All power to the {historical} imagination!

Kojin Karatani’s The Structure of World History (Duke University Press, 2014) is an astonishing work of synthetic historical theory. Karatani views world history as a history of modes of exchange. He rejects the classical Marxist view of history though as modes of production, to which political, religious and cultural levels are superstructures.

The Marxist base and superstructure model always conjures up for me an image of the social formation as a three-story building, with an economic ground floor and politics and ideology or culture as the second and third. Karatani’s alternative model is more like three elevator shafts running through the social formation from top to bottom. The inadequacies of the base-and-super three-story image led Marxists such as Althusser to stress the relative autonomy and materiality of the political and cultural ‘levels’. Karatani sees two problems with this. One is a loss of a totalizing and systematic approach to history. The other is that it is really only in the west that politics could even be imagined as autonomous from economics.

So rather than the three horizontal levels, three (or perhaps four) elevator shafts, running vertically through the social formation, and though of as modes of exchange. Mode A is association, or rather the reciprocity of the gift. Mode B is brute force, or rule and protection. Mode C is commodity exchange. There’s also a Mode D, which transcends the others, but more on that later. Rather than criticize Marx, Karatani thinks it is time to complete his historical materialist project, by doing for modes A and B what he did for C.

Since Marcel Mauss, mode of exchange A is assumed to be dominant in archaic societies, but did not really exist among nomadic peoples. They could not stockpile goods. They pooled them as pure gift. It was a society of mobility and equality. Clan society only really developed the reciprocity of the gift once there was settlement. Clan society members were made equal by the reciprocity of the gift but were no longer free.

This is relevant to Marx’s notion of primitive communism, which is hard to support with anthropological studies. Marx and Engels looked to Lewis Morgan, who studied clan societies, when they should have been looking not at sedentary clans but nomads. Karatani’s project, as we shall see, is to envision a return to a kind of nomadism, equal and free. It is a social theory for Contant Neuwenhuis’s New Babylon.

The bulk of the study concerns not mode D but the interactions of modes A, B and C, or association, brute force and commodity production, figured not so much as elevator shafts as a Borromean knot (that favorite figure of Asger Jorn’s.) It was Hegel in the Philosophy of Right who first articulated this three-part model. Marx began his historical materialism with a critique of Hegel on this. “But in doing so Marx regarded the capitalist economy as constituting the base structure, while he took nation and state to be part of the ideological superstructure. Because of this, he was never able to grasp the complex social formation that is Capital-Nation-State. This led him to the view that state and nation would naturally wither away once the capitalist system was abolished.” (xvi) But these are not just superstructures and cannot be dissolved “simply through acts of enlightenment.” (xvi)

And so Karatani revisits Marx’s critique of Hegel and Hegel’s idealist view of state and nation, “to turn them on their head the way Marx did via a materialist approach…” (xvii) He claims to extend the methods of Marx’s Capital to state and nation, or rather to modes of exchange A and B of which they are the current forms.

Karatani thinks that unlike Hegel, Marx followed Kant in forming concepts of things in advance of their full expression. And like Kant, he held that such concepts are not real. They are “transcendental illusions” (xvii) or illusions necessary to reason itself, and which reason cannot eliminate. This compares in an interesting way to Zizek, for whom transcendental illusions are even more unavoidable, but who in his own Hegelian fashion takes their constitutive voids to be those of the real itself. Karatani threads the needle of Marx’s relation to German idealism in a way I find for more productive.

For Karatani, Marx neglected the agency of state and nation, or rather, of the modes of exchange of which they are modern forms. Materialism here means mode of exchange, not of production. “… if we posit that economic base equals mode of production, we are unable to explain pre-capitalist societies.” (4) I am not convinced by this argument, but let’s rather see what Karatani’s modes of exchange can explain.

Another constant of Karatani’s thought is that it is always a world-system approach, rather than one that takes social formations as having internal developmental processes that take priority over their external relations. (Although as we shall see, there is one strange exception to this). The Boromean knot of Capital-Nation-State is the product of a world system, not of any one nation-state, as were the previous arrangements of the three modes.

So while Karatani follows Mauss in thinking that Mode A dominates pre-modern societies, he thinks Mode A’s gift exchanges arose not within, but between societies: “reciprocity is not so much a principle of community as it is a principle for forming larger, stratified communities.” (5) Mode of exchange B, brute plunder and force, also has a critical role between societies. The conquered come to accept protection in exchange for plunder, and peace is kept with gestures of redistribution.

Interestingly, he sees Schmitt’s friend-enemy relation of Politics as just a subset of mode of exchange B, and hence in a sense actually ‘economic’. What is particularly delicious about Karatani is that it is a more, not less ‘economistic’ theory than most now current. All three modes are ‘economic’ modes – but of exchange, not of production.

Mode of exchange C is commodity exchange, or mutual consent between parties, but with neither the reciprocal obligation of Mode A or the brute force compulsion of Mode B. In Mode C each recognizes the other as a free being owning nothing more to community or ruler once the transaction is done. This freedom from constraint in Mode C is constitutive of the city as social form.

There is no separate sphere of politics or culture or ethics in this theory. All historical social formations include all three modes. The modes of exchange A, B and C produce different modes of power, which are successively the laws of community, state, and international law. Not all forms of power are based on coercion. The reciprocal gift of Mode A is also a power, and so too is the ‘natural law’ of trade and money characteristic of Mode C. While Karatani implies it rather than directly states it, Modes A, B and C seem to be successive stages in scales of organization.

Karatani makes external relations at least as constitutive as internal ones for social formations at all historical stages. With one exception. He mentions in passing that Marx drew on the work not only of Hegel also of Mosses Hess, who advanced Feuerbach’s critique of religion even further toward a critique of nation and state. Karatani notes that Marx borrowed from Hess the concept of an exchange between the human and nature as Stoffwechsel, usually translated as metabolism.

In the footnotes at least Karatani is aware of how this leads towards things like the work of John Bellamy Foster on Marx’s ecology, of thinking human history as part of natural history, with a stress on what Marx in Capital vol. 3 called the metabolic rift that opens when collective human labor interrupts the cycles of molecular flow within the planetary system. For example, Marx knew from Leibig’s classic studies that modern agriculture disrupted the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles.

Karatani: “In Hess’ view, the relation of man and nature is intercourse. More concretely, it is metabolism (Stoffwechsel), or material exchange. In German, Wechsel literally means ‘exchange’, so that the relation of humans to nature is one of intercourse or exchange. This is an important point when we consider Marx’s ‘natural history’ perspective – as well as when we consider environmental problems. The material exchanges (Stoffwechsel) between man and nature are one link within the material exchanges that form the total earth system.” (15-17) But in Karatani, this ‘stuff-exchange’, or metabolism, slips from view, and all that remains is exchange between human parties. And this in spite of his awareness of waste products as a general problem, and climate change as a key instance of such metabolic rift.

Unfortunately, Karatani shares a certain humanistic disdain for scientific thought, and remains naively positive about what humanistic thought can achieve on its own. Were it not for science and technology, we would not even be able to produce a knowledge of what climate change is, let alone of other metabolic rifts, which together are the symptomatology of the Anthropocene. So while there is progress here in thinking cultural, ethical and political phenomena in a materialist manner, it is not quite materialist enough. And while there is attention to externalities that impinge on social formations, the externalities of the engagement with the natural world are never an integral part of the theory.

One enduring bugbear of historical materialism is Marx’s sketchy idea of an ‘Asiatic mode of production’. Refreshingly, Karatani thinks it is a viable concept, just better thought as something not limited to Asia, just as the feudal mode is not limited to Europe. The ‘Asiatic’ is a despotic state or empire where Mode B dominates Modes A and C. In an interesting shift of perspective, China appears as the ‘normal’ developmental form, and Greece and Rome as failed approximations.

Borrowing from Karl Wittfogel, Karatani divides the pre-capitalist world up spatially into the despotic empires, their margins, their submargins and the ‘out of sphere.’ Margins get absorbed into despotic states, but submargins need not, even though they often adopt things like the writing systems of the despotic empires. Greece and Rome were submargins to despotic states. Germany was submargin to Rome, where feudalism took root. Trade and cities were able to emerge there outside feudal control. Or in short, capitalism arose at the periphery of world empires, giving rise to the modern world system. Russia and China escaped this fate. Socialists unwittingly gave new form to old despotic states.

Within a social formation, the rise of Mode C, commodity exchange, does not mean abolition of Mode A and Mode B. It was Mode B that became the modern state. Absolutism created the state with a standing army and no reciprocal exchange among ruling elites. Absolutism established what had long existed under despotic states. Mode A then returns in the form of the nation as “imagined community” – once local communities have been weakened or abolished.

This world-systems theory actually has three successive stages. World mini-systems characterized the archaic world, and were dominated by Mode A. The world empires that subsumed them were dominated by Mode B, or what Marx thought of as the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. The modern world market system is dominated by Mode C. Karatani then suggests we are ready for a “fourth great shift: the shift to a world republic.” (28)

With mini world systems, the “great leap” (31) was from hunting to farming. He opposes V. Gordon Childe’s thesis of a Neolithic revolution, for whom agriculture led to fixed settlements. Karatani thinks it is the other way around. Inequality arises from the storage capacity of that comes with settlement. Following Marshall Sahlins, he argues that pooling happens within a household, whereas reciprocity happens between them. Reciprocity is actually a continuum from pure gift giving to war and reprisal. After Pierre Clastres, he sees gifts as a way of cementing alliances for war, and war as what prevents the state from forming in pre-modern mini-world systems. Here and elsewhere there are curious convergences with Deleuze and Guattari, with whom he shares some political but not philosophical commitments.

In a mini-world system, war exists because there is no transcendent power over the clans. Reciprocity is an in-between, it does not dissolve the parties in a higher unity. It can lead to a federal unity, but not a state. So why did hunter-gatherers settle? Climate change. During the Ice Age, human spread. Warming led to reforestation and decline in game. The stockpiling of smoked fish led to a “sedentary revolution” (45) that produced agrarian clan society still based on a reciprocity that maintained the independence of social formations from each other.

This reciprocity of the gift extends beyond the human. Magic is a form of the gift. Magic is the attempt to control another through the gift in the form of the sacrifice. “Sacrifices are gifts that impose a debt on nature, thereby sealing off the anima of nature and transforming it into an It.” (53) Magic despiritualizes nature. Settlement means coexisting not only with others but with the dead, and the attempt to placate them with gifts.

The sedentary revolution is a move away from the communism of the nomad, from equality and freedom. Freud was not entirely wrong to highlight the myth of the murder of the father, but it wasn’t a primal event, but rather a murder in advance of the ur-father by the brotherhood of clan society, to cut off a further drift away from equality and freedom – at least for the clan ‘brotherhood.’

Karatani’s historical materialism is entirely focused on social relations – except in odd moments when natural changes enter from without. Karatani has the chutzpah to accuse V. Gordon Childe of not being Marxist enough, but Childe at least though seriously about labor-nature metabolism. Karatani makes makes relations of exchange prior to relations of production. Here is the thread of an argument I find interesting, but with which I can’t agree.

“In Capital, Marx begins his exploration of capitalist production not from the invention or deployment of machines but rather from the manufactures – that is, from the organization of labor that he called the division and combination of labor.” (60) Karatani dismisses the significance of invention such as that of the deep-furrow plough. “In the terms of the relationship between technology and nature, the innovations achieved by ancient civilizations had little impact.” (61)

The shift from bronze to iron was for Karatani more important to the rise of the state (weapons) than agriculture. The most important tech in the pre-modern world was administrative. “The technologies for ruling people don’t rely on naked compulsion: instead, they install forms of discipline that make people voluntarily follow rules an work.” (61) Religion is about organizing labor – a view that brings Karatani close to Bogdanov.

In another of his reversals of perspective, he argues that “The state did not arise as a result of the Agricultural Revolution: to the contrary, the Agricultural Revolution was a consequence of the rise of the state.” (63) Trading and warfare led to city-states, these states that then led to agriculture: “…the rise of the city cannot be separated from the rise of the state. In other words, mode of exchange B and mode of exchange C are inseparable from one another.” (65)

Interestingly, he views the state as a development of Mode B, as a form of exchange: “… the state is based on a non-reciprocal principle of exchange.” Hobbes thought the social contract was extorted by fear, Karatani sees it as the transformation of plunder into a mode of exchange, of plunder for protection. The state put an end to horizontal reciprocity, an end to both gift and vendetta. States do not arise from a single community, but in the space of world-empire: “the sovereign is something that comes from outside.” (71) State comes from exchange between ruling and ruled social formations.

Agrarian clan communities come after, and are produced by, the state. “Reciprocity does not acknowledge any higher authority. The agrarian communities that formed under Asiatic despotism preserved reciprocity in such aspects as mutual aid and equalization. But they lost the other aspect of reciprocity: their autonomy.” (74) While the Greeks, out on the submargin, were making city states, the Qin and Han empires formed the characteristic form of despotic state. “Once a centralized order was established, the despotic state then tried to actively co-opt traditions dating back to clan society. This is why the agrarian community organized by the despotic state took on the appearance of being a continuation of clan society.” (75)

Hence Mode B depends on a modified and extended form of Mode A: “the agrarian community is an imagined community whose framework is provided by the despotic state – just as the modern nation cannot exist in the absence of the framework of the centralized state. Asiatic despotism existed in the form of an amalgamation of the despotic state wit the agrarian community.” (76) Dynasties come and go, but the Mode B despotic state and the Mode A agrarian clan remain. Backward Greece and Rome did not develop these forms.

Marx, Weber, Wittfogel and Joseph Needham all argued that the Chinese despotic state was a hydraulic state, that its administrative elaboration was a result of building the technology to control flooding and irrigation, or in short that metabolism, ‘stuff-exchange’ determined human-to-human exchange. Following an argument made by Michael Mann in Sources of Social Power vol. 1, Karatani disputes this, and once again makes the social relation causative over and against its relation of externality with nature.

Karatani: “The civilization realized by hydraulic societies was not just a matter of technologies for dominating nature; more than that, it consisted of technologies for governing people – namely, state apparatuses, standing armies, bureaucratic systems, written language, and communication networks.” (79) One could wonder, however, whether this is a false distinction, and if one can entirely subordinate ‘stuff-exchange’, or metabolism, to purely inter-subjective exchange.

Where do administered and administering people come from? After all, “…people do not voluntarily choose to become bureaucrats.” (79) As Max Weber argued, a money economy is a precondition for a bureaucratic system. Thus, just as the despotic Mode B state depends on a modified form of Mode A, it also requiresthea development of Mode C. But money arises not within but between social formations. “Karl Marx repeatedly stressed that commodity exchange began with exchanges between different communities.” (81) The form of power of Mode C is money, which the state cannot do without. As in David Graeber, Karatani stresses the role of money in sustaining standing armies.

For Karatani, money does not require a labor theory of value for its explication. The power of money is grounded in a social contract. Money is king in the same way that the king is king. The king is king because others are subjects, while they imagine they are subjects because he is king. Likewise money. Money is sovereign, but sovereign as empty position anyone can occupy.

Money is minted by the state, but not its power to circulate globally. Karatani: “… we cannot understand money only by looking at it locally, within a single country – in the same way that we cannot understand the state if we confine ourselves to the context of a single country.” (93) And in another reversal of perspective, Karatani argues that “the power of precious-metal money to circulate worldwide is not something owing to the state. To the contrary, the state’s ability to mint money depends in this power.” (92)

In a manner strikingly parallel to Deleuze and Guattari, Karatani sees Mode C as something Mode B depends on but tried to limit and contain. Mode C gets out of hand. “Exchange is pursued to seek not use values but rather exchange values, and for this reason is without limit.” (94) Mode C is one of eternal and limitless expansion. But it still depends on Mode B. Enforcing the repayment of debt calls for both the habits of reciprocity of Mode A and the sanctions of Mode B. These are its real conditions of existence. “The existence of exchange C, far from being a materialist, rational base structure, is fundamentally a world of credit and speculation, a speculative world.” (97)

In despotic states such as China, trade was managed by the state bureaucracy, which Greece and Rome lacked. There the market could play a destructive role. In Greece, “letting the market set prices was politically equivalent to letting the masses decide public questions.” (101) But Mode C without limits damaged the polis, resulting in inequality and servitude. Democracy in Athens was an attempt to preserve a community of rulers within the polis, back by an ever-expanding slave system.

The despotic states exist within systems of world empire. They exist in contexts of world religions, languages and law that extend beyond and between them. Only some are irrigation based, and here Karatani much expands the concept beyond an Asiatic mode of production. While some were based on irrigation (in China, Peru, Mexico), some were martime (Rome), some nomadic (the Mongols) and some combined the nomadic with a merchant base (Islam). Karatani: “we come to see that Marx’s distinctions between Asiatic, classical and feudal do not mark successive diachronic stages but rather positional relationships within the space of world-empire.” (124) In sum, the three modes of exchange exist in parallel and are inter-connected, but in successive historical epochs, Modes A, then B, then C have been dominant.

What then of Mode D? It is the polar opposite of Mode B. Mode of exchange D marks the attempt to restore the reciprocal community (A) on top of the market economy (C). It is an ideal form that never existed in reality, although it is given expression, at least in their formative moments, by the great world religions. But perhaps this line of thought could be made rather more ‘materialist.’ In his book Debt, Graeber notes that when precious metals are used to ornament temples, it is the withdrawal from circulation of the material means of making the coinage to sustain an army. The sacrifice of gold to imaginary Gods is thus nevertheless a real sacrifice.

Karatani stresses the difference rather than continuity of religion and magic. Prayer is directed, via the priest-king as guardian of the portal, to a transcendent God. It lacks the horizontal and egalitarian aspect of magic. “The development of magic into religion was nothing other than the development from clan society to the state.” (131) But religion did not intend to be this: “… universal religions originally appeared in the form of a negation of this sort of world empire and religion. As soon as they achieved stable form, however, they found themselves appropriated into the ruling apparatus of a world empire.” (133) As Raoul Vaneigem stresses in his histories of heresy, religions are part of a history of modes of sacrifice.

World empires (Mode B) need both world religion (Mode A) and world money (Mode C). “The worship of money is, to borrow Marx’s language, a fetishism, and with the rise of world money, this fetishism became monotheistic.” (134) Money frees individuals from community and reciprocity. But religions are also expressions of something else: “In the process of empire formation, there is a moment when, under the sway of mode of exchange B, mode of exchange C dismantles mode of exchange A; at this moment, and in resistance to it, that universal religion appears, taking the form of mode of exchange D.” (135)

Religions both restore, but also abstract, the reciprocity of Mode A. For example, the Jewish god as of a new kind. When their state failed, the people did not abandon Him. “The defeat of a state no longer meant the defeat of its god…. This meant the rejection of reciprocity between God and people.” (139) This is a power of God that transcends community, state and money.

Christianity stressed Jesus’ rejection of state, money, community. He speaks of God’s love as an absolute gift that cannot be reciprocated. Universal religions preach a pure love, pointing beyond the particular reciprocity of Mode A: “universal religions do not become universal by negating the particular. Rather, they become universal through an incessant awareness of the contradiction between universality and particularity.” (143) Contra Badiou, what matters about, for example, Saint Paul is not just a transcendent universalism. “The transcendence and immanence of God forms an inseparable, paradoxical unity.” (144)

Universal religions arise when Mode C has become generalized, and (as Graeber shows in detail) borrow their metaphors of universality from the market place. World religions are critical of kings and priests, but they become the religion of the state, or fade away. “What Buddha carried out was the deconstruction of existing religions.” (152) Confucius taught benevolence, and his social reformism was stressed even more by Mencius. Laozi opposed not only the state but also clan society, pointing back to nomadic way of life, and Taoism was, as Needham also thought, “a fountainhead of utopianism and anarchism.” (156) Karatani’s project is in essence to revive not the religious but social force of Mode D to push once again for forms of exchange that are both free and equal, but at a higher level of organization and more extensive scale.

World economy is different from world empire in not being so based on coercion. In a gesture toward what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls Provincializing Europe, Karatani thinks Mode C broke out of the constraints of Mode B in Europe because of its marginality rather than its centrality to world history. He cites Needham on the advanced level of technical and social organization in China up until late modern times. “… a world economy emerged in western Europe not because its civilization was advanced but rather because it was located on the submargin.” (160) The Mongolian empire collapsed, after which rose Qing, Mughals and Ottoman despotic states. Europe colonized the margins and out of sphere spaces of the empires. Russia and China resisted marginalization, and both tried to build a different world system.

In short, a world economy could only arise where there wasn’t a powerful despotic state controlling a world empire. This world economy would be composed eventually of modern nation-states. What made such states possible was the absolutist monarchy, which were a bit different to despotic states in that mode C was stronger. Absolute monarchs rejected higher order power above them, whether emperor or church, and did their best to abolish the autonomy of communities within their domain. Absolutism made a more or less homogeneous people under a sovereign, a necessary step prior to that people itself claiming to be sovereign. Absolutism forged the link in the Borromean knot between state and nation.

Absolutist monarchies also differed from despotic states in that Mode C had a much freer hand. There is a union of capital and state in absolute monarchies, in the form of mercantilism. Western powers could not challenge Ottoman, Mughal or Qing power directly, but spread the doctrine of national self-determination and denounced imperial rule. “…the existence of a sovereign state inevitably leads to the creation of other sovereign states.” (168) The state’s essence comes out in war, as a state exists really in relation to other states.

The absolutist state produces the possibility of the modern state’s Borromean knot of Capital-State-Nation. The state has to call into existence the means of making a nation, through compulsory education and conscription. Just as Mode B in the form of the state produces Mode A in the form of the nation, it also creates the conditions of possibility for Mode C: “… there has never been a time when the state did not intervene in the economy.” (174). It is the world market system that produces the modern state, not the other way around. “The state’s distinctive form of power will never be understood if we view it only from the perspective of its interior.” (174)

Marxists treat the state as superstructure, and expect it to wither away after the revolution. But after the Russian revolution of 1917 it actually got stronger. “Marx had penetrating insight into the nature of capitalism, but his understanding of the state was inadequate.” (175) In Capital he bracketed off Ricardo’s interest in taxation. Karatani turns to Marx’s ‘18th Brumaire’ for a more nuanced Marxist understanding of the Capital-State-Nation knot.

As Karatani reads it, Marx was grappling with Louis Bonaparte’s distinctive structural role: “his power as emperor was established by projecting the external appearance of gift-counter-gift reciprocal exchanges onto what was in reality a plunder-redistribution exchange carried out by the state machinery.” (178) Karatani takes the structural, sovereign role of both Louis Bonaparte and Otto von Bismarck as evidence of autonomous power of the state.

Karatani argues that Mode C has always existed, but was kept contained until recently by early forms of Mode A and Mode B. As with his analysis of Modes A and B, Karatani sees Mode C as arising within a world system, or between social formations, rather than within a social formation. Commodity exchange that takes place between different value systems can yield a profit. The totality of capital has to engage in an equal exchange with labor and yet it has to extract surplus value. Capital has to go outside and find new consumers. “In order for the accumulation of capital to continue, it has to ceaselessly engage in the recruitment of new proletarians.” (192) Karatani revisits the famous Dobb-Sweezy debate on the origins of capitalism, and sides with Sweezy, who thought it began with merchant capital and the world markets.

The capitalist class prefers finance and merchant to industrial capital. (Keynes’ ‘liquidity preference’) Holland already led in finance and merchant capital, so Britain had to go for industrial, and used the state to make it possible. “The belief that the capitalist market economy develops autonomously, outside the influence of the state, is simply mistaken.” (197)

What is distinctive about industrial capital is its discovery of labor power. Industrial capital commodifies labor power, which is in the end is in limited supply. Industrial capital has to expand across the world system in search of new populations to make over as workers. Moreover, “the emergence of the industrial proletariat is simultaneously the emergence of the consumer.” (188)

Industrial capital requires also ceaseless tech-change to improve relative surplus value through rising labor productivity. Capital is rapidly approaching the limits of resources and the ability to process waste. There’s an opening here for Karatani to take up the buried theme of metabolic rift in his text, but he doesn’t take it. “But the human-nature relationship is of course primary. We need, however, to remain wary of ideologies that stress this and forget about human-human relations.” (206) This is of course itself an ideology, and indeed the dominant one among humanities scholars.

One of the most interesting discussion in Karatani is on the nation as a (failed) attempt to revive Mode A in modern form. “… the nation is something that appears within the social formation as an attempt to recover, through imagination, mode of exchange A and community, which is disintegrating under the rule of capital-state. The nation is formed by capital-state, but it is at the same time a form of protest and resistance to the conditions brought about by capital-state, as well as an attempt to supplement for what is lacking in capital-state.” (209) As in Benedict Anderson, the nation replaces religion as what gives people a sense of the eternal. Nations formed under the absolute monarchs, who united the people by breaking up community within and by refusal of any empire or church beyond it. For them, national law trumps empire law (natural law).

The cultivation of nationalism is connected to that of labor-power (or what the Foucauldians call biopower). But nationalism was also a form of resistance. The romanticism from which It sprang wanted to restore a sentiment of community lost to capital-state. ”…late eighteenth century Europe saw the rise not only of Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’ but also of imagination itself…” (214)

The source was Kant, for whom sensibility and understanding are synthesized through imagination. But the romantics lost sight of the imagined status of the nation. They took it for real. “… even in Hegel’s philosophy, it is forgotten that this knot was produced in a fundamental sense by the imagination, in the form of the nation; he forgets that the nation exists only in imagination. This also explains why his philosophy was unable to foresee any possibility of superseding this knot.” (224)

For a tantalizing moment, Karatani maps the triad of Understanding-Sensibility-Imagination onto State-Capital-Nation. As if Kant’s categories were a mapping of the organizational forms of modernity itself. Mode C ends in inequality, “but the nation, as something that intends communality and equality” will try to resolve the contradictions. The state realizes those intentions.

Most modern thinkers read their Marx through the supplement of another philosopher. There are Spinozist-Marxists (Althusser, Negri), Hegelian-Marxists (Lukacs, Adorno, Zizek), Nietzschian Marxists (Deleuze, Lyotard). The supplement in Karatani is Kant, and in particular Kants Kingdom of Ends, his regulative idea of the treating others not as means but as ends, a reciprocity of freedom itself. “Kant negated religion absolutely – yet he also extracted its basic morality.” (230)

This is not the same as distributive justice, which assumes the inequalities generated by Mode C are left intact and dealt with at the second order by a Mode B that has to make concessions to demands usually framed in the Mode A of the nation as imagined community. Rather, Karatani thinks Kant’s kingdom of ends implies the abolition of both state and capital. It would be a world republic of peace not just within but between states. This is of course no more than a regulative idea, a kind of transcendental illusion. Like the unified self, the kingdom of ends is an idea that makes it possible to think and act but which is not itself real or realizable. “Ultimately, people cannot help but find an end or purpose to history.” (232)

Like Charles Fourier, Karatani rejects the Jacobin strand of socialism, which saw itself as inheriting and completing the project of the French revolution, with its imaginary invocation of an ideal Borromean knot of Capital-State-Nation under the slogan of liberty, equality, fraternity – which was only realized under Napoleon as sovereign, and in the form of revolutionary war.

Rather, Karatani turns to Proudhon’s pre-Marxist scientific socialism and its rejection of statist schemes. “Because equality is realized through redistribution carried out by the state, equality always leads to a greater or lesser extent to Jacobinism and increased state power.” (235) Drawing on his more extended argument in his book Transcritique (MIT Press, 2005), he picks up Max Stirner as a socialist thinker, for whom a higher form of associationism can only come after people free themselves from community.

Karatani argues that Marx is much closer to Proudhon on the state than to Lassalle, who is the real origin of state-socialist politics, even though Engels tacked much closer to such a position after Marx’s death. Following Engels, Kautsky and Bernstein argued for a statist socialism in Germany, while Luxemburg and Trotsky thought revolution could happen on the margin, due to the necessarily inter-state character of the world system and the super-exploitation of the margin. Lenin would pick up this argument and marry it to Jacobin and statist socialism.

Karatani wants to revive a quite other tradition. He agrees with the Leninists that labor unions tend to get absorbed into capitalism and raise only partial and particular demands within its framework. He turns instead to cooperative movements. “… labor unions are a form of struggle against capital taking place within a capitalist economy, while cooperatives are a movement that moves away from the capitalist system. In other words, the former is centered on production, the latter on circulation.” (243)

Marx did indeed see the necessity of seizing state power, but in order to make a cooperative commonwealth possible. This Karatani counter-poses to the dangers of the Lassalle-type state socialist line. “This was not a product of Stalinism, to the contrary, belief in state ownership produced Stalinism.” (250) Karatani thinks Marx broke with the Jacobin politics that had its heyday in the 1848 revolutions. “The Paris Commune marked its last burst of glory and was not a harbinger of the future.” (253) And Marx knew it, despite his fidelity to the Paris Commune.

Karatani is opposed to the politics of the leap. There’s no shortcuts. “In trying to master capitalism by means of the state, Marxists fell into a trap laid by the state.” (257) It is also impossible to supersede capital-state through the nation. That way lies fascism. The opening is rather to rethink Mode D, which would be a “return of the repressed” (xi), or a way for reciprocity to comes back under the dominance of Modes B and C.

But Mode D does not just restore community. It is possible only after community has been negated. It is regulative idea that restores reciprocity after and without community: “…communism depends less on shared ownership of the means of production than on the return of nomadism.” (xii) Mode D has to be “simultaneously free and mutual.” (7)

Mode D escapes from particular social formations. The overcoming at a higher level of the Capital-Nation-State has to be realized in the form of a new world system. Karatani’s argument could be broadly classified as what Benjamin Noys calls negationist rather than accelerationist, and it is certainly not one of what I call extrapolation or inertia. The negation of the Capital-State-Nation world system has to come from cooperative practices and from a new imagining of Mode D. But even within the text there’s the materials for another kind of historical thought. It would be one that has to pay more attention to both metabolism and production, which are, after all, the same thing.

Karatani sees the stages of the world market system in terms of the key world commodity of each. Thus for Mercantilism it is textiles, forLiberalism it is light industry, for Finance capital it is heavy industry, for State monopoly capital it is durable consumer goods, and for Multinational capitalism it is information.

This most recent stage some would call ‘neoliberal, but Karatani rightly finds it too imperialistic for such a benign-sounding term. The current stage, despite appearances, is one of the weakness of the old hegemon, the United States, within the world system. It is an era of the accelerated export of capital and corresponding cuts to redistributive justice by the states at the core of the old world system, as “state-capital was freed from egalitarian demands” (279)

This is not quite what Hardt and Negri described in Empire. Karatani thinks, incorrectly in my view, that they see Empire as an extension of the United States’ hegemonic role. I thought rather than their point is that Empire extends the form of American constitutionalism, which they read as a uniquely expansionist kind of legal frame. For them Empire is a shift in power away from Nation-State, not just towards Capital, but to a new transnational constitutionalism.

But Karatani is perhaps correct in seeing in their work a certain nostalgia for what Wallerstein called the counter-systemic movements of “May 68.” Like Marx in the 1840s, they think a kind of revolution as clarifying moment, cutting through state-nation-capital to reveal the ‘real’ workings underneath, now figured as multitude rather than productive labor.

As Karatani stresses, the state does not wither away even as Mode C globalizes, and state-nation are no mere superstructures. If there’s an end to capital, it may have to do with the entry of China and India into the world market system, and the final exhaustion of the process of making new worker-consumers. Not to mention waste products catching up with us all.

There is an opening here to make more of an accelerationist or even extrapolationist argument about world history. Rather than a regulative idea from without, perhaps actual developments from within might be key factors. One could imagine the Capital-State-Nation system accelerated from below into a new mode, which is essentially what Hardt and Negri try to describe. But they are weak on the systemic constraints of metabolism.

Perhaps then one could attempt to describe a shift in levels of organization forced by the confrontation with scarcity. Sartre usefully constructs a world-historical thought on scarcity (which appears nowhere in Karatani), but links it to violence and the practico-inert, a kind of repetition of reified and passive affects. But it seems scarcity can lead to a third alternative, which is the extrapolation out of existing forms of organization of new ones.

Bogdanov thought there was a tendency to substitute from one’s own labor practices ideas about organization and impose them on the world. Hence Kant’s Kingdom of Ends appears as philosophical practice itself writ large. Other organizational practices might also substitute from their activities to worldviews. Thus it is not only Mode A that might give rise to a regulative idea, but Mode B and Mode C as well. Substituting from Mode B produces what I call the drone of Minerva, a reactive policing, particularly by waning states, based on total surveillance and force projected at a distance. Substituting from mode C, we get financialization, and a concentration of all decision making power in the form of the quantification and pricing of all possibilities.

These regulative ideas, or rather substitutions, all have something in common: an actual infrastructure that would make them possible. They presupposed an actually existing vectoral world. So too might attempts to extend Mode A as Mode D. As I argued in A Hacker Manifesto, this abstraction of the world is riven with class tensions. The same vector, the same information infrastructure, makes possible both control and commodification, but also more abstract forms of the gift. The politics of sharing free information then becomes the leading form for thinking new possibilities.

While I find Karatani illuminating in many ways, I think what we need is a more vulgar Marxist perspective, or rather two. One is based on Marx’s understanding of the labor-nature interaction as metabolism, as elaborated by John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burchett and others. The second is to revive an old Anglo-Marxist interest in the forces of production, which can be found in V. Gordon Childe, but also Joseph Needham and JD Bernal. Karatani, like so many others, argues as if this was still somehow the dominant version of Marxism, when it is clear that since the anti-systemic movements of ’68 and the rise of new left ideologies, the opposite is the case.

All of the schools of Marx, from the Spinozists to the Hegelians to the Nietzchians join in refusing such a vulgar account. But a dialectic (if it is still that) which connects metabolism, scarcity, waste products and changes in technical-organizational form might seem like a useful perspective in these times.

If one might make more of the substitutions that spill out of the organizational practices of Modes B and C, one might also put more stress on the materiality and less on the imaginative side of Mode A, particularly in its modern form. Here Harold Innis might be a better guide than Benedict Anderson, with his stress on the communication vectors within which the nation is realized geographically, or one might follow Raymond Williams and look at the materiality of the practices of producing a culture.

Still, there’s much to celebrate in Karatani’s achievement. He refuses pomo fragmentation and thinks the totality, but in unexpected ways, and opens history up once again to further developments. It is not history that ended, but Fukuyama’s feeble imagining of it.


McKenzie Wark

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