Ideality and Intersubjectivity: Dialectics and Analectics in a Philosophy of Liberation

(This essay appeared in Decolonizing Ethics: The Critical Theory of Enrique Dussel, edited by Amy Allen and Eduardo Mendieta. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021, pp. 64-89.)

On the one hand, dialectical critique articulates theories of social transformation that do not shy away from an approach that is immanentist through-and-through. Transcendence in this approach is only the positive result of contradictions inherent to the totality; here, revolutionary subjectivity becomes aware of its other as the dynamism of change. On the other hand, analectical critique presupposes that the relationship to the other is primary, for the other lies beyond the totality in a transhistorical and trans-systemic dimension; it is a distinct narrative forever present as a novelty; it is the source of expression that itself cannot be expressed; it is a transnarrative.

Contemporary literature expresses vividly those two paradigms, which are useful for critical theory, thus encompassing also the praxis of decolonization:

Illustration 1. Octavia Butler in her Parable of the Sower has a fascinating affirmation of incompletion or rather of Becoming as the complete meaning of the Totality through her main character, Lauren, at the heart of the novel: “Change is ongoing. Everything changes in some way—size, position, composition, frequency, velocity, thinking, whatever. Every living thing, every bit of matter, all the energy in the universe changes in some way. I don’t claim that everything changes in every way, but everything changes in some way…. Earth-seed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. God will shape us all every day of our lives. Best to understand that and return the effort: Shape God.”1

Illustration 2. Ursula Le Guin in one of her short stories gives voice to the drive towards exteriority that is founded on the confrontation with an other who is the source of the subject’s responsibility, of the self’s love and desire towards an infinity never comprehended but touched by a love for which no reason can account because it’s the never ending saying that cannot be said: “He had taken the fear into himself, and accepting, had transcended it. He had given up his self to the alien, an unreserved surrender, that left no place for evil. He had learned the love of the Other, and thereby had been given his whole self.—But this is not the vocabulary of reason.”2

In this essay I articulate philosophically the two paradigms of decolonization in two principal sections: living labor and the logic of intersubjectivity that forms the framework of the process towards liberation.

<1> Living Labor
In this section, I offer two distinct interpretations of Marx’s concept of living labor. They will serve as the foreground for an analysis that contrasts (a) Dussel’s Levinasian reading of Marx with (b) a Hegelian one. The former has the anthropological virtue of rescuing the human from totalizing irrationality but has also a problematic relation to the mystification of the human and the unintended naturalization of historically constituted social relations; the latter has the anthropological virtue of thinking of the human as immanent to the relations of their existence without a mystification of the “something” that relates to an inexpressible exteriority, but it does so at the risk of dismissing the posthuman novelty produced by subjectivities that rebel against their constitution. I argue, however, that the Hegelian reading is closer to Marx’s view and is the more promising theoretical approach to the praxis of liberation.

(a) Dussel’s reading of the Grundrisse is deeply influenced by a Levinasian rather than a Hegelian perspective. Dussel states that in Hegelian Marxism the totality, that is, Being (Sein) or Essence (Wesen), is the origin and foundation (Grund) of the real. Instead, in Dussel’s interpretation, the origin is to be found in the exteriority of the source (Quelle) of value: “living labor … [is] ‘the living source of value’.” Thus, while living labor is anterior and exterior to capital, the value created by living labor is the being of capital. Therefore, living labor in its exteriority and anteriority is the source of being.

From the “exteriority” of “living labor” (which is neither “the capacity for labor” nor “labor power,” a denomination that Marx does not use with certainty until 1866), from the transcendental poverty (the “pauper,” as Marx writes) of the person, subjectivity, corporeality, of the worker as ‘not-capital’ (Nicht-kapital), transcendental, then, with respect to the ‘totality’ of capital, the ‘living labor’ is “subsumed” (“subsumption” is the trans-ontological act par excellence that negates exteriority and incorporates “living labor” into capital) in the “labor process.” It is from this perspective that Marx, quickly, set himself the problem of how “surplus value” (Mehrwert) appears and thereby discovered, for the first time in his life, the question of “surplus value.”3

Dussel makes this point again in his 2018 manuscript, Filosofía de Liberación Decolonial: “All capital is the subsequent development of categories based on this central discovery, originary and ontological point of departure (and even trans-ontological…) of Marx’s critical theory of political economy: From what is anterior to capital (exterior to capital), living labor is subsumed (that is, “in-corporated within”) as mere mediation in the Totality of capital.4

One of the key elements of Dussel’s interpretation of Marxism is that Marx’s scientific critique is based more on the critique of fetishism than the critique of ideology. If the critique of fetishism is a central pillar of Marx’s critical theory, then, Dussel argues, the subsumption of living labor in the totality of capital not only obscures living labor but also living labor’s relation to value as the source of the latter: “For Marx, to fetishize is to absolutize the term of a relationship… thus losing its meaning…. [C]ritical or scientific activity for Marx consists in explaining all categories from the category origin of all other categories: Living labor. If this relation with living labor is lost—living labor being the substance of value (that is, its “cause” in Hegelian terminology)—value is absolutized, and it is attributed to the thing and not living labor as its objectification.”5

This is a Levinasian interpretation of the concept of living labor: We have here a subjectivity anterior to, and irreducible to all social relations to which I can point as the truth because its proximity allows me to substitute for it a relation prior to all relations,6 including Marx’s concept of relationship. Hence, a key element of Dussel’s thought and of his interpretation of Marx is that the source is the subject as Other, and not the relationship as Other, a relation that disguises the ideality of intersubjectivity or, as Marx put it regarding fetishism, “a definite social relation between men… assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”7

Thus, for Dussel, the fundamental question is what the origin of any economic system is. The origin is always the concrete subject, “originary” moment of every possible economy.8 However, Dussel’s subject is not the subject of social relations and, therefore, of totalities, but the Levinasian subject, an ever present transcendence (or trans-ascendence as Levinas put it borrowing from Wahl9) of social relations.

The logic that informs Dussel’s philosophy of liberation is what he calls an “analogical pluriversality” by contrast to a “univocal universality.” While the latter imposes itself on others—the imposition of Self-same over the other in a logic of identity/difference—, the former allows for a process of dialogue among equals on the basis of a logic of analogies of “similarity and distinctness”10: It is grounded in fact on a metaphysics of duality that articulates “the incommensurable plenitude of reality itself” through “the cognitive finitude of the human being.”11 Hence, the totality is discovered through analogy as “not-originary,” as rather derivative from a drive towards Alterity and a previous meta-physical encounter with the Other. Reality is, therefore, for this logos (i.e., that of the ethical attitude of the finite being) always open, never univocal. We are thus “situated at an anthropological level (not at the level of the infinite but of the human being), in face of the revelation (Schelling’s Offenbarung) of the ‘word of the Other’, and starting from that word in search of its meaning… analogy acquires central relevance…”12

The ethical drive is founded on a faith-filled decision to satisfy the urgent needs of the Other who announces those needs and who therefore lives a la intemperie13 both objectively for them and subjectively for us; hence, the act of faith, the logic (or logos) for us of an analogical faith.14 Of course, the exposure is also our exposure because the river current that drives analogical pluriversality is an ethics of empathy and of sharing. But the logos is ours; for it is our faith, not the faith of the needy. Hence, it is our similarity. The proximity of the other person is thus founded on a process of substitution. Our access to the other (a phenomenology of egotism based on a totalizing reason) is predicated on our openness towards the other (a trans-phenomenology of altruism based on faith).

Dussel says in his his 16 tesis de economía política that “the subject of indeterminate labor, not yet objectified in any product (and not yet subsumed in any concrete productive system) was called by Marx “living labor” (lebendige Arbeit). It is the starting point of the the whole productive and economic field.”15 Dussel makes an analogy between the will as the genesis of the ontology of the political field and living labor as the origin of the ontology of the productive field, and therefore between potentia (power-in-itself) in politics and living labor in-itself in the economic field. Diremption has not yet happened.

Historically, this general economic category is not simply or only pre-nonequivalential in a metaphysical sense, but also in a system-constitutive sense: Dussel’s examples are the peasant of sub Saharan Africa in confrontation with the slave hunter (an originary face-to-face), “the human subjectivity of living labor bought integrally and substantially as a thing… for example in the sugar mills of Brazil, Cuba and the American British colonies.”16

Here, however, in these examples Dussel makes a subtle change from exteriority being the alterity-source of a new totality, as I quoted above, to exteriority alterity-absorbed by a totality. He can do this because, with Levinas, subjectivity and the other that founds it ethically are anterior to social relations: They are an “interior transcendentality.” They become a source of social relations but not reducible to social relations because they are cut of a metaphysical cloth that weaves, and weaves itself into, sociality, but—as weaving, as “saying”—it is not sociality. Thus, he refers to modern slavery as “The estrangement of living labor in the slave system, the negation of the alterity of the human person as it is incorporated to the totality of the non-equivalential economic system par excellence…”17

A feature peculiar to Dussel’s thought is the positing of a metaphysical origin that functions as a vitalist apeiron in all the fields: In the economic as we see now, but also in the political and social fields: In the political field, there is potentia as the originating (originario) foundation of concrete potestas; in the economic field, there is precisely this reconstruction of Marx’s concept of living labor as an indeterminate exteriority.

However, Dussel falls short when the global becomes a “universal,” metaphysical category that has no contradiction within itself. It ends up naturalizing existing contradictions. For Dussel, contradiction comes to exteriority from the totality that seeks to encompass it, e.g., the peasant kidnapped by the slave-hunter; or, alternatively, it produces the totality, e.g., the living labor that is the source of all value, the heterosexual erotic relationship of his first ethics and of his latest text on political economy18; these two are examples, it seems to me, of a particular slant that disguises itself as a universal, a contradiction that sets itself up as an originary non-contradictory relation. Furthermore, it sets up in a problematic way a social relationship as natural. Heteronormativity is naturalized, other social relations are also normalized as if they were pre-social.

Dussel is correct to look for commonality in a set of particulars. Living labor seems to be such a general category. So, of course, is God. Dussel’s concept of living labor is more akin to the concept of a transcendent God than to the concept of an immanent relationship. As I will argue below, Marx’s concept of living labor refers precisely to such a relationship. Where Marx fails—namely, his limitation to an eurocentered conception of capitalism—, Dussel succeeds—namely, through a global conception of capitalism that includes slavery and conquest as integral to the capitalist totality. Nevertheless, Marx preserves much and develops further a conceptualization of living labor as immanent to intersubjectivity and sociality.

(b) Anterior to the logic of analogy is the idealized conception of community that we find in the Young Marx. In his “Excerpt (Notes) to James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy,” Marx contrasts the true community to its caricature in the alienated society envisioned as the ideal human being (the homo oeconomicus) by bourgeois economic theory. Indeed, the homo oeconomicus of classical political economy reduces true common life to the activities of trade and exchange:

Since human nature is the true common life [Gemeinwesen] of man, men through the activation of their nature create and produce a human common life, a social essence which is no abstractly universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essence or nature of every single individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth. Authentic common life arises not through reflection; rather it comes about from the need and egoism of individuals, that is, immediately from the activation of their very existence. it is not up to man whether this common life exists or not. However, so long as man does not recognize himself as man and does not organize the world humanly, this common life appears in the form of alienation, because the subject, man, is a being alienated from itself. Men as actual, living, particular individuals, not in an abstraction, constitute this common life. It is, therefore, what men are. To say that man alienates himself is the same as saying that the society of this alienated man is the caricature of his actual common life, of his true generic life [a better translation would be species life—Gattungsleben—MS]. His activity, therefore, appears as torment, his own creation as a force alien to him, his wealth as poverty, the essential bond connecting him with other men as something unessential so that the separation from other men appears as his true existence.19

Marx follows the analysis with words that show how much this text was a preparatory run for his Manuscripts of 1844, and also undermines any notion that the future concept of living labor is anything other than the negation of the “true community.” Hence, the bourgeois caricature of true common life turn’s man’s life into the “sacrifice of his life, the fulfillment of his essence as the derealization of his life, his production as the production of his nothingness, his power over the object as the power of the object over him, and he, the master of his creation appears as its servant of this creation.”20

Of significance here is Marx’s critique of Hegel’s conception of labor as necessarily alienated labor. For Marx, that is the position that political economy (that is, bourgeois theory) has promoted concerning the nature of labor. Hegel reduces labor to alienated labor; thus, he accepts uncritically the political economy of the time, as Marx points out. Hence, the only type of intersubjective action that can be true would be outside the sphere of labor qua material activity: “Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy. He grasps labour as the essence of man… he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour. Labour is man’s coming-to-be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man.”21

An important point to reflect on is the critique of Hegel’s conception of labor. If real, productive labor is only conceived in its alienated form (the conception of it in political economy) that is to be transcended in morality, according to Hegel,22 then we should examine the connection of alienated labor to the concept of living labor that appears in the Grundrisse more than a decade later. Living labor is noting to capital, that is, to political economy. Is its affirmation anything more than an ethical position? There again we see a conception of political economy similar to that of the Manuscripts of 1844: Although political economy says that capital is nothing but “accumulated labor,”23(239), “stored-up labor,”24 Marx argues that it “does not consider him [the worker—MS] when he is not working, as a human being ; but leaves such consideration to criminal law, to doctors, to religion, to the statistical tables, to politics and to the poor-house overseer.”25

It seems to me, therefore, that the concept of living labor in the Grundrisse as well as the Manuscripts of 1844 is labor in its alienated form. The mistake of thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault was to reduce the concept of labor in Marx to its alienated form, whether as instrumental labor (Habermas) or classical epitome (Foucault). The mistake in Dussel has been to transform living labor into an ever-present transcendent exteriority. In sum, Dussel’s interpretation of living labor assumes the political economy that Marx criticizes.

Marx’s early critique of the life denied in life of the worker is an articulation of what Marx will later analyze as “living labor” in the Grundrisse. “True common life” is an anthropological concept that abstracts from its historical manifestations and systemic negations by stressing the Hegelian “true” infinity expressed in the “I that is We and the We that is I”—a being with others that precedes logically the notion of a subjectivity that irrupts in the infinite gap that opens up when questioned by the other; the latter is Hegel’s notion of “bad” or “false” infinity: The apparition to subjectivity of a pre-social, pre-ontological other; in fact, therefore, a bad infinity would also be the apparition of a pre-social, pre-ontological subjectivity, a source without sources, the sine qua non of a mystical anthropology.

For Marx, living labor is an affirmation of human life as negated and excluded by capital. Both are historical-ontological concepts. They are ontological because they refer us to the being of being human although one of them, living labor, refers us directly to a negative relation, to an existential condition, namely, a relation to capital that negates the being of being human. Furthermore, they are historical categories since they can only exist in an ensemble of dynamic social relations. The reader may want to examine the full citation that for reasons of space we cannot cite here in its totality.26 One can gather from it that living labor arises from the “separation of property from labour” and such separation seems to be a “necessary law” of the exchange between capital and labor.

It follows, says Marx, that labor posited as non-capital is “absolute poverty… not as shortage, but as a complete exclusion of objective wealth.” That negative positing of labor is complemented by a “positive” positing: It is “the living source of value,” although itself it is not value. Hence, labor is both nothing objectively—not-capital, and everything subjectively—the source of the value of capital. It is the one because it is the other and it is the other because it is the one.

There is no labor that is anterior and exterior to the totality in the Levinasian sense of those terms. Living labor is rather a contradiction that arises within the totality. It is an effective contradiction because it is immanent to the totality.

One can speak of “anteriority” in the sense that living labor is the source of value of capital, and one can speak of “exteriority” in the sense that labor is objectively excluded from capital. Nevertheless, it is not an “Other” that is the source of the totality which it nevertheless transcends; rather it is simply an other that is the source of capital because the totality so constitutes labor and capital, as well as their exchange. It transcends capital. Only transformation, not metaphysics, transcends the totality.

For Marx, living labor has no value precisely because it is activity only within capitalist relations of production. Marx makes this clear in his discussion of it in the Grundrisse as he distinguishes living labor from slave labor:

As a slave, the worker has exchange value, a value; as a free worker he has no value; only the right to dispose over his labour, acquired by exchange with him, has value. He does not confront the capitalist as exchange value, but the capitalist confronts him as exchange value. His valuelessness and devaluation is the presupposition of capital and the precondition for free labor in general… [T]he worker is thereby formally posited as a person who is something for himself apart from his labour, and who alienates what expresses his life (Lebensäusserung) only as a means for his own life. So long as the worker as such has exchange value, industrial capital as such cannot exist, therefore developed capital in general cannot exist. Labour must confront capital as pure use value, which is offered as a commodity by its owner himself in exchange for capital, in exchange for its exchange value27

The above, the so-called first version of Capital, presents the reader with one of the real contexts of living labor, shortly before the famous description of labor as non-capital that I briefly discussed above.28 Living labor is nothing for capital in so far as it is the labor of a “free” laborer, free to be in itself and for itself a commodity, someone who carries within itself as its uniqueness and ownership nothing but possibility in a capitalist world. In the face of capital, freedom is more than formal indeed: it is the substantial self-expression of wage-slavery. The worker is here “free” because they have been robbed of their social conditions for existence, “free” to embrace capitalism, or be killed or imprisoned.29

Even so, the negation of capital is implicit in the possibility of the irreducibility of laborers to the inner demands of capital, for capital requires both and contradictorily, the complete submission of the worker and the formal independence of the worker. On the side of formal independence we encounter both the ideology that conceals wage-slavery and the “true common life” of all productive activity. One of the conditions for the actualization of the latter is revolution; the other condition lies in the objectivity of the internal contradictions of capital which, alone and by itself, is a brutal machinery of social and natural destruction; hence, it is self-contradictory. The existential question becomes: As it questions the being of being human, will it destroy not only itself but the very foundations of natural existence?

In Marx, dialectical diremption is the ontological origin of reality so that living labor is in contradiction to capital “genetically,” and it is so expressed in the Grundrisse where living labor is the category of the “free worker” as he or she relates to capital, not of the slave. Marx’s shortcoming was not to have seen more clearly the systemic connection between slavery, imperialism, and capitalism. Dussel’s ascription of the category of living labor to slavery30 is not an attempt to correct that mistake, however, but simply the conceptualization of the concept of living labor as a metaphysical point of origin prior to all diremption and all contradiction.

Dussel has shown that capitalism is at its foundation an even more global phenomenon than Marx thought. Dussel thus decolonizes fundamental concepts in Marx: capitalist exploitation, surplus value, commodity, and the real subsumption of labor under capital. Marx limited himself to an analysis of those concepts within the imperial countries themselves. As I have stated, Dussel’s thought becomes problematic when he privileges some social relations as natural: Heterosexuality is clearly one of them; the mystical anthropology that grounds his conceptualization of living labor as exterior to the history of totalities is another one albeit the Levinasian sense of “infinite” is replaced by an equally inexpressible Levinasian sense of subjectivity.

<2> Logics
In this section I offer a defense of Hegelian dialectics from the criticisms by an analectical thought that, paradoxically, attempts to subsume it.

Levinas dismisses all negativity as a function of the Same.

This reversion of the alterity of the world to self-identification must be taken seriously; the ‘moments’ of this identification—the body, the home, labor, possession, economy—are not to figure as empirical and contingent data, laid over the formal skeleton of the same; they are the articulations of this structure. The identification of the same is not the void of a tautology nor a dialectical opposition to the other, but the concreteness of egoism. This is important for the possibility of metaphysics. If the same would establish its identity by simple opposition to the other, it would already be part of a totality encompassing the same and the other.31

Clearly then, Hegelian dialectics would not be anything other than a rationalist effort to affirm Being. It is History and therefore immanence. The other (autrui) resists History because it is anterior to History, resists Totality because it is beyond and irreducible to the Totality.

But to say that the other can remain absolutely other, that he enters only into the relationship of conversation, is to say that history itself, an identification of the same, cannot claim to totalize the same and the other. The absolutely other, whose alterity is overcome in the philosophy of immanence on the allegedly common plane of history, maintains his transcendence in the midst of history. The same is essentially identification with the diverse, or history, or system. It is not I who resist the system, as Kierkegaard thought; it is the other.32

Ultimately, infinity—whether expressed in “Greek” (Plato’s Good in the Republic) or “Latin” (Descartes’ intellectual intuition of the Infinite in the Third Meditation) is for Levinas the revelation that the finite self is in the truth only in relation to an Other that “always” overflows the Same in an infinite “gap” because the bond between subjectivity and other (autrui) never constitutes itself as a totality. “False” infinity is, by contrast, the philosophical tradition that is “incapable of overflowing the Same.”33

Hegel’s thought would presumably belong to such a philosophical tradition. In principle, of course, Hegel quite explicitly defines true infinity as the ideal unity of finite and infinite within a totality. Furthermore, Hegel’s racism and eurocentrism lead him to formulate in many of his texts a conception of universality (understood as Absolute Substance and Subject) that barely disguises the particularity of European supremacy.34 Imperialism contradicts the unity in difference of finitude and infinity and the task of decolonization requires the unmasking of ideological false unities but also the affirmation of the ideality of unity in difference.

Decolonization requires therefore besides a struggle for recognition against the colonizing other, a struggle for recognition against the colonized self. The revolutionary transformation through asymmetrical means of relationships of domination is the push from below towards “the I that is We and the We that is I.”

(b) Social structures influence the form of intersubjectivity (for example, is it exploitative and oppressive, or is there the unity of a mutual recognition of differences?), as well as the rise of new totalities: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”35 Thus, the affirmation of the Other carries with it the negation of the circumstances that produce and reproduce the suffering of the Other.

For Hegel, Life is both motion and disquiet: The latter is the sensuous conditioned that was esteemed by Marx, the former is the unconditioned supersensible criticized as a hypostasized abstraction by the philosophies of existence. What is the common feature of both motion and the disquiet? The simple essence that produces itself through self negation.36

Self-negation is causality internal to life. It draws the thing towards a projected self-realization. The “drawing” or “pulling” is part of what the thing is in itself. To use Nietzsche’s terminology regarding the will (to power), it is a self-propelled wheel.

The motion of life is that self-propelled wheel in-itself. The disquiet of life is that wheel aware of itself as such, that is, for-itself: the allusion to “God-is-Change” in my first illustration in this essay is precisely this coming to awareness. Hence, being-for-itself is not a fantastic invention of “truth.” Truth is both support and disclosure, so that becoming aware is a disclosure of the real’s immanent contradictions and thus a support towards the realization of what Marx called the “true common life.”

It should be stressed that Nietzsche’s will-to-power is not founded on a relationship, but it is rather the source of relations, the inverse of what Levinas called the Other that resonates ion Dussel’s sui generis interpretation of the concept of living labor. Hegel’s conception of Life is the >relationship: the negation of Infinite life by the finite in the Phenomenology is a conceptualization of the negation in practice of mutual recognition in the struggle for recognition and the dialectics of domination. (Parenthetically, we find the same conceptual approximation in the young Marx’s statement that the true common life goes through egotism.) Nevertheless, ideality asserts itself by overcoming the negation of the Infinite through the preservation of the difference amongst the finite shapes:

The fluid element is itself only the abstraction of essence, or it is actual only as shape; and its articulation of itself is only a splitting-up of what is articulated into form or a dissolution of it. It is the whole round of this activity that constitutes Life: not… the continuity and compactness of its essence, nor the enduring form, the discreet moment existing for itself; nor the pure process of these; nor yet the simple taking together of these moments. Life consists rather in being the self-developing whole which dissolves its development and in this movement simply preserves itself.37

Hegelian idealism is built upon the notion of contradiction at the heart of Being. This is not merely a claim that rests on the notion of dialectics. Rather, it rests on the concept of ground and Hegel’s analysis of Kant’s view that analytical judgments are grounded on the principle of contradiction.38

Hegel’s conception of the totality (which he calls also the Infinite) is a dynamic unity of opposites that are sublated, or brought to a higher level, through their unity in dynamic difference. Opposition as such is never overcome; what is negated is also preserved. The particular is not thrown off in favor of the universal, but rather brought to the status of universality which preserves itself in the multitude of particulars that compose it. Think of the beehive, the anthill, and human highway traffic as examples of the motion of life. Think of the movement of intersubjectivity as an example of the disquiet of life.

In the struggle for recognition and the movement towards its negation and ideality, namely, “the I that is We and the We that is I,” one can observe both the motion and the disquiet of life.

Furthermore, a decolonized Hegel allows us to see the struggle for recognition in a new light, no longer as a struggle inter pares of the bourgeois ideal described by Marx in the Grundrisse‘s section on living labor, but rather in the real and not simply formal subsumption of slave labor by capital. We can glimpse that decolonized conception of labor under capital in the fact that the modern slave was in fact regarded as culpable. Ona Judge after all was blamed by the first president of modern democracy as guilty of asserting her freedom by leaving the confines of her slavery. We glimpse that aspect of formal equality in the legal culpability of the enslaved in the following illustration.

Illustration 3: Margaret Garner’s story is well-known, a figure of history and also of literature and poetry. Unable to make her children free as she escaped slavery in Kentucky, she tried to kill them, killing her 2-year old daughter with a knife. Abolitionists tried unsuccessfully to free her by convincing the law of the time to charge her with murder. But federal marshals were unable to arrest her because her slave owner hid her and sold her in secret to his brother in Arkansas. Only as a murderer, could she become an equal in a system of domination and, hence, neither equal nor free. She died a young person of 24 in 1858. One of the means that capitalism uses is to attempt to isolate the oppressed, to break them loose from the foundation of human reality, the community.39

Hegel’s conception of totality as a unity of contraries is fundamental in his logic. We see it in his critique of atomism, which isolates the ego from relationships and goes as far as “naturalizing” the products of social relations. “In recent times, the atomistic approach has become even more important in the political than in the physical sphere. According to this view, the will of the individual as such is the principle of the state. The attractive force is the particularity of the needs and inclinations, and the universal, the state itself, is [based on] the external relationship of the contract.”40

In his Science of Logic, Hegel stresses the lack of a fully developed self-consciousness in atomistic thought, which finds the power of the negative solely in the ego: “Atomistic philosophy does not know the concept of ideality; it does not take One as comprehending within itself the two moments of Being-for-Self and Being-for-It (that is, as of ideal nature), but as being simply and bluntly for-Self.”41

On a first level of manifestation the “I” is the other that I refuse to be or become. The “I” is thus born under conditions of struggle, of victory and defeat. At another level, we can see that the encounter with the other is an encounter that happens within a social context, even when the social context of the other comes from “exteriority,” from, e.g., the society conquered and colonized, as well as the capitalist conditions created by capital itself, which account for the movement from the formal to the real subsumption of labor under capital.

The struggle for recognition in the Phenomenology follows that logical pattern. The Other is excluded; self-consciousness asserts itself; apparently it is for-itself. In reality, it denies its for-itselfness by rejecting the Other. It rejects, in fact, its ideality, by excluding the Other; for, it is only through and with the Other that it can attain the truth of self-consciousness. Hegel’s community of free selves—“The ‘I’ that is ‘We’ and ‘We’ that is ‘I’,”42 is the phenomenological expression of the logical relationship of the One and the Many. “Independence having reached its quintessence in the One which is for itself, is abstract and formal, destroying itself; it is the highest and most stubborn error, which takes itself for highest truth;—appearing, more concretely, as abstract freedom, pure ego, and, further, as Evil. It is freedom which goes so far astray as to place its essence in this abstraction, flattering itself that, being thus by itself, it possesses itself in its purity. Determined more closely, independence is that error which regards as negative, and maintains a negative attitude towards, that which is its own essence.”43

Being is indeed the source of Reality as we saw in Dussel’s contrast between Hegel and his own conceptualization of living labor, in the first chapter of this essay; however, it is Reality as Essence that grounds Being, and essence is Contradiction: “Resolved Contradiction is, then, Ground, that is, Essence as unity of Positive and Negative.”44—At its deepest level a contradiction aware of its unity or a One that can only be through the preservation and affirmation of difference. That is the logic that supports the community of free selves in Hegel and “true common life” in the young Marx.

Desire of the same in the Other and of the Other in the Same is thus the essence of the intersubjective relationship—a restless process, a disquiet in life that cannot be stilled except in ideality. It is therefore the infinite, from which we are alienated intellectually through the understanding (Verstand) and passionately through the absence of true common life.45

We must move, however, beyond theories, Hegel’s included, that preserve privileges for certain subjectivities, thus slicing ideality from intersubjectivity. More critique, beyond dialectics and analectics, is therefore welcome. Judith Butler’s analysis of the constitution of subjectivity through disciplinary performances of gender and sexual roles is necessary to decolonize all forms of subjectivity and subjectification, from the performance of the finite self that gives rise to the Cartesian cogito to the acceptance of heterosexual and cisgender cultural traditions46 as natural or originary when in fact they are saturated with “assertions of masculine privilege.”47 By looking towards the future and the possibilities of liberation in a posthuman condition rather than towards an “otherwise than (social) being” that elides the concealed normativities of communities, can we decolonize not only the dialectic but also the analectics of a saying that refuses full thematization.

We see such refusal in the romanticization of Benjamin’s distinction between the irruption of divine violence in the midst of the violence of state, but also in Levinas’ and Dussel’s projection of normative privilege into the figure of relations anterior to history and “otherwise than Being.”

Harry Cleaver has presented us with the foundations to the alternative I am looking for in this essay. In his Reading Marx Politically Cleaver develops an autonomous Marxism that can serve us to think about Marx’s concept of living labor as a capitalist concept; however, as a concept that need not be thought of therefore from the viewpoint of capital; in the struggle, the working class defines it for itself. As such, it cannot be understood outside the totality of capital and of the struggle within capital. “… [T]here are always two perspectives, capital’s versus the working class’s! The analysis of every category and phenomenon must be two-sided… To recognize the inevitable two-sided character of analysis is not to merely reflect the class struggle but to reproduce it.”48

However, instead of widening the concept into a metaphysical notion, it can be broadened to encompass more than the narrow affirmation of labor in the factory. Cleaver does it to encompass not only different sectors of the salaried working class—feminist and student struggles, as well as the fight against white supremacy. It can and has been broadened to encompass the ecological struggle and the neo-colonial situation.

Cleaver contrasts his own position to the readings of Marx’s Capital in Althusser, the Frankfurt School, as well as a political economy’s orthodox and ideological readings, which all assume the standpoint of capital, whether by totalizing “capitalist culture” or by proposing a separation of the economy from the political in a base-superstructure model.

For Cleaver, the dialectic is a relation of contradiction in which capital and working class are in struggle with capital qua social capital and social factory. “The capitalist class creates and maintains [a] situation of compulsion by achieving total control over all the means of production.”49 It makes itself into a totality; as such, it is a totality in contradiction with itself, that is, of capital with the working class, on which it imposes through the commodity-form “the zombie-like form” of labor-power. “In fact, we can define capital as a social system based on the imposition of work through the commodity form.50 Living labor thus “dominates itself” through the dead labor it creates. It dominates itself as capital.51

The commodity-form is the means through which capital transforms the lives of people into labor-power. Hence, we distinguish between working class’s living labor and power. The working class is defined as labor-power by and through capital.52 Cleaver here uses Marx’s famous Hegelian distinction (from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) between class in-itself and class for-itself: The former would be the class as labor-power; the latter would be the class defined politically, “when it asserts its autonomy politically, as a class through its unity in struggle against its role as labour-power.”53

Through the separation of the producer from the means of production—a separation that wrests the individual from the community and creates instead the capitalist form of cooperation—the duality between living labor and labor-power is constituted. Marx describes the separation in “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation” towards the end of the first volume of Capital: “The so-called primitive accumulation… is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.”54

Nevertheless, what distinguishes the form of cooperation established by capitalism is the presupposition that the isolated free wage-laborers sells their labor-power to capital thus being thrown also simultaneously into the capitalist form of co-operation. One form of community is replaced by the capitalist community through the alienation of the individual as free seller of labor-power.55

Cleaver’s use of the distinction Marx makes between the relative and equivalent forms of value as a tool for analyzing the class struggle is, of course, based on the forceful separation of laborers from the means of production—the “primitive accumulation of capital” now continuously reconstituted through the force of law and arms—and the forms of “co-operation” imposed by capital on individuals whose dignity is reduced to isolated decisions separated from the community. Now the struggle moves to another level: Marx’s Hegelian reflexion analysis that shows how the relative form’s value is reflected in the equivalent form is also a conceptualization of the class struggle, for capital seeks to reduce useful labor to the equivalent form of value. “We can see now that just as the relative value form finds its meaning only in the equivalent form so it is that the working class recognizes itself as working class only through its relation to capital. Indeed it is working class only within that relation. The relative form thus expresses the perspective of the working class. Destroy capital and there is no working class as such.”56

Once brought down to its true size—the self’s invention of the other by the posing of its limit through the other’s face—by Cleaver’s autonomism, the metaphysical desire for exteriority expresses a conception of living labor that resonates with the autonomist position proposed by Hardt and Negri in Multitude.

Living labor is the fundamental human faculty: the ability to engage the world actively and create social life. Living labor can be corralled by capital and pared down to the labor power that is bought and sold and that produces commodities and capital, but living labor always exceeds that. Our innovative and creative capacities are always greater than our productive labor—productive, that is, for capital. At this point we can recognize that this biopolitical production is on the one hand immeasurable, because it cannot be quantified in fixed units of time, and, on the other hand, always excessive with respect to the value that capital can extract from it because capital can never capture all of life.57

Negri and Hardt’s term, the “corralling” of living labor by capital, suggests both immanence and failed transcendence: The immanence of living labor to life’s production of life and the failed transcendence by capital of the processes of biopolitical production. Indeed, capital, as a form of biopower, cannot exhaust or destroy the biopolitical production of labor. The conceptualization of immanence also arrests the attempted transcendence of groups who claim to speak for the whole of the oppressed or represent them as a transcendent figure anterior to intersubjectivity.

Only through a struggle for recognition aware of the asymmetry of the struggle can we move towards decolonization. The fighters of the Paris Commune learned that truth when a group of the oppressed refused to be silenced in the name of a historical bloc unwilling to really listen to those they wished to leave behind and far away from the trenches.

Illustration 4: The Paris Commune arises out of despair, abjection, and war. It also is the flowering of hope, freedom, and participatory democracy. Old traditions began to die. Workers organized to decide how to live. Women workers, traditionally super exploited, began to assume positions of power and leadership in the new community even against the the misogyny of some anarcho-communists, such as Proudhon, and the conciliatory attitude of some French members of the International. The women of the Commune seemed to realize that the only way to overcome oppression as well as the colonized mind was through new structures of intersubjectivity. There was no source behind them but the Spirit of community that began to push towards a new totality. Old prejudices, patriarchal prejudices that produced the myth of motherhood and the sex-laden gentleness of women were challenged in the words of one of the members of The Union of Women for the Defense of Paris and Aid to the Wounded: “We have come to the supreme moment, when we must be able to die for our Nation. No more weakness! No more uncertainty!
All women to arms! All women to duty! Versailles must be wiped out!” Today, we must wipe out our own Versailles. We know where it’s at.


1. Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents (New York: Grand Central, 1998), 218-220.
2. Ursula Le Guin, “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” in Le Guin, The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin (New York: Saga Press, 217), 35.
3. Enrique Dussel, “The Four Drafts of Capital: Toward a New Interpretation of The Dialectical Thought of Marx,” Rethinking Marxism, 13, 1 (Spring 2001), 10-26: 14.
4. Enrique Dussel, Filosofía de la liberación decolonial: Siete Nuevos Ensayos de la filosofía de la liberación (unpublished manuscript in the author’s possession). My translation.
5. Ibid.
6. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 1998), 114-115.
7. Karl Marx, Capital I in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 35 (New York: International Publishers, 1996), 83.
8. Dussel, Filosofía de la liberación decolonial
9. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979), 35
10. Dussel, Filosofía de liberación decolonial.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Tununa Mercado, In a State of Memory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2001), 116.
14. Dussel, Filosofía de liberación decolonial.
15. Enrique Dussel, 16 tesis de economía política Interpretación filosófica (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 2014), 27.
16. Ibid., 60.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., 32.
19. Karl Marx, “Excerpt-Notes of 1844,” in Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, eds. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1967), 272. Translated also as “Comments on James Mill, Élémens d’économie politique in Marx Engels Collected Works, III, New York: International Publishers, 1975), 217. Cited in Cornel West, The Ethical Dimension of Marxist Thought (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991), digital Kindle, loc 1278.
20. Marx, “Comments on James Mill,” 217. Here I correct the translation by looking at the German original: “Auszüge aus James Mills Élémens d’économie politique.” Marx and Engels, Werke, XL, 451.
21. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 333.
22. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 341.
23. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 239.
24. Adam Smith’s phrase in Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 247.
25. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 241.
26. See Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1857-1858 in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 28 (New York: International Publishers, 1986), 221-222.
27. Karl Marx, Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58, in Marx Engels, Collected Works, vol. 28 (New York: International Publishers, 1986), 218-219.
28. Ibid. 222.
29. Angela Davis expresses clearly the predication of freedom on oppression in a capitalist system that weaves together class domination, racism, and sexism. “We” are free because “others” are not: “… prisons tell us that we are free” (Angela Davis, The Meaning of Freedom (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 125.
30. Dussel, 16 tesis de economía política, 60.
31. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 38.
32. Ibid., 40
33. Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics,” in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 312, n. 12
34. See Dussel, , El encubrimiento del Indio: 1492, 20-25; Dussel, Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013); Sáenz, “Life and Ethics: on Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation” The Journal of Religion, 97:2 (April 2017), 244-258; Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, Filosofía de la praxis (Mexico: Grijalbo, 1967), 67
35. Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx Engels, Collected Works, vol. 11, 103-104.
36. Kant’s dual conception of Nature is pertinent here, for the motion of life is exiled from its object by the understanding itself so that we have: 1. Nature as constituted by the understanding produces a series of determinant judgments that assert that Nature is a pure mechanism with in terms of content (the totality of Natural phenomena) and form (the laws that govern phenomena). 2. Whatever in Nature that is not constituted by the understanding and therefore not produced but the determinant judgment; instead it is the product of the reflective judgment.
37. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 108, paragraph 171.
38. Songsuk Susan Hahn refers to Hegel’s critique of the paradox in Kant’s use of ground in the Prolegomena. See Hahn, Contradiction in Motion: Hegel’s Organic Concept of Life and Value (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 74: “If the law [of contradiction] were valid by virtue of the concepts involved or by logical principles alone, then by Kant’s tests for analyticity, asserting its denial should lead to a contradiction.” Hahn refers here to the circularity in Kant’s reasoning, since the law of contradiction is itself an analytic judgment. She argues that Hegel’s critique of the paradox leads him to show that it rests on a synthetic judgment but that his concept of synthetic is not synthetic a priori but rather the synthesis of unity and difference or the principle of determinate negation (Hahn 77).
39. Garner’s story has been the subject of literature, philosophy, and art. Paul Gilroy’s account in his The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Harvard, 1993) decolonizes Hegel. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (NY: Vintage), 1987, is inspired by the story. There is an element to the story as well that is illuminated by Angela Davis’ analysis of the legal responsibilities imposed on the slave. See Davis, The Meaning of Freedom, 144.
40. G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline. Part I: Science of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), ∫∫ 98.
41. G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic, two volumes, vol. I (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961), 183. Note that this English edition of Hegel’s Greater Logic includes in its own volume II both, part of Hegel’s vol.I (Objective Logic) and vol. II (Subjective Logic). For the purpose of simplification, I cite only the English edition.
42. G.W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 110.
43. Hegel, Science of Logic, vol. I, 185.
44. Hegel, Science of Logic, vol. II, 62
45. For an analysis at the level of sex of the longing for true common life see Foucault’s English Introduction to the diaries of an intersex person in Foucault, ed., Herculine Barbin (NY: Colophon, 1980): The longing for self-affirmation in the presence of the desired Other in his introduction to Herculine Barbin’s diary, an introduction that Judith Butler accused of self-contradictory and inconsistent romanticization of the subject in her Gender Trouble (NY: Routledge, 1990), 133.
46. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1999), 34 and 184.
47. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (NY: Vintage, 1989), xxii, n. 3.
48. Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically (Leeds: Anti-Theses, 2000), 75.
49. Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, 82.
50. Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, 82.
51. Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, 82.
52. Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, 83.
53. Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, 83.
54. Marx, Capital, I, 705-706.
55. Marx, Capital, I, 339.
56. Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, 143.
57. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), 146.



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