Saturday 8 August 2015

Karatani's The Structure of Empire

Bildresultat för 帝国の構造Here are some impressions after reading Karatani Kōjin's Teikoku no kōzō: Chūshin shūhen ashūhen (The structure of empire: Centre, margin, submargin), which is a follow-up on his Sekaishi no kōzō (published in English as The Structure of World History). Although covering much of the same terrain as the latter, the new work's substantial historical discussions centered on China and Japan are a welcome addition to the older work. The new book also introduces a theoretical novelty, namely the distinction between two kinds of nomadism (an idea that also plays a central role in Yûdôron, a companion piece on Yanagita Kunio and nomadism which also appeared last year). Finally, the new book is notable for its carefully celebratory description of empire, which is shown to contain utopian elements..

Karatani starts of by presenting his work as an attempt to grapple with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. To start with Hegel is necessary, he states, as an antidote to the general lack of awareness that we are trapped within the closed circuit of nation, state and capital, a triad which he describes as a Borromean knot in which the three components mutually supplement each other and make any attack on any single one of them unlikely to succeed. Even large protest movements such as the recent insurrections against Mubarak and Morsi in Egypt only ended up strengthening this closed circuit rather than overcoming it. Being a work in which the interconnection within the triad are firmly grasped, The Philosophy of Right is thus more relevant than ever (Karatani 2014:12ff).

Unlike most Marxists, who in their attempts to overturn Hegel by "turning him on his head" ended up in a problematic base-superstructure model that left them little choice between either an economic reductionism or assserting the "relative autonomy" of the superstructure, Karatani uses a model focusing on four modes of exchange, which he believes are equally basic and irreducible:
  • A: Reciprocal exchanges within a community, a norm that lives on in our time in the idea of the nation.
  • B: The exchange of "plunder and redistribution" typical of feudal lordship and basic to modern states.
  • C: Commodity exchange, which is central to capitalism.
  • D: Egalitarian sharing through associations between free individuals (singularities) that transcend the community.
While A-B-C are all integral parts of the closed circuit of nation, state and capital, D is external to it. It lacks any historical emodiment except as a recurring utopian element in millennarian movements and modern social movements, but Karatani sees it as a viable model for a possible communism which would also be a Kantian world republic.

Figure 1: Karatani's four modes of exchange

From nomadism to capitalist nation-states

Like in his recent book on Yanagita Kunio, Karatani distinguishes two types of nomadism (yûdôsei), which is a clear novelty compared to The Structure of World History. The nomadism of the earliest bands of hunters-gatherers preceded the emergence of settled communities (A), whereas later forms of nomads - such as the pastoral nomads of Central Asia or Arabia - moved between the settled communities, managing the traffic between them and in the process furthering the rise of trade, markets and empires. The latter form of nomadism thus paved the way for the present dominance of capitalist nation-states and in no way acts as a counter-force to them. Unlike some thinkers like Delezue & Guattari or Amino Yoshihiko, Karatani refuses to see anything liberatory about such nomadism, insisting instead on the need to direct attention to the earlier nomadism of hunters-gatherers as a model for the primordial freedom that subsequent religious and social movements have sought to "repeat" in the form of associations (D).

The rise of settled communities is thus an important watershed to Karatani. By itself, however, it didn't lead to an abandonment of the egalitarianism of hunters and gatherers. Settlement created the possibility of concentrating wealth and power, but this was avoided through the system of reciprocal gift-giving which regulated relations between communities. Settlement forced people to conduct exchange in order to get hold of necessities, but this exchange was generally hostile in character. Outright war was avoided through ceremonial gift-giving, which - once peace had been established through the gift - could be accompanied by barter-like exchanges like in the Kula ring. The hostility could also be sublimated and expressed in the exchange itself, as in potlatches. These exchanges prevented inequality within the communities by forcing chiefs to exhaust their wealth through compulsory generosity. Chiefs were therefore unable to become kings. By creating these systems of reciprocal exchange, societies thus preserved the equality of earlier nomadic societies while preventing the rise of the state. By contrast, strict reciprocity had played a much less prominent role among hunters and gatherers, who instead shared or pooled things without regard for reciprocity.

According to Karatani, this means that the origin of the state cannot be found in factors internal to settled communities, such as rising wealth and class differences. The decisive factor must instead be searched in the role of nomads, whose mobility made them the key mediators between communities. Often making their living out of trade, they turned on communities that threatened the trade lines and conquered them, a process that helped them establish huge empires. Wars of conquest were thus crucial in the formation of states. Such wars turned chiefs into kings who were no longer bound by compulsory reciprocity to the conquered subjects. Furthermore, the creation of empires extending over a plurality of communities made laws necessary, since mere custom was no longer sufficient to regulate the relations between them. Standing armies and imperial bureaucracies become possible when people no longer needed to be treated like equals.

To maintain themselves, however, the empires had to embody what Karatani calls the “imperial principle” (teikoku no genri), a Utopian aspect expressed in popular millenarianism as well as in the idea of a universal monarchy. This allowed the empires to transcend boundaries between particular communities, to be cosmopolitan and tolerant of diversity and to receive active support from peoples under its rule. This means that it was not enough for them to simply offer protection in return for submission (B) - they also had to partake to some extent of the utopia of D. Universal religions helped them do this, as he illustrates through a discussion of St Augustine, who argued that the state was not simply an "organization of robbers", since it has had a redeeming side to it, namely its potential to grow into a City of God where people would not be driven by self-interest but by “love of the neighbor” and “love of God” (ibid. 94-100). Helped by this imperial principle, the empires became centres of civilization, whose scripts, laws and religions shaped the cultures of their subject populations as well as their peripheries. The discussion of empire is substantiated in several chapters dealing with the history of China, the Mongols, Russia, the Ottoman empire and the Mogul empire.

However, even while the empires (dominated by B) were flourishing, the nucleus of a "world-economy" (dominated by C) formed in what Wittfogel calls their "submargins". These were distinct from the "margins", i.e. those areas that were geographically closest to the empires and politically dependent on them. Submargins were located far enough from the empires not to be immediately threatened by them but close enough to be exposed to the imperial civilization which could be selectively imported and wedded to a social structure that, in comparison with the empires, was more pluralistic and lacking in a strong central power - factors that were favorable to the rise of trade and a strong merchant class. This could be seen in feudal Europe which became the birth bed of the modern capitalist economy, not because it was more advanced that the Eurasian empires but because it was peripheral to them and (from an imperial perspective) more "barbaric".

The idea of imperial centres and their margins and sub-margins (which plays a prominent role already in Karatani's earlier work) performs a crucial theoretical function to him, helping him make better sense of history than the old classical Marxist stage theory. However, we can also note that Karatani is not so much discarding this theory as rescuing it in a modified form. In his version history is still made to progress from a stage in which A predominates to one where B is dominant until B in turn is supplanted by one in which C is predominant, namely present-day capitalism. This, however, is not a developmental ladder to be climbed by each society in isolation (first the European countries, then the Third World...). Instead, he brings in a spatial dialectics centred on the interplay between the empires, mostly located in Asia, and their margins and sub-margins. Doing so helps him get rid of that old anomaly, the notion of an "Asiatic mode of production", which was the way empires had tended to be conceptualized from the standpoint of the old stage theory.

It also provides the theoretical tools for properly grasping the spatio-historical place of feudalism. Feudalism isn't characteristic of all pre-modern societies, but above all of the submargins where the remnants of older clan-based social systems tend to be stronger than in the empires. Thus European feudalism was rooted in the clan-based systems of the peoples that had been sub-marginal to the Roman Empire. Their legacy of was evident in the fact that strong elements of reciprocal relations remained within the ruling stratum. These, however, disappeared with the rise of capitalism and the formation of absolutist states. The absolutist states differed from empires since capitalism was an integral part to them. They formed when the absolutist monarchs allied with the rising bourgeoisie to buttress their power and used this power to protect the flow of capital from interference by feudal lords and the Church. Even later when these absolutist states become imperialist, they didn't become empires in a strict sense. Following Arendt, Karatani argues that imperialism is merely the expansion of the nation-state, the rule of one nation over others. Hence it lacks the universal aspect of the “imperial principle” and invites resistance in the form of national liberation movements.

Japan as submargin

Karatani demonstrates the fruitfulness of his concepts of empire and submargin in a chapter on Japan, whose history can to a great extent be explained by reference to its submarginal status. Thus Japan's backwardness in relation to the Chinese empire was expressed in its clan-based feudal social system, which persisted despite superficial cultural and organizational imports from China (as seen in the persistence of bilinearity, the ineffectuality of the Ritsuryôsei, etc.). Unlike imperial "margins" like Korea, the "sub-margin" Japan was free from direct military threats from China for most of its history, a fact that encouraged Japan to set up its own "miniature-empire", emulating China instead of subordinating itself to it.

Within Japan, however, there were regional differences. As the historian Amino Yoshihiko has pointed out in a number of works (e.g. Amino 1998), medieval Japan was far from a homogeneously feudal country in the European sense, dominated by a warrior elite ruling over an agricultural peasant population. Although such a portrayal has a measure of truth when applied to eastern Japan, the western parts and especially the capital region around Kyoto was more diverse, involving a separate hierarchical ordering with the emperor at its apex that linked together "non-agriculturalists" such as artisans, performers, traders, religious practitioners and outcasts. Karatani adheres to this portrayal, arguing that feudalism developed mainly in the submarginal east while imported “imperial” elements were more prominent in Kyoto and western Japan (Karatani 2012:239).

Nevertheless, on the whole Karatani believes that Japan's "success" in modernizing was rooted in a feudal past more or less similar to in Europe. This past helped it develop capitalism and achieve a rapid modernization that enabled it to escape colonization by the West. The idea that Japan modernized successfully because of structural similarities to Europe goes back at least to the 1960's when the anthropologist Umesao Tadao argued that Japan resembled Western Europe more than China because of its fringe position on the Eurasian continent and its feudal past (Umesao 2003). Karatani admits that this thesis lost popularity after the capitalist development of China, but he still chooses to adhere to it (ibid. 238).

If Japan is seen as similar to Europe, however, how should one explain the absence in Japan of an absolutist state? Karatani argues that something akin to European absolutism was in fact set up by the warlord Nobunaga, who not only established a form of absolute rule for himself but also actively furthered Japan’s participation in the world-system of capitalist trade. The Tokugawa shogunate, however, was different: although possessing power comparable to that of European absolutist regimes it preferred to set up a facade of feudalism, pulled out of the world-economy and opted out of military and technological development, i.e. it deliberately chose to pursue a policy quite different from the European absolutist states. Of course, the reason that it had the leeway to do this was that it was relatively safe from invasions, unlike the European states. But in the end, it proved impossible for the Tokugawa regime to stop the process of capitalist development and nation-state formation. Japanese capitalism didn't start to develop after the Meiji Restoration, but much earlier despite the efforts of the Tokugawa state to suppress it (ibid. 247-252).

The decline and return of empire?

With the rise of the European "world-economy", the old empires went into decline. Although they largely managed to resist being colonized, their old margins - e.g. vassal states like Korea - fell prey to colonization. To Karatani, however, the empires are not simply remnants to be discarded. "They contain something important that is lacking in the modern world-system. Hence, the principle for overcoming the modern nation-state and capitalism must in some way or another resurrect the empire” (ibid. 156). What Karatani refers to here is of course the "imperial principle". This principle, however, can only be resurrected by first negating it, i.e. “sublating” it, as he puts it using the Hegelian term. Such attempts at sublation could be seen for instance in Kang Youwei's attempt to revive the Qing empire by orienting it to the ideal of datong ("great unity"). China's Marxist revolution too, Karatani suggests, can be seen as an attempt to sublate and thereby resurrect the imperial tradition (ibid. 168ff).

Today China rises economically again, but that doesn’t mean the return of the “East” as an empire. Instead it means simply that China is today functioning as part of a pluralist capitalist world-economy like other capitalist nation-states (p. 145). Karatani believes that the resurgence of national liberation movements within China is a sign that it has jettisoned its old "imperial principle" and instead become similar to the "imperialistic" European national states of a century ago. What China needs today, Karatani believes, is not to pursue neoliberal capitalism but to reconstruct empire. If China opts for further neoliberalization, social unrest and ethnic conflicts will exacerbate and it will risk disintegration (p. 171).

In the last part of the book, Karatani repeats his prediction, familiar from previous books, that today's predominance of large regional blocs – of which China is one – in combination with environmental degradation and an intensified struggle for resources will lead to world war, and that the only way to escape this fate is the establishment of a Kantian world-republic. Interesting in this connection is his explicit assertion that the models of such a world-republic found in Kant and Augustine are rooted in the idea of empire (p. 197). Like in previous books, he argues that the traumatic possibility of a new world war will make the formation of such a world-republic inevitable, since it will compel states to voluntarily renounce war and imperialistic ambitions (one of his models here, surely, is Japan and the firm popular support enjoyed today by its "peace constitution"). Powerful states can play a crucial role in creating world-republics, he believes. By voluntarily renouncing war as a “gift” to the world, other states will be compelled to reciprocate the gift, and thus a world-republic of peace can be established (p. 208f).

Critical remarks 

Many of Karatani's assertions are stimulating and thought-provoking, and - as part of that - they also invite criticism. Below are some of my critical comments: 

1) A notable shift in Karatani's recent works is his interest in early nomadic bands before the rise of settled communities. Here he admits that societies existed where none of his four modes of exchange had yet come into being. Can they then really be fundamental to explaining societal change?

2) The shift of attention to early nomadic bands destabilizes Karatani's theoretical edifice in yet another sense as well. In his texts until now, Karatani has claimed that D is a repetition "on a higher level" of A (along the lines of a Hegelian sublation or a Freudian "return of the repressed"). Such passages also exist in this book (e.g. p. 29). Now, however, we also find suggestions that D is a resurrection of an even more egalitarian and "communist" stage prior to the emergence of A represented by early bands of hunters and gatherers (this claim is explicitly made in Yûdôron). But how can D be a resurrection of A on a higher level if A didn’t even exist in these bands? To put it in a nutshell: is D supposed to resurrect the reciprocal gift-giving of A or the pooling of the early nomadic bands?  Karatani himself is aware of this ambiguity, which he addresses explicitly in interviews published after the appearance of the book. Thus he nowadays refers to the primordial nomadism (gen-yûdôsei) of hunters and gatherers as U (the "U" standing both for the German prefix Ur- and the yû of the Japanese word yûdô) (Karatani & Satô 2014:20; also see Karatani & Akashi 2014); the ambiguity is also pointed out by Kobayashi Toshiaki in his recent book on Karatani; Kobayashi 2015:258ff). Can this ambiguity be resolved? A possible solution is hinted at when Karatani states (2014:49) that A is instituted in order to stop inequality from arising once peoples abandon nomadic life - a formulation that suggests that A itself arises as an attempt to preserve the equality of nomadic society and that A is thus already a repetition of that equality.

3) Karatani argues that his typology of four modes of exchange is superior to those theories (e.g. the Frankfurt School) who argue for a relative autonomy of culture or other parts of the superstructure. Instead of relativizing the key role of the economy, he claims to widen the concept of the economy to include modes of exchange in his sense. However, in widening the “economy” to include all forms of exchange, isn’t he just redefining what used to be seen as parts of the old superstructure into exchange, and, if so, how is that better than talking about the relative autonomy of the superstructure? Karatani still needs to conceive of some form of “relative autonomy” for the different forms of exchange.

4) We can note, however, that not all parts of the superstructure are included among the forms of exchange. For instance, he doesn’t have much to say about culture in the sense of language, discourse or ideology or how such cultural phenomena should be understood in relation to his four modes of exchange. Doesn't this risk leading to a belittling of the role of such factors in history? The neglect of language is surprising considering how central it has been as a concern in Karatani's early writings, in which language figured as one of a prime form of exchange with its own form of autonomy.

5) In addition, Karatani often seems to end up rather close to the position he criticizes - namely the "Frankfurt School" position of asserting the relative autonomy of culture. For instance, when he describes D as a return of the repressed or as a non-yet-conscious anticipation of Utopia “coming from the future” (p. 39), he seems to be relying on culture as a realm autonomous from historically existing economic exchange, much in the manner of Ernst Bloch.

6) In connection with this, is it really reasonable to call D a form of economic exchange when it is always represented as“coming from the future” (e.g. in the great universalist religions) and existing as “not yet conscious” rather than actually existing in historical form (p. 39)? Isn’t this culture rather than economic exchange?

So, does Karatani succeed in his struggle with Hegel? Can he break out of the "Borromean knot" and, if so, how? To be sure, he introduces a world-historical logic that, unlike Hegel's, points beyond the closure of the status quo thanks to the element of D. But here an objection arises: what is D? If it has never existed historically except as an ideal in universal religions and some social movements, isn't it then merely a Schein that co-exists with the system rather than offering a genuine possibility of exit from it? As Karatani himself points out, religious and social movements have often started out as critical of the established order only to be reabsorbed into it at a later stage. Indeed, the universal religions used by Karatani as his primary illustrations of D were indispensible parts of the ideological appratus that helped legitimize the empires. Karatani's intention is of course not to portray D as an ideological supplement to the existing order. But if it is instead taken as an ideal to be actually realized, won't it then fall victim to Hegel's criticism of the utopianism of abstract freedom? Karatani seems to rely on Freud to escape this accusation: by using the analogy with Freud's idea of the return of the repressed, he tries to argue that D is both external to historical reality (since it must always appear to come "from without", destabilizing the existing order) and internal to it (since it repeats a repressed content, namely the primordial freedom of the early nomadic bands that existed before the rise of settled communities).

Freud, then, plays a crucial role as a resource to Karatani in his struggle with Hegel. The death drive and the associated idea of compulsive repetitions that destabilize the system are turned against the Hegelian dialectics. While the latter operates through the concept, i.e. the conscious mind, the compulsive repetition Karatani hopes for relies on a form of historical unconscious. The key role played by Freud here is interesting. We can recall that even to Slavoj Zizek, who likes to portray himself as a great defender of Hegel - and who has criticized Karatani for criticizing Hegel unfairly (Zizek 2004, 2006) - it is the inability to theorize the death drive that reveals the limitations of Hegel's dialectics (ibid. 2012).


Amino, Yoshihiko (1998 [1982]) Higashi to nishi no kataru Nihon no rekishi, Tokyo: Kōdansha gakujutsu bunko.

Karatani, Kōjin (2014) Teikoku no kōzō: Chūshin shūhen ashūhen, Tokyo: Seidosha.

Karatani, Kôjin & Satô, Masaru (2014) ”Karatani kokkaron o kentô suru”, Gendai shisô Vol. 42-18 (January): 8-29.

Karatani, Kôjin & Akashi, Kengo (2014) “‘Toransukuritîku’ kara ‘Teikoku no kôzô’ e”, Gendai shisô Vol. 42-18 (January): 46-69.

Kobayashi, Toshiaki (2015) Karatani Kôjin-ron – Tasha no yukue, Tokyo: Chikuma shobô.

Umesao, Tadao (2003) An Ecological View of History: Japanese Civilization in the World Context, Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Zizek, Slavoj (2004) “The Parallax View”, New Left Review 25 (Jan – Feb): 121-134.

Zizek, Slavoj (2006) The Parallax View, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Zizek, Slavoj (2012) Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful summary. I hope the book will be translated into English soon, because my unstructured attempts to learn Japanese in order to access Karatani's wider oeuvre are not going very well!

    I'm sure you already know this, but Karatani also makes his distinction between two types of nomadism in the Preface to the English translation of The Structure of World History.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, I read in an interview that he makes the distiction there as well.

  2. Dear Carl, thanks you so much for your explanatory work and power in presenting Karatani, which I only discovered very recently. This discovery though, is groundbreaking, since, in the context of our own 'P2P Theory', we made the hypothesis in 2005-2006, in our foundational essay, P2P and Human Evolution, that there was a discernible of Mode D, though we used Alan Page Fiske's relational grammar (mode of allocation of resources) instead, but gave the same historical sequence. Tine de Moore, historian of the commons, in her booklet, Homo Cooperans, shows the start of an exponential rise in civic self-organisation that starts in about 2005, and we have since documented that shift in our wiki at with more than 20k examples, including for example, more than 400 in new forms of contributory (commons-oriented, contribution-based) open value accounting. I would be very interested in a dialogue with Prof. Karatini, to at least make him aware that his hypothesis is actually verifiable and documented.

    1. Dear Michel, thanks for your comment and for showing interest. Let me try to reply to you via e-mail in the very near future!