The Wager and the Wage: Reading Kawashima Reading Uno

Gavin Walker

In the crises of the world market, the contradictions and antagonisms of bourgeois production are strikingly revealed. Instead of investigating the nature of the conflicting elements which erupt in the catastrophe, the apologists content themselves with denying the catastrophe itself and insisting, in the face of their regular and periodic recurrence, that if production were carried on according to the textbooks, crises would never occur. Thus, the apologetics consist in the falsification of the simplest economic relations, and particularly in clinging to the concept of unity in the face of contradiction.

– Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 2

In the crises of the world market, the contradictions and antagonisms of bourgeois production are strikingly revealed. Instead of investigating the nature of the conflicting elements which erupt in the catastrophe, the apologists content themselves with denying the catastrophe itself and insisting, in the face of their regular and periodic recurrence, that if production were carried on according to the textbooks, crises would never occur. Thus, the apologetics consist in the falsification of the simplest economic relations, and particularly in clinging to the concept of unity in the face of contradiction.

– Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, vol. 2

In a text now canonised as one of the most foundational works of Marxist philosophical inquiry, Lukács once wrote as follows:

It is evident that the greatest emphasis must be laid on whether the ‘greatest productive power’ of the capitalist production system, namely the proletariat, experiences the crisis as object or as the subject of decision. For the crisis is always determined by the ‘antagonistic conditions of distribution’, by the contradiction between the river of capital which flows on ‘in proportion to the impetus it always possesses’ and the ‘narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest’, i.e. by the objective economic existence of the proletariat. But because of the immaturity of the proletariat and because of its inability to play any role in the process of production other than that of a ‘power of production’ passively integrated into the economy and subordinated to its ‘laws’, this side of the antagonism never emerges into the open. This gives rise to the illusion that the ‘laws’ of economics can lead a way out of the crisis just as they lead into it. (Lukács 1972: 244)

If one of the two main theoretical aims of Marx was to investigate the great historical transition that produced the proletarian figure, divorced from all forms of survival save the selling of labour power (the other being the investigation of the value-form), the question of times of crisis, when even this relationship becomes complicated by factors of the state, of the nation, and of the periodicity of the business cycle, remained to be thought as its correlate. The proletarian existence furnishes both the key – the ‘productive power’ of capital, or labour power – and the hazard or Achilles’ Heel of the continuity of the social system, since the reproduction of this element cannot be internally guaranteed. Yet, historical investigations of specific circumstances of proletarian politics under conditions of crisis cannot be enough to understand the generality of crises for capitalism: for that we require, paradoxically, a passage from the domain of conjunctural politics back into the logical realm of capital’s own self-definition.  

Ken C Kawashima’s translation, edition, and presentation of Uno Kozo’s Theory of Crisis is an event for thought, one that fills in crucial gaps in our understanding not only of the major texts of the tradition of Marxist theory in Japan, but also one that now fills out the contours of an ‘underground current’ that has been present in his own work for many years, concerned precisely with the above scenario and set of problems. In the opening pages of his introduction to the volume, Kawashima points out that he turned to Uno’s Theory of Crisis (hereafter TC) in order resolve problems that had emerged in his own earlier historical work on the question of Korean labour under conditions of Japanese imperialism, presented in his magisterial The Proletarian Gamble (2009). Why and for what reason would Kawashima turn to this text of Uno, a text that is highly theoretical and held at a remove from the concrete political-historical scenario of Kawashima’s earlier intervention?

He formulates this point as follows: “Theory of Crisis says nothing directly about the history of Korean workers, or about the colonization of Korea. […] Instead, [it] provided me with two, more theoretically objective and scientific problems to research: ‘the commodification of labour power’ and ‘imperialism’ as a historical stage of capitalism. […] Uno’s method for political economy ‘completes’ both the theory of capital (based on Marx’s Capital) as well as the theory of the stages of capitalist development, precisely in order to ground the production of concrete and historical knowledge of contemporary capitalist society for the advancement of socialist and communist struggles” (Kawashima in Uno 2021, xii). These two ‘theorems’, so to speak, concern precisely the general, global level of a world constituted by the social forms specific to capitalism and by the political processes characteristic of the historical stage of imperialism, two conceptual problematics that remain decisive to our current conjuncture.

In Kawashima’s The Proletarian Gamble – which I want to ‘cross-read’ with his edition of Uno’s Theory of Crisis, following his own declaration in the introduction – he discovered in the historical record a concept that clearly led him to the set of theoretical innovations pioneered by Uno: this concept is what he calls “intermediary exploitation” or chūkan sakushu. Kawashima writes:

Intermediary exploitation showed how day workers were exploited, but not through a direct relation of contradiction to capital. Rather, this relation was diverted, distanced, deferred, segmented, and mediated by tiers and levels of sub-contractors that served as many buffers against capital. It was a social form of exploitation that increased with the distance or separation of workers from capital and that especially exploited the inherent insecurity of workers in having to occupy a position of selling labour power as a commodity with no guarantees of exchange. Intermediary exploitation did not exploit workers by exploiting the surplus labour time within production and in contradiction to capital, but rather by exploiting the social mediations that distanced workers from a direct relation of exchange with capital. Moreover, these contingent, social mediations not only supervised the process of exchange and the process of production in which workers toiled, but also guarded over the process of worker consumption and served as indirect mediators for capital. (Kawashima 2009: 81-82)

This proletarian existence, in which “colonial surplus populations coming to Japan from Korea found themselves caught between deepening immiseration in the Korean countryside, and chronic industrial recession in Japan” (54) thus expresses two crucial generalities that must be understood in the theory of crisis: 1) how the periodic and cyclical crises of capitalism are not founded on state monetary policy, contingent political circumstances, or supposedly innate or natural characteristics of a given situation, but on a globally universal contradiction of capital as a relation: the centrality of the labour power commodity as an available input for the production process yet simultaneously the inability to reproduce the conditions of availability of this very commodity as a product of capital. 2) Why specifically this relationship of the quasi-impossibility of ensuring the presence of labour power as a commodity should be related to the historical stage of imperialism, with its specific hierarchies of political power mapped onto forms of national and state oppression, racism, and the colonial management of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ bodies, the (racialised, gendered, linguistic, and located) body being the “site of production” of precisely this key commodity input, labour power.

            In order to “solve” or at least investigate seriously why capital, in its imperialist stage of development, was concerned with the multi-layered forms of exploitation that characterised the situation of Korean labour under the Japanese empire, Kawashima proposes a crucial solution. Historical investigation of this specificity does not lead somehow to a “solution” whereby suddenly we understand the problem behind the phenomenal appearance in the archive by merely unearthing the empirical “evidence.” Rather, as soon as the empirical evidence sees the light of day, it throws into stark relief the theoretical problems that underlie the historical situation. This is precisely why Kawashima emphasises that in order to resolve questions at the historical level, it was necessary to go back (or go forward?) to the realm of a logico-theoretical presentation of the question, not out of a rejection of the historical or the practical, but because the problems posed by capitalist society cannot be understood solely by recourse to the empirical, itself the result of theoretical determinations, but only by a kind of parallax movement, whereby the historical conundrum, displaced into the “laboratories” of theory, is once more returned, now transformed by new vantage points and orientations, to the practical itself, in order to posit new political possibilities. And Kawashima specifies that he found this strategic grasp of the necessary levels of analysis of the question in the work of Uno Kozo, and especially in its capacious theoretical-historical development by Yutaka Nagahara, certainly the most creative and brilliant critic working at the junction of these questions (see for instance Nagahara 2008).

Uno’s work, and specifically the Theory of Crisis, contains many problems, questions that remain unanswered, and aspects that may seem in our current moment to be outdated, outmoded, or historically irrelevant. But his work also represents a project that remains decisive: to continue to grapple with the meaning of the theoretical advances made by Marx and Engels, which still contain vast sequences of possibilities, entire fields of potential that furnish us with conceptual weapons for our time. Uno’s own theoretical advance, as he modestly pointed out many times, is that he entered into Marx’s own theoretical system, and forced it to disclose its secrets, to reveal and put forward its own theoretical laws of motion. In essence, Uno’s reconstruction of Marxist theory is an attempt to refocus our attention – in a certain phenomenological style of ‘bracketing’ – on the profundity and force of the revolutionary Marxist project. We might say that, although he theorised numerous aspects of the Marxian program, the fundamental task that Uno set for himself was the explication and systematic self-disclosure of the internal operation of what he called “the world of principle, or pure capitalism” (genriteki sekai = junsui shihonshugi). This task of relentlessly bracketing the object until it becomes a contained, densely concentrated pure “world” in which capital’s laws of motion, unimpeded by the contingencies of the historical process, can be observed, has a number of theoretical effects.

Marxist theory parallels and attempts to theoretically reconstruct the relations that obtain under a form of society in which the commodity-form expresses the limit of all possible social relations: through this reconstruction, Marxist theory attempts to understand the “laws of motion” according to which this social form expands and contracts, why its cyclical logic is capable of self-correction in the forms of crisis and the “elasticity” of labour power, in order to “force the secret of profit-making,” thereby compelling capitalist society to itself disclose its weaknesses and aporias. Such a project inherently enters into a set of relations with political struggle, but it is not a direct route. Further, it is not a question of discovering, analyzing, and judging political movements or political phenomena on the basis of a program, but of approaching such phenomena from the vantage point of the historical process as a totality, as a body in motion, whose circuit-process is forced to reveal the directions and tendencies of its basic drives (See Walker 2016, chs. 4 and 5).

Uno’s work was widely influential in Japanese Marxist theory but is still not extensively known in other languages. For Kawashima, like Uno, the basic principle of a capitalist commodity economy is located in one fundamental site of analysis: the commodification of labour power. Capital, as a social relation, makes itself appear as a smooth, necessary, and natural circuit process. But this smoothness is paradoxically only possible because of a slippage or gap in this circuit itself. In other words, capital’s production process seems like a simple and uncomplicated cycle, but this cycle relies on something that exists outside of it. Labour power is the only “thing” (although it is not exactly a fully present thing, but rather a semblance) that cannot be produced as a commodity by capital itself (alongside land). Therefore, from capital’s viewpoint there is always some anxiety about its own continuity in the form of the supply of labour power. This is precisely the point wherein Kawashima’s work develops and extends Uno’s theoretical insights about capital’s self-movement on the level of the historical process. Capital cannot itself produce the labour power it needs to function, so it must in effect delegate or subcontract out this operation. What allows capital to pass through this slippage or gap in its smooth cycle, what allows it to bypass this problem of the supply of labour power, is the form of population, what Marx called the “special character of population in capitalism.” In essence, capital’s creation of the relative surplus population – an excess site of labour power that cushions or assuages capital’s doubts about itself – allows capital itself to pass through this site of tension without resolving this contradiction. That is, capital does not “solve” the problem of labour power through the creation of the relative surplus population; rather, it utilises this auxiliary force of the management of life to bypass or avoid confronting this problem directly.

Labour power thus names a ‘common ground’ of connection between the entirety of humanity, yet we know since Marx that “commodities cannot go to the labour market and sell themselves. Therefore, we have recourse to their bearers or guardians, who are the possessors of commodities.” Because historically determined bodies must be the “site” of the reproduction of labour power, and because these physical “bearers” (Träger) and “guardians” (Hütern) are segmented in the historical process through all sorts of differentiations (racialised, gendered, national, linguistic, somatic), this ‘common ground’ remains elusive. The problem Kawashima confronted in the archival battlefield was precisely that “state apparatuses tried in all kinds of ways to disavow this common ground, for example, by blaming various problems on Koreans themselves (as if unemployment was a problem of in­nate Korean laziness), or else by individualizing the process of commodifica­tion to such a degree that the shared experience between workers was lost amidst bureaucratic red tape. In short, state apparatuses tried to disavow the commonness between Korean and Japanese workers through individuating tactics, divide and conquer strategies, and through efforts to essentially cre­ate competition between Korean and Japanese workers, as well as among Ko­rean workers themselves” (Kawashima 2009, 204). What he calls here ‘individualizing the process of commodification’ might well be understood by another guide, Michel Foucault, who called this inexorable process “the government of individuation.” After all, for Kawashima:

The point is not simply that certain strata of the surplus population are at the bottom while some are not. Nor is the ultimate point that certain strata experience the contingencies of exchange more severely or acutely than other strata. Rather, these various and particular historical stratifications conceal and hide the common and universal condition of members of the proletariat having to sell their labour power as a commodity on the market, but with no guarantees of exchange. In other words, while the surplus population is organised (and often managed) in terms of particular strata, these strata conceal what is universal and com­mon to all labour power, namely the unique proletarian risk (Kawashima 2009, 211-212).

Kawashima’s work, focused on certain forms of historical concreteness, places its emphasis on the specific conditions of expropriation faced by Korean day labourers in the Japanese mainland, and its rigourous introduction of key materials for the analysis of the irregular Korean labour force. But in my view, Kawashima’s book was and is also, and perhaps most importantly, a theoretical intervention, a source that exposes not only the historical erasures that paradoxically sustain the historical process itself, but that also isolates and conceptually develops the politicality of such historical sites. In other words, Kawashima’s work does not only analyse the historical antecedents to our contemporary situation, it itself is also an intervention in the present.

His singular contribution in The Proletarian Gamble, and its extension in his decade-long “pilgrimage” towards Uno’s Theory of Crisis, constitutes an important rejoinder to the positivist refusal of “theory” in the historical field, in which the historical figuration of oppression privileges convenient and comforting forms of repetition and ventriloquism, demanding that a “we” (the observer) should hear “their” voices (the archivally-observed). Thus, the argument goes in the dominant positivist sphere of social history, in such historical circumstances, the role of the historian and writer is to unearth ‘stories’ showing us somewhat the role of the observed as self-conscious “subjects” who attempted to resist their conditions of expropriation and domination. In this optic, abstraction is bad, “experience” is good, the observed referenced in the archive is some kind of “real” entity rather than an inaccessible textual allusion, but it also constitutes a direct accusation against the unavoidably theoretical foundations of historical knowledge: you are ignoring the voices of the oppressed, you are not adequately “respecting” “their” particularity, and so forth. We should be clear that this type of complaint is in essence no more than a “cover story” for a very specific epistemological assumption that characterises and sustains the conceptual-theoretical “underdevelopment” of “history” and “area studies.” Precisely by refusing the chain of signification that underlies the positivist model of epistemology in historical ‘area studies’ – namely, the self-explanatory or circular nature of the putative substantiality of “culture,” “national language,” “national belonging,” and so forth, all supposedly ‘given’ forms of differentiation left unhistoricised and never treated as theoretical problems of generality  – Kawashima provides us with precious material that acknowledges from the outset that its terms are themselves hazardous, without guarantee, and radically contingent. In his turn to the two “theorems” he sought in Uno’s Theory of Crisis that underscore the historical circumstances in which he began, Kawashima demolishes this kind of bogus ventriloquism of experiential testimony, the egoism of the bourgeois historian obsessed with making the dead dance and the long-ago-oppressed speak against their own will. The answer is not only one of a disciplinary aesthetics or narrow partisan questions, but a defense of the rarity and importance of Kawashima’s ‘pilgrimage’ – one that began at the archival site of the oppressed, but refused to end there, meekly relaying positivist social fantasies of what are textual fields, instead wagering that these supposedly ‘historical’ problems in fact remained our own, choosing to face the absence of a “royal road to science” and accepting the “fatiguing climb” of a turn to truly thinking the theoretical conditions of the historical.

“We were denounced as being philosophically guilty,” Blanchot once wrote, “guilty of abstraction, guilty of ignoring the ‘concrete’ […]. I must say that this refusal of abstraction and defense of the concrete seemed essentially abstract to us and of a more dangerous abstraction than the kind that we were reproached with, because it is idealizing, and in the end, ethical in nature” (Blanchot 2010: 45). Kawashima’s work has for years exposed us to a hazardous zone beyond the “sociological comfort” denounced by Blanchot, a zone wherein a convenient and self-assuaging “concreteness” can function as a mark of insulation. The set of problems that Kawashima investigates in his two great contributions – The Proletarian Gamble and now this edition of Theory of Crisis – are general problems, not only for Marxist theoretical writing, but also for all politics and thought today: how capital relates to the form of the state, how and why crisis must find its cyclicality and origin in the dynamics of the labour power commodity and thereby its guardians, opening new pathways to understanding racism as essential to capitalism’s formation and maintenance, the limits and possibilities of working-class politics in the face of the dualities of imperial power and local exploitation. Kawashima’s thought is thus for us a kind of example itself of the philosophical potentiality of the historical: never a convenient and neat ‘story’ safely ensconced in a supposed past, but a vital and living operation of struggle and memory to inform our conditions of not just living, but of truly thinking the conjuncture.

Works Cited


Blanchot, Maurice. “Letters from the Revue internationale” in Political Writings 1953-1993, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).

Foucault, Michel. Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973-74 (New York: Picador, 2003).

Kawashima, Ken, The Proletarian Gamble (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

Lukács, Georg. “The Changing Function of Historical Materialism” in History and Class Consciousness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972).

Marx, Capital, vol. 1 in MECW, vol. 35 (New York: International Publishers, 1996).

Nagahara, Yutaka. Warera kashi aru monotachi: Han-‘shihon’-ron no tame ni (Tokyo: Seidosha, 2008).

Uno Kozo, Theory of Crisis, translated and edited by Ken Kawashima (Leiden: Brill, 2021).

Walker, Gavin. The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

Gavin Walker is Associate Professor of History and Graduate Program Director of East Asian Studies at McGill University. He is the author of The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Duke, 2016) and Marx et la politique du dehors (Lux Éditeur, 2022), the editor of The End of Area (Duke, 2019, with Naoki Sakai), The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetics in the Japanese ’68 (Verso, 2020), Foucault’s Late Politics, a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 121, no. 4 (Duke, 2022), and the editor and translator of Kojin Karatani’s Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility (Verso, 2020). His new book, The Rarity of Politics: Passages from Structure to Subject is forthcoming from Verso.