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The Capitalist Labour-Process and the Body in Pain: The Corporeal Depths of Marx's Concept of Immiseration

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One of the most common critiques of Marx is that he mistook the birth pangs of capitalism for its death throes, on the basis of which he made the completely erroneous prediction of the increasing immiseration of the working class – a critique that rather superficially reduces immiseration to a simple matter of standard of living. The goal of this essay, however, is to expose the corporeal depths of Marx's notion of immiseration, and, in so doing, to show that immiseration is by no means a long-since disappeared attribute of early capitalism. To do so, I reread the chapters on surplus-value in Capital by following the corporeal leitmotifs suggested in Franz Kafka's short story, 'In the Penal Colony'. Kafka's narration of the condemned learning the meaning of his fate through the corporeal experience of wounding evokes Marx's very graphic narration in Capital of workers experiencing exploitation and immiseration on their own bodies. Raising themes found later in Kafka's narrative, Marx tells of the arranging of the entire workplace 'under the command of capital', of the design and employment of technology both to secure that command and to extract surplus-value; and he shows how capital, like Kafka's torture machine, writes its messages on the body of labour in a script not immediately decipherable by observers. The history that Marx tells in Capital is less graphic in form than Kafka's, but it is in content at least as fantastic and horrific – perhaps even more so. Their common concern with machines painfully inscribing bodies helps to highlight the corporeal dimension of Marx's concept of immiseration.

Affiliations: 1: University of Oregon

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2008-11-01
2016-12-05

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