Rome Paper Final Version.

Below is the final version of the paper I delivered last week. To recreate my delivery of the paper: work yourself up into a state of sleep deprivation, crank the heat and invite three people to listen to it.

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

Chris O’Kane


The ongoing crisis has demonstrated the pervasive link between ‘the economy and society.’ Yet there is some irony that the neo-Marxist Critical Theory of Society has few resources to critique this crisis. As Bill Schuermann points out this is particularly true for the Habermasian strands of critical theory, which in many ways are symptomatic of the heady days of the Wirtschaftswunder. In what follows I focus on Adorno’s critical theory of society. Of all of the critical theories of society, I contend that Adorno’s often-criticized social theory comes closest to describing our current socio-economic crisis. However, I also contend that there are limits to Adorno’s social theory that prevent it from apprehending the crisis. These limits undermine its relevance for a critique of the crisis. In what follows I outline the relevance of Adorno’s theory for describing the crisis. I then move to discuss the theoretical and historical aspects of his theory that prevent it from apprehending the crisis.  I then sketch how Adorno’s theory might be useful for apprehending the crisis by combining it with Marx’s monetary theory of value. I conclude with a quick characterization of what a critical theory of this crisis could consist in.


Adorno’s relevance.


What might be called Adorno’s own conception of crisis is often deployed in his critique of universal history. In this line of criticism a crisis is not a unique event, but constitutive of society and consequently ongoing; “there is no history leading from barbarism to humanism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the neutron bomb.” While this conception of crisis is plausible, it is not particularly helpful for a critique of the present crisis. However, there are elements of what is typically described as Adorno’s theory of ‘reification’ that can be seen to be relevant.

These elements of Adorno’s theory consist in his theory of exchange and the exchange abstraction; particularly, his theorization of the exchange abstraction as the socially constituitive pervasive, autonomous and inverted form of abstract social domination. In my view this theorization of the exchange abstraction is descriptive of the way the economic crisis has generated a social crisis. This crisis has also) demonstrated: (1) the pervasiveness of exchange through its ruinous effects on an array of non-economic social institutions and (2) exchange’s domination, compulsion and immiseration of individuals in the social relations that collectively constitute society. I will now examine these elements of Adorno’s theory.

Adorno states that exchange and the exchange abstraction are constitutive of society in numerous statements that litter his writings. “The central feature of any theory of society is abstraction. Abstraction is the specific form of exchange process itself, the underlying social facts through which society first comes about.” ‘exchange’, the ‘exchange principle and the exchange abstraction’ are also responsible for generating a form of autonomous and inverted social domination Adorno refers to with terms such as ‘negative universality.’ The exchange abstraction thus functions as a ‘form of conceptuality that holds sway in reality’ which is independent of the consciousness of the human beings subjected to it’ as a consequence the exchange abstraction in an inversion that dominates and compels individuals:


the abstraction of exchange value is a priori allied with the domination of the general over the particular, of society over its captive membership….. The domination of men over men is realized through the reduction of men to agents and bearers of commodity exchange. The concrete form of the total system requires everyone to respect the law of exchange if he does not wish to be destroyed, irrespective of whether profit is his subjective motivation or not.’



This conception of exchange and domination are also the basis for Adorno’s ‘dialectical’ social theory. ‘Exchange’ is therefore pervasive of what Adorno describes as ‘social objectivity.’ Adorno conceives of social objectivity as the interrelation between this conception of exchange and other social institutions such as the state and administration. Exchange is also pervasive on the subjective level where “the metamorphosis of labour-power into a commodity has permeated men through and through.” For, these reasons it is Adorno’s view that “the law which determines how the fatality of mankind unfolds itself is the law of exchange.”  This is because;


The economic process continues to perpetuate domination over human beings. The objects of such are no longer merely the masses, but also the administrators and their hangers-on…..they have become largely functions of their own production-apparatus…. If the theory of immiseration was not borne out of à la lettre [to the letter], then it certainly has in the no less frightening sense, that unfreedom, one’s dependence on the consciousness of those who serve an uncontrollable apparatus, is spreading universally over humanity. The much-maligned immaturity of the masses is only the reflex of this, this they are as little as ever autonomous masters of their lives; like in mythology, it confronts them as a doom.


In these accounts of Adorno’s conception of the exchange abstraction as an abstract form of domination with pervasive effects on social institutions, and compulsive effects on individuals, I believe we see a good description of the social manifestation of the economic crisis.



Adorno’s Problems


Yet as poignant as these descriptions of our current crisis are, Adorno’s theory has two problems that prevent it from apprehending the crisis. The first problem consists in several important suppositions that stem from the historical context in which Adorno wrote his theory. The second problem is Adorno’s theoretical explication of the social genesis of exchange, the exchange abstraction and its mediation as negative universality.

Adorno’s problematic suppositions consist in conclusions about integration and affluence Adorno drew in the historical context of the Keynesian golden age. In Adorno’s view these developments mitigated some of the iron laws of weltaanschung Marxism:


The prognoses of class-theory such as immiseration and economic crisis have not been so drastically realized, as one must understand them, if they are not to be completely robbed of their content; one can speak of relative immiseration only in a comic sense. Even if Marx’s by no means one-sided law of sinking profit-rate has not been borne out on a system-immanent level, one must concede that capitalism has discovered resources within itself, which have permitted the postponing of economic collapse ad Kalendas Graecus – resources which include the immense increase of the technical potential of society and therein also the consumer goods available to the members of the highly industrialized countries.


Unfortunately, these suppositions have now been antiquated. Relative and complete immiseration can no longer only be spoken of in a comic sense. Several studies have also argued that while technological innovation was a key factor in the post-war boom, its contribution to profits have declined since the 1970’s. This same period has also been marked by a falling rate of profit that has led to a decline in wages and standards of living. This has led some to argue that the question is now open as to whether capitalism has run out of resources for continued accumulation and whether or not it can continue to postpone its collapse. Therefore these suppositions of Adorno’s must be seen as outdated.  We might even say that many aspects of the crisis consists in the negation of these suppositions.

However, these historical suppositions also ground the problematic aspects of Adorno’s theory: his lack of an explication of the social constitution of his theory of exchange. Adorno’s contention that immiseration has been staved off leads him to argue that there is no basis for an objective theory of value;


This development is difficult to separate from the central plank of Marxist theory, namely the doctrine of surplus value. This was supposed to explain the relationship of classes and the increase of class antagonisms as something objectively economic. But if the share of living labour, from which all surplus value accordingly flows, sinks, thanks to the extension of technological progress, to a tangential limit-point, then this affects the central plank, the theory of surplus value. The current lack of an objective theory of value is conditioned not merely by what the academy narrowly defines as scholastic economics. It also refers back to the prohibitive difficulty of objectively grounding the construction of classes without the theory of surplus value

As a consequence Adorno offers no explanation for his objective theory of the exchange abstraction. An explanation for the social constitution of the exchange abstraction its function as an abstract form of domination, and how it interacts with social institutions and dominates individuals is lacking.

At best we have the following explanation from one of Adorno’s lectures.

This explanation discusses the characteristics of the exchange abstraction. It also cobbles together some comments on the role of social labour and money in the exchange process. But there is no explication of the genesis of this abstraction or how it takes on the powers and characteristics that it does, nor how social labour and money relate to this process:



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… 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 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….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.


Thus Adorno’s lack of rigorous explanation for the genesis of the exchange abstraction, abstract social domination and its properties hinders the relevance of his theory for a critical theory of the social economic crisis. However, I believe these aspects of Adorno’s theory can be strengthened by tying them to the elements he is referring to in this passage: Marx’s monetary theory of value.




At this point I certainly don’t have enough time for a prolonged discussion of Marx’s theory of value. Suffice it to say Marx’s theory of value is not a neo-Ricardian theory. Nor does Marx set out to prove the labour theory of value. Rather Marx’s theory explains how value as the social character of capitalist production and the social distribution of wealth, is constituted by social relations. It also explains how capital, as value in motion, is an abstract and inverted form of social domination. Finally, although Marx’s theory of value covers all three volumes of Capital, as a monetary theory of value, it begins with the form determinate analysis of the first chapter. In this chapter money is logically derived from the social structure of capitalist society and shown to possess characteristics Adorno attributes to the exchange abstraction. In the time remaining I sketch this development. I then discuss how the properties of money possess the characteristics of Adorno’s exchange abstraction.

Marx’s presentation in chapter 1 of Capital unfolds in a complex manner. Marx moves from defining the commodity as consisting in use-value and exchange-value to arguing that exchange-value consists in the form of appearance of a ‘third thing’ that commodities have in common when they are brought into relation with each other. Different commodities have this ‘third thing’ in common with each other when their use-values, and the concrete type of labour necessary for their production, are abstracted from. What remains is abstract labour, which is the ‘substance’ of what Marx defines as value.[1] The magnitude of value is socially necessary labour time. Value only exists in relationships between commodities and takes the form of appearance of exchange value. Yet value still possess what Marx defines as ‘ideal materiality’ and ‘spectral objectivity’ that mediates these relationships. Exchanging these commodities makes a universal equivalent, money, necessary.

As Adorno suggests money is therefore an abstraction that develops behind the backs of individuals through the necessity of exchange inherent to the social structure of capitalism.  This is because money is thus logically derived from social character of capitalist social production in the course of this presentation. The fragmented and atomized capitalist social division of labour makes exchange a necessity. It also gives labour the dual character of concrete and abstract labour. Exchange “embodies” abstract labour in value, which is itself realized in exchange through the value relation of one commodity to another. This value relation possesses certain contradictions in simple, isolated and relative forms of exchange, which lead to the necessity of a money form. The money form serves as the socially valid embodiment of all forms of labour and has an exclusive monopoly as the form of exchangeability with all other commodities. Money is therefore a consequence of the specific social structure of capitalist social production. As Marx wrote to Engels: “The simple form of commodity is the secret of the money-form.[2] You may sprinkle sand on this!”

In the course of this explication Marx also derives characteristics of the money form that are similar to the characteristics I have shown Adorno grant the exchange abstraction. As we have seen in Adorno’s discussions exchange is primarily addressed as a relation of equivalents. This leads to some confusion about how the exchange of equivalents generates anything but inter-changability, let alone its autonomous and abstract form of domination. Marx, however, argues that exchange requires an equivalent and a relative form.  In order for exchange to occur the relative form must express itself in the equivalent form. The equivalent form consequently possesses asymmetrical and exclusive power over the relative form. This is compounded in the general equivalent of the money form. As we have seen the money form acts as the socially valid and exclusive crystallization of social labour and hence the exclusive means of exchange. In this relation between the general equivalent and the relative forms we can how Adorno’s conception of the exchange abstraction is “allied with the general over the particular.” We can also see why the general equivalent of the sensible-supersensible money form as “the concrete form of the total system requires everyone to respect the law of exchange if he does not wish to be destroyed.”

In Marx’s later discussion of the fetish character of money we can also see the autonomous power money possesses:


The merely atomistic behavior of men in their social process of production, and hence the fact that their own relations of production take on an objectified form independent of their conscious individual striving, manifests themselves at first in the fact that the products of labour generally take the form of commodities.


The resultant fetish character of commodities is well known. What is often missed is that the fetish character of money possesses these characteristics in a more pronounced form: “The riddle of the money fetish is therefore merely the riddle of the commodity fetish, that has become visible and blinding the eyes.[3]


Finally, in a comment from The Grundrisse that has striking parallels with  Adorno’s characterization of the exchange abstraction consisting in doom and determining fate , Marx offers a truncated explanation for how money inverts to subsume and dominate individuals:


The very necessity of first transforming individual products or activities into exchange value, into money, so that they obtain and demonstrate their social power in this objective [sachlichen] form, proves two things: (1) That individuals now produce only for society and in society; (2) that production is not directly social, is not ‘the offspring of association,’ which distributes labour internally. Individuals are subsumed under social production; social production exists outside them as their fate;

As he says elsewhere in The Grundrisse


These objective dependency relations also appear, in antithesis to those of personal dependence (the objective dependency relation is nothing more than social relations which have become independent and now enter into opposition to the seemingly independent individuals; i.e. the reciprocal relations of production separated from and autonomous of individuals) in such a way that individuals are now ruled by abstractions, whereas earlier they depended on one another



This sketch of Marx’s theory of money then provides: (a) a more complex explanation for the genesis of exchange and the exchange abstraction in Marx’s logical derivation of the money form out of atomized production and exchange in capitalist society. (b) a basis for the characteristics that Adorno grants the exchange abstraction in the fetish characteristic form of money and its function as the general equivalent.

The question that remains is how this combination of Adorno and Marx makes Adorno’s theory more relevant for critical theory of the economic social crisis. I do not have enough time spell this out. But it seems to me that money has indeed possessed the qualities Adorno grants the exchange abstraction in the crisis. In the various forms of debt crisis, default, credit bailouts etc. it has determined peoples fate. In the movements towards privatization or massive publics cuts it has demonstrated how the economy has subsumed numerous supposedly non-economic social institutions. In contrast to Adorno’s historically based suppositions these developments have led to relative and complete immiseration and de-integration. Finally in tying Adorno’s theory of the exchange abstraction to Marx’s derivation of money we have an explanation for the social constitution of money. By combining all these aspects we have a basis for the critique of the crisis that grasps its social genesis, its socio-economic impact and the necessity of transcending exchange in order to overcome this and other crises endemic to capitalism.




About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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