positions politics

The World of the Outside1

Gavin Walker

Yes, there is an outside, thank God. And one day, willingly or unwillingly (unwillingly, but they will manage one day to put a good face on it), they will have to recognize directly, without an intermediary charged with that impossible mission, without being able to depend on someone who was protecting them from the outside that he was announcing, that such an outside exists. Outside. You are henceforth outside. In your true place: that of your reasons, of Reason. There, you are not alone. It is enough to begin working – you who have not stopped working – it is enough to begin working with those who are working within that outside.

— Althusser, letter to Lacan, 4 December 1963

Although it is perhaps a surprising or unexpected site from which to derive an orientation in thought, the principal slogan of the American middle-brow outdoor clothing company L.L. Bean constitutes a striking theoretical formulation that has much to teach us: The outside is inside everything we make. Obviously intended as a witty way to indicate the full-on ‘outdoorsy-ness’ of their plaid shirts, comfortingly unfashionable but functional trousers, and peculiar camping gadgets, this phrase in fact crystallizes in a simple, clear fashion a basic insight into the paradoxical, even deranged, structure of capitalist society and our – that is, human beings’ – relationship to it. Capitalist society and its reproduction, Marx emphasized, can be schematized in the form he called a ‘circuit-process’ (Kreislaufsprozeß), a cyclical, recurring, and seemingly smooth process that constantly repeats, giving life under capital a timeless quality, appearing to be a pure interiority or inside.

But obviously, our role in capitalist society is more complicated than this. We are not born “inhaltlos und einfach” – contentless and simple – as Marx described the value-form, but situated, sited, in history, in the world. In fact, we are not born at all on the inside of this peculiar social relation, but on the outside of capital. To be born on the inside of capital would mean to be born as a product of capital itself, produced by means of commodities. Our capacity to labour for a definite period, for a definite wage, our labour power, can be circulated in the market as if it were a commodity (furnishing the variable portion of the total capital), but it can never exist in separation from the uncanny thing that produces it, the historical human body, its container or vessel, within which it resides and through which it makes its pilgrimage from the privacy of relation to the public site of connection to the totality of other commodities, the market. As it was perfectly put by the author of Capital, commodities cannot go to this market to sell themselves, and thus we “have recourse” to their “guardians” (Hütern), who are the “bearers” (Träger) of commodities. These bearers and guardians of the labour power commodity – us – exist on the outside within, so to speak.

We are included, thus, in the circuit-process, the interior. Capitalist society bypasses but never overcomes this exteriority, it includes us differentially in the inside.  “We are always inside,” wrote Foucault, “the margins are a myth. The language of the outside is a dream that one never stops renewing.”2 But if the outside is a dream that one never stops renewing, in other words, if it is a dream that is omnipresent, is it not always with us? Dream or not, its renewal accompanies us in the inside. What kind of dream is always renewed? Utopias, perhaps, conceptual dreams of freedom, of emancipation, even dreams that flirt with the return, the home, the hearth, the homeland, the root, the ground. Adorno once warned us, in his cryptic but concrete style, that “where the dream is at its most exalted, the commodity is closest to hand.”3 Is the dream of our exteriority to capital, the dream of our ‘being outside’, not also the space of our closest proximity to our being as the ‘self-conscious instruments of production’, wherein we ourselves compose a part of capital – variable capital? Of course, behind Adorno’s formulation we can hear a kind of photographic negative of Hölderlin’s famous assertion, so beloved of Heidegger, that “where the danger is, there the saving power grows also.” But Adorno’s point, rather than finding its resolution in the field of national-romantic, is instead a dire warning to us, like Foucault’s point: just because there is indeed an outside, does not mean it is easy to “find ourselves” there, to return into the integral, nor does it mean that such an outside can even function as a space of immediate political decisions.

On the one hand, there is an outsidedness that is itself related to the social structure: the outsides – labour power, land, nation, race, gender, sexuality – that paradoxically, capital must rely on and can never sever its relation to, in order to coquet as a pure interiority. In simple terms, capital acts as if it constitutes a wholly internal, endlessly repeating circuit of production and circulation, with inputs that can be presupposed for the eternal repetition of this cycle. But the reality is that capital itself cannot produce or even regulate numerous aspects of the social world that it has no choice but to overlap with, being in the end itself only a social relation of ourselves, who have the cosmological misfortune to be included as a compositional element in precisely the semi-autonomous structure that oppresses us.

In her most famous work, written at the historical moment of the full-blown operation of the classical colonial system and its particular characteristic combination of imperial expropriation joined to the global export of finance capital, Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Capital cannot accumulate without the aid of non-capitalist organizations, nor, on the other hand, can it tolerate their continued existence side-by-side with itself.”4 This formulation has often been theorized as a means to understand the specific theoretical question of primitive or originary accumulation – the peculiar and excessive violence of the initial historical moment of capital accumulation, based on social and historical forces exterior or prior to those of the establishment of exchange relations, or the sphere of circulation, as the central form of the reproduction of the social world, but we ought to note carefully that Luxemburg is in fact talking about accumulation in general. In other words, this tense peculiarity, whereby capital both needs and abhors its strict exterior, or non-capital, is not solely a feature of the problem of the origin, the violent and excessive commencement at the first dawning of the thereafter-cyclical logic of the capitalist circuit; it is a problem of capital’s quotidian interiority as well.

But what, in our world, can even be considered ‘non-capital’? After all, capital is not a thing, but a social relation, the relation of self-expanding value. As a social relation, capital is a derivation of the social order, composed by ourselves. Contrary to the common wisdom, which sees capital as an ‘alien force’ and some substantial image of the human being as ‘originary’, it is not the case. ‘Non-capital’ does not mean some prior substance that would be usurped or perverted by the advent of capital: after all, “we” are not ‘non-capital’, but what Marx called the “self-conscious instruments of production” (selbstbewußten Produktionsinstrumente), a terrifying phrase. In other words, we are a part of capital, the individual micro-laboratories in which we nurture the labour power that will become, in the labour market, the inputs of variable capital for the production process. The human being in this sense, is a part of capital, perhaps not wholly, but a component part of its total makeup. ‘Non-capital’ as a term, as a concept, is barely addressed by Marx, except in one long excursus, one that is literally ‘at the margins’ of Marx’s work, even marginal within his previously unpublished work, and only there by negative illumination, so to speak.

In a little-remarked section of the texts on “pre-capitalist economic formations” in the Grundrisse manuscripts, Marx writes: “The original formation of capital does not, as is often supposed, proceed by the accumulation of food, tools, raw materials or in short, of the objective conditions of labour detached from the soil and already fused with human labour.” Immediately after this seemingly innocuous point, Marx notes here, in parentheses, the following:

[Nothing is more obviously and superficially circular than the reasoning which argues (a) that the workers who must be employed by capital if capital is to exist as such, must first be created and called into life by its accumulation (waiting, as it were, on its “Let there be labour”); while (b) capital could not accumulate without alien labour, except perhaps its own labour. I.e., that capital might itself exist in the form of non-capital and non-money, for prior to the existence of capital, labour can only realize its value in the form of handicraft work, of petty agriculture, etc.; in short, of forms, all of which permit little or no accumulation, allow for only a small surplus produce, and consume the greater part of that. We shall have to return to the concept of “accumulation” later.]5

What Marx points out is that the original or primitive accumulation, seen from the vantage point of classical political economy, rests on a completely circular form of reasoning according to which capital was an inevitable, quasi-natural development of the social landscape. In this optic, capital would be an ever-present undercurrent, constantly straining against the fetters of the social bond to emerge, and in a period of what Marx called ‘manufactures in the strict sense’ (i.e., handicraft work with an expanded division of labour rather than artisanal precapitalist production), capital would begin to function even before its own advent, so to speak. What Marx instead points out is that without the historical process of separation, according to which the labourer is divorced from the previous social arrangement, capital cannot accumulate, and without accumulating, capital is more or less absent as a social relation. In other words, he points out that it is accumulation which releases into the world the echo of the originary separation that enables (perhaps paradoxically) a certain subjective destitution of the individual that in turn convokes them as subject to capital. In other words:

[Capital’s] original formation occurs simply because the historic process of the dissolution of an old mode of production, allows value, existing in the form of monetary wealth to buy the objective conditions of labour on one hand, to exchange the living labour of the now free workers for money, on the other. All these elements are already in existence (Alle diese Momente sind vorhanden); their separation itself is a historical process (ihre Scheidung selbst ist ein historischer Prozeß).6

Capital’s formation, in this sense, is not the accumulation of wealth in the common-sensical understanding, but the accumulation of the worker him- or herself, the accumulation of those ‘self-conscious instruments of production’ that would furnish a link to the outside. We see immediately that there is no possibility to separate out the question of one’s subjectivity from the broader social arrangement called “capital.” Above all, we cannot say in any coherent way, that capital is solely an alien force, while “the subject,” (whatever that might be in the end) is a type of “non-capital.” Certain tendencies in Marxist theoretical analysis imagine that we are merely passive monads dominated by the “automatic Subject” that is capital. But to say this merely restates from the other side of the equation exactly the confusion inherent to classical political economy, according to Marx. Capital is not “inhuman,” but a social relation based on the accumulation of subjectivity:

Capital unites the masses of hands and instruments which are already there. This and only this is what characterizes it. It brings them together under its sway (Es agglomeriert sie unter seiner Botmäßigkeit). This is its real accumulation; the accumulation of labourers plus their instruments at given points. We shall have to go into this more deeply when we come to the so-called accumulation of capital.7

Marx would eventually go much more deeply into the accumulation of capital in volume two of his greatest work, when he takes up the reproduction schemes, the point on which Luxemburg began her own expansion of the theory of the accumulation process. But what is its conclusion, in short? It is that “[capital] is evidently a relation and can only be a relation of production.”8

Yet, Marx also emphasizes that capital is not simply called into existence the very first time the capitalist accumulation cycle takes place, as if we could even historically encounter and isolate such a moment. Rather, capital is in gestation already inside social forms that are not themselves capital, but that require this catalyst of the accumulation of subjectivities to function. That is already a quite strange concept, but it is one that is crucial to an understanding of Marx’s work as a critical-theoretical analysis of the becoming of capitalism, the emergence of this social form as the dominant focal point of society. It concerns above all, the transition, a question that is not raised to the level of a concept in Marx. And the fact of this peculiar non-birth or stillbirth of the capitalist mode of production means not just that the prior forms are weirdly conditioned by capital, by their own future, but the reverse as well, that capital never quite succeeds in erasing its peripeteia, the twists and turns, the hazards and chances, the winding and unlikely road that led to its own emergence. In other words, the traces of the feudal order, the traces of all sorts of prior formal determinations, the traces of the outside, remain within capitalist society. They are however, not “remnants” in the strict sense, in that they are not “out of time,” but rather displacements or slippages. The past quite literally cannot exist in the present, so when we talk in historiographical terms about the force exerted by the past on the present, what we are talking about is a relation of force within the present accumulated by means of apparatuses that conduct the past into present forms. Perhaps the best way to explain this peculiar relation is by a short detour into an odd medical phenomenon. Take, for example, the situation of a woman pregnant with twins. Occasionally, after the initial diagnosis identifying not one, but two foetuses in the mother’s womb, one twin’s foetus essentially “disappears,” becoming absorbed into the other, such that there are no longer two separate beings but now only one. And yet, in such a situation, it has sometimes happened that years later, once the individual is grown, a peculiar pain in the shoulder, for example, turns out on close analysis to be due to a secondary pair of teeth – a displaced remnant of the absorbed absent twin – embedded in a divergent part of the human body. We see here something close to the understanding of “transition” that is implied in Marx.

The heretical Marxist and creator of concepts for the analysis of a capitalist commodity-economy Uno Kōzō once wrote, in an early text devoted to the explication of the transition to capitalism, as follows:

The development of capitalism takes as its prerequisite the abolition of the feudal order as a system. But capitalism in Japan developed without fully permeating the structure of the rural village. All of the late-developing capitalist countries more or less cannot avoid this tendency, but it is particularly striking in the Japanese case. However, this does not mean that capitalism has not penetrated into the Japanese village at all. In one sense, what could be seen as capitalist business practices continue to develop, but in large part, the small farmer’s practices grounded in familial labor remain dominant, just as in the previous system. That is, alongside the breakdown of the feudal system, the rural village underwent a partial transition to a commodity economy in keeping with the demands of capitalism, but its economic basis was not transformed into a commodity economy at its roots. The fundamental capitalist relationship, the buying of labour power itself as a commodity, did not emerge. Therefore, we might also say that while the situation produced partially entrepreneurial characteristics, agriculture did not develop as a specifically capitalist industry. Even with the advent of hired labor, it merely served as a supplement or replacement for familial labour. The influence exerted on the rural village by Japanese capitalism remained at the level of what might be called ‘characteristics of the outside’, that is, it did not succeed in an accompanying revolutionizing of the inside or interior.9

Later, in the Theories of Surplus Value, Marx writes enigmatically that “accumulation itself merely presents as a continuous process what in primitive accumulation appears as a distinct historical process, as the process of the emergence of capital and as a transition from one mode of production to another.” And this echoes his famous injunction that “so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” In other words, it is a historical process; not a logical one. It appears as that which is originary, because it expresses what must come before or prior to the historicity of capital, insofar as this itself is expressed by that which “has happened” or that which has been inscribed into the circulation-surface. Capital’s historicity consists in the fact that this “memory” of enclosure is etched or inscribed into the social surface, or the sphere of circulation – it is always partial due to the necessity of incessantly revisiting its origins, conjuring them up only to erase them as prior. That is, the surface resists being thrown back onto its past, and in this way constitutes the excessive force of history always surging up in the present, every time labour power is commodified.

The absolute outside, where there would at last be some kind of Substance beyond capital’s reach, is a dream. The dream is not a traversal of the fantasy. The fantasy secures and guarantees the outside capitalistically. The paradox that appears the most disabling of all – that, as capital, we should be coerced as if we were the Substance of the outside, into the interior of the logical motion of capital, is strictly impossible, and yet this basic social relation smoothly and cyclically repeats almost as if it were possible – might be instead seen as enabling. But what are these cyclical encounters of capital with its outside except “a ferment in [capital’s] dissolution and the emblems of its limitations,” as Marx put it in the Grundrisse? The other outside – if there is one and we can utilize it – is an outside related to both the politics of theory and the theory of politics. If we are merely the “bearers” and “guardians” of labour power, this strange element of the “outside” that is needed within capital’s interior, and if this structural outsidedness will lead to capital’s development, maturation, and eventual downfall, politics would be strictly unnecessary, indeed even literally pointless. But the paradox of capitalist society is that the critical analysis of capital as a circuit process itself has no power to demonstrate why specifically socialism, communism, direct democracy or in any case another specific ordering form of society, would be necessary. All that the critical analysis of capital’s logic can tell us is that crisis is necessary for capital, and that capitalist society had a beginning in history, a development of a historical character, and therefore, it will have an end in history. But this insight itself does not simply produce an affirmative politics in our present. It remains a negative critique. In order to have a politics proper, it is my view that such a thing can only be something affirmative, something which not only detects the potential demise of the existing order through the analysis of powers and orders, but which also proposes an unprecedented emancipatory maxim, issuing from the outsidedness of the popular strata, that positively breaks with the status quo. In other words, it must be outside the existing order, outside even its forms of Reason. Only such a decisive, affirmative outside of politics can truly counter the peculiar, structural quasi-outsidedness in which we are enclosed by capital. In a sense, even though our capture lies in capital’s outside, our political hopes also reside in another outsidedness. It is enough to begin working there, to remind ourselves of our compositional role in the forms that dominate us, and to thereby recall a passing poetic watchword from Tamura Ryūichi:

Each and every window

Opens towards the outside10



Gavin Walker is Associate Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. He is the author of The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Duke, 2016) and the forthcoming Marx et la politique du dehors (Lux Éditeur, 2021), the editor of The End of Area: Biopolitics, Geopolitics, History (Duke, 2019, with Naoki Sakai), and The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetics in the Japanese ’68 (Verso, 2020) as well as editor and translator of Kojin Karatani’s Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility (Verso, 2020). He is a member of the positions editorial collective.

  1. This text is partially based on the introduction to my forthcoming book Marx et la politique du dehors (Lux Éditeur, 2021).
  2. Michel Foucault, “L’extension sociale de la norme” in Dits et écrits, t. 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 77.
  3. Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner (London: New Left Books, 1981), 91.
  4. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge, 2003), 345.
  5. Marx, Marx-Engels Werke, Bd. 42 (Berlin: Dietz, 1962), 413-14.
  6. Marx, Marx-Engels Werke, Bd. 42, 414.
  7. Marx, Marx-Engels Werke, Bd. 42, 415.
  8. Marx, Marx-Engels Werke, Bd. 42, 421.
  9. Uno Kōzō, “Waga kuni nōson no hōkensei” (The Feudality of the Rural Village in Japan), Nōgyō mondai joron [Prolegomena to the Agrarian Question] in Uno Kōzō chōsakushū [Collected Works of Uno Kōzō], vol. 8 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1974), 57-8.
  10. Tamura Ryūichi, “Haru 1977” (Spring 1977) in Tamura Ryūichi zenshishū [Collected Poems of Tamura Ryūichi] (Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2011).