In some Leftist circles, the exploding growth of homeless refugees gave rise to the notion of “nomadic proletariat.” The basic idea is that, in today’s global world, the main antagonism (the “primary contradiction”) is no longer between the capitalist ruling class and the proletariat but between those who are safe beneath the cupola of the “civilized” world (with public order, basic rights, etc.) and those excluded, reduced to bare life. “Nomadic proletarians” are not simply outside the cupola but somewhere in-between: their premodern substantial life-form is already in ruins, devastated by the impact of global capitalism, but they are not integrated into the global order, so that they roam in an in-between netherworld. They are not proletarians in the strict Marxian sense: paradoxically, when they enter developed countries, the ideal of most of them is precisely to become “normal” exploited proletarians. Recently, a refugee from Salvador who tried to enter the US on the Mexico-US border said to the TV cameras: “Please, Mr Trump, let us in, we just want to be good hard workers in your country.”

Can the distinction between proletarians proper (exploited workers) and the nomadic (less than) proletarians be somehow blurred in a new more encompassing category of today’s proletarians? From the Marxian standpoint, the answer is a resounding no. For Marx, proletarians are not only “the poor” but those who are, by way of their role in the production process, reduced to subjectivity deprived of all substantial content; as such, they are also disciplined by the production process to become the bearers of their future power (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Those who are outside the production process – and thereby have no place in a social totality – are treated by Marx as “lumpenproletarians,” and he doesn’t see in them any emancipatory potential at all. He rather treats them with great suspicion, as the force which is as a rule mobilized and corrupted by reactionary forces (like Napoleon III.).

Things got complicated with the victory of the October Revolution when Bolsheviks exerted power in a country where not only a large majority of the population were small farmers (and the Bolsheviks gained power precisely by promising them land!), but also where, as a result of violent upheavals during the civil war, millions of people found themselves in the position (not of classic lumpenproletarians but) of homeless nomads who were not yet proletarians (reduced to the “nothing” of their working force) but literally less-than-proletarians (less-than-nothing). Their massive presence is the central topic of the work of Andrei Platonov who described in detail their way of life, elaborating a unique “materialist ontology of poor life.”[1] From the standpoint of the “ontology of poor life,” the parallel between Beckett and Platonov is fully relevant: is the experience of “poor life” also not the core of Beckett’s great trilogy of novels Molloy, Malone Dies, Unnameable? The entire topic as well as the details of Malone Dies clearly relate to the French peripeties during the German occupation and its aftermath: the Nazi and collaborationist control, terror and oppression, the revenge against collaborationists and the way refugees were treated when returning home and recuperating. What gives such a power to the novel is precisely that these three domains are condensed into a single suffocating experience of a displaced homeless individual, an individual lost in the web of police, psychiatric and administrative measures.

The difference between Platonov and Beckett is that, while Beckett renders the experience of homeless refugees as individuals at the mercy of state institutions, Platonov focuses on displaced nomadic groups in a post-revolutionary situation when the new Communist power tries to mobilize them for the Communist struggle. Each of Platonov’s works “departs from the same political problem of how to build communism: of what communism means and how the communist idea meets the concrete conditions and reality of the post-revolutionary society.” Platonov’s answer to this problem is paradoxical, far from the usual dissident rejection of Communism. His result is a negative one, as all his stories are stories of a failure. The “synthesis” between the Communist project and the displaced nomadic groups ends in a void; there is no unity between proletarians and less-than-proletarians:

“In Chevengur (1926–28), the orphan Sasha Dvanov becomes a communist in the year of the revolution, joins the Bolsheviks and goes on a party errand to support the revolution in a village. During his long journey, Dvanov discovers ‘communism in one village’, established by poor peasants. The communism of the Chevengur village is accompanied by various absurd experiments with urban planning and farming, permanent terror and hunger. The wandering organic intellectuals are a supplement to the wandering masses, classes and communities, and they are all accompanied in their migration by animals, plants and natural landscape. The protagonist of Dzhan (1936; Soul in English translation), Nazar Chagataev, returns to his native town in Turkestan on a party errand to find the lost nomadic nation Dzhan, from which he had come, in order to establish a socialist order. Dzhan was written after Platonov’s two journeys in Turkmenistan as a member of writers’ delegations. This was during the period when the civil war in Turkestan had just ended and a campaign against traditional nomadic forms of life had been initiated. The task of the delegation was to write an orthodox socialist realist story about a successful ‘civilising’ process in the local communities. The central problem of Platonov’s Dzhan may seem to conform to this brief, narrating as it does the story of a ‘Red Moses’ leading the nomadic inhabitants of the Asian desert to socialism. However, Chagataev goes back to Moscow when his mission has ended and one is left with doubts about the future of communism in the desert. /…/ The most famous work of Platonov, The Foundation Pit (1930), was also created in the context of the first five-year plan. It unfolds by way of a series of meetings between the protagonist Voshchev and the residents of a small provincial town, who are involved in the construction of an enormous proletarian house. While Voshchev challenges the representatives of different class groups, engaging in a Socratic inquiry into truth, the project acquires a more and more grandiose plan, before finally coming to an end with no result.”

But we are at the same time as far as possible from the old conservative-liberal critique of revolution as a violent attempt to impose on actual life models that are foreign to it. First, Platonov articulates his despair from the position of an committed fighter for Communism (he was actively engaged with nomadic groups in the 1920s, also at a very practical technical level, planning and organizing irrigation projects, etc.). Second, Platonov is not depicting a conflict between the traditional texture of social life and the radical-revolutionary attempt to change it in the style of Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. His focus is not on the traditional forms of life but on the dispossessed nomads whose lives were already irretrievably ruined by the process of modernization. In short, the radical cut Platonov depicts is not between a “spontaneous” proletarian crowd and organized Communist forces but between the two aspects of the proletarian crowd itself, between the two social “nothings”: the strictly proletarian “nothing” of the modern workers generated by capitalism, and the “less-than-nothing” of those not integrated into the system, not even as its immanent negativity, as is made clear in this short exchange from Chevengur: “‘Who did you bring over to us?’ Chepurny asked Prokofy […]   ‘Those are teh proletarians and others’, Prokofy said. Chepurny was disturbed ‘What others? Again the layer of residual swine?’ […]  ‘The others are the others. Nobody. They’re even worse than the proletariat.’”

Here are further passages that describe these social “less-than-nothings”:

“Platonov’s heroes have different national and cultural backgrounds, but nonetheless they represent the same category: the proletariat. The idea behind ‘the international’ and ‘non-Russian’ faces is the idea of an average multinational proletariat that makes up one class. There is a significant explanation of the ‘non-Russianness’ of nomadic declassed people in Chevengur: ‘This is the true international proletariat: look – they’re not Russians, they’re not Armenians, they’re not Tartars – they’re not anything! I bring you live international’. It is precisely this multinational, and one can even say anti-colonial, perspective that leads Platonov to the deconstruction of the dominant image of the white industrial working class that was so typical among the hardliners in Proletkult.”  /  “’He saw comrades the likes of whom he had never encountered before, people without any understanding or appearance of class and without revolutionary worth. These were instead some sort of nameless others who lived utterly without significance, without pride, and off to one side of the impending world-wide triumph. Even the age of these others was impossible to grasp, for all that could be made out was that they were poor, had bodies that grew unwillingly, and were foreign to all.’”  /  “Platonov names his marginal declassed wanderers as ‘handmade people with an unknown designation’, ‘uncounted’, ‘mistakable’ or ‘prochiye’ – ‘others’, in the English translation of Robert Chandler. The Russian word prochiye also refers to the ‘rest’, the ‘remainder’. Thus, the ‘others’ is the rest of the people; they don’t belong to any class category existing in Marxist theory, because they are too poor and detached from normal social life.” / “The other, therefore, refers to someone who remains unaccounted for due to their amorphous and marginal status, but who is also part of a multiplicity which is not countable – part of a scattered and nomadic people, an anomaly of humanity, trapped between life and death, social and biological.”

As the last quoted sentence makes clear, one has to avoid absolutely the elevation of prochiye into an original site of productivity, its living presence oppressed by state representation. Prochiye are not the Deleuzian multitude; they are, on the contrary, the “living dead” caught in a non-productive passivity, basically deprived of the very will to be active. This is why we should take the risk to offer yet another translation of prochiye: neighbours in all the biblical weight of this term, those who are “others” and precisely as such always too close to as, no matter how far away they are. What makes them too close is that we lack a proper distance towards them because they don’t possess a clear identity, a place in society. The Christian motto “love your neighbour as yourself” acquires here its full weight: true social love is the love for the unaccountable less-than-nothings. But this love can take different forms, and, while the Bolsheviks certainly loved them, wanted to help and redeem them, they followed the model of what Lacan called “university discourse”: prochiye were their objet petit a, and they put all their effort into enlightening them, into changing them in modern subjects. The conflict that lies at the heart of Platonov’s work is thus not a conflict between enemies but a kind of lovers’ quarrel: the Bolsheviks wanted to help the homeless others, to civilize them, and the others (depicted by Platonov) sincerely endorsed the Communist ideals and fought for them, but everything went wrong:

“Others in Platonov’s novels are always manipulated by ‘more conscious’ comrades, party leaders and intellectuals, but always unsuccessfully – it is almost impossible to integrate others into the collective body of the workers and to establish a normalised sociality based on the collectivisation of labour and industrial production.”

However, Platonov subtly noted that this gap is not just the gap between self-conscious revolutionary force and the inertia of the crowds: while the Bolsheviks focused on the operational aspect of social transformation, the core of the Communist utopia was directly present in the dreams of Others who expected something radically new to arise. Communism was nowhere closer than in the immobility of others, in their resistance to getting caught in concrete operative measures: “the special status of the poor and declassed elements, which unlike the organised workers, the party representatives and the intellectuals, are ready to stay where they are in order to do something radically new. In a way theirs is a life that remains in a state of waiting, and the question is what kind of politics will be established here.” Platonov’s famous inflections of language are also located in this context of the tension between official Party language and the “primitive” speech of the others:

“Platonov reflected the historical development of a new Soviet language made of revolutionary slogans, the vocabulary of Marxian political economy, the jargon of the Bolsheviks and party bureaucrats and its absorption by the illiterate peasants and workers. Historical research shows that for most of the post-revolutionary population, especially in the provinces, the language of the party was foreign and unintelligible, so that ‘they themselves perforce began to absorb the new vocabulary […] often garbled its unfamiliar, bookish terms or reconfigured them as something more comprehensible, however absurd’. Thus, ‘“deistvyushchaya armia” – “the acting army” – became “devstvyushchaya armia” – “virginal army” – because “acting” and “virginity” sound nearly identical in Russian; “militsioner” (“militiaman”) became “litsimer” (“hypocrite”).”

Is this unique bastard mixture, with all its “senseless” mobilization of sound resemblances that can send off sparks of unexpected truth (in an oppressive regime, policemen ARE hypocrites; revolutionaries ARE supposed to act virginally, in a kind of innocence, freed from all egotistical motives), not an exemplary case of what Lacan called lalangue, language traversed by all social and sexual antagonisms that distort it beyond its linguistic structure? This lalangue emerges through Platonov’s use of two (almost) symmetrically opposed devices: first, “he interprets an abstract ideological definition through the use of the common man, the person from the people, and secondly, he makes an inverse operation, when he overloads the simplest and clearest everyday words and expressions […] with a set of ideological associations’, to such an extent that these words become ‘so terribly improbable and confusing that, finally, they lose their initial meaning’.”

What is the political implication of this loss of meaning? Although interpenetrating, the two levels – official Bolshevik speech and the everyday speech of others – remain forever antagonistic: the more revolutionary activity tried to combine them, the more their antagonism became palpable. This failure is not empirical and contingent, because the two levels simply belong to radically heterogeneous spaces. For this reason, one should also avoid the trap of celebrating the “undercurrent” of Soviet Marxism, the other line suppressed by official Soviet Marxism-Leninism, the line which rejected the controlling role “from above” of the Party and counted on the workers’ direct self-organization “from below,” as was the case with Bogdanov. This other line indicated a hope for a different, less oppressive, development of the Soviet Union, in contrast to Lenin’s approach which laid the foundations for Stalinism. True, the other line was a kind of “symptom” of official Leninist Marxism; it registered what was “repressed” in the official Soviet ideology, but precisely as such it remained parasitical upon official Marxism, i.e., it didn’t stand on its own. In short, the trap to be avoided here is the temptation to elevate the “poor life” of the others into some kind of authentic communal life out of which an alternative to our ill-fated capitalist modernity can emerge. There is nothing “authentic” in poor life of the others; its function is purely negative, registering (and even giving a body to) the failure of social projects, including the Communist one.

And, sadly, the same failure, which is necessary for structural reasons, also characterizes a homologous project of fusing today’s working class and today’s “less-than-proletarians” (refugees, immigrants), i.e., the idea that “nomadic proletariat” is a potential source of revolutionary change. Here, also, one has to fully assume Platonov’s lesson: the tension is not only between the local conservative-racist lower classes and the immigrants. The difference in the entire “way of life” is so strong that one cannot count on easily achieving the solidarity of all the exploited. Perhaps, the antagonism between proletarians and the less-than-proletarian “others” is an antagonism which is in some sense even more unsurpassable than the class antagonism within the same ethnic community. Precisely at this point when the “subsumption” (of others into “our” proletarians) seems the most obvious, and the universality of all the oppressed seems at hand, it slips out of our grasp. In other words, the “less-than-proletarian” others cannot be subsumed, integrated, not because they are too different, too heterogeneous with regard to our lifeworld, but because they are absolutely immanent to it, the result of its own tensions.

At an abstract level, Platonov thus raises the question of subsumption (of others into proletariat), and today we are facing the same problem not just with regard to refugees and other migrants (can they be subsumed into the global capitalist order?), but also at a more formal level of what Balibar calls “total subsumption” as the basic tendency of today’s capitalism.[2] This term does not cover only the phenomena of the so-called “cultural capitalism” (the growing commodification of the cultural sphere) but above all the full subsumption, under the logic of the capital, of the workers themselves and the process of their reproduction:

“Whereas Marx explained that ‘capital’ ultimately could be reduced to (productive) labour or was nothing other than labour in a different form, appropriated by a different class, the theory of human capital explains that labour – more precisely ‘labouring capacity’ (Arbeits vermögen) – can be reduced to capital or become analysed in terms of capitalist operations of credit, investment and profitability. This is, of course, what underlies the ideology of the individual as a ‘self-entrepreneur’, or an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’.”[3]

The issue here is

“not so much to describe a growth of markets for existing products; it is much more to push the range of the market beyond the limits of the ‘production sphere’ in the traditional sense, therefore to add new sources of permanent ‘extra surplus-value’ that can become integrated into valorization, overcoming its limitations, because capital is valorized both on the ‘objective’ side of labour and production, and on the ‘subjective’ side of consumption and use.”[4]

So, it’s not just about making working force more productive; the point of total subsumption is to conceive of the working force itself directly as another field of capitalist investment: all aspects of its “subjective” life (health, education, sexual life, psychic states…) are considered not only as important for the productivity of the workers, but also as fields of investment which can generate additional surplus-value. Health services do not only serve the interests of capital by way of making workers more productive; they are themselves an incredibly powerful field of investment, not only for capital (health services is the single strongest branch of the US economy, much stronger than defense) but for the workers themselves, who treat paying health insurance as an investment into their future. The same goes for education: besides getting you ready for productive work, it is in itself a field of profitable investment for institutions as well for individuals who invest into their future. It is as if, in this way, commodification not only becomes total but also gets caught in a kind of self-referential loop: working power as the ultimate “source of (capitalist) wealth,” the origin of surplus-value, becomes itself a moment of capitalist investment. Nowhere is this loop more clearly expressed than in the idea of the worker as a “self-entrepreneur,” a capitalist who decides freely where to invest his (meager) surplus resources (or, mostly, resources acquired through loans): into education, health, housing property…

Does this process have a limit? When, in the very last paragraph of his essay, Balibar approaches this question, he strangely resorts to a Lacanian reference, to Lacan’s logic of non-All (from his “formulas of sexuation”):

“This is what I call a total subsumption (after ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption) because it leaves nothing outside (no reservation for ‘natural’ life). Or, anything that is left outside must appear as a residue, and a field for further incorporation. Or must it? That is of course the whole question, ethical as much as political: are there limits to commodification? Are there internal and external obstacles? A Lacanian might want to say: every such totalization includes an element of impossibility which belongs to the ‘real’; it must be pas tout, or not whole. If that were the case, the heterogeneous elements, the intrinsic remainders of the total subsumption, could appear in many different forms, some apparently individualistic, such as pathologies or anarchist resistances, others common or even public. Or they may become manifest in certain difficulties in implementing the neoliberal agenda, such as the difficulty of dismantling a Medicare system once it has been legalized.”[5]

What Balibar says here is, for a Lacanian, very strange: Balibar condenses (or, rather, simply confuses) the two sides of Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, and simply reads exception as non-All: the totality of subsumption is non-All since there are exceptions which resist being subsumed to Capital. But Lacan precisely opposes non-All and exception: every universality is based on an exception, and when there are no exceptions, the set is non-All, and it cannot be totalized. This opposition should be applied to topic of subsumption: one should pass from a search for the exception, for those who resist (universal) subsumption and are as such the “site of resistance,” to endorsing subsumption without exception and counting on its non-All. The subsumption of individual lives to which Balibar refers cannot be reduced to a particular case of the universal capitalist subsumption; they remain a particular case which, on account of its self-relating nature (the working force itself becomes capital), redoubles the production of surplus-value.

In Marx’s critique of political economy there are two main cases of universality through exception: money and the working force. The field of commodities can only be totalized through a special commodity, which functions as a general equivalent of all commodities but is as such deprived of use value; the field of the exchange of commodities only gets totalized when individual producers not only sell their products on the market but when the working force (as a commodity whose use-value is to generate surplus value) is also sold on the market as a commodity. So, maybe there is a third case here: when this commodity which produces surplus-value becomes itself an object of capital investment bringing surplus-value, we get two types of surplus-value, the “normal” surplus value generated by the products of the working force, and the surplus generated by the production of the working force itself.

That is a nice example of Hegel’s insight into how the Absolute always involves self-splitting and is in this sense non-All: with the production of the working force itself as a field of capital investment, the subsumption under capital becomes total. But, precisely as such, it becomes non-All; it cannot be totalized. The self-referential element of the working force itself as a capital investment opens a gap, which introduces imbalance into the entire field. Maybe this gap can function as a source of hope, maybe it opens up the possibility of radical change. The logic of capital gets threatened not from some external non-integrated rest, but from its own inner inconsistency which explodes when subsumption becomes total.


[1] Here, I rely heavily on Maria Chehonadskih, “Soviet Epistemologies and the Materialist Ontology of Poor Life: Andrei Platonov, Alexander Bogdanov and Lev Vygotsky“ (unpublished manuscript, from which all non-attributed quotes are taken).

[2] Etienne Balibar, “Towards a new critique of political economy: from generalized surplus-value to total subsumption,” in Capitalism: Concept, Idea, Image, Kingston: CRMEP Books 2019.

[3] Balibar, op.cit., p. 51.

4 Op.cit., p. 53.

[5] Op.cit., p. 57.