The Politics of Change: Globalization, Ideology and Critique - Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis

Politics of Change

Collection released in 2000, edited by Open Marxists Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis.

This work takes a critical view of the debate on globalization and assesses revamped versions of structuralist thought, which underpin much of the globalization discourse. In contrast to conventional views of change, the book emphasizes change as a politics of emancipation.

The introduction is included here with full text PDF at the bottom.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on October 25, 2023

1 The Politics of Change: Ideology and Critique
Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis 1

Part I The New Reality of Globalization? Politics and Social Theory
2 Globalization, Depoliticization and ‘Modern’ Economic Management . . . 9
Peter Burnham

3 The Spectre of Globalization: On the Form and Content of the World Market . . . 31
Werner Bonefeld

Part II ‘New’ Social Theory and Methodology: Ideology and Critique
4 New Social Thought: Questions of Theory and Critique . . . 71
Kosmas Psychopedis

5 Jürgen Habermas’ Reconstruction of Historical Materialism . . . 105
Helmut Reichelt

Part III Critique and Practice: The Possibility of Emancipatory Change Revisited
6 The Disappearance of the ‘Socialist System’: Failure or Confirmation of Marx’s Views on the Transition from One Form of Production and Society to Another? . . . 149
Maurice Godelier

7 Zapata in Wall Street . . . 173
John Holloway

8 The Market, the State, and the End of History . . . 196
Johannes Agnoli

1 The Politics of Change: Ideology and Critique
Werner Bonefeld and Kosmas Psychopedis

The title of this volume seems banal. Of course, the world we live in is a changing world! Yet, what is meant by the ‘politics of change’ and how might it be possible to make practical a ‘change’ towards a society in which everybody contributes according to their ability and where everybody receives according to their needs? The demand for such a change appears outdated. This volume does not concern itself with re-introducing the majestic idea that human beings should live in a society where they are not subjected to the abstract rules of equality but, rather, where they are in control of their own affairs as equals. However outdated such a demand might appear, we consider it a universally desired human condition. Is it really necessary to justify its practical and theoretical meaning? Kant defined the Enlightenment as humanity’s attempt to leave behind its self-imposed immaturity. The task of social theory is thus to provide enlightenment not only about the misery of the human condition but, also, its social constitution and ways to transform these conditions for the better. Enlightenment is a thoroughly subversive business. The claim, then, that the demand for human conditions is outdated, is not only disturbing, it is also symptomatic of a society whose ‘laws of development’ are seen by many to be governed by an invisible – and to be sure: irresistible – hand.

There is no doubt that we are witnessing profound political and economic changes and these will shape our world well into the new century. The debate on globalization has focused and highlighted these changes. This volume offers a critique of contemporary assessments of economic and political change. Its central theme is the relationship between the politics of contemporary global change and the theoretical uncertainty concerning the meaning and significance of this change.

This uncertainty can be seen in the introduction of new and even newer research agenda and organizing terms such as, for example, risk society, post-modernism, disorganized capitalism, post-industrialism, post-Fordism, and globalization. Are these new research agenda merely the result of academic fashion, a sort of innovative trend-setting, or are they, as its proponents claim, required to supply an adequate understanding of contemporary changes? Whatever the answer might be, the immense innovative capacity that the Social Sciences have shown over the last 20 years, is at least puzzling. It is also symptomatic of the uncertainty that change presents – better: it is systematic in that it satisfies the traditional role of philosophy, i.e. to serve the established power. Yet, at the same time as the social sciences embraced the world of fashion, the capitalist world has re-discovered its liberal roots. ‘Re-discovered’: not because these liberal roots had ever been abandoned but because, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, capitalism projected itself in Keynesian terms. Keynesianism did not amount to a theory and practice of a ‘third way’ between laisser-faire capitalism and planned socialism. Indeed, one of its important characteristics was the ideological projection of a reformed and tamed capitalism – a capitalism that offered salvation in the name of democracy and citizenship. The re-discovery of (market-) liberalism during the 1970s was not a ‘re-discovery’ as such but involved, in fact, a return to basic principles without the ideological projections that Keynesianism presented.

In conclusion, then, while new and newer research agenda made it look as if Marx’s critique of political economy has been rendered redundant by changed and changing circumstances, the capitalist world unashamedly and unsurprisingly has returned to its roots, celebrating a vulgarized version of the achievements of Adam Smith and arguing that his theory of the invisible hand supplies a solution to capitalist crisis. In other words, while the political right projects backwards to find salvation in the future, those seeking to set the agenda with the introduction of new research terms, have abandoned Marx and replaced his critique of political economy by terms and theoretical perspectives that seem to indicate that capitalism is no longer capitalism. In the tower of academic fashion, the world appears as a post-industrial world, as a post-modern world, as a post-class world; in other words: as a world beyond the confines of political economy. Of course, the debate on globalization seems to return to political economy concerns. Yet, this return is more apparent than real. Of course, the political economy of capital is emphasized and analysed. Yet, this is at best an analysis of a Smithian sort1 or at worst an inquiry characterized by pretentious theoretical indifference or, as Marx had it, vulgar thought.2

The abandonment of Marx has let to the return of neo-liberal theoretical positions and of those associated with the ‘marginalist revolution’ at the beginning of the twentieth century.3 Of course, academic fashion dictates that these positions are hidden behind a seemingly progressive vocabulary such as ‘risk society’ or ‘post-modernism’. Yet, while favouring a vocabulary with a progressive ring, all and everything is treated theoretically in terms of philosophical convictions. It is well known that, in the world of philosophical convictions, unfavourable conditions need not to be changed. All that is required is to interpret them more favourably. In this way, the conditions, concerns and life of the human being are quietly forgotten and there returns, through the backdoor, the figure of traditional theory: ancilla constitutions.4

The book is in three parts. Part I examines the contemporary debate on globalization. The contributions show that this debate espouses, at best, neo-classical theoretical traditions and argue that such a theoretical perspective is insufficient for an understanding of the dangers and opportunities that the so-called ‘globalization’ of capital presents. Part II assesses recent developments in modern social theory and argues that its methodological and theoretical foundations are equally located in the neo-classical theoretical tradition. Part I assesses ‘change’ in terms of a so-called ‘new reality’, that is globalization, and Part II in terms of theoretical values, that is the abandonment of critical theory in favour of traditional theory. Part III focuses on ‘change’ as an emancipatory concept. Through a critical assessment of the new world of capital, the contributions seek to formulate and identify a new beginning for socialism.

Generally, globalization theory assumes that we witness the creation of a truly global economy and society, and that everyday life has become dependent on global forces. Globalization is seen to have undermined national democratic systems of accountability, rendering both national states and social movements powerless to withstand global market pressure. Globalization is seen to have been driven by neo-liberal principles and to have shifted the balance between the market and the ailing democratic state in favour of the (globalized) market.

Some commentators argue that the neo-liberal politics of globalization is deeply unstable and that it will have disastrous social and economic consequences. In order to contain the unfettered and unchecked rule of globalization, commentators call for the creation of mechanisms of democratic accountability at the transnational level to safeguard normative rights and to extend the democratic principle of rational administration to the global level.5 Particularly since the collapse of the Eastern bloc in the late 1980s, most commentators agree that there is no alternative to liberal-democracy and no alternative to market-centred systems of production. In short, while there appears to be no alternative to the rule of the market, the proposals for democratic renewal adequate to globalization suggests that the working of the market can nevertheless be made accountable to liberal-democratic scrutiny, answerable to normative rights, and that global market relations can be regulated rationally so as to minimize the adverse ecological and social effects of globalization.

This book deals with the issue raised by the globalization debate in a direct and indirect way. Part I examines the relationship between the state and the market and ask what is to be understood by ‘global forces’ and to what extent ‘globalization’ is in fact the all pervasive force that it is said to be. The most depressing aspect of globalization theory is that human beings are on the whole ignored. Globalization’s emphasis falls on systems of social organization, such as the market and the state, while it views human beings as ‘factors’ or ‘agents’ whose conditions and social practice are determined by global forces. What constitutes the globalization dynamic? Does it make sense to see globalization as a consequence of an economic logic that, as the proponents argue, started to assert itself during the 1970s? Peter Burnham focuses on traditional and neo-Gramscian contributions to the study of International Political Economy. He shows that theories of globalization rest on historically suspect evidence. For Burnham, conventional international political economy amounts to a vulgarized form of classical political economy and globalization theory is seen less as a theory and more as a product of academic fashion. The chapter by Werner Bonefeld deals with the claims of globalization theory and examines the social constitution of the global world through the lenses of Marx’s conceptualization of the world market. Bonefeld’s chapter suggests a reading of ‘change’ that is not confined to the parameters of a capitalist world. He discusses change as an emancipatory category.

The proponents of globalization accept that it is driven by neo-liberalism and some commentators argue that the global world of capital can be made accountable to democratic values and normative rights. Of course, both the world of the labour market and that of normative rights belong historically together. Is this merely a coincidence? What, then, is to be understood by neo-liberalism and how does modern social theory, including the theory of globalization, differ from neo-liberal theoretical premises? Of course, the attempt to make ‘globalized capital’ accountable to democratic demands is well intended and, in its political orientation, quite different from neo-liberal positions. Yet, the demand for a transnational democracy is based on the view that globalization has an objective existence as if it were a force of nature, and that democratic renewal within the confines of a capitalist society can not only influence the shape and impact of its force but, also, lead to a more human, a humanized, global capitalist world. Part II deals with the theoretical and methodological foundations of such views. Contemporary social theory favours the transnational ‘democratization’ of the political regulation of social concerns and focuses on ‘communicative actions’ so that moral and political judgments might be advanced to soften the impact of the ‘objectively given and unfolding’ dynamic of globalization. The distinction between the ‘impartial’ research of ‘objective’ conditions and the ‘subjective’ moral and political judgments on the ‘regulation’ of these ‘objective’ conditions, is very much located in the Weberian and also economic liberal traditions of social and political thought. Kosmas Psychopedis assesses the value judgments of contemporary social theory and its abandonment of the emancipatory idea that the subject matter of the social sciences is the human being. He argues in favour of a critical theory, and that is a critique of the relations of exploitation. Helmut Reichelt supplies a critique of the work of Jürgen Habermas, including his notion of communicative action. Habermas is, of course, the self-declared heir to critical theory and Reichelt shows that Habermas’ ambitious research project falls back on to traditional theoretical concerns. Both chapters scrutinize the methodological and theoretical foundations of modern social theory and argue that these foundations are of a neo-classical variety.

Many argue that globalization has undermined socialist alternatives to market-based systems. In this sense, globalization theory agrees with the end of history thesis; and the collapse of the Eastern bloc is viewed to have justified the legitimacy of market-based systems, replacing for good the spectre of communism by that of the market. In distinction to this view, Part III discusses change as an emancipatory project. Maurice Godelier revisits the Marxian conception of ‘transition’. He shows that the division between evolution and revolution is passé. Instead, there are a number, a multiplicity, of movements which, despite their difference, converge on the issue of democracy. His call for a constituent democracy echoes the revolutionary demands of the Enlightenment to lead human kind to maturity. For Godelier, such a constituent democracy is identical with the realization of a society based on human dignity. Johannes Agnoli deals with the view that globalization has created conditions for the withering away of the state within capitalist society. Should it really be the case that Marx’s dream is realized, not in communism, but in capitalism? Against capitalism’s impossible dream, Agnoli emphasizes the real utopia of a democratic society of the free and equal. John Holloway examines the relationship between the Zapatista uprising in late 1994 and the financial turmoil of early 1995. For him, human dignity holds the key not just as a tool that unlocks the insurrection against capital but, also, as the foundation of a human society. This key is the most difficult to turn. There is no invisible hand nearby.


Agnoli, J. (1992) ‘Destruction as the Determination of the Scholar in Miserable Times’, Common Sense, 12.

Bonefeld, W. (1999) ‘The Politics of Novelty’, Historical Materialism, 3.

Brenner, R. (1998) ‘The Economics of Global Turbulence’, New Left Review, 229.

Clarke, S. (1982) Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology (London: Macmillan).

Giddens, A. (1998) The Third Way. The Renewal of Social Democracy (Cambridge: Polity).

Giddens, A. (1999) Runaway World. How Globalisation is Reshaping our Lives (London: Profile Books).

Horkheimer, M. (1992) ‘Traditionelle und kritische Theorie’, in Horkheimer, M. Traditionelle und kritische Theorie (Frankfurt: Fischer).

  • 1See, for example, Brenner (1998).
  • 2See, for example, Giddens (1998, 1999).
  • 3On this see, for example, Clarke (1982); see also Burnham’s contribution to this volume. On the issues raised in this section see: Bonefeld (1999).
  • 4On this see: Agnoli (1992). On traditional, as opposed to critical, theory see Max Horkheimer (1992); see also the contributions by Agnoli and Reichelt to this volume.
  • 5For references see the contributions by Burnham and Bonefeld to this volume.