Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

David Kazanjian


In the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx outlines a collective grouping of “nebulous figures” who exist outside the wage relation and remain merely specters upon the terrain of bourgeois political economy, lives only recognized during the working hours of the production process. This project explores how cultural representations of these nebulous figures during the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America evince a social desire to abolish the form of wage labor itself, a political modality articulated by Herman Melville in his 1854 novella The Encantadas as a “Riotocracy.” Rather than looking to depictions of work, this project focuses upon elucidating how portrayals of those on the outsides and undersides of wage labor reveal a robust critical capacity for conceptualizing the rejection of work within capitalism as a form of communistic poiesis, a fundamentally creative act of collective worldmaking. Chapter I demonstrates how idleness disrupts the spatio-temporal rhythm of capitalism’s workday and argues that it signals a revolutionary desire for free time. Chapter II turns to the tramp as a nebulous figure who both constructs a commons upon the private property of capital’s commodity flows and crafts a collectivist aesthetic grounded in riotocratic aims. Chapter III examines American realist and naturalist novels at the fin de siècle, positing that the literary depictions of nebulous figures therein continually evade and exceed these genres’ attempts at representational totality. Chapter IV analyzes a variety of formal representational strategies which each attempt to tie life on the outskirts of the wage to a revelation of material reality. The conclusion looks to the political afterlife of the riotocracy from the 1930s to the present. In tracing a political economic theorizing from below, this study identifies these nebulous figures and their riotocratic political desire as thoroughly embedded within nineteenth- and twentieth-century American cultural production and concludes that the anti-work utopianism of those on the margins of wage labor manifests in the assembly of improvisatory commons rooted in a restaging of value.