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Robinson Crusoe Radicalised (part one)

8 Mar , 2017  


I define myself by separating myself from the totality; I define the totality as other than me Рas a net which is cast over the continuity of the historical sabotage that the class operates. РToni Negri, Domination and Sabotage (1977)

In the first chapter of Capital Volume 1, Karl Marx paints a picture of the dominant subject of bourgeoisie political economy : the abstract individual. For Marx, the abstract individual was perhaps best embodied in the figure of Robinson Crusoe. In the chapter we find Robinson alone on his island. He relies only on himself, only on his own capacity to engage with his environment in order to full his needs. Furthermore, since his environment does not contain other people he is essentially self-sufficient. The only limits that are placed on him are those very same limits that have been placed on all human beings throughout history.

The first limit on him is the fact that he will inevitably die at some point. He is a finite being and so time is a limit that imposes itself on him. Secondly, he is stuck on his island, and so he is also limited in his ability to produce by the materials which he finds there. Space therefore presents itself to him as his second limitation. Finally, he is also limited by his current ability to utilise the materials which surround him on his island. He is therefore limited by the level of skill with which he can direct his life energy into the various forms of reproductive labour necessary for his continued existence.

As a result of these limitations, he must therefore rationally calculate how much time he must dedicate to fulfilling his various needs:

In spite of the variety of his work, he knows that his labour, whatever its form, is but the activity of one and the same Robinson, and consequently, that it consists of nothing but different modes of human labour. Necessity itself compels him to apportion his time accurately between his different kinds of work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in his general activity than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or less as the case may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him. РKarl Marx, Capital Volume I (1867)

Hence, Robinson finds no freedom from necessity on his island in two senses. Firstly, he must continue to labour under the compulsion of his own biological needs. This compulsion is an effect of the finite nature of his own being and is a factor regardless of class struggle, a struggle which he is absented from in his solitary condition. This leads on to the second point; Robinson is not free on his island because his existential condition is one of pure solitude. Any development of his powers which he is able to effect while on his island is for him and him alone. As such, he is deprived of the human contact through which his actions and continued existence gain meaning. Contrary to bourgeoisie ideology, he is not rich because of his individualism but is instead mired in poverty.

The second part of Martin’s four article series on welfare, alienation and the poverty of radical otherness through the lens of Robinson Crusoe will be out tomorrow (09/03/17) on

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