A critical theory of economic compulsion

Josef Albers, Diptic, 1934


Author's introduction to newly published book

The concerns of this book can best be summarized by the following quote from Lectures on history and freedom, which Theodor Adorno delivered at the University of Frankfurt in 1964-65: “Given the current state of technical development, the fact that there are still countless millions who suffer hunger and want must be attributed to the forms of social production, to the relations of production , and not the intrinsic difficulty of meeting people’s material needs”.

Immanuel Kant's conception of the Enlightenment as humanity's means of escape from its self-imposed immaturity still possesses subversive cunning. This philosopher does not just talk about self-imposed immaturity as imposed by man. He also sees humanity as a subject that can free itself from the immaturity implied in its social conditions.

The notion of man emerging from self-imposed immaturity presupposes an opposition to existing social relations. Kant's conception of the role of the scholar already consists in the recognition of this thesis. He argued that only science is true which helps the common man gain dignity. Kant therefore demanded of academic work that it reveal the true character of the political constitution and that failure to do so amounted to false advertising.

Marx echoed Kant's Enlightenment idea when he argued that human history would begin only when social relations existed in which humanity would no longer be held captive by wage labor. Therefore, in this condition, man is just a living means for the accumulation of capitalist wealth. In history, humanity would become a purpose, an end in itself.

He therefore set himself against the bourgeois ideal of abstract equality, which recognizes the rich and the poor as equal partners in obtaining wealth, regardless of their property inequality. Against this, Marx defended the equality of human needs. Unlike Kant, Marx did not conceive of existing social relations as “immature” in relation to the promise of their further development.

This idea of ​​the promise of humanity is central to the formation of contemporary socialist notions by, for example, Nancy Fraser, David Harvey, and the late Leo Panitch. They advocate the transformation of capitalist social relations to achieve social justice and equality through the establishment of an improved mode of labor-based economy.

For Marx, in contrast, the prevailing norms of freedom, justice and equality express the values ​​of the existing social relations to which they are conceptually linked. Furthermore, he rejected the idea of ​​socialism as a perfected system of labor-based economy. He did so more vehemently in his Criticism of the Gotha program, which had been created by German social democracy.

To his dismay, this Program declared the labor-based economy to be the source of all wealth in all societies. Instead of a freedom beyond work, a mere “time for enjoyment,” he demanded the freedom of labor from capital, as this was necessary to reach its full potential under socialism.

In this conceptualization, existing social relations do not contain the prospect of human emancipation. On the contrary, they only consider their own social needs. As Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin argue, by making work the central category of its anti-capitalist program, social democracy accommodates itself to those same social conditions that it denounces as “exploitative”, “discriminatory”, “violent” and “unjust”.

Marx's critical theory sets out to show that capitalist society comprises defined forms of human social practice and that, therefore, it is these same social relations – and not just the labor-based economy – that require a revolution. This comes in favor of a society he calls communism, in which humanity becomes a purpose, and not just a means. According to Marx, the relations of freedom to be posed are equivalent to freedom from economic compulsion.

It thus reformulates Kant's categorical imperative, according to which humanity, the subject of needs in its historically specific social relations, should not be treated as a means, mere exploitable human material, but as an end, as it defends the abolition of social relations. capitalist social groups. This abolition is the premise for the emergence of a society founded on the satisfaction of individual human needs and, with it, a society that is no longer governed by (economic) abstractions, but by freely associated communist individuals themselves.

What human freedom it would be to live life without anxiety and without worrying about satisfying your needs, having plenty of time for pleasure. Meanwhile, despite an immense accumulation of material wealth, the poor and the miserable continue to “chew words to fill their bellies”.

Towards a critical theory of economic compulsion:  wealth, suffering, denial

Critical theory thinks against the flow of the world, at least that is its purpose. The opposite term for a critical theory of society would not be an uncritical theory. It becomes the traditional theory, at least according to Max Horkheimer, who invoked the notion of a critical theory of society in his seminal essay Traditional theory and Critical theoryOf 1937.

To understand the difference between them we must first see that the best traditional theory analyzes the world of real (economic) abstractions to understand its political, economic, cultural, psychological, social and historical truth from several points, including the work point of view. By arguing from the point of view of work in the register of the existing, traditional theory establishes what society lacks in terms of justice and rationality in its organization of work and, therefore, what needs to be done to overcome what it considers deplorable in the economy of capitalist work.

In contrast, critical theory examines the untruth of economic abstractions. It questions the social constitution of relations of economic compulsion. Instead of “affirming what society lacks” with regard to the rational organization of its economy, it asks “what praxis must accomplish” to achieve a “more perfect version of industrial society”. The critical theory of Marx and Adorno highlights “what is deplorable in current society and must therefore be abolished”.

In his opinion, capitalist society does not promise freedom from want. Instead, it promises those without property, free sellers of their labor power, who will have to work for the profit of the buyer of their labor power, as a way of earning a living. In effect, they understand that both the capitalist and the worker are subject to relations of economic compulsion. Employers of labor are under threat of bankruptcy and are therefore forced to seek to profit from the live labor of the seller of labor. What prevails in capitalist society is the law of value, which is the law of valorization based on the appropriation of living labor.

The law of value postulates the need for money to generate more money, under penalty of ruin. Marx thus conceived the social character of capitalist society as an “abstraction in action”. As Slavo Žižek said in the context of the struggles against austerity in Greece, during the eurozone crisis, this is the “real of capital”, that which transforms the struggles against hegemony for progressive ends into alternative strategies of capitalist development.

Herbert Marcuse expressed well the critical significance of society as an “abstraction in action” when he argued that in capitalist society the world manifests itself “behind the backs of individuals; even if it is their work.” On the one hand, individuals owe their lives to what society, as a process of economic compulsion, provides them.

On the other, their striving to earn a living provides society with a compelling abstraction as well as an independent conscience and will. Economic quantities move as if of their own accord, beyond human control. However, this movement manifests the practices of social individuals in the form of the economic thing.

With regard to social classes, society as an abstraction in movement roughly implies that free workers depend, for their social reproduction, on the effectiveness with which their work lives. This, however, is exploited for profit by the buyers of their labor power. Employers seeking profits hire workers, those who fail disappear from the markets. For free workers, access to the means of subsistence depends on the sustained attainment of a wage income, the premise of which is the exploitation of their labor force to obtain profit.

The book argues that money making more money is the real power of society as a process of economic compulsion. Following Simon Clarke, “the impulse to force the reduction of wages, to intensify work (…) does not come only from the subjective motivation of the capitalist, but compels the capitalist through the objective force of competition… Competition forces every capitalist to seek means of reduce costs or accelerate capital turnover; it needs to better withstand immediate or anticipated competitive pressure. Thus the individual capitalist is no less subject to the power of money than the worker.”

In other words, exploiting work to make a profit is the way to avoid competitive erosion, liquidation and bankruptcy. The capitalist is “just a cog” in society since this is a process constituted by a true economic abstraction. It “forces him to continue expanding his capital, in order to preserve it, and he can only extend it through progressive accumulation”, that is, converting accumulated surplus value as capital to produce more, always more, more -value. The risk of not exploiting the work effectively is bankruptcy. And this is particularly painful for workers who, without a job, find themselves deprived of their means of subsistence. Profit has primacy in capitalism.

Satisfying needs is just collateral. The appreciation of capital is essential and it is what maintains employees' access to the means of living. It is a process of extracting surplus value from the living labor of a class that earns a living as free sellers of labor power. The worker is “free in both senses”. He “is free from all necessary means” to earn a living and is free to exchange his labor power to reproduce himself as a “needy person” who “produces wealth for other people.”

As Amy De'Ath argues, the understanding of society as a process of economic compulsion depends on the relationship of the abstraction of value, money as more money, with violent historical processes of dispossession that created the free worker as exploitable human material. The divorce of the worker from his means is the historical foundation of the relationship between capital and labor. It is the social premise of the capitalist form of wealth as abstraction in action.

Marx's critique of political economy is, at the same time, a critique of capitalist social relations and an argument in favor of a classless society. His critique of political economy is, therefore, not a critique of the capitalist class that lives off exploitation. It does not put forward an argument in favor of the working class as those who deserve a better deal through legal restrictions on exploitation, job guarantees, higher levels of wage income.

Nor is it an argument for the rationalization of the capitalist labor economy into a socialist political economy. As a “werewolf” exploiting living labor, the capitalist personifies a social logic that dominates relations of economic compulsion. Both the worker and the capitalist cannot absent themselves from the society that forces them to personify economic categories – one buying labor power to avoid bankruptcy, profiting through the employment of others, enriching themselves; the other selling labor power to earn a living as a producer of society's surplus value.

Everyone lives from the valorization process, whether as owners of money or as producers of surplus value, or as public servants whose income depends on taxation. In fact, capitalist wealth appears in the form of a movement of ghostly economic quantities that manifest behind the backs of social individuals, forcing them to act – to sustain their relationship with the world of wealth. This relationship is neither stable nor predictable. It thrives through crises.

In other words, “the work of individuals only manifests itself as an element of the total work of society through the relationships that the act of exchange establishes between products and, through its mediation, between producers”. Products that cannot be exchanged for money are worthless. They are failed goods.

What remains untouched by money is burned, regardless of human needs. What counts is the money that produces more money. Therefore, what counts is the socially necessary expenditure of living labor. There is no money to be made from the socially unnecessary expenditure of work. This expenditure of labor is a waste of time and effort. It devalues ​​advanced capital and threatens workers with unemployment.

The capitalist looks like a “vampire who only lives by sucking living labor… and who lives the longer he lives, the more labor he sucks”. He operates in competition with all other vampires as employers of living labor on a worldwide market scale. Furthermore, the worker lives producing surplus value for the buyer of his labor power; thus, it survives as a producer of surplus value for society; thus he enriches the owner of money through the timely expenditure of his living labor.

The ghostly society based on economic value is characterized by the coldness of social interactions. Apparent relationships occur strictly so that business can happen. What drives everything is the competitiveness to achieve lucrative rewards on advanced capital. There is no profit in things that cannot be exchanged for money. These things have no value. The living labor expended on them appears to be socially superfluous. “The language of the proletarians is dictated by hunger.”

From the normative point of view of reason in the work society, that is, in the socialist political economy, it recognizes that it is “a disgrace” to be a free worker. Therefore, it proclaims a more perfect and equitable version of the economy that organizes work. The book presented here argues that normative critiques of capitalism, including arguments in favor of a socialist labor economy, express what Walter Benjamin called a “nightmare of historical consciousness”.

This reason identifies truly deplorable situations and defends the interests of needy producers of surplus value, with certainly redemptive intent. However, workers remain unable to “escape” the system. Behold, their freedom continues to be maintained because they are kept as sellers of labor power.

According to Herbert Marcuse, men are trapped in capitalist society by means of the “whip of hunger”. The system forces them to “sell their services” for the benefit of another class of men. Their slavery does not depend on unfavorable social situations, which contemporary socialist political economy analyzes as neoliberal financialization. The established system of money generation is not an unfavorable circumstance that can be overcome by a change of government. On the contrary, it is inherent to the system of capital relations. In fact, the capitalist economy is and must be a monetary economy.

However, what is “cannot be true”. It is true that, to reproduce, the worker “needs to produce surplus value. The productive worker is only the one who produces surplus value for the capitalist, that is, contributes to the self-valorization of capital”. There is, therefore, a misfortune much worse than being a productive worker, which is the misfortune of being a superfluous worker who, deprived of wage income, depends on the charity of others for his subsistence.

The class struggle is not about abstract ideas that present themselves as “socialism”. It is a fight for access to “raw and material things”. Class struggle is also not an adverse event that occurs in capitalist society. On the contrary, it belongs to its concept. It is the secret history of capitalist social relations that takes the form of a movement of abstract economic quantities that forces an entire class of free workers to produce surplus value, which is the social precondition for avoiding misery.

If by socialism we mean the struggle to humanize the treatment that society gives to its workers; it is believed that he may be successful. Their humane treatment is preferable to the cold treatment of those who consider them exploitable. However, the humanization effort is based on inhumane conditions. The chapters in Part II of this book argue that a counter-hegemonic policy of capitalist transformation ends up endorsing the apparently rejected system of exploitation. The book does not argue against a policy of “practical humanism,” which is the ethical foundation of the program of socialist political economy. On the contrary, it aims to understand its concept.

Forms of criticism: forces of production and social criticism

The many variants in the Marxist tradition revolve around two contrasting readings of the critique of political economy as a critique of capitalism from the perspective of labor or, alternatively, as a critique of the capitalist labor economy. According to the first, capitalism amounts to a historically specific mode of labor economy. This reading understands the socialist mode of labor economy only as a progressive alternative to capitalism.

His conception of socialism is programmatic in that it proclaims an improved system of organizing work through central planning. According to this conception, the critique of political economy does not develop from the point of view of work. On the contrary, it is a negative criticism of the capitalist labor economy. This more radical critique lacks programmatic resources. Instead, it maintains that the conceptual content of communism, the “society of free and equal human beings,” can emerge from the denial of capitalist relations.

According to the point of view of the labor critique of capitalism, the labor economy appears to be an ontological principle. It rejects capitalism as a crisis-prone system of exploiting labor for private gain and demands the emancipation of labor from capitalist domination under socialism. His argument for socialism is founded on a theory of modes of production as historically specific organizational forms of the labor economy.

According to this view, since “in any form of society human beings productively expend their bodily powers”, the critique of the capitalist labor economy has to differentiate between the “generic materiality” of human life as a transhistorical assumption of modes of production and the specific capitalist “historical form of wealth”.

The analytical focus of this critique of capitalism falls on “the contradictory unity between the materiality of human life and its historically determined social forms”. In other words, it sees the relationship between the transitionally conceived forces of production and the historically specific social relations of production as historically active, as a decisive dynamic for understanding capitalism as a mode of production in “'transition to communism'”.

In short, the argument for a socialist labor economy recognizes the capitalist mode of production as a historically determined mode of labor economy. Through the development of economic forces, this mode makes history. It expands the forces of production, which conflict with capitalist relations. These then become too narrow to house these forces, which thus creates the objective conditions for the transition to socialism. As a critique of capitalist political economy, the argument about a transhistorical materiality of the labor economy is as poor as the conception of productive forces as a historical subject.

The conception of the labor economy as the “transhistorical essence of social life” that will be perfected under socialism in the interests of workers through the application of state socialist reason is illusory in its understanding of the capitalist political economy. It emerges in fact, really, as a dystopia. It replaces the appearance of freedom in market-mediated forms of social coercion with the freedom of state socialism as an unmediated form of coercion. According to Adorno, the critique of political economy from the point of view of work perverts the critical intention of Marx's historical materialism. It creates an ontology of the capitalist labor economy and naturalizes capitalist economic categories.

The circumstance that man needs to eat and therefore has to exchange with nature does not explain capitalism nor does capitalism derive from it. Man does not eat in the abstract. Not even man fights for life in the abstract. The struggle for life, invoked by Marx (and Engels) as a history of class struggle, takes place in defined forms of society. Instead, then, of transposing “every given struggle into the expression 'struggle for life,'” Marx's critical theory requires analyzes of “the struggle for life as it manifests itself historically in various specific forms of society.”

Critically conceived historical materialism consists of a critique of capitalist society understood, dogmatically, as a historically determined form of natural economic laws of development. What appears in the appearance of society as a relationship between economic things does not have an abstract economic nature as it is conceived. On the contrary, what appears in capitalist society as economic nature is man in his historically specific social relations. Capitalist economic laws force social individuals into action as if they were a separate person. However, the nature of these laws is only social.

What forces individuals to action is the social world itself. In the words of Marx, “it is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly nucleus of the nebulous creations of religion than to do the opposite, that is, to develop from the real and given relations of life the forms in which these are formed. became apotheotic.” This last method, he continues, “is the only materialist and, therefore, the only scientific”. For him, the first method belongs to the “abstract materialism of the natural sciences, which excludes the historical process”.

There is only one reality, which is the reality of historically defined forms of life. Marx's point about the real relations of life is fundamental to the analysis of social form. He questions the social constitution of economic categories and exposes their “nature” as a social thing. For the analysis of social form, therefore, the forces of production and the normative categories of socialist humanism, from Althusser to Fraser, are the forces and norms of real social relations.

In the words of Moishe Postone, “Marx's critique transforms the categories of political economy from transhistorical categories of the constitution of wealth into critical categories of the specificity of forms of wealth and social relations in capitalism”. Form analysis is a critique of economic categories as apotheotic forms of defined social relations. Conceives historical materialism as a critique of capitalist society, including its normative values ​​and forms of thought.

The social form approach to the critique of political economy emerged from the emerging New Left in 1968. It contains three overlapping methodological approaches. They are: immanent criticism, systematic dialectics and ad hominem of economic categories. It consists of deciphering economic abstractions as apotheotic forms of defined social relations.

Immanent criticism judges reality by the standard of its own pretensions. For example, it judges the reality of social equality by the standard of its normative claim to equality. By judging reality by its own criteria, it seeks to make “petrified relationships (…) start dancing singing their own melody for them”. Instead of criticizing reality for not measuring up to its normative standards, it both demystifies normative ideas of, say, freedom and equality as pleasant norms of terrible social content, and withholds a glimpse of what could be.

Matthias Benzer makes this point about the double meaning of immanent criticism well when he says that, in relation to Theodor Adorno's critical theory, the “liberal category of freedom aims to produce the utopian image of a genuinely free individual”.

However, “upon closer inspection, it is seen that it simultaneously portrays an individual freed from feudal social structures, an individual who has been granted the autonomy that the capitalist economy demands of him. It is, therefore, a “mockery of true freedom (…) as it forces the individual to become more robust”.

At the same time, she criticizes “society for failing to meet conceptual standards” that she “cannot help but defend” and which therefore lead to demands for “its social fulfillment.” Immanent criticism interrogates the social coldness of this normative standard. There are cracks in everything and it is through them that light can enter.

Systematic dialectics is associated with the work of Chris Arthur in the United Kingdom and the so-called New Reading of Marx of Backhaus and Reichelt in Germany (formerly called Western). Systematic dialectics focuses on the categories of capitalist political economy to understand the logic that prevails there. It recognizes social forms as real (economic) abstractions and argues that they establish an illusory picture.

As Reichelt said, within this framework, individuals meet to “make contracts in the sphere of circulation, where they deal with mysterious economic forms, that is, with so-called 'goods'. Thus, they always perceive themselves as free subjects with equal legal rights. Under this veiled perception of themselves, they consider themselves independent subjects. They thus experienced class society as a society of inequality, exploitation and domination through an autonomous system.”

Systematic dialectics considers the systematicity of society as a process of real abstraction and exposes the categorical character of relations of economic compulsion beyond the objective illusions of normative thinking and the dogmatic materialism of a political left that believes itself capable of transforming the economy of capitalist work for the benefit of producers of surplus value.

Charlotte Baumann has pertinently characterized systematic dialectics, and in particular the New Reading of Marx, as a logical account of capitalist social relations. Although systematic dialectics shows the logic of capitalist social nature, its concept of social is still tenuous. Therefore, it tends to take as an analytical objective the identification of the logic of real abstraction, which carries the risk of falling back into the (traditional) differentiation of society into a system and world of life.

Instead of conceptualizing capital relations with reference to the historical elements implicit in them, systematic dialectics postulates capital as a conceptual totality similar to the Hegelian idea imposed on reality. For systematic dialectics, the category of the free worker is unsettling. For Arthur, “labor power is not produced by capital; It is an external condition of capitalist production.” In contrast, Elena Louisa Lange argues that “labor power is (…) a capitalistly produced commodity.”

She argues that capital produces the commodity “labor power” as a “direct source” of its “reason for being: profit”. The identification of the capital relationship as a system that produces its own social premise conceives of social relations in terms of their embodied functionality. Moishe Postone's account expresses the dualistic conception of society as a system and as a lifeworld. He argues that capital “subjects people to impersonal and increasingly rationalized structural imperatives and constraints” that “cannot be adequately grasped in terms of class domination.”

According to Postone's account, “capital” as a system establishes the objective framework within which social conflicts unfold. His book questions the identification of capital as an extra social subject. On the one hand, according to Adorno, “the reality in which men live is not invariable and independent of them”. On the other hand, following Clarke, capitalist relations of production presuppose the historical emergence of a class of free workers.

 In this case, a logic prevails in the capitalist political economy. It incorporates individuals as personifications. However, his form remains human. That is, individuals “live in the social being, not in the [economic] nature”, and their social being was not given to them by the nature of the capitalist economy. It is, rather, the historical result of their own – objectively compelled – social practices.

Deciphering capitalist relations does not only require discovering the logic that dominates reified society. It also implies the discovery of the simple fact that the “capitalist social order cannot exist without distorting men”. Social individuals are not just cogs in a system of economic compulsion. Like gears, mere human “instruments of production”, they are “possessed with consciousness”.

As Baumann says, they suffer “the pressures” of their own reified existence as personifications of economic categories. Society as a process of real abstraction does not suffer from the capitalist economic nature. He doesn't go on strike and doesn't fight to survive. Social individuals struggle to survive, and they do so as personifications of their own social reality, of the economic categories that bind them.

The book argues that, on the one hand, understanding the mysterious character of economic things, which “abound with metaphysical subtleties and theological subtleties”, rests on understanding the human social practice that provides them with a will and a dynamic. Social individuals “do this without realizing it” in the pursuit of self-preservation.

On the other hand, although society's laws of movement abstract “from its individual subjects, degrading them to mere executors, mere partners of social wealth and social struggle, there would be nothing without individuals and their spontaneities”. Reification, society as a system, “finds its limitation in reified man”. In other words, the critique of reification is equivalent to a conceptualized praxis of capitalist social relations.

The preponderance of society as a reified object implies the sheer restlessness of life as its hidden, non-conceptual secret. The need to make suffering speak, to “give voice to suffering is a condition of all truth”. In this context, suffering is not an existential term of pure subjective feeling. Rather, it is an objectively mediated term. “It is the weight of objectivity on the subject; behold, what the subject experiences as his most subjective moment – ​​the expression of suffering – is objectively mediated”. A defined logic prevails in social forms. The critique of political economy is the deciphering of the social relations that constitute them. It is the deciphering of relations of economic compulsion as relations of the pure agitation of life.

“Then he says: go”. Adorno's “go” is not a lament that opposes human suffering with reference, as I argue below, to a contaminated standard of normativity. Adorno’s “go” is Marx’s “go”. They recognize the logic that prevails in capitalist society and what it does to people. “Things should be different.” They can only be different through different social relations. “The abolition of hunger” therefore requires “a change in the relations of production” (Adorno) so that the “mud of centuries” ends with the “refoundation of society” (Marx and Engels).

Scope and structure

The book contributes to the development of the critique of political economy as a critical social theory – of immanent critique, systematic dialectics and decipherment. It interrogates economic categories as objectified forms of defined social relations and argues that the sheer agitation of life, the class struggle to avoid and avoid suffering, is the hidden secret of the relations of economic objectivity, which Marx conceives as a ghostly society “in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre make their ghostly walk as social characters and, at the same time, directly as mere things.”

As Simon Clarke argues, the reality of society as a process of economic compulsion “is that of the class relationship between labor and capital; its existence is the everyday experience of millions of dispossessed workers.” The book develops with reference to the elements of socialist political economy in contemporary arguments about financial capitalism. Considers his theories of labor history and economics. It takes a stand in relation to criticism that deplores manifest social deficiencies under promises that it can solve them – it does so, however, without looking at the social conditions that make them so deplorable.

Contemporary analysis maintains that capitalism has become a neoliberal financial system indifferent to the needs of workers. It advocates a state-socialist strategy that aims to ensure the development of a productive economy that meets human needs. In contrast, the book argues that capitalism is fundamentally a monetary economy and a world market society. Work is the means of appreciation. It is the means by which money makes more money. The book argues that the social mentality of acting individuals and their ways of thinking are embedded in the spirit of money.

However, contrary to what it seems, money doesn't talk. It is rather the social relations that talk about money and through money as the independent power of their social relations. What prevails over society exists in and through society. Money doesn't care about inflation or deflation, whether it belongs to the few or is desired by the many, whether it yields living descendants or falls. The validity of money has a social validity; its power to make individuals compete to the point of madness is socially constituted. As a universal of capitalist relations of economic compulsion, “it compresses the particular until it fragments, like an instrument of torture”.

However, money does not care about the sacrifice of living labor on the altar of profit. The capitalist is concerned with profit to avoid his own erosion in the competitive process. Free workers also care about money. They fight for money to make a living. In its entirety, the world of economic compulsion is a world of defined forms of human social practice, which endow society in the form of the “money subject” with a cold and calculating conscience. The defining character of bourgeois society is social coldness. The book argues that criticism of social coldness has to be more than just a normative argument about justice, equality and freedom. Theoretical concepts and normative values ​​“cannot be perceived without reference to the historical elements implicit in them”.

The violence with which direct producers were separated from their means of subsistence lends a certain social content to bourgeois concepts of freedom and equality. In bourgeois society, the violence imposed by the law appears in the civilized form of an exchange relationship between supposedly equal legal subjects – one exchanging his labor force for a salary to “circumvent the freedom to die of hunger”, the other consuming the labor force labor acquired for profit to avoid competitive erosion.

The concepts of justice, humanity, freedom and equality do not make up a normative standard that remains somehow separate from a completely unpleasant social content. On the contrary, they are afflicted by the injustice and inhumanity “under whose spell they were conceived”. Normative critiques of capitalism and the promises of redemption they contain elevate concepts that have already been “contaminated” as parameters of moral critique.

By imbuing existing relationships with the promise of humanity, normative critiques unwittingly serve to conceal their character, imparting a conciliatory splendor to the corporeal experience of injustice, pain, and suffering. The truth of the normative critique is the untruth of freedom as economic compulsion.

In fact, the dynamics of the entire process of capital as a self-valued value is fed by the social practices of individuals divided into classes who “owe their lives to what is being done to them”. It is evident that the civilized regulation of social coldness is much preferable to its authoritarian conduct. However, in defending free workers, the normative critique of capitalism endorses the system that obligates them through their acquired freedom.

Finally, the book argues that the critique of class society does not find its positive resolution in a more just class society. It finds its positive resolution in the classless society. Following Marx, “the modern State, the rule of the bourgeoisie, is based on the freedom of work (…) Freedom of work is the free competition of workers among themselves (…). It’s not about freeing work, but about abolishing it.”

The general theme of the book is the critique of political economy as a critical social theory of existing relations of economic compulsion and an argument for the classless society of communist individuals. In this context, it exposes Benjamin's conception of the present time as the time of struggle against the advancement of existing social relations. With reference to Hannah Arendt and Cornelius Castoriadis, he conceives the direct democracy of the commune as the form of government of an emancipated humanity.

The book is made up of six main chapters. They are arranged in two parts.

Part I explores the conceptualization of capitalist social relations. It consists of three chapters. The first chapter exposes economic compulsion with reference to Marx's notion of value as “an abstraction in action“. It explains value abstraction as a social practice of historically specific production relations and argues that class relations are the hidden secret of society as a process of real economic abstraction. The concept of surplus value is the main category of an equivalent exchange between unequal values, of money for more money. Its concept presupposes the class relationship between capital and labor.

 The second chapter discusses the capitalist labor economy as a monetary economy. The social validity of the work expended is affected in exchange for money. The chapter exposes capitalism as a monetary system with critical reference to the economic theory of money and its Marxist variant that is of particular prominence in the contemporary critique of so-called financialization. It argues that the expenditure of social work is not validated through the satisfaction of human needs. It is validated in exchange for money. Money is the form of social validation.

What cannot be exchanged for money is left to rot. The third and final chapter of Part I examines the capitalist logic of wealth as a world market logic. The world market is the categorical imperative of the national state system. With reference to contemporary debates on the changing role of the state under conditions of financial globalization, the chapter rejects the progressive nationalism of a political left that seeks to use the national state as a means of confronting financialization through the development of the national economy. The chapter argues that the national state is the political form of capitalist society, the one that ensures the global market force of the law of value in territorialized social relations.

Part II presents practical consequences of the arguments about real abstraction, money as capital and the conceptualizations of valuation, world market and political form. Its three chapters critically expose, first, the practical humanism of especially Althusserian political economy, which identifies the labor economy as a transhistorical necessity and which proclaims a policy of practical humanism.

The fifth chapter argues that a counter-hegemonic politics for progressive and practical humanist ends implies a subjective critique of society. This critique identifies social deficiencies and proclaims that things must be different; it does this without having a concept of society that seeks to humanize. The following sixth chapter explores primitive accumulation, which is the separation of direct products from their means of existence, as a historical premise of capitalist relations of silent economic compulsion.

The chapter establishes the relationship between the abstraction of value, money as a form of capitalist wealth, with the emergence of the free worker and his struggle for access to raw and material things. The final chapter revisits Benjamin and Marcuse's conception of revolution as a negation of existing relations of human slavery. Its focus is Benjamin's philosophy of history, which explores through the historical context of the destruction of council communism in post-revolutionary Germany and Bolshevik Russia, and the context of Nazism and war. The chapter argues that the bodily experience of suffering determines the conceptual content of communism.

“To think is to venture beyond.” The truth of Marx's critique of political economy is not realized through its macroeconomic interpretation and application in socialist political economy; on the contrary, it is realized through its denial. The afterword deals with the impossibility and necessity of communism.

*Werner Bonefeld is a professor in the Department of Politics at the University of York.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.


Werner Bonefeld. A critical theory of economic compulsion: wealth, suffering, denial. Oxfordshire, Routledge, 2023, 180 pages. [https://amzn.to/3VJ4dLS]

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