You consume invisible labour but the labour you sell is invisible too. We are detached and alienated from both our production and consumption. How can we begin to see labour through the haze of obfuscation?


Liminal spaces are defined as “the physical spaces between one destination and the next.” Common examples of such spaces include hallways, airports, and streets. Deeming spaces as liminal has become a go-to critique of modern corporate architecture, it’s bland, it lacks character, it’s neither one place nor another, just something that one passes by. It lacks soul. The same critique is also often applied to corporate Memphis art style, the flat geometric people that litter corporate marketing. Again, it lacks soul. 

The critique is based on aesthetics. A mundane bland lack of interaction or intimacy. However, if we apply this concept to actual people we’re confronted by an uncomfortable truth. That the billions of people that build and maintain our world are themselves, liminal people. The invisible labour that keeps the engine of capital running. Those who stack the vegetables on the supermarket shelves overnight, the warehouse worker bringing the goods in at the crack of dawn, the dockworkers and sailors on the cargo ships with our precious supplies and the farm workers themselves often toiling away on distant soil far from their homes. This is the liminal labour, the liminal people, that allows for the ongoing spectacle of developed capitalist societies. Unseen by the apathetic eyes of consumers. 

Of course, the vast majority of this labour is rooted in the exploitation of the global south. The only interaction between those fellows who cut the hay and those who eat the beef is the occasional blurry glimpse they catch while backpacking across some former colonial backwater or while leafing through the pages of national geographic, perhaps occasionally one will wash up dead on their shores.

But here in the global south, where this kind of labour is semi-visible for the professional class, there is some kind of interaction, albeit mediated through the formalities of capital. Those Bangkok urbanites in their pristinely air-conditioned cars at least see the slums on a daily basis, if only from a distance

It seems the more advanced an economy the more labour is obfuscated from consumption. As you move through the GDP rankings workers go from being visible to opaque and then finally to entirely invisible. 

Who grew my rice?

ใครกันที่ปลูกข้าวของผม Who grew my rice? 

ใครกันที่ฆ่าไก่ให้ผมกิน Who killed my chicken? 

ใครกันเป็นคนถักทอเสื้อตัวนี้ Who made my clothes? 

How was the rice?

Did you finish eating your chicken?

Are the clothes comfortable?

What was their name? How are they doing today? Are they ok? Are they in love?

What about their mother or their grandmother? Their invisible reproductive labour, hidden behind closed doors, helped to build this mystery liminal person to whom I owe so much. They too contributed to the chicken in my curry and the rice on my plate or the clothes on my back. Generations of invisible labour, extracted surplus, behind closed doors, be they at the home, the factory or the warehouse. 

I am built off of the back of their labour, as are you reader, an invisible person yourself. 

Invisible Ancestors

This historical invisible labour accounts for every material and intellectual facet of life that we depend on. Be that labour waged or unwaged. The streets of London are paved by the invisible labour of their colonies. The waterways of Thailand are dredged and sculpted by the invisible corvee labour of the phrai. The rice cooker, which steams my lunch, was perfected over a century by the invisible electrical engineers, who walked those paved streets carrying rice from those dredged waterways. Who taught them to use a spoon, to walk, to say their first word, to read, to socialise? 

The true crime, of course, is that the vast majority of that invisible labour has been in service of reproducing and advancing those conditions of further labour extraction. 

All of those lives, 117 billion lives in our history. How can we fathom our debt to them?

For that matter, how dare we claim anything as our own? 

“This is my t-shirt, this is my phone, this is my house.”

How absurd. How wildly naive. How incredibly insulting. 

We are nothing without the invisible labour of others.

ใครกันที่ปลูกข้าวของผม Who grew my rice? 

ใครกันที่ฆ่าไก่ให้ผมกิน Who killed my chicken? 

ใครกันเป็นคนถักทอเสื้อตัวนี้ Who made my clothes?

What was their name? How are they doing today? Are they ok? Are they in love?

Of course, these are absurd questions, but the potential for any kind of meaningful change for the global proletariat is dependent on developing some kind of interaction with the invisible people, between the invisible people, developing some kind of consciousness of each other’s existence, our subjugation and how we are forced to subjugate one another. 

Have you ever been to a food warehouse? It’s an eerie experience, a liminal one even. Mountains of pallets, double wrapped in plastic, with a small A4 sheet denoting their contents, a far cry from the fecund supermarket shelves. The invisible food waits for its moment to become visible, and so too do the spectre of the invisible people.

Have you ever spoken to your grab driver? 

Or the guy who delivers your Shopee? 

Or the auntie who makes ก๋วยเตี๋ยว at one of those pre-determined bus stops on a long bus journey?

We joined a conference of left-wing activists recently, mainly from Bangkok. After a while the topic turned to the usual hand-wringing of “How do we talk to them?” We were honestly quite shocked… “What the fuck… You don’t talk to them?” We thought. But this isn’t what really shocked us, what shocked us most was their own assuredness that we had to talk to them, that it is our role to enlighten the working class on the nature of their suffering. We can’t just ask them how was their day, or how long have you worked here, or do you enjoy working here? No. We have to… Teach them about Marxism… 

Interaction is a two-way process. 

It begins with the basics: “How are you doing?” 

Even if you’re never going to meet that person again.

ใครกันที่ปลูกข้าวของผม Who grew my rice? 

ใครกันที่ฆ่าไก่ให้ผมกิน Who killed my chicken? 

ใครกันเป็นคนถักทอเสื้อตัวนี้ Who made my clothes?

What was their name? How are they doing today? Are they ok? Are they in love?

Maybe we won’t get all the answers to those questions, but we can make a start. This is a project of de-liminisation. To bring those people, to bring ourselves, out of liminality and into visibility. The catch is, this project, like all collective projects, only works if we all do it together. Talk, engage, interact– socialism, maybe after that we can start to agitate, organise and educate. 

Don’t for a moment forget that you too are a liminal being, an invisible person, pouring your labour into the void. A passenger in the back of a taxi, another customer in a crowded restaurant, another invisible worker selling labour, alone you are nothing. The only way to make yourself visible is in the eyes of others. The only way we can escape this liminality is together.