What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?
by James Livingston
Well, duh, or rather, Exactly! But that hypotactical bridge of “thus” leads nowhere this time, except toward the existential crisis of the master as explained by Hegel, then Freud. For the question of periodization—which is nothing more or less than the question of capitalism—arises here in the 19th century, at the moment of modern historical consciousness, when the identity of capital and labor under slavery begins to look anomalous if not unusual because “man as man” is assumed to be free, when masters, slaves, and servants part company, when the commodity form seems to have exceeded its proper bounds, and this according to the usual suspects, the fabulists and the philosophers, the romantic poets and the German Idealists and the left Hegelians, among whom we number the young Marx.
But in typical academic fashion I have left the primary suspect out of the lineup. That would be “the people,” who became the subject of History by making it. The people themselves objected to the identity of capital and labor—workers themselves, slave and free, refused to be priced as mere commodities. Hegel didn’t conjure the master-slave dialectic only as an answer to Adam Smith’s empiricism, or merely as a way of getting metaphysical about Napoleon’s victory at the battle of Jena. As Susan Buck-Morss suggests, he wrote that famous section of The Phenomenology as a close, astonished reader of the other French Revolution, the one Touissant L’Ouverture led in San Domingo—the great servile insurrection that was inconceivable because slaves were, by definition, incapable of deciding their own destiny. Continue reading