This is a thing I’m working on using Agamben, Marx, etc, and the notes I was taking on Servius Tullius etc. Comments welcome.

In this paper I read Giorgio Agamben and Karl Marx in tandem. I read the proletariat in Marx as a figure of what Agamben calls “bare life.” I do so in order to offer the proletariat as another figure of bare life in addition to what Agamben terms
“homo sacer.” My goal is to extend the field within which Agamben’s arguments apply to include the economic sphere. In doing so, I argue for an understanding of the capital relation as such as being biopolitical in Agamben’s sense.

Bare Life

Giorgio Agamben has made the term “bare life” into a central category of his thought. (HS 65.) The term comes from Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” where it appears in German as “bloßes Leben”. This is rendered in Edmund Jephcott’s English translation of Benjamin’s essay as “mere life.” (Benjamin Selected Writings v1 p250.) Bare life is life with no qualities other than its mere being alive.

Bare life is analogous Hegel’s discussion in the Science of Logic of being and nothing. Being qua being has no qualities whatsoever except for its mere being, which is to say, it has no qualities at all. Having no qualities, being is indistinguishable from nothing – since nothing is defined as the absence of all qualities – and thus the category of being passes over into the category of nothing. In this idiom, being can in a sense be considered a becoming-nothing or be considered as always at risk of becoming nothing. [CITE, paragraphs 88 and 89.]

Similarly, Agamben’s bare life is life considered simply in its mere being alive. This is life without any other determinations than being not dead. Life reduced to this condition has very little to separate it from death. It is, pardon the pun, barely not dead. Bare life is thus a becoming-death, that is, dying or the exposure to the risk of dying. This is why Agamben finds the concentration camp as a paradigmatic social and historical site for understanding bare life: the camp attempts to strip life of its determinations, to render it bare. This process of producing bare life is precisely the process of producing death.

While Abamben sees this process operating with horrific efficacy in the concentration camp, Agamben takes this process as central to sovereignty as such: “the production of bare life is the originary form of sovereignty” (83.) Bare life “is the originary political element.” (HS 88.) This is because life “is included in the juridical order solely in the form of its exclusion,” which to say, included solely in terms of “its capacity to be killed.” (HS 8. ) Agamben equivocates, however, writing elsewhere that “bare life (…) is, from the perspective of the sovereign, the originary political element” (HS 90). [ENDNOTE 1.]

For Agamben, bare life is what defines a condition as biopolitical. The biopolitical is defined as politics which calls life into question (HS 8. ), politics where “what is at stake is life” (Agamben quoting Foucault, p7 in Means Without End.) For Agamben, biopolitics is tremendously old, “at least as old as the sovereign exception,” (HS 6) and is coterminous with politics itself, at least in the west: “Western politics first constitutes itself through an exclusion (which is simultaneously an inclusion) of bare life.” (HS 7.) This “production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power.” (HS 6.) “Life exposed to death,” that is, bare life, “is the originary political element.” (HS88.)

Agamben makes a figure of Roman law, homo sacer, into a paradigm for bare life. Homo sacer is a person judged such that they can be killed with impunity but may not be sacrificed: life which does not count as life for legal purposes. (HS, 71.) Agamben cites as a source Sextus Pompeius Festus, who composed a dictionary, the Lexicon of Festus, probably some time in the late second century A.D. (HS 71, “Festus Lexicon Project”, Being so old, the actual legal figure of homo sacer is hard to place in time with any accuracy. I would like to suggest another figure for bare life, also drawn from Roman antiquity: the proletariat.


In approximately 576 B.C., Servius Tullius ascended to power in Rome (Morgan, 323). William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology states, “The most important event connected with the reign of Servius Tullius is the new constitution which he gave to the Roman state.” [CITE] Prior to the Servian Constitution, Rome was organized in units called gens. Lewis Henry Morgan, an American anthropologist read closely by Marx and Engels, writes that the Latin word gens signifies “kin,” and “to beget; thus implying in each an immediate common decent of the members of a gens. (See Marx, Ethnological Notebooks, and Engels, On Family.) A gens, therefore, is a body (…) descended from the same common ancestor,” sharing a common name linked to descent, “and bound together by affinities of blood.” (Morgan, 63.) Several gens would group together “for the performance of religious and governmental functions,” in a grouping called a curia. Several curia formed a tribe, and the sum of the tribe formed the Roman society or people: the Populus Romans. (Morgan, 67.)

Anyone who takes Agamben seriously will immediately raise an eyebrow at an assertion of the idea of a people. For Agamben, any assertion of the unified body of a people is the result of an operation of producing a unity, not a given and actually existing unity. This operation of producing a people always involves exclusion and violence: “where there is a People, there shall be naked life.” (See “What Is A People?” in MWOE.) This was the case in the Populus Romans as well. Outside of the Roman people there accumulated another group: the plebians. Engels writes, “the population of the city of Rome and of the Roman territory [was] enlarged by conquest, [and] increased partly through immigration, partly through the inhabitants of the annexed districts (…) All these new members of the state stood outside of the old gentes, curiae and tribes and so did not form a part of the populus Romans, the Roman people proper. They were personally free, could own land, had to pay taxes, and were subject to military service. But they were (…) excluded from all public rights.” (On Family, 155.)

The plebian’s exclusion political subjugation combined with their property ownership and their military service – that is, their ownership of and experience with weapons – created a volatile situation. It was of “out of the fights between the plebs and the populus,” Engels writes, that the new constitution came about. The Servian constitution broke up the organization of society by gens (Morgan, 335, writes that breaking up the gens was not merely an effect of the Servian constitution but its goal), and created a new social organization based on property and military service. Servius instituted six classes, based on how much property was owned, and thus how much tax was paid. Class rank determined the number of people who served in the military and in what capacity. The number of votes ascribed to each class corresponded to military participation. “The whole arrangement was of a mili­tary character,” as William Smith wrote [CITE]. The lowest class was that of the proletarii. The proletarii did not own property, and thus paid no taxes and did no military service. The proletarii were accorded one vote – out of the 155 total votes allotted in the constitution – and their vote was always cast last. The other institution launched by Servius Tullius was the census, where each person was required to report to the censor assigned to their ward of residence and to provide a statement of their property. (Morgan 336, Smith.) This count of the population was a mechanism for the state to keep track of taxable property and thus eligibility for military service. The proletarii were counted in the census as simply capite censi – heads counted, as in heads of cattle. (Smith.)

This is well and good, but what of Agamben and bare life? Let me explain. Proletariat shares a common etymology with prolific, in the sense of generating more. The Latin word proles means children or offspring. (OED online, entries on proletariat, prolific, proles.) The proletarii “took their name from the fact that they only benefited the State by their children,” that is, their proles. (Smith.) That is, in terms of the Servian constitution of Rome, the proletarii existed only as life which made more of itself and otherwise had no qualities at all. The proletariat is in this sense a figure of bare life, from its Roman origins. The proletarii “do nothing but reproduce their own multiplicity and (…) for this very reason do not deserve to be counted.” (Ranciere, Disagreement 121.) As a result they “live a purely individual life that passes on nothing to posterity except for life itself, reduced to its reproductive function.” (Ranciere, Disagreement, 23.)

Expropriated Proletariat

The proletariat is a figure of bare life in its more recent and Marxist sense as well as in its early appearance in Roman society and law. In his letter to the editorial board of Otechestvennye Zapiski, Marx wrote that:

“[T]he plebeians of ancient Rome (…) were originally free peasants, each cultivating his own piece of land on his own account. In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which divorced them from their means of production and subsistence involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital. And so one fine morning there were to be found on the one hand free men, stripped of everything except their labour power, and on the other, in order to exploit this labour, those who held all the acquired wealth in possession.” (Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road, 134.) [ENDNOTE 2.]

In the Roman context, this expropriation led eventually to the creation of slavery wherein the proletarii were bought and sold all at once. In England much later the expropriation of the peasantry from the land, the processes of enclosure which Marx describes in the primitive accumulation chapters of volume one of Capital. The expropriation of the peasantry was precisely the production of bare life, a biopolitical operation, and Marx’s account of this history is a catalog of power over life rivaling – and eminently compatible with – Foucault at his best. In both cases, the origin of the proletariat is an operation of producing bare life, the proletariat as a figure of bare life. Marx’s calls this beginning of capitalism “so-called primitive accumulation,” [CITE, ch26 of Capital v1] hereafter simply “primitive accumulation.” Primitive accumulation is the production of the conditions under which sellers of labor power encounter buyers of labor power, that is, the production of the proletariat.

The production of the proletariat is accomplished by the violent destruction of other avenues of meeting wants – that is, eliminating the commons via enclosure – followed by a long and lethal period of “bloody legislation” in order to eliminate vagabondage and other responses to the end of the commons. The result of this historical process is the “free and rightless proletariat.” [CITE] This process, involving legislation and extra-legislative action, is precisely a process of producing bare life and thus a political process. That the foundation of capitalism produces bare life means that this foundation is a political event. [ENDNOTE 3.]

Biopolitical Telos

Agnes Heller’s The Theory of Need in Marx can be considered a meditation on the proletariat as bare life. Heller notes that the value of the means of subsistence required to reproduce labor power, from which derives the value of labor power, is bound up with the needs of the worker (24). The needs of the members of the working class appear to capital “as limits of wealth and are analysed as such.” (25.) The needs of the proletariat as a limit to capitalist wealth provides a dynamism to capitalism, as a tendency toward reducing the proletariat to bare life, which is to say, to the edge of death.

As a result, not only is the proletariat bare life at its inception, but there is also a continual drive within capitalism to produce bare life, to reduce the proletariat materially to the edge of death. The proletariat is continually exposed to the threat of death, for, without a wage the proletariat is without access to the means of subsistence and thus subject to death. That this is so can be seen by surveying the history of the proletariat, “written in the annal of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” (Capital v1, 875.)

The value of the commodity labor power, like every other commodity, has its value determined by the value required for its production. This means that the value of the commodity labor power is a function of the cost of the means of subsistence of the owner of labor power, the worker. This is a site of continual struggle between capitalists and workers, wherein workers seek to construct and exercise the power needed to expand the range of what is considered “subsistence” while capitalists seek to reduce this range. The telos of the capitalist reduction is bare life, life which merely subsists qua life. This is so because expenditure for the purchase labor power, variable capital, derived from the needs of the proletariat, is a limit to capitalist wealth, while at the same time being the condition for that wealth. The gap between the productivity of labor in terms of value and the outlay to procure labor power is precisely the differential that is surplus value, the heart of profit and accumulation. This why Agnes Heller writes that the needs of the members of the working class appear to capital “as limits of wealth and are analysed as such” by capitalist political economy. (25.)

When capital is able to reduce the expenditure for variable capital below a certain threshold, workers are able to attend solely to “[p]hysical needs (…) biological needs, which are directed towards maintenance of the mere conditions of life.” These needs can be considered “natural needs”, in that they “refer to the simple maintenance of human life (self-preservation), and are “naturally necessary” simply because, without satisfying them, man is not able to preserve himself as a mere natural being.” (29.) Heller takes these needs as “a limit concept: a limit beyond which human life is no longer reproducible as such, beyond which the limit of bare existence is passed.” (32.) Heller refers to this as an “existential limit to the satisfaction of needs,” beyond which life as life can not be reproduced any longer. (33.) At this point, life is in question in its status as life. That is, it is questionable whether life in this condition will stay alive. This is precisely what is meant by bare life. That this is one tendency of the logic of capital is stated in the complaint of Sir F.M. Eden, quoted by Marx, that wages “were not more than enough for the absolute necessaries of life.” (Eden, quoted by Marx, Capital v1 ch27, p888 in the Penguin ed.)

In his 1844 Manuscripts, Marx quotes Adam Smith noting that competition for wages often served to “reduce the wages of labor to what was barely sufficient to keep up the number of laborers.” [Smith I, p. 84] Marx adds, making the point more clearly: “The surplus population would have to die.”

Marx also quotes Eugene Buret, “Labor is life, and if life is not exchanged every day for food, it suffers and soon perishes. If human life is to be regarded as a commodity, we are forced to admit slavery.” [Eugene Buret, p. 49-50] and “The large industrial towns would quickly lose their population of workers if they did not all the time receive a continual stream of healthy people and fresh blood from the surrounding country areas.” This latter quote suggests that Marx’s beloved metaphor of capital as a vampire can be construed not as simply a rhetorical flourish but also as a comment on the biopolitical nature of the capital relation as such. Buret also describes capitalism as a “war of conquest” (20). Marx adds that “political economy knows the worker only as a beast of burden, as an animal reduced to the minimum bodily needs.” This reduction of the body to its minimum for survival is precisely bare life: thinking of the proletariat as proletariat, as bare life, leads to the production of the proletariat as materially existing bare life, life on the edge of death. It is no surprise that Marx refers to the proletariat being treated as a beast, for animalization – based on the separation of humans from other animals – is an old mechanism for treating some bodies as bare life.

In his Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, ( Marx defines the proletariat as “a class of bourgeois society which is not a class of bourgeois society,” that is, a class which is included and excluded, or included as excluded. Marx also refers to the class as having a “universal character.” (It should be noted that a frequent English translation of this passage is “civil society” rather than “bourgeois society.” Marx’s term in German is “bürgerlichen Gesellschaft.” “Bürgerlichen” means bourgeois, in addition other connotations as well. Thus bourgeois society is one of the determinations referred to by the term. See here for the german The engine for the proletariat’s sale of its labor power is precisely that its existence is at stake: “it is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject” (

I referred above to what Marx calls the “free and rightless proletariat.” In German Marx’s term for “free and rightless” is “vogelfreie.” Marx’s translator Ben Fowkes gives the following note at the beginning of chapter 28, one of the chapters on primitive accumulation,“Marx uses the word ‘vogelfrei’, literally ‘as free as a bird’, i.e. free but outside the human community and therefore entirely unprotected and without legal rights.” (896.) The vogelfreie proletariat is a figure of bare life, included as excluded. The proletariat can be seen as lacking the right to have rights in relation to the capitalist, such that in dealing with the capitalist “force decides.” (C 344.) The ‘vogelfreie Proletariat’ is life which is outside the bounds of the human community, bounds which are always political, while being simultaneously and by virtue of this exclusion also included in a subordinate position within the material organization of the polis. [ENDNOTE 4.]

(Bio)Political Economy

Thus far, I’ve provided a litany of quotes with a refrain that the proletariat is a form of bare life. Here are the stakes of my argument. For Agamben, bare life is political, is a political effect or political product. The process of production of bare life is a political process. This means that the separation between the political and the economic is problematic for the entire history of the capital relation. As Agamben writes, “poverty and exclusion are not only economic and social concepts but also eminently political categories.” (MWOE 33) The capitalist economy is literally a political economy. As Schmitt writes, “domination (…) based upon pure economics” is “a terrible deception if, by remaining nonpolitical, it thereby evades political responsibility and visibility.” (COTP 77.) The political quality of the capitalist economy is abundantly clear if one takes class struggle as the point of departure. Again, to quote Schmitt: “the possessor of economic power would consider every attempt to change its power position by extra-economic means as violence and crime.” (COTP 77) Thus, “[w]hen the exploited (…) defend themselves (…) they cannot do so by economic means” (COTP 77) for any attempt to escape “from the effects of such “peaceful” methods is considered (…) as extra-economic power.” (COTP 78) As such, it doesn’t make sense to talk about any narrowing of the difference between the political and the economic occurring in the present. This also undercuts the political vs economic struggle debate which occupied much energy in the Second International. (See for example Sergio Bologna’s essay “Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origins of the Workers’ Council Movement,” especially the second half entitled “The Theoretical Discussion in the International Working-Class Movement”. Bologna notes that for many workers on shop floors “politics was a power relation with the boss.”

Furthermore, for Agamben bare life and its production is a biopolitical matter. This means that there using Agamben as a lens, it is not the case that there is a biopolitical stage of capitalism which can be identified as distinct from a non-biopolitical stage of capitalism. Capitalism is biopolitical as such. In capitalism, political economy is biopolitical economy. As Agamben writes, “[t]he economism and “socialism” that seem to dominate modern politics actually have a political, or, rather, a biopolitical meaning.” (MWOE 33) Carl Schmitt expressed this sentiment when he wrote that “[t]he economically functioning society possesses sufficient means to neutralize nonviolently, in a “peaceful” fashion, those economic competitors who are inferior, unsuccessful, or mere “perturbers.” Concretely speaking, this implies that the competitor will be left to starve if he does not voluntarily accommodate himself.” (COTP 48.) The condition of being proletarian as such is thus biopolitical in the senses which Agamben gives the term.


1. This change of inflection is indicative of a decided Schmittian tension in Agamben’s work as a whole, namely the tension between the coincidence or noncoincidence of the political and sovereignty.

2. This passage and the book it appears in are neglected resources for readings of Marx like the aleatory materialism which late Althusser sees in the primitive accumulation chapters, and the antagonistic political Marx which Negri sees in the Grundrisse. See POE and MBM respectively.

3. In my paper “A Biopolitical Stage of Capitalism?”, forthcoming in Critical Sense, I discuss Marx’s categories of primitive accumulation and simple circulation, as applied to labor power as a commodity, at some length. The argument in that paper is that these categories and the social relations and historical processes which they name are already biopolitical categories in the sense which Antonio Negri gives to the term “biopolitics.” As such, Negri’s identification of postfordism as biopolitical – and, by implication, fordism as non-biopolitical – does not bear scrutiny. I will not spend much time on these issues here, but they are part of what drives the present inquiry. There are three additional lines of inquiry that I would like to eventually pursue here. First, the comparison of Marx’s writings on primitive accumulation, as a set of processes – legal, illegal, and in a zone of indistinction between legal and illegal – with Agamben’s work on Schmitt and the concept and practice of the state of exception. Capitalism arises in and via exceptional circumstances, and maintains itself through and via exceptional circumstances. Second, Agamben’s work on Benjamin and the relationships between violence and law could also be fruitfully compared with Marx. This raises questions about the relationship between sovereignty and economic power, politics, law and the economy, which bear on some of my remarks below, and which are also key questions in Marx’s research on Russia and on anthropology. Third, Agamben’s passing reference to the relationship between the power of the sovereign and the power of the male head of household could be productively read alongside Silvia Federici’s work on the gendered dimensions of primitive accumulation in her excellent Caliban and the Witch. This last would open space for a marxist-feminist discussion of the particularly biopolitical aspects of reproductive labor implied within the Roman understanding of the proletarii as the class which only breeds. HS 87-89, I am grateful to Colin McQuillan for pointing out this reference to the father. See his essay, “The Political Life in Giorgio Agamben,” McQuillan argues that Agamben helps open an investigation into “a political life freed from sovereign power.” It is precisely this issue, the equation (or inscription) of political life with (or within the field of) sovereign power, particularly as it recurs within the Marxist tradition, that makes Agamben’s work compelling to me.

4. Since drafting this paper, I have found additional references that bears mention for future revisions or inquiry. In The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson offers two quotes from early 19th century radical trade unionists John Wade and John Gast. Wade wrote, that “[i]t is by trading in the blood of the journeymen and labourers of England that our merchants have derived their riches, and the country its glory.” (Thompson, 772.) Gast wrote that Malthus and Malthusians with their emphasis on population and birthrates would “reduce the whole matter [of the conditions of the working class] to a question between Mechanics and their sweethearts and wives” instead of “a question between the employed and their employer.” (Thompson, 777.) This also suggests two avenues of inquiry. One is an inquiry into figures other than Marx who analyzed and wrote against the early capitalist system, some of whom Marx drew upon. Jacques Ranciere’s work The Philosopher and His Poor is an important resource for this project. The second is an extended inquiry into Marx, these other figures, and early political economists as commentators on – and in some cases, as with Malthus, exponents of – a certain biopolitics. These comments often occur using the metaphor of blood, as for example in the Gast quote already reference and Marx’s reference to textile capitalists “spinning silk 10 hours a day out of the blood of little children” and their “coining of children’s blood into capital”. Marx also refers to a view “current among the Roman patricians. The money they had advanced to the plebeian debtor had been transformed via the means of subsistence into the flesh and blood of the debtor. This ‘flesh and blood’ were, therefore, ‘their money.'” (Capital v1, ch 10) This view links up with my discussion of the proletarii. Marx again:”A great deal of capital, which appears to-day in the United States without any certificate of birth, was yesterday, in England, the capitalised blood of children.” “If money, According to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt. (Capital, v1, ch 31. Marx attributes the quote to Marie Angier: “Du Crédit Public.” Paris, 1842)

(Note to self, return to these notes above and to these notes.)