Revolution, social totality and the concept of totality

Image: Alexander Zvir


A revolution cannot consist of anything other than the decomposition of existing conditions and the rupture with them, without anticipation of the future and without any benefit of a political nature to anyone.

As it approaches its internal and external limits, the commodification of the world tries to relaunch the accumulation of capital in an increasingly furious way, as if facing a machine that is stopped, but that must continue working at all costs.

The violence of this effort, which does not stop at any sphere of social existence that it wants to annex, is only equaled by the inevitable exhaustion of its sources of movement. Faced with this totalitarian horizon, critical theory that seeks to understand this functioning cannot aim less than embracing the level of totality.

Turning to this purpose, it has to challenge the phobia of those who always diagnose some totalitarian tendency hidden in the very concept of totality. But it is also necessary to renounce the poisonous fruit of sung tomorrows that the concept of totality seems to invite.

What does this mean return to the concept of totality, renouncing access to its poisonous fruits?

Concepts are often thought of as mere abstractions and that is why some move away from them with a certain indignation. Monopolized by intellectuals due to their social function, concepts seem distant from practical reality, from “real life”. But let us remember: Hegel, on the contrary, called abstraction that which is the most immediate, the most concrete, the most everyday, the most “obvious”.[I] In this sense, we are surrounded in everyday life by a cloud of abstractions in which things predominate. taken for granted.

It is normal to pick up merchandise from a shelf; it is normal to take money to pay for things we buy; it is normal to get up early to earn money to spend; This is all quite normal. However, crises appear as setbacks in the course of everyday events; political elites, then, are held responsible for them when they happen: now, this also appears to be normal, since “power corrupts” those who participate in it.

Consequently, nothing that organizes this reality should contradict the false naturalness of the everyday triptych: working, consuming and voting, all well seasoned with some circumstantial indignation. Because, morality is also focused on the naturalization of social relations.

The philosophical concept of totality is inseparable from the dialectical method with which Hegel opened a path in the modern era. He does not find “behind” sensible appearances, through a flash, a true essence; the method does not give initiatory access to essences. Note: this type of procedure was always denounced by Kant and Hegel as dogmatism.

The dialectical method consists, first of all, in denying the apparent positivity of the being that is there. It makes up the movement of the concept, which is the movement of the thing itself, that is, the movement of the thing that is not simply what it appears to be. Hegel states of this method that it contains the “restlessness of the negative”. The concept consists of a movement to overcome the determinations of the abstraction of phenomenal being, which we mistakenly take as the “most concrete” thing.

The speculative identity of concept and reality contradicts the claim that what I think is identical to my sensible experience. It's exactly the opposite. There is a dialectical relationship in this duplicity. Thus, this relationship can never be posited immediately and, therefore, there is a requirement that thought expose itself to the splits of the negative.

It is no wonder that this non-coincidence between being and thought has become a real burden for modern philosophy. This is where it manifests itself: there remains a correct premonition that capital tends to absorb the totality of reality in its logic of accumulation, at the same time that it atomizes the elements of its own accumulation process ever more finely in order to reconfigure them in a new way. according to its dynamics.

Psychoanalysis gives a new interpretation to this obsession with the discrepancy between being and thought: “I think where I am not and I am where I do not think” (Jacques Lacan). [NT: the author, citing Lacan, refers here to the division between conscious and unconscious, respectively.]

Now, this division formalized by Lacan does not endorse the existence of two separate spheres without contact with each other: one in which one is and another in which one thinks. Psychoanalysis comes because it is necessary to understand this division – not with the aim of abolishing it, but to give it a comprehensive treatment – ​​that is, to “process” it. Although the subject is in no way the voluntary and conscious author of this division, he is responsible for it, as well as for the treatment of his symptoms.

In fact, from the Lacanian perspective, the subject is the unconscious effect of this division; yet, even so, he answers for her. Everyday abstractions do not intend to account for this division; they produce a desire to fix “what is wrong”, to “pick up the pieces” of the divide, hence the plethora of behavioral therapies that train everyone to control their symptoms and function smoothly, rather than decipher them.

In turn, the Marxist tradition has often thought of the concept of totality in the form of a mechanical teleology of history. Sometimes it even obliterated its dialectical openness.[ii] To the objectivist determination of totality that haunts Marxist thought, psychoanalysis added a subjective determination. And it shows that there is also a division “in the heart of the knowing subject – and no longer just a division between the subject of knowledge and the object to be known. Even if it has been neglected by the Marxist tradition, this theoretical contribution should not be considered superfluous.

Because traditional Marxism, at the core of its thought, never gave up on shaping a communist future, in the name of its own revolutionary praxis; He therefore misused the concept of totality, which consisted of advancing the communist “solution” with a flower at the end of his gun. Revolutionary utopia transformed negative criticism at the theoretical level, which is necessary in itself, into affirmative criticism, instead of persistently maintaining negativity. Put this way, revolutionary utopia seems to have a special capacity to organize the world in a better way than what is around it. 

This utopia believes precisely in the possibility of an immediate reconciliation, when there is a structural impossibility, as both Hegelian dialectics and psychoanalysis warn. This is why megalomania, tyranny and repression await the development of this utopia around the corner.

The same will happen again as long as we do not discover the authoritarian core of this claim, which consists of wanting to embrace the entirety of the concept in order to shape the world in its image in the false immediacy of a totality finally put to rest. This phenomenon, obviously, seems to justify those who are terrified by the concept of totality.

The renunciation of the formation of a post-capitalist world comes as a consequence of the failure of modern revolutions. They were precisely concerned – alone and exclusively – with reorienting the capitalist totality. Behold, they had almost always grasped it intuitively, as a complete new order. But it became equally totalitarian, as it adopted the development dynamics of the commodity producing system.

In doing so, the revolutionaries only worked for its renewal, as the original operational matrix was preserved. “Real socialism” merely established a competing version of the system it rejected; this was replaced by a system that maintained the previous level of real totality and was therefore no less totalitarian.

Aware of this risk, many postmodern authors believe that they could, as if through a magical thinking ritual, abolish the totality, forbidding to pronounce its name. But it is needless to say that if they themselves refrain from invoking the devil, “the whole [diabolic] does not forget them” (Terry Eagleton).

The totalizing dynamic of capital is one that must be abolished – one should not, therefore, prohibit the use of the concept of totality, since it is the only one that can handle of this historical situation. However, when handling this concept, it is necessary to renounce, exchange negative criticism for the affirmation of a substitute totality that will be as totalitarian as the one that is now being criticized.

In the shadow of a social totality whose functioning escapes its own creators, the “fixations of understanding” (GW Hegel) thrive. They result in atomized criticisms, which have competed with each other for more than two centuries on the scene of bourgeois thought. They are the immanent manifestations of instrumental thinking, as well as its consequentialist morality: capital is thus urged to reintegrate its perverse effects into its own concept. Now, this amounts to perfecting the concept of totality, causing it to gradually subsume the entire symbolic order as if it were inherent to it.

Recovery from criticism is therefore part of its operating principle.

The false theoretical humility, the insistence on empirical verification and the awareness of the complexity of reality do not exempt anyone from articulating concepts necessary to theorize this totalizing movement. It is not in anyone's power to take the thing only in its pieces, except for the purpose of adjusting it to the individual fancy of each one.

It goes without saying that the contingent, the non-identical, the “split” character (Roswitha Scholz) of the totality is still present in a superficial analysis. Behold, it does not abolish the totalitarian machine of the “automatic subject”. Although the concept of totality contains its negative moments, it should not be repudiated in this way. If we talk about a “totality, it is because, without a doubt, we talk about it without totalization”.[iii]

The concept of totality does not present a closed and immobile image of reality, which would absorb everything in the articulated concept. He theorizes, moreover, the dynamics of reality, which cannot be approached based on the assumption of dispersed and disconnected pieces. Or rather, these are your stopping points and, at the same time, revival points.

If this approach must be rejected because it exposes itself to the risk of “grand theory”, then it is really better to go and collect four-leaf clovers than to start reflecting on what is there and is totalitarian. The allergy to thought is thus satisfied with the supposed direct relationship with its objects, in which it believes it sees the immediate result of a transformation that is none other than the narcissistic illusion of having acted on the world.

Any oppositional practice must, therefore, first ask itself whether it is not reproducing – involuntarily – the immanence of the “mute constraint” that establishes the limits of its intervention and the meaning of its actions. It would then be forced by its own object to grant the right to the concept of totality, as it is to this that the question of the capitalist matrix of supposedly autonomous individual action leads.[iv]

Thus, Adorno's insistence on the moment of non-identity does not justify, contrary to his own intention, transforming the negative into a celebration of the fragmentary and the politics of lesser evil. Adorno did not aim for any positiveization of his concept of negativity.

Adorn's aphorism that “the whole is the untrue”, which inverts Hegel's aphorism according to which “the whole is the true”, is neither its hidden face nor an invitation to seek a refuge in the petty-bourgeois satisfaction of one's own pettiness. Contrary to all appearances, the two aphorisms say the same thing, once from the point of view of the infinite movement of the thing itself, the other time from the point of view of its particular moment, forever irreducible to the whole, remaining, however, , as a moment of this whole in movement.

The theoretical requirement to think about the totality has nothing to do with a false modesty that, in advance, creates an image of the object in its own measure so as not to lose anything of the object. The refuge in the approach of the object to individual measurement rather shows the wounds in man's narcissism that were inflicted by the three modern conceptual revolutions (Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian), to which it is necessary to add the Marxian revolution.

Marx analyzes the modern autonomy of social processes that now confront the worker separated from his means of production and, in doing so, inflicts yet another wound on this narcissism, a final injury that affects the very idea of ​​political sovereignty. This is how he talks about capitalist crises:

“That the processes that confront each other autonomously form an internal unity also means that this unity itself evolves through external oppositions. When the external autonomy of things that are not internally autonomous, since they complement each other, reaches a certain point, this unity asserts itself violently – through a crisis.”[v]

While each subject believes that he is pursuing his private interests and, therefore, believes that he is in control of his economic acts, he is in fact feeding the machine that oppresses him and turns against him, constantly destroying the foundations of society.

He doesn't want to know anything about it, he doesn't pay attention to its marginal place in the universe, its contingent emergence in evolution, as well as its dependence on unconscious processes. The conjunction of these four displacements is in no way an alibi for the subject to hide in a mouse hole “because the world is very complex”. It is, however, a huge challenge for him. In the absence of conceptual articulation about the internal character of the processes that seem empirically alien to each other, but not truly alien to each other, the crisis can only be interpreted through the ideologies born of the crisis itself.

The supposed modesty of the citizen “from below” crushed by powers outside of him is easily reversed into personal omnipotence that comes from these same powers. It is the equipotent balance of this omnipotence and this impotence that the radical decentering of the subject interrupts, introducing object logic into it. And this also applies to the subjective crisis, the analysis of which psychotechnical approaches to suffering seek to avoid.

The impossibility of the concept absorbing all reality in itself is, therefore, in no way the pretext for maintaining ignorance, but constitutes the driving force behind an investigation that becomes, therefore, even more necessary. His structural inability to immobilize himself is not overcome by the question-begging that presupposes an equality to himself, which would be achieved by the “absolute idea” (according to a triumphalist version of Hegel's dialectic). It is also not overcome by another question that wants to bury the dialectical enterprise itself so as to no longer have to suffer the impossibility of the concept finding rest in the form of an obtained truth.

It is fashionable now to lament capitalism's seemingly indefinite ability to use any criticism to recycle itself. This apparent regeneration is served to him on a platter by the very insufficiencies of a critique that moves away from fulfilling its own task.

It seems that the failure to theorize – and even more so to implement – ​​a revolution tailored to the commodity producing system – as it has now colonized the entire planet and every corner of existence – is therefore attributable to the character contradictory of the revolutionary task, an inverted mirror of the system it tries to overthrow: it aims negatively at the current totality; must also refuse to benefit from it in the name of their own ideological formations (which are inevitable). These, without exception, are irremediably marked by the competitive character of the commodity subject, of which they are the sparkling reflection in the realm of “ideas”.

This is the core of corruption through which the revolutionary subject resurrects, at an even worse level, the totality that he claimed to want to get rid of. However eager he may be to adorn himself with the trappings of radical criticism, the fact is that he “does not recognize in this disorder of the world the very manifestation of his real being. […] His being, therefore, is closed in a circle, unless he breaks it through some violence in which, striking his blow against what appears to him to be a disorder, he strikes himself through a social counterattack”.[vi]

Therefore, a true theory of revolution also openly renounces formulating the slightest outline of a global post-capitalist society, which would take the place of the extinct system on a planetary level. It is not morally justified to propose such a scenario, as one is not in a position to do so. It is quite certain that the future will never resemble such lucubrations, except in the infinite field of literary and artistic imaginations in which they are all permitted. In this, criticism must use Hegel to know that it is passable – thus paraphrasing a phrase by Lacan about the function of the father!

In other words, a revolution cannot aspire to the construction of a positive totality. Now, any proposal in this sense must trigger the deepest suspicion. The revolution cannot consist of anything other than the decomposition of existing conditions and the rupture with them, without anticipation of the future and without any benefit of a political nature for anyone. The reconquest by humans of their own sociality is not an a priori determination of the forms that this sociality takes, a determination in abstracto which would constitute the very denial of this liberation.

There is no “big Other” that spares humans the (conflictive) task of organizing themselves. Only an autotelic capitalist logic of accumulation can sometimes lead us to think that this task is being done, “spontaneously”, by a reality made absolute. Social reappropriation involves the refusal to submit to this reality and not the authoritarian affirmation of a finished form that should supplant it, always already marked with the iron of the capitalist form.

This requirement also applies to anti-racist, anti-sexist, decolonial struggles, etc. who believe they can impose a principle of liberation, which, in fact, is being extracted from liberal individualist morality. This, then, is the problem: how to free the world from its dominations without touching the structures that produce them, otherwise only propagating the ideology of individual who needs to do no more than confess his antisocial tendencies? This is what the purification rituals that have consolidated themselves today within a certain left that only know how to look for lice in the individual (that is, the admission of white and male privileges, inclusive language, surveillance and paranoid self-surveillance of actions and gestures...).

It remains, therefore, to say that a socially emancipated subject would not be emancipated from social structures, which are always reconstituted behind their backs. The emancipation project, which aims to abolish the totalitarian rule of capital, only restores to the subjects disposition of their capacity for emancipation, through a fight that never ends. It does not give them the keys to an emancipated State once and for all, a State for which there is no universal definition or guarantee.

The definition of emancipation that is considered universal today is that of liberal democracy, that is, the right to choose a political program according to the model of choosing a commodity on the shelf. Such a program also always ends up running into one or another of the polarizations of the fundamental contradiction. It translates conflicts of interest into apparently antagonistic ideologies within a logic that establishes insurmountable limits. Character masks do not own the material bases of the ideology with which they cover their social identity.

What must be released are the multiple possibilities for Humanity form a society, but also for the individual to connect with others with a view to forming a new sociability. Such an objective, which can be described as minimalist, does not preemptively define the form of the association of individuals: this association is not intended by nature to be geographic, ethnic, religious, socialist, economic, anarchist, productive or any other form of ideological association. However, it cannot be ruled out that such ideologies work on the social bond and stabilize it with the consent of the parties involved. They are the ultimate repositories of social emancipation and no one can spare them the effort of getting involved in it.

A society freed from the compulsion to value value will not see an explosion of possibilities. This way, it won’t look like a libertarian fireworks display. The possibilities are not unlimited, today less than ever; suffice it to say that there are many of them and that this multiplicity is desirable in the face of a world whose driving logic is “one-dimensional”.

This minimal pretension, which could be called the lowest criterion of revolution, does not intend to shape the world in the image of a new ideology of totality built on the rubble of the totalitarian form of socialization. After having rendered a service, the dialectical concept of totality could thus become a dated peculiarity of the history of thought, peculiar to an era that had made it necessary, but also, finally, inadequate to accompany other historical conditions.

*Sandrine Aumercier is a psychoanalyst, member of the Psychoanalytische-Bibliothek in Berlin and co-founder of the magazine Junktim. Author, among other books, of Are you responsible?

Originally published on the website Critique de la valeur-dissociation. Rethink a theory critique of capitalism.


[I] Georg FW Hegel, What think abstract ?, Paris, Hermann, 2007 [1807].

[ii] See, in particular, Georg Lukács, Histoire et conscience de class, Paris, Minuit, 1960; Karel Kosik, La dialectique du concrete, Paris, Editions de la passion, 1988.

[iii] Gérard Lebrun, The patience of the concept, Paris, Gallimard, 1972, p. 353.

[iv] Robert Kurz, Gray is the Tree of Life, Green is Theory, Albi, Crisis and Critique, 2022.

[v] Karl Marx, The capital, Book 1, Paris, Gallimard, 1993, p. 129.

[vi] Jacques Lacan, “Propos sur la causalité psychique”, Writings, Paris, Seuil, 1966, p. 172.

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