V is for Verbs

We live in an upside-down world.

People (living, breathing human beings) are treated as things – as figures in a report, as numbers on a spreadsheet. At the same time, inanimate objects (cars, phones, a company logo) are treated as more important than people.

How does this happen? It happens because capitalism is above all a process of double separation.

First, through the organisation of work, human activity is turned into things to be bought and sold.  Verbs (our activity) are turned into nouns (commodities).

And then those commodities are used to divide and separate us. Our relations with each other are mediated through things.

In this world of nouns, everything seems fixed. The economy. Profits. Business. Normality. “Things are the way that they are,” we sigh, as if change is impossible. “It is what it is.”

But it is the world of nouns itself which is the problem. It obscures our escape route.

If we think of a phone as a noun, we don’t think of the processes that lie behind it. We don’t think of the mining, the manufacture, the marketing. We don’t think of how the phone is to be used, or what happens to the phone when it’s finished. The phone just “is”.

It’s the same with poverty. If we think of poverty as a thing, we imagine that “the poor have always been with us”, as if poverty is a simple fact of life.

But poverty is not just a “thing”. It involves some people actively denying other people the means to provide for themselves – and many other people actively refusing to care about this ongoing denial.

When we think in the world of nouns, we think of definition. We think of “this side” and “that side”, of Brexit and Remain, of vaxxers and anti-vaxxers. We lose sight of the fact that real social change comes about when people leave those fixed identities and start to form new collective bodies.

When we think in the world of nouns, we imagine Covid is a thing which has just appeared from nowhere. It has a beginning and an end. We can “send it packing”. We lose sight of the fact that zoonotic diseases, like Covid, will persist as long as humans share the planet with other species – constantly mutating and evolving, not simply being, always in the process of becoming something new.

When we think in the world of nouns, we lose sight of the fact that the society we live in is one that is made – and re-made – every day by us.

Capitalism – this system that dominates and destroys – is not a “thing” at all. Capitalism is a social relation between people.

When we think in the world of nouns, we remain trapped inside this social form that systematically tries to hide the fact that we are its creators.

We can start to turn the world the right way up if we begin again with verbs.


The notion that capitalism treats people as things while things take on quasi-human attributes is nothing new: Marx was writing about reification (sometimes translated as ‘thingification’) and commodity fetishism more than 150 years ago. But we’re also coming at this from another angle. In The Order of Time Carlo Rovelli explains that “the world is made of events, not things.” He goes on to say that there is “the simple fact that nothing is: that things happen instead.” If we stop thinking about being, and start thinking about becoming, then our emphasis switches from permanence to change. Put bluntly, the world doesn’t have to be like this. There are echoes here of the way E.P. Thompson insists that ‘class’ is not a structure or a category, but “something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.” In Crack Capitalism, John Holloway goes even further and suggests that a self-determining society would probably have a language where verbs are primary. It sounds like a crazy idea, but is it really any crazier than the fucked-up way we live today?