Toward a Labor Theory of Planetary Crisis: Reading Uno Kōzō

I-Yi Hsieh

What does it mean to think about capitalist crisis from Taiwan? How have such crises affected the working class and the precariat across the Taiwan strait, at a time when both sides of the strait are seemingly coming apart yet remain entangled in the boom-and-busts of the Asia-based economy? How is the inevitability of capitalism’s crisis, as Uno Kōzō puts it, being the real cause of our shared climate crisis, despite the fact that the connection between these crises is often rendered invisible? 

This string of questions lingered in my mind when I started writing this piece. Or, to be honest, they have occupied my life for quite a while. As a Taiwanese anthropologist who has spent more than a decade conducting research on both sides of the Taiwan strait, my interests have always focused on proletarian gamblers – as Ken Kawashima calls the Korean workers in his book, The Proletarian Gamble (2009); I have lingered on such gamblers caught up in the swirl of emergent and established market economies. In my research, these gamblers are passionate peasant-turned-connoisseurs in the flora-and-fauna markets in Beijing and the wet market vendors in Taipei. In other words, they are proletarians striving to transform their lives by taking a risky dive that awaits them as a ride into the market’s bubble expansion, which is inevitably followed by overproduction and difficulties of surplus accumulation, leading up to the closure of shops, where unemployment ensues.

That is why when the news of Ken Kawashima’s translation of Uno Kōzō’s Theory of Crisis 恐慌論 spread to this part of the world in 2021, I immediately sensed a need to read and discuss the book. In winter 2021, I, along with Rebecca Karl, Zhuwen Hsieh, Derek Sheridan, and Weichih Chen, held a small online reading group for the book. If memory serves, the questions that emerged in our two-week session centered around: How are female labor and domestic labor figured in Uno Kōzō’s theory? How do we get closer to the actual contours of capitalist crisis as historical processes? My own big takeaway from the reading group was Uno’s uncompromising insistence on articulating a labor theory of excess capital. “The Inevitability of Crisis and the Inevitability of Collapse,” as one of Uno’s chapters suggests, involves the concrete labor process in which lives are subsumed into the expanded market economy, and later are discarded, rendered unemployed, and thus become surplus labor during the market’s contraction period. This process is addressed beyond the narrow framework of commodity supply vs demand, in Uno’s theoretical formation. Yet what left us unsatisfied in the reading group seems to be how, as historians and anthropologists, we approach concrete historical processes, which are often messier than theory, while rigorously engaging with Uno’s insight on the inevitability of capital’s collapse and rebirth? Most significantly, the messy ways female labor is involved in production should be central to this theory of crisis despite the fact that it appears to have been rendered invisible by Uno. And how to consider our shared climate crisis from this labor theory of crisis should also be front and center of our task.

Toward a Labor Theory of Planetary Crisis

For many on the left, it might be inconceivable that Uno Kōzō’s theory of crisis could reflect on the planetary crisis we are currently undergoing – the shared human-made planetary disaster that some call the Anthropocene. If we look at the historical juncture of the Anthropocene discourse and the China Dream, both emerged and materialized into a worldly contour in the year 2000; together, they illuminate that which hinders many on the left from thinking through a critical theory of climate disaster. This reluctance lies in an implicit or explicit belief in the Chinese Dream. Popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen, the idea of the Anthropocene surfaced when the world economy began to shift its center from the north Atlantic to the Pacific. Alongside the scientific Anthropocene made popular by Crutzen was the whole industry of green engineering, which, in the initial years, was heavily based in the PRC, especially before the COP26 meeting in 2021 officially marked the increase in European investment in “green capitalism”. Many had placed their hope for environmental engineering in the China Dream, following Crutzen and his fellow scientists’ call to invest in technologies such as carbon capturing. This techno-utopianism – from Crutzen and then heavily followed by the PRC investment — deters many from thinking through climate crisis as a part of the crisis of capital.

In 2000, just when Crutzen, who studied the formation and decomposition of atmospheric ozone, was suggesting that we have arrived at a new epoch of geological history defined by what human activities have inflicted upon the earth, the Chinese economy was striving, seemingly unstoppably, upstream. Urban development seized the whole strip of east coast cities in China, and the ensuing real estate frenzy fueled a new urban middle class along with huge overproduction. The pursuit of economic growth nonetheless came with the high price of the opaquely gray heavily polluted skies in the winter that meandered from Shanghai to Beijing to Heilongjiang. Deforestation went hand in hand with the gigantic garbage dump located in inner Mongolia, and severe weather brought drought and floods to inland Chinese urban infrastructures and populations. In the Chinese environmental NGO circle, rumors started to go around about muted factory contamination cases in satellite cities. And what haunts me even more particularly is the story of a young, female environmental rights lawyer being hung up-side-down from a tree for her advocacy for rural environmental cases. Green dispossession has become a specific Chinese phenomenon, marking the self-sabotage of the environmental techno-utopianists (Chen 2012).

One way to break through this conceptual impasse may lie in Jason Moore’s rethinking of this epoch of profound human-made environmental disaster in the terms of a Capitalocene (Moore 2016). Replacing the depoliticized discourses of the popular Anthropocene, Jason Moore points out, in our epoch of Capitalocene, capital accumulation relies heavily on the logic of cheap nature, with which women, slaves, land, water and everything categorized as “natural” are constantly devalued to be appropriated freely (Ibid.). Such an equation of the natural world as cheap or free to grab can be traced back to Enlightenment humanism, which features the figure of a white male adventurer who rightly and rationally takes over whatever “natural” things as resources he can find in savage places far away from Europe. In the same Enlightenment reason, domesticity being a female realm separated from the public, is also thought of as closer to the natural world, and in this light, the socially reproductive and domestic labor women provide is naturalized and deserves no compensation. Despite the fact that domestic labor has been the key contributor to all forms of economies, capitalist or socialist and any other modern form, cheap-nature humanism permeates our excess appropriation and overproduction under different ideologies of naturalization. One example is the “double day” or “triple day” labor women provided, “[j]uggling the demands of work, political study, and growing families was a standard feature of urban women’s life in the 1950s and early 1960s, […it] was not generally conceptualized as a problem” (Hershatter 2019, 232). In Jason Moore’s critical intervention into this “cheap nature” capitalism leading up to our current and ongoing planetary disaster, the same ideology that drove European expeditions to look for “free” or exploitable resources and to colonize since the long 16th century continued to cheapen places and people far away from Europe (Moore ibid.). 

About 20 years after Crutzen’s remark, in 2019, nearly 1.4 million non-locals (jingwai renyuan) surged like mushrooms after the rain into Chinese coastal cosmopolitan cities for jobs. Before Covid-19, or more precisely, before we heard on social media the broadcasting of chilling screams emanating from high rise buildings in locked-down Shanghai in spring 2022 – the Chinese Dream was so much more real than any other dream for attaining the good life. And this Chinese Dream, for many on the left, seems to carry the potentiality of counter-balancing the colonial-industrial harm done to the earth by the centuries of Euro-American-Japanese Empire. That it can be reimagined with the PRC’s aggressive embrace of geoengineering as a part of the growth ideology is one of its virtues, for some. With the recent announcement of 2.8% GDP growth of the Chinese economy in 2022 (the World Bank forecast), a record low since the high-flying 1980s, many began to turn around to ponder which model of economic boom-and-bust can be applied to this unprecedented situation. Recession is no longer a scenario that China can avoid; it is now likely to land on the soil of the “Middle Kingdom.” This means the over-appropriation and over-production of all things under the category of cheap nature, accumulated in the past three decades, will inevitably run into the cycle of capitalist crisis. The many tragedies we have seen in the two years of Covid-19 reveal the Chinese Dream’s consent to capitalism’s Reason of treating a certain form of labor – female, domestic or nonhuman animal labor – as devalued. Considered from the perspective of the Capitalocene, no one escapes the ecological connectivity embedded in the planetary web of life, where our shared burden of having exploited nonhuman animals inevitably feeds back to us for our “fates are intermeshed; we live and die together, and no one, ultimately, is isolated from calamity” (Rose 2011:11, van Dooren 2014). 

My Beijing interlocutors, whom I met through the mega-bazaars selling cultural heritage-like folk arts, are self-made connoisseurs and artisans who have converted their livelihood either from being peasants, taxi drivers, or other odd jobs created by the real estate boom in Beijing through the 1990s to the late 2010s. In this period the overproduction of labor and commodities became the norm, serving as the zeitgeist of market-reform China before the outbreak of Covid-19. Despite the rampant evictions and relocations induced by urban development projects, everyone in this bubble carried a sense of hope and excitement until the constant fear for recession began to brew in the mid-2010s. In 2022, before the journal publication of one of my essays, I contacted one of my long-term interlocutors, a female connoisseur who used to own two literati walnut boutiques in the Panjiayuan and the Shilihe market – two megasized culture-industry zones in Beijing. She replied to say that both of her shops ceased to function during the pandemic. And now I find her WeChat feeds filled with rice advertisements instead of the signature folk art items for which she was once known. At one time attracted to the cultural heritage business sponsored by the local government’s interest in flipping the value of urban land through the establishment of gigantic marketplaces divided into 500-3000 shops, my interlocutor now finds herself in a predicament of unemployment as the previously expanding culture industry bubble breaks. Her social persona as a folk-art connoisseur, which adds value to the things she sells, also has vanished. And in this boom-and-bust of a labor market – artistic labor nonetheless – for the self-made Chinese artisans and connoisseurs, “the truth of the matter is,” as Uno Kōzō writes:

that it is the workers’ unemployment or semi-unemployment, as an effect of the cessation of the production process, that destroys capital value along with use value. The workers’ labour process itself is that which preserves and augments capital’s value, thereby qualifying capital as capital; if capital does not increase its value, it will lose its value. (Uno 2020, 180)

Toward a Labor Theory of Environmental Justice

It is this dynamic of labor and capital value that I find most profoundly inspiring in Uno Kōzō’s theory. It has the potential to entwine the idea of cheap nature and female labor, even if Uno himself didn’t seem to make the connection. If central to our planetary crisis lies our dismissive attitude toward the majority of what we categorize as cheap nature, thus legitimizing the logic of over-appropriation and over-production, the overturning of this logic can be the key for a way out of capitalist crisis. But shouldn’t the first step be seriously to consider the place of female labor in our current compounded climate and capitalist crisis? Since 2021, my fieldwork in Taipei has unfolded alongside the struggle of wet market vendors to fight against eviction, which blamed them for the fire and urban hygiene risk posed by their sales activities, despite the fact that these vendors provide meticulous care and food services for the communities in which they work. I wrote about them extensively in another piece. About 75% of the vendors in this wet market are female – young and older, Taiwanese and migrants from Vietnam. In the vendors’ impossible process of trying to form a union among their fellow precariats, I’ve learned about how the weight of compounded capitalist crisis and climate injustice lay heavily on their shoulders. On the one hand, wet market vendors become the scapegoat targeted in the narrative of the outbreak of Covid-19, given that the first cluster infection and many subsequent cases were found at Chinese food markets. Despite that, since the 1980s, evolutionary biologists have constantly warned about outbreaks of zoonotic disease in China due to the aggressive urban development and introduction of animal factory farms, which destroy forests and wetlands that serve as the habitats for wildlife and migrant birds who tend to carry zoonotic transmittable diseases (Wallace 2016). Yet as we still get behind this “cheap nature” reasoning of capital appropriation, now ingrained into the China Dream as well, the urban development and global meat industry do not cease the destruction of wetlands and forests, thus damaging key buffer zones for human and nonhuman animals. The misfire of the Covid-19 blame game coming from the top-down elite research institutes nonetheless are keen to cast the blame on wet-market labor, who are largely female vendors in close contact with the life and death of nonhuman animals. They are placed at the frontline of our planetary ecological crisis of the over-appropriation and over-consumption of cheap nature.

On the other hand, in these wet-market vendors I find the collision of cheap nature capitalism and Uno’s theory of crisis. Since in the 1990s, run-away Taiwanese capital fled the island and started to flood into mainland China, with the result that workers laid off from large and small manufactures in Taiwan began to be forced to seek new livelihoods. Many have turned to wet markets and night markets. And for middle-aged female factory workers, these food markets allowed them to earn a meager living by providing food and care for the community – until local governments problematized them as public health risks. This has been a dominant story among the vendors I met in Taipei, many of whom were once workers in shoe factories or textile manufacturers, who had been pulled into the working class in the booming post-war Taiwanese economy since the 1960s, when the island started to transition from the Japanese colonial economy to a labor-intensive and manufacturing-based export economy structured by the special economic zones established in the 1966-1970 period with foreign direct investments flooding in for cheap labor. Indeed, the postwar manufacturing boom for Taiwan and Japan can hardly be understood as separate from the Vietnam War. In 1963-1973, Taiwan’s annual GDP growth remained at the rate of 10%. Nonetheless this period of the “golden ten years” of economic expansion, in the 1960s-1970s, foretold a series of environmental protests in the 1980s. Most notably, in 1986 the large anti-DuPont protest, in the town of Lugang 鹿港, triggered the birth of the Environmental Protection Bureau in Taiwan, in 1987. Here again, we see the collision of female labor and environment as cheap nature to be appropriated without remorse. Yet both types of the cheapened lives – human and nonhuman – were caught up in the cycle of capitalist crisis where, in the expansion period of the economy, there emerged overproduction and overappropriation until the rise of production costs for capital, which stalled its accumulation process, and was followed by “difficulties of the realisation of surplus value” (Uno 2020, 180).

Beyond the Enlightenment humanism and the post-Enlightenment deconstructionism of crisis as discourse (Roitman 2013), Uno’s theory of crisis no longer takes capitalism as normalcy but considers it as always caught up in cycles of instability. What Uno inspires, at least for me, is the imperative to forfeit the idea of accumulation as a stable dream leading towards unending growth. And the sociological fantasy of the individual pursuit of social mobility over solidarity only rewards those caught up by cycles of manic-depression – the affective dynamic of capitalism captured so brilliantly by Laurent Berlant in Cruel Optimism (2011). It’s time we take Uno’s excess capital theory of crisis seriously, and to think alongside him concretely in the face of our seemingly inescapable, intensifying planetary climate crisis.

Works Cited


Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press

Chen, Jia-Ching. 2012. ‘Green dispossession: Environmental governance and socio-spatial transformation in Yixing, China.’ Locating Right to the City in the Global South, pp. 81-104. Tony Samara, Shenjing He and Guo Chen, eds. Routledge

Kawashima, C. Ken. 2009. The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan. Durham: Duke University Press

Moore, Jason. 2016. ‘Introduction: Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism.’ In Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, pp. 1-11. Oakland: PM Press 

Moore, Jason. 2019. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Climate, Power, and Capital in the Making of Planetary Crisis. Speech summarized by I-Yi Hsieh. NEWSLETTER No.18: 8-14. Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. (In Chinese)

Roitman, Janet. 2013. Anti-Crisis. Durham: Duke University Press

Uno, Kōzō. [1953, 2009] 2020. Theory of Crisis. Translated by Ken Kawashima. Leiden: Brill  

Wallace, Robert. 2016. Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. NY: New York University Press

I-Yi Hsieh is a Visiting Researcher at the International Center for Cultural Studies, Taiwan Yangming-Chiaotung University. Her research interests are inter-Asia art practices, multispecies Anthropology, and Anthropocene art.