Between Marx and Anthropology

A review of The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange, Kojin Karatani, Duke University Press, 2014.

Karatani.jpgThere is a tradition of contemporary Japanese philosophers drawing from anthropology (the names of Shinichi Nakazawa and Akira Asada come to mind). There is also a Japanese tradition of philosophical re-readings of Marx (with Kozo Uno or Makoto Itoh). I am interested in the first tradition. I regard the second as negligible. In The Structure of World History, Kojin Karatani combines the two approaches. He offers a broad synthesis on the origins of the state, the market, and the national community, based on the works of classical anthropologists. And he provides a close reading of Marx’s texts in order to construct his own philosophical system, encompassing the whole of human history. I found the first part based on anthropology most valuable. I only skipped through the second part. Below are a few reading notes and commentary intended to provided a cursory reading of Karatani’s book.

A Japanese rereading of Marx

Marx, like Comte and Hegel before him, saw the history of the human race as neatly divided into historical phases. He identified five such phases: the primitive horde, Asiatic despotism, the ancient classic state, Germanic feudalism, and the modern state under capitalism. The principle of that division was to be found in modes of production and the type of labor relations they generated. The stateless clan society was characterized by primitive communism: there was no private property, and goods were shared among all members of the clan. It was followed by the Asiatic mode of production in which the despotic king owned everything and his subjects nothing. Then came the Greek and Roman slavery system giving power to a minority of citizens, followed by the Germanic feudal system with its relations of allegiance and serfdom, and modern bourgeois capitalism characterized by the opposition between capital and labor. Thus Marx famously proclaimed that all history was the history of class struggle, and that it necessarily tended towards the advent of communism, in which class would disappear and the state would wither away.

Other authors, mainly inspired by Marx, offered their own classification of social formations. To the five modes of production identified by Marx, Samir Amin added two others: the trade-based social system seen in various Arab countries, and the social formation based on the “simple petty-commodity” mode of production seen in seventeenth-century Britain. Building his own theory of world systems, Immanuel Wallerstein described a succession from mini-systems that preceded the rise of the state, to world empires that were ruled by a single state, and then world-economies in which multiple states engaged in competition without being unified politically. The modern world system of global capitalism itself went through the successive stages of mercantilism, liberalism, and imperialism, each dominated by a single hegemonic power: first Holland, then Britain, and then the United States.

Stages of development

Yet other thinkers identified various stages of development by the dominant world commodity or technology: the wool industry in the stage of mercantilism, the textile industry in liberalism, heavy industries in imperialism, and durable consumer goods such as automobiles and electronics in the stage of capitalism. Our present times may witness the rise of a new stage in which information serves as the world commodity. Still for others, each historical phase is characterized by the dominant mode of energy supply: from biomass and wood to windmills and hydropower and then to coal and steam, then electricity and the oil engine, followed by gas turbines and nuclear power or renewable energies. These periodicizations are only variants of a dominant scheme that locates the crux of world history in the realm of production.

While offering his own teleology based on modes of exchange as opposed to modes of production, Karatani introduces variants and correctives in these classifications in order to paint a more complex picture of world history. For instance, he argues that societies existed in the form of nomadic bands before the rise of clan society, and that the real turning point came with the adoption of fixed settlements, with its accompanying institutions of property, religious rituals, and political coercion. Contrary to the standard view of the Neolithic revolution that associates sedentarization with agriculture, he argues that fixed settlements preceded the appearance of agriculture, and first took the form of fishing villages located at the mouth of rivers and trade routes. Stockpiling was first made possible through the technology for smoking fish, not piling grain or herding livestock. Nomadic tribes on one side, and clan societies on the other, engaged in different modes of exchange and redistribution: pooling of resources and “primitive communism” for the first, and the logic of the gift and the forms of trade described by classical anthropologists for the second. Along with Pierre Clastres and Marshall Sahlins, he agrees that primitive societies were “societies against the state”, and actively resisted the concentration of power through warfare and reciprocity of exchange.

The Asiatic mode of production revisited

Karatani also develops a more nuanced picture of the Asiatic state, considered by Hegel and Marx as well as by Karl Wittfogel as the symbol of despotism. Contrary to the vision of tyranny and oppression, he argues that the Asiatic social contract was based on a form of redistribution. People were not simply coerced: they voluntarily undertook to work for the sake of their king-priest, driven by religious beliefs and the offer for protection. State power is based on a specific mode of exchange, distinct from the first mode based on the reciprocity of the gift. Drawing resources from large-scale irrigation systems, the Asiatic state developed the first bureaucracies, created the first permanent standing armies, and organized long-distant trade with other communities. Through his bureaucrats, the despot was expected to rule, administer, show concern for, and take care of its subjects. It was not the Asiatic community that gave birth to the Asiatic despotic state; to the contrary, it was only after the establishment of a centralized state that a new community would emerge.

Karatani also offers a revision of our understanding of Greek and Roman antiquity. As he demonstrates, political theories and philosophy did not first emerge in the Greek polis, as is sometimes alleged. The formation of Asiatic states was associated with intense philosophical debates, as in the Warring States period in China which saw the emergence of the Hundred Schools of Thought. This is because the appearance of the state required a breaking with the traditions that had existed since clan society. Greece and Rome existed at the periphery of Asian empires and retained many aspects of clan societies. Rome in the end did become a vast empire, but that was due if anything to its adoption of the Asiatic imperial system, which survived the fall of Rome with the Byzantine dynasty and then the Islamic empires. For this reason, historians should regard the despotic state that emerged in Asia not simply as a primitive early stage, but rather as the entity that perfected the supranational state (or empire). Likewise, they should regard Athens and Rome not as the wellspring of Western civilization, but as incomplete social formations that developed at the submargins of Asian empires. Drawing from Karl Wittfogel, Karatani sees a subtle dialectics between civilizations-empires at the core, vassal states at the margins, independent polities at the submargin, and out-of-sphere communities that retained their nomadic lifestyle.

From modes of production to modes of exchange

Moving to his third mode of exchange, based on money and commodities, Karatani enters classic Marxian terrain, and offers vintage Marx analysis. That is where he kind of lost me, and my reading of this part is wholly incomplete. Drawing from the classic formulas M-C-M’ and M-M’, he argues that the world created by this third mode of exchange is fundamentally a world of credit and speculation, and that it still needs the backing of the first mode (based on reciprocity) and the second mode (drawing from the social contract offered by the state) in order to sustain itself. My attention also lapsed during his discussions on world money, world commodities, and world systems à la Wallerstein. It was only revived when he described the different schools of socialist thinking, seeing great commonality between Proudhon and Marx as well as with the Young Hegelians who first developed a theory of alienation of the individual through a critique of religion, state power, and capital.

Karatani then introduces his fourth mode of exchange, labelled mode D, which marks the attempt to restore the reciprocal community of mode A on top of the market economy of mode C, and without the state structure of mode B. Although this mode of exchange is an ideal form that never existed in actuality, it manifested itself in the form of universal religions and expressed the “return of the repressed” of the primitive community’s mode of reciprocal exchange in a higher dimension. His analysis sometimes borders on the bizarre, as when he warns of a looming ecological catastrophe and generalized warfare that may take humanity back to the stage of the nomadic tribe. His description of Kant as a closet socialist advocating the disappearance of the state and of capital also seems far-fetched. But it is his reading of Marx and Hegel through Kant that may provide the greatest food for thought to modern philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, who quotes Karatani eloquently in his books. Based on solid anthropological data and a re-reading of Marx’s classic texts, Karatani’s work may generate a thousand theoretical explosions, placing the construction of world history systems back at the heart of the philosophical agenda.

Rewriting Marx’s Theory of Capital for the Twenty-First Century

A review of Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life, Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Duke University Press, 2006

biocapitalBiopolitics is a notion propounded by Michel Foucault whereby “life becomes the explicit center of political calculation.” The increasing use of this notion in the social sciences underscores a fundamental evolution. In the twenty-first century, as anticipated by Foucault, power over the biological lives of individuals and peoples has become a decisive component of political power, and control over one’s biology is becoming a central focus for political action. Used by the late Foucault in his lectures at the Collège de France, biopolitics and its associated concept, governmentality (“the conduct of conducts”), are now in the phase of constituting a whole new paradigm, a way to define what we are and what we do. Biopolitics and governmentality are now declined by many scholars who have proposed associated notions: “bare life” and the “state of exception” (Giorgio Agamben), “multitude” and “empire” (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri), “biological citizenship” and “the politics of life itself” (Nikolas Rose), “biopolitical assemblages” and “graduated sovereignty” (Aihwa Ong), “cyborg” and “posthumanities” (Donna Haraway), etc. This flowering of conceptualizations is often associated with a critique of neoliberalism as the dominant form of globalized governmentality, and to a renewal of Marxist studies that revisit classical notions (surplus value, commodity fetishism, alienation of labor…) in light of new developments.

From Foucault to Marx

By adding the notions of “biocapital” and “postgenomic life” to the list of new concepts, Kaushik Sunder Rajan positions himself in this twin tradition of Marxist and Foucaultian studies. As he states in the introduction, “this book is an explicit attempt to bring together Foucault’s theorization of the political with a Marxian attention to political economy.” As mentioned, the paradigm of biopolitics and governmentality has changed the traditional ways of thinking about politics, and has led to a new understanding of basic notions such as sovereignty and citizenship. But Foucault was mostly interested in deconstructing political philosophy, and failed to acknowledge that biopolitics is essentially a political economy of life. This is where the reference to Marx comes handy. As Sunder Rajan underscores, one doesn’t need to adhere to Marx’s political agenda in order to interpret his writings (“I believe that Marx himself is often read too simply as heralding inevitable communist revolution”). Instead, he uses Marx as “a methodologist from whom one can learn to analyze rapidly emergent political economic and epistemic structures.” His ambition is to rewrite Marx’s theory of capital for the twenty-first century, and to situate in emergent political economic terrains by using the tools of the ethnographer.

For Sunder Rajan, biocapital is the result of the combination of capitalism and life sciences under conditions of globalization. The evolution from capital to biocapital is symptomatic of the turn from an industrial economy to a bioeconomy in which surplus value is directly extracted from human and nonhuman biological life rather than from labor power. The extraction of surplus value from biological life requires that life be turned into a commodity, tradable on a market and convertible into industrial patents and intellectual property rights. Life sciences transforms life into a commodity by turning the biological into bits of data and information that is then traded, patented, or stored in databases. Research in genomics and bioinformatics translates the DNA into a string of numbers, and develops methods for storing, retrieving, organizing and analyzing biological data. As a consequence, life sciences become undistinguishable from information sciences. Biocapital determines the conversion rate between biological molecules, biological information and, ultimately, money. It then organizes the circulation of these three forms of currencies–life, data, capital–along routes and circuits that are increasingly global.

Turning life itself into a business plan

But Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life is not only a theoretical intervention in the field of Marxian and Foucaultian studies. It is, as defined on the book cover, “a multi-sited ethnography of genomic research and drug development marketplaces in the United States and India.” The constitution of new subjects of individualized therapy and the genetic mapping of populations are obvious terrains for the application of Foucault’s concepts of biopower and governmentally. Similarly, Marx’s analysis of surplus production and surplus value can be brought to bear in ethnographic descriptions of Silicon Valley start-ups living on vision and hype, and turning life into a business plan. As Sunder Rajan writes, “ethnography has always prided itself on deriving its analytic and empirical power from its ability to localize, and make specific, what might otherwise be left to the vague generalizations of theory.” In addition, multi-sited ethnography allows the anthropologist to follow the globalized routes of life resources, biological data, and monetary capital, that cannot be grasped and conceptualized in a single location.

The author’s initial ambition was to observe biotechnological research within laboratories and to put them in their larger social and cultural context. His interest in the relation between biotech companies and pharmaceutical corporations led him to approach various business ventures and present requests for interviews and participant observation. But as he recalls, “trying to get into the belly of the corporate beast” was a frustrating experience. Getting access to companies and laboratories was made difficult by the value associated with intellectual property rights in the biotech industry. As the author notes, “many of these people live in worlds where information is guarded with almost paranoid zeal.” The secretive aspect of corporate activity was compounded by the wish of corporations to strictly monitor what gets said about them. Research proposals for participant observation were vetted by teams of lawyers and were usually rejected. In India, corporations and research centers had a more open attitude to the ethnographer, who could fit into the more fluid environment and leverage his ethnic identity; but the bureaucratic state imposed additional hurdles through paperwork and red tape.

“We must get ourselves a bioethicist!”

Paradoxically, the fact that genome sequencing had already been the topic of a book by a famous anthropologist facilitated first contacts and self-presentations: “I’ve read Paul Rabinow, so I know exactly what you want to do,” was how the head of the GenBank database greeted the young PhD student sent to the field by his teacher adviser. Corporate executive and research managers tried to fit the ethnographer into known categories. “We must get ourselves a bioethicist!” concluded the CEO of an Iceland-based genome company after a short interview. A public relations official at Celera Genomics wondered whether his visitor needed to be offered the “investor tour” or the “media tour”, these being the only two categories of PR communication. The author finally gained access to GeneEd, an e-learning software company co-founded by two Indians in San Francisco that sells life science courses to corporate clients. During his job interview, he provided an overview of his own field of science studies and cultural anthropology, eliciting questions about marketing strategies and employee motivation. The two CEOs agreed to have an in-house anthropologist, and let him wander around while using his skills as a marketer.

Despite the obvious limitations of his terrain, being more than one step removed from the biotech startups and big pharma industries that are at the core of biocapital, the author was able to conduct an interesting case study of corporate life that is presented in the last chapter of the book. As GenEd’s client base shifted from small biotech to big pharmaceutical companies, the status of graphic designers declined to one of mere executioners, while software programmers became the key resource of the company. By participating in industry conferences, meeting with people, and simply being there, Sunder Rajan was also able to accumulate valuable observations on biotech startups and research labs in the Silicon Valley. In particular, conferences and business events are “key sites at which unfolding dynamics and emergent networks of technocapitalism can be traced.” They have their rituals, like speeches and parties, their messianic symbolism of “going for life,” and their underlying infrastructure of competition for capital and recognition.

The biocapital ethics and the spirit of start-up capitalism

High tech startups that depend on venture capital funding have developed what the author describes as the art of vision and hype: making investors and the public at large believe in unlimited growth and massive future profits, even they don’t have a product on the market. Hype and vision form the “discursive apparatus of biocapital”: this discourse declined in “promissory articulations”, “forward-looking statements”, and the initial public offerings of “story stocks”, as these ventures are known on Wall Street. The excitement generated by endeavors like the Human Genome Project has increased the enthusiasm of state funders and private investors for anything related to the genome, even as the pragmatic applications of genetics research seem distant if not unachievable. “At some fundamental level, it doesn’t matter whether the promissory visions of a biotech company are true or not, as long as they are credible,” notes the author. Promissory articulations are performative statements: they create the conditions of possibility for the existence of the company in the present. As a result, the spirit of start-up capitalism is very different from the protestant ethic as described by Max Weber. It is “an ethos marked by an apparent irrationality, excess, gambling.” It is also, at least in the US, a neo-evangelical ethics of born-again Protestantism that promises an afterlife in one’s own lifetime: a future of health and hope, of personalized medicine and vastly increased life prospects–at least, for those who can afford it.

This is where India comes as a useful counterpoint. India entertains different dreams and visions. In 1982, Indira Gandhi addressed the World Health Assembly with the following words: “The idea of a better-ordered world is one in which medical discoveries will be free of patents and there will be no profiteering from life and death.” Since then, the world has moved into the opposite direction, and India has positioned itself as a key player in the “business of life”. Medical records and DNA samples are collected in Indian public hospitals for commercial purposes, and the nation-state itself operates as a quasi-corporate entity. India in the 1990s has emerged as a major contract research site for Western corporations, which outsource medical trials at a significantly cheaper cost. The challenge for the young entrepreneurs and government officials interviewed by Sunder Rajan is to move beyond a dependence on contract work for revenue generation, and toward a culture of indigenous knowledge generation through patenting and intellectual property appropriation. It is also an ethical challenge: in the course of his research, Sunder Rajan visited a research hospital in Mumbai that recruits as experimental subjects former millworkers who have lost their jobs as a result of market reforms. The “human capital” that forms the basis of these clinical trials experiments is very different from the often vaunted software engineers and biotech specialists who have become the hallmark of “India Shining”: it is constituted of life itself, of life as surplus, and therefore blurs the classic division between capital and labor that Marx locates at the origin of surplus value.

Fieldwork in a multi-sited ethnography

Like many anthropologists, Sunder Rajan is at his best when he connects particular reporting on field sites and informants with theoretical discussions on Marx and Foucault. The objects of his study are inseparable from the larger epistemological and political economic contexts within which they are situated. In line with other scholars in the field of STS studies, he insists on the mutual constitution of the life sciences and the socio-economic regimes in which they are embedded. There is no neatly divided partitions or clear distinctions between “the scientific”, “the economic” and “the social”; rather, these categories enter in complex relationships of coproduction and coevolution. However, Sunder Rajan’s theoretical arguments do no always receive ethnographic support, and his empirical base is spread rather thin. Multi-sited ethnography as a different way of thinking about the field runs the risk of turning into reportage or graduate school’s tourism; and it is not sure that fieldwork, once defined as hanging around, can easily be substituted by wandering about.