Undead Capital

Earlier this week I was really pleased to have had an article published as part of a special issue on animal agency in the history of science. It came out in the journal BJHS: Themes, an open access journal related to the British Journal for the History of Science dedicated to addressing provocative themes. The whole thing can be read via the link below, but realize that not everyone has the time to read full academic articles (tl;dr). So, taking advantage of the journal’s open access policy, I thought I’d a paste a section of the article as a blog post. Below is a passage in which I suggest the concept of ‘undead capital’ as a way of thinking about working animals.

Th[e] rendering of [working elephants] as capital was based on their agential capacities. The corporeality, mobility and intelligence of elephants were what timber firms valued about them. They were an example of what Donna Haraway calls ‘lively capital’, by which she means animate actors whose value was based upon their behaviours and capacities as living beings.1 But while Asian elephants had the requisite skill set for the teak industry, they were not ready-made commodities. As Nicole Shukin has argued in her book Animal Capital, the seemingly natural existence of animals masks the symbolic and material contests involved in their rendering as commodities.2 Similarly, in colonial Burma there was a hidden labour process that made working elephants possible, from capturing them in the wild to training them to work.

Elephants were never fully domesticated and as a result their commodity status was one that required almost constant human labour to maintain. This requires us to further hone the concept of lively capital. Working elephants were not primarily valued for their capacity to form relationships with a human owner, as in the case of pets. Nor were they valued for the spectacular encounter that a human had with them, as in the case of a hunter’s quarry on a game reserve. Working elephants were valued for their capacities when put to use for particular productive tasks in the teak industry. Returning to the writings of Karl Marx, as both Haraway and Shukin do in their own writings, working elephants were capital deployed as a means of production. For Marx, means of production, or, as he often referred to them, ‘constant capital’, represented ‘dead’ labour. By this he meant that constant capital – like conveyor belts or furnaces, or, as I contend, elephants – cannot produce surplus value by themselves. Having been produced through human labour, when set to work they need to be operated, maintained and repaired. In a multitude of ways they demand further labour to produce value. Without this attention, constant capital wore down and lost its exchange value at a quicker rate. Using Marx’s own metaphor, constant capital feeds on living labour like a vampire.3

Acknowledging that elephants were agents in the teak industry means that Marx’s conceptualization of labour as exclusively human must be rejected. Nonetheless, by bringing his notion of constant capital as dead into dialogue with Haraway’s idea of lively capital, elephants can be considered both living (valued for their agential capacities) and dead (demanding the labour of others to produce value). In other words, working elephants can be thought of as undead capital.

—Jonathan Saha, ‘Colonizing elephants: animal agency, undead capital and imperial science in British Burma’, BJHS: Themes (First View)


  1. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. 4568 ; Rosemary-Claire Collard and Jessica Dempsey , ‘Life for sale? The politics of lively commodities’, Environment and Planning A (2013) 45, pp. 26822699 ; Maan Barua , ‘Lively commodities and encounter value’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2016) 34, pp. 725744 .
  2. Nicole Shukin , Animal Capital, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009 .
  3. Karl Marx , Capital, vol. 1 (tr. Ben Fowkes ), New York: Vintage Books, 1977, pp. 425, 548.


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