Bonefeld’s Negative Humanism

“Louis Althusser was right to argue that Man as such does not exist. Man as such does not do anything and Man as such is therefore incapable of alienating herself as a personification of perverted economic forms. In distinction to Althusser, Man is always objectified Man, and ‘it is objectivity which constitutes the subjective mode of conduct’.4 In the topsy-turvy world of capital, Man is a non-conceptuality, that is, the social individuals are governed by their own social product, which manifests itself in the form of an uncontrollable movement of economic quantities that assert themselves with blind force over the acting subjects. Yet it is their own world that prevails not only over them but also prevails in and through them.

Economic nature is a social nature. Its reality is immanent to its own social context. Society manifests itself in the inverted form of economic objectivity. Objectivity is ‘the generic term for all relations, institutions, and forces in which humans act’. Definite forms of social relations comprise thus an ‘objective conceptuality’. In distinction to the traditional hypothesis of society as a manifestation of some general economic laws that ostensibly determine social development in the last instance, the critique of political economy, conceived critically, amounts to an ad hominem critique of the entire system of economic objectivity as the finite reality of determinant social relations. Instead of deriving the actual social relations from some hypothesized economic laws of nature, it develops the economic structure of society from the actual social relations.7 The view that ‘we can do no other than nature does’ naturalizes capitalist society, and accommodates to its supposed nature. In distinction, the critical intension of the ad hominem critique is to think against the spell of identification, cracking the economic things from within. It therefore argues that the economic relations manifest the objective necessity of the ‘prevailing relations of production’. The social individual depends for her life on the independent movement of the economic forces over which she has no control; yet this movement is not the doing of economic nature. It is her own doing.” Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy, p.220.

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Banaji on Reconstructing Historical Materialism

“What I‘d like to do in this paper is raise the general issue of how we can develop historical materialism in more powerful ways than Marxists have tried to do since the sixties. The general issue is addressed by raising three specific questions. First, how should Marxists periodize capitalism? Second, is there a consistent materialist characterization of ̳Asiatic‘ regimes, since Marx‘s Asiatic mode of production clearly doesn‘t work as one? And third, why have Marxists had so little to say about the deployment of labour? By deployment of labour I mean not the general ways of controlling and exploiting labour that Marx himself would repeatedly refer to in categories such as ̳slavery‘, ̳serfdom‘ and so on, but the organization and control of the labour-process in concrete settings , as in Carlo Poni‘s fine monograph on the struggle between landowners and sharecroppers over methods of ploughing that increased the intensity of labour1 or Hans-Günther Mertens‘ discussion of the organization of Mexican estates.” Read the rest here.

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The German World-Market Debate

Nachtwey and Brin’s excellent discussion of the German World-Market Debate, a very important issue for the current interest in state theory.

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Lefebvre and Sohn-Rethel.

It has occurred to me that there are a number of interesting parallels, and possible points of productive synthesis, between Henri Lefebvre and Alfred Sohn-Rethel.

In the first place, it is interesting to note that Lefebvre and Sohn-Rethel both conceived of projects in their youths, in the 1920s and 1930s, that they took up, reformulated and revised for the remainder of their lives. Moreover, these respective projects — the critique of everyday life and intellectual and manual labour — can both be said to conceive of capitalist society as characterized by a number of divisions. Finally, each thinker can also be said to have attempted to substantiate and embody these divisions in the realm of lived experience on the basis of theories of abstraction. This raises the question if Lefebvre’s notion of ‘concrete abstraction’, which focused on how abstraction was embodied in the lived experience of everyday life, and Sohn-Rethel’s idea of real abstraction, which focused on how conceptual abstraction was derived from the former in addition to the separation of head and hand, might be brought together; possibly providing Lefebvre with a more rigorous account of conceptuality and Sohn-Rethel with the dimensions of how conceptuality and division exist in everyday life.

These similarities also raise the possibilities of more technical comparisons of how they conceived of their theories of abstraction on a Marxian basis as well as looking at their respective Marxist uses of Heidegger.


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Milios on Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism

In the same article Milios also offers the following intriguing periodisation as a way to circumvent the tricky issue of reconciling the anti-Hegelianism of Althusserian and the Hegelianism of Value-Form Theory:

Althusser became increasingly sceptical about the problematic of the value-form, considering that Marx was seeking a Hegelian-style point of departure in the simpler concept, though this could even lead him to quasi-anthropological misinterpretations (fetishism as reification of man, see also Milios-Dimoulis 2006). The intensely polemical character of many of Althusser’s interventions played a contributing role in this (“bending the stick in the opposite direction”). So he repeatedly appeared as fierce critic of Hegel’s philosophy, and he repeatedly argued that it had little to do with Marx’s philosophical theses.

What is very impressive, though, with Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism, is that most contemporary versions of Marxism that share with him the same persistence on the necessity to theoretically distinguish Marx’s concept of value from the classical one belong to what could be called “Hegelian Marxism”![1] These are mostly value-form theorists, who commence from a Hegelian philosophical problematique.

This (phenomenal) paradox is probably “resolved” if one considers that there may be “many Hegels”, in a similar way to the fact that there exist many versions of Marxian theory.[2] Althusser’s “anti-Hegelianism should be seen as the outcome ofa particular theoretical conjuncture with which Althusser took issue. He was required to respond to the categorization of Marxism as a historicist variant of the Hegelian philosophy, a tendency particularly strong in the post-war French philosophical scene, which in general attributed greater significance to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind as a “philosophy of history”, and rather less to the Logic and the endeavour to develop a semantic tool of greater complexity.

He was obliged to treat theoretical humanism as an idealistic deviation par excellence within Marxism, which meant a head-on clash with all theories of reification (Verdinglichung, Versachlichung, Vergegenständlichung). He attempted to confront the economism of the official communist movement, expressed above all through support for unlimited development of – by their nature “positive”– productive forces. This involved placing emphasis on class struggle and the conflict-ridden character of capitalist production and necessarily referring less to the effects of the market as a mechanism for socializing individual private undertakings or to value as a specific social form.

This circumspection of Althusser as regards value-form explains also his tendency to overlook the contradictory character of the texts of the “mature” Marx as well, something which also afflicts the significant concept of symptomatic (“symptomale”) reading, since Althusser tended to think that a reading of this kind could extract a relatively unified theoretical nucleus.

However, as we have argued in the previous section of this text, there are contradictions within this “nucleus” itself, which means that for the clarification and further development of Marxist theory a “symptomatic reading” has to be applied also to the texts of the mature Marx (in order, first of all, to distinguish between the two different theoretical discourses to be found in them and to adopt a stance on these discourses).

The fact that we can trace and explain these contradictions in Althusser’s work as related to his approach to the theory of value should not translate into rejection of the need for a reading of the work of Marx deriving from the Althusserian programme. Despite the fact that we stress what we consider to be Althusser’s weak points in reading the first Chapters of Vol. 1 of Capital and more specifically the value-form, we do not abandon the main theses of the Althusserian approach: the constancy to a relationist approach to class power, the critique of philosophical humanism, essentialism, historicism, economism, and especially the thesis about Marx’s breach with Classical Political Economy.


[1]I am referring to the works of Chris Arthur (2002), Patrick Murray (2000), Geert Reuten (2000), Michael Williams (1988) and others. As Arthur (2002, p. 1) writes: “a new tendency […] has emerged in recent years, which is variously labeled ‘the New Dialectic’, ‘New Hegeliam Marxism’ or ‘Systematic Dialectic’”.

[2]See on this issue Lapatsioras 2006.


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Althusserian Theory as Form-Analytic Social Theory

John Milios’s Capital after Louis Althusser. Focusing on Value-Form Analysis can be seen to provide an illuminating discussion of how elements of Althusserian social theory can extend a value-theoretic reading of Capital into a form-analytic social theory. Although Milios rightly notes that Althusser’s provided an ‘ambiguous’ ‘approach to value theory’ he also identifies the ‘theoretical potential’ in the following aspects of Althusser’s approach:

the predicative and categorical manner in which Althusser declares Marx’s rupture with Political Economy, as well as the basic parameters of his analysis, i.e. his approach to materialist dialectics, the epistemological break, the eccentric conception of social totality, the primacy of class struggle, the relative autonomy and interpenetration of the various practices, point to the theoretical potential implicit in the comprehension of Marx’s monetary theory of value, a key-issue of which is the insistence on the significance of the concept of value-form.

As he spells out in more detail, the importance of Althusser’s reading thus consists in the following:

Althusser theoretical programme founded the thesis of Marx’s critical breach with classical political economy on the following grounds:

a) It has defended the originality of the Marxist oeuvre, which cannot be assimilated to any other philosophical tradition, insisting that it should not be read through any borrowed philosophical prism (theoretical humanism, historical dialectics). In this context Althusser’s analysis emphasizes three elements:

- theoretical anti-humanism (rejecting every form of essentialism),

- anti-historicism (distinction between history as a process and theoretical disquisitions on history),

- the existence of contradictions in Marx’s writings, especially stressing Marx’s “epistemological break” after 1845.

b) It has introduced the distinction between a materialist dialectical conception of social contradictions and other schemata derived from the “philosophy of history”, including certain Marxist interpretations of the work of Hegel.

c) It has defended an original conception of social totality incorporating both political power and ideological relations as central structural determinants of the capitalist mode of production and through the key concept of over-determination it has sought to raise the question of a non-metaphysical and non-teleological theory of determination.

d) It has drawn a dividing line between the terms under which historical social forms or elements and interpenetrating social practices make their appearance and the synchronic dimension of reproduction of a mode of production as a structured social totality.

e) It has insisted on the analytic priority of class struggle and the priority of productive relations over productive forces.

f) It has offered an analysis of ideological representations not as forms of false or mystified consciousness but as socially necessary forms of social misrecognition that are reproduced in practices.

It seems to me that these aspects are drawn on in Milios’s work in which he formulates Althusserian form-analytic accounts of  Imperialism and financialisation.

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The Simple Form of Value

From Karl Marx and the Classics, p. 25:

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