Domination without a subject (part two) - Robert Kurz

Domination without a subject (part two) - Robert Kurz

In this concluding Part Two of his essay, Kurz examines the relationship of the ideas of Freud and Marx with respect to the concept of the “constitution of the fetish”, discusses the relation between “first nature” and “second nature” as a developmental process, and outlines the prerequisites for the quest for a tertium genus that will be the goal of the “revolution against the constitution of the fetish”, which is “identical with the supersession of the subject” as the latter has been conceived until now.

Domination without a Subject – Robert Kurz

On the Supersession of a Reductive Social Critique

Part Two


At first sight it may seem that, with the advent of the concept of the constitution of the fetish, not only does the old subjective-enlightenment concept of domination become obsolete, but so too does the very concept of domination in general. The destruction of the subject would then have to be understood by the concept of the simple puppet. Such an immediate abandonment of the concept of domination would be, so to speak, tactically unacceptable. In the first place, it would appear to be an attempt to deter men from acknowledging the experience of the constraints imposed upon them in reality (and felt in all their weight) which insinuate themselves even into the pores of everyday life of the secularized fetish-societies of the total market and of the democratic legal state. This repression is not at all changed by the fact that it cannot be referred to a particular subject, that it is “structural” but still worthy of being hated.

In the second place, this puppet concept would, in a way, justify the “domination of man by man”. As the subjectless character of social determinations is perceived, and the concepts of “role” and “structure” descend from the scientific Olympus into everyday consciousness, they are more or less naively instrumentalized to justify and pacify those who fulfill certain functions of domination. Someone is “only” doing their job, fulfilling their “duty”, following the demands of their “role” and exhibits, in all else, the proper “structures”—such assertions have long formed part of the repertoire of the false and mistaken legitimation of the dominant power. In this manner, critical knowledge is transformed into banal affirmation.

This is particularly unpleasant when the functions of domination are not rigidly formalized as in economic and bureaucratic relations, but are informally executed and are manifested in structural role-attributes, as in the relations between the sexes or in teacher-student relations (and also in racial discrimination and prejudice). The complacency of the compulsively heterosexual man who is not really interested, despite polite bows to feminism, in self-improvement is notorious when it is asserted that, basically, he as a person is not the vehicle of certain authoritarian manifestations in sexual relations, but he “only” executes, under compulsion and with distaste, a socially-prevailing and historically subjectless structure. This is obvious to various degrees and in implicit (“mute”) or explicit expressions of a pseudo-reflexive labor of masculine repression. In the same way that the system of commodity production can apparently transform all forms of criticism into commodities and consider them as thus “structurally” inoffensive, so also does the masculine and compulsively heterosexual consciousness of domination, with its obsolete demands of independence and sovereignty, appear to deploy the whole cognitive content of the critique of the structure of the sexes to a higher and more elaborate form of self-affirmation. Precisely in order to not to have to abandon his “arrogant”, increasingly unacknowledged, dominant point of view, and so as to prevent the critique from spreading to his compulsive “identity” or even to his own body, the masculine sex seeks refuge, so to speak, in the absence of the subject and its concept. This is almost the form of consciousness of the psychotic criminal, who convinces himself of his own innocence, since “nothing can stand in the way of his action”, although he is fully aware of himself and his actions. So that he can continue as he is and go on exercising domination, the compulsively heterosexual, sovereign and self-identical man is ready to declare himself blameless and to transfer the status of subject to the “structure” or the “system”—to the overwhelming power of the absence of the subject which in no way makes him worse in a concrete sense (this is, perhaps, the psychological meaning of the theory of Niklas Luhmann and of his considerable success).

Obviously, the abandonment of the concept of domination and the puppet metaphor should not be simply repudiated for pseudo-tactical reasons, so as to make possible the affirmation of a negative position vis-à-vis hateful or unbearable relations. The problem must also be elucidated theoretically. In its paradox, in fact, the almost “feminine” wile of “structurally” pseudo-reflexive masculine self-affirmation points towards a theoretical problem, that is, the question of the relation between the constitution of the fetish and subjectivity. The recognition that the structure and the system are not of an ontological nature, and that they do not penetrate into organic nature, but in reality “arose” in their mutability on the plane of second nature and became as obvious as they are obsolete in the stage of development of the commodity production system, still cannot solve the internal relation between subject and absence of subject. If the concept of the fetish spontaneously leads to reproducing the structuralist and systems theory point of view (and coming close to their affirmative contents) supported by simply modified conceptions and a historicist amplification, if the puppet metaphor and the negation of the concept are spontaneously imposed, then it is clear that there is still a “missing link” in theoretical reflection.

The subject does not simply disappear as a mere error, but continues to exist, although now as a mere internal subject of the constitution of the fetish, itself subjectless. The problem is that the fetish is not, however, an autonomous “being” provided with its own consciousness, which could be designated, so to speak, by its own address and zip code. The absence of the subject is not, for its part, a subject which could “dominate”, but constitutes domination and is paradoxically defined as something which is simultaneously self and non-self, internal and external. Marx depicted this question metaphorically in the concept of the “automatic subject”, under whose aegis the invisible, omnipresent and objectivized “value” of the capitalist reproduction of the fetish blindly reigns. In the context of the critique of political economy and of the economic determination of the form of capital in general terms, this metaphorical definition can be sufficient, although for the comprehension of the constitution of the fetish and of the problem of the subject as such it would be unsatisfactory. Marx thus only expressed the paradox and counterintuitiveness of this relation, since automatism and subjectivity are mutually exclusive.

It is, obviously, hard to consider the meta-reflection of the relation within the forms of thought of that relation itself, which are found as presuppositions. The consciousness constituted by the fetish makes the spontaneous decision to make the codifying and legislating “being” explicit, so as then, as subject, to make the puppet move. The “external”, however, is “nothing”. The subject is a puppet that pulls its own strings. This, however, is absurd, or is, rather, the metaphor of something unthinkable within the given forms of thought. For the subject, the unconscious object (nature) or other subjects exist as relative extensions of the subject. The fetish can then be an object (nature), and therefore unavoidable,1 or merely an external subject.2 The concepts of fetish and second nature point towards the fact (and this marks the difference in relation to systems theory, which does not recognize any contrast between first and second nature) that “something” exists which cannot be resolved into the subject-object dualism and which is neither subject nor object, although it constitutes that relation.

Basically, structuralism, systems theory and other theoretical programs possess a transitory theoretical character, just as the capitalist system of commodity production possesses a transitory character as a social formation.3 The unilateral destruction of the subject cannot sustain itself, the subject cannot be abandoned as a mere error or puppet, since the question cannot be circumvented by the “subject of the subject” in the given form of thought. A return to religious consciousness is just as unlikely as the simple operationalization of the assimilated or to-be-assimilated subject dissolved in the internal structures of the absence of the subject, as the crudely pragmatic side of systems theory would seem to suggest. Rousseau’s own hypothesis concerning the “forgotten” social contract, which attempts to solve the problem by way of the reverse path, has been seriously disputed and discredited. Neither the dissolution of second nature into the subject, still proud and eager for challenges at the beginnings of modernity, nor its dissolution into the object, frustrated and without self-confidence towards the end of modernity, can explain the constitution of the fetish or the problem of domination.


The decisive point is that there must be a plane within the human and social constitution, and thus also within each isolated man, situated beyond the subject-object dualism.4 For the enlightenment consciousness, there is only a subject (consciousness) or an object, but never a tertium genus. The key concept for understanding this truly constitutive “tertium genus” can only be the concept of the unconscious. It was, undoubtedly, to Freud’s theoretical merit that he systematically introduced this concept. Here, however, it will not be a question (or at least not specifically or exclusively) of the unconscious in the particular meaning given it by Freud. It is not by chance that the return to Freud is one of the constitutive moments of structuralism itself. For the enlightenment idea of the subject, the Freudian theory was disturbing from the start, since the concept of the unconscious—and not without reason—was experienced as a frontal attack on its own foundations; the destruction of the radiant and mature subject of modernity by a non-self-conscious being, guided by unconscious (as well as sexual) drives, must have seemed unendurable. With this, however, those affirmative moments of Freudian theory, which could only take advantage of the historical decline of enlightenment theory, passed unnoticed and fell, so to speak, out of the sky into the hands of the structuralists.

The Freudian unconscious did not yet represent a supersession of the enlightenment subject, but it is a watershed moment which could develop in the direction of the crude conceptions of the absence of the subject (structuralism) or in that of the metacritique of the constitution of the fetish. In fact, first of all, Freud elaborated the concept of the unconscious, above all and unilaterally, in the individual and psychological aspect, although social relations were voluminously discussed as well in his writings on the theory of culture. Nonetheless, the true problem of the social constitution of the unconscious was not yet systematically taken up by Freud.

Under his theoretical premises, such a thing is also absolutely impossible, since, in the second place, in this matter he remained an enlightenment thinker. Freud immediately ontologized his knowledge. Ultimately, he ahistorically developed the categories of the unconscious as the structure of a general unconscious, in such a way that he ontologized the problem on the horizon of his own theory of culture and defined it as the relation of an unconscious in general (plus its structure) with culture in general.5 Hence, his pessimistic deduction in relation to culture is also explained, since the ontologized contradictions of unconscious drives and cultural products seem insuperable and, in the final analysis, disastrous (Culture and Its Discontents).

Thirdly, Freud—and in this respect his thought adheres to the biological positivism of the 19th century—linked essential elements of the unconscious directly to first nature, especially upon the basis of an ahistorically conceived sexual drive. Marx’s definition of the relation between first nature (biological) and second nature (constituted by fetishism and symbolically codified) is completely lacking in Freud, which naturally facilitated ontologization. Under the sign of the basic jurisdiction of the “id” and of the so-called drives, first nature directly and immediately reaches society and its cultural productions.

“We call the oldest of the psychic regions or jurisdictions the id: its content is all that was inherited, given at birth, constitutionally fixed, above all the drives which derive from the corporeal organization [….] The forces which we assume lie behind the tensions of the necessity of the id, we call drives. The latter represent the corporeal exigencies of animal life […].”6

Fourth, and finally, Freud fundamentally relates the concept of the unconscious with the “lower” levels of the apparent consciousness of the ego, proceeding to a differentiation between the simple “unconscious”, on the one hand, and the animalistic iceberg of the deep or structural unconscious, on the other. Furthermore, he assumes in the figure of the superego another jurisdiction, one which is, so to speak, “higher” than the conscious ego, conditioned by external influences, whose determination does not however grasp the social constitution of the fetish, but which instead remain restricted phenomenologically and thus technically to the condition of simple “influence” (especially during infancy) over the individual psychic apparatus.

“As a residue of the long period of infancy, during which the developing person lives in dependence upon his parents, a peculiar structure forms in his ego in which this parental influence persists. This structure receives the name of the superego. To the extent that ego separates from it and opposes it, this superego constitutes a third power which the ego must take into account […]. In parental influence, of course, the personal existence of the parents is not the sole actor, but is joined by the influence of family, racial and popular traditions promoted by the parents, as well as the exigency of the corresponding social environment which they represent. Analogously, during the course of individual development the superego accepts circumstantial contributions and replacements of the parents, like teachers, public role models and ideals revered by society.”7

The absorption of social and historical structures here is shown to be clearly unsatisfactory. The unconscious only appears in the figure of those structures or “regions” of the psychic apparatus over which the ego has no control at all. The unconscious, however, is not only the animalistic reign above or below the consciousness of the ego. If we understand the concept of the unconscious in very simple and general terms, independently of Freud’s specific field of research, a quite different fact arises. The unconscious is not only the animal content beyond the phenomenal consciousness of the ego; the unconscious is also the form of consciousness itself. The form of consciousness is in no way equivalent to consciousness proper or to its contents and “regions”. And it is in the unconscious form itself of consciousness that the secret of the tertium genus, which is neither subject nor object, must be sought, but which moulds subjectivity, objectivity and domination as a blind formal constitution. The historical-social form of consciousness is at the same time both the most profoundly personal and the most profoundly foreign and unconscious; for this reason, as soon as it is systematized, it has to be understood and lived as an external and alien “power”.

The question of the (universal) form of consciousness and of human social actions was outlined before Freud—independently of his concept of the unconscious—by Kant and even by Marx. It will suffice to merely reunite these apparently divergent conceptions and critically and historically unify them. Kant was the first to systematically and “critically” investigate the general form (unconscious to the consciousness itself) of consciousness—critical only in the sense of making this form affirmatively conscious.8

The affirmative character of his investigation is imposed by the fact that the discovered concepts of the general forms of consciousness are immediately ontologized, as is well illustrated, and are taken as human forms of consciousness in general (in a similar way, in this respect, to Freud’s ontologization of knowledge). Kant thus qualifies the universal forms of sense-perception (space and time) and the fundamental forms of understanding like the celebrated “a priori forms” of cognitive capacity, independently of their objects, and the “categorical imperative” as the “simple form of a universal law”, that is, as an ethical principle for all human action. These a priori forms of consciousness ultimately manifested themselves ahistorically and were branded “in man”; Kant does not discuss the locus of this stigma or its relation to physiological nature.

Marx, who appears to have been only slightly interested in Kant and his formal problem of consciousness, arrived at a historicization of the history of its form by way of Hegel, expounded from the first as the history of the (political-economic) formations of society; and here he obviously confronted the problem of the universal form of consciousness, which he approached historically as the constitution of the fetish and briefly outlined its basic principles in the Introduction to Capital, so as to later be developed, upon the basis of its socially objectivized determinations, in the figure of the economic categories of the capitalist relation. No doubts remain, therefore, that it was a question here of universal and “inverted” forms of consciousness. If Marx did not dilate upon the universal form of consciousness of the system of commodity production constituted by the fetish, this was because his thought faced a limit in regard to this point: the reference to labor (the ontology of labor) and the class and proletarian point of view required a dualistic and antagonistic approach and caused the question of consciousness to recede into the respective “class consciousness”, in such a way that the question of the universal form of consciousness could not be clearly posed “prior” to the class antagonism.9

Today, under the now mature crisis conditions of the commodity production system, Marx’s critique of the fetish can only be reformulated and adequately developed as a critique of the universal form of consciousness which includes all class categories and interests (and goes far beyond mere socioeconomic determinations in the strict sense of the term). Only now can the conceptions of Kant, Marx and Freud be systematically unified, only now can one utilize the reformulation of the “history of class struggles” as the “history of fetishistic relations” (and thus, beyond “class struggles”, we return to the origin of human transformation).


The universal form of consciousness and its categories must not be understood ontologically, but historically-genetically. A specific unconscious form of consciousness with “rules” and specific codes corresponds to each stage of formation. The (respective) form of consciousness constitutes a universal mold for perception such as social and sexual relations; the perception of the world or the perception of nature and the perception of social relations between men are thus apprehended in the same unconscious formal matrix, which is always at the same time the universal form of the subject and the universal form of the reproduction of human life. This form arises unconsciously in the historical process with the accumulation of unforeseen collateral effects and their concentration—and this, since the human being abandoned the animal kingdom.

This conception can be extended “forward” as well as “backward”. Because, in the first place, one can in this manner propose universal definitions of the “constitution of the fetish in general” for the whole history of humanity to this day, as has recently been suggested; the rupture will probably be situated in the transition to so-called higher culture, which would correspond, for example, to the Marxist separation between primitive society or “primitive communism” and the beginnings of class society. The basic problem would in this case no longer be the sociological and utilitarian question of the “unequal distribution of goods”, but the question of how the social constitution of the fetish is modified under the conditions of a social surplus-product (new fetishistic objectives, such as, for example, the construction of pyramids, or in other words blindly guided “development drives”). In the second place, however, the respective constitutions of the fetish must be represented within their own historical terms, that is, in their history of formation and ascent, on the one hand, and in their history of decadence and decomposition, on the other.

At all levels, the definitions—constituted by the fetish—of “true” and “false”, “moral” and “immoral”, “just” and “unjust”, must be understood (and also relativized, of course) in their respective conditioning factors. This also applies to the Freudian unconscious, or those “psychological” regions situated beyond the apparent consciousness of the ego. The formal problem not historically-socially thematized by Freud also extends to those remote “regions”, which is to say that the matrix of the respective universal form of reproduction and consciousness also includes the id and the superego. The form of consciousness of the respective constitution of the fetish embraces all aspects of human life. Consequently, we are for the first time confronted by a structure or channelization of social (socioeconomic) reproduction as well as social and sexual relations, the consciousness of the ego and external perception as well as the deep psychological strata (the id) and the superego. And since this process has already lasted for at least several hundred thousand years, the most diverse historical formations have been, in a way, “geologically” sedimented in various degrees of decomposition and settling. “Upon” the original biological and animal substrate lie innumerable layers of past constitutions of the fetish on all planes of social life,10 which are, however, dominated by the most recent and “valid” respective constitution of the fetish.

The understanding of the constitution of the fetish in general can be attained, in accordance with Marx’s phrase, quoted above, concerning the reconstruction of the anatomy of the ape on the basis of that of man, by understanding that of its most recent and highest form, which is, so they say, our own, that of the system of commodity production of modernity. What Marx, still with the sociological inflection of his own principle of knowledge, said of “class relations” can now be applied to the fetishistic relations: modernity only secularized and simplified these relations to the point of making them transparent and causing them to reveal their underlying principle. On all planes of social theory, of the theory of knowledge, of the theory of consciousness, of sexual theory and psychotherapy, one can now begin the journey back through the human history of these formations, making a new stage of development seem possible; its prerequisite is undoubtedly the understanding and the critique of our own formation, whose crisis constitutes the final pretext. Only upon this meta-level can the unification of praxis and history be achieved.

The consequences for the concepts of domination and subjectivity are already at hand. Man becomes a subject in the process of his formation against first nature; the subject form, however, is at first weak and embryonic until the subject, after a long and contradictory history of development by way of many formations, is revealed in its pure form (faced by first nature) in the system of commodity production of modernity and gives rise to the pretensions of the enlightenment. But the Enlightenment, natural science and industrialization were nothing but moments of the universal commodity-form and of its fetishistic constitution, which contains within itself all of human history until now and which for the first time generalizes it on a world scale. The subject of modernity, which in itself surpasses all previously-existing subject-forms, possesses just as little consciousness of its own form as did all prior configurations; it represents, so to speak, the highest form of the unconsciousness of the form.

Upon this basis, the universal definition is formulated: a subject is a conscious actor who has no consciousness of his own form. It is, however, precisely this unconsciousness of the form which imposes upon conscious actions in relation to first nature and other subjects an objective and opaque character: the objectivization achieved by way of the chain of past actions is already blindly presupposed by the subject. Consciousness is thus limited to an isolated action which, unlike the animals, is not blindly guided by instinct, but “has to pass through the head”. On the other hand, consciousness does not apprehend the background of social and universal actions, which “arises” historically and is blindly taken for granted. Consciousness is therefore a simple internal consciousness of the fetishistic constitution which, ultimately—and this defines the decisive difference with respect to structuralism and systems theory or the reductive conceptions of the problem of the fetish—is not something external, but is the form of consciousness itself.

This consequently brings about the constant admixture of an unknown factor into conscious actions, which does not gain access to consciousness. This strangeness of that which is one’s own newly appears as the strangeness of the connection with first nature and with the other subjects. On the other hand, this strangeness—which is conditioned by the unconsciousness of the form—splits, in a necessarily dichotomous way, the totality of actions and perceptions. The subject, not being conscious of his form and therefore of himself, must experience nature and the other subjects as a mere external world.11 This limitation of active and perceptive consciousness does not allow the ascent to a meta-level or its (the subject’s) self-perception in relation to the external world and thus to understand the whole complex in which the subject and its objects of action and perception are enclosed. The subject’s unconsciousness of its form, which constitutes a simple dichotomy between subject and exterior world, thus reduces the objects (Gegenstände) of action and perception (nature and the other subjects) to pure and simple objects (Objekten). Subject-object dualism is a consequence of the fact that the meta-level—from the perspective of which the actor and his objects appear to form a unity—is not, so to speak, “occupied”; this meta-level assumes precisely the subjectless form of the subject,12 with which that apparently inevitable and unmovable dualism is produced. This would make a second complementary definition of the subject possible: a subject is an actor who has to reduce his objects (Gegenstände) to mere objects (Objekten). It is clear that this definition must also be historically contextualized, that the subject-object dichotomy had to unfold from embryonic rudiments by way of the long history of formations, until it found its purest and highest expression in the system of commodity production of modernity.13

On the other hand, this problem of the subject-object dichotomy appears in a certain form in Niklas Luhmann, although it is irremediably oriented towards frank affirmation. In an interview that appeared in an Italian magazine, Luhmann spoke in an expressly critical manner concerning the externalization of the subject in relation to its objects:

“I think that this characteristic of self-reference, that is, the inclusion of the observer and the instruments of observation in the objects of observation is a quality specific to universal theories not perceived by the ancient European tradition. It is always a question, in the final analysis, of a description from the outside, ab extra, by way, for example, of the mediation of a subject. I mean to say that classical logic or classical ontology always assumed an external observer who could observe either falsely or correctly, that is, with separated values: but they did not take into consideration the fact that this observer, in order to observe reality, must observe himself.”14

Luhmann comes close to the problem here, but does not realize it. In reality, he acts ontologically, that is, in an enlightened way, on the same meta-level as the self-reference of the observer. The self-observation of the observer, in Luhmann, can only observe his own immanence. The contradiction does not exist in reality, but is at most an error in the observer’s head, that it would be reduced to the fact that the observer does not observe himself, but is limited to external objects which he “evaluates”, without taking account of his own participation. With this all protest against these relations evaporates, which for Luhmann can only derive from the “ab extra” position. Luhmann therefore reproduces the Enlightenment conception of social critique, and for precisely that reason the ascension to the meta-level of self-reference appears, to him, to be identical to the elimination of the fundamental critique of society.15

The Luhmannian self-observation of the observer remains, however, incomplete insofar as he is incapable of recognizing the objective systemic immanence of the subject-object dichotomy. On the meta-level of this alleged self-reference, he becomes enlightened (and this is another aspect of ontologization) only to fall in turn into the schema of “true and false” and having to define the “ab extra point of view” as a simple ideological error or one which is immanent to the theory. It will be necessary, in opposition to Luhmann, to more consistently occupy a meta-level (or to keep to the meta-level of self-reference more consistently) in order to then understand the subject-object dichotomy or the “ab extra point of view” itself as a genuine element of the systemic structure and as a systemic functionality of modern (western) societies, instead of as a simple observer’s error. Only then will there no longer be a simple evaluative duality of “true” and “false”, and the supposedly “erroneous” will be recognized in the context of its own systemic conditioning. This applies, of course, not only to the ideology of the enlightened subject, but also to its critic Luhmann, whose theory, for its part, can be understood as a product of the system and as functional for the system (and, in this sense, as not simply “false”).

This insufficient attack of Luhmannian “self-reflectivity” (as self-reference) on the ego in the observer’s self-observation proceeds from the crude character of this observation, which contents itself with the banal affirmation that the observer or the observational system (under the aegis of sociology, for example) must be considered and reflected upon as a system or subsystem within a system, or even as the system’s environs. Self-reflection is always given in relation to a determinate system or “system in general”, but not with reference to a certain historical form of the system, within which one could elaborate a concept of system, nor with reference to the “form in general” (which is something distinct from the system in general). It is precisely the case that the form of consciousness does not consist of the self-referential objects of the Luhmannian observer, which come rather from a “consciousness in general”. Dehistoricization and ontologization adhere to this systemic blindness to form, as Luhmann explains in a most exemplary fashion (thus persisting in the formal blindness of enlightenment thought and, in a way, perfecting it).

However, the theoretical development (including Luhmann’s) and the theoretical destruction of Enlightenment thought point towards a growing internal contradiction of the system, which is thus driven not only to theoretical expression and thus to simple theoretical reflection, but also to practical supersession. Luhmann thinks that both the “ab extra point of view” as well as the practical critique of the system oriented towards its supersession are exhausted. But it is exactly by means of the observer’s expanded self-reference, which also includes the form of consciousness itself and consequently the objectivized systemic character of the subject-object dichotomy or the objective self-contradiction of the (commodity-producing) system, that—from a meta-level—not only history, but also radical praxis, will become possible.

Practical supersession will, then, no longer be a supersession from the “ab extra point of view”, through which the “guarantor subject” will not understand himself, as the enlightenment ideology of reason and the subject, as well as its Marxist appendix (with its “class point of view” fettered by ontological labor) both assume. But if the self-knowledge of the observer, who includes himself in observation, also includes the observation of the system’s internal contradiction and thus that of the observer himself (of his own form), another concept of practical supersession is grasped, that is, the identity of practical self-supersession and the observer’s self-supersession, who by this very fact ceases to be a mere observer and therefore for the first time really abandons the “ab extra point of view”. While he remains a mere observer, his own description also remains, in the final analysis, “from the outside”. The contemplative moment affirmed by both Luhmann and Hegel actually reveals not an “excess” but a deficiency of (critical-supersessive) immanence, a leftover or residue of the “ab extra point of view”, in which the practical self-contradiction between the system and the observer is not reflected.16 Self-reflexivity itself, consistently maintained, therefore leads, in opposition to Luhmann, to the radical critique of the system, although with the inclusion of the observer/critic, who is no longer part of an “ab extra point of view”, whether one of an ontology of “labor”, an ontology of the “subject”, or (much less) an ontology of “subjectless systems”. In reality, the subject-object dichotomy itself will be systematically historicized instead of merely being rejected.


Such a “self-referential” historicization cannot allow the continuing concealment of the fact that the subject-object dichotomy (constituted by the fetish) of a determinate stage of evolution refers to an occupation in gender terms. If, in non-European societies (and also in the agrarian societies of ancient Europe), the gender structure of the subject-object relation is still diffuse, amidst the unequal drives of the development of western commodity society is has been elaborated since Greek antiquity with growing clarity, so as to be outlined with the maximum precision in the system of commodity production of modernity. One could formulate the following golden rule: the less developed the subject-object dichotomy, the less clear is its occupation in gender terms; the more developed, the more it is unequivocally determined by the masculine sex. In the western constitution of the fetish present in the commodity-form, the masculine sex plays the historical role of the subject, insofar as those moments of sensitivity which were not resolved into the commodity-form (raising children, emotional support, household labor, etc.) were increasingly delegated to the woman as the “domestic being”.17 The woman as such is therefore structurally degraded to an object by the man as such. This objectivization must be distinguished from the mechanism by which, for the masculine subject, first nature and the other masculine subjects arise as an objective relation. The third definition of the subject, fully revealed only in western commodity society, would be the following: a subject is an actor structurally determined by the masculine sex.18

On the basis of the definitions provided up to this point, it is possible to reformulate the concept of domination. The absence of the subject of domination is the absence of the subject of the subject form, which constitutes a relation of objectivized and compulsive action and perception. In this relation, nature and the other subjects (and especially woman as pseudo-nature) are reduced to objects, although not on the basis of the willful subjectivity of the apparent consciousness of the ego, but of the unconsciousness of its own form. This compulsive character which is sedimented into domination, i.e., into repressive acts, not only includes the external relation of the subject, but also necessarily its self-relation. Since the strangeness of the relation between action and perception is the strangeness of that which is one’s own, that is, the strangeness of the form itself, the subject is also incapable of perceiving himself in his totality, and remains restricted to the apparent consciousness of the ego constituted by the fetish. A considerable part of himself must therefore return to the “external world”: the self-relation becomes a phenomenal form of the relation with the outside. Or better yet, the dictate of perception which splits from the unconsciously constituted form of consciousness only includes the “ego” of the subject to the extent that the latter treats himself as a possibility of formal and objective reproduction (as an object of the commodity form) of his own capacities under this aspect. The subject must therefore objectivize himself and “dominate himself” in the name of his own unconscious form, to the point of adapting his own body like a machine, which is literally reduced to a corporeal machine in the purest and most exclusive fetish-form of the commodity production system. We can, then, formulate a fourth definition of the subject: a subject is an actor who becomes the external world for himself, and thus objectivizes himself.

The concept of domination in this way recovers its critical dimension. In its elaborate configurations, the subjective theories of domination, Marxism and feminism among others, have already extensively described the various planes and phenomenal forms of domination in phenomenological terms and tried to grasp them in their context, without however being able to develop a concept of these manifestations. If the old subjective theories of domination are still attached to a rigid dichotomous separation between “rulers” and “ruled”, because, from the point of view of the “ruled” (the people, working class, oppressed nations, women, etc.), “domination” seems to be something external and palpable, the more recent and elaborate projects consider the fact that the “ruled” themselves contribute to domination, even exercising functions of domination upon themselves.

The most primitive attempt at explanation consists of the diverse variants of the “theory of manipulation”, according to which the “rulers”, by means of the external control of consciousness by way of religion (for this, see the old enlightenment idea of the “clerical deceit”) and today by way of the media, of public relations, of “deceitful propaganda”, etc., manipulate the consciousness of the “ruled” and oblige them to act contrary to their “real” interests. Later, more elaborate projects even began to speak, relying on psychoanalysis, of a psychological internalization of domination in the ruled. Since in this instance it is no longer a question of a manipulative super-subject, who supposedly exercises the ultimate control, such projects come closer to the problem of subjectless domination, in that the unconscious in general is inserted into the context of the theory of domination. This reflection, however, is to a large extent limited to psychological mechanisms of self-submission, without fundamentally superseding or replacing the subjective and sociological concept. It therefore runs the risk of sliding towards structuralist and systems theory affirmation.

Only when the concept of the unconscious is raised to the reflexive level of the form common to all members of society, and thus of the constitution of the fetish can the concept of subjectless domination be reached, without falling into a new explanatory deficit. The unconscious as a universal form of consciousness, as a universal form of the subject (with the reservation of sexuality described above) and as universal form of society’s reproduction is objectivized in the figure of social categories (commodity, money), without excepting any member of society, but for this same reason is an unconscious particularity of the subject itself. Within this unconscious social constitution, “functions”, codes, behaviors, etc., result from said categories, by means of which both “external domination” as well as “self-domination” arise in various degrees and on distinct planes.

The “domination of man by man” must not, therefore, be understood in its crude external and subjective sense, but as the all-embracing constitution of a compulsive form of human consciousness itself. Internal and external repression are found on the same plane of unconscious codification. The domination of traditions, military and police power, bureaucratic repression, the “mute coercion” of relations, reification, self-reification, self-violation, and self-discipline, sexual and racial oppression, self-oppression, etc., are only phenomenal forms of one and the same constitution of fetishistic consciousness, which spreads a net of “power”, and therefore domination, over society. “Power” is nothing but the universal and pervasive fluid of the constitution of the fetish, the phenomenal form both internally and externally—always present—of formal unconsciousness itself.

The concept of domination must therefore not be merely rejected so as to raise the concept of the constitution of the fetish in its place, which would reduce the subject and his declarations to a simple marionette. Rather, the concept of domination and its mediating concept “power” must be deduced as concepts from the universal phenomenal form of the constitutions of the fetish, which in turn are manifested both practically and sensibly as the spectrum of repression or self-repression in diverse forms and on various planes. The in-itself unconscious form manifests itself to consciousness as domination on all planes. In the figure of domination, the subject as a being constituted by the fetish makes real contact with himself and with others. The objectivized categories of the constitution thus form the (respective) pattern or matrix of domination.

The commodity production system today is entering its mature stage of crisis, and the self-contradiction of the constitution of the fetish deteriorates towards the limits of what can be endured. The consequence is not the gentle dissolution into meta-knowledge, but the shock in the face of this meta-knowledge, the fear in the face of the dissolution of the subject and the attachment (which borders on howling madness) to codes of the unconscious form of consciousness. In such conditions, “power” is again concentrated to the extreme. The external repression of state force and of the bureaucratic and misanthropic administration of the crisis crystallizes, following the example of the mutually exclusive competition and brute force, on the criminal planes, of political, pseudo-political, racist or ethnic hatred and of pedagogical and sexual relations: the “mute coercion” of the fetishistic criteria of success crystallizes as the self-repression of individuals, who blindly obey them.


What, then, are the universal consequences of the concept of subjectless domination? In the first place, one has to understand the importance of the concept of emancipation which will now be formulated. It is not only a matter of a supersession of the capitalist relation as such, but at the same time involves the supersession of “pre-history” in the Marxist sense, which includes all previously existing social formations, including our own. Marxism already possessed a certain idea of this, on the basis of Marx’s statement, but slipped towards a subjective and sociological concept of domination, in which the formulation of the problem remained strained and unsatisfactory.

The “working class” must not only overcome “bourgeois” domination, but also the domination of man by man in general. The self-negation of this program was demonstrated on the one hand by the fact that the supersession of pre-history had to be realized under the realm of abstract “labor”, that is, from the “point of view of labor” and its universalization—a program which still does not go beyond the horizon of the system of commodity production. On the other hand, however, the supersession of domination (in conformity with the realm of abstract “labor”) must be realized precisely by means of the “domination of the working class”, which led, in the east and the south, under the assumptions of late modernization, to the dictatorship over the working class exercised by a representative bureaucracy. In the west, as well as in other regions of the world, development was not yet ripe for the supersession of the constitution of the fetish, of the commodity-form, of “power” and of domination. This situation corresponded to the theoretical reduction of the concept of domination and to the attachment to Enlightenment illusions.

Only under the current conditions of an objectively mature crisis of the globalized commodity production system, which renders the transition to a second barbarism a direct threat, can the concept of domination (indeed, it must, on the pain of collapse) not only be introduced, but also be effectively made the order of the day as an object of supersession, which at the same time implies the supersession of pre-history. Ironically, this means the supersession of Marxism itself, in that only now can those heretical ideas of Marx’s theory (which were not developed coherently by Marx himself) become relevant in practical and therefore theoretical terms.19

This also means that the supersession of pre-history must be theoretically concretized. From this point of view, not only can certain difficulties of the philosophy of history be unraveled, but also those of the majority of modern theoretical conceptions. In all sociological projects, the ahistorical moment which is most obstinately repeated and, as indicated above, is present in Rousseau and Kant as well as in psychoanalysis and the most recent conceptions of structuralism and systems theory (and which is also contained within Marx’s ontology of labor) receives its relative justification by way of the enormous historical weight of the “history of fetishistic relations” common to all social formations up to this very day. On a theoretical and highly abstract plane, necessarily determinate problems appear which are joined in part to current human history (and therefore under the influence of hard-to-reconstruct historical formations, which can by no means be compared to those “primitive peoples” still existing in modernity), and in part to higher cultures (creators of surplus-product), from the Egyptian kingdom or analogous forms to today’s world capitalist system.

As long as the horizon of pre-history in the Marxist sense is not superseded, the formulation of ontologies or pseudo-ontologies will persist in this context of human development. One such example is the “subject-object relation” to nature—although it is manifested in extremely diverse degrees and formations—for all of human transformation. So also is “labor”, at least for the history of the surplus-product producing civilizations.20 The ontological predisposition of the basic categories of human existence will become extinct, however, when (and to the degree that) the horizon of the constitution of the fetish is superseded. Or, to put it more emphatically: we will then face a second “awakening of humanity”, comparable only to the differentiation of man in relation to the mere (animal) biological constitution. The supersession of second nature possesses the same importance as the supersession of first nature. “Supersession” obviously refers here to the plane of action and consciousness, and not to man’s biological and physiological link to nature. Just as the history of pre-history began its extremely long march after the differentiation in relation to the animal world, so also does the long march of a “second history” begin with the collapse of the system of commodity production and the differentiation in relation to the constitution of the fetish. In the same way that the animal substrate in the “first history” (the history of first nature) does not simply disappear, and will not disappear completely in any event, the secondary substrate of the constitution of the fetish in “second nature” does not disappear without leaving traces, which will continue to be active as a sedimented moment, as in the case of first nature. But supersession also signifies elimination and suppression, a “setting free”—and in this sense the current ontology will be superseded. This idea has to take the lead in the vanguard of supersession.

But it must be recalled: the differentiation in relation to second nature contains a fundamental difference in respect to the differentiation in relation to first nature. In fact, it can no longer occur behind the backs of men as a regulatory concentration of unexpected secondary effects. The second man, unlike the first, cannot “arise”, but must create himself in a conscious manner. He must attain the consciousness of his own sociability, just as he reached, in the first constitutive history, a growing consciousness in relation to first nature. This consciousness will, of course, be of a different and higher kind, since consciousness as self-consciousness is something fundamentally distinct from simple control or “domination” in relation to natural things. Since the consciousness in respect to first nature was acquired with the constitution of the fetish of second nature, its unconscious also retroactively has an effect upon the conscious relation of the subject in respect to the object-nature. Today, the social relation itself “must pass through the head”, and it is impossible for this to be the mechanical repetition of the subject’s transformation in relation to first nature, social self-consciousness will therefore modify its own relation to nature, since the “head” must not be understood here as the opposite of the “heart” or feeling, but as a consciousness which will include the plane of the senses.

Will the second constitution of man even be possible? Within the historical-philosophical abstraction, the task appears to be gigantic and the problem almost insoluble. But in the same way that, in all likelihood, the differentiation in respect to first nature was representable on the basis of the first isolated steps and perhaps even seems tremendously easy (an example like the “imitative” game, pregnant with symbols and abstraction, as Lewis Mumford supposes),21 the differentiation in respect to second nature will also be representable by steps or tasks which can be realized on the plane of social life. It will be peoples’ own tangible social and human possibilities (natural and social knowledge, reflection, networks of communication), under the mantle of the last and highest commodity producing constitution of the fetish, which will make the step beyond second nature possible, and will even bring it about.

This step is not, however, a simple choice which could be abandoned. The crisis unconsciously created by second nature exercises an increasingly greater pressure to dare to make an apparently risky leap. In fact, the risk of continuing to live under the formal imperative of second nature is already beginning to overtake, before our very eyes, the risk of a leap beyond second nature. It is the irony of the human constitution: the problem of the second transformation of man still necessarily intersects with the still active relations of the first transformation. Man unconscious of himself, by means of his own unconsciously constituted form of consciousness and reproduction, is himself forced to abandon and supersede his own unconsciousness. Perhaps this assertion could be better understood as the deciphering of what Hegel cryptically referred to as the “cleverness of reason”.

But there is no guarantee that this supersession will be successful. The leap may not occur; it could come too late, it could fall short, it could miss its target. Human beings could also destroy themselves, and the system of commodity production and the capitalist relation have at their disposal all the means required to achieve that end and are developing all tendencies in that direction. The so-called conservatives, whose ranks are increasingly filled by old social critics (attached to old patterns of conflict), are today conservatives precisely in relation to the absurd and self-destructive character of the society of the total market, and for that reason are no longer “conservators”, but sick priests of annihilation. Maybe this annihilation will not necessarily be as absolute and as physical as the atomic apocalypticists imagined, although that version should not be entirely ruled out. But it would be yet more cruel and perverse to pass from the system of commodity production to a second barbarism, as one can already observe in many phenomena.

Barbarism is obviously a metaphor for an event which still does not have a concept. The term is of Eurocentric origin and was repeatedly used in the context of European denunciations of non-European and pre-modern societies. In this sense it was used in the destruction of other cultures. Now, however, this concept must be applied to the formation of the commodity system itself—born on European soil—and its application in this context can be justified. Despite its apparent superiority, western society released unprecedented potentials for barbarism from its historical drives for affirmation: from the Thirty Years War, to the history of colonialism and primitive accumulation, to the end of the epoch of the World Wars and the current devastations on the social and ecological terrains, modernization leaves a trail of barbarism, always compensated for or even alternating in time with civilizing conquests. This two-faced character of western modernity has today reached its end. The civilizing moments themselves are transformed into their opposites and become moments of a second barbarism. Freedom and equality, democracy and human rights begin to display the same features of dehumanization as the market system upon which they are based.

The reason for this lies in the peculiar and insidious quality of the secularized constitution of the fetish of the commodity-form. The commodity-form as universal form of consciousness, of the subject and of reproduction, on the one hand, actually extends the space of subjectivity beyond all pre-modern forms but, on the other hand, precisely on account of its unwavering character as unconscious fetish-form, stirs up a cultural liberation which now, with its spatial and social totalization throughout the planet, definitively unleashes the always-latent monstrous moment in this constitution which is violently manifested in its crisis of affirmation. This monstrosity resides in the contentless abstraction of the fetish of the commodity-form, manifested as reproduction’s total indifference to all perceptible content and as an equal, mutual indifference of abstractly individualized men. At the end of its development and of its history of affirmation, the total commodity-form produces dehumanized and abstract beings, who pose the threat of a regression to a pre-animalistic state. Liberation in respect to first nature persists, although the last and highest constitution of the fetish of the universal commodity-form threatens to produce in its objectivized collapse a rudderless contempt for the rules, the world, and man. Liberation in respect to second nature can also occur negatively, as a blind and suicidal liberation, which results from the growing capacity for reproduction of the regime of market society. The doubly-liberated being, without the channels of first and second nature, although remaining blind in his own unconscious, will necessarily assume perverse and repugnant traits, which can no longer be compared to the animal world. The prefigurations of this cultural collapse are already globally visible, and it is not by chance that they are manifested above all as the moral and cultural negligence of an increasing number of young people. The conservative conscience of the fetish, including that of the so-called “left”, does not want to admit this destructive social potential of its own form of consciousness and reproduction, and fails in its weak and hypocritical ethical campaign, which tends to maintain intact the central constitutive moment of barbarism, which is the social form of the commodity itself. The decisive question thus still remains open to the end of modernity, but the constraints of the crisis and collapse grow permanently.


The fundamental critique of domination also appears “radical” in its new meta-reflexive configuration as a critique of subjectless domination. And rightly so, because, as everyone knows, radicality denotes a procedure which descends “to the roots”. So as not to confuse this procedure with a rabid militant (or heroic-existentialist) ideology, which necessarily does not reach the roots of the relations, radical critique must be all the more correctly demanded under the new premises. This new radicality, however, must not only be critically separated from the ideas concerning a “radical” procedure which is attached to the immanent logic (constituted by the fetish) of the “point of view of labor” and the “class struggle”, but also from the ideas of critical radicalism concerning the social goal which have prevailed to this day.

The transcendent goal of the utopian conceptions as well as the Marxist ones was always the (alleged) supersession of the modern capitalist relation by means of another universal and abstract form of social reproduction. Or, more precisely, that was quite obvious as an axiom of social critique, an implicit assumption which was not explicitly thematized, since the essential problem of the form of the universal constitution of the fetish had not yet been raised to the reflexive context of critical thought. There was a great deal of speculation concerning the longed-for form of a society of solidarity, a “just” society, etc., which lies beyond capitalism; all attempts to realize these speculations, however, reproduced in one way or another the abstract universality of the commodity-form, whether as “entrepreneurial” relations of exchange and production or market analogs—such relations were considered to be “natural”—or explicitly as an alternative production (or one regulated in an alternative manner) of commodities. The goal of an alternative, abstract and universal (and allegedly supersessive) form which as a result would prevail—in apparent opposition to the capitalist form—over all the members of society and for all moments of social reproduction, logically implied the threat of dictatorship, whatever the basis or justification.22

Under the premises of the critique of fetishism and of the supersession of second nature, the problem must be formulated in a completely different and surprising way for immanent thought. In fact, it is no longer a question of the “installation” of a new abstract and universal form, but of the supersession of the abstract social form in general. This obviously does not mean that there will be no more social institutions and that society would reproduce itself arbitrarily in the sense of a chaotic contingency. The social consciousness constituted by the form spontaneously imagines the supersession of the “form in general”. It should be regretted, however, that the “form”, within second nature, should turn out to be the (corresponding) universal unconscious form of consciousness and its own self-reproduction, over which the apparent consciousness of the ego and, therefore, social institutions, have no power at all. In this sense, the form codifies all actions and imposes the blind “normativity” of the (corresponding) second nature. The supersession of second nature is thus necessarily the supersession of that form or, in theoretically abstract terms, the supersession of the “social form in general”.

When consciousness and practical social action are no longer subjected to an unconscious form of consciousness and to its objectivized normativity, a new formal determination will no longer be able to arise on this plane.23 What until then had followed a blind normative mechanism must be transposed to the “conscious consciousness” of men—self-consciousness. Perhaps this transformation would be more easily imagined on the basis of those moments of social reproduction which until now received the name of the “economy”.24 The social-ecological crisis on the negative terrain and network-thinking on the positive terrain would suggest that interventions in nature and society according to a universally valid principle (money-form, profitability) will no longer be allowed free reign, but will be selected in accordance with social and ecological criteria, taking account of the material content of the intervention and its scope. Such differentiation, which will become inevitable on pain of the increasing threat of catastrophe, can ultimately only be practically realized by way of a direct connection between the social decision-making processes and the material content of reproduction, no longer codified and filtered by an unconscious form. Such a decision-making process naturally requires institutions (“councils”, “round tables” or whatever name they might be given), organized as a totality into a network and (at least in the epoch of the social process of transformation beyond the commodity form) responsible for certain criteria of decision. In the future, one could therefore only speak of a social contract cum grano salis, although the very concept of “contract” constitutes part of the juridical form,25 and therefore also of the world of the commodity.

It is of interest to note that the conditions of global development at the end of the 20th century simply no longer permit all the industries of reproduction and all regions, all the interconnections and all relations, to be subjected to one and the same blindly formal principle. To “imagine” and then to dogmatically translate into social practice, according to one formal criterion (as the universal constitution of the fetish demands), tourism and mass production, civil engineering and health clinics, the fate of industrial wastes and personal self-esteem, portrait painting and the game of soccer, is consummate madness. Instead of the universal form of consciousness and reproduction (valid for each and all), through which man “is socially made” but which is situated outside the range of his consciousness and thus of his control as well, a conscious “deliberation” and organized conduct must arise carried out in accord with the material and physical needs of tourism, of health clinics, of mass production, etc. A universal “principle” will no longer exist (profitability, “risk capacity” in the money fetish-form) which would guide the use of social resources independently of consciousness.

Generally, one could say that what until now was the unconscious form of sociability will have to disappear and be replaced by direct communication between men, carried out in a much more organized and interconnected manner. The unconsciously regulatory “form” will be replaced by the “communicative action” of men (Habermas), which will consciously reflect their own sociability and their social actions, organized upon that basis. If we may once again resort to the analogy of first and second nature, the transformation will be identical with the supersession of “instinct” on the plane of second nature. In the “pre-history” which still prevails, liberation in relation to animal instincts was acquired together with the formation of secondary instincts (no less unconscious) which are sustained within the symbolic code of second nature. Social action is therefore not primarily communicative, but perpetuates the pseudo-instincts produced by the constitution of the fetish. Subjectivity, however, in relation to first nature, in the meantime unleashed potentials which, with the later government of the quasi-instincts of second nature, threaten humanity with the well known fate of the lemmings. The “autopoiesis” of the system of commodity production is the lethal program of globalized humanity. What appears to be collective suicide is only the blind empire of the regulatory instincts, which under various conditions leads to disaster.

The behaviors, conceptions, perceptions and ideas have long been present, from the transport system to the treatment of industrial wastes, which in the social realms of production take the material and physical demands of the current level of socialization and productive development into account. However, seemingly incomprehensibly, the perceptions shared by almost everyone cannot be converted into actions, since the unconscious universal form, imposing the “autopoiesis” of the system, prolongs its phantasmagorical survival and prevents men from acting according to their perceptions. The form of consciousness itself contradicts the contents of that consciousness.

But the completeness of the constitution of the fetish is by no means absolute. The contents and perceptions of all spheres of thought and action are very close to the limits of the formal unconscious, so that the contradiction between the form and the content of consciousness can still be obscured for consciousness itself. This is not only revealed by the socio-ecological consciousness of the crisis. A change also takes place regarding the “Freudian regions”. The mechanisms of the unconscious and its reflection (for example, the concepts of “repression” and “projection”) pass from science into general consciousness, although often in a diluted and vulgarized manner. The average man of today cannot behave as ingenuously and directly toward himself as some generations did in the past. A perspective is thereby outlined in which the “unconscious” is extinguished a little at a time (although in a contradictory and, today, still instrumental fashion) and gives way to a process in which its hidden psychic “regions” are illuminated by apparent consciousness. Inversely, the superego itself begins to lose its autonomy. So also for everyday consciousness, the blind orientation in accordance with preconceived models inculcated since infancy becomes increasingly less acceptable. Moral, political and cultural norms must be tested and analyzed in their scope and their plausibility. The old automatic superego slowly disappears.26 Even language as a regulatory system is no longer immune to reflection. The feminist critique of language and the conscious application of new linguistic rules, by means of which the “masculine” codes will be de-activated, is by no means as foolish as some (male) monopolists of language and theory like to suppose. In reality, this signals the beginning of a process in which “man will no longer be spoken”, but will take the conscious initiative in his linguistic development (and will not merely assent later, unconsciously, to the changes brought about). The same holds true for the critique of the other linguistic rules (racist ones, for example).

Ultimately, however much one reflects upon the constitution of the fetish, the necessary transformation, by means of which second nature will be superseded, will still find no decisive principle. The question of a “movement of supersession” is still not clear, since the social forces are not yet formed for the task; instead, solutions will continue to be sought within the commodity-form (of the state-market system) and thus on the same path as the lemmings. In the old constellation, this problem would have caused the question of the “revolutionary subject” to crop up. The critique of the apriorism of the enlightenment subject is inevitable. Since there is no a priori (social) subject of the social fetish-form and the essence of second nature consists precisely in its subjectless constitution, the supersession itself of this constitution cannot be sustained by a socially defined a priori subject, in the style of the old concept of the “working class” subject. All the social subjects of the commodity production system are, as such, “character masks” of the fetish-form. A moment of supersession cannot therefore utilize a [bad] immanent “interest” constituted a priori by the form as a motive, but rather a critique of the presupposed form of a blind interest.

This is true for “everyone”, and thus everyone can in principle construct and act in “all” of this movement of supersession. Such a movement does not travel by way of direct routes, but by means of breaches in the commodity production system and in resistance against the process of barbarization. Its bearers cannot refer to an ontological apriorism (to “labor”, for example), but only to partial although inevitable conceptions, in which consciousness breaks out of its own formal prison. In this manner, social conflict does not disappear, but is reformulated on another plane. In reality, it is not a matter now of a blindly constructed antagonism, in which each member of society already has his lot designated by the constitution of the fetish even before making a decision. It is, rather, a question of an antagonism in which the practical critique of the fetish-form, on the one side, and the stubborn attachment to its increasingly absurd “normalcy”, on the other side (the higher social consciousness on one side, and the codified consciousness of the lemming, on the other) confront one another face to face.

It is very tempting to call the “subject” the conscious bearer of a future movement of supersession, although it can no longer be an “in-itself” pre-existent subject arrogantly facing its task. It will then be a non-aprioristic and self-constituted subject on that plane which is now occupied by the subjectless and unconscious form. But the a priori subject (that is, unconsciously constituted) to be rejected is the subject in general. If the subject is unmasked as an unconscious actor of his own form and, in the task of setting up the external world as an object, he objectifies himself and defines himself structurally as “male” and “white”, then the consciousness of action and perception beyond second nature can no longer take the form of subjectivity in the real sense, thus losing its positive and emphatic connotation. The meta-consciousness beyond second nature is no longer a “subjectivity”. Paradoxically and provocatively, the historical task for immanent consciousness can be summarized in the following lapidary formula: the revolution against the constitution of the fetish is identical with the supersession of the subject.

Robert Kurz

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

Spanish translation online at:

Notes to Part Two

  • 1. Social axioms and codes are then defined as natural, that is, first and second nature are put on the same level; this appears, for example, as ontologization in systems theory. Nature, however, is an object due precisely to the fact of being recognized in its unrivalled subjectless “natural normality”. What is reduced to an object is also imperceptible as a non-subject, since its normality as such is not instrumental, but remains a prerequisite for all instrumentalization. Instrumental thinking therefore assumes non-instrumentality on the plane of object-being.
  • 2. Pre-modern religious consciousness still has no problems with this. The external subject as god or the divine world, as the spiritual world and the animation of nature, is obvious. But for exactly this reason, man’s subjectivity itself is only embryonic and still cannot have a concept of the subject in the true sense, since nature itself is not an object, nor is it the absence of a regular or calculable subject, but finds itself guided by subjects or is itself a subject (expressed in modern terms: at the level where it is not yet formulable). The dissociation between subject and object still does not take place consistently, or does so only in its outlines, and nature proves to be as uncertain as man.
  • 3. The capitalist relation is the first and only dynamic mode of production which drives itself forward and transforms itself from within. In this sense, it points beyond itself and pushes for its own supersession, as well as containing within itself all of “pre-history” while at the same time going beyond the latter. Pre-modern and non-European societies, meanwhile, although they develop, do not give rise to a self-destructive dynamic in that sense.
  • 4. The problem is thus identical to that of modernity and becomes formulated in the latter’s categories. The modern system of commodity production was the first to elaborate the subject-object dualism in a pure form. In pre-modern formations, it goes without saying, the problem would be unformulable. Yet it is found there in a “latent”, but undifferentiated form. One could say that the subject-object dualism represents the universal and abstract determination of the functional mode of “second nature” as a whole, but that it would only be differentiated in the history of “second nature”, so that it could then gain the status of knowledge in modernity and thus be formulated.
  • 5. The historical moment then only appears as prehistoric, that is, as the history of the formation of man in general and of culture in general. Within the completely formed human being, meanwhile, a basic ontological and ahistorical structure must be assumed as a relation between “the structure of the drive and society” (Marcuse). This conception was not improved upon by Freud’s followers, nor in the last instance by Critical Theory, since the “natural basis” of the “structure of the drive” remains intact as an allegedly inevitable starting point.
  • 6. Sigmund Freud, Abriss der Psychoanalyse, Frankfurt, 1972, pp. 9 passim.

    Neither the differentiation of the “structure of the drive” nor the analysis of the “sublimated products” in culture modify this unmediated connection in any way, since the historical-social mediation of that which is manifested as pure “drive” (natural and biological) simply does not take place. This obviously does not mean that the substrate of first nature does not exist in man and that there is no relation at all with consciousness or any influence on man’s animal nature. However, when the diverse nature of the constitution of the fetish, with its long history, rises up between this substrate (which must also contain, apart from biological nature in the physiological sense, some atrophied leftovers of the animal instinct) and man’s superficial consciousness historically conceived, then the biologically determined (and determinant) natural basis explains man’s constitution much less profoundly than Freud supposed.The total denial of the biological basis is undoubtedly a theoretical error. The ideological extension of the impact of biological-genetic determinations into the social arena, on the other hand, is not only erroneous, but also bloody in its consequences. Since the 19th century, twisting social phenomena in order to interpret them as biological determinations for the legitimation of segregationist massacres has been an instrument of nationalism, racism and sexism. These biological pseudo-explanations first arose in a more or less crude form, above all in the context of the crisis of affirmation of the system of commodity production. Today one can also expect this ideological conjuncture in the world crisis of the fetishist system of the commodity-form. The commodity-subject does not want to become aware of its own formal crisis, does not want to touch its “second nature”, and for that reason must appeal once again to the “scientific” return of the biological basis. The critical reflection of society in the 1970s, although sociologically reductive, must be assimilated by natural science and social technology. North American scientists, for example, say that they have discovered that people of color are actually genetically more prone to criminality than whites. Such a conception, which a few years earlier would have only provoked laughter, is again brought up for debate in all seriousness. And if Freud linked his concept of the unconscious in a relatively unmediated way to the biologically determined structure, the unconscious itself was later denied as the intermediate realm structured between the natural base and surface consciousness. The journalist Dieter E. Zimmer, for example, is in Germany a representative of this theoretical regression which attempts to derive the problem of consciousness directly from the natural sciences (neurology, etc.) and their positivist methods (see: Dieter E. Zimmer, Tiefenschwindel. Die Endlose und die beendbare Psychoanalyse, Reinbeck, 1986).

  • 7. Sigmund Freud, Abriss der Psychoanalyse, Frankfurt, 1972, pp. 10 passim.
  • 8. Hegel later reproduced the principle of this procedure, although he had historicized it as development, and thus partly lost the critical point of departure. Or, in Kant’s critical footsteps, the history and phenomenology of consciousness was put forward, but the problematic of consciousness lost a great deal in the matter of form.
  • 9. The problem lies in the fact that Marx, without knowing it, confused two historically separate theoretical planes and conceptions: the conflict of interests internal to capitalism (or the class struggle), which can be conceived as the motor of modernization by the commodity-form, and the crisis and critique of the commodity-form itself (that is, of the constitution of the fetish), which today comes into view as something which is “beyond the class struggle”. The Marxists of the labor movements and of their later variants, such as the “Marxist Group” quoted above, were always capable of referring to the “first Marx”, but for that very reason the problematic of the “second Marx” had to remain a book with seven seals.
  • 10. Thus, to give one example, in the formulation of the modern system of commodity production, reproduction and coexistence have not been regulated by the codes of consanguinity for a long time; however, this code did not just disappear without leaving its traces, but is manifested in the zeal of the modern nuclear family and juridical forms. In this sense one can also verify archaic sediments in various degrees and distorted types, which always carry along with them false ontologizations or even naturalisms.
  • 11. For pre-modern societies, this only holds true to the extent that a general subject-object structure is developing.
  • 12. The concepts (belonging to systems theory) of “autopoeisis” (self-creation or self-production) and “self-reference” do not assume the point of view of the meta-level, since, according to this jargon, “autopoietic” and “self-referential” do not refer to the subject understood as a simple error, but the subjectless system. Thus, all that systems theory does is reproduce the logic of subjectless systems, without being able to criticize them. That human consciousness itself should ascend to this meta-level of “autopoiesis” and thereby be capable of overcoming the system’s blindness either appears to be impossible to the affirmative theoreticians of the system, or else they don’t even take its possibility into account. It is, furthermore, interesting that the concept of “autopoiesis” was introduced by the biologist Humberto Maturana on the plane of the natural sciences and was reinterpreted without any modifications by Niklas Luhmann (among others) in the field of the social sciences.
  • 13. The “impurity” of the immaturity of the subject-object dualism in the pre-modern past is an eternally seductive source for the resolution of the sufferings and the crisis of this schism in terms of hindsight and for the assumption that in pre-modern societies (especially among the so-called primitive peoples) a longed-for, purely sympathetic relation with nature prevailed. This romanticism does not see that the subject-object dichotomy was not completely absent in primitive formations, even though it was much less differentiated. Primitive man was less capable of perceiving himself as separate from his environment than is modern man, and was for that reason incapable of perceiving his objects as separate from determinate situations or constellations, so that his capacity for abstraction was (and still is in many regions of the world and among certain populations) less developed. This deficiency in the capacity for differentiation is, however, absolutely the opposite of the capacity to rise to that meta-level from which the subject-object dichotomy can be overcome and the whole complex perceived consciously. We are thus less close to a growing “never-more” than to a shrinking “not-yet” (Bloch), until the threshold is reached whose crossing signifies the supersession of the general constitution of the fetish. The lesser degree of development of the subject-object dichotomy obviously implies, however, a greater unconsciousness in regard to natural and social relations. What appears to be a sympathetic relation is in reality an action constituted by the fetish. Even so, it can by no means be denied that, with the development of the capacity for abstraction, the skills and background of knowledge are lost as well.
  • 14. Niklas Luhmann, Archimedes und wir, (compiled from interviews), Berlin 1987, p. 164.
  • 15. One could, in a sense, even say that on this point Luhmann becomes a Hegelian. For Hegel, in fact, “supersession” does not take place in practice but simply in the head of the thinking observer. History as the return of the universal spirit to itself must therefore conclude in the immanent concept, so that Hegel, in all innocence, can say that all of philosophy comes to an end with him, and praxis comes to an end with the Prussian state. Luhmann also implicitly utilizes this pretension (although in an apparently more modest form) for a determinate cognitive plane of systemic functionality. Unlike Hegel, and in the wake of the positivist tradition, “meaning” and history are eliminated by Luhmann (or are reduced to mere objects of a functionalist metareflection). It thus becomes compatible with Fukuyama’s End of History, precisely because, in theory, it does not emphatically and “meaningfully” insist on democracy and the market economy, but accepts with delicate irony the functionalist vacuum of meaning affecting western institutions.
  • 16. It is not by chance that Luhmann attempts to redefine the concept of the systemic contradiction of society in order to render it inoffensive, referring, for example, to the contradiction between the logical and the traditional (or sociological) concepts of contradiction and asserting that, in the logical sense, neither the competition nor the antagonism between “capital” and “labor” is a contradiction (see: Niklas Luhmann, Soziale Systeme. Grundriss einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt, 1987, pp. 444 passim). But this only destroys the immanent ideology of the subject, without however freeing oneself of it. In fact, on the meta-level of the “systemic self-reference” (unlike the class contradiction which is immanent to and a function of the system), one could just as well formulate a logical and practical self-contradiction no longer differentiated from the capitalist relation, that is, the self-destruction of “value” by the blind systemic process of competition and technological change—this process which, without a usurping subject or exactly like an “automatic subject”, leads to the historical collapse and the necessity of the practical self-supersession of the system (phenomenologically reflected in reductive terms in the discourse of the “crisis of the society of labor”). All of Luhmann’s efforts only boil down to the fact that he utilizes the social contradiction immanent to capital as a refrain, pretending in this manner to bring the concept of systemic contradiction to the plane of sociability in general as a simple “specific and immanent form of self-reference” of the system’s functionality.
  • 17. I am here referring, in a summarized form, to the “theorem of the schism” of Roswitha Scholz. (See, for details, Roswitha Scholz, “Der Wert ist der Mann. Thesen zu Wertvergesellschaftung und Geschlechterverhältnis”, in Krisis No. 12, Beiträge zur Kritik der Warengesellschaft, Bad Honnef, 1992, pp. 19-52.)
  • 18. This by no means is meant to imply that empirical women cannot occupy the position of subject: they must, however, assume structurally “male” traits, which in turn leads to conflicts with the role attributed to women. This contradiction is today aggravated in a particularly explosive manner—together with the subject-object relation in general—in the evolutionary crisis of the fetishist modern system of commodity production.
  • 19. This can be understood perfectly as a new “revision” of Marx’s theory, although diametrically opposed to that of the beginnings of the 20th century. If, at that time, Bernstein’s revisionism and trade union reformism still reflected the capitalist immanence of the workers movement and its tasks within the ascendant force-field of commodity production, today the critique of the commodity-form which has become unsustainable must not only be formulated more concretely than it was by Marx, but also must be disconnected as a critique of subjectless domination from the paradigm of the “worker’s point of view” or that “of the class”. Both revisions reflect the different level of development of the system of commodity production as well as the contradiction and dual basis of Marx’s theory, which in accordance with its historical position contains another moment within itself: on the one hand, the immanent task of modernization, while on the other, the crisis and the critique of the end of the process of modernization.
  • 20. Unlike an always embryonic subject-object relation to natural objects, “labor” must not be considered as an ontological concept for the entire process of human transformation to date. Only in the higher cultures was “labor” differentiated as a particular sphere (in the figure of a “real abstraction” upheld by slaves), and only in the system of commodity production of modernity does this real abstraction attain universalization and become the central moment of the constitution of the fetish.
  • 21. The convergence of the game and ritual could thus have played a decisive role in the constitution of second nature (see: Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine). Although Mumford’s proposals could be criticized in many respects, this idea is more consistent under the aegis (not thematized by Mumford himself) of the constitution of the fetish and of second nature than under that of the “materialist” project, locked within the ontology of labor, which (for example, in Engels) completely avoids the problem of the fetish and of the form of consciousness.
  • 22. Utopian thought was always compatible with the history of the affirmation of the total commodity form and its dictatorial forms, although it was not absorbed by the latter. Thus, Marxism became the legitimizing ideology of the forms of a late modernization on the horizon of socialization by the commodity-form. Just as the problem of the abstract and universal form always generated new clothes for the system of commodity production, the problem of its forced implementation also always generated new allusions to dictatorship, which indicate the compulsive character of the unreflexive constitution of the fetish. Liberalism and its critique of domination refer to a total internalization of the demands of the commodity-form, that is, to the subjectless domination (now undertaken and realized) of the total commodity-form, which is blindly assumed as “the system of the rules of the game” and which—in an ideal type—no longer requires any external coercive power. In this sense, liberalism represents the most abject legitimation of the so-called “dictatorship of need”, which always contains the moment of subjectless domination and forms part of the same historical continuum as utopianism and Marxism.
  • 23. It was Rosa Luxemburg who, after Marx, formulated and postulated for the first time, for the arena of political economy, the idea that a post-capitalist society could no longer have “a political economy”. It was later, of course, ridiculed by the official Marxists, since Marxism always thought “within” the categories of the political economy of modern capitalism and never “against” them.
  • 24. The supersession of the commodity-form is not a simple procedure within the “economy”, but the supersession of the universal form of consciousness and reproduction. The concretion of Rosa Luxemburg’s idea would mean that, together with “political economy”, the social separation between spheres would also be superseded. In fact, the system of commodity production was the first to differentiate society into spheres which were opposed to one another and autonomous, or into “subsystems” (in the jargon of systems theory) of the kind known as politics and economics, labor and free time, science and art, etc., reunited by the totality of the fetish form in the figure of consciousness constituted by the commodity-form.
  • 25. The juridical form is a derivative moment of the commodity-form and is part of the general functional context of the constitution of the fetish. In the form of law (or in its basic and embryonic forms in pre-modern societies), men directly relate to one another only in a secondary way, that is, through relations internal to the context already constituted by the fetish, which are mere interactive and conflictive relations of “character masks” (Marx) that are blindly drawn. Isolated laws and decrees are “facts” for human subjects (institutions), but the juridical form as such is not, which is imposed without right to appeal as a moment of the commodity-form and is situated “beyond” the “free will” which it constituted, as Kant was the first to observe. This is already enough to show that the slogan of “human rights” has nothing to do with freedom, since it only serves to obscure the real problem (of the constitution of the fetish itself).
  • 26. This development is undoubtedly particularly dangerous in the crisis of the unsuperseded commodity society and threatens to become a moment of barbarism. In fact, as long as the progressive extinction of the superego is not accompanied by the simultaneous construction of a communicative structure of action and reproduction, unregulated by the commodity-form, it will only lead to the liberation of the commodity-subject and its destructive potentials. This tendency has already undertaken a retrograde critique which seeks to once again revive (and perhaps for the last time) the conservative “values” of the old bourgeoisie (from “love for the fatherland” and “obedience to parents and teachers” to the work ethic) and thus the old structure of the superego—an effort as useless as it is absurd and reactionary.