Earthly Plenitudes: A Study on Sovereignty and Labor

Reviewed by David

Bruno Gulli, Earthly Plenitudes: A Study on Sovereignty and Labor (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010)

Earthly Plenitudes is a deft study of sovereignty in its relationship to labor. It is a remarkably expansive work, weaving critiques of liberal philosophy with Nigerian literature, Calabrian idioms, St. Francis of Assisi, the Marx of the Grundrisse, the Belgian film La Promesse, Michael Moore’s Sicko, Jean Luc Nancy, and many other theorists, into an elegant text.

This work is relevant to a wide range of theoretical traditions. Those interested in Marxist-feminist critiques of productivity and work under capitalism will find that Gulli's ideas have much in common with their own, because this book begins where his earlier work on productive and unproductive labor left off.1 Feminist and Marxist-feminist readers will invariably note that Gulli arrives via a different theoretical route at similar conclusions about how capitalism genders and undervalues certain labors. Those interested in ontological critiques of individuality will find this book a must. Those engaged in the struggle over privatization and adjunctification of US universities will find chapter 4 a robust and accessible critique of the superexploitation of academic labor. Those who are in disability studies will want to know how Gulli sutures Kittay's ideas of dependency with his critique of the productive labor regime and in the process synthesizes the idea of an economy of care. Those interested in the Marx of the Grundrisse may wish to explore how Gulli takes up the position of living labor in reference to thinkers who are sometimes counterposed against Marx, such as Nancy, Agamben, Deleuze, and Bataille. Scholars who work against the orthodoxy that separates Marx and Agamben will find this text invaluable.

Earthly Plenitude is divided into two parts, 'Critique of Sovereignty' and 'Sovereignty and Labor.' In the first part, Gulli explicates critiques of sovereignty while outlining how these relate to his political ontology of labor. He begins with Marx's famous line: the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. For Gulli, this statement invokes individuals but does not reaffirm the liberal idea of individuality. Gulli argues that we must understand “the philosophical nature of this 'each'” (4), which ultimately requires that we “avoid reducing everything to the individual, its autonomy and liberty” (7). So Gulli's first claim is to remind us that we are not dealing with the commonly held conception of the individual. “To guide our analysis will be instead, the thisness of everyday life, the constant and various individuation of the most common... The most important aspect is the absence of any hierarchical structure of domination, the notion of sovereignty. I call this singularity, or the dignity of individuation,” writes Gulli (4, emphasis in text).

It is only after this anti-liberal reading of individuals that Gulli begins to address sovereignty in the way we most commonly think of it, as command, as unassailable power wielded against others. He notes that Leibniz, contra Hobbes and Bodin, claimed that there was no such thing as a totalizing unitary power. Instead Leibniz theorized a division between the power of empire and that of God. For Gulli, you can’t have a qualification to supreme power and still have a theory of supreme power. But this then presents the dilemma where positive law (the law of so-called sovereigns) is separated from natural law. It is a dilemma because it takes us right back to essentialism and traditional metaphysics.

In order to avoid such a return, Gulli brings the problematic into his reading of labor. If positive law is the legal system that legitimates the sovereign's most egregious abuses of power and natural law is the law that surpasses the sovereign's dictates, exposing their illegitimacy, Gulli argues that it is labor – rather than some universal code – that makes possible the act of de-legitimizing the sovereign. He understands labor, however, in a very broad sense, as implying “not strictly the working activity, such as in the factory, but all doing constituting, producing the social” (18).

Perhaps in anticipation of some confusion as to what he means here, Gulli uses John Brown's 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry, Sophocles' Antigone, and Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne's 1996 film La Promesse all to exemplify his claim. This is a moment in the text where Gulli's fluid breadth is on full display. For Gulli, John Brown and his insurrectionists worked with a universal, plural, natural law in mind, but it is not a universal in the metaphysical sense. It is universal “because it is not done in isolation, and it could not be done in isolation” (22). These conclusions lead to one of the most profound passages of the book. Gulli writes, “Thus a new community emerges, beyond the law: the community that repudiates slavery, the king’s unjust law, the boss, the father, and the system of exploitation of migrant labor. It is the community that repudiates sovereignty” (22, emphasis mine). This clarifies to a degree, yet it remains a challenge to fully grasp the force that is now signified by “community.” But to Gulli's credit he is working against our most ingrained assumptions about universalism, individuality, and labor.

The second part of Earthly Plenitudes begins with a chapter on exploitation in the privatizing public university system. Gulli unequivocally takes up both learning and teaching as labor, showing how he views the concept of labor analytically. Students, he says, “are certainly not consumers. They are producers, and they are consumed” (106, emphasis in text). Meaning, of course, that they are consumed by capital. This differentiates Gulli from writers and university labor activists who argue that classroom knowledge has become a commodity and that the student has been reduced to the status of a customer. For Gulli, if our goal is to “go beyond the concept of sovereignty in all its forms” (107), then we need to recognize the hierarchical power structure manifested in universities, and see how students are “much more like inmates, or patients in a hospital” (106). As for faculty, the trend toward contingency or flexibility is a move to make them more productive for capital accumulation than under the system of tenure.

In the final chapter Gulli takes up feminist critiques of unproductive labor and disability studies critiques of liberalism, in order to present a “general economy of care” (138). When Gulli writes about a care economy, or labor of care, he is not talking about affect in the vein of Hardt and Negri. Rather, he is taking up a Marxist-feminist stance that denounces capitalism’s undervaluation of ‘unproductive’ labor. Here Gulli builds directly on his earlier work, in which he articulates a conception of labor as encompassing essentially all human activity (“life itself”).2

Further, he grounds this chapter in volume 3 of Capital, where Marx argues that freedom begins “only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends” (quoted, 134). Gulli does not interpret this passage crudely as if we need to leave behind the realm of necessity, the realm of caring for, feeding, teaching, and creating the conditions of life for each other. The relationship here is not one of separation. In this critique he argues that we need to eradicate the division of labor that forces some to work in an undervalued realm of necessity while others appear to escape such work and so appear to have real freedom. Indeed, Gulli writes, “it is evident that domination and slavish labor (that is, sovereignty and productivity) cannot end until men start doing women’s work on a regular basis and women’s work itself ceases being women’s work” (139).

So the general economy of care is certainly not an economy that applies the logic of sovereignty and productivity to the work of caring for individuals – making all care work commodified and potentially productive for capital. This is not desirable for obvious reasons. Gulli writes, “It is as important to realize that the solution cannot lie in making all unproductive labor productive, but rather in eliminating the distinction as such” (143).

At 158 pages of text, Earthly Plenitudes is not a long work. But it covers a lot of ground, as it moves from Leibniz’s critique of Hobbes to the transformations of academic labor to disability theory. This makes it a challenging read, but especially rewarding for those who follow the text in its entirety and take seriously the author’s underlying ontology of labor.

David Spataro The Graduate Center City University of New York


1. See Bruno Gulli, Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor between Economy and Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

2. Quoting Karl Polanyi. Ibid., 3.