The Difficult Theory of a Mad World

By Chris Wright, 13 August 2014
Image: Dušan Matić, Murky Fishing in Clear Waters, 1929

From its central question, 'what does critical theory have to do with the critique of political economy?', Werner Bonefeld’s new book, reviewed here by Chris Wright, develops a deep engagement with the Frankfurt School, Marx and a constellation of less translated critics of the value-form


I find it hard to tell you

’Cause I find it hard to take

When people run in circles it's a very, very
Mad world

– Tears for Fears, ‘Mad World’


Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy is a difficult book to approach. Despite its small size, it is a theoretically dense and systematically developed work in which each chapter is premised on grasping the one preceding it. Each of its moments are an intertwining of precisely aimed critiques and novel critical expositions that challenge not just traditional Marxism, but much of the heterodox work alleging to renew Marxian thought in a post-Soviet, neoliberal world.1


The book opens with two questions that will be asked and answered repeatedly from different angles throughout: ‘What does Critical Theory have to do with the critique of political economy?’ and ‘What exactly do we mean by a “critique of political economy” that is different from a radical (“Marxist” or “Critical”) political economy?’


The students of Frankfurt School critical theory transformed the understanding of Capital against traditional Marxism with its technological determinism, historical teleology, and crude matterism that missed the centrality of the critique of social forms in Marx’s oeuvre. Social forms like value or abstract labour do not refer to objects, but the objectification of human relations in which essence and appearance do not coincide. Bonefeld analyses and criticises the main trends of that post-68 critical theory, especially the debates over the first few chapters of Capital. Not only does he revisit his earlier critiques of structuralist Marxism, but he comments critically on Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, who, among other key contemporaries, played a pivotal role in the turn towards the critique of the value-form.


Critique shows how any political economy – bourgeois, radical, Marxist – naturalises and hypostatises capitalist social forms. For Bonefeld, if social theory is a theory of society, a critical social theory is fundamentally against society. A truly critical theory has to be immanent to its object; it has to be internal to the object to be adequate to its object, not a judgement using an external measure. He then provides a way of thinking about praxis that does not conform to the dualisms of being and thought, of essence and appearance, or, as John Holloway would have it, of the doing and the done. These contraries are necessary, but as Bonefeld points out, a critical theory has to work through the implications of Marx’s statement that ‘All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance of things and the essence of things directly coincided.’2 On this rests the possibility of a critical theory that is true to its object and which is capable of justifying itself, that is, a theory that is both immanent and self-reflexive.


Bonefeld goes beyond much of the previous debates around value-form theory3, appropriating Moishe Postone’s insight that Marx’s critique of political economy is a critique of labour, not a critique from the standpoint of labour. This insight breaks with any ontology of labour as primordial, as the ontological foundation of human being, a common thread within traditional Marxism and much of value-form theory. The revolution is not freeing labour from bondage, but freeing humanity from labour as bondage.


The work simultaneously critiques Postone’s notion of class and class struggle as a traditional, sociological conception. Admittedly, Postone seems so fixated on the critique of traditional Marxism that, despite his own recognition that class is a relation in the sense Bonefeld uses, he implicitly adopts the sociological conception of class. Bonefeld provides a way out of this contradiction later, but in this section Bonefeld’s critique is marred by his own shuffling back and forth between capital as an abstract form of domination and as domination by a constituted capitalist class. Capital is an abstract form of domination because it is not a direct relation or dependent on personal domination.  It is enacted through the necessity of selling one’s labour power in exchange for money, the only medium through which the labourer may procure the use-values necessary for his or her own reproduction. The seller of labour is not under the compulsion of any particular capital, capitalist, or institution and is free to take their labour wherever it may be sold. If class is a relation and capital is an abstract form of domination, then capital does not need to be embodied in individuals. The asymmetry between labour and capital in the class relation, the necessity of the one to be embodied, the other not, is lost. This is why you can have capitalist social forms in the absence of any capitalist class whatsoever (the so-called communist countries) or even the replacement of individual capitalists by corporations as persons before the law.


While this synthetic reappraisal of the contribution of critical theory to the critique of political economy is engaging, Bonefeld does something rarely, if ever, done in Marxian theory since Marx: he shows how the concept ‘primitive accumulation’ discussed in chapter 26 is the ground of commodity, value, capital in chapters 1-3. The commodity in its abstract determinations in chapters 1-3 cannot yet be grounded. The forms are worked up from their most abstract and simple moments, and layer after layer of determination and working through take place until Marx arrives at the actual process of the constitution of the capital-labour relation. What most people take as a merely historical section, the primitive accumulation of capital in which the primary separations of capital come into being (separation of the producers from the means of production, of the producers from their product, of the producers from each other), is actually the precondition which becomes perpetual premise. Bonefeld shows ‘primitive accumulation’ to be the inner logic of capital and the class relation, the process of separation that constitutes dispossession of the producers as the predicate of capital itself. This is the movement that constitutes labour as domination and capital as totality. This is class and class struggle as a relation, a relation of antagonistic separation and agonistic suturing.4 The argument about the place of primitive accumulation in chapters 4 and 5 of Bonefeld's book are not a logical ‘closure’ so that we have come full circle, but a self-grounding, a concretisation and validation of the opening concepts of the book without recourse to external justifications. As Marx says in the Grundrisse,


The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception.5


The book is not without its aporias, however. ‘Abstract labour is the pivotal concept of the critique of political economy – it is the value-producing labour’. Marx’s account of abstract labour is ambivalent (p. 121). This points to the pivotal question of abstract labour as social form, but what if, following the insightful analysis of Nicole Pepperell6, the first chapter entails a series of movements in which a phenomenological rendering of incomplete understandings of the commodity moves through the empiricist understanding, to the rationalist understanding to the objective idealist understanding, only finally beginning to settle on a concept adequate to its object with the fetish character of the commodity. Thus as Pepperell says, regarding whether Marx holds to any kind of physiological conception of abstract labour,


His use of the vocabulary of ‘physiological labour’, which is often taken as a transhistorical element within his argument, is itself intended to be expressive of a distinctive historical and social determination – one that doesn’t experience itself as historical and social, one that doesn’t experience itself as the product of contingent practices, but one that thinks it arises from stripping away all historical and sociological determinations, in order to arrive at a material substratum that is understood by some social actors as asocial and transhistorical. We enact part of our selves as though it is a disenchanted, secular, material ‘thing’ – a physiological body – and, for Marx, this is part of a very peculiar, anthropologically very specific and atypical, social enactment of self.7


Read this way, Marx is not ambivalent and none of these conceptions is meant to be anything other than a one-sided moment of the comprehension of the concept.


On the relation of value to surplus value, Bonfeld argues that it is not enough to conceive of capital in terms of the value-form, but the primacy of surplus in value. Surplus value as valorisation of value is, after all, the goal of production. However this begs the question of the form of surplus; every class society extracts surplus wealth in some form and manner. In fact, all social being requires a surplus, but only in societies of domination is surplus expressed as exploitation. What differentiates various societies of domination is exactly the form this pumping of surplus wealth takes. What makes the surplus of capital unique is that it is surplus value, that is, the value-form is the form in which surplus is pumped out. Capital embodies itself in both its material and money form, as an abstraction independent of any individual, not in the form of direct, overt relations of domination. Presumably, a society of free and equal individuals would also entail a surplus, but one subordinated to the ends of those individuals, not as an end in itself nor as an entitlement of masters. Surplus product exists in all societies where human beings live above an animal existence, but even more so in communism as a society in which ‘to each according to their needs’ is not predicated on how much each individual produces nor how much their needs might change, and in which each individual must be able to freely develop their individual powers. If the satisfaction of material need is not to form a barrier to the free development of human powers and the free enjoyment of human time, then there must be a surplus of material wealth that allows for flexible expansion and experimentation, as well as of doing nothing at all. It is not surplus which needs to be abolished, but value, and this element is lost in the focus on surplus over value.


The primacy of surplus is taken up again as the separation of the time of labour into necessary and surplus time, but the presentation feels ambiguous. If you follow Bonefeld’s exposition that the working day is logically broken up into surplus and necessary labour time, you would be left with the idea that this logical separation is also an actual separation, as if you could divide an actual day in this manner. However, the logical separation disappears in the wage-form because you could break up any unit of labour time into necessary and surplus portions. Logically there may be 4 hours of necessary labour time and 4 hours of surplus labour time, but that distinction disappears in the wage-form. No matter how you turn the day, there is only labour time and all of it is value-producing time.


The book regains its footing with a synoptic working up of the concepts ‘state’ and ‘world market’ that were to form volume 4 of Capital. He develops these concepts squarely from within the critique of political economy so far developed. The state and world market are not mere epiphenomena of capitalism or something only achieved in 'late' capitalism; they are exactly like ‘primitive’ accumulation in being results that were always premises, that are internal to the dynamic of capital. Capitalism did not become global, though in the empirical sense it has spread extensively; its inner logic is global from the beginning.8 The argument that globalisation is something new functions as an apology both for liberal nationalism dreaming of a return to Keynesianism and neoliberalism’s strong state which operates under the cover of the weakening of the state. What distinguishes political economy from vulgar economics is that political economy was a theory of society, not a theory of the ‘economics.’ All attempts at a Marxist economics, a Marxist politics, a Marxist sociology, etc. are a fortiori vulgar.


Through an original discussion of what the political meant in classical political economy, Bonefeld develops the necessity of the state as the political form of capital. The very structure of capital entails the separation of non-violent relations of equivalence, exchange, from a centralisation of the law-giving violence that creates capitalist order. The distinction between law and order here is critical because it recognises the sovereign violence of the state over and against any claims to legality. Liberalism and social democracy alike mistake Law as that which brings Order. Rather, it is the order-establishing violence of the state, its extra-legality, that brings a lawful order about. Bonefeld draws the conclusion that this is why dictatorship does not contradict democracy, because the sovereign suspension of law to protect order is the protection of the (democratic) exchange of equivalents between formally free persons.


If the book begins with and develops the rich implications of critical theory, it ends with the complicated nature of subversion and the always potential insufficiency of anti-capitalism; anti-capitalism is not the same thing as communism. In working up aspects of anti-Semitism, Bonefeld puts forward a way of conceptualising reactionary anti-capitalism. Anti-Semitism is the logical expression of productivist anti-capitalism, and thus the historical anti-Semitism of Stalinism and the anti-Semitism implicit in critiques of ‘financial’ capitalism are not accidental. The book thus comes full circle from Bonefeld’s taking up the theoretical critique of labour to a critique of the labour politics of the traditional left which, like fascism, inscribed above the gateway to the other world: 'Arbeit macht frei.'9


The break with revolutionary romanticism, exemplified in the work of his long time co-thinker John Holloway, present in small ways throughout the book, is most evident here.10 Against a romantic notion of the beautiful ‘Ya Basta!’, and the liberatory immediacy of ‘No!’, no matter how barbaric, Bonefeld takes up Walter Benjamin’s radical uncertainty towards the future and the need to pull the break on the locomotive of history. Revolution, opposition, antagonism against this world is ambivalent because it is also of this world. In the words of the author,


The practice of [a] perverted world is perverted, including the protest against it. Yet, in order to leave this world, protest and revolt are the means of politicising society as experienced practice of domination, and it is in now [sic] way predetermined whether the practice of this experience is communistic or fascistic.11


If the book is at times heavily Marxological and difficult to navigate without understanding the debates it is involved with, it may still be exactly the kind of book we need. Do we really need more information, more facts, as if the problem was ignorance? We need a conceptual comprehension that sharpens and focuses our experience. We do not live in a world in which the abolition of capitalism seems imminent. In such conditions, especially when a thinker breaks through old theoretical integuments, the obligation is towards the very critique and critical theory that animates this book. Revolutionary romanticism is the opium of the Marxists, but for us there can only be ‘a ruthless criticism of everything existing.’12



Chris Wright is an independent intellectual chasing his demons in Baltimore, MD, USA





Werner Bonefeld, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason, Delhi, London, Los Angeles, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.




1 I use this term both in the sense deployed in Open Marxism, Vols.1-3, 1992-95 and in Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

2 Karl Marx, Capital , Vol. III, p.817.

3 Here I am condensing both the New Marx Reading and Systematic Dialectics under ‘value-form theory’ for the sake of brevity.

4 By ‘agonistic suturing’ I have in mind a reuniting in a multiplicity of ways: consumption, nation, ‘culture’. As the labourer is increasingly integrated into society vis-a-vis mass consumption, these ways increasingly involve internalisation of capital's imperatives, of self-loss and impotence, a replacement of desire with drive, of hysteria (antagonism) with depression (agonism). See Howard Slater's extended reflection on Postone’s work, ‘Toward's Agonism’, June 2006,

5 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, London: Penguin, 1993, p. 101.

6 As yet unpublished doctoral dissertation Nicole Pepperel, Disassembling Capital,

8 Capital is a global relation from its inception historically and logically. Historically it develops from the beginning through trade relations with, and exploitation of resources from, every continent in integrated, interdependent networks. Logically, capital as form of wealth is a serial infinity, purely quantitative and without spatial or temporal limit. There is always one dollar more to be made, to paraphrase Carnegie.

9 The words above the entrance to Auschwitz, Dachau and some other Nazi concentration camps.

10 John Holloway's recent works are Change the World Without Taking Power, Cambridge: Pluto press 2002 and Crack Capitalism, Cambridge: Pluto Press, 2010.

11 Personal communication from the author, july 17, 2014.

12 Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843, Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher