Kojin Karatani and the Repetition of History

by tigermanifesto


Note: this will not be a full review of the book, but rather an exploration of the first two essays that lay out Karatani’s thoughts on historical repetition. I may write a part two to this post if I get around to it and if I can get through my books on Japanese political economy in a timely fashion.

Kojin Karatani came to prominence in the English speaking world through his engagements with Derrida and, subsequently, through Žižek’s appropriation of his concept of “parallax” in one the Slovenian academic’s many books. Though largely sold as a philosopher and literary critic, he’s written on a baffling variety of subjects––one of the few attributes he shares with Žižek––and a sadly unsubstantiated claim on his wikipedia entry says that his nickname is “The Thinking Machine.” Most of the essays in the essay collection History and Repetition are indeed historically informed literary criticism, and those are precisely the ones we will be ignoring, at least for now. I’m somewhat familiar with authors like Oe, Murakami, and Soseki, but not so much that I can usefully comment on them or Karatani’s view of them at this point.

Like other scholars, Karatani’s work is founded on the ideas of past thinkers and writers in his field(s). From these essays and reviews of his work that I’ve read, I think we can understand him better if we situate him alongside thees influences. In terms of political thought and historical insight, he largely turns to Marx and the tradition of Marxism as it evolved in the Japanese context. Specifically, he greatly admires the thought of Marxian political economist Kozo Uno, who conceived of capitalism primarily as a mode of exchange rather than a mode of production (hence the subtitle to Karatani’s book on the structure of world history). It’s also notable that his understanding of world history and the capitalist system borrows much of its substance from Immanuel Wallerstein and the other world-systems thinkers. If much of Karatani’s thinking about history bears a certain resemblance to that of Fernand Braudel and the Annales school, Wallerstein may be the transmitter in that case. For philosophy, his major work on Marx has been done through an engagement with Kant, which I have not read and cannot comment on. If you want a fuller exploration of some of Karatani’s political views, he founded a political organization called the New Associationist Movement (NAM) that has a manifesto of sorts available online.

I want to sink my historians’ teeth into the first two essays in the collection, which are of immediate relevance to both my political practice and my academic work. As suggested by the title, these essays reflect on the ways in which history repeats itself. He recognizes that human history is characterized by both linear and cyclical patterns. As he says in the first essay, entitled “On The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,”:

“Events themselves are able to evade repetition, whereas a given structure––such as the business cycle––is unable to do so.”¹

In the first essay, his concern is not so much with the business cycle but with the inherent “repetition compulsion” inherent in the modern nation-state. This compulsion, he argues, is at the heart of Marx’s analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire. He borrows the idea of repetition compulsion from Freud, arguing that this compulsion manifests as the revival in the present of that which has been repressed in the past. The return of a void from which some unsavoury element has been purged. The capitalist mocks the Scrooge, but every financial crisis leaves people scampering after the gold. Likewise, Karatani argues, the parliamentary democracy under capitalism has banished the king but must bring him back once in awhile to put its affairs in order. Like the feudal lords who bolstered the absolutist monarchs who obviated them, the capitalists must occasionally put aside the competitive, representative debates of the parliament for a cavalier executive who can put the interests of the entire class over that of this or that faction.

For Karatani, just as the crisis is part of the repetitive compulsion of the business cycle, political crises are inherent in the structure of representative democracies. “If Capital engaged economy as a question of representation [e.g. the mystification inherent in the money form, its reality and fetishistic qualities], The Eighteenth Brumaire engages with politics along similar lines,”² he writes, indicating that this work by Marx is indispensable for our present time because we are in a time that is seeing a recurrence of the 1930s. Karatani specifically looks to Marx’s work to understand the nature of Japanese fascism. Namely, just as the rise of Louis Napoleon constituted a counterrevolution that in many ways carried the trappings of a revolution (since Napoleon III implemented quite a few Saint-Simonian proposals in his attempt to revive the French economy), the 1930s saw a global counterrevolution against the rise of the Soviet Union. Just as a vaccine must contain a weakened or neutralized virus to be effective, the counterrevolution that is meant to inoculate capitalism from leftist revolution must make a direct appeal to mass politics. Hitler and Roosevelt, as different as their politics were, both served the role of the saviour of capitalism, captains of class conciliation who facilitated the greater inclusion of the workers in the capitalist state for the sake of that state. 

Fascism is therefore, for Karatani, a kind of Bonapartism, which he sees as endemic to popular and representative forms of government. Unlike the absolute monarchy, the Bonapartist rules through direct appeal to the people––Hitler’s election, Napoleon’s plebiscite, perhaps someday a reality show?––usually under the name of the nation. He notes that Marxists in the fascist countries had no framework for understanding fascism within a Marxist framework, and therefore brought in psychoanalysis (Frankfurt School) or social psychology/anthropology (in Japan) to produce some kind of analysis. Yet, Karatani, argues, The Eighteenth Brumaire is a far more lucid exploration of the processes that produce fascist counterrevolutions. In effect, the Bonapartist, or fascist, dictator is one who stands for the state, for the nation as a whole, transcending class divisions.

Some of the most vital writing in these two essays is about how Napoleon III “consciously put into practice the maxim that media-created image shapes reality.”³ He governed through performance and spectacles, including world expos and even, the book says, his own coup d’état, which was more on the order of a staged event than a military action. His actions were ridiculous, violent, unexpected. In effect, they were a smokescreen, which certainly reminds one of certain political personalities who run amok these days. I certainly see in Karatani’s analysis some truths that persist in our own crisis of representational democracy. With voter participation rates falling throughout the capitalist centre and right populists with an axe to grind winning offices (mayor of Toronto, governor of Tokyo in the recent past, presidential nominations in the USA), it’s important to account for the problem of representation and how political forces establish affinities––and lose them. We’ve been living in a world where mass politics have become increasingly narrow and technical, governed by hideously expensive electoral machines and a convergence of all parties around centrist, technocratic politics. Neoliberalism. What happens when the pendulum swings back the other way, and the politicians start stumping for the masses again, appealing for national vengeance against the bankers, and in the same breath, the expulsion of all the “parasites?”

Perhaps unintentionally, the author connects this repetition––the return of the king, the transformation of the modern nation-state into an empire––with the rise of new forms of imperialism and even the labour aristocracy:

“British labourers were able to counter the ‘impoverishment rule”…and attain wealth because capital was able to extract surplus value from foreign trade. The impoverishment was generated not domestically but rather among people abroad. Therefore, it is incorrect to consider surplus value within the enclosed confines of a one-nation model.”⁴

So as capitalism goes through its repetitive compulsions that draw it inevitably into crisis, it produces new forms that reorganize society but not in ways that escape that compulsion. No matter how revolutionary capitalism can be, it can never escape its own internal logic. When one layers the repetitive compulsions of nation-state politics onto that scene, one starts to get an idea for what the capitalist system truly is and how it functions in a concrete way.

Speaking of which, the second essay in the book concerns the specific case of Japan. I want to go over this part briefly since much of the essay revisits the same concerns in the first but in a more abbreviated fashion. The most productive parts of the essay discuss the specificities of Japanese fascism and its relation to the idea of repetition. These repetitions happen on two levels: that of consciousness, where people summon up images of the past to explain an uncertain present, and in reality, where real historical systems work in cyclical patterns to condition events. For example, the Meiji Restoration of 1867-1890 presented itself as a revival of ancient imperial power against the shogunate usurpers. Yet what it established was not the old empire but a radical new form that could usher in the birth of capitalism in Japan. The emperor was an active part of the new state, though his precise role was debated by the “elder statesmen” of the Meiji era. What’s for sure is that he was given extra-parliamentary powers and  authority over the military, which helped to check the power of the representative body (Diet) and the cabinet.

The two curious personalities he uses to illustrate the contradictions of Japanese fascism are Kita Ikki and Konoe Fumimaro, the former a national socialist who was executed for an attempted coup and the latter a wartime Japanese prime minister. Kita argued for the nationalization of large enterprises and the expropriation of the biggest landlords, but this was to be supplemented by a program of vast conquests, also promoting partial worker ownership of and participation in private enterprises. He believed that a true representative system could not do without an emperor who was the only one above politics, who could represent all the people in a truly “democratic” way. He was defeated, but some of his ideas lived on in the programs of Konoe, who worked with Marxists and had ties to the peasant movement despite also being an aristocrat with military connections. In other words, he was able to bridge the strong divide in Japan between the military and the state apparatus (bureaucracy) and the representative system, as well as between different classes. It was Konoe’s decision to forge an alliance with Italy and Germany, as well as to expand the war in China. Many of his proposals, his so called “new order,” were only implemented by the American occupation, in an odd twist of fate. Konoe, then, the conservative with radical ideas, laid the foundation for the future of Japanese capitalism.


Konoe Fumimaro

Karatani’s two essays on historical repetition and cyclical movements were written in the 1990s, under the belief that the 90s would embody a repetition of the 1930s. Of course, this was also the vaunted “end of history” as proclaimed by capital with Fukuyama as its herald. Karatani rejects this and argues instead for the idea that history might move in cycles but that these cycles do not repeat without radical differences. Despite the time gap, I would argue that his concepts still have some utility, as I’ve tried to show in relation to our current crisis in parliamentary representation, which has been developing rapidly since the 1970s. As a historian these insights help provide some clarity as to how to treat the political system as an autonomous entity that has a certain relationship with the economy rather than being a simple reflex. At the same time, his notion of structures is not elaborated––I imagine it might have been in his book Structure of World History––so I’m left somewhat puzzled as to what he means by “structure.” He seems to question or reject the Althusserian idea of overdetermination in one part, so I hesitate to read his idea of structures in the same way that it appears in Reading Capital, but, again, it’s unclear. There’s also not much in the way of an elaboration of what is to be done. Of course, these are short essays, and in a sense we have Karatani’s answer to that question in the NAM, but given the problem that right-wing nationalism currently poses in Japan, and the danger it poses to every human being today, we need to take this kind of analysis further and find ways to act and organize against all the wannabe Bonapartes we see gathering around us.

And if Karatani’s analysis is worth anything, it tells us that relying on the parliamentary system is not the way to go. One cannot debate away class struggle, and it’s best to be ready for the force that will come down on your head.


  1.  Kojin Karatani, History and Repetition (Columbia University Press, 2012), 2.
  2.  Ibid, 4.
  3.  Ibid, 17.
  4.  Ibid, 25.