Mark Driscoll reviews Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Remaindered Life (Duke University Press, 2022)

This new work of Marxist-feminism from the Global South is quite simply the most convincing analysis of the current conjuncture I have read. Delivering on the promises of predecessors like Chandra Mohanty and Gayatri Spivak to provide an analytic of the gendered subaltern in global capitalism, Neferti X. Tadiar does much more than that. She clears the cluttered field of critical theory by proffering what she calls “remaindered life”—at once a heuristic, a sociological blind spot and a prophecy of victory (or temporary ceasefire) in battle. Victory in battle because Tadiar pulls no punches in depicting our present as “an era of relentless war waged by the assumed and would-be inheritors of colonialism’s bequest—valued life—to retain, regain, or arrogate the rights to its enjoyment” (ix). Valued life “worth living” is constantly attacking or, to use a term from stock trading consistent with this book’s rhetoric, “shorting” lives it considers expendable. Always already short-sold, expendable life exists in a constant state of shredding value and declining to junk, what Tadiar calls “waste”. More value accrues to what my working-class Mom called the “filthy rich” to the extent that they can forcefully short-sell and turn into wasted life. As Marx adduced in Capital Vol. 1, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

For me, the most important aspect of this book is its righteous ferocity—no injustice can hide from Tadiar’s circumspection. Therefore, we get a breathtaking assemblage of issues and concerns: Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine; US military atrocities in Iraq; neoliberal infrastructural collapse in Flint, Michigan; Duterte’s necropolitical drug wars in the Philippines; femicide in Ciudad Juarez; and pipeline poisoning in the Dakotas. Rarely, if ever, do readers witness a truly global thinker. But her global vision doesn’t suffer from abstraction and distancing as she dedicates herself to a granular hermeneutic of many of the atrocities listed above. For example, in her cri de cœur against the remaindering of Black life in Flint she complicates the standard leftist denunciation of environmental racism to great effect. While acknowledging Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s pioneering work in Golden Gulag, Tadiar’s multilayered critique goes beyond it to include Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s background as a banker; municipal bondholder demands, and the history of white flight and disinvestment. Simplistic analytics are banned from Remaindered Life; only terse concision is allowed. Check out this brilliant paragraph about the Flint crisis:

From 2011 to 2015, under the Obama administration, the venture-capitalist governor of Michigan appointed municipal emergency fiscal managers to address the fiscal crisis produced by capital abandonment and tax cuts in the wake of deindustrialization and by the 2008 recession (in turn resulting from the subprime mortgage housing crisis). The financialization of urban policy meant that the decision to poison Flint’s water was the result of a calculation of the human life costs of using Flint River water in terms of (and in exchange for) the fiscal savings this urban policy would produce. In the terms of understanding I present in this book, the future life-times of Flint’s Black residents were liquified (“sold” or “cashed in”) to cut the costs of investment capital (creating “savings”) and to realize the growth rates promised by emergency fiscal managers to the bondholders from whom loans for urban renewal were secured. In other words, the “waste” (disposable people, contaminated water) that was created in a previous moment of accumulation re-enters another cycle of value extraction as a repurposed resource for finance capital—as a monetizable asset that can figure (as derivative exchange value) in the calculus of the investments of finance capital. (29)

Providing a Marxist rigor to Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism conceit, Tadiar here deploys all the tools in the cache of critical finance studies while adding her own: “life-times”. At a moment when most left analysis focuses on Tesla, Google and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, she uncovers a vulture capitalism that feasts on the most improbable of profit environments: the lifespans of people trying to survive in slums, ghettos and open-air prisons. Making a compelling case that capitalism carries out special operations and small wars in these places, she concludes her reading of Flint with the insistence that, “What distinguishes this moment is the multiplying, fractal scales in which the intensive capitalization of the waste and wasting of things, people, space and time – and their derivatives –is carried out” (32).

Tadiar’s leitmotif of life-times is joined by another that should be become de riguer in our age of exponential growth in climate refugees: “fate playing”. She depicts this as the bet the remainder make in order to survive, and, if they are lucky, thrive. While fate playing can result in temporary safety and provisional fugitivity, Tadiar doesn’t flinch in delineating the oppressive structures within which these wagers are carried out. To wit, fate players are always using house money and global capitalism’s invisible hand deals them cards from the bottom of the deck—rigging the fate playing game from the outset. Tadiar explains that this is because if they are lucky enough to find a place to live and work, fate players enter the labor market having to pay backward (bribes; coyote fees; predatory security costs) with work for life-times already drawn down. Tadiar elaborates on this through the central dramatis personae of global capitalism and one she has done superb work on her whole career: the subaltern domestic worker.

Like most migrant domestics who have gone into debt as a precondition of obtaining overseas work (or whose families have gone into debt with their own lives as collateral), their time has been mortgaged, so they must first work to pay off that mortgaged time, which “buys” them more time to work so they can live the next day, a portion of which will already have been mortgaged. Put differently, they pay with work for life advanced to them (life they owe rather than own)—a form of rent on the delimited parcel of existence they can afford to inhabit within the deterritorialized networked  city-state of global humanity, the globopolis.(99)  

Tadiar is at her best when she underlines that the ethico-political solution to remaindered life is not available in current human rights and leftist discourse. While she by no means wants to discredit activists and dedicated NGO workers, she warns against liberal tendencies to bring remaindered life into the status of full “humanity”—the category of the “human” is precisely the problem for her.  In a militant posthumanism she explains that the binary oppositions that characterize liberal discourse today—between bondage and emancipation, exclusion and inclusion, citizenship vs. migrant statelessness, and, most importantly, human and inhuman—work to depoliticize other practices of “life-making”. But what exactly are these? And what effectivity gathers within the remainder? In other words, for a Marxist-feminist we would expect to find some form of political potential in the remainder. Is the remainder revolutionary? Or is the notion of revolution itself irrevocably corrupted by humanist discourses of freedom and emancipation?

Evidently, any fugitive space-time free from capture by global capital can only be contingent and temporary. Tadiar explains why this is so:

[Remaindered life-time] is the left-over and excess of social reproductive work of living not only on the part of disposable peoples but also in the forms of social life-making that persist beyond and despite capitalist subsumption—not directly absorbable by capitalist industries, not completely assimilable within forms of productive life, or, and this is increasingly (though not yet) the same thing, failing to fulfill the protocols of subjectivity and sociality under the political order of democratic life. These forms and moments of life-making (and sense-making) are remaindered life-times also in the sense that they exceed the theoretical accounts of labor and of politics, which see disposable life only as the symptomatic consequence of the logic of capitalist accumulation or of sovereignty, and in this way make the remaindered life-times of social survival among the dispossessed ever more liminal. (103)  

Clearly vigilant about not capturing and containing remaindered life-times in her own theoretical discourse, Tadiar still provides some clues as to how we can witness it and, maybe, join in political alliance with it. The most important of these clues is the presence of poetry (and sections of the writing in this book approach poetry in their lyricism). Both testimonio and community builder, poetry fulfills the requirement of politicized remaindered life in that it is singularly specific in terms of its matrix (language, community) and is contingent in terms of its temporality. The site-specific art that Tadiar invokes to wonderful effect in this book could be said to do the same. As I see it, this is in the same spirit as Harney and Moten who insist in their Undercommons that revolution will come in a form we cannot yet imagine. They advise that the best preparation for it is to study, live and make art collectively.

Maybe this emphasis on study (at least in an academic mode) is too bourgeois for remaindered life. Nevertheless, Tadiar offers the denizens of the undercommons an insuperable syllabus for reading.  From what might be called “remaindered theory” (the overlooked late Lindon Barret; the underappreciated J. K. Gibson-Graham), to more celebrated socialist-feminist work by Angela Davis and Silvia Federici, Tadiar deploys an admirable generosity in her citational practices. She is even gracious when she punches up in her knockout of Antonio Negri and her lead leg kick to Foucault’s theory of biopolitics. Maybe here then, at the level of thought and citational practice— like Louis Althusser’s class struggle at the level of theory—do we get a glimpse of what a remaindered life praxis might be for left-academics and activists in the Global North. It would be exuberantly gracious towards predecessors and ancestors; it would provide a critical platform for radicals in the Global South; it would be incessantly intersectional; it would feature indigenous voices; and, most important, it would humbly excuse itself from trafficking in universals like “the multitude” and “state of exception,” and fetishizing tendencies like “real subsumption”.  

Finally, I feel compelled to critique this work for its absence of other-than-human life. I don’t do this out of a gotcha sense of snarky superiority, but only as a comradely provocation for future thinking. It is surprising that in a work like this situated in part in a place like the Philippines that is so susceptible to capitalogenic climate change in the form of superstorms and flooding, discussions of ecology are almost entirely absent. Granted no book can say everything. But I am excited about the potential for what Tadiar and her mushrooming collective of sister travelers might do with the wonderful theoretico-political architecture deployed in Remaindered Life in alloying it with what Jason Moore calls the “web of life” or what Donna Haraway indexes as “multi-species being”.  Beyond the horizon and between the cracks of the global, the wretched remainder of the earth beckons.


Mark Driscoll teaches East Asian and Global Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of three books from Duke Press, the most recent of which is The Whites are Enemies of Heaven: Climate Caucasianism and Asian Ecological Protection.