Excavating Contemporary Capitalism: Towards a Critique of Extraction Writ Large

Lecture by Sandro Mezzadra

Sandro Mezzadra is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna, as well as a visiting research fellow at Humboldt University, Berlin. He studies European Political Thought, the concept of citizenship, contemporary critical theory, globalization and contemporary migration. His books include: Diritto di fuga. Migrazioni, cittadinanza, globalizzazione (“The Right to Escape: Migration, Citizenship, Globalization”, ombre corte, 2006), La condizione postcoloniale. Storia e politica nel presente globale (“The Postcolonial Condition: History and Politics in the Global Present”, ombre corte, 2008) and Nei cantieri marxiani. Il soggetto e la sua produzione (“In the Marxian Workshops. The Subject and its Production”, Manifestolibri, 2014). He is also one of the founders of the website http://www.euronomade.info.

            The title of the book is The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism. The use of the verb “excavate” in the subtitle directly points to the relevance of extraction in our interpretation of the workings of contemporary capitalism, though there is definitely a need to say a couple of words on the notion of operations. Before doing that, however, let me say something about the stakes of the book and the ways in which it connects to [Brett Neilson’s and my] previous work, Border as Method, or the Multiplication of Labor. In that work, we started a critical investigation of what we call, in an ironic way, “actually existing global processes” with reference to the outmoded “actually existing socialism.” So, crucial to our endeavor was a critique of the image of a “borderless world,” to quote from the title of a quite influential book by Kenichi Ohmae that came out in 1990, usually associated with globalization in the 1990s. Following the thread of movements and struggles of migration, we attempted to demonstrate that the processes of multiplication and heterogenization of borders are part and parcel of globalization. So moving beyond such binaries as smooth and striated space, we focused our analyses not only on geopolitical boundaries, but also on such anomalous spaces such as zones, corridors, slams, and camps to emphasize the key role played by a myriad of bordering devices to the articulation and grounding of global processes. So, although in The Politics of Operations, we shift focus to directly analyze capital and capitalism in their current formations, what we missed, that is nonetheless crucial for us, is precisely this concern with the global with its status and its meanings. I think this is an important question, especially for the present historical moment. After the start of the war on terror and under the Bush Jr. administration’s unilateralism, discourse tends to be about the end of globalization, the coming back of the state and even protectionism proliferate in the age of Trump, but also Narendra Modi in India or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, not to mention Vladimir Putin in Russia. An emphasis on actually existing global processes helps us, I think, to shift the ground of this discussion. 

            What we try to do in this book, in The Politics of Operations, is to shed light on a logic underlying the operations of capital in strategically important sectors such as extraction, logistics, finance, containment and articulation by the nation state that also corresponds to a global architecture of production, valorization, and accumulation of capital. The state, an important topic and concern in our research project, is always enmeshed in the fabric of those operations. It definitely plays important roles that deserve critical and differentiated investigation. From this angle, what is at stake in contemporary development is not that much the end of globalization, but rather, I think, a set of conflicts, intentions, surrounding its direction and the organization of its spaces. Various degrees of combinations between nationalism and neoliberalism set the stage for these conflicts and tensions, foreshadowing an authoritarian twist of globalization, but definitely not—I won’t repeat it—its end. 

            So like Border as Method, The Politics of Operations is deliberately global in scope. It deals with examples from different corners of the planet, explores resonances between them, and works constantly between theoretical and empirical perspectives. The question of extraction, as I already pointed out, is central to our understanding of contemporary capitalism. For its introduction, it is first of all necessary to stress that over the past decade, the intensification of extractive activities and the expansion of what we call the extractive frontier have been met by the multiplication of struggles and resistances across the world, from northern Greece to west Africa, from India to Indonesia, just to mention a few. Moreover, the discussion on neo-extractivism reveals the limits placed upon the action of states even under the so-called ‘progressive’ governments by their enmeshment with extractive operations of capital and dependence on the volatile and deeply financialized dynamics of the world market. 

            Nevertheless, having acknowledged the importance of the discussion on neo-extractivism in Latin America, I remain skeptical of positions that focus on literal extractive practices, considering them as a privileged key for analyzing the contemporary capitalist moment. To intervene in the Latin American case, Veronica Gago and I have rather stressed the need for an expanded notion of extraction. In order to connect narrow extractive activities with the more general reshaping of capitalist social relations in the region and beyond, against the background of Veronica’s compelling investigation of the so-called popular economists, with particular focus on finance’s penetration into the huge peripheries of Latin American metropolises. And this has allowed as to flesh out the specifically extractive nature of financial operations, which in this case target and exploit a wide and heterogeneous array of force of subaltern social cooperation. 

            One of the starting points of the book is a kind of skepticism toward, or simply dissatisfaction with the attempts to define the specificity of contemporary capitalism from a single sector of economic activity, as was once possible and even necessary, at least in some parts of the world, taking as a point of reference industrial product cycles such as the textile or the automotive. This skepticism or dissatisfaction is the reason why Brett and I started to work some years ago on the distinct, although inter-related, domains of extraction, logistics, and finance. We not only look at the internal, let us say sectoral development of these crucial domains of contemporary capitalist cooperation, but also try to go beyond the definition of extraction, logistics, and finance as mere sectors, and to take them as points of entry into a critical analysis of contemporary capitalism. This means, on the one hand, that we are particularly interested in the concrete intertwining, which becomes apparent from literal extraction and investigating both the infrastructural and logistical projects that enable its expansion and the financialization of commodities’ prices that drive investment. On the other hand, at least tonight, we are convinced that investigating these three domains, inter-referencing and producing resonances once again within them, it becomes possible to discern the contours of a systemic and operative logic that more generally shapes contemporary capitalism writ large. 

            Allow me to give you an idea of the way Brett and I developed this hypothesis by providing first of all a couple of examples from the domains of logistics and finance analyzed in The Politics of Operations. Let us start with logistics. Let’s reflect on one of the main developments enabled by the new mobility paradigm brought about by the so-called revolution in logistics that took place in the 1960s, which means the global stretching and reshaping of supply chains. This development has led to a dramatic transformation, with respect to the relation between production and circulation at the height of industrial capitalism. To put it shortly, nowadays supply chain operations often tend to exercise command over processes of production. This is a very important circumstance, which is for instance conferred by several studies of the so-called retailing revolution in agriculture, where production chains have become retail-driven, and the effects of this shift impinge on the condition of migrant workers, and lead to specific processes of zoning in many parts of the world, including Italy. But by more generally examining the operations of inventory giants such as Walmart and Amazon, anthropologist Anna Tsing shows how they push costs back to producers, who are allowed to use any methods they want to keep prices at a minimum. Usually these matters involve, as we know, eliminating labels and environmental standards. Production must be performed, of course, and this is crucially important, but how it is performed is, at the end of the day, indifferent. What is even more crucial for the practices of valorization pursued by companies like Walmart and Amazon is their logistical capacity to synchronize diverse modes of production along the supply chain. That Anna Tsing uses the term ‘piracy’ to describe the relation between supply chain operations, and their surrounding economic and social environments, shows just how close her analysis is to the semantic field of extraction. 

            The extractive dimension of logistical operations of capital is conferred under different circumstances by an analysis of the new frontiers of logistics. Particularly relevant in this regard is the so-called platform capitalism, which is predicated upon remote-sensing technologies and upon what is symptomatically called data mining. Data mining (as for instance Trebor Sholtz maintains [about] such platforms as Uber, Deliver Oü, Airbnb, or Fedora, to mention just a couple of well-known instances) can be precisely defined as extractive platforms in so far as they rely upon a wide environment of social cooperation from which they extract labor and value without establishing formal labor relations with their workers.  

            But let me now say more about finance, which is of course crucially important for any analysis of contemporary capitalism. While there is of course a need to critically take into account the roles played by sophisticated innovations like derivatives or high frequency trade in the investigation of global financial markets, Brett and I think that there is one point in Marx’s analysis of a completely different financial capital that retains its analytical productivity today. In Capital, Volume III, Marx stresses the accumulation of claims or titles to future production as a distinctive feature of the specificity of the financial moment in the series of transformations effected by capital. Claims of titles to future production: there are several comments to be made upon this definition. First of all, the emphasis on the link between finance and wealth to be produced in the future challenges any interpretation of finance as self-referential or financial capital as merely fictitious and opposed to productive capital. Secondly, it is important to reflect upon the claim associated with property of financial assets according to Marx. This moment of claim does not merely foreshadow a relation with future production, as Marx writes, but also, of course, with subjects involved in it in a subordinated position; with subjects whose life is shaped by the compulsion to work. Thirdly, and maybe more important for the present discussion, the link between finance and future production posits what I would call an abstract figure of social cooperation. A social cooperation that has not yet taken place and nevertheless is foreshadowed by finance as the main source of financial value and characterizes financial operations as extractive precisely because they are not involved in the organization of that future social cooperation. 

            Let me try to sum up from a conceptual angle some key features of the expanded notion of extraction that I have been elaborating and sketching thus far. As in literal extraction, what is at stake here is capitals of a nation with an outside be defined in terms of productive urban environment or a force of social cooperation that enable future production. Engaging with this question leads Brett and me to the term of Rosa Luxemburg’s accumulation of capital and to propose a new reading of an emphasis on capital’s structural need for an outside to deploy its operations. And we also join a debate on the relation of capital with its multiple outsides that has been particularly lively in recent years involving, for instance, Marxist thinkers like David Hardway, postcolonial critics of political economy, and feminists like Nancy Fraser or JK Gibson-Graham. Specific antagonisms, tension, and conflicts correspond to a crucial extractive moment. It is, for instance, to grasp these conflicts that Nancy Fraser has proposed a challenging notion of boundary struggles harking back to the concept of border struggles. We contend that the production of subjectivity is always at stake in such clashes and conflicts which cannot be limited to frictions surrounding the established boundaries between normative reals and their institutional arrangements. 

            So, I’ve often used the notion of “operation of capital” without defining it thus far and it is time to say something about the way in which we employ the concept of operation with respect to capital. The concept of operation itself as a tense of philosophical generality which can be traced from its etymological association with the Latin word opus to the opposition between labor and work which mean opus, developed, as you know, by Arendt in The Human Condition. We attempt to deconstruct this analogy, and we remain critically aware of all the roles played by the kind of opposite notion of ‘inoperativity’ in the word of such prominent contemporary philosophers as Jean-Luc Nancy. At the same time, consider that the ubiquity of the reference to operation, in finance and logistics, we will attempt to trace a different history of the notion—let’s say from Leibniz’s works—which is intimately associated with the name for calculation and algorithms as distinctive features of thinking. The development of artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and informatics in the 20th century is part and parcel of this history as well as the epistemological debates since the late 1920s and the development of the military logistical paradigm of operations research, and its drift in economic thought, particularly in the US following WW2. I have not the time to expand on these genealogies of the concept of operation. Suffice it to say that our use of this concept with respect to capital is strictly associated with an attempt to rethink an important Marxian notion which means the notion of Gesalt Kapital, usually translated into English with “total capital,” while we prefer to use the phrase “aggregate capital” in order to stress the possibility of its closure within a totality. The notion of Gesalt Kapital—aggregate capital—points on the one hand to a crystallization of a general logic of movement of capital and on the other hand to the relations between what Marx terms different ‘fractions’ of capital. In a way, one can say that it is a deeply political concept forged by Marx in his critique of political economy, and it is not an accident that it has played important roles in Marxist discussions of the state at least since Engel’s definition of the state itself as the ideal collective capitalist. The notion of operations of capital provides us with a tool that allows singling out a sect of capitalist operations and actors that shape and command the size of what I call the general logic of movement of capital at a given moment in time without reducing the whole capitalism to that logic. What becomes irrelevant is precisely the articulation of those operations with other operations of capital whose logic can be significantly different. 

            Allow me to give an example of this which refers back to what I was saying before regarding finance. The recent critical move to place debt at the center of an analysis of the workings of capital, instantiated by the work of David Graeber and others, definitely register the widening further entrenchment of the logic of private as well as public debt in an age characterized by what is called 15 years ago the financialization of daily life. Nevertheless, this critical move often leads to disentangled debt and therefore finance from the dance of ingenious fabric of social and economic relations within which they are enmeshed… In particular, this emphasis tends to obscure the persistent relevance of new qualities of exploitation. Once we consider that as a form of financialization, of what I called before the “compulsion to work,” things begin to change. Debt private, as well as public, definitely appears as the specific relation of subordination connected to the operations of financial care. In order to repay the debt, however, indebted people are compelled to enter relations with other figures of capital, industrial or illegal, commercial or otherwise, whose modes of operation and exploitation are significantly different from those of finance. And to investigate the articulation of these heterogeneous operations within contemporary aggregate capital is a crucial task. And we are convinced that such articulation today is presided and commanded by what we call “extractive operations writ large.” This leads us to contend that contemporary capitalism moved beyond industrial capitalism, notwithstanding an unprecedented booming of industrial activities in many parts of the world. So I move toward the conclusion, the question of the articulation of heterogeneous operation of capital has important implications for the rethinking of the concept of exploitation which is another important state of our world and for the investigation of the composition of contemporary living labor as we say. Further developing the notion of the multiplication of labor that we propose in Border as Method. We continue to move between the concepts of class and multitude to grasp the defining features of this composition, and we continue to emphasize the deep heterogeneity of its composition, providing examples of this taken from different parts of the world. 

            What we had in The Politics of Operations, is that extractive operations of capital target common resources and powers, beating the form of mineral deposits, land, or social cooperation. We are convinced, in particular, that social cooperation emerges as one of the main productive forces spurning contemporary processes of capital’s valorization and aggregation. Again, it is the necessary articulation of these operations with different operations of capital that it counts for the heterogeneity of living labor and for the structural gap between living labor and social cooperation, which we take as a key characteristic of the contemporary class composition, and it is around this gap that the new quality of exploitation, which includes dispossession as a constitute moment, becomes apparent. More generally the question of a politics capital, of effectively confronting contemporary capitalism, producing spaces of freedom and equality, prompting processes of collective liberation of exploited and dominated subjects, opening up new vistas of life beyond the rule of capital is at the center of our work. Now our search for such a politics, we take stock of the dramatic transformations that have altered the ground upon which theories and practices of reformism and revolution have been historically played out. We remain worried of critical analysis of neoliberalism that insist upon a kind of colonization of all human domains, including politics by economic standards and values. 

            This is because our investigation of operations of capital is placed in a line of continuity with key passages of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy where the analysis of the social relation of capital is carried out with an emphasis on the political nature and effects of its establishment. While we try to trace the multiple ways in which this political dimension of capital has counted more in history since its inception, we are also aware of the fact that in previous ages of capitalism, in particular with what we term its “national and industrial moment,” the state retained relative autonomy both in articulating a specific national fraction of aggregate capital and intervening in the field of the reproduction of labor power. This was predicated upon a specific operative logic of capital and, in particular, on the dialectic nature of the free labor contract, famously analyzed by Marx in Capital, Volume I. The contemporary shift toward an extracted logic of operation, far from any dialectic imprint, disrupts this ground and radically challenges established forms of articulation between the politic of capital and the politics of the state. So we do not want to deny that the state can still play relevant roles in fostering processes of emancipation and even liberation. What careful and realistic analysis of the contemporary forms of the state reveals is definitely its persistent importance in the articulation of global capitalism. At the same time, the extractive operations of capital that I have sketched thus far, on the one hand plays strategically on its capacity to tame, or even to break capitalist rule, and on the other hand even challenge the institutional unit of the state. 

            To put it very shortly, our conclusion is that the state is not powerful enough to confront contemporary capital. In order to reopen a political perspective of radical transformation, something else, a different sort of power, is absolutely necessary. It is working along these lines that The Politics of Operations attempts to outline a new theory of dual power in dialogue with several contemporary thinkers. Such a theory acknowledges the potential of established political institutions, but refuses to center the process of social transformation upon the state. It rather points to the strategic relevance of a second power, a system of social counter-powers. While we celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this may be understood as a way to reframe, according to the needs of the present, the form and action of the Soviet. Keeping in mind the answer of the Russian Revolution, one should never forget the saying that “a condor needs two wings to fly.” Thank you very much.



We would like to thank Professor Mezzadra for allowing us to publish this transcription, as well as 3CT for allowing us to record the talk. This transcription has been edited for publication, without reflecting, for sake of clarity, every alteration in the transcription. Yet, the editorial board has striven to be faithful to the original lecture in our alteration and presentation of this transcript, fully aware of the impossibility of ever re-presenting a text without such an effacement.



















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