Death into Life: For a Poetics of Anti-Capitalist Alternative


Things could be otherwise.
-- Raymond Ruyer, defining utopia

1.1. In the Ice Age (A Counter-project to Xiung Xi-ling)

All that we feel is the freezing storm But who is there to grieve for the warmth? As you're leaving, bequeath this wish: Everybody should afford happiness!

1.2. On Catastrophic Capitalism Today

The present deep economic crisis has only brought to the surface some permanent trends of capitalism, largely occulted in the foregoing decades. There is no dearth of mortal sins to be laid at the door of capitalism. I shall suggest what I see as the most important ones.

The capitalist mode of production is always centrally shaped by the irreconcilable conflict between the capitalist urge for profits and the working people’s need for a humanly decent life. The urge was somewhat curbed by the fear of revolt after the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression, which led to a modest but real "security floor" conceded to the middle and working classes, largely at the expense of the global “South” and the natural environment. With the waning of any consistently radical horizons as of the mid-1970s, capitalist corporations engaged in a large-scale offensive to depress wages per unit of production and boost profits from huge to monstrous. Using the slogans of free trade and globalization, the rich organized bundles of radical interventions by major States and the “roof” organizations of international capitalism (GATT, then WTO, IMF and World Bank) to make themselves vastly richer, while multiplying the poor in their nations, eviscerating the middle class prosperity based on stable employment, and upping the income gap between rich and poor countries from 10:1 to 90:1. A large class of chronically poor was created, politically neutralized by creating fear of even poorer immigrants. The asset bubbles bursting now are the consequence of this class warfare from above: masses of people in the North had not only to work much more and exhaust their savings but also to borrow against their homes and other investments – the total 2008 debt in the US has been estimated at $48 trillion (Murphy, Turner, Magnus).

Facing the few thousand billionaires, possibly nearly 3,000 million struggle today to survive, falling fast, while more than half of them live in the most abject poverty, more or less quickly dying of hunger and attendant diseases (Pogge); so that the hundred million dead and several hundred million other casualties of warfare in the 20th century seem puny in comparison (though their terror and suffering is not). It has been calculated that a 1% increase in US unemployment correlates with 37,000 deaths (650 of which homicides) and a 4,000 increase in mental hospital population, but the hidden psychic toll is surely greater. Economic “growth” benefits only the richest, at the expense of everybody else, especially the poor and the powerless in this generation and future ones (Ayres, Rogers, Barnet & Cavanagh).

The purpose of capitalist economy, profit, entails mass dying and unhappiness. For billions of people it leads to shorter and more painful lives, for everybody except maybe the upper 2-5% in the world to gnawing stress, want and often despair. Technosciences could have finally made this planet habitable; but, dominated as they are by profit, they provide enormous quantities of shoddy commodities without regard to quality or duration of life. Indeed the poor could sing, “I have plenty of nothing,/ And nothing is plenty for me” (Gershwin Brothers). To this systematic, long-duration exploitation by capitalist power, aggravating factors are being added: the effect of the burst debt bubble, the recent sharp increase of prices for foodstuffs in the world – the list could go on. Hundreds of millions of the poorest and of those at the brink have begun to engage in “hunger revolts”, in China, south Asia, west Africa and some Islamic countries but also in eastern Europe. The wonder is that more and stronger revolts have not yet happened: but there are no guarantees.

What are the prospects of this rotting mode of production? The Marxist and then the Leninist diagnosis has always been that capitalism finally would not work; this was much too sanguine in its time-horizons, but the case is today stronger than ever. The capitalist economy is, now globally, pursuing a cheap-labour economy on the one hand and the search for new consumer markets on the other; the former undermines the latter. It does not work for the great majority of people, the workers who live from their physical and intellectual work. It does not work for our ecological balance, severely threatened by over-consumption of energy, while to prevent collapse we need a steady-state economy, with growth resulting from efficiency (Chossudovsky, Daly et al. – I shall return to this).

In sum, the Keynesian capitalist reform finally succeeded only in tandem with “military Keynesianism” – the heavy rearmament that initially primed the pump of “business upswing” and remained its constant precondition – and its price was the Nazi regime, High Stalinism, and the 2nd World War. War expenses under the Bush II administration were 1,000 million dollars per year (Custers, Johnson). Though today Keynesian measures are touted by the most “progressive” Obamites, Obama’s Af-Pak bog is already having the same effect on such stopgaps as Johnson’s Vietnam had on his “War on Poverty”: it will kill civil in favour of military Keynesianism. As for fascism, in barely refurbished guises it is doing very well almost everywhere, thank you. If radically anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian perspectives of exiting from this predicament are not found, the dilemma of “Socialism or Barbarism” will have only one issue: wars in the South (including Northern ghettos), fascism in the North.

2.1. Imagine a Fish

Imagine a fish living out of water

The water is The air is The fish is

He has some water in his bladder He flops along gravelly roads

Up to her eyes coated with dust How does she see desiccated the world Imagine

Sometimes it flops up a stump And attempts to sing The birds are in the water


2.2. Two Unheeded Signals of Danger: War and Migration

War as Capitalism’s Doomsday Weapon

I define war as a coherent sequence of conflicts, involving physical combats between large organized groups of people that include the armed forces of at least one state, with the aim of political and economic control over a given territory. Other aims may be securing advantages for coming conflicts (e.g. dominion over air, sea or oil resources), the destruction of commodities and people, and evading inner class tension. The ratio of military to civilian casualties in wars during the 20th century has "progressed" from 8:1 to 1:8 (eight civilians killed for each combatant), and the fighters diversified from regular armies into paramilitary groups, police forces, mercenaries, local warlords and purely criminal gangs. The mass casualties have been mainly people marginal to "White" patriarchal capitalism: the poor, the uppity “middle” States, the "coloured," women (Kaldor, Mesnard, George). Of course, theological hatred using weapons of mass destruction scarcely allows for neat discrimination.

War is more than a Hobbesian metaphor for bourgeois human relationships. It is securely based in antagonistic competition, the "essential locomotive force" of bourgeois economy and "generally the mode in which capital secures the victory of its mode of production" (Grundrisse). Continuous warfare has never ceased under capitalism: around 160 wars have raged between 1945 and 1993 killing more people than in World War 2; we know what has continued since. Capitalism came about in plunder wars; war financing set up its modern bureaucracy and central national banks; and there is no evidence it could climb out of economic depressions without huge military spending, a war mega-dividend. The political fallout is the spread of military rule that subordinates the civil society to its barbarity even in times of official peace – as today (Anderson, Amin, Pannekoek, Virilio).

Weapons commodities are since World War 2 not only the source of greatest extra-profit but a system-pillar of capitalism. The yearly money value of the international armament trade oscillated in the last 30 years, according to the available faulty statistics, between 20 and over 30 billion dollars, and today it is more. The capitalist market systematically favours armaments commodities because of their uniquely high value-added price, their specially rapid rate of obsolescence and turnover, the monopoly or semi-monopoly position of their manufacturers, and the large-scale and secure financing of military research, production and massive cost overruns – all taken from public taxation. By the time of the First Gulf War, world spending for military purposes was nearly a trillion US$ annually or between 2 and 2.5 billion dollars daily, more than half of it attributable to the USA; and today it is way past this. This most profitable part of global trade is the strongest factor of both international violence and the colonization of life-worlds and eco-systems by commodity economy. The tens of millions of dead in the two World Wars brought about tens of trillions of profitable investments in the huge reconstructions of destroyed homes and industries and ongoing rearmament: a million dollars or more per dead body. No capitalism without increasingly destructive weapons and wars which might still destroy the world: the marvellous technoscientific progress means that one nuclear submarine can destroy the peoples of an entire continent, yet eight new US nuclear submarines have been made since the fall of the USSR. One-quarter of the public monies which are expended on weapons commodities would eradicate poverty, homelessness and illiteracy, as well as pay for the cleanup of all our major environmental pollution... (Baran-Sweezy, Kolko, McMurtry, the Tofflers, Kapital, Luxemburg)

For a politics that consecrates life, the profits of war are a main pillar of Death.

Migrants and Justice

I have expatiated elsewhere (having, alas, some firsthand knowledge) upon the untold miseries and stupidities of especially Europe’s immigration policy. Here I shall present only my conclusions as axioms for a future stance:

– the right to people's displacement across any and all borders is a central human right; this entails also duties of respecting the target communities.

– each political community should foster the maximum of economically and politically possible human rights for all its inhabitants, by giving them the maximum of economically and politically possible citizen rights – say, a local vote after one year of paying taxes and citizenship after three.

– our value focus ought to be on the life of immigrants, which supplies criteria for any acceptable outline of immigrant policy (regulating the flux of immigrants).

– "one person, one vote" and "no taxation without representation".

True, any society has the right to defend itself by means of penal law; yet unless we are to slide toward a permanent state of emergency with unchecked police powers, each case is to be examined on its merits, whether the accused is a migrant or not. Migration may only be normalized through a "co-development" between the global North and South (Balibar). The politico-economical precondition for this is no Northern engagement in wars (except in defence to a clear and present aggression). Wars are not only a major source of immiseration and therefore migration, they also cheapen the price of people and favour despotism, subjection and slavery. The alternative to co-development is violent racism, as today in Europe, and finally apartheid, possibly solidified as genetic castes. This leads to a society not worth living in.

If any such development towards horizons of global justice comes about, primarily through the Northern economies’ reduction of energy consumption, then we shall have to recognize and approach cracking the hard nut of population control. Marx was in his time rightly scathing about Malthus, but today the problem is different. I shall argue this within a discussion of ecology.

3.1. Question

when he was singing the nightingale of times past did he sing well?

when he was singing the nightingale of times past was his song heard?

3. 2. What Classical Marxist Positions Remain Valid?

The work of Karl Marx is indispensable to any attempt at avoiding catastrophe. His "categorical imperative” is still non-negotiable: “to overthrow all conditions in which man is a degraded, enslaved, forsaken, contemptible being" (MEW 1). Here is a brief sketch of what it means for people like me today, which neither can nor should pretend to a “full truth” (more in Suvin, “Living Labour…”).

I approach Marx’s insights as a fusion of three domains: cognition or systematic understanding, permitting better consciousness of and intervention into practice, liberty or radical democracy, and pleasure. This is accompanied by a set of regulative principles (such as dialectic, measure or justice, and deviation), and a focus identifying the underlying factor of capitalist and any post-capitalist life, the knot in which all else converges: living labour. The mortification of living labour, trading creativity for alienation, leads to mass personal and collective death. It must be radically refused.

I have discussed these domains elsewhere. Each of them qualifies, delimits, and throws into relief elements of the other two; each stabilizes the other two. Liberty is the precondition for a life worth living, for the pursuit of happiness or pleasure. However, liberty without cognition is blind narcissism and without pleasure it is dutiful puritanism. Cognition without pleasure is pedantry and without liberty is sterile elitist self-indulgence (as in Brecht's Life of Galileo). Pleasure without liberty is Sadean corruption, without cognition it is empty.

Living labour: There is a very ancient plebeian tradition of imagery, in which the immortal labouring people constitute the world's body in metabolism with the world's goods, refashioned by, in, and as their bodies (see Bakhtin's Rabelais). This tradition runs through Fourier's passionate attractions up to our days, if often sadly corrupted into narcissism. Marx fused it with the compatible materialist and dialectical intellectual traditions from Heraclitus to Hegel and Feuerbach. His main innovation was to alter the people's body into labour's living body, which makes out of the pre-Socratic cosmic ever-living fire a concrete, everyday matter of living labour's formative fire. This transcended the Greek vision of activity split between the praxis of free and wealthy citizens and the poiesis of the plebeian "mechanics," slaves and women. Marx not only posited that labour’s undying fire was (in metabolism with nature) the sole source of all creativity, he also stressed that labour was within capitalism the realization of man "within alienation, or as alienated person" (“Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts”). He added to the plebeian defence of the consuming and hedonist body the crucial new cognition of the producing body, which both incorporated and criticized bourgeois political economy and practice.


Marx held that "Truth includes not only the result but also the way.... [T]he true inquiry is the unfolded truth, whose scattered members are gathered up in the result." (“Prussian Censorship”) Fruition encompasses also the – always provisional – fruits. His most useful insights today may be divided into propositions and methods.

 I take it that some of Marx’s fundamental propositions, often doubted in the Welfare State interval in the metropolitan North but today vindicated, are:

– that human societies are divided into classes based on a relationship towards and in production of life and goods, of which the two antagonistic poles are those who buy and exploit labour power (capitalists) and those who sell it (let us call them again proletarians, instead of confining this term to industrial workers); and that the "absolute general law of capitalist accumulation [is]: accumulation of wealth is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality" (Kapital);

– that the unceasing alienation of creative power in capitalism subjects proletarians to impoverishment; in the last generation or so the world proletariat has almost doubled, working under conditions of ever grosser exploitation and increasingly of political oppression (Harvey), so that Marx’s thesis of the absolute immiseration of the proletariat as compared to 500 or 200 years ago has turned out to be correct for 90% or more of the working people in the world; and there is no doubt of the huge relative immiseration in comparison to the dominant classes and nations.

– that this immiseration, and the attendant hollowing out of all qualitative social functions and values, means that for all its technological advances capitalism as a social formation leads to a radical historical change, beneficent (as Marx mainly believed) or maleficent, i.e. leading to civilizational collapse.

Of methods, I shall single out: the radical critique and the social shaping of all understanding. Critique has always had the functions of exposing error and indicating the limits of a practice (Balibar); but Marx’s adoption of it as his constant stance was allied with a stress on practice (praxis) as its validation and with a systematic rejection of any concept of fated class power from above (Suvin, “Living Labour”). Therefore it became also a radical and permanent labour of reassessment, of self-critique. What I call “social shaping” means that practical relationships between active agents enable and shape all understanding, thus refusing the scientistic division between looking subject and looked‑at object. If there is a human “essence”, it consists of a full set of people’s social relationships. Thus no theory or method can be properly understood without understanding the practice of social groups to which it, in however roundabout ways, corresponds.

In sum, as opposed to production of exchange-values for profit (a vampiric dispossession of labour and its vitality), the production of use-values is a beneficent metamorphosis of life into more life. Humanized production or creativity replaces death with life: the central Marxian argument is as "simple" as this.

What then remains of Marx? Many things. Centrally: the realization that the figure of Destiny in capitalism is Political Economy. Fortune is swallowed into the Stock-market; Necessity rides on the profit‑bringing and profit‑enforcing bombers and missiles. Hell is the sweatshops of China and Montreal, the cubicles of solitary rooms.

Contrariwise, the main product of the hugely productive capitalist civilization is the production of destructive novums, "undermining…the springs of all wealth: the earth and the worker" by practicing "systematic robbery of the preconditions for life..., of space, air, light..." (Kapital) – and today we could add water, silence, health in general, etc.: life and the pursuit of happiness. Death is the final horizon for a civilization of gambling, excitement, fashionable novelty (Benjamin). It is also the end‑horizon of raping the planet by wars, economic exploitation and ecocide. This is not the easeful death each of us has a right to: it is the collective death of humanity.

4.1. Crossing on the Left

Woe to the land that wants heroes. -- Brecht, Life of Galileo

This flimsy hanging bridge frightens me badly, I wish there were any other way out of the petrified desert. If it founders, I will surely drown; yet without it The raging river would have closed over us already.

So far I have made it, but still, looking backward, I wonder how deep the water, stony the grounds. Tired, I wish we had a sturdily built bridge, so We needy travellers could feel safer on our way.

I guess if we want a more secure bridge we better Plan to bring the planks & rebuild it ourselves Swaying over the abyss as skyscraper workers,

Enforcedly heroic materialists, the only ones left With a will to preserve the traffic with productive Reason, the only way left to bring us across alive.

4.2. To Defend the Commons

A new Left groundswell requires organization and a grasp for power, but also autonomous, though engaged, theorization – in other words, a fruitful tension between material action and intellectual creation. (Balibar) What new tools do we need after the failure of “State socialism”? I cannot provide anything like a full list. The negative experiences of degeneration after Lenin’s, Tito’s or Mao’s revolutions, as well as their initial huge achievements, shall be present in my proposals. I also accept the positive side of “western” Marxism, its disjunction of long-term theory from politics legitimating a State.

We have to start from where we today unsafely stand. First, Marx himself was unable to emerge fully into his own novelty, leaving us to recognize where it was that he was going (Hobsbawm). Second, much of importance has changed since Marx‘s insights. A vital updating must use, wherever useful, new currents of understanding.

This also means starting from the most pressing threats, for we know what they are, though not, I fear, their full extent. I shall group them as somatics and environment, while recognizing that this neglects important areas, for one example the “knowledge economy” (say trademarks, patents and copyrights even on language, regulating internet, etc.) and its influence on the debates about ideology, fetishism, subjectivity or the intelligentsia. Wars and the swelling migrations have been foregrounded earlier.

Somatics: This is what I would call a cluster of problems centring materialistically upon humanity’s vulnerable personal and collective bodies. The feminist and gay movements have broached some of them (sex/gender orientation, birth/abortion, care/caress). A full discussion of both drugging and prostitution is still to be done, for like Marx’s relation of worker to exploited production each of these involves “the whole of human servitude” (“Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts”). By rights war and other overt violence, these mega-lesions of personal integrity, should be included here. And breathless turbocapitalism, racing headlong into Death, has already presented us with new supertechnological means of ruthless intervention – e.g. biogenetics (in use) and nanophysics (coming fast).

Ecology: When our environment is poisoned, we die – of cancer, lung diseases, heart overload, and a thousand other preventable ills. It is being poisoned by capitalist industry and squandering, which has by now plundered the hydrocarbon fossil fuels to proximate extinction, caused global warming (with consequences that might include tens of millions of “climate refugees” from low-lying areas such as Bangladesh and hundreds of billions in expenses to refurbish the world’s ports), and on and on. Mammalian life on this planet itself is now at risk: as Wells and Sartre foresaw, and as Don Marquis’s Archy wished upon us, crabs and ants (and, undoubtedly, cockroaches) may inherit the Earth.

The nonsensical capitalist dogma of infinite growth, modelled on personal enrichment, collides with the elementary fact that any physical system of a finite Earth must itself also eventually become non-growing. There can and must be sustainable development in the sense of qualitative improvement but without quantitative growth beyond the point where the ecosystem can regenerate. (Georgescu-Roegen, Daly-Cobb, Greider) Production can only be optimized by raising the productivity of its scarcest element – today, natural resources. This is possible to achieve only if the real social costs of using air, water, soil and labour are figured in (Kapp), while unproductive activities extraneous to use-values (most marketing and PR, useless innovations, artificial obsolescence, unceasing turnover of fashion trends) are rigorously taxed. Crucially, the total consumption of energy must be strongly, if reasonably, curbed. This means fighting both population growth in the South and per capita consumption in the richer countries and classes of the North. The only fair and efficient way to curb population growth is, of course, making the poor richer – and (a corollary) emancipating women. (More on this in Suvin “Introductory.”)

Since a given amount of low entropy can be used by us only once, the economic process is entropic. Thus the importance of purpose – what something is done for – becomes overwhelming. Aristotle's final cause and the old Roman query cui bono? (in whose interest?) are rehabilitated as against scientism's narrow concentration on the efficient cause, how to manipulate matter. The economic process always generates irrevocable waste or pollution and forecloses some future options (as oil after it has been burned). Since, however, labour and knowledge in the economic process allow life and all of its possibilities, we must become careful stewards, on constant lookout for minimizing entropy. “The only possible freedom is that… the associated producers rationally regulate their metabolism with nature by spending the minimum of forces and in a way most conformable to human nature” (Kapital III).

4.3. In Sum: Radical Democracy

The right to survive by minimizing unnecessary lesion of our bodies, unnecessary rise of entropy, and unnecessary barriers to free displacement in Terran space, all of these are humanity’s “commons”. Our answers to all these problems have to be a defence of commons against enclosures, always a source of pauperization. They could reassign meaning to “communism” (More, Badiou, Žižek) as radical humanism. All these threats arise out of the inhuman essence of capitalism, fitting people into the profit system regardless of how much they are broken and deadened. Capitalism jettisons humanity in all its senses: civilized relations, interests of people, even their bodies. Our immiseration is not simply economical, it seamlessly extends to political disempowerment in relation to established class authority and "religious" disempowerment in relation to the universe.

The orientation toward a maximum of use-values compatible with a low rise of entropy is diametrically opposed to the globalization based on the sole goal of profit, causally crucial for the planetary ecological disaster. Thus we need to reassert political governance – national and international – over capital. An old-fashioned and entirely legal way of beginning to do this is by taxing the worst corporate entropy-mongers more and restoring purchasing power to the middle and lower classes by taxing them less.

True, capitalist corporations will spend half of their ill-gotten hundreds of billions to prevent democratic governance. A case in point is their rejection of a simple and minimal step – the "Tobin Tax", a small exit-and-entry toll at major foreign-exchange centres, which would greatly reduce the unproductive daily speculation in money values and yield hundreds of billions of dollars for good purposes. Another necessary prerequisite is abandoning the fake instrument of GNP and reformulating the meaning of growth in all our public statistics. (Daly) Therefore, our defence of humanity must issue into social control of means for survival from below, a new kind of politics.

For, last not at all least, a radical communist humanism, putting our commons and communities over profitable commodities, means radical democracy. In it production would be organized upon cooperative democratic bodies, so that in any unit the labourers become their own board of directors. A refashioned parliamentary apex, with judicious right of recalling representatives, would be based upon direct “town meetings” or councils from below, at all intermediate levels, and would include economic guarantees for fair access to media.

If profit or surplus value – the overwhelming cause for wars and exploitation, the overwhelming cause for private property over means of survival – can be strongly curbed and eventually banished, the State apparatus, including centralized police, will have no reason to exist.

Only an approach of this kind can supply us with criteria for dealing with the present financial and generally economic crash, for money and credit are also our commons—that is, potentially useful tools for prudent production of use-values. However, the methods of our response have to be cleansed. Dogmatic deduction from older positions often fails in accelerating times. Marx’s work gave us an excellent example for method implicitly, and in places explicitly – e.g. opposing a metamorphically fluid model to a rock‑solid one ("Speech at the Anniversary of the People's Paper”). The enraged search for the One Full Truth is monotheistic and must be scrapped in favour of exploring sheaves of possibilities opening up in qualitatively specific times (Bloch). Already in Marx it was clear that all modes of knowing presuppose a point of view. We have to acknowledge our own viewpoints and look critically at our own and each others' opinions. (Brecht, Lefebvre, Levins)

5.1. Listening to Saigyô

That reality is bounded by reality seems dubious why should it then be assumed that dreams are bounded by dreams?

5.2. In Conclusion

Even if we agree that most of what I argue above is desirable, many will say it’s impossible, “utopia” in the bad sense of no place. But what is the alternative? Utopia is also the good place – though we have learned there will always be conflicts over priorities. Our choice is either eco-political communism, “an association where the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all” (Marx), or unending wars and unbridled barbarity. It is utopia or oblivion.

Only use‑values can stand up to capitalist unequal exchange. This holds in spades for the present economy, predominantly operating on "brain labour”. Ancient designations for these use‑values were compassion, indignation, and love: that is, today, communism and poetry. We need to realize that there is for us no poetry without communism, and no communism without poetry. All poets know this, often in fantastic metamorphoses; few communists have allowed their suspicion to flower. When sundered, what we get are caricatures which degrade the potential horizon of either.

Poetry and communism allow no a priori rules, only a poetics of looking backward and forward, lessons from experience against a constant horizon. A project: “The whole business of Man is the Arts, and all things, common” (William Blake).

Doctrine (after Heine)

Drummer, drum on and have no fear and kiss the bare-breast Liberty! This is the whole of science and art The sum of all philosophy.

Drum and inveigle the drowsy people Send the snake's hiss and roar of lions, One step in front, ready to die, This is the sum of art and science.

This is old Karl's dialectics Of all philosophy it is the Summa. I've understood it by steadily looking, and seeing the Revolution one Summer.


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*Nine friends read and criticized, sometimes vigorously, drafts of this essay. I wish to thank Marcelline Krafchick, Dick Ohmann, and K.S. Robinson, and especially Ursula K. Le Guin and Rich Erlich, The responsibility remains mine. The essay, as is proper, attempts to stand upon the shoulders of very many wiser prose works from Marx, Polanyi, Benjamin, Gramsci, and Baran on, as well as many poets, from Lucretius and Blake on; Milton and Brecht unite the two. Many formulations in it are more or less taken from such works, as well as from my previous writings. For ease of reading, I have opted against notes and quotation marks (except in the case of Marx), but have compromised with my scholarly conscience by putting at the end of each argument a parenthesis with names of authors for the data and some formulations used, to be found in the bibliography.