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.

Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is


A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.