The Universal Character of the Fetish: Critical Theory and Social Crisis.

As I mentioned in the last post I am in the midst of writing an essay for the upcoming Annual Critical Theory conference in Rome. I’m using the paper as the opportunity to work on some ideas I have in conjunction with my thesis that I may pursue if: (a) I live to see the day I finish my thesis (b) I think the ideas are worthwhile should (a) come to pass.

I think I will post what I eventually present. In the meantime here is what I’m arguing. Keep in mind this argument may change

The question I’m addressing is the following: what, if any, is the relevance of Frankfurt School Critical Theory to our understanding or criticism of the social and economic crisis?

I begin with a paragraph that seems obvious to me but may be controversial in some circles: Habermas and post-Habermasian critical theory don’t have dick to say about the social and economic crisis. That shit is well symptomatic of the Wirtschaftswunder.

I argue that Adorno’s critical theory possesses  a theory of exchange and abstract domination that is well descriptive of our current society. However, I argue that his assumptions of integration and prosperity and his lack of an explanation of how: (a) exchange develops into abstract domination and (b) abstract domination ‘mediates’ society prevent his critical social theory from helping to interpret and critique the social and economic crisis.

I then move to do so by tying Adorno’s conception of exchange to Marx’s monetary theory of value. I argue that the characteristics Marx’s grants the money form provide a basis for Adorno’s description of abstract domination as an autonomous form of”negative universality” and as a “conceptuality that holds sway in reality.” I further argue that Marx’s discussion of the general equivalent and relative form provide a basis for Adorno’s discussion of universality and particularity. Finally I argue that restoring immiseration and the law of value to Adorno’s theory and combining it with money provide a way to describe the socio-economic crisis in Adornian terms as ” The law which determines how the fatality of mankind unfolds itself is the law of exchange.” Thus, criticism of exchange and domination and its overcoming are necessary.

For those who may say Adorno already has an explanation how exchange develops and ‘mediates’ society. Here is the most detailed explanation of his that I’ve found. Its got good moments but I still think it can be fleshed out and strengthened through Marx.


The abstract element here is not an idea which is content with the trifling observation that everything is connected to everything else. It is something which I believe to be a central feature of any theory of society, and I would ask you to take this central feature very seriously and to note what I now have to say. Ladies and Gentlemen, the abstraction we are concerned with is not one that first came into being in the head of a sociological theoretician who then offered the somewhat flimsy definition of society which states that everything relates to everything else. The abstraction in question here is really the specific form of the exchange process itself, the underlying social fact through which socialization first comes about. If you want to exchange two objects and – as is implied by the concept of exchange – if you want to exchange them in terms of equivalents, and if neither party is to receive more than the other, then the parties must leave aside a certain aspect of the commodities. In discussing equal exchange, I must for the moment disregard the question whether a violation of equivalence is not implied in the concept of exchange itself; for the present we are concerned only with constructing the concept to the extent that it is constitutive of society. In developed societies the exchange takes place, as you all know, through money as the equivalent form. Classical political economy demonstrated, as did Marx in his turn, that the true unit which stands behind money as the equivalent form is the average necessary amount of social labour time, which is modified, of course, in keeping with the specific social relationships governing the exchange. In this exchange in terms of average social labour time the specific forms of the objects to be exchanged are necessarily disregarded; instead, they are reduced to a universal unit. The abstraction, therefore, lies not in the abstracting mode of thought of the sociologist, but in society itself. Or, if you will permit me to use this term once again, something like a ‘concept’ is implicit in society in its objective form. And I believe that the decisive difference between a positivist and a dialectical theory of society lies in this objectivity of the concept inherent in the subject matter itself; positivist sociology denies this process of abstraction, or at least relegates it to the background; its concepts are formed solely within the subject which observes, classifies and draws conclusions. I would ask you not to misunderstand this to mean that the process of abstraction, as we understand it, takes place within the individual subjects performing the exchange. Media such as money, which are accepted by naive consciousness as the self‑evident form of equivalence and thus as the self­-evident medium of exchange, relieve people of the need for such reflection. How far this reflection has ever consciously taken place, and how far the process of abstraction has always asserted itself over the heads of human beings through the simple necessity of exchanging like for like, need not concern us for the present, though I incline to the latter view. At any rate, once you grasp this functional exchange relationship as constituting the essence of socialization, with all the social problems which the elaboration of the exchange principle entails, the concept of society ceases to be the seemingly empty abstraction stating that everything is connected to everything else for which Herr Albert takes me to task. Such a concept of society becomes, through its very nature, critical of society, in that the unfolding of the exchange process it refers to, objectively located within society itself, ends up by destroying society.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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