The Past & Present Reading Group recently held a workshop on ‘negative totality,’ read through the work of Chris O’Kane, who has developed and defended that concept within contemporary critical theory. In lieu of his attendance (due to our failure to achieve space-time compression), we have delivered to him a set of ten questions on negative totality, and he has graciously responded to these in this post. These questions have a loose thematic organisation, beginning with the theoretical resources underpinning negative totality (Q1–4), moving through concerns with abstraction (Q5–6), and turning to questions about political subjectivity (Q7–10). We have subtitled these sections for ease of reference. Chris has provided some prefatory comments on the conditions of labour that brought about his ideas, and we thank him for his engagement in this dialogue.
Before I respond to the questions posed by the workshop attendees I would like to give them my deep and sincere thanks. I would like to do the same to the seminar organizers, Anna Sturman and Riki Scanlan.
I would also like to give an overview of the context in which the articles you discussed were written. The articles that were read and discussed in the workshop were written during a five-year period of overwork and contingent employment. I taught 3 or 4 classes per term and in 4 different disciplines at three different universities. I applied to hundreds of jobs and even though I was doing what you are supposed to do — publishing prolifically — I was getting nowhere. Last, but certainly not least, the most recent article that was read in the workshop, ‘Critical Theory and the Critique of Capitalism’, was completed in February and March of 2021 when our neighborhood in Queens, New York City was the center of the global then novel COVID outbreak. I was nearing total burn out and considering other career options. Yet I felt compelled to get my ideas out there in some form before I left the academy.
These conditions are now the norm for PhD graduates in the humanities and social sciences. Many of my peers continue to hang on in precarious underemployment or they have left academia. They have suffered. Scholarship has been irreparably damaged.
The only reason I am still in the academy is because of luck and sacrifice by my partner. I now have the extraordinarily fortunate opportunity to revisit the ideas and perspectives I sketched out in these and other articles and to develop them into books. The following questions that were raised by the Past & Present Reading Group were of enormous help in initiating this process. I am very grateful for the opportunity to answer them. Rather than trying to recreate or approximate the intended perspective of the particular articles discussed in the workshop, I have answered the questions from the perspective of someone who is looking back at the ideas outlined in these articles in order to develop them into two book projects. Once again, I thank Anna, Riki, and the participants for the invaluable and rewarding opportunity.
Theorising negative totality
1. To start us off (before some of the fiendishly difficult questions), can you give a brief overview of the concept of negative totality?
I think the best way to give a brief overview of a concept that I find fiendishly difficult to describe, let alone briefly sketch, is to skip an intellectual genealogy of the idea of negative totality in Horkheimer, Adorno, Open Marxism, and the new readings of Marx. Instead, I will first indicate how I developed an interest in negative totality. I will then give an overview of the outline of the negative totality of capitalist society that I have developed in two of the articles that were read in the workshop on negative totality—‘Critical Theory and the Critique of Capitalism’ and ‘Reification and the Critical Theory of Contemporary Society.’
My focus on negative totality came out of the process of thinking through the relationship between Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory and the work of those in what I have termed the ‘subterranean strand of critical theory’. These figures—primarily Alfred Schmidt, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Moishe Postone, Simon Clarke and Werner Bonefeld—are often grouped in ‘value-form theory,’ ‘the new reading of Marx’ or ‘Open Marxism’. However, rather than assessing the validity of their interpretation of Marx’s theory of value, my interest in the work of these figures pertains to how they conceive of the critique of political economy as a critical theory of society.
As I discuss in more detail in question 2 and 10, my work on these ideas and figures were cultivated while I was doing my PhD at the University of Sussex while I was also participating in the UK student movement and anti-austerity struggles. The articles that were discussed in the workshop are representative of me trying to think through this approach to critical theory. More specifically the articles that were discussed in the workshop represent my attempts to draw on this approach to critical theory to develop a critique of capitalism and its recent historical trajectory that was lacking in the predominant elements of the Marx revival and Habermasian critical theory. In my view, the former (Horkheimer, Adorno and the subterranean strand of critical theory) never developed a satisfying critical theory of all of the domains of capitalist society while the latter (contemporary Habermasian critical theory and recent Marxist writings on social reproduction, the state, and nature) did not provide critical theories of these areas of capitalist society. My outlines of negative totality were an attempt to work out a critique of capitalist society as what Adorno calls the ‘negative unity of unfreedom.’ On this basis, as I discuss below in more detail, I also developed criticisms of Habermasian critical theory and traditional Marxism’s foreshortened theories of capitalism.
Following Adorno, the negative totality of capitalist society is conceived as:
a sort of linking structure between human beings in which everything and everyone depend on everyone and everything; the whole is only sustained by the unity of the functions fulfilled by all its members, and each single one of these members is in principle assigned such a function, while at the same time each individual is determined to a great degree by is membership in this total structure.
Further following Adorno, such a notion of negative totality is a ‘critique of society’ because it ‘does not merely describe and weigh institutions and processes of society, but confronts them with what underlies these, with the life of those upon whom these institutions have been imposed, and those of whom the institutions themselves are to such a great extent composed.’
In other words, predominant contemporary approaches to Marx and critical theory draw on traditional interpretations of Marx, Habermas, Polanyi and others to conceive of capitalist society in terms of structure and agency, the balance of class forces, system and lifeworld, society and the market, or foreground and background spheres. I draw together the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, the aforementioned figures in the subterranean strand of critical theory, Kirstin Munro and others to try to critically grasp how the historically specific social form of capitalist society is realized in the interdependent social spheres of the economy, state, and household which compel individuals to reproduce capitalist society, maiming them and resulting in the great misery.
Thus far my outlines of negative totality resemble the following.
Drawing on Adorno and Schmidt I hold that social historical development has consisted in the domination of external and internal nature with capitalist society consisting in a historically specific form of the domination of external and internal nature. Drawing on and extending Marx, Schmidt and Bonefeld the constitutive premise of capitalist society was created by primitive accumulation. The state separated people from their means of reproduction and expropriated land and wealth for the ruling classes. This created the capital relation and the historically-specific forms of property, labour, and wealth. A class of workers who were doubly free were compelled to compete with each other to sell their labour power in exchange for wages to a class of capitalists who purchased their labour power to compete with each other to valorize value. Private households emerged as the domain of domestic labour which sustained the sellers of labour power. The state transformed into the capitalist state, an entity which sustained these spheres and such a society. Hence, these constitutive premises appear in their results: the negative totality of capitalist society. Moreover, each of these reified realms compel individuals to act in certain ways that reinforce the other spheres and reproduce capitalist society.
In contrast to traditional Marxism and Habermasian critical theory, the capitalist economy is not then criticized on the basis of how the distribution of the proceeds of labour do not meet the needs of labourers. Rather, my critical theory demonstrates how the historically specific social form of private and social labour creates the abstractions of value that compel individuals to organize labour in a way that perpetuates capitalist society. The categories of political economy are not just forms of thought but real abstractions that grasp the necessary appearance of such a historically-specific antagonistic social reality. Although a fully-fledged recapitulation of these categories exceeds the confines of this response they consist in the historically specific dual character of labour, the forms of value and their subsidiaries, which mediate the process of production, accumulation, and reproduction via ‘the personification of things and the reification of persons’ (Marx 1976, 209).
From this it follows that capitalists are ‘personifications of economic categories’ compelled by the historically specific natural laws of accumulation to compete to acquire profit in the form of money. As ‘character masks’, workers are compelled by the ‘dull compulsion of economic categories’ to compete with each other to sell their labour power as a commodity in exchange for a wage determined by the labour market in order to survive. Capitalists purchase the commodity labour power on the labour market because it is a peculiar commodity that can produce more value than it costs. Since profit is incumbent upon selling commodities on the market while maximizing surplus value, capitalists are compelled to maximize working hours, reduce wages, and increase productivity. This leads to the revolutionizing of production via supervision, an increasing division of labour and reliance on machinery, resulting in deskilling, the maiming, displacement and fragmentation of workers. This dynamic is replicated across the social division of labour as whole. The accumulation of capital is not then the production of an expanding basket of goods that would serve as the basis of socialism if it was not pilfered by capitalists, nor is it an inevitable process in which wage labour is replaced by the rising organic composition capital. Rather, the ‘productive’ worker is a ‘fragment of a machine’ who cares as ‘much about the crappy shit he has to make as does the capitalist himself who employs him, and who also couldn’t give a damn for the junk’ (Marx 1973, 273). Moreover, the result of this form of production is a blind crisis-ridden process of accumulation of wealth at one pole and misery at the other pole through the multiplication of the proletariat and the reproduction of separation on an expanding scale.
The household is not a private sphere separate from the economy or state, nor is domestic labour separate from productive labour. Rather, ‘Private life, the zone of individuality’, is ‘absorbed by so-called social activities and thus likewise molded by … the schemata of society’ (Adorno 2019, 64). The existence of the Household is incumbent upon private property and the state. A household also requires wages and/or state revenue. Reproducing a household consists in domestic labour performed in accordance with these imperatives. As Kirstin Munro demonstrates, the household is thus inherent to private property, atomization, and competition. Domestic laborers, moreover, are sustainers of private households and the commodity of labour power. The activities of domestic labour are rationalized in response to different types of revenue. In this martyrology of reproductive labour, the stultifying and maiming activities of domestic labour sustain individuals as bearers of the commodity of labour power. In so doing, the household and domestic labour also sustain private property, competition, exploitation, and the maiming of subjectivity, contributing to the reproduction of the negative totality of capitalist society.
The state mediates and reinforces the economy and household. The form of the capitalist state and the form of law formalize and reinforce the separation of producers from the means of production. Class antagonism and anti-capitalist politics are displaced and depoliticized in the political sphere, where different parties compete for the votes of citizens whom they ostensibly represent. Emancipatory policies are transformed into ‘bureaucratic apparatuses of integration.’ So that social and economic policies, whether progressive or regressive, depoliticize class struggle and individual autonomy through bureaucratic integration.
Hence the constitutive premises of separation appear in the resulting historically specific form of capitalist society as a negative totality. The activities people perform in these interdependent spheres on pain of ruin perpetuate such a society. Such a critique illuminates capitalist society as the ‘unity of unfreedom’ dependent on this historically specific form of separation and the domination of external and internal nature in order to transform it. As I discuss in further detail in Questions 5 and 10, such a critique of negative totality also illuminates the foreshortened notions of emancipation developed by contemporary approaches to traditional Marxism and Habermasian critical theory that conceive of emancipation in terms of the reordering of capitalist society.
2. To what extent can a grand synthesis of critical theories of society and abstract domination be realised by integrating Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Theodor Adorno, Henri Lefebvre, and Moishe Postone, Helmut Reichelt and Derek Kerr? Does a call for synthesis between complementary approaches to critical theories of real abstraction disclose an attempt to assimilate, fend off, or anticipate criticisms? What are the politics at stake in forming a synthesis?
These are important questions. I don’t yet have definitive answers to them. But I can provide provisional answers to them if I take you through the conclusions I arrived at in the process of working through the ideas of critical theory, abstract domination, real abstraction, and negative totality.
The ideas of abstract social domination and real abstraction were central to my 2013 PhD thesis, which reconstructed fetishism as a theory of social constitution and social domination in Marx, Lukács, Lefebvre, and Adorno. Yet, as I alluded to above, my thesis was not written in a vacuum. Rather it was written in my room. I wasn’t just thinking about these figures’ theories of fetishism and social domination in a purely reconstructive manner. I was also trying to think through what these theories could offer to an understanding of capitalism and the movements of the squares that my friends in the communisation milieu and elsewhere hadn’t put forward.
At this time, I was quite influenced by the reading of Marx and criticisms of Adorno and Lukács by figures in the Neue Marx Lektüre, such as Ingo Elbe and Michael Heinrich. I thought that Marx’s theory of fetishism centered on the fetishistic forms of value as forms of social domination. I also thought that Lukács, Adorno’s and Lefebvre’s theories of social domination were undermined by their poor understanding of Marx’s theory of value. The conclusion to my thesis crudely gestured towards a sort of synthesis of a Heinrichcian value-form theoretical interpretation of Marx and Political Marxism that drew on elements of Adorno and Lefebvre.
I continued to work through these ideas after I completed my thesis. I also read and thought about Werner Bonefeld’s Critical Theory and the Critique of Society—which has been central to my work. I came to realize that the perspective I had developed in my PhD thesis on Marx, Lukács, Adorno and Lefebvre was rather one-sided. One couldn’t simply revitalize Adorno or Lefebvre’s ideas of fetishism and social domination by grounding them on the right interpretation of Marx’s theory of value. Adorno and Lefebvre’s theories of fetishism and social domination exceeded the reconstruction of Marx’s critique of political economy that these interpretations of his theories of value were premised on. Hence rather than simply coming up with a new theory of fetishism and social domination in the critique of political economy, the task should be to come up with a critical theory of social domination in capitalist society.
This is the subtext of the movement from my work on fetishism and real abstraction to negative totality. ‘The Critique of Real Abstraction: from the Critical Theory of Society to the Critique of Political Economy and Back Again’ marks a turning point in this process of development. My criticisms of approaches to real abstraction that seek to extend the critique of political economy by adding new categories of real abstraction are as much a critical self-reflection on my earlier views on these questions as it a criticism of Jason Moore’s and others’ approaches to real abstraction. My call for a synthetic critique of real abstraction that unites critical theory with the new reading of Marx was also a provisional attempt to integrate different figures to first work out a critical theory of fetishism and social domination. However, it then became clear to me that such an approach required a critical theory of the negative totality of capitalist society.
Now that I am fortunate enough to have the time, I am undertaking two related book projects that will hopefully provide a more systematic answer to question 2. The first book, provisionally entitled Fetishism, Social Domination, and the Critical Theory of Society will map the employment of fetishism and social domination in the critical social theories of Marx, Lukács, Horkheimer, Adorno, Postone, and Bonefeld. I hope the book will provide new perspectives on these thinkers and the development of ‘Frankfurt School Critical Theory.’ It is also intended to set the stage for a second book on the critical theory of negative totality where I will draw on these and other thinkers to provide such a critical theory.
This being the case, my provisional answer to the question is that I’m not sure that a grand synthesis of critical theories of society and abstract domination can be realised by drawing on these particular thinkers. Nonetheless each of the critical theories of abstract domination developed by these thinkers do have important gaps and blindspots that I am trying to draw on and develop in my work on fetishism and negative totality. I would also say that such a synthesis represents an attempt to overcome my particular criticisms of these approaches and thinkers while assimilating their insights. I discuss the political stakes in more detail below (see questions 8-10). For now, I will just say that such a synthesis endeavors to put forward what I see as the political stakes of the Frankfurt School and the critical theoretical elements of the new reading of Marx that critique abstract domination as inherent to the historically specific and antagonistic organization of capitalist society in order to transform it.
3. In terms of the intellectual resources that shape your analysis of abstract domination, to what extent could there be more engagement with the Marxian critical theory of Wertkritik—also known as value-critique or the critique of value—led by central figures such as inter alia Roswitha Scholz and Robert Kurtz?
That’s a good question. Wertkritik and I share many influences—notably Marx, Adorno, and Postone—and we have a similar project: developing critical theory and the critique of political economy. Finally, there is much that I admire in Wertkritik; including their critique of labour, and gender. I am also thankful for the efforts of Neil Larsen, Mathias Niles, Josh Robinson and Chronos Publications to bring Werkritik into anglophone critical theory. So I certainly agree there could be more engagement with Wertkritik in my work.
However, I have refrained from using Wertkritik as an intellectual resource in my own work largely for three reasons:
- I have so far found that I have already drawn on our similar influences to develop what I might find useful in their work. For instance, I think their critique of labour is brilliant, but like them, I also draw on Postone;
- Scholars in the Anglosphere—such as Endnotes and Amy De’ath—have already taken up Scholz’s interesting work on gender far better than I ever could; and
- I find their critical theory of society too dependent on their theory of crisis.
Since 1, and 2 are rather straightforward let me go into 3 in more detail.
Rather than criticizing the workers’ movement, Keynesianism, and Universal Basic Income (UBI) for perpetuating abstract social domination, in what I have read Wertkritik tends to argue that these movements and aspirations are impossible because of the unfolding crisis of capitalism. Even if is this is true, it certainly hasn’t been an effective criticism of these aspirations. UBI is probably now more popular than ever. Resurgent social democratic theories and movements contend that the state can do the impossible and provide full employment, a robust safety net, and a Green New Deal.
More importantly, in my view this means that Wertkritik supplants a critical social theory of abstract domination with a theory of crisis. This is why rather than premising the critique of capitalist society on an inexorable crisis of accumulation, in my writings, I have tried to critique capitalist society as a crisis-ridden negative totality. Instead of criticizing reformism as impossible, I have tried to show that even at times of expansion or during its fabled social democratic golden age, capitalism consists in exploitation, domination, and misery. In my view that is a more effective critical theory of capitalist society and this difference of theoretical emphasis is why, despite its merits, I have not really engaged with Wertkritik.
4. Your work draws on Open Marxism in fresh ways. One of the long-standing debates around that approach concerns periodization. Where do you stand on the theoretical and political utility of periodization, as a category of abstraction?
This is a complicated question. Friends and colleagues, such as Endnotes, Joshua Clover, Mònica Clua-Losada, Charles Prusik, Fabian Arzuaga, Christos Memos and others have done important critical work that uses periodization as a category of abstraction in theoretically sophisticated ways that are linked to emancipatory politics.
However, especially in Frankfurt School critical theory, these types of periodizations are the exceptions to the rule. This is because Frankfurt School critical theorists have had the unfortunate tendency to develop periodizations that are theoretically flawed and politically problematic.
This was the case virtually from the beginning of critical theory. In the early Frankfurt School, for instance, Friedrich Pollock’s periodization of state capitalism argued that the state management of the economy had overcome the law of value. Horkheimer’s use of Pollock’s theory certainly provided some critical insights into the authoritarian state (although much of the secondary literature on the Frankfurt school argues that Adorno adhered to Pollack’s notion of state capitalism, I complicate this claim in ‘Society Reproduces Itself Despite the Catastrophes that May Eventuate’). The concept of state capitalism also provided a comparative vantage point to criticise state rule in the Eastern and Western bloc. Yet Pollock’s theory of state capitalism remained flawed because it failed to unite these insights into state management of the economy with the persistent social dynamic of class antagonism and accumulation. The young Habermas’s periodization was one of the few areas where he continued the work of the early Frankfurt School. Mirroring Pollock, Habermas’s periodization of “advanced capitalism” was premised on the contention that capitalism’s crisis tendencies had been overcome and displaced into state administration. As this suggests, I do think it is the case that these periodizations in Frankfurt School Critical Theory are guilty of the criticisms that Open Marxists have made of periodization. These periodization’s of ‘late capitalism’ and ‘advanced capitalism’ do indeed tend to focus on particular economic and political developments to characterize new stages capitalism that are claimed to have overcome capitalism’s inherent dynamics.
Unfortunately, this problematic approach to periodization has continued in modern critical theory. This is why I have actually drawn on Open Marxism’s criticisms of periodization—specifically Simon Clarke’s and Werner Bonefeld’s—to criticize the prevalent sorts of periodizations you see in modern critical theory and the heterodox economics approaches they draw on. In these works, I have also developed my aforementioned approach to historical development as crisis-ridden permanent catastrophe. Let me provide a brief overview of the former and the latter.
In ‘State, Capital and Economic Policy’ and a chapter in the forthcoming Adorno and Marx: Negative Dialectics and the Critique of Political Economy, I engage with the sort of periodizations of neoliberalism you see in contemporary critical theory by figures such as Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser that largely draw on neo-Polanyian, Keynesian, neo-institutionalist, and Marxian heterodox economics. As I show, these critical and heterodox theories conceive of the economy and the state as transhistorical entities. They develop periodizations on the basis of different configurations of state oversight of the economy. For these thinkers Keynesianism is seen as a time of prosperity, stability, and equality provided by government oversight of the economy in the name of public interest, facilitating, mass production, high wages, and a robust safety net. Neoliberalism is seen as antithetical to Keynesianism: the state has withdrawn from overseeing the economy serving private interests by facilitating privatization, austerity and precarity. Socialism consists in a democratic counter movement against neoliberalism via a state project of progressive legislation that re-embeds the economy in society.
I then draw on Agnoli, Clarke and Bonefeld’s work to develop a negative dialectical critique of this approach to periodization in order to demonstrate its theoretical and political flaws. The economy is not transhistorical, and politics does not amount to the regressive or progressive state oversight of the distribution of the proceeds of labour. Rather, the state is a moment in capitalist society. Rather than representing public or private interests, it represents capital in general. Although one approach to legislation may be more progressive than the other, they both reproduce capitalism, depoliticize class struggle, and undermine working class autonomy. Furthermore, Keynesianism was not solely characterized by Keynesianism polices. Neoliberalism does not just consist in neoliberal policies. Rather than conceiving of capitalist history in terms of ‘state capitalism’, ‘advanced capitalism’ or the antithetical periodizations of Keynesianism and neoliberalism, I thus draw on Adorno to conceive of the development of capitalism as permanent catastrophe.
So this is how I have found Open Marxism’s criticisms of periodization to be perceptive and useful in my work.
5. Your work rightly notes that Karl Marx never used the term ‘real abstraction’. However, he does articulate the notion of false abstraction to criticise methodological nationalism and treatments of the nation as a unified body (Capital, Vol. III). If we move, then, through the notions of real abstraction and false abstraction and carry in our thinking Derek Sayer’s notion of The Violence of Abstraction are all abstractions equal? How do we distinguish between a ‘real abstraction’ and a ‘false abstraction’ in order to highlight the violence of some abstractions over others?
This is an interesting theoretical and philological question. As discussed above, I make the point that Marx didn’t use the term ‘real abstraction’ as part of an argument that tries to demonstrate that the term is used in a narrower sense than in the recent literature on real abstraction and Sohn Rethel’s critical theory of real abstraction.
As I see it Sohn-Rethel’s notion of real abstraction was intended as a critique of Georg Simmel’s neo-Kantian idea of real abstraction and his notion of the tragedy of culture, which held that value was created by the anthropological faculties of the mind when confronted by an inevitably complex modern society. Contra Simmel, Sohn-Rethel argued that such a process of abstraction proceeds from a class antagonistic socio-historical basis and is realized in the mind. Moreover, the very qualities of Simmel’s neo-Kantian epistemology and scientific understanding in general—what Sohn-Rethel terms ‘conceptual abstraction’—correspond to and issue from the properties of the exchange abstraction generated by such a society. However, the term ‘real abstraction’ is now just generally used to designate Marx’s theory of value as a social rather than epistemological category—rather than a theory that establishes the point at which the two intersect—or to theorize other phenomena as akin to this characterization of Marx’s theory of value.
Nonetheless, following this contemporary usage of ‘real abstraction’, I do think that notions of real abstraction and false abstraction can be identified in Marx’s work, especially in the critique of political economy. However, I don’t think the distinction between the two should be used to prioritize the critique of some abstractions over others, but rather to identify different but related elements of Marx’s double-faceted critique of political economy.
Alfred Schmidt’s seminal but poorly translated ‘The Concept of Knowledge in the Criticism of Political Economy’ provides what I think is a very lucid characterization of what he terms the ‘double meaning’ of the critique of political economy:
First, as a critique of real, political economy conditions as they necessarily arise from capitalist forms of production and distribution, and secondly, as a critique of political economy as the science comprising the total life process – le monde moral – as the 18th century says — the science, within which the theoretical understanding which the bourgeois society had of itself found its most adequate expression.
By drawing on Schmidt’s distinction, real abstraction can be used to describe the categories of value that are created by the historically-specific organization of the capitalist social form of production and distribution. As Marx himself states, these categories are historically-valid forms of thought. Hence, as Schmidt and Backhaus show, rather than epistemological categories of false consciousness, these categories possess social objectivity and are inherent to capitalist social reality.
In distinction to real abstraction, ‘false abstractions’ are abstractions that fail to grasp how the phenomenon being analyzed is part of the historically specific antagonistic and dominative social form of capitalist production and distribution. Hence, for Marx, it is a ‘false abstraction to treat a nation whose mode of production is based on value, and organized capitalistically into the bargain, as a unified body simply working for the national needs.’
Therefore, in response to question 5, I don’t think it’s so much a question of distinguishing between these two different types of abstraction to highlight the violence of real abstraction over false abstraction. Certainly, the real abstractions of value are constituted by and constituent of a very violent and antagonistic society. Yet false abstractions fail to grasp this social violence and antagonism and thus unintentionally promote them. This is why I think it is important to criticize both of these types of abstractions together.
As I discuss in more detail below (see questions 7, 8, and 10) I have tried to do this in my work. I critique fetishism, real abstraction, and negative totality as constituent of a dominating and antagonistic society. I also criticize prevailing criticisms of capitalism, reification, and crisis by arguing that they start from false abstractions—such as a transhistorical idea of labor, life-making, or the public. In my view, like Marx’s criticism of Storch, these starting points are treated as ‘unified bodies’ ‘working for needs’ that are somehow separated from the antagonistic and dominating organization of capitalist society. Yet in failing to grasp how these starting points are moments in the historically specific organization of capitalist society, they unwittingly promote the perpetuation of capitalist society, albeit in a more just way.
6. Your article on Henri Lefebvre in Capital & Classis an outstandingly refreshing analysis of the French philosopher’s contributions to form-analytic critical theories of domination. The theoretical arc you map through Lefebvre’s work on concrete abstraction, the commodity form, abstract space, and spatial practices is invaluable. How would you like to concretely constitute future analysis of such spatial practices in order to empirically trace the lived abstractions of emancipatory struggles?
Thanks for your kind words! This was my first proper scholarly peer reviewed publication. It meant a lot to me that it was published in Capital & Class. As I have implied, the Conference for Socialist Economists has been incredibly important to my work. I am happy to say that some of us in the Rio Grande Valley have recently organized a CSE working group, called CSE RGV.
How I would like to concretely constitute the analysis provided in the article is an open question. As I mentioned above, one of the chapters from my PhD thesis was on Lefebvre. That chapter formed the basis of the Capital & Class article and a chapter in an edited collection, Perspectives on Henri Lefebvre, on Henri Lefebvre’s critical theory. In both the article and the chapter, I am critical of Lefebvre’s romantic humanism and his opposition between the qualitative and the quantitative. But I still think his work on abstraction is invaluable and could be used in interesting theoretical or empirical ways. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to think about this because of the other projects I was working on and then because I was almost done with academia. I sort of hoped somebody else might take it up in the further development of the sort of work that Greig Charnock and Japhy Wilson were doing on abstract space some years ago, but my impression is that people in geography have moved away from working on abstract space, which is a shame. However, the ever-prolific Frederick Harry Pitts is now doing some very interesting work on Lefebvre’s notion of rhythmanalysis and abstraction that I hope he continues to develop.
While I am currently focused on the other book projects I have discussed, I do hope to return to this issue at some point. It may even be as a collaborative project—particularly with a more empirically trained researcher—so if there is anyone out there who might be interested in pursuing these questions, do drop me a line.
7. The concept of ‘reified authority,’ drawn from Horkheimer and Adorno, is central to your critical theory. On this view, the ‘negative totality’ of capitalist society is reproduced via the conversion of subjectivity into ‘authority-oriented personalities.’ As a result, the Lukácsian expectation of proletarian class consciousness is undermined. However, this view does not yet shed light on historically specific techniques and strategies for the (re)production of reified authority. Can you sketch out a more fine-grained and concrete account of this process?
This is one of the fiendishly difficult questions I was warned about! I am happy to try to answer it as best as I can, especially as I plan on developing a more fine-grained account of the relationship between negative totality and reified authority in my second book project
Before I answer these questions, I want to clarify and disentangle the relationship between reified authority, authority-oriented personalities, and negative totality that I developed in ‘Reification and the Critical Theory of Contemporary Society.’ Then I will try to outline how reified authority is inherent to the reproduction of negative totality.
‘Reification and the Critical Theory of Contemporary Society’ was part of my process of thinking through how critical theory should grasp the post-2007 trajectory of crisis, austerity, and the rise of the right-wing authoritarianism. Here the intention was not to shed light on historically specific techniques or strategies for the (re)production of reified authority or of negative totality. My intention in the article was to develop and argue for an approach to reification that could critically grasp these contemporary historical developments in distinction to other approaches to reification that I argued could not grasp these developments.
To do so, the article first provided a critical account of Habermas’s, Honneth’s, and Lukács’s notions of reification. I argued that, despite their differences, reification consists in a type of rationality that stems from the absence of rational coordination of the neutral institutions of modern society for all three of these thinkers. I also argued that the traditional presuppositions that shape these thinker’s theories of reification conceptualize historical development as progressive. Hence Habermas’s, Honneth’s and Lukács’s theories of reification conceive of crises and domination as incidental to the organization of society. They further refrain from providing an account of how subjectivity is shaped by and becomes reliant on such a society. Consequently, these recurring features of capitalist society are treated as extrinsic to it, which means that their theories of reification are ill-equipped to critique these recent developments.
The article then outlined a new reading of the critical theory of reification that drew together the insights of Max Horkheimer’s notion of reified authority and contemporary Marxian critical theory’s interpretation of the critique of political economy. This critical theory of reification provides an account of how the organization of the capitalist social form is realized in the crisis-ridden reified authority of capital accumulation. It articulates how this dynamic mediates and is mediated by the spheres of the economy, state, and household. Finally, it explains how individuals are compelled by and become reliant upon this process, leading to authoritarian character formation. Such a crisis-ridden process of domination is thus inherent to the reproduction of the negative totality of capitalist society and is realized in a historical trajectory that drives capitalist society into new types of barbarism
The conclusion of the article demonstrated how such a notion of reified authority provides a more critical theoretical account of reification and historical development than Habermas, Honneth, or Lukács’s notion of reification. While the former conceive of historical development as progressive and reification as stemming from the absence of social coordination, Horkheimer conceives of reified authority as inherent to capitalist society, which leads barbaric historical development. Moreover, Horkheimer’s complimentary notion of character formation and its manifestation in the authoritarian character formation also seems to provide a basis for explaining why so many people embraced right wing authoritarian populism in the wake of the crisis. As this indicates, the relationship between reified authority and authority-oriented personalities was central to my argument.
Nonetheless, I should clarify that I don’t so much think of reified authority as particular strategies or techniques to consciously create ‘authority-oriented personalities.’ Nor do I think of ‘reified authority’ as a set of particular strategies or techniques that intend to reproduce negative totality. Finally, I don’t think that the reproduction of negative totality takes places via the conversion of subjectivities into authoritarian oriented personalities. Rather I think of reified authority as a way of thinking about the reproduction and historical development of the negative totality of capitalist society. More specifically, reified authority describes how the workplace, state, and household are formed by the reified process of accumulation and reproduction and how these domains socialize and compel people to act in ways that reproduce capitalist society as a negative totality. While everyone is maimed by this process and has to act in some way that contributes to the reproduction of negative totality, only some, albeit a large number of people, develop authoritarian type personalities that do not question the system but reinforce it, especially in times of crisis.
However, as I mentioned above, I agree that the relationship between negative totality and reproduction, reified authority, and character formation calls out for a more detailed account, which I plan to develop in my second book. In what follows, I outline how I plan to do this and what critical theoretical insights I think it will lead to.
The more developed account I plan to provide of reified authority in my second book project on negative totality will provide a more detailed account of the relationship between the social constitution and social reproduction of the negative totality of capitalist society. Here I will provide a more systematic critique of how the historically specific form of capitalist society as unity in separation is realized in the negative totality of capitalist society. More specifically following from premises I already outlined, I will focus on how the reified authority of accumulation is manifest in the workplace in personification, the organization of labour, and competition between capitalists and proletarians. I will also discuss how the reified authority of accumulation is realized in the state and law and further demonstrate how different state policies compel state employees and recipients of state benefits to act in certain ways. I will also show how the reified authority of accumulation is realized in the household, which compels domestic labour. In addition, I will also focus on how education and socialization instill skills and values in people that naturalize and reinforce this behavior.
Taken as whole, I hope this will demonstrate in more detail how this process of reified authority culminates in the reproduction of capitalist society and the formation of characters who are shaped by and are all too often reliant upon capitalism. This will also provide a good basis for criticizing contemporary critical theory and Marxian approaches to theories of legitimacy and hegemony by showing how instability, misery and pain are all too often viewed as legitimate and hegemonic in a world where “the fullest possible adaptation of the subject to the reified authority of the economy is the form that reason really takes in bourgeois society. . . This is why not only the upper middle classes but many groups of workers and employees yield ever new generations of people who do not question the structure of the economic and social system”, to cite Max Horkheimer.
8. Can we theorise modes and subjects of struggle which prefigure an interruption of the subjective-objective dynamic of the reproduction of capitalist society through their demands and organizing—along the lines, for example, of Ana Cecilia Dinerstein’s ‘concrete utopias of social reproduction’—as actually effecting such interruption? Or do these forms of prefiguration, as well as their theorising, remain locked within the subjective-objective social dynamics that characterize the negative totality of capitalist society, manifesting the contradictions with which these are riddled?
This is another fiendishly difficult question that I have not addressed in detail in my work. The question has given me the opportunity to think about these issues, for which I am thankful, and to provide the following tentative answer.
I have enormous respect for the work of Ana Cecilia Dinerstein. She has made many important contributions to Open Marxism and Critical Theory. Indeed, I rely on her work in my answer to the next question. However, it should come as no surprise that I do not share her criticisms of Adornian critical theory, nor her Blochian interpretation of Open Marxism, nor do I fall (at least I hope not) into the sort of totalizing pessimism Adorno and Adornian critical theory is accused of by Dinerstein (and many others). Instead, I have a perspective on these issues that are shaped by the respective differences of our interpretations of Adornian critical theory, Open Marxist conceptions of labour, and reproductive labour. In order to answer the questions, I will first provide an outline of my differences with Dinerstein on these issues and then show how these differences are reflected in my analysis. Despite our differences, I think my answers to these questions nonetheless complement Dinerstein’s Open Marxism.
In the first place, Dinerstein states that ‘capitalism,’ for Adorno, ‘is an objective totality that is reproduced by subjects.’ Moreover, Dinerstein further states that, since a ‘reified totality cannot be fought directly by means of political or social activism,’ Adornian critical theory amounts to a ‘paralysing’ theoretical position leading to a political stalemate underpinned by ‘exalted despair.’
In contrast to Dinerstein, I do not see Adorno’s conception of capitalist society as ‘objective.’ Rather, I see capitalist society as a subjective-objective negative totality of ‘unity in unfreedom.’ Moreover, I do not think this conception of totality is ‘paralysing,’ leading to a political stalemate underpinned by ‘exalted despair.’ Rather, I think that the critique of such a negative totality is intended to break the spell of identification of subject with object, as part of a theoretical and practical process of abolishing such a totality. In other words, an Adornian critical theoretical notion of emancipatory negativity may not include some types of ‘political and social activism’ but this is not the same as ‘exalted despair.’
In the second place, Dinerstein argues that labour is the transhistorical metabolic activity essential to human nature. Accordingly, for Dinerstein, in capitalism ‘the historically specific character of labour relates less to its concrete form than the abstract quality it attains in the exchange of its products as commodities in the market.’ Consequently, Dinerstein follows Holloway in opposing the ‘doing’ of concrete labour to abstract labour. For Dinerstein and Pitts, ‘The process of abstraction is ongoing and underpinned by the contradiction between concrete and abstract labour, for we seek to live our lives constantly trying to affirm our capacity to do in a world dominated by ghostlike things like value and money. We strive to enable re-embodiment and sensualisation of our doing in a world that is dominated by real abstractions.’
In distinction to Dinerstein (and Holloway) I follow Bonefeld in seeing labour as a historically specific form of the human metabolism with nature with a double character. While abstract labour may indeed arise in the ex post facto validation of acts of concrete labour, abstract labour is the necessary ‘perverted’ appearance of the myriad activities of concrete labour. In contrast to Dinerstein’s account, for me abstract labour does not impose rationalization and homogeneity upon already existent activities of concrete labour, ‘desensualizing’ them. Rather, the activities of concrete labour within the capitalist division of labour are capitalistically organized with the intention of valorizing value on pain of ruin. Concrete and abstract labour are not then a contradictory opposition, but a negative dialectical unity.
In the third place, Dinerstein proposes to reorient Open Marxist critical theory on social reproduction. Dinerstein draws on McNally, Ferguson, and Bhattacharya’s Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) in conceiving of social reproduction as labour that reproduces labour power and sustains life. For Dinerstein the contradiction between concrete and abstract labour is also mirrored in the contradiction between the money wage and the reproduction of life. Like SRT, Dinerstein also conceives of reproductive labour as a terrain of class struggles.
While I certainly see struggles over reproductive labour as class struggles, I do not think that the reproduction of labour power is equivalent to social reproduction. Rather, drawing on Kirstin Munro, I think that the reproduction of labour power is an element in the process of the reproduction of capitalist society—that is, social reproduction. As I explain in more detail in the next question, in my discussion of use value, I also do not think that the activities of life making or even conceptions of life and needs are neatly separable from capitalism or capitalist abstractions. In other words, the reproduction of labour power is also capitalistically organized. The reproduction of labour power does not take place in contradiction to capitalism, but rather it is a moment in the reproduction of capitalist society.
These theoretical differences mean that, contra Dinerstein, I do not conceive of capitalism as tantamount to a contradiction between the ‘doing’ of concrete productive and reproductive labour and the ‘structuring’ of abstract labour, or as the subjectivity of productive and reproductive labour and the real abstractions of value. Nor do I see class struggles ‘as a struggle over the form within which the subjectivity of labour is mediated.’ Rather, developing Vela’s point in Open Marxism 4 that Holloway and Dinerstein’s notion of capitalism paradoxically shows that the ‘object negates the subject but never ceases to be a subject,’ I think that such a conception of capitalism sidesteps the crucial issues of how accumulation shapes concrete labour and how the processes of socialization and domination cultivate subjectivity, to posit an already existent domain of ‘doing’ subjects. This is why I believe it is crucial to follow Adorno and critique capitalism as an objective-subjective negative totality characterized by the ‘unity of unfreedom’ of the historically-specific form of productive and reproductive, concrete and abstract labour.
For these reasons, I have a different conception of demands, prefigurative struggles, and concrete utopias of social reproduction.
In the first place, given the process of socialization in the negative totality of capitalist society, I worry that demands and policies that aspire to make people aware of the contradictions in capitalism can also lead to identification with the state, democratic reformism, and hence to identification with capitalist society. I think that critiquing demands and policies by showing how they are implicated in the reproduction of capitalist totality can illuminate capitalist society without the dangers of identification.
In the second place, and this might be a pedantic point, I don’t think it’s accurate to refer to ‘concrete utopias of social reproduction’ or to see them as prefigurative. To me this implies that these movements or collectivities can prefigure how an entire society would organize its reproduction. I’m not sure this can be prefigured, at least not in this way—unless one is imagining a multitude of societies much smaller than the global society we have today. Finally, at least in the case of the examples of workers co-ops and freelance trade unions that Dinerstein and Pitts point to in Europe and the UK, it seems to me that these concrete utopias persist within the capitalist organization of labour, so I am hard pressed to see how they are concrete utopias of social reproduction (although I certainly hope to be proven wrong).
Nonetheless these points of difference don’t lead me to embrace despair and write off theory, or struggles, or even some of the movements that Dinerstein points to. Rather, these points of difference lead to a conception of utopia that informs theory and is part of struggles of negativity and non-identity within but not identical to negative totality.
Rather than drawing on Blochian conceptions of the politics of hope and utopia, I follow Adorno’s edict in Minima Moralia that ‘the only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.’ Hence ‘thought honors itself by defending what is damned as nihilism’ (Adorno 1981) because it is tied to an idea of utopia as ‘the transformation of the totality’ (Adorno and Bloch 1987)
This means conceiving of theory and struggles as practices of negativity that subsist within but are non-identical to negative totality. Rather than cracks or concrete utopias, following Adornian critical theory and those who sought to put his theory into practice, these activities might be seen as anti-authoritarian theories and practices. Here, drawing on Horkheimer, anti-authoritarian practices do not ‘accept the socio-natural laws of capitalism as natural and permanent’ and strive to better themselves within it. Nor do they repress and sublimate the cause of suffering, attribute it to individual moral failings, and ‘hold themselves responsible for their own unsatisfactory lot in life’ or also allow their ‘dissatisfaction and rebellion to be turned into effective forces for the prevailing order’. Rather anti-authoritarians develop criticisms, participate in struggles, and try to live in ways that break with these character traits, labour, the state, and the unity of the false whole. Such a constellation of activities is non-identical to negative totality and their negativity strives to break the crust of integration and awaken a global subject that will abolish such a totality.
9. Further, on the above question, how does this work when we bring in questions of labour ecologies (or socio-ecologies) and use values? Here in particular the question becomes oriented toward both the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples within and against settler colonial regimes, and resurgent forms of the agrarian question and national liberation tied to discussions of both national and global Green New Deal-type campaigns. How are these forms of struggle implicated in the negative totality?
These are a number of related issues that also give me the chance to think about and develop points that are either implicit or have not yet been developed in work, so I am thankful yet again for the opportunity. I want to stress that I am by no means an expert on these issues and these are tentative thoughts.
I am also not familiar enough with the concepts of labour ecologies and socio-ecologies to give a satisfying answer to the first part of the question. If this was a live Q & A session, I would ask the person who asked the question to discuss their own opinion in the matter. So, instead, I will give a more general answer about the relationship between use value, capitalism, and metabolism.
In general, I would say that the relationship between capitalism and use-value hinges on how the metabolism with external nature is organized. A metabolism with external nature that is capitalistically organized reproduces capitalism, and with it the domination of external and internal nature. Metabolisms with external nature that are organized in non-capitalistic ways break with this process in and against capitalism.
However, the question of how use-value fits into this definition is complicated, as is the distinction between capitalism and non-capitalism. I don’t see use-values as equivalent to true needs. Rather, drawing on Adorno and Postone, I think that need and use-value are ‘social categories.’ I also follow Adorno in holding that ‘[t]he impenetrability of genuine and false needs is fundamental to class domination’ because ‘under class domination, the reproduction of life and the suppression of life form a unity’ through the reproduction of the negative totality of capitalist society. Consequently, I don’t conceive of capitalism as a type of distribution that misallocates needs because use-values are transformed into exchange value by market exchange, nor do I conceive of socialism as the just distribution of these needs by state planning. Instead, I think Adorno is on to something when he says that ‘[t]he demand for production solely for the satisfaction of needs itself belongs to the prehistory of a world which produces not for needs, but for profit and the establishment of domination, and where, for that reason, shortage dominates’. In my view socialism would not then just transform distribution, but production, needs, and thus use-values. This in my view is what distinguishes between a capitalist and non-capitalist metabolism with nature.
Following from my answer to the previous question, I would say that all struggles and policy proposals are implicated in the reproduction of negative totality. Whether or not they could break with this process of implication depends on whether they affirm the negative totality of capitalist society or are non-identical and aspire to negate negative totality.
Again, I am by no means an expert on these issues. But I would say that Ana Cecilia Dinerstein and David Barkin’s work focuses on Indigenous struggles that are in and against settler colonialism. As Dinerstein shows, unemployed workers’ organizations in Argentina have created local councils that organize collective provisioning, albeit with money they in part get from the state. Dinerstein also points to Indigenous movements in Latin America that have reappropriated land and water. Finally, for Dinerstein and Barkin, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) are the exemplary case in point. Their principles of social organization and governance are non-identical with capitalist society. Like the struggles I gestured towards in the previous question, these Indigenous movements can then be characterized as anti-authoritarian and within but non-identical to the negative totality of global capitalist society.
In contrast, as far as I know—based on teaching Max Ajl (as well as the recent books by Kate Aranoff et al., and Jason Hickel)—the national and global Green New Deal campaigns are straightforwardly affirmationist. As their use of “New Deal” implies, they are premised on state planning, jobs programs, and notions of the abundance that do not intend to negate the negative totality of capitalist society. At best, they propose to build or realize socialism by putting a revolutionary subject in charge of the state’s organization of production and distribution.
Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal thus proposes an anti-imperialist process of national liberation that overcomes capitalism by nation state planning. Aranoff et al’s A Planet to Win proposes to build socialism via the election of politicians who represent a grassroots coalition and wield public power against the private interests of capital, implementing a Green New Deal within the USA and across international supply chains. Finally, Hickel’s Less is More provides a sort of synthesis of the two positions that also intends to overcome the ideology of growthism, imperialism, and the Descartian division between society and nature.
I am critical of these approaches for a number of reasons. I think they do not grasp how the capitalist state is a moment in capitalism. Moreover, as Greig Charnock and Guido Starosta and Ilias Alami show, the imperial core-periphery relations of uneven exchange that Ajl focus on exist within a global market and include capitalists in the global south. In addition, growthism is an imperative rather than merely an ideology while the division between society and nature is instantiated in practice rather than thought. Finally, apart from Hickel to some degree, these works do not consider needs as a social category but point to pictures of abundance premised on the unleashing of the eco-socialist productive forces.
However, from my critical perspective, the issue isn’t so much whether or not these national and global Green New Deal programs would be implicated in the reproduction of the negative totality of capitalist society. It seems rather straightforward to me that they would for the reasons I allude to above. Instead, my criticisms would have more to do with how these works tend to underplay the fantastical sequence of unprecedented events that would be necessary to realize their visions of the Green New Deal. I also want to raise the question about what the consequences will be for orienting so much time and energy into struggles that at best may counteract climate change and make capitalist society less barbaric, but which are more likely to lead to burn out, leading to disillusionment, co-option, or depoliticization.
10. In closing, can you sketch out the contribution of the concept of negative totality to the contemporary political moment, in terms of both interpreting the world as well as changing it?
The contemporary political moment is terrible. Even in the midst of an unending pandemic, climate change, and historically unprecedented inequality, capitalism persists. The vaunted post-2007 left revival that began with the movement of the squares and revolutionary crisis theories, and was superseded by crisis theories of neoliberal hegemony or legitimacy and the state path to socialism, has culminated in resounding electoral defeats in the USA and the UK. Despite the George Floyd uprisings and the temporary (re)introduction of Keynesian policies to stabilize western economies during the early days of the pandemic, ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ and the right have once again trumped the left.
My work is concerned with the critical theory of society as a double faceted critique of false abstractions and negative totality. I developed these ideas while involved in the earlier movements in this era to in part criticize some of the presuppositions of revolutionary crisis theories and to supplement the criticisms of capitalism developed by participants in these movements. I further developed my approach to critical theory in the context of criticizing the electoralist approaches developed by contemporary critical theory and democratic socialism.
My critiques of false abstraction critique the presuppositions of progress, social differentiation, and the standpoints of democracy, morality, productive and reproductive labour, or what Kirstin Munro and I call social democratic political economy. I try to show such an approach to political economy results in conceptions of capitalism and emancipation, that would doubtless improve some aspects of capitalist society, particularly equality and political legitimacy. I nonetheless argue that social democratic political economy unwittingly promises to reproduce antagonistic relations, and forms of domination, whilst depoliticizing class struggle.
My critique of negative totality intends to show how the historically-specific organization of capitalist society is premised on the separation from and domination of nature and is realized in antagonism and social domination. Rather than progress, complex differentiation, or the development of the productive forces, the dynamic of capitalist society is realized in a crisis-ridden historical trajectory. Rather than enlightenment, autonomy, or emancipation resulting from this dynamic, the majority of people reinforce it, lining up behind strong leaders who promise to restore order and prosperity at the expense of scapegoats. Rather than socialism, capitalist society is continuously driven into new types of barbarism.
In developing this critique of the constitution and reproduction of the negative totality of capitalist society, my approach to critical theory intends to break the spell of identification of subjects with the reified authority of capitalist society as represented by the state, productive and reproductive labor, or the public. In so doing, such a critical social theory hopes to contribute (in theory and practice) to the emancipatory negation of the negative totality of capitalist society.
Emancipation will not come about through recalibrating the relationships between institutions and people on the basis of norms or standpoints that are part a society premised on separation, antagonism, and domination. Emancipation will only come about by creating a society premised on a non-dominative relationship between outer and inner nature.
The set image is by Josef Bartuška from Josef Bartuška and Oldřich Nouza, Grafika [Graphics, 1934].