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

A_new_way_to_pay_the_National-Debt_by_James_Gillray
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),10 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),15 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),17 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,33 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 Assistant Professor of History and East Asian Studies at McGill University. He works on topics in modern Japanese intellectual history, Marxist theory and historiography, and contemporary critical theory. Recent publications include “The Absent Body of Labour Power: Uno Kozo’s Logic of Capital” in Historical Materialism, “The Body of Politics: On the Concept of the Party” in Theory & Event, and “On Marxism’s Field of Operation: Badiou and the Critique of Political Economy” also in Historical Materialism. His first book, The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan is forthcoming from Duke University Press.