In Capital we find a systematic presentation, an apodictic arrangement of concepts in the form of that type of demonstrational discourse that Marx calls analysis. What Is the provenance of this “analysis,” which Marx must have regarded as pre-existent since he only demanded its application to political economy? We pose this question as one indispensable to an understanding of Marx, and one which we are not yet in a position to give an exhaustive answer

—Louis Althusser, Reading Capital


The Analytic of Separation: History and Concept in Marx

In Chapter 3 of Capital, Marx makes the striking claim that “the division of labor converts the product of labor into a commodity, and thereby makes necessary its conversion into money.”1 Here we find a crystallization of the historical and theoretical dimensions of Marx’s critique, of the concrete and the abstract, the genetic and the structural. In order to understand this claim, the reader will have to traverse the historical chapters (13–15) at the center of Capital, which theorize the capitalist division of labor as a “process of separation” (Scheidungsprozess). Having done so, one can then retroactively recognize this process of separation as that which determines the specifically capitalist form of the product of labor, the commodity, and makes necessary the conversion of commodities into money, a process of exchange (Austauschprozess). Emphasizing the centrality of this claim to Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production, the approach to Capital for which I shall argue situates the constitutive relation between the process of separation and the commodity form as the key to sustaining a reading of Marx situated at the processual level of his theory. This approach foregrounds the Scheidungsprozess of the division of labor as the crux of the empirically descriptive and rationally constructive dimensions of Marx’s theory as these run through four intertwining processes: the exchange process (Austauschprozess), the labor process (Arbeitsprozess), the valorization process (Verwerthungs-prozess), and the process of accumulation (Accumulationsprozess). Further, I aim to show that “separation” is the non-reifiable, dialectical concept traversing the construction of all Marx’s major categories: commodity, money, labor power, value, surplus value, capital, constant and variable capital, absolute and relative surplus value, simple and expanded reproduction, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the production of surplus populations, and primitive accumulation. Conjoining the discrepant empirical and rationalist elements of Marx’s method of “analysis,” the concept of separation is the key to understanding the genesis of capital, its subsumption of social relations, and the tendential decline of its historical dynamism.


Unlike the category of value, so often (and so persuasively) situated as the “basic foundation of capitalist production,”2 separation cannot be conceived as a thing, as a substance. Of course, value is properly understood “as a category of the fundamental social relations that constitute capitalism.”3 That is, value is not to be fetishized as a substance but understood as a social relation, in accordance with Marx’s critique of reification. But the problem with situating value as the “basic foundation” of Marx’s critical theory is that value is situated by that theory as one side of a double process (labor process/valorization process), which must at all times be grasped in both its unity and its separation. It is precisely this unity-in-separation that enables the valorization process to predominate as the logic of capitalist accumulation, to subsume the labor process under its requirements. But the question of how it does so is to some extent obscured, or at least rhetorically subordinated, by the interpretation of Capital as “value theory.” If value is to be understood as a social relation, what is the social relation through which it is to be understood? Would not a concept expressing this relation (the social foundation of value itself) be a more suitable candidate to designate the “foundation” of capitalist production? Our answer to this question must be affirmative in one sense and negative in another. I will argue that “separation” is indeed Marx’s name for the social relation that must be understood as the foundation of value; yet separation, qua social relation, is not itself a foundation at all. It is a process. This matters because it enables us to properly express our understanding of “capitalism” as a constitutively historical configuration of social relations, one that never secures a foundation, though it certainly does achieve a system of presuppositions amounting to social domination. Foregrounding the centrality and pervasive theoretical significance of Marx’s concept of separa tion pushes us to understand and challenge capitalism as a non-foundational system of social relations predicated upon and sustained by power, not (directly) upon the production of value. This is a crucial element of the critique of ideology.

I make no claim to originality in recognizing the importance of the concept of separation in Marx’s mature theory. Its significance has recently been stressed by Fredric Jameson, Michael Lebowitz, Howard Engelskirchen, and the journal Endnotes.4 It is nevertheless notable that it remains a somewhat recessed concept in Marx’s work, and usually in commentaries upon it. There is no section or chapter explicitly devoted to the concept of separation in Capital. Neither the term Scheidung nor Scheidungsprozess appear in the table of contents, in which so many other major categories make their first entrance into Marx’s text. Recently, influential introductions by David Harvey or Michael Heinrich grant the concept no major role—which would be unthinkable for such categories as labor power, surplus value, or accumulation. Indeed, we could say that although separation is a concept in Marx’s theory it is not a category. But even compared to other terms with a similar status, such as reification, it has garnered relatively little direct theoretical attention.

In Representing Capital, Jameson treats separation as a “figure” and a “trope,” arguing that “What the figure of externalization and the return or taking back into self is for Hegel, the trope of separation and its various cognates and synonyms is for Marx.”5 Jameson has in mind the Hegelian term Entäusserung, and among Marx’s “various cognates and synonyms” for “separation” he includes the term alienation (Entäusserung, Entfremdung), arguing that “the resources of the term ‘separation’ are already richly exploited in the 1844 manuscripts—the theory of alienation is explicitly articulated by way of the fourfold “separation” of the worker from tools, from object, from other workers, and from species-being as such, or in other words from that productive activity that makes the human animal human.”6

Certainly Jameson is right to note the theoretical proximity of the terms separation and alienation, since Marx himself sometimes deploys them in a manner suggesting their interchangeability (particularly in a key passage of the Grundrisse to which we shall return). However, in the 1844 Manuscripts the sense of the term “separation,” deployed occasionally by Marx, is dominated by his more frequent and philosophically substantive use of the terms “alienation” and “estrangement.” In Capital this relationship of terminological overdetermination is reversed, as “separation” takes on the more systematic significance—signaled in particular by technical usage of the term Scheidungsprozess—making analytically possible an important conceptual distinction between “alienation” and “separation,” rather than their treatment as synonyms.

Aiming to stake out “a different position on the well-known alienation debate” which “avoids the Althusserian repudiation of its allegedly Hegelian idealism at the same time that it eschews the humanism of the Marxist defenders of the early manuscripts,”7 Jameson argues that “the concept of alienation—in its most Hegelian form, as the way in which I alienate my own production by producing it as separate from myself in the first place, so that it comes before me as a properly alien object and force—is very much built into the very structure of Capital.’”8 But I would point out that the condition of possibility for this reading, situating the concept of alienation as built into the very structure of Capital, is predicated upon a treatment of the term as synonymous with the concept of separation, since it is the latter that more systematically traverses the mature articulation of Marx’s categories and, in my view, secures the passage between historical and theoretical sections of the text. Yet the concept of separation is able to achieve this systematic integration within the categorial structure and expository itinerary of Capital precisely because of its difference from alienation and estrangement—terms that rely upon a logic of exteriorization, of a distinction between interior and exterior, which separation does not imply. This is why the term “alienation” remains tethered to the humanism of the early manuscripts, to a rhetoric of human essence and “human self-estrangement”9 relatively absent from Capital, whereas the term “separation” enables conceptual transformations that would not have been possible through primary reliance upon the exteriorizing logic of alienation. Separation occurs between that which is separated, not necessarily from an inside to an outside. Though it may imply a prior unity, it does not necessarily imply the objectification of an essence or interior which then confronts one from without. When this latter sense is required, Marx continues to deploy the term alienation. But when it is not, new theoretical extensions of the term “separation” enable the exposition of different dialectical structures traversing different layers of theoretical articulation.

I would position the analytic of separation I aim to elucidate as both aligned with and supplementary to Althusser’s theoretical anti-humanism and his theory of the epistemological break. It is in large part the difference between “alienation” and “separation” that enables the systematic, structural development of Marx’s mature critique of political economy. Thus, I would point to “separation” as the concept Althusser requires, but doesn’t quite put his finger on, in order to answer the question he formulates in the passage I have taken as an epigraph: “In Capital we find a systematic presentation, an apodictic arrange ment of concepts in the form of that type of demonstrational discourse that Marx calls analysis. What is the provenance of this ‘analysis,’ which Marx must have regarded as pre-existent since he only demanded its application to political economy?”

Althusser’s question presents us with a riddle: From whence did Marx derive his method of analysis, given that it is both pre-existent and genuinely new? The riddle is best approached through the paradox of immanent critique. Marx discovers his method (it is thus new) through an empirical study of what is already there (it is thus pre-existent): the history and the structure of the capitalist mode of production. In this sense his method is at once original and derived: he applies a new understanding of the structure of capital itself to a critique of political economy, which had failed to grasp that structure. But what does it mean to apply an understanding of “the structure of capital itself” to a critique of political economy? In order to grasp the logic of this formulation, and its methodological conditions of possibility, one has to understand that there is an analytical method to be gleaned from the structure of capitalism; it is this analytical method that I call “the analytic of separation.” That is, separation is both the phenomenon empirically studied and the dialectical method rationally applied by Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production. It is a Scheidungsprozess in this double sense that drives the immanent critique of Capital.


We see this conversion of an empirically studied process into a method of systematic dialectical analysis come into focus most clearly in Part IV of Capital, the center of Marx’s book. Here we find historical chapters on “Co-operation,” the “Division of Labor and Manufacture,” and “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry.” Yet the title of Part IV, in which the history and consequences of the division of labor are studied, is “The Production of Relative Surplus Value,” and these historical chapters are preceded in Part IV by a chapter devoted to “The Concept of Relative Surplus Value.” That is, the exposition of a historical process amounts to the exposition of a theoretical concept. So, when we find the division of labor described as a “process of separation” in Chapter 14, we should understand this process as the historical and structural core of both capitalist production and the critical concept of relative surplus value. Here is the relevant passage:

What is lost by the specialized workers is concentrated in the capital which confronts them. It is a result of the division of labor in manufacture that the worker is brought face to face with the intellectual potentialities of the material process of production [materiellen Produktionsprozesses] as the property of another [als fremdes Eigenthum] and as a power which rules over him. This process of separation [Scheidungsprozess] starts in simple co-operation, where the capitalist represents to the individual workers the unity and the will of the whole body of social labor. It is developed in manufacture, which mutilates the worker, turning him into a fragment of himself. It is completed in large-scale industry, which makes science a potentiality for production which is distinct from labor [von der Arbeit trennt] and presses it into the service of capital.10

Here, the temporal sense of the term Scheidungsprozess enables Marx to synthesize the three historical chapters of Part IV in a narrative arc delineated by the last three sentences of this passage, tracing the division of labor from its beginning in simple cooperation through its development in manufacture and toward its completion in large-scale industry. Moreover, the temporal dimension of the term Scheidungsprozess constitutes a historical exposition of the confrontation between the specialized worker (Theilarbeiter) and the intellectual potentialities embedded in the material process of production. At any given time, the capitalist Produktionsprozess is the synchronic instantiation of a diachronic Scheidungs-prozess. “Intellectual potentialities” (geistigen Potenzen) are embedded in the “material” process of production as a result of the division of labor, such that the relation between the spiritual (geistigen) and material is mediated and produced by the relation between a diachronic process of separation and its inscription in any given synchronic state of the process of production. The Scheidungsprocess that constitutes the division of labor is thus at once immaterial and material; it is immaterial insofar as, qua process of separation, it is not at all a material thing. It is material insofar as it involves the temporal inscription of those intellectual potentialities that are separated from the specialized worker into the machinery of the process of production.

This process of separation does indeed involve “estrangement” in a sense proximate to that detailed by the early Marx. Intellectual potentialities become fremdes Eigenthum, “estranged property,” and they do so through a process of separation. But if the process of separation analyzed here includes phenomena that may be described in terms of estrangement or alienation, it is also irreducible to those concepts. Why? Because it not only separates intellectual potentialities from the worker as estranged property, it also designates separation within the labor process itself, separation between its material components, between commodity lines, between productive tasks and activities. That is to say, the process of production is a process of separation which not only involves the separation of unitary powers from the worker but also the articulated distribution of these powers within “the whole body of social labor.” Put otherwise, we must consider the process of separation not only from the side of labor but also from the side of capital, not only in terms of the labor process but also in terms of the valorization process. It is only insofar as we do so that we can understand Marx’s historical analysis of the division of labor on the terms suggested by the title of Part IV of Capital: as an account of the production of relative surplus value. That is a level of theoretical abstraction that the conceptual affordances of “estrangement” and “alienation” can never attain, and it is at the core of the practice of immanent critique developed by Marx. To conceive the division of labor as a process of separation not only alienating workers from their own powers but also enabling the production of relative surplus value is emblematic of the conceptual leap, the epistemological break, between the level of analysis we find in the 1844 manuscripts and the mature critical theory we find in Capital.

Conceptualizing the production of relative surplus value is particularly central to Marx’s systematic analysis in Capital for several reasons:

1. It overcomes (or at least historically displaces) the contradiction between the expanding extraction of absolute surplus value and the lived requirements for the reproduction of labor power that is characteristic of the early period capitalist development.

2. It encompasses the theoretical transition between formal and real subsumption, which is fundamental to understanding the history of capitalism (and thus of modernity).

3. It links a history of the development of modern technology with a theory of the extraction of surplus value.

4. It implies a determination of necessary labor time specific to the capitalist mode of production.

5. It prepares the ground for an account of the structural limits of rising profit rates, by establishing a conceptual basis for understanding the rising organic composition of capital.

In correspondence with each of these components of the theory of relative surplus value, we may note it is the Scheidungsprozess of the division of labor that (1) enables limits upon the length of the working day to be overcome by rising productivity; (2) transforms the labor process in accordance with the competitive demands of capitalist valorization; (3) requires the development of new technologies and managerial techniques concentrating the “intellectual potentialities” surrendered by the specialized worker; (4) reconstitutes the temporal determination of the labor process as a function of technological capacity, managerial innovation, and supervisory discipline, thus transforming the lived experience of the labor process in accordance with the subsumption of its organization by the requirements of valorization; (5) involves tendentially rising investment in constant capital relative to variable capital, and thus a secular contradiction within the process of accumulation between the production of surplus value drawn from variable capital and the competitive necessity of proportionally declining allocation of variable capital. It is the temporal, processual character of the Scheidungsprozess theorized by Marx that enables the concentration of necessary labor time at the level of the working day to be linked—within a single concept—to a historical dynamic enfolding the contradictions of capital into the movement of subsumption and, eventually, declining profit rates.

The fact that the capitalist mode of production, considered as a globally distributed system, must produce relative surplus value from that part of capital—its variable component—which the production of relative surplus value also tends to proportionally diminish is the fundamental contradiction which may itself be conceived as a process of separation. Capital is itself tendentially separated from the conditions of possibility for its increasing rate of accumulation (through its concentration in constant capital). The division of labor (the transformation of the labor process requisite for the production of relative surplus value) is thus the historical mediation between the process of separation that begins with “primitive accumulation” and the process of separation following from structural impasses encountered by capitalism subsequent to the dynamism of real subsumption.


In a particularly famous passage, Marx defines primitive accumulation, like the division of labor, as a process of separation:

The capital-relation presupposes a complete separation (Scheidung) between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labor. As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet, it not only maintains this separation (Scheidung), but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale. The process, therefore, which creates the capital-relation can be nothing other than the process which divorces (Scheidungsprozess) the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his own labor; it is a process which operates two transformations, whereby the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage laborers. So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing (historische Scheidungsprozess) the producer from the means of production.11

Familiar as this passage may be, the Fowkes translation partially obscures Marx’s terminological consistency—particularly insofar as Scheidungsprozess is translated in Chapter 14 as “process of separation” and here as “process which divorces” or “process of divorcing.” That is, the English translation does not treat the term as a technical concept, whereas the German offers a basis for doing so. Primitive accumulation is defined as a historical process of separation between producer and means of production, labor and property, which produces capital, on the one hand, and wage laborers, on the other. Again, we see that it is the concept of separation that mediates between the initial conditions of possibility for the capitalist labor process (wage laborers) and for the capitalist valorization process (capital). Marx’s technical usage of the term Scheidungsprozess becomes crucial if we consider that a historical process of separation first distinguishes Verwertungsprozess (valorization process) from Arbeitsprozess (labor process) and then—as we learn in the chapter on the division of labor—transforms the Arbeitsprozess in accordance with the exigencies of the Verwertungsprozess. The Scheidungsprozess is (1) the empirically studied history through which this double mediation takes place and (2) the rationally determined concept formalizing the dialectical logic of this double mediation: the relation of distinction and unity upon which the capitalist integration of the labor process with the valorization process relies. In the German text, the two uses of Scheidung in the first half of the preceding passage are thus not only conceptually but also terminologically consistent with the Scheidungsprozess described in the second half. The capital-relation presupposes a separation that it maintains and reproduces on a constantly expanding scale. The term Scheidungsprozess offers a temporal concept through which to grasp, in its unity, this historical movement from presupposition to maintenance and expanding reproduction. And it is only when we link the Scheidungprozess of primitive accumulation with the Scheidungsprozess of the division of labor—and thus the production of relative surplus value—that we can understand how separation is not only maintained but expanded through the subsumption of Arbeitsprozess by Verwertungsprozess.

Conceptually, this may be familiar territory: we know that the separation of workers from the means of production is redoubled and amplified by the division of labor. What I want to emphasize is the terminological consistency of Marx’s vocabulary in theorizing the relation between a process of separation, a labor process, and a valorization process. My point is that this terminological consistency confers a dialectical unity of history and concept that is other wise recessed in Marx’s exposition: the technical status of the term “separation” goes missing when its processual and thus historical usage is inconsistently translated.

The technical status of this term, as it bears upon the theory of primitive accumulation, is also at issue in differences between editions of Das Kapital. The original 1867 and the revised 1872 editions both include a passage (immediately following the one analyzed above) in which Marx twice deploys the term Scheidungsprozess to characterize “a double-sided series” that “encompasses the entire developmental history of modern bourgeois society.” This passage is absent from the 1890 edition, revised by Engels (which is the edition translated by Fowkes):

Man sieht auf den ersten Blick, dass dieser Scheidungsprozess eine ganze Reihe historischer Prozesse einschliesst, und eine doppelseitige Reihe, einerseits Auflösung der Verhältnisse, die den Arbeiter selbst zum Eigenthum dritter Personen machen und zu einem selbst angeeigneten Produktionsmittel, andererseits Auflösung des Eigenthums der unmittelbaren Produzenten an ihren Produktionsmitteln. Der Scheidungsprozess umfasst also in der That die ganze Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen bürgerlichen Gesellschaft …12

This might be translated as follows:

We see at first glance that this process of separation includes a whole series of historical processes, and a double-sided series: on the one hand, the dissolution of those circumstances in which the worker himself was made property of a third party and appropriated for himself the means of production; and on the other hand, the dissolution of the property held by direct producers in their means of production. Indeed, the process of separation thus includes the whole developmental history of modern bourgeois society …13

We can see here that the technical usage of the term Scheidungsprozess is central to Marx’s understanding of primitive accumulation as a double-sided series of historical processes. This is a double-sided series that will produce the ironic “double freedom” of the proletariat (freedom from ownership of the means of production and thus freedom to sell their labor), as well as the double-sided system coordinating labor process and valorization process.


Bearing in mind that the same processual vocabulary is used by Marx to theorize “the whole developmental history of modern bourgeois society” and to theorize the division of labor that transforms the labor process within that society, we can emphasize that the term Scheidungsprozess conceptually specifies both the constitution of capitalist relations of production and the transformation of the process of production (the division of labor). We can then return to Marx’s assertion that “The division of labor converts the product of labor into a commodity, and thereby makes necessary its conversion into money.”14 It is not only the case that “not an atom of matter” is contained in the value of a commodity because its value is constituted by average socially necessary labor time, but also because socially necessary labor is itself constituted, as a measure of value, by a process of separation. That is, the commodity form is immaterial not only because the substance of its value is time, but because the specifically historical form of time particular to capital is determined not as a substance, but rather as a process of separation. Form and history are here conjoined by a single term, Scheidungsprocess, that “converts the product of labor into a commodity and thereby makes necessary its conversion into money.”

Moreover, the capitalist constitution of the money commodity is itself conceptualized by Marx as a Scheidungsprozess in his first usage of that term in Capital (the only usage prior to the passage on the division of labor in Chapter 14):

The only difference, therefore, between coin and bullion lies in their physical configuration, and gold can at any time pass from one form to the other. For a coin, the road from the mint is also the path to the melting pot. In the course of circulation, coins wear down, some to a greater extent, some to a lesser. The denomination of the gold and its substance, the nominal content and the real content, begin to move apart [beginnen ihren Scheidungsprozess].15

Whereas Marx earlier makes the historically contingent assumption “that gold is the money commodity, for the sake of simplicity,” the process of separation by which the denomination of the gold and its substance become distinct presages the potential abstraction of the money commodity from any particular substance. More important, we can relate the process of separation by which the nominal value of money is separated from its substance to the process of separation that lies behind the immateriality of the commodity form itself, the immaterial determination of its value. Marx tells us that “Money as a measure of value is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labor-time.”16 This immanence of labor-time in commodities, as the measure of their value whose form of appearance is money, has for its own immanent determination the process of separation that both inaugurates relations of production in which the products of labor are separated from direct producers and a process of production in which the division of labor separates productive capacities and commodity lines that must be exchanged for money. It is this double process of separation that both constitutes the social conditions for the determination of value by socially necessary labor time and the social capacities of production that determine the socially necessary labor time for the production of any given commodity. Labor-time is the measure of value immanent in commodities, but at the core of that measure we find not the only the immateriality of time, but of history: a process of separation moving from primitive accumulation through the division of labor and immanent to the commodity form and the symbolic value of money through which commodities are exchanged. Yet this immateriality of separation—a non-reifiable process—is also woven through every fiber of the material texture of the history of modernity. What is separated is material; separation is immaterial: the dialectical unity of this distinction is a process of separation. The process of separation is the material, historical genesis and reproduction of the abstract forms of value, commodity, and exchange.


In a key passage of the Grundrisse, we find the terminology of separation conjoined with that of alienation in a vertiginous dialectic passing through many of Marx’s major categories in the space of two sentences:

The independent, for-itself existence of value vis-à-vis living labor capacity—hence its existence as capital—the objective, self-sufficient indifference, the alien quality [Fremdheit] of the objective conditions of labor vis-à-vis living labor capacity, which goes so far that these conditions confront the person of the worker in the person of the capitalist—as personification with its own will and interest—this absolute divorce, separation [Scheidung, Trennung] of property, i.e. of the objective conditions of labor from living labor capacity—that they confront him as alien property [fremdes Eigentum], as the reality of other juridical persons, as the absolute realm of their will—and that labor therefore, on the other side, appears as alien labor [fremde Arbeit] opposed to the value personified in the capitalist, or the conditions of labor—this absolute separation [Trennung] between property and labor, between living labor capacity and the conditions of its realization, between objectified and living labor, between value and value creating-activity—hence also the alien quality [fremdheit] of the content of labor for the worker himself—this divorce [Scheidung] now likewise appears as a product of labor itself, as objectification of its own moments. For, in the new act of production itself—which merely confirmed the exchange between capital and living labor which preceded it—surplus labor, and hence the surplus product, the total product of labor in general (of surplus labor as well as necessary labor), has now been posited as capital, as independent and indifferent towards living labor capacity, or as exchange value which confronts its mere use value.17

Here we find the language of alienation or estrangement used to describe the “alien quality” (fremdheit) of property (fremdes Eigentum) and of labor (fremde Arbeit) as the result of their separation. That which is alienated appears on both sides of an “absolute separation” between property and labor, labor power and the conditions of its realization, objectified and living labor (thus constant and variable capital), value and value creating activity. This separation is both presupposition and product of labor, positing capital as independent of labor power or as exchange value which confronts use value. In this passage, the terms Scheidung and Trennung are used interchangeably to denote the same concept, translated as “divorce” and “separation,” passing through the categories of the analysis so fluently as to constitute something of a meta-concept signifying the historical/methodological dialectic mobilized by Marx to move perpetually between the abstract and concrete registers of his theory, fusing them into an immanent critique adequate to both an understanding of the labor process and the valorization process.

In a passage like this, it becomes clear that the process of separation is both what is studied and the way in which it is studied. It is both an empirical discovery and a rational method. However closely related the terms may be, the same cannot be said of “alienation.” As the result of a process of separation, alienation is an aspect of what is analyzed, but it cannot become a method of analysis. The process of separation is what Marx discovers in the history of modernity and it is the method of critique he applies to his discovery: it is historical dialectic mobilized as immanent critique, history seized as techne.

To recapitulate our progress thus far in terms of Marx’s processual vocabulary: the Scheidungsprozess through which capitalist relations of production are constituted distinguishes the labor process (Arbeitsprozess) from the valorization process (Verwertungsprozess). This split requires a division of labor that can sustain the valorization process, and this division of labor constitutes the product of labor as a commodity requiring a process of exchange (Austaus-chprozess) mediated by money. The realization through exchange of the surplus value embedded in commodities by surplus labor time re-enters the process of production (Produktionsprozess) as capital, and the expanding reproduction of this valorization of capital is a process of accumulation (Accumulationsprozess). Considered as together, the system of these processes may be taken as an overall process of separation passing through intertwining levels of its articulation:

separation of labor from property

separation of producer from product

separation of process of production (division of labor as Scheidungsprozess)

separation of use value from exchange value

separation of value of commodity from its material constitution

separation of value from value-creating activity

separation of objectified labor from living labor

separation of capital from labor

The articulated system of these separations is integrated into a social process of production, but it is their integration as separate that renders this “a system of all-round material dependence.”18 However, in order to understand why we should consider this system, overall, as a process of separation rather than a process of integration we have to understand not only its genesis and development but also its historical trajectory. This is a trajectory through which both capital and labor will come to be separated not only from each other but also from themselves—through which the each will become separated from the conditions of possibility for their separated integration. That is, each will be tendentially separated from the conditions of possibility for their reproduction within a “system of all-round material dependence.”

We can say that the division of labor is the historical crux through which the process of separation becomes a dialectic of separation. The separation of property and labor establishes the conditions of possibility for the development of the commodity form. The division of labor realizes those conditions of possibility, integrating the separation of exchange value and use value into a social system of all-round material dependence. In doing so, it displaces the contradictions attendant upon the extraction of absolute surplus value through the tendentially increasing extraction of relative surplus value. But, again, this movement produces new contradictions within the history of the capitalist mode of production, as it requires a redistribution of capital from investment in its variable component to proportionally increasing investment in its constant component. This tendential redistribution of capital, as it continually reenters the production process, transforming it in accordance with competitive exigencies, results in the massive growth of productivity and profits from the early nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, yet it also results in two long-term tendencies that will only bear themselves out after the dynamic phase of real subsumption has run its course: the tendency of capital to throw off labor and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This movement—from primitive accumulation, through the division of labor, and toward declining profit rates and the production of surplus populations—is a dialectic of separation insofar as it entails a reversal of its process: from the integration of labor and property into the capitalist mode of production through their initial separation and mutual dependency, we move toward a separation of this integration itself, such that proletarians are tendentially separated from labor, while capital is tendentially separated from valorization.

Marx’s analysis of this dialectic of separation, the movements of negation and contradiction bound up with its process, is at the core of his work as both a historical and a speculative thinker. In Capital, the mediation of the relationship between history and speculation is critique: an exposure of the incapacity of political economy to understand the contradictory character of capitalist accumulation, and of capitalism itself to manage the contradictions of its dynamism. Marx’s analysis is a speculative critique insofar as the critical dimension of his thought—its dialectical reckoning with contradiction—propels its speculative conclusions. That is, these speculative conclusions are not dogmatic but critical, and what I am arguing here is that the techne of this conjunction of critique and speculation is the analytic of separation, an analysis of the process of separation that is capable of following its progression through the reversal of its dynamism, capable of unifying the conceptual structure of this reversal with its historical consequences. This is a practice of what I call rationalist empiricism: the development of a system of concepts rationally adequate to the empirical study not only of historical phenomena, but of the non-phenomenal abstractions with which they are entwined. What I am calling the analytic of separation is what draws together these empirical and rational, concrete and abstract dimensions of Marx’s theory in a manner traversing not only his major concepts, but also the major phases of the historical trajectory he analyzes through its formidable indirections, its dialectical reversals.


We can trace the development of the category of the proletariat as a key example of such reversal—and also of how the analytic of separation enables the critique of political economy to go beyond Marx’s own articulation of its parameters, allowing Marxism to develop an internal critique of its own methodological and political history.19

In The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx offers the following definition of the proletariat: “the proletariat is the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live.”20 This apparently static definition of the proletariat as “the class of modern wage laborers” also implies a processual dimension evident in its closing phrase, “in order to live.” This phrase entails a basic relation between production and reproduction that is at the core of modern wage labor: because proletarians cannot directly produce their own means of subsistence, they must sell their labor power in order to reproduce their existence. But if this relation between production and reproduction serves to define wage labor (the wage mediates the relation), it also unsettles the stability and self-sufficiency of the definition of the proletariat as “the class of modern wage laborers.” On the one hand, it will turn out that in reproducing its own existence as a class of wage laborers the proletariat also produces a tendency toward the non-reproduction of wage labor. And, on the other hand, it will turn out that the reproduction of the proletariat as a class is not only dependent on wage labor itself, but also on unwaged labor, paid and unpaid work, and thus upon divisions within the constitution of the “working class” at the very inception of its determination as “the proletariat.”

Emphasizing the processual dimension of reproduction at the core of Marx’s theory of class, Aaron Benanav and John Clegg refer to the proletariat as “a class in transition,” highlighting this element of Marx’s definition in Chapter 25 of Capital: “Proletariat,” Marx writes, “Must be understood to mean, economically speaking, nothing other than ‘wage-laborer,’ the man who produces and valorizes ‘capital,’ and is thrown onto the street as soon as he becomes superfluous to the need for valorization.”21 Here the wage laborer is defined not as he who reproduces his own existence through the wage but as he who produces and valorizes capital, and it is precisely this which renders his existence potentially disposable for capital: as soon as his labor is not required for valorization, he is thrown into the street. Understood in terms of the tendential shift bound up with the dynamic of real subsumption—from absolute to relative surplus value, and thus from investment in variable to constant capital—the proletariat is grasped here as a class in historical contradiction with its own existence: as a class that, by working, tends to produce its own exclusion from work. What Marx calls “the general law of capitalist accumulation”22 is that “the working population … produces both the accumulation of capital and the means by which it is itself made relatively superfluous, and it does this to an extent which is always increasing.”23 The history of the proletariat is the transformation of the working class into a class which is not working, the auto-separation of the proletariat, through its own productive activity, from its reproduction as the “working class.” To conceptualize the proletariat as “a class in transition” is to understand it as this transformation: not as a synchronically stable social group, but as a diachronic, dialectical transition from class constitution to deconstitution. What Théorie Communiste calls a “crisis of reproduction” is proper to the late stage of this transition, in which the technological and managerial innovations requisite for real subsumption have rendered living labor relatively superfluous (relative, that is, to the dynamic expansion of the working class circa 1850–1950). That is, the non-reproduction of the proletariat looms as both an impossibility for capital and as a historical tendency of capital.

Much earlier, however, in the very process of its initial constitution, the category of the proletariat is already riven by internal contradictions that divide “the working class” from its determination by the wage even as it is determined as “the class of wage laborers.” Marx theorizes primitive accumulation as a process of separation dividing the worker from the means of production, such that “immediate producers are turned into wage laborers.”24 Yet Sylvia Federici notes that “primitive accumulation … was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.”25 Such an account requires us to complicate further the Scheidungsprozess of primitive accumulation theorized by Marx. If Marx theorizes capitalist class constitution as a double process of separation in which owners of the means of production are separated from production, and producers are separated from ownership of the means of production, then Federici presses us to recognize, as concomitant with the development of wage labor, a separation of workers from the wage that is constitutive of “the formation of the modern proletariat.”

While Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation focuses upon the production of landless wage laborers through expropriation, Federici focuses upon the conditions of possibility for the production and reproduction of labor power itself, and thus upon the subjugation of women’s labor and women’s reproductive function that was essential to the formation and maintenance of the “working class.” This subjugation involved the exclusion of women from waged work, and thus the construction of a new patriarchal order based upon the mediation of access to the wage through men. In particular, Federici argues that the construction of this new patriarchy was predicated upon the violent disciplining of women’s bodies and forms of collective life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in order to enforce a new sexual division of labor and confine women to reproductive work.26 Thus, Federici treats gender as a specification of class relations, arguing that the term “women” “signifies not just a hidden history that needs to be made visible; but a particular form of exploitation and, there fore, a unique perspective from which to reconsider the history of capitalist relations.”27

The point I want to hold onto here is that the process of primitive accumulation produces different forms of exploitation, in a technical sense: not only exploitation through the direct extraction of surplus value from wage labor, but also the dependency of wage labor in general upon the unwaged exploitation of reproductive labor in the home, as well as the unwaged exploitation of slave labor. What this means is that the proletariat is internally separated from itself, in the first instance: the very process of its class constitution—separation from the means of production—is also the process of its internal separation, such that the creation of the contradiction between capital and labor is also the creation of internal contradictions and inequalities within the proletariat itself, corresponding to different forms of exploitation structuring the relation of different laboring bodies to capitalist accumulation.

In The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker argue that “the emphasis in modern labor history on the white, male, skilled, waged, nationalist, propertied artisan/citizen or industrial worker has hidden the history of the Atlantic proletariat of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries.”28 This proletariat, they argue, was anonymous, nameless, female and male, of all ages, mobile, transatlantic, motley and multiethnic, planetary in its origins, motions, and consciousness. It was often unwaged, forced to perform the unpaid labors of capitalism, and indeed, the unpaid labors of the process of primitive accumulation itself. This last point is crucial: the proletarian class is not only constituted as a result of expropriation; rather, the labor of expropriation itself is already performed by unwaged or precarious workers upon whom capitalism will continue to rely, who are intrinsic to the constitution of the proletariat. Referring to those who were known as “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” Linebaugh and Rediker highlight the often forgotten labor of primitive accumulation:

Hewers and drawers performed the fundamental labors of expropriation that have usually been taken for granted by historians. Expropriation itself, for example, is treated as a given: the field is there before the plowing starts; the city is there before the laborer begins the working day. Likewise for long-distance trade: the port is there before the ship sets sail from it; the plantation is there before the slave cultivates its land. The commodities of commerce seem to transport themselves. Finally, reproduction is assumed to be the transhistorical function of the family. The result is that the hewers of wood and drawers of water have been invisible, anonymous, and forgotten, even though they transformed the face of the Earth by building the infrastructure of “civilization.”29

The implication of this argument is that the conditions of possibility for the constitution of a capitalist “working class” are themselves the product of labor by those often excluded from the ranks of “proletarians” (excluded from the wage). But if we consider the proletariat, in the first instance, as a class in transition rather than a class with a stable historical identity, then accounts like those offered by Caliban and the Witch and The Many-Headed Hydra enable us to develop an expanded understanding of the proletariat as that class which is always defined by the reproduction of a separation between waged and unwaged labor. The working class tendentially produces its own superfluity to the wage; it is itself produced by the (often) unwaged labor of expropriation and reproduction. The proletariat is this moving contradiction: this production, reproduction, and delimitation of wage labor by unwaged labor.

To consider the category of the proletariat from this perspective is to consider the division of labor as a Scheidungsprozess both internal and external to the formal account of real subsumption (i.e., the tendentially increasing extraction of relative surplus value) offered by Marx—a process including separation within the wage as well as from the wage. This process relies upon forms of reproductive and unwaged labor which Marx’s analytic of separation implicitly presumes but does not systematically include. Thus, an expanded analytic of separation would attend to the division of labor as a process that not only consolidates a working-class movement as an unintended side-effect of the capitalist factory system but also divides proletarians from such a working-class movement. The genesis of the worker’s movement, and of working-class identity, is concomitant with the exclusion of those who perform unwaged work from that movement, with the fragmentation and negation of that identity.

An expanded analytic of separation—considering the internal differentiation and division of the proletariat by different forms of exploitation—thus has important consequences for the theory of class struggle. For these different forms of exploitation, partially aligned with the modern constitution of such categories as “woman” and “slave,” with gender and with race, return within the workers movement as the problem of what and whom it does not include. Of course, decades of theoretical production at the intersection of Marxism, feminism, and critical race theory have made this argument. The point of restating it here is to position this problematic within the terms of an analytic of separation, as a theoretically necessary expansion of the Scheidungsprozess analyzed by Marx. And this belongs as well to an expansion of the “théorie de l’écart,” the theory of rift, developed by Théorie Communiste and discussed in the previous chap-ter.30 If state repression functions as an external limit imposed upon proletarian struggles, the internal limits of those struggles often involve fragmentations of class cohesion along lines of race and gender. Such fragmentation may be bemoaned and wished away, or affirmed and insisted upon, in polemics against or positive articulations of “identity politics,” but from the perspective of the analytic of separation such fragmentation requires a descriptive rather than normative treatment. That is, such fragmentation is a fact of class struggle because it is a fact of class constitution—part and parcel of the production and reproduction of class cohesion and of working class identity itself. Thus, communist theory requires an analytic approach to such fragmentation situating it not as exterior or supplementary to class, but as part of the historical dialectic through which class struggle is articulated in contradiction with capitalism. “The proletariat” only remains an adequate concept for the articulation of class struggle if that concept includes differential forms of exploitation, and if it is capable of incorporating and accounting for internal divisions by which struggles are thus riven. My suggestion is that the contradictions implicit in such a perspective on class struggle might be integrated into the analytic of separation developed by Marx, which would thus be expanded beyond the purview of Capital. The decompositions and recompositions to which proletarian struggles are prone are conjunctural, contextually specific. Yet they may also be considered from the perspective of—and thus also reflect back upon and revise—a structural theory, rationally articulated, such as the analytic of separation.


The analytic of separation I have tried to theorize and situate within and beyond Marx’s Capital might be understood as a form of rationalist empiricism insofar as it cannot set out from the priority of either theory or history. At one and the same time, it must grasp history theoretically and theory historically. This was the riddle provoking Althusser’s question: How can Marx’s method of analysis be both pre-existent and new? It is because Marx’s theory bears its historical development within the very framework of its rational articulation that it is always subject to historical rearticulation and revision. This is the theoretical peculiarity of historical materialism, through which it both grounds its structural theory and perpetually exposes it to ungrounding. Such a dialectic of un-grounding requires that continual movement between the rational and the empirical we have been studying in different forms. Without any appeal to dogmatism, but rather with an appeal to immanent critique, we may call Marx’s practice of the analytic of separation by the name both he and Althusser also gave to the critique of political economy: “science.” Why should we? Because science is not the name of orthodoxy, of certainty, or of conceptual sufficiency—though it does name the constitution of a conceptual field adequate for systematic investigation. It is the name of that transformation of knowledge that is unanticipated yet systematically adequate, historically contingent yet formally necessary, gradually ungrounded and punctually regrounded, at once open to exceptions and rigorously coherent.

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