Why rights-centric politics is not a politics of freedom


Exchange-value (and exchange-relations) is not in and by itself value (and value-relations). Rather, exchange-value (and exchange-relations) is appearance or representation of the essence of capital that is value (and value-relations). Hence, juridical rationality — or rights — is the appearance or representation of the arbitrary and irrational operation of social power but is not in itself that mode or structure of arbitrary and irrational (and hence entirely political) operation. Conversely, even as value-relations as the arbitrary operation of social power necessarily inform exchange-relations and the juridical rationality of rights in their constitution, the former is irreducible to the latter.

In other words, even as the essence (value or arbitrary operation of social power) must and does appear (as exchange-value or juridical rationality of rights), appearance (exchange-value or rights) is not the essence (value, or social power in its arbitrary operation). That is demonstrated with a fair bit of clarity by Marx in the first volume of Capital. The problem with a political subject that envisions freedom as right is that it misses this dialectic between essence and appearance, and thus hypostatises the essence into its appearance – or, conflates essence with appearance. The politics of rights then is no more than exertions to correct (reform) the asymmetries of exchange, which presupposes the legitimacy and continuance of the rationality of exchange-value, and thus the legitimacy and continuance of the irrationality of value-relations that is the former’s constitutive mode.

Such politics of rights, needless to say, serves to reproduce and reinforce exchange-relations and its constitutive value-relational mode by merely displacing rights deprivation to yet another historically concrete moment or location of the capitalist social being. In other words, the subject that envisages politics in terms of demanding rights is one that is interpellated and articulated by the logic and structure of value-relations. Its politics of making a concrete moment of exchange less asymmetrical succeeds, if at all, by way of increasing the asymmetry in yet another (qualitatively old or new) concrete moment of exchange. This is precisely what technical recomposition of social labour by capital, through its re-segmentation, amounts to. In such circumstances, a politics driven by demand for various rights – including workers’ rights – cannot be affirmed and embraced as the politics of the working class. In its basic impulses, such politics is petty bourgeois, reformist and restorative, not proletarian and revolutionary. The ‘understanding’ of political economy that animates such political impulses is deeply Ricardian, and not at all Marxist.

That is, however, not to claim that the question of rights-deprivation stands rejected from the standpoint of revolutionary working-class politics and Marxism. But, for a Marxist, there is surely the need to distinguish between rights-deprivation — as an objective systemic fact and a concomitant subjective experience — being an inescapable question for working-class politics, and the politics driven by demand for rights. Only a liberal dimwit or nincompoop would think they are one and the same thing. And that the abandonment of one is tantamount to the jettisoning of the other. Rights-deprivation is a revolutionary question not because a politics ought to be made out of demanding the absent rights – the rights one is deprived of. Rather, it’s a revolutionary question because it enables one to cognitively access and concretely target value-relations (or the arbitrary, and thus entirely political, operation of social power) in and through their determinate appearance as (or mediation by) a particular exchange-relation whose particular asymmetry is what the absence or deprivation of a particular right amounts to.

This, among other things, demonstrates how a group of rights-deprived individual subjects could grasp and seeks to actualise the social subject sedimented in its individual selfhood or subjecthood precisely through the concrete experience of right-deprivation that is constitutive of that particular subjecthood in its individualised salience. What this, in other words, means is that the individual right-deprived subject is egged on by his/her experience of being thus right-deprived to struggle, not for the winning over of the absent right for that individual subjecthood, but for the destruction of the value-relation that is represented by the concrete exchange- relation constitutive of that particular individual subjecthood and its objective factuality and subjective experience of being deprived of the particular right in question. Clearly, such destruction would also mean the disavowal of the particular individual selfhood/subjecthood that experiences the particular right-deprivation in the first place because that individual selfhood/subjecthood is constitutive of value-relations that are sought to be destroyed by accessing those relations through their mediation by the particular exchange-relation in question that determinately instantiates the value-relations.

What this operation of the social subject actualising itself evidently means is that such individualised subjecthood, precisely on account of its constitutive experience of rights-deprivation, risks its existence as that individualised subject to emerge as the social subject that tends towards abolishing the structure of value-relations in and through its determinate representation by a concrete instance of right-deprivation (or asymmetry of exchange). Clearly, the operation constitutive of such risking of existence of individualised subjecthood – the agentic subjecthood of rights – is a politics not of ending various particularities of rights-deprivation. Rather, it’s a politics of abolishing the general condition of such particular and particularised rights-deprivations – and the juridical realm of exchange they are integral parts of — through and in its constantly shifting determinate instantiations. Hence, one must think freedom as risk, not as a right.

The difference between politics of freedom as right and politics of freedom as risk is then the radical modal difference between two kinds of intervention on the same concretely apparent terrain of exchange-relations. The former driven towards ending particular rights-deprivation by demanding the absent rights, the latter geared towards unravelling value-relations, and its concomitant force-field, which constitute the condition of possibility of juridical rationality of rights – and thus rights-deprivation – in their determinate instantiation in and as a particular case of rights-deprivation. It’s in this latter sense, and not in the former, that one ought to understand, among other things, Benjamin’s insistence about every moment in history being a strait-gate through which the messiah can come in.

It must also be mentioned here that legal equality has as its necessary condition of possibility substantive/social inequality. Besides, the former in its existence also acts back upon the latter to reproduce and further reinforce it. If one attends to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right — to say nothing of his brilliant demonstration in Capital of how concrete labours (qualitative singularities) are rendered differential quantities of “human labour in the abstract” through qualitative equalisation — even half carefully, one would see that.

Immediate forms of oppression in the capitalist social formation get registered as rights-deprivation and legal inequality. But such registration is, for subjects of struggle against those forms of oppression, precisely part of the problem and not its overcoming. Struggles against oppressions must be struggles against the structure of exploitation, which is the necessary condition of possibility of various concrete forms of oppression, and not struggles for rights and legal equality. Subjects struggling against various forms of oppression must recognise those oppressions for what they are — that is, oppressions — and call them by their name, and not register them in their subjectivity as legal inequalities to be remedied.

Phenomenologies of Suffering, Phenomenologies of Joyousness: Beyond the Moral Voluntarism of Anti-Capitalism


Theoretical practices on the working-class left today must be completely immersed in the spirit of chapter one of Capital, Volume I, because that is the only way in which militants of proletarian-revolutionism can hope to cleanse their politics of anticapitalism of the dross of moral voluntarism that has, for a while now, thoroughly obscured and blunted its critical edge. This is particularly important in this new conjuncture of capital because its openly barbaric character compels its so-called antagonists to hold on ever more tightly to a morally voluntaristic anti-capitalism.

In the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, Marx is at his rigorous best, as it were. Here he kind of prefigures his critique of political economy in its entirety by demonstrating political economy or capital in its basic cell-form. The spirit, and orientation, of the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, is critically significant because in that chapter Marx demonstrates with great acuity how commodity, as the basic unit of capital, has a two-fold nature: use-value on one hand. and, on the other, exchange-value and value (and thus also the bipolarity of labour between useful concrete labour and human labour in the abstract). Therefore, the moving contradiction — or the internally schizzed condition of social being — that is capital implies, and Marx demonstrates as much, that while exchange-value (which is representation of value) tends to be a negation of use-value, use-value in its concrete qualitative singularity is the necessary material depository/bearer of exchange-value. This is the paradox, or moving contradiction, that is commodity. For, even as exchange-value tends to be a total negation of use-value, use-value cannot be totally negated as that would cause exchange-relations themselves to disappear.

This then means that capital as the actuality of the law of value — which is the rationalisation of exchange as social relations — is not the elimination of use-values through their subsumption into exchange-relations; or, which is the same thing, subsumption by the law of value. Rather, capital as the subsumption of use-values and their concomitant concrete labours (and their immanent affectivity in its diverse experiences of singularity) into exchange-relations is their de-singularising instrumentalisation by the latter. This is most clearly evident in Marx’s explication of the elementary value-form. Here he shows how value — which is an abstraction from the materiality of use-value because it comes into being only in, as and through rationalisation of exchange of use-values into social relations – can express itself only in an exchange-relation, which is the appearance of a value equation, and thus through its embodiment (equivalent value-form being that embodiment). This embodiment, needless to say, is possible only through the instrumentalisation of the sheer bodily form of use-value. Concomitant with such instrumentalisation of use-values, which is clearly not their elimination or total negation, is the regimentation (and, once again, not elimination) of their respective concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and affective experiences.

We can, in a more obvious kind of way, say that concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations as diverse forces of affectivity are regimented precisely because they first come into being within capital by militating against it. In other words, capital, as the actuality of the law of value, is possible only as the regimentation of that which militates against it as that regimentation. That is why capital expands in order to reproduce itself. And it reproduces itself in and through its recomposition. And it can recompose, and thus reproduce, itself only when it is determinately subverted and destroyed. For, recomposition of capital is its reactive response — via regimentation of concrete labours in their singular subjective operations as diverse affective forces — to its determinate subversion caused by the militation of those concrete labours in their singular subjective operations. In other words, capital is always the incompleteness of its own destruction. Thus capital as its own continual recomposition — and thus expanded reproduction — is the continuous hypostatising of the effects — or limits — of its own determinate destruction.

What Althusser terms subjectivation is arguably nothing but this regimentation and instrumentalisation of concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and immanent affective experiences. This regimentation, or instrumentalisation, is conceptualised as subjectivation because it is registered in and as the effect of a subject that is produced by such regimentation (or instrumentalisation) of concrete labour in its singular subjective operation as an affective force. Hence, subjectivation is the truncation of concrete labour as singular affective force in its subjective operation. This is the source of the various experiences, and phenomenologies, of suffering and pain in capitalism. Thus, phenomenologies and experiences of suffering are not on account of affective forces (as the multiple singularities they are) being completely absorbed into, and totally negated by, capital as an entity external to them. Rather, phenomenologies of suffering stem from the truncation and thus de-singularisation, rather than complete elimination, of multiple affective singularities in their concreteness. In other words, a phenomenology of suffering must be grasped not as something that stems from the elimination of an affective singularity in its operation, but as something that is so precisely on account of its instrumentalised and truncated, and thus partial and de-singularising, operation. A phenomenology of suffering is, therefore, not actually a phenomenology of suffering. From the vantage-point of Marx’s explication of commodity — and labour — as something that is characterised by its two-fold nature, it’s, instead, a truncated, interrupted and partialised phenomenology of joyousness.

Clearly then, for the Marx of Capital — particularly in the first chapter of volume I — capital as an objectivity is the operationalised demonstration of its own immanent critique. Althusser is, therefore, entirely correct in observing that Marx’s critique of political economy shows capital in its objectivity to be a symptomatic demonstration of its own Real-impossible (“process without subject”). That is, however, not to suggest, in the manner of an obdurate determinist, that capital as the symptomatic demonstration of its own immanent critique and thus its own immanent impossibility is also the gradual actualisation of the Real-impossible. That more and more of capital will be less and less of it. To think the actualisation of the Real-impossible in gradualist terms is, in fact, an absurd paradox. Such evolutionist social democracy is not at all the point of symptomatic reading that is Marx’s critique of political economy. The point of such symptomatic reading, instead, is to actualise that which is revealed by the symptom. That, in other words, means, subjectification (as opposed to subjectivation) of the immanent critique of capital — which capital as an objectivity is shown to demonstrate or symptomatise — into an active political force of desubjectivation. And that is precisely the reason why concrete labours as diverse affective forces in and as their singular subjective operations must be conceptually articulated — of course, by going through the dialectic of phenomenologies of suffering and phenomenologies of joyousness to their antipodes — as an indivisible post-phenomenological construction of austere and neutral extensionality.

In such circumstances, it would be deeply erroneous, and politically unproductive, to not see the dynamic of subsumption of living/concrete labour by dead/abstract labour (value) as a dialectic. [Regardless of how crisis-ridden, precarious, and thus tautological this dialecticity might have become, the mode of the dynamic called capital will always be dialectical.] And to grasp this dynamic as a dialectic is to come to terms with the fact that subsumption of concrete labour into the web of exchange-relations is also equally about the internalisation of the rationality of exchange-relations (or the law of value) by concrete labour as a singular affective force in and as its subjective operation. That is the reason why politics animated and orientated by an approach that stems from Marx’s critique of political economy can have little to do with ethics as politics, and yet is something that is not completely exhausted by the political. Instead, such politics can, and must, only be the indivisible singularity of the ethico-political, which is basically the dialectic as the mode of determinate presentation of the antidialectic, or its own asymmetry. This amounts to is ascesis, as care of the self, being articulated in its indispensable integrality to the operation of the political. This is how, following Alain Badiou and Sylvain Lazarus, one can think politics as the operation of its own immanent thought, and as thought-relation-to-the-real respectively.