In this 2007 essay, Robert Kurz examines the question of theory and practice from the perspective of the “categorical” “critique of value-dissociation”, with extensive discussions of Marx, Engels, Bloch, Adorno, Horkheimer, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, Debord, Negri, and Holloway, and concludes, in the face of the prevalent urge for immediate “action” and the equally widespread denigration of theory, that “critical theory must consciously maintain a distance from all existing praxis”.
Grey Is the Golden Tree of Life and Green is Theory – Robert Kurz
The Problem of Praxis as a Recurring Theme of a Truncated Critique of Capitalism and the History of the Left
“Those brief sparks, the ‘“Theses on Feuerbach”’, light up every philosopher who comes near them, but as is well known, a spark dazzles rather than illuminates: nothing is more difficult to locate in the darkness of the night than the point of light which breaks it. One day we will have to show that these eleven deceptively transparent theses are really riddles.”
Louis Althusser, For Marx
1. Theoretical Malaise
In the worldwide crisis of the Third Industrial Revolution, the radical critique of capitalism faces an unprecedented challenge. In order to continue to be a radical critique that is worthy of the name, it has to jettison the form in which it had previously become known, it must distance itself from that form, it must replace it and go beyond itself. For, just as capitalism has really come up against its absolute immanent limits, so, too, has the critique that was formulated against it also become obsolete and is revealed to be an integral part of the object of its attack.
In response to this new historical situation, a theoretical approach to the transformation of Marx’s theory has been articulated since the 1980s that goes by the name of “value critique”. From the point of view of this approach, both the Western workers movement as well as the socialism of the East and South are merely aspects of the history of the rise and imposition of capitalism. In both, theoretical reflection as well as practical activity operate on the level of the modern system of commodity production. The Marxism of the workers movement accepted the ontologization of this context of the form of Modernity from bourgeois Enlightenment philosophy. Particularly, “labor” (“abstract labor” in Marx), as the substance of the value form, assumed over the course of this process a trans-historical status. In the worldwide crisis of the Third Industrial Revolution, the “mode of production based on value” (Marx) has come up against its absolute immanent limits, precisely by virtue of the fact that its own substance, “labor”, is being undermined and rendered obsolete. Its allegedly ontological determinations are revealed to be historically limited and decrepit.
Starting from the standpoint of this radical critical theory, the new transformative reflection undertook a critique of the value and commodity forms, a critique that necessarily had to encompass the Marxist ontology of labor as well. This fact is ineluctably associated with a profound rupture in the basis of actions to transform society: in this development, the critique of value as a critique of labor, although it must be articulated on the basis of capitalist immanence, can no longer assume any ontological criterion of identity, or any positive criterion of interest. As Negative Ontology (cf. Kurz 2004), as a critique of capitalist ontology, its goal is an “ontological break”. Both the ideas as well as the actions of the new critique are essentially negative, as the processing of the experience of suffering in crisis-ridden capitalism, insofar as positive determinations can only be developed on the basis of that negation, by means of a historical movement of mediation, but not as an a priori stipulation.
However, the new theoretical elaboration of value critique at first referred to the determinations of the general form of the modern system of commodity production without reflecting on its implications for gender relations. For the most part, the Marxism of the workers movement “inherited” from Protestantism and from Enlightenment ideology not only the modern metaphysics of labor, as an ontology of labor and “work ethic”, but also the gender relations associated with these tendencies, as a patriarchy objectified in those forms, in which the moments of social reproduction that are not represented in the form of value are dissociated, having been largely determined to be “feminine” and relegated to women. In response to this, value critique continued to develop over the course of the 1990s with respect to the critique of the relation of dissociation associated with value. In this view, dissociation is “coeval” with the relation of abstract labor, that is, it does not consist of either a secondary or a derivative aspect of abstract labor. It is not just the seemingly gender-neutral political-economic forms of the modern system of commodity production which constituted capitalism, but also, in the broadest sense, the relation of value-dissociation as the Gender of Capitalism (Scholz 2000), or the commodity-producing patriarchy.
This has two consequences. First, it opens up a new epistemological dimension, because the entire history of theory since the Enlightenment, including Marxism, had previously been confined within the framework of a false universalism based on the concealed relation of dissociation. The modern language of theory, with its conceptual apparatus, is implicated in this framework, that is, it operates within a horizon of androcentrically universalist conceptualization. The extension of value critique to the critique of dissociation is therefore the last stage of the task of breaking out of the modern conceptual framework. This raises enormous problems with respect to expository methods, problems which are still far from being resolved. This difficulty is also reflected in the burdensome dual nomenclature of the new theoretical elaboration, expressed as the critique of value-dissociation [Wert-Abspaltungkritik].
Furthermore, this theory of value-dissociation also implies an analogous extension of critique beyond the kind of feminism that has been practiced up until now, which, like the workers movement, restricted itself to the field of action of the modern fetishistic relation. For the reasons mentioned above, the same fundamental break that applies to the critique of labor applies here, too, at the very roots of transformative action: the critique of value-dissociation is not a mere point of view of gender identity or interest, within the integument of the given form, but is intended to shatter that form and therefore to abolish the patriarchy of Modernity that is objectively inscribed in the general and abstract forms of society.
What is revealed here, in the theoretical elaboration and determination of transformative action, is a tense relation between the androcentric-universalist (and therefore limited and incomplete) value critique and the critique of value-dissociation, a relation that must yet be clarified. This tense differentiation of the correct theoretical elaboration of value-dissociation was paralleled by a desire for self-affirmation on the part of the now-anachronistic social theories of the left. Thus, a complex field of theoretical confrontation took shape. The framing of this problem with reference to the dimension of action, however, extends beyond the boundaries of this confrontation, which is no longer merely a confrontation within theory. A desire is expressed to the effect that theoretical critique should become practical critique. This telos that is immanent to all critical theory is also applied to the critique of value-dissociation, but must be newly determined in the perspective of the “ontological break”. Separately from this, the question of the dimension of action is also presented externally as the categorical “exigency of praxis”. It is not so much a new critical theory that is turned against the dominant social praxis, but rather the indeterminate postulate of a putative relation between theory and praxis that is “inserted into” this theory, entirely in the old way and without reflection. The pretense of praxis utterly swamps theoretical elaboration and actually itself becomes theory as it is more deeply embedded in the latter, and theory itself is distorted and rendered almost unrecognizable.
This postulate is verified again and again; it characterizes not only traditional Marxism and its present-day remnants, but also, in different way, contemporary postmodern theories. For quite some time now, the elaboration of the critical theory of value-dissociation, for its part, has been spared the effects of the “problem of praxis” or the dimension of action; not because of the absence of any meaningful kind of “activism”, but rather due to its lack of contact with the theme within theoretical reflection itself, which wore itself out redefining its relation with the dimension of action under changed conditions. For “praxis” is not purely and simply action, it is also at the same time a theoretical concept to be subjected to historical and critical reflection. And what that requires is a theoretical determination that consistently separates itself from the traditional understanding of the “relation between theory and praxis” that was custom-made for the required profiles of action within the integument of the capitalist form. First of all it will be necessary to clearly explain what this really means, as well as the meaning of the break that can thus be consummated, a break with the ontology of labor, the commodity form and the relations of gender dissociation, which are also affected by this problematic.
Under the pressure of the pretensions of an unexamined praxis that is transmitted with the new contents of critique, all questions and confrontations that are internal to theory cease to be apprehended according to their own significance; the “problem of praxis” superimposes itself on theoretical elaboration and fixes the latter’s horizon, rather than the other way around. There is a risk that the affirmation that theory, as theory, is an indispensable moment precisely in relation to a practical historical transformation that really penetrates the foundations of the dominant order, will never be more than just words, and that the “ontological break” will be reduced to a mere catchphrase.
The need felt by some people to engage in “some kind” of practice and to be involved in an activism that does not want to receive and continue to develop theory as such, but which seeks to “realize” itself in an immediate practical form, and which generally apprehends an a priori “horizon of application”, seems to be as strong as an urgently felt need to urinate. Thus, getting bogged down “in” theory provokes an unpleasant feeling similar to that caused by a full bladder, even when only at the threshold of theory, before having apprehended much of the theoretical point of view. Before one has surrendered to the new problematic of reflection, before one has engaged in theoretical thought in general, it is not possible to be sure of oneself, and yet now one wants to “get down to brass tacks”, which generally ends up meaning getting your clothes dirty. What matters is that it is “practice”. Such incontinence with respect to the so often invoked relation between theory and praxis is indicative of a truncated understanding, one that is rooted in traditional Marxism, an understanding that always links theoretical reflection with a “capacity for action” or with a pre-established praxis. According to this perspective, critical theory must therefore be, on the one hand, a “directive for action”, and in this sense is deserving of the highest esteem; on the other hand, however, insofar as it is something inferior and non-autonomous in the face of the ominous “praxis”, it must only be valid in relation to its application as “praxis”.
For those who understand the question in this way, it is always necessary to appeal to that famous passage from the “Theses on Feuerbach” of the young Marx (Thesis 11): “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, 1845). Now, the point is to know what importance critical theory has, as theory, in this change, because Marx himself was above all else a theoretician, and his works are anything but a “directive for action” in the sense of some kind of immediate “possibility for realization”. The 11th Thesis on Feuerbach is often considered in a context that would be more appropriate for the interpretation of the Lebensphilosophie [philosophy of life] evoked in the famous passage from Goethe’s Faust I: “Grey is, young friend, all theory: And green of life the golden tree” (Goethe, 1828). These were the very words, of course, that Mephistopheles used to lead a naive student astray. Through this lens, the whole thing boils down to the capitalist credo of action with which everyone is familiar, but which is ambiguous, if it has to be employed as a criterion precisely for the telos of an “ontological break”.
If our starting point today is the situation in which the absolute immanent limit of capitalism, or the commodity-producing patriarchy, has been reached, then, to the contrary, it can be said in the words of Hegel that “a form of life has grown old” and is no longer “green”. The latter attribute, on the other hand, would be fitting precisely for the new theoretical critique that is being articulated without the respect of the dominant praxis that has turned grey. Only in appearance does the unexamined passion of “praxis” constitute a triumph of ontological, traditional or postmodern-inflected Marxism, which pull answers out of a hat, answers that are useless, thus legitimating a false activism. The more acute that social contradictions become amidst the new dimension of crisis, the less they can be expressed in the old conceptual field. In this zero-point situation, invoking the preeminence of the problems of the crisis (“we are running out of time”), many people turn to a passage from Goethe’s Faust I: “Enough words have been exchanged; Now at last let me see some deeds!” (Ibid.). Here, tellingly, the speaker is the theatrical director, and it is precisely today, after the end of the movement of modernization, that the pretension of a reduced practice and the need for action on the left is leading, right before our eyes, merely to staged performances. It is precisely this trend that is rendering it impossible to critically address the harsh reality of the crisis of the beginning of the 21st century. The gymnastics of the pretensions of traditional praxis are merely pitiful. In the changed world situation, it has become necessary to examine the concept of praxis that has prevailed up until now, and to reexamine the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach in the light of the critique of value-dissociation, and to submit its interpretation to a critique of ideology.
2. Adorno on the pretensions of reduced praxis and “pseudoactivity”
In many respects, Adorno’s critical theory constitutes a transitional stage between the Marxism of the workers movement and the critique of value-dissociation, although Adorno himself never took the decisive step. This is also true with regard to the relation between theory and praxis as it is usually understood by the left, insofar as Adorno examined this relation in scattered notes and occasional observations, in which he responded to the usual incontinent “theoretical malaise”. On the eve of the movement of ’68, in his lectures on Negative Dialectics of 1965-66, Adorno apprehensively called attention to the destructive myopia of the categorical demand for immediate “practical becoming”: “… there is a very great risk that the idea of practice will lead to a shackling of theory. By this I mean that ideas of all sorts are restricted by the insistence on the question ‘Yes, but what must I do in practice? What can I do with this idea?’ Or even ‘If you think in this way, you will stand in the way of some possible practice or other.’ It is always happening that when you address the enormous barriers facing every conceivable political intervention stemming from the relations of production and the social institutions built around them—that when you address this, you instantly receive the reply, ‘Yes, but …’, an objection that I regard as one of the greatest dangers in intellectual life. Indeed, how can we hope ever to get anywhere if we think in this way? We shall never be able to achieve anything since we shall be forced to sit around twiddling our thumbs! And I would say the feature that seems to me to be characteristic of the application, the consistent application, of the Feuerbach thesis I referred to earlier is actually the idea that theory itself should be captured from the endpoint of the terminus ad quem” (Adorno 2003, p. 77).
Adorno therefore insists that the eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach must not be understood in such a way as to subsume critical theory under the undeclared pretensions of action and thus become “shackled”. For him, the dialectic of a relation that is truncated in this way consists in the fact that theoretical reflection cannot expand and develop, precisely in its own domain and in its own logic, extensively enough to become an integral part of a really emancipatory transformation of the world. In Adorno’s analysis, the pretension of reduced praxis in theory by no means represents the “concrete”: to the contrary, here “praxis” itself becomes an abstract element, it becomes “praxis in general”, which is unreflectively confronted with theory as such. In its quality as a merely abstract demand, however, it contradicts its own concept, as Adorno makes clear in the Lecture in Negative Dialectics quoted above: “But what I mean here by refusing to operate with the concept of practice, as many people do and as I am sure many of you do find tempting, is that I would not like to confuse practice with pseudoactivity. I would like to prevent you from becoming involved in this, no so as to set myself up as an authority, but simply to impress you a little bit with the arguments I have put forward today in the hope that you will think these matters through yourselves; that you will not image that you are achieving anything essential if you become an ‘organizer’—to use the term thought up in America to describe people who bring people together, organize them, agitate and such like. In every activity, there has to be a relation to the relevance, the potential it contains. Nowadays especially, precisely because decisive activity is blocked and because, as I have already explained often enough, thinking itself has become paralyzed and impotent, chance practice has become a substitute for the things that do not happen. And the more you suspect that this is not true praxis, the more doggedly and passionately you become attached to such activities” (Adorno 2003, p. 83).
Naturally, one must keep in mind the historical situation in which Adorno formulated this critique of the pretensions of reduced praxis. It was during the last years of the Fordist “economic miracle” after the Second World War, a time of political-social tranquility in the FRG, in the absence of any social movements that expressed transcendent qualities with which critical theory in general could have established some kind of relation. There was, at most, “partisan-political” engagement on the left wing of social democracy, in the illegal Communist Party (KPD) and in other traditional Marxist groups, as well as in the context of unionized labor. Adorno’s reference to “true praxis”, by implicitly calling for “something else” as opposed to the models at the end of the line of the workers movement and party-Marxism, might be legitimate in this context; but in this instance he seems to be assuming a utopian discourse, because there was just as little possibility of having a “true” praxis as there was of having a “true” theory, in the sense of something definitive. A critical theoretical elaboration and an activity of practical critique, always understood in relation with the capitalist constitution, are above all open-ended processes of a movement from immanence to transcendence. From these processes, points of rupture and change result, but they do not install any “final truth” of theory and praxis.
In any case, the term also makes perfect sense in another way, as one may discern in the problematic alluded to by Adorno, with respect to what he calls the “very great risk that the idea of practice will lead to a shackling of theory”: that is, by virtue of the fact that praxis can only be “true” insofar as it has as a goal the transformation of the negative and destructive capitalist mode of socialization, whereas all praxis that envelops its telos within this mode of socialization becomes “untrue”, because it absolutely does not approach the threshold of a really emancipatory transformation of the world. It ends up, very much in conformance with Adorno’s term, a “pseudoactivity”, whose practitioners would still like to be viewed in the light of the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach.
It is precisely the difficulty of critical and transcendent intervention in the totalitarian context of socialization that is presently leading, more than ever before, to “theoretical malaise”, because it is precisely at this level that critical reflection in the new elaboration of the critical theory of value-dissociation operates. Those individuals who are eager for immediate “practical becoming” (Adorno) are viewed by the critique of value-dissociation as being confronted by an impenetrable opaque wall, because now there can no longer be any mere extrapolation of a pre-established practice within the dominant forms. That is why those who are oriented towards reduced practice would like, in accordance with deeply rooted patterns, to pass the buck of this immanent difficulty of intervention beyond the hitherto-ontologized capitalist categories to theory; and they also demand from theory a form and a mode of presentation in which the problem, which is an unavoidable problem of praxis itself, will be theoretically eliminated as if by magic, in such a way that then everything would take place by way of an “application”, as if “on its own”, in a supposedly practical form, like the famous little man depicted in the HB cigarette ads of the 1970s.
With regard to this question, Adorno’s conclusion to his lecture on Negative Dialectics is still valid for our current situation, and is indeed especially valid now: “This explains why I wish to proclaim my reservations about those who are too quick to call for action, about the ‘passport inspectors’ who no longer ask every practice for its theoretical justification—which is certainly just as misguided—but, conversely, demand that every thought produces its visa: OK, but what can you do with it? My view is that such behavior impedes action instead of promoting it. And I would add that the possibility of a valid practice presupposes the full and undiminished awareness of the blockage of practice. If we measure a thought immediately by its possible realization, the productive force of thinking will be shackled as a result. The only thought than can be made dialectical is the thought that is not restricted in advance by the practice to which it is applied. So dialectical, in my view, is the relation between theory and practice” (Adorno 2003, p. 84).
We must point out that here Adorno also draws the obverse conclusion, that is, he refutes not only the “visa” of the immediate pretension of praxis demanded of theory, but also the imposition of the demand on all praxis that it must be “theoretically justified” in an equally immediate way. Under capitalist conditions of life, and even more so under the new crisis conditions of our time, zones of conflict are constantly appearing that cause diverse forms of confrontation to erupt (and even destructive forms and forms that are pervaded by negative ideologies), in which the stresses of the internal confrontations and structural absurdities of this kind of socialization are discharged. The struggle for life interests within capitalism, however, which as such cannot be absolutely denied, is not transcendent per se, and does not go beyond the ontology of labor, value and dissociation.
It is precisely here that the problem for the critique of value-dissociation resides, because it needs to redefine the existing relation with these existing “struggles”, which can no longer be prolonged in a straight line and without any ruptures in the name of a “socialist” perspective that is beyond capitalism, as in the context of the Marxism of the ontology of labor and of dissociation, and of its “praxis” that is immanent to that form. In this sense, the problem is not “theoretical malaise”, but, to the contrary, “practical malaise”; the malaise in the submission of critical thought to the needs of action, which undoubtedly exist and are to a certain extent legitimate, but which inevitably imply a retreat to a position that falls far short of the historically mature exigency of the liquidation of the capitalist ontology. It is exactly for this reason that contemporary “struggles” have such minor resonance and are so impotent. As a result, one cannot subject the needs expressed in any given action to criticism; they are up against the same limit as theory. The criticism must be directed at the pretension to want to turn them, for their part, into a limit for theoretical reflection, as has unfortunately been the case up until now.
3. “Theoretical praxis” and the real interpretation of capitalism
In order to discover an orientation for addressing the problem of theory-praxis, an orientation that would take the place of traditional Marxism and its postmodern derivatives, it is first of all necessary to once again shed light on the immanent dialectic in the relation between theory and praxis within capitalist society itself. One cannot begin to make a break with the capitalist ontology from the starting point of an external point of view; instead, this requires work, not to say a battle, starting from immanence, by way of negation. In capitalism, the separation between theoretical reflection and practical action which, according to the prevailing understanding, is criticized in the “Theses on Feuerbach”, is by no means an absolute and external separation, but a separation that is embedded in a superimposed [übergreifend] process of praxis of the “automatic subject” (Marx) and of the gender dissociation associated with the latter.
Capitalist reproduction is an all-embracing social praxis in which theoretical reflection inserts itself. Thus, theoretical elaboration in capitalism is by no means a kind of “thumb-twiddling” approach, but a kind of activity, albeit a sui generis sort of activity that can be understood as “theoretical praxis”. This claim, surprising and paradoxical for everyday capitalist common sense, and also for leftist common sense, has already been a focus for reflection in social critique, in theoreticians such as Adorno and Althusser, for example, who in other respects are so very different from one another. Here the concept of “theoretical praxis” is generally confused with the exigencies of social critique itself. In order to be able to elaborate the difference between critique and affirmation, it is first of all necessary to determine the status of “theoretical praxis” in its capitalist immanence. From this perspective, an essential aspect is the understanding that theoretical elaboration itself represents a moment or a specific field of social praxis in capitalism.
This must not be misinterpreted as meaning that the difference and the tension between theory and praxis is supposed to be eliminated as if by magic, by some cheap sleight of hand trick. “Theoretical praxis” confronts praxis in social relations and in the “process of metabolism with nature”, but as a different factor, separate from social praxis itself. One could speak of a social praxis of the first order (material and social reproduction) and a social praxis of the second order (the reproduction of theoretical reflection), or even of a relation between “practical praxis” and “theoretical praxis”, structurally separated from each other. This formulation, too, might seem paradoxical to everyday capitalist common sense, but it is nonetheless indicative of the real paradox of social relations.
Thus, the question of the reason for this structural separation, for this difference and this tension, is posed. The reason resides in the fact that “practical praxis”—social activity and the activity of production—is fundamentally pre-formed by way of the a priori matrix of the fetishistic constitution; in Modernity, by way of the relation of value-dissociation, that is, by way of the “automatic subject” of the valorization of value, on the one hand, and the sexually connoted dissociation of the moments of reproduction that are not included in the valorization process, on the other hand. The result is patterns of activity that seem self-evident, and which are not subject per se to any kind of reflection: the patterns of activity of the valorization of value and of the always simultaneous activity of sexually connoted dissociation, determinant patterns of the quotidian “life and labor”. It is a directly fetishistic activity, that is, people “act before they think” (in Marx’s formulation in the chapter on fetishism); they act in the already constituted and pre-established relations of the famous “second nature”, yet this action really needs to pass through their consciousness.
Therefore, the patterns of action are already established a priori without the conscious reflection of intellectual labor and, as a result, are almost ontologically presupposed for reflection. What does this mean? In relation to certain separate things or circumstances, thought, as “conception”, planning, intellectual construct, etc., “really” precedes action (or at least it should), as Marx sets forth in the famous example of the difference between the bee and the architect. With regard to the fetishistic social relation of value-dissociation, however, precisely the opposite is the case: in relation to their own social context and to their “processes of metabolism with nature”, people are not architects, but practically “bees”. By means of this inversion, a structure is erected in which there is no unity between “concept” and “execution” in action (not even “experimental” action), because the latter is presupposed a priori in accordance with its form, just as in the case of bees. Under these conditions, (theoretical) reflection necessarily arises as a sphere that is subordinated to “practical praxis” and is consequently separated from the latter. This is why we also see that people, even though they are still capable of reflection, are overcome with despair with regard to the ecologically destructive consequences of their own compulsive activities which are only subjected a posteriori to reflection and “mental processing”.
On the other hand, thought thereby ceases to be a “free” conceptual act, in order to converge with the presupposed “bee-like” form of social and material reproduction, in accordance with its own form that has been conditioned by that structure. In this way, an identity between the form of action and the form of thought comes to prevail precisely by virtue of the “tacit a priori” of the former. This is just as applicable to the everyday type of capitalist common sense as it is to the thought associated with theoretical reflection. Only to the extent that the latter also takes place in the constituted form of thought is the modern concept of theory as “theory form” constructed, which thus becomes an integral part of socialization in the commodity form and therefore, as Adorno points out in the lecture quoted above, a “reified consciousness” (ibid.). Due to the identity between the form of thought and the form of action, which has arisen through this inversion, a “unity” of theory and praxis also then arises, once again “behind the backs” of the pre-formed actors and thus behind the backs of the pre-formed thinkers; what this amounts to, however, is a paradoxical unity that is negatively structured precisely by the structurally conditioned separation.
This paradoxical unity conditions an unconscious objectivization, both on the part of action as well as on that of (subordinate) thought, which, in accordance with its form, is similar to that of the bee, insofar as people’s capacities for reflection, for conceptualization or for being “architects”, become mere secondary appendages. Here the mediating instance is the “subject form”, in which people once again reproduce in nature and in themselves the “tacit a priori” of its fetishistic form of constitution. At the same time that they, in the form of acting subjects, transform the things of the world into mere objects of the motion of the presupposed form, they are themselves transformed into objects. This is why the negative identity between subject and object is included in the negative identity between the form of thought and the form of action. It is not by chance that the concept of the subject, which seems so obvious to us, only arose in the context of the modern constitution of the fetish. The fetishistic form of value and of its process of valorization, which goes hand in hand with the constitution of the subject, did not appear as such, but took on, according to Marx, a “spectral” appearance”; the form always emerges only indirectly in things and relations that have been transformed into commodities, as well as in the institutions that are derived from them. This gives rise to the illusion that this fetishistically-constituted subject is quite capable of “freely” shaping the conditions of the world, when he moves in his a priori matrix and, as we shall soon see, when he engages in an ideologically affirmative processing of the resulting contradictions (this is the other side of the subject’s own labor). The frequent evocation of “subjectivity” against negative objectivization, in Marxist thought as well as bourgeois thought, succumbs to an ideological (self-induced) illusion. The critique of value-dissociation, in its further consistent development, was extended to include the critique of the “subject form”, which represents that paradoxical and negative unity between the form of thought and the form of action, between theory and praxis, within the fetishistic constitution.
This negative unity must not be understood in a superficial sense, however, as an integral aspect of the differentiation of the diverse social “spheres” established by the modern fetishistic relation, in which the field of praxis or that of the reproduction of theory are simply “the other side of” other fields, such as the economy, politics, culture, family life, etc. The negative paradoxical unity between theory and praxis, precisely in their separation, also consists, even more importantly, in the fact that theory contains within itself, as its object, all the praxis of all the spheres and of the totality of capitalist reproduction. As separate reflection “on” the social totality mediated with itself, as well as on the parts and moments of that totality, it is the theory of praxis and, actually, of all dominant praxis, including its own (that is, also as an affirmative meta-reflection on the character of theory in these relations, of theory as a separate moment of social praxis).
Since “theoretical praxis” is subordinated to “practical praxis” as a form of thought, it reproduces within itself the fetishistically-constituted modes of action of the social relations and of production in the theoretical form or as the theoretical expression of those modes of action. Insofar as theory reproduces the categorical context of the form of capitalism within itself, unlike unreflective everyday capitalist common sense as well as all reified forms of reasoning, the same thing also takes place with regard to the relation of gender dissociation; and also, indirectly, in the conceptual apparatus of the theory form itself, which obscures the respective real underlying structures and “renders them invisible” in its intervention, which at the same time also has an impact on the theory of knowledge. In the superficial classification, woman = nature, dissociation is determined per se as the non-conceptual, or as a non-affair, which cannot or “must not” be given any concept. With regard to this point, the modern form of theory is a “reified form of consciousness” not only in the meaning of the theoretically reproduced real categories of labor, commodity, money and capital or, on the other hand, law, State and nation, but also, at the same time, in the meaning of the relation of dissociation that was in theory “coevally” reproduced as an “invisible” category.
The modern theory form is an extension of the continued development of Protestantism and of the philosophies of the dawn of Modernity in the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily in the thought of the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries—which accompanied the development of capitalism “on its own foundations” (Marx), starting in the period of manufacture and the beginnings of industrialization. In this form, as a result of the processes we have addressed above, it is always a matter only of interpreting the ontologically presupposed social context, as was addressed by Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach”.
This does not at all mean, however, that the theory form, as “reified consciousness”, is not per se relevant as praxis. To the contrary, it has an eminently practical function, directly as the ideal legitimization of the capitalist constitution via its ontologization. However, the affirmation of the fetishistic a priori matrix as “natural necessity”, ontological “reason” or “human essence” does not appear in this context as simply an external justification, one that could very well be replaced by any other, but it is already contained a priori in the form of thought, in the mode of thought and in concepts themselves. As a priori legitimization, it always enters in advance into the practical action of the capitalistically constituted “subject form”. Capitalism may thus even be understood as a real interpretation of being-there [Dasein], in which interpretive theory enters as an integral part and as an expression in thought.
Here it is not just a matter of the a priori legitimization of the context of the capitalist form, as the only imaginable form for all eternity, which must practically have always existed (although in an incomplete manner in the past) and which must represent human existence in general; the theory form becomes at the same time the “supplier” of ideas for capitalist praxis, ideas which consist of a permanent real interpretation not only of the world in general, but also of capitalism itself in its progressive development. By way of their constitution, the natural and social sciences furnish patterns of interpretation for the practical modeling of the dominant relations in the “process of metabolism” with nature, as well as in social relations, with a basis in the theoretically reproduced a priori matrix; they always comprise, at the same time, a constantly developing fundamental pattern of legitimization and pattern of interpretation, for the “practical praxis” of the real interpretation of capitalism.
Here there is a displacement of priorities in the historical process: if at the beginning the legitimizing theoretical reproduction of the capitalist ontology occupied center stage, along with its “self-certification” (frequently misunderstood as an almost critical self-reflection, in Kant, for example), with the progressive development of capitalism upon its own foundations, the theoretical production of patterns of interpretation for practical “action” came to occupy the leading position (not seldom misinterpreted as a merely positivist superficiality, whereas positivism actually represents the fully consistent immanent consequence of the original ontological self-certification). In this development, the legitimizing moment of the form of thought is not lost, but only readapted in the production of the supply of patterns of interpretation.
4. The treatment of the contradiction and “ideological praxis”
The negative unity thus brought about between (interpretive) theory and the material and social reproduction of capitalism, as a relation between “theoretical praxis” and “practical praxis”, therefore does not refer simply and one-dimensionally to the objectivizations of thought and action that are established in advance by the fetishistic relation. This pre-formation needs to pass through consciousness and cannot take place otherwise, and for that reason it can by no means take place in the form of an automatic physical or biological process. To the contrary, capitalist reproduction pre-formed by the a priori matrix is also a “contradiction-in-process” (Marx); a “contradiction-in-process” not only with regard to its own progressive dynamic, which is constantly rendering the “old form” of capitalism obsolete, but at the same time a fundamental self-contradiction, which gives rise to periodic crises and, finally, to the absolute “immanent limit” (Marx). For this reason, “theoretical praxis” and “practical praxis” are always already implicated in the capitalist self-contradiction that is constantly unfolding. This must be reflected as theoretical interpretation and handled as practical interpretation.
There is thus, on the one hand, a “silent coercion” (Marx) in relation to action determined by the form of the valorization of value or to the action of dissociation. On the other hand, the dilemmas of the capitalist self-contradiction interfere to an increasingly greater degree in this action. Since the objectified patterns of action are not by any means “automatically” performed as in the case of bees, the internal contradictions and the zones of discord associated with them which result from fetishistic reproduction also enter the consciousness of the individual actors, and permanently belie their pretensions to be “architects”, almost turning them into bees, but not quite. Practical action thus constituted therefore acquires a structure that is in a way aporetic, by submitting to a permanent tension between, on the one hand, a bee-like objectivization (“second nature”) and, on the other hand, consciousness or the (negative) experiences contained in consciousness. First of all, this only means that the action pre-formed by the a priori matrix is never the mere realization of an internal mechanism of the “automatic subject” and of the moments dissociated from it, but always also the “treatment” of the immanent contradictions associated with it. Capitalist reproduction does not consist only in linear and mechanical action of valorization and in the action of dissociation, but at the same time, inevitably, in a constant treatment of the contradiction [Widerspruchsbearbeitung].
The exigencies of this treatment of the contradiction accompany the entire process of reproduction of “practical praxis”. One aspect of this treatment is, on the one hand, the administration of persons in the domains of business management and public administration, which today, after the extinction of the capitalist capacity for internal development, has become crisis management that is attempting to manage a permanent crisis that is constantly getting worse. On the other hand, another aspect is comprised by the forms of immanent “counterpraxis”, that is, the forms of interest-based struggles involving vital needs that are always addressed capitalistically, which are directly no more than an immanent component of this treatment of the contradiction. Insofar as strikes, social movements, protests and struggles for the preservation of social programs or against the termination of means of reproduction (closures of factories or hospitals), alternative projects of all kinds, actions of resistance against crisis management, etc., have to be carried out on the field of capitalist immanence (because otherwise they would not even be able to exist), vital needs are necessarily conceived in terms of the capitalist forms (in the form of the commodity and of money, as well as in the relation of gender dissociation).
Pursuing this line of thought, we have here an “expression” of the contradiction and we are dealing with a permanent conflict concerning the real interpretation of capitalism itself. It is not only among those who are employed in capitalist functions and positions, in politics or the economy (Keynesians and neoliberals, for example), that this conflict develops; it also arises as an internal conflict between the capitalist administration of persons or of crises, on the one hand, and the immanent “counterpraxis” in diverse fields of reproduction, on the other hand, since capitalist contradictions are manifested in action as real interpretation. Thus, the immanent forms of “counterpraxis” that always recur in the treatment of the contradiction are, despite their external opposition to the administration of persons and crisis management, integral components of capitalist reproduction itself and are, from their beginnings, necessarily particularized; they are only critiques that affect isolated phenomena of capitalism and refer “naturally and spontaneously” (as Marx so often said) to the pre-established social forms. In and of itself, this is by no means a factor of emancipation, in the sense of shattering the capitalist ontology. To the contrary: in this case, capitalism must itself be interpreted in a different way, in accordance with duties to the vital interests that are always manifested in the capitalist form, thus clashing with the limit of this a priori matrix which as such is not subjected to any reflection. For this reason, it is precisely by way of praxis that the world is simply “[differently] interpreted” in its dominant constitution, and it is exactly this that is repeated in the reflections of the “philosophers” (theoreticians), as long as they do not recognize and do not break with the negative identity between the form of thought and the form of action.
Actually, insofar as “theoretical praxis” reproduces in itself the totality of social praxis, as its interpretive theoretical expression (and, in this sense, as the “form of reified consciousness”), it also needs to express or theoretically reproduce the permanent treatment of the contradiction, in the forms of the administration of persons and of immanent “counterpraxis”. Therefore, within its specific domain, it is a constitutive part of the debate concerning the real interpretation of capitalism, established in the context of the fields of conflict, and supplies the respective oppositional patterns of interpretation for the treatment of the contradiction, of which it becomes a particular moment. In the process of doing so, however, “theoretical praxis” comes up against the limits of the a priori matrix in the same way as “practical praxis”, even in reflective thought itself.
With this we come to the problem of ideologization. Ideology can basically be understood as a reflective form of the affirmative treatment of the contradiction in the struggle of the real interpretation of capitalism; in a certain way, as the paradoxical pretension of the “architect”, but in the unsuperseded and unquestioned status of the “bee”, in which the inversion of the relation between pre-formed action and thought (subordinated and, thus, structurally separated) is blindly maintained, which for its part is pre-formed by the former. One could say that ideology is composed of affirmative contents of reflective thought “in” the form of pre-established thought. These contents are only “conceptual” as destructive reactions to the experienced contradiction, but not in relation to the underlying social relation. This affirmative reflection is formed on the basis of the treatment of the contradiction in the different fields of social praxis, including theory. Precisely because, unlike the case of real bees, they are not automatic, these realizations also always contain moments of reflection, “images of the world”, modes of imagination, patterns of explanation, etc. People always need to find explanations for their social actions.
Imprisoned within the limits of the fetishistic a priori matrix and breaking out naturally and spontaneously, this tendency of thought consists in reflective affirmation as a component of the will to self-preservation within these relations; it therefore consists in the effort to find such explanations for these relations (the capitalist “relation with the world”) or in interpreting capitalism in such a way that the individual himself can exist in it. This results in the fact that the a priori matrix is almost naturalized, as is the case with “making money”, and just like the attributes of “femininity” [Zuschreibungen an “Weiblichkeit”]. Furthermore, the treatment of the contradiction is ideologized in a process of exclusion and embodied in the course of universal competition, in patterns of racist and anti-semitic interpretations, for example, that enter into the struggle of real interpretation. Here we also include cultural interpretations, attributes foisted on foreigners and self-defined attributes, in the ideological conceit of the “happy poor” or in dichotomous patterns of the hegemonic relation, for example (“We, the humble folk”, “you, those who are on top; we, those who are on the bottom”), or in pejorative subjectivizations (“the politicians are pigs”, “incompetents in suits”), etc. And last but not least, in the treatment of the contradiction, these ideological patterns of interpretation refer to a dichotomous reading of the economic nucleus and of its self-contradictory imprisonment in the worsening crisis, above all in the confrontation between a “good” productive capital (good because it creates jobs) and a “bad” speculative financial capital (bad, because it is supposedly associated with “income without work”); in the Nazi regime this took the form of the dichotomy between “creative” (German-Aryan) capital and “rapacious” (Jewish) capital.
What we are dealing with here are, on the one hand, “ideologies of everyday life” or “religions of everyday life” (which must not be confused with religion as a fetishistic relation and a pre-modern relation of reproduction), of private or collective “creations of meaning”, of many different types. And, on the other hand, after 200 years of the development of capitalism on its own foundations, the affirmative reflections of “theoretical praxis”, mainly those of Enlightenment thought and its counter-Enlightenment derivatives, immersed in the everyday common sense of “normality”, for example, the ideology (of circulation) of “freedom and equality” (democracy), the ideology of “nationality” and of the nation-state as pattern of interpretation and frame of reference, “politics” as form of social action of the permanent treatment of the contradiction, the ideologization of the universal fetishistic relation as “the common good”, as well as basic ontological and anthropological hypotheses (“the human being” as the subject of abstract interests), etc.
It can be concluded that the treatment of the contradiction at the level of “practical praxis” in its multiple spheres and mediations is never original, direct and, so to speak, reflectively innocent, but instead is always pregnant with ideology and impregnated with “theory”, although everyday consciousness is not aware of this. In the (real) permanent and “suffered” interpretation of capitalism, “theoretical praxis” and “practical praxis” are equally ideological praxis and are united precisely by this quality. This “ideological praxis” represents the real mediating relation of the negative unity between theory and praxis; it constitutes a pivotal component of capitalist reproduction, once it enters into the fetishistically constituted material and social action of the valorization of value and of dissociation. Only on that basis is all reproductive praxis developed, as a real interpretation of capitalism, in the forms of its concrete trajectory, whose most terrible form was, up until now, Nazism; not as an industrial accident of history or as a “false supersession” of capitalism, but as its historically specific real interpretation, on the basis of a determinate form of its trajectory (which is in a way “objectively” determined) of the treatment of the contradiction. The ideological processing of the contradiction is not carried out by people who are “architects”, but rather, in the worst case scenario, by people who take on the form of “killer bees”.
5. Capitalism as transformation of the world: affirmative critique and categorical critique
Viewed from the perspective of the critique of value-dissociation, the question of the “Theses on Feuerbach” presents a much more complex picture than the one that is ordinarily associated with the way the leftist organizer usually understands it. It is even more complex than it is in Marx’s 1845 formulation, which still falls far short of critically analyzing capitalist reproduction and conceptualizing the fetishistic relations as a priori matrix. In dealing with Feuerbach, Marx emphasized above all a program that consists in a generic analysis of the historically specific “process of real life” in capitalism and took the latter as his starting point, instead of the historically indeterminate “abstract person”. “Changing the world” will therefore have to result from the real revolution of this real historical capitalist mode of production and way of life, rather than from a mere “transformation in thought” or some other kind of conduct on the part of the “abstract person” in relation to the world (as was the case with the Young Hegelians). This had nothing to do with a relation between theory and a praxis that has been transformed in an “activist” way, but rather with a radically transformed understanding of theoretical reflection itself.
Marx certainly did not formulate his “Theses on Feuerbach” with the intention of producing an incipient “concept of application” of theory. To the contrary, he understood theory itself precisely in opposition to the merely interpretive character of all bourgeois theory, that is, as theoretical critique. Nonetheless, critique is in this latter sense something different from interpretation. In Marx, on the one hand, it refers to the dominant political economy, as the theoretical expression of the praxis of the historically specific capitalist way of life, that is, precisely as a critique of the latter; and, on the other hand, and in connection with that same point, it refers to the interpretive character of this bourgeois theoretical elaboration, as a mere reproduction of ontologized categories, which, precisely for that very reason, cannot arise as historical and consequently finite categories.
Thus, the distinguishing criterion resides first of all in the field of theory itself; this by no means involves the difference between theory and praxis the way these terms are commonly understood, as an external opposition between theoretical reflection and directly participatory action, but rather the difference between interpretive-affirmative theory and critical theory. It is in this latter opposition that the telos of material intervention is contained. However, the question is how to define this intervention and where it is supposed to lead. Whereas interpretation, as a form of thought, presupposes its object as such in an essentially positive way, considering only those accidental transformations “pertaining to its object” to be possible, critique, on the other hand, understood as opposition to mere interpretation, calls into question its object as such and therefore contains the essential negation of that object, and therefore also the negation of the pre-established form of action and of thought. Understood in this sense, however, critical theory or theoretical critique (critique in the theoretical form) must develop on its own terrain, in such a radical form that it can even go beyond its own terrain, participating in a radical revolution of the real relations that it essentially negates (not only in an interpretive-accidental way). Yet this is something totally different from the subordination of critical theory to a pretension of external action as such, a pretension that is not identified in the content of theory.
It is necessary, however, to address the possibility that it was an insufficiency in the “Theses on Feuerbach” that made possible the common misunderstandings of that text. The starting point for this inquiry is the relation between (theoretical) interpretation, on the one hand, and praxis or “changing the world”, on the other hand. As we have seen, the reproduction of capitalism is always also the treatment of the contradiction and the progressive real interpretation of the world as an in-itself—and likewise it is also an ongoing transformation of the world itself, and this in a quite interpretive manner. That is: the categorical forms of capitalism and the relation of dissociation are ontologically presupposed, and the transformation of the world is presented as a real interpretation in the process of historical development “pertaining to” the latter and “within” this formal context. Furthermore, by supplying the ideal patterns of legitimization and interpretation for this process, “theoretical praxis” itself participates in this capitalist transformation of the world. The common and hardly profound opposition between the phrases, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world”, and “the point is to change it”, completely bypasses the critique of capitalism, because it does not address the character of changing the world as real capitalist interpretation as praxis in itself, and because an indeterminate “praxis”, par excellence, is already assumed to be opposed to mere “interpretation”.
However, if the opposite of “interpretation” is not “praxis” in itself and generically (“doing something”), but critique, or more precisely an essential critique, then the problematic of the “Theses on Feuerbach” resides in the very concept of critique. This is the exact specification of that to which its negative content really refers. With this step, however, the concept of critique itself becomes ambiguous, just like the concepts of “interpretation” and of “changing the world”. In fact, in the character of the real interpretation of the capitalist transformation of the world an “interpretive critique” is also included. The modern concept of critique owes its original emergence to the history of the imposition of capitalism and capitalist modernization.
When all is said and done, capitalism is, in a way, “critical” and, more precisely, critical in a triple sense. On the one hand, it preserves the critique of pre-modern relations, from which it developed and which it denounced as “irrational” (or as belonging to a lower level of the metaphysics of “reason”). In some respects, this already began with Protestantism. On the other hand, in this new “relation to the world”, affirmative thought always ends up once again transforming itself into critique, in opposition to particular stages of the history of the imposition of capitalism that have become obsolete; in the critique directed by Enlightenment ideology and the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries against the absolutist regime, for instance, whose machinery, however, as Tocqueville observes, was adopted in a modified form and subsequently further developed by the enemies of absolutism. Finally, one of the distinctive features of the crisis of capitalism today, which is now fully developed as a planetary system and which has come up against its own immanent limits, is the rise of a critique of the systems of social welfare and of the conditions of the historical expansion of integration into the framework of capitalism itself (the social welfare state, publicly owned infrastructure, etc.), and of a “dismantling of the safety net” in the new situation of crisis advocated by a bipartisan neoliberalism in the name of “freedom” and “individual autonomy”.
In their legitimizing and interpretative character, affirmation and critique are identical, to the degree that critique aims precisely at the preservation and extension of the capitalist system at any price. In this sense, in Modernity theory arose and still exists, even for the left, by virtue of its interpretive character, as “affirmative critique”. In the final accounting, it is reproduced as such in the truncated understanding of the “Theses on Feuerbach”, that is, merely in a critique of capitalism that remains within the framework of the capitalist mode of production, itself ontologically presupposing the basic capitalist categories. On the other hand, the (implicit) meta-critical content of the “Theses on Feuerbach” must be radically demarcated precisely from the modus of the interpretive critique of capitalism. Reading the text in this way, the demand contained in the “Theses on Feuerbach” does not call for a change in the direction of direct “practical becoming”; it points to a new direction in critique itself that now, as the critique of the capitalist transformation of the world, is turned against its former character as the determination of the affirmative interpretation of capitalism, as the demand for a transformation of the fetishistically constituted world, as a break with the prevailing notion of the transformation of the world as real interpretation.
Such a critique is very different from the immanently affirmative critique, that is, it is a categorical critique, a critique of the ontologized capitalist categories themselves, without omitting the relation of gender dissociation that has become “invisible”, a critique that must also always be a critique of ideology. The critique of ideology in general can only be consistent as a categorical critique. One may thus speak of a “second-order critique”, such as is in fact contained in the “Theses on Feuerbach”, if the latter is to be read in the light of the critique of fetishism of Marx’s later works. Only on this basis can such a “second-order critique” abandon the interpretive framework and become the negation of the essential capitalist determinations, in order to consciously turn its back on the “affirmative critique” and to become a categorical critique in the theoretical form (for which it primarily lacks a concept of this distinction). Only in the light of this other critique, as well, does the task of a transformation of immanent “counterpraxis” into a “second-order praxis” become clear, one that is no longer a task of real interpretation, but rather one that breaks with the objectivized action of capitalist ontology, one in which people become, for the first time, “architects” of their own relations.
It is obvious, however, that the Marxian critique of political economy, as a categorical critique of the modern fetishistic constitution and consequently as a critique of ideology in the theoretical expression of its reproduction in political economy, is oriented towards exactly this “second level” of critique. In Marx, however, since he was a man of the 19th century, a critique of gender dissociation is lacking, and not only that. At the same time, he is a “theoretician of modernization” when he explains that capitalism is both a “necessary” and “progressive” historical formation, in the metaphysics of Hegelian history set back on its materialist feet, as well as a “model of development” that had not yet exhausted the productive forces of his time. To the extent, however, that he, as the “double Marx”, is simultaneously the critic of fetishism as well as the theoretician of modernization and development, he was also compelled to alternate between an understanding informed by the categorical critique and an understanding informed by the immanently affirmative critique, as well as between a transcendent understanding of praxis that goes beyond the fetishist relation and an understanding of praxis in its form as treatment of the immanent contradiction (real interpretation). This is a problem that has persisted throughout the entire history of Marxian theory. Traditional Marxism, or the Marxism of the workers movement, one-sidedly transformed this contradiction into an immanently affirmative critique and into a practically immanent treatment of the contradiction, or the real interpretation of capitalism, while the “difficult” critique of fetishism was relegated to a secondary level of importance. And it was precisely this one-sided solution that led to the subsequent misunderstanding of the “Theses on Feuerbach”, a misunderstanding that, for the reasons adduced above, was already displayed in Marx himself.
As a result, in such a way as to render implausible any unitary understanding of Marxism, but also inevitably, the “class struggle”, as the alleged axis and pivot of the critique of capitalism, was nothing but a “historic praxis” of the treatment of the immanent contradiction on the horizon of the affirmative critique, that is, a critique associated with the determinations of the form of the modern fetishistic constitution, a critique that proceeds within the integument of that constitution and that, despite all the frequently evoked “moments of excess”, in accordance with its immanent telos and consequently with its concept, must rule out any “ontological break”. The conflation of critical theory and the “class struggle”, in its quality as short-term incremental praxis, could only lead to the theoretical reproduction of the capitalist categories in the “struggle” by the real interpretation of capitalism itself; the theory associated with this “class struggle”, which expresses this struggle, remains for this immanent praxis the respective theory of modernization and of development.
Now, however, the critique of value that has arisen in the world crisis of the Third Industrial Revolution, which developed as the critique of value-dissociation, once again brings the critical dimension of the fetishist constitution of society to the foreground, which had only subsisted obscurely or had been concealed and mutilated in the Marxism of the workers movement, and reverses the contradiction in Marxian theory precisely in the contrary direction. In the historical “immanent limit” of the capitalist mode of production and way of life, the task of engaging in the categorical critique of the context of the form itself becomes unavoidable, which, in the previous history of the imposition and development of the commodity-producing patriarchy, could always be postponed or reversed in favor of the treatment of the immanent contradiction and of its interpretation, in the context of the capitalist transformation of the world. As the capacity for capitalist accumulation diminishes towards zero, so too is this possibility also rendered null and void.
For precisely this reason, the phenomena of social crisis and social contradictions could only be expressed in the category of “class struggle”. There has been no return to this determination of praxis after the end of the period of Fordist prosperity; to the contrary, it is historically obsolete, since the very matrix of the modern fetishistic relation that conditions it is also obsolete. With this development, however, the treatment of the immanent contradiction has not disappeared, nor has the debate concerning the real interpretation of capitalism in general; what has come to an end, without finding any substitutes, is the moment of an ongoing process of modernization that suffused the “class struggle”, as well as its imposition in the name of a perspective that implied a categorically immanent “socialism”, as self-deception in the treatment of the contradiction, in real interpretation and in the respective “counterpraxis”.
Now that, despite the pre-formative a priori matrix of theoretical thought and of the praxis of social production, the two modes of action must permanently become aspects of conscious deliberation and must no longer be realized automatically, in principle we could expect the possibility that, in the treatment of the contradiction, the patterns of action themselves that are obscured and constituted in the genesis of the form, against whose limits both the action of thought as well as the action of praxis clash, will be examined and exposed to critique. At the immanent limit of all dominant social praxis itself, this possibility becomes a necessity; not in the sense of a logical or historical determinism, but in the sense of the survival of the human species and of nature on Earth. It remains to be seen whether consciousness will recognize that the social limits themselves to which it is subject also comprise part of a connection that, for its part, is also coming up against an absolute limit. Consciousness encompasses this possibility, whose reality, however, is not determined and, for that reason, cannot be derived. For the shattering of the fetishist matrix would truly be the end of the “bee-like character” of social reproduction; that is why it is so frightening and does not arise by itself, it does not naturally arise from “capitalist malaise”. Everything that “naturally arises” in social affairs is a processing of the malaise that is characteristic of the fetishist and per se ideological “second nature”. The categorical critique is the enemy of everything “that naturally arises”.
6. Theory of structure and theory of action
In order for us to approach more closely to the concept of the categorical critique, it is necessary first of all to examine in more detail how the problem of the fetishistic constitution arises indirectly in “theoretical praxis”. This problem is basically manifested as the classical opposition between theory of structure and theory of action, an opposition that has existed throughout the entire process of theoretical elaboration since the Enlightenment, and which still reverberates in Marx, as well, and also in the conceptual apparatus of the “class struggle” in the sense referred to above. In the broadest sense, I understand these two concepts of theory as the principal patterns of reflection in the form of bourgeois theory, which can be expressed in completely different configurations. In the opposition between these two patterns of theory the insoluble polar contradictions of the modern fetishistic constitution arise: the contradiction and the simultaneous negative identity between “free will” and determinism, or between subject and object, or even between “theoretical praxis” and “practical praxis”, and the mediation of these polar identities.
Here, the approaches of the theory of structure affirmatively take as their starting point the objectified character of the a priori matrix or of “second nature”, explaining action as derived and determined, while the patterns of the theory of action, on the other hand, take as their starting point the subjective character of action, understanding social structures as mere expressions of this action or as “congealed action”. Both approaches are correct, but they are both based on a shared error, that is, the obscuring of the fetishistic constitution and of the context of its form. One could also say that both approaches involve abstraction from the historically specific formation “within” which one thinks and acts, in order to a-historically take as a point of departure, on the one hand, “structure” or “objectivity” in itself and, on the other hand, “action” or “subjectivity” in itself. In fact, the categories of subject and object strictly pertain, as we have seen, precisely to the modern commodity-producing patriarchy; in these concepts the paradox of the fetishistic constitution is reflected, according to which all actions have to pass through consciousness and consequently also through decisions of the will. This will, however, and, consequently, also action, at the same time exist in an a priori form, one that is always already formed. This a priori form or matrix, for its part, in fact arises by way of human action, but its results unconsciously become autonomous in an impenetrable autonomous structure that confronts the actors.
The opposition between theory of structure and theory of action remains insoluble in the interpretive character of theoretical elaboration, that is, in the identity of the a priori form of action and thought, because the level of critique in the constitution of the form itself, which will only then generate the immanent contradiction, cannot be reached in the form of theory as “form of reified consciousness”. In accordance with the way this central contradiction is elaborated theoretically from the interpretive point of view, on this basis diverse ideological concepts are developed that, for their part, have an impact on “practical praxis” and co-determine the real form of the trajectory followed by the real ongoing contradiction. “Practical praxis” is itself pregnant with ideology, and all the more so the more it is affected by “theoretical praxis”, as the theoretical elaboration of ideology or the ideological elaboration of theory, in the sense of theory of structure or of theory of action.
As “interpretive science”, bourgeois social theory is ideological per se, because it can per se only be theoretical scientific affirmation or affirmative critique, as the theoretical reproduction of the presupposed capitalist ontology and of the treatment of the latter’s contradiction. It is true that Marx distinguishes between ideology and “science” (understood as “impartial” reflection, a concept that he inherited from the origins of the constitution of modern theory). However, this differentiation, too, belongs to the “double Marx”, as a result of the remnants of Marx’s own partiality towards Enlightenment thought. It is not Marx, the critic of fetishism, who makes this distinction, but Marx, the theoretician of modernization, who sought to understand as “progress” the capitalism of his time that had not yet developed to the mature state of crisis, in consonance with the metaphysics of history that he inherited from Hegel. What Marx did not yet reflect in this distinction is the fundamentally ideological character of all interpretive reflection, which arises in the insurmountable immanent opposition between theory of structure and theory of action. Ultimately, even the natural sciences are subject to this ideological character, due to the fact that they are integrated into the fetishist social constitution and are thus just as “partial” as social theory.
It is precisely the model of the natural sciences that enters in a certain way into the reflections of the theory of structure. By analogy with nature, society and history must be determined, in the modern understanding of “natural laws”, as processes that are subject to objective “laws” that can be “employed”, but neither negated nor replaced. Human activity is denigrated to the “execution” of inexorable “laws”. This is a reflection of the “iron cage” (Max Weber) of the fetishist, pre-formative a priori matrix of action. The theory of structure in the broadest sense, in its dynamic form as the theory of development, extends from the Enlightenment metaphysics of history systematized by Hegel to structuralism and systems theory. It always implies an “explanation” of society and of history in accordance with the (physical or biological) patterns of the natural sciences.
On the other hand, the reflection of the theory of action emphasizes the independence of human consciousness and the subjective “dimension of will” (intentionality). People make their own relations, and thus the latter must be susceptible to change in a web of deliberate acts or “intentions”. This view can be traced back to Giambattista Vico, who proclaimed the comprehensibility and accessibility of the “autopoietic” character of society and of history, as opposed to non-anthropic, external nature. The theory of action, in its broadest sense, dates back to the Enlightenment itself, when reflection was not yet differentiated from the theory of structure, and was subsequently taken up during the Romantic period, then by vitalism, then by the phenomenology of Husserl, pragmatism and similar sociological approaches (symbolic interaction, etc.), and was finally embraced by existentialism and its postmodern derivatives. It always implies an “understanding” of society and of history in a subjective sense of intentionality, which is different from the “explanation” characterized by a quasi-scientific determination on the basis of overarching laws [Gesetzmäßigkeiten]. This is why the reflection of the theory of action always takes the form of a social and historical hermeneutics, which in German historicism (Dilthey, among others), in the context of the dawning of the German Ideology, was demarcated from the Hegelian law-based metaphysics, and would also draw a solid line of opposition between the theory of the natural sciences, on the one hand, and social and historical theory, on the other hand (the “two cultures”).
Since they could not fail to be affirmative and interpretive theoretical elaborations, which always had the context of the capitalist form and dissociation as their ontological presupposition, both the theory of structure and the theory of action remained bound, in an equally one-sided way, to the contradictions of the fetishistic constitution. Either the level of action is eliminated as an autonomous force, and action is positivistically transformed into a mere “function” of an autonomized or almost natural structural process; or else, inversely, the structural level of the a priori matrix is eliminated, and action is transformed into a sum of acts of will, intentionalities and interactions. Both types of approach are entirely and equally ideological and consequently affirmative. In the process of the permanent treatment of the contradiction (which is also theoretical), they take on the form of interpretive “objectivism” and interpretive “subjectivism” which, with equal consistency, are always being transformed into each other, without being able to comprehend the fetishist constitution that is their basis.
This mutual transformation of both patterns unconsciously reflects the existence of the obscured and ontologized a priori matrix. Thus, the objectivist model of the theory of structure ultimately requires that the intentional actions of subjects should be “epiphenomenal” [“carried as an appendage”], since the social process does not proceed, by any means, the same way as physical-chemical reactions, the geological movement of tectonic plates, biological metamorphoses or even instinctive action on the part of animals such as the bee. The reason why “intentional execution” of some kind is necessary, which belies the rule of “law” over the process, nonetheless remains unexplained. In reality, acts of will therefore arise above all as a kind of “contaminant”, as the constant source of error and mistakes, through which the objective course of development is executed and the (bee-like) “conformity to the laws of nature” of social affairs is obtained. Human consciousness tends to be demoted to a kind of “confounding factor” of its own social context. Inversely, the subjectivist model of the theory of action cannot completely ignore the fact that action itself is objectified in “structures”. This objectivization, however, is in turn “epiphenomenal” of intentionality, as that “congealed action” that is manifested in social institutions. Nonetheless, the reason why this autonomized objectivization, which in fact negates mere “intentionality”, exists at all, remains unexplained. It is the simple reference, which remains implicit, that something else is at work here, that is, a historical constitution of the form that is more deeply rooted than the mere institutionalization of intentional actions.
The problem is also addressed by Adorno, in “Lecture Twelve” [of the English language Edition—Translator’s Note] of An Introduction to Sociology, dating from 1968, in which he takes a position against the hypostatization of the theory of action: “But if you have dipped into some sociological writings, especially those of Max Weber, you will have found that by no means everything done by sociology has to do with social action, and that to a very large degree sociological analysis relates to thing-like, objectified forms which cannot be directly resolved into action—in other words, all those things which, in the broadest sense, can be referred to as institutions. And in this respect there is no difference between, let's say, the Marxian analysis of the objective form of the commodity and the concept of the social institution … of all that which in Marx is called the relations of production, resides precisely in the fact that we are here concerned not with direct action but, if you like, with congealed action, or with some form of congealed labour and with something which has become autonomously detached from direct social action…. But first of all it has to be said that… that social destiny, and therefore the social action of each individual person … is dependent on these institutions, and can only be explained in terms of them. It would be far less correct to say that this action should be seen as the final and immediate substrate of the institutions, or that the social as such could be explained in terms of social action” (Adorno 1993, p. 177 et seq.; English Edition, pp. 105-106). According to Adorno, an approach of this kind would imply an “extraordinarily subjectivistic formulation” (ibid., p. 179; English Edition, p. 106) of understanding.
Here, although Adorno weaves a critique of the reduction of the problem of the theory of action, he also conceives the idea of “congealed action” and its “institutionalization”, without considering the different deep layers of this “congealment”, in the relation between the fetishistic constitution and ongoing institutional development. In any event, this is never possible on the purely sociological level. The Marxian analysis of the genetic constitution of the form is qualitatively different from the more superficial analysis and conceptualization of institutionalization—which is constantly underway and undergoing transformations in the process of capitalist development—and of the treatment of the contradiction and of real interpretation. The references to the more profound level of the problem of constitution in Adorno are composed of mere scattered observations, since he never systematically addressed this problem. In any event, in the reflections quoted above, an opening to this level remains possible and is not ruled out. Since his critical reflections did not explicitly proceed towards that goal, however, he was incapable of superseding the mutual transformation between the reductionism of the theory of structure and the reductionism of the theory of action.
In this way, a “structuralism” of both theories is possible, but with different starting points and with different ideological connotations. What was known as “structuralism” in the second half of the 20th century was in part influenced by the theory of action, but with an inclination towards the ontologizing determination that intentional actions are in turn “always” determined “in conformance with laws” by objectified structures (which are normally identified with institutions). It is precisely in structuralism that both approaches began to converge. So, either the objectified structure is presupposed, and it conforms to a priori physical or biological patterns, and intentional action is derived from those structures, or else, to the contrary, intentional action is a priori presupposed, in the sense of a specifically human mode of existence, and the objectified structure is, for its part, derived from intentional action. In both cases, the historical constitution of the form of capitalist Modernity remains enveloped in ontological darkness and escapes critique.
This mechanism of obscuration and ontologization makes both these currents of the theory of the bourgeois form, both with regard to their polar contradiction as well as their mutual transformation, comprise the matrix of “ideological praxis”. Liberal ideology, with its origins in the Enlightenment and in the Enlightenment basis in political economy, insists as a matter of principle and precisely during crises on the “natural laws” [Naturgesetzlichkeit] of the capitalist forms and, consequently, of history (that are derived) from the real interpretation of capitalism and from the transformation of the world as an inexorable “natural social process”, to which we must adapt regardless of the cost, under the penalty of catastrophe. The treatment of the contradiction, in this sense, starting from the interpretation based on biology and the natural sciences, is also an aspect of social Darwinism, as the “law” of the survival of the fittest, which is also proclaimed by conservative and fascist ideologies, and is related to racist-nationalist meta-subjects. Here we see a trait that liberalism and fascism/National Socialism have in common, with deep roots in the metaphysics of law-governed systems based in the theory of structure. On the other hand, the ideology of the theory of action, with its basis in the current of phenomenology, vitalism and existentialism, insists, starting from the vision of the unreflected-upon intentional subject, on the critique of “laws”, without noting their constitutive conditions. Thus, it proclaims a “heroic” intentionality or even a “quotidian” intentionality, whose treatment of the contradiction issues into the “hunt for culprits” (negative and hostile intentionalities). Anti-semitism and National Socialism may thus be understood precisely as irrationalist ideological amalgamations of the metaphysics of law-governed systems and the metaphysics of intentionality.
To the extent that Marx, starting with the “Theses on Feuerbach”, began to negate the modern form of theory as the interpretive reproduction of the capitalist connection of the form and of its contradictory character, the author of Capital paved the way for the categorical critique. This critique, however, was by no means totally and conclusively developed. Thus, just as the Marxian argumentation in Capital oscillates between the theory of modernization and the theory of fetishism, it also oscillates between an interpretive law-governed metaphysics of the theory of structure, in which the “class struggle” is inserted as intentional action, and a meta-theory of action whose goal is the categorical critique of that same law-governed structure, whose practical relevance Marx occasionally referred to as “the highest kind of consciousness”. In the Preface to Capital one may already read, in the positivist sense of a reflection of the theory of structure, the reference to the “iron necessity” of “the natural laws of capitalist production”, which are compared to the laws of physics, which also corresponds to Hegel’s metaphysics of history, but with a materialist slant.
Just as the Marxism of the workers movement and of the class struggle underemphasized or completely obscured the dimension of the critique of fetishism of Marxian theory (and even in its truncated understanding of the “Theses on Feuerbach”), it also had to reproduce in itself the bourgeois interpretive unilateralism of the theory of structure and the theory of action, keeping in mind that the former was predominant for a very long time. In Marxist social democracy, the transformation beyond capitalism was increasingly objectified as a “law”. Critique itself appeared in an objectified form, it appeared to be the “execution of history”: action itself was evaluated in the understanding of social emancipation as that which “objectively” exists, and not as a break with the false objectivity of “second nature”. So, too, was the understanding of ideological elaboration thus reduced to a “function” of “objective” interests, with characteristics approximating those of natural laws, which simply had to be recognized as correct; a reduction that would wreak a terrible vengeance with the victory of anti-semitic National Socialism over the German workers movement.
7. “Catch-up modernization” and the postulate of an “inseparable unity” between theory and praxis
The conceptual penetration, which at first necessarily had a powerful impact, of the problematic implicitly contained in the Thesis on Feuerbach, which even today has not been resolved, can be further clarified, if we take a look at the historical background formed by the predominant views with respect to which this reduced interpretation developed in traditional Marxism and on the left. In our examination of this perspective, we shall now return to the topic introduced above, concerning the profiles of the exigency of action in the integument of the modern form of the commodity-producing patriarchy. Starting from the retrospective critique afforded by reflection on the new quality of the contemporary crisis, the horizon of action of the left and of the social movements of the past are viewed within the framework of the problem of “catch-up modernization” [nachholende modernisierung].
This term conceived by the critical theory of value-dissociation is intended to refer to all the variants of Marxism and of the traditional workers movement in the history of capitalist modernization, as an element and motor force of the latter. Characteristic of the profile of exigency connected with this tendency was the postulate of an “inseparable unity” between theory and praxis, taken directly from the “Theses on Feuerbach”. In this case an attempt was made to reject the structural separation between theoretical reflection, as a merely contemplative “interpretation” carried out by “philosophers”, and practical, participatory action. Theory must be, a priori, “connected” and “integrated” into the historical praxis—which it already presupposes—of the class struggle, and only on this basis can it acquire legitimacy.
In order to further clarify the problematic of this postulate, it is necessary to briefly recapitulate the critical concept of “catch-up modernization”. As we have already mentioned, “catch-up modernization” was not an attempt to break with or supersede the modern fetishistic constitution; instead, efforts for emancipation were reduced to a “struggle for recognition” within the categories of the form of the modern commodity-producing patriarchy, including the relation of gender dissociation. It was precisely in this that the historical praxis of the “class struggle” consisted. On the one hand, it involved the imposition of bourgeois rights and benefits for the wage workers in their quality as subjects of the commodity, of money and of state citizenship (the right to strike, the right to vote, freedom of assembly, improved working conditions and higher wages, a safety net in the framework of the welfare state, etc.) in the industrialized countries of the West. On the other hand, the revolutions and national liberation movements of “catch-up modernization” in the countries of the East and South of the planet pursued the goal, expressed in a Marxist terminology, of “a struggle for recognition” as national subjects of the world market, independent and enjoying equal rights. They were thus essentially “catch-up bourgeois revolutions” (here, the “bourgeois” character is not understood in the sociologically reduced sense, but as the modern fetishist constitution of value-dissociation). This connection has been subjected to theoretical analysis for many years in the theory of value-dissociation (see, for example, Kurz 1991) and will continue to be investigated. This is not the place, however, for such further elaboration; here we are merely interested in noting the relevance of the emancipatory effort directed towards a “struggle for recognition” within the modern fetishist relation for understanding theory and praxis.
To the extent that the intention of “catch-up modernization” of the Western workers movement, of the “class struggle” and of the Third World revolutions can be deciphered as treatment of the contradiction in the sense described above, it corresponds to the real interpretation of capitalism itself; not, however, as the treatment of the “quotidian”, customary and institutionalized contradiction, within the already completely developed capitalist fetishist relations, but rather as a certain kind of treatment of the contradiction in world history, and real interpretation in the context of the still-incomplete process of the constitution of Modernity. For this reason, here, too, one cannot speak of a simple “pseudoactivity” in the Adornian sense; to the contrary, it is a matter of the way of “changing the world” that has dominated a whole historical period and consists of imposing bourgeois subjectivity on the masses, and therefore within the capitalist process itself that overlies the changing of the world. It was the contradiction between capitalist industrialization, on the one hand, and the forms of legal rights and of the state that were not suitable for this “changing the world” in material production, on the other hand; between the development of the world market, on the one hand, and the deficient political formation of the nations located in the periphery (as a function of their participation in the world market), on the other hand. As a final aspect, it brought to the fore the paradox that the ideology of “class struggle” was transformed into a vehicle for the implementation of a social relation that only then created, in general, the pre-condition for its own existence, that is, the generalization of “abstract labor”. The consequence of this is well known: the “working class”, as agent of “catch-up modernization”, was confronted with its own institutionalization and was compelled, so to speak, to carry forward with it the “class struggle” in a statist form (as became clear in the contradictions and movements of “real socialism”).
At this level, once the spearhead of the forces of emancipation was directed towards an immanent treatment of the contradiction in world history, theory and praxis had to appear as “a different interpretation” of the capitalist categories. Thus, the critique of capitalism became an immanently affirmative critique, as an integral part of the very process of the imposition of capitalism; the idea of “socialism” was measured using that yardstick; and precisely for that reason Marx’s critique of fetishism was downplayed or totally concealed. What remained was, as we have seen, essentially the current of the “theory of modernization” of Marxian argumentation, while the contrary aspects of the categorical critique or the “second-order critique” were eliminated, as has been demonstrated in detail in the theoretical elaboration of the critique of value-dissociation (see Kurz 1999, pp. 154-178, pp. 237-249, pp. 400-403, pp. 459-466). On the other hand, in the field of “theoretical praxis”, this provoked a relapse into the dichotomy of bourgeois interpretation, of the theory of structure and the theory of action. This is why the objectivization of the theory of structure necessarily had a greater impact, because it really dealt with the further imposition, “[differently] interpreted”, of the modern “second nature” and of its one-track objectivity. The Marxism of modernization systematically confused, on the basis of its implicit intention (which seemed to it to be the only imaginable critique of capitalism), the real interpretation of capitalist categories, in their process of development in world history, with the supersession of the interpretive character of theory in general, when Marxist theory was, in reality, demoted to being the supplier of interpretations for “catch-up modernization”.
In this historical constellation, the Marxism of the workers movement and the Marxisms of the East and South of the State Capitalism of “catch-up modernization” acted strictly in accordance with the “social and historical laws” that Marx had supposedly discovered; in this process, the intermittent critical aspect of Marx’s thought, that is, the approach characterized by a radical critique of a sociability that operated in the form of pseudo-natural laws, was discarded in the context of the functionalization of the theory of modernization and was rendered unrecognizable in favor of a positivism of the objectified categories. In the domain of the scientific activity of “real socialism”, which did not go beyond (at the very most) a structural stereotype of the respective bourgeois institutions qualified with the adjective, “socialist”, this positivist understanding was accepted by generations of “socialist scientists” in frankly ritualized formulas concerning the “objective laws” of economics and of history. Thus, according to a popular Soviet manual on Objective Laws and the Scientific Administration of Society: “The laws of social development were discovered and formulated for the first time in the history of human thought by the classics of Marxism-Leninism…. As natural laws (!), these laws express determinate contexts and relations” (Yermolayev 1973, p. 30).
Nor is the argument on this topic formulated by the celebrity scientist of the GDR, Jürgen Kuczynski, any better. In his essay on “social laws”, he praises the founders of bourgeois political economy precisely for having recognized the “natural laws” of (economic) reproduction, comprehending the entire subsequent capitalist development: “The economic law is just as brilliant, clear and inflexible in its effect as a law of nature. For if someone opposes it, he is defeated—in one way or another…. It is like a natural law that is imposed in every circumstance—even if it is not entirely recognizable” (Kuczynski 1972, p. 10). Human intentionality in relation to these same relations must thus appear as a mere “execution” of objectivizations; Kuczynski conceives the “… participation of people in a certain way as an objective factor (!)—and also as a subjective factor that consciously facilitates or impedes the imposition of the laws” (ibid., p. 12). Intentionality is therefore reduced to a simple function of presupposed principles which functions, more or less, in accordance with the degree of comprehension of “law-governed structures”. In this way, the difference between nature and society is largely erased: “We distinguish between laws of nature and laws of society—without having the right, however, to exaggerate this difference” (ibid., p. 14).
With this reasoning, Kuczynski can invoke Engels who, in his essay, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, also posited the analogy with nature: “Thus the conflicts of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produce a state of affairs entirely analogous to that prevailing in the realm of unconscious nature…. But where on the surface accident holds sway, there actually it is always governed by inner, hidden laws, and it is only a matter (!) of discovering these laws.” (Engels 1969, 1st Edition of 1886, p. 56). At least the Marx of the chapter on fetishism implied that, to the contrary, it is rather a matter of somehow breaking with these laws and consequently with the objectified “law-governed structure” of society, so that the “discovery” of these laws then had to coincide with the critique of such a state of affairs, characterized by the fact that people do not “govern” their own social connections (it was not by accident that Marx mentions this by analogy with the metaphor of the “architect”). Here Engels is really a “Marxist” in the sense that Marx repudiated, at least that “other” Marx of the critique of fetishism that went beyond the theory of modernization.
Nonetheless, it is in a way surprising that, in this instance, Engels provided his ontologizing “structuralism” (the clear objective of his formulation is that it should “always” be thus) with an extremely intentionalist form and a basis in the theory of action. First of all, he by no means refers to a priori “natural laws” of society, but to the fact that “hidden laws” only arise from the “conflicts” of intentional “individual wills”, as a result of those actions, and therefore from “congealed action”. This result must, however, bring about “a state of affairs entirely analogous to that prevailing in the realm of unconscious nature”. Here we can already see the immanent opposition between the mode of procedure of the theory of structure and that of the theory of action dissolving, as would be repeated in all subsequent theoretical elaboration in always new variations, although the problematic was subsequently elaborated with more clarity than in the “naive” formulation of Engels, yet without thereby being resolved. Here, Engels only demonstrated that his views in no respect expressed a break with the continuity of the modern form of theory.
Yet notwithstanding the fact that it has a real basis in the theory of action, the result could be incorporated quite naively (and not only in Kuczynski) in the determination of the theory of structure of a quasi-scientific-natural understanding, without speaking of mere “institutionalizations” of “congealed action”, but of actual “laws” that only need to be “discovered” and then “applied”. And this is also already the case in the work by Engels entitled, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, in which he says with respect to the socialist future: “The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.” (Engels 1976, written in 1880, p. 226). He therefore does not proclaim the supersession of “second nature”, but the “use” of “the laws”; he does not proclaim the critique of objectivization, but rather its “mastery” by way of positive “full understanding”. Almost twenty years after the first edition of Marx’s Capital was published, Engels obviously appears to have been unaffected by its explanation of the fetishistic constitution of history, and he carelessly and without any compunctions engages in ontologization, by not determining the “conflict” of intentional “individual wills” and their objectified outcome as a specifically capitalist-modern way of life, but declaring, to the contrary, that the objectivized outcome is a universally valid “natural law”, and will also be valid for the future.
Thus, it is not exclusively due to the constitution of “real socialism” in the modern, non-superseded fetishist categories, but it is also due to the Marxism of the workers movement itself, on the horizon of modernization in the 19th century, which Kuczynski in part ontologizes and in part historicizes as “social law-governed structure”, without actually criticizing it as such: “The laws of society in part have an eternal (!) effect, they are common to all societies, and in part have an effect for a very brief span of time, in general determined by the duration of a specific social formation” (ibid., p. 16). What is supposed to be “eternal” is obviously, above all, the category of the capitalist substance, “labor”, whose nominal abstraction, as a trans-historical principle, was incorporated in the Marxist ontology of labor, thus extinguishing the radical critical theory of the Marxian concept of “abstract labor”. Whereas in the Marxism of the workers movement of the 19th century, ontologized “labor” was only considered from the perspective of a merely abstract and positivist supersession of the value form (especially in Engels, in Anti-Dühring, for example), in the relations of reproduction of “real socialism” even the fetishist form of value consequently emerged as an ontological principle. The intentionality of planning, which supposedly transcended capitalism, was reduced to the good will and the “command” of the state bureaucracy or the “conscious use” of the non-superseded fetishist categories; a context that, logically, was once again interpreted as a “law” of a kind of “beehive socialism”.
Starting from this context, now we can also clearly see why and how the respective interpretation of the “Theses on Feuerbach” could give rise to the postulate of an a priori unity “between theory and praxis” in the Marxism of the workers movement. This was inevitable, for, in the context of “catch-up modernization”, as the treatment of the contradiction in world history, the paradoxical capitalist unity between “theoretical praxis” and “practical praxis”, as the negative identity of the form of action and the form of thought, had to be reproduced in the continuity of “bourgeois science” precisely in their separation. It is a constituent aspect of the essence of all modern “scientificity” that it leads to the transformation of nature into an object in the form of “laws”, transposing them for its own real objectivized sociability. “Scientific socialism” superseded utopian thought only in the sense of the “affirmative critique” of the theory of modernization. Wherever the subject of thought constituted by it arose, the fetishistically objectified sociability is reproduced in “theoretical praxis”.
The postulate of the a priori unity between theory and praxis thus could not be anything but the link that connects (Marxist) theory to the categories and criteria of the ontological matrix, the alleged “natural laws” of ontological and historical sociability, which assume a trans-historical status or, in any case, may not be criticized for an unimaginable period of time. If the categorical critique no longer exists, however, the tension between critical theory and the immanent “counterpraxis” in the resolution of capitalist contradictions no longer exists, either, since the same a priori is determinant in both. In this way, the postulate of the “inseparable unity” between theory and praxis only reflects the special emphasis that the intentions of “catch-up modernization” and the “struggle for recognition”, as the “second wave” of capitalist constitution, require for the purpose of making it possible for these “laws” to be consciously executed. This makes it clear that this postulate is precisely the opposite of the “Theses on Feuerbach”, insofar as the latter is understood in the sense of the categorical critique.
In the historical development of the workers movement and of “catch-up modernization”, this linkage and this “imprisonment” of theory in the objectivizing identity of the form of action and the form of thought takes the form of the famous “primacy of politics”. Theoretical elaboration was subordinated to “political exigencies” of the practical treatment of the contradiction, as they result from the processes of law, and state and national formation. The “struggle for recognition”, as subjects with rights and as subjects of the state, and for self-affirmation in the forms of “abstract labor”, commodity, money and dissociation, became political activism related to the state, under the form of whose telos arose the “State formation” of the working class, of national liberation, etc. The alleged “laws” of socialism thus understood really had to consist in nothing more than “planning” and “command” of the basic categories themselves.
With this the “question of power” came to center stage, understood as the political channeling of the efforts for emancipation, in order to take over the “commanding heights” of state power. The differences between Western social democracy and Eastern Leninism exist within the framework of this paradigm; and, if the focus of interest were to be turned to their historical critique, their differences could very well be ignored for the most part. In both cases, the bourgeois “political form”, as a form of the treatment of the contradiction, becomes the principal springboard for “changing the world”, to subject the “[differently] interpreted” ontologized categories of the modern commodity-producing patriarchy to a political-state regulation that is allegedly in the interests of the people, without superseding those categories as such. As the movens of this interposed political springboard, the political party plays the role (workers party, labor party, etc.).
The “imprisonment” of critical theory in the interpretive theoretical reproduction of fetishist relations therefore assumes the form of its inclusion in the form of politics, and the postulate of the a priori “inseparable unity” between “theory and praxis”, as the external and institutionalized subordination of “theoretical praxis” to the “political praxis” of the party, as is indicated by the infamous slogan, “the party is always right”. Theoretical elaboration lost its critical character and its own value; “theoretical praxis”, as “counterpraxis”, was reduced to a “party militancy”, a “partisan activism” in the crudely political sense of the term in the context of the treatment of the immanent contradiction. It is transformed, abandoning the critical theoretical elaboration that is aimed at negative capitalist socialization as a whole, in order to be incorporated into the mere theory of legitimization of an external, pre-established “political” action; and, consequently, in order to be incorporated in the theoretical justification of the respective “party line”, as a function of the reason of the party.
As a theory of legitimization of “catch-up modernization”, the “theoretical praxis” of Marxism had to crystallize in a historically specific form of “ideological praxis”. All immanently theoretical thought, extended to the very limits of the interpretive form of theory, was always once again administratively hamstrung, ironically enough, precisely in the name of the “Theses on Feuerbach”, as is made clear, for example, in the capitulation of Georg Lukács in the face of pressure from the Party. The Marxism of “catch-up modernization”, which restricts itself to the current of the theory of modernization of Marxian argumentation, was a “party-Marxism” for which the road of the categorical critique was permanently closed. The end of this constellation was pre-programmed as the collapse of ideological legitimization, once the entire global system of the modern commodity producing patriarchy began to come up against its absolute immanent limit in the Third Industrial Revolution.
8. Instrumental reason
As a “reified form of consciousness”, the “theoretical praxis” of the party-oriented Marxism in its various tendencies was a form of “instrumental reason” (Horkheimer 1985, 1st Ed. 1947). In the name of the postulate of praxis of a categorically immanent “changing of the world”, “theoretical praxis” was transformed into a mere instrument for a priori pre-established ends, which, in themselves, could not be submitted to any reflection. This reduction of theory to pre-established relations of means and ends is the inevitable result of all thought in the modern form of theory, which is always extinguished in positivism, which always extinguishes the dichotomy that exists between reflection with a basis in the theory of structure and reflection with a basis in the theory of action, in which case it is not transformed into a categorical critique. Precisely as (institutionalized) “positive science” with the stamp of approval of Engels, party oriented Marxism had to take the road of all bourgeois theory, as Horkheimer points out in the Preface to the German edition of his Critique of Instrumental Reason: “Reason is considered to come into its own when it rejects any status as an absolute … and accepts itself simply as a tool.” (Horkheimer 1967).
In what sense, however, has “reason”, understood as reflective thought, become a “mere instrument” in Modernity? This instrumental character results from the interpretive character of the form of theory, insofar as the latter has become the supplier of ideas for the real interpretation of capitalism, the treatment of the contradiction and the interpretive transformation of the world, to which we referred to above, as positivist “competence”. The supplying of patterns of interpretation for the handling of the a priori matrix and its ongoing self-contradiction is per se instrumental for an a priori presupposed end, the process of the end-in-itself of the relation of value-dissociation. An analytic distinction must be made between this and the legitimizing character of “reason” for that end-in-itself as such which, however, is equally interpretive and consequently instrumental, on another level of reflection, that is, on the level of the constitution of this relation. In its merely interpretive theoretical reproduction, however, the “reflection” of this relation cannot be recognized, because this would mean to turn the fetishist relation as such into the object of thought, which is generally only possible as the critique of that object. Nevertheless, once this object is reproduced as a mode of thought and conceptualization, and thus is itself only legitimizing, the modern form of theory is also instrumental at the level of constitution. This is why, in “theoretical praxis” as an integral part of the relations of reproduction, the fundamentally legitimizing aspect and the positivist-interpretive aspect are continually merged. In this respect, as well, it is clear that every relation of “use” or “transformation” of theory per se comprises part of the real interpretation of capitalism and consequently per se possesses an instrumental character, because “use” always presupposes that quasi-natural laws are recognized.
With his concept of “instrumental reason”, Horkheimer touched upon the heart of the problem, although he by no means attained to a categorical critique of the modern fetishist constitution. In fact, for the most part he conceptualized the problem in very general terms: “This type of reason may be called subjective reason. It is essentially concerned with means and ends, with the adequacy of procedures for purposes more or less taken for granted and supposedly self-explanatory. It attaches little importance to the question whether the purposes as such are reasonable” (Horkheimer 1985, 1st Ed. 1947, p. 15; Horkheimer’s italics). Max Horkheimer did not go beyond the superficial determination of a relation of means and ends, without looking for the historical “nature” or for the essence of those objectives or “accepted” ends, without analyzing their categorical status as the a priori matrix of reproduction, and without explaining why “reason”, as “subjective reason”, is degraded, in this constitution of thought and action, to the condition of a mere instrument of a blindly presupposed end.
Horkheimer fails to engage in a categorical critique or a “critique of the second order” because he declares that the other side of the same relation, the mere affirmative reproduction of false objectivity, is “objective reason”, which “once” served as the basis of all philosophy and now is positivistically liquidated: “Great philosophical systems, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, scholasticism and German idealism were founded on an objective theory of reason. It aimed at evolving a comprehensive system, or a hierarchy, of all beings, including man and his aims. The degree of reasonableness of a man’s life could be determined according to its harmony with this totality. Its objective structure, and not just man and his purposes, was to be the measuring rod for individual thoughts and actions” (Horkheimer, ibid., p. 16). On the one hand, here a philosophy of “objective reason” that, despite all the signs of continuity, belongs to totally different historical constitutions, is trans-historically unified, and abstractly confronted with positivism and the pragmatism of subjective “instrumental reason”. On the other hand, he fails to consider that here it is always a matter of the (respective) “objective reason” of fetishist relations, and involves in Modernity the theoretical-philosophical reproduction of the false objectivization of these relations in an objectivizing thought.
By claiming that “this concept of reason never precluded subjective reason”, but “regarded the latter as only a partial, limited expression of a universal rationality” (ibid., p. 16), Horkheimer only describes the dilemma of the a priori matrix and intentionality inscribed in all fetishistically constituted thought and action, a dilemma that is ideally reproduced in the modern dichotomy of theory of structure and theory of action. And when he points out that the postulate of “objective reason” is only resorted to in order to deliberately determine its own ends and purposes, instead of blindly presupposing them and instrumentally “formalizing” thought, Horkheimer is overlooking the fact that, from the historical point of view, this involves precisely the affirmative reproduction of the fetishistic objectivization, as an “end as an objective”, a reproduction to which the intentionality designated as “subjective reason” must be subject. The difference presented by Horkheimer simply consists in the fact that it is only in the historical constitution and imposition of modern fetishistic relations that their own “objectivity” was postulated and justified as “objective reason”, while, henceforth, they can be consolidated with the presupposed everyday quality of “life and labor”, whose subsequent reflection had to appear to be unnecessary and even dangerous.
In a certain way, Horkheimer does address this issue, but not in the internal context, and he does so in a non-critical way: “The present crisis of reason consists fundamentally in the fact that at a certain point thinking either became incapable of conceiving such objectivity at all or began to negate it as a delusion” (ibid., p. 18). Moreover, that is precisely what it is: over the course of its process of imposition, the merely reproductive reflection of fetishistic objectivity as “objective reason” suppresses itself to the extent that it “realizes itself” as the capitalist transformation of the world; and continued reflection at this level is contested “as a delusion”, precisely because it can no longer give a damn about modern reason constituted as fetishist relation, because now it is presupposed as “natural necessity” and as “objective law”. This is also precisely because it is not a matter of a free, unpresupposed “concept”, in the sense of the “architect”, but of the ideal legitimization of an essentially blind process of constitution, in whose form of development this legitimizing thought actually actively participates, but not in the sense of constituting a presupposition for intellectual concepts. It is precisely for this reason that objectivizing thought itself, in its formal identity with fetishistically constituted action, now “sees itself” as “instrumental reason”, as a mere means to the “end” of the reproduction of ideas that had previously lacked “self-certification”.
Horkheimer still seeks to understand the dilemma in the sense of the concept of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, and even with a certain degree of nostalgia for Enlightenment values: “This relegation of reason to a subordinate position is in sharp contrast to the ideas of the pioneers of bourgeois civilization, the spiritual and political representatives of the rising middle class, who were unanimous in declaring that reason plays a leading role in human behavior….” (ibid., p. 20). The result, however, cannot be measured by its own assumptions, nor can the positivist and pragmatic effect be criticized in the name of the “objective reason” that is its cause. This is made even more clear when Horkheimer indulges in a bland apology for Kant: “Indeed, it would be doing Kant an injustice to make him responsible for this development. He made scientific insight dependent upon transcendental, not upon empirical functions. He did not liquidate truth by identifying it with the practical actions of verification, nor by teaching that meaning and effect are identical. He tried ultimately to establish the absolute validity of certain ideas per se, for their own sake.” (ibid., p. 49). Kant’s transcendence, however, is precisely the philosophical model for the relation of value-dissociation, and this negative “truth” cannot actually be identified with “the practical actions of verification”, it cannot be determined as a means for something else, but only as the supreme end, as the end-in-itself of the “automatic subject”. The Kantian “truth” ideally reproduces the “absolute validity” of the modern fetishistic constitution, that is, its meaning has to be “established” and cannot be identical with a mere practical “effect”. The subject of Kantian transcendence includes the “objective reason” of the a priori matrix and the “subjective reason” of thought and of action constituted by the former. Thus, Kant may very well be “responsible for this development”, that is, he might be partially responsible for basing its reproduction in “theoretical praxis”. His two critiques form the philosophical pattern of all immanent affirmative critique up until now, in which the relation and the contradiction in the ongoing process of “transcendental” and “empirical functions” is represented, as the historical treatment of the contradiction.
It is the modern subject-object dialectic, which arose for the first time in a fully articulated form in Kant, that is, the objectivization of the world as interpretation or the capitalist transformation of the world and the self-objectivization of the subjects constituted by the former; the bourgeois “subject-form” constituted “subjective reason” as the agent of capitalist “objective reason” and, consequently, as an instrument or means of the latter for the pre-established patterns of action of the a priori matrix. In a way, Kant’s reflections plumbed the depths of positivism and pragmatism, precisely because they already presupposed the absolute character of his postulates, which ended up becoming the “silent coercion” of practice. For the categorical critique is not interested in opposing the glory of its own constitution as “objective reason” to the instrumental “subjective reason” as an alleged form of decadence. To the contrary, it is interested in freeing social intentionality itself from “objective reason”.
This is only possible, however, if intentionality, in turn, does not have to be immediately mobilized in the obscured fetishistic constitution, as was the case in positivism and pragmatism, and this is also verified by Horkheimer, without his being able to discern the reason for it: “In the formalist aspect of subjective reason, stressed by positivism, its unrelatedness to objective content is emphasized; in its instrumental aspect, stressed by pragmatism, its surrender to heteronomous contents is emphasized. Reason had been completely harnessed to the social process” (ibid., p. 30). The obscuring of the fetishist constitution positivizes the categories, which then appear, paradoxically, as intentionality’s lack of relation with an objective content that is still susceptible to reflection, a content that now assumes the obviousness of a natural basis; and, in the instrumental thought and action that issues from pragmatic considerations, the heteronomy of this objective content becomes a practical condition, the criterion of “success”.
The liberation of intentionality now means confronting its degradation and imprisonment in the “objective reason” of the fetishistic constitution, and setting the goal of the destruction of that cage. To decide upon the use in common of social resources according to needs, is exactly the opposite of an absolutization of “objective reason”; nor is it any kind of “subjective reason” that still implies its own objectivization. Horkheimer sought to free “subjective reason” as such from its instrumental character, precisely by once again invoking the objective constitution of subjective reason itself and by declaring this to be the remedy, when in reality they are the two faces of the same relation that in the historical process are mutually based upon one another and which for that reason conceal the instrumental character they have in common. If this problematic in Adorno is still left open in the end, in Horkheimer it is completely closed.
Ironically, the metaphysics of law-governed structure of the Marxism of the workers movement and of “real socialism” is similar to the “objective reason” of Horkheimer that was legitimized in Kant, to the extent that they are merged and they even have the same roots. In a way, the intention of “catch-up modernization” was to provide a reproductive basis, in all of its facets, for precisely that same “objective reason”, with a Marxist terminology; in which, and not by chance, the “legacy” of the Enlightenment plays an important role, as Kuczynski pointed out, for example, with respect to “social laws”. As “catch-up modernization” attained a high level of development with respect to the commodity-producing patriarchy, the world market, and industrialization, there simultaneously arose, all at once, so to speak, the “instrumental reason” now based on the interpretive treatment of the contradiction, and precisely on the postulate of the “inseparable unity between theory and praxis”: therefore, as Horkheimer says, somewhat as the unity between the form of constitution and the “form of decadence”.
The unity between objective and subjective reason in the form of the political-state mediation also had a major impact on the theory of action; at times, political intentionality was so strongly emphasized and so lavishly employed, that it seemed to proceed as if it were capable of commanding and molding at its whim (like a false “architect”) the unsuperseded fetishistic categories. However, this immanent opposition with respect to the metaphysics of the law-governed nature of the theory of structure soon came to naught. The debate on reform, over the course of decades, in “real socialism” and in other regimes of “catch-up modernization”, was marked by a series of capitulations to the “silent coercion” of the pseudo-“natural laws” of social relations, which were enforced by the a priori matrix. Thus, Kuczynski’s reference to the “inflexibility” of “economic law” is revealed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy [in English in the original—American Translator’s Note]. “If someone opposes it, he is defeated”, as soon as it is recognized as the a priori matrix. That is why the “inseparable unity between theory and praxis” of party-Marxism was almost immediately dissolved in the planetary capitalism of crisis into a kind of “alibi for foreign consumption”.
From the perspective of radical critique, with this analysis the reduced interpretation of the “Theses on Feuerbach” practically comes to an end. Theory as a “directive for action”, the postulate of a “use” or “realization”, of an a priori merger with some kind of praxis, is, per se, instrumental reason; where there are “directives for action”, there is only the capitalist treatment of the contradiction, whose margin for maneuver is now historically unviable. Thus, too, all evocation of “objective reason” as an alleged opposition also came to an end at the same time, which actually from the start was a way to program this movement of things which, under the new crisis conditions, can only be repeated at an ever faster rate.
9. A new direction for the theory of action. Western Marxism and the “philosophy of praxis”.
In the left wing critique of capitalism expressed in the second half of the 20th century (there were rudimentary versions of this critique ever since the inter-war period), a split took place, or at least a differentiation, which was much more important than the ostensible schism in party-Marxism between social democracy and the Bolsheviks. For the global periphery, the process of “catch-up modernization” remained the determinant factor right up to its collapse in the Third Industrial Revolution. The contradictions of the “real socialism” of the East and of the development regimes of “national liberation” in the countries of the South were justified on the ideological level by the traditional ideas of transformation of the “workers parties” that had become States. Dogmatically paralyzed Marxism-Leninism was falling apart under the pressure of the economic praxis of the “laws” of modern commodity production and of the world market, resorting to a series of technocratic concessions to the logic and the dynamic of the real, unsuperseded capitalist categories, until the ideological façade suddenly went up in smoke in the turning point of 1989. Almost overnight, the fake Marxist-Leninist dogmatists changed sides, becoming equally dogmatic neoliberals, on the terrain of collapsing mafia regimes amidst the desolate landscapes of “catch-up modernization”.
In the highly developed capitalist countries of the West, on the other hand, the impulse of modernization of the traditional workers movement had already begun to run out of steam after the First World War. Then, after its defeat at the hands of fascism and National Socialism, it experienced a total demoralization with regard to its respective ideas of transformation. In post-war Fordism, the function of modernization was then largely transferred from the traditional workers movement and its party apparatus to the Keynesian regulatory State, in which trade unions and workers parties were corporatively integrated, now deprived of their role as historical vanguard. Social democracy was transformed into a system of “people’s” parties, party-communism was social-democratized, and the representatives of the paradigm of party-Marxism by and large became part of the “political class” of the commodity-producing patriarchy.
The erosion of party-Marxism therefore took place in a way that was very different in the real socialism of the East and South as opposed to the way it happened in the West. The “socialist” (State Capitalist) regimes of “catch-up modernization”, which had only recently imposed “abstract labor” and the modern relations of “value-dissociation” on their societies, had to struggle, over the course of this long process, with the contradictions of an unsuperseded “political economy”. For this reason, their treatment of the specific contradiction was up to the very end still bound up with that metaphysics of law-governed structure, with characteristics that were almost those of natural science, and measured by the theory of structure (in the broadest sense of the term outlined above), in such a way that these countries, consequently, ended up, “in accordance with the laws”, in the capitalism of global crisis. In the Western countries, however, “abstract labor” and the relations of value-dissociation have long since become the “natural basis” of society; since their origins, the functions of the “catch-up modernization” of the workers movement and of party-Marxism have in the West been limited to the juridical-political level of the treatment of the contradiction, in the sense of the “struggle for recognition” (including the fields of action in the trade unions and in the Welfare State); that is, they were reduced, in the truncated and mechanistic terminology of historical materialism, to the “superstructure”. And it was along those same lines that the process of ideological erosion also took place in the West.
During the process of the extinction of the function of internal modernization in the wake of the First World War, an ideological formation known as Western Marxism developed, at first only in the domain of collapsing party-Marxism. Despite all its internal distinctions and differences, which we cannot discuss in detail here, there is a common trait that all its representatives share. For the English Marxist Perry Anderson, as he observes in his essay on the topic, this was “… the studied silence of Western Marxism in those areas most central to the classical traditions of historical materialism….” (Anderson 1978, 1st Ed. in English 1976, p. 71). First of all, he mentions the “scrutiny of the economic laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production” (ibid.).
In fact, Western Marxism displayed a tendency to gradually abandon the critique of political economy in the strict sense of the term. After the epoch of the world wars and the world economic crisis of the 1930s, the great Marxist debates concerning the theory of accumulation and of crisis, the “economic theory” of transformation and of socialism/communism, came to an end; all that remained of these questions were sporadic rearguard confrontations without any great importance. This development was accompanied externally by the Fordist prosperity of the post-war years in the West, which pushed such questions to a secondary level. This ideological tendency to downplay the theory of accumulation and crisis is still active today, in the world crisis of the Third Industrial Revolution, as the “belief” of the left in the immanent capacity of capitalism for eternal existence. Naturally, the appalling development of “real socialism”, including its collapse, also helped to discredit the old paradigms.
The surreptitious abandonment of the “hard” political-economic questions and consequently of the problematic of the basic social form in general was consistent, above all, with the internal logic of the Western Marxism of modernization itself, in its limitation to the juridical-political sphere of the treatment of the contradiction, in whose domain its truncated understanding of the critique of political economy is also inscribed. Then there was also the failure of the “revolution” in the West which, in this sense, was deprived of any object. There were no criteria for revolution that could envision the transformation of an already highly developed system of “abstract labor” in the context of the paradigm of immanent modernization, that is, of the treatment of the contradiction in the sense of the ideology of the class struggle.
The new direction taken by Western Marxism was prepared by and based upon the so-called “philosophy of praxis”, also known as “thought of praxis”, “concept of praxis” or “theory of praxis”; a concept that is represented, in different aspects, principally by Ernst Bloch and Antonio Gramsci, and which was pursued in a multifaceted way. First of all, in a quite traditional Marxist way, “philosophy of praxis” meant demanding as an object of theoretical elaboration, in external opposition to a merely “historical-intellectual” reflection, “real” or “material” relations of life and of reproduction, in pursuit of practical intervention. This is, of course, an unavoidable understanding of “historical materialism”, formulated in detail by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology. It should also be noted that the latter work constitutes, together with the “Theses on Feuerbach”, the central reference of the philosophers of praxis. In this way, however, the fetishistic constitution of the “real” praxis of life or “sensuous human activity” (“Theses on Feuerbach”) was completely obscured, whose concept was, furthermore, absent from The German Ideology and only emerged in Marx’s work with Capital and its preparatory materials. As a result, similar to what took place with respect to classical party-Marxism, Western Marxism also failed to clarify or else misunderstood the “Theses on Feuerbach”, and non-critically hypostatized “sensuous human activity” and established “praxis” as an indeterminate field par excellence.
What, however, was really new in the “philosophy of praxis” of Western Marxism? With its specific interpretation of the “Theses on Feuerbach” and The German Ideology, the philosophy of praxis was intended to derive a new paradigm from the concept of praxis. The Marxian theory in the broadest sense was manifested in this case at a very high level of abstraction as the “philosophy of praxis” (of social action) par excellence, one whose character had previously been misinterpreted. An essential aspect of the new interpretation was the understanding that action had to be freed from the determinism that had previously dominated it. Gramsci, for example, expresses this point in his Prison Notebooks: “We should, I think, prepare a funeral elegy on the concept of fatalism…. The fading away of ‘fatalism’ and ‘mechanicism’ marks a great historical turning-point” (Gramsci 1994, 1st Italian Ed. 1975, written in 1932/35, p. 1392 et seq.). This implies a proclamation of a movement of disengagement on the part of Western Marxism with relation to the metaphysics of law-governed structure that was previously dominant. The problem of law-governed structures affecting social development, however, was not transformed into the categorical critique of the historical fetishistic constitution, but was put on the shelf. Instead, the concept of “praxis” then enjoyed a whole new career, which resulted in a totally illusory and particularly affirmative transformation of traditional Marxist thought.
For the new understanding, the concept of “economism” became crucial. In the view of the “philosophers of praxis”, the Marxism of the past had placed an exaggerated mechanistic emphasis on the determinant role of the “economy”. This critique, however, was linked with the abandonment of the critique of political economy in the strict sense, which was subsequently verified by Perry Anderson (who, for his part, supported a more traditional argument). It really is possible to connect classical Marxist “economism” with the idea that the development of the accumulation of capital was mistakenly understood as direct historical determinism, in its relation with the empirical “economy” and, usually, complemented by the “class struggle” associated with it. Engels had already attempted to correct this mechanistic economism, by determining “the (objective) economy” as a “factor” that was only determinant “in the last instance”, but which was modified and transformed in the real forms of development, by way of (subjective) political, ideological and cultural occurrences, etc. This correction, however, was hardly profound and shared the false assumptions of its predecessor. This was due mainly to the fact that the problem of the modern fetishist constitution remained, for Engels, a book sealed with seven seals. This is why he also had to fail with respect to the critique of “economic” determination, in his attempt to soften and modify the unchallenged metaphysics of law-governed structures merely with high-sounding rhetoric about economic determination “in the last instance”.
From the perspective of the critique of the fetishistic a priori matrix, a critique that is linked with the “other” Marx, the critique of classical economism must be viewed in a totally different way. It is not the “economy” or even the “class struggle” associated with it that is important, not directly and not in the last instance, either. Instead, “conformity with the law” is, in the a priori matrix of the real metaphysics of modernity and of the context of its form, a matrix that serves as the basis for all actions in capitalism, including its treatment of the contradiction, and is always reproduced in this action (commodity form and gender dissociation, and the corresponding identity of form of thought, form of action, subject form, form of theory, form of politics, etc., as forms of reproduction). This constitution has deeper roots than all empirical (and also institutional) movements and development “within” its context. There is no point in wanting to transform the problem into the mutual influence and interpenetration of diverse “relatively autonomous” spheres, or of “partial systems or subsystems” (to use the terminology of systems theory). The concept of the totality, of the social totality, then becomes the mere “sum” of these spheres or partial zones; the concept of “system” is hollowed out and represents only a rhetorical device.
The definition of the “economy” as determinant—regardless of whether it is directly determinant or only “in the last instance”—is a completely truncated and mutilated formulation of the problem and remains a-conceptual. Value-dissociation constitutes a broad, basic real category, from which, and only from which, that structural “complete differentiation” can be allocated with its “relatively autonomous” social spheres. “The economy” in the empirical sense does not determine, but is itself determined by the overarching a priori matrix of the fetishist constitution and by its “logic”, which produces a “law-governed structure” according to a pattern that is almost identical to that of the bees (and also within the “economy”). The adequate critique of this “law-governed structure” can only be constituted by negating the mode of socialization as such, which implies the dualism that exists between “economy” and “politics” in general, and which is also linked to gender dissociation.
The truncated critique of “economism” carried out by the philosophy of praxis also shares, just like Engels, the same mistaken assumption; that is why we hear repeated references to the formulation by Engels concerning the “relative autonomy” of the spheres or partial domains of capitalist socialization which, as such and in their mutual connections, ended up gradually disappearing from sight. For this reason, the “new thought” of the philosophers of praxis did not provoke a more comprehensive and more profound critique of the a priori matrix of the fetishistic constitution via the critique of the metaphysics of law-governed structures and of classical “economism”. Instead, it distanced itself from that critique, and moved for the most part in another direction entirely, in the direction of the current of the theory of action of bourgeois ideology.
It was this fundamental turning point for the theory of action, in which the debates initiated by Western Marxism or by the philosophers of praxis concerning the analysis of the “economic laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production” yielded to an emphasis on the “subject”, or the celebrated “subjective factor”, in connection with the questioning of the theory of culture and the theory of knowledge and/or epistemology. The positivism of the metaphysics of law-governed structures, derived from the paradigm of the natural sciences, was only replaced by the positivism of a metaphysics of the will and of intentionality (adapted by the philosophers of praxis to the sociology of classes), a positivism that was drawn from historicism, vitalism or phenomenology and/or existentialism. Thus, roughly speaking, instead of the execution of historical law-governed structural mandates, there was henceforth will versus will, instead of action in conformance with “laws”, there was action against and despite “laws”, but in the same constitution of the a priori matrix of the still-intact and completely unreflected-upon fetishistic relations. “Bees” have always been “architects” after all, only with different ideas—ideas whose origins remain obscure.
Thus, light is also shed on the erosion that took place, with totally different results, in the party-Marxism of the real socialisms of the East and the South, which ended up collapsing, and in the West. Whereas in the East and the South, “socialist intentionality” pursued with ever mounting efforts the establishment of the non-superseded a priori matrix, aiming at surrendering to the “law-governed structure” of the latter, in the West the turn taken by the theory of action towards “praxis” involved self-deception with regard to the nature of the problem. This was only possible because Western Marxism did not find itself under the pressure of an allegedly real transformation (actually a “catch-up” implementation of relations of value-dissociation) and no longer by any means faced the problem of transformation at all, but instead began to lose its way in the treatment of the contradiction and in the real interpretation of capitalism, on the basis of a highly developed formation of “abstract labor” and the socialization of value-dissociation. Thus, the dichotomous internal opposition of the ideology of bourgeois social theory was reproduced in Western Marxism only as the transition towards the other pole, the pole of the theory of action.
Characteristically, Gramsci designated the October Revolution, in a famous formulation, as a “revolution against Marx’s Capital”. He did so without any critical intention, but rather only in the sense of an alleged “triumph of the will”, understood in the light of the theory of action, over the metaphysics of law-governed structure and “economic mechanicism”. The ensuing contradictions of development of real socialism were of little interest to him; what he was interested in was above all the revolutionary subversion that seemingly attained the level of relations of power in the “class struggle” (despite and also against the “laws”), while the question of basic social forms began to be set aside, as they were perceived only in the sense of juridical-political “institutions”.
The non-critical and unmediated formula of the “inseparable unity” between “theory and praxis”, which could always only lead to the connection with the ontologized patterns of action of the a priori matrix, was supposed to be reproduced immediately; but now in the version of the theory of action of the metaphysics of intentionality. Thus, Gramsci also postulated the “energetic reinforcement of a unity between theory and praxis” (Gramsci 1994, 1st Italian Ed. of 1975, written in 1932/35, p. 1282). We find a similar formulation in Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope, concerning the “Theses on Feuerbach”: “Thus, the right thought and doing what is right finally become one and the same” (Bloch 1968, 1st Ed. 1954-59, p. 83). It is true that Bloch, in his reflections on the “Theses on Feuerbach”, turned against the pragmatic-practical interpretation of a “pseudo-active self-confidence” (ibid., p. 87), in this sense reminiscent of Adorno, and sought to demarcate the Marxist relation between theory and praxis from a bourgeois understanding restricted “… to mere ‘application’ of theory” (ibid., p. 83). He did not thereby attempt to criticize the connection of theory with a pre-established, ontologized praxis, but rather the contrary: bourgeois theory, according to Bloch, “… only condescended to ‘application’ to practice, like a prince to his people, at best like an idea to its utilization” (ibid., p. 83). As a criterion, however, utilization already points precisely to the subordination of theory to an ontologically pre-established, unexamined, goal, and not to its “bourgeois arrogance”, as Bloch wanted to suggest. If theory, as Bloch understands it, must not “condescend” to stoop to praxis, then he is saying that theory, inversely, must be based on praxis (on the class struggle reformulated in the light of the theory of action), rather than that it needs to distance itself in relation to the treatment of the immanent contradiction. By compelling theory, in this case, to take on the “partiality of the revolutionary class standpoint” (ibid., p. 90) and by celebrating Marx’s “major work” as “a clear directive for action” (ibid., p. 95), his own understanding of theory is already found in a “horizon of use” of instrumental reason, whose fetishistic constitution remains entirely unexamined.
It is thus rendered impossible to attain either a critical concept of the “form of theory”, as the bourgeois “form” of “reified consciousness”, or a critique of the legitimizing reference and real interpretation linked to that form, as such a reference is already found per se established in each and every postulate of an a priori “unity” between “theory and praxis”, and it is even less possible to attain a postulate modeled in accordance with the theory of action. For this reason, like the traditional party-Marxism, the philosophers of praxis are still incapable of going beyond the difference between the dominant (fetishistic) praxis of life, the particular “counterpraxis” as the treatment of the contradiction in the field of capitalist immanence, and the transcendent praxis that goes beyond this (by shattering the constitutive connection of the form). It is clear that in this way the concept of critique cannot be separated from its immanent content, either, a content inherited from the history of the imposition of capitalism, in order to be transformed into a categorical critique. More than ever before, theory remains “imprisoned” in the treatment of the immanent contradiction, only now in the turn towards the theory of action. Praxis is praxis is praxis….
Naturally, the metaphysics of labor, as the ontology of labor, is in this case prolonged without any interruption, as Bloch observes when he refers to Marx, the theoretician of modernization in the understanding of the workers movement, and after defining the bourgeois ontology of labor from Hobbes to Hegel, as a “first stage” of a “merely contemplative materialism” or of an “objective idealism”: “At the same time Marx of course makes it clear that bourgeois activity is still not the complete, right (!) kind. It cannot be so precisely because it is only appearance of work, because the production of value never emanates from the entrepreneur, but from peasants, manual workers, ultimately wage-earners” (Bloch, ibid., p. 67, Bloch’s italics). His candor is impressive, the way the obvious problem of a common ontology of labor in Modernity, which indicates the fact that the Marxism of the workers movement is part of the bourgeois form, is reinterpreted to identify the apparent difference that the bourgeois ontology of labor was not “right”. For Bloch, just as for traditional Marxism, the “real” metaphysics of labor, the one that is supposed to supersede the “appearance of work”, will only result from its identification with the “[real] production of value” on the part of the dependents; we should note in passing that an ontology of the form of value is also introduced that is even extended to all (pre-modern) peasants and manual workers.
However, Bloch’s ontology of labor does not imply any recourse to the critique of political economy, neither with regard to the theory of accumulation and/or crisis, nor with regard to the problematic of social transformation, where the metaphysics of the law-governed structure of traditional Marxism made such great efforts only to end up failing in “real socialism” (in any event, it failed with respect to its pretense to be a supersession of capitalism). The ontology of labor now disguises itself in a historically indeterminate, generalized, expanded ontology of praxis, which is adapted to the theory of action and on the basis of which the a priori matrix of the fetishistic constitution is systematically disregarded. For the problematic of transformation, to the extent that it even arises, this entails, in a way, the relapse into utopian thought. More than ever before, the relation of immanence and transcendence, which evades the question of the contradictions of the ontology of labor, remains indeterminate and falls apart in the nebulous expressions of “utopianism” (Bloch). The question of a real supersession of the capitalist fetishistic constitution is thus aborted all the more definitively once an allegedly transcendent “utopian” content makes it possible to find hidden meanings in the limited “counterpraxis” of the treatment of the immanent contradiction, before praxis reaches the threshold of a categorical critique. This is why the so-called “concrete utopian” concepts preferred by the philosophers of praxis of different tendencies necessarily become bogged down in inessential particular factors, which do not even come close to scratching the surface of the capitalist modes of socialization, or else the fetishist forms of this modus must be reinterpreted or “redefined” in a way that makes them seem beneficial for human beings. Thus, the utopian “concrete” is either always the orientation for a socially irrelevant action in the interstices of the capitalist real abstraction, or else the latter must be disguised in various illusory vestments.
The relapse into a diffuse utopianism, however, a utopianism that is overflowing with sentimental metaphors (in the mobilization of the concept of “Heimat” [homeland] in Bloch, for example), is only one aspect of the turn towards the theory of action. Of greater and much more enduring importance is the reinterpretation (instead of supersession) of Marxist politicism that accompanied this tendency. The connection of the “theory form”, its bourgeois nature not being understood, to the immanent treatment of the contradiction led, as everyone knows, to its integration into the equally bourgeois “political form”; and among the philosophers of praxis this also immediately meant continued involvement in party politics. However, on the basis of the turn towards the theory of action and in the context of the truncated critique of “economism”, an extension or an inflation, or in a manner of speaking, an autonomization of the concept of politics took place, such as is announced in Gramsci: “In this way we arrive also at the equality of, or equation between, ‘philosophy and politics’, thought and action, that is, at a philosophy of praxis. Everything is political, even philosophy or philosophies … and the only ‘philosophy’ is history in action, that is, life itself” (Gramsci 1992, 1st Italian Ed. 1975, written in 1930/31, p. 892). Already in this terminology we can discern a certain dependence on the thought of vitalism, on whose horizons the concepts of The German Ideology are interpreted. The direct “equation between … thought and action” (actually, the “binding” of theory in the a priori negative identity of the form of thought with the form of action) must transform reflection directly into “history in action”, observing that the words, “life itself” take the place of the critique of the social constitution. The key announcement is: “everything is political”.
With this the decisive difference between Gramsci’s view and the still-prevalent party-Marxism of the framework of the metaphysics of law-governed structures becomes obvious. In the understanding of party-Marxism, politics was by no means “everything”, but rather was itself a “means to an end”, to which theory, for its part, is once again subordinated in an instrumentally legitimizing way. The “end” must consist in the “historically necessary” (determined) transformation “in accordance with law” in a “socialistically planned” reproduction. However, since this goal still falls short of the threshold of the categorical critique and still ontologically presupposes capitalist forms, it must arise in the illusory proclamation of a power of command exercised by “socialist” and/or “proletarian” politics and nationalization in the context of the positivistically affirmed form. Despite, or precisely because of, this imperative, a distinction of content continued to exist between politics and social transformation, between means and end. In the sense of an emancipatory supersession of the modern fetishistic constitution, it was an unviable means to an unviable end, only explicable on the basis of the constellation of “catch-up modernization”. Even so, when Western Marxism took its turn towards the theory of action and thus eliminated all questioning, which was drowned in the truncated critique of “economism”, all that remained was politics, so to speak, “left high and dry”. The formula “everything is political” shows the political “means” transformed into its own “end”, and thus the presupposed end-in-itself of the “automatic subject” is obscured and concealed, even more than in the truncated understanding of traditional Marxism.
Thus, the turn towards the theory of action uprooted traditional Marxist politicism from its anchorage in the problematic of accumulation, crisis and transformation, in order to hypostatize its politicism more than ever before. The a-conceptual contrivance of the economic “last instance” was no longer anything but a mere decoration, and definitively ceased to be taken seriously in the context of the basic social form and was transformed into mere ontological background noise. All that remained was the emphasis on the “relative autonomy” (which soon became an overused catchphrase) of the spheres, partial areas and social subsystems, culture, etc., and especially politics. This inflated concept of politics became tautological, and even autistic. In short, it was no longer possible to inquire as to what the goal of a social supersession of capitalism really should contain; the determination of the content was totally replaced by a metaphysics of the will and of intentionality based on the theory of action. This really absurd understanding was fatally assimilated to the Heideggerian metaphysics of “determination”, so often the target of ridicule: “we are being obscurely determined, only we do not know into what”. Politics is politics is politics….
This is why we also notice in Gramsci, for example, the above mentioned sweeping lack of concern with the contradictions of the Soviet state-bureaucratic “planned society” (which, in any case, were perceived from the perspective of a superficial democratism, without noting the paradox of a “planning of value”), and the restriction of interest to revolutionizing political relations in the broadest sense of the word. “Everything is political” also meant: everything is a “power relation”, or a “relation of forces”, even to the very deepest recesses of society. The fetishistic content of power, the “automatic subject” of the valorization of value, “abstract labor” and the relation of gender dissociation, that is, the context of the social form, as the content on the basis of which power in general is generated, is therefore completely ignored. The traditional sociology of “classes”, which still possessed a positivistically reduced relation with the problematic of the form, was now totally released and “disconnected” from that problematic. The metaphysics of intentionality of the theory of action dissolved sociability in general into relations of will; therefore, will against will, as “class against class” and as the infinite reconfiguration of the “relations of forces”, without the assumptions of the constitution of the form and without the goal of a break with that constitution.
In this context, Gramsci invented a very powerful concept of “hegemony”, or of the eternal struggle for hegemony, which incorporated the common fetishist form of the will and thus the concept of the capitalist relation, as well as the concept of praxis: “Consciousness of being part of a particular hegemonic force (that is to say, political consciousness) is the first stage towards a further progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice will finally be one…. This is why it must be stressed that the political development of the concept of hegemony represents a great philosophical advance as well as a politico-practical one. For it necessarily involves and supposes an intellectual unity….” (Gramsci 1994, 1st Italian Ed. 1975, written in 1932/35, p. 1384). Consciousness in general and critique in general become pure “political consciousness” stripped of their conditioning. Whereas in “real socialism” politics was gradually receding before the pseudo-natural laws of the fetishist constitution, so as to finally unconditionally surrender to them, precisely the opposite happened in Western Marxism, in which the same unsuperseded social constitution was ideologically shattered into pieces in “politics”, while systematically ignoring the de facto fatal development of real socialism. The proclaimed “unity between theory and praxis” under the formula, “everything is political” of the theory of action was transformed into the slogan, “politics is everything”. Consequently, more than ever before, theory was degraded to the status of a legitimizing theory of a “political praxis”—an a priori presupposition for theory—of the immanent treatment of the contradiction, but now involving a politics uprooted from its anchorage in the constellation of “catch-up modernization” that now had no reason to exist, a politics that was transformed into the historical zero-point of eternal “struggles” in the eternal parallelogram of “relations of forces”. Actually, this was also a surrender, but a vacillating one, negated and fake: an implicit self-compromise with the definitively obscured modern fetishistic constitution, notwithstanding the bellows and roars issuing from the chest of the “consciousness of struggle”, in which the puffed up chest of the proletarian class can only display itself as a chicken breast. Struggles are struggles are struggles….
10. “Structuralist Marxism” and the politicism of the theory of action
The turn of Western Marxism towards the theory of action and the tautological reinterpretation of the left wing politicism associated with that theory did not enjoy an uninterrupted development, once that, in the ideological thought of Modernity, the metaphysics of intentionality did not generally succeed in freeing itself from the metaphysics of law-governed structures, or vice-versa. This is why Western Marxism also produced a “structuralist” version after the Second World War, represented principally by Louis Althusser. However, the so-called structuralism of the post-war period, which gave rise to Althusser’s “structuralist reading of Marx”, did not follow the classical bourgeois metaphysics of law-governed structure, but developed from linguistic (Saussure) and ethnological (Lévi-Strauss) paradigms. Here, too, however, they revealed pseudo-scientific reductions; in Lévi-Strauss, for example, these “explanatory models” were simultaneously directed against the Enlightenment and the Hegelian metaphysics of history. “Conformity with the laws” was no longer considered to be historically dominant; it was reduced to the “respective structures” and to their “necessary autonomization”, without teleological components.
This is reminiscent of the formulations of Engels cited above, whose meaning, however, was now stripped of the metaphysics of history and of the content of the critique of political economy. In this way, the “structuralist reading of Marx” carried out by Althusser was predominantly epistemological and not about content. In this respect, it can very well be shown to converge with the philosophers of praxis, although Marxist structuralism was treated as a polar opposite, for example, in relation to Gramsci. The difference actually resides in the opposed evaluation of the “subject”. Whereas the philosophers of praxis stressed a “humanistic” emphasis on the subject and on a metaphysics of the will, in opposition to the metaphysics of law-governed structures, Althusser, for his part, adopted an “anti-humanistic concept”, with the fundamental thesis “… it is absolutely essential … to suppress every origin and every subject, and to say: what is absolute is the process without a subject, both in reality and in scientific knowledge” (Althusser 1974, 1st French Ed. 1972, first delivered as a lecture in 1968, p. 83 et seq.). This concept was extraordinarily claimed to have been derived from Hegel, and that it “is the basis of all the analyses in Capital” (ibid., p. 82), and that this concept was again and again supported: “There is no subject of the process: it is the process itself which is a subject, insofar as it does not have a subject…. take away the teleology, there remains the philosophical category that Marx inherited: the category of a process without a subject” (ibid., p. 65).
It is clear that this determination recalls the “automatic subject” of Marx. In Althusser’s reading, however, this category is not understood critically, but only positively, as the occurrence of a certain “eternal” form (as, once again, Engels affirmed in his formulation). The “class struggle”, the supersession of capitalism, communism and in general the entire future then becomes a “subjectless process”. This critique of the subject does not lead to a categorical critique of the fetishist constitution, but leads instead to the strict affirmation of the “objectivity” of autonomized structural processes, which are only “executed” by individuals, groups and classes in action; in short, “freed” from the metaphysics of history. It is, then, a reduced and diluted metaphysics of law-governed structure that only criticizes from the outside the whole “humanistic” emphasis on the subject, without shedding any light on the internal connection and the polar identity between the subject form and fetishistic objectivization.
Thus, an “ontological break” is unthinkable for structuralism; the ontology of praxis is transformed into an ontology of historically indeterminate and autonomized structures and processes, in which humanity is held captive forever. No wonder Althusser unceremoniously classified the chapter on fetishism in Capital as Hegelian deadweight and advised readers to skip it. For him, both the concept of fetishism as well as that of alienation form part of the period of “the young Marx” (Althusser 1974b, 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 191), whose texts should be ignored (a counterfactual claim, for, as we have already pointed out, Marx only developed the concept of fetishism in the “mature” period of his analysis of capital). Therefore, the main difference with respect to the philosophers of praxis consists in the fact that “structuralist Marxism”, which only at first glance appears to address the fundamental problem, renders explicit the implicit and vacillating surrender of the philosophy of praxis to the a priori fetishistic constitution, furnishing this surrender with theoretical legitimacy.
In this context, the Althusserian concept of ideology is also quite revealing. It is true that Althusser introduced the concept of “ideological praxis” and also posited a difference between “science” and “ideology”. First of all, however, he was still the prisoner of a positivist concept of natural science of a kind similar to that advocated by Engels, and thus did not recognize the ideological basis of all bourgeois science in the “theory form”. Secondly, he positivizes “ideological praxis” as the “necessary” expression of a kind of first level of “consciousness of interest”, and thus comes very close to the traditional party-Marxism, which also often unceremoniously spoke of a positive “proletarian ideology”. Thus, Althusser claims: “In no sense was I condemning ideology as a social reality as Marx says, it is in ideology that men ‘become conscious’ of their class conflict and ‘fight it out’….” (Althusser 1967, p. 10). He therefore completely ignores the terrible negative power of ideology, in which the interest of the capitalist being-there, starting from the immanent treatment of the contradiction, connects with the overarching socially ontologized fetishist categories, submitting them to an interpretation, a real interpretation, which extends as far as the murderous contents of machismo, racism and anti-semitism.
The ontology of autonomized structures and processes entails the consequence of the ontology of the ideological: “Human societies secrete ideology as the very element and atmosphere indispensable to their historical respiration and life.” (Althusser 1974, 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 182). Thus a consistent critique of ideology, which can only result from a categorical critique of the modern fetishistic constitution, is rendered unviable. Althusser himself admits as much: “And I am not going to steer clear of the crucial question: historical materialism cannot conceive that even a communist society could ever do without ideology….” (ibid., Althusser’s italics). The structuralist ontologization of ideology reduces the problem to one of a positive “theory of ideology”, that is, superficial sociological classifications (as in Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge). Within capitalism, it is precisely the “classes” that separate their contrary ideologies, and they are only interested in promoting and founding, or scientifically complementing, the “correct” ideological tendency. This also goes hand in hand with the fact that the philosophy of praxis sniffs around in search of “utopian” moments in the eternal treatment of the contradiction, which also wagers on the possibility of a positive concept of ideology.
The structuralist reading of Marxism is fully consistent with the turn towards the theory of action, in a critique of classical economism that is just as reduced as it is superficial. To the extent that Althusser, deleting the teleology from the philosophy of history, clings to a metaphysics of law-governed structures reformulated in structuralism, this no longer refers to an “economic origin” and instead alludes to a tangle of structures and processes of diverse origins and from the most diverse social spheres. This is why he also postulates, “… we can leave to Hegel the category of totality, and claim for Marx the category of the whole.” (Althusser 1977, 1st French Ed. 1975, p. 65, Althusser’s italics). Hegel’s positive concept of the totality is not superseded as such, by way of the categorical critique of the incoherent negative totality (as it has been developed by the critique of value-dissociation), but was simply disregarded in favor of the phenomenologically reduced category of a conceptually vacuous “whole”, which can be nothing but a sign of a mere “sum” of partial social spheres and moments.
In this process, Althusser also retreats in the direction of the formulation of Engels concerning the economy being the “last instance”, which is only indirectly “determinant”. In capitalism, therefore, what we have is a “structure in dominance” (Althusser, 1974 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 146). Here he resorts to the term “overdetermination”, borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis: the famous “last instance” is “overdetermined” (transformed and penetrated) by other “instances” (political, ideological, cultural). The indisputable, but superficial truth, that the form of the real course of the process of the social contradiction is co-determined by politics and ideology, does not represent, however, any kind of theoretical knowledge, if it does not at the same time make it evident that both the “economy” and “politics” and ideology, etc., refer to the basic fetishist constitution of the relation of value-dissociation, on the basis of which, and only then, can the “determinant” moment of a law-governed structure of the form (and of the dynamic of crisis) be explained. By reducing, along with Engels and the philosophers of praxis, the problem to the “economy” as the “last instance”, Althusser only attains the tautological understanding that the “base” and “superstructure”, “economy” and politics/ideology, are themselves reciprocally “determined” (overdetermination), so that he could claim: “It is ‘economism’ (mechanism), and not the true Marxist tradition, that sets up the hierarchy of instances once and for all” (Althusser 1974, 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 160). The “hierarchy of instances”, however, is only a reduced and distorted perception, resulting from a lack of a critical concept of the totality that Althusser himself expressly rejects.
The result is unmistakable: “… the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never arrives….” (Althusser, ibid., p. 81). It is not in the reduced sense of classical “economism”, however; to the contrary, in Althusserian argumentation, along with the “last instance’”, the negative totality as such, the immanent logic of the mode of socialization, the determinant moment in general in the sense of an objective dynamic, the internal frontier of the valorization of capital, of “abstract labor” and of the relation of dissociation, as well as the problem of transformation as an assault on the constitution of the form, all disappear as well. What remains is, exactly as in the case of the philosophers of praxis, the “relative autonomy” of the spheres and subsystems. The question regarding what the term, “dominant structure”, is really supposed to mean is not answered with regard to its conceptual and analytical concept; instead, this question is evaded and dissolved into “praxis”. Althusser, after having obscured the fetishistic constitution, like the philosophers of praxis, simply claims that “the Commune, in answering Marx's expectations, rendered the theme of alienation superfluous, as did the whole of Lenin's political practice” (Althusser 1977, 1st French Ed. 1975, p. 87). We therefore find nothing but the surrender of theory to the historical praxis of the treatment of the contradiction in the sense of “catch-up modernization”. “The solution to our theoretical problem”, Althusser said, “already exists in Marxist practice” (ibid., Althusser’s italics, p. 102). According to him, he is only interested in “expressing” this “solution” “theoretically” as well (ibid.).
Just like the philosophers of praxis, this theoretical “expression”, for its part, also aims, on the one hand, at allowing the allegedly “determinant” economic moment to continue to be determinant in some fashion, and, on the other hand, it has the goal of permanently maintaining the so-called “superstructure”, that is: it preserves the formula, “everything is political” or “politics is everything”, as Althusser explicitly claimed in the following pertinent reference: “… for at last I began to understand the great thesis of Marx, Lenin and Gramsci: that philosophy is fundamentally political” (ibid., Althusser’s italics, p. 204). In this sense, Althusser also tried to understand Stalinism not only as merely “mistaken”, but also as a pure phenomenon of the superstructure, which for him “… explains very simply, in theory, how the socialist infrastructure has been able to develop without essential damage (!) during this period of errors affecting the superstructure….” (ibid., Althusser’s italics, p. 193). Here Althusser also displays, in a crystal-clear way, the collective ignorance of Western Marxism with regard to the content of the critique of political economy, in which the problem of the fetishistic constitution of the form was concealed. As a result, the “structuralist” and ignorant reading of the contents that Althusser conducted with respect to Marx also leads to a politicism that is compatible with the theory of action, tautological and self-referential: the social process as ontologized “praxis” dissolves into “… innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces….” (Althusser 1974, 1st French Ed. 1965, p. 89).
Thus, Althusser also offers his truly revelatory concept of “theoretical praxis”, since he cannot continue to develop it up to its internal connection with the constitution of the social form. This concept, as Althusser claims, really “justif[ies] the thesis of the relative autonomy of theory and thus the right of Marxist theory not to be treated as a slave to tactical political decisions….” (Althusser 1977, 1st French Ed. 1975, p. 55), but he also places special emphasis on the fact that it is “… in alliance with political and other practices” (ibid.). In his various self-criticisms, Althusser had already pertinently “revised” his concepts: “No doubt I did speak of the union of theory and practice within ‘theoretical practice’, but I did not enter into the question of the union of theory and practice within political practice” (Althusser 1967, Althusser’s italics, p. 14).
Althusser repeatedly accuses himself of “theoreticism”, which only indicates that he avoided talking about the real problem. It is by no means a matter of endless reflections on the words, “relative autonomy” of theory (for this the concept of “theoretical praxis” is not necessary). Theory is not a “sphere” alongside other spheres in the framework of “relative autonomy”; to the contrary, it is itself the theory of praxis, namely of the dominant, fetishistic praxis, its “theoretical expression”. And as such it must be used in a negative way, even against itself as a “theory form”, which, however, has nothing to do with an a priori unity of “theory and praxis”, and even less with any kind of merger with “politics”. To the contrary, what matters is to criticize praxis, precisely the praxis of the eternal treatment of the contradiction in the political form. The diffuse ontology of praxis obscures precisely this task, and thus binds theory to this immanent treatment of the contradiction, which has no concept. It makes no difference whether the point of view is the bare metaphysics of intentionality of the philosophers of praxis or the “spineless” metaphysics of law-governed structure of Althusserian structuralism. By way of their truncated critique of classical economism, both these approaches of Western Marxism lead to a tautological politicism, without an objective in contents, of eternal “struggles” and eternal “relations of forces”, in the cage of the a priori matrix.
11. Foucault’s pendulum. From party-Marxism to movement ideology.
After the 1960s, the dissolution of the left wing critique of capitalism, in both the form of the philosophy of praxis and of Althusserian “structuralist” Marxism, was furthered by the “ideological praxis” of postmodern theoretical elaboration, also known as “post-structuralism”. As an exemplary representative of this current we shall take Michel Foucault, whose reflections enjoyed a great deal of popularity on the left. In Foucault, as well, we find the postulate of an “inseparable unity” between theory and praxis. Thus, he colorfully proposes, against the Frankfurt School, “another way … which is more empirical … and which implies more relations between theory and practice. ” (Foucault 2005a, 1st English Ed. 1982, p. 243).
Nonetheless, the old postulate is here merely reformulated in a different way, the ontology of praxis arising in the form of the famous “discursive practices”. The characteristic concept of “practices” used by Foucault, which underwent diverse formulations in the various periods of its development (in the definitions of “episteme” or “strategem”, for example), could very well, in combination with his copious material analyses on the history of the constitution, of the discipline and of the internalization of Modernity, be integrated in a critical theory of value-dissociation; in this sense, making use of another one of Foucault’s metaphors, one could speak of a “microphysics” of fetishist relations. Yet it was precisely a reference of this kind that Foucault was unable to produce with his approach; to the contrary, he developed a theoretical schema that led to a different critical theory of the constitution of the historical form.
Foucault also took up the critique of “economism”; he called for “liberation from the economic schemas by undertaking an analysis of power” (Foucault 1978, Lecture from 1976, p. 72). However, he, too, although in a different way than the representatives of Western Marxism, refused to define the “economy”, whatever that was, as a “profound and sole last instance” (Foucault, Lecture delivered in 1978, p. 36). By rejecting these rhetorical devices of the Western Marxists in difficulty, still used only as diplomacy in the field of theory with a basis in the evasive formulation of Engels, Foucault also cut the last tenuous link with the problem of the a priori fetishistic matrix. In the end, he did not critically address the reduced definition of the “economic instance”, choosing instead to simply eliminate it; in fact, he was no longer interested in either capitalism or its critique. With the appearance in his book, Words and Things (Foucault, 1976, 1st French Ed. 1966), of questions about the critique of political economy, Foucault, like Althusser, did not examine them from the point of view of their content, but only with regard to their purely epistemological form; and henceforth in a manner that was entirely disconnected from Marx’s theory.
With this stance, Foucault is already a left wing “post-Marxist”, who leads the movement for disengagement from party-Marxism, but in precisely the wrong direction. His critique of the ideology of the subject, which he at first shared with structuralism (along with all its ontologizations), and the critique of Enlightenment ideology with which he was associated, only had the goal of rejecting, in general, every comprehensive theory of social-historical contexts; he turned against “global, totalitarian theories” (Foucault 1978, ibid., p. 58), especially Marxism, claiming: “[All such theories] that refer to the categories of the totality have, in reality, an inhibiting effect” (ibid., p. 59). If Althusser had already renounced the concept of the totality as “Hegelian”, instead of subjecting it to a critical transformation, Foucault, for his part, no longer even bothered to distinguish “relatively autonomous” social spheres or subsystems. He, too, withdraws from the empty shell of the “whole” and instead seeks “… to keep … within the field of immanence of pure singularities. (!) Then what? Rupture, discontinuity, singularity, pure description….” (Foucault 1992, ibid., p. 36).
“Institutions, practices, discourses” (Foucault 1978, ibid., p. 58) as such are no longer understood “within” an overarching social context, or even within partial zones, but as singularities, and therefore, more than ever before, in a positivist manner: “The analysis of the positivities, to the degree that these are pure singularities which are assigned not to a species or an essence, but to simple conditions of acceptability (!) … requires the deployment of a complex and tight causal network…. Hence there is a need for a multiplicity of relationships, a differentiation between different types of relationships, between different forms of necessity among connections, a deciphering of circular interactions and actions taking into account the intersection of heterogeneous processes” (Foucault 1992, ibid., p. 36). “Not to … an essence”, but “ to simple conditions of acceptability”: here is a reductionist program. Each and every concept is broken down and, consequently, so are each and every critique of a definition of the essence of the social. In fact, there is no longer even any society (much less any history), but only an impenetrable tangle formed of “singularities” or so-called ensembles, in the “logic inherent to the context of interactions with its always variable margins of non-certainty” (ibid., p. 38). The concept of capitalism becomes meaningless and, consequently, so, too, does the critique of capitalism.
What remains, as a general ahistorical and vacuous definition of content, is, in compensation, the concept of “power”. In a way, all relations are always “power relations”, which are now developing in the form of these ensembles of singularities, and no longer in that of the opposition of “classes” (sociologically reduced, separated from their constitutive context) as is the case with the philosophers of praxis. From the perspective of the critique of fetishism, the flow of power does not have an anthropological (or even a biological) basis, nor can it be understood as a relation of will without any presuppositions between classes or groups and based only on external means of power (weapons, for example). Instead, power that can be expressed in domination develops on the basis of a history of fetishist relations, in which the respective a priori matrix that embraces all individuals establishes, on the basis of itself, a functional hierarchy of relations of domination, whose “agents” (in Marx: “character masks”) execute the imperatives of presupposed forms of action, without being their “conceptual” bearers. Since, however, in Foucault, each and every vestige of a concept of essence beyond Marxism is liquidated, the flow of “power” is revealed to be a sui generis ontology, which no longer has a basis but is postivistically presupposed.
Thus, everything is always “power” without any basis; the “logic inherent to the context of interactions” arises as an eternal “game of power” in the space of “singularities”, in which the politics and the economy of Modernity are also dissolved. This is why the theoretical referential framework of the abstract ontology of power of Foucault is no longer derived from Marx, but explicitly from Nietzsche and implicitly from Heidegger. The more susceptible the analytic concepts of the “practices” and the material analyses related to them are to being critically integrated into the theory of value-dissociation, the more intransigently must the theoretical schema of that subsidiary referential framework of The German Ideology (which is, in general, constitutive of the postmodern “ideological praxis”) be combated. In the final analysis, Foucault, with his consistent atomization of society and history, takes the obscuration of the context of the categorical form to its most extreme point, a process that had already been prepared within Western Marxism, thus abandoning the field of radical critique in general; his concept ends up in a position and praxis of the “left”, with an ontology of the “right”.
Thus, for Foucault, the concept of ideology, too, and consequently, also the positive theory of ideology as the critique of ideology, are meaningless and superfluous. Whereas the sociology of knowledge had only conveyed a positivist concept of ideology, as it was understood by the philosophers of praxis and by Althusser’s “structuralist Marxism”, in order to thus affirm it for the supposedly “correct” (proletarian) side, in Foucault, along with the ultimate reference that empties the social form of any content, so, too, does the problem of ideology disappear, dissolving into alternating “productions of truth”, whose paradoxically absolute relativity is not subject to any constituted objectivity, not even a negative one. Instead, they only involve “discursive practices” in the flow of “power”, in which, in a way, only that is “true” which is imposed in complex processes as “acceptance”, until this is once again questioned and “another production of truth” is set in motion. Thus, the “games of power” are always also “games of truth” (Foucault 2005b, 1st French Ed. 1984, p. 274). In the critical theory of value-dissociation, the concept of the “production of truth” also can be taken in this critical sense and made fertile, by showing, in the detailed analyses of Foucault, the mechanisms of ideologization at all social levels. In Foucault, however, these mechanisms exist explicitly on their own, in a positivist perception; they are not mechanisms “of something” and “within” a reference to the constitution of the social form that ends up being dissolved in the “singularities” of power relations and games of truth.
Thus, in the context of discontinuous “singularities”, for Foucault only “discontinuous, particular and local criticism” can exist (Foucault 1978, ibid., p. 58). This “local character of criticism” (ibid., p. 59) now means, more than ever before, a politicism of “praxis”—yet it is a kind of politicism that is even more reduced than that of Western Marxism, and with the same mantra of a “transformation of the relations of forces” (ibid., p. 72), which now can no longer be relations between social classes or other social meta-entities. In this process, what is taking place is a “creation of a permanent relation of forces” (ibid., p. 73) in the arena of “conditions of acceptability” (Foucault 1992, ibid., p. 40) which constitute that “field of immanence” of the singularities and “… a field of possibles, of openings, indecisions, reversals and possible dislocations which make them fragile, temporary….” (ibid., p. 40).
This concept of “dislocation” would enjoy a long career in the postmodern left. A-conceptual politicism then became the “switchyard of dislocation” of infinite particular struggles and “peripheries that rise instead of falling towards the center” (Dosse 1999, 1st French Ed. 1992, p. 306). This is no longer a definition of essence, however, nor can there be a “center”; instead of the reduced Marxist definition of social essence, it is not an expanded reflection of the latter that arises but rather the henceforth absolute negation of the context of the social form in general, whose thematization is denounced as “essentialist”. “These are ‘immediate’ struggles”, according to Foucault, “for two reasons. In such struggles people criticize instances of power which are the closest to them, those which exercise their action on individuals. They do not look for the ‘chief enemy’ but for the immediate enemy. Nor do they expect to find a solution to their problem at a future date (that is, liberations, revolutions, end of class struggle)….” (Foucault 2005a, 1st English Ed. 1982, p. 244). It is easy to see that this is a reductionism of critique within the metaphysics of intentionality of the theory of action, in which Foucault’s structuralism suddenly is transformed; instead of the “chief” (class) enemy, now there are “immediate” enemies, in the particular diversity of singular instances of power, instead of attaining, by way of the critique of sociologism (both of the theory of action as well as the theory of structure) of intentional social relations, the critique of the socially overarching a priori matrix.
The Western surrender of the radical critique of capitalism was thus brought to a conclusion by postmodern “anti-essentialism”, which now no longer needs any kind of argument for the systematic obscuration of the negative social totality. After the problem of the social whole—which in general justifies the concept of the formation of “capitalism”—was dispatched in an ahistorical ontology of power, the particularization of critique could be overwhelmingly associated with a “prohibition” of any and all critique of the “whole”, which is no longer comprehensible even in the conceptually vacuous formula of Althusser or of the philosophy of praxis: “But Foucault’s notions of power diluted the political dimension by dispersing it in all directions…. it circulated through a network among individuals, operating in chains, transiting through each one before reassembling into a whole. Without any nodal point there could be no resistance to this omnipresent power that was in everyone and was therefore nowhere. It was irresistible since there was nothing to resist” (Dosse 1999, 1st French Ed. 1992, p. 307).
The disappearance of the determinations of the concrete historical form of capitalism, as well as of the “economy”, “politics” and “institutions” in general, in the ontology of power, renders worthless the strikingly blatant knowledge that social opposition and social conflict are not at all sociologically external in their origins; instead, they are reproduced, in an all-embracing way, “in each individual” (competition, for example, and the ideologizations associated with it). Once “power”, which takes the place of the concept of capitalism and the concept of social formations in general, is considered, utilizing Nietzsche and Heidegger, to be permanent and intangible, it also cannot be criticized as such. It could only be subject to criticism if it is not taken on its own, but is recognized as a factor of a historically specific social constitution. But once all cats are grey in the night of the all-embracing “field of power”, the “dislocation” of power can only take place in the space of the “singularities”, that is, of particular social phenomena. Thus, the inflation of the concept of politics (of its “immutable reproduction” without the context of the form) also continues to be upheld beyond the confines of Western Marxism.
It is not possible at this time for us to engage in an extensive debate with Foucault (which still remains one of the unfinished tasks of the theoretical elaboration of the critique of value-dissociation); we can only situate his reflections in the context of the ontology of praxis. In this regard it can be affirmed that, with Foucault, the movement of the pendulum of the Western left is forced in the direction of the paradigm of the theory of action; and it is henceforth considerably and consistently disconnected from the Marxian critique of capitalism. At the same time, the “congealment” of social actions is transformed beyond institutionalism, and is reduced to fluid “singularities”. The objectivist moment of the approach of the theory of structure, which in postwar structuralism was already disconnected from the last vestiges of the philosophy of history and also from the reduced understanding of an “economic center”, divided, on the one hand, into the “superfluous” meta-objectivity of the ontology of power, which is no longer susceptible to concrete reflection, and, on the other hand, into the discontinuous objectivization of micrological “interactive relations”, which, in the light of the theory of action, are now only accessible to permanent “dislocations”.
The eternal struggle for “conditions of acceptability” in eternal “productions of the truth” of a relativist-particular kind remains socially and historically without an objective. Foucault was forced to bind theory to the immanent treatment of the contradiction, once the question of the social essence was itself replaced and totally liquidated by the reduced institutional and political-economic schemas of Western Marxism. Thus, the task of an “ontological break” receded even further into the distance. This in itself means that gender dissociation, as a determination of the essence, must remain unthinkable, because it exists on the level of the obscured constitution of the fetishist form. Modern gender relations can arise, in the best cases, merely in the form of “singularities” in the “field of power”, and Foucault was interested in this, unlike Western Marxism.
His reductive transformation of the modus of negative socialization in disconnected “discursive practices” marks a break with the paradigm of “class struggle”, but in the wrong direction, in the turn (parallel with structuralism) towards the theory of action; the problem of the immanent treatment of the contradiction, including the a priori “unity between theory and praxis” was not examined critically, but was instead atomized. For the atomized treatment of the contradiction, as well, now neither a party nor any kind of factional solidarity was needed; but only because the question of the social totality and, therefore, of a social transformation beyond capitalism, had been buried. What was merely implicit in the Western Marxists became explicit in Foucault. With a swing that was even of greater amplitude than the reformulation of postwar structuralism in the theory of action (which is why it was also known as “post-structuralism”), “Foucault’s pendulum” heralded the transition from party-Marxism towards the movement ideology of the left. The price paid for this “supersession”, however, was the “localization” of critique in decontextualized, isolated phenomena.
12. The return of the “subject”. The metaphysics of human rights and false autonomy.
In the era of the often-interrupted development of leftist thought from Gramsci to Foucault, whose internal nexus has up until now not been critically elaborated due to the lack of an adequate concept of the modern fetishist constitution in the context of “catch-up modernization”, there was one position that did not join the turn towards the theory of action on the part of Western Marxism (including its structuralist moment). This was the Critical Theory of the so-called Frankfurt School, especially in the detailed formulations of Adorno. It is true that Adorno has often been included under the rubric of Western Marxism (by Perry Anderson, for example). But this superficial classification does not grasp their decisive differences. As we have already pointed out, it was precisely Adorno who rejected from the very start, in the sense of radical critique, the a priori “unity between theory and praxis” that was a constant feature of Marxism, although he did not examine the problem in depth. His specific concept of “theoretical praxis”, furthermore, is not restricted, as in the case of Althusser, to the superficial postulate of a “relative autonomy” of critical theory, as one “sphere” among others, but was mediated, at least in an embryonic way, with a thematization of the fetishistic constitution. He also rendered the critical observations we quoted above concerning the reduction promoted by the theory of action in sociology. And it would be even more difficult to justify classifying Adorno with post-structuralist ideological praxis and with the Foucaultian ontology of power: insofar as the latter essentially refers to the philosophy of Heidegger along the lines of the German Ideology, Foucault’s position was clearly among Adorno’s worst bêtes noires.
Adorno himself never systematically addressed the problem of the overarching a priori matrix as such; this is not the place to examine his shortcomings which, with respect to this issue, are in part to be ascribed to the ideology of circulation (for the rudiments of such a critique, see Kurz 2004). His theory does, however, pave the way for this kind of questioning, not only beyond traditional Marxism, but also beyond Western Marxism, which had simply discarded it. If, from then on, this questioning, which was normally obscured, erupted here or there, it was almost always with reference to Adorno. The critique of value-dissociation, whose theoretical elaboration was for the first time carried out fundamentally at this level, can only be understood as a transformation of the Adornian theory (see, especially, Scholz 2000).
This theory existed in parallel with the works of Althusser and Foucault in the 1960s; Adorno’s last major work, Negative Dialectics, was published in 1966. When the New Left was taking shape, before and during the movement of 1968, the texts of the Frankfurt School formed part of the central theoretical reference points in the FRG. But this reception was inextricably mixed with traditional Marxist elements that originated in left wing social democracy (in Oskar Negt, for example, who, even today, still treasures his party membership card), and not only that current. Above all, the understandable emphasis placed on the movement also rendered its protagonists receptive to the direct resort to the “Theses on Feuerbach” on the horizon of the turn to the theory of action, a turn that, at the time, was totally unexamined in the left of 1968. Adorno’s reception was subordinated to a pretension to direct “praxis” and thus without respect to theoretical content. The problem of the constitution of the fetishist form, present but not elaborated in Adorno, only arose marginally and, most often, in formulations that were above all existentialist or moralistic. Instead, the pretension of “praxis” in theory was from the beginning turned against the alleged mere “contemplation” of the Frankfurt School in an extremely crude manner.
With regard to this question, the real debate then began with Habermas; and we must mention that, symptomatically, it was not a debate about the apprehension of the content of critical thought in the cage of the democratically admissible, but above all about “direct action”, to which all theoretical reflection was supposed to be linked. Thus, Arnhelm Neususs, in his anthology entitled, The Left Responds to Jürgen Habermas, contributed the following counterattack: “There is no doubt that Habermas defends very progressive positions, insofar as his purpose was to interpret the world in a different way. Today it is clear that the concept of praxis that he employs was never anything but a theoretical category. If theory attempts to become really practical, then it would become a nuisance to him. For him, the transformation of the world must take place by way of contemplation” (Neususs 1968, p. 57). Here, the problem of the relation between theory and praxis is addressed in an entirely one-dimensional and direct way, without any distinction with regard to the different forms of praxis and without any reflection on the relation between immanence and transcendence. Here one can see that the ongoing critical reference to Adorno (even against Habermas) was buried under the criterion of “action”.
The famous “student leader”, Rudi Dutschke, inadvertently clarified the fact that this point of view of “praxis” was linked to the unreflective turn towards the theory of action: “Everything depends on the conscious will of people to finally become aware of the fact that history is always made by the people themselves … that is, Professor Habermas, your non-conceptualized objectivism impels the subject to be emancipated … I only trust in the concrete activities of practical people and in an anonymous process” (Dutschke 1980, from a speech delivered in 1967, pp. 76 and 81). From the point of view of the critique of fetishism we are advocating here, Dutschke presents as an open book the way the capitalist real dialectic of objectivization and subjectivization is not critically transformed, but simply reduced to the metaphysics of intentionality (the accusation against Habermas, whose theory was distinguished in many respects by the theory of action, reveals an ignorance of his work). This truncated critique of the old objectivism of law-governed structures, with which Habermas is basically identified, does not lead to the critique of the form, nor therefore to the critique of the “subject form”, but, to the contrary, it is totally dissolved in that subject, along the line of the philosophers of praxis (Dutschke was close to Bloch). The equally non-conceptualized subjectivism, only turned in the other direction, “impels” to “theoretical praxis”. This attachment of reflection to the “concrete activities of practical people”, already signified the unconscious self-obstruction in “affirmative critique” and in the treatment of the contradiction, which necessarily had to lead to the exact opposite of the postulate of a “history that is finally made consciously” and precisely to the subsequent willing surrender to an “anonymous process”.
The path leading towards the renovation, expansion and transformation of the critique of political economy was blocked by the pretense of immediate practice. To the extent that the analysis of capital came to have any importance in the Marxism of the New Left of the 1970s, it remained largely an affair of the left wing of the social democrats within academia and proceeded according to the old positivist categorical understanding. During that period, however, the mainstream [in English in the original—American Translator’s Note] of the movement had already begun to distance itself from at least the concept of crisis in Marx’s theory and openly subjectivized it in the context of the truncated procedure of the theory of action. Thus, in the anthology quoted above, the young Claus Offe proclaimed against Habermas: “In this constellation, not only can one imagine an accumulation of symptoms of crisis, without the latter being susceptible to being predicted in the models of the crisis process of the traditional crisis theories, but one might also perhaps even be able to provoke a crisis, by way of the correct strategic expansion of systemic problems and by way of the collective practical labor of clarification carried out by political minorities (!)…. Is it not unthinkable, however, that the scope and, consequently, the field of competence of theories of the Marxist type, have contracted….? Then, the transformed appearance of the capitalist process would entail the consequence that those aspects and tendencies of that process, which initially theory addresses only with its own resources, today must be constituted at the level of praxis (!). The relation between analysis and actions would then also be circular. Under such conditions, the authority of the theoretical judgments over the question of whether or not a concrete historical situation is revolutionary or not is also simply extinguished…. We can only respond to such a question in the course of a disciplined pragmatism of action (!)….” (Offe 1968, p. 110; Offe’s italics).
The problem now contained in that pejorative formulation about “theories of the Marxist type”, that is, the difference that exists between the theory of modernization and the critique of fetishism, is situated outside of the possibilities of thought; what remains is the reduction of the critique of political economy to movement praxis, it is the asphyxiation of theoretical reflection in the “pragmatism of action”. More than ever before, theory is reduced in a legitimizing way to movement ideology (“constituted at the level of praxis”), and the “crisis” is separated from fetishistic objectivization (in a turn away from Marx) and transformed into a mere function of “will”. Now that the capitalist relation of the fetish is totally relegated to the “subject”, “critique” must itself remain apathetic, because it is not turned towards the logic of the essence, that is, towards the categorical level.
In the context of the European and world movement of ’68, there were only two approaches that made any progress with regard to this categorical level. One of them developed in the German-speaking countries, as the thematization of the “logic of capital” by a small handful of disciples of Adorno, who returned to address the critique of political economy in a quite different way than the representatives who were dominant on the left wing of social democracy (see Backhaus 1969; Reichelt 2001, 1st Ed. 1970). Although the texts of this current are still of value and are still relevant with regard to this critique, they are largely limited to the abstract level of the formal structure of capital, and ended up by remaining without any mediation with the concrete historical development of the modern commodity producing patriarchy and with the history of the Marxism of the workers movement that had found a place within that development. For that reason, they could only be perceived by people active in the movement as mere academic “esotericism”, without constituting a new comprehensive theoretical elaboration, which also would have been capable of giving rise to critical reflection on the reduced pretensions of “praxis”.
The second approach was that of the French situationists, mainly in the texts of Guy Debord, who (and in this they were perhaps alone) articulated the critique of the commodity form and of the modern fetishistic constitution in a way that was totally independent of Adorno’s Critical Theory. This is not the place (as was also true of our analysis of Foucault) for a more detailed discussion concerning situationist theory, about which some suggestions can always be “detourned” (to use a situationist term). What is of interest to us is to address the importance that the problem of “praxis” possessed in this theory. It is true that the situationists also spoke of a “praxis of theory”, but it was ambiguously located in relation to the concept of “theoretical praxis”. This ambiguity consisted, in the last instance, in the incompleteness of the categorical critique. In Debord, the critique of the overarching fetishist form was still mixed with the ideological praxis of the paradigm of the class struggle, that is, viewed from the perspective of the critique of value-dissociation, it was still mixed with the current of the theory of modernization that is present in Marx. For this reason, the limitation to the “struggle for recognition”, or the process of “catch-up modernization”, was also not presented as the essence of the history of the workers movement, but rather, in a certain way, as the failure to fulfill an ontological mission of the “proletariat” involving its self-supersession.
The “desires” that were not liberated, not realized and mutilated by capitalism, because they had been imprisoned within the unfolding fetishist form, were still localized in a sociologically immanent and ontologized social space (even if only diffusely determined), from which they can be liberated, via the “class struggle”; and, consequently, the fetishist form was not consistently recognized as comprehending all the classes. Ultimately, the problem is resolved by its reduction to the “class opposition”, based simply on categories of power of social subjects that were introduced by the Marxism of the workers movement. Thus, the relation between “class will”, on the one hand, and the fetishist constitution to which the functionaries and representatives of capital are also subject, on the other hand, can only be understood in Debord (in relation to the State Capitalism of the East Bloc), in a paradoxically immanent way, as the affirmation of the fact “that the bourgeoisie created an autonomous power which, so long as its autonomy lasts, can even do without a bourgeoisie” (Debord 1978, 1st French Ed. 1967, p. 56). Thus, the real development of the workers movement and of State Capitalist “real socialism” was depicted (as is partially the case in Adorno) as a history of defeats and of constantly repeated instances of capitalist “recuperation” (the situationists coined the term, recuperation).
Its attachment of the critique of fetishism to the ideology of class struggle also restricted the situationist critique of labor to the capitalist phenomenology of the everyday situation of “abstract labor”, while the ontology of labor as such remained intact; thus, Debord spoke in a totally acritical way of “the production of man by human labor” (ibid., p. 73). This ontologizing affirmation of the “labor form” consistently led to the same result with respect to the “subject form”: “The formation of the proletarian class into a subject”, Debord said, “means the organization of revolutionary struggles” (ibid., p. 45). Even less felicitously: “Subjectively the proletariat is still far removed from its practical class consciousness” (ibid., p. 65). If, for this reason, Debord explicitly denounces structuralism as a “cold dream” and as “thought guaranteed by the State” (ibid., p. 112), this rejection was not a rejection that was based on the critique of fetishism, but was rather a consequence of the reflections of the philosophers of praxis; furthermore, Debord accuses Marx of “creating the intellectual foundation for the illusions of economism” (ibid., p. 45).
As a result, the situationist thematization of the fetishist constitution must display, once again, the traditional postulate of the a priori “unity between theory and praxis”: according to this postulate, “… the formulation and communication of such a theory cannot even be conceived without a rigorous practice” (ibid., p. 113). And the famous situationist pamphlet, “On the Misery of Student Life”, had already made the following claim: “As Lukács correctly showed, revolutionary organization is this necessary mediation between theory and practice…. (Lukács’s mistake was to believe that the Bolshevik Party fulfilled this role.) If they are to be realized in practice, ‘theoretical’ tendencies and differences must immediately (!) be translated into organizational questions. Everything ultimately depends on how the new revolutionary movement resolves the organization question…. The rock on which the old revolutionary movement foundered was the separation of theory and practice….” (“On the Misery of Student Life”, 1995, 1st Ed. 1966). To “immediately” transform critical theory and even theoretical divergences themselves into the “organization” of the struggle was a program condemned to failure, and only led to self-atomization, by way of splits and serial exclusions, and “ultimately” to the end of the situationists themselves. Contrary to the situationist position, it was precisely the a priori postulate of the “unity between theory and praxis” that actually stood in the way of the workers movement and prevented it from grasping the critique of the a priori matrix. In opposition to the eternal treatment of the immanent contradiction in capitalism, whose nature remained indeterminate and which was actually denied, there is in the situationists an immediate maximalism of the pretension to “praxis”, which could only prove false.
For the new “activism” of the movement ideology that resulted from the turn taken by Western Marxism towards the theory of action, the problem of “structure” and of “system”, as a whole, was increasingly shunted to a secondary level, which corresponded to the theoretical tendency of the time. Foucault, later in his career, returned to the ontology of the subject; in an interview with Duccio Trombadori in 1980, he stated that, “… people, throughout their history, have never ceased to self-construct, that is, to constantly modify (!) their subjectivity, to constitute an endless and multiple series of different subjectivities” (quoted by Brieler 2001, p. 176). The ontologization of power is now completed with the ontologization of the subject form, and the structuralist moment, which was not critically superseded in post-structuralism, is simply set aside without having really been dispatched. François Dosse offers the following observation: “The subject was back…. From the mid-seventies onward, Barthes, Todorov and Foucault were increasingly concerned with the subject. Their individual paths were part of a profound movement that was leading the social sciences far afield from the structure on which they had anchored their scientificity. The grand return of the repressed subject proved to be unavoidable. Individuals, actors and agents, by different names and from different disciplines, all retained attention at a time when structures were fading from the theoretical horizon” (Dosse, 1st French Ed. 1992, p. 426).
The return of the “subject” in theory, however, a return that is henceforth generalized, only indicates that its critique in structuralism was reduced and incomplete, precisely because the opposite pole of fetishist objectivization was not included in this critique, but was only positivized in a “weak”, particularized metaphysics of law-governed structure. Precisely for this reason, Foucault’s pendulum swung back not only to the pole of the theory of action, but also, in the same direction, it consistently also swung to the pole of the “subject”. This was not, however, a matter of a meta-subject (“class”), as was still the case in the philosophers of praxis and the situationists, although we should note in passing that, with the help of old philosophies of the “art of living”, in Foucault’s lectures on “The Hermeneutics of the Subject”, for example (Foucault 2004, Lecture delivered in 1981-1982), the postmodern impulse of social individualization was now announced. “The system, the structure”, the social objectivity then changed, for its part, into the “repressed”, which it was thought possible to “set free”.
Linked to movement-type activism, the new emphasis on the subject underwent, in various waves, diverse forms of the manifestation of an exaggerated politicism. Starting with the movement of ’68, first there was a bizarre revivalism of party-Marxism, as the temporary abandonment of movement ideology that took the form of communist sects of a Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyist or Maoist tendency, which, however, could not last long, because the real social relation for such parties was now lacking. Since the late 1970s, these bizarre parties once again underwent a large scale transformation into the so-called “new social movements” that assumed the form, fully in accordance with the post-structuralist paradigm, of particular and phenomenologically limited single-issue movements (the movement against nuclear power plants, for example). The diverse forms of manifestation of capitalism that were the targets of critique were without any interconnections because, due to the turn towards the theory of action and to the consequent return of the henceforth particularized “subject”, there could no longer be any critical concept of the negative totality.
In this context, the new feminism also played a part, in the form in which it developed from its basis in the first assays of the movement of ’68. Not by chance, gender relations, in the global context of the turn towards the theory of action, did not have any importance or only played a secondary role. The dissolution of the old Marxist metaphysics of law-governed structure was, in all its variants, not subject to reflection in the one-dimensional androcentric “theory form”, whose abstract universalism was not superseded, but only (in Foucault, as well) particularized and atomized. The adequate formulation of a concept of the modern commodity producing patriarchy was only possible in combination with a theoretical penetration of the fetishist constitution, which, however, was only tangentially touched upon and, ultimately, set aside. In its theoretical schema, the new feminism, despite many excellent studies of a historical type or critiques of the sciences, was still attached to the androcentric system of categories that were not recognized as such; it actually had the semblance of a simple single-issue movement, and gender relations were addressed as a “relatively independent” object, or even a “singularity” in the sense of Foucault. In practice, this understanding was aimed at a mere treatment of the contradiction within the androcentric capitalist categories, and feminism was reduced to a “struggle for recognition”, more or less in conformance with the model of the old workers movement, since, after women conquered the right to vote, which took place a long time ago, little margin of maneuver remained to them (enforcement of hiring quotas, for example). This is why the critique set forth by this new feminism, which may thus be designated as an “affirmative critique”, was soon compelled to exhaust its resources and find its place in the general order of movement ideology, which today has yielded a bitter harvest, in the world crisis of the commodity producing patriarchy.
Since the metaphysics of intentionality, in the acritically presupposed fetishist constitution, could not separate from its opposite pole, which is the metaphysics of law-governed structures, sociological particularism and “atomism” were not capable of disposing of their opposed pole, that is, the universalism or “holism” that corresponds to the a priori matrix of the context of the capitalist form. This is why the return of the unsuperseded and by its very nature androcentric universalism, in the bourgeois form and in a manner analogous to the return of the “subject”, really had to take place acritically; in the place of the critique of the fetishistic constitution that had been set aside, a new metaphysics of human rights was soon introduced, in which the theoretically disarmed left began to clandestinely merge with the rising official neo-liberalism. François Dosse cites an example from Foucault: “For him, Modernity emerged with the ‘specific intellectual’ who abandoned universals as well as any claim to embodying a universal conscience on behalf of humanity, rights or even the proletariat. This intellectual spoke about specific issues and all things marginal in his own name…. Slowly, however, and under the influence of the profound changes of the day, Foucault once again began acting like the complete intellectual cum defender of democratic values…. In the late seventies and early eighties, Foucault embraced the cause of human rights…. His position denoted a critical distancing from his earlier positions. Now, he embraced democratic values and fought in their name, whereas until then he had derided these things as the very expression of mystification…. Foucault was waging new battles, and his commitment assumed a solidarity with the universal principles of human rights” (Dosse, ibid., p. 410).
The abstract bourgeois universalism of the metaphysics of human rights, which was criticized in its essence by the young Marx in a devastating manner (but still without being able to perceive its androcentric nature) therefore filled the bothersome vacant place created by the lack of a theoretically thought-out radical critique of the systemic totality of capitalist socialization along with the atomized “partial critiques” of diverse phenomena not subjected to proper analysis; this is what happened to Foucault in the 1970s and 1980s, when he suddenly began to engage in solidarity actions for the Boat People of Asia, the “neo-liberal workers movement” of Solidarnosc in Poland, and the Islamic conclusion of the Iranian Revolution, whose “spiritual dimension” he found so impressing (Taureck 1997, p. 115). Such unexamined actions took the form of “movement tourism”, with the presence of celebrities as well as activists, that indicated the incapacity for a critical analysis of the context in which “something was in motion”; what was important was that one took action, in one way or another, “against the power in power”, whose historical form could no longer be comprehended in any way.
In the amalgamation formed, on the one hand, by the particular critique or the superficial reference to movements whose historical-social relativity remained conceptually unarticulated and, on the other hand, by the universalism of human rights, the bourgeois polarity formed by the particular character of the treatment of the contradiction and by the general and abstract character of the ideas of the sphere of circulation, “liberty and equality”, behind which lurks ruthless competition, is reproduced. Then came the return to parliamentarism in the form of “rainbow coalitions”, in combination with a politicism detached from any critique of the context of the social form. Ultimately, the result was the Green Party, and not just in the FRG: now, no longer as the revival of party-Marxism, but as a party without Marxism, freighted with a movement ideology of the most minimalist type, an ideology derived from the superficial conglomeration of “partial critiques”; and, in the FRG, spiced up with interpretations of the philosophy of life of vitalism, in the ideology of the alternative movement. This paradoxical “party of movements” soon got rid of its ideological dead-weight (“rank and file democracy”, etc.) and its inconsistent militant activism, in order to succumb, just like its predecessors of party-Marxism, to a rapid transition to the “search for the fatherland” of the political class of the commodity producing patriarchy. The return of the metaphysics of human rights consequently dovetailed with the ideology of the legitimization of capitalist wars for world order and neoliberal counter-reforms; a development in which Foucault, of course, would not have participated.
Insofar as the long process involved in the turn to the theory of action basically remained unexamined in Western Marxism, however, the deplorable result was only subjected to external and moralistic criticisms. To the extent that the ideology of movement guided by the metaphysics of intentionality continued to exist in parallel with the constitution of Green parliamentarism, it only managed to invoke the flimsy “subject” of a false “autonomy”, which actually continued to be determined in a totally heteronomous way. The concept of this “autonomy” (implicitly conceived in the theory of action) was, from the very beginning, diffuse; it conveyed a pretension, in no way explicitly stated, of opening up a margin of action for direct action, against the course of capitalist phenomena that as such remained uncomprehended (in the form of movements or of contexts of life), a margin of action that was soon frustrated with the onset of the world crisis of the Third Industrial Revolution.
13. We are everything. The misery of (post-)operaismo.
“Just because your are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you.”
The turn taken by Western Marxism towards the theory of action, a turn that in postmodern ideological praxis was disconnected from Marx’s theory in general, instead of continuing to develop that theory, left a skeleton in the closet, that is, the critique of political economy, the critique that is concerned with the complicated “law-governed structures” of the capitalist social machinery that is based on the fetishist constitution, the continued analysis of the “society-changing” capitalist process, its unity of objectivization and (subjective) treatment of the contradiction, including its murderous ideologies. The apparent solution of this unresolved problematic produced what was perhaps the most important current in the New Left, a current that emerged in Italy, in parallel with an Althusserian “structuralist Marxism” and the Foucaultian atomization of critique: so-called operaismo. Its starting point was the specific situation of the young workers who came from the Mezzogiorno and flooded the Fordist industries of Northern Italy in the 1960s and had not yet internalized the factory discipline of “abstract labor”. While the regimes of “catch-up modernization” of State Capitalism, on the peripheries of the world market, had imposed this kind of disciplinary regime at gunpoint in the name of a “Marxist” legitimizing ideology, in Italy, starting from a similar situation, a resolute “workers militancy” developed against the Western-Fordist factory regime; a legitimate resistance, from our perspective, but it was immediately also a specific form of the limited treatment of the contradiction, which, in its immediacy, could become a theoretical field of reference for left wing intellectuals.
The reflections of operaismo (“workerism”) which therefore emerged as an ideology of legitimization for this direct militancy, have now taken a peculiar turn. The struggle against the Fordist regime of labor was presented as the “struggle against work”; but this was false advertising. Ultimately, the target was only a specific manifestation of Fordist discipline, not the modern ontology of labor as such, as in the case of the situationists; in fact, the phenomenologically limited “struggle against work” never departed from the bounds of the traditional paradigm of the (ontological) “liberation of work”. Having taken as a starting point a direct connection with the treatment of the contradiction “by the working class militant” (who, unsurprisingly, was soon supposed to arise), a critique of the ontology of labor was not at all possible. All that remained was a specific ideological praxis of operaismo that pursued the truncated understanding of the theory of action to an extreme, transforming the capital relation into pure subjectivity, and which, beginning in the 1970s, has exercised a major influence on the “movement left” in many countries.
The old shopworn idea of the ontology of labor, that the “working class”, as “working class subjectivity”, is an “alien element that is always present in the system” (Negri 1977, p. 41), that is, it simultaneously exists “within” capital, as servitude, and “outside” capital, as the ontology of labor, rules out from the very start any critical concept of the constitution of the modern commodity producing patriarchy that overlies the classes. Disconnected from its limited function and rendered historically superfluous as a “struggle for recognition” in relation to capital, the concept of the class struggle undergoes a process of de-historicization and, in a manner similar to what happened with the philosophers of praxis, it receives a dose of the mythology of the abstract subject, beyond its old domain of the real object. Now that there is no more (negative) objectivity of capitalist development, there is only the class struggle, “left high and dry”. As Mario Tronti says: “We too have considered in first place capitalist development, and only afterwards the workers struggles. This is an error. It is necessary to invert the problem, change the sign, and begin again: and the beginning is the struggle of the working class” (quoted by Birkner/Foltin 2006, p. 11). According to Martin Birkner and Robert Foltin in their essay on the topic, this is “the connecting link of the different nuances of operaismo … which represents the basic difference in relation to the objectivism of orthodox Marxism” (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 24). However, the objectivism of the old metaphysics of law-governed structures is not criticized as a positivist and consequently affirmative understanding of the fully real capitalist objectivization; to the contrary, that objectivism is simply immanently inverted in the subjective theory of action.
In and of itself, this is nothing new. Operaismo, however, takes a decisive step compared to Western Marxism. It does not set aside the categories of the critique of political economy (and consequently the real categories); to the contrary, it directly integrates them as part of its turn towards the theory of action. Social classes and their immanent “struggle” (the mere treatment of the contradiction within capitalism) no longer arise constituted by the categories of the a priori matrix developed and objectified in a historical process, as in Marx; quite the contrary, because now it is thought that these categories are for their part subjectively constituted by the “class struggle”. This means (based to some extent on Althusser) instituting the “class struggle” as a principle, which from the beginning uninterruptedly generated and still generates the “classes”, as its starting point (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 58). It is quite paradoxical: the “class struggle” must therefore exist prior to and independently of classes; it is elevated to the status of a constitutive metaphysical principle, thus taking the place of the fetishist constitution. This “principle” is positivized and ontologized, exactly like the old “objective social laws”, but precisely in a subjectivized guise, which only occupies the other pole of the real capitalist metaphysics.
The dissolution of the fetishist objectivization into mere relations of will of ontological “subjects”, is consequently not susceptible to investigation concerning its constitution and ends up becoming the tacit a priori, consistently embracing the form of the market itself. Thus, with reference to Marxist theory, there is “the famous first chapter of the first part under the title, ‘The Commodity’, as an analysis and critique of the political power (!) of one class over another” (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 81). Here, the authors are alluding to the position of Harry Cleaver’s American “autonomist Marxism”, but their characterization is valid for operaismo as a whole. In a certain way, the Marxian critique of political economy is distorted by the theory of action, and the starting point of the Marxian critique of the commodity form, of money and abstract labor is simply turned upside down. The result is the integral subjectivization of capitalist categories, as the “crowning” achievement of the turn towards the theory of action, celebrated by the operaistas as a “Copernican revolution” of critical theory. “The relevance of subjective moments”, Antonio Negri claims, “and the emergence of the subjective class point of view are now becoming the most important elements” (Negri 1977, p. 38). Thus, while the fetishist constitution is caused to disappear in the most decisive way we have yet observed, the last narrow path towards the formulation of an “ontological break” directly with the categories of capitalist reproduction (which in Foucault are merely concealed and silenced) is completely blocked.
In the pure struggle of “subject against subject”, however, the metaphysical subject known as the “working class” possesses an ontological advantage, the ontology of labor; absurdly, it is named as the demiurge of the constitution as well as of the continued development of capitalism. It is both “bee” and “architect” at the same time, for all of eternity. All “law-governed structures” dissolve into functions of the “class struggle”, whether that of the commodity form as such, abstract labor and the valorization process, or the organic composition of capital, the tendency of the falling rate of profit, etc. The “silent coercion of competition” (Marx) disappears as an overarching systemic category in the simple “class struggle”; the competition between capitals and national economies is obscured, or set aside as a mere confounding variable, as is competition among wage workers.
The ontologized “working class”, always seen as “combative”, is considered the central “motor force” of “development” (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 82); indeed, it is considered to be the only such motor force. Ultimately, capital, as “counter-subject” (instead of a fetishist social relation), is supposedly always and in every circumstance only reacting to “struggles”, and as a result these “struggles” are the ultimate cause of “everything”. The existence of an undeniable participation of the “class struggle” in the process of capitalist modernization, as the “struggle for recognition” and the immanent treatment of the contradiction, is not only inordinately hypostasized, but it is also interpreted in a totally a-critical way (once again, like the situationists) as the immediate positive identity of immanence and transcendence. It is in this construct, too, that the false concept of “autonomy” is rooted, which has spread like wildfire throughout movement ideology since the 1980s.
Thus, the metaphysical subject, “working class”, is the author of not only its own actions, but also those of its adversaries and of the entire historical-social process in general; it has become henceforth the subjective “last instance”, replacing the objective “economy”—a no less reduced and one-dimensional interpretation, only turned upside down. “We are everything”: that is how the profession of faith of this hallucinated, or, more accurately, paranoid, meta-subject would be formulated; from the perspective of Adorno’s theory, an attempt to assume a position in the most extreme form of the logic of identity, and a clownish misrepresentation of the Marxian critique of political economy and an incredible inflation of the power of will without any presuppositions. In a way, the “class” plays the role, as in Lukács, of the subject-object of history, but, unlike Lukács, as a more extensive dissolution of historical-social objectivity in the subject without presuppositions. The fact that this demiurgic “working class”, as superman of history, is in some way incorporated by and subject to its own metaphysical principle of “class struggle” (which was smuggled as contraband into operaismo along with Althusserian structuralism), only vaguely reminds us of the problem of the fetishist constitution, as, so to speak, a “reified remnant”.
No wonder Negri, like Althusser, simply declared that the fetishist problematic is obsolete, even going so far as to proclaim “the end of the rule of the Marxian law of value” (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 88). What remains, as abstract social generality, is the eternal “parallelogram of forces” of mere power relations, as in the philosophers of praxis and Althusser; and, moreover, the flux of an ontology of power, as in Foucault, which is ideologically conceived as being emancipated from the categorical laws of the form of the capital relation. Here we must recall that the old Marxism of the workers movement had already reduced the capital relation essentially to the juridical-political power of the “capitalist class”, determined only sociologically, over the ontological subject of labor (as the “private ownership of the means of production” and “appropriation of surplus-value”, etc.). Here, too, the famous “Copernican revolution” of operaismo gave the finishing touch to the theory of action, when Foucault’s concept of power was directly transferred to the capital relation, which for Foucault was simply of no interest: an understanding that is not situated in the tradition of Marxism, but rather in that of Heidegger.
The old Marxist politicism and “statism” had long ago paved the way for this dissolution, in the context of the positivist understanding of political economy: beginning with the social democratic concept of “organized capitalism”, formulated by Hilferding in the period between the World Wars, the State was no longer conceived as a “relatively non-autonomous” factor of capitalist reproduction, but as the all-embracing “sovereign” of the categories of capitalist reproduction, with an unlimited power of command. The theory of “integral statism” and of the alleged elimination of the sphere of circulation, an idea proposed by Horkheimer under the influence of Stalinism and the National Socialist “planned State”, also contributed to this trend; although it was implicitly frustrated by Adorno’s insistence on the theme of “false objectivization” and the problematic of the fetish. Even though the Keynesian regulatory State of the postwar era was never more than a feeble reflection of this kind of statism, which would soon be exhausted in the new dynamic of the world market, the politicism of the left became attached to this ideological interpretation, up to the point of completely dissociating itself from the critique of political economy. When operaismo began to inject this current with Foucault’s Heideggerian ontology of power, the State then totally became the direct expression of the rule of “power”; and no longer as the absolute “sovereign” over the categories of reproduction, but as the pure will of the capitalist “subject” in opposition to “workers struggles” and reacting to the latter, and therefore beyond all fetishist objectivization.
For Negri, this means that the State, under the postulate of the dissolution of the capital relation into an immediate struggle of “subject against subject”, ceases to be the “internal regulator”, and he then goes on to say that “its function consists in substituting itself for the automatic relation of capital” (Negri 1977, p. 23). The “automatic subject” disappears and therefore so, too, does any possible critique of such a subject. According to Negri, “capitalist valorization”, “the reproduction of capital, circulation and realization tend to be identified in the category of political domination” (ibid., p. 25); capitalism is nothing but a form of “direct domination (!) of the state apparatuses” (ibid., p. 28), and even of a “political valorization” (ibid., p. 47). The Marxian concept of crisis also disappears: “The relationship between development and crisis is reformulated in terms of a relation that is wholly political, with no residual illusions of objectivism….” (Negri 1972, p. 73). In their subsequent development, according to operaismo, crises are merely “specific means of class struggle from the top down” (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 80); the world economic crisis of 1929 is understood, in an interpretation that borders on the grotesque, as “the delayed response to the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and the class struggles of the 1920s” (ibid., p. 80), that is, as the function of the “workers struggles” and as the reaction to these struggles which supposedly always take a position in advance that is “against the capital relation, leading it to a situation of crisis” (Negri 1977, p. 23). As it was for the young Offe, the crisis arises as the mere expression of the clash between intentions of subjective will.
Consequently, operaismo also completely dissolved theoretical elaboration in “workers struggles” and radicalized the postulate of the a priori “unity between theory and praxis”, instead of questioning it. Theory was reduced to “workers analysis”, “workers science”, or a sociologically reduced “militant analysis”, which eternally reflects upon or ponders the “cycles of struggles” and the “recomposition of the proletariat”, or the reconfiguration of capitalism that resulted from those phenomena, without being able to develop any concept of a break with the underlying social relation, “within” whose categories these “struggles” take place. Thus, once the old debates about the objectivist transformation of the theory of structure had finally come to an end, the concept of the “supersession” of capitalism was totally eviscerated and transformed into merely an expression deprived of any content. Something had to issue from these “struggles”, which might even last for a thousand years; the ontological “subject” only needed to assert its will enough, when it was actually still bound to its constitutive conditions. Theoretical reflection is thus even connected, even more than in Western Marxism, to the routine of the eternal treatment of the contradiction, and degraded (again with reference to Foucault) to a mere condition of “means and instrument of labor”, as “part of the class organization” (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 8), in immediate immanent “counterpraxis”. Operaismo thus also determines the character of any allegedly radical critical reflection as “instrumental reason”, thus inadvertently belying its superficial critique of “law-governed structures”.
If, with the theory of action, operaismo dissolves the historically specific categories of capitalism as such, including the economic ones, into the subject and into Foucault’s Heideggerian ontology of power, then what remains, unlike the case of Foucault and his atomization of critique into “local critiques”, but like Western Marxism in this respect, is the metaphysical subject of “class”, as the sole reference for all of society; a concept that was initially formulated in the manner of party-Marxism and in connection with attempts to found parties. In the process of the Third Industrial Revolution, however, the obsolescence of this old meta-subject could not pass unnoticed. By way of diverse intermediate steps, in which the operaista ideology broke apart the paradigm of factory production in order to fall back on diverse “social spheres”, the meta-subject was gradually transformed. The “adoption of post-structuralist theories, among which we may mention those of Foucault and Deleuze/Guattari” (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 33), henceforth complemented the general ontology of power with the particularization and fragmentation of the class subject, as well, which was formerly understood to be “unitary”.
“Post-operaismo”, as it was then called, did not supersede the old paradigm of the class struggle in the sense of the critique of fetishism, but, by merely dispersing it into a superficial plurality of immediate “social situations” and starting to make arrogant declarations about the “inescapable multiplicity of subjects” (Birkner/Foltin, ibid., p. 34), managed, on the one hand, to perform a Foucault-style atomization of critique, which, on the other hand, nonetheless continued to exist under the aegis of a concept in the logic of identity: in their empirical disconnection (whose real connection remains, without reflection, in the relation of value-dissociation and in universal competition), the indistinctly incorporated social “subjectivities” must be connected, in a purely external way, in the new ahistorical and diffuse meta-subject of the so-called multitude (Hardt/Negri 2002). African migrants who drown in the Mediterranean Sea in their quest for capitalist “job” opportunities, people who perform the service of “emotional labor” with a forced smile on their lips, the “digital Bohemia” of Internet capitalism, wage workers engaged in a neo-nationalist defensive struggle to preserve their jobs in the arms industry, or the low-level beneficiary of the patronage of an oil Caudillo like Chavez—all of them are always integrated in the “multitude in struggle”. Now, however, it is not the (nation-) State that they have to confront, but a global Empire with an equally diffuse character (Hardt/Negri 2002), since the new “ideal global capitalism” (cf. Kurz 2003) is not analyzed in the dialectic of the crisis of the nation-state and capitalist globalization in the Third Industrial Revolution, but immediately arises as the direct global expression of the ontology of power.
On the basis of this position, the critique of ideology and even the positivist theory of ideology are rendered totally impossible, just as they are for Foucault, since there is no longer any reference to the social constitution, which is transformed into a plurality of mere acts of will, against the background of the ontology of power. Nonetheless, when this empirical “multiplicity” of “subjectivities”, unlike the case in Foucault, is once again submitted to a connection with the vacuous expression of the multitude in the logic of identity, not only are social incorporations made possible, but so are entirely arbitrary incorporations from the point of view of ideological content, including murderous Islamic subjects. There is no longer any criterion for the distinction between contents. Everything that moves is “accepted” almost without distinction: even “social-critical” anti-semites, should there be any doubt, are the children of the great mother, the multitude! In this absurd, consciously and explicitly anti-dialectical additive logic, it is a matter of indifference whether the barbaric terrorist attack of September 11 was perpetrated by an Islamic member of the multitude or (following the conspiracy theory) was a “reaction” on the part of the Empire, which had to itself destroy the Twin Towers as a “response” to the glorious “struggles” of the multitude: now it is the multitude itself that always does, and provokes, “everything”. “We are everything”—the hallucinatory de-historicized meta-subject becomes, in its multiplicity, definitively paranoid.
If operaismo transforms the categories of the critique of political economy into the mere subjectivity of “class struggle” and brings the turn towards the theory of action to its culmination, postmodernism continues, on the same basis, the “binding” of theory to a pre-established praxis, even to the point of complete disarmament in the face of murderous ideologies, which sprout up in the multiple “diversity” of the “subjectivities” of crisis. In this process, the real crux of the matter is constituted by the explicit repudiation of the concept of fetishism, which is a threat representing the last “ghost of Marx”, after the dissolution of the categorical context of capitalist reproduction in the metaphysics of intentionality. To give the coup de grâce in this scandal was the goal assumed by another variant of post-operaismo, represented above all by John Holloway. In his book, Change the World without Taking Power (Holloway 2002), the author first of all draws the contrast between, once again, to recapitulate, the traditional Marxist connection of the metaphysics of law-governed structures (objectivism), the seizure of political power, and state planning, as opposed to the metaphysics of intentionality of movement ideology. Unlike Negri’s postmodernism, however, the author makes use of the concept of fetishism, as the essential determination of capitalist relations, and attempts to formulate this same concept post-operaistically; and it is precisely to Adorno that he turns in order to do so.
In Holloway’s argument, the development of the concept of fetishism takes a strange turn. On the one hand, like all operaismo, by extending the traditional Marxist concept of capital in the theory of action, he starts from the basis of the direct juridical-political domination of the capitalist subjects: “Capital is that: the assertion of command over others on the basis of ‘ownership’ of the done and hence of the means of doing, the preconditions for the doing of those others who are commanded” (Holloway, ibid., p. 44). In a markedly Proudhonian way, he speaks here of “robbery” (ibid., p. 46) that is perpetrated against the workers. On the other hand, almost in the same breath, he concisely verifies the fetishist objectivization in the Marxian sense: “The subject in capitalist society is not the capitalist…. It is value” (ibid., p. 48). Both affirmations are uninterruptedly maintained, without mediation.
Like the philosophers of praxis, Holloway works here with an ontological ahistorical concept of (social) “doing”, whose “creative force” was permanently broken in capitalism by “power-over” (ibid., p. 41). This constantly invoked “creative activity” is based, in principle, on a concept of labor which is ultimately removed from the determination of the fetishist relation. The commodity fetish arises in the totally truncated sense of the Marxism of the workers movement as the mere concealment of the origin of the formation of value by never-ending labor: “The commodity takes on a life of its own in which its social origin in human labour is extinguished” (ibid., p. 62). As is also the case with Negri & Co., here Holloway’ attachment to the ontology of labor is expressed in an equivocal manner. The result is an opposed social formulation, entirely in accordance with the juridical-political understanding (and later, the understanding of the ontology of power) of the ideology of the class struggle: “Power-over breaks mutual recognition: those over whom power is exercised are not recognised….” (ibid., p. 43). Here, Holloway inadvertently alludes to the “struggle for recognition” within capitalist categories, a struggle that is now historically without any reason for existence and one that has long since been exhausted, which renders unviable precisely the perception and the critique of the fetishist constitution.
Holloway’s defective definition of the concept of fetishism is also applied to a positive ideology of the subject, which also follows the general development that proceeds from the “objective class subject” of party-Marxism to the pure and definitively fragmented subject of movement ideology. Structuralism’s critique of the subject, insufficient and following a merely particularized objectivism, is, once again, not superseded by the critique of the fetishist constitution, but simply divided into pieces, in order to come to the rescue of the “subject”; it was in fact “possible to understand” structuralism’s “attack on subjectivity”, which Holloway claims is valid only for the bourgeois concept of the subject, as an “identity” with “instrumental rationality” (ibid., p. 89), and the subject does not coincide with this identification: “To identify the bourgeois subject with subjectivity as a whole, however, is a most murderous (!) throwing of the baby out with the bathwater” (ibid., p. 89). Just what could this “subjectivity as a whole” even be, however? Holloway juxtaposes the subject constituted in the form of Modernity and an existential subject that supposedly somehow “underlies” the former, which takes the place of “class”; that is, a kind of ontology of the subject of a more Heideggerian cast. Thus, the “subject form” is also excluded from the concept of fetishism; no wonder that Holloway’s approach, based on the ontology of labor and of the subject, remains on the androcentrically universalist horizon, and that gender dissociation on the conceptual level of “value” (and consequently also capitalism as the commodity producing patriarchy) should be unthinkable for him. The capitalist relation between the sexes is continually buried in the contents and only arises generically in the elocution of political correctness [in English in the original—American Translator’s Note], as an unimportant adjunct.
In this type of thought, the concept of fetishism not only remains androcentrically universalist; it also does not imply an analysis of the context of the fetishist form and its negatively objectified laws of motion, in the sense of the “automatic subject” of Marx, which Holloway diligently avoids discussing. Once the mediation between objectivization and intentionality is abolished, just as in the rest of the (post-)operaista current, the discourse of “the fetishised, perverted, defining forms of capitalism” (ibid., p. 165), although utilizing a high-caliber rhetoric, remains entirely vacuous and indeterminate. Where are these “perverted forms” even seen? Were they imagined by “schizophrenics”, did they arise from the will of appropriation of non-constituted subjects of domination, or does the subject of “existential”-ontological authenticity somehow deceive itself, in a kind of accident of historical labor? When Holloway formulates his critique characteristically with the postulate that we have to “free ourselves from the witch’s curse” (ibid., p. 109) (perhaps women are to blame for everything?), then he thereby demonstrates only his complete lack of ideas with regard to the fetishistic constitution, which as such does not really interest him at all.
The “fetish”, whatever that is, is used again and again as a hollow phrase. Basically, what he means by “fetish” is something of an entirely different kind: according to him, negative objectivity must never be critically analyzed for the purpose of its historical supersession, but “dissolved”. For this purpose, he marshals the critique that Adorno directed against the logic of identity and “the process of identification”. In Adorno, the logic of identity, entirely corrosive to all content and negatively “defining”, is epistemologically derived from the fetishist form of value (we have already referred to the ideology of circulation that is comes into play here). In a kind of subtle sleight of hand trick, Holloway now attempts to “apply” the critique of the logic of identity to the constituent connections of the form itself: negative objectivity, for its part, must not be “identified” as such, for now that would involve a “hard fetishism approach” which is “a rigidified and rigidifying concept” (ibid., p. 101) and a “fetishisation of fetishism” (ibid.). Indeed, what this involves is the “self-contradictory nature of fetishism” (ibid., p. 101). The unfolding process of self-contradiction of capitalism is not perceived as such within the fetishist constitution (or, consequently, within the logic of identity), but instead is divided, on the one hand, into the “alienated form” and, on the other hand, into the self-negation of that form, which is supposedly immediate and opens up an emancipatory way forward per se.
After having thus “opened” the concept of the fetish with conceptual reductions, Holloway pursues the bastardization and affirmative retro-reflection of the Adornian critique of the logic of identity, by turning against each and every “separation of constitution and existence” (ibid., p. 99): “The value-form, money-form, capital-form, state-form etc. are not established once and for all at the origins of capitalism. Rather, they are constantly at issue (!), constantly questioned (!) as forms of social relations….” (ibid., p. 109). The historical constitution of capitalism, from the 16th century to the 19th century, was really a struggle for its imposition that was marked by countless ruptures, which nonetheless led over the last two centuries to a process of internalization, in which the modern fetishist constitution was instilled as “second nature”. With false immediacy, Holloway establishes a short-circuit between the incessant suffering entailed by this negative socialization and the supposedly constant “questioning” of that negative socialization, now as the function of the mere “existence” in their forms. The fact that he places the “constitution” that is historically “at issue” on a terrain that is directly identical with that of “existence” (which is now always supposed to be “resistant” per se) in a capitalism that was imposed long ago, just as “experience … is at once fetishising and de-fetishising” (ibid., p. 101)—this is itself a definition of the highest degree of the logic of identity.
Thus, insofar as the capitalist categories are “opened to reveal that their content is struggle” (ibid., p. 114), Holloway equates the deep layer of the constitution with every movement on its surface (institutional changes, for example), that is, with “changing the world”, the immanently capitalist real interpretation and permanent treatment of the contradiction; a context concerning which he has not the least idea. He deludes himself with the struggle of real interpretation, as if it were precisely a “site of struggle” of the categories themselves, which is obviously not the case. This is also displayed in his quite foolish examples: “Every time a small child takes sweets from a shop without realising that money has to be given in exchange for them, every time workers refuse to accept that the market dictates that their place of work should be closed or jobs lost … value as a form of relating to one another is at issue….” (ibid., p. 109). Neither the socialization of little children within the value form, nor much less the “struggle for jobs”, has the least to do with the categorical critique. As in the case of the philosophers of praxis, what Holloway interprets or assumes in an illusory way is the eternal treatment of the contradiction as “radically different”, the unsuperseded categories that, having to always immediately represent their own opposite, can be arbitrarily “reinterpreted”: “Money”, Holloway claims, “is (!) a raging battle of monetisation and anti-monetisation” (ibid., p. 110).
Once Holloway equates, in the logic of identity, the contradictory self-mediation of the fetishist relation with an allegedly constant latent contradiction affecting the categories of that relation, he thereby also eliminates the mediation of radical critique, which can only be constituted in a historical counter-process, on the basis of the experience of suffering. For Holloway, in a Heideggerian type of concept of “existence” as “the ubiquity of resistance”, the “defetishisation” that takes place “daily” can at any moment turn the corner in “a whole storm of unpredictability” (ibid., p. 118). This can only take place, of course, because he, despite his constantly repeated declaration that there is no “innocent subject” (ibid., p. 167, among other instances), actually presupposes, as we have already pointed out, an ontological subject-“existence” (whose masculinity is hardly concealed) concealed “under” the categories, thus promising “to recuperate the lost subjectivity” (ibid., p. 131).
With his claim that “existence” in capitalism per se has to always entail “defetishization”, Holloway contributes all the more to the disarming of critique in the face of murderous ideologies that emerge from the treatment of “existential” contradiction; in this respect, he totally conforms with the tendency of the rest of (post-)operaismo. “The current development of capitalism”, Holloway claims near the end of his essay, “is so terroristic that it provokes a terroristic response … which, although quite comprehensible (!), merely reproduces the relations of power which it seeks to destroy (!). And yet that is the starting point (!): not the considered rejection of capitalism as a mode of organisation (!)” (ibid., p. 236). Radical critique and Islamic or any other kind of terrorism, emancipation and barbarism, are now almost equated in the existential “scream of refusal” (as would appear to be the case on the basis of Holloway’s uninterrupted stream of vacuous metaphors), which can by no means be justified with any alibi-formulas.
Holloway puts a final point, and now it is really the last one, on the long process of the turn towards the theory of action, such as it has been elaborated first by the philosophers of praxis, and then by the post-structuralist obscuration of the capitalist categories, and finally to the kind of subjectivization to which it was subjected by operaismo, which existentially subjectivized the very concept of fetishism which had previously been rejected. Having done this, Holloway has not thereby shattered, as he claims, the old dualism of “objective laws” and “subjective struggles” (ibid., p. 143), or of “determinism and voluntarism”; instead, he exorcised the last specter of “fetishised Marxism” on behalf of an ideologically radicalized voluntarism of immediate “existence”.
In this way, Holloway furnishes the raw consciousness of the movement with a real theory of hostility towards theory, once he, going beyond the rest of (post-)operaismo, not only binds theoretical thought to the immanent treatment of the contradiction, but immediately degrades it to “part of the articulation of our daily existence of struggle” (ibid., p. 125). For Holloway, theory can only be “part of (!) (and not ‘based on’) practice” (ibid., p. 37). In this empiricism of “existence”, “knowledge about” is per se “simply the other side of ‘power over’.” (ibid., p. 78). In fact, in this respect he still falls short of instrumental reason, because reflection is not even instrumentalized for an immanent social goal, but instead by the immediate being-thus [Sosein]. Even the height reached by the flight of a chicken is now considered to be a reproachable “ascent”, and the effort of conceptualization, which cannot coincide with “existence” as it is found, is at the mercy of being denounced as an allegedly arrogant pretention to “omniscience”. Thus, “reflection on” the social constitution itself is also stifled, as theoretical elaboration is prohibited from any distancing from its object.
14. From the surrender of self-referential movement ideology to a new concept of “theoretical praxis”
The post-green movements of the 1990s remain to this day imprisoned within the theoretical frame of reference of post-structuralism and of post-operaismo which, not having succeeded in constructing any kind of opposition to the bourgeois androcentric universalism, continue to exhaust themselves in the particularity of a phenomenologically limited “affirmative critique”. These movements, marked by postmodernist theoretical disarmament, are now only the orphans of a history of misunderstood and poorly digested leftism, which celebrate their own impotence in their events [in English in the original—American Translator’s Note], precisely for having insisted on a degraded “unity between theory and praxis”.
Even when they speak of “capitalism” (in the anti-globalization movement, for example), the term is either used as only a vague and a-conceptual formula, or its critique is immediately restricted to “finance capital”. Even the critique that eventually arose against this reduction, however, was only capable of referring, at most, pathetically and without mediation, to the last vestiges of traditional Marxism, since post-structuralist/post-operaistic thought, immersed in the metaphysics of intentionality, lacked the means to engage in such a critique (and are even more lacking with respect to the means required for the critique of ideology). Activism had lost its way and had become self-referential: the movement is the movement is the movement …; and in the meanwhile now it is even known as the “movement of movements”, which is only composed of a mechanically accreted sum of points of view of particular interests, “local critiques” and single-issue activism, as can be seen when they are jabbering away, all incoherently mixed together with their own separate agendas, at their international “social forums”, with hundreds of thousands of participants.
The important thing is to be there, even though this does not result in anything. The so proudly evoked “diversity” of approaches, actions, “different practices”, modes of self-representation and expression coincide with a shared total innocence with regard to the capitalist categories and their negative determination of the essence, whose discussion, as “the sin of essentialism”, is suppressed by the exorcism of the ideological bosses of post-structuralism and their reduced scope of perception based on the theory of action. The sum of such “intentionalities”, however, is equal to zero. Thus, the “movement of movements” cannot achieve any kind of power of intervention; it is reduced to staging symbolic protests that are not even capable of treating the real immanent contradiction. The designation of instances of such symbolic activism as “struggles” is only a pathetic euphemism. Since the attempt to conceptualize partial knowledge of the present moment failed, it was no longer possible to evoke any a priori subject in conformance with the model of the “class struggle”, and the “differences” of the social diversity of “positions” within world capitalism remain without perspectives in their atomized, capitalistically immanent being-thus. No type of dialectic is developed among the “differences” encountered that are supposed to be taken so seriously, on the one hand, and a transcendent integration that addresses a determination of common historical goals and a worldwide social transformation, on the other hand (with respect to this question, see: Scholz 2005).
Since the only thing they have in common is the theoretical naiveté in the diversity of the praxis of the movements, it is no longer possible to construct a unity of action with a capacity for intervention precisely in the reduced the theory of action. The old (traditional Marxist) unity of action in the context of the “struggle for recognition” and “catch-up modernization”, is now long past its expiration date, but in its place no new determination of goals with the capacity for integration can be inserted. The empty expression, multitude, only expresses the nullity of the disconnection of partial “subjectivities”, which thrash about in their own unreflected-upon social form like a beetle that has been tipped over on its back. And the fact that this form is not integral, either, but has proven to be (in the sense of the theory of value-dissociation) a form which is itself riddled with multiple fractures, therefore also remains off-limits to critical reflection, since its fragmentary character is only recognizable in the thematization of the constitution of that form. Even an essence that is fragmented is an essence that, itself undergoing disaggregation in the crisis, still persists in the solidity of its categories, if such categories are not subject to criticism.
Basically, the postmodern repudiation, which is itself dogmatic, of the critique of the essence determines capitalist immanence to be insurmountable. Indeed, now this is almost openly proclaimed. The post-operaismo/post-structuralist position used as an argument, one that has stopped halfway, maintains that the “dominated” are themselves involved in “power”, and that now the latter can no longer be understood as merely an external enemy of an ontological “good”. Yet if Holloway calls upon us to immediately “criticize our own complicity in the reproduction of that society” (ibid., p. 137), then he is contradicting his own position, because this complicity “is” precisely the capitalist “existence” which per se does not contain, in any way, “resistance”. Actually, the suffering of this existence is “naturally” processed in competition and in projective ideologies. Critical efforts are supposed to develop on the basis of this passivity, in a painful process; therefore, it by no means coincides with “existence”. The fact that “we”, according to Holloway, are always “against-in-and-beyond” (ibid., p. 118) capitalism, merely by virtue of our “being” in the world, actually constitutes a good argument for being “beyond” any and all critique.
The recognition of one’s own complicity, as an inevitable development in capitalist reproduction (which in Holloway is not so inevitable, because he always has his ontological subject-“existence” up his sleeve, that has only one foot “on the inside”) can only lead to the development of an awareness of this kind, such as, for example, the degree to which the respective “dominant culture” (Birgit Rommelsbacher) still has an effect on the left, or as factors of “welfare state chauvinism” (white-western, nationalist, etc.) are expressed in movements of immanent “counterpraxis”, or even in the form of competition in the crisis. In this sense, the Foucaultian “microphysics of power”, for example, could very well supply an approach that would make it possible to examine the complex internal relations in the forms of capitalist becoming. In order for it do be able to do so, however, a critical distancing from one’s own immediate existence, a deliberate repulsion, is necessary.
The concept of universal competition, completely ignored by movement ideology, also indicates that the “microphysics of power” is operative in a system of overarching social references, but is not directly represented as such. Nonetheless, the ontological concept of “power” is filtered from the connection of the historically specific condition of negative capitalist socialization and is reduced to this “microphysics”, while the “macrophysics” of the relations of value-dissociation are transformed into an empty space. With Nietzsche and Heidegger and against Marx, the ominously diffuse ontological fluid of “power” replaces a concrete concept of the capital relation. This is not, however, accompanied by the supersession of the dichotomous “worldview” of the Marxism of the workers movement, which is instead simply atomized into a “diversity” of dichotomies without an overarching connection, since the unsuperseded ontology of abstract labor is also subjected to this process of atomization.
In order for the recognition of one’s own “complicity” and of one’s own involvement in the hegemonic systemic structure to be really productive, it is necessary for radical critique to address not a putative external interlocutor in competition, but the determination of the social form itself, that is, the value form and the relation of dissociation associated with it, the “political form” and the “subject form”. Once this categorical critique is rejected and denounced as “essentialist”, however, that is, now that the further inflation of the concept of the political and the incessant invocation of the “subject” continue to follow their course, critique stands helpless in the face of the “changing of the world” that capitalism has continued to spearhead right up until the maturation of the crisis, and its object, having become intangible, slips away from it; in this situation, its protagonists find themselves “like an order that has not been carried out”. The result is unconditional surrender, which is in any event already articulated in the swollen exposition of the ontology of power.
The more powerfully the negative objectivity of the barrier of the crisis is expressed, and the more brutal its ideological manifestations become on a world scale, the more the Heideggerization of the left seems to advance. The left itself is thus becoming a factor of ideological barbarism, as the product of the decomposition of immanent “counterpraxis” and of the “affirmative critique”. Instead of critical analysis, there are quasi-theological expressions (in the drivel about “kairos” and “the event”, for example); instead of a debate concerning a new transformation, there is the evocation of “existence” and naturally of “life”, which are supposed to somehow lead to a “good” life here and now. This “jargon of authenticity” (Adorno), with a leftist spin, is even capable of admitting that a form of existential “revolt” motivates the perpetrators of suicide bombings; and anti-semitic clichés have been permitted now for a long time.
What goes by the name of “value critique” is by no means immune to this ideological tendency that is socially transmitted with the decline of the new middle class and the crisis of masculine identity. Indeed, value critique is still mired in androcentric universalism that is susceptible to deteriorating into an ideology; such a critique cannot by any means address the problem of gender dissociation, or can only treat it as a secondary, “derivative”, merely empirical-historical issue. Until the time when the dimension of action in the theory of value-dissociation is not entirely ignored, there is a danger that the old critique of value, a critique that was from its very origins objectivist in terms of the theory of structure and whose objectivism has by no means been superseded, might itself succumb to the turn towards the theory of action, a theory which it had never even examined. Thus, the understanding of androcentric universalism of the “hollow form” threatens to degenerate, by following the footsteps of Holloway & Co., into the immediate evocation of “everyday existence” with its allegedly per se inherent “quality of resistance” and, consequently, into ideological Heideggerization. The concept of the fetishistic constitution of the form would then be an external “objectivization”, whose interconnection with “existence”, as an existence that is itself ideological, is completely obscured.
In order to prevent such a tendency from prevailing, a new concept of “theoretical praxis” must be developed in the critique of fetishism, a concept that rejects each and every “merger” of critical reflection with a pre-established “counterpraxis” of the treatment of the immanent contradiction, or even perhaps with a “metaphysics of everyday life”. The necessary tension between both levels of action must be upheld. Any demand to unilaterally transform this tension into action of an immanent practical intervention and, therefore, to want to silence it, would entail allowing it to collapse even before it reaches the threshold of a real supersession of capitalism, succumbing in the end to “pseudo-activity”. In order to be able to shatter this fetishist constitution, both “theoretical praxis” as well as immanent “counterpraxis” must undergo, each in its own respective domain, a process of transformation, until both go beyond themselves and can only merge in the result. Thus, the celebrated “unity between theory and praxis” can no longer be a presupposition, but only an immanent telos of categorical critique; it coincides with real transcendence, or else it will not exist.
This does not mean that there is a Chinese Wall between “theoretical praxis” and immanent “counterpraxis”. The object of critical reflection is precisely social praxis, including the ongoing treatment of the contradiction. But only if the categorical critique develops a solid and irreverent stance against the postulates of immediate praxis, so that it can be transformed from a mere interpretation and “affirmative critique” into a “critique of a second order”, will it even have anything at all to say to immanent “counterpraxis”, and be capable of contributing to its transformation. In this praxis, too, not all cats are grey; it is instead important to distinguish which moments are open to the treatment of the contradiction in order to reach the limits of the latter and go beyond them, and which moments are more obstructed. A more radical critical concept of the modern commodity producing patriarchy, the development of criteria for a different (worldwide) socialization beyond the relations of value-dissociation and the analysis of the developing crisis could offer a frame of reference and the necessary “deep breath” for this undertaking, and might even themselves contribute to creating a situation where it will once again be possible to engage in a treatment of the contradiction that is committed in advance to this orientation and which is not exhausted in symbolic performances. But this has nothing to do with direct “realization”, or with instrumental “application”, or much less with a “directive for action”.
Last but not least, the consistent critique of ideology, which is only possible in connection with the critique of the fetishist constitution, can contribute to this orientation, as an indispensable moment of “theoretical praxis”, by way of the analysis of the repudiations of consciousness in the process of the crisis. Here what is involved is the ongoing revelation of the immanent connection between the a priori matrix, the treatment of the contradiction and the ideologizations by means of which the form of the real course of development is determined. This has nothing to do with any self-proclaimed “omniscience”, or some alleged perspective “from outside”, or an imaginary “Hero-figure” of theoretical critique, contrary to Holloway’s repeated assertions. Ultimately, theoretical elaboration, in the form of the categorical critique, also turns against itself, as an interpretive form of theory that is pregnant with ideology, that is, the critique of ideology is also a factor of transformation within theoretical reflection itself, a never-ending process of struggle to achieve release, from the a priori matrix of fetishistic relations to the conceptual language of androcentric universalism. The transition to a real transformation that practically supersedes the context of the form of the capitalist matrix must be understood, in a certain sense, as the end of the theory form and as the end of the praxis form in the way they are currently understood, and therefore this transition cannot be determined by immanent theory, nor can it be linearly developed on the basis of the forms and domains of existing praxis.
A truly arrogant presumption on the part of theoretical reflection would be the pretense to merely want to “derive” the supersession of capitalism, because this would itself imply a relapse into the objectivization of the theory of structure; everything “derivative” remains per se imprisoned in the domain of capitalist immanence. Conversely, the same thing is true for an “existential” intentionality based on the theory of action and indifferent to the real fetishistic objectivization. The intentionality of transcendence, to the contrary, has to confront precisely the dominant false objectivization; and this is only possible to the extent that theoretical reflection, as such, is consistently and continuously practiced, until it goes beyond itself. In order for it to do so, critical theory must consciously maintain a distance from all existing praxis.
The illusory pretense to abolish this distance comes from two directions. On the one hand, it comes from the “activists” of praxis itself, who are dissatisfied and inquiring concerning the “nutritional value” of theory for their apparently self-evident actions and deeds. In this case, the dissatisfied elements are often not the direct bearers of social resistance on the front lines of the crisis of negative socialization, but rather left wing political activists, “circles”, etc., who are themselves normally found to have quite extraneous relations with social struggles, or who merely simulate such struggles. They fail in their possible activity of mediation, simply by acting like those “organizers” mentioned by Adorno. On the other hand, however, the false pretense of praxis also comes from theoretical elaboration itself, when its bearers do not keep a proper distance from and are too eager to merge with existing forms of praxis, which are easily mystified. In both cases, critical theory really becomes superfluous, or else it is transformed into a mere “Sunday Sermon”, with an edifying type of literature for the conduct of an activism that, basically, could also be exercised without it, but whose actions it would merely legitimize so that its practitioners can feel comfortable in their narrow-mindedness. Theoretical critique might even be attacked from such states of consciousness; as Marx said in the Preface to the First Edition of Capital, he embraced the “motto of the great Florentine”: Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti! [Follow your own road, and let the people talk!]
Originally published under the title: “Grau ist des Lebens goldner Baum und grün die Theorie. Das Praxis-Problem als Evergreen verkürzter Gesellschaftskritik und die Geschichte der Linken”, in EXIT! Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft, No. 4, 2007 (ISBN: 978-3-89502-230-2, Horlemann Verlag, Postfach 1307, 53583 Bad Honnef, http://www.horlemann-verlag.de/).
Translated in November-December 2014 from the Portuguese translation obtained online at: http://obeco.planetaclix.pt/rkurz288.htm.
The website of EXIT!: http://www.exit-online.org/.
General Note: All citations in text, unless otherwise noted, refer to the editions cited by the author in the following bibliography.
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