Primitive Accumulation and the State-Form: National Debt as an Apparatus of Capture

A new way to pay the National-Debt (James Gillray, April 21, 1786)


The moment has come to expose capital to the absence of reason, for which capital provides the fullest development: and this moment comes from capital itself, but it is no longer a moment of a “crisis” that can be solved in the course of the process. It is a different kind of moment to which we must give thought.

- J-L. Nancy1

Commencement and Crisis2

In a brief moment of his theoretical work, the great Japanese Marxist critic Tosaka Jun deployed a decisive and crucial phrase, a phrase that I believe concentrates within it the historical conjuncture we have been experiencing on a world-scale in the recent years of crisis: he calls this ultimate crystallization of politics “the facts of the streets” or “the facts on the streets” (gaitō no jijitsu).3 I would like to excessively develop or overwrite – in other words translate – this phrase into a concept in the strong sense, to raise this seemingly marginal choice of words to the level of a principle, and to utilize this principle itself as a lever through which to force into existence a certain theoretical sequence. What Tosaka essentially reminds us of is the literal factuality (or more specifically, in Alain Badiou’s terms, the “veridicity”) of the streets, the “fact” that the streets themselves express the dense sociality that capital’s tendency towards the socialization of labor must necessarily-inevitably produce. In other words, what we have seen in the political energies that have been widely unleashed around the globe in the last year, is that the streets themselves recurrently-continuously testify or bear witness to their own “facts.” These “facts” are precisely the verso or underside of capital’s mapping on a world-scale. Or, to put it in another way, a way that I would like to develop here, “the facts of the streets” is the center of the volatile “absence of reason” or (im)possibility that is always “passing through” in between two polarities of theory that I will call capital’s logical topology and its historical cartography.

The logical topology of capital’s inside is always paradoxically searching for a way to trace out and mirror itself in the historical cartography, always attempting to make itself a world. Since the beginning of the capitalist mode of production, the primary lever through which to force the capture of labor has always been the form of the state amalgamated together with the form of the nation, sutured together in the process of primitive accumulation. Using this building-block, capital tries incessantly-recurrently to translate its logical structure into the territoriality of the earth, to inscribe itself into the actual surface of the world. For this task, an entire sequence of “mechanisms” or “apparatuses” are necessary. But today, the “facts of the streets” are showing us more and more that, as capital’s logical topology oscillates itself into new, hazardous and volatile concentrations of its unstable core, these mechanisms, that for so long had guaranteed or legitimated capital’s forcing of the historical process, are themselves descending-ascending into delirium. The delirious and demented logic of capital today confronts the dignity and refusal that lines the streets. Engels, in his stark and forceful style, reminds us of what is essentially at stake:

The relation of the manufacturer to the worker has nothing human in it; it is purely economic. The manufacturer is ‘Capital,’ the worker is “Labour.” And if the worker will not be forced into this abstraction, if he insists that he is not “Labour,” but a man, who possesses, among other things, the attribute of labour-power, if he takes it into his head that he need not allow himself to be bought and sold in the market as the commodity “Labour,” the bourgeois reason comes to a standstill.4

When the streets erupt against this commodification, and the bourgeois reason is halted, capital must modify its equilibrium, it must determine how this “absence of reason” can be “passed through,” because capital cannot solve the crisis, but merely traverse it without resolving it. But how does this seemingly improbable or excessive (il)logic operate? Here we must literally “go back to the beginning.”

The Erasure of Violence by Means of Violence

Today, the crisis is not simply reducible to the financial crisis, nor can it be said to be a purely political crisis of legitimation of the state apparatus. Rather, the crisis today is one centered on the violent-volatile amalgam between capital’s limits and the limits of the state-form, particularly, the limits of the mechanisms that have allowed this amalgam to primarily organize social relations since the advent of capitalism itself. In order to think the ways in which our moment, and the moment of the advent of industrial capital converge, we have to think the question of the beginning, the origin. This is also a question of crisis as such, of the theory of crisis. Today, there is a constant tendency to see this crisis as an exception, as a permanent state of exception, as a making-permanent of something contingent, and so forth. But this in turn obscures the systematic and cyclical nature of crisis, which occurs only insofar as the systematic order in which it is placed is itself in question. Crisis, it must be said, cannot be simply and easily summed up in its typical underconsumptionist reading and its political consequences. If underconsumption is the motor-force of crisis, it would appear merely as a contingent question of national policy. But the specific nature of capitalist crisis can never be explained on such a basis, precisely because the underconsumptionist explanation treats every crisis as a surprise. But nothing about this crisis is surprising – or rather, if there is a surprising element in our current situation, it is the rebirth of the politicality of the “facts of the streets” that capital has suicidally let loose. Crisis is always a repetition, but a cyclical motion in which difference emerges within this repetition. That is, every time the circle has to be traced back to its starting point or commencement, the tracing itself always exhibits microscopic divergences. These divergences themselves, because they are exposed to the figurative or creative dimension of repetition, always contain within them the possibility for another arrangement: “From time to time the conflict of antagonistic agencies finds vent in crises. The crises are always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions. They are violent eruptions which for a time restore the disturbed equilibrium.”5 But the “disturbed equilibrium” is not itself a state of harmony and peace. Rather, the disturbed equilibrium is an undertaking of “violent eruptions” that have been covered over in new forms, and made to violently erase their own violence. But where does this violence emerge from?

As is well-known, the problem of the “so-called primitive accumulation,” centered in the 24th chapter of the first volume of Capital, originates from Marx’s recognition of the fact that his own analysis of the logical structure of capital requires an endlessly regressing series of presuppositions: the movement of accumulation presupposes the existence of surplus value, surplus value presupposes that capitalist production is already established, the existence of capitalist production presupposes a stock of capital sufficient for the cycle to begin, and so on. Thus he argues, the whole movement requires that we assume what Adam Smith called the “previous accumulation,” a period of accumulation which precedes capitalism’s established functioning, and from which it itself begins to move. But primitive accumulation does not mean a smooth transition that establishes the “good society,” nor the moment when mankind falls from an idyllic state. Rather, it is an irruption of violence, an instant in which what was previously untethered, undefined, and unbound is violently concatenated into a sequence that furnishes the basic material conditions for capitalist production. Thus, in this moment, it is “notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly, force, play the great part.”6 It is not simply that the peasantry is “freed” to become the wage-labor required for the formation and rotation of the circuit of capitalist accumulation, it is also at the same time the inverse: this process also indicates the closure of heterogeneity in order to produce equivalences which can then “encounter” each other: the owner of capital and the owner of labor power.

In this sense, the process of primitive accumulation (which is not a period, but a cyclically reproduced logical moment) describes the installation of “real abstraction” into history, and the fact that this moment is repeating everyday shows us the paradoxical nature of the historical temporality that characterizes capitalist society. More than anything however, we are immediately made aware of the violence of the production of the conditions of possibility for capitalist relations of production, for the “encounter” between buyers and sellers of labor power. Here we are reminded that “there is a primitive accumulation that, far from deriving from the agricultural mode of production, precedes it: as a general rule, there is primitive accumulation whenever an apparatus of capture is mounted, with that very particular kind of violence that creates or contributes to the creation of that which it is directed against, and thus presupposes itself.”7 As Marx incisively pointed out, in capitalist society, which is never at rest, but rather a circuit in constant motion, we must recognize that the “original sin is at work everywhere” (die Erbsünde wirkt überall).8

There is a long debate on the translation of die sogennante ursprungliche Akkumulation as the so-called primitive accumulation. But I would like to give this debate an added dimension: what we must consider today is how the originary accumulation is incorporated into capitalist development as primitive accumulation, as a repetition of the origin that is also concerned with the division or “separation” (Trennung) of historical time between the “primitive” or “backwards” and the “on time” or “normal” course of development. The trick of primitive accumulation is to work on these two dimensions at once, as part of the same social motion, to divide the earth on the basis of “forms” in the same way as the abstraction of the exchange process is divided between “two sides.” In other words, this moment of the beginning, which is cyclically-recursively repeated within the sphere of crisis (and in every capture of the worker’s body to secure the grounds for the labor-power commodity), is repeated in relation to a volatile historical exterior, repeated in terms of the form-determination of the “nation-form” (Balibar) and the “historical and moral factors” for the determination of the value and price of labor power, the “naïve anthropology” (Althusser) that lurks in the interior of capital’s logic. Capital’s schema of the world divided up into “national capitals” is itself profoundly linked to the historical formation of so-called “homo economicus,” in the form of the two figures of exchange, buyers and sellers. In other words, the figure of “Man” – as Deleuze and Guattari importantly point out, this figure of humanism is not simply “white man” (l’homme blanc) but rather “White Man” (L’Homme blanc) – is not an “exteriority” or “cultural supplement” to the economic field: it is rather the presupposition always-already at the very core of the circulation process.

The image of the world that capital presents to itself, by presupposing a certain accomplished history, also presupposes the production of the individuals that would furnish the “needs” upon which “rational” exchange would emerge. But the very production of these individuals itself presupposes the unitary and eternal area, or gradient which could legitimate those individuals as individuals by means of the form of belonging, typically to the nation-state. Thus, the whole circuit constitutes a “vicious circle,” one which never adequately returns to its starting point, because the whole sequence of presupposition forms an abyssal and regressive chain, in which something must always be given: “the homogeneous given space of economic phenomena is thus doubly given by the anthropology which grips it in the vice of origins and ends.”9 The field of “interest,” which is supposed to represent therefore the pure or immediate expression of “need,” separated from any extra-economic coercion, direct violence, and so forth, reveals itself as the ultimate expression of this “vice of origins and ends,” insofar as it must always erase or cover over the production of this figure of “Man” itself. When Marx discusses the figures of the “guardians,” the “bearers” or “owners” of the labor power commodity, he refers to them specifically as “this race of peculiar commodity-owners” (diese Race eigentümlicher Warenbesitzer), effectively reminding us that “the schema of the West and the Rest” is co-extensive and co-emergent with the dynamics of capital itself.

In other words, the “naïve anthropology” that is supposedly excluded from the circulation process or the “total material exchange” between “rational” individuals, is in fact located at its very core. Exactly as Deleuze and Guattari point out in their identification of the nation-state as the ultimate model of the capitalist axiomatic, the form of “the nation” is already contained at the very origin of the supposedly “rational” and “universal” process of exchange, a process that acts as if it represents the smooth and perfect circle of pure rationality, but that is permanently suspended between its impossible origin, which it is compelled to cyclically repeat, and its end, which is equally impossible, because it would relativize the circuit of exchange, and expose it to its outside, which it must constantly erase. Thus the social body or socius itself must remain in its state of insanity or “derangement” forever pulled in two directions of the production of subjects. It cannot exit this “deranged form,” but must try perpetually to prove its “universality” simply by oscillating between these two boundaries, two impossibilities: its underlying schema of the world, which “seems absent from the immediate reality of the pheonoma themselves” because it is permanently located in “the interval between origins and ends,” a short-circuit that incessantly reveals to us that “its universality is merely repetition.”11 The paradox of logic and history in the apparatus of capture thus is contained in the following problem: “the mechanism of capture contributes from the outset to the constitution of the aggregate upon which the capture is effectuated” (le mécanisme de capture fait déjà partie de la constitution de l’ensemble sur lequel la capture s’effectue).12 This paradox, however, is “no mystery at all” (pas du tout de mystère), precisely because it is a mechanism or schema that exists out in the open, on the surface of society. The historical accident, the moment of capture for which there was no apparent necessity or pulsion, produces a form of torsion back upon itself. Once capture has been effected, it loops back onto its own contingent origins to once again derive itself, to anticipate and “conjure” itself up as if it were the necessary outcome of its own schema. In other words, the forms of capture, enclosure, and ordering are not simply distinguished by their appearance as always-already prior; more fundamentally, they are distinguished by this paradoxical and demented structure in which the contingent historical event cycles back to itself, once again “discovering” its own hazardous origins, but does so precisely to “recode” its emergence so as to appear as if what ought to be an accident was always in fact a necessary outcome. Thus, the historical accident of primitive accumulation is constantly “becoming what it is” neither through its contingent foundations nor its inner drive to pretend it is necessary; this schema operates precisely by cyclically repeating its origin in capture in order to harness its hazardous flux retrospectively, to conjure itself up as if its origin were a mere testament to its necessary emergence.

In this system of the violence of inclusion, the violence of the schema itself “hides in plain view,” it operates immediately before our eyes, yet “it is very difficult to pinpoint this violence because it always presents itself as preaccomplished.”13 The seeming double-bind contained in the violence of the apparatus of capture might appear to disable any conception of political intervention, to be a closed circle, but we could also say precisely the opposite. In the process of primitive accumulation, “the concept of ‘determined social formation’ has become the concept of ‘class composition’: it restores, in other words, the dynamism of the subject’s action, of the will that structures or destroys the relations of necessity.”14 In other words, paradoxically it is the fact that our forclosure into the social field has taken place that opens the possibilities of politics. We have always-already been included into this systematic expression of capture, but this inescapability of the repetition of the beginning does not mean something disabling.

Capital, as the fundamental concretization of social relations, and therefore as the apex of the social relation’s violent verso, cannot rid itself of this fundamental “condition of violence” (Gewaltverhältnis), located in its logical alpha and omega, the labor power commodity, whose “indirect” production is located paradoxically outside commodity relations. An excess of violence is haunting capital’s interior by means of this constantly liminalizing/volatilizing forcible “production” of labor power. Precisely by this excessive violence, capital endangers itself and opens itself up to a whole continent of raw violence, and it is exactly this point that shows us something important in terms of the question of how capital utilizes the “anthropological difference” to effect the “indirect” production of labor power. The primal violence, sustained as a continuum or “status quo,” appears as a smooth state, a cyclical reproduction cycle without edges. But this appearance or semblance of smooth continuity is in fact a product of the working of violence upon itself: the violence of the historical cartography must erase and recode itself by means of violence as the smooth functioning of the logical topology. In other words, when we encounter the basic social scenario of capitalist society, the exchange of a product for money, we are already in a situation in which the raw violence of subjectivation, whereby some absent potentiality within the worker’s body is exchanged as if it is a substance called labor power which can be commodified, is covered over by the form of money, which appears as a smooth container of significations that can serve as a measure of this potentiality. But in order for labor power to be measured and exchanged as money, there must be a repeated doubling of violence. What must remain on the outside of capital as a social relation is paradoxically what must also be simultaneously forced into its inside, perpetually torn between the forms of subjectivation that produce labor power as an inside, and the historical field of reproduction in which the worker’s body is produced on the violent outside of capital.

The National Debt as a Conduit

Every time capital requires the commodification of labor power, it must in effect repeat at the level of the logical topology the process of the transition, the “so-called primitive accumulation.” But the historical process simultaneously forces capital to undertake the transition at a microscopic level, in the form of the shrinking commodity-unit, and therefore in an even more paradoxical form than the historical “beginning.” That is, capital must capitalistically undertake a microscopic version of the transition to capitalism. At the “beginning” capital could rely on direct force, on a structural violence that would enable or set in motion a field of effects that would generate a general order of capture. But how can the transition be undertaken over and over again, in particular after the historical transition is assumed to have already occurred? Marx gave us an essential clue when he reminded us that the so-called primitive accumulation in effect reappears or takes up a second logical position in capital’s interior, in the form of the national debt.

The original sin at the beginning of the capital-relation might as well be understood as an “original debt,” an historical appearance of something given, a gift. The process of primitive accumulation and its historical acts of enclosure cannot simply be understood as an excessive violence that is then superceded by a more “rational” or “decent” and “restrained” order. Rather, what the process of primitive accumulation reminds us of, is the necessity for capital of the given, the form of “supposition” (Setzung) and “presupposition” (Voraussetzung). But how does this originary debt-gift operate? In what sense is this a problem of actuality for us? In this sense, what exactly is the national debt itself?

The national debt is a mechanism. A very special type of mechanism, and one that capital relies on intimately. Uno Kozo gave us a critical clue to this type of mechanism as follows:

Through the law of population, capitalism comes into possession of mechanisms or apparatuses which allow the (im)possibility of the commodification of labor power to pass through (‘muri’ o tôsu kikô). This is precisely the point on which capitalism historically forms itself into a determinate form of society, and further, is what makes it independent in pure-economic terms. Like land, this is a so-called given for capitalism, one that is given from its exterior, but unlike land it can be reproduced, and by means of this reproduction becomes capable of responding to the demands of capital put forward through the specific phenomenon of capitalism called crisis.16

Uno locates this mechanism in the form of the “law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production” (der kapitalistischen Produktionsweise eigentümliches Populationsgesetz), a law that is central to the questions of crisis and debt, because it concerns above all the management of personhood, the management of the physical-moral aspects of the material existence of the body, so as to maintain the “rational individual,” the form which would furnish adequate labor power for capitalist production. But this structure of such an apparatus is not limited to the form of population; rather the “law of population” is one moment of the overall taxonomy of these mechanisms for the traversal of the nihil of reason that capitalism necessitates from the outset. If at the beginning, there is a debt or gift, capital cannot ever truly “begin.” That is, it is impossible to “start from the first instance” if the first instance is always-already delayed or deferred by means of something that must be there already. In other words, if capital can only expand on the basis of its originary debt/gift, then capital is permanently or eternally crippled and restrained by the nature of this given element, it can never extract itself from what is given in order to fully realize its image of a circle with neither end nor beginning. In order therefore, to overcome or at least avoid this problem, capital must formulate all sorts of these “apparatuses for the traversal of (im)possibility.” That is, capital must discover ways in which something that should restrain or even expose its limitations can be traversed or passed through. But precisely in constantly requiring mechanisms or apparatuses outside its interior logic, capital demonstrates its relatively volatile functioning, in which precisely its excessive aspects (the reliance on the state, the enforcement of the nation-form, the violence of the exterior allowed into the interior and once more erased as violence by means of violence), its paradoxical and even “demented” aspects, appear as the central principles of its operation. When we confront this “demented” or “deranged” aspect of capital, we are also immediately alerted to the fact that this aspect of capital is also where an immense political breach exists, and it is on this point that we must clarify the current scenario of debt.

Marx recalls this problem for us at an early historical moment, reminding us that the system of national debt was generated in the “forcing-house” (Treibhaus) of the colonial system: thus “National debts, i.e., the alienation of the state (Veräusserung des Staats) – whether despotic, constitutional or republican – marked with its stamp the capitalistic era.”18 In this sense, already we are acquainted with the national debt as the “mark” or “stamp” (Stempel) of the entry into capitalist society on a world-scale, as the initial moment in which the originary accumulation of capital is at one and the same time the formation of the mechanisms that will install a cartography onto the surface of the world.

The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possessions (Gesamtbesitz) of modern peoples is their national debt. Hence, as a necessary consequence, the modern doctrine that a nation becomes the richer the more deeply it is in debt. Public credit becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven. The public debt becomes one of the most powerful levers (energischsten Hebel) of primitive accumulation. As with the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, it endows barren money with the power of breeding and thus turns it into capital, without the necessity of its exposing itself to the troubles and risks inseparable from its employment in industry or even in usury.19

The logical topology of capital’s origin and maintenance, and the historical cartography of the modern world order, based on the unit of the state, are volatilely amalgamated together in the form of the national debt. But Marx also alerts us to something critically important: here the national debt is not so much a separate motion of violence, but rather one of the most “powerful” or “energetic” “levers” for the continuation or maintenance of primitive accumulation. But why would capital need yet another exteriority? Primitive accumulation itself, its raw violence, its “extra-economic coercion,” is already to an extent exterior to capital. Yet what capital always requires are ways and means of taking the raw violence on which it secretly rests and reinserting this violence into a new modality, in which its violence can appear in another form. This is exactly why the national debt, as a mechanism, allows capital to avoid “exposing itself to troubles and risks.” Marx goes one step further, by connecting the national debt as primitive accumulation to the nation-form itself:

With the national debt arose an international credit system, which often conceals one of the sources (Quellen) of primitive accumulation in this or that people (Volk). […] A great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any certificate of birth, was yesterday, in England, the capitalised blood of children.20

In other words, capital’s enclosure of the earth appears both within and by means of national borders – by extension, Marx essentially reminds us here that the nation-form itself allows for the concealing within an organized and bordered system of entities, of capital’s originary-primitive violence, and yet erases this violence precisely by allowing it to vanish into the nation as an apparatus for the traversal of this gap, “vanishing in its own result, leaving no trace behind.” But this theoretical and historical problem is by no means simply an interesting episode from the past.

Let us recall here a peculiar historical moment characteristic of our current conjuncture. In the German “gutter press” (Bild and the like) in 2010-2011, an entire series of discussions of the Greek national debt (and by extension the ongoing Eurozone crisis) took place. The essence of the national debt was finally blamed on the Greek “national character” (supposedly “lazy,” excessively enjoying holidays, corrupt, incapable of “rational competition,” and so forth).21 This moment of the German-Greek opposition on the question of the national debt exposes to us the recent history of this mechanism. The era of imperialism in the strict sense consisted in the formation of “debt traps” for the peripheral and underdeveloped countries: the central imperialist nations export the domestic surplus to the colonies, the periphery, and so forth, by creating and enforcing demand, maintained by the national debt. Thus the poorer nations end up not only importing from the imperialist nations but also effectively in an endless spiral of debt, a mechanism that then forces the periphery to accept the political and economic directives of the imperialist nations for the plunder and expropriation of raw materials, cheap labor power, border controls, subordination to political regimes, and so forth. Today, this same logic persists. If the old modality of imperialism consists in the macroscopic formation of monopoly capital and super-profits in the peripheral violence, the new modality of imperialism financializes this violence into the miniature and dense concentration of capital’s interior. It is no accident that today we see a “return of the origin,” “a moment when wage constriction is violently manifested, exactly like the 16th century enclosures where access to land as a common good was repressed with the privatization of the land and the putting of wages to the proletariat.”22 This is why we should overlap capital’s historical threshold with the moment we are living through today:

The logic of ‘governing through debt’ has its origin in the fundamental relation between capital and labor. Financial capitalism has globalized imperialism, its modus operandi that operates through the form of ‘debt traps’, both national and private indebtedness, in order to realize and sell the surplus value extracted from living labor. In the imperial schema, debt is the monetary face of surplus value, the universal exploitation of labor power, and constitutes a trap precisely because it prevents living labor from freeing itself from exploitation, from autonomizing the relations of dependency and slavery that are proper to debt.23

The national debt allows the “reckless terrorism” of primitive accumulation to be maintained as if it were absent by redirecting it to the market. The national debt is a mechanism that “conducts” or forces the situation onto a new site of the curve of capitalist development, but it is not a mechanism that “resolves,” it is a mechanism that “defers” or “displaces” the sharpening of political struggles. The national debt therefore is precisely the “dangerous supplement” of capitalism as a historical force: the national debt exposes the fact that capital itself can never resolve the situation that emerges when the relations of production come into conflict with the development of the productive forces. Capital is always trying to create mechanisms that allow it to transcend its own limitations, while simultaneously permitting it to avoid making the political leap past its own boundaries. Yet, this inevitable limit of capital’s self-deployment is paradoxically the source of capital’s own dynamism. Without this tense multiplication of its wounds, capital would never develop – that is, capital requires a certain risk or recklessness, but the more it defers this leap, the more spaces of political intervention are opened up in capital’s austere movement. This movement keeps the elements of primitive accumulation circulating on the surface, a mechanism by which to traverse the impossibility of the commencement as such, precisely by beginning the commencement over and over again. In turn, this element of the national debt returns our focus to the role played by the nation-state in allowing this “first return to origins” – the element of the national is exactly deployed in and within the movement of capture in order to guarantee labor power’s “elasticity” (Elastizität).24 Without the nation, the malleable elememts of labor power cannot be recirculated as if they were directly graspable, by means of the reproduction of the worker’s body on the outside. The nation – the original fictitious “substance” – conjures up its own little images of its pseudo-substantiality precisely in order to then “re-derive” itself from their existence. In this way the elasticity of labor power is simply the microscopic or “micrological” extension of the elasticity of the nation, the form by which capital attempts incessantly to territorializes itself. Labor power’s impossibility is a microscopic image of the gap or chiasmus between the logical and the historical: the historical origin and the logical commencement, and this is the point on which “the insanity of the capitalist mode of conception (die Verrücktheit der kapitalistischen Vorstellungsweise) reaches its climax.”25

Facing the crisis today, the form of the national debt alerts us to a crucial fact: “The crisis is neither an economic nor a political crisis: it is a crisis of the capital relation, a crisis made inevitable by the inherent contradictions of that relation. The crisis inevitably involves a restructuring of the capital relation, a restructuring which necessarily takes on economic and political forms. What is involved on both levels is an assault by capital to maintain the conditions of its own existence.”26 In this sense, the problem of the national debt as a mechanism for the continuation of primitive accumulation within the capital-relation, cannot be solved on the level of the nation-form – we might say polemically that the national debt is in fact the origin of the nation itself. It itself is a technology of drawing a border around the form of the nation, something that cannot be rigorously bordered. The nation itself is a form of credit: it must be traced as if it could be located. But it must be traced by capital itself. Because the nation cannot be bordered in any strict sense, it forces a coherence economically where there cannot be one historically. But because this technology continuously exposes it to the historical exterior, it is therefore always being undermined by its own inability to escape the historical process. At the origin there is already a debt, because something has been presupposed as given, something that utilizes this presupposition as a lever for its own functioning. The illogical logic of capital’s origin or beginning is recoded as the illogical history of the state. This “intercourse” between capital and the state is concentrated or compressed into the insanity of the supposedly rational exchange process, this “Verkehr” at the beginning which appears precisely as “Austausch” in the logical interior. This is exactly what Lenin meant when he famously emphasized that “politics is the concentrated expression of economy.”27

The Facts on the Streets

Today, it behooves us to state the matter clearly and without pretense: capital can only “overcome” its own crises by passing through them without resolving them. And it can only undertake this traversal or passing by placing the burden of violence, suffering, and immiseration onto the backs of the world – the world working class – the facies totius universi, or “face of the entire universe.” Capital itself formulates these apparatuses – the state, the national debt – to overcome or traverse what it cannot solve. Our task lies in the relentless and unending exposure of its raw violence, covered over and hidden by the form of finance. Labor power is an internal outside to capital manifested in its pure outside, the worker’s body. But the body is under the control of the state. Thus, when contemporary global police power is employed against the concrete bodies of the young, the unemployed, the old, the sick, the dropouts, those who are torn between an inability to function in the expected style as the “self-conscious instruments of production” for capital, or to be smoothly integrated into the state’s order, we are witnessing the raw and violent historical exterior’s incapacity to “reset” or “restart” the cyclical return of the origin. In thinking through the contemporary “facts of the streets,” let us pay close attention to a famous passage from Marx:

The specific economic form (Form), in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled (Herrschafts- und Knechtschaftsverhältnis), as it grows directly out of production itself and in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form (Gestalt). It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret (innere Geheimnis), the hidden basis of the entire social structure (verborgene Grundlage der ganzen gesellschaftlichen Konstruktion), and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis – the same from the standpoint of its main conditions – due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc., from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances (empirisch gegebenen Umstände).28

These “empirically given circumstances” furnish us with capital’s “factual” limits, limits that are being tested today by a new generation of political upheavals. The tenuous and searching existence of the upsurge in the “facts of the streets” today, under the aspect of the mutations of the state, returns us to the commencement. Not only the commencement of capital, in which the violence of capture must masquerade as the smooth operation of the interior, but also the (re)commencement of politics. This would not seek to produce a “stable” and therefore easily-assumed subject of our moment. Rather, it would assume that, as the “guardians” of labor power, the “bearers” of this fragile and ambiguous commodity, we are incapable of fully “being,” but only a sort of “para-being.” The aleatory or contingent dimension which always enters into the element of “composition” in class struggle is profoundly manifest today. But this aleatory undercurrent is not something that undermines or that holds us back from politics:

“Let us para-be,” that is our war cry.

And better yet: “We are nothing, let us para-be the Whole.”29

The International today, that is “springing out of the ground of modern society”30 is not the old fantasy of the stable subject of the discourse of “civilizational difference,” but rather a fragile hazard that capital itself can no longer effectively police through its external “mechanisms.” This “composition” (in the sense that Negri and others have given to “class composition”) indicates the whole logic by which the mechanisms of capital and the state attempt to effect a specific logic of the social dimension of separation (Trennung), but this “separation” is something profoundly different than the theory of alienation. It shows that where capital has “forced” an amalgam, there is a “slippage” or “décalage.” Where the amalgam seems most perfectly sutured is also where this décalage can be raised as a social antagonism and transformed into a political contradiction. The suicidal nature of the capitalist mode of production is expressed in its need to internalize, to financialize, its violent exterior, to include within its “count” the “uncountable” and savage process of primitive accumulation, recoded as the apparatus of the national debt. The paradox is however that we, the debtors, are transformed into a permanent reserve of debt, yet hold a social power over capital, by occupying the position of the “guardians” (Hütern), the “bearers” (Träger) of labor power, the location of capital’s “original sin,” its primal debt.31 This is the social antagonism that today we find in the streets: when this antagonism is raised to the level of a political contradiction, the groundwork is prepared for a new opening against capital’s supposed indifference to the world.

In the face of this crisis – this repetition of the original debt in the form of the national debt – we have to be able to say bluntly and openly: capital and the state cannot resolve this crisis. They can only formulate mechanisms to traverse its “absence of reason.” These mechanisms of bourgeois insanity can only operate by transferring the violent spasms of crisis onto the back of the working class, the unemployed, the poor and oppressed strata of the world. Increasingly, these “mechanisms” themselves are also failing to support capital’s leap to a new basis of accumulation. The state can only undertake such a leap through the increasing control of the bodies, the “guardians” and “bearers” of labor power, that clash with its logic, that lie just outside its strict sphere on influence. Historically, the state has utilized “apparatuses for the traversal of the nihil of reason” such as the “nation-form” (Balibar) to suture and cover over this incapacity. But today, the nation-form cannot hold back or restrain the fact that “the conditions for the capitalization of surplus value clash increasingly with the conditions for the renewal of the aggregate capital”32 on a world-scale. There is no option today except to emphasize that our only hope lies in precisely these “facts of the streets” that cannot be fully erased from capital’s image of the world. But rather than simply conclude with famous assertion from Marx that communism is the “real movement that abolishes the present state of affairs,” a familiar reference that has been recently revived in a number of discussions, we might instead appeal to another moment in The German Ideology that, facing the crisis this time, returns to us today with a vital force:

In history up to the present it is certainly an empirical fact (eine empirische Tatsache) that separate individuals have, with the broadening of their activity (Tätigkeit) into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them, a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market (in letzter Instanz als Weltmarkt ausweist). But it is just as empirically established that, by the overthrow of the existing state of society by the communist revolution and the abolition of private property which is identical with it, this power will be dissolved. […] Only then will the separate individuals be liberated from the various national and local barriers (nationalen und lokalen Schranken), be brought into practical connection with the material and intellectual production of the whole world and be put in a position to acquire the capacity to enjoy (Genußfähigkeit) this all-sided production of the whole earth (the creations of man).34

This “empirische Tatsache” of the world of capital, linked above to the “empirically given circumstances” within which capital attempts to make its most “fatal leap” between the logical topology and the historical cartography, lays the groundwork of “facticity” or “factuality” in the historical world, the “given” that is implied in this “empirische.” In turn, this “Tatsache” re-emerges paradoxically as the original revolutionary weapon of the people in the form of the “facts of the streets.” These “facts of the streets” that Tosaka alerted us to are at work today in the streets of the historical world, where the demand for a reinvention of socialism – of modes of life beyond the stranglehold of austerity, debt servitude, and an image of social relations found in the “world market” – responds to the original residue or remainder, the “empirical fact” of the originary debt at capital’s origin, which we carry within ourselves, and which can open a new era of affirmative politics and critical thought.

  1. Jean-Luc Nancy, La création du monde, ou mondialisation (Paris: Galilée, 2002). Let us note that Nancy’s claim that we must “expose capital to its absence of reason” essentially duplicates Uno Kozo’s important claim that the muri, literally the “absence of reason,” furnishes the ultimate point, the zenith of capitalism as a system. This homology between the two analyses should be kept in mind here, as a question of the deconstruction of political economy itself

  2. Many of the points in this article are expanded on in my forthcoming book The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan (Duke University Press), and an earlier version of the present text was published in Japanese in Gendai shisō: Revue de la pensée d’aujourd’hui, no. 40-2 (Tokyo: Seidosha, February 2012), 96-109. My thanks go to Yutaka Nagahara for his support and friendship. 

  3. Tosaka Jun, Shisō to fūzoku in Tosaka Jun zenshū, vol. 4 (Tokyo: Keisō Shobō), 466. We should not forget that Tosaka deploys this phrase within his analysis of the film-form, a theoretical moment that concerns precisely the specific materiality of history that appears in the cinematic scenario. On this point, see Gavin Walker, “Filmic Materiality and Historical Materialism: Tosaka Jun and the Prosthetics of Sensation” in Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader, eds. Ken Kawashima, Fabian Schaefer, and Robert Stolz (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press/Cornell East Asia Series, 2013), 218-254.  

  4. Friedrich Engels, Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England in MEW, Bd. 2, 487; The Condition of the Working Class in England in MECW, vol. 4. Translation modified. 

  5. K. Marx, Capital, vol. 3 in MECW, vol. 37, 249. 

  6. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 in MECW, vol. 35, 704-705. 

  7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, TP: 447; MP: 558-559. See for a development of these points Gavin Walker, “The Schema of ‘The West’ and the Apparatus of Capture: Variations on Deleuze and Guattari” in Deleuze Studies (forthcoming). 

  8. Marx, Das Kapital, Erster Band in Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1964), Bd. 23, 619; Capital, vol.1 in MECW, vol. 35, 589. 

  9. Louis Althusser, “The Object of Political Economy” in Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso), 163. 

  10. Marx, Das Kapital, Bd. 1 in MEW, Bd. 23, 186; Capital, vol. 1 in MECW, vol. 35, 182. 

  11. Althusser, “The Object of Political Economy,” 163. 

  12. Deleuze and Guattari, TP: 446; MP: 557. 

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Antonio Negri, Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse (London: Pluto, 1991), 111. It is precisely this point that allows us to an extent to cross-read the history of the analysis of the value-form with Deleuze and Guattari’s work on capitalism’s “dementia,” a cross-reading that should also be linked to a complete rethinking of the aesthetic and ethical arrangements that inhere in the historiographical discussions of so-called “uneven development.” In relation to this important passage, let me note also that Negri’s conception of the subject is always linked to the production of subjectivity, to the gathering or arrangement of possible expressions and should never be misunderstood as something like “the national subject.” 

  15. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 in MECW, vol. 35, 609. 

  16. Uno Kōzō, “Benshōhōteki mujun ni tsuite” in Uno Kōzō chosakushū, vol. 10 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1974), 426-427. 

  17. [1] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 in MECW, vol. 35, 626; Das Kapital, Bd. 1 in MEW, Bd. 23, 660. In the 4th German edition, Marx also adds a decisive and more systematic phrasing here, when he mentions “the law of progressive diminution of the relative magnitude of variable capital” (das Gesetz der progressiven Abnahme der relativer Größe des variablen Kapitals) in MECW, vol. 35, 625; MEW, Bd. 23, 660. 

  18. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 in MECW, vol. 35, 742; Das Kapital, Bd. 1 in MEW, Bd. 23, 782. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Ibid., 743-44; Ibid., 783-84. 

  21. Of course, all of these so-called “explanations” of the crisis are absurd and openly incorrect. The German tabloid “newspaper” (one hesitates to truly call it a newspaper) Bild placed the following headline on the front of the daily news: «Verkauft doch eure Inseln, ihr Pleite-Griechen!» (Literally, “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks!”). In response to this, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung released an excellent pamphlet, comprehensively debunking all the ideological presuppositions that characterized the attempt to place the national debt into the realm of “national character.” 

  22. Christian Marazzi, The Violence of Financial Capitalism, New Edition (New York: Semiotext(e), 2011), 118. 

  23. Christian Marazzi, “Un orizzonte sovranazionale per rompere la trappola del debito,” in Il manifesto, December 16, 2011, 11. See also Andrea Fumagalli, “Lotte di classe nel default” in the same issue, 10. 

  24. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Bd. 1 in MEW, 630; Capital, vol. 1 in MECW, vol. 35, 599. 

  25. Karl Marx, Kapital, Bd. 3 in MEW, Bd. 25, 463; Capital, vol. 3 in MECW, vol. 37, 483. 

  26. John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, “Capital, Crisis and the State” in Capital and Class, vol. 1, no. 2 (Summer 1977), 92. 

  27. V.I. Lenin, “Once Again on the Trade Unions” in Collected Works of V.I. Lenin, vol. 32 (Moscow: Progress, 1976). 

  28. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Bd. 3 in MEW, Bd. 25, 799-800; Capital, vol. 3 in MECW, vol. 37, 777-778.  

  29. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, trans. Bruno Bosteels (London: Continuum, 2009), 124. 

  30. On this question of organization, and more specifically the so-called “party-form,” see Gavin Walker, “The Body of Politics: On the Concept of the Party” in Theory and Event 16, no. 4 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) and “Limits and Openings of the Party: A Reply to Jason E. Smith” in Theory and Event 16.4 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 

  31. We should keep in mind that the mechanism of the national debt and capital’s increasing reliance on individual consumer debt are sealed together by means of the historical production of the individual itself, and the management of individuals by means of the nation-state. Both of these moments circle around the nature of crisis as located in the labor-power commodity, whose site of production is none other than the historical body on the outside of the capital-relation. In this sense, capital’s demand for indebtedness discloses both its extra-economic violence that can never be “economically” erased, and its incapability of truly furnishing the social totality that it fantasizes about. On this point, see Gavin Walker, “Citizen-Subject and the National Question: On the Logic of Capital in Balibar,” Postmodern Culture 22, no. 3 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). 

  32. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge, 2003), 347. 

  33. See in particular, A. Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verso, 2010) and B. Bosteels, The Actuality of Communism (London: Verso, 2011). On these important texts see Gavin Walker, “The Dignity of Communism: Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis” in Socialism & Democracy 25:3 (London: Routledge, 2011), 130-139, and Gavin Walker, “The Reinvention of Communism: Politics, History, Globality” in South Atlantic Quarterly 113.4 (Duke University Press, Fall 2014), 671-685.  

  34. Karl Marx, Die deutsche Ideologie in MEW, Bd. 3, 37; The German Ideology in MECW, vol. 5, 51. 

Author of the article

is Associate Professor of History at McGill University, the author of The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Duke University Press, 2016), and a member of the editorial collective of positions: asia critique. His work concerns the interrelations of capitalism, the national question, globalization, and the postcolonial at the crossroads of Marxism, critical theory, history, and literature. He is the editor and translator of Kōjin Karatani’s Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility and the editor of The Japanese ’68: Theory, History, Politics (both forthcoming from Verso). Walker is currently finishing his second book, Topologies of the Dialectic: Cultural Forms and the Allegories of History. Together with Ken Kawashima, he is working on a new theoretical project, Surplus alongside Excess.