Philosophy of History's Return

Kojin Karatani's Structure of World History seeks to rescue the philosophy of history and restore to it the relationship between philosophical reflection and historical practice. This connection is particularly pertinent in Karatani's case since he had earlier worked out the philosophical scaffolding of this monumental study in his book Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, which embarked on a “return to Capital once more to read the potential that has been overlooked.” By juxtaposing Marx to Kant and vice versa to discover the importance of exchange over production, he found what was to become the informing principle of his later philosophy of history. While Karatani's accounting of the structure of world history presumes to recount the passage of the world's history from nomadic societies to the present as a condition to rethink “social formations” from a perspective that recalls the form of a stagist philosophy of history attributed to Marx and Engels, he has abandoned its informing principle of the modes of production. Instead, he offers the perspective of modes of exchange, which means waiving any consideration concerning who owns the means of production: the putative “economic base” underlying superstructural representations like the state, religion, and culture upheld by a vulgate tradition of Marxian historical writing and discounted by bourgeois historiography as deterministic. The decision to shift to modes of exchange means rooting the primary mode of exchange taking place first in nomadic societies, rather than forms of production and archaic communal ownership of land. Although his revised scheme still accords priority to the economic, the putative division between base and superstructures still persists, even though the latter are still produced by the former, which is now the mode of exchange. Whereas Marx privileged commodity exchange as dominant, Karatani places greater emphasis on the earliest mode of exchange, which consists of the “pure gift,” associated with early nomadic social formations and reciprocity practices by clans, and seems to offer nomadic/clan communalism as a model that resembles Marx's own strategic linking of the surviving Russian commune and contemporary capitalism. The point to this project is to transcend the hegemonic trinity of capital, nation, and state and satisfy a desire to share with other globalists a vision that aims to overcome the defects of capitalism and the nation-state and the failure of a Marxian expectation that nation-states will simply wither away with the final surpassing of capitalism. To this end, Karatani's appeal to Kant offers to inject a moral element absent in the merely economic structure of history that will thus provide the promise of “world peace,” which ultimately requires an abolition of the nation-state as a condition for realizing a “simultaneous bourgeois revolution” that would finally overcome state and capital and establish a world federation.