The All-Penetrating Ether of Society: Adorno, Exchange, and Abstract Social Domination

Here’s the paper I presented at the recent HM conference. Like most conference papers I have presented its rough and fragmentary but it gives an idea of what I am struggling with


The All-Penetrating Ether of Society: Adorno, Exchange, and Abstract Social Domination

Despite comments like “The context which perpetuates life simultaneously destroys it” and “The law which determines how the fatality of mankind unfolds itself is the law of exchange” there is a surprising lack of Anglophone commentary[1] on Adorno that looks at either his conceptualization of what I will term abstract social domination or the way in which this type of domination relates to his theory of exchange and what Adorno terms ‘the objective exchange abstraction.”[2] Instead the majority of Anglophone literature interprets these types of statements through the prism of “reification” as part and parcel of Adorno’s theory of ‘totally reified society.’ As a consequence, Adorno’s theorization of how the “negative objectivity of the system” relates to the objectivity of exchange abstraction is subsumed by commentary that treats the exchange abstraction as coextensive with categories such as reification which operate on lowers levels of abstraction in his theory.

In what follows I focus on expositing how Adorno’s conception of exchange and the objective exchange abstraction operates on this structural and structuring level of abstraction. I will try to show that Adorno theorizes the exchange abstraction through what I will term his Marx Hegel analogy. Through this analogy Adorno interprets the exchange abstraction as a form of conceptuality that develops from the  class relation to function as the overriding mediating abstract form of domination that characterizes late capitalist totality. I then turn to a quick exposition of how this theorization manifests itself on the supraindividual and individual levels of Adorno’s social theory. Before turning—if I have time– to how utilizing this level of Adorno’s theory may make a critical theory of society relevant today.






In Negative Dialectics Adorno puts forward a critique of reification that has caused confusion among commentators who read his social theory exclusively through the category of reification. However, as some argue, this criticism of reification does not signify Adorno’s move to replace Lukacsian reification with his own. Rather, as I will try to show, it signals a move to focus analysis and criticism on what I will argue Adorno views as forming a higher level of abstraction then reification, what Adorno variously terms the objective exchange abstraction, fetishism or the exchange principle.

This can be seen in Adorno’s criticism that instead of the “tireless charge of reification:”


“the trouble is with the conditions that condemn mankind to impotence and apathy and would yet be changeable by human action; it is not primarily with people and the way conditions appear to people.”[3]



Therefore, according to Adorno, unlike the ‘idealist’ ‘subjective and ‘reflexive’ prognosis of reification, which centres on the undialectical appearance of the thing, and criticism that seeks to dynamize these things, the trouble is with the social ‘conditions’ that structure human interaction.

In Adorno’s view the later is theorized by Marx’s analysis of the fetish character of the commodity, which Adorno reads as a social category that expresses the objective social form of existing social relations.


“the fetish-character of commodities is not chalked up to subjective-mistaken consciousness, but objectively deduced out of the social a priori, the process of exchange.”

To see Adorno’s interpretation of how Marx objectively deduced the fetish-like character of commodities out the social apriori and how this relates to Adorno’s theorization of the exchange abstraction, I will now turn to Adorno’s theorization of Marx.


            To begin with, Adorno viewed Marx in a Hegelian light. He held that the late Marx followed Hegel in theorizing ‘the objectivity of the concept’ and in viewing labour as social labour.[4] He consequently saw Marx’s theory of fetishism in this light. [5]

Beginning with the commodity, Adorno interprets Marx as arguing that abstract labour and exchange are central to valorisation and commodification: “What makes commodities exchangeable is the unity of socially necessary abstract working time (Arbeitszeit). Abstract work, because through a reduction to unity one abstracts from use value, from needs.”  This abstraction is what makes the commodity “a kind of sum of something solid, objective (Dinglichem).” This is because “Through abstract working time one abstracts from living opponents.”

Consequently, this abstraction is also responsible for granting the commodity its fetishistic form:


On the face of it, these abstractions makes what is exchanged a thing in itself. What is a social relation appears as if it was the sum of objective qualities of an object. The concept of commodity fetishism is nothing but this necessary process of abstraction. By performing the operation of abstraction, the commodity no longer appears as a social relation but it seems as if value was a thing in itself.[6]

Thus, in Adorno’s interpretation, this necessary process of abstraction arises from the structure of the social form to express itself in the fetish form of the exchange abstraction. This interpretation of the fetish form of the exchange abstraction as a social category mirrors Adorno’s criticism of reification, “Concepts like the fetish character of commodities can only be understood when one does not just transform them into subjective categories.” For, “it is a question of overall structure: It is not about the psychological fetishizing of individual commodities, but about the objective structure of commodity economy.” This is because “In a society in which exchange value is the dominant principle, this fetishizing is realized necessarily.” This is because, according to Adorno, This fetish form of abstraction is the result of a process inherent to the structure of capitalist society that functions as a form that determines consciousness. “This is the actual reason why consciousness is determined by being. What is decisive is that the objective structure of economic form realizes from within itself fetishization.”

However, in contrast to epistemologically illusory interpretations of fetishism, What is necessary is not the illusory appearance of the commodity as a thing, but how this objective structure abstracts from the social form of commodity production to replace it with value as a thing in itself in the fetish form of the exchange abstraction. On one hand, this means that “What is essential is that the commodity disappears as a social relation.” But on the other hand it also means that what is essential is that function of the capitalist social form is realized in the fetish form of the exchange abstraction which through the way value functions in-itself objectively mediates the activities of the social relations that produce it.

This can be seen in the way that Adorno’s interprets Marx’s theory of fetishism as developing from the class relation to take on an overarching abstract objectivity that compels individual activity. For as an objective form of mediation the fetish form of the exchange abstraction is derived from the relationship between the structure of the class relation and the abstract form of mediation that grows out of and mediates this relation as an abstract form of domination. As Adorno stresses this is because “The illusion (Schein) in the process of exchange” does not lie in the socially valid objectivity of the fetish form of the exchange abstraction but “in the concept of surplus value.”[7]

Even here, as Adorno enumerates, the illusion of surplus value is false and real.  False because of how surplus value originates, but real because of the way its expression in the fetish form of the exchange abstraction determines the powerlessness of the worker “Only because the worker has nothing else but his labor power, does he accept these conditions,” and compels the function of the capitalist,.”Hence, “Even if we see through this illusion, this does not change the fetish character of the commodity: every business man who calculates has to act according to this fetish. If he does not calculate in this way he goes broke.”

As a consequence, both sides of the class relation take on the role of ‘character masks,” which are “derived from objective conditions” with “the role… imposed on the subject by the structure.”In Adorno’s view this is why “Marx does not start with consumption but with production – production understood as: dominance (Vorherrschaft) of the proprietors (der Verfügenden). This approach is more just to reality.”[8]

Rather then reified appearance, Adorno’s analysis of Marx then centers on the fetish form of the exchange abstraction as a social category inherent to the structure of capitalist society. This category is formed by the extraction of surplus value in the exploitative class relation but the overriding objective mediation of exchange and the exchange abstraction that arise from this relation turn back on it, structuring and dominating it, compelling the actions and forming the consciousness of all individuals within capitalist totality.



            Before I turn to discussing how this interpretation of Marx forms the basis of Adorno’s theory of the fetish form of the exchange abstraction. A few words on how Adorno modifies Marx and Marxism.

As I previously stated, Adorno saw Marx in a Hegelian light. Adorno’s theorization of the objective abstraction of the fetish form supplements this Hegelian interpretation of Marx through what in contrast to systematic accounts of the Marx Hegel homology might be called an unsystematic Marx Hegel analogy.

This analogy consists in reading Marx’s and Hegel’s social categories as analogous or dialectically interrelated with each other. In the case of Marx this leads Adorno to flesh out what he believes are the problematic aspects of Marx’s theory of value with Hegelian categories.[9] Whereas In the case of Hegelian categories this analogy consists in critiquing them with Marxist categories. The former can be seen in Adorno’s amendment of exchange and labour.

This is because in Adorno’s view Marx neglected the importance of epistemology, treating it like an ‘elephant in a china shop.’ This lead Marx to neglect the conceptual element in exchange necessary to conceptualize equivalents or indeed to conceptualize unequivalents as equivalents.[10] Consequently, Adorno interprets exchange as having a socially constituted and constituting conceptuality inherent to it.[11]

This conceptual element is denoted by the Hegelian concept of identity thinking.[12] Like the fetish form of the exchange abstraction identity thinking is unable to grasp the entire array of non-identical mediations in objects or in the relation between objects. It therefore serves as the epistemological element Adorno saw as lacking in Marx.[13] Thus, exchange and identity thinking are dialectically interrelated. This allows Adorno to extend to the extent to which the exchange abstraction determines consciousness: conceptual forms of thinking are also socially constituted real abstractions.

Adorno also uses Hegel to modify traditional interpretations of Marxist political economy, such as the base and superstructure, which Adorno replaces with the dialectical interplay of subject and object in social totality as expressed through his interpretation of Marxist categories as social categories. This modification explains some, but not all, of the inconsistencies in Adorno’s social conception of exchange and the exchange abstraction’s relationship to Marxist political economy.  Adorno is equivocal in places, such as Late Capitalism or industrial Society?,  about whether the law of value still possesses the explanatory power it did in Marx’s day.[14] However, this does not prevent Adorno from utilizing the structure of the law of value or the concepts of surplus value, fetishism or the class relation in his social theory. This is because Adorno does not utilize these concepts in terms of traditional interpretations of Marxist political economy in which the law of value was meant to lead to immiseration and revolution, but in terms of his expanded social conception of exchange, which is pervasive through out the stable and integrated capitalist social totality.[15]

This expanded concept arises from his non-hypostatized Hegelian conception of any type of social activity as labour and in the dialectical manner that this conception of labour is presupposed in exchange.[16] Thus, in opposition to the doctrine of the base and superstructure, or Lukacs’s standpoint of class for Adorno’s theory this expanded concept of exchange and the objective exchange abstraction are theorized as constituted by and constituting social totality.[17] This is because exchange has become so expansive that ‘in total society everything is equally close to the center.”

Taking these two points into consideration accounts for the way in which Adorno theorizes exchange as constituting social totality.:“what really makes society a society what constitutes it both socially and in reality is the reality of exchange.” And the way in which the fetish form of the exchange abstraction necessarily arises from this socializing process of exchange.

Why this is the case can be seen in Adorno’s comments on Hegel’s interruption of the dialectic. Where, in one of his Marxist critiques of Hegel, Adorno gives his most in depth account of the historical development of the social conditions that make exchange socially constitutive.

These social conditions consist in: “The dissolution of all products and activities into exchange-values.” Which is ‘presupposed’ by the social form of exchange, which consists in “the dissolution of all solidified personal (historical) relationships of dependency in production, as much as the all-round dependency of the producers on each other.” Leading to a contradictory form of atomized dependence “the production of every individual is dependent on the production of all others; as much as (also) the transformation of one’s products into food has become dependent on the consumption of all others. Consequently, what Adorno refers to as ”This reciprocal dependency is expressed in the constant necessity of exchange and in exchange-value as an all-round mediator.”

According to Adorno, this “negative primacy of the concept” sheds light on why Hegel, its apologist, and Marx, its critic, converge in the conception that what the former named the world-spirit, possesses a preponderance of being-in-itself.” This is because; “The individuals are subsumed under social production, which exists as a doom outside of them; but social production is not subsumed under individuals, who operate it as their capacity in common.”

This explanation thus expresses what underlies Adorno description of the development of the exchange abstraction. This can be seen in Adorno’s statement that: “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.” According to Adorno, this is because of the necessary process of abstraction that is realized in exchange through abstract labour’s realization in money:[18] “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.”

Thus, due to this socially constituting process in which this abstraction develops, this abstraction possesses the structural conceptuality of a social category that Adorno grants Marx theory of fetishism. For  “something like a ‘concept’ is implicit in society in its objective form.”

This ‘concepts’ function in the objective form of society can be seen in Adorno’s discussions of fetishism.[19] In these discussions Adorno’s interpretation of Marx’s Fetish character of commodities is deployed in accord with the Marx Hegel analogy as dialectic unity of ‘mind’ and ‘non-mind’ to characterize the form of society that is constituted through exchange as an inverted entity that functions in-itself as a fetishistic form of mediation that abstractly dominate all individuals who are subjugated to it. Thus, Adorno’s famous statement, that the conceptuality that develops out of exchange is a “conceptuality which holds sway in reality” which as a “mediating conceptuality” is  “independent both of the consciousness of the human beings subjected to it and of the consciousness of the scientists.” Because “this conception is the objectivity valid model for all essential social events,” “society obeys this conceptuality tel quel.”[20]

From this short summary we can then see that Adorno’s conception of the fetish form of the exchange abstraction follows his interpretation of marx broadening it to conceptualize exchange as the constitutive form of sociality and the exchange abstraction as the fetish form this sociality constitutes. To see how social totality obeys this conceptuality, I now turn to a quick exposition of how it factors into the structural level of Adorno’s dialectical social theory.


As a whole, Adorno’s dialectical social theory is characterized as inversion“Subject and object diverge in this society, and, to an unprecedented degree, living people are the objects of social processes which, in their turn, are composed of people.”[21] This inversion is expressed as ‘the fetish character…historically has become the prius of what according to its concept would have to be posterioius.’[22]  Consequently “The pre‑given structure…is essentially negative and is incompatible with its own goal, namely the preservation and satisfaction of mankind.”

In order to explain how this inversion occurs Adorno’s social theory follows his a interpretation of Marx wherein the objective fetish form of the exchange abstraction develops out of the class relation to take on its supraindividual mediating form of abstract domination.

This can be seen in Adorno’s late talks on the concept of society where Adorno distinguishes the structural persistence of class from the integration of class consciousness. In Society, Adorno states that “society is still class struggle,”  in Late Capitalism or Industrial Society? he argues that contemporary society is still capitalist because society still functions according to the relations of production.

While Adorno’s expanded amendment of his interpretation of the structural mediation of the exchange abstraction can be seen in the overarching statements that Adorno makes that


the totality, or in Hegel’s words the all-penetrating ether of society… anything but ethereal, but on the contrary an ens realissimum  [Latin: that which is real, materially existent]. Insofar as it is abstractly veiled, the fault of its abstraction is not to be blamed on a solipsistic and reality-distant thinking, but on the exchange-relationships, the objective abstractions, which belongs to the social life-process. The power of that abstraction over humanity is far more corporeal than that of any single institution, which silently constitutes itself in advance according to the scheme of things and beats itself into human beings. The powerlessness which the individual experiences in the face of the totality is the most drastic expression of this. Late capitalism[23]



This individual powerlessness is theorized as the other side of the supraindividual meditation of the objective exchange abstraction,” This side of Adorno’s theorization forms a much more radical account of integration then his theory of reified consciousness and resembles recent attempts to provide a historical periodization between formal and real subsumption. This aspect of Adorno’s theory can also be seen as accounting for the fact that “In Marx’s day it could not yet be seen that the immanence of society had become total.”[24] Whereas in Adorno’s time “the metamorphosis of labour-power into a commodity has permeated men through and through.” Thus, on the supraindividual side while ‘human beings are unfree in their bondage to what is external’, on the individual side “that which is external to them is in turn also themselves. This is because, according to Adorno, “Men have come to be- triumph of integration—identified in their innermost behavior patterns with their fate in modern society. men owe their lives to this.” Consequently, individual consciousness is preformed by social totality because of the functional behavior they are forced to take on to survive. While at the same time the category of the individual functions an aspect of this supraindividual abstract form of domination.[25]

Both sides are exposited in Adorno’s lengthier statements that capture the abstract form of social domination that arises from exchange, the manner in which it inverts to determines the functional role of character masks and finally the way in which it mutilates individuals.



Profit comes first. A humanity fashioned into a vast network of consumers, the human beings who actually have needs, have been socially preformed beyond anything which one might naively imagine, and this is not only by the level of industrial development but also by the economic relationships themselves into which they enter…above and beyond all specific forms of social differentiation, the abstraction implicit in the market systems represents the domination of the general over the particular, of society over its captive membership…..Behind the reduction of men to agents and bearers of exchange value lies the domination of men over men….The 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 motive or not.[26] The tendency to do so is universal, of one mind with the economic process, which reduces individual interests to the common denominator of a totality, which remains negative, because it distances itself by means of its constitutive abstraction from the individual interests, out of which it is nevertheless simultaneously composed. The universality, which reproduces the preservation of life, simultaneously endangers it, on constantly more threatening levels. The violence of the self-realizing universal is not, as Hegel thought, identical to the essence of individuals, but always also contrary. They are not merely character-masks, agents of value, in some presumed special sphere of the economy. Even where they think they have escaped the primacy of the economy, all the way down to their psychology, the maison Tulare [French: universal home] of what is unknowably individual, they react under the compulsion of the generality; the more identical they are with it, the more un-identical they are with it in turn as defenceless followers. What is expressed in the individuals themselves, is that the whole preserves itself along with them only by and through the antagonism.


On both the objective and subjective side of Adorno’s dialectical social theory I have shown how Adorno employs his theorization of the fetish form of the exchange abstraction in his characterization of late capitalist totality. Through recourse to the socially constitutive form of exchange, at this level of abstraction, Adorno’s dialectical social theory consists in the socially objective fetish form of the exchange abstraction, which manifests itself in an overall objective abstract and inverted form of social domination and in many subjectively objective abstract and inverted forms of social domination. As a consequence, “Totality . . . is pre-established for all individual subjects since they obey its ‘constraints’ even in themselves and even in their monadological constitution and here in particular, conceptualize totality. To this extent, totality is what is most real.” This is because The principle of heteronomy, apparently the counterpart of fetish- ism, is the principle of exchange, and in it domination is masked. 227 AT Society so that “ the system is negative objectivity not the positive subject.”





In closing a few words about how this relates to Adorno’s critical theory and it possible relevance for today. First, a reconsideration of what constitutes critical social theory in this strand of Adorno’s thought. Following from the strand I have exigeted critical theory should not be seen as some ineffectual form of ideology critique of false consciousness. Rather, if as I have shown the fetish form of the exchange abstraction is an objective expression of the false heart of the social form of the class relation, then Adorno’s critical theory is a critical theory of society concerned with: (1) this relation and the objective social forms constituted and constitutive of this relation (2) the attempted negation of this relation and the forms through what is non-identical.

While it is unfortunately the case that Adorno’s own social often focused on the lower levels of abstract in the hope of deriefying consciousness (quote about waking up) and there is also some truth to the case that Adorno’s theorization of these forms of non-identity at best eschewed politics for mandarin navel gazing of an aesthete and at worst opposed what might be seen as the non-identical politics of 68, much of this rested on Adorno’s assumption of economic and financial stability and the integrated consciousness that came along with it. Both are anachronistic. Because of this his comments about the relationships between the totalized overall mediation of value and doom have perhaps never been more apt.  It then seems that if there is to be any relevance to critical theory it should investigate the relationships between this totalized mediation and how it manifests itself in these forms of abstract domination. But it should also point to non-identity in terms of the relation between negative universality and a type of counter universality that exists in non-identical particularities that contest or disrupt negative universality. Here mapping how this negative universality is expressed in the abstract global space of capital should might prove productive.  While at the same it might embrace politics. Here the parallels between Adorno’s conception of non-identity and negation and the process of communization as the negation of value may build on Adorno’s statement that: “If no human being was deprived of their share of their living labor, then rational identity would be achieved, and society would be beyond the identifying thought.”[27]

[1] This leads influential interpreters such as Gillian Rose to argue that Adorno transforms Marx’s theory of fetishism into a theory of reification that eschews any basis in surplus value. Instead Rose argues that Adorno’s concept of reification is treated in terms of the opposition between exchange value and use value in which non-identical entities are treated identically.  Following this influential interpretation prominent Adorno commentators like Deborah Cook define Adorno’s concept of exchange principle as a ‘pathic and coercive’ type of rationality.’

However, a few works by Backhaus, Reichelt. Breuer and Bonefeld run against the grain of these influential interpretations. These author’s works point out the parallels that Adorno’s theory of objective abstraction and abstract social domination share with Marx. Yet, apart from Breuer, these work are not concerned with mapping how these parallels fit into Adorno’s social theory.

[2] The closest I have found is the work of Open Marxism particularly Werner Bonefeld’s article on Adorno and praxis. Although Bonefeld’s main concern is with the question of Praxis his discussion of Adorno’s concept of society outlines his theory in terms of abstract social domination and exchange in a more in depth way then other secondary literature. Bonefeld’s characterization also draws on the work of Backhaus and Reichelt. I still consider it insufficient because it does not attempt a focused examination in the way I am attempting.

[3] Negative Dialectics 190. This strand of thought also goes against ideology critic interpretations of Adorno.

[4] Backhaus 4

[5] Quotes about how fetishism is part of history of german idealism. Hegelian

[6] Backhaus 6


[8] Lastly, These discussions lead to Adorno placing the concepts of alienation and reified consciousness in relation to the structure of exchange and the exchange abstraction. In Adorno’s analysis these concepts are practically realized and systematically exposited in Marx’s theory of fetishism.[8] Accordingly to Adorno, the categories of reification and alienation are treated as established by fetishism. For, as we have seen, since fetishism arises from the abstract and “objective structure of commodity society,”…. “all other reactions of reified consciousness are secondary things.”

[9] In Hegel’s case this analogy works in the opposite direction and often leads to Adorno using Marx to criticize Hegel. CF his critique of Hegelian universal history as fetishistic.

[10] Footnote to D of E as prehistory of this qual difference


[11] Identification is ‘schooled in exchange’ (JA 107) and ‘exchange would not be without’ the  transactors’ adopting the identification principle.”

[12] Although Adorno’s anthropological speculations in the Dialectic of enlightenment argue that a type of reason akin to identity formed as part of historical process of humanities seperation from and domination of nature, he also treats capitalist exchange and identity thinking as qualitatively different to its prehistory. Thus this prehistoric form seems to historically responsible for the development of capitalism but distinct from it. This can be see in Dialectic of Enlightenment

Argue for distinction in capt from anthropol.

“In the enlightened world, mythology has entered into the profane… It is not merely that domination is paid for by the alienation of men from the objects dominated: with the objectification of spirit, the very relations of men – even those of the individual himself – were bewitched. …Animism spiritualises the object, whereas industrialism objectifies the spirits of men.”

But still inconsistencies bruer points out tween nietzchean strand

See for instance Universal History in Negative Dialectics.

See also Benzer’s discussion.


[13] The exchange-principle, the reduction of human labor to an abstract general concept of average labor-time, is Ur-related to the identification-principle. It has its social model in exchange, and it would not be without the latter, through which non-identical particular essences and achievements become commensurable, identical. The spread of the principle constrains the entire world to the identical, to totality. ND. The dialectics of Identity. Because of its place as the epistemological Hegelian element in exchange, identity thinking is also a socially objective. As dialectically interrelated to the exchange principle, identity thinking thus serves as a socially objective mode of consciousness internally related to the exchange abstraction. The most evocative way this relationship might understood is by relation Adorno’s characterization of Kapital as the phenomenology of the non-mind to Hegel’s phenomenology of the mind.




[14] Rose draws on Adorno’s statements in Late capitalism to argue that Adorno contends that no satisfactory theory of value exists due to the eclipse of the theory of value and surplus value. Yet in other writings such as Negative Dialectics Adorno still uses surplus value.

[15] In fact In Negative Dialectics Adorno also expands social labour by redefining it as seemingly any form of social activity. As his comments on Marx not hypostatizing labour and Sohn-Rethel discovering the form of social labour in thought attest.

[16] Thus, contra Rose’s argument, Adorno does not say that there is not a satisfactory  theory of value or surplus value in Late Capitalism he says that grounding it in economic terms is not valid.

[17] Causality has withdrawn as it were into the totality; in the midst of its system

it becomes indistinguishable. The more its concept, under scientific mandate, dilutes

itself to abstraction, the less the simultaneous threads of the universally socialized

society, which are condensed to an extreme, permit one condition to be traced back with evidence to others. Each one hangs together horizontally as vertically with all others, tinctures all, is tinctured by all. The latest doctrine in which enlightenment employed causality as a decisive political weapon, the Marxist one of superstructure and infrastructure, lags almost innocently behind a condition, in which the apparatuses of production, distribution and domination, as well as economic and social relations and ideologies are inextricably interwoven, and in which living human beings have turned into bits of ideology. Where these latter are no longer added to the existent as something justifying or complementary, but pass over into the appearance [Schein], that what is, would be inescapable and thereby legitimated, the critique which operates with the unequivocal causal relation of superstructure and infrastructure aims wide of the mark. In the total society everything is equally close to the midpoint; it is as transparent, its apologetics as threadbare, as those who see through it, who die out. This is not to say that Marx did not view capital as a type of social totality, its meant to signal that Adorno was not interested a genetic presentation of the social form of political economy that unfolded from commodity into totality. Instead he read these categories through totality and totality through these categories.   Thus the methodological problem of how and why they develop into each other is left unanswered. Yet, the Hegel Marx fusion allows for the expansive conception without theoretical elaboration. Move to the end? Eliminate?


[18] : 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

[19] This form of fetishism litters Adorno’s writing and receives the most focus in his writings such as The Jargon of Authenticity, The Positivist Dispute, the section on natural history in Negative Dialectics and the essays Subject and Object, Late Capitalism or Industrial Society as well as the lectures on Sociology and History and Freedom.


[20] Consequently, “talk about the unreality of social laws is only justified critically, namely with regard to the commodity’s fetish character. Exchange value, merely a mental configuration when compared with use value, dominates human needs and replaces them; illusion dominates reality.” For the form of social domination is ultimately that of inversion brought about by the structural conceptual mediation of the exchange abstraction; Yet nothing is more powerful than the conceptual mediation which conjures up before human beings the being‑for-another [80/81] (das Füranderesseiende) as an in‑itself, and prevents them from becoming conscious of the conditions under which they live.[20]

[21] Intor to soc lecture 16

[22] Adorno. Subject object 248

[23] This aspect of Late capitalist society is defined elsewhere as “the same old social oppression, only now become anonymous” because these abstract structural forms dominates and predetermining the lives of its inhabitants[23] possessing the characteristics of ‘doom’ and ‘fate.’


[24] Towards a new manifesto 57

[25] The doctrine of the transcendental subject faithfully discloses the precedence of the abstract, rational relations that are abstracted from individuals and their conditions and for which exchange is the model. If the standard structure of society is the exchange forms. Its rationality constitutes people. What they are for themselves, what they think they are is secondary. They are deformed at the outset by the mechanism that was then philosophically transfigured into the stranscendental….what is supposedly the most obvious, the empirical subject, would actually have to be considered as something not yet existing; from this aspect the transcendental subject is ‘constituitive.” On subject object 247/8

[26] The exchange abstraction that develops out of this equivalent exchange of unequivalents occurs through ‘the exchange principle.’ The exchange principle, as Adorno defines it in Negative Dialectics, has to do with the abstraction process that occurs in Marx’s theory of value where in Adorno’s terms human labour is reduced to the “abstract general concept of average-labour time.” Production is thus geared according to the principle of socially necessary time, or in effect, paying the least for the maximum extraction of surplus value.   Thus, contra Cook, here the ‘exchange principle’ consists in the incorporation of labour into exchange along Marx’s lines. Consequently, this “objective” exchange “abstraction takes place, not so much in scientific thought, as in the universal development of the exchange principle itself.”[26]


[27] ND Dialectic of Identity

About HR

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One Response to The All-Penetrating Ether of Society: Adorno, Exchange, and Abstract Social Domination

  1. Pingback: Marxian Hipsters, Old Skool Marxists and the Abstract and Fetishized Notions of Social Emancipation | The Real Movement

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