Our consideration of “Marx and Asia” will not be based on exegesis of texts – that is, we will not be investigating what Marx wrote about Asia. This is a vital and important area of research, to be sure, but our interest is in the political actuality of this juxtaposition. The scientific question we confront is the universalization of capital, the extension of the logic of capital on a world scale, which is better characterized as the “becoming” of capital in the sites where both Eurocentric and postcolonial analysis can only identify the derivative adoption of “modern” and “Western” categories. Today the vast populations of Asia face an exposure to death provoked by the coronavirus pandemic which far exceeds that of the advanced capitalist countries, but which only exacerbates the uneven exposure long generated by imperialism and global capitalism. With renewed interest in Marxism among the occupants of the “Western” societies, we must pose the question of the relevance of this Marxism to Asia, and indeed the “rest” of the world defined according to its “non-Westerness”: the schema of “the West and the Rest” which disavows the colonial circuits of unified global modernity. Marxism, in fact, as a global political force, cannot be understood as European – that is, it is inexplicable as a continuous political phenomenon outside the peasant wars, national liberation struggles, and communist revolution that permeate Asian history, among other histories. Marxism is the political thesis advanced by these events which generates the knowledge directed towards the overturning of the capitalist organization of human life.
Nevertheless, recent discussions of “Marx and Asia” have tended to treat Marxism as the disembodied “Western” knowledge whose range of “application” to “the Rest” of the world is at stake. In a far-reaching polemic widely celebrated among “Western” Marxists, Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital targets Dipesh Chakrabarty’s provocative challenge in Provincializing Europe, once equally celebrated among “postcolonial” critics, to the universal application of capitalism’s laws. Chakrabarty’s analysis correctly calls attention to the centrality of the category of abstract labor in Marx’s analysis. Marx’s contribution, Chakrabarty argues in a meticulous reading, was to show that the foundation of the exchange of qualitatively different objects is “human labor in the abstract” (Marx 1992, 28). This is by no means a self-evident or unambiguous conclusion. Chakrabarty refers to the argument of I.I. Rubin that Marx shifts between two conceptions of abstract labor, one a physiological conception of expenditure of energy, and the other a social conception of the counting of human activity as labor through commodity exchange. Chakrabarty settles on the latter.
However, he then makes the leap of claiming that for Marx, the abstraction of labor must rest on “a version of the Enlightenment figure of the abstract human” (Chakrabarty 2000, 59). According to Chakrabarty, Marx’s presentation of abstract labor is “predicated on the Enlightenment ideas of juridical equality and the abstract political rights of citizenship,” and it “combines the Enlightenment themes of juridical freedom (rights, citizenship) and the concept of the universal and abstract human who bears this freedom” (Chakrabarty 2000, 50). According to this analysis, since Marx derives abstract labor from commodity exchange, he must have presupposed the abstract personhood of liberalism, which is the foundation of ownership.
Chakrabarty wants to narrate a history which is outside of the universalizing history of capital. To do so, he delivers us his well-known metaphysical division between two orders of history, the first belonging to the universality of the abstract personhood of liberalism, which Marx has not escaped, and the second comprising what remains outside the universalizing aspirations of capital. Accordingly, to understand difference, particularity, and the non-European world, we must make the shift from History 1 to History 2.
Chibber responds to Chakrabarty with a vigorous defense of the universality of the category of abstract labor, and indeed of the Enlightenment conception of abstract personhood, which in his terminology is expressed as rational actors or agents with a shared human nature and fundamental interests (see Mezzadra 2014). Accordingly, Chibber’s account of abstract labor ignores the equivocation identified by Rubin. He reduces abstract labor to “a dimension of concrete labors,” claiming that “it refers to properties that the latter have in common, properties which can be compared with one another and which are rewarded by the market” (Chibber 2018, 140). What, then, is this dimension of concrete labors, the properties they have in common? We are left with no answer but to return to the residual mechanical conception that Marx seems sometimes to lapse into: the physiological expenditure of energy.
What neither Chakrabarty nor Chibber address is that abstract personhood is historically produced by the processes Marx characterized as “primitive accumulation,” and its classical theorists describe this explicitly. The emergence of the Enlightenment individual as the bearer of natural rights is mutually constitutive, in the writings of John Locke, with the historical emergence of private property.1 Locke gives the classic statement of the relationship of personhood to property, writing that while “every man has a property in his own person,” and “the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided… he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (Locke 1980, 19).
Locke’s conception of the individual’s right to bear property is specifically derived from the simultaneous constituting acts of labor and enclosure – from the separation of people from the collective means of subsistence: “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common” (Locke 1980, 21). This enclosure is already, in Locke’s reasoning, based on human labor in the abstract, which can only be the property of an individual. The reasoning is circular, with labor generating enclosure and thus the category of property, which is the basis for conceiving of the property of the body of the individual who labors.
Thus Chibber’s conception of abstract labor and personhood makes no advance beyond Locke; and Chakrabarty has completely missed the relation of abstract personhood to enclosure. Labor is not the physiological substratum of human activity, and abstract personhood is not the transhistorical basis of commodity exchange. Rather, both emerge from the separation of people from the means of subsistence, which capital “explains” as the original accumulation of savings, retroactively positing labor and abstract personhood as its foundation. As Jason Read explains, “in taking labor as always already constituted as a commodity, as already a quantifiable unit of abstract labor, what is overlooked are the interlacing apparatuses that transform bodies and relations into units of labor-power” (Read 2002, 44).
This process can be obscured by Marx’s order of exposition, but it is crucial for understanding the historical logic which eludes Chakrabarty. In Gavin Walker’s words,
Chakrabarty’s argument cannot account for the foundational problem of capital’s logic, a cycle reliant on an irrational or excessive moment that is passing through all social life – the impossibility or absurdity of the fact that relations among human beings can never simply be purely commodified, but are nevertheless smoothly circulated as relations among things – a moment wherein an abyssal gap opens under capital’s movement when it confronts the instability of the supply of labor-power that can be commodified, the foundational input for capital’s putatively smooth circuit-process (Walker 2018).
A fundamental problem in Marx’s analysis is the relation between the logical order of categories and the historical progression of social forms (Mezzadra 2011b), which is continually missed both in certain vulgar postcolonial critiques of Marxism, and in the defensive orthodox reactions of Second International revivalists. Neither antagonist in this dispute adequately reckons with the internal divisions and contradictions of the category of abstract labor, which involves several entirely different orders of abstraction: the specifically capitalist reduction of concrete forms of activity to a money equivalent; the historical analysis which retroactively subsumes previous forms of human activity into the category of labor, despite the fact that they existed within social forms which did not render them equivalent; and finally the conceptual category which grasps the circulation of commodities in capitalist society as the allocation of the total social labor.
Chakrabarty returns, as Marx did, to Aristotle’s posing of the question of commensurability of forms of activity, concluding that the nomos of exchange, the conventions established by money, equate qualitatively different forms of activity. In Capital, Marx’s notes on Aristotle make a much more restricted claim, but also one quite distant from the framing of Chakrabarty. Aristotle is unable to find the common substance that makes different objects commensurable in exchange, so he shifts to money as convention. The fact that Aristotle was able to pose the question remains more or less unresolved; but his inability to answer it, Marx suggests, emerges from the absence of labor-power as a commodity in Ancient Greece – that is, the reliance of Greek society on subsistence production and slave labor, rather than the exchange of labor-power for a wage.
Significantly, neither Chakrabarty nor Chibber addresses this question. But it arises again in Partha Chatterjee’s response to Chibber’s polemic (Chatterjee 2013). Indian society, Chatterjee suggests, remains unevenly subordinated to the wage relation. Many wage laborers remain tied to subsistence production in the countryside, and while they may depend on a wage income to supplement their agricultural consumption, they are not fully incorporated into a capitalist labor process, and do not totally obey market imperatives. Chakrabarty’s only reference to this problem is to contrast the slave-owning society of Ancient Greece with modern societies revolving around the Enlightenment conceptions of humans who bear rights. Chibber, on the other hand, declines Chatterjee’s invitation to direct the debate towards this more substantive discussion of Marxian categories of labor and labor-power, instead insisting on returning to the metaphysical question of whether the ideal categories formulated in the analysis of Europe can also hold true for the “non-West” – a question posed so incorrectly that any answer lapses into what Marx described in an 1877 letter on Russia as “the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical” (Marx and Engels 1989, 24:201).
Now, Marx centers his analysis of capitalism on the hegemony of the free waged laborer rather than the slave or servant, and his vivid condemnations of the plunder of the colonies and the slave trade give no clear indication of how they fit into his theory of the capitalist mode of production. Of course, Marx is very aware of the fact that slavery is an essential part of the capitalist world market, and that the majority of the global population in his era subjugated to the world market are not industrial wage laborers. But he emphasizes the free wage laborer for two reasons: first, because he wants to demonstrate that even the free wage labor contract, made between free and equal individuals, is a form of despotism; second, because he demonstrates that in the specific case of industrial revolution England the free wage laborer drove capitalist accumulation, because when capitalists did not own the laborer as property, it was in their interest to adopt forms of machinery which allowed them to reduce their reliance on labor, and expel laborers from the production process. Hence a dizzying scale of technological innovation, leaps in productivity, and accumulation of wealth alongside the abject poverty of the pauper and the vagabond.
Once we have understood the contingency and heterogeneity of the history of capitalism, it is no longer necessary to separate it into two metaphysical histories. As Reinhart Koselleck puts it, historical analysis studies “many forms of time superimposed one upon the other”: “Historical time, if the concept has a specific meaning, is bound up with social and political actions, with concretely acting and suffering human beings and their institutions and organizations. All these actions have definite, internalized forms of conduct, each with a peculiar temporal rhythm.” As an example he notes “changes in working hours and their duration that have determined the course of life and continue to do so” (Koselleck 2004, 2).
However, taking some distance from Koselleck, we do not need to speak of a multiplicity of experiential times, subjective times which are compared to an objective linearity, a single, identical time. We could criticize this conception of the multiple experiences of temporality as resting on the foundation of the identical subjects of abstract personhood. We are instead speaking of a present of multiple structured temporalities, among which there are lags and dislocations.
For the Enlightenment revivalism which revolves around abstract personhood and a progressive and linear view of history, forms of unreason are in the process of being eliminated, because the growth of knowledge will reshape society and consign them to the past where they belong. Yet moderate Enlightenment thought already attempts to provide a foundation for the eternal and persistent character of these forms of unreason. In an infamous passage of Locke’s elaboration of the formation of property he writes that “the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place… become my property… The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them” (Locke 1980, 19–20).
By subsuming the labor of his servant into his own labor, Locke suggests that abstract personhood rests on servitude. But he also elaborates on the forms of servitude: “there is another sort of servants, which by a peculiar name we call slaves, who being captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters.” Locke’s convoluted explanation of slavery as the consequence of war is clarified by his own investments in the slave trade and his role in drafting the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which states: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves” (Locke 2003, 230). It is in this sense the philosophy of freedom was a philosophy of servitude and slavery, and not only in the colonies. Historical scholarship requires us, as Sandro Mezzadra summarizes, to “abandon any ‘historicist’ reading of labour history, reversing our perspective and using for instance indentured servitude and slavery to rethink the history of employment relations” (Mezzadra 2011a, 159).
Let’s consider, however, how the persistence of servitude and unreason may be described differently within a Marxist conception of historical time, using categories like survivals, remnants, traces, vestiges, residues, or relics. Louis Althusser’s work provides a sustained reflection on what Vittorio Morfino calls a “plural temporality” (Morfino 2014). As early as his 1962 political reflection on the survivals of the state apparatuses in the revolutionary transition, Althusser provides a critique of a linear temporality of supersession, which would reduce the survival of the past to a mere memory. Even “superstructural” factors, irreducible to the “psychological,” are able “to survive beyond their immediate life context, even to recreate, to ‘secrete’ substitute conditions of existence temporarily,” and furthermore even the new post-revolutionary society “may itself ensure the survival, that is, the reactivation of older elements through both the forms of its new superstructures and specific (national and international) ‘circumstances’” (Althusser 1977, 114–15).
While in this case Althusser’s analysis is quite specifically of state socialism, in Reading Capital he brings this problem to bear on the “impurity” of English capitalism, which he associates with “the ‘survivals’ of forms within the dominant capitalist mode of production in Britain from modes of production subordinate to but not yet eliminated by the capitalist mode of production.” This “impurity” is central to the “the theory of the transition from one mode of production to another, which is the same thing as the theory of the process of constitution of a determinate mode of production, since every mode of production is constituted solely out of the existing forms of an earlier mode of production.” The theory of this impurity, Althusser adds, is outlined in Marx’s texts on primitive accumulation. In contrast to the expressive totality of the structure of contemporaneity, we are required to think the “intertwining of the different times… the type of ‘dislocation’ (décalage) and torsion of the different temporalities produced by the different levels of the structure, the complex combination of which constitutes the peculiar time of the process’s development” (Althusser and Balibar 2006, 252).
What is the form of the present which this thinking of temporality produces? Althusser says: “it is only in the specific unity of the complex structure of the whole that we can think the concept of these so-called backwardnesses, forwardnesses, survivals and unevennesses of development which co-exist in the structure of the real historical present: the present of the conjuncture” (Althusser and Balibar 2006, 254). Only by thinking the present of the conjuncture is it possible to combat survivals, the reactivated forms which constitute the articulated whole, the forms of extra-economic coercion which are not eliminated by the abstract personhood of the market and the Enlightenment.
This entails a different conception of both causality and temporality, which is the core concern of Althusser’s famous declaration about the determinacy of the economic “in the last instance”: “From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes” (Althusser 1977, 113). Althusser’s point is not only to assert that the Marxist dialectic of contradiction makes it such that the effectivity of the economy is always overdetermined by elements of the superstructure. He is proposing a statement about causality itself: the cause is never “present” and “exists” only in its effects – there is no moment of its royal appearance in corporeal form. The cause is determinant in its effects, within forms that are spatially characterized as superstructural.. The seemingly mechanistic metaphor of base and superstructure, a heuristic device for Marx, is in Althusser’s reading a means of breaking with the mystical idealist dialectic. Althusser calls attention to the advance made by this topographic metaphor, even though it remains purely descriptive, because it breaks with the model of expressive totality, by means of a theory of levels and instances (Althusser 2001, 135–36; 2012, 213–23).
Now, if the last instance were a strictly temporal claim – the claim that one day this last instance will come – the logic of overdetermination would escape our grasp, since any relative autonomy of the secondary contradictions would only be the momentary distortion and dismemberment of the simple contradiction which defines expressive whole. In other words, the last instance is not a temporal claim, but a theory of the position of the economic structure in a social formation situated in a non-teleological history (a history which is a process without a subject or a goal).
These are problems of historical time, which put into question the linear and progressive sequence of causation driven by an originary subject which seeks to meet a goal at the end of history. Marx was formed intellectually within this historicist problematic and increasingly generated a critique of its mysticism from the standpoint of a rational dialectic which he never found the time to explain. These residual teleologies were repeated by figures of the Second International and formed a fundamental component of its worldview. Alongside survivals, the key term in Marxist discourse is the prehistory of capital. Our task is in fact to think through these categories of “non-contemporaneity,” that is, to produce a different concept of historical time (Morfino 2014).
Marx, of course, provocatively decided to end with prehistory in volume one of Capital. It is often pointed out that Marx seems to portray this as a process which is done once, and thereafter gives way to the silent compulsion of the market. This is too literal a reading, but it has certainly been influential in Marxist teleologies. One of the early dissenters from this view was Rosa Luxemburg. Her analysis poses certain problems of interpretation, because Luxemburg does not actually break with the teleology of the Second International. Her argument in The Accumulation of Capital is directed towards providing a mathematical and historical guarantee of capitalist collapse and proletarian revolution. However, despite this questionable historicist scaffolding, Luxemburg provided a vivid account of capitalism’s relation to non-capitalist forms of life, describing capitalism’s “battle of annihilation against every historical form of natural economy,” which “in the non-European countries… assumes the forms of colonial policy” (Luxemburg 2003, 349).
The permanent primitive accumulation which accompanied capital’s spatial expansion was embedded in a revolutionary eschatology, in which capital would progressively exhaust the availability of non-capitalist environments (in order to generate demand that could not be found domestically), and in so doing would arrive eventually at the terminal crisis which would either lead to the victory of socialism or be averted by it. Nevertheless, the rational kernel of Luxemburg’s argument, which represents her singular insight, is that capital was engaged in the constant constitution of its social relations, logically reliant on an “outside” continually incorporated into its accumulation process. As Massimiliano Tomba puts it, arguing for retaining the original English term of “primary accumulation”: “in a variety of contemporary processes of accumulation, what is primary is the accumulation that, by means of extra-economic violence, imposes the rhythm of socially-necessary labour-time on a global scale and works on the differentiation and synchronisation of different temporalities” (Tomba 2013, 169).
In his late reflections on “aleatory materialism,” Althusser situated the permanence of primitive accumulation in a non-teleological interpretation, drawing on Marx’s account of the “encounter” between “the owners of money” and “the proletarian stripped of everything but his labour-power.” It is an encounter which might not have happened, but actually did, and furthermore lasted, introducing certain tendential laws which characterize the capitalist mode of production. The elements of the encounter do not have these laws as their internal goal; they are “elements that are independent of each other, each resulting from its own specific history, in the absence of any organic, teleological relation between these diverse histories.” It would be a mistake, Althusser added, “to think that this process of the aleatory encounter was confined to the English fourteenth century. It has always gone on, and is going on even today” (Althusser 2006, 199).
As we have already noted, there is a risk that the elements of the encounter and the tendential laws to which it gives rise will be inserted into the Second International teleology, which assumes a linear time as the point of reference against which the backwardness or forwardness of a phenomenon may be determined. But the theoretical content of these categories has to be constructed on the basis of their actual, practical usage, which is by no means unitary or simple. An exemplary instance of this usage is precisely the question of the survivals of slavery, which persist past the Enlightenment vision of abstract personhood and its foundation in the market and the labor contract. The black communist Harry Haywood, who co-authored the resolution on the Black National Question adopted by the Comintern in 1928, which speaks of “slave remnants,” wrote that the so-called “race” problem in the United States was the result of “the social strictures imposed upon the Negro under the economic survivals of slavery, with the extra-economic element of racial coercion” (Haywood 1948, 44).
In a more recent example, Stuart Hall pointed out that while the genetic, biological, and scientific foundations of the category of “race” have been clearly refuted,
we still have to explain why these racial classificatory systems persist, why so much of history has been organized within the shadow of their primordial binaries, and why, above all, everyday action and commonsense language and thought – as well as the larger structural systems of power that organize the distribution of wealth, resources, and knowledge differentially across societies and between groups – all continue to operate with this apparently weak, unsubstantiated, untenable, nearly but not quite erased “biological” trace (Hall 2017, 43).
With the word “trace,” Hall invokes Derrida, but also echoes the classical Marxist discourse on the traces of feudalism. How do we think these problems, of survivals and traces? What is their temporality? What we must rule out from the outset is the notion that they will simply be left behind by a linear temporality in which freedom is gradually realized. The increasing power of right-wing populism, which grounds a ruling-class strategy in racial ideology, in state apparatuses which generate and regenerate racism through material practices, proves the contemporary character of these survivals and traces.
Having dealt with prehistory, let us turn now to linear temporality which determines the periodization of the “post.” In the advanced capitalist world, the theme of “post-work” rose to ascendancy in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it played on a contradiction that had been consistently raised since the 19th century: that the development of the productive forces and the subsequent increasing productivity of labor would make laborers superfluous, expelling them into what Karl Marx called a relative surplus population. This post-work condition was ambiguous because, as Joan Robinson put it, “the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to not being exploited at all” (Robinson 1962, 45). Yet at the same time, the fact that the preponderance of labor-time was becoming increasingly unnecessary displayed the potentiality of a life beyond work.
At the turn of the 21st century, however, this contradiction would be tied to a particular temporality of “posts” – the most obvious being the postmodern condition, drawing perhaps on poststructuralism, with an ambiguous relation to postcolonialism. Aijaz Ahmad’s “Postcolonial Theory and the ‘Post-’ Condition” argues for an affinity between the neoliberal account of the end of history, that is, the historical moment of the universal domination of capitalism, and a postmodern theory which he sees as complicit with this domination. Postcolonialism, on his account, is the conceptual reordering of what would previously have been called the Third World in accordance with this postmodern theory, with contingency displacing teleology and hybridity displacing essentialism (Ahmad 1997). As Wendy Brown pointed out in the same period, one which was also described as post-socialist, a very broad range of discourses problematized a “teleological and progressive history,” recapitulating an entire century of post-historical speculations:
Like its counterparts felt by politicians and the public at large, contemporary academic doubt about the modernist narrative of progress issues from a variety of points on the political spectrum. While some hold that history’s long march has come to an end as liberalism has triumphed around the globe, others argue that this march was always a fiction, and still others insist that something called “postmodernism” heralded the end of progress, totality, and coherence even if history had unfolded progressively up until that point (Brown 2001, 8).
We are faced, then, with a series of unsatisfactory positions: historicist theories of history which tautologically view categories of historical analysis as expressions of the historical period itself and the paradoxically transhistorical denial of history (which takes either “modern” or “postmodern” form, it doesn’t matter much). What is left out of these positions is precisely the plural temporality which is demonstrated by the spatially organized time-lag. Harry Harootunian points out that for the “post” of postcolonialism,
the time-lag appeared and was exported to regions outside of Euro-America as the sign of their collective underdevelopment, even though it functioned to conceal both its instance within ‘advanced’ capitalist societies and capitalism’s own unscheduled cycles, waves, irregular rhythms – the world of zeitwidrig, noncontemporaneity, discordance. By contrast, the temporality of time lag in postcolonial theory – primarily an economic category – was transmuted into the moment of subaltern address, just as the spectre of unevenness was reinscribed as hybridity and diasporic cosmopolitanism (Harootunian 2010, 43).
In order to displace the binaries of Histories 1 and 2 and “the West and the Rest” (Walker 2018) I will approach the question of post-work from the vantage point of plural temporality. Reading the 1998 collection Post-Work, it is not always clear whether the term is normative or descriptive – that is, whether it is envisioning a world in which work no longer structures human lives, or rather pointing to radical changes in conditions of employment and the labor process, from downsizing to deskilling, that have made existing conceptions of work unrecognizable.2
First, a statement of the contradictions of the contemporary regime of labor: “More than ever, we worry about work and are working longer hours; we are more than ever driven, nervous, seemingly trapped. At the very same time, and paradoxically, the twenty-first century bodes a time of post-work: of automation and work reorganization replacing people at faster and faster rates” (Aronowitz and Cutler 1998, 38).
Second, a statement of political possibility: “We dare to imagine a world beyond scarcity and thus a world where the jobless future is not about misery and desperation but a future in which time would be liberated and freedom made possible. To imagine is to entertain not only the possibility of a future, but to acknowledge that indeed the present has the potential to be shaped as we dream. To imagine means to dream, to move beyond the boundaries of what is routine and practical” (Aronowitz and Cutler 1998, 70).
There are thus two temporalities at work in this Manifesto. The first is the temporality of the working day, the temporality of labor-time determined by technology and counted by wages, which together construct categories like full-time, part-time, overtime, free-time and quitting time. This is a daily, cyclical temporality. The second is the temporality of the post-work future, the potentiality of this future in the present, and the possibility of imagining the future. This is a secular temporality which may also serve as the basis for a philosophy of history. The relation between the two temporalities appears clearly in the doubling of the word “time” which facilitates the style of the Manifesto, which says, for example: “the time has come to admit that many of us are working so hard, if working at all, that we hardly have time to enjoy our lives or even to seriously consider what else beyond the present could actually materialize. It is time to demand reductions in our workweek, to insist upon higher income and to refuse to work ourselves to death. It is time to get a life” (Aronowitz and Cutler 1998, 40).
In other words, the daily cycle of labor-time reduces the possibility of future-time, which we are often unable even to imagine or to dream. There is a temporal tension between the performative urgency of the Manifesto – ”it is time” – and the delayed dream of a future-time. This temporal tension is articulated spatially in the word utopia, the no-place which can only be dreamed of and yet also must be rendered in the language of the here and now.
As we have seen, Marx’s conception of labor points to a temporal circuit between past and present, the prehistory of capital, primitive accumulation, continually recomposing the conditions of labor-power and all the while undermining those conditions through labor-saving innovations. He used primitive accumulation to demonstrate how the commodity labor-power enters onto the market and is made available for purchase by capital. And he demonstrated how the vast accumulation and development that is driven by industrial production churns the dispossessed through the factory into a relative surplus population: the unemployed, the migrants, the slumdwellers – those who James Boggs, writing in his free time from work at the auto factories of Detroit in the early 1960s, called “the outsiders.” Capital represents itself as a self-contained smooth circuit, in which it generates its own conditions of possibility. But in actual fact capital captures labor-power through the processes of enclosure and dispossession and ensures its perpetual availability by expelling laborers from the labor process. To explain capital’s conception of world history we can draw on a vivid passage by Derrida: it is “the idea of the world, the idea of world-origin, that arises from the difference between the worldly and the non-worldly, the outside and the inside, ideality and nonideality, universal and nonuniversal, transcendental and empirical.” So the relationship of the smooth circuit of capital to primitive accumulation and surplus population confronts us with the present as the suspension between past and future, and as Derrida puts it, “a forced entry of a totally original sort, an archetypal violence: eruption of the outside within the inside” (Derrida 1997, 34).
It is this logic which illustrates, in Walker’s terms, “this strange phenomenon called primitive accumulation, or the (im)possible origin of capital, in which we see the illogical-irrational origin of labor power as a commodity” (Walker 2011, 392). And it is for this reason that we cannot accept a certain “totalizing” Marxist view, associated with a trajectory running from Georg Lukács to Moishe Postone, which, as Nancy Fraser puts it, “renders invisible major swaths of social interaction that are essential components of a capitalist society but are not governed by market norms,” thus obscuring “the character of social institutions that supply indispensable preconditions for commodity production and exchange, but which are themselves organized on different bases” (Fraser and Jaeggi 2018, 49).
Boggs wrote in The American Revolution, published in 1963, that “the outsiders, the workless people, now have to turn their thoughts away from trying to outwit the machines and instead toward the organization and reorganization of society and of human relations inside society.” But he also added: “I am not saying that this new generation of outsiders is as of now an organized force. It is not as simple as that. In fact, no existing organization would even think of organizing them, which means that they will have to organize themselves and that the need to organize themselves will soon be forced upon them” (Boggs 2009, 52). The urban rebellions which would peak in the United States a few years later demonstrated that the outsiders were a powerful force of resistance, but as Boggs would argue, not yet a force for revolution. No linear, progressive temporality can resolve this problem for us in advance, and it is still the case that behind the demands of post-work lies the question of the organization of the workless – a question of organization which extends from the katchi abadis of Karachi to the streets of Minneapolis. But if capitalism is global, so is rebellion; and it remains a global principle, affirmed by the historical pairing of “Marx and Asia,” that rebellion is justified.
Asad Haider is the author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018), and an editor of Viewpoint Magazine.
Ahmad, Aijaz. 1997. “‘Postcolonial Theory and the ‘Post’ Condition.’” Socialist Register 33.
Althusser, Louis. 1977. For Marx. Translated by Ben Brewster. London: Verso.
———. 2001. Lenin and Philosophy. New York: Monthly Review Press.
———. 2006. Philosophy of the Encounter. Edited by François Matheron. Translated by G.M. Goshgarian. New York: Verso.
———. 2012. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists. Edited by Gregory Elliott. Translated by Ben Brewster, James H. Kavanagh, Thomas E. Lewis, Grahame Lock, and Warren Montag. New York: Verso.
Althusser, Louis, and Étienne Balibar. 2006. Reading Capital. Translated by Ben Brewster. London/New York: Verso.
Aronowitz, Stanley, and Jonathan Cutler, eds. 1998. Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation. New York: Routledge.
Boggs, James. 2009. The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Brown, Wendy. 2001. Politics Out of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1989. Rethinking Working Class History: Bengal 1890–1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
———. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chatterjee, Partha. 2013. “Subaltern Studies and ‘Capital.’” Economic and Political Weekly 48 (37): 69–75.
Chibber, Vivek. 2018. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. New York: Verso.
Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Fraser, Nancy, and Rahel Jaeggi. 2018. Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory. Edited by Brian Milstein. Cambridge: Polity.
Hall, Stuart. 2017. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation. Edited by Kobena Mercer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Harootunian, Harry. 2010. “Who Needs Postcoloniality?” Radical Philosophy 164 (December): 38–44.
Haywood, Harry. 1948. Negro Liberation. New York: International Publishers.
Koselleck, Reinhart. 2004. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Translated by Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press.
Locke, John. 1980. Second Treatise of Government. Edited by C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis: Hackett.
———. 2003. Political Writings. Edited by David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Luxemburg, Rosa. 2003. The Accumulation of Capital. Translated by Agnes Schwarzschild. New York: Routledge.
Marx, Karl. 1992. Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1989. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 24. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Mezzadra, Sandro. 2011a. “How Many Histories of Labour? Towards a Theory of Postcolonial Capitalism.” Postcolonial Studies 14 (2): 151–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2011.563458.
———. 2011b. “The Topicality of Prehistory: A New Reading of Marx’s Analysis of ‘So-Called Primitive Accumulation.’” Rethinking Marxism 23 (3): 302–21.
———. 2014. “Review Essay: Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital.” Interventions 16 (6): 916–25.
Morfino, Vittorio. 2014. Plural Temporality: Transindividuality and the Aleatory Between Spinoza and Althusser. Leiden: Brill.
Read, Jason. 2002. “Primitive Accumulation: The Aleatory Foundation of Capitalism.” Rethinking Marxism 14 (2): 24–49.
Robinson, Joan. 1962. Economic Philosophy. Chicago: Aldine.
Tomba, Massimiliano. 2013. Marx’s Temporalities. Translated by Peter Thomas and Sara Farris. Leiden: Brill.
Walker, Gavin. 2011. “Primitive Accumulation and the Formation of Difference: On Marx and Schmitt.” Rethinking Marxism 23 (3): 384–404.
———. 2018. “The Postcolonial and the Politics of the Outside: Return(s) of the National Question in Marxist Theory.” Viewpoint Magazine, February. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2018/02/01/postcolonial-politics-outside-returns-national-question-marxist-theory/.
Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.