Before the revolution

February 22, 2014

Screen shot 2014-02-22 at 12.28.52 PM

Gay Pope

February 2, 2014


“The church, I mean the Catholic Church, is so evidently theatrical in its pomp, the décor that we would try in vain to improve, the purple hangings, the central actor in his white and gold costume flanked by fair-haired side-kicks marked with rouge, the thunderous music or the insidious birdsongs flowing from the organ pipes, tragic or subjugated choruses, a public brought to its knees by the central scene…” –Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the Theatre: A Short Philosophical Treatise (1990)

Co-opted Mandate

August 20, 2012

“The mandate to provide affordable housing has been co-opted by people who can afford to buy property in Vancouver.”

–Julie Okot Bitek, statement to City of Vancouver and Metro Vancouver officials (July 21, 2011)


November 3, 2010

The Temporary Gallery of Reproduced presents

One day when Gregor woke up from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect

Nathan Crompton
Sylvain Daval
Byron Peters
Andrew Witt

Starting the 19th of October, 2010
Public installation at
163 E Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC

In the Skin of a Lion

August 9, 2010

Toronto’s vast, unseen network of aqueducts and waterworks was famously documented in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (1987). The aquatic labyrinths, moving through the city as anonymously as the migrant laborers that built them, stop at sites that become settings for the book: an intake tunnel below Lake Ontario; a water main along the underside of the Bloor Viaduct; the waterworks filtration building, whose atriums would at nights host immigrant workers gathered there illegally to attend theatre performances and plan labour actions and strikes.

By the 1930s, in the midst of militant labour unrest, Government officials would plan for possible threats to the urban infrastructure, including the filtration station. The passage of the Public Works Protection Act in 1939 would invest the government with ‘emergency powers’ in order to guard public buildings from sabotage by the Germans at the opening of the Second War, but more fundamentally in the context of anarchist and communist agitation. It became precisely this 1939 Act that the Toronto Police would use as grounds for martial law and the suspension of the Canadian Charter in downtown Toronto during the G20 meetings in June, 2010.[i] The policed Toronto of 2010 thus opens backwards onto 1938, when “the rich and powerful close[d] ranks. Troops were in evidence everywhere.”[ii]

In the Skin of a Lion tells overlapping personal stories of love, primarily through the young-but-aging figure of Patrick. This montage of personal fragments, however, opens onto a set of radical truths. Ideas are de-personalized and unbound, transmitted to Patrick by his lover, Alice Gull, not as secrets or mementos, but in a way that allows for the emergence of the principle. Alice is the messenger of a universality that becomes, with the novel itself, an ode to the idea.

It is in this sense that the novel becomes a meditation on the “grand cause,” the singular emergence of a shared experience stretched across a “gap of love” (157). Under the banner of a common idea, the grand cause becomes a name for what can occur in moments of emancipation marked by love. For Ondaatje, to love is to be seized by love, in the way that one is seized by the abstraction of an Idea. Love is supported by Alice and Patrick even while it simultaneously seizes hold of them at the point of an irreducible encounter. Depicted poetically, it might read: “From the utmost tip / and limit of your lips / a sliver of justice / kissed us unbeknownst.”[iii]

“Alice had an idea, a cause in her eye about wealth and power” (165). This romantic egalitarianism is stark. It is both sentimental while being intensely profaned. It is rough, so that Patrick must come to know the wealthy “the way a dog before battling with cows rolls in the shit of the enemy” (132). No doubt it is this sympathetic and difficult depiction of axiomatic commitment, pure yet unclean, that excludes the novel from entering into discussions both during and after the recent G8/G20, even while In the Skin of a Lion remains the most famous prose written to date about Toronto and its anarchists.


“I’ll tell you about the rich. They do not toil or spin. Remember that…Understand what they will always refuse to let go of. There are a hundred fences…between the rich and you” (132). Part of the success of In the Skin of a Lion is its attention to architectural, geographical and urban realities. Skin of a Lion is the story not only of the events of a political past, but also the ways in which they come to form the urban landscape itself. Events can possess the built environment, as we are used to imagining in the sense of city as a canvas, backdrop or stage. But they can also be possessed by it, embedded in everyday spaces of segregation, literally built into the city. Here fences become a political touchstone, emerging not only in open moments of authority and urban militarization (i.e. 1938 at the waterworks), but with the internal barriers and uneven spaces of a city on its gridded plan.

In the wake of the Toronto G8/G20 events, an anonymous writer conveyed precisely this aspect of everyday control in the city. “The dismantlement of the fence’s evidently oppressive architecture, provides the convenient illusion that the exclusionary walls of the state apparatus are temporary rather than inherent.”[iv] In reality, there are visible and invisible fences that structure our cities and their architectures on a daily basis. In fact, writing in the wake of the 2001 G8 summit, Giorgio Agamben captured precisely this aspect of the city: “I remember Genoa 2001. I thought it was an experiment to treat the historical centre of an old city, still characterised by an ancient architectural structure, to see how in this centre one could suddenly create walls, gates that not only had the function of excluding and separating but were also there to articulate different spaces and individualise spaces and subjects.”[v] We can begin to identify a difference between a kind of ‘disposable’ state of exception, on the one hand, and something like an everyday ‘architectural’ state of exception, on the other – both are present during a spectacle or a super-emergency, yet one outlasts it’s supposedly exceptional purpose. “This fence does not only represent the militarization of Toronto,” said Harsha Walia, “but also the ways in which people are divided  on a daily basis.”[vi]

Harsha’s statement was made at a time when 1,000 people were being arrested in a $1 billion dollar operation to enforce a heightened ‘state of exception’ backed by the pure violence of the Toronto Police.[vii] Harsha’s statement is not an appeal to abstract humanity, in which divisions are dissolved into an overall harmony, imaginary or real. And here the final confrontation in Skin of a Lion is crucial, where Harris the city’s planner baron attempts to reason with Patrick by stressing their equal share in the imagined urban whole. “Think about it, Patrick,” says the master planner in the novel, “You’re as much of the fabric as the alderman and the millionaires” (238). Harris’ organic vision assigns human activity to a single plane of fate. We might, for a moment, try to imagine this in the concept of what philosopher Alain Badiou calls Oneness. The One is, for Badiou, the force that reduces human activity to repetition within a unified “clamour of being.” It is the force that produces order, hierarchy, and nature. Oneness derives from a diminished concept of love, preventing love from ever being true by constantly guiding it back into repeated clichés and conservative tropes.[viii] We should consider Patrick’s counter-response to Harris. In the memory of Alice and against Harris’ paternal hierarchy, Patrick enjoins love. He becomes filled with a desire to throw light on the world and prescribe the situation, to invent a politics of confrontation with authority. The words of Alice, transmitted through Patrick, are uncompromising: “She [Alice] had…an old saying: In a rich man’s house there is nowhere to spit except in his face” (239). This is the name of love? Yes, if we have to courage to give life to the romantic and profaned clarity of the irreducible limit that moves us in struggle, this difficult “gap of love.”


“The bourgeois finds himself in contradiction with the citoyen, like the contradiction between the member of civil society and his political lion’s skin.”

–Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1844)

In the wake of the mass arrests and the attack on even the most basic civil liberties in Toronto, it is now more than ever that we should pay attention to a distinction made by Marx early on between two forms of political emancipation: ‘civic’ emancipation and ‘human’ emancipation. The distinction is today reproducible in the difference between a defense of civil liberties, on the one hand, and a political confrontation with capitalist inequality, on the other. The two must be thought in tandem. To follow only the former, Marx said, is to wear only a shell of politics – a political lion’s skin.

Frederic Jameson, writing in 1977, made a useful insight in this direction: “it is precisely the distinction between anti-fascist and anti-capitalist strategy that seems less easy to maintain today and less immediately attractive a political programme over wide areas of a ‘free word’ in which military dictatorships and ‘emergency regimes’ are the order of the day.”[ix] What Jameson added is that our militarized ‘emergency regimes’ are today “multiplying precisely to the degree that genuine social revolution becomes a real possibility.” Is it not true that today the state is beginning to accumulate weapons and militarize our cities precisely in anticipation of potential disorder, a possible response in the streets to their economic policies (policies like the G8’s agreement to brutally halve national deficits by 2013 in the wake of the financial crisis)? If so, new forms of state repression should not be seen as separate from the current course of proliferating privileges, in which the latter would in some way become an enlightened liberal basis for a defense against barbaric militarism. Rather, militarization and the suspension of civil rights is becoming an internal condition of capitalism at this historical moment of crisis, replicating in its own way what Agamben identified in the “parallelism between military and economic emergencies that characterize[d] the politics of the twentieth century.”[x]

There is both a question of historical origins and a question of historical redemption. Origins convey the innumerable inequalities that shape our past, while redemption presents the emancipatory potential embedded in the very same history. The answer to how these two are conjoined lies, if anywhere, in In the Skin of a Lion. Ondaatje once called the film viewer a “reader.”[xi] If the viewer is a reader, what is the actual reader? The reader, in fact, engages as a historian.[xii] In the coming year, most of us will experience what happened in Toronto during the G8/G20 summit through film and image media, through the posted fragments and visual condensations of a city’s experience with a security state. Rather than consuming innumerable visual images, increasingly overdetermined in their immediacy, we should engage with literary depictions of Toronto as a city in history. Acts of fiction can provide the submerged tales of a living, subaltern past that becomes suddenly redeemable through poetic representations that are neither nostalgic nor properly historical, but that act as a means of foreseeing the present.

[i] “Media Alert – Public Works Protection Act invoked at G20”, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, June 24, 2010; see also, “Police used little-known law to harrass protesters,” Vancouver Co-operative Radio, August 11, 2010,


[ii] Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (Vintage Canada, 1996) p. 220. All future quotes in brackets in text.

[iii] Unpublished poem by Andrew C. Witt

[iv] “G20 Toronto: An Exception that Confirmed the Rule”, Anonymous author, Toronto Media Co-op, July 6, 2010

[v] Giorgio Agamben, “Metropolis” transl. Arianna Bove (2006)

[vi] “At the G20 Fence: Harsha Walia, No One is Illegal Vancouver” BChannel News, June 25, 2010

[vii] ‘Pure’ in Walter Benjamin’s sense as a form of suspended practice without law as its immediate end. See his Critique of Violence.

[viii] For a case study in cliches, the short film ‘Love versus the G20’, where we find such statements of “love”: “…this is a message to the police, we are not against you, you are human beings just like we are, we are all One.” Fierce Light Films posted July 8, 2010

[ix] Fredric Jameson, “Reflections in Conclusion” (1977) in Aesthetics and Politics (London; New York: Verso, 2007) p. 203

[x] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, transl. Kevin Attell (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005) p. 22

[xi] Gary Kamiya, “Delirious in a different kind of way: An interview with Michael Ondaatje” Salon, November 1996

[xii] In the same conversation, Ondaatje suggests, “there’s a sense of history which a book can catch, but…film almost can’t.”

Law and the ‘State of Exception’ in the Gentrification of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

March 16, 2010

Talk delivered January 27, 2010 at the University of British Columbia, conference hosted by the Social Justice Centre, ‘Rethinking the Olympics’.


“The law is applied differently in the Downtown Eastside.” -Douglas King (Pivot Legal Society)[i]

In the context of a dual intensification of policing and local real-estate gentrification, a concentrated state of emergency or ‘state of exception’ has been applied to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Today I want to use the concept of the ‘state of exception’ in the way it has emerged in aspects of 20th century juridical and political theory, surrounding in particular a triangle of figures – Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben. The first two are from the early part of the century, one a revolutionary and one a reactionary, while Agamben is our contemporary, writing in the emancipatory tradition of Benjamin.

The theory of the state of exception emphasizes the construction of a legal framework that subjects humans to the practice of a sovereign or statist gap. This gap is an exceptional space in which the sovereign state is placed outside or beyond the law. The exception is paradoxical because it refers not to a general lawlessness but rather to a space without law constructed within the application of the law itself. It is in this sense that the exception occurs not in spite of the law but as one of its supports as a precondition to the law’s application. As a consequence of the exception, human beings are found reduced to a “bare” existence, marginalized and stripped of dignity in the face of the law. The exception is twofold, because the state inflicts the exception on its subjects. Both are made symmetrically exceptional: the state is above and the subjects are below the law.

Thus there are three theoretical points to follow, which so far are merely claims: 1) there is an exception within the law that is necessary for the application of the law itself, 2) there is a position beyond the law, occupied by the sovereign authority of the state, 3) there are human subjects placed in the space of the exception, reduced to bare life and stripped of dignity.

As an initial example, I would like to talk about a recent law passed in the province of British Columbia: the Assistance to Shelter Act. This Act, recently passed by the British Columbia legislature, would seem to be a strange starting point in light of the fact that it remains unapplied to date. It rests at the level of a threat, whereas other concrete forms of policing have already been at work on the lives of the poor. I propose, however, that practices already in place to criminalize poverty in the city of Vancouver – which include a raft of police strategies surrounding the Safe Streets Act and Project Civil City (see Appendix, below) – can be best understood by reading backwards from the Assistance to Shelter Act. There have been recent assurance by the Vancouver police to not enforce the Act. Far from making the Act irrelevant, I will try to show that it is precisely this indeterminacy – an exceptional decision by the police in spite of the exact word of law – that underpins the state of exception itself. A cornerstone of the state of exception is the gap between the law and its implementation or suspension; between legislation and enforcement.

There is a space that separates the abstraction of the code, on the one hand, and the particularities of the situation, on the other. The upshot of this is that the use of police force in the name of a law must always exceed, in the particularity of its implementation, the generality of that law. A law must be sutured to its condition, bringing the gap into effect. What fills the space of the gap is a form of practice Giorgio Agamben terms ‘pure violence.’  ‘Pure violence,’ following Benjamin, denotes less the fact of raw force commonly understood by the term violence, although it encompasses that. Rather, ‘pure’ denotes a form of suspended practice that does not have the law as its immediate end. It places sovereignty outside the law, since the law sets in motion the suspended decision of the sovereign police, a decision necessary for the successful crossing of the legal zone of indeterminacy between the code and its effectuation.[ii] What is at stake in this process is a state that represents both the embodiment of the law and the embodiment of what is beyond it.[iii]

Homo Sacer

Out of exceptional process are created exceptional subjects, legally symmetrical. Like the state that rules them, exceptional subjects stand outside the law proper. Agamben terms these subjects homo sacer, borrowed from a category of Roman law designating those who are sacred, partly as a result of their transcendence of the law, yet whose lives can be destroyed or sacrificed with impunity.

Who is homo sacer? Or rather we could ask: From what legal structures do homo sacer emerge? For a moment, consider the Assistance to Shelter Act with an eye on its ‘state of emergency’ (and I remind you that the Act is specific to “extreme weather emergencies”). The Act, passed just in time for the Olympics, gives police the right clean the streets by using force against the will of anyone perceived to be homeless during a weather emergency, regardless of whether or not they have committed a chargeable offense. What exactly qualifies as “extreme weather conditions”?: “Temperatures near zero with rainfall that makes it difficult to remain dry, and/or sleet, freezing rain; and/or snow accumulation; and/or sustained high winds.”[iv]

With the Safe Streets Act and Project Civil City, we had a legal situation in which general rules were established.[v] Importantly, the rules themselves did not give specific criteria. These laws did not say, “target the poor of the DTES,” for example. Rather, as codes, they are neutral. Yet they work out their logic in specific ways. Like any other, their rules require the exceptional practice of the police. It is at the level of this exceptional practice that we find the most violence. In the case of Project Civil City and the Safe Streets Act, the rules resulted (and continue to result in) the targeted criminalization of the poor because of the exceptional practices of the police. The same applies for the Assistance to Shelter Act, which makes explicit what was latent in the Safe Streets Act and Project Civil City. However, what is significant is that the Assistance to Shelter Act goes a step beyond them both, since the code of the Act is itself inscribed as exceptional. There is a double exceptionality. First, there is the gap between the law and its effectuation. Secondly, this gap is re-inscribed into the formal codes themselves. This takes place to the extreme extent that, for example, the Assistance to Shelter becomes both a law and not a law. I will quote Minister Rich Coleman, responsible for the Assistance to Shelter Act:

“This will be a piece of legislation. It will be a law.”[vi]

“I’ll repeat myself. They’re [the police] not enforcing a law or an offence but providing assistance.”[vii]

As Benjamin showed, the exception has paradoxically become the rule.[viii] Schmitt himself, the great opponent of Benjamin, writes in this precise sense of the inscription of “general indeterminate clauses” into the law, often surrounding the usage of such ambiguous early century legal concepts as “good morals,” “proper security and order,” “state of danger,” etc. What occurs is that with the support of indeterminate clauses, the exception is itself legislated into being, securing the exception as literally a state of exception.

It is precisely out of this juridical order that human lives are reduced to a bare legal function, animalized and effectively subjected to the arbitrary advances  of armed authority. I have given examples, and there are countless more: the routine discarding of people’s personal possessions by the City’s engineering department; cycles of perpetual imprisonment that grow from offenses as minor as jaywalking; police beatings and daily harassment.


The practices just listed are what sustain the class divisions in the context of gentrification, the true topic of concern for residents of the Downtown Eastside. Gentrification is a process that includes not only heightened police activity, but also increased private security and surveillance in the community, self-segregated exclusive gentrifier areas, and widespread poor-bashing. In the last year, gentrifiers have thrown bricks, bags of shit, and whole television sets at residents of the Downtown Eastside, and of course they have gone unpunished. The gaps in the law are filled by class interest, which is obvious enough, but what needs to be stressed is that these ad hoc forms of gentrification – rents and bags of shit – cannot succeed without a legal framework for the state of exception. It has to be understood that gentrification is a common form of class domination, but also a particular unique form requiring particular forms of violence. It asks the state to perform a kind of human displacement that evictions and real-estate markets alone cannot carry out. Gentrification displacement – the clearing out of our neighborhoods for the settlement of the middle classes – requires the creation of the legal category of homo sacer, the subject reduced to bare life and stripped of human dignity, criminalized for being poor with no standing.

Conclusion (Concluding remarks)

While I have depicted aspects of the concreteness of the situation, I would also say that I’ve presented a problem for activism: the question of how we are to engage in the class struggle and side with the poor. Do we entangle ourselves in the legal triangle of sovereign-police-subject? I have suggested that in a class society, the gaps in the law – the spaces of exception – are occupied by dominant interests. The challenge should not be to bring the law ever closer to the police, as the dream would appear in liberal aspirations for a legal narrowing, however noble those dreams are. Rather, in the context of the heightened policing and criminalization of the poor, we must work on solutions that in themselves exceed the logics of sovereignty, law and police. For the people who live in the neighborhood this is almost too obvious to mention. The community says it everyday, if we are willing to listen: the truest solutions will have no relation to the logic of Policing.

Nate Crompton

I would like to acknowledge my debt to Bahram Norouzi, especially an unpublished work from 2009 by Bahram and Stef Ratjen entitled, “A City for Animals: Agamben’s State of Exception, quangos and the 2010 Olympics”.


[i] ‘Judge raps Vancouver police tactics’ CBC February 18, 2010

[ii] Schmitt’s famous definition of the sovereign reads simply, “he who decides on the exception.” Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (Chicago: MIT Press, 1988) p. 5

[iii] I would like to give a stark illustration. Thanks to the tireless work of advocates and a few journalists, the police have been for the past twelve months asked repeatedly if they would be willing to give a public promise not to use agents provocateurs during the Vancouver Olympic Games. After these painful months, the police have given a certain assurance not to use agents provocateurs. However, they retain the right to take over and direct activist groups from within, as well as the right to commit illegal acts once inside these groups. see, ‘Police reserve the right to take over activist groups for 2010’ BC Civil Liberties Association, December 22, 2009

[iv] Minister Rich Coleman, Third Reading of parliamentary Bill 18, ‘Assistance to Shelter Act’, Page 2434:

[v] see Appendix: Legislation Timeline

[vi] Minister Rich Coleman, Third Reading of parliamentary Bill 18, ‘Assistance to Shelter Act’, Page 2449:

[vii] Minister Rich Coleman, Third Reading of parliamentary Bill 18, ‘Assistance to Shelter Act’, Page 2448:

[viii] “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule.” Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1939)


APPENDIX: Legislation Timeline

2005: Safe Streets Act

-changes in the Trespass Act, targeted to the practices of the poor

-restrictions on panhandling

-spearheaded by the DVBIA, with the aim of, “making Downtown Vancouver North America’s number one business-friendly downtown core.”

2006: Mayor Sam Sullivan’s reports to council on “public disorder” lead to Project Civil City

-how can we keep the class gap wide without having poor people decrease the property values of the downtown core

-VPD votes unanimously to endorse Project Civil City, adopting quotas and a “results-based” commitment to the project. 20% increase in charges falling under the Safe Streets Act between 2007 and 2008 (see 2008 Annual Business Plan, VPD)

2007: the City approves more money for Project Civil City.

-MTI (Municipal Ticket Information) project give police the ability bypass court processes in issuing tickets: spitting and defacating, $100; dog off leash or no dog license, $250; objectionable noise, $150; jaywalking, $100

The new gentrification package for the Downtown Eastside

March 15, 2010

“The new gentrification package for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside”, published January 20 by (article here)

Gentry + Defecation

February 12, 2010

Gendefecation: The upper classes shitting on the lower classes by forcing them out of their neighborhoods through a system of increased property values.”

Gentrifiers throw bags of shit at Vancouver homeless shelter.

News (of Insurrection) from Nowhere

June 11, 2009

Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
-Marcellus, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 1)

Hamlet – an early artistic defense of the Copernican infinite universe? – opens with the guards’ encounter with the ghost of King Hamlet. Marcellus, Barnardo and Horatio seem to momentarily discern the indiscernible, groping at the contours of a threshold between the imaginary and the immanent. Derrida, in his late book on Marx – Marx, that other Shakespeare who too summoned specters that haunt (Derrida reports that he almost forgot these opening lines from the Manifesto!) – tells of the guards’ encounter: “Nor does one see in flesh and blood this Thing that is not a thing, this thing that is invisible between its apparitions…”[1]

So, what is this invisibility that causes a “visor effect,” so that “we do not see who looks at us…looking without being seen”?[2]  20th century emancipatory politics deliver the recurring theme of the ‘uprising from nowhere,’ the premise of anti-colonial theorists and black revolutionaries from Frantz Fanon to Malcolm X, and philosophers from Jean-Paul Sartre to Alain Badiou. In his Theory of the Subject Badiou indeed presents Shakespeare (the Copernican) through Hamlet, who says to Horatio: “the Universe always contains more things than it can name according to those very things. Hence its inexistence.”[3]  The notion of the ‘in-existent’ (Lacan) was in Theory of the Subject the organizing category. Badiou has never withdrawn from the inexistent, where being is exposed to the event. Event, subject, and truth are always beyond existence, hidden in the realm of, if you like, ‘trans-being.’[4]

The anti-colonial tradition has these terms well in its grasp. Frantz Fanon wrote starkly of the fact that, “[t]he black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man,” causing the colonized subject to lack an existence.[5] The colonized ‘is’ invisible. But this is-invisibility upholds both the site of domination and the site of emancipation. Emancipation is the will of an impossible possibility, it is the freedom that draws truth from its own indeterminacy. From the armored perspective of mere being-qua-being, such truths are invisible, literally non-existent. They are outside ordinary placements and hierarchies. Malcolm X once answered an interviewer about Harlem in this way: “there are all kinds of movements…[that] remain almost invisible – they remain almost unknown, but yet they are there. When I say invisible I mean invisible in the sense that their existence is unknown.”[6] They sit awaiting at the edge of the void, that non-space known well for tossing up sudden transformations. It is because of the void that we witness the rare, magical shift from obscurity to maximality.


[1] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International transl. Peggy Kamuf, (New York and London: Routledge, 1994) p. 6

[2] Ibid. p. 7

[3] Théorie du sujet, p. 235 quoted in Oliver Feltham, Alain Badiou: Live Theory (New York/London: Continuum, 2008) p. 73

[4] see for example Badiou, ‘The Event as Trans-being’ in Theoretical Writings: Alain Badiou transl. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano (London/New York: Continuum, 2004)

[5] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks transl. Charles Lam Markmann. (New York: Grove Press, 1967) pp. 109 – 110


Crisis and Dynamism: against the return to value

May 23, 2009

talk delivered May 21, 2009 to York Socialists (University of York)


As the Japanese critic Kojin Karatani noted, “the recent casino capitalism…seems to indicate that people no longer believe in the rewards of diligent production and fair exchange.”[1]  But as Karatani suggests, this common disdain for the ‘excess and greed’ of banking and finance is today the diversionary code-work of a failure to grasp our current predicament. Critics from several angles today place blame on “deregulation,”[2]  a catch-all term whose consequences are summarized as the separation of autonomizing finance capital from its real base, or in other words, a system adapted to the spontaneous creation of “fictitious” (in place of concrete) value. Deregulation becomes the real agent for a dizzying world of speculation, over-leveraging, asset inflation, ‘casino’ behavior, and the abandonment of what Karatani called – with more than a little bit of irony – “diligent production and fair exchange.”

We are made to picture a gap between real/fictitious, productive/financial, value/exchange-value: “the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money.”[3]  I myself will speak of a gap, and I use “gap” where others on the left speak of “de-coupling” (i.e. Robert Cox), “dissociation” (i.e. Werner Bonefeld), and “inversion” (i.e. Monthly Review editors), terms that one way or another obscure the original, constitutive nature of the gap itself. I should say that here we need to be a little bit theoretical, dare I say dialectical, or in any case we need to be patient with the use of concepts. This is because of a definite antinomy: while the gap is between value and money, there is at the same time no such thing as value without money, since money is the enabling condition of a system of value. In this respect, the gap can be thought of as internal to value, which, as I will argue, is precisely why notions of abolishing the gap through a “return to real value” – and the Keynesian, social-democratic, New Labour, etc. projects associated with such a ‘return’ – are less coherent than we would hope.

The gap reaches a breaking point at a certain conjecture, which we know as crisis. However – and this is my central claim today – the conjecture is called crisis, not the gap itself. The phenomenon of the gap is too vast, containing too many shapes and causing too many effects, to be reduced to something as narrow as crisis alone. The gap is the name for capitalism as a whole, as both the site of crisis and as the precise site of growth.


“Crisis,” wrote Suzanne de Brunhoff, “is the brutal manifestation of the law of value.”[4]  Mainstream critics of deregulation would now seem to agree with this characterization of our era, a period of two phases: 1) prices bloat, paper wealth multiplies and “all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself,”[5]  2) the ‘brutal law’ asserts its logic when prices can no longer levitate and “defy gravity” as the commentators often say of bubble economics. Crises burst bubbles and devalue capital, so that the political choice becomes one between ‘managed’ devaluation and ‘chaotic’ devaluation, this choice being secondary to the fact that in either case, devaluation is the common imperative: “In crises, the choice is between devaluing money or devaluing commodities.”[6]

Thus, by the summer of 2008, Jim Reid of Deutsche Bank was suggesting that $1.2 trillion of profits would need to be wiped out before the US financial sector could be “cleansed of its excess.”[7]  More recently, the IMF has estimated a $2.7 trillion write-down of US-originated assets, while the global number may be in excess of $4 trillion.[8]  “I would advance the following,” said Kevin Warsh, a Governor of the US Federal Reserve: “We are witnessing a fundamental reassessment of the value of virtually every asset everywhere in the world.”[9]

Warsh’s innocuous notion of a “reassessment of value” and Reid’s technical concept of “mean revision” are euphemisms for nothing less than the massive destruction of capital. I think that for us it’s far more illuminating to use Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” or to quote Henri Lefebvre, who wrote grimly of the fact that “wars and crises have the same result: they liquidate excess (things and men).”[10]  However, the enigma of capitalism – and this enigma is captured in the ‘creative’ half of ‘creative destruction’; the ‘dynamism’ half of ‘crisis and dynamism’ – is that the magnitude of the destruction of value that takes place in the event of a crisis is not equal to any previous gains. In the long trajectory of accumulation, it is as though crises are mere setbacks to be overcome, or as Marx wrote, “a crisis always forms the starting point for new investments.” [11]

Against this long view, liberal notions of equilibrium – notions always tasked with finding ways to either manage immediate crisis or to defend non-crisis operations  – seem to suggest a certain topology of a system in which finance represents an ‘overflowing’ […perhaps this cognitive mapping is helped along by an image of ‘liquidity’?] while crisis (qua illiquidity) represents the corrective – a lid – to the previous excess. The unifying figure of such a topology is the container itself, conceived as a static item of unchanging volume. But this imagery obscures the secret of capitalism itself, whose container is strictly figurative; capital is by definition that which discards its container. Capitalism solves its problems not with new lids but with new containers, so to speak. “Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome,”[12]  so that what were once limits are reconfigured as mere barriers in the endless circuit-work of de-containerizing and re-containerizing.[13]

Why is it the gap (between money and the value it represents) that enables the breaking of the container, in which broken containers are the forensic evidence of crises just they are of expansions? We should simultaneously broaden and specify our definition of the gap. There is not only a simple split of money from value, there is the gap that money itself engenders, a gap within value. This separation is simultaneously money’s ability to separate point of sale from point of purchase, and in a related mode,  present from future. As Keynes wrote in the General Theory (1936): “[T]he importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.”[14]  Marx therefore spoke of money as a ‘means of payment.’[15]  The means of payment is simply what allows the commodity producer to produce prior to sale: it is the inaugural money that exists temporally prior to the production of the actual value in whose name it is advanced. For a moment, the money advanced is therefore fictitious, or “up front,” until it is ‘realized,’ thereby becoming capital. ‘Capital advanced’ therefore “retroactively posits its own presuppositions.[16]  In other words, the ‘means of payment’ is credit: “credit-money springs directly out of the function of money as a means of payment.”[17]  Or, to say the same thing: “currency itself is already credit.”[18]

To summarize the last, rather paradoxical, point: money operates for the commodity producer by splitting the present (purchase) from the future (sale) in the name of a future gain – this is its ‘futurity,’ its essential credit aspect. I think its not incorrect to say that all subsequent gaps are derived from this primal archi-gap, so to speak. Financialisation, in the sense of a periodisation, turns the gap into a visible social sector called ‘financial sector,’ but it expresses the simple separation of exchange-value (money) from value, the separation internal to value itself. The financial sector is an institutional codification of money’s primary tension under a system of private producers.[19]  The fictitious aspect of capital is not merely an ‘excess’ for causing crisis, even if it is that too. Fiction creates value. As the novelist Margaret Atwood asked as a young child faced with the complexities of the banking system: “how could a fiction generate real objects?”[20]

How should we think about the move from fiction to what John Bellamy Foster calls “throughput.” Capital makes greater claims on the economy than the economy, at its existing capacity, can immediately realise for capital.[21]  The result is not failure, but rather competition, whose expression is the accumulation of an excess capital (profit) that, strictly speaking, is immediately unemployable. The structural resolution to this aporia in which existing productive capacity is saturated – in which overaccumulation looms – is total growth through the multiplication of values, in other words, through the multiplication of sites of absorption for investment.[22] The gap is a motor for forward movement (from the perspective of accumulation). Growth is not a choice but a necessity for capital: if growth does not occur, the capital advanced goes unrealized, failing to make its ‘fatal leap’ (salto mortale), in other words, in must be destroyed. If capital stops swimming it dies – like a shark and just as predatory.


I hope I have painted a picture in which, to bring a total rapprochement between money and value would be to eliminate both. My question is one posed to those who today aspire to perfect the state of the situation by eliminating “those most excessive aspects.” If we see that the dynamic gap is internal to value, to use the language I have deployed so far (admittedly there are probably better ways to pose the problem), is it enough to call for a ‘return to value,’ or ‘value for money’? Should we really criticize “excessive capitalism,” in which case the signifying predicate plays the role of a redundancy, as though one is speaking of “capitalist capitalism” – is there another kind? Excess (of money-circulation-exchange-finance over value-production-capacity) is the name for capitalism itself, so that we should criticize capitalism and not what has become its ideological decoy in the form of crises, no matter how severe and seemingly anomalous.

I propose a break from domination by the value form, therefore emancipation from the endless accumulation of capital. I am talking about an end of the total subsumption of labour to the commands of ceaseless work and capital. This requires an axiomatic insistence on equality in the face of barbaric inequality, the end of a ‘state of the situation’ in which individuals are part of the ‘count of the count’ (counted merely as potential sources of “effective demand”) under the biopolitical regime of population management. For the task we don’t need optimism, the affect that will never fade in all its beauty. We need to summon something more rare…which is courage: the will to be not an object but a political subject.


[1] Transcritique: On Kant and Marx transl. Sabu Kohso (London / Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003) p. 266. As the promotional material for a banking scheme in the United States recently stated: “the only solution is a return to value: value that comes from production and honest trade.”

[2] see a survey, Leo Panitch and Martijn Konings, ‘Myths of Neoliberal Deregulation’ New Left Review 57 May/June 2009

[3] Marx, Capital Vol. I (New York: International Publishers, 1967) p. 138

[4] Suzanne de Brunhoff, Marx on Money transl. M. J. Goldbloom (New York: Urizon Books, 1976) p. 118

[5] The passage in full shows Marx already observing what in the context of the subprime mortgage imbroglio we call “securitization”: “all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself, by the various modes in which the same capital, or perhaps the same claim on a debt, appears in different forms in different hands.” (Marx, Capital Vol. III quoted in David Harvey, The Limits to Capital ([1982] (London / New York: Verso, 2006) p. 288.) In Vol. I of Capital Marx also reports on something like securitization: “certificates of the debts owing for the purchased commodities circulate for the purpose of transferring those debts to others.” p. 139 op. cit.)

[6] Harvey Limits (op. cit.) p. 296

[7] John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009) p. 126

[8] see Patrick O’Connor, ‘IMF issues grim forecasts for 2009’ (April 24, 2009) World Socialist Website

[9] Kevin Warsh, ‘The Promise and Perils of the New Financial Architecture’ speech to the Money Marketeers of New York University (November 6, 2008)

[10] Henri Lefebvre, The Survival of Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production transl. F. Bryant (London: Allison and Busby, 1976) p. 107

[11] Capital Vol II. quoted in Harvey Limits (op. cit.) p. 219, p. 222

[12] Marx, Grundrisse (Middlesex: Penguin, 1973) p. 408

[13] “Capitalism continually reterritorializes with one hand what it was deterritorializing with the other.” Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) p. 259

[14] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (Great Britain: Palgrave, 2007) p. 293

[15] Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859] Ch. 2 (‘Money or Simple circulation) Section 3 of Ch. 2 (‘Money’) sub-section 3.b of Ch. 2 (‘Means of Payment’)

[16] Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA / London: MIT Press, 2006) p. 59

[17] Marx, Capital Vol. I (op. cit.) p. 139

[18] Karatani, Transcritique (op. cit.) p. 218

[19] What are the “roots” of today’s financial crisis? On the one hand, the financialisation of the last quarter of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first is seen as a symptomatic development, having “roots in the whole pattern of real accumulation under monopoly-finance capital.” (Foster and Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (op. it.) p. 19). On the other hand, financialisation is seen as being closer to a cause of symptoms, so that “the international financial system [is] the rootstock from whose disorders stem the various problems which afflict the international political economy, just as blight, disease or mildew attack the different branches of a plant.” (Susan Strange, Casino Capitalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986) p. 4) I side with the first approach, stressing, however, that the root is money and the value form itself. “[M]oney lies at the root both of the social nature of the private labour of commodity-producers and of the fact that this social character can only prevail by the roundabout route of the exchange of commodities, the market, and private appropriation of the value product.” (Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (New Left Books, 1975) p. 408) Basically, the ‘roundabout route of the exchange of commodities’ is more roundabout than liberal and bourgeois economists are willing to admit – exchange travels through finance, pure and simple. It travels through the fated “gap” I’ve been promoting.

[20] Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, CBC Massey Lectures, 2008 (Toronto: Anasi Press, 2008) p. 6

[21] Competition “compels every capitalist to expand production by developing the forces of production without regard to the limits of the market.” Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis (Great Britain: Palgrave, 1994) p. 88

[22] see, for a foundational example of the discussion of saturation, Paul Baran The Political Economy of Growth (New York; Monthly Review Press, 1957)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.