The Postcolonial and the Politics of the Outside: Return(s) of the National Question in Marxist Theory

Now and Coming Time III
Aubrey Williams, Now and Coming Time III, 1985

This impossible “no” to a structure that one critiques yet inhabits intimately is the deconstructive position, of which postcoloniality is a historical case. 1

- G.C. Spivak

A politics of the multitude can only be imagined by beginning from the need to translate – in the construction of a new commons – the multiplicity of languages spoken by the struggles that are rebelling every day against the fragile borders that separate capital from its paradoxical “outside.” 2

- S. Mezzadra

Today, the field of inquiry called “postcolonial studies” appears to be in a crisis of self-legitimation. This crisis concerns not the “success” of postcolonial studies as a disciplinary formation in the production of knowledge, but rather the foundational assumptions and political directions implied by the emergence of this disciplinary formation. In other words, the crisis of postcolonial studies is a profoundly political crisis, a crisis of the political possibilities contained within its original project. But the very existence of this crisis is simultaneously a testimony to the dynamism and complexity of the issues it raises: the very fact of the crisis itself can be a new point of departure towards a turn or transformation of postcolonial studies, a new reading and new writing of this field that returns our focus to the most immediate and profound political questions of our time.

In a sense, the historical development of postcolonial studies has always been driven by the crucial project of transforming the category of the universal (frequently a mere metonym for “the West”) into a relative concept rather than a model, both in an affirmative sense and in a negative sense. In the affirmative, such a project attempted to take the geopolitical fact of uneven development, under conditions of global imperialism, back into the aesthetic order of theory itself, to subject theory to alternate forms of generation, different points of emergence, and new lines of filiation. In the negative sense, the project of postcolonialism desperately sought and continues to seek a kind of simplistic aesthetic of the outside, increasingly divorced from the reality of our current global political and social situation, filling the empty signifier of the “non-West” (a category that more or less remains fully tethered to the earlier arrogant notion of “the West” itself) with a rehabilitated Orientalist content and fetishistic conceptions of difference.

Fredric Jameson has argued that since the 1970s we have been experiencing “a process in which the last surviving internal and external zones of precapitalism – the last vestiges of noncommodified or traditional space within and outside the advanced world – are now ultimately penetrated and colonized in their turn. Late capitalism can therefore be described as the moment in which the last vestiges of Nature which survived on into classical capitalism are at length eliminated: namely the third world and the unconscious.” 3 Leaving aside here the complex overlapping of the concepts “third world” and “unconscious” – we might say polemically that the postcolonialist drive to “rediscover” the Third World as an empirical entity to be substantialized as a basis of theoretical positions mirrors closely the right-wing post-Freudian fantasies (Jungian and so forth) of rediscovering a positive, empirical content to the unconscious through historical regressions and reenchantments of the disenchanted social sphere of capitalist modernity – we ought to ask two interrelated questions: 1) why has contemporary postcolonial studies so often easily acquiesced to a rather gestural space of fantastical investment in the putative substantiality of the colonial difference, a difference that postcolonial studies itself emerged to critique? 2) Why, in turn, has contemporary Marxist theory so easily turned away from the anti-colonial struggle and critique of the centrality of colonialism to the formation of capitalist modernity that characterized so crucially the development of twentieth century Marxist thought? In between these two questions, then, is where we will situate the present discussion.

In the recent debates around the publication of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital, 4 the increasingly incoherent schemas through which this parallax between theoretical problems has been worked out (or perhaps “worked through” in the vocabulary of trauma studies) have become all the more obvious. For all of the analytical strength of Chibber’s dissection of the reactionary nativisms and culturalist chicanery that contemporary postcolonial studies largely inhabit, he poses against this space a vocabulary of rationalism, enlightenment, and a free contractual social sphere. Chibber’s Benthamite vision of capitalist society’s drive for homogeneity, however, does nothing meaningful to counteract the reactionary drift of postcolonial thought in recent years, since it poses merely as a caricatured critique of a caricatured tendency. Chibber’s hyper-rationalism, in this sense, merely nourishes its culturalist, nativist obverse, forming a perfect circle that mutually reinforces each supposedly “opposed” aspect of its function.

The Implosion of Postcolonialism

There is a frequent suggestion that a certain moment of postcolonial studies – that is, the full institutionalization of postcolonial historiography, postcolonial literary analysis, and so forth – is today little more than a “safe,” “comforting,” and “decent” field of analysis, devoted to the intellectual encouragement of the proliferation of “difference” for its own sake. And yet it is simultaneously our shared moment of the hegemony of global capitalism, which appears to be a smooth and systematic integration of these differences, that presents itself as the greatest challenge to our thought. Perhaps we have not even begun to think the true issues posed by the postcolonial condition that we remain within. In the following pages, I want to argue that in order for us to be able to produce both militant investigations of our current conjuncture, whose name is simply global capitalism, but also to be able to conceive of the possibility of political responses to it, we must perform a “double session” of intervention into postcolonial studies. In other words, in violently critiquing the “safe” and “comforting” postcolonialism as narrative of the putatively holistic other’s beautiful soul, we must also violently rediscover the fundamental problem for politics and thought that remains or resists – the restance – in this term “postcolonial.” 5

The theoretical and political sequence inaugurated by the work of Marx remains a central source for the theorizations of postcolonial studies today. An essential element of Marx’s project, what he called the analysis of the “historical presuppositions for the becoming” 6 of capital consists in the demonstration of the fact that this “becoming” is always intertwined and inseparable from the enclosure of territory, the formation of bounded units inscribed in a hierarchical set of relations. As is well known, in the final section of the first volume of Capital, Marx carefully outlines the degree to which, therefore, the emergence of capital, which is never a substantial object but itself a social relation, went hand-in-hand with the emergence of colonies, the slave trade, and the enclosure of newly “discovered” territories, examining in particular the political-economic consequences of policies such as E.G. Wakefield’s theory of “systematic colonization.” Through Marx’s reading strategy, therefore, we can see that the primitive or original accumulation which forms the basic presupposition on which capital’s own self-movement can unfold is also an expression of the formation of the modern international system of nation-states in gestation. As we know today, it is furthermore in the form of the colony that we find the laboratory in which the techniques of violence, domination, and subjugation characteristic of the management of the modern nation-state were developed and perfected. Numerous and divergent studies have shown that the centrality of the police-function, the role of systematic hygiene, and techniques of government to manage, classify, and analyze the population – all characteristic of most contemporary nation-states today – were previously key elements of colonial rule.

In other words, the object of postcolonial studies, which analyzes the contemporary and modern relations of power in terms of the irreversible historical fact of imperialism, is a theoretical framework which shares with Marxist theory the analysis of the “historical presuppositions” for the becoming of the network of organized social forces which supports the contemporary order. Just as labor’s expropriation, the violence of its capture, is erased by plugging up the ontological gap in capital’s smooth circuit-process through the semblance of labor-power, so too the nation-state’s postcolonial condition always attempts to erase the traces and continuities of colonial violence by means of its own refined violence (a violence which was itself perfected in the colony).

What I want to point out here is that the legacy of colonialism, and the irreparable history of the colonial past, is a sedimented and irredeemable element of the form of the nation-state itself – we might even say that “colonization” can also be understood as the process of enclosure of the nation-state itself, the violent concatenation of elements into a putative national unity. That is, there can be no such thing as a nation-state which is not bound up to some degree with the colonial index of modernity – hence why Foucault continuously pointed out in his work of the late 1970s and early 80s that no state can avoid becoming involved in racism at some point. By this formulation, I do not mean that therefore power relations are irrelevant. On the contrary, the relations of power among and between nation-states remain a critical problem for politics and thought. But if today there is also something like postcoloniality as a general effect which conditions global life, it seems to me that this tells us something important about the historical and theoretical relation between colonialism and capitalist development taken as a whole. Indeed, it is this problem that requires us to formulate new ways of posing the “national question” to account for this situation today.

The contemporary global order of the world, whose unit is the nation-state, is of course stratified and uneven. But capital itself can always account for this – in fact, capital names that social relation which relies precisely on folding its resistant exterior back into its own internal workings. That is, capital does not simply feed off its outside or difference – it encompasses the outside by making it appear and function as if it were posited by its own interior. Capital in essence may take various distorted “national” forms, but even when these forms are apparent deviations, it is accomplishing its own project. This is precisely why it is not enough to point out the rather obvious “uneven development” of the world, or observe that this “uneven development” exhibits a certain “evenness” from capital’s own perspective. The point is rather that “uneven development” is a problem of a world composed of states while the logic of capital, as a logic, is completely removed from the question of development itself. And yet, the excess within the logic of capital contained in the problem of this Anfang or beginning in effect demands the production of uneven development in order to unfold its dynamism as a beginning, an inception, a logical starting point. In order for capital to expand, to constantly reproduce itself on an ever-expanding scale, the cyclicality of the labor process must be assumed to operate smoothly on the level of logic. That is, the logic of capital represents the historical labor process to itself as if it contains no gaps, ruptures, or boundaries to its circuit process. Because the business cycle must expand on the presumption of its own possibility, the historical development of capital always relies on capital’s inner logic, while the logic itself must also rely on the field of history to understand the excessive or irrational element of capitalist production in the form of the so-called “primitive accumulation.” It is precisely in this sense that we must understand concretely the contamination or “intercourse” between the historical and the logical in the social relation called “capital,” in order to understand the limits and possibilities of postcolonial studies.

The historical presupposition for the becoming of capitalism is the existence of certain organized social forces that are capable of commodifying labor-power, forces that are capable of ordering, dividing, and redeploying sequences that have been made commensurable with each other and with capitalist production. In order for capital to exist, there must have been a set of presuppositions that allowed and fostered its becoming. Many of these forms are guaranteed and secured by the state, by the way in which the state gives itself an image of the “nation,” which folds back onto itself and legitimates it. Every “distorted” or “particular” expression of a putatively “national” capital is an expression of the way in which capital has demanded its own deployment, and this deployment has always been intimately related to and reliant on the form of the colonial difference, the way specific difference is organized and inscribed in the state-division of the world.

It is exactly on this point that postcolonial studies can be a critical force, not only for the critical re-examination of the Marxist theoretical legacy, but also for the renewal of Marxist theory. That is, postcolonial studies can take up the “national question” in a completely different manner from the way Marxist theory has traditionally understood it, by emphasizing a return to the “relations of production,” not merely understood in a strictly “economic” way, but in terms of the relations and forces at work in the historico-epistemological “production” of “backwardness” and “national particularity” itself. The analysis of global capital today shows us how in a certain set of circumstances, we encounter the “economically given social period” [ökonomisch gegebnen Gesellschaftsperiode] 7 as if it were a type of specificity whose character is eternal. In other words, capital is a social relation which always “gives itself” as if it were endless, as if it were grounded in the putatively “natural” elements it needs to legitimate itself. But in fact, the formation of these supposedly natural and ancient elements is part and parcel of how capital emerges onto the world stage through the formation of a chain of specific differences out of a field of pure heterogeneities. What this leads us to, then, is a reconsideration of how the so-called “national question” is posed, and what, if anything, it can tell us about the potential of postcolonial studies.

The National Question, or the Schema of “the West and the Rest”

The so-called “national question” is often treated within the intellectual history of Marxism as a self-evident field of problems, that is, it is often accepted that the national question is first and foremost a question of strategy and tactics with a clear aim and obvious place within the process of revolutionary politics. But it is also, and perhaps more importantly, the theoretical site in which we find the basic concern of postcolonial studies – the analysis of our contemporary world through the lens of the irreversible, irrevocable, irredeemable fact of the historicity of colonialism and imperialism. At the same time, the national question can be seen to be the most essential site of Marxist theory, because it is the central nucleus around which is gathered an amalgamation of contradictions related to a very specific theoretical problem: what is the relation between capitalist society and the logic of capital? That is, what is the relation between a social formation in which the capitalist process of accumulation is the already-established driving force of historical life, and the internal logic according to which this form of capital exists as an “abstraction in actu,” the internal and purified circuit-process (Kreislaufsprozeß) 8 identified by Marx? In order to examine this problem in light of the rethinking of postcolonial studies, I want to briefly take up two recent symptomatic texts that perform a problem that the existing postcolonialism cannot resolve. This problem is that of “Eurocentrism.”

Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, widely praised for giving us a new picture of Marx’s understanding of the world, follows a typical path in its argument: by carefully excavating the new texts and critical editions being gradually published in the MEGA project, we can see that not only did Marx have a familiarity with the national situation outside of Europe and North America, but he also gave credence to the idea that the European model of capitalist development was not the sole path towards social revolution. 9 Insofar as it is posed in this manner, Anderson’s argument is straightforward: the great figures of modern “Western” thought were more familiar with the situation of the non-European world than is often acknowledged. 10 But Anderson utilizes this material to make a broader point: he attempts to defend Marx against the charge of Eurocentrism, the accusation that Marx’s grasp of the national question simply presumed the primacy of the western European situation, and specifically the analytic centrality of the history of the development of English capitalism. In this sense, he seeks to discover a corrective in the historical record to this charge, a means of emphasizing that Marx’s theoretical innovations, the critique of political economy, were always-already interventions into a global sphere, interventions whose generality exceeded the supposedly archetypal situations of their genesis. By extensively demonstrating that Marx was intimately familiar with the colonized world and the geopolitics of capitalist development outside of “the West,” Anderson unquestionably forces us to read Marx’s historical and political analyses as a more intimate constitutive moment of his theoretical work as a whole. Marx at the Margins is an important, crucial reconstruction of the scope and breadth of Marx’s historical analysis, one that should be rightly celebrated for its archival recovery and conceptual rigor. While I would not want to criticize Anderson’s project as such, both because it is a tremendously valuable discussion of Marx as well as a unique historico-theoretical text in its own right, it is perhaps a symptomatic text that shows us a broader, more general problem in its method of supposedly resolving the question of Eurocentrism, a problem that is symptomatic of the double bind of postcolonialism.

Throughout Anderson’s text, the means of demonstrating theory’s resistance to Eurocentrism appears to be primarily a question of a clear and rigid demarcation between the fields of “theory” and “data.” Here, the most effective means of defending Marx against the accusation of Eurocentrism consists in examining Marx’s texts and searching for exegetical evidence that Marx was in fact familiar with the “non-Western” world. But critically, we can notice immediately that such a mode of analysis remains captive to one of the foundational problems posed by the critique of Eurocentricity to begin with: in the production of knowledge, a division of labor between theory or “theoretical concepts” and data or “empirical concepts” is mapped onto a cartographic imaginary of “the West” and “the Rest,” and this conceptual division is retroactively taken as a “proof” or legitimation of the cartographic division. As a consequence, Anderson’s text can be read as having precisely the inverse and self-directed effect: it in fact consists in a perfect demonstration of something like a Eurocentric overcoming of Eurocentrism. This operation is thus an “endogenous” resolution to Eurocentrism, a kind of revisionist history of theory itself, in which it is claimed that rather than being unaware of the rest of the world, Marx in fact already anticipated this critique. Needless to say, this logic remains based on a naïve “protocol of reading” in which the inclusion of more and more varied materials is expected to retrospectively exercise an effect of transformation on the theoretical situation into which such materials are incorporated. But while the Eurocentrism of the study of history can to some extent be displaced by the empirical analysis of heretofore understudied areas and languages, it cannot be overcome simply by means of such inclusions. The logic of Eurocentrism is not merely a hierarchy or ranking of already-established and self-contained unities but rather a cognitive schema of the world itself as a total expression of social relations. In this sense, divergent areas, languages, cultures, experiences and so forth can be incorporated into it without disturbing the function of this schema. Thus, it is critically important to understand the epistemological consequences of this schema’s operation.

More than the inclusion of larger and larger amounts of localized data, our attempts to rethink and repoliticize the potential of postcolonial studies must rather target and critically dissect this “division of labor” itself which on both “sides” remains wedded to this division, which in turn denies the possibility of “theory” outside the West. This type of analysis thus ignores the more profound field of possibility for “the national question,” which would be a creative forcing (a forçage in Alain Badiou’s terms) of a recalibration of Marx’s theoretical work in terms of the formation and maintenance of the systematic order of nation-states that sustains the schematic of “the West and the Rest” in theory as the division of labor between “theory” and “data.” That is, Marx’s work already contains a theoretical explication of the national question that does not require the empirical “discovery” of some miniscule note that would “let him off the hook,” so to speak. Moreover, the critique of Eurocentrism as it has operated within the orbit of Marxist theory does not fundamentally hinge on the relative “guilt” or “innocence” of Marx and Engels and their lack of inclusion of concrete materials from diverse locations. Rather the critique of Eurocentrism must be a critique of a theoretical practice in which “the Rest” furnishes raw elements to be computed and theorized in the laboratory of “the West,” thereby denying the globality of theory from the outset. In such a well-oiled schematic, the simple inclusion of greater and greater masses of overlooked information can never trouble or destabilize Eurocentrism.

If the general problem expressed methodologically in texts like Marx at the Margins thus represents an “endogenous” or centripetal motion in theory, a burrowing in of Eurocentrism towards itself, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential Provincializing Europe represents the opposite tendency, an “exogenous” or centrifugal movement in thought, a surmounting of the exterior, that attempts to show the dispersal of Eurocentrism towards its outer boundaries. In a sense, Vivek Chibber’s recent work, in posing against Chakrabarty a simple and unproblematized “universalism” of capital – equated with political rationality, social conformity at a planetary scale, and a belief in the sphere of “culture” as a superficial accompaniment – forms with Chakrabarty a perfect systemic binary of misunderstanding as to how the capital-relation itself deals with its “outside.”

Chakrabarty has attempted to theorize this problem through a division of the historical process into two categories, what he calls History 1 and History 2. He theorizes “History 1” as the internal logic of capital itself, what he calls “a past posited by capital itself as its precondition.” 11 In other words, Chakrabarty understands this History 1 as the essential motor-force or dynamics of how capital founds and maintains its own narrative, the history that it tells to itself. For Chakrabarty, this is capital’s own “universal and necessary history,” the internal circuit which is never interrupted or concerned with the “local” but only with its own ceaseless, smooth circuit-process. On the other hand, he argues that there is also in Marx something which Chakrabarty calls “History 2,” those narratives and forms of history that “do not belong to capital’s life process,” things which, although they may contribute to the reproduction of capital, do not necessarily “lend themselves” to capital. These “History 2s” are the central question for Chakrabarty, because for him they “inhere in capital and yet interrupt and punctuate the run of capital’s own logic.” 12 Therefore History 1 must constantly attempt to destroy or subjugate these History 2s, which contain alien elements that cannot be digested or integrated into capital’s own smooth circuit-process. But the central problem with this narrative (of History 1 and History 2) and its political consequences is the inability to account for the schematic distribution of positions to each of these polarities, the parceling out of functions within this system which apparently has two distinct “sides.” That is, Chakrabarty seems to believe that History 1 (the logic of capital) exists at a strong distance from History 2 (the multiple life-practices that do not inhere in capital), and that therefore resistance takes place within History 2, resistances that mobilize History 2’s internal tendency to “interrupt” or “punctuate” the logic of capital as a closed circuit. Chakrabarty insinuates that History 2, therefore, is essentially “difference,” while History 1 is “homogeneity,” or “sameness.” Or to rephrase the political consequences of this (at risk of simplification), he implies that History 1 is the universal spread of global capital, a logic with its origins in a Western narrative of modernity, while History 2 names the subaltern, particular sites of incomplete capitalization, those sites whose “life-processes” are not necessarily countable by Western modernization, a dissemination of an order of functioning in terms of the overall schema of “the West and the Rest.” Nevertheless, in my view the decisive point is that Chakrabarty’s schema, because it in effect takes this apparent “split” between the general movement (capital’s self-deployment) and the particular gradient of its localization (the putative “cultural” substratum) at face value, he cannot get us out of the historiographical reinforcement of the binary structure of “the West and the Rest,” but rather remains securely within this schematic. Chakrabarty’s schema tends to imply that “History 2” or “cultural specificity” is the site of potential, the place from which capital’s smooth logic is punctuated and interrupted. But capital is not an object which exists in its full plenitude somewhere; it names a social relation that emerges from within the field of practices as a whole and recodes their ordering mechanisms, placing terms into relations that did not previously obtain by means of a “semiotic overcoding.” As a consequence, capital ensures that, by coding vast fields of practices with its own internal directionality, practices which are apparently “outside” of its logical operation are neither troubling nor disruptive of its function. Chakrabarty’s argument cannot account for the foundational problem of capital’s logic, a cycle reliant on an irrational or excessive moment that is passing through all social life – the impossibility or absurdity of the fact that relations among human beings can never simply be purely commodified, but are nevertheless smoothly circulated as relations among things – a moment wherein an abyssal gap opens under capital’s movement when it confronts the instability of the supply of labor-power that can be commodified, the foundational input for capital’s putatively smooth circuit-process. The commodification of labor-power constitutes precisely this excess, an excess that is nevertheless “allowed” to pass through or that is “conducted through” the situation by the formation of the so-called “relative surplus population.” Capital is incapable of “producing” labor-power as a commodity, but it can to some extent act as if this labor-power is “ready at hand” or “indirectly” produce it by means of the industrial reserve army on the level of history. It is at this logical moment that capital has to recode on a macro-level its basic “salto mortale” or “fatal leap” of exchange (because every act of selling is a leap without guarantee) and act as if it can function as a pseudo-completeness in order to expand itself in the form of the business cycle. 13

In other words: how does capital’s logic relate to its outside, both logically and historically? This is the crucial point that grounds the entirety of capitalist accumulation and its spread, a point to which Chakrabarty pays inadequate attention. In Chakrabarty’s discussion, all power of interruption exists on the side of History 2, on the side of “specificity,” “particularity,” or “the Rest,” while History 1 only exists in order to be interrupted. But this cannot account for the way in which capital itself deploys the production of “specificities” themselves – that is, for capital, this “History 2” is not the resistant exterior which prevents History 1 from effecting its complete self-deployment, but something which always exists in a corollary, complementary, or complicit relation to it.

The logic that inheres within capital as a social relation shows us precisely why there are many problems with locating the resistance to capital in something like Chakrabarty’s notion of “History 2,” the local non-capitalist practices or field of given, empirical concepts which supposedly punctuate and interrupt capital’s full deployment. If we do so, the motor-force of history comes to be located in the stratum of “culture,” in the substantiality of specific difference. Yet as Marx incessantly pointed out, not only in Capital, but in innumerable discussions, the “original sin” of the so-called primitive accumulation is “at work everywhere” (die Erbsünde wirkt überall), 14 a constant undercurrent of capital’s motion. It is this element that suspends the possibility of the “givenness” of a national community, of locality or specificity as a force of resistance, precisely because the continuity of practices or “cultural” modalities that supposedly remain in place across eras have become inhabited with a “new social soul,” and thereafter cannot avoid commodity-economic determinations. Instead, even if the practices are similar, the “original sin” of primitive accumulation has ensured that these practices now connote something completely different, that they are now commensurable with capitalist development. In other words, capital is always creating the local, forming specificities, and organizing a systematic accumulation of differences. Thereafter, capital attempts to show that it is itself “indigenous,” that its functioning stems from its locality. But this is capital’s basic trick: to take those conditions that it itself posits and retroactively claim them as the necessary preconditions for its own full deployment. The enclosure of elements into regions of specific difference establishes a regime according to which difference is itself always mobilized for capital’s smooth functioning.

It is not simply that “the West” is the concretization of capital’s drive in a territorialized sense. Rather, capital’s axiomatics rely precisely on the entire “genetic matrix” of “the West and the Rest” as a schematic: “the inward production of alterity and the outward production of alterity formed part of the same dispositif of power. The coloniality of power and the coloniality of knowledge found themselves located in the same genetic matrix.” 15 In other words, the precondition of the movement of generality (the logic of capital) is contained in its deployment of enclosure; in order to recode the surface of the earth, it must retabulate the existing elements from a pure heterogeneous flux into specificities. Therefore, we must always analyze the mutual complicity between the general and the specific, between “the West and the Rest,” which is illuminated for an instant in the continually renewed process of primitive accumulation as the impossible origin of order itself. Capital’s gap is that it arrogates itself as a logic, but this logic can only function insofar as its configurational elements are accidentally encountered in history, that is, it only becomes what it is through a “random” meeting or pure accident – the “immaculate conception” of labor-power, the Ur-Objekt that allows the capitalist commodity to emerge as a perspectival force.

It is precisely the generality of this stratum of putative specificity which is so crucial for us to analyze today, because focusing on the formation process of this stratum itself can allow us to generate new possibilities for thinking the politics of theory, and in particular those of postcolonial studies, past the dead-end of contemporary universalisms, which constantly and desperately try to recuperate the fantasy of “the West,” as well as those contemporary particularisms, which always end up reinstalling a bearer of the historical process in the illusory concreteness of native “specificity” as a marker of legitimation. This universalism tends to always take the enunciative positionality of the “West” as a conceptual unity, and therefore poses the response always in the form of choosing “political struggle” over “embracing difference.” (Although I otherwise value many of his interventions, Žižek’s frequent tendency to fall into this false choice is symptomatic.) Thus, we must pose something else in contradistinction to the resolutions of Eurocentrism posed by both Anderson’s “defense” of “Western Marxism” and Chakrabarty’s appeal to “postcolonialism” as a substantial outside to “the West,” or indeed to Chibber’s naive belief in capital’s own quasi-logic as a “rational” explanatory mechanism, reminiscent of exactly the political confusion Marx derided in bourgeois political economy (after all, he argued, the bourgeois political economists, when confronted with a “sudden inversion” [plötzliche Umschlagen] – perhaps of “culture” – something that appears as the glimmer of the irrational outside within the putatively rational inside, these  “agents of circulation” [die Zirkulationsagenten], or perhaps in our time the fantasists of “economic rationality” such as Chibber, become overawed by “the impenetrable mystery surrounding their own relations”). 16

We should instead emphasize that capital’s internal logic shows us an image of neither “the West” as a model, nor “the Rest” as a pure outside, but of “the West and the Rest” as an axiomatic field that produces and pre-posits its own gaps, ruptures, and openings. In this sense, the national question – whose ideological limit-point is the formation and maintenance of the field called “the West” or “Eurocentrism” – is the nodal point around which not only another theory of politics, but also another politics of theory can emerge. Precisely because it is the function of the nation as an image to bridge the gap between subjective ideology and state subjection, its operation as a “passional and living form” shows us the site of the “first realization” of the volatile amalgamation of capital’s “qualitative homogeneity” and “quantitative competition,” thereby working as the primary lever to transform the state into a “model of realization” of the capitalist axiomatic. 17

The schema of “the West and the Rest” shows us perfectly that just as capital relies on its paradoxical outside in the form of a wager, so too the West can only act as if its historical accidents were the presuppositions upon which it extended itself. In turn, “the Rest” can only interrupt the smooth cyclical violence of “the West” by playing the role of supplement, by acting as if its dispensability were a sign of its microscopic wholeness. In order to push this entire schema towards its tipping point of volatility and eventual implosion, we ought to exploit the cognitive mapping so characteristic of Eurocentrism and turn it against itself – it is this point on which a new possibility for postcolonial studies has recently been articulated.

The Postcolonial Condition

I would like to argue that a rethinking of the potential of postcolonial studies, beyond the limitations of postcolonialism’s “culturalist” orientation, depends on its ability to grasp the new modes of operation of global capitalism. It is precisely this double project that animates Sandro Mezzadra’s La condizione postcoloniale: Storia e politica nel presente globale, 18 a work that forms a crucial and important synthesis of not only the theoretico-historical role of postcolonial studies, but also a set of potential tasks for contemporary theory itself, for the present and future politicality of theoretical practice, and especially for the future of postcolonial studies.

From the outset he emphasizes that, although it may seem strange in a text explicitly devoted to “the postcolonial condition,” what is basically “in question, in the following pages, is contemporary capitalism.” That is, what Mezzadra attempts to do in this important work is to complicate and enrich the critical analysis of contemporary global capitalism, and particularly, to focus on the exchange between capital and “the lingering antagonistic determination” of the social relations on which it is founded. This situates then, one of the most important aspects of Mezzadra’s work: a rethinking of postcolonial studies in a dense parallax with a reexamination of the central concerns of the Marxian theoretical project, paying careful attention to the most recent shifts in contemporary capitalist development.

He locates the background of this question in a series of recent moments: the emergence of the wide ranging discussion of “globalization” and the constitution of the world itself as a singular unit of analysis, the political energies unleashed on this world stage through the moments of the Seattle and Genoa protests, the challenges posed to the writing of history by new modes of historiography, and the complexity of the phenomenon of European integration for the questions of the nation-state and the struggles of migrants. A crucial point that Mezzadra makes at the outset of this text is that it was the publication of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire in 2000 that drew a connection between these diverse phenomena and various theoretical strategies. But one of the results of the publication of Empire was also the broadening and “globalization” of the theoretical mode of inquiry characteristic of Italian operaismo. Therefore, we should note from the beginning of this book that its engagement with postcolonial studies can also have an interesting effect on debates outside Italy, by inserting a fresh and divergent reading (a certain “Italian effect”) of its thematics. Yet as Mezzadra points out, in invoking Edward Said’s discussion of the “traveling” of theory, this “Italian effect,” or the operaismo inflection of postcolonial theory, has another reflexive operation. That is, it not only constitutes a divergent intervention into postcolonial studies in general, but also in the resulting “hybridization” of the Italian theoretical tradition, functions as an “antidote” against all depoliticizations and neutralizations of the political and theoretical radicality of operaismo.

Importantly, Mezzadra draws our attention to the distinction between the postcolonial condition and “postcolonialism,” arguing for a more free use of the categories and discoveries of postcolonial critique for the formation and development of a “new paradigm of critical thought.” Postcolonialism – in essence, the received academic “category” or “safe” discourse of the supposedly “postcolonial” world in a substantial sense as an “outside” – and a general grasp of the postcolonial as a condition of the contemporary world, must be rigorously differentiated. Žižek and others have continually pointed out that postcolonial studies has been prone to a dangerous substantialization and romanticization of the politics of identity, the politics of the simple recognition of difference. While agreeing with this critique, what Mezzadra points out is precisely that it is this aspect of “condition” that enables a different iteration of the term “postcolonial”:

But things change, as we shall argue, if one takes the postcolonial condition seriously, distinguishing it (at least to begin with) from postcolonialism, and viewing it as a Foucauldian archive in which images, concepts, and words are deposited, enabling one critically to reconstruct the contour of our present. It is possible then to accept, at least in part, the substance of the criticisms that we have mentioned but nevertheless to insist on the timeliness of giving the term “postcolonial” a key role in the vocabulary of critical thought. 19

In other words, despite the importance of such rejoinders against a certain practice of postcolonial studies that tends towards a fetishization of a putatively substantial civilizational difference, the problems posed on the level of theory by the postcolonial condition remain decisive for a thinking of the question of “the immediate political character that differences assume in the contemporary global arena.” In this sense, postcolonial studies has its most critical function in its capacity not to merely recognize or endorse some substantial fantasy of “difference,” but rather to critically and theoretically decipher the specific strategies operating underneath every phenomenal manifestation or discourse of difference. That is, the decisive question in the postcolonial condition is not “difference” itself, or any substantialization of “culture,” but rather how this putative difference is employed, arranged, and deployed according to a schematic of the modern world. Postcolonialism tends to become nothing more than a historical fetishization of difference entirely compatible with contemporary capitalist development, but the postcolonial as a “condition” of the modern world, a “condition” of contemporary capitalism, expresses something crucial about how this historical fetishization forms an absolutely necessary part of capital’s deployment on a world scale. In effect, the fact that the forms of difference that characterize the schematic ordering of the contemporary world are not only compatible, but also beneficial to capitalist development is not what disables postcolonial studies. Rather, this fact itself can be made into the most crucial enabling site of possibility for a postcolonial studies to come, a new politicization of its project. Contrary to the criticisms of Žižek, for instance, 20 who frequently argues that postcolonial studies simply fetishizes the colonial difference in the manner that capital itself does, it is precisely the task of postcolonial theory to elucidate capitalism’s capacity to extend itself, to demonstrate its “occult quality” of self-expansion, by inhabiting and territorializing itself in the form of “national” difference, “colonial” difference, “civilizational” difference. Rather than critiquing this intellectual field for somehow being “captured” by capital, it is precisely the fact that forms of identity are always-already captured that makes them sites wherein the global order is continually composed and recomposed in miniature. Mezzadra’s answer to a certain critique of postcolonial studies is crucial, because he already anticipates this criticism at a higher level of synthesis and attempts to go beyond it. Mezzadra effectively summarizes his response to such criticisms in the following statement:

The problem that Žižek appears to ignore – indeed, Peter Hallward’s critique of postcolonialism, which builds upon Žižek’s argument, risks to end up proposing, once again, the nation-state as the only horizon within which it is possible to re-inscribe practices of emancipation – is that, generally, in anti-colonial struggles and, specifically, in postcolonial critique, the stakes can no longer be local, and are – it doesn’t matter whether out of necessity or choice – unavoidably and immediately global, that is to say, necessarily and contradictorily universal. 21

This immediate and direct universality of the struggle against capital, taken in its broadest sense as the ultimate self-limitation of our world, therefore is always linked to an extent with what Étienne Balibar has often referred to as “the anthropological difference.” 22 Here, one critical question in terms of the formation of postcolonial studies as a discipline would be located in an entirely different genealogy of concepts, one passing through readings of Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and others, that would treat anthropology not in the “simple” sense of the term, as a mere ideology, but rather as a mediating material figure of the complexity of the historical process, another point, for instance, upon which we can adequately critique Chibber’s image of the rational human as a kind of transhistorical given in the economic process. In other words, because the reliance by capital on the schematic array of differences furnished and maintained in the contemporary world constitutes the concrete reality of the globality of the present, we must also look for the antecedents of this theoretical problem in the historical production of the individual, tracing and outlining the parallel levels of the anthropological foundations of the modern state. This broad re-investigation of anthropology on a theoretical level would reveal to us a long and complex history of “a continual movement of inclusion and exclusion with which the individual is imagined and constructed.” 23 This production of difference by means of an oscillation or torsion between inclusion and exclusion culminates in the discourse of citizenship, which underpins not only the modern state-form but its genesis in the form of empire and colony. Here we confront immediately the “logic of contractualism” (so beloved of Chibber) that underpins the creation of the citizen, the “free” contractuality of social life that stabilizes the “enclosures”  or “borders” of the regime of citizenship, installing a discourse of governing and managing the state centered around what Locke called “property in his own person.” That is, through this “pre-history” of the postcolonial condition, we are alerted immediately to the chain of signification between the logic of the citizen as image of the state, and the logic of property as a microphysics of capitalist development as a whole. This dual homology traces for us the inscriptions of power that irreparably condition the modern regimes of citizenship and that continue to show to us what is at stake in the state’s policing of the figure of the citizen.

It is no longer a surprising or shocking historical intervention to note that the regime of control constituted by the discourse of citizenship is something that has a directly colonial legacy, but it remains an important task to theoretically demonstrate how the political and juridical theorizations that accompanied the colonial project attempted to naturalize “precise racial hierarchies” in the division of the earth itself, recalling among others Schmitt’s notion of the originary nomos of the earth that characterized the juridical field of the colonial era, the jus publicum europaeum. 24 What we must constantly emphasize is the cyclical deployment of borders, margins, limits, interiors and exteriors, in the historical production of the “colonial difference,” the means of recoding the “incommensurabilities” of the world as hierarchical commensurabilities, whereby the underdeveloped or colonized are temporally located in a permanent “waiting-room of history.”

Yet, this systematic logic of capture is only part of the story. The paradox of the historical formation of the colonial difference and its juridical recoding is that it is being continuously undermined from within by the “discovery of equality” (in Frantz Fanon’s phrase) that the increasing integration of the world has implied. In other words, by integrating the world into a single schematic, based on the unit of the nation-state, the colonial project also produced the conditions for a global politics of equality, by placing “difference” into an overall framework of “commensurability.” It is precisely this moment that shows us the way in which the history of the anti-colonial movements, those political irruptions that demanded that the nascent equality implied in the organization of the world be raised to a principle of society, continue to impact our world today, insofar as it is irreversibly and irrevocably “a” world. Therefore, the history of the twentieth century can be characterized by this colonial paradox – on the one hand, this “discovery” of the world as a world produced an “irreversible threshold” in the historical process of planetary unification. On the other hand, insofar as this unification is a historical tendency that emerges from the colonial scenario, it also shows us that the colonial project is always tensely moving in two directions at once: it requires the form of confinement above all else – the bordering of groups, national languages, racial hierarchies, and bounded spaces. At the same time, the principle of equality or globality that is produced under the effect of the colonial enclosures is precisely a revolt against this confinement or bordering itself, the development for the first time of a world as world (rather than a world as collection of divergent parts). This form of enclosure thus “constitutes the fundamental principle and at the same time, the internal limit, of the colonial project.” 25

Today we remain within this tension or paradox, in a world in which “humanity” itself is framed, in the final analysis, as an expression or hallmark of the fantasy of the universality of the West, or as the “real abstractions” (the money form and the commodity form) of the global capitalist order. This fact forces us therefore to confront the question of historiography today, historiographies concerned with the globalization of the world, new histories of the world as a world – the limits and potentials of a “world history” or Weltgeschichte. Returning throughout his work to a reading of the work of the Subaltern Studies group, Mezzadra emphasizes the importance of their project for its historiographical putting into question of the received ordering of historical time. The prior orderings of time in the form of “historical” and “prehistorical” are always founded on a certain distribution of “historicality” and “progress” that are inseparable from the experience of colonial expansion. Passing through readings of C.L.R. James, Guha, Chakrabarty, Koselleck, Spivak, and others, Mezzadra reminds us that what is in essence at stake in postcolonial critique is not simply a putting into question of the normative value of “progress” in its putatively “Western” mode, but rather a reconfiguration of historiography that demonstrates the centrality of colonialism for the epistemic presuppositions of European modernity.

By emphasizing through these readings the necessity of treating the colony as the “laboratory of modernity,” we are constantly being violently re-introduced to the contingencies, erasures, and acts of ordering that produce the retrospectively “proven” history. In other words, postcolonial studies’ capacity to open up, disaggregate, and recompose the “order of discourse and silence” that organizes the “historical archive” can intervene in our understanding of the power relations that produce historical fields and objects themselves, the epistemic relations that enable “the production of an event as a historical event.” 26 This understanding in turn invites us to problematize the lexicon of universalism as well as the canonical organizations of knowledge implied by it, and also simultaneously allows us to produce a sound antidote to the proliferation of mere apologies for “difference.” The necessity of this doubled intervention is at base a recognition that the theoretical split between the universal and the particular is itself a discursive dyad (what Naoki Sakai for instance calls “the schema of co-figuration”) that participates in the epistemic violence of a world divided between “normal” (West) and “backwards” (Rest) distributions of historical time. But the postcolonial viewpoint has an important site of intervention against this logic: its historical character of irreversibility that underpins all global history insofar as it is truly global. This irreversibility is contained in the point that the violence of origin imposes “a common language which erases forever any experience of difference that has not been mediated by the colonial relations of power and by the logic of global capital.” 27 It is the sense of the term “post” in the phrase “postcolonial” that opens up the capacity to politicize the study of history precisely because of this irreversibility, which furnishes a theoretical condition for its own exposure and critique, not only to “subvert the canon,” but more importantly, to inquire into these laboratories wherein this canon was, and continues to be, materially produced.

In geopolitical terms, the ongoing integration of Europe is something that cannot be divorced from the legacy of the “colonial project.” Here we might reference again the important work of Étienne Balibar, who has extensively pointed out that the colonial legacy of Europe was not only a certain encounter with “otherness” but that this “otherness” itself served as a mechanism of Europe’s own identity, its virtuality, its power. 28 In other words, the “image” of European “civilization” was always from the very outset constituted through a movement of constant comparison with images of the other space, the figures of the “barbaric savage” – but also paradoxically, images of the “freedom” of these “savages” themselves. Therefore, these supposed “savages” have never been something peripheral to Europe, rather this image of the other is “implied” from the outset as the central figure through which the putative unity of the space and concept of “Europe” could be conceived and articulated. Here we see also the older split between “the citizen” and “the subject,” understood broadly as the discourse which separated the juridical formations of the metropole and colony, the supposed “proof” of which was the disjunction of historical time in these two zones.

But, as we see today, this discourse is both reproduced and simultaneously no longer capable of justifying itself. This situation is precisely what Mezzadra calls “the postcolonial condition”:  “a situation in which the ‘metaborder’ between metropolis and colonies no longer organizes any stable world cartography but the possibility is given that it reproduces itself, in a rather fragmented way, within the territory of the former metropolises themselves.” 29 It is precisely in the midst of this “condition” or “situation” that the question of the European constitution (both in the sense of its formation and in the legal sense) is posed – it is a constitution in a process of “becoming” that takes its point of departure from a “situation” (both European integration and the irreversible global condition of postcoloniality) that is itself in a process of “becoming.” Therefore, the European constitution is an inherently ambiguous notion, one that cannot be so easily understood on the basis of received history. On the one hand, the European constitution is open to its constant transformation, but also must be organized in a way that is significantly different from one characteristic of the experience of the modern State. It is clear that one characteristic of the form of the modern nation-state, its rigidity of bordering, is being partially undone by the form of European integration, and the constitution is capable of responding to and concretizing this form of social life past the boundaries of the nation-state. But we must not see in this “fact” (that is, a tendential movement of the situation but not a fait accompli) a celebratory space: rather, this ambiguity of the situation opens up innumerable directionalities of social life, both with potential and with danger. These “open” characteristics also contain the new borders or confinements of freedom and arbitrariness, in which the transition from the paradigm of government to the paradigm of governance opens up the space for new forms and new techniques of governmentality, that are not necessarily “softer” than the ones connected to the traditional paradigm of government.

Therefore, in order to understand European integration and the conception of the constitution within the contemporary postcolonial condition, it is critical to understand how this “openness” and these “new margins” are implicated in the roles of migration and the figure of the “citizen.” Mezzadra points out that rather than being “integrated” into the new Europe-wide form of citizenship rights, an increasing number of people are living within Europe as the objects of governmentality but not as the participants of “civil society.” Rather, they are being held in stasis, in an “internal exclusion” (in Balibar’s terms), 30 in a domain outside civil society that is nevertheless internal to the social mediations of the bounded space simultaneously functioning as an “internalization” and “taming” or “domestication.” The governance of the migrant does not aim at stopping or eliminating migration itself, but rather at “domesticating” it; in other words, Balibar claims that “the effect of this border regime is to produce a movement of selective and differential inclusion of migrants.” 31 This “selective and differential inclusion” whereby movement itself, and the social composition of this movement, is included but not integrated into the social policing of the border, is an essential part of the functioning of the European space (and we might say, increasingly an essential part of the functioning of the nation-state and superstate organizations as a whole today). In this sense, the question of the European constitution is nothing less than a critical site wherein we can decompose the inherited and “given” appearance of the concept of citizenship, or its “formal, institutional definition,” and rethink it in terms of the centrality and importance for contemporary governmentality of the “social and political practices” that challenge this formal definition.

In this vein, I want to briefly focus on Mezzadra’s discussion of the work of Naoki Sakai, because it is in this analysis that the central theoretical physics of the problem of postcolonial studies can be most clearly articulated. Here, the logic of capital would be expanded in a critical oscillation with the question of translation, as a means of understanding more profoundly the overall dynamics behind the recalibration of social life implied by today’s condition of postcoloniality. 32 This theoretical articulation is not merely devoted to the problem of translation as a “cultural” field, but also to it on a general level, as a term that expresses a certain basic operation of power: how a coherence can be cyclically forced into smoothness where it should be strictly impossible. Here Mezzadra develops Sakai’s insistent reminder that translation is never the simple transposition of two distinct, unitary fields, or the movement from one substantial position to another. Instead, translation must always be understood in a Foucauldian sense, that is, not as an encounter between two already existing discrete entities, but as a social act of articulation through which “two sides appear” in the first place, or more rigorously, as if in the first place. Although not itself directly engaged with the Marxian field of problems as such, this analysis on a logical level is deeply enmeshed with the question of capitalism’s origin, functioning, and reproduction on a world scale. 33

Capital, the fundamental social relation of self-expanding value, is expressed above all in its composition, the constitutive elements out of which its pseudo-totality can be identified. In this sense, the concept of “class composition,” as developed in the early work of Negri and others, returns our attention time and time again to the moment of translation, the moment of the enclosure of the flux of life into “two sides,” the owner of the form of labor-power, and the owner of the form of money. This moment therefore shows how the originary division is constantly or always-already returning in contemporary capitalism’s reliance on the new modes of the border: the composition of contemporary living labor is crisscrossed at all times by this multiplicity of the modes of its capture. Here, by emphasizing the relation between capital’s self-valorization (Selbstverwertung) and the question of translation, we can perceive immediately that translation is an act through which for the first time a border between one thing and another thing appears. Prior to the act of translation, the border cannot be drawn. Thus, it is not that translation is a space that occurs after the disaggregation of a continuous space into two zones. Rather, translation names the act in which two zones appear for the first time. But the “magic” of translation as an ideology, like the self-definition of capital, is something which covers over its own contingent origins. That is, although translation occurs prior to the establishment of two distinct zones, its effects are represented as if they preceded the act which produced them. Thus, two distinct zones are naturalized as if they existed prior to translation, when in fact they are traces of the act of translation itself. Here we can immediately see that the problematic of translation, which attempts to unbind the indexicality of the schema of “the West and the Rest,” is always already related to the problematic of transition, in which the paradox of the articulation of modes of production is analyzed on the level of the logic and history of capital. This dual problem is posed as follows: “global capitalism is characterized by the fact that capital as translation is compelled to confront the problem of the establishment of the conditions of possibility of translation at the very level of its everyday operation,” not only once, but constantly as if for the first time. 34 Thus, because “the regime of translation” or its representation in effect covers over or forces through an intervening schema of “smoothness” that makes it appear as if it were the natural result of an already-existing situation, the problem of translation and its representation effectively shows us an essential element of how capital functions: it is always recoding its own basis or extending itself as if its own productions were already present, what Althusser for instance called “the becoming-necessary of contingency.”

The critical differential that Sakai continuously points out between translation (a general name for any social act of articulation in the space of difference) and the representation or the “regime” of translation (an act or set of acts of signification in which this contingent act is represented as a stable exchange) can clearly be developed with capital’s own cyclical tendency to justify itself on the basis of its own effects. labor-power, along with land, are the two elements of capitalist production that can be circulated as commodities, but that cannot be originally produced as commodities. Rather, they must be “encountered” or “stumbled upon” historically in order to function logically. Already this introduces a rupture or gap into capital’s own image of itself. Further, once capitalist production is established as a circuit-process, capital must continuously utilize the form of the “relative surplus population” to pretend or act as if labor-power can be limitlessly supplied, in order to expand itself in the form of the business cycle. Therefore, labor-power, the pivot or motor-force of capital’s expansion and reproduction, is strictly speaking absent, but is mobilized as a trace. Thus, capital extends itself on credit by means of a logical wager with the level of history, a wager on the traces of the body of labor-power, which cannot be said to have a stable or substantial existence, but only a presence as a semblance of itself. Paradoxically, capital functions precisely because of this absence. In turn, this paradox as it appears in the dual relation of capital’s self-expansion and the problem of translation can allow us to rethink the dead-end of contemporary “universalisms” and “particularisms,” both theoretical directions that are being rendered impotent by the new social relations, the postcolonial condition, emerging in capital’s recalibration of its order.

Above all, the potential of postcolonial studies depends on a rethinking of the problem of the “so-called primitive accumulation” (ursprüngliche Akkumulation or “originary accumulation”) as the background to the questions of origin, border, mobility, and historical time: the violence of the “political constitution” of the labor-power commodity and therefore of the labor market. 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, if we know that at the core of this problem is an even more basic one, the complexity of the commodification of labor-power, Mezzadra reminds us: “the problem of the production of the labor-power commodity is a production that affects bodies and alters souls, a production that invests and intertwines [stravolge] the terrain of life itself in an absolutely concrete and determinate manner.” 35 His analysis is thus not primarily concerned with the question of primitive accumulation simply as the “previous concentration of capital” for the beginning of capitalist reproduction; rather Mezzadra utilizes this moment to analyze the violent production of the conditions of possibility for capitalist relations of production, for the “encounter” between buyers and sellers of labor-power. Yet, here we must also recall that postcolonial historiography has repeatedly reminded us that the history of “subaltern” revolts against their own proletarianization, the struggles that condition the establishment of the capitalist mode of production, have never once been “idyllic,” but rather mark a dense violence of revolts of the oppressed, and the “reckless terrorism” (Marx) used to suppress them. The movements of the subaltern are therefore fundamental elements of the process through which the production of labor-power as a commodity is determined, rather than simply political correlates to an austere and one-sided process. 36 Thus, part of the historiographical importance of postcolonial studies for our moment is precisely to open and expose the element of “composition,” the active force and role played by the “subaltern” in the advent of capitalist society, a process that is never complete, but that is always being renewed and redeployed. The seeming double-bind contained in the violence of the indirect “production” of the labor-power commodity, whose social-historical origins lie in Marx’s discussion of the so-called “primitive accumulation,” might appear to disable any conception of political intervention, to be a closed circle, but we could also say that the global postcolonial condition today shows us precisely the opposite. In this cyclical erasure of violence by means of violence in the problem of the origin, “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.” 37 What Negri reminds us here is not that the process of primitive accumulation inversely “restores” some notion of the subject as a given, as a firm substratum or substance, but rather the opposite. The process of primitive accumulation, and its paradoxical position within the logical core of capital, “restores” for us the “dynamism” of contingency that remains at the basis of all attempts to conceive of the subject as a given, as a preexisting element. Because primitive accumulation indicates not the advent of a fully-formed capitalist cycle, but rather the contingent and hazardous field of chance in which the primal compositional elements of the capital-relation are gathered and arranged, it also indicates the primordial process by which the subject is imposed onto the individual body, as well as the process by which this form of the subject is utilized as a lever to force the emergence of processes of individuation necessary for capital’s “laws of motion.”

In other words, paradoxically it is the fact that our foreclosure into the social field has taken place that opens the possibilities of politics. Here is exactly the political potentiality that we see at work in postcolonial studies’ potential to rethink and reanalyze the raw undercurrent of violence that sustains the social order and its torsional exposure of the excess of force that is never quite covered over by capital’s recoding of itself. That is, a new politicality for postcolonial studies comes from the overlapping of theory and history or translation and transition.

In particular, Mezzadra’s emphasis on the specific problem of labor-power as a commodity allows us to reconceptualize the “historical and moral” factors that underpin the cyclical reproduction of capitalist society: the epistemic ordering of the world through the form of the border, the institution of national language, the intimacy between the new nationalisms, new racisms, and regimes of citizenship. All these moments can be richly theoretically analyzed as part and parcel of the maintenance and supply of labor-power that can be commodified through the specific form of population. Therefore, Mezzadra’s discussion is both one that returns postcolonial studies to the question of the emergence of the capitalist commodity economy, and at the same time, one that returns Marxist theory to the critical concerns posed by the formation of the nation-state as a mode of belonging, and it is this theoretical model that holds possibilities not only for thought, but for our own political potential. But we might also say that this formulation points to a new theoretical beginning for postcolonial studies: one in which the questions of “uneven development,” “unequal exchange,” and so forth, which characterized the early politicality of postcolonial studies, are displaced (but not denied) in favor of a return to the “conditions of production” of the postcolonial order of the world itself. In other words, such a new point of departure can allow us to analyze a world in which the forms of difference that compose it are increasingly becoming direct factors of production, directly political in and of themselves. Thus we see that “colony” means something much broader here than the empirical experience of colonialism. It means the enclosure of territoriality that the state requires in order to give to itself an image of “the people” or “the nation,” so that it can discover its own legitimacy, so that it can assuage its own doubts about itself. In this sense the experience of coloniality is itself located in the epistemological trace of the border, the originary gesture of bordering, in which modern life is always-already enclosed.

The contemporary phenomenon of the simultaneous overcoming and multiplication of borders is not understandable without recourse to the interchange or intercourse between the state and all its forms (its need for an image of the “nation” or “ethnos” to ground itself, its insinuation from this drive for the “nation” into the policing techniques of the national language, its expansion into superstate forms of being, its capacity to dislocate and refound itself) and capital’s ceaseless enclosure of the earth. The original border that holds back (and yet enables) capital’s dynamism is precisely the border between capital itself and the labor-power that it requires yet cannot produce. This border permeates and torsionally spreads throughout the other bordering forms that emerge in the historical world, underpinning them and referring them back to capital’s “outside.” Postcolonial studies, after the “implosion” of postcolonialism, remains crucial in its political grasp of this “paradoxical” outside – an outside that is never a pure exterior (because its “borders” are drawn in the interior of capital’s motion as a pure circuit) but that is an undercurrent of potential always present in social life. As Marx’s work so frequently reminds us, the distinguishing characteristic of all social existence under capital is that social exchange must always take place as the exchange of things, that all social acts must be mediated by the commodity form. It is precisely on this point that a new politicality for postcolonial studies opens – the need to constantly analyze the contemporary postcolonial condition of the world in a parallax with capital’s own movement, which can never be divorced from the acts of bordering that take place under its aegis. In this sense, the politicality of the postcolonial condition of contemporary capitalism as a problem “helps us to question any simple notion of the ‘We’ we refer to in our political practices. But at the same time it leads us to intensify the search for a new ground of commonality.” 38 This commonality, or commons, is something that can never be “discovered” as a substantial and territorialized “we” or “them” – rather, only insofar as we always attempt to undermine the inherited violence of agglomeration that is covered over by this “we” or “them” can we imagine a new commonality beyond the form of identity.

This double structure reminds us that it is not enough to simply critique institutionalized postcolonialism for its “burden of particularism” – it is also necessary to defend the potentiality of postcolonial studies against the direct accusation that it is solely reducible to the “weak thought” of so-called “identity politics.” In order to think at the limit of this potentiality, we must above all refuse the false choice that is posed between the culturalism of identity politics and the rejection of these same politics for being insufficiently “political.” In fact, this schema of two positions (on the one side, the substantialist fantasies of particularism and on the other, a reinvigorated and narcissistic Eurocentrism of universality) itself is what postcolonial studies, and particularly a new postcolonial historiography, exposes as fundamental to the very structure of colonial modernity itself – I think here of the originality of the work of Achille Mbembe, Ann Laura Stoler, and others who refuse the enclosure into the schema of “anthropological difference” posed by this ideology of “two sides.” 39 The postcolonial is a condition of contemporary capitalism that renders this tendency towards a simplistic split between the universal and the particular largely incoherent as an organizing mechanism for global social relations: on the one hand it exposes our conception of world as an agglomeration of given national entities with supposed roots in antiquity to its logical instability; on the other, the colonial situation shows us the discovery of the world as a world, as logically prior to the form of the nation. Yet, as a general rule, we have very few examples of what a “world history” would actually look like, despite the fact that we have long had the concept “world history” or Weltgeschichte. In this sense, Marx is one of the few figures whose work presumes the existence of “world” as a world, and not as an agglomeration of nations. He begins his historical analyses from what he called “the economically given social period” (ökonomisch gegebnen Gesellschaftsperiode) 40 and not from the presumption of the nation’s continuity or substance. 41

The potential for postcolonial studies to be a site of militant investigations will depend on its capacity to recalibrate itself through a broad swath of theoretical moments – new historiographical studies of imperialism, colonialism, and the formation of the “international world,” the critical study of the ideology of national language and theory of the regime of translation, new radical legal analyses of citizenship and migration, and a reinvigorated political reading of Marx – in order to clarify the emerging “conditions” we face today. It is this space, pointed to by Mezzadra among others, that gives us an impetus and concrete direction for a new politicization of historiography beyond the dead-end of the culturalist incoherence within which so much of contemporary cultural studies, media studies, and literary studies is embedded (one might ask where our equivalent of Stuart Hall is today 42 ), and which can no longer justify its image of the world. This new expression of the rich potential of postcolonial studies as a militant and directly political field of theory is a task: neither the fantasy of the full plenitude of ethnic substantiality, nor the safe narrative of some undiscovered “cultural” content that leads us to a place of comfort, but “nothing less than the task of creating a form or symbolization of the world… a struggle of the West against itself, of capital against itself.” 43 Precisely because the pyramidal structure of knowledge centered on the pinnacle of “theoretical man” is the ultimate incarnation of this absent object called “the West,” and the figure of the static and frozen archaeological or cultural treasure is the incarnated form of “the Rest,” we can exploit this figuration by a theoretical resistance to the schematic of “theory and data” itself. Without this coordinate, there is no need for the supposedly “explanatory” mechanism of “the West and the Rest” – thus to employ putative “data” as theory, to treat theory as an archaeological object or curio in a constant dislocation would be one step towards a broader task: not the provincializing of Europe, but the provincializing of “the West” as a schematic, that is, a new and fluctuating diagram on the Earth’s surface, a remapping of the primacy of social relations in an improvised territoriality that does not obey the capitalist axiomatics contained in the form of the national border.


1 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 191. All translations from languages other than English are mine unless otherwise indicated. An earlier version of part of this text was published in Japanese as “Gendai shihonshugi ni okeru ‘minzoku mondai’ no kaiki: Posutokoroniaru kenkyū no aratana seijiteki dōkō” [The Return of the National Question in Contemporary Capitalism: New Political Directions in Postcolonial Studies] in Shisō, no. 1059, July 2012 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten), 122–47. Thanks to Sandeep Banerjee, Asad Haider, and Rachel Sandwell for helpful comments on this version.
2 Sandro Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale: Storia e politica nel presente globale (Verona: ombre corte, 2008), 18.
3 Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s,” Social Text, no. 9/10 (Spring–Summer 1984): 178–209, 207.
4 Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital (London: Verso, 2014).
5 See Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
6 Karl Marx, Economic Manuscript of 1861–63, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 34 (New York: International Publishers, 1994), 247.
7 Karl Marx, “Marginal Notes on Adolph Wagner’s Lehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, trans. Barrie Selman, vol. 24 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1989), 547, translation modified; “Randglossen zu Adolph Wagners Lehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie” in Marx-Engels Werke, bd. 19 (Berlin: Dietz, 1962), 371.
8 See Marx, Das Kapital, bd. 2 in Marx-Engels Werke, bd. 24 (Berlin: Dietz, 1973), 109; Marx, Capital, vol. 2, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 36 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1997), 110.
9 Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). In this sense, Anderson’s text simply repeats the points made by Teodor Shanin in the 1970s and ‘80s, albeit with reference to broader materials. See Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and “The Peripheries of Capitalism” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).
10 Susan Buck-Morss’ important Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009) reminds us of the decisive influence of the concrete historical revolutions in the Haitian scenario not only on Hegel’s historical understanding, but on his theoretical work itself.
11 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 62–63.
12 Ibid., 64.
13 Without question, the most extensive development of Marx on this problem is that of Uno Kōzō. On Uno’s work, see in particular Gavin Walker, The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), esp. chapters 4 and 5.
14 Marx, Das Kapital, bd. 1, in Marx-Engels Werke, bd. 23 (Berlin: Dietz, 1972), 619; Capital, vol. 1, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 35 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1996), 589.
15 Santiago Castro-Gómez, “Ciencias sociales, violencia epistémica y el problema de la ‘invención del otro’” in Modernidades coloniales: otros pasados, historias presentes, ed. Saurabh Dube, Ishita Banerjee Dube, and Walter Mignolo (México: El Colegio de México, 2004), 296.
16 See Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie in Marx-Engels Werke, bd. 42 (Berlin: Dietz, 1983), 365; Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1857–1858 [Grundrisse], in Marx-Engels Collected Works, trans. Victor Schnittke, vol. 29 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1987), 378–79.
17 See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux (Paris: Minuit, 1980), 558; in English see A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 456.
18 Sandro Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale: Storia e politica nel presente globale (Verona: ombre corte, 2008). For a discussion of Mezzadra’s work in English, see Gavin Walker, “Postcoloniality in Translation: Historicities of the Present,” in Postcolonial Studies 14, no. 1 (February 2011): 111–26. Mezzadra has also edited an important volume of analyses of the current moment of capitalist development: see Andrea Fumagalli and Sandro Mezzadra, eds., Crisis in the Global Economy: Financial Markets, Social Struggles, and New Political Scenarios (New York: Semiotext(e), 2010).
19 Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale, 24.
20 See in particular on this point, Žižek’s “Political Subjectivation and its Vicissitudes” in The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (London & New York: Verso, 2000), 171–244.
21 Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale, 35.
22 See among many important texts, his “Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Anthropology” in differences 20, no. 2/3 (December 2009): 9–35.
23 Ibid., 43.
24 Carl Schmitt, Der Nomos der Erde im Völkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europaeum (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1974); The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, trans. G.L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, 2003). On the relation between Schmitt’s discussion in The Nomos of the Earth and the formation of systematic difference in the advent of capitalism, see Gavin Walker, “Primitive Accumulation and the Formation of Difference: On Marx and Schmitt,” in Rethinking Marxism 23, no. 3 (June 2011): 384–404.
25 Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale, 53–54.
26 Ibid., 62–64.
27 Ibid., 65. This point also references Federico Rahola’s Zone definitivamente temporanee: I luoghi dell’umanità in eccesso (Verona: ombre corte, 2003).
28 Here see Étienne Balibar, Nous, citoyens d’Europe?: Les Frontières, l’Etat, le peuple (Paris: La Découverte, 2001); in English see We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, trans. James Swenson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.
29 Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale, 85.
30 See Balibar’s now-classic essay “Citizen Subject” in Who Comes After the Subject? eds. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York: Routledge, 1991).
31 Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale, 86.
32 Mezzadra’s essay “Living in Transition,” dedicated to an important political reading of Naoki Sakai’s work, can be consulted in The Politics of Culture: Around the Work of Naoki Sakai, eds. Richard F. Calichman and John Namjun Kim (London: Routledge, 2010). This essay also appears as chapter six (“Vivere in transizione”) of La condizione postcoloniale.
33 Here we could mention Sakai’s extraordinary Voices of the Past (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), which undertakes a complete archaeological analysis of the production of the sentiment of nationality, and therefore is a document that traces the capture of a flux of signification into an order of meaning that we are still living through. Although I do not have space here to undertake this argument extensively, the cross-reading of Voices of the Past with the analysis of the problem of “beginning” (Anfang) in the work of Marx would reveal, I believe, a “secret” or “underground” reading of capitalism’s originary circuit of entry into the historical world in this text.
34 Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale, 113.
35 Ibid., 132.
36 Ibid., 138.
37 Antonio Negri, Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, trans. Harry Cleaver et al. (London: Pluto, 1991), 111.
38 Mezzadra, La condizione postcoloniale, 126.
39 On this point, see two essays, both absolutely essential for an understanding of this question – Achille Mbembe, “Provincializing France?” and Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Aphasia” in Racial France, a special issue of Public Culture 23, no. 1 (Winter 2011).
40 Marx, Das Kapital, bd. 1, 371; Capital, vol. 1, 547.
41 On the “defective circle” of capital’s logic, the extraordinary work of Yutaka Nagahara must be mentioned, in particular his two recent major books, Warera kashi aru monotachi: Han-‘Shihon’-ron no tame ni [We, the Defective Commodities: For an Analytics of Anti-‘Capital’-ism] (Tokyo: Seidosha, 2008) and Yasagure-tachi no gaitō: Kashi sonzai no seiji-keizaigaku hihan josetsu [The Rabble on the Streets: Introduction to a Political Economy of Defective Existence] (Tokyo: Kōshisha, 2015). Nagahara’s unclassifiable intervention into Marxian political economy is perhaps the only true attempt, on a global scale, to re-read the economic content of Marxist theory by means of an intensive reading of postwar critical theory, especially through the work of Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and many more thinkers. It is an understatement to emphasize here that Nagahara’s exceptional body of work over the last twenty years ought to be much more widely disseminated in western European languages.
42 The recent republication of much of Stuart Hall’s crucial work shows the regressive space that the project of cultural studies has largely fallen into today, suspended between positivist archival transformations of more and more obscure infrastructural examinations, and increasingly frivolous, totally depoliticized accommodations to middle-class cultural and aesthetic preferences. The main antagonism underlying all of Hall’s work – how to join an anti-capitalist politics to an anti-racist politics in the postcolonial condition – remains one of our central tasks, and we might profitably today rethink Hall’s development of the concept of the “articulation” between these moments, in our own conjunctural terms. For a brilliant recounting of his project as a whole, see Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
43 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World, or, Globalization, trans. François Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), 53.

Author of the article

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