Published in Japan and in Japanese in 1953, Uno Kōzō (1897–1977) originally wrote his Theory of Crisis as a series of special lectures that he delivered at the University of Tokyo, Faculty of Economics. In 1974, Theory of Crisis was re-published in Volume 5 of the Collected Works of Uno Kōzō (Iwanami Publishers). Then, in 2009, one year after the so-called sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008, Theory of Crisis was re-published as a paperback book, also by Iwanami Publishers. This English translation of Uno’s Theory of Crisis is the complete translation of his 1953 book that was republished in Volume 5 of the Collected Works of Uno Kōzō.
As for the composition of Uno’s Theory of Crisis, the book begins with a short Preface by the author, which articulates his basic argument on the need to demonstrate the inevitability of crisis based on Marx’s Capital, and which situates the book in relation to his earlier research. Then there is Uno’s Introduction. By Uno’s own admission, the Introduction is disproportionately longer than the other chapters. This is because in it, Uno clarifies the three levels of his entire methodology for political economy from the specific perspective of the theory of crisis. Uno also clarifies why, among other things, his theory of crisis ‘abstracts’ and ‘omits’ the analysis of foreign trade, and why merchant capital is also ‘abstracted’ in the pure theory. These are problems that Uno clarifies before he explains his main demonstration of the inevitability of crisis in the process of capital accumulation.
The Introduction is followed by three chapters that demonstrate the inevitability of crisis through a theoretical exposition of the three phases of the cycle of accumulation (Chapter 1, “Prosperity”, Chapter 2, “Crisis” and Chapter 3, “Depression”). This is followed by a chapter on the turn-over time of the business cycle (Chapter 4), and by the final chapter, “Mechanical Inevitability and Historical Inevitability”, in which Uno discusses capitalist crisis in contrast with the notion of the collapse of capitalism (Chapter 5). Finally, as per Uno’s original Theory of Crisis, I have translated and included two Appendix chapters by Uno, which deal with specific theoretical problems in Marx’s Capital that are related to the theory of crisis.
Throughout this translation, all references to Marx’s Capital, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, come from the Penguin edition unless otherwise noted.
I first read and studied Theory of Crisis in 1998–2000 in Japan, at a time when I was conducting historical and archival research on Japan’s colonization of Korea, and on the everyday struggles of Korean workers in inter-war Japan. I did this research through an affiliation with the Ohara Institute for Social Problems at Hōsei University, where I met Professor Yutaka Nagahara (Department of Economics). I thank Nagahara for his teachings over the years.1 Nagahara urged me to read Uno’s Theory of Crisis, as well as Tsutomu Ouchi’s Nōgyō Kyōkōron, or Theory of Agrarian Crisis, and I slowly began learning how to use Marx’s Capital, Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, Uno’s fundamental principles for political economy, his theory of crisis and his theory of the stages of capitalist development, for the historical and concrete analysis of capitalism and imperialism in Japan, as well as for the analysis of the colonization of Korea (1910–1945).
Of course, Uno’s Theory of Crisis is not a book about the history of capitalism in Japan in particular, and it generally refrains from speaking about the concrete history of Japanese workers’ struggles directly. Moreover, Theory of Crisis says nothing directly about the history of Korean workers, or about the colonization of Korea. Yet, this is precisely what I found most useful about Uno’s Theory of Crisis when I first read it, for, from the outset, it theoretically subverted a certain national(ist) discourse and its eternalizing histories of the nation that commonly blind social scientific analyses of colonialism and capitalism, not to mention those of ‘modern Japanese history’ or ‘modern Korean history’. Instead, Uno’s Theory of Crisis provided me with two, more theoretically objective and scientific problems to research: “the commodification of labour power” (労働力の商品化) and “imperialism,” as a historical stage of capitalism. Through Uno’s Theory of Crisis, as well as through Uno’s tri-level method for research in political economy (Uno’s sandankairon), I learned how and why I should read Marx’s Capital for its logical exposition of capital, as well as Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, for its historical analysis of capitalism’s stages of development. Uno’s method for political economy ‘completes’ both the theory of capital (based on Marx’s Capital), as well as the theory of the stages of capitalist development, precisely in order to ground the production of concrete and historical knowledge of contemporary capitalist society (specifically after 1917) for the advancement of socialist and communist struggles. In my research, the concrete analysis shed light upon the everyday struggles of colonized Korean workers that surrounded the process of transforming “Korean” labour power into a commodity after World War One and before the outbreak of World War Two. This research was published as The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan (Duke UP, 2009).
As I mentioned above, Uno’s Theory of Crisis was re-published in Japan in 2009, one year after the so-called ‘sub-prime mortgage crisis’ of 2008. In early 2010, I myself began translating Theory of Crisis from Japanese (which is not my native language) into English (which is my native English), but quickly realized that this was not going to be an easy task. Not only was Uno’s writing (and lecturing style) extremely difficult, at times, for me to comprehend on the purely linguistic and semiotic level of the Japanese language; it was additionally difficult because of the sheer intensity of Uno’s commanding and demanding discourse on Marx’s Capital. Of course, I had been reading and studying Capital for years already and considered myself someone with relatively good knowledge of the text, at least compared to many in my eclectic, postmodern and postcolonial generation. But over the first several years of translating Uno’s Theory of Crisis, I experienced the sinking feeling of being (and becoming) what can only be described as a ‘late-developing Marxist’. In other words, I had a lot of studying and ‘catching-up’ to do, especially regarding Marx’s Capital. Similar to so-called ‘late-developing countries’, all that I could do – just as Marx had said – was to “shorten and lessen the birth pangs” (Marx, Preface to the First Edition of Capital).
Ten years later, I was finally able to deliver a complete English translation of Theory of Crisis, but its birth still had many linguistic and theoretical ‘defects’. Fortunately, in early 2020, I had the great opportunity of working with Professor (Emeritus) Makoto Itoh of The University of Tokyo, who studied with Professor Kōzō Uno himself, and who organized a team of three other professors, all economists and specialists of Uno’s theories and research, to meticulously read, revise, and to correct my draft translation. In addition to Professor Itoh, these were professors Kiyoshi Nagatani (Shinshū University, Department of Economics), Kōsuke Oki (Kagawa University, Department of Economics); and Professor Thomas Sekine (York University).2
The team divided up the chapters for revision and corrections. Chapters 1 and 2 were corrected by Professor Nagatani; Chapters 3, 4, and 5 by Professor Itoh; the two Appendix chapters by Professor Oki; and the Introduction was read by Professor Sekine. Professor Oki also generously reviewed and corrected my revised translation of the Introduction in July of 2020. Professors Itoh and Nagatani then went over my revisions yet again in the winter of 2020. As a result of this collective effort, my original English translation has been greatly improved, and I simply could not have completed the translation without their help. I thank the professors from the bottom of my heart for their generosity and Promethean effort, and for correcting and forgiving me of my many errors and mistakes. Whatever defects and errors that remain are mine.
Translating Uno’s Theory of Crisis from Japanese into English has been one of the most difficult yet transformative experiences of my life. It is my hope that it lives up to what Walter Benjamin once wrote of the ‘task of the translator’: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.”3
As you will read in this volume, the notion of ‘the commodification of labour power’ is central to Uno’s overall method for political economy. The process known as the commodification of labour power represents the essential core of Uno’s theory of the fundamental principles of political economy. It is therefore also the core of his Theory of Crisis, which Uno considered the conclusion or culmination of the fundamental principles. Moreover, on a lighter note, it is well known by many Japanese readers, researchers and scholars of Uno’s theories that Uno himself only half-jokingly considered the phrase, ‘the commodification of labour power’, as a kind of personal mantra, perhaps suggesting that, if repeated (or chanted) enough times, it could bring about sudden (revolutionary) enlightenment. I can only speak for myself, but after nearly twenty years of repeating ‘the commodification of labour power’ – in discourse, in research, and in concrete, everyday life – I can confirm that it has definitely led to a revolutionary awakening.
Therefore, I have kept “the commodification of labour power” throughout the text, but I should mention that other terms could also be used for ‘labour power’, such as the ‘human ability to work’, or ‘labour-capacity’. In other words, the ultimate relevance of the phrase is that it draws our attention to Marx’s concept of labour power itself. As Marx wrote: “We mean by labour-power, or labour-capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he [sic] sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind.”4
One could say that Uno’s entire method for political economy is built upon Marx’s concept of labour-power as a commodity, which represents capitalism’s basic contradiction, i.e., where capitalist society is the weakest and most vulnerable. The ‘Achilles Heel’ of capitalism, so to speak, is found in the fact that, on the one hand, if capital is to produce surplus-value and make profit for the capitalist class, which it is designed to do, then capital must necessarily consume labour power as a commodity in the production and labour process; on the other hand, however, labour power is a peculiar ‘thing’ that capital actually cannot produce as a commodity directly. As Uno writes in Theory of Crisis, “The establishment of a capitalist commodity economy can only come about with the commodification of that which capital itself cannot produce, namely labour power.” (p. 44) This reveals how the existence of capital is fundamentally restricted historically and socially, precisely around our labour power, which represents capital’s weakness, and therefore – dialectically – our fundamental advantage and point of resistance to capital, our potential social and political leverage over capital. For this reason, Uno constantly refers to this basic contradiction of capitalist society. In the words of Itoh and Lapavitsas, it points to, “the contradiction of the unavoidable commodification of labour power, on the one hand, and the inevitably incomplete character of this process, on the other.”5 Which is to say that, whenever we consider a capitalist commodity economy and its basic method of dominating a society, we should recognize that, from the outset, its basic method is fundamentally contradictory and incomplete, and therefore fundamentally transient and immanently possible to change, precisely beginning with a radical rethinking of ‘the commodification of labour power’ and subjectivity.6
At the same time, Uno’s Theory of Crisis also reveals just how much the problem of the commodification of labour power has been consistently repressed theoretically in the political-economic unconscious of Marxist discourse in general, and in prevailing Marxist theories of crisis, in particular. Uno’s method for political economy, which is also, as Professor Itoh would say, “a political economy for socialism”, is based on liberating “the commodification of labour power” from its theoretical repression, precisely to shed concrete and historical light upon its sublation and overcoming in actuality, in practice, and in class struggle.
Finally, in addition to the complete English translation of Uno’s Theory of Crisis, we have also included two additional texts. The first is authored by Professor Makoto Itoh and titled, “Guiding Comments”. In this text, Professor Itoh extends Uno’s analysis of contemporary capitalism to the era of neoliberalism and to the so-called sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008–2009. Importantly, Itoh identifies the ‘financialization of labour power’ in our present conjuncture of contemporary capitalism, which extends Uno’s original identification of the commodification of labour power as capitalism’s fundamental contradiction and weakness. This is an essay that the professor originally wrote for the 2009 Japanese paperback version of Theory of Crisis. For this volume, it has been translated by Guy Yasko and edited by the professor and myself. For those interested in reading more about Uno’s work in political economy, I strongly recommend Professor Itoh’s recently re-published book, Value and Crisis: Essays on Marxian Economics in Japan (2021), which contains a wealth of chapters on different aspects of Uno’s research and methodology for political economy, as well as his Basic Theory of Capitalism: The Forms and Substance of the Capitalist Economy (1980); Political Economy for Socialism (1999); and Political Economy of Money and Finance (1999), co-authored with Costas Lapavitsas.
The second text is an article co-authored by myself, Ken C. Kawashima (University of Toronto, Department of East Asian Studies), and Professor Gavin Walker (McGill University, Department of History/East Asian Studies), titled, “Uno Kōzō’s Theory of Crisis Today”. This essay is the result of many years of conversations about Uno’s work and its center of possibility for radical theory and politics today. In this text, we discuss Uno’s Theory of Crisis after the 2008 crisis and in our present conjuncture, as well as Uno’s approach to crisis, imperialism, and the question of labour power as a commodity. We also make theoretical inter-connections between Uno’s methodology for political economy, on the one hand, and problems of state power and subject-formation in the works of Deleuze-Guattari, Foucault, Althusser and Poulantzas, on the other. Gavin Walker’s book, The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan (2016), is also an inspired and brilliant book that delves into the heart of Uno’s method for political economy, not only in relation to the famous debate on capitalism in Japan in the early 1930s, but also in relation to contemporary theories of the subject, and I recommend his book to anyone interested in Uno’s thought.
Many people have made this translation possible and, indeed, inevitable. I would like to thank: Mouna Mannai, for her loving support and constant encouragement throughout this whole process; Mama JJ and Sistah Kimi, Brothers Jason, Derek and Luc; Gavin Walker (aka ‘Mad Science’), for his friendship and comradeship, and for what we call the “Alongside” project, the first iteration of which is found in our essay in this volume; Harry Harootunian, whose historical and theoretical research in Marxism and Japanese intellectual history originally inspired ‘all of this’ for me; my students at the University of Toronto, Department of East Asian Studies, for their hard work and for enduring my lectures on Capital and Uno; professors and comrades Eric Cazdyn, Bruce Cumings, Mark Driscoll, Katsuhiko Endo, Kanishka Goonewardena, Asad Haider, Andy Higginbottom, Katsu Hirano, Sabu Kohso, Kojin Karatani, Rebecca Karl, Wendy Matsumura, Yutaka Nagahara, Kōsuke Oki, Hyun Ok Park, Kristin Plys, Janet Poole, Kristin Ross, Naoki Sakai, Andre Schmid, Gavin Smith, Jesook Song, Robert Stolz, and Alberto Toscano for their solidarity and encouragement; and Sebastien Budgen and Danny Hayward of the Historical Materialism book series, and Jennifer Obdam of Brill Publishers, for their organization, patience and support for this publication.
I wish to especially thank Professor Makoto Itoh for generously overseeing the many revisions and corrections of the translation, and for coaching me not only on the finer and deeper points of Uno’s Theory of Crisis, but also, inevitably, on the work of Marx himself, who wrote these words about the future of ‘the universal crisis’, which reverberate so loudly today:
The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeois most strikingly in the changes of the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of its action it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom-upstarts of the new, holy … empire.7
Ken C. Kawashima
March 26, 2021
Cf., Yutaka Nagahara, Tennōsei Kokka to Nōmin (The Emperor System and Peasants), Nihon Keizai Hyōronsha, 1989; and Warera kashi no arumonotachi: Han ‘shihon’ ron no tame ni [We, the Defective Commodities: For an Analytics of Anti-‘Capital’-ism], Tokyo: Seidosha (2008).
My debt to these professors goes well beyond their corrections of my translation, and extends to their research and published books. It was around 2010 that I began reading the works (in English) of Professor Makoto Itoh, especially his Value and Crisis and The Basic Theory of Capitalism: The Forms and Substance of the Capitalist Economy (1988). I also studied Professor Sekine’s English translations of two of the most important works in Uno’s method for political economy: Keizai Genron (II), or Principles of Political Economy: Theory of a Purely Capitalist Society (Harvester Press, 1980), and The Types of Economic Policies under Capitalism (Haymarket Books, 2016). My grasp of Marx’s Capital and Uno’s methodology was also deepened by Professor Kōsuke Oki’s Tomi naki jidai no shihonshugi (Capitalism in the Age of no Wealth) (Gendai Shōkan, 2019), and Jōyōkachi no seiji keizaigaku (The political economy of surplus value), Nihon Keizai Hyōronsha (2012), as well as by Professor Kiyoshi Nagatani’s Shijō keizai toiu yōkai: shihonron no chōsen to gendai (The Spectre of the Market Economy: Challenging the market economy and the present with Marx’s Capital), Shakai Hyōronsha, 2013.
Benjamin, Walter, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schoken Books, 1968.
Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 1990, p. 270.
Itoh and Lapavitsas, Political Economy of Money and Finance, Palgrave-McMillan, 1999, p. 135.
On the relation between the commodification of labour power and the politics of subject-formation, see Kawashima and Walker’s article, “Uno’s Theory of Crisis Today”, in this volume. See also Gavin Walker’s Sublime Perversion of Capital (2016), chapter 4, “Labor Power: Capital’s Threshold”.
Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, “Postface to the Second Edition”, p. 103.