Disappearance : Joan Cocks

Sophie Kahn & Lisa Parra / Body Traces 2/5
Sophie Kahn & Lisa Parra / Body Traces 2/5

Disappearance : Joan Cocks

 

‘Everything is gone. When the government says it’s time to go, you go’.  – Mr. Ma, retired Chinese postal worker, gesturing behind him to a stretch of debris, and then in front of him, to his home, also marked with the Chinese character for ‘demolish.’ 1

 

1. Disappearance and Political Power

Niccolò Machiavelli once quipped that “men are much more interested in present things than in those that are past,”2 a remark matched in its insouciance towards the “once was” by Leon Trotsky’s declaration that “the first secret of the dialectic . . . [is] that there is nothing unchanging on this earth, and that society is made out of plastic materials.”3 Both men are partly right to give their claims the status of universal truths, as human beings must respond to pressures and limits that confront them now, and the sheer vitality of life ensures that those pressures and limits will not remain fixed and frozen over time. Yet Machiavelli and Trotsky also elide two other, interrelated truths: that there is a human pleasure to be found in continuity and repetition that link the present with the past; and that losses, longings, and traumatic effects may follow transformations that sever those links, especially when the terms of transformation are imposed on people from without, as if by a cruel and unfathomable god.

Machiavelli wrote as a would-be advisor to aspiring princes who would have to break the loyalty of their new subjects to a prior regime, and Trotsky, as a leader of a revolutionary vanguard bent on destroying social and political hierarchies that reserved their greatest pleasures for a privileged few.  While both had a vested interest in emphasizing the glory and gains of emergent over soon-to-be eviscerated realities, neither denied that politics centrally concerns the power to dictate, within a particular social landscape, that which must disappear so that something else can appear – as well as the power to determine the lineaments of that something else.

Other voices in the modern Western canon of political thought were less forthright in acknowledging, not that eggs had to be broken to make a new omelet, but that one omelet would have to be discarded, and the pan scoured of its traces, so that a different kind could be successfully sautéed and served. Thus, for example, although each formulated his ideas in response to what he saw as the ills of an already existing type of political rule, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke represented the consensual institution of a commonwealth as if it were replacing, not a prior socio-political order with its own virtues and vices, but a raw state of nature, the disappearance of which no one could possibly regret. In contrast with those social contract theorists, developmentalists such as John Stuart Mill acknowledged the fact that liberal political societies emerged out of previous socio-political forms, but they represented those forms as unworthy of continued attachment by deeming them suitable for humanity only in its period of childhood or adolescence. G.W.F. Hegel, the greatest developmentalist of them all, was highly unusual in underlining the tragic aspect of disappearances that mounted up as the World Spirit elaborated itself by moving from one declining to ascending national totality after another, but he justified that tragedy as part of the dialectical progress of actualizing Reason, with the value of appearance always trumping the tragedy of disappearance in the teleological progression of historical life worlds. Still, in their manner of dismissing disappearances, modern dialecticians should be preferred to the linear progressivists. For rather than believing, as the dialecticians did, that features of the past are forever preserved as sublated elements of the present scheme of things, linear progressivists saw the past as something that could be entirely and happily disposed of in the relentless march towards a future that was wealthier, or freer, or more enlightened and just.

A blasé attitude toward what has, to use Hegel’s phrase, “gone under” – as well as the association of a concern for the past with historical atavism, cultural traditionalism and/or political reaction – infuses much of the modern Western mindset, and much of the modern non-Western mindset, too, to the extent that it has modeled itself along Western lines. But a recognition of the need of all human beings to become reconciled at some point to the fact that the past is past, as well as an awareness of the corrosive psychological effects of dwelling on irrevocable losses, also may help explain why contemporary critics prefer attending to ongoing oppressions and exclusions, which can theoretically be rectified, over attending to accomplished erasures. That same understanding and awareness may also explain why the appearance/disappearance trope, as key as it is to unlocking the capacities of concentrated power, has played a less prominent role in critical political analysis than two other dyadic variations of the tension between visibility and invisibility with which it lexically overlaps. The first of these is the appearance/reality distinction, which extends back in the history of political thought as far as Plato and Augustine and forwards at least as far as Hegel, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud, and which suggests a vertical relationship between visible phenomena or consciously experienced desires, relations, and practices and a deeper dynamic or structure or spirit unavailable to the physical senses that gives rise to or explains or determines them. The second is the appearance/darkness distinction, which in both its Nietzschean and Arendtian renditions suggests a horizontal relationship between an illuminated public sphere in which selves reveal themselves to others through their performed words and deeds, and a shuttered private sphere or zone of solitude to which they withdraw for biological sustenance, intimacy, and creative replenishment.

“Appearance/disappearance” bears a distant evocative resemblance to “appearance/ darkness,” in that what disappears can be understood as entering into an all-obliterating darkness. And, as we shall see later, in its capacity to capture the assault on existing modes of life by restless capitalist forces, the appearance/disappearance distinction can be paired, in Marxist theory, with the appearance/reality distinction between free and equal market relations on the surface of capitalist society and exploitative productive relations underneath. Despite these points of contact with the other two dichotomies, appearance/disappearance is unlike both of them in indicating, at least in its purest form, a relationship in time rather than in space: between the “here” and the “gone,” the “is” and the “was,” or the “soon to be” and the “soon not to be.” It also is unlike them in indicating a distinction not between a visible presence and an obscured presence, but between that which is or is soon to be a visible presence and that which has become, or is doomed to become, an absence, relegated to invisibility for that reason.

Indelible facts of physical birth and death consign the human species to an endless sequence of appearances and disappearances, or at least a sequence that is endless until the species itself disappears. The awareness humans have of their mortal fate, which gives the coming and going of each generation great pathos and poignancy, helps explain why the appearance/disappearance trope has something almost constitutively melancholic about it. However, the appearance/disappearance trope as it is relevant to politics is never a simple function of biological imperatives, although it can and often does involve those imperatives. Instead, the contrast is politically relevant when some overweening individual or institution or force that is conventional rather than natural has acquired the power to determine what exists and what must be excised from existence.

In the field of politics, as political theory has traditionally understood that term, the preeminent institution that makes such determinations today is the sovereign state, even if any particular state’s determinations flow not from its will or agenda in a vacuum but from its push and pull relationship with interests and pressures in the society it governs, as well as with the interests and pressures of other states, transnational actors, and international institutions.

Politically orchestrated disappearances can be literal in the sense that the disappeared is what has been wiped off the face of the earth. But they also can be metaphorical, and when they are metaphorical, they entail a spatial as well as a temporal dimension, as, for example, when individuals vanish from the ordinary public and private realms of society to be sequestered instead in some closed-off, deserted or, to use an exaggerated form of Arendt’s terminology, hyper-dark space. Thus the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants swept into U. S. detention centers have not literally evaporated; while continuing to exist somewhere, they have been subtracted from the private and public spheres of normal society, often without the knowledge of their family and friends. In such cases, the Agambenian concept of abandonment can serve as a near synonym of “disappearance,” although the accent of “abandonment” lies on what sovereign power determines will happen to the abandoned or banished self, while the accent of “disappearance” lies equally on what happens to that self and what happens through their loss to others. We can see the latter accent in a New York Times story entitled “1.5 million black men missing from everyday life.” The story reports that while one white man is missing for every 100 white women, 17 black men are missing for every 100 black women, that statistic conveying a blow simultaneously to the absent black men and the present black women. The story also implicitly distinguishes between metaphorical and literal disappearances when it notes that while many black men are missing because they have been subjected to a system of race-based incarceration, other black men are missing because they have died untimely deaths from accidents, disease, or homicide. The appearance/disappearance distinction in its literal sense of “once present and now absent” applies perfectly to them.4

The racial distortions of particular criminal justice systems to one side, a much-applauded function of the modern state is the punishment of law-breakers, whether through metaphorical disappearance in the form of imprisonment or literal disappearance in the form of the death penalty. Less cause for applause, at least by liberal democrats, is the state’s capacity to criminalize dissent and hence delete from society, whether temporarily or permanently, vocal critics of the regime. In the past few years, human rights groups in the Middle East have dubbed the Egyptian government’s practice of whisking away critics to secret interrogation centers outside the reach of the law “enforced disappearance.”5 That phrase, in turn, implicitly refers back to the iconic instance of politically orchestrated disappearance, the effort of a military junta, between 1976 and 1983, to re-constitute the political make-up a people through excising all oppositional elements from society for good. The Argentinians who first spoke of “the disappeared” knew that they needed an extreme word to capture their regime’s obliteration of thousands of domestic left-wing dissidents and civilians, as well as its suppression of any overt acknowledgement that that obliteration was happening in front of everyone’s eyes. As a supplement, Diane Taylor has coined the term “percepticide” to describe the cultivated self-blindness of Argentinians who witnessed visible spectacles of violence perpetrated as “[m]en in military attire, trucks, and helicopters surrounded the area, closed in on the hunted individuals, and ‘sucked’ them off the streets, out of a movie theatre, from a classroom or workplace.”6 Those witnesses were forced not merely to see atrocities without protesting them but also to see those atrocities without physically or verbally registering that they were seeing anything at all, to keep from being the next to disappear. The public theatricality of state-orchestrated disappearances, performed to intimidate a population and thereby destroy its capacities to act as a public, thus can be said to have collapsed the Arendtian public sphere of appearance and the sphere of hyper-darkness into one.

A different kind of disappearance in which states have been either complicit or directive include the ghettoization or expulsion of racial, ethnic, or religious minorities (and sometimes of oppressed majorities); the transfer of populations on racial, ethnic, or religious grounds; and the corralling of aliens within state borders into internment or refugee camps. Each of these latter metaphorical disappearances raises by innuendo the specter of literal genocide to produce a racially, ethnically or religiously cleansed society. Compared with that final solution to the so-called problem of difference, the disappearance of members of a particular race, ethnicity, or religion from one political society and their reappearance as members of a separate state, as occurs in partitions and secessions, seems positively benign—at least until racial, ethnic, or religious divisions emerge within the new state that make new disappearances a tempting option for the most powerful or numerous social segment.

Of course, the mass disappearances for which states are best known occur during wars with other states, fought to determine, as Elaine Scarry puts it, which of the opposing sides gets to turn its idea of what the world should look like, or present fiction, into future fact, thereby disappearing the different idea, and the possibility of its actualization, favored by its antagonists. Wars inevitably involve the death of soldiers on all sides of the conflict, almost always the destruction of material elements that help make up the life world of at least one side, and very often the physical or emotional destruction of some percentage of the civilian population. Syria is only the most recent proof that wars within states can be as fatal for civilians as wars between them, and more effective in reducing the built environment to rubble. These days, too, non-state actors with their eyes on the state prize also have acquired a startling power to determine, through the exercise of physical force, what must disappear on the way to their hoped-for institutionalization of a new order of things.

While disappearance in one or another of these forms is part of the ongoing life of modern sovereign states, the concept is also pertinent to their birth or beginnings, because a state cannot become sovereign unless and until it demolishes prior authoritative orders on what it claims as its rightful territory.7 Because all states are human artifices with no higher right to make such claims than the right they give themselves, the demolition of the older order and also, as Jacques Derrida points out, the creation of a new sovereign law must be counted as a kind of violent imposition whether or not any blood is spilled in the process. Foundational violence is repeated whenever a state stretches the umbrella of its law over new land that until then was governed under a different political law or had escaped the reach of any law. However, the institution of the state is not the only culprit here. “The people” are often implicated in foundational violence, too, especially when land and its material resources are at stake, which blemishes the rosy image of “the people” painted by all champions of popular sovereignty. Just as significantly, that which is slated to disappear in popularly instigated and/or perpetrated land grabs may not be the lives of other human beings in the first instance, but instead their life worlds: their mode of shaping and interacting with their material surroundings to sustain themselves, their attachments to and aesthetic preference for particular physical things in particular patterns, the sensuous backdrop to their habits and routines, and the landscape within which their social relationships can continue to flourish.

The disappearance of life worlds for inhabitants inside the boundaries of land claimed by a new sovereign state but outside the identity boundaries of the new sovereign people has, unfortunately, many historical and contemporary empirical illustrations. Consider, as two cases, the birth of the civic republic of the United States to make a revolutionary break, in North America, from hierarchical social relations and monarchical rule in Europe; and the birth of the ethnonational state of Israel to transform a perpetually vulnerable ethno-religious minority in Europe into a self-governing national majority in Palestine.  Each of these polities wished to win freedom for a people-in-the-making, but each required domination to vanquish existing modalities of social life at odds with the new sovereign people, sovereign law, and sovereign cultural ethos.

The United States and Israel were settler colonial states, and the foundational violence they committed against indigenous populations is apparent as violence because of this fact, although that violence was more overt when it took the form of brutality, warfare, and forced removal than when it took the form of land transfers effected through purchase and sale contracts between private parties, treaties of peace and friendship signed by so-called sovereign nations, and the state’s manipulation of laws of the land prevailing before its birth and/or its promulgation of new laws to legitimate its territorial expansion. The role played by voluntary agreements and authoritative laws in erasing the rights to a habitat of one people and reassigning those rights to another testifies to the fact that, just as is true of structural violence characterizing an ongoing order of things, foundational violence can be present even when bloodshed is absent.

If in somewhat less egregious form, foundational erasures also typify state centralizations, partitions, ethnonational or sectarian victories on home territory, and revolutions, as well as state-imposed modernization projects that re-found society on new economic and social principles. It is not, I hope, stretching things too far to say that each of these new political orders can be viewed as a settler colonial state of a sort, in that each must [re-]draw the territorial boundaries within which it is to be authoritative, [re-]wire laws within those boundaries, [re-]shape the material landscape, [re-]configure structures of feeling and habits of life for the people it declares to be “its” people, and [re-]determine who belongs to that people and who will be counted as its aliens and enemies.  In short, settler colonial states in the literal sense of that term, rather than being exceptions to the rule, can be seen as extreme exemplars of sovereign power imposition and entrenchment, and so extreme exemplars of the political power to determine what appears and disappears. But, to return to an earlier point, the power of disappearance, while most dramatic at the founding moment of a new state, does not disappear after a state’s formal birthdate, or even after that state has expanded the reach of its sovereign law to the very limits of the territory it seeks to claim for itself. The ethno-national state must continue to discriminate against or eject that which it sees as racially impure or irredeemably foreign. The revolutionary state must continue to root out residues of the order it has toppled. The fascist state must continue to blot out the factual world with a tissue of lies and crush any private or public element resistant to its fabrications. And, as Mr. Ma was forced to experience in the epigraph of this dictionary entry, the modernizing state must engage in a ceaseless demolition project. Indeed, because new technologies, mentalities, buildings, and systems always become old, the attainment of modernity, and hence the end of the demolition period, is for every state constitutively subject to indefinite postponement.

2. Disappearance and Economic Power

In an essay entitled “Two Weeks in the Wilderness,” Alexis de Tocqueville recounts his journey in the early 1830’s to find a place in North America “as yet untouched by the flood of European civilization.” As he travels westward, he records his shock at an “unbelievable destruction” and “even more surprising growth,” which the pioneers he meets along the way seem to see as the “normal forward march of events.” Tocqueville describes “an ancient people, the original and rightful masters of the American continent “disappearing before our eyes from the face of the earth . . . [as] . . . [i]n the same areas another race rises in their stead at an even greater pace.” He is nothing if not ambivalent about the substitution. Against the foil of an aristocratic Europe, Tocqueville praises the American immigrant’s egalitarian self-image, his willingness to engage in hard labor, and his view of himself as one industrious link in a chain of wealth connecting the old and new world. Against the foil of indigenous America, Tocqueville denounces the “cold and relentless selfishness” and “pitiless sentiment” driving “the European race” in its relations with “native races,” the Europeans’ idea that “[t]his world belongs to us,”  the “bottomless egotism” of each individual settler and the fact that “attaching value to lofty trees and the beauty of empty spaces is something which is absolutely beyond him.”8

Having finally arrived at a space of “wild grandeur” not yet defeated by the settlers’ axes, and despite the midges whose bites almost drive him backwards, Tocqueville muses that there is something so ceaselessly agitating about the labor of the settlers that the metamorphoses they compel seems fated perpetually to reoccur. He predicts that this “nation of conquerors” before whom Indian peoples and forests fall, will, “after reaching the Pacific Ocean . . . retrace their steps to disturb and destroy those societies which they have formed behind them.” In this prediction, as well as in lines noting the immigrant’s “single aim of making his fortune” and treatment of nature as a malleable instrument to that end, Tocqueville alludes to a dynamic in North America that cannot be reduced to sovereign state formation alone, or even sovereign state formation in tandem with colonial racism.9 To put the point in terms of my two settler state cases taken as a pair: just as the interests of private property accumulation helped transform the North American landscape on which Indians had sustained themselves (before going on to transform that transformed landscape ad infinitum), if an independent Palestine ever emerges in our time, the olive groves of Arab villagers that the Israeli state did not uproot for political reasons will almost certainly be captured if not paved over by capitalist processes of development with the assent of indigenous elites.

If one mark of sovereign power is the capacity to determine what disappears and what appears – that is, to destroy and create realities – modern capital surely must be considered a sovereign power at least in that respect. And while its champions may claim that the sovereignty of capital is more democratic than the sovereignty of any state through emanating from the decisions and deeds of a multiplicity of private individuals, capital’s reign is more persuasively filed under the “monarchical” rubric, for three reasons. First, private capital shapes a common physical and social landscape according to its will, without the right of non-owners at the receiving end of that shaping process to participate in the democratic formation of that will. Second, the competition of capitals has given rise to enormous power accumulations that dwarf not only the agency of ordinary individuals but also the agency of many sovereign states; indeed, some capitalist enterprises today have amassed greater wealth than many sovereign states possess, advance their own foreign policies, make agreements with states as if they were equivalent authoritative institutions, and wield at least as much control over the material resources of populations as political leaders do. Third, unlike the laws of sovereign states, which are restricted in their reach by geographical borders separating one state from another, the “law” of capital straddles the globe, with its border-busting impacts ranging from transnational labor migration to capital flight and world-wide financial speculation to the creation of a global public through global communications technology to environmental fallout from capital’s extractive and manufacturing activities.10

In tune with Machiavelli’s point about the magnetism of the present in comparison with the past, and Trotsky’s point about the labile nature of all things, critics of capitalism have most often showcased the actualities that this economic sovereign ushers into being – the new subjectivities, social relations, and practices that appear, however opaquely, as a result of the emergence and expansion of its rule. This was certainly true of Karl Marx, who was preoccupied with the capital-wage labor dynamic, disdained history as a “dead weight” on the current generation, and looked forward to burgeoning realities as stepping-stones to an emancipatory future. It was also true, for different reasons, of Michel Foucault, who, while he was too much of a cynic and a contextualist to think in terms of losses suffered or gains made across historical time, chose to fix his sights, with respect to capitalism, on the making of disciplined, regulated, and self-responsible selves for neo-liberal political economies. A focus on appearance likewise characterizes contemporary scholars who study the new preeminence of financial over productive capital; new forms of wage-labor such as the self-investing entrepreneur and the precariat; the new role of information technologies; the new prominence of Asian economies; and new articulations of indentured and slave labor into global capitalist commodity chains.

Nevertheless, capital’s powers of disappearance are as key as its powers of appearance to the making of the contemporary world. They also are more temporally primary than the powers of appearance, in the past-history sense that the demolition of non-capitalist life worlds abroad and at home was the pre-condition for the rise to preeminence of capitalism in the West. In the present-history sense that such demolition projects reoccur with every disruption of the “social unity of laborers with their means of production” in countries newly open to capitalist penetration and investment.11 In the also present-history sense that both developing and advanced capitalist countries are vulnerable to attacks on local markets and small-scale private enterprise by larger-scale capital, the dismantling of built environments deemed no longer compatible with capital’s requirements, and bids to privatize and monetize domains of life that had been considered out of bounds for profit-making, including public functions and state practices themselves, thereby dissolving the autonomous raison d’être of those domains. Most ominously, capital’s powers of disappearance are temporally primary in the future-history sense that the search for infinite wealth via infinite economic growth threatens to extinguish, in every country, the ecological conditions not just for the actualization of some version of the good life on the distant horizon, but also for anything more promising than the maintenance of bare life for a majority of human beings, not to speak of, in the case of a multiplying number of species, the conditions for life per se.

What conceptual resources are available for capturing capital’s powers of disappearance?  On the self-congratulatory side, there is the fashionable concept of creative disruption, an up-beat, euphemistic version of Joseph Schumpeter’s older concept of creative destruction, which at least had the virtue of calling a spade a spade. On the critical side, there is the more complex and substantive concept of primitive accumulation, which Marx designed, if almost as an afterthought, to pinpoint the processes by which emergent economic forces dismantle a non-capitalist scene before humanity is swept onwards and upwards into capitalism proper. In his original sense of the term, primitive accumulation denotes the generation of the first capital out of non-capitalist conditions and capital’s destruction of those same conditions so that it henceforth can augment itself via methods that are, to use a Hegelian phrase, “true to its concept” – that is, through the exploitation of free wage-labor.12 Marx cites, as bloody examples of the primitive accumulation, colonial plunder and slavery in the Americas, the enclosure of common lands in England, and the dispossession of the European peasantry. Rosa Luxemburg more expansively (and angrily) cites the conquest of European need-based economies by profit-based production, the destruction of cooperative economies in colonized regions by European capitalist states, and the demise of small, family-owned private enterprises and face-to-face market relations in North America as capital became more concentrated and technologically advanced.13 E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams provide a cultural complement to this economic analysis by unearthing solidaristic social ties and felt attachments to landscapes that are vanquished as capitalism advances. Absent these unearthing efforts, from the vantage point of those looking backwards the extinction of non-capitalist modalities of life does not “appear violent, or even [does not] appear at all.”14

While critically evoking capital’s powers of disappearance, the concept of primitive accumulation is susceptible to a number of unfortunate inferences, whether their original authors intended them or not. There is, from Marx, the inference of a one-time-only transitional moment between pre-capitalist societies and the birth of the first capital; from Luxemburg, the inference that primitive accumulation is always a parasitical relationship between a closed inside of capitalism and a geographical outside; and from Thompson and Williams, the inference that the losses wrought by primitive accumulation are felt first in England and later radiate outwards as capital expands into the rest of the world, with each country undergoing the destructive process in the same way that England did.15 David Harvey thus prefers the phrase “accumulation by dispossession” to denote capital’s penchant for predatory disappearances that he asserts not only “have remained powerfully present within capitalism’s historical geography up until now” but also are today the primary method of capital accumulation. These predatory practices include the expulsion of peasant populations from land to be commodified, the expropriation of knowledge and skills from non-capitalist cultures, the conversion of common property into private property and public functions into private profit-making ones, the suppression of indigenous forms of production and consumption, land grabs for the purpose of capitalist resource extraction, asset-stripping, ponzi schemes, biopiracy, and even a credit system extending loans to underpaid workers, exploiting those workers at the point of consumption after they already have been exploited at the point of production by collecting interest on those loans in the short run and repossessing (i.e. disappearing) their houses and cars in the longer term.16

The most rigorous and detailed treatment of primitive accumulation, however, has come from the pens of post-colonial Marxists, especially those who study contemporary rural economies under stress or who trace the historical role of colonialism and neo-colonialism in generating capital for Western development. Thus, for example, Kalyan Sanyal emphasizes primitive accumulation as a core process that is “continuous and ongoing.” He charges modernizing state officials in the third world or global south with collaborating in capital’s “annihilation of pre-capitalist formations” while ignoring the resulting “wreckage and debris,” and he identifies a “wasteland of the dispossessed” whose inhabitants have lost their traditional means of sustenance without being absorbed into an industrial wage-labor workforce. Instead, “the excluded, the redundant, the dispensable,” although a product of capitalism, have become permanently surplus from capital’s point of view.17 Thus, too, Onur Ulas Ince highlights primitive accumulation, a “frontier phenomenon that arises at the interface of accumulative and non-accumulative logics of social reproduction,” as central throughout the entire history and geographical terrain of capitalist development, a point that dethrones both the exploitation of industrial wage-labor as the main plot of the capitalist drama and the European metropolitan countries as its main stage.18 Ince identifies the intrinsic elements of primitive accumulation as a “1) political process of forcible transformation whereby 2) noncapitalist relations of social reproduction are restructured through extra-economic coercion 3) in ways that assimilate or articulate them to the global networks of capital accumulation,” constituting a “global ‘historical invasion and restructuring of the non-European world.’”19

However, just as the foundational violence involved in the birth of sovereign states is often but not always bloody, primitive accumulation is often but not always effected by brute physical force. It may occur more “peaceably”: for example, through the imposition of laws guaranteeing the free movement of global capital on economic milieus previously shaped by local habits and customs, or through the seeping of capitalist economic practices into new territory and the gradual dissolution of non-capitalist possibilities of subsistence, motivation, and desire for people who until then had lived outside capital’s domain.20 Then, too, the non-European world is hardly the sole target of capitalist invasion and restructuration. Here Harvey and Sanyal are more on point when they emphasize the especially punishing form that capital takes as it restructures the non-European world via processes of primitive accumulation, while also attending to how the sovereign power of capital steamrolls over the entire world (including those parts of the world it already had steamrolled over) without a Western exception. In both its conquests and re-conquests, as Sanyal insists, the “tyranny of capitalist accumulation” subjects millions of people everywhere and from every ethnic and cultural background to “the loss of livelihood, loss of environment and disempowerment.”21

3. Nostalgia, Conservatism, Creativity, and the Struggle for Freedom

As our brief look at the link between disappearance and primitive accumulation reveals, every concept in politics is entangled with other concepts that are likely to warrant critical reconstitutions of their own. The concepts that are most negatively associated with a condemnation of capital’s powers of disappearance are “nostalgia” and “conservatism,” while the concept that is most positively associated with the celebration of those same powers are “creativity” and “freedom.” How might our considerations on the concept of disappearance encourage us to rethink these other four concepts and their interrelationship?

Nostalgia and Conservatism

The charge of “nostalgia mongering” has long been hurled at chroniclers of loss by liberal and leftist progressives, by ironists who ridicule deeply felt longings of any sort, and by skeptics who view every lament for a past way of life as a cover-up for power interests. Currently, the charge is most vociferously leveled on the one side by champions of the “free market” against all those who decry the changes that capital imposes on them22; and on the other side by defenders of immigration rights against right-wing populist movements out to restore the “good old days” of ethno-racial homogeneity in Western nation-states. In part because of the complexity of nostalgia as a human emotion, and in part because groups recently charged with nostalgia have suffered real losses, however much the economic source of many of those losses has been obscured by xenophobic rhetoric and/or racial anxieties, the critique of nostalgia must be met with a counter-critique.

“Nostalgia” has been variously defined as mourning for a fantastical past that never was; or romanticizing a previous order of things that was punishing for some segment of its members; or idealizing that which one helped to destroy, which Renato Rosaldo sees as typical of imperialist nostalgia; or feeling impotent regret for an irrevocably dead or dying age. Yet each of these accusatory significations, even when they capture empirical truths, suppresses other truths. Yearnings for a past that never was can indicate a desire for some achievable human value that the present order of things prohibits. As social orders are always contradictory, there are aspects of even punishing past social orders that are worthy of being missed. Human beings sometimes realize, too late, the irreversible harm they have done and then, as a kind of inadequate compensation, idealize the object of their harm. Most important, contingent and contestable human agency always plays some part in the effacement of social relations and practices, however much time’s ravages also play a part. Just as one would have to have a mystical belief that what comes later in time is necessarily an advance over what came before to dismiss the legitimacy of every longing for what is past, one would have to have a mystical faith in the virtue of those with the power to transform the “is” into the “was” to point the finger of blame at the melancholia of those forced to live with the results.

In her Benjamin-inflected recuperation of the phenomenology of nostalgia, Svetlana Boym praises a “reflective” nostalgia that is “ironic” and “inconclusive,” immersed in the decay and debris produced by modernity and attentive to the “shattered fragments of memory” without wishing to making things whole by trying to put the pieces back together. She contrasts this with a problematic “restorative” nostalgia that is sentimental and fetishistic, obsessed with “the mythical place called home” and conducive to dreams of bringing that mythical home “back” to life perfectly intact.23 While it may be tempting to endorse Boym’s strategy of splitting of nostalgia into good and bad types, such a strategy not only sidesteps asymmetries of power behind modern demolition projects but also favors the subjective tastes and proclivities of intellectuals over the structures of feeling of less privileged groups.

Nauman Naqvi is, I think, on a more promising track when he identifies the modern expert knowledges and the interests they serve that have helped to make the “devaluation of the past, and of an orientation towards it (especially an affective one, as in the case of nostalgia) . . . a distinctive feature of the ideology of progress.”24 Thus, for example, military physicians treated the homesickness of the 18th century peasant-soldier as a pathological nostalgia for village life inimical to the loyalty and discipline required to fight wars on behalf of the nation-state; psychoanalysts assimilated the “notable tendencies to nostalgia” of “primitive peoples” to infantile regression or retardation; and sociologists and psychologists diagnosed the longings for home of 20th century immigrants as “‘depressive reactions of social “maladjustment.’” Naqvi invites us to see all three cases of nostalgia not as diseases or deficiencies but as emotional registrations of losses foisted on groups by forces they are unable to stop. He suggests that nostalgia even can be seen as political-psychological resistance to such forces by interpreting the peasant-soldier’s longing for the concrete qualities of his village as a sign of his “resistance to incorporation” into the “abstractions of the nation.”25 Analogous interpretations can be made of the homesickness of tribal peoples for their hunting grounds and sacred spaces as resistance to the forces of colonial expansion; and of the homesickness of immigrants for their countries of origin as resistance to the sacrifice of their familiar habitat that political violence and/or economic misery required them to make. As capitalist processes have been contributory elements to national consolidation, colonialism, and global migration, the nostalgia of the peasant, the tribe, and the immigrant can be seen as responses and even resistance to those processes, too.

Naqvi perceptively concludes that when a world of human suffering “is governed and perpetuated in the name of progress, in the name of the future . . . nostalgia, which bears witness to the losses and torments of modernity – even as it refuses to reconcile itself to modernity as an historical fait accompli – may today have a greater claim upon us” than “‘progressive’ or ‘forward-looking’” orientations.26 One stumbling block to embracing this conclusion is the association of nostalgia with political and cultural conservatism by radicals and conservatives alike, on the grounds that the “haves” have the most to lose and the “have-nots” the most to win from historical change. This is a curious presumption, given first that rising elites are often at the vanguard of capitalist upheavals and stand to gain the most from them, and second that, except in the most dire of circumstances, ordinary people are often attached to specific familiar features of their own social and material existence, even when there are injurious features of that same existence to which they are not attached. More fundamentally, the identification of historical loss with elites elides the importance to all human beings of there being familiar and predictable life patterns, in addition to there being the possibility of experiences that are surprising, adventurous, and pattern-smashing.

In the mid-twentieth century, Michael Oakeshott flagged the value of the love of the familiar, the pleasures to be had in the repetitions of everyday life, and the impulse to try to preserve the things one habitually enjoys. He also exposed the poverty of a life entirely shaped by the dictates of calculative reason, the destruction of non-contractual relationships such as friendship and romance when subjected to the ethos of market instrumentalism, the obtuseness of the quantifying mentality to many inchoate dimensions of human experience, and the threat to human happiness of “rational” change imposed on societies from above or outside.27

An appreciation of attachment to the distinctive qualities of a familiar life world is something that Burkean conservatives such as Oakeshott have to offer politically progressive critics of capitalism, even if conservatives, like progressives, erroneously presume that elites are most capable of that appreciation. Admittedly, the same conservatives tend to be unabashed defenders of social hierarchies and opponents of ethnic groups they see as culturally alien to native traditions. They also almost always blame egalitarians for threats to continuity instead of blaming capitalist processes, which many of them strongly affirm, although in terms that conjures up images of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker rather than of Shell Oil, the Tata Group, and Amazon. What nonetheless can and should be precipitated out from the conservative’s political agenda is the basic point that “If we never knew loss, we would never feel the need to conserve”28—once the “we” is democratically enlarged.

Creativity and Freedom

One of the great conceptual ploys of global capital has been to equate human freedom with “the free market,” and “the free market” (with its beguiling image of small-scale exchanges between individuals) with the freedom of concentrated capital to go where it will to reshape the world in the interest of its own self-magnification. As Marx famously put it, such ideological mists obscure the fact that “[i]t is not individuals who are set free by free competition; it is, rather, capital which is set free.” Only by dispelling those mists can true lovers of freedom fight to rein in capital’s powers of appearance and disappearance as vigorously as liberal constitutionalists have attempted to rein in the powers of the sovereign state.29 Indeed, every sovereign power, whether public or private, is best treated as a beast that needs to be tightly tethered, so that those subjected to its commands might win a more equal share, not only in the making of common arrangements, or political freedom, but also in the enjoyment of freedom in the creative and the preservative senses of the term. With respect to creative freedom, the limitation of sovereign power increases the opportunities for individuals to initiate something in the world without undue repression or prohibition. This includes even the sovereign power of capital, for while capitalism encourages creativity more than any other mode of production has done, and indeed more than many sovereign states have done, it also constricts creativity by denying the majority of the world’s population the material conditions for its full exercise as well as by harnessing creativity per se to the sole cause of profit-making. With respect to preservative freedom, the limitation of sovereign power increases the opportunities of members of society to enjoy shared patterns of thought, practice, and relationship that have crystallized out of creative initiatives—for as long as they do enjoy those patterns (and as long as their enjoyment does not hinge on the suffering of others).  This includes especially the sovereign power of capital, with its inner drive to trample over and re-constitute all forms of life outside and inside of its orbit.

As we have seen, capital’s powers of disappearance assault preservative freedom in two waves. First, not unlike sovereign states, capital commits foundational violence as it vanquishes an existing order of things to implant its own law in the same space, whether that violence takes a brute physical form or not. Second, and in contrast with sovereign states’ interests in stability, although in league with those states’ interests in increasing their wealth, capital undermines patterns of life to which ordinary people are attached in regions it already has conquered; dismantles functioning human and non-human habitats in the name of progress and development; commands creativity to devour its own previous achievements ad infinitum; and so successfully subverts any constraint on its ethos of commodification and profit accumulation that no other ethos can thrive in the same world with it.

Let me conclude with a note on one final implication of extending a critical theory of disappearance from the political to the economic field. It has long been acknowledged that resistance to capital’s unsavory powers of appearance—the inequalities, exploitations, and deformations of subjectivity it brings into being—requires a political praxis that seeks to incorporate positive technological and cultural features of modern capitalist societies while pointing the way forward to new social arrangements that are far less asymmetrical than the ones we have now. In tandem, but also in contrast, resistance to capitalism’s monarchical powers of disappearance requires a praxis that stands up for beloved but vulnerable modalities of life against an onslaught.30 However much it might be accused of nostalgia-mongering or political conservatism, the struggle against disappearances dictated by private wealth accumulation is a crucial aspect of radical politics today, as we in the United States have most recently seen at Standing Rock. Against invasive economic forces, that struggle has two main aims. It defends what has been and still fragilely is on behalf of those who value it as a feature or condition of their own life world, and it retrieves life-enhancing possibilities buried in the past that should and could be again, under new conditions that must be fought for and won.

Thanks to the Kahn Institute for the Liberal Arts at Smith College for a fellowship and stimulating faculty seminar that supported this work.

*

Joan Cocks is Emeritus Professor of Politics and a founder and long-time member of the Program of Critical Social Thought at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002), and The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique and Political Theory (Routledge, 1989 and 2013). She has also published numerous articles on feminism, Marxism, nationalism, sovereignty, cosmopolitanism, and political violence in academic journals, edited volumes, and on-line symposia and blogs.


1. Andrew Jacobs, “In Beijing’s Building Frenzy, Even an ‘Immovable Cultural Relic’ is Not Safe,” The New York Times, February 5, 2012, 5 and 8.

2. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner & Russell Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 83.

3. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 159.

4. Justin Wolfers, David Leonhardt and Keven Quealy, “1.5 million black men missing from everyday life,” The New York Times,
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/20/upshot/missing-black-men.html?_r=0

5. Amina Ismail and Declan Walsh, “Government Foes, Real and Imagined, Vanish in Egypt,” The New York Times, Wed Jan 27, 2016, A4 and A8.

6. Diane Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s Dirty War (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 1997), 123.

7. I elaborate on the points raised in the next few paragraphs in Joan Cocks, On Sovereignty and Other Delusions (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).

8. Alexis de Tocqueville, “Two Weeks in the Wilderness,” in Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin, 2003), 884, 876, 883, 878, 879, 887, 888, 883.

9. Tocqueville, “Two Weeks in the Wilderness,” 888, 924, 887.

10. Thus, Wendy Brown has suggested that capital might be seen as a new global sovereign, absolute in its commands and unifying in its rule, even while it does not pivot on the friend/enemy distinction or exert a power that is personalistic, decisionistic, or centralized at a single point at the top of a hierarchy. Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010). Brown does not, however, grapple with the problem of how to analyze the relationship between capital as global sovereign and the perhaps-waning-but-still-often-muscular territorial sovereign state, either in the abstract or in the distinct concrete cases of, for example, the neo-liberal but perhaps soon to be neo-fascist United States, the social democratic Swedish state, the theocratic Saudi Arabian state, and the authoritarian Chinese state (which, as my Chinese students assure me, wields more sovereign power over capital than capital wields over it). Indeed, given the resilience of the modern state form as well as its multiple empirical manifestations, with respect to which capital must work out different formula for wielding its power, we might view the capital/nation-state relationship as in some ways analogous to the relationship of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church to the disparate European empires, kingdoms, and principalities under its umbrella, even though our church has no morality and no Pope.

11. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Post-Colonial Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 235.

12. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, ed. Frederick Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1967), Part VIII “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation,” 713-774.

13. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), especially Section Three, “The Historical Conditions of Accumulation,” 329-467.

14. Jason Read, “Primitive Accumulation: The Aleatory Foundation of Capitalism,” Rethinking Marxism, vol. 14, no. 2 (Summer 2002), 24-49: 37.  As Read also puts it, “[T]he normalization of the new mode of production . . . obliterates the memory of the past mode of production as well as any traces of the violent foundation of the new mode of production.” Ibid., 45. In the same article, Read makes insightful points about the contingency of primitive accumulation before the determining logic of capitalist production sets in, which lie beyond the scope of my essay here.

15. See, for example, Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973); and E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present, no. 50: 76-136.

16. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 137-182, 145.

17. Kalyan Sanyal, Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality & Post-Colonial Capitalism (New Delhi: Routledge, 2007), 61, 143, 58, 53.

18. Onur Ulas Ince, “Primitive Accumulation, New Enclosures, and Global Land Grabs: A Theoretical Intervention,” Rural Sociology 79 (1) 2014, 104-131: 106.

19. Ince, “Primitive Accumulation, New Enclosures, and Global Land Grabs: A Theoretical Intervention,” 123, my emphases. Here Ince approvingly quotes James Tully, “Lineages of Contemporary Imperialism,” in Lineages of Empire: The Historical Roots of British Imperial Thought, ed. D. Kelly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1-21, 14.

20. For a sensitive account of this seeping process, see Tania Murray Li, Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

21. Kalyan Sanyal, Rethinking Capitalist Development, 262. As they rightly suggest, no country is exempt today from coerced losses (although not necessarily coerced in a physically violent way) such as the patenting of genetic material, the monetization of rain water, the privatization of public goods, the expulsion of nomadic peoples from resource-rich reserves and borderlands for the purposes of capitalist extraction, the gentrification of long-standing neighborhoods, and the degeneration of social relationships as a result of individual competition on a global scale. Notwithstanding to its loyalty to the fundamental parameters of capitalism, The New York Times has, in the past several years, run numerous stories on primitive accumulation processes from China to India to Greece to Liberia to Brazil to Mali to the United States. Almost always, pastoralists, nomads, fishermen, small farmers, peasants, self-employed shopkeepers, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and/or defenders of local cultures are on the penetrated end of these processes; state central governments, extractive industries, corporations, modernizing bureaucrats, development specialists, finance capital, and international financial institutions and ministers are on the penetrating end.

22. Thus, champions of capitalism recently brought the charge of nostalgia-mongering against a blogger who documented the destruction of local neighborhoods by government in collusion with big business to clear space in New York City for corporate chains and luxury apartments, the latter for the occasional visits and investment opportunities of international capitalist elites.

23. Svetlana Boym, The Future f Nostalgia (NY: Basic Books, 2001), 50, 41, 49, 50.

24. Nauman Naqvi, “The Nostalgic Subject: A Genealogy of the ‘Critique of Nostalgia,’” Working Paper n. 23, Centro Interuniversitario per le ricerche  sulla Sociologia del Diritto e delle Istituzioni Giuridiche (3-56), 6.

25. Naqvi, “The Nostalgic Subject: A Genealogy of the ‘Critique of Nostalgia,’” 40, 44, 17.

26. Naqvi, “The Nostalgic Subject: A Genealogy of the ‘Critique of Nostalgia,’” 48.

27. Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (New York: Liberty Press, 1962).

28. Andrew Sullivan, as quoted by Fareed Zakaria in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, February 23, 2014, 10.

29. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, (New York, Vintage Books, 1973), Notebook VI, 650.

30. See Pope Francis’s Encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Our Sunday Visitor, 2015) for an ethical argument that links the vulnerability of dispossessed populations to the vulnerability of the natural world in the face of capitalist expansion; and Akeel Bilgrami, “Gandhi (and Marx),” Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 122-174, for a philosophical argument that knits together forward-looking and backwards-salvaging imperatives for radical politics today.