After the endless crisis of Marxism, the universal applicability of a materialist reading of history has lost much of its credibility, but it has opened up a new perspective on Marx as a uniquely perceptive commentator not only of his own time, but also of ours. One of the most remarkable essays in this respect is his commentary on the rise of the future French emperor Napoléon III in Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (1852). Marx’s detailed account of French politics between 1848 and 1852 has generally been considered a “largely unintelligible compendium of anomalies”, and at best as the “untidy version of the 1859 Preface”. But in fact, this text “reveals that Marx was a pioneer analyst of the politics of representation and a first-rank theorist of contingency.” (Carver 2004 104, 108-9). In times when political leaders are ridiculed as idiots and feared as ghosts of an uncanny past, Marx’s analysis of Bonapartist rule offers what might be called a “spectral” analysis of the vicissitudes of political power.

Many considered Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873), nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, and emperor of the French Second Empire (1852-1871), to be a fool. After a hare-brained coup d’état against the regime of king Louis Philippe in 1836, he went into exile in London, where he wrote Des Idées Napoléoniennes (1839), in which he claimed his uncle’s legacy as a new Caesar, as “exécuteur testamentaire” of the French Revolution, and as savior of the French nation (Bonaparte 1839, 15-30). Despite his adoption of the cloak of Napoléon, a second coup d’état the nephew staged in his uncle’s name in 1840 was also a failure “beyond comedy”, as the Journal des Débats commented: “One shouldn’t kill fools, but they should be locked up” (quoted in Milza 2004, 128). And so it happened. Nevertheless, Louis Bonaparte was able to amass a following, which in 1846 helped him to escape from prison and to go back to London.

Louis returned to Paris two years later, after the revolutionaries of 22-24 February 1848 had ousted king Louis Philippe, and only a few days before Karl Marx entered the city. Although Marx quickly moved on to Germany, he became a witness and commentator of the remarkable turn in the career of Louis Bonaparte. On the basis of the new constitution, reintroducing general male suffrage, Louis won a seat in the National Assembly in the by-elections of June 1848, and on 10 December he won the first presidential elections by a landslide, notably because of the support of the French farmers, who probably supported anyone by the name of Napoléon. Within four years, he became president for life, and finally emperor Napoléon III. Even then, the famous author and member of the National Assembly, Victor Hugo, wrote a scathing critique entitled Napoléon le Petit in which he argued that Louis was “a personnage vulgair, puerile, theâtral et vain”. He was maybe after all “not an idiot”, but definitely a crook and a fraud, who “doesn’t speak but only lies” (Hugo 1852, 19, 21, 34 and 39).

In Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, Marx initially seemed to follow the ridicule of Hugo. He famously opened his comments on Louis Bonaparte’s path to power with the statement that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 1852, 103). Yet in opposition to this ironical reading of political history, Marx then seemed to present a materialist analysis of his times, arguing that “upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of different and distinctly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations” (Marx 1852, 128).

However, as Marx remarked in the 1869 preface to the second edition of Der achtzehnte Brumaire, he rejected not only Hugo, who unintentionally gave the “little Napoléon” world-historical proportions, but he also criticized the materialist reading of the events by the anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who ultimately had celebrated the coup of Louis Bonaparte as a necessary moment in the march towards democracy (Marx 1869). Instead, the gist of Marx’s argument was that history is not fully determined by class dynamics. For one thing, “sentiments and illusions” are transmitted “through tradition and upbringing” as a result of which people “may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting-point of his activity” (Marx 1852, 128). It was as a result of such “traditional” self-conceptions that labor was divided between workers and farmers, the latter of whom were deceived about their position due to their relation to the land. But also the bourgeoisie was divided between the supporters of the house of Bourbon (which ruled during the Restoration between 1815 and 1830) and the Orléanist supporters of the dethroned king Louis Philippe, who were both unaware of the actual basis of their difference as a conflict within the bourgeoisie between landed property and financial capital. More importantly, the bourgeoisie became only belatedly aware of “the logical conclusion [of] its own parliamentary regime”, namely that it “lives in struggle and by struggle” (Marx 1852, 142).

The result of these accumulated contradictions was a general confusion about “alliances whose first proviso is separation; struggles whose first law is indecision; wild, inane agitation in the name of tranquility; most solemn preaching of tranquility in the name of revolution; passions without truth, truths without passion; heroes without heroic deeds, history without events” (Marx 1852, 125). In these opaque conditions, Louis Bonaparte was able to rise above the warring parties, and to present himself as the savior of the nation, who claimed to serve the interests of “the people”, yet in his claim to restore “order” actually saved the bourgeoisie from its own divisive weakness. At the same time, it brought him increasingly into conflict with the parliamentary party of order, leading to a pattern not unfamiliar to the observer of contemporary Trumpist politics:

As often as the ministers dared to make a diffident attempt to introduce his personal fads as legislative proposals, they themselves seemed to carry out, against their will only and compelled by their position, comical commissions of whose fruitlessness they were convinced in advance. […] He behaved like an unrecognised genius, whom all the world takes for a simpleton. (Marx 1852, 140)

The conflict with the parliamentary party of order became even more intense after it abolished universal male suffrage – according to Marx “the coup d’état of the bourgeoisie” (Marx 1852, 146). It enabled Louis Bonaparte to present himself as the only representative of the people’s interest – who thus should have no limit to his presidential term. To plead his case directly with the people, he toured around the country, accompanied by the members of the “Society of 10 December”, an untidy assembly of  “pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème” (Marx 1852, 148). Like Trump’s community of twitterati after him, Louis Bonaparte thus successfully created an alternative theatre of political representation that became a fundamental challenge to parliamentary power. It helped Louis to stage the coup d’état of 2 December 1851, and a plebiscite that legitimized his installation as emperor exactly a year later.

The essence of Marx’s explanation of the success of Louis is expressed in the famous line “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx 1852, 103). Against the tendency to interpret this statement as a confirmation of historical determinism, it actually forms the starting point for a “spectral” analysis of political power, defined not by any iron laws of history, but by the imaginary force of the past, in which the “tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (Marx 1852, 103).

In many different ways, Marx emphasized the spectral nature of the historical processes he was witnessing. It was not just the “specter of communism” which was haunting Europe, but more importantly the ghosts of the past defined the present by a process which Marx described as “world-historical necromancy” (Marx 1852, 104). It was evidently first of all the spirit of Napoléon which inspired the remarkable rise of the nephew, but before that already, the contemporary political stage had been dressed by the players of the past. Just like the French Revolution had re-enacted the Roman Republic, so had the revolutionaries of 1848 followed the script of 1789. But while in previous revolutions, “the resurrection of the dead […] served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old”, in the revolution of 1848 “only the ghost of the old revolution walked about” (Marx 1852, 105). Louis Bonaparte was no more than a degenerate schemer who “conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery” (Marx 1852, 149). He was so enthralled by staging his own image that he became “the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history” (Marx 1852, 150).

Despite its imaginary character, this masquerade of history had a fundamental political impact. By resurrecting the ghost of Napoléon, Louis forged a constituency out of a formless mass of individuals. On the one hand, he constituted “himself chief of the Lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally” (Marx 1852, 148). On the other hand, he forged a unity from the “vast mass” of the small-holding peasants, who “live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another”, “formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes”and therefore . “incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name”. In this respect, Napoléon performed an essential role: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself” (Marx 1852, 187-8).

Marx’s aesthetic theory of representation – prefiguring Ankersmit’s (2002) notion that representation is not a mimetic copy, but a creative imagining of what is represented – implied that civil society was subjected to a “state machine” led by a “casual adventurer from abroad, raised up as leader by a drunken soldiery.” (Marx 1852, 186). Louis positioned himself at the same time as the impartial champion of the public order and as mouthpiece for large sections of French society that so far had failed to find a political expression of their interests. Yet the success of the new emperor’s imaginary power was also due to the fact that it had entertainment value for a society that according to many succumbed under petty self-interest: “Violent political passions have little hold on men who have in this way attached their entire soul to the pursuit of wellbeing,” argued Tocqueville (1840, 1139). Or as one of the main protagonists of the revolution of 1848, Alphonse de Lamartine, argued more pointedly in 1839, “La France est une nation qui s’ennuie!” – 1968, prefaced by a similar discourse of boredom, was in many ways a re-enactment of 1848 (Lamartine 1839; Viansson-Ponté 1968). Louis Bonaparte was leader of the bohème, and the political dandy par excellence, who turned politics into a costume party, dressing up in military attire as the emperor that had long been dead, and thereby demonstrating the imaginary nature of Bonapartism as a mode of political power.

In the end, Marx rejected the scenario Bonapartism enacted as that of the French Revolution “in reverse” (Marx 1852, 124). In this zombie-version of history “Men and events appear as inverted Schlemihls, as shadows that have lost their bodies. […]  When the ‘red spectre’, continually conjured up and exorcised by the counterrevolutionaries, finally appears, it appears not with the Phrygian cap of anarchy on its head, but in the uniform of order, in red breeches” (Marx 1852, 125).This obsessive re-enactment of the past contrasted sharply with  the nature of a truly social revolution, which “cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. […] In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead” (Marx 1852, 106).

The utopian energy of this progressive revolutionary ideal defined the political logic of the century between 1848 and 1968. But this legacy of the social revolution survives today only “sous une forme spectrale”, in the guise of a melancholic longing for a past long gone (Traverso 2016, 21). Marx’s analysis suggests that the demise of progressive history at the same time revealed the spectral nature of political representation. Bonapartism, and related forms of political power such as populism, are “specters of democracy”, that might bring power to the imagination, but it may also awaken the specters of the past that haunt us in our political nightmares.


The concept of biocapitalism emerged within debates on global bio-industries, including reproduction industries, and the political project of a ‘bioeconomy’ that the OECD advocates since the mid-2000s. ‘Biocapitalism’ refers to processes of the primary valorization of materials derived from human bodies and nonhuman living beings, to the meaning of these processes for capitalist accumulation strategies and to related transformations of modes of labour, exploitation and subjectivation. Although the realities and prospects of biocapitalism make it necessary to go beyond Marx’ critique of political economy and to include analyses of gender relations, the (post)colonial situation, 21st-century biopolitics, and human-nature relations, Marx’ theory of capitalism provides crucial insights on which a critical theory of biocapitalism can build. In particular, Marx’ analysis of the commodity-form, his concept of labour, the theory of primitive accumulation, and his analysis of the ground-rent are widely discussed with respect to biocapitalism. Basically, a critical theory of biocapitalism needs to explain how it is possible that materials such as egg-cells, sperm or organic tissue circulate as disposable things. Although these ‘things’ must, to a large extent, be conceived of as proto-commodities rather than as commodities proper because their exchange is rarely fully monetized, Marx’ critique of commodity fetishism is instructive. It reveals that an analysis and critique of biocapitalism should not focus on the ‘things’ in question – their specific biological properties, respectively their naturalness or artificiality. In contrast, what needs to be scrutinized are the social practices and relations through which body materials come to function as commodities or proto-commodities, and that constitute subjects as proprietors of their bodies and body materials. To a large extent the difficulties that a critical theory of biocapitalism faces result from the fact that primary valorization refers to materials and processes which do not exist in unmediated ways but which are made accessible or generated only through techno-scientific procedures, and thus knowledge production and technological intervention. Because biocapitalism refers to organic or sub-organic materials and processes, analyses of biocapitalism are frequently shaped by a vitalist vocabulary. In order to translate this vocabulary into a critical social theory, and to make clear that what is at stake is not ‘life itself’ but historically specific practices and relations, it is helpful to refer to Marx’ vocabulary of political economy. According to Christian Zeller, Kean Birch and David Tyfield, Marx’ analysis of ground-rent provides a model for understanding how, in biocapitalism, rent is derived from knowledge which is enclosed as intellectual property. Other scholars draw a comparison between biocapitalist primary valorization and Marx’ analysis of the process of primitive accumulation. Following Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, the constitution of new biocapitalitst resources and (proto-)commodities can be understood as new enclosures and as another extension of capitalist accumulation to its non-capitalist milieu. Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby stress that this extension entails qualitative modifications, namely an “experimental intervention into the temporality of living matter” and an “active shaping of the body through scientific technologies” (Cooper & Waldby 2015, 94). Indeed, the enclosure of common land in 17th-century England, too, not only constituted private property but transformed society at large and modes of existence, including body and nature relations. Not least, primitive accumulation, broadly conceived, included the shaping of the labouring subject, or of individuals that conceive of themselves as proprietors of a potential called ‘labour power’. Neither ‘labour’ nor ‘labour power’ are thus universal concepts, as Marx highlights in the Introduction to the Grundrisse from 1857, but belong to bourgeois society. This insight should be kept in mind if the concept of labour is used to politically articulate biocapitalist relations of exchange as exploitation. Although it certainly makes sense to argue that monetized or semi-monetized practices such as surrogacy, egg cell and tissue ‘donation’, or participation in clinical trials should be regulated through labour legislation in order to guarantee some legal protection, Marx’ analysis of wage labour opens up another perspective: the transformation of social relations that rely on the appropriation of foreign labour power. A critique of biocapitalism thus has to do more than claim legal protection of labour, body, and nature. It needs to scrutinize all social relations that account for the production, circulation and consumption of bio-materials. Accordingly, a critical theory of biocapitalism cannot restrict itself to an accumulation-centred analysis of capitalism but needs to understand (bio-)capitalism as social formation that integrates monetized and non-monetized economic forms, multiple forms of power and domination, and re-shapes subjectivities, needs and desires. In addition, it re-shapes body politics and human-nature-relations and constitutes new forms of extractivism. Certainly, a critical theory of biocapitalism – which still needs to be formulated – has to renounce the double temptation of techno-determinism and economism, but it can get much inspiration from the praxeological aspects of Marx’ thought.


The Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism, with its 15 volumes and several hundred articles, might provide a good example of the negligent treatment issues around migration have received in the realm of Marxism in the past. Including entries about things such as “fairy tales”, the “occupy movement” and “Hollywood”, the encyclopedia makes no mention of borders, migration or migrants, which seems quite counter-intuitive considering the role of migration both for the labor market and the constitution of the working class as a political subject. However, as we will see, the Dictionary does not tell the entire story about the relationship Marxism has, and has had, to the question of borders. Also, this is not the conventional story about Marxists somehow misunderstanding and distorting Marx.

Going “back to Marx” does not seem to provide a good route to an answer, as Marx and Engels didn’t pay much attention to the role of borders, or migration in general, themselves. The reason for this might be that the meaning of borders has changed drastically over the last century. In Marx’s time, borders were important as boundaries separating political entities and national economies. Although Marx did not treat them directly with regard to the role they play in the regulation of populations, they can surely be considered as partial factors that constitute and determine the value of labor. The passage in Capital, in which Marx reflects about what he calls the “historical and moral element” in “the determination of the value of labour-power” (MEW 23, 185; Marx 1976, 275) is particularly open for such an interpretation. When he writes that “the labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear, and by death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power” (MEW 23, 186; Marx 1976, 275), he talks about the costs that workers have to bear to raise their children. However, the mere notion that the general costs of labor power are also determined by a potential or virtual labor force certainly brings the question of migration into play.

When we think of borders today, we have in mind rather their function concerning the movement of people, particularly as part of a body of regulations that produces the distinction between citizens and foreigners (with plenty of subcategories). However, during most of the 19th century, workers in Europe weren’t citizens and were as disenfranchised as most labor migrants around the world today. This changed slowly, beginning by the end of the 19th century. Capitalist societies increasingly integrated workers – mostly as a result of political and economic struggles of the worker’s movement. With the increasing implementation of social rights into the framework of the state the “national social state” (Balibar 2003) took shape, i.e. a state that appears to represent not only the interests of industry and corporations, but that – to a certain extent – also regulates working hours, enacts basic welfare standards, and protects its working population by controlling the labor market. Parallel to this transformation of the state, the function of the border changed. Now it does not only delineate the space in which a particular state (and the power bloc that inhabits the core of the state) has sovereign power. On the material level, the border can serve as a tool to employ measures of economic protectionism, both against commodities and labor forces from abroad, since the influx of labor into a national labor market always has a significant impact on the price of labor. Symbolically, the border also begins to represent more than a purely economic space, as it delineates the boundaries of the “nation”, insofar as the workers, who have become citizens, identify with the nation and consider the state and its apparatuses as “theirs”. From this perspective, whoever penetrates a national border can be perceived not only as a competitor, but as “Schmutzkonkurrenz” [dirty competition], a contemporary expression often employed by socialists such as Franz Mehring and many others. Thus, foreign workers who crossed the border were seen by their fellow workers on the other side of that border as the tools of capitalists for putting pressure on the national working classes.

If we understand the border to be part of the state, it is helpful to take a closer look at a Marxist interpretation of the modern capitalist state, which is another issue about which so-called Western Marxists particularly often complained with regard to Marx’s own work. Marx, goes the argument, did not develop a coherent theory of politics, let alone the state, which is why many Marxist scholars such as Lenin, Paschukanis, Gramsci, Poulantzas, throughout the 20th century developed distinct theories, each taking a different cue from Marx’s own thinking. Common to most of these approaches is an understanding of materialism with reference to the essential topology, which Marx formulated in the “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”. There, in a short paragraph, Marx distinguishes a social and material infrastructure from political and ideological superstructures. According to Marx, in any given society, the former determines the latter.

Marxist theories of the state often tried to tie the state rather to social classes and the power they exercise. One line of thought saw the state as an instrument of the ruling classes. Concerning borders this meant that the scale of their permeability was – as it were – “willed” by the state. Another line perceived the state not as an instrument in the hands of the class enemy but as an independent institution whose power was not derived from social classes. With this perspective one could explain why states actually regulated the flow of labor force – instead of establishing a global labor market, the wet dream of any neoliberal. Both paradigms treated the state (and, as a consequence, borders) as neutral or “empty” apparatuses. These views therefore treat the state and its border the same way as Marx has accused his contemporaries of treating capital, money, and labor, i.e. as things and not as the product of human interaction. If the aim of Marx’s work on capital was to de-reify its appearance, i.e. to trace the social relationships that lead both to the way capital operates economically and the way it presents itself to the observer, then the same has to be done with borders. One important contribution in this direction comes from the Greek/French Marxist Nikos Poulantzas, who essentially defined the capitalist state as being a “condensation of a relationship between classes” (Poulantzas 1978), thus avoiding the impasses mentioned above, in which the state is unrelated to the social struggles in a society. But what does this mean for the problem of borders?

In contemporary border studies borders are conceptualized mostly as institutionalized absolute sovereignty. Migrants, then, are thought of as objects of such an apparatus and only defined in terms of their mobility towards and across such borders. Such a perspective neglects that migration is connected to the history of labor, capitalism, and modern forms of governance, and that migration (transnational or internal) represents the capability of living labor to resist and to escape from the conditions of production (cf. Mezzadra & Neilson 2013). Looking at borders as a “condensation of relationships” means employing an essential insight of the operaist movement, which emerged in Italy in the 1960s in opposition to the “economistic” Marxism of the Third International, which is that transformations and dynamics are not driven from a supposed logic of capital but by the relation between “living” and “dead” labor.

However, what is important for this concept is that living labor cannot be reduced to a sociologically defined social group. The production of living labor consists instead of an endless chain of social connections, resources, knowledge, sentiments, and environments, which can by no means be relegated to the “productive sphere” and leads to an historically specific and variable excessiveness. In this perspective, for example, industrialization, i.e. the emergence of the factory as an institution, appears as a compromise attempting to deal with massive flights from the rural regions.

Migration does not indicate the sum of all migrant individuals, nor their spatial movement or subjective “motive” for migrating. Rather, migration refers to a subcutaneous reconfiguration of social life. In this sense, migration is an active transformation of social space and a world-making practice. Subsequently, this has consequences for the conceptualization of the border. The allegedly monolithic border apparatus decomposes and falls apart into multiple factors: actors, practices, discourses, technologies, bodies, affects, and trajectories become visible, with migration as one of the driving forces.

The border can be understood as a site of constant encounters, tensions, and contestations, and migration as co-constituent of the border. The constant and structurally conflicting re-figuration of the border is a reaction to the forces and movements of migration that challenge, cross, and reshape it.

Many of the existing contemporary constructivist approaches in border studies also conceptualize the border as a result of a multiplicity of actors and practices as it is expressed in the notion of “border work” (e.g. Rumford 2008; Salters 2011). However, many of these highly interesting constructivist approaches either completely erase migration as a constitutive force or conceptualize the migrant as a passive victim. An approach informed by Marx’s fundamentally relational and materialist thinking puts “border struggles” at the center of the analysis (see also Mezzadra & Neilson 2013, 13f.).


Indian Marxists have, for a long time, been oblivious to the “caste question” (Rao 2009). It is only within the last few years that they have started, under the pressure of lower-caste political mobilizations, to acknowledge caste inequalities as a social fact that cannot be explained away as being due to a lack of modernity. One straightforward ‘sociological’ explanation for this blind spot could be that leading Indian Marxists have all been of upper-caste origin – with the upper-caste denial of the “persistence of caste” (Teltumbde 2010) being one of its modern mechanisms of reproduction. There are also, however, more internal reasons for this negligence which have to do with the theoretical grammar of Marxism itself, and can be traced back to Marx’s historical materialism as a philosophy of history as well as to his critique of political economy as a scientific theory.

According to the Communist Manifesto, one of the founding texts of historical materialism, the triumph of the bourgeoisie implies that “all that is solid melts into air” (Marx and Engels 2010, 487), meaning that in modern, capitalist times the social relevance of ascriptive inequalities steadily declines. Applied to caste inequalities the corollary has been this: caste is something belonging to the past and will, like all “heavenly ecstasies” (ibid.), be drowned “in the icy water of egotistical calculation” (ibid.) – a road that the Indian (post-)colonial state with its secularism and scientism will inevitably have to take. There is, however, still another and deeply ironic twist to this story. When Marx himself, in an article series written for the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, applied historical materialism to the Indian case, he mentioned caste only three times. According to him, the British colonizers had to fulfill a “double mission in India, one destructive, the other regenerative” (Marx 2010, 217), because the subcontinent had been stuck in stagnation and had lost all historical dynamics. What constituted for Marx this “imaginary waiting room of history” (Chakrabarty 2000, 8) were, however, not caste hierarchies, but a mélange of three other things: the economic interventionism by a ‘despotic’ state, a system of isolated village communities, and the absence of private property. When, according to Marx himself, caste was not even a fundamental social characteristic of the pre-colonial past, why should Marxists, in their analysis of Modern India, be attentive to this kind of inequality?

One way of escaping this theoretical impasse could be to jettison historical materialism and focus instead on the scientific theory of the capitalist mode of production Marx has elaborated in Capital. Then, however, the question arises as to whether the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy are adequate for India’s (post-)colonial capitalism, with its huge amount of unfree labor shaped, among other things, by caste relations. Postcolonial critics like Dipesh Chakrabarty deny such an appropriateness, claiming that India has its own social ontology, which is incommensurable with that of the West. In a recent reply to them, Marxist sociologist Vivek Chibber (2013) argues that these critics simply misunderstand Marx’s concept of capitalism, which primarily refers to market dependency and a class of laborers ‘freed’ from the means of production. Against this allegation, I would like to recall that Marx consistently considered the ‘double freedom’ of the wage laborer, i.e. not only her separation from the means of production but also her juridical status as a formally free subject, as constitutive of capitalism. If one can show, as Chakrabarty and others have done in their historiographic work, that the recruiting practices of capitalist enterprises in colonial India heavily relied on relations of personal domination, then the Marxian approach is in serious trouble. Correspondingly, Indian Marxists have either ignored these relations of unfreedom, which were shaped by caste subservience, at best declaring them to be remnants of a rapidly dissolving past, or, acknowledging these realities, they have claimed that India is ‘not yet’ ‘fully’ capitalist, thereby extending the ‘waiting room of history’ infinitely.

Caste, in this respect, might serve as an entry-point for an iconoclastic Marxism, which takes into account what historians such as Arno Meyer have also established for the ‘West’: that the ‘double freed’ wage laborer, as a necessary condition of capitalism, is at odds with the historical record – not only in India, but everywhere, and – as Heide Gerstenberger (2016) revealed – at all ‘stages’ of this mode of production. This – and here Chibber, the orthodox renegade, may be right – does not have to lead us into abandoning the critique of political economy in its entirety. For, I would claim, Marx’s main explanations of the dynamics of capitalism remain intact even if one discards the assumption of the ‘double freedom’ of the wage laborer as constitutive, i.e. as something more than a historically contingent possibility within the capitalist mode of production.

Additionally one might ask what a reconstructed Marx has to positively offer regarding the understanding of caste in India. I would say it is primarily three things: first, the Marxian approach can lend plausibility to what Ambedkar already pointed out in 1917: that “caste is an enclosed class” (2002, 253) functioning via the mechanism of endogamy. Under pre-capitalist conditions caste is simply one form of class. What constitutes, in modern India, the divergence between class and caste are different degrees of the closure of class relations combined with different kinds of status ascription. Second, and this was emphasized by Ambedkar as well, caste has to be considered as something fundamentally relational. Marx’s account of class inequality, focusing on underlying social relations and not on distributive end-states, can make sense of this relationality, which cannot be grasped by mainstream, distributive theories of inequality. Third, Marx may remind us – against orientalist scholars like Louis Dumont – that caste is not only about status and identity but also about power and exploitation. It is a social structure that is both rule-governed and non-hermeneutic. Thus, Marx may serve as an antidote to ideological assumptions championed by both Hindu nationalists and some proponents of postcolonialism: that caste, under modern conditions, only continues to exist due to the classification practices of the Indian state that are intended to uplift lower-caste people.

Chinese Mode of Production

‘Mode of production’ is a core concept of historical materialism and takes an important position in Marx’s theoretical system. As a socialist country ruled by the Communist Party of China (CPC), the People’s Republic of China (PRC) explicitly upholds Marxism as its guiding ideology. At the same time, there is a significant gap between the historical evolution of its mode of production and the viewpoints generally ascribed to Marxism. It is therefore of great significance to examine the concrete content, contradictory features and developmental trends of the contemporary Chinese mode of production in order to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of Marx’s thought and to understand its contemporary value.

In 1949, after 22 years of armed struggle, the CPC established the PRC. Although China was still an agricultural country, and did not qualify for establishing a socialist mode of production as Marx expected it, with the completion of the Socialist Transformation in 1956 a Soviet-style socialist mode of production was nevertheless established. From then until 1978 China implemented complete public ownership and a highly centralized planned economic system. During this period the Chinese mode of production basically ‘conformed to’ Marx’s general definition of socialism, which he proposed in Capital and the Critique of the Gotha Program.

After 1978 the CPC no longer subscribed to Marx’s general idea of the socialist mode of production and gradually implemented reforms and initiated an opening up of the economy. On the basis of the cumulative historical experience of economic construction since the founding of the PRC, the party gained the insight that a planned economy is not conducive to the rapid development of productivity and the rapid improvement of people’s living standards. In the 1980s it proposed that China is in the primary stage of socialism and that exclusive public ownership and a fully planned economy are incompatible with the less-developed state of its productive forces. In the 1990s the party put forward the view that a planned economy and a market economy do not represent essential attributes of socialism, on the one hand, and capitalism, on the other, and that non-public ownership is an important part of a socialist market economy. Under the guidance of this understanding China has gradually created an ownership system with various forms of ownership and transformed into a socialist market economy, while public ownership remains at its core.

Whether or not the Chinese mode of production is still to be considered socialist is a major issue drawing attention at home and abroad. Although there is a huge difference between the Chinese case and Marx’s general idea, the former still possesses the basic characteristics of socialism even according to Marx’s own standard, while it also developed many similarities with capitalism described by Marx.

In terms of ownership structure, on the one hand, the assets of enterprises under non-public ownership now account for more than half of the total assets of enterprises. On the other hand, however, according to Chinese law, rural land belongs to the village collective, and urban land and natural resources belong to the state, which ensures that public ownership still occupies a dominant position. At the same time, important industries such as finance, energy, transportation, communications and national defense, which are vital to the national economy, are still under the control of the state, ensuring that the state-owned economy dominates the national economy.

In terms of resource allocation, the market has a fundamental role in the allocation of resources, and the vast majority of products is priced by the market and can be freely traded. On the other hand, the state, with its own means of production and regulatory industrial policies, can exercise strong macroeconomic control over the market and plays an important role in maintaining the balance of the total economy, promoting economic restructuring and optimizing the layout of productive forces.

Overall, although China’s non-public ownership economy has enjoyed tremendous growth, and the market’s fundamental role in resource allocation has also been established, public ownership still holds the dominant position and the government can still control the general operation of the economy. In other words, capital plays an important, but not yet the defining, role in the operation of the Chinese economy, whereas the government still has a decisive influence. This structure maintains the socialist nature of the Chinese mode of production.

It should be noted that this socialist mode of production in an obviously capitalist style is not stable and that capitalist factors have a strong tendency to erode and attack the socialist factors. This instability is embodied by the trend that commodity and monetary relations tend to dominate the political operation of the system. The leading role of the publicly-owned economy and the state’s macro-control must all be implemented by the government. The CPC and the Chinese government exercise a kind of democratic centralism, which, to some extent, prevents capital from grasping political power through controlling the elections. At the same time, the system’s design is too centralized to avoid corruption, allowing capital to bribe and interfere with political power for its own profit. How to ensure that the party and government operate in accordance with the political logic required by public ownership to effectively control capital, and make non-public enterprises and market economies serve the development of social productive forces and improve peoples’ lives, has become the core issue that the CPC faces. Whether or not the problem can be properly solved will have a direct bearing on how the nature of the Chinese mode of production will change. However, due to the centralized nature of the system under the leadership of the CPC, the solution to this problem depends largely on the personal will of the supreme leaders, which leads to a great deal of uncertainty.

In Marx’s view, as far as the general law of the evolution of human society is concerned, the transformation of modes of production is based on the level of development of the productive forces rather than the arbitrary choice of humans’ subjective will. At the same time, Marx does not deny that this law can have its own unique form of realization in different countries. The subjective will of humans can in some cases promote or delay the realization of general laws of development.

Due to its special national conditions, China established the socialist mode of production without going through a capitalist stage. However, the lack of productive forces corresponding to capitalism makes its socialist mode of production instable, which forces the government to reintroduce certain capitalist factors. It seems like the capitalist mode of production thereby makes a new appearance in China. At the same time, the government seeks to guide these capitalist factors toward developing productive forces and improving peoples’ livelihood within the basic framework of the socialist mode of production in order to lay the foundation for consolidating and developing that production. Just as the establishment of the socialist mode of production in China relies on the correct application of humans’ subjective will, whether the capitalist factors in China’s current mode of production can be effectively manipulated to avoid changing the radical nature of the socialist mode of production ultimately depends largely on the ruling wisdom of the CPC.

All in all, the historical transformation of the Chinese mode of production still seems to be regarded as a proof of the Marxist theory of history. And it shows that under certain historical conditions the capitalist mode of production may take a specific form, but it cannot be completely skipped as an indispensable element of the evolution of the mode of production.


In recent years in the field of social sciences, and the arts as well as politics, debates on the commons have claimed new entry points for a radical repudiation of neoliberalism; they have inspired the envisioning of alternatives beyond capitalism and other forms of domination. The insights and energies developed in and around the debates often promise to provide perspectives for a new economic, political, and social discourse and of practices that help articulate and build on the many existing struggles challenging the politics of accumulation and exclusion (Stavrides 2016).

Historically, the labour – and also the conflicts – involved in the making of the commons has chafed against a Western utopian understanding of coming together as a social congregation, or gathering, free of friction. As such, the commons are discussed as to be simultaneously made against, as well as within, existing fields of power to negotiate their manifestations, not to reproduce them. As different dimensions of power organize the overdetermined terrain of the social, social movements are often caught between competing agendas, as well as in the gap between their declared aims and the actual complexity of everyday life. This struggle has been called commoning (see Federici 2011). The term “commoning” allows for a recognition of the different struggles for the commons as both the claims for the sustenance of shared resources, and as a struggle for different forms of relating and belonging. Finally, the concept of commoning also suggests taking seriously a community of commoners who are actively engaged in negotiating rules of access, use and maintenance of the shared resources (De Angelis and Stravrides 2010). According to Peter Linebaugh, commoning is a verb, in other words, it is a social practice. Commons are not yet made but always in the making; they are a product of continuous negotiations and reclaiming (Linebaugh 2008).

Within the Western framework, this approach is often associated with Marx’s account of primitive accumulation, describing the massive waves of enclosure in the woods of London, and its more contemporary articulation in David Harvey’s critique of “accumulation through dispossession” (Harvey 2004). Already in the 1970s Silvia Federici’s manifesto “Wages Against Housework. They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work” questioned the Marxist basis of political economy; her work has since insisted on the necessity to expand the concept of primitive accumulation to include not just the appropriation of land but also of women’s bodies and their reproductive labor (Federici 2004).

While the concept of the commons as a thriving alternative to aggressive enclosure is vividly discussed in different Marxist and Post-Marxist contexts, scholars of indigenous and postcolonial studies have levelled their uncompromising criticisms not so much at the term commons, but more at its particular framing within leftist Marxist politics. Sandy Grande, Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, and Glen Coulthard, to name a few, argue that Marxist frameworks, and along with them, the so-called “return of the commons” (Coulthard 2014, 12) continue to place land as property, and therefore never leaves the very ground of dispossession. As a consequence, they ask, what do the claims for the commons and the practices of commoning mean on land that is stolen; moreover, what do these claims obscure in the context of settler colonial nation states?

This tension, Greg Fortier argues, becomes most obvious in the particular framing of the commons in the context of e.g. the Occupy Movement. For Fortier “the problem with the idea of the commons in settler states is that it evades the question of ongoing settler complicity in the project of genocide, land theft, assimilation, and occupation” (Fortier 2017, 30). In the wake of these arguments, the critiques of indigenous and postcolonial scholars raise the disturbing question of how to think of commons in the very centre of Europe, built on and sustained by dispossession and colonialism, as well as in the light of on-going racist wars at Europe’s outer borders.

Complementing the critique of settler colonialism put forth by indigenous scholars, postcolonial scholars have confronted the concept of the commons with the history of colonialism as a violent history of dispossession of land, bodies and the social. Following Franz Fanon, postcolonial theorists insist that in Europe primitive accumulation initiated the devastating long-term effects of proletarization, whereas in the colonies, it manifested itself in the dispossession of land. Synthesizing these two trajectories of critique, Peter Kulchyski argues in his study on indigenous cultural politics, “what distinguishes anti-colonial struggles from the classic Marxist accounts of the working class is that oppression for the colonized is registered in the spatial dimension—as dispossession—whereas for workers, oppression is measured as exploitation, as the theft of time” (Kulchyski 2005, 88).

With a few exceptions – e.g. Silvia Federici, whose work has continuously tried to think of women’s investment in the commons beyond Europe and the Western idea of land enclosure (Federici 2011, 1) – the political claims for the commons often neglect to address the continuities of the colonial condition. Key questions, such as on whose land are the commons supposed to take place, whose resources are meant to be redistributed through commoning practices, who conceptualizes the political utopias that enter the academic field, and who profits by this entry, remain unaddressed.

Finally, indigenous accounts of land challenge the Marxist critique of primitive accumulation and accumulation through dispossession on another level: built on deep relationalities, these accounts assert continuity, sustainability, reciprocity, and care. Indigenous cosmologies rely on an understanding of land that goes far beyond the concept of property – land cannot be owned; humans and non-humans, including land, animals, spirits, share an ecological connection: “We are this land, and this land is us”, describes Gregory Cajete (1994, 90). This indigenous place-thought entails a profound critique of the concept of the commons with regards to their complicity in the anthropocentric notion of both Marxists’ and capitalists’ views on land and natural resources. This critique is most poignantly posed by Sandy Grande, when she points at the “commodities to be exploited, in the first instances, by capitalists for personal gain, and in the second, by Marxists for the good of all” (Grande 2015, 31).

Commoners, who aim to relate their commoning practices for working against such exploitations on a material as well as on a symbolic level, are left with what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang calls the necessary “attending to what is irreconcilable within settler colonial relations and what is incommensurable between decolonizing projects”(Tuck and Yang 2012). Simultaneously, they, and respectively us, need to work on acknowledging the significant absences within Western accounts of the commons, in order to reveal the connection between the commons and the history of empire.


This short text builds upon texts and considerations articulated in relation to the research project Spaces of Commoning, including artists, architects, and social theorists realized at the Academy of fine Arts Vienna (2014-16): Anette Baldauf, Stefan Gruber, Moira Hille, Annette Krauss, Vladimir Miller, Mara Verlič, Hong-Kai Wang, and Julia Wieger. 

Cultural Marxism

A central concept in the contemporary genre of right-wing manifestos, Cultural Marxism is a term of art used to disparage the canon of Western Marxist thought as propagating a conspiracy to undermine presumably traditional Western values. Initially coined by political commentators in the US in the early 1990s, the concept was popularized by the American paleo-conservative figure Pat Buchanan – famous for having promoted the notion of a “culture war” for “the soul of America” at the Republican National Convention in 1992 – and has experienced a resurgence in popularity in the late-2010s with the emergence of the so-called “alt-right” around the election of Donald Trump. The concept of Cultural Marxism seeks to introduce readers unfamiliar with – and presumably completely uninterested in – Western Marxist thought to its key thinkers, as well as some of their ideas, as part of an insidious story of secret operations of mind-control whose nuances may differ but whose basic premise is remarkably similar whether told by Anders Breivik (2011) or Andrew Breitbart (2011).

The story, repeated again and again, tells of how a bunch of Jewish intellectuals infiltrated America through the minds of its youth, culminating in the sixties counterculture, which is framed as a low point in the culture war for preserving traditional American values. (In its traditionalism, and preoccupation with contamination, the concept can be seen to have a certain structural similarity to the charge of “cultural Bolshevism” which Weimar-era conservatives directed towards aesthetic modernists of their day.) This conspiratorial and often anti-Semitic concept imagines the corrupting and feminizing influences of European decadence as having spread octopus-like throughout the American body politic in particular via its infiltration of the academy (Walsh 2015).

In the words of Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News, a new right-wing media outlet that supported Donald Trump and exploded in popularity coincident with his insurgent candidacy: “When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the battle took a different form. Instead of missiles the new weapon was language and education, and the international Left had successfully constructed a global infrastructure to get its message out. Schools. Newspapers. Network news. Art. Music. Film. Television” (2011, 3). Breitbart is referring here, without accreditation, to Buchanan’s idea (2002) – which was in turn inspired by an obscure retired American naval officer by the name of Gerald Atkinson (1999) – that while the West was busy winning the Cold War abroad it had in fact unknowingly ceded ground to Cultural Marxism at home, particularly through higher education. Based on this template then, the typical account sees Marxism as responsible for having seeded all the important social movements that came out of the 1960s, from environmentalism to equal rights, as well as for a variety of schools of critical thought such as postmodernism and deconstructionism (see Peterson 2018, 285-334) – even if the latter may have little truck with Marxist economism.

The Cultural Marxist narrative attributes incredible influence to the power of the ideas of the Frankfurt School to the extent that it may even be read as a kind of “perverse tribute” to the latter (Jay 2011). In one account, for example (Estulin 2005), Theodor Adorno is thought to have helped pioneer new and insidious techniques for mind control that are now used by the “mainstream media” to promote its “liberal agenda” – this as part of Adorno’s work, upon first emigrating to the United States, with Paul Lazarsfeld on the famous Princeton Radio Research Project, which helped popularize the contagion theory of media effects with its study of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. In an ironical sense this literature can perhaps be understood as popularizing simplified or otherwise distorted versions of certain concepts initially developed by the Frankfurt School, as well as those of Western Marxism more generally. One such example might be the concept of “the Cathedral” (Yarvin 2008), developed by figures in the so-called neo-reactionary movement on the far right as a kind of critique of the hegemonic, unconscious consensus between powerful figures within academia and the media who use the concept of “political correctness” as a tool of oppression developed by those who (falsely) imagine themselves as being oppressed. Although the narrative of Cultural Marxism’s ineluctable triumph, which one encounters in all of these texts, seems patently false, defenders argue that seemingly unbiased research supports the claim that academics have moved markedly to left of the rest of Americans in recent decades (Abrams 2016). The polarization of these contested findings have in turn helped to breathe new life into the Cultural Marxist conspiracy theory, turning university campuses into sites of far-right activism in recent years.

While the critique of Cultural Marxism may have initially developed out of the culture wars of the American new right, in recent years it has also been taken up by the European new right who often cite Gramsci as inspiration in championing a counter-hegemonic movement of “identitarianism” (de Benoist 2015), which stands in opposition to the sanctimonious cant of liberalism, thought to be destroying Europe from within. And though the analysis of Marxism proffered by this literature would certainly not stand up to scrutiny by any serious historian of the subject, we can nevertheless understand Cultural Marxism as a prime example of how the ideas of conservatism grow above all in reaction to those of the left (Robin 2011).



In his work, Karl Marx does not seem to give the question of ‘debt’ much thought. At least, not at first sight. As Davanzati and Patalano (2017), in their effort to reconstruct Marx’ theory of (public) debt, observe: “Marx does not provide a systematic and orderly presentation of his ideas” on the subject (51). Being primarily the theorist of productive capitalism, and being a century or so away from the financialization of capitalism, and through it, the financialization of almost every aspect of life, it is perhaps not all that surprising that Marx spent only a handful of pages of his immense oeuvre on the analysis of ‘debt’. Is Marx the right thinker to turn to if we are to understand the workings of debt, and by extension a world in which we find ourselves immersed in debt? If the question of ‘debt,’ quantitatively, does not seem to occupy Marx all that much, it does recur in his writing over a period of over four decades, and often at important moments. (Davanzati and Patalano 2017, 51). In fact, Marx’ unpacking of the logic of debt within the capitalist system, if succinct, perfectly hits the mark for those seeking to grasp the mechanics of contemporary capitalism, especially after the Great Recession of the past decade.

First and foremost, Marx explains how the question of ‘debt’ takes us directly to the question of the role of the State in capitalism. For Marx, a closer look at ‘public’ debt exposes the State as a pivot in the political economy. Marx reveals debt, rather than constituting a ‘burden’ for the State, to be a key instrument of State power. As he writes in The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850, the ‘finance aristocracy’ has a distinct stake in the increasing indebtedness of the State: “In a country like France, where the volume of national production stands at a disproportionately lower level than the amount of the national debt, where government bonds form the most important subject of speculation and the Bourse the chief market for the investment of capital that wants to turn itself to account in an unproductive way – in such a country a countless number of people from all bourgeois or semi-bourgeois classes must have an interest in the state debt, in the Bourse gamblings, in finance. Do not all these interested subalterns find their natural mainstays and commanders in the faction which represents this interest in its vastest outlines, which represents it as a whole?” (Marx 1969; my emphasis). State debt becomes an instrument for the exercise of political i.e. class power and repression in two major ways.

Firstly, it gives political power to the creditors of the State; it turns unproductive capital accumulation into a vital political factor. Crucially, Marx emphasises that the bourgeois State recruits its own creditors: both the expanding bourgeois State and the ‘countless number’ of creditors of that State are consolidators of class power, and their interests are not necessarily opposing. Debt gives birth to the ‘finance aristocracy’ of the Bourse (stock market) whose aim it is “to get rich not by production, but by pocketing the already available wealth of others.” (Marx 1969).  Secondly – and this will sound like another well-known refrain to contemporary ears – public debt allows the State to increase taxation. Such ‘austerity’ however does not befall all equally: it is the working classes (i.e. productive wage labor) upon whose shoulders taxation is imposed (Davanzati and Patalano 2017, 52). In Marx, debt thus becomes a means of governing (see Lazzarato 2012 and 2015). Among others in The Eighteenth Brumaire and Capital Marx demonstrates how, as a consequence of the correlated increase of the political power of rentiers and (over-)taxation, debt more and more becomes a prerequisite for capitalist reproduction: “Public credit becomes the credo of capital.” (Marx 1887). Debt thus introduces “the distributive conflict between ‘financial aristocracy’ and labor” (Davanzati and Patalano 2017, 57; their emphasis) at the very heart of capitalism, as it determines the workings of the State and class struggle. As a result, ‘labor’ is constantly diminished as a factor in capital accumulation and consequently as a political factor. The preponderance of debt means that wages can be reduced without ensuing social upheaval; workers’ bargaining power can be reduced, working hours extended, as production is no longer the life-blood of capitalism, but speculation, investment and rent (see Harvey 2011). While the ‘finance aristocracy’ sees its influence stretched to almost absolute dimensions, the vast majority of productive forms of labor are hollowed-out engines of impoverishment. “The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpenproletariat on the heights of bourgeois society,” Marx says (Marx 1969). The end of productive capitalism and labor breeds all sorts of daylight robbery, primitive accumulation and financial sorcery; at the same time, it morphs bourgeois mores into “lusts wherein wealth derived from gambling naturally seeks its satisfaction, where pleasure becomes crapuleux, where money, filth, and blood commingle.” (Marx 1969). Although modest in volume, Marx’ analyses of debt bring us close to home. Perhaps too close for comfort.


The notion of dependency is usually not associated with Marx’s thought. Interestingly enough, it is only at the margins of the Marxist discussion that this concept has been taken seriously. In feminist theory, Christine Delphy (1984) has shown that the exploitation of women by men does not depend so much on the tasks they are performing at home than on the fact that they are performing tasks for whom they are dependent. In “dependency theory”, this concept has also been used to analyze the exploitation of the periphery of the world economy by its center (Gunder Frank 1978). In both cases, what comes to the fore is that individuals, social groups and countries can be exploited by other individuals, groups or countries because they are depending on them. Furthermore, in both cases the dependency is conceived as being produced by a set of social, political and cultural factors, as well as being reproduced by the very process of exploitation. These ideas were already at play in Marx’ theory of capitalist exploitation, and it may well be the case that they still raise relevant issues.

Capitalist exploitation as multifold dependency

In Capital, exploitation is analyzed at the macro-scale of the structural social relation between capitalists and proletarians, at the meso-scale of institutions such as extended and legally regulated markets, or the manufacture and large-scale industry, and at the micro-scale of the experience of exploitation. As a “social relation of production”, exploitation is defined as structural dependency: since they are dispossessed of the means of production, the proletarians are dependent on the capitalist to produce their means of subsistence (Marx 1990, 270-274). At the meso-level, this structural dependency actualizes itself in various institutional forms. On the market, it takes the form of a monetary dependency of those who are deprived of the means of payment, and therefore have to sell their labor-power to those who are in possession of these means of payment (ibid, 280). In the workplaces, the structural dependency takes other forms, notably those related to the technical division of labor and technological autonomisation of the means of production. The technical division of labor implies that the individual activity loses its function and value if it is not integrated in a process of productive cooperation (ibid. 480-491). It then depends both on other individual productive activities and on a directing authority organizing cooperation (ibid, 448,450). Furthermore, the technological autonomisation of the means of production as systems of machines implies that the very rhythm and intensity of the worker does not depend on him but on his means of production (ibid, 544, 535). And finally, at the micro level, the experience of exploitation as domination is embodied in experiences of dependence: the worker knows that he has to sell his labor power on the labor market and that he has to obey the directing authority and the machines, even if he is reluctant to do all this, because he is dependent on wages for his survival.

This multifold dependency is analyzed by Marx as the result of a network of historical processes addressed notably in the section on the “So-called Primitive accumulation”. What comes to the fore, then, is the expropriation of the agricultural population from the land, creating a mass of workers deprived of the means of production. But his dependency also results from the transformation of the independent craftsman into a worker of an “heterogeneous manufacture” (or putting-out system) and “organic manufacture,” (ibid, 461-470) and later of a large-scale industry.1 As soon as it has become systemic, this multifold dependency tends to reproduce itself: the wages are never enough to enable workers to buy the means of production and the other inputs (raw materials, business premises, energy, etc.) that would make them independent of the capitalists. “In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production’, i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs form the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them” (Marx, 899).

Capitalist exploitation continually reproduces the structural as well as institutional dependencies it is grounded upon, and continually worsens them, since the monetary dependency is increased by the production of a “relative surplus population” or “industrial army”, while the technical dependency is increasing due to the technical division of labor and technologization of the labor process. The development of capitalism as a specific mode of production appears, then, as a process of deepening the dependency of the worker. In its final stage, in large-scale industry, “his helpless dependence upon the factory as a whole, and therefore upon the capitalist, is rendered complete” (Ibid, 547).

Dependency as a critical concept

Given that Marx himself has depicted capitalist exploitation as a process of increasing dependency, it is quite surprising that in the debates concerning the normative standards of the critique of exploitation, dependency has almost never been mentioned.2 These debates have mainly considered the three normative standards of injustice, domination and alienation.3 Indeed, Marx’s account of exploitation can be articulated in terms of structural inequality, that is, in terms of injustice (of distributive and acquisitive types). It can also be articulated in terms of structural subordination of the activities of the working class to the benefits of the members of the ruling classes, that is, in terms of domination as a social relation of domination between classes as well as an asymmetrical relation of power in the workplaces. And finally, exploitation can be analyzed as an experience of loss of control over one’s own working activity and the contexts and products of this activity, that is, as alienation. But something is missing in this picture in which the critique of exploitation is articulated only with reference to these three critical concepts. What is not taken into account is the fact that the structural injustice and domination, as well as the alienation characteristic of work, are rooted in a system of organized dependency that gives a specific meaning to the very experiences of injustice, domination and alienation. Suffering from injustices that are experienced as simply the result of past unjust appropriation of properties (acquisitive injustice), or contemporary unjust distributive mechanisms (distributive injustice), is not the same as suffering from inequalities one is depending on. Having to serve the interests of those whom one is afraid of is not the same as having to obey those whom one is depending on. Having the feeling of being dispossessed of one’s working activity by its social environment is not the same as when one is also experiencing that this activity depends on this environment, in the sense that one can’t actually find better environments for this activity. Moreover, bringing dependency back into the picture can help capture the fact that one of the specificities of the negative social experiences of exploitation is its ambivalent nature. As an experience of injustice, exploitation can always turn into habituation to injustice, and as an experience of domination, exploitation can always turn into “voluntary servitude”. These turns also define a specific form of alienation as attachment to what one refuses – namely injustice and domination.4

Taking dependency into account in the criticism of capitalist exploitation can also help in tackling an issue that can hardly be articulated solely in terms of injustice, domination and alienation: the issue of socially organized asymmetrical dependency. Now, this latter issue seems particularly relevant in the age of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. At the macro-level, the dismantlement of welfare protections is clearly making individuals economically more dependent on their own exploitation. But neoliberalism has not only reduced state protections against economical dependency, it has also generalized new forms of economical dependency, such as private debt. To the short-term dependency of the wage, which usually (that is for the majority of wage earners) does not amount to more than the living costs for a month, it has added the long-term dependency of private debt that makes individuals dependent on their exploitation for years. Moreover, at the meso-level, contemporary neoliberalism is giving more and more room to “independent workers”, freed from the organizing authority of the firm and of the power-relations structuring capitalist workplaces, but nevertheless exploited by capitalist firms who organize their exchanges with their clients (in “platform capitalism”) or who use them to outsource their productive activities.5 Exploitation operates then only through forms of organized dependency of the productive activity itself.

It therefore seems that contemporary transformations of capitalist exploitation require a robust critical concept of asymmetrical dependency. Marx has paved the way for such a concept, and he has also suggested that one should not only think of dependency in terms of intersubjective and contextual dependency alone, as is often the case in contemporary discussions, but also in terms of material and systemic dependency.


Digital Labour

Across the 20th century, the spread of information and communication technologies had huge implications for the development of capitalism and labour relations, especially from the 1970s onward, with the trend toward the computerization of the workplace. While all this is already well-known, the subsequent rise of pervasive interconnected networks (the Internet) brought forth two seemingly new forms of labour, entirely mediated through digital platforms, which came to be designated as digital labour.

The first kind is publicly discussed as “uberisation” but we could also call it digital waged labour. It brings us back to the core of Marx’s concern, where technological change affects the socialisation of labour and shapes class conflict: capitalist platforms act as mere intermediaries between freelance workers and clients, each providing a virtualised and automated front-end (a web site or a mobile phone application) for a certain type of service. It extends from the coordination of physical tasks, which are geographically anchored – like Uber’s transportation services, but also other companies offering delivery, catering, housework, etc. services –, to a variety of purely informational tasks, realized by workers competing on a global scale – requiring as much skill as graphic design, IT services, accounting, etc., or as unskilled and degrading as micro-tasking on Amazon Mechanical Turk (an online market place where individuals can trade their human intelligence). Sociological studies of such digitally socialized waged labour have undeniably deepened our understanding of contemporary capitalism (Huws 2013, 2016; Graham, Hjorth and Lehdonvirta 2017), adding a valuable chapter to the central section of Marx’ Capital1 by showing how networks increase surveillance and domination, precarity, and competition between atomised workers. The second kind of digital labour – let’s refer to it as digital unwaged labour – is located at the uncertain margins of Marx’ theory, and the least we can say is that it is a much contested terrain. It refers to the ordinary spontaneous activities and social interactions that are mediated through digital platforms and which generate data. Indeed, certain capitalist platforms (whether meant for blogging, tweeting, posting pictures or videos, professional networking, etc.) manage to offer to millions of users a free service, and concentrate huge amounts of capital while formally employing very few workers. If we acknowledge that value does not pop up from nowhere but has to derive from labour – a keystone of the Marxian critique of political economy –, then someone who produces data, even accidentally or without knowing it, while relating with friends or using any connected device, must literally be considered to be working and exploited.

When the notion was coined in 2008 and 20122, global digital outsourcing was already a decade old but the fast-pace growth of digital platforms directly affecting the larger public was fairly recent. “Digital labour” might then have been at first an umbrella term for loosely connected phenomena, which mainly had in common a striking technologically driven tendency to renew capitalist accumulation, and that shook up our usual framework for analysing labour relations and organizing resistance. Its unity, therefore, may well be found on the level of the historical context of its formulation – one of practical and theoretical uncertainty – though not necessarily in the deeper logic of each phenomenon. Indeed, the theoretical justification of the extension of the concept of labour to such free participation and leisure depends on two traditions that proposed very innovative reinterpretations of Marxian thought: first, the “blindspot debate” which animated Anglophone critical media studies in the 1970s (Smythe 1977)3 centred around the potentially productive – and not only ideological – role of media infrastructure under late capitalism; second, the Italian post-operaist school of thought and the theory of cognitive capitalism  (Virno 1992; Lazzarato 1996; Terranova 2000, Dyer-Witheford 2010). Concepts such as audience labour, or social factory and immaterial labour, allowed the theory to grasp the blurring of boundaries between the workplace and the rest of social life under the influence of communication technologies. As pointed out by Kylie Jarrett (2016), the difficulties of such a notion of digital unwaged labour – is it labour, if it is so free, what exactly is the product, and how can its value be measured? – were largely due to the inherently gendered apprehension of work it presupposed. In reality, the realm of waged labour, of producing commodities and of that which is measured through value, has always been dependent on a more fundamental sphere of work: that of the reproduction of the workers themselves.4

Reframing digital unwaged labour rather as a digital reproductive labour would mean that it contributes more to the networked reproduction of social life, which is an underlying condition of capitalist accumulation, than to the direct production of actual commodities.

Thus, the application of social reproduction theory to new technologies makes visible what is certainly the moment of truth for the concept of digital labour. It is an attempt at realizing an encompassing critique of pervasive digital technologies, beyond the sole focus on privacy: whether by enrolling digitally mediated activities into the direct production of commodities or not, it remains that these technologies shape the very subjects and their interactions – inside or outside of the workplace – in relation to the structures of capitalist societies.