Anticapitalism is not enough (we need to know how settler colonialism works): Kevin Bruyneel, ‘The White Settler Romance with Anticapitalism: On Day’s Alien Capital’, Theory & Event, 20, 2, 2017, pp. 564-570

26Apr17

Excerpt: Iyko Day is here to warn us about the seductions of romantic anti-capitalism. This is a romance with the notion of concrete labor over and against the abstractions of exchange, the role of the producer over the financier, and that of ennobled, naturalized Indigeneity over the hyper-rational and manipulative alien—once Jewish, now Asian. The romantic anticapitalist is seduced by a fantasy of the authentic relationship of productive human capacity, agency, and concrete value over and against the seeming inauthenticity and oppressive manipulability of representation itself. For romantic anticapitalists, concrete labor stands for value that is produced through an unmediated ‘dirt-under-the-fingernails’ relationship to the material. This unmediated relationship is impeded by abstract forces, embodied in racialized others whose labor is central to the workings of white settler colonial capitalism but whose role in this system is constructed as an abstract threat to the status and freedom of the white settler. In this sense, romantic anticapitalism is a sublimated romance with racial-colonial capitalism.

Day’s Alien Capital attends to an under-examined historical, political and human register, that of Asian identity, representation, and experience in the North American settler colonial states. One can productively read Day’s work alongside Jodi Byrd’s The Transit of Empire, as Day’s concern with the alien settler openly draws from and speaks to Byrd’s conceptualization of the role of the ‘arrivante’ in settler colonial contexts. However, Day’s attention to the alien in relation to settler colonial capital focuses specifically on the Asian migrant/laborer, and in so doing offers a way to deconstruct the racialized, gendered, sexualized and colonial nature of the representation of value, and of indeed representation itself. In Day’s telling, it is the Asian migrant who comes to stand for the evils of abstraction with regard to valuation, exchange, and thus capitalism itself. 

While richly historical, the book’s subject of study is a diverse range of literary, visual, and cinematic representations—some of which are intentional works of art and others are created for their function in the economy. Examples of the latter frame the beginning and end of the book. An introduction entitled “The New Jews” starts by discussing the 2012 Canadian hundred-dollar bill, which at first depicted a female Asian scientist but was later supplanted by the ostensibly “‘neutral ethnicity'” of a “‘Caucasian-looking woman.” (1) The book’s epilogue pivots around an analysis of an early 20th century salmon-gutting machine from British Columbia called the “Iron Chink.” What connects both is that as “money or machine, the Asian is aligned with the destructive value dimension of capitalism.” (193) The presumption undergirding the analyses of these two subjects and those analyzed in the intervening chapters is nicely captured in Petrus Liu’s insight, quoted by Day, that “‘…the value of the commodity of human labor is determined by moral and discursive operations outside of the capitalist reproduction scheme.'” (47, emphasis original) Day’s approach compels the reader to take discursive practices seriously, rather than dismissively viewing them as epiphenomenal to the ostensibly unmediated, real practices of capitalist reproduction. Day lays bare and pursues the discursive as well as economic practices by which relations between people become transformed, diminished, and fetishized into a relationship between things. In that sense, there is no clear outside here, as moral and discursive operations motivate and define roles in capitalist production. This is a shaping that prefigures the answer to such questions as, who is presumed to serve in what role in the economy, what constitutes the concept of labor and laboring, to what end and what level of deprivation, to whose benefit and under what threat? As Day makes clear throughout the book, the value of a commodity of human labor does not exist apart from racialized, colonialist, gendered, sexualized, classed, and ableist meanings.



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