‘Earthly Plenitudes: A Study on Sovereignty and Labor’ reviewed by A F Pomeroy

Earthly Plenitudes: A Study on Sovereignty and Labor

Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2016. 200pp., £24.99 pb
ISBN 9781592139804

Reviewed by A F Pomeroy

About the reviewer

Anne F. Pomeroy is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Richard Stockton College, Galloway, NJ. She …


Bruno Gullì’s first book, Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor between Economy and Culture (2005), served as a corrective to certain incomplete notions regarding what Marx means when he uses the term “labor”. Through careful study of the Marxian cannon (later as well as earlier works), Gullì documented that “labor”, used as a universal ontological concept, is central to the critique of the exploited and alienated form it takes within capitalism, and a crucial element in envisioning the human project beyond capitalism. This opening salvo placed Gullì firmly within the Marxist Humanist tradition. Of his second book, Gullì says “I think of Earthly Plenitudes as of a sequel to Labor of Fire” (xvii) . The Marxian ontology developed in Labor of Fire is further developed in Earthly Plenitudes: A Study on Sovereignty and Labor (2010, reprinted 2016), as the “dignity of individuation” (xiv), and it is this notion that becomes the basis of the critiques of sovereignty and productivity that emerge as the central foci of the work.

Gullì first describes the ontological condition of being human, the “dignity of individuation”, by drawing upon the descriptions of the new association in the Communist Manifesto: the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (3). The mode of life that is the developed social world is constituted by acts of mutually interdependent individuation, and although the focus is upon the singularity, drawing upon Jean Luc Nancy, Gullì maintains that the value of the individual indeed has “a plurality of origins” and comes to specificity as a unique self-made expression of the totality (6). The ontology expresses both what is good, enabling such development, and through it what is just. Therefore, as Gullì notes, “justice is not simply an instrument whereby a world … can be brought about. Justice is that world’s very configuration” (7). The common and universal, the ontological structure and its movement, is the ground of the human work to establish the configuration that supports the dignity of individuation and, justice is that potential configuration.

However, the capitalist mode of social relations necessarily harnesses and transforms individuals’ creative potential for private profit. Therefore, a hegemonic sovereign power becomes necessary. According to Gullì, the power established by sovereignty encodes as law (makes to appear just), the violence needed to enforce the upbraiding of the cooperative mutuality that is the ontological good (14). True justice, the social configuration supporting the dignity of individuation, unfolds initially from a “labor” (transformative activity) that upsets sovereign power. The dignity given to individuation is the antithesis of sovereignty and therefore, any attempts to enact the labor of justice require a unequivocal rejection and overturning of sovereignty (25).

Gullì uses the work of Jacques Maritain to determine that any legitimate concept of sovereignty requires some kind of real ontological distinction between the sovereign power and those over whom such power is held. Therefore, what may be sensible in the theological context, God as the transcendent Absolute Other and sovereign, becomes irrational when transferred to the secular realm, for ontologically no portion of humanity transcends any other portion. Nor can such absolute authority be transferred to anyone from God as that individual would necessarily be made transcendent and so ontologically removed from humanity. From this no human sovereignty can be established (47-57).

Gullì concludes that the Hobbesian arguments of Carl Schmitt are invalid because irrational. Whereas Schmitt wants to claim that a sovereign power is necessary to decision making for exceptional cases, Gullì argues that the presumption of sovereignty bestows the power to decide what counts as an exception. He concludes, “The state of exception from Auschwitz and Hiroshima to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, proves to be outside the political, in the realm that belongs to violence, cruelty, gangsterism, and criminal justice” (43). The sovereignty whose power has no rational validity will, as Walter Benjamin indicates, need to establish and maintain itself through violence (39).

Though Bataille holds that the problem lies not with sovereignty per se but with the servility it demands, Gullì indicates that Bataille’s “self-sovereign” individual is both too solitary and too passive, predominately consumptive and not productive. However, there is a creative human capacity that, freed from capitalist modes of production, can be socially useful without being servile, but Bataille throws the useful baby out with the servile bathwater, so to speak. Gullì concludes that the primary justifications for sovereignty are flawed. (71-91)

The real purpose of sovereignty is to enforce the hierarchical social order and capitalist exploitation. The work of its laws are unjust because ontologically destructive and unjustifiable, and therefore must function by way of repression and violence. The true work of justice is to realize the potential arrangements that allow the self to realize both its singularity and its universality in the other – to nurture the dignity of individuation.

Sovereignty establishes hierarchical power and violence as a cultural norm. In the second part of Earthly Plenitudes Gullì examines two examples of the operation of hegemonic power in relation to productivity: contingent academic labor and disability.

The super-exploitation of contingent faculty in colleges and universities violates principles of self-determination, freedom of association, minimal life security, and the ability to develop one’s potential. Adjunct faculty are employed under conditions that create layered insecurities: economic, personal, and professional. Insecurity ensures compliance under conditions of exploitation. Therefore, Gullì concludes that the “relative surplus population” of contingent labor (academic or otherwise), serves as a prime example of the operation of sovereign domination (95-107).

Gullì moves from the floating and latent working population to those who are seen as beyond the margins, useless because they will never be “productive” – the severely disabled. Held in dis-regard, they disappear behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance – non-persons. “Disability, “ Gullì says, “must become the measure of humanity” (145). Surely the manner in which the severely disabled are treated in society is, perhaps sickeningly, the measure of our humanity but in another sense our humanity is revealed to us through disability. Disability reveals the truth of humanity, for it reveals dependency.

One of the most interesting moves in Earthly Plenitudes is here. Having aligned himself with those who fall beyond the limits of capitalism’s measure of humanity, Gullì turns to Eva Kittay’s discussion of dependency as the human condition, and the work (labor) of care as the necessary relation given that condition. The turn is unexpected yet thoroughly appropriate. Kittay’s work reveals dependency, the truth of human lives, to be covered over by the mythologies of the independent, self-sufficient, productive “man”, denizen of the public realm. Hidden behind him is the private space where “women” carry out the work of care – the messy work of nurturing the bodies and spirits of “real”, dependent persons. We are not what capitalism would have us be, for each and every person moves through the moments of a life as through varying degrees of dependency. Surely we begin, as infants, and will end, as the elderly, there. But the logic of productivity and the logic of sovereignty deny this obvious truth. Care for Gullì is a model for the conditions supporting the dignity of individuation, the mutual support that makes possible the realization of each one’s unique value throughout the varying moments of a life that is always dependent, sometimes more, sometimes less – an ebb and flow of mutual enabling. Care is the form that labor takes when it is unshackled from productivity and sovereignty. Care is “the mode that allows labor to return to its original disposition of producing the necessary and useful for the good life not of this or that group of people, but of the plenitude full of plenitudes.” (158) Gullì invites the reader to turn precisely to the places that have been placed outside the productive and sovereign logic of capital, to the “women’s” places, unacknowledged places of relative disempowerment without which the myth of individualism would collapse. Such spaces may hold the keys to a different mode of being-with. The gendered reading of the opposition that Gullì (and Kittay) have drawn between violence and care is unavoidable. Perhaps, according to Gullì, though he does not directly say so, the future truly is “female”.

Earthly Plenitudes is an extremely important work for the following reasons: First of all, it is absolutely necessary to think sovereignty and productivity together. The political arena reveals itself to be the battleground controlled by, and for control of, the machinery of capitalism. There is no real concern about the “good of the people” on either side of the political fence.

Most recently, of course, the economic crisis of 2008 registered high on the political Richter scale. Capitalism generates such crises, this one particularly acute. Anyone in the U.S. who watched the outsourcing of labor, the layoffs, the “downsizing” of jobs, and the subsequent floating of massive amounts of credit (and bad mortgages) to the public in order to shore up consumption and avoid realization crises, and did not think that the house of cards would fall when the bills came due, would have to have been asleep at the wheel. As Hedges says, Marx was right; Marx is still right, productivity necessarily produces such crises when capital profit-making runs up against its natural limits. Global capital, full up against those limits, requires increasingly aggressive sovereign power. Therefore, it is not surprising that, in recent years, amid looming crises in resource availability, we have witnessed numerous attempts, some successful, others less so, to concentrate sovereign power, to install ultra-nationalistic, protectionist policies enforced by state violence. Gullì sees well therefore, that solutions are not to be found in pitting the progressives against the conservatives. Solutions will not emerge from the liberal political “win” when, in the appropriate language of the patriarchy, we “go to war” with the opponent again. Gullì points us to an answer that lies outside that fray in the ordinary and extraordinary acts of benevolence, care-taking, and care-giving where every individual’s achievement has value and is nurtured, in practices on the ground that upbraid sovereign logic. Such practices reveal not only the inadequacy of sovereignty and productivity, but its irrationality, its wanton cruelty, its absolute inadequacy to the social formation necessary to dignify human life. Dependency unmasks sovereignty and reveals, not protection, not order, not management for the good of the populace, but violence to be its true face.

Though Gullì does not highlight current popular movements in this book, it is impossible to read Earthly Plenitudes without thinking of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements’ urge to replace sovereignty with collectivities, or the Women’s March and Resist movements’ refusal of Donald Trump’s bullying “leadership”. It is impossible not to think of the manner in which Black Lives Matter discloses the true purposes of “law and order”.

In a time of desperate cynicism, Earthly Plenitudes is unabashedly and unashamedly idealistic. Gullì has produced a work of courage in a space where “realism” has become its own kind of cudgel. The next world never lies fully in the present but only “presents” itself in that which has become possible. Marx has said that the proletariat is the revolutionary class because the universal class. Gullì gives us a chance to think that formulation properly. The universality is of its ontological nature – the creative activity that is the human, the labor of the human – this belongs essentially to humanity (all humanity) and constitutes the font of all possibility – even of the possibility of its own exploitation and of its own liberation. In our condition of dependency there unfolds the potential of our care for one another. 

7 August 2017

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