Remaindered Life

Ewan Cameron

A car stops at a busy intersection and the driver, on their way to work in an administrative position for a national construction company, winds down the window to purchase flowers from a street seller, the scent of the jasmine providing a brief respite from the fumes of the city. How best to describe this exchange? Marxist/Marxian scholarship often gets lost in debates over abstract technical categories. Is this the pettiest of the petty bourgeoisie meeting the wage labouring proletariat? Or are these simply two workers under the rule of capital? Neferti X.M. Tadiar’s Remaindered Life argues that the difference between the two is the extent to which society recognises and rewards them as humans or as expendable lives. Remaindered Life is about the gradations of labour under capital, and the conclusion breaks with orthodox Marxism to claim that it is not the wage-labourer that is the revolutionary subject, but the underclass, a strata exploited to a horrific extent while simultaneously finding the strength to create lives that can ‘neither be consumed nor subsumed by a value making order that transcends them’ (p. 331).

Still, this is a book that sits within the Marxist tradition, not as a downstream current, but as a fruit on a higher branch. Relation to the means of production still figures highly in this analysis, but the means here are not simply goods, money, land and labour, but social reproduction, i.e. the means of life itself, in forms that are recognisable as labour, but also those which fall into noneconomic spaces.

The difference between the waged worker and the street seller Is not merely about the amount of wealth that each has access to, but also their formal value to society. Both may be exploited, but the waged worker is still understood to be valuable – to a company, to the economy, to the nation – a life to be supported and nurtured. The other life is assumed to be disposable – a life whose value is continually declining as it heads towards inevitable wastage. It is this distinction that Remaindered Life exposes, and in doing so, the book highlights the ways in which those deemed disposable are still human.

On the macro level, theories of surplus humanity under capitalism have often been associated with processes of primitive, or primary, accumulation. In the West this resulted in a ‘draining of men from the surface of the land’,  leading to a surplus of urban workers.[i] Similar processes of dispossession and mass unemployment occur in the contemporary Global South. Yet, unlike in Europe, where immigration to the so-called New World and processes of imperial exchange acted as safety valves for the ‘reserve army of labour’, much of the dispossessed of the South can neither access formal labour markets nor migrate in search of them.

Tadiar follows Rosa Luxemburg in showing how noncapital spaces are an intrinsic requirement of capitalism’s own accumulation, with noncapital providing the ‘fertile soil’ for capital, which subsequently ‘lives from their ruin’. Tadiar argues, however, that Luxemburg’s theory is too simplistic; the worlds of non-capital are not mere spaces to be plundered and swallowed up, but places of life-making and survival and new forms of exploitation. These modes of survival, part of what Tadiar deems ‘the war to be human’, involve ‘orientations and sensibilities’ markedly different from the labour/capital milieu (p. 38).

In the modern South, then, instead of proletarianisation, we see ‘urbanization without growth’,[ii]  or what Kalyan Sanyal referred to as the ‘wasteland’.[iii] Sanyal, in his seminal Rethinking Capitalist Development, was in effect arguing for Marxists and Marxian theorists to acknowledge that the dispossessed were not merely a proletariat in waiting, but a class in and of itself. Tadiar’s Remaindered Life, while unfortunately not citing Sanyal, moves along the same lines in arguing that life outside (but never separate from) the sphere of formal wage labour needs to be understood as distinct from classic conceptions of the working class.

Tadiar’s schematic differentiates the multitude of workers, waged and unwaged, under capital into valued and disposable life, the latter of which she sometimes defines as the “becoming-human”, although thankfully in later chapters she drops this somewhat clunky neologism. Those living valued lives within this system develop, expand and grow their value, enabling them to transfer it to future generations. Conversely, those living remaindered lives are living lives of expendable value; they are used up and then disposed of. Migrant domestic workers, such as those travelling from the Philippines to work in the global north, are one such example of lives spent in auxiliary to valued life, “living the medium and source of life-times of use values for consumption in the production of the exchangeable life-times of others” (p. 97). The remaindered are not just a surplus condemned to the wasteland, but having been dispossessed, are re-conscripted as dehumanised tools for the formal economy of value making.

When it comes to describing power, Tadiar’s lens is a fractal one that is one that examines ‘the repetition of certain figurative patterns at smaller and larger, shrinking and expanding scales, where the component reproduces the figurative pattern of the whole of which it is a part’ (p. 148). Thus her narrative is able to shift between the global, the national and the micro, and the relations between them. By adding the fractal lens to her analysis, one in which the complexity of power and hierarchy exists at different scales, Tadiar offers a much more useful analysis of imperialism than is often commonplace, one that is more developed than the crude and often moralistic formulations that neglect differential power within states or, conversely, ignore the grander patterns of accumulation from ‘periphery’ to the system’s core.

Some of the early chapters in the book can be fairly dense, but it’s in Chapter 7 where the book really begins to soar, connecting theory to empirical accounts of life-making. Tadiar takes the reader on a tour of Manila’s ‘urban archipelago’, elite cities within cities that utilise and exploit infrastructure, architecture and cultural capital to carefully manage access through ‘a system of gated channelling’ (p. 150). Alongside ‘old’ identities are those that are becoming, e.g. a globally mobile class who perhaps have or at the least aspire to, more in common with elite from the North as their fellow citizens. Tadiar expertly brings together multiple scales here; while the internal dynamics of The Philippines highlight class at the intra-state scale, at the level of nations, the country is “a global provider of the means for the direct social reproduction of other societies” (p. 174). The notorious death squads of Rodrigo Duterte’s administration thus function to ‘underwrite’ the value of the Philippines on the global market, with extra-judicial executions a calculation of sorts that made the country more ‘safe’ for foreign investment.

On the flip side of the new global elite, and valued less than even the waged proletariat are the remaindered, those who live ‘liquid’ lives flowing through the interstices of capital’s formal structures. Selling flowers at highway intersections or renting themselves out as porters or sex workers. The rise of the platform economy is another expression of this dynamic, with global arbitrage creating a ‘worldwide service/servant stratum whose primary work is to save as well as produce the valuable time of their clients and employers’ (p. 157). A photo captured by the author of an advert for one of what appear to be now ubiquitous task platforms – “We do chores. You live life” – perfectly distills much of the argument. Again, the fractal lens of Tadiar’s discourse allows her to identify patterns of gender and racial exploitation while still acknowledging that these processes of dehumanisation, of workers being transformed into tools for the service of others, are a global phenomenon. 

Tadiar’s narrative is at pains to point out, despite the vast realms of technological and state power arrayed against those deemed surplus, that these lifetimes are not wholly determined. This, after all, is a “War to be Human”.  These are peoples, families and communities that are ‘present at their own making’[iv]. Tadiar takes a humanistic approach to this analysis, accounting for how the ‘remaindered’ ways of living are not simply in servitude, but also are host to ‘diverse bodily, perceptual, affective, and imaginative capacities and practices’. Art also features heavily in Tadiar’s analysis, not simply as a description of the underclass, but as a means of rebellion. Philippine art collective RESBAK (RESpond and Break the silence Against the Killings) for instance, generated an outpouring of art and performance in response to government-led extra-judicial killings are a practice that mobilises ‘socialities of dissent and sustenance’ (p. 271).

Theoretically there is nothing groundbreaking about acknowledging the gradations of labour under capitalism. The concept of disposable life, for instance, has clear links to Ruy Mauro Marini’s ‘super-exploitation’ and the way it broke with Euro-Marxist myths about stages of capitalism[v]. Tadiar’s focus is much the same, but she looks at this from a more human angle; instead of a value calculation in terms of monetary compensation, the overarching and compelling narrative here is of a “global polarization of social conditions in the capitalization of reproduction” (p. 158). In other words, it identifies a class strata of those who are cast as raw biological mass to serve the reproductive capacity of others. While similar to Marini, it follows Marxist-Feminism scholarship in adding unpaid labour to the calculation as well as less intuitive forms of value-exploitation. What Tadiar adds to theories of the ‘urban-excess’ is to realise that these lifetimes, disposable though they may be, are still sources of value to the formal economy, as tools and as whole populations rendered as “securitized assets” for the financial risk-taking of the higher class of ‘investor subjects’.

Overall this is an important book in terms of identifying new class formations in the contemporary era. While there is little economic analysis here nor attempt to quantify value exchange at various scales, the value of the book is how it sketches the outlines of a world system and the responses to it through a lens that centres humanity. Yet this is not a book that calls for human rights, at least in the sense of states granting on citizen subjects; instead, it’s a book that traces an early anthropology of an under-reported war to be human.


[i]      Marx, K. (1976) Capital Volume 1. [English Translation] London. Penguin.

[ii]    Davis, M. (2006) Planet of the Slums. London. Verso.

[iii]   Sanyal, K. (2007) Rethinking capitalist development. Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-Colonial Capitalism. Routledge. New Delhi.

[iv]    Thompson, E.P. (1963) The Making of the English Working Class. New York. Vintage Books.

[v]     Smith, J. (2018) Imperialist Realities vs. the Myths of David Harvey. African Review of Political Economy.