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Kojin Karatani

A short overview of Kojin Karatani’s Marxist influenced focus on modes of exchange as revealing the Borromean ring of Capital-Nation-State, and the import of this ring for religion.

Kojin Karatani is one of the most interesting Marxist theorists of the last century. I put his work, as a form of “non-traditional” Marxism, in the same category as Marxist projects like those pursued by, for example, the Frankfurt School or Black Marxism. And like them—and indeed Marx himself—he has much to say to anyone interested in political theology or the study of religion more broadly. 

Although Karatani has made interesting contributions to our understanding as a critic, a philosopher, a theorist, and beyond, my focus in what follows will be chiefly on his Marxist prioritization of “modes of exchange.” While this approach makes him a controversial figure as a commentator on Marx, this focus on modes of exchange is central to understanding the significance of his thought for political theology and religion. 

According to Karatani, Marxism has generally oriented itself around modes of production, focusing on the means and ownership of production. Karatani’s unorthodox claim is that we should—if we want to address questions of “capitalism, state, and nation in a fundamental way”—consider modes of exchange. 

Before turning to what that means, let me consider briefly one reason that Karatani pursues this route. According to him, without such a turn, “traditional” Marxism is confronted with certain problems (and, at a high level of altitude, this is a basic premise he shares as much with aforementioned non-traditional Marxists like Theodor W. Adorno or Cedric J. Robinson). First, for example, if modes of production are reified as the “economic base,” then culture, politics, art, and so forth are potentially viewed “merely” as an ideological superstructure. It becomes difficult to situate the importance of some of these elements for our lives. Second, such a prioritization also fails as a historical orientation, since it (1) becomes difficult to understand both earlier phases of history where there was no neat split between economics and politics (as there is in capitalist society), and it (2) fails to account for the ways in which “ideological” structures like state, nation, and religion continue to exert a strong influence separate from—or at times even counter to—the interests or movements of capital. 

Of course, Karatani is aware that there are traditions within Marxism that take a more nuanced view of things and address the ideological superstructure in autonomous terms. According to him, however, such perspectives lead to increasingly fragmented approaches that have trouble recovering the sort of systematic perspective that was central to Marx’s impulses. Enter Karatani’s turn to modes of exchange as a means for orienting the Marxist story. 

According to Karatani, an interest in exchange (conceived in broad terms) occupies Marx from his earliest work. Such an interest continues until the late 1840s, when Marx turns his attentions exclusively to commodity exchange, or an exchange governed by money and commodity. On Karatani’s view, Marx’s investigations in Capital are meant to understand the various elements of commodity exchange. There are other forms of exchange besides commodity exchange. 

Before turning to some of these other modes of exchange, which are, in fact, central for understanding Karatani’s views on religion, nation, and other phenomena, let me say a bit more about how Karatani conceptualizes commodity exchange in this context. According to Karatani, commodity exchange arises with exchange between two communities, not amidst individuals. A quick way to understand this point is to note that even within systems of commodity exchange there are pockets where other forms of exchange are the norm (e.g., the family structure). 

Commodity exchange originates from mutual consent and mutual recognition between two communities. Such recognitive relations do not, however, lead to equality under the sign of commodity exchange; in fact, quite the opposite: because money is what allows individuals to exchange commodities, through its valorization, there emerge possibilities for association that exhibit vastly differing power relations. Money in fact allows someone the ability to purchase commodities, most notably—in this context—the commodity of labor, which, in turn, can produce surplus value.

It is worth pausing here to understand exactly how Karatani’s story very much engages with the core element of Marx’s story. To see this, let me rehearse one way in which mainstream (non-Marxist) accounts understand commodity exchange. A common story is that the whole basis of capitalism is finding value: at some point in the process, some smart people in the system of commodity exchange buy something cheap in order to sell it at a profit (e.g., these materials can be bought for x and turned into y and, in turn, y can be sold for 2x). On such a view, value is generated solely by the market. Note that on such a view no wealth is ever created, however—rather, value would be merely transferred. The entire thrust of Marx’s project is to undermine this view: ultimately to show how capitalism can expand, thereby revealing what’s left out of the picture. Capitalism, as a system of exchange, relies on the generation of surplus value, and this can only occur through the exploitation of labor. 

Central to such a mode of exchange are relations of class. Because some own the means of production while others do not, there emerge relations between those who work and those who control the means of production (and there are important ways in which class intersects race). Relatedly, as a variety of feminists and Marxists have stressed, “hidden” costs are required to reproduce laborers but not paid for by those hiring labor (most prominently domestic care and tasks, which in capitalist societies have traditionally been performed by women—this is why Shulamith Firestone spoke of divisions of sex as the original division of class). 

I mention all of this to fill in the details of one form of exchange: commodity exchange. Importantly, however, Karatani believes that such a Marxist story must be further situated amidst three other logical possibilities of exchange:

  1. Karatani cites a mode of exchange, theorized by Marcel Mauss and others, that involves reciprocal exchange. A society oriented around such a principle may use gift-giving or the pooling of resources in order to create relations of reciprocity, where individuals might be bound by honor or duty. Such a community also naturally produces an understanding of nation, where individuals are reciprocally related, as they would be, for example, in a large family.
  1. There is another mode of exchange that Karatani terms plunder. On such a view one community plunders the possessions of another. Why does this remain a mode of exchange? Only because such plunder requires that what is plundered be distributed—at least in some way, it need not be equally—amongst the community doing the plundering. Such a community naturally produces the notion of the state, wherein the state has a monopoly on violence (i.e., it is the state exactly who can plunder/redistribute).

Before turning to the last mode of exchange that Karatani considers, note that so far, we have three modes of exchange, and each one can account for elements of human history. A mode of exchange oriented around plunder not only accounts for the structure of states, but also accounts for the functioning of precapitalist states (this focus allows Karatani to repurpose Witfogel’s otherwise abandoned idea of an “oriental despotism”). In a similar vein, the mode of reciprocal exchange allows us to understand the continuing relevance of nations and nationalism even amidst other forms of exchange. 

Because no one form of exchange is primary and because these forms of exchange do not necessarily follow each other historically or logically, they can each co-exist within particular structures. This is so much the case that Karatani ultimately speaks of a Borromean ring, wherein these three modes of exchange hang together. Thus he notes that, “When the capitalist economy leads to class disparity and struggle, which is inevitable, the nation demands equality and the state alleviates class opposition by means of taxation and redistribution” (Karatani 2008). Importantly, Karatani notes also, “it is impossible to overthrow one of them alone. If we try to overcome capitalism by means of either the state or nation, we will end up reinforcing the state or nation; Stalinism is the former case while Nazism is the latter” (Karatani 2008). 

The image of a Borromean ring highlights that, allegedly, the capitalist formation is a synthesis of all three. As the above quotes suggest (and as Karatani pursues in more detail), the qualitative nature of commodity exchange within capitalism is such that it gives rise to—materially and conceptually—other forms of exchange and organization. In short, because of the historical formation of capitalism, the Borromean knot of Capital-Nation-State emerges; this knot is such that it is impossible to overthrow one without the others (Karatani 2014). 

The political theological import of Karatani’s work should be coming somewhat into focus: because of the connections between both nationalism and religion (Gellner 1983) and the state and religion (Kantorowicz 1997), not to mention the connections between capitalism and religion (Weber 2002), the Borromean knot guarantees that religion continues to be a central category—and political theology a central site of inquiry—for any consideration of our contemporary form of life. To answer the questions that Hent de Vries poses in the introduction to his volume on Political Theologies, such a Borromean knot guarantees that the archive (of religion) that animates each of these modes of exchange will not be exhausted, and quite the contrary will both “color” and “burden” our lives moving forward.

The importance of religion is even more central when we consider the fourth and final mode of exchange that Karatani elaborates: 

  1. Such a mode of exchange is related to the mode of reciprocity, but involves instantiating it at a higher level, beyond the confines of the institution(s) of the state or of capital. As Karatani notes, such societies “have been given various names: socialist, communist, anarchist, associationist, and so on” (Karatani 2008). What we are envisioning here is a world system grounded by the principle of reciprocity. Karatani prefers to refer to it only as mode of exchange X, highlighting that it exists only as a (Kantian) idea, namely as something that guides our reasoning (i.e., the historical formations associated with the names given above are not realizations of X). 

Of course, this raises even more political theological questions, especially around messianism and utopianism, where Karatani’s project can profitably be connected to future-oriented projects as in those of Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and Ernst Bloch, the latter a figure Karatani himself invokes, as in (Karatani 2012). Karatani prefers to invoke Kant’s own political theology here, referring to Kant’s federation of nations as outlined in his 1795 Perpetual Peace. 

I do not have the space to assess these moves and connections here. I can instead only end with Karatani’s own imperatives. He believes that the Borromean knot of Capital-Nation-State demands that we continue to pursue the actualization of mode of exchange X and the world system it demands. At the same time, he is keen enough to realize that “nation, state, and capital will persist. No matter how highly developed the forces of production become, it will be impossible to completely eliminate forms of existence produced by these modes of exchange … yet so long as they exist, so too will mode of exchange [X]” (Karatani 2014). What does this mean for both religion and for any Marxist politics? At the very least, it means that religion and religious impulse remains as central for any future Marxism as it did for Marx himself.


Annotated bibliography:

Karatani, Kōjin. “Beyond Capital-Nation-State.” Rethinking Marxism 20, no. 4 (2008): 569-95.

Great overview of Karatani’s entire approach in a very compact piece.

Karatani, Kōjin. Nation and Aesthetics: On Kant and Freud. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

A recent collection of several essays that feature Karatani’s elaborations especially of his recent musings on the mode of exchange X as a “return” of the mode of reciprocity as a “repression” (in Freudian terms).

Karatani, Kōjin. The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Karatani’s magnum opus which gives an overview to his entire system, especially impressive for its historical scope, ranging from the earliest states to the present.

Karatani, Kōjin. Transcritique: On Kant and Marx. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005.

An impressive early reading of Marx and Kant through each other. Central for understanding his approach to either thinker.

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