Antagonism and Negative Critique: An Interview

Composition VII (Wassily Kandinsky, 1913)
Com­po­si­tion VII (Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, 1913)

View­point: Much of your work address­es the con­tri­bu­tion of “Neue Marx-Lek­türe,” the “new read­ing of Marx” which returned to the inter­pre­ta­tion of Cap­i­tal in the light of the philo­soph­i­cal chal­lenge of the Frank­furt School, and the polit­i­cal chal­lenge of the 1960s and 1970s stu­dent move­ment. Can you tell us about the polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of this tra­di­tion?

Wern­er Bone­feld: For me the “new read­ing of Marx” was fun­da­men­tal as an attempt at crit­i­cal recon­struc­tion of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary sig­nif­i­cance of Marx’s cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my. What real­ly does “cri­tique” mean? Cri­tique of what and for which pur­pose? The “new read­ing of Marx” taught me that it means a cri­tique of eco­nom­ic cat­e­gories, and that this cri­tique entailed an attempt at deci­pher­ing eco­nom­ic cat­e­gories as the objec­ti­fied forms of def­i­nite social rela­tions. Eco­nom­ic rela­tions are social­ly con­sti­tut­ed, and the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my amount­ed there­fore to a destruc­tive cri­tique of the rela­tions of eco­nom­ic objec­tiv­i­ty. They con­sti­tute an objec­tive illu­sion of social rela­tions. We are gov­erned by the move­ment of coins and what express­es itself in this move­ment is not some eco­nom­ic objec­tiv­i­ty. Rather, def­i­nite social rela­tions assert them­selves in the move­ment of coins. Social rela­tions van­ish in their appear­ance, and this appear­ance is real – as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of def­i­nite social rela­tions. 

What was your own per­son­al expe­ri­ence with the new read­ing of Marx? 

I taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Frank­furt in the ear­ly 1990, and in this con­text got to know Hans-Georg Back­haus very well. When I went to Frank­furt I stayed with him and slept on his couch. I met Hel­mut Reichelt in 1992 at a con­fer­ence organ­ised by, amongst oth­ers, Jean Marie Vin­cent, Anto­nio Negri and I. Back­haus was there too, and so was Johannes Agno­li.

It is strik­ing to look at your bib­li­ogra­phies, or the table of con­tents of the Open Marx­ism col­lec­tions you co-edit­ed, and find Back­haus and Reichelt next to Negri, Ser­gio Bologna, and so on. Some­times the analy­sis of the “val­ue-form” is pre­sent­ed as the irrec­on­cil­able oppo­site of operais­mo, with its empha­sis on class strug­gle. What accounts for their jux­ta­po­si­tion in your work?

The moti­va­tion for the Open Marx­ism vol­umes orig­i­nat­ed from a deeply felt dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the pre­vail­ing Marx­ist ortho­doxy. The title was tak­en from Johannes Agnoli’s stance in a book that he pub­lished with Man­del: Open Marx­ism: A Debate about Dog­ma, Ortho­doxy and the Heresy of Real­i­ty. The “new read­ing of Marx” pro­vides for a cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my which is entire­ly anti-onto­log­i­cal, imma­nent to its own con­text, and sub­ver­sive in its crit­i­cal inten­sion. It rejects the ortho­dox “stand­point of labor” and instead, under­stands that both the labor­er and the cap­i­tal­ist are per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ic cat­e­gories. Adorno’s insight that cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety repro­duces itself not despite but by virtue of the class antag­o­nism is fun­da­men­tal, both as a cri­tique of social­ism as an econ­o­my of labor, and of the cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism as a class soci­ety. In both respects, the cri­tique is entire­ly neg­a­tive.

Agno­li intro­duced me to the idea of a neg­a­tive cri­tique, as opposed to a con­struc­tive cri­tique. Horkheimer called the polit­i­cal prac­tice of the lat­ter sort of cri­tique a “con­formist rebel­lion,” one which one which seeks to over­come the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my of labor by a social­ist econ­o­my of labor. How­ev­er, in the hands of the “new read­ing of Marx” the polit­i­cal dimen­sion of, say, Horkheimer’s point, was by and large absent. Its cri­tique sought a crit­i­cal recon­struc­tion of Marx with­out con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing Adorno’s insight that the total move­ment of soci­ety is antag­o­nis­tic from the out­set (Neg­a­tive Dialec­tics). That is, the “new read­ing of Marx” deci­phered the val­ue form as a form of social rela­tions but did not enquire about the char­ac­ter of these rela­tions.

This is where the tra­di­tion of Ital­ian operais­mo finds its place. At its crud­est, Tronti’s notion that instead of ana­lyz­ing cap­i­tal­ism from the stand­point of cap­i­tal, it needs to be ana­lyzed from the stand­point of the work­er in strug­gle, plays on the old ortho­dox idea accord­ing to which the sci­ence of social­ism is a sci­ence from the stand­point of labor. It derives social­ism from cap­i­tal­ism, reject­ing the idea that the time of social­ism is dis­tinct from the time of cap­i­tal­ism. The one is the time of the soci­ety of the free and equal, the oth­er is the time of mon­ey. At its best, the notion high­lights the insight that the under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism has to do with the con­di­tions and strug­gles of the work­ing class, that is, the class that works. To be a pro­duc­tive labor­er is not a priv­i­leged posi­tion, as sci­en­tif­ic social­ism says. Antag­o­nism entails strug­gle, and soci­ety repro­duces itself by means of strug­gle – for access to the means of sub­sis­tence, against the reduc­tion of life time to the labor time of sur­plus val­ue. At its best operais­mo is the approach of this insight.

It would be wrong for operais­mo to say that strug­gle is good because of itself. Strug­gle belongs to the per­vert­ed world. The res­o­lu­tion to class strug­gle is the class­less soci­ety. In the mis­ery of our time, we there­fore find the pos­i­tive only in nega­tion, and it is this insight on which the best aspects of operais­mo and the best of the new read­ing of Marx come togeth­er in their crit­i­cal intent.

An ini­ti­at­ing prac­tice for operais­mo was work­ers’ inquiry, the sub­ject of this issue of View­point. Is there a poten­tial the­o­ret­i­cal con­nec­tion between the analy­sis of the con­di­tions of labor and the analy­sis of the val­ue-form?

On the face of it, they do not seem to con­nect. The val­ue-form analy­sis deals with the neg­a­tive objec­tiv­i­ty of exchange abstrac­tions, and the cri­tique of the labor process deals with the strug­gle over the impo­si­tion of work. Nev­er­the­less, there can­not be an exchange abstrac­tion with­out the pro­duc­tion of wealth, and the speci­fici­ty of the exchange abstrac­tion is not found­ed on exchange. It is found­ed on the sell­ing and buy­ing of labor-pow­er, that is, the class rela­tion­ship between the own­er of the means of pro­duc­tion, which are the means of social sub­sis­tence, and the free labor­er. In fact, and as Adorno argued, the objec­tive illu­sion of the exchange abstrac­tion is not found­ed on the social­ly valid objec­tiv­i­ty of the fetishism of com­modi­ties. Rather, he argues, it is found­ed on the con­cept of sur­plus val­ue. That is, the exchange equiv­a­lence between two unequal val­ues pre­sup­pos­es the con­cept of sur­plus val­ue extrac­tion, and there­with the cap­i­tal­ist labor process as a process in which nec­es­sary labor time is posit­ed for the sake of sur­plus labor time.

You men­tioned Johannes Agno­li, whose work on the form of the bour­geois state had a con­sid­er­able influ­ence in Europe (includ­ing on Negri). How is his analy­sis of the state relat­ed to the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my?

Polit­i­cal econ­o­my is not eco­nom­ics. For Adam Smith, polit­i­cal econ­o­my is a branch of the sci­ence of the states­man and leg­is­la­tor. The invis­i­ble hand has no inde­pen­dent real­i­ty. Nor has any oth­er eco­nom­ic cat­e­go­ry. Like the invis­i­ble hand, econ­o­my is a polit­i­cal prac­tice. Econ­o­my is polit­i­cal econ­o­my, that is to say, soci­ety dou­bles itself up into soci­ety and state, and the state is there­fore the polit­i­cal form of bour­geois soci­ety.  Its pur­pose is not nego­tiable. It is a cap­i­tal­ist state. This much is clear from Marx’s notion that the state is the con­cen­trat­ed force of soci­ety. The depoliti­cized exchange rela­tion­ships between the buy­er and sell­er of labor pow­er; bet­ter: the buy­er of labor pow­er and the pro­duc­er of sur­plus val­ue, entails the polit­i­cal state as the force of depoliti­ciza­tion. The analy­sis of the state is thus not relat­ed to the econ­o­my, as if econ­o­my and state are two dis­tinct forms of orga­ni­za­tion. Rather, the pur­pose of cap­i­tal is to achieve the val­oriza­tion of val­ue, and the state is the polit­i­cal form of that pur­pose.

Some of your recent arti­cles have addressed the sub­ject of “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion,” and the ongo­ing social con­sti­tu­tion of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions. It seems to us that this dynam­ic of social con­sti­tu­tion also pro­vides a way of bridg­ing between the “eco­nom­ic” and the “polit­i­cal” emphases in Marx­ist the­o­ry. What for you are the the­o­ret­i­cal stakes of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion?

I agree with the “new read­ing of Marx” that Marx­i­an eco­nom­ics is fun­da­men­tal­ly Ricar­dian in its scope and con­cep­tion. I have been work­ing on the con­cept of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion since the 1980s. Fun­da­men­tal­ly,  cap­i­tal­ist class rela­tions com­prise his­tor­i­cal­ly brand­ed social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, and they do not shed their brand­ing in the course of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. Rather, cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment is found­ed on the repro­duc­tion of def­i­nite social rela­tions, which com­pris­es the per­pet­u­a­tion of the dou­bly free work­er – this, as Marx calls it, sine qua non of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion is found­ed on the cir­cum­stance that a whole class of peo­ple is cut off from the means of pro­duc­tion. The means of pro­duc­tion are the means of the social metab­o­lism with nature. Once the labor­er has been divorced from her means of pro­duc­tion, she turns into a pro­le­tar­i­an who is “the slave of oth­er indi­vid­u­als who have made them­selves the own­ers of the means of human exis­tence” – so argues Marx in the Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme. The prob­lem of com­mu­nism is not the class strug­gle – which is cap­i­tal­ist real­i­ty. The prob­lem of com­mu­nism is how to end the (pre-)history of class strug­gle, for the sake not of freed pro­le­tar­i­ans, who, too, are a cap­i­tal­ist real­i­ty, but for the sake of a class­less soci­ety.

Author of the article

is a Professor of Politics at the University of York.