The Unbearable: Devaluation of Human Lives as a Limit to Capital

Delal Aydin


This paper suggests a reading of Karl Marx’s work through the lens of human life in capitalist relations where some lives appear to be less ‘worthy’ than others. I argue that capitalist mode of production makes devaluation of human lives inevitable by rendering human life as a relation of equivalency and this is a limit to capital since human life cannot be reduced to a thing that is comparable to other things. In his writings Marx’s repeatedly points out two forms of reductions regarding human life which are immanent to capitalist mode of production: First, human activity (in the form of abstract labour and labour power) is reduced to a commodity, and secondly, human life is reduced to the means of subsistence. The worker sells her labour power to the capitalist as a commodity in order to reproduce her life. In this relationship, the worker becomes merely one of the elements of the production process and the necessity of subsistence of her life appears to be a hostile power, forcing her into this relationship with the capitalist. The capitalist, therefore, appropriates not only the life activity of the worker but also her available time to live. Thus, while the life of the worker is reduced to nothing but work, the worker loses the control, and even possession, of her own activity and life. In this relationship based on the commodity form, moreover, a section of the workers are always rendered superfluous due to the machinery and large-scale industry. I borrow Etienne Balibar’s (1996: 117) expression ‘the unbearable’ to refer to the actual limit to the process of transforming labor power into a commodity and reduction of human life to means of subsistence. The devaluation of human lives in capitalist relations is a limit to capital drawn by ‘the unbearable’. I claim that this limit opens up a ground to discuss actual experience of difference and inequality in relation to the social reproduction. In other words, ‘the unbearable’ might speak to us about Marx’s vital question of emancipation as an actual human experience in the structures of capitalist mode of production.

human life - the unbearable - difference and inequality - social reproduction - commodity form