Althusser and the Political Economy of ‘Original Sin’

Gavin Walker


The story of ‘original sin’ in the Bible installs a temporality of social existence in which one is always-already “too late to the stage of history,” always arriving in the given scenario post festum. It is this temporal structure of being always “after” that informs some of the most crucial conceptual innovations in the Althusserian body of work – the whole analysis of the relapse (the Hegelian Rückfalle between presuppositions of structure and its compositional elements) – a structure that in particular produces a link between the seemingly smooth and self-contained Hegelian analysis of systematicity with the historical contingencies contained in the thesis of the primacy of class struggle. The ‘original sin’ of capitalist society is the first untraceable beginning or commencement, the first encounter between the buyer and seller of labour power. Thereafter, the seller of labour power becomes subject to a systematic cycle, passing through instances of becoming what St. Augustine, in his own theory of ‘original sin’, called the “condemned masses” (massa damnata), compelled to live under the irreversible condition of having sinned, unable to reach back to a moment prior to the current “damned” state. The seller of labour power is damned, cursed to wander the earth for eternity for having taken the fruit of money in exchange for a definite quantity of labour time in the originary historical encounter. But this massa damnata, Althusser points out, is also a living continent of class struggle, cursed by the first contingent moment of damnation, but also irreparably marked as the bearer of another politics and another earth: the proletariat. Taking a set of clues and “reading protocols” from Althusser’s early work in theology and on Hegel, we will investigate the central status for the Althusserian system of this concept of “original sin,” and in particular, the peculiar circularity of time installed by this originary moment of relapse – always arriving first, but that must narrativize itself as secondary – in capitalist society by means of the analysis of the so-called ‘primitive accumulation’ in Marx.

Althusser - Critical theory - Primitive Accumulation - Hegel - Marx