Ranging from the charming to the absurd, the work of Antonio Berni has been ubiquitous in Argentina since the 1930s, when he was a young artist advocating for political change. Little-known in the United States today, his works are a staple in many of Argentina’s major institutions, forming the core of permanent collections like the Latin American Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA) and the National Museum of Fine Arts. With an oeuvre that spans several decades of the twentieth century (Berni was prolific until his death in 1981), the diversity of his styles is astounding. While visiting Buenos Aires recently, I encountered small Chirico-style surrealist panels, expressive mural-sized scenes similar to those of Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and—most curiously—an enormous papier-mâché sculpture of an alligator-monster with a woman’s legs emerging from its mouth.
Antonio Berni | La pesadilla de Ramona (The nightmare of Ramona), 1964, Mixed media, approx. 3 x 2 x 10 feet, MALBA, Buenos Aires.
Antonio Berni | La sordidez (Sordidness, from the series Cosmic Monsters), c. 1964, wood, steel, iron, aluminum, cardboard, plastic, roots, nails, and enamel, approx. 4 x 4 x 13 feet, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The distinct phases that mark the progression of Berni’s artistic career were greatly influenced by the artist’s travels, and by the political and social climate of his home country. Berni studied art in Europe during the 1920s, most notably with the French artist André Lhote, and found the Argentina he returned to in 1931 a dramatically changed place. In 1930, Argentina’s president had been ousted in a military coup. This inaugurated a period known as the Infamous Decade, an era marked by economic depression and widespread unemployment. Berni was among a group of artists that agitated for political change, helping to form unions and produce art with revolutionary content.
Antonio Berni | Manifestación (Public Demonstration), 1934, tempera on burlap, approx. 6 x 10 feet, MALBA, Buenos Aires.
It was at this time that the Mexican muralist Siqueiros visited Buenos Aires. Berni famously challenged the icon’s methods and theories, declaring his work ineffective in the Argentine context, and advocated instead for art that did not depend on commissions from the government and the elite classes. However, while Berni publicly went toe-to-toe with the famous muralist, questioning his ideas for the best revolutionary art, aesthetically their work was very similar. This can be seen in Berni’s 1934 painting, Unemployment, particularly in its large scale, narrative qualities, and realistic rendering of his figures. These elements became markers of Social Realism, a style that Berni was one of the primary practitioners of in the Southern Cone.
Antonio Berni | Desocupados (Unemployment), 1934, tempera on burlap, approx. 7 x 10 feet.
The 1940s saw a series of coups and dramatic shifts in Argentina’s government, the effects of which reverberated throughout the following decades. Berni, who had spent time living and working in other parts of the country, returned to Buenos Aires in the mid-1950s. In response to the depressed living conditions he had seen and experienced all over, he invented two fictitious characters whose lives personified the struggles of countless Argentines. The first was Juanito Laguna, a boy originally from a rural farm, displaced to the outskirts of the city and struggling to survive in the shantytowns with his family. The second was named Ramona Montiel, a working-class girl who discovered that prostitution was more lucrative than the dismal salary she earned as a seamstress, and opted for the former, despite its hazards and the social ostracism it engendered.
Antonio Berni | La gran ilusión(The Grand Illusion), 1962, mixed media, approx. 8 x 8 feet, MALBA, Buenos Aires.
Both Juanito and Ramona became integral to Berni’s art, their imagined stories exemplary of the realities experienced by many. Berni’s practice also shifted with the development of the personas, as he began building works through assemblage, and using materials collected from the shantytowns that were also the backdrops to his imagined scenes. In Juanito Dormido for example, Berni created a three-dimensional landscape for his character using a collage technique. He flattened aluminum cans and nailed them onto the work’s surface, attached a toy plane to Juanito’s hand, and outfitted the figure in real clothing and shoes. The method is indicative of Berni’s experimental nature as an artist, and is also based on techniques he had developed decades before, as he was known for collecting photographs and newspaper imagery to use as studies for his paintings.
Antonio Berni | Juanito Dormido, 1978, mixed media, approx. 5 x 4 feet, MALBA, Buenos Aires.
In the 1960s, Berni also created a series of monsters, assembled with discarded machine parts and industrial wares. Resembling post-apocalyptic creations one might see in a Tim Burton film, the creatures menace and consume the figures of Ramona and Juanito, or sometimes threaten the viewer themselves. In this way, they allegorized the increasingly global economic policies of the Argentine state, and their move towards industrialization, the effects of which continued to displace rural communities. These strange and dystopian works, while a notable departure from his earlier paintings, are indicative of Berni’s commitment to an accessible and narrative style of art-making, and his unceasing engagement with working-class communities. His work also fostered a movement of political engagement among artists in Argentina, a legacy that is very much alive in the practices of many artists working there today.
Antonio Berni | El pájaro amenazador (The Threatening Bird), 1965, approx. 6 ½ x 3 x 6 feet, MALBA, Buenos Aires
Several works from the later years of Berni’s career are being exhibited in the US for the first time in nearly 50 years, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The exhibition, Antonio Berni: Juanito and Ramona, will be on view until January 26th, 2014.
Nadiah Fellah is a doctoral student of Art History at the The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.
…surplus capital alongside surplus population […überflüssiges Kapital neben überflüssiger Bevölkerung].1
When faced with the disclosure of the intrinsic interconnection [of the capitalist system], the vulgar economist…prides himself in his clinging to appearances and believing them to be eternal. Why then have science at all? But there is also something else behind it. Once the interconnection has been revealed, all theoretical belief in the perpetual necessity of the existing conditions collapses, even before the collapse takes place in practice.2
It is possible to say metaphorically that crisis manifests the circle in which the whole mode of production moves with an immobile movement.3
– E. Balibar
The Specificity of Crisis Theory
Uno Kōzō’s Theory of Crisis4 was first published in 1953, a complex moment not only in Japan, just a year after the end of the U.S. Occupation, but also in the communist world with the death of Stalin, an event that ushered in a new era to the Soviet Union, and which inaugurated a period of crises and upheavals in the world socialist movement, soon to experience not only the revelations of the 20th Congress of the CPSU, but also the events of Hungary in 1956, the Sino-Soviet split, the “Bandung era,” the movements of decolonization and national liberation. This period, therefore, would equally mark a turning point in the global history of Marxist theory, previously fixed to the long aftermath of 1917, the experience of World War II, and the initial organizational and political culture of the socialist movement. The pivotal moment of the 1950s, therefore, saw extensive new developments in Marxist thought that paralleled and reinvestigated the problems of the capitalist economy in the postwar period within this intense cauldron of politics internal to the world socialist movement itself: the problem of monopoly and the concentration of capital, the questions of world capitalism, imperialism, and uneven development, the problem of crisis and the particular relation of politics to the logic of crisis within Marx’s critique of political economy.
In the midst of this complex moment emerged Uno’s Theory of Crisis. From the outset, this text was situated not only in the midst of the aforementioned global situation, but also at an important moment in the development of Uno’s work itself. Theory of Crisis was also released almost exactly one year after he had completed his most influential and major theoretical work, his two-volume theory of the fundamental principles of political economy, Keizai genron, the first volume of which was published in 1950, and the second in 1952.5 But two moments intervene in this periodization. First of all, already in the prewar period, in 1935, Uno had undertaken an extensive analysis of the Marxian theory of crisis, resulting in his essay “Shihonsei shakai ni okeru kyōkō no hitsuzensei” [The Necessity of Crisis in Capitalist Society], published in Kaizō [Reconstruction], one of the major journals of Marxist theoretical inquiry of the time. Over the nearly 20 years since the publication of this early essay, Uno’s work had taken up all the major thematics of Marxist theory and political economy: the methodological discussions of the “order of exposition,” economic policy and the development of world capitalism, the analysis of the agrarian question and the problem of the transition, the concept of the value-form and the accompanying analyses specific to value theory, not to mention numerous topics in the analysis and exegesis of Marx’s work as a whole.
But between the publication of the first volume of Keizai genron in 1950, and the second volume in 1952, Uno began to revisit the theory of crisis and its centrality for Marxist theory and political economy. Beginning with a series of lectures to the Tokyo University economics department in 1951, Uno began to undertake something quite different from his early work on crisis theory – which, while important, remains to a large extent a preparatory exegetical reading of the place of crisis theory in Marx – beginning to develop and formalize his original contribution to the Marxian analysis of the phenomenon of crisis around a series of points on which he continued to expand in a number of writings that followed the appearance of Theory of Crisis in 1953. It is necessary here to point out, therefore, two specific points on which Uno’s analysis came to be located.
First, Uno’s work on crisis expresses a general problem in Marxist theory: how to explain crisis both as a necessity, in other words, as something cyclical, and also as a contingency, something that joins the question of crisis to political arrangements, ideological factors, and other seemingly “irrational” elements that appear on the level of historical crises?8 Secondly, Uno attempts to formalize and concretize the Marxian theory of crisis, which, since its inception, has been divided largely between two separate explanations of the formation of crises: an excess commodity theory of crisis (so-called “underconsumption” or “overproduction”) and an excess capital theory of crisis.9 The former, taken in its broadest sense, emphasizes that crises stem from the disproportion of production in various branches of the economy and the accompanying restricted consumption of the masses. The latter, on the other hand emphasizes that crisis erupts through the “absolute overproduction of capital in a ratio to the labouring population,” and that this leads to regular periodic and cyclical crises. As Makoto Itoh, among others, has pointed out, the essence of the difference between these two broad positions, which are both represented in Marx’s work, particularly in volume 3 of Capital, concerns their order of priority, or logical position within the structure of Capital as a text. Essentially, the excess capital theory of crisis asserts that “excess commodities in the market and difficulties of the realization of surplus value” are not the cause of crisis, but the result of cyclical crises caused by the excess accumulation of capital. In the excess commodity theory, this positioning of cause and result is reversed, an argument that sees excess capital and a falling profit rate as effects of the deeper crisis of the overproduction of commodities beyond the demand for their consumption.10
With the background of Marx’s incomplete and partial crisis theory as his guide, Uno attempted to complete the systematization of a version of the excess capital theory of crisis, focusing particularly on the position of the labor-power commodity. The excess commodity theory of crisis, in which the problem is dealt with only at the level of the sphere of circulation (and which therefore assumes that crisis could be ameliorated by state policy or by monetary planning), in essence can only explain crisis as an unexpected, “sudden,” or exceptional phenomenon, but cannot explain why crisis should be necessarily repeated and periodic. In contrast to such an explanation, Uno specifically attempted to develop the unfinished connections in Marx’s theory of crisis between the excess capital theory and the inability of capital itself to produce labor-power as a commodity by means of capital. By attempting to formalize this linkage, Uno theoretically emphasizes the cause and foundation of crisis as internal to the capital-relation itself, a point that we should understand not only theoretically but also politically.11
The Actuality of Uno’s Crisis Theory
After the outbreak of the 2008 financial crisis and its ongoing reverberations, we believe that Uno’s Theory of Crisis offers a powerful and important critique of existing interpretations of the cause of crisis, pointing us toward possible political responses to the immediate conjuncture. For example, one of the most common and prevailing ideological formulas behind the typical understanding of the 2008 crisis is that the world of finance is completely autonomous from the “real economy” of manufacturing and industry, that Wall Street and its 1% has become completely severed from “Main Street” and its 99% of working-class and middle-class populations.
This way of thinking has led to a general conception of capitalist crisis, widely shared in a variety of political spaces, in which Main Street is believed to function in a healthy state so long as irrational financial speculation is curbed on Wall Street. This manner of understanding the phenomenon of crisis thus ineluctably banishes from thought the notion that Main Street can actually only thrive precisely through exuberant financial speculation on Wall Street, and that it is the fusion and not the separation of finance and the so-called “real economy” that contains the hidden cause of capitalist crisis. As Slavoj Žižek points out, it is around this banishment from thought, this conceptual foreclosure, that the populist factions on both the right and left converge in shared criticisms of state bail-outs; the populist left says that bail-outs merely protect the banks while the sacrificing the masses, while the populist right sees the banking bail-out as an unforgivable form of state intervention and “socialism” that goes against the logic of free competition, preventing “the market” from returning to its supposedly “natural” stability.12
In contrast to these superficial conceptions of crisis that have attained a certain status as “common-sense” in recent years, Uno’s Theory of Crisis provides a systematic and trenchant critique of the current ideology of the separation of finance from production. This ideology, in fact, has epistemic roots that extend back to the very origins of modern political economy itself. It was the classical political economists such as Smith and Ricardo who standardized the theorization of the phenomena of crisis merely as a phenomenon of commodity circulation, where defaults on payments on commodities based on unrealizable prices stemming from speculation broke up the reproductive process of capital, sending everyone into a mad dash for liquidity. The cause of crisis was thus explained away as a problem of commodities not being sold even though they were produced, which led the classical political economists to assert that the cause of crisis was ultimately found in the separation of buying and selling. In this way they unwittingly reproduced a way of thinking of crisis that was closer to the reality of an earlier historical era of mercantilism.
What they failed to explain theoretically was how the very possibility of grasping, in thought, the existence of commodities as products of labor was itself based on an incessant overcoming of a specific social and historical restriction placed upon capitalist production methods, namely that for capitalist production to exist at all, capitalist production must consume as a commodity something that capital cannot produce as a commodity directly: the peculiar commodity of labor-power.
The ideological ruse of the classical political economists was that, while this social restriction on capitalist production was especially clear, for example, during phases of economic prosperity, when industry widened its scale of production and thus needed to absorb more and more workers, it was equally clear that industry could not assume that workers would necessarily “be there” for capital in the right numbers, since workers are not movable in the same way that, say, machinery as commodities are. They nonetheless disavowed this fundamental vulnerability of capitalist production by theoretically treating labor-power merely as a commodity that was a product of labor.
This was not simply a diabolical plan on their part; rather, it was a theoretical blindness, because all they could see were the immediate phenomenal forms of the commodity and money. Because labor-power could be bought and sold just like any other commodity, with a use-value and an exchange value, they theoretically understood labor-power in precisely the same manner, as a commodity that was a product of labor. What the hitherto-existing political economy failed to take into account was the specifically capitalist nature of labor. Unlike a slave economy, in which the worker’s body itself is sold as a commodity, the formation of the “doubly-free wage labor” – free to sell its work to the highest bidder, and simultaneously free or available for exploitation – at the advent of the capitalist era connotes a situation in which what is sold as a commodity is the capacity, potential, or force to work within definite limits and for a definite period.13
And unlike various pre-capitalist forms of labor, in which the compulsion to work is generated by means of certain forms of “extra-economic coercion” (directly feudal landed property-relations, seigneurial systems of ground rent in kind, direct relations of force and violence to compel serf labor), the formation of labor-power is only possible when what is commodified – that is, circulated as a commodity – is not labor in general but the specific capacity to work “piecemeal” or “for a determinate period.”14 This difference furnishes us with the essential problem of the labor-power commodity, a commodity that is bought and sold in the labor market, but that can never be located in a stable presence. It is on this point that Uno’s intervention into the excess capital theory of crisis finds its basis, a point closely linked to what Marx called “the deepest and most hidden cause of crisis,” that is, the cause of its necessity.15
“The Deepest and Most Hidden Cause of Crises”
For Marx, this oversight of the bourgeois economists was not something neutral, something simply to do with divergent modes of theoretical inquiry. Rather, this oversight concerns something directly political: in order to avoid the problems posed for the theory of crisis by the form of the labor-power commodity, bourgeois political economy also had to disavow the reality of class struggle endemic to capitalist production, concentrated in the commodification of labor-power. Althusser once pointed out that the identification of this lack of “vision” or “sight” is the key to the “reading protocols” Marx utilizes to explode the presumptions of bourgeois political economy. As Althusser argued, however, the problem is not that bourgeois political economy contained an “oversight” whereas Marx emphasized a “sight,” a “presence” of a certain problem in contrast to its “absence.” Rather, the point is that bourgeois political economy’s sight itself, its entire mode of vision, was predicated on a set of formulations that prevent or restrain the figure of labor-power from coming to the surface: bourgeois political economy is structured through a “vision” that is itself already identical with a certain “non-vision,” a constitutive inability to recognize the problem as a problem.16
What this means, essentially, is that because the labor-power commodity must be assumed to be given and present, but cannot be produced directly by capital, the entirety of the history of struggles over land enclosures, the factory system, the life-and-death struggles of the workers “thrown onto the market” by the decomposition of the previous social relations, and so forth is involved in this process of transforming into a commodity that which capital must consume absolutely in order for capital to be “itself” despite capital’s fundamental inability to produce labor-power as a commodity directly.
It is significant that Uno often insisted on speaking of the commodification (shōhinka) of labor-power, rather than simply treating it as an already-presupposed commodity – this active sense, or sense of process, is important, precisely because what the bourgeois economists ignored at the outset of the capitalist era was the ongoing process of violence, capture, and discipline covered over or hidden by the product of labor. Marx in fact tore open this concealed relation precisely by emphasizing that the labor-power commodity remains always in a state of flux and precariousness that symptomatically reveals the necessarily contingent process of becoming or not becoming-commodity, a process, moreover, that can only be managed by ideological state apparatuses and social institutions of the sort Foucault discussed in his lectures on biopolitics.17
More broadly, however, Marx argued that this historical and social restriction endemic to capitalist production – that capital must consume labor-power as a commodity but cannot produce labor-power as a commodity directly – represents nothing short of what he called the “deepest and most hidden cause of crisis.” Marx writes:
The fact that bourgeois production is compelled by its own immanent laws, on the one hand, to develop the productive forces as if production did not take place on a narrow restricted social foundation (auf einer bornirten gesellschaftlichen Grundlage), while, on the other hand, it can develop these forces only within these narrow boundaries (den Schranken dieser Bornirtheit), is the deepest and most hidden cause of crises (der innerste und geheimste Grund der Crisen), of the crying contradictions within which bourgeois production is carried on and which, even at a cursory glance, reveal it as only a transitional, historical form (historische Uebergangsform).18
Here we should note something crucial: the homology between the narrow social “foundation” [Grundlage] on which production rests and the “secret” or “hidden” “cause” or “ground” [Grund] of crisis. The basic restriction that production faces is contained in the fact that labor-power must be indirectly produced in order to overcome its inherently limited nature, and this indirect production must be effected through all sorts of “narrow” social bases: the nation, race, gender, physical attributes of bodies, language, ideology, the historical restrictions of consumption for subsistence, and so forth. This Grundlage, on which labor-power must be dealt with (because it is restricted to the physical corporeality and finitude of the worker), exists in a constant interchange with the cause or Grund of crisis, the spasms and seizures that capital must endure when it becomes a barrier to itself.
The major contribution of Uno’s theory of crisis, it seems to us, is how he focuses our thinking of this “deepest and most hidden” cause or ground of crisis identified by Marx in the process of the commodification of labor-power, while elaborating upon the way this deep cause becomes concealed by economic phenomena produced from within the unfolding of the accumulation process. Uno therefore identified precisely how the “narrowness” (Bornirtheit) of capital’s own “boundaries” or “barriers” (Schranken) stem from “limits” (Grenzen) thrown up by capital itself, a reflexive relation back upon its own foundations that always returns to the “ontological defect” of the labor-power commodity.19
In a theoretical tour de force, Uno demonstrates this concealment in his analysis of the accumulation process, and what he calls “the direct cause of crisis” found therein. The direct cause of crisis is specifically identified in the accumulation phase of economic prosperity, when production processes “widen” based on generous extensions of credit and the establishment of low interest rates, which allow capitalists to keep production going without fear of selling their products of labor to final consumers. With widened production, prices of raw materials become inflated while larger and larger numbers of workers are absorbed in production, the latter of which raises wage levels and consequently pulls down profit rates.
The tendency of profit rates to fall as a result of rising wages, however, is itself concealed by exuberant speculations by commercial creditors on the prices of increasingly overstocked commodities that continue to be produced without concern for final sales, itself made possible due to the availability of credit to manufacturing. With credit mediating finance and industry, the conditions for the possibility of crisis in the separation of buying and selling now appear across industries, precisely at the moment when the forecasted and speculated upon prices of these commodities become impossible to realize, leading to the phenomenon of excess capital in the form of unsold commodities, which in turn leads to defaults on payments and panic among banks and creditors, who scramble for hard cash and cut back on lines of credit while increasing interest rates as a last ditch attempt to compensate for rampant defaulting of payments. Rising interest rates then collide with falling profit rates, resulting in the inability of capitalists to reinvest in production and maintain production on the same scale. The social reproduction process is interrupted and production grinds to a halt. The resulting phenomenon of excess capital in the form of excess means of production and means of consumption now exists alongside a growing mass of unemployed workers, a point that connects us to the crucial question of population.
Theseparation between excess capital and a growing surplus population thus becomes the volatile ground upon which the historical origins of capitalist production are repeated in a new phase of prosperity with the commodification of labor-power. The possibility for the commodification of labor-power is secured, however, only on the basis of the formation of a relative surplus population during the phase of recession. The significance of the formation of a relative surplus population is that while capitalist production must circulate and consume labor-power as a commodity despite being unable to produce it directly, its own methods of production lead to the emergence of an available mass of workers who have nothing except their labor-power to sell as a commodity. This is precisely where the capital attempts to indirectly “produce” labor-power, through the formation and maintenance of this “available mass.” The cycle of accumulation can only be shown to be logically sutured as a circuit-process, therefore, by presupposing theoretically the commodification of labor-power. Nonetheless, as Uno argues, the suturing of this cycle in theory remains stained or scarred by capitalist production’s fundamental Achilles’ Heel, the ontologically-scarred labor-power that becomes “incarnated” in capital’s body.20
To repeat the basic point of Uno’s theory of crisis, however: this cycle operates through, and not in spite of, the existence of this Achilles’ Heel. At the same time, the Achilles’ Heel is occluded in thought by the phenomenon of unsold commodities whose prices are exuberantly speculated upon at the zenith of prosperity, itself the result of credit and industrial financing. One of Uno’s major contributions to a theory of crisis is thus found in his analysis of credit in the accumulation process, and the role of credit in bringing about what contemporary economic discourse calls exuberant speculation. It is this wild speculation that artificially raises prices and makes the realization of surplus value difficult or impossible.
The very conditions of possibility that lead to this difficulty in realizing surplus value, however, are themselves formed by capital’s social and historical restrictions in attempting to bypass or overcome – without resolving – the problem of the commodification of labor-power. Yet, at the same time, it is precisely the existence of excess capital – the plethora of capital Marx extensively analyzes in volume 3 – in the form of unsold commodities that stands rusting before our eyes in the most phenomenal form. This hides or conceals the deep cause of crisis. As Uno writes,
The true cause (shin no gen’in) of the phenomenon of crisis is concealed within accumulated, overstocked commodities whose rise in price is forecasted by merchant and commercial capital’s speculations… The direct cause of crisis (chokusetsu gen’in) appears when the forecasted price is not realized, leading to defaults on payments. Phenomenally speaking, it thus looks like the root of crisis is found in the fact that, while commodities have been produced, they cannot be sold.21
What is at stake in Uno’s Theory of Crisis, therefore, is a thinking of how the deep cause of crisis in capitalism is necessarily tied to the original, yet compulsively repeated, historical restriction of capitalist production in having to consume labor-power as a commodity despite the inability of capitalist production to produce labor-power as a commodity directly. This historical restriction on capitalist production signifies nothing less than the very origins of the capitalist commodity economy, and is deeply linked to the original and irrational emergence of capital as a social relation, in the form of the “so-called primitive accumulation.”22
At the same time, however – and it is on this point that Uno shows us what is truly at stake for theory itself – this deep cause of crisis becomes occluded in thought by the very methods of capitalist production, once labor-power is (and theoretically can be assumed to be) consumed as a commodity, a conceptual physics of concealment central to capital, in which, in Marx’s terms, “the process vanishes in the result.”23 On the basis of the commodification of labor-power, capitalist accumulation cannot but help to conceal the deep cause of crisis with a more phenomenally immediate “direct cause,” namely in the production of excess capital. The task of historical analysis according to Uno, therefore, is to shed light on how this occlusion takes place practically and not just logically in order to demonstrate, theoretically, that capitalist production cannot take place except through class struggle.
Crisis and the Theory of Populations Peculiar to Capitalist Society
At this point we must take up Marx’s theory of “the law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production” (der kapitalistischen Produktionsweise eigentümliches Populationsgesetz), because it is precisely through this mechanism that Marx demonstrates how the motion of capitalist accumulation also produces the social conditions of capitalist reproduction. But how and in what ways does Marx demonstrate this? In volumes 1 and 3 of Capital especially, Marx shows how, on the basis of the transformation of labor-power into a commodity, capitalist production unavoidably leads to the overproduction of capital itself and crisis. Uno has especially clarified how this can only occur at the zenith of the accumulation phase of prosperity. What is the resulting phase of accumulation? It is a phase of recession, during which time two things generally take place on the road to the renewal of capitalist production. First, the technical composition of capital is reorganized with better and more efficient machinery. This process, however, is restricted by time, and cannot simply take place automatically; in this regard, the time it takes to replace old machinery with new machinery determines the temporal length of the phase of recession. Partly because of the difficulty in selling off old fixed capital in capitalist production, a second process takes place. Obviously, this is the point at which workers are laid off during phases of recession, forming what Marx called a relative surplus population. It is called this because this population now stands in a relationship of relative excess to the level of demand for a regular laboring population and thus is located in a general separation or at a distance from capitalist production. This population is not an absolute social surplus, but a surplus that can only be grasped in its relationality to capitalist production, from which it has been cast out as the most easily disposable commodity: capital can always dispose of the worker’s physical body during the phase of recession, in which capital attempts to shed as much labor-power as it can. And this relationality is in essence contained within capital itself, a circular or cyclical relation that stems from the fact that “labor-power is the form under which variable capital exists during the process of production” (Arbeitskraft ist die Form, worin das variable Kapital innerhalb des Produktionsprozesses existiert).25
In its relative separation from production, however, this relative surplus population now forms a social mass of workers who, theoretically, once again have nothing but their labor-power to sell as a commodity, establishing and setting in motion a cyclical process of disposal and re-capture of labor-power. In this way, Marx theorizes the law of populations peculiar to capitalist production, namely that while capitalist production cannot produce labor-power as a commodity directly, it can produce a relative surplus population, which functions as a mechanism for capital to bridge this gap indirectly.26
This mass of bodies must then sell their potential to labor – their labor-power – in order to consume their daily necessities, in other words, a certain quantum of the means of subsistence that capitalist production can produce directly. Thus capital, through the form of population, turns a direct barrier to itself into a new threshold of accumulation, transforming this Achilles’ Heel into a new beginning or commencement. In doing so, the “narrow limits,” or the social and historical restrictions of capitalist production are again overcome without being resolved, thereby establishing the conditions for another phase of prosperity.
Let us now summarize several key points in the above discussion. First, for Uno, the concept of crisis must be differentiated between a fundamental cause in the commodification of labor-power, and a “direct cause” in the collision between falling rates of profit and rising interest rates, and in the phenomenon of speculation on excess capital in the form of overstocked commodities, which conceals from thought or covers over the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. What is most visible and taken as the cause of crisis are high prices on overproduced commodities; when these cannot sell, the immediate result is a chain reaction of defaults on payments, and thus further investments in production cannot take place. Another way to put this is that the direct cause of crisis is about the phenomenal form of crisis. This phenomenal form of crisis, however, conceals the ontological form of crisis of capitalist production itself in the commodification of labor-power. Crisis for Uno, therefore, has to be understood on at least two levels: the phenomenal level and the “ontological” level.27
Second, however, in Uno’s theoretical elaboration of the necessity of crisis, crisis as a phase of capitalist accumulation does not mark the end of the capitalist system; rather, it is merely a passing phase that mediates the phases of prosperity and recession. It is during the phase of recession that a relative surplus population is formed, which allows Marx to theoretically show how capitalist production can, as it were, compensate for its original and fundamental inability to produce labor-power as a commodity by producing a relative surplus population, which creates the general social milieu, the “narrowly restricted social foundation” for the commodification of labor-power.
Yet even so – and here is where Uno’s analysis of the relationship between excess capital and surplus populations becomes crucial – the commodification of labor-power cannot be assumed to take place automatically on the road to renewal and prosperity simply because a surplus population has been produced as compensation for capital’s inherent historical restriction. The reason is that, precisely because capitalist production has ground to a halt during the phase of recession, it is as if a “dead zone” or void appears or intervenes between excess capital and surplus populations. There is no money to be exchanged for labor-power at this moment in the cycle. There is only decaying and dying – the “moral degradation” and the devaluation of capital.
Thus, Uno’s reading of Marx shows another way to think this conceptual sequence of “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,”28 for the tragedy of capital’s inability to directly produce labor-power as a commodity now becomes transmuted – in the theory of crisis – into farce, where capital still cannot presupposed its own ability to capture labor-power as a commodity even through capital’s enormous power to produce a relative surplus population as compensation for capital’s fundamental historical restriction (the originary and primal “tragedy”). The difference between tragedy and farce here is found precisely in the ambiguous phrase, regularly repeated in chapter 15 of volume 3 of Capital: an excess of capital exists alongside (neben) a surplus population.29 Alongside, but it is a relation of a non-relation, for here there is no exchange. Alongside (neben) draws a relation, but also a suspension, it implies that something is “corollary,” an “accessory,” tangential, auxiliary and so forth. Two things accompany each other, but cause and effect are held in stasis – “alongside” reminds us of Balibar’s point, placed at the outset of this essay: crisis furnishes the entire mode of production with a specific form of movement, but this movement is also linked to a particularly perverse form of immobility, a tension, an inertia; nothing happens, which is precisely the void in which to think the renewal of the political from within Marx’s logic. Not even the production of a relative surplus population can guarantee capitalist reproduction once, that is, we grasp the principles of the necessity of crisis. At this point, not even a god can save capitalism.
In this way, the historical origins of capitalist production are concentrated inwards towards its own pure drive, compulsively repeated at the level of the logic inherent in capital itself, in which the historicity of capital’s contingent formation is constantly and desperately repressed, covered over by the phenomenal necessity of its logic. The “ontological” crisis of capitalist production is more accurately its hauntological crisis.30On the theoretical level, Uno clarifies how this takes place in the phase of prosperity, which is itself based on the phase of recession. Crisis is thus itself a period, phase, or plane, we could say, that expresses the difference and inserts itself in the interval between the phases of prosperity and recession. To speak of the hauntological crisis, however, is to return once again to the more fundamental or ontological form of crisis, located in the labor-power commodity, a hauntology that is a central question of the nature and concept of necessity itself – here Uno reminds us that the cycle of capitalist reproduction is never simply a mechanical cycle, but a profoundly historical one.
Labor-power as the “Indispensably Disposable” Commodity
One of the most important problems that characterizes and distinguishes Uno’s theory of crisis from the broad field of texts in the history of Marxist theory devoted to the issue of crisis, is his insistence on the meaning and complexity behind the phrase “the commodification of labor-power.” For Uno, this phrase is the key to the entirety of Marx’s work, but also the pivotal element in a capitalist commodity economy itself. Around this phrase an entire series of problems and relations are concentrated: the logic of capital and history of capitalist development, the origin of capital and its repetition, the inside and outside of capital as a social relation, and the peculiar dynamics by which these instances are inverted into each other. But Uno also adds to this phrase a singularly complex concept, one that is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. This is what Uno referred to as the muri, the (im)possibility, the impasse, the excess, the irrationality, the absence of reason, the forced nature of the commodification of labor-power.
In this peculiar turn of phrase, Uno specifies that capitalist production, which attempts to form a pure circle of inputs and outputs, always contains this muri as something that is “passing through” the entire circuit. But this muri is also an exceptionally polyvalent term: the commodification of labor-power is also treated by Uno as itself the particularly (im)possible phenomenon of capitalism, because as Nagahara Yutaka and others have suggested, capital requires certain degrees of force or forcing in order to undertake the “indirect” production of this thing that marks capital’s fundamental Achilles’ Heel and allows it to compensate for it. Therefore, we should immediately note something important – this muri identified by Uno in no way suggests that somehow capitalism is grounded in something “truly impossible” or that it secretly “doesn’t work.” It means, in fact, the exact opposite. Capital works because of the dynamism and tension that exists in this peculiar space, wherein labor-power cannot be directly produced (a barrier that should be absolute) and yet this Achilles’ Heel tends to be overcome by means of the form of population.
We have attempted on a number of other occasions to develop this concept of muri, a term that indicates a deep and complex field of problems.31 For the time being we will simply note that this term points toward crucial linkages between the theory of crisis and the general broad concerns of Marxist theory. It indicates, for instance, the (im)possible closure of Marx’s theoretical exposition of the logic of capitalist accumulation, signifying the possibility and impossibility to assume the closure of the logical circle that capitalist reproduction represents; it reveals the necessary historical contamination of the logic, a structure in which capital must foreclose itself as a sphere of rationality, only paradoxically, on the basis of a “nihil of reason” on – and through – which the fundamental principles of capitalist commodity economy rest and cannot but dwell.
Further, when we think of labor-power as a commodity in relation to the cyclical nature of capitalist crisis, we are presented with its double and contradictory nature. In the phase of prosperity, labor-power is the most indispensable commodity, for no other commodity can produce new values within capitalist production. Yet, once this indispensable commodity is consumed in the course of capital’s circuit-process, capitalist production is already on the way towards an outbreak of crisis at the zenith of prosperity, which is also to say that once labor-power is consumed in production as the most indispensable commodity, capitalist prosperity is already moving in the direction of capitalist recession, during which labor-power now transforms into the opposite phenomenon, namely into the most disposable commodity in the phase of recession. This is why labor-power appears as the contradictory embodiment of being indispensably disposable. What Uno calls the muri is a formulation that expresses the conceptual dynamics of how labor-power could exist as both indispensable and disposable in the same space and time.32
Imperialism and Crisis
Uno’s Theory of Crisis concerns not only the logical position of crisis within the analysis of capital. It also provides us with extremely important analytical tools for historical research. These tools, however, are not always explicitly articulated. Rather, we ourselves must derive them from the systematic intervention Uno is making, precisely because these concepts often appear or are developed in the interstices of his argument and imply a careful understanding of the politicality that lurks beneath the surface of this seemingly formalist inquiry. First, Uno clearly emphasizes over and over again that the principles of political economy, or the (relatively) pure logic of capital taken in isolation, must never be mistaken for a direct reflection of actual history or the historical process taken as the history of capitalist development, with all its inherent contingencies and singularities. In the way theory functions in the natural sciences, so here the pure principles represent a theoretical artifice that can help us navigate through the Heraclitean flux of actually existing historical phenomena – in this sense, Uno takes over and develops the implications of Marx’s well-known formulation: “in the analysis of economic forms, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both (Die Abstraktionskraft muß beide ersetzen).”33 Uno’s Theory of Crisis therefore, is not simply about how the phenomena of crisis, its necessity, must be understood, in the final instance, merely on the level of principle or in the logical system of Capital. Uno goes to great lengths to emphasize that in our actual world, these principles cannot be directly applied to understand our present. The minimal reason is that capitalism historically developed into the stage of imperialism after 1860, and with this shift, the form of crisis changed in ways that, in Uno’s words, “distorts” (waikyoku sareru) the demonstration of the necessity of crisis on the level of pure theory. The key change in the form of crisis in the stage of imperialism is that while crises still break out periodically (thereby revealing its necessity), it does not break out with the regularity that it did in the era of laissez-faire capitalism, when crises broke out between 1820 and 1860 every ten years (thereby revealing a periodicity and repetition that could be formulated into an object of knowledge).
In the stage of imperialism, however, the phenomena of chronic recession and chronic unemployment become the historical norm. There are many reasons for this, but we can mention the key ones briefly. Here, Uno argues for the analytical need to produce a theoretical articulation between Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. With the rise of finance capital, the export of capital to colonies and foreign markets can take place easily, bringing back huge profits to the financial centers to the point where it becomes unnecessary for capital to transform the entirety of society under the axiomatics of a specifically capitalist commodity economy. Large agricultural swaths of the world still locked in relatively backward forms of social organization and general commodity economic activity no longer pose an obstacle to capitalist development, but instead can be shaped and coded to accelerate capitalist development by virtue of becoming part of an expanding relative surplus population, thereby, for example, contributing to an overall depression of wages. Both national and the colonial agricultural populations now constitute strata of an expanding formation of an international relative surplus population.
How can this be explained? We know that the relative surplus population theoretically must be formed during phases of recession. As we pointed out earlier, moreover, the temporal length of the phase of recession is greatly influenced by the time it takes to sell off old machinery (fixed capital), and to replace old technologies with newer, more productive and efficient ones. It is precisely on this point that the development of capitalism into a specific stage of imperialism becomes significant. For, with the rise of finance capital, monopolistic investments in increasingly larger and larger forms of fixed capital in the organic composition of capital are raised exponentially, primarily because the dominant commodity during this era is iron and other commodities in the extractive, as well as heavy and chemical industries (e.g., oil). The significance this holds for a theory of crisis is that phases of recession thus become dragged out or elongated over extended periods of time because of the huge difficulties in selling off and replacing such large forms of fixed capital. Today, to take one example, we might think of this phenomenon precisely in the new “ruins” of the United States, the vast and abandoned rust-belt of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, the empty plants of Detroit, the deserted factories of upstate New York and elsewhere. This is one of the key reasons why recession in imperialism cannot help becoming chronic in nature, why the relative surplus population expands to include national and foreign agricultural populations, and why unemployment generally becomes chronic.
Third, as Lenin is quick to remind us, the export of capital to colonies leads to world war over regional supremacy in international markets. This is an important point for an understanding of capitalist crisis, because war increasingly also becomes a means to extricate national economies out of chronic recession. As Uno pointed out, it is on this point that the nature and function of the armaments and munitions industry is extremely important (here we might think about why Korean colonial populations were considered an “indispensably disposable” workforce in the Japanese military-industrial complex after 1937 and during World War II).34 At the same time, it also shows how the analysis of the phenomenon of crisis cannot simply be undertaken with the pure theory or internal logic of the fundamental principles of a capitalist commodity economy alone. In other words, we cannot simply rely on Marx’s analysis in Capital to grasp the historical nature of capitalist crisis, but must also and equally grasp Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and place it into relation with the pure theory of crisis and its “fundamental causes.”
Finally, in speaking of war as a means to extricate an economy from chronic recession, we must therefore speak of how the work of the state and para-state institutions come to work for the reproduction of capitalist production, and to work in the service of trying to realize in “actual” history what Uno has demonstrated to be impossible to realize even on the level of capital’s logic, namely the ideal or perfected expression of the business cycle and a logically pure circle of capitalist accumulation. (Here is where Uno departs radically – to the left – of the likes of Schumpeter and his metaphysical ideals of “creative destruction,” for example.) The state and para-state institutions produce precisely this fantasy of being able to actualize in history that which is demonstrably impossible on the theoretical level. How they produce this fantasy demands a thinking of the state’s relation to the economy, which is emphatically not simply as a superstructural result of the economic base. Rather, it shows us a way to think the state’s subservience to the economy; the state and para-state institutions working as agents for the economy (we might think here of the old Althusserian formulation of “determination in the final instance,” but an instance “that never arrives”). This is to say that the state demotes itself from an autonomous political power over the economy, but only to promote the economy through a vast production of signs of the economy.35 Here, we develop this point by means of a decisive formulation in Anti-Oedipus, wherein Deleuze and Guattari write of the imperial state: “Never before has a state lost so much power only in order to enter with so much force into the service of the signs of economic power.”36 From what standpoint does the state enter with so much force into “the service of the signs of economic power”? They mention: “From the standpoint of the flow of ‘free’ workers: the control of manual labor and of wages; from the standpoint of the flow of industrial and commercial production; the granting of monopolies, favourable conditions for accumulation, and the struggle against overproduction.”37 All of these moments alert us to the bizarre role of the state, which must always appear to function – institutionally, in its relation to the law, in its apparently autonomous internal organization, in its independent political relations – at a distance from the social relation of capital, while nevertheless serving as the guarantor or formative force for the “narrow social basis” upon which the capital’s dreadful commencement is constantly repeated in the commodification of labor-power. What the state does is effectively recode the economic content of capital’s own dynamics and redeploy this content in another social vector, in essence operating as a force to conceal or overcode capital’s austere logical violence, appearing phenomenally to overwrite this logical violence so that it should appear as a reflection of the natural state of social relations.
Keeping Deleuze and Guattari’s earlier analysis of the form of the state in mind in relation to the phenomenon of crisis requires us to think through the problem of how labor-power as a commodity is represented or included on the level of the signs of the economy, and as a method by which capitalist crisis can be managed but never eliminated. In other words, how might the contradictory character of labor-power as the indispensably disposable commodity be coded as a sign of the economy? For instance, elsewhere we have analyzed how designations such as “manual labor” versus “skilled labor,” “factory worker” versus “day worker,” “modern” and “feudal,” “developed” and “backward,” “particularity” and “universality,” “national” and foreign,” all historically produced categories of knowledge, become mapped onto the production of national and ethnic signs of economy such as “Korean” and “Japanese.”38 The production of knowledge and the microphysics of power that accompanies it thus needs to be taken into account as a critical way to understand how capitalist crises are managed through the form of the nation-state, and represented ultimately as something that is accidental and contingent. This is where Uno’s basic theoretical question, “how to demonstrate the necessity of crisis?” has political meaning for us today.
We have seen the wide variety of problems in Marxist theoretical work addressed by Uno’s Theory of Crisis. All of these problems concern not only theoretical questions but political problems and political projects. Here, we have to point out that Uno’s work, which often appears highly abstract, functioning at a level that might seem to exclude the concrete demands and tactical complexities of politics, may appear formalistic, but this is only an apparent formalism. In fact, Uno’s crisis theory is consciously positioned against the excessive formalism of much Marxist theoretical work. Uno’s formalism is produced to combat tiresome historicism and to open up more deeply onto the question of the historicity of capital in the commodification of labor-power.
In order to return with this point to the beginning, and think about where this analysis of crisis can lead us, let us quote from Uno at some length, in a later reflection on the nature of crisis theory and its position within his own overall theoretical system:
In recent years, I have attempted to theoretically purify the economic theories of Capital on the level of principle – on the one hand, my intention has been to break through to new paths of cooperation and interchange between the field of the economic and the other forms of social scientific research, but on the other hand, related in another sense to this same problem, I have also tried to escape from the formalism that often constrains or holds back the extension of possibilities for research in political economy. I am of course fully aware that I alone would be incapable of such a massive task, but nevertheless, even within the narrow confines of my own research, I feel that I must consider my theoretical project always in relation to this larger problem of social scientific research in general. For the majority of Marxists who believe that every single word and phrase proposed in Capital is unchangeable and sacrosanct, my attempt to theoretically purify it has been considered something shocking or outrageous, and for a large portion of this group, my work has been turned into something that absolutely must be denounced for political reasons.
Of course, I do not imagine that I have a perfect understanding of all aspects of the theorizations present in Capital, nor do I think at all that Capital is a mistaken work – every single thing that I have attempted to do stems solely from my personal understanding of Capital. This is precisely because I think that unless we ourselves purify the theory of principle latent in Capital to the extent that it can be effectively utilized in the analysis of imperialism, and in relation to questions such as the concrete analysis of Japanese capitalism, it will be impossible to avoid lapsing into formalism, and a realization of effective cooperation between political economy and research in other areas of social scientific critique and cultural knowledge will be impossible. It is this theoretical process that will open new modalities for the settling of the theory of the principles of political economy, the logic of capital itself. We cannot blame Marx for errors that result from the fact that he could not possibly have known of the stage of imperialism, but it is nevertheless a fact that capitalism possesses this imperialist stage, and it is necessary that political economy, as a historical science, is able to clarify its nature.
When we speak of the necessity of crisis, the necessity of war, the necessity of revolution, and so on, we utilize this same identical word “necessity” (hitsuzensei), but these three formulations cannot be proven or legitimated through identical, or even similar methods, because the content of this word “necessity” differs in each case. Although Marx’s own considerations on this point remain unclear and undeveloped, we can at least say that, since he had no knowledge of imperialist war, he confronted a different set of facts than we do with respect to the problem of the necessity of warfare. Thus we must also say that he obviously had a different understanding than our own regarding the relation or split between the necessity of crisis and the necessity of revolution. In the case of the necessity of crisis, I believe that it can be proven, indeed that it must be proven, on the level of the theory of principles of political economy, at the level of the logical structure of capital, but if it is so, how should this necessity be proven? It is precisely this question that has an intimate and inseparable relation to the purification of the principles of political economy, and it is the theory of crisis that provides the touchstone of these principles themselves.39
Uno’s Theory of Crisis provides for us a way to think not only about Marx’s Capital as a theoretical structure – it also provides us with the conditions of possibility for a renewal of politics in the face of our current situation. While theory therefore appears timeless and eternal, it emphatically does not mean that the interconnected totality of the laws and norms constituting capitalist society is itself timeless and eternal. Paradoxically, the theoretical eternality of the laws is precisely what allows us to grasp the historicity and finitude of the capitalist mode of production itself as it is compulsively repeated in the present. And while the necessity of crisis does not signal or simply lead to the necessity of collapse of the system, it provides us with the most powerful thought-image of how this system is neither natural nor by any means the “only game in town.” The historical necessity of crisis allows us to think otherwise about the necessity of capitalism itself in our everyday life. In this regard, Uno maintained throughout his work a close fidelity to Marx, who reminds us in his 1868 letter to Kugelmann that “once the interconnection has been revealed, all theoretical belief in the perpetual necessity of the existing conditions collapses, even before the collapse takes place in practice.”40
The neoliberal state today, overinvested in metaphysical and wishful thinking, would like us to believe precisely that the principles of capitalism are eternal and that crisis is nothing but a sort of natural accident, something that simply needs to be ameliorated by an obscene and perverse mixture of monetary policy, state deregulation, chronic warfare, and the police. But Uno reminds us: crisis is necessary for capital, crisis is unavoidable in capitalist society, and crisis is directly political. Just like the crisis this time.