The question of praxis

I’ve been reading Werner Bonefeld’s excellent new book in which he provides a very clear summary of its structure and main arguments, which I have reproduced below. I intend to write an extended review of it in due course, reflecting on the state of critical theory in education studies.

Bonefeld, Werner (2014) Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 10-12.

“Helmut reichelt is right when he argues that the time has come to reconsider the purpose of reconstruction, moving it on from an attempt at finding the veritable marx to the development of the critical themes and insights that the new reading of marx has established as fundamental to the critique of ‘the monstrous objective power’ of economic things. In distinction to the new reading, the development of the critical themes and insights rests on the acceptance that Marx’s account is fundamentally ambivalent, beyond reconstruction. This point is most strongly made by Michael Heinrich. He establishes that Marx’s revolutionary break with classical political economy is marked by the pains of transition, leaving a multi-layered argument that, say, in the case of the conception of abstract labour, which is the value producing labour, overlaps with naturalistic definitions that derive from the tradition of classical political economy.

This book develops the critique of political economy as a critical social theory of economic objectivity, beyond critical reconstruction. At its best, the critique of political economy thinks against the spell of the dazzling economic forms. It wants to get behind the secret of our world, to demystify its fateful appearance as a force of economic nature. Critical theory does not think about (reified) things. rather, it thinks ‘out of these things’. For this task, the insights of the new reading are fundamental, especially the argument that the capitalist social relations manifest themselves in the inverted form of objectively valid, seemingly natural economic abstractions. Yet, taken by itself, it does not explain the social character of economic objectivity. What is objectified? in distinction to the new reading, I argue with Adorno that the ‘movement of society’ is ‘antagonistic from the outset’. Further, I argue that the critique of political economy is not just a critique of the economic form of society. it is also a critique of the political form of society, which I develop first by means of an argument about the relationship between world market and national state, and then by an account of the state as the political form of the capitalist social relations.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part contains a connected argument about the character of a critique of political economy. It contains a chapter (Chapter 2) on the meaning of a critique of political economy, which i develop with the help of the new reading. The chapter explores the difficulty of determining the subject matter of economics, expounds the classical marxist interpretation of economic laws and develops Marx’s characterization of his work as a critique of economic categories as critical theory of social constitution. Chapter 3 develops the implications of this characterization further into an argument about the capitalist forms of social practice, which I develop with the help of Adorno’s negative dialectics.

The second part develops the class character of the law of value in three connected chapters. In distinction to the new reading, it argues that the social antagonism is the logical and historical premise of the law of value. Chapter 4 argues that the hidden secret of the law of value is the forceful expropriation of the labourer from the means of subsistence. In this context I argue that the attempt of the new reading to develop the economic categories by means of logical exposition banishes the class relationship from the critique of political economy. In distinction, the chapter argues that the existence of a class of labourers with no independent access to the means of subsistence is the fundamental premise of the capitalist social relations. Chapter 5 develops this argument further into a critical theory of class as the objective category of the capitalist form of wealth and thus of the entire system of social reproduction. The law of value is premised on the force of law-making violence that established a class of surplus value producers who depend for their life on the sale of their labour power. Chapter 6 extends discussion of the creation and reproduction of a class of dispossessed producers of surplus value into an argument about abstract labour as the historically specific labour of capitalist wealth, of value. It argues that the value-producing labour manifests the force of law-making violence in the form of an economic dictate of a time-made abstract. Social wealth manifests itself in exchange as the labour of ‘socially necessary abstract labour time’.

The third part develops the critique of political economy as a critique of the form of the state. I reckon that the law of value has no independent economic reality. It does not dominate anything and anyone, nor does it instantiate itself – just like that. Value relations are relations of political economy, and political economy presupposes the force of law making violence as the premise of its – civilized – appearance as an exchange relationship between the sellers and buyers of labour power as equal legal subjects, governed by the rule of law. Chapter 7 establishes the world market as the categorical imperative of the capitalist form of wealth. The world market asserts itself as a coercive force over labour in production. However, coercion is not a socio-economic category. It is a political category, which characterizes the state as the political form of bourgeois society. I argue that the world market society of capital entails the (national) state in its concept. Chapter 8 focuses on the state as the political form of bourgeois society. In distinction to traditional accounts that derive the state from the economic, I hold that the law of value is premised on depoliticized exchange relations, and I argue that the state is the concentrated force of socio-economic depoliticization. Fragments apart, Marx’s promise of a critique of the form of state did not materialize. The chapter therefore develops its account with reference to Hegel’s political philosophy and Smith’s classical political economy and its further development in neo-liberal thought, to make sense of Marx’s characterization of the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. The conclusion returns to Marx to argue that the state is the political form of capitalist society.

The fourth and final part assesses the anti-capitalist implications of the critique of political economy as a critical social theory. Chapter 9 presents forms of anti-capitalism that personalize the critique of capitalism as the power of money or the power of imperial force, or both. Here, the critical notion that the social individual personifies the economic categories regresses into the condemnation of hated forms of capitalism that are identified with the interest of particular persons. The personalized critique of capitalism entails the elements of antisemitism from the outset, which the chapter explores as a perverted critique of capitalism. Chapter 10 is the final chapter. It summarizes the argument by exploring Adorno’s demand for a praxis that fights barbarism. Contrary to the rumour about critical theory, its entirely negative critique of existing conditions does not entail an impoverished praxis. Rather, it entails the question of praxis – what really does it mean to say ‘no’ in a society that is governed by real economic abstractions?”

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