Ken C. Kawashima
No one today can deny how capitalism is in the throes of multiple forms of crisis: the global financial crisis, ecological crisis, the world-wide health crisis, the crisis of racism and fascism, the crisis of the welfare state, the crisis of war, and so forth. To make matters worse, the multiplication of crisis has led to a certain crisis of our thought and reason. For example, it has led to eclectic explanations over the cause of capitalist crisis, interminable analyses of the sudden appearance of crisis, and speculative prognostications over their future recurrence. These are contemporary tendencies in thought that approach the existing conditions of capitalism as if they are permanent and eternal. Uno’s Theory of Crisis smashes these ideological tendencies and explains how capitalist crises are always signs of the impermanence of existing conditions of capitalism. Thus, it shows how irrational it is to believe in the permanent necessity of these conditions.
The specific use-value of Uno’s Theory of Crisis is that it gives us a theoretical demonstration of the inevitability/necessity (必然性) and periodicity (周期性) of the phenomenon of capitalist crisis. Based on a singular reading of Marx’s Capital, Uno’s Theory of Crisis teaches us that we are deluding ourselves to think that the phenomenon of crisis is accidental to capitalism, or that it is merely possible under capitalism. More inconsolably, Theory of Crisis demonstrates how crisis is necessarily periodic and inevitable under the capitalist mode of production.
Theory of Crisis also differs from orthodox Marxist theories of crisis (e.g., theories of falling rates of profit or theories of over-production and under-consumption) and defines the phenomenon of capitalist crisis in terms of the contradictory relation between ‘excess capital alongside surplus populations.’ (Theory of Crisis, 81-90) Theory of Crisis clarifies not only how, under the capitalist mode of production, poverty necessarily co-exists alongside excessive affluence; it also clarifies how and why the ruling capitalist classes are periodically, inevitably and completely incapable of managing its own products of labour as capital. Theory of Crisis demonstrates how the so-called market rationality of the capitalist mode of production can only operate ‘normally’ through its own irrationality, inoperability and brokenness, most clearly visible in the contradictory, unresolvable and schizophrenic phenomenon of excess capital, on one side, and impoverished surplus populations, on the other. (Walker and Kawashima, 2018; Kawashima, 2022)
Politically speaking, Uno’s Theory of Crisis implies the necessity of a revolution to overthrow the capitalist mode of production and its inevitable and periodic crises, once and for all. But before we discuss this basic argument, let us first review Uno’s historical narrative of capitalist crises over the entire course of capitalism’s historical stages of development. This historical narrative will then give us a better understanding of why Uno wrote Theory of Crisis, which primarily takes the form of a theoretical exposition.
In the Introduction to Theory of Crisis, Uno summarizes capitalism’s historical stages of development from the perspective of its many economic crises. In what Uno called capitalism’s first historical stage of mercantilism, crisis first appeared phenomenally as a financial crisis throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. (Theory of Crisis, 18-26; Uno, 2016, 35-62) For example, crises broke out in Holland in 1634-1637 (the ‘so-called tulip crisis’), a crisis which resulted from speculations on tulip bulbs, as well as in England in 1720 (the so-called South Sea bubble), which resulted from risky investments. But as Uno writes, “these crises were [not] based on a fundamental economic law that was regulated by the reproductive process itself that forms the basis of a single society.” (Theory of Crisis, 20)
This would change with the establishment of industrial capital between the 1820s and 1860s, in what Uno called capitalism’s (second) stage of liberalism. In this stage, labour-power became commodified for the first time in world history, thereby representing for Marx the differentia specifica of capitalist production. (Marx, 1990, 769) In this stage of development, the phenomenon of crisis was no longer accidental but rather periodic and necessary for capitalism’s reproduction. As Uno writes: “From the 1820s onwards, crises erupted consistently and with a periodicity of ten years or so, namely in 1825, 1836, 1847, 1857, and in 1866. Each crisis was determined…by specific circumstances, but crisis was already no longer an accidental phenomenon.” (Theory of Crisis, 22)
According to Uno, in capitalism’s stage of liberalism, a vicious cycle of capitalist accumulation was established in three phases: prosperity, crisis, and depression. Regarding the so-called ‘decennial crises’ between the 1820s and 1866, Uno writes, “In all cases, the recurring process was one in which a definite period of prosperity was followed by the appearance of an extreme degree of prosperity, which then fell suddenly into crisis conditions. Then, after a period of crisis, a definite period of depression unfolded before turning, once again, into a new period of prosperity.” (Theory of Crisis, 22) Crisis during the stage of liberalism became inevitable, possessing a clear periodicity based on industrial capital and the commodification of labour-power. The sense and meaning of this cycle is that of a constant presentiment of impending crisis, even—especially— at the zenith of prosperity.
Finally, Uno surveys the phenomenon of capitalist crisis after the 1870s, in capitalism’s (third) stage of imperialism, now based on finance capital. Developing Lenin’s analysis in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, Uno discusses how, after the 1873 crisis, “the periodicity itself of crisis was not so much only changed from what it was before, but the very mode of the cyclical process itself—of prosperity, crisis, and depression—gradually pointed to different features.” (Theory of Crisis, 23) Uno stresses features such as chronic depression (慢性的不況) and chronic unemployment; excess capital alongside surplus populations on an world scale; colonial conquest and international rivalries between super powers; and World War One and World War Two. In the stage of imperialism, Uno emphasizes the deep intertwining of capitalist crisis, chronic depression, and the development of the military industry and world war. For example, regarding the crisis of 1937 in Japan, Uno writes, “Excess facilities of fixed capital and a chronic surplus of labour-power appeared at the same time, revealing the peculiar meaning of the unproductive military industry.” (Ibid., 29) In the stage of imperialism, the necessity of capitalist crisis morphs into the necessity of war as a means to extricate national economies out of chronic economic depression. (Walker and Kawashima, 2018; Kawashima, 2022)
Uno’s historical narrative of capitalist crises shows how economic crisis was born with the birth of the capitalist commodity economy itself, disclosing the historical finitude, transience and impermanence of capitalism. However, it also shows how repeated capitalist crises have not led inevitably to the collapse of capitalism itself. (Theory of Crisis, 123-128) More inconsolably and perversely, the capitalist mode of production has only survived, expanded, and transitioned from one stage of its development to another, precisely through its crises. Finally, Uno stresses how the historical narrative of capitalism’s crises, while useful to grasp differences between the historical stages of capitalist development, is not sufficient for us to grasp, in our thinking and logical reasoning, why crisis is inevitable and necessarily periodic under the capitalist mode of production, and why crisis is endemic to the form of capital itself. To overcome this methodological dilemma, Uno turns to ‘theory’ (i.e., Capital) and to the world of principles (原理) (Walker, 2016)
The basic theoretical problem that Uno addressed in Theory of Crisis was the problem of why nobody, not even Marx himself, had “irrefutably demonstrated the inevitability of the phenomenon of crisis.” (Theory of Crisis, xviii). Uno’s Theory of Crisis explains this inevitability theoretically, and in a radical re-reading of Marx’s Capital, whose method of exposition theoretically abstracted capitalism’s inner economic laws of motion from the historical development of capitalism between the 1820s and 1860s, when capitalist crisis became periodic and inevitable for the first time in world history. (Ibid., 27)
How does Uno demonstrate the necessity and inevitability of crisis theoretically? Here, it is helpful to distinguish Uno’s approach to crisis from that of Lenin. In A Characterization of Economic Romanticism, Lenin famously defined capitalist crisis as “the contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of appropriation.” (Lenin, 1897) Uno does not deny the existence of this contradiction under capitalism, but he stresses how this contradiction can only explain the possibility of capitalist crisis, not its inevitability and periodicity. Uno writes:
A true elucidation of crisis will not be possible unless we understand this contradiction in terms of the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society that derives from the commodification of labour-power. The contradiction of social production and private appropriation is common in the capitalist commodity economy, and while it can be said that this contradiction reinforces the possibility of crisis, it is not the ground of the inevitability of crisis.” (p. 50)
In Theory of Crisis, the ground of the inevitability of crisis is identified as the ‘commodification of labour-power’. He writes, “the phenomena of crisis, which represents the fundamental contradictions of capitalist society while simultaneously resolving them practically, is grounded precisely in the commodification of labour-power.” (Theory of Crisis, 50) For Uno, the commodification of labour-power (労働力の商品化) represents the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, precisely because of the singular peculiarities of labour-power as a commodity. (See Marx, 1990, Chapter 6, “The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power”) As Marx clarified, labour-power, or the potential or capacity to work, is something that ultimately exists only in our somatic and mortal bodies/minds. Labour-power is not originally ‘born’ as a commodity, nor can capital produce labour-power as a commodity directly. Yet, as Marx showed in Capital, Volume 1, capitalist production and its drive to produce surplus-value (and ultimately profits) cannot exist or survive without consuming labour-power as a commodity. Thus, capital is constantly caught in a ‘double-bind’ that is endemic to its own commodity logic: capital(ists) must consume as a commodity that which it cannot produce as a commodity directly: our labour-power. On the other hand, we—the bearers (Träger) of labour-power—are compelled, in class struggle, to sell our labour-power as a commodity in exchange for wages and in order to live and reproduce our labour-power. As a result of this exchange process, our labour-power, which ‘originally’ existed outside of capital, is conducted into the interior world of capital’s logic, where we are alienated from our own labour-power within capitalist production, only to be cast out of production, in the wake of crisis, as capital’s “relative surplus population”. (Marx, 1990, 781-794)
Crucially, however, the commodification of labour-power reveals capitalism’s ‘weak point’, its ‘Achilles Heel’, so to speak. Uno writes: “The commodification of labour-power forms the fundamental basis of capitalist society, but since labour-power is not originally produced as a commodity by capital, yet is transformed into one, labour-power, in this sense, is the fundamental weak point of capitalist society.” (Theory of Crisis, 50) As Uno demonstrates in Chapters 2 (“Crisis”) and 3 (“Depression”), it is due to the commodification of labour-power that capitalist production creates a world-wide and unresolvable contradiction between an excess of capital (in the form of unsold commodities), and a vast ocean of impoverished human beings who cannot consume these commodities as means of subsistence. As Uno writes, this is a contradiction that is difficult to understand by common sense:
It is because of this character of the labour-power commodity that production’s expansion and stagnation take on a peculiar form and in a manner that is hard to understand by common sense. For example, while a vast plethora and excess of things and human beings continue to exist, a union between things and humans, through the form of capital, can be impossible.” (Theory of Crisis, 50)
Uno’s Theory of Crisis gives us a revolutionary common sense that liberates ‘the commodification of labour-power’ from its theoretical repression within existing discourses of capitalist crisis. Even in Marxist discourse, the problem of the commodification of labour-power has not been given the fundamental place in theory that it deserves. By and large, it is something that has been taken for granted and assumed as a fait accompli. For Uno, this assumption has dire consequences. It can lead to an inability to demonstrate the inevitability of capitalist crisis; to a decline in historical and concrete analyses of the present conjuncture (現状分析); and to a decline in class struggles and revolutionary class consciousness.
The lesson of Theory of Crisis is that the commodification of labour-power is a crucial yet under-studied historical vector of power/knowledge, subjection and domination, but also of subjectivation, emancipation and revolutionary consciousness. Of course, throughout the history of capitalism and down to the present day, the contradictions that surround our labour-power also include those of nationalism, colonialism, fascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ecocide, which have all contributed to a crisis of thought, reason and subjectivity. But to abolish these problems amidst the multiple crises that characterize present day capitalism, it is more and more necessary to abolish the commodification of labour-power itself in a revolutionary and socialist transition to a communism yet to come. As Uno wrote in Capital and Socialism, “The planned economy and socialist movements should begin, precisely, on the basis of the abolition and overcoming (止揚) of the process of the commodification of labour power.” (Uno, 1974, 177)
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______. Capital and Socialism, in The Collected Works of Uno Kōzō (『宇野弘蔵著作集』), Vol. 10, Iwanami Shoten,1974.
Walker, Gavin. The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan, Duke UP, 2016.
Walker, Gavin and Ken Kawashima. “Surplus Alongside Excess: Uno Kōzō, Imperialism, and the Theory of Crisis”, Viewpoint Magazine, February 1, 2018. https://viewpointmag.com/2018/02/01/surplus-alongside-excess-uno-kozo-imperialism-theory-crisis/
Ken Kawashima is a historian and Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. He is author of The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan (Duke UP, 2009), co-editor of Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader (Cornell UP, 2014), and the English translator of Uno Kōzō’s Theory of Crisis (Brill, 2021; Haymarket Books, 2022). For the past twenty years in Toronto, he has taught courses on Japanese colonialism, the history of capitalism in Japan, and Marxist theory. He has published articles in positions, Rethinking Marxism, Viewpoint Magazine, Historical Materialism, and recently contributed an article to a volume on the politics of the late Foucault for South Atlantic Quarterly, edited by Gavin Walker. As Sugar Brown, Kawashima is also a blues musician, composer, and singer, and has released three albums of original songs: Sugar Brown’s Sad Day (2013), Poor Lazarus (2015), and It’s a Blues World (2018). He has recently recorded his fourth studio album, Toronto Bound, to be released in 2023.