The focus of this essay, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, occupies a strange position in that it’s both niche and mainstream (e.g. spellcheck takes no issue with Cthulhu). If you’re like me, then you’ve read a story or two by the man himself, but most of your familiarity with the tropes comes to you second-hand. Lovecraftian horror generally involves unutterable tentacled monstrosities from the cold deep (referring to the sea, outer space, or both at once) that, due to their nonconformity with the laws of nature and reason, drive whoever has any contact with them to gibbering madness and despair before ultimately annihilating humanity/the universe. [1] There is something very portable about this mythos — there are two separate articles on Wikipedia (that should probably be merged?) detailing its extensive influence on pop culture. [2][3] Besides licensed spinoffs like Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraft Country, typical representatives include things like Stranger Things, the first season of True Detective, Magic the Gathering‘s Eldrazi, The Cabin in the Woods, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. This widespread and enthusiastic adoption suggests that the basic components of Lovecraft’s vision really resonate with the denizens of late capitalism. Why is that?

Here’s one possible answer: the Cthulhu mythos describes the cosmic indifference, cruelty, and madness-inspiring Otherness of capital. Monstrous transformation is how Marx himself viewed real subsumption: at first, capitalist production needn’t imply any change to the productive process, but over time an inhuman logic worms its way in, and the productive process, our own ability to recognize ourselves in our products, mutates into something else. Tentacles are the intrusive extensions of an alien will that is somehow hostile and indifferent at the same time (one of the more perplexing antinomies of the Cthulhu mythos, but perfectly obvious upon translation). All the oozes and ichors call to mind abstract labor, a weird, promiscuous fluid of obscure origin that threatens to corrupt everything it touches. The inexorable encroachment of madness at the edges is the constant threat of social irrationality, i.e. capitalism.

The thinkers I most associate with Cthulhu-as-capital (and vice versa) are value-form theorists like Michael Heinrich and Moishe Postone (who make hay out of Marx’s reference to capital as “automatic subject”) and accelerationists like Nick Land (who wrote perspicaciously early in his career that capitalism was a “social suicide machine”). [4] It’s easy to anticipate where these writers stumble, politically: if you see the enemy as an undying Elder God from beyond the stars, you probably aren’t going to come up with many practical ideas for defeating it. As a reader, one never quite manages to shake the feeling that their descriptions of capitalism have a little too much of the cultist’s paralyzed awe and ecstatic terror to them (this is explicitly, deliberately the case with Nick Land). These theorists, as a rule, pay little attention to one crucial part of the story: at some point we have to find a way to kill the damn thing.

But let’s bracket that objection and see what else Cthulhu = capital offers us as a metaphor. For one thing, it gives us a strong candidate for anti-Cthulhu: the Hydra. Whereas Cthulhu has many tentacles, the Hydra has many heads. What’s scary about Cthulhu is that it is alien, unfathomable, cold, cruel, indifferent; what’s scary about the Hydra is that its heads keep growing back no matter how many times you chop them off. Invulnerability is alien; resilience is human. Cthulhu would be ridiculous, absurd, if he had even one extra head! Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in their book The Many-Headed Hydra, describe the “motley crew of sailors, slaves, pirates, laborers, market women, and indentured servants … [who] crossed national, ethnic, and racial boundaries, as they circulated around the Atlantic world on trade ships and slave ships … [and] led dozens of rebellions on both sides of the North Atlantic.” One body with many heads is arguably the principle of democratic centralism. The revolution’s task, on this view, is to cobble together a many-headed Hydra to square off against the inhuman logic of many-tentacled capital. This is certainly in keeping with the observable fact that even though our heads keep getting cut off, communism refuses to die.

There’s another reference that I’d like to layer on, as it will help anticipate the main pivot in this story: Ishay Landa’s very interesting essay Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien’s Political Unconscious[5] Here he argues that the One Ring should be taken as a metaphor for capitalism. Gollum’s avarice and abjectness, Saruman’s profaning of all that is natural, and of course Sauron’s world-dominating tendencies all fit with what we know about capitalism. There’s an obvious objection, though: we can’t help but notice something else about Tolkien’s stories, and it’s that they are extremely racist. The White Tree of Gondor? The orientalism and dehumanization in the depiction of the orcs? There’s a reason fascists love to meme this stuff. If we cast ourselves as heroes struggling against the forces of chaos and eternal darkness, whose company does that put us in?

H. P. Lovecraft was, if anything, even more racist than Tolkien. Fear of a brown planet was the template, the raw material, for all of his allegedly cosmic horror. The sense of inevitable decay that pervades his work is easily interpretable as nostalgia for an unperturbed white supremacy that seemed to him, as to many others of his time, to be on the way out. We’ve heard these concerns aired a thousand times, that the kids these days are less than human, that they’re destroying civilization, that they’re pitiless and impossible to reason with, mindless zealots enthralled by a false God. It’s obvious what kind of person likes to talk this way. All of which suggests that our first interpretation may’ve been too hasty, and we should instead turn to consider its diametric opposite (in good dialectical fashion): that Cthulhu isn’t capital at all, but communism, as seen from the twisted perspective of the reactionary classes it condemns to the trash heap of history.

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die. [6]

Compare this to Will Roberts’ discussion of Marx’s thinking about revolution:

Revolution has occurred; it is part of our inheritance. But as part of our inheritance, revolution is itself “dead.” Marx does not shy away from the strongest possible formulation of this revolutionary dilemma. Chronicling the run-up to Bonaparte’s coup in Class Struggle in France, he proclaims, “The revolution is dead! — Long live the revolution!” This living-dead revolution is a persistent — and, yes, haunting — feature of Marx’s writings from the Manifesto to the Brumaire and beyond. There is a movement, always already underway, between revolutionary communism as threat or prophesy — “the red specter” — and revolutionary communism as something dead, as a ghost that haunts the scene, and continues to act precisely as a dead body, that works underground, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.[7]

This equation, Cthulhu = communism, helps us make sense of Lovecraftian horror’s affinity with that of Joseph Conrad and other more philosophical reactionaries like Schopenhauer. It lets us happily affirm the neo-reactionary Mencius Moldbug’s claim that “Cthulhu only swims left.” [8]

Conscripting every famous writer into the ranks of the proletariat by cleverly reinterpreting their baddies as our own makes history into a bland chorus of yes-men. There have certainly been people who were existentially committed to seeing their aristocratic way of life preserved, even if that meant something along the lines of the Leopard’s “For everything to stay the same, everything must change.” [9] This sort of person would absolutely mistake their own interests for those of “civilization”, the human race, or even the planet, and therefore histrionically paint threats to those interests as threats to intelligibility, reason, existence, etc. As communists we can calmly reply “No, existence is fine, the species is fine, we’re just sick of your bullshit in particular.” Of course this looks like unutterable cruelty if you take the side of the bullshitters.

What happens to the tentacles and the ichor? Anticommunist propaganda is happy to furnish us with images of communist tentacles infiltrating the West — why not lean into that? The ichor, if it’s not abstract labor/money, has to be ideology, which can’t ever be completely insulated against. Unreason is easy enough to translate into more recognizable terms; it’s just dialectics, viewed from the perspective of an undialectical mind. Leftists have always had a thing for chaos theory and non-Euclidean geometries. The coldness and monstrosity of Cthulhu might well be seen as cardinal revolutionary virtues, translations of Lenin’s “patience and irony.”

One way to handle these two Cthulhus would be some sort of clever synthesis of the two, which would start from Ishay Landa’s reading of Marx and say that capitalism is truly progressive and democratizing in a way that is unsettling even to lovers of capitalism. The monstrous march of progress really is liberating in that it unlocks potentials that the past can’t help but view as alien and inhuman, potentials that ultimately disembogue in communism. But my inclination is to find in favor of the second Cthulhu, for the simple reason that we shouldn’t grant our enemies cosmic eternity, not even as a conceit. If anyone is going to represent cosmic forces from the deep, it should be us, the communists, and not this small, stupid way of organizing production that currently afflicts us, which is ultimately no more than a historical blip. Lenin famously thought in terms of continents and epochs. If emulating him means adopting an Elder God mindset, or becoming cultists, that’s what we should do (I’ve been called worse). The goal of every communist is to make themselves into capitalism’s 𝖉𝖔𝖔𝖒.

  1. Hey There Cthulhu by Eben Brooks. [web] 

  2. Wikipedia: Cthulhu Mythos in popular culture. [web] 

  3. Wikipedia: Lovecraftian horror. [web] 

  4. Nick Land, 1993. Making It With Death

  5. Ishay Landa, 2002. Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien’s Political Unconscious. [web] 

  6. H. P. Lovecraft, 1921. The Nameless City

  7. William C. Roberts, 2005. The Labors of Karl Marx: Tekhnē, Valorization, Revolution

  8. Mencius Moldbug, 2009. A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations

  9. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, 1958. The Leopard