Domination without a subject (part one) - Robert Kurz

Domination without a subject (part one) - Robert Kurz

In Part One of this 1993 essay, Robert Kurz criticizes the largely unexamined assumptions underpinning the “vulgar Marxist” use of such political concepts as power, interest and domination; discusses the development of the more nuanced understanding of these concepts expressed in theories associated with the names of Weber, Michels, Trotsky and Freud; and assesses the role played by structuralism and systems theory in the establishment of an “apologetic” theory of subjectless domination which must be replaced by a “critical and revolutionary praxis” that is no longer Marxism of a “subjective-ideological type”.

Domination without a Subject*- Robert Kurz

On the Supersession of a Reductive Social Critique

Part One


One of the favorite terms of leftist social critique, stated with all the thoughtlessness due to the obvious, is that of “domination”. The “rulers” were and still are considered in countless essays and pamphlets as malefactors of vast and universal but vague reach, in an attempt to explain the miseries of capitalist socialization. This framework is retrospectively applied to all of history. In the specifically Marxist jargon this concept of domination is extended by adding the concept of the “ruling class”. In this manner the understanding of domination acquires an “economic basis”. The ruling class is the consumer of surplus value, which it cleverly and perfidiously and, of course, violently, appropriates.

It is immediately apparent that most theories of domination, including the Marxist ones, display a reductive utilitarian approach to the problem. If there is an appropriation of the labor of “others”, if there is social repression, if there is open violence, it is for someone’s use and advantage. Cui bono—this is what the problem is reduced to. A consideration of this kind does not fit with reality. Not even the construction of the pyramids of the ancient Egyptians, which devoured a not-insignificant portion of the surplus product of that society, can be forcefully reduced to a perspective of (purely economic) benefit of a class or caste. The reciprocal massacre of the various “rulers”, for reasons of “honor”, remains notably outside of any simple calculation of utility.

The reduction of human history to an infinite struggle over “interests” and “advantages”, unleashed by subjects immersed in a sterile utilitarian egoism, 1 simply omits or distorts many real phenomena in an attempt to possess a decisive explanatory value. The idea that everything that cannot be resolved into the terms of subjective utilitarian calculation is a mere outer shell of “interests” expressed in the religious or ideological forms of institutions or traditions becomes ridiculous when the real expenditure on this alleged outer shell in many ways surpasses the substantial nucleus of the presumed egoism. One must often say the contrary: that the egotistical points of view, where they can be recognized at all, represent a mere outer shell or exteriority of “something else” that is manifested in institutions and social traditions.

One could, however, simply maintain that this is nothing more than a typical anachronism of bourgeois thought. A capitalist constitution and way of thinking, that is, those belonging to modern society, are projected back to pre-modern epochs, whose real relations are thus misunderstood. But this would imply that the reduction of domination to egoism and the struggle of interests would at least be valid for bourgeois modernity, in whose soil this form of thought sprouted. In fact, one cannot deny that the external aspect of modern societies, including the psyches of “money earners”, seems to resolve itself into abstract egoism.

It is nevertheless precisely the abstract character of this “interest”, beyond all material needs, which contradicts this surface appearance. If modern egoism were to be transmuted to the physical plane of needs, it would thereby acquire a somewhat fantastic and purely irrational aspect. Paradoxically, egoism, in the form it assumes in the totalized money-form, seems to be something completely autonomized with respect to individuals and their “uniqueness”. This alien character of interest, which is hypothetically immediately egoistic, was still unapparent in the historical phase of capital’s rise, when the egoism of the modern constitution had yet to be completely separated from the material content of wealth. It might then seem that egoism was actually the simple form of the struggle for the (“scarce”) material surplus-product, and as if it were the common foundation of all history up to today, which was simplified to the extreme and was ultimately discovered as such only in capitalist modernity.

This conception of vulgar Marxism, the same one featured in The Communist Manifesto, clearly lost any meaning it may have had when it was confronted by the reality of mature capitalism. Currently, the established egoism has definitively freed itself from any content of material shortage under the money-form. The material surplus-product can no longer be defined as the object of appropriation for anyone’s use and benefit: it has become autonomous as a monstrous end-in-itself that anyone can see. The capitalization of the world and the mushrooming abstract projects of utility are impregnated with a hopeless resemblance to the construction of the pyramids at the dawn of civilization, even under totally different social relations (commodity and money). Regarding people who still only demand “jobs”, and not the satisfaction of needs, one must attribute to them a kind of moral blindness which unmasks their so-called egoism as the mere ratification of a secularized religious principle. This is also true for those who, as owners, managers, politicians, etc., are obliged to vigorously maintain this autonomized principle. Their advantage is also merely secondary, and is increasingly gained to their own detriment.

One can therefore conclude that, in fact, modernity has something in common with all prior social formations. This common element, however, is not the abstract egoism that is the end revealed as such in capitalism. Exactly the opposite is the case: this identity which cannot be resolved into any economic or political calculus of interests, and which in modernity paradoxically arises as egoism, is in reality not characteristic of the individual, but something which dominates him. Even the rulers are ruled; in actuality, they never rule for their own needs or wellbeing, but for something that is simply transcendent. In this they always harm themselves and achieve something alien and obviously superficial. Their alleged appropriation of wealth is transformed into self-mutilation.

Utilitarian reductionism, in a modified version, also underlies the modern non-Marxist or neo-liberal theories of domination. Abstract economic benefit is here only replaced by a no less abstract benefit of “pure power”. If vulgar Marxism presupposes an ontological basis of “economic interest”, the other bourgeois theories of domination offer, of course, the genetically-rooted biological basis of a “will to power” (or a will to aggression) or at least some ahistorical and anthropological constants. Arnold Gehlen, for example, sees the necessity of power in the existence of social institutions in general, which have taken the place of instinct in order to serve as a guide to conduct. This conception reappears in a diluted form in those trite maxims about how “man” left to his own devices is a wild animal that must be tamed by the authoritarian state.

In the best case, power or domination always appears as subject to domestication by the law, which can then be equally defined as the fundamental ontological locus. In an eclectic way, all of these detours of domination are duplicated in the dualistic formulas of power and money as “means” of that imaginable sociability. Domestication by the law, then, in accordance with the historical situation and the temperament of the times, can be understood as an infamous denaturalization which conceals the true human face of the struggle for existence (survival of the fittest), or inversely as progress towards the true human face of a cleansed domination. Domination itself remains as an eternal principle and its reformist “differentiation”, to the highest degree of concealment, is maintained as the only possible form of emancipation, with Habermas, besides, as its prophet. Thus was it demonstrated that all of history up to this point was basically the history of the social democrats.

Marxism always fought against “reactionary” theories of domination only from another perspective of domination, that is, that of its economic determination, so that the idea of a supersession of the “domination of man by man” remained a promise for an indeterminate future—a weak and abstract promise, beyond any theory or praxis. If the abstraction is an ontological principle, whether for economic, biological or anthropological reasons, all that remains is the question of who rules or should rule in the end, and in what fashion domination will be consumed. The “will to power”, pleasure and the benefit of pure power or utilitarian economic calculation as explanatory models always lead to the same result: the empirical existence of domination, unlike its ontological determination, is a product of subjective will. The ruler [“subject of domination”] rules because he wants to rule, because he “extracts” some advantage from it.

This reduction of empirical domination to a simple subjective aspect is most fatally manifested in the criteria of domination. While the biological and anthropological theories of domination normally tend to affirm the existing order and, in their extreme versions, demand an even more authoritarian one, Marxists (who want to replace the existing type of domination with another, “based on classes”) and anarchists (who propose an immediate and final end to domination) empirically denounce the rulers, preferably, as subjective pigs. On occasions, this might be contradicted by contrary theoretical assertions, by spectrally bringing into the field of vision the structural objectivity of domination, beyond the existing subjects. But the prodigy never lasts very long. The timid beginnings of a theoretical penetration into the systematic absence of the subject of domination could not be preserved. The more that thought is devoted to relations in an isolated form, to praxis and agitation for social goals, the more subjective it becomes, and the more crudely is vulgar reductionism transformed into a mere calculus of interests. The rulers are “unjust”, they hoard all the advantages to themselves, they exploit, order and countermand their orders according to their own whims, they live in abundance and comfort at the expense of the majority and, should they want to, they could change their ways, since they always know perfectly well what they are doing.

In this manner, the vulgar reduction of domination to a utilitarian calculus requires the vulgar reduction of the execution of domination to the subject of autarchic will. This reduction can be copiously demonstrated in leftist and Marxist literature. The subjective concept of domination is axiomatically assumed, and against this background one then carries out detailed analyses. The “asymmetry between capital and labor in the productive process” is evoked without assumptions, in order to instantly reaffirm in a superficially subjective way that “individual businessmen or managers, to the extent that they alone have the means of production at their disposal, also possess the exclusive (!) power to subject these means, and the workers bound to them by the organization of labor, to certain end uses, and also to have the use of the products which arise as a result in accordance with their own (!) calculations of valorization”.2

“Valorization” is here reduced to the egoistic, subjective and particular calculation of the bearers of domination, a conception which to a certain extent characterizes the traditional Marxism of the labor movement and the New Left, despite all their conflicts (which have today become irrelevant). In a much more coherent fashion, the “Marxist Group” expresses the same reduction in a swan song on the date of their self-dissolution. They censure the rulers for their audacity in acting so “that each worker who makes his money (!) has to be grateful for the offer of a job. That, inversely, they cannot avoid layoffs, since the coercion of the market, of which they make use themselves (!), prohibits them from doing so”.3

Such a declaration can hardly be misunderstood, especially since the “Marxist Group” defines its agitational efforts on behalf of the “victims of capital” as a demand “not to allow ourselves to be used by coercive measures that originate with others” (op. cit., p. 5) and thus reduces the practical contact with the coercion of the total commodity-form to the point of once again only seeing in the latter the audacity of “transferring the unpleasant problematic effects to their creators (!)” (ibid.).

This activist mentality clearly rejects all rudimentary and vague perceptions of the nature of the value relation, stifles all reflection concerning it and insists on the interpretation that, suddenly, all the “capitalists”, politicians and managers arbitrarily “make use” of the laws of the system of commodity production. Unemployment, we are told by the crude agitational declaration of the “Marxist Group”, is not a structural law of the system of commodity production, but a negative act of will on the part of the “rulers”. This is the bourgeois-Enlightenment concept of domination dating from 1789, which, despite the many categories of capital inculcated by force, was never present in Marx’s economic critique.

The valorization of value, the social machine of a subjectless end-in-itself, can according to Esser—one of the trade union sociologists of the left during the 1970s—just as well be traced back to the subject of a pure will, which by means of its alleged “will to exploit” creates the entire organization called “capitalism”. This also forms part of the repertoire of model argumentation of the activist left, including the “Realos” among others,4 devotees of the State and believers in the market economy: to reveal the coercions of socialization through the commodity-form and to denounce it as a pure strategic manipulation on the part of those rulers who invented the argument of coercion only for their own benefit (probably due to their “thirst for wealth”).

In the political nirvana where they now peacefully lie, it may appear to the “Marxist Group” to be a kind of infamy to compare them to a reformist essayist or even to the “Realos” (they could clearly be associated more correctly with the autonomists). But as far as the decisive question of social critique is concerned, they are not a whit better than them. The problem of the subjectless end-in-itself was left in the dark or was not mobilized as a theoretical argument.


The reduction of capital and its perniciousness to subjective agents, to subjects guided by their will and pursuing their interests, is not only a crass theoretical error, but also has disastrous practical consequences. With the venerable agitational slogans about the malevolent will and the subjective utilitarian calculations of the rulers, reality is not understood nor are the subjects constituted by this reality perceived. The tautological and destructive nature of the capitalist machine obviously surpasses the egoism of its representatives and owners. On the other hand, the “victims and servants of capital and the State” have a clear view concerning the objective content of the reality of those coercions the Marxists so obstinately attribute to the rulers’ subjective interests.

The subjectivist argument was fitting for the historical phase of capital’s rise, when the workers, even though existing within its social shell, had yet to reveal themselves as subjects of the commodity-form. As long as the various commodity-subjects conceive and develop the struggle for their monetary interests on the terrain of the commodity-form, as long as they create and mobilize their institutions and their associations for that purpose, social critique can be reduced to the subjectivist prism. At first, however, this argument was not presented theoretically, but remained concealed, since the whole practical movement of the critique remained immanent to capital.

The pseudo-radical positions of vulgar Marxism, like those of the “Marxist Group”, for example, were developed from this immanence: today, they have been superseded and no longer have any meaning, now that capital, as a universal relation, has entered its mature stage (of crisis) and thus renders any immanent critique impossible in principle. The coercion of the commodity-form is objective, not in an anthropological sense, but historically. It can be overcome, but only in the form of a supersession of the commodity-form itself. The dead weight of subjectivist agitation and its immanence are rooted exclusively in the fact that it cannot embark on a discussion of this problem of supersession. Since the “unpleasant effects” only proceed from the will and the utilitarian calculations of the rulers who can supposedly, despite the subjectless social form, change their attitude, they must be eliminated within that form, so that the “victims and servants” can free themselves of those “effects” without having to address their own form as commodity-subjects.

The advantage offered to the agitator by this reductive conclusion is only illusory, however, especially when “he doesn’t want to be reformist”. The axiom of his agitation is already reformist per se, in so far as material need is not critically defined in its social form. In this respect it is compatible with the consciousness, constituted by the commodity-form, of the “money-earners” to whom it is addressed, although in this way, whether it wants to or not, it falls into the clutches of material coercion. It falls into the insoluble contradiction of demanding, on the one hand, that subjects must value their material needs without taking into account the coercive structural laws of the commodity-form, yet on the other hand it formulates this demand within the commodity-form itself, or at least conceals the fact that this is the only way this demand can be understood. The “Marxist Group”, for example, occasionally reveals in its works their view that the “correct planned economy” cannot even function with “money”, but this becomes incomprehensible and a dead letter in view of the fact that they had previously made common cause with the monetary notion of everyday capitalist life, to which they continually appeal in the name of the “interest” of the men and women of the working class.

This dilemma also explains why this theory, strictly bound to agitation, is incapable of systematically basing the critique of the money-commodity relation in the writings of Marx. A theoretical recycling of the historical Marxism of the labor movement and its concept of socialism is as impossible as a social mediation of the indispensable critique of the economy. One cannot, on the basis of the radical critique of money, proceed directly to proletarian agitation, and vice-versa: those who, without any mediation, distribute pamphlets to the masses cannot elaborate the radical critique of money. The alleged “joke” at the expense of the “victims and servants” must always be attacked in its own subjectless form, which is the real social “author”. The agitation therefore failed due to its own faults, and not because of the stupidity of the masses or the pressures from the Tribunal for Defense of the Constitution.5 The vain efforts of the agitators went right over the heads of the activists and social movements, censured only for their “mistaken ideas”, their “ineffectiveness”, etc., although their most important faults had not been pointed out or elaborated in the least; in reality, it was the ineffectiveness of the Marxists themselves which preserved the abyss between the calculation of interests constituted by the commodity-form and the critique of capital.

The per se always-immanent mobilization of the “asymmetry between capital and labor”, which is only capable of instigating a contradiction within capital itself, has reached its historical end. Those moments of Marx’s theory contained within it fall to earth, they become historical documents, and so Marxism in all its variants dies. But Marx’s theory contains, in the concept of the critique of fetishism, a completely different portal to reality, which has until now remained hidden. Marxism could do nothing with it, especially nothing practical. For the “Marxist Group” (as we continue with their obituary), the problem of fetishism is not systematically apprehended in the analysis of “capital” contained in their founding manifesto. The Group nonetheless considered it opportune to denounce the “palaver about reification and alienation”6 and to expressly repudiate an infiltration of bourgeois lifestyle into the “derivative spheres” (ways of thinking, sexuality, art, etc.). Instead of freeing the problem of the vice of all that “palaver” and theoretically assimilating it, they did not even notice its significance, and carry out a pseudo-positivist attack against economic categories. Their simultaneous—and quite vague—critique of those conceptions of capital that characterize the latter as a “personal relation of dependence” and their critique of “vulgar theories of personal agency” (ibid.) were thus condemned to remain ineffective. The “Marxist Group” itself did not pay any attention to these critiques, since its reductive theoretical approach constantly relapses into a concept of subjectivist domination.

In reality, any theory of domination that is based on a calculus of economic or political utility can only with difficulty free itself, except in the most superficial manner, from a concept of “personal dependence”. The problem of the reification of social relations and of domination is apprehended in a very reductive fashion when it is limited to the fact that, in the form of the commodity, “men reciprocally make use of one another as a means for achieving their individual objectives” (ibid.). Attachment to subjectivity as given and constituted, not understood in its subjectless constitution, therefore remains intact. This reductive concept suggests an agile and direct leap from the constitution of subjects standardized by the commodity form to “capitalist exploitation”. Reification and “reciprocal use” are then rapidly reduced to the fact that the dependence of the worker is not a question of a “personal” bond, since he does not spend his whole life as a dependent of this or that particular capitalist, but is instead the dependent of the “capitalist class” in general and of “their” institutions. The subjectivist concept of domination is thus criticized as “personal” in the more vulgar sense, not in order to be resolved, but only to be slightly shifted towards a collective subject of domination.

In fact, the “Marxist Group” relativize their own critique of “vulgar” theories of domination and of personal moralizing in order to misinterpret Marx’s reference to (fetishistic) reification in the sense that, “on the other hand”, “the same declaration conceals the reference to the fact that, together with their subjection to the abstraction which constitutes the social content of their activity, individual producers of commodities are also subjected to other individuals” (ibid.). Their argument thus evades the problem of fetishism and speaks of resolving the reified relation within a subjective frame of reference. The concept of the “automatic subject” (Marx), the true subjectless map of the fetishistic relation, is thus totally abandoned.

The claim that individual commodity producers “are subjected to other individuals” by means of the abstraction of the commodity-form is simply false as an isolated assertion. Such a concept may be valid, at most, in situations where the subjects’ commodity-form has not yet been completely developed, during the time when the remnants of pre-modern traditions had not yet lost their efficacy. As long as there was any question of calling someone “master”, the abstraction of the commodity did not yet constitute “the social content of their activity” in the fullest sense for the individuals concerned. Today, the foreman cordially asks his assistant: “Mister X, please bring me the ladder and twenty bricks from the warehouse.” On the other hand, a conversation using the familiar form of the pronoun, “you”, does not signify humiliation of the addressee, but egalitarian confidence (consider also the frankly absurd hierarchy of handshaking in so many businesses). The latest management strategies deliberately employ such forms of egalitarian interaction.

This is not merely a superficial formality behind which the ancient “Wilhelmine” submission to other individuals is concealed. No fully modernized commodity-subject still has the sensation of “subjecting himself” to another individual as such. And this spontaneous evaluation is not deceptive. What individuals perceive today as their heteronomy is always an abstract functionalism of the system which can no longer be resolved into any subjectivity. All the officials of functional hierarchies are taken for what they are: subaltern executors of subjectless processes to which people are not only “subjected”, but who are even judged in accordance with their “functional ability”.

A hated superior’s irrationality is judged less by contrasting it to satisfactory models of human relations than by the degree to which his conduct is prejudicial to the functioning of the enterprise, meaning to what degree he does “his job” badly. On the other hand, a “hard-ass” supervisor whose behavior is correct, egalitarian and oriented towards “success”, can be accepted exactly because “he is doing his job” (“I would have done exactly the same thing”). Thus, one cannot consider the latter case as “subjection” to an individual because, first, in his function the executor does not comprise an individual resistance nor is he apprehended as such and, second, because the individual’s identity itself remains untouched as a monadized commodity-subject. According to the moment and the situation, it is quite acceptable to execute the functions relating to the job, in all commercial sobriety, by giving orders to individuals and later, if possible, to leave with them and have a beer.

The discourse concerning the “submission to other individuals”, which must be entered into by commodity producing men precisely by means of “the abstraction which constitutes the social content of their activity”, obviously fails to address the problem. It is a matter of a language limited to the categories of a superficial and subjective concept of domination eclectically linked in mid-passage to the still-unelaborated problem of the fetishistic absence of the subject. Agitation of this type can no longer capture the true heteronomy of the individual commodity producers or the consciousness which they have concerning the matter.

In this way, however, the very basis of the system is misconceived. The fact that commodity-subjects “mutually use each other for their individual objectives” is not the crux of the question nor, and even less so, its explanation. It is, rather, the mere phenomenal form of “something else”, i.e., of the subjectless fetish manifested in acting subjects. Their “individual objectives” are not what they seem: in accordance with their form, they are not individual or voluntary objectives, and for this reason their content is also distorted and flows towards self-destruction. The essential point is not that individuals mutually use one another for their individual objectives, but rather, to the extent that they seem to do so, that they themselves execute a totally different, supraindividual and subjectless objective: the autonomous movement (valorization) of capital.


The difference could not be more marked: for vulgar Marxism, the autonomous movement of capital, the valorization of value, is precisely the appearance which must be traced back to peoples’ objectives, will and subjective attitude, thus being resolved into subjectivity (of an authoritarian and mistaken kind). A radical and coherent critique of fetishism, on the other hand, will tend to expose empirical subjectivity itself as an appearance, that is, it will tend to dissolve the objectives, the will and the subjective activity of commodity producers in their true absence of a subject, as the simple execution of a presupposed fetish form in all subjects—not in order to be subjected to the “automatic subject”, but so as to be able to apprehend it as such and to overcome it.

Only this reversal allows one to recognize the general scandal of the total lack of consciousness on the plane of the social determination of the [fetish] form, which is the prerequisite for its supersession. When they say that the absence of the subject in the bourgeois subject constituted by the commodity form is a mere appearance or a simple illusion, vulgar Marxism and the traditional theories of domination become accomplices of the fetish and are prevented from criticizing it in its objectivity. The contradiction of the pseudo-radicalism of agitation has deep roots in the concept of the subject. Ironically, the direct evocation of the presupposed a priori subject is nothing but the theoretical form of submission to the fetishistic absence of the subject.

The eternal anathema pronounced against the rulers and the eternal allegation that, within the modern forms of money and the commodity, a completely different and more human organization would be possible, and all that is needed is a different and better will to be exercised for its guidance, undoubtedly became over time an occupational therapy for the most foolish social critics. This celebrated circle today includes both what remains of orthodox Marxists and pseudo-radicals as well as the Realos. At the margins, however, of these incorrigible non-thinkers, the theory of subjectless domination has been long in development. Since the turn of the century, or at the latest since the 1920s, the most intelligent Western social critics increasingly came to terms with the phenomena of the absence of the subject.

These elements produced, for example, the theory of bureaucratization. In bourgeois analyses which, unlike the catechism of Marxist literature, were not so fixated on a malevolent personified group called the “bourgeoisie”, the image of the “managerial world” was in the air from early on. In Robert Michels’7 famous sociology of political parties, and above all in Max Weber’s theory, a structural concept of the true absence of the subject of modern domination began to take shape. Weber linked the general concept of the bureaucracy to the “interests” of the social powers, although superficially, in order to define it as the “precision instrument” “which could be placed at the service of the ruling interests, whether purely political, purely economic, or any others”8. At the same time, however, he also made reference to the “material” and subjectless dynamic of the modern process of bureaucratization, which was removed from the traditional theories of domination:

“The career functionary is […] only an isolated member, in charge of specialized tasks, in a mechanism […] of tireless progress, which essentially prescribes his forced march. Those who are ruled, furthermore, can neither disregard nor replace the existing bureaucratic apparatus of domination [….] The bond of material destiny connecting the masses to the always correct functioning of the increasingly bureaucratic organization of private capital is constantly becoming stronger, and the possibility of their disconnection thus becomes more and more utopian [….] The bureaucracy has a rational character: regulations, objectives, means and material impersonality rule its conduct.” (Weber, ibid., p. 570, infra.)

In the left’s class struggle rhetoric, the theory of bureaucratization is the plaything first and foremost of the Trotskyists, who consider themselves the defenders of the Holy Grail of the corresponding warnings of Lenin and were once again confronted by the problem of explaining an alleged non-capitalist rule over the “working class” in a state with “socialist economic foundations” which they defended. This is why the formula of bureaucratic domination was put into harness. The latter, however, did not propose a concept of subjectless domination. Instead, it dealt only with straightforwardly replacing, especially in the Soviet Union, the old exploiting and ruling subject of the “capitalist class” with the supposedly transitional ruling subject of the “bureaucratic caste”. The subjective concept of domination was therefore not questioned, despite having been involuntarily weakened. The concept of bureaucracy was preferably a theoretical placeholder; it was utilized with apologies and zealously distinguished from the concept of the “ruling class” in the strict sense of the term. Even Trotsky forced this unsteady concept of bureaucracy into the old schema, which has only a faint echo in Weber:

“In bourgeois society, the bureaucracy represents the interests of a possessing and educated class, which has at its disposal innumerable means of everyday control over its administration of affairs. The Soviet bureaucracy has risen above a class which is hardly emerging from destitution and darkness, and has no tradition of dominion or command. Whereas the fascists, when they find themselves in power, are united with the big bourgeoisie by bonds of common interest, friendship, marriage, etc., the Soviet bureaucracy takes on bourgeois customs without having beside it a national bourgeoisie.”9

Trotsky, as we see, did not even come close to abandoning the concept of subjective and collectively personal rule held by vulgar Marxism. The bureaucracy is introduced as a kind of socio-economic deputy who fortuitously lost his boss and now governs on his own account, without availing himself of the “particularity” of (class) rule. This idea—a prisoner of mere social categories (working class, haute-bourgeoisie, bureaucracy), whose constitution by the subjectless social form does not enter into the field of vision and which are apprehended uncritically as such in their subjective reciprocal activity—can add nothing new in the way of theory to the theory of bureaucratization. The Trotskyist concept of bureaucracy remains empirically reductive and was only used to represent the misapprehended development of the Soviet Union with the appearance of plausibility common to vulgar Marxism.10 Critical Theory, whose representatives discerned changes much more clearly than the theoreticians of vulgar party Marxism, went one step further. The theoreticians of the Frankfurt School held themselves aloof from the mere rhetoric of class struggle, the weakness of which they were the first to note (without, however, being able to theoretically supersede it), and made use of western sociology’s thesis of bureaucratization, seeking to fit it into (an increasingly pessimistic) project of social critique. But Horkheimer’s contribution to this project outlined a peculiar image of domination, in which the concepts of vulgar Marxism and sociological theories of bureaucracy are eclectically fused:

“The bourgeoisie has been decimated, and the majority of the middle class have lost their independence; where they have not been thrown into the ranks of the proletariat, or more commonly into the masses of unemployed, they have become dependents of the big concerns or the state…. As the caput mortuum of the transformation process of the bourgeoisie there remain only the highest levels of the industrial and state bureaucracy.”11

If Weber still formulates the problem ambivalently, and if for Trotsky and his western disciples the subjective and class-based concept of domination still prevails in relation to the concept of the bureaucracy, Horkheimer (who is obviously closer to Weber than to Trotsky) now thematizes the dissolution of the concept of class domination by referring to the actual development of the western societies themselves. But the expression “caput mortuum” shows that he was not free of the obstinate subjective-sociological idea of domination. The latter is deeply embedded in western enlightenment thought, which from the very beginning proclaimed “subjectivity” as abstract and aprioristic. All social relations must in some way be deduced from this frankly chimerical subject, which remains the alpha and the omega of all analyses.

The bureaucratization thesis, in all its variants, seems to approximate a concept of subjectless domination. Ultimately, it reveals at the same time the resistance of the enlightenment idea of the subject, inclined to scruple when it loses its prerogatives. The fact that Weber, as much as Horkheimer and Adorno, as well as Freud, display tendencies toward an anthropological pessimism involuntarily aligns them with those reactionary cultural pessimists whom they always criticized. Such a tainted affinity is not only due to the catastrophic experiences of the World Wars, but also to the contradictions of the enlightenment ideology of the subject and its appendix, Marxism.

The concept of bureaucracy is only a negative reflection on the stupidity of both the bourgeois and the Marxist theories of domination. Its treatment, however, of the manifest absence of a ruling subject remains unclear and simply descriptive. Its confinement within the bourgeois ideology of the subject and, therefore, within a subjective concept of domination allows little more than the assertion of certain sociological phenomena which can only be deduced in accordance with “technical” and “organizational” patterns. The concept of technocracy is the echo of this helplessness which has not been overcome to this day. The rule of the bureaucracy is still debated in subjective theoretical terms, even though its true dependence (in contrast to easily grasped ruling groups, like the nobility or the bourgeoisie) points towards that shadowy “other”, still incapable of being discerned by the enlightenment spirit. It is therefore not surprising that Critical Theory itself has not systematically assimilated Marx’s critique of fetishism. This incapacity is not the fruit of an analytical weakness, but actually indicates a basic limitation of western rationality, which cannot even recognize itself in various critiques of its own fetishistic character.


The dissolution of the old subjective theories of domination spread, from its base in the bureaucratization theses, to the most modern conceptions of structuralism, of structural-functionalism and systems theory. The systematic absence of the subject is here at last openly thematized, not only as a (lamentable) historical result of modernity, but also for the first time as the very principle of human socialization. Starting from the structural analyses of linguistics it was stated that the constitutive element was not the subject or the praxis of subjects, but rather the subjectless “structures” in which and by means of which each respective action is constituted. It is not man (the human subject) who speaks, it is “the language which speaks”. Or, stated sarcastically: man “is spoken”.

This historical project initiated by Ferdinand de Saussure (“structural linguistics”) spread rapidly to ethnology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and psychology (Jacques Lacan), from which it reached history, sociology and philosophy. According to this project, what was everywhere engaged in action was not, in the last instance, individuals and human subjects, but subjectless structures as pseudo-subjects (although not conscious and active, but themselves “determinant”). If man does not speak, but “is spoken”, then neither does he think, but “is thought”; then he does not act socially, politically or economically, but “is acted upon”, etc. What this preached was nothing less than the death of the subject.12

No one philosophically expressed this result with more consequence than Michel Foucault, whose extremely contradictory work is sometimes considered as poststructuralist, sometimes as postmodern:

“From the moment that one becomes aware that all human knowledge, all human existence, all human life and perhaps the whole human legacy rests upon structures, within a mass of elements which are subjected to relations susceptible to description, it is as if man stopped being his own subject in order to be subject and object at the same time. It is revealed that what makes man possible is a mass of structures which he may contemplate and describe, but of which he is neither the subject nor the sovereign consciousness. This reduction of man to the structures which surround him, seems to me characteristic of all contemporary thought; in this way, today, the ambiguity of man as subject and object is no longer either a fruitful hypothesis or a fruitful them of research.”13

Since, however, Foucault’s real theme is “power” in the Nietzschean sense (and his fame is that of a structuralist Nietzschean or a Nietzschean structuralist), the concept of subjectless domination thus appears freed from the old thesis of bureaucratization. Where everything is “power” and nothing is “subject”, the old subjective theories of domination are also finished, for which “power” is unthinkable without a power-subject, to whose will “power” can be assimilated. Foucault is obviously not satisfied with this, since he admires Nietzsche, and “will” is still relevant for Nietzsche. Ultimately, the will is at the same time a lost friend who, in order to express himself, can only execute the “functions” of the “structure”, whether the latter is his “will” or not. Just as will, expressed in “desires”, is everywhere, so also “power” is everywhere a subjectless structure, solely in the forms of which can will be expressed. Foucault tries to track this unavoidable constellation even to the most minute pores of the psyche in the “microphysics of power”—which is also the title of a collection of his essays.

With this development, emancipatory praxis undoubtedly falls definitively into despair. Or, more correctly: the link between praxis and its theoretical foundation is apparently definitively broken. To take action despite the theory: that is the explicit or implicit motto. Foucault himself enthusiastically joined the Prison Information Group and was implicated in prisoners’ revolts. He led, so to speak, a double life as a “professor of the history of ideas” at the College de France in Paris, and as an “enemy of normality” (also as a result of his own situation as a homosexual). Foucault’s dilemma is not, however, only his personal dilemma, or one purely pertaining to structuralism, but is ironically similar to that of the so fiercely criticized “humanist” and existentialist adversary. Here, Critical Theory is also included. In the final accounting, Foucault expressed himself positively even in relation to Adorno.

Praxis without hope, without mediation and incapable of being grounded, is a universal consequence of this system of ideas, leaving aside for the moment all the other antagonisms. The structuralists had all attended schools of the theories of the subject (Marxism, existentialism, phenomenology, Critical Theory). Their attacks on ideological humanism were always also an internal debate. In this sense, structuralism is itself a decayed form of enlightenment thought which destroyed itself, even to the ultimate consequence of complete desubjectivization. If, for Critical Theory, this process of desubjectivization is still historical—the extinction of a promise or the collapse of reality—the structuralists admit that a subject in the enlightenment sense never existed.

If even the so-called primitive peoples act within subjectless structures, as the ethnology of Claude Lévi-Strauss sought to demonstrate, then “structure” is integral and ontological, and one can speak of “diachronic processes” but not properly historical ones. The finally attained concept of subjectless domination, being identical with the “death of the subject” in general, also destroys the hypothetical adversary of domination, the emancipatory counter-subject. The idea of subjectless domination thus must be identical with the definitive separation of theory from praxis. Structuralism only brought enlightenment thought to its ultimate consequences. For this reason, the furious outcry of Sartre and the orthodox Marxists in France deserved as little credit as that of the managers of the exploitation of Critical Theory in Germany. This is why it was possible for the industrious academic chatterboxes, following the example of the ungulates and the ruminants, to regurgitate in one great mass of thought all the western theories of domination and of the subject since the turn of the century and to pour it all on the all-tolerating white sheet.

To the concept of “structure” corresponds that of “system”, whether as a synonym or as principle of the “totality of relations […] which preserve and modify themselves independently of the contents which they bring together”.14

Here, structuralism displays its affinity with systems theory, which developed from Anglo-Saxon positivist sociology, above all from the work of Talcott Parsons.15 Following the Anglo-Saxon shortcut, systems theory has no qualms and absolutely no theoretical-subjective scruples with regard to dissolving the ruling subject, and thus the subject in general, in cybernetic laws of the motion of “systems”. The German public civil servant Niklas Luhmann, raised to the stature of a great theoretician, a student of Parsons and one of the most distinguished contemporary theoreticians of systems theory, even seems to secretly amuse himself by describing the social world in formal language as a machine of subjectless relations and by considering the viewpoint of the Enlightenment as an obsolete and pre-scientific ideology.

“Systems theory breaks with this point of departure and thus has no use for the concept of the subject. It can be maintained, then, that each unit used in this system […] must be constituted by the system itself and cannot have relations with its environment.”16

The impact of this declaration only becomes clear when one comprehends that the “environment” of this system is nothing but the actual “subjects”, that is, real men with their real consciousness, needs, desires, ideas, etc.

“Obviously, we do not maintain that a social system could exist without consciousness being present. But subjectivity, the presence of consciousness, the fixity of consciousness, is conceived as the environment of the social system, and not as its self-referent.”17

There is no lack of (inadvertent) black humor in the fact that human subjects should be degraded to a mere “environment” of their own social “system”. The system is nothing but the system of relations between men which has become structurally autonomous in relation to them. History can be understood, in short, as the progressively increasing “differentiation” of the subsystems of the ontological “system” called society. Society increasingly becomes a “system of systems”, with which, however, the autonomization of the systemic “self-referentials”, in opposition to human and subjective consciousness, is imposed all the more inevitably. Since subjects can only think and work in relation to this “system of systems” and within its respective subsystems, they remain functionally reduced from the beginning, on the plane of relations “as such”, to being conceivable only as subjectless. The “self-referential” of the system is thus the process—without a subject—of advance, differentiation and development on the plane of social relations, which must be considered structurally in independence from the real men who basically serve only as “environment”. This boring functionalism is no longer afraid of the Medusa’s head of the absence of the subject: it already is one.18

The “system” is always pre-existent, not only on the macro scale, but also on the micro scale of human relations in general:

“All social contact is conceived as a system, even society, in its state as a mass of considerations of all possible contacts. The general theory of social systems intends, in other words, to apprehend the whole sphere of objects of sociology and, in this sense, to be a universal sociological theory.”19

Through this lens, even the man-woman pair is a “system”, as is the solitary individual (as a system for itself in the Robinsonade of its social self-relation). Since the painful sufferings of the subject disappear with the complete amputation of this attractive, yet thin, member, in all innocence one can propose an inductive system of abstractions based on the banal descriptions of “systemic” relations on the micro and macro scales of society—a kind of oracle of sociology emptied of concepts, in which all imaginable relations occur in the form of ideal types and can be differentiated or “calculated”. Along with the subject, the whole concept of society as a totality is extinguished.

From this point of view, “domination” either disappears completely or acquires an entirely new meaning. If for Foucault it is still an adversary, although a subjectless one, Luhmann for his part does not even ask himself: “So what?” For systems theory, all criticism of domination is as absurd as a critique of the circulatory system or of evolution. Since any kind of relation always brings about, as a logical necessity, a system of relations which transcends those who relate to it and is inaccessible in its self-contained regulation, that which until now appeared as “domination” can also be merely an indispensable function of systems. And since subjects always constitute a mere “environment” for systems, domination can be nothing but a kind of force field of systems perhaps comparable to the gravitational relations of a solar system.


Marxism not only proved to be incapable of remaining immune to the developments of structuralism and systems theory, with the exception, of course, of the dummies in the activist movements, but also gave birth on its own terrain to a structuralist theoretical variant, which would in turn influence non-Marxist projects (Foucault, for example). It was the work of Louis Althusser that paved the way for this advance. Althusser was, and still is, in many respects, a traditional Marxist (as well as a Marxist who was a member of the PCF, although a non-conformist and oppositional one). With the help of “structuralist” ideas, however, he tried to provide a new foundation for the reading of Marx.

This effort was not just a flirtation with structuralist terminology, as Althusser claimed in 1975,20 but was a fully genuine element of the structuralist “process” and of the systems theory directed “against the subject”. Althusser himself, already in the text For Marx, written in 1965, pointed out that his goal was “to trace a line of demarcation between Marxist theory and those forms of philosophical (and political) subjectivism in which it is immersed and which endanger it”.21

The real objective is still veiled by the concept of “subjectivism”, often instrumentalized by a semi-Marxist vocabulary—a concept which in itself does not imply any systematic reflection on the concept of the subject in general. But Althusser later became more explicit, as a few examples drawn almost at random from his work indicate:

“The process without a subject (or dialectic) of alienation is the only subject recognized by Hegel. In the process itself there is no subject: the process itself is the subject, due precisely to the fact that it has no subject. […] Teleology is eliminated as much as possible, and what remains is the philosophical category of a process without a subject assimilated by Marx. This is the most important positive legacy bequeathed by Marx and Hegel: the concept of a process without a subject. This concept strengthens Capital. […] To speak of a process without a subject, however, implies that the term ‘subject’ is an ideological term.”22

The implications deduced by Althusser for the “new reading” of Marx’s principle work (Reading Capital, 1965, in collaboration with J. Ranciére, R. Balibar and others) contain the main elements of structuralism and even systems theory, as the somewhat inadequate summary by Günther Schiwy explains. According to the latter, Marxism had to assimilate an essential concept:

“Man is not the center of the world nor is he even the center of himself, since such a center does not exist. This nevertheless confirms the Marxist distrust of any humanistic conception of man and of the concept of homo oeconomicus (as if man were the subject of and the reason for the economy) and of the concept of homo historicus: man as subject and object of world history. In actuality, the true subjects of economic activity are not employers, or managers, or much less consumers, but the conditions of consumption, distribution and production. These conditions form a complex system, which is alien to man, but which must determine him to the smallest details. Only an ideological and humanist misunderstanding transforms this scientific knowledge into the illusion of the indispensable innerness of man, which determines the course of events.”23

The only thing we need to know now is how Althusser harmonizes this interpretation with “revolutionary” positions. Actually, with the exclusion of the subject, Althusser relieved Marxism of the old critique of domination. Maybe he wanted to do something else? Structuralism by no means excluded “diachronic processes” and systems theory quite readily allows for changes, crises, and even systemic transformations. It is just that the latter, in accordance with their essence, are as lacking of a subject as the “functioning” and motion of the systems themselves. This is exactly the way that Althusser understood his reinterpretation of Marxism. He goes beyond Marxism not with a step forward, that is, by way of a systemic assimilation of the critique of fetishism, nor does he confront the alleged adversary, but integrally absorbs, without modifications, all of the Marxism of the labor movement, although now metamorphosed into a new “normative” form of structuralist and subjectless movement.24 Everything is here, as before: the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the class struggle, the fickle intellectuals. Only now it is not a matter of autonomous subjects in the historical ring, but precisely of the “functioning” of a subjectless contradictory process. Everyone acts as they must in accordance with their “systemic function”. Althusser does not even once dare to so much as touch the famous “class instinct” of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie executes the subjectless functions of the system’s preservation, the proletariat executes (since it is a question of a contradictory systemic process) the contrary subjectless function of the critique of the system, and thus the class struggle develops both subjectlessly and as a systemic result. The final result of this “subjectless” process can only be systemic transformation—obviously subjectless—into socialism, which in its turn will consist, to our amazement, of (another) subjectless system.

Ultimately, Althusser’s construction appears to be very unsatisfactory. Not only was it not a renovation of Marxism, but the latter was soon buried. In reality, Marxism always was sustained by the enlightenment ideology of the a priori autonomous subject. To amputate it and to continue unraveling the old ball of string was an enterprise condemned to failure from the start. The de-fanged monster that remained could not be the radiant bride of human renewal. But not only did the revolutionary emphasis of Marxism escape with the structuralist interpretation, like air from a punctured balloon, but so was its whole justifying practice snatched away even contrary to Althusser’s own intentions. In fact, if both the class struggle as well as the long-awaited socialism itself are simple “subjectless processes”, who will then guarantee a human content and results guided by human needs? The dispatches from the “Front of Socialist Construction” in the east and the praxis of the “liberation movements” in the south were getting worse and more alarming with each passing day. Althusser was just one of many of the gravediggers of Marxism who, in France, were later able to go to work more openly and with less remorse.

As had already occurred with the structuralists generally, the old ideology of the subject also rose up, in all its variants, against its destruction by Althusser’s interpretation. But neither the reprimands of the Party, which feared the “burial of the revolutionary compromise”, nor the polemics of Sartre or Alfred Schmidt, were able to stop the theoretical process of the destruction of the enlightenment subject once it had started. Such attempts were as useless as the analogous debate between Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann, for example.25 As has been pointed out, the western theories of the subject were destroyed long ago and had to acknowledge the aporias of the concept of the subject as “Dialectic of Enlightenment”. Structuralism and systems theory did no more than deduce the consequences that were in the air. Thus did the long history of the western subject come to a definitive end.

In reality, it would be hard to challenge the profound content of truth in the concepts of “system”, “structure” and subjectless “process”, considered against the background of the observable facts of the bourgeois relations of late modernity, or “postmodernity”. Structuralism only states what in fact is the case, or what appears as reality. The humanistic and enlightenment ideologues of the subject, including the Marxists, do not superficially debate the “case”, but want to subject it to critique. Their point of view, however, is quite precarious, since they must accept an a priori subject who “forgot” what he is and what he believed. The instrument of this concept of the subject always plays the same song: one must reestablish the lost consciousness of the subjective tailoring of social processes. This is truly the most despicable Rousseauism, pure 18th century, badly gilded on its surface with the results of modern science and the lessons of Marx’s critique of economics. Enlightenment thought is fundamentally incapable of imagining the “tailoring” of “anything” without a pre-existent subject of this action; a subjectless action not only appears monstrous to its advocates, but also seems to be a logical impossibility. The fact that here, in existing society, something is wrong, is something of which they are vaguely aware (especially in its Marxist variant); but it is just an “error”, which was in turn caused subjectively, or rather by the “will to exploit” or by the “will to power” of the rulers. The solid arguments of structuralism and systems theory conclude that the acceptance of this a priori subject is inconsistent “metaphysics”, that such a subject never existed nor could it exist, logically.

This position is sound, but also irremediably apologetic. It throws cold water on the enthusiasm of all social critique. Nothing prevails against it, neither the desperate “praxis in spite of theory” of Foucault, nor the flimsy “secondary” project of class struggle of Althusser. This was the position of Critical Theory for a long time, as well. On the other hand, the social praxis of the modern “system”, which has become a directly global system, is now more than ever worthy of criticism or, to speak to the point, it is unsustainable. It is obvious that this “systemic totality”—at the same time, ironically, as the critical ideology of the subject—is coming to an increasingly catastrophic historical end.

Critical and revolutionary praxis, however, must be newly founded, and thus set upon new foundations. The practical movements, parties and Marxist sects (such as, for example, the above-cited “Marxist Group”) “thought by inertia” for years, in a theoretically ignorant way. They neither understood, nor innovated with regard to, theoretical development and its results, but instead did not take them into consideration or even simply discarded them as “false” or “absurd”. Everything seemed so “simple”: men only had to follow their “interests” or they had to be pushed to do so; “praxis” seemed to be, above all, capable of being based upon itself. The penalty for this unfounded ignorance is precisely practical failure—and this in a definitive form. The fact that all the old Marxists and their organizations, journals, etc., shaken by the collapse of eastern Europe, died off like flies, is somewhat liberating in itself. The most recent “crisis of Marxism”, already proclaimed in the mid-1960s by Althusser, was in reality the last.

If the possibility of critical social thought and a transcendent praxis still exists today (not due to stubborn ideological reactions, but because praxis demands it), and if this possibility must be realized by taking advantage of Marx’s unavoidable theory, the only possible way of doing so is the one which delves into the “dark continent” of the critique of fetishism, which was hidden by the subjective-ideological type of Marxism. Not by chance did Althusser expressly reject the concept of fetishism as an “ideology” to be discarded.26 It remains to be seen to what extent the systematic rehabilitation of the concept of fetishism will facilitate, beyond Marxism, the metacritique of bourgeois modernity, that is, if it will be able to formulate a fundamentally distinct concept of social consciousness, capable of effectively breaking the technical fetters of structuralism and systems theory, and not just offering a new infusion, diluted to the point of insipidity, of the Rousseauian and enlightenment metaphysics of a priori subjectivity. Only then will the critique of domination be capable of being provided with a new foundation, and only then will a rehistoricization of the apparently ahistorical subjectless structural movement be possible.


Strictly speaking, that is, leaving aside the reductions of enlightenment and subjective-ideological Marxism, Marx’s concept of fetishism contains a critique of the enlightenment and a priori metaphysics of the subject at least as strong as that of the structuralists and systems theory. It is undoubtedly a completely different critique, which instead of being apologetic is revolutionary. Insofar as Althusser does not take this into account and attributes the concept of fetishism precisely to the humanistic and a priori subjective interpretation of Marxism, rejecting it in its totality, he himself destroys any chance for a critical solution and inevitably ends up in the dead end of structuralism.

It is not by chance that the concept of fetishism is expounded by analogy with pre-modern relations, although it is not a question of a simple analogy. By this means one designates that identity of human history which unites the pre-modern era and bourgeois modernity in the continuum of “prehistory” (Marx), since only beyond it does the “true” history of man commence. This declaration from Marx, as obscure as it is surprising, can only be clarified against the background of the critique of fetishism, which is incompatible with the enlightenment metaphysics of the subject. If modernity itself comprises “prehistory”, then it forms a part, together with its subjective forms, of a process which in fact is unconsciously maintained on the plane of the social determination of form—although not as the logical impossibility of general consciousness on that plane, but as a process of becoming in which social self-consciousness can only be constituted after a long and painful developmental history. This constitution lies before us and manifests itself on the social surface as a revolution against the commodity-form, that is, against the last and highest constitution of the fetishism of human prehistory, whose practical insufficiency shatters the horizon of fetishism in general.

This basic idea makes possible the development of a new theoretical strategy of dual action, in opposition to both structuralism and systems theory as well as humanist and subjective-a priori types of enlightenment thought; in this sense, it will also be possible to elaborate the internal identity of these two antagonists as forms of the rise and fall of theoretical thought in bourgeois modernity. Both are equally incapable of a critique of the fetishistic commodity form as such, that is, of its ultimate manifestation as money. Enlightenment humanism of the subject remains blind to the truly subjectless fetishistic constitution of its metaphysical and supposedly “forgotten” subject, which must be eternally “rebuilt” in vain. Structuralism and systems theory renounce this proposition, without, however, understanding the corresponding premises, much less modifying them. They perceive the subjectless constitution of the current “prehistory”, but only as the ahistorical logic of sociality, or even as the identity of the human and non-human constitution of (subjectless) living systems. Such as, for example, in the claim that the “complex processes are characterized by chance, by non-linearity and contradiction: and the nexus between mutation and evolution, between deviation and innovation, is the basis of life (that is, of evolution from the cell to society) (!) […]”27

The reduction of history to blind natural history, to an absence of the subject, to a mutation “from the cell to society” hearkens back, in a way, to the origins of modern sociology in Comte and Spencer, that is, to a pseudo-biological consideration in which the natural and social relations “of life” are treated as structurally identical, so that positing any fundamental difference between society (man) and nature can be denounced as “narrowly humanist” (Luhmann). The difference is that structuralism and systems theory include the process of development of modern societies and their systems of thought, and are for that reason much more elaborate.28 After all, even Marx speaks of the “natural history” of the current historical social formations under the influence of modernity, although not in an apologetic sense, but in a critical-revolutionary sense: that is, as a condition which can be overcome and practically superseded, with the supersession of which the “end of prehistory” is finally achieved.

This perspective is only possible because Marx, despite the absence of the subject verifiable on the plane of the social determination of form, did not fall prey to the contemptible machinery of absurd systemic laws “from the cell to society”, but instead proposes a distinction between “first” and “second nature”. This distinction is decisive for the critical historicization, based on a meta-level, of the apparently ahistorical “natural laws of society”. The concept of fetishism is the key to understanding this nexus.

“Second nature” means that the sociality of men, an element of their essence, constitutes and presents itself, in a way analogous to first nature, as an essence which is external to them, alien and subjectively unintegrated. In fact, it is a matter of a subjectless constitution set in motion by the action and activity of men, even though it acts simply as a function of a subjectless process—exactly as the jargon of systems theory demands. The comparison with other living systems is natural, since practically all existing biological populations behave, differentiate and develop “systematically” (e.g., animal or plant societies, cellular systems, etc.), without the presupposition of a subject in the Enlightenment sense of the word.

Even so, systems theory displays a fundamental ignorance here, because analogy is not identity; in other words, first and second nature can in no way be compared. The fact of subjectless constitution, of subjectless processes and systemic formations on the plane of second nature is not simply natural history, but a history of a second order, a history elevated to power. Its prerequisite is that man frees himself from mere biological and natural history of the first order. At the same time, the subjectless constitution of the second order is above all the precondition that makes that liberation possible.

Man frees himself from first nature (and thus opposes himself to it, although it remains an integral part of him) in order to free himself from animal instinct. He is the animal without instincts (this is, in any event, the kernel of truth in Arnold Gehlen’s theory). He thus, however, imposes upon himself the necessity of consciousness as subjectivity in the face of first nature. What distinguishes the worst workman from the best bee, Marx says in a famous passage, is the fact that what the former builds must first pass through his head. Man is thus opposed to first nature as subject, but is only capable of this as man, that is, as a social being. As a social being, however, he is constituted in the absence of the subject, exactly like the constitution of the subjectless second order. This only means that man did not directly create himself as a social subject nor was he created by a god-subject, but that he was only able to arise without a subject as a liberated animal. He was born as a subject faced by first nature, but he necessarily does not know who he is; he only knows and is conscious of that into which he has been transformed, that is, into a being or organism of the second order.

This differentiation with respect to first nature, the formation of man as a subject in opposition to it, is itself necessarily subjectless. The social being who “arose” but was not created could only see the light as a subjectless system of the second order. This absence of a subject displayed by the second order is the inevitable price paid for the future of the subject confronted by the absence of the subject displayed by the first order—the latter absence being absolutely natural and biological. Subjectless systems of the second order thus “arose”, symbolic systems (codes) of the newly arisen human being as well as those to come. In essence, this is precisely the constitution of the fetish. Even the first stages of development already have nothing to do with the systems of first nature. At first sight, totemic systems, by way of the criterion of “consanguinity”, might seem strictly connected to first nature. But animals form nothing more than pairs or groups guided by instinct (and are not symbolically regulated); even the sexually mature (or pubescent) youth breaks relations with his progenitors. The system of consanguinity is already a symbolic system of the second order, and cannot possibly be of a biological nature. According to all indications, it is the oldest constitution of the human fetish.

It would require another book to investigate the sequence and historical differentiation of fetish systems. History, from this perspective, is no longer defined comprehensively as “the history of class struggles” (to which the stage of knowledge displayed by The Communist Manifesto still corresponds), but as “the history of fetishistic relations”. Class struggles (and other forms of social confrontation) obviously do not disappear, but are demoted to an internal category of something of a higher order, that is, the subjectless constitution of the fetish and of its respective codes or functional laws. The commodity-form, converted into the social form of reproduction in the image of capital, is thus the last and most advanced fetish-form, capable of an extreme extension of the space of subjectivity in relation to first nature. Only on the terrain of this secularized fetish-constitution29—purged of all religiosity, assuming a comprehensive and systemic character and developing to such a degree as to arrive at the true “world system” (Immanuel Wallerstein)—could the concepts of “structure” and “system” arise.

Just as, according to Marx, the anatomy of the ape can be explained by that of man, and not the reverse, the nature of the constitution of the fetish can only be inferred from its highest stage of development, of the fetish of the commodity as the fetish of capital; only at this stage does it become recognizable and, at the same time, obsolete. One could reconstruct, from the constitution and the crisis of the secularized fetish, the way that a nexus is created behind the backs of the active subjects on the basis of involuntary effects of isolated actions, a nexus which consolidates into a “system” and routinely creates more codes than anyone could ever “imagine” and which is therefore not born from any conscious agreement. With this development the Rousseauian project of the “social contract” is also definitively destroyed, which in the contemporary debate concerning the attempt to contain the crisis of the commodity-form enjoys a ghostly survival and still nourishes an immanent and illusory conceptual proliferation (above all among decrepit leftists).

Robert Kurz

End of Part One

Translated from the Spanish: “Dominación sin sujeto. Sobre la superación de una crítica social reductora (Primera Parte)”. Original German text, “Subjektlose Herrschaft. Zur Aufhebung einer verkürzten Gessellschaftkritik”, first published in the journal Krisis (“Beiträge zur Kritik der Warengesselschaft”), No. 13, Bad Honnef, 1993.

Spanish Translation available online at:

Notes to Part One

* “Domination without a Subject” sounds awkward in English. In ordinary English usage, the word “subject” used in the political sense usually refers to the “ruled” rather than the “rulers”: “the King’s subjects”, for example. In the context of Kurz’s essay, however, the “subject” in the title refers both to the wealthy or powerful individuals widely understood to be the beneficiaries of a particular economic system who act to defend and perpetuate it, as well as to the ideology of the new individual created by the capitalist revolution and the Enlightenment, the “western subject”. The notion must be understood in the framework of Kurz’s interpretation of the “subjectless constitution of the [commodity] fetish” as well as the critique of “class struggle” discourse and “Enlightenment” rationality that he was elaborating during the 1990s. (Translator’s note.)

  • 1. It is still interesting to note that the opponents of Marxism should also affirm utilitarian egoism, but for contrary reasons. The liberal and neoliberal ideologues radically oriented toward the market, in particular, consider it obvious that for “us men” an axiomatic egoism is congenital: and from the “Fable of the Bees” (1705) of Bernard de Mandeville to the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s theory (1776), the social outcome of the egoism of private utility is equivalent to the public welfare or the “common good”.
  • 2. Josef Esser, Gewerkschaften in der Krise, Frankfurt, 1982, p. 226.
  • 3. MSZ 4/91 (late edition), “Der Fall MG”, p. 8.
  • 4. A faction of the German Green Party.
  • 5. Verfassungsschutz in the original. Department of the Ministry of the Interior, responsible for preventing or stopping so-called insults against the Constitution of the Republic.
  • 6. “Der Aufbau des Kapital” (I). In Resultate der Arbeitskonferenz, No. 1, Munich, 1974, p. 73.
  • 7. Robert Michels, Zur Soziologie des ParteiWesens in der Modernen Demokratie, 1911.
  • 8. Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesselschaft, Tubingen, 1972, p. 571 (first published in 1922).
  • 9. Leon Trotsky, Die verratene Revolution, 1936, p. 242.
  • 10. This was also true for subsequent attempts, such as, for example, the analysis of Ernest Mandel, who never freed himself from the theoretical limitations of his “master”.
  • 11. Max Horkheimer, Autoritärer Staat, written in early 1940, Frankfurt, 1968, p. 35.
  • 12. A synopsis of its genesis and theoretical dissemination is provided by Günther Schiwy, Der Franzosische Strukturalismus, Reinbeck, 1969.
  • 13. Michel Foucault, Von der Subversion des Wissens, Frankfurt, 1987, p. 14 (quoted from an interview given to Paolo Caruso in 1969).
  • 14. Foucault, in an interview conducted in May 1966, quoted by Schiwy, op. cit., p. 204.
  • 15. The fact that Parsons had been a student of Max Weber and had further developed the latter’s theory within the positivistic and pragmatic framework of Anglo-Saxon thought reveals the mediations and subterranean links in the immanent process of the lineage of western ideology and points towards the concept of subjectless domination.
  • 16. Niklas Luhmann, Soziale Systeme. Grundriss einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt, 1991, 4th Ed., p. 51.
  • 17. Luhmann, op. cit., p. 234.
  • 18. “While the theory, insofar as it refers to concepts and declarations of content, almost wrote itself, the problems of its construction cost me a great deal of time and reflection”, Luhmann reveals in the preface of his book, Soziale Systeme (op. cit., p. 14).
  • 19. Luhmann, op. cit., p. 33.
  • 20. See: Louis Althusser, Elemente der Selbskritik, Berlin, 1975.
  • 21. Louis Althusser, Für Marx, Frankfurt, 1974, p. 11.
  • 22. Louis Althusser, Lenin und die Philosophie, Reinbeck, 1974, p. 65, passim.
  • 23. Günther Schiwy, op. cit., p. 76.
  • 24. It would be worth the trouble to investigate to what extent such an ultimately fully “determinist” conception of Capital was already present (although without the methodical and meta-theoretical formulation) in the old social democracy; to what extent, therefore, Althusser had merely raised the Marxist conception of the old labor movement to the level of a systematic concept.
  • 25. See: Jürgen Habermas/Niklas Luhmann, Theorie der Gesselschaft oder Sozialtechnologie. Was leistat die Systemforschung, Frankfurt, 1971.
  • 26. See: Louis Althusser, Elemente der Selbskritik, op. cit., p. 63.
  • 27. Helmut Willke, Systemtheorie, Stuttgart/New York, 1982, p. 10.
  • 28. Comte, however—who considers biology to be the “basic science”, from which social science will have to “develop”—also speaks of the field of the biology of the relations of the active organ within a deterministic environment (see: Auguste Comte, Die Soziologie. Die positive Philosophie im Auszug, 1933, p. 31).
  • 29. That the secularization of the fetish does not necessarily have to amount to a “higher” form of consciousness is revealed as a notable irony. Just as so-called “religious belief” gave way to the Enlightenment, which did not however enlighten itself, so to the same extent did man’s consciousness of external subjection disappear. If on the one hand the subject of the Enlightenment believed that his actions could be broken down into subjective and voluntaristic theoretical terms (and therefore he did not even indirectly or distortedly perceive the form’s own fetishistic determination transfigured), pre-modern men, for their part, at least knew that their actions as chiefs, princes and kings were not “self-determined”, but were rather the blind instruments of “celestial powers”.