Here is an updated version of my talk on critical theory, capitalism and the domination of nature and the Harper government, the properly polished version with footnotes etc. will be published in late summer:
“The Process of Domination Spews out Tatters of Subjugated Nature”: Negative Totality and the Domination of Nature in Critical Social Theory.
The majority of contemporary evaluations of Adornian critical theory in the Anglophone world are indelibly shaped by the peculiar contours of its initial reception. Without too much exaggeration this reception can be said to frame not only how Adorno’s critical theory is interpreted, but also how its legacy is conceived. This is notably the case with two shibboleths of the hegemonic Anglophone reception of Adornian critical theory: that Dialectic of Enlightenment marks the point at which Adorno and Horkheimer abandoned Marxism and that the narrative of instrumental reason that replaces it is so totalizing that it eschews a normative basis and discounts emancipatory elements of contemporary society, such as democracy and mutual recognition. Since the relationship between the latter and the project of the critical theory of society, as originally formulated, are questionable; in what follows I focus on bringing to light what these approaches have obscured in order not only to demonstrate the vitality of Adornian critical theory, but also to show how this approach has been developed by a strand of thought that is overlooked in the Anglophone World. I do so by focusing on an area that is not only of utmost urgency to contemporary society, but which the approaches of intersubjective recognition and communicative action are ill equipped to explain: the domination of nature.
My aim in mapping this development is thus twofold: to draw attention to it and to make a case for its relevance. Therefore, rather than focusing on the methodological and Marxological minutiae at the heart of this development, I provide an accountthat focuses on how these elements of critical theory can be brought together to illuminate the relationship between the domination of nature and the economic and political logic of capitalist society as a negative totality. To do this, I first discuss the Marxian basis of the idea of the critical theory of society. I then show how this strand is refined in Adorno’s notions of culture and society. Here I pay particular attention to the late Adorno’s conceptions of these ideas, which drew on Alfred Schmidt’s interpretation of Marx to conceive of culture as constitutive of the domination of external nature and internal human nature and of capitalist society as negative totality constituted by the exchange abstraction and perpetuated by the internal relation between the state and the economy. I then highlight how Adorno’s students, Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, developed new interpretations of Marx’s critique of political economy as a critical social theory in order to provide a more sophisticated explanation of how and why exchange possesses these properties. Following this, I discuss how Werner Bonefeld’s work on the state provides a more sophisticated account of how the capitalist state relates the capitalist economy. I conclude by drawing these strands together and discussing how they illuminate the current Canadian conjuncture where I point to how conceiving of neoliberalism as a particular instance of the interlocking political and economic social rationality of capitalism that is reliant upon and perpetuates the domination of nature, provides an analysis of the Harper government’s energy policies as the political purpose of this social logic thus demonstrating the relevance of the Adornian critical theory of society for contemporary society.
What is Critical Theory?
Max Horkheimer’s “Traditional and Critical Theory” provides the seminal account of the critical theory of society. In this work, the critical theory of society is premised on a conception of social constitution in which society is constituted by the manner in which humans interact with nature and with eachother. This account implicitly draws on Marx’s notion of the metabolism with nature and explicitly draws on Marx on a socio-theoretical and explanatory level to argue that capitalist society is constituted by exchange, and that ‘the inner dynamism’ of ‘the exchange relationship’, which critical theory is said to outline, ‘dominates social reality’. These Marxian concepts form the basis for the distinction between traditional and critical theory and indeed of the critical theory of society itself. For Horkheimer indicts traditional theory for positions that have a striking resemblance to Habermasian and Honnethian theory, insofar as “traditional theory” advocates “the better functioning of any element in the structure.” In contrast, critical theory, “is suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order, and refuses to take them as nonscientific presuppositions about which one can do nothing.” Rather, critical theory utilizes these Marxian concepts to conceive of society as a social totality arising from the metabolic domination of nature, constituted by exchange and perpetuated by the internal relationship between the economy and the capitalist state. As Horkheimer puts it in ‘broad terms’, the critical theory of society expounds a “single existential judgement’ by deducing present conditions and tensions as a new barbarism that is unfolded from the concept of simple exchange’, which itself arises from the “enormous extension of human control over nature”.
Adorno’s Critical Theory
This tableau is taken up and most fully developed in Adorno’s late work in his interrelated conceptions of culture and society, and of capitalist society as a negative totality. While a broad understanding of culture and of society runs through Adorno’s work from his earliest writings to his last, it is after his return to Germany in the 1950s — following the publication of Dialectic of Enlightlentment — that these ideas receive their most sophisticated formulation. It is also when they make their most explicit use of Marx. The latter is due above all to Adorno’s relationship with his student, Alfred Schmidt. Following Adorno (and Horkheimer’s) supervision of Schmidt’s Ph.D. thesis on The Concept of Nature in Marx (written between 1957 and 1960, first published in 1962), Adorno would make use of Schmidt’s interpretation of Marx in this later work, to refine theses conceptions of culture and society.
These aspects of Schmidt’s interpretation of Marx’s concept of nature are echoed, and indeed, serve as the basis of Adorno’s account of culture in Negative Dialectics. Here Adorno uses passages from Marx often sourced from Schmidt, and more specifically Schmidt’s work on Marx, to articulate his account of culture as the domination of external and internal nature and of capitalist society as a negative totality. This is most evident in a statement of Adorno’s that is essentially a paraphrase of Schmidt’s analysis of Marx’s account of the relationship between domination of nature and of society as a dominating second nature. : “Marx recognized that against Hegel”, ‘the objectivity of historical life is that of natural history.”
Schmidt argues that Marx’s idea of the metabolism with nature held that ‘The whole of nature is socially mediated and, inversely, society is mediated through nature as a component of total reality’. This is because ‘By acting on the external world and changing it’ humanity ‘at the same time changes his own nature.’ Consequently, ‘In a wrongly organized society, the control of nature, however highly developed, remains at the same time an utter subjection to nature’. This means ‘that men are still not in control of their own productive forces vis-i-vis nature, that these forces confront them as the organized, rigid form of an opaque society, as a ‘second nature’ which sets its own essence against its creators.’
Thus, while “Hegel described the first nature, a world of things existing outside men as a blind conceptless occurrence. The world of men as it takes shape in the state, law, society, and the economy, is for him ‘second nature’, manifested reason, objective Spirit. Marxist analysis opposes to this the view that Hegel’s ‘second nature’ should rather be described in the terms he applied to the first: namely, as the area of conceptlessness, where blind necessity and blind chance coincide. The ‘second nature’ is still the ‘first’. Mankind has still not stepped beyond natural history.” 42-3
Consequently, following Schmidt, Adorno draws on Marx to characterize the history of culture as ‘that of the control of nature, progressing into domination over human beings and ultimately over internalized nature’. Society is thus construed in a Marxian vein insofar as its ‘Natural lawfulness is real … as a law of motion of unconscious society’. Schmidt’s interpretation of Marx can thus be seen to have influenced Adorno’s formulation of his late, and most sophisticated, accounts of culture as the domination of external and internal nature and of capitalist society as an instance of dominating second nature. The latter can be shown in greater detail by turning to examine how Adorno followed Horkheimer to conceive of capitalist society as a negative totality.
This can be seen by focusing on Adorno’s account of contemporary society in works such as “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” , “Society”, “On Subject and Object”, “Cultural Criticism and Society” as well as The Postivist Dispute and again Negative Dialectics. In these works, what Adorno refers to as “late capitalist society” is characterised as an inverted and autonomous entity; a negative totality that opposes individuals as a second nature and dominates humans beings by compelling their actions. In these works, following Horkheimer, Adorno’s account of capitalist society rests on his notion of exchange on both a socio-theoretical and explanatory level.
Adorno’s late notion of exchange thus provides the grounds for his conception of how the negative totality of capitalist society is constituted. As he states, providing a more developed account of Horkheimer’s statement, “society, in its ‘socialized’ form … is determined, as its fundamental precondition, by exchange.” Consequently, “What really makes society a social entity, what constitutes it both conceptually and in reality, is the relationship of exchange, which binds together virtually all the people participating in this kind of society”.
However, Adorno does not argue that exchange does so on its own. Rather, again mirroring Horkheimer, he argues that in late capitalism, or totally administered society, the state is integral to such a totality. This is because “Economic interventionism is not … something cobbled together from outside the system, but is rather system-immanent …. the state, presumably intervening from beyond the reach of society’s power-struggles, had to be conjured up out of the immanent dialectic of society in order to damper and police the antagonisms of such, lest society … disintegrate.” Thus, according to Adorno, the political sphere and the economy do not exist in separate spheres or function for separate ends, nor do the actors within these spheres. Rather, since “everything is one” this necessary interrelation between the state and the economy insures they are all beholden to the systematic immanent imperatives of negative totality.
[T]he 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 violence of the self- realizing universal is not … 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 tolère, [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.
In Adorno’s late work we thus see a refinement of Horkheimer’s use of Marx, in Adorno’s evocative expression Horkheimer’s notion of the ‘inner dynamism’ of exchange arises from the domination of nature and is reflected in ‘the economic process’ of the ‘constitutive abstraction of exchange’ dominating reality as a negative totality perpetuated by the internal relation between the state and the economy.
Yet, despite the evocative and all too palpable description of this negative totality, Adorno’s underdeveloped account of exchange and the state undermine his explication of this totalities dynamism, undercutting the efficacy of Adorno’s critical theory.
Backhaus and Reichelt
Two students of Adorno, Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, found this explanatory gap was indicative of the first generation of the Frankfurt School as a whole. Moreover, as Reichelt later wrote “Adorno … assumes that the whole economy is to be developed out of a principle – the exchange principle’” yet “how this process of autonomisation is to be conceptualised in detail is not explained by Adorno.” This is because, in an unfortunate echo of Horkheimer’s broad conception of society conceived merely in terms of exchange, while Adorno stresses that exchange is ‘what really makes society a social entity’, and that such a conception of exchange as the key to society is what differentiates Frankfurt School Critical Theory from other types of social theory, it is never really made clear why and how exchange possesses these social properties and thus not how and why society arises from the domination of external nature so that it functions as a second nature forcing people to behave as character masks.
It is this explanatory gap that motivated Reichelt and Backhaus to turn to investigating Marx’s critique of political economy and his explanation of the dynamic of exchange in order to provide a more rigorous explanation of critical social theory. Consequently, the reading of Marx they uncover is shaded by this critical theoretical interpretation of Marx.
Reichelt’s work on Marx’s conception of social reality provides a neat summation of how this New Reading of Marx conceived of Marx’s critique of political economy as a critical theory of society. In this reading, which draws on Adorno, Marx’s critique of political economy consists in a theory of the constitution of social forms that become autonomous and inverted, compelling and dominating individual bearers of these relations. As he sees it ‘Marx pursued a programme of deciphering society. In this programme … the forms or categories of political economy … was identical with the critique of the inverted forms of social existence, an existence constituted by the life-practice of human beings’. Moreover, Reichelt holds for Marx ‘All these forms obtain as inverted form of a ‘community’ that is external to the individuals, and from which they must emancipate themselves in order ever to be able to interact with one another ‘as individuals’ (Marx and Engels, 1962, pp. 70f). For Reichelt, Marx’s project as a whole
‘is thus a matter of deciphering theoretically the appearance [Schein] of independence that this ‘surrogate of community’ posits (ibid., p. 74), and then of expelling it practically from the world so that human beings will be able to enter into relationship with one another, not as character-masks, but as real individuals. The critique of these forms of political economy, as a critical social theory, thus consists in deciphering why these forms arise and how they reproduce these very same conditions.”
Hans-Georg Backhaus put forward the influential argument that what he termed Marx’s monetary theory of value played this role in Marx’s critique of political economy.
Such a focus can be seen to follow from Horkheimer, and especially, Adorno’s notion of exchange. Indeed, Backhaus often compares Adorno’s account of the properties of the exchange abstraction with those of Marx. Yet, in contrast to Adorno, who only noted that ‘In developed societies the exchange takes place, as you all know, through money as the equivalent form’, Backhaus’s philogical study of Marx provides an account of why money is necessary and why its function as the equivalent form provides it with an autonomus social power that compel individuals actions to reproduce society that very society that maims them. Crudely put, money is necessary because the capitalist mode of production is characterized by a social division of labour in which production occurs for the purpose of exchange. This, in turn, means that some type of general equivalent is necessary to facilitate exchange. Money is this equivalent. But rather than serving as a mere equivalent that simply facilitates exchange, because money is the only equivalent that facilitates exchange, it acquires what Marx refers to as a “social power” that not only assures individuals preservation, but the possibility of preserving themselves in affluent ways. This also means, as Marx shows in the course of his further presentation in Capital, that since the capitalist mode of production consists in a class relation in which a class of workers sell their labour power in order to reproduce themselves to a class of capitalists who exploit this labour power in order to sell commodities for the purpose of valorizing capital, that the capitalist process of valorization, occurs through the medium of money for the sake of acquiring money. As a consequence, it is money that becomes the end of a process in which each side of the class relation is compelled; proletarians are compelled to sell their own labour for money in order to survive; capitalists are compelled to exploit labour power in order to sell commodities for money to assure they remain capitalists. In Backhaus’s view, Marx’s monetary theory of value thus holds that money necessarily arises from the historically specific form of capitalist social labour and becomes autonomous as the medium of capitalist valorization, compelling people to behave in certain ways in order to acquire money so that they can survive leading to the reproduction of these social conditions.
As can be seen Reichelt and Backhaus’s work on Marx thus provides a firmer basis for the socio-theoretical and explanatory dimensions of critical theory. Reichelt’s characterization of Marx’s conception of social reality undergrids Adorno’s depiction of of the constitution of society, whilst Backhaus’s work on the monetary theory of value provides an explanation of how the dynamism of exchange makes society constituent of a second nature. Rather than mere scholastism, these philological works thus contribute to the vitality of the Adornian critical theory of society.
Yet Backhaus and Reichelt do not take up the vexing problem of Marx’s theory of the state nor do they address Adorno’s theory of the relationship between the state and the economy. The work of Werner Bonefeld can be seen to formulate a theory of the state that draws on this lineage. Bonefeld’s work links the capitalist state to the capitalist economy and points to the interrelationship between politics and economics. Finally it provides an outline of how neoliberalism’s development is an expression of this relationship.
Bonefeld’s account of the social constitution of the form of the capitalist state holds that the capitalist economy and the capitalist state are a “contradictory unity” that is created by the “substantive abstraction of class antagonism,” with the capitalist state utilizing its form-determined political capacities to reproduce this class antagonism. The specific antagonism of capitalist class struggle is the “historical result” of primitive accumulation. As a result, the world market is derived from “the contradictory existence of abstract labour as the social form of wealth founded on exploitation,” which in turn determines the form of the state: “the development of the state needs to be seen as one in which the contradictory unity of surplus value production is processed in a political form, as a moment of the same process of class struggle: social reproduction as, and in and against, domination.” Bonefeld argues that this antagonism is also at the heart of “the harmonies of formal equality and formal freedom,” which are in fact systematic with political domination. The form of the state “concentrates the social reality of exploitation in and through the guarantee of formal freedom and formal equality of property rights.” Bonefeld also focuses on how these legal and political forms are instrumentalized to assure reproduction. As he sees it, “the political guarantee of the right of property determines the state as a strong state” which “imposes the rationality and equality of the right of property over society in the attempt to contain the social antagonism of capital and labour by the force of law.”55
Bonefeld’s recent work also provides an account of neoliberalism and the neoliberal state. In this purview, the theory of political economy as a political practice, shows how its “cohesion, organization, integration and reproduction are matters of state.”56 Here, Bonefeld succinctly formulates the ends of such a political practice: “crudely put, the purpose of capital is to accumulate extracted surplus value, and the state is the political form of that purpose.” He also provides an account of how this purpose is achieved by state policies which are enacted for purpose of valorization. As he argues, the state “facilitates the order of economic freedom by means of the force of law-making violence”; sustains the capitalist relations of production and exchange by depoliticizing “socio-economic relations”; guarantees “contractual relations of social interaction”; seeks the further progress of the system of free labor by facilitating the “cheapness of provision”; and extends these relations by “securing free and equal market relations.”57 The “strong state” thus utilizes its form-determined capacities in an instrumental manner, to organize, integrate, sustain, and extend the social relation at the heart of the peculiar dynamic of valorization for the purpose of accumulating surplus value.
Bonefeld also enumerates how the “market-facilitating” coercive force of the strong neoliberal state achieves these ends in the three areas outlined above. He argues that capitalist relations have been sustained and extended “over the past 30 years” of neoliberalism by “the accumulation of potentially fictitious wealth” – through “the coercive control of labour, from debt bondage to new enclosures,” and from “the deregulation of conditions to the privatization of risk.”58 Thus, Bonefeld argues: “The conventional view that neoliberalism has to do with the weakening of the state has little, if anything, to do with the neoliberal conception of the free economy.”59 Rather, since “the free market requires the strong, market-facilitating state, but it is also dependent on the state as the coercive force of that freedom,” the “neoliberal demand for the strong state is a demand for the limited state, one that limits itself to the task of making the economy of free labour effective.”60 This means that “the capitalist state is fundamentally a liberal state” and that the neoliberal state is typical of these fundamental qualities, because “the neoliberal state functions as a market facilitating state.”61
Following Adorno, Bonefeld thus conceives of the state as system immanent. By virture of its separation from the economy, its political capacities are integral to perpetuating capitalist social relations and thus the negative totality of capitalist society.
Critical Theory in contemporary society
As a whole, the preceding has thus identified a core constellation in critical theory, discussed how it was distilled in the late Adorno’s work and shown how elements of it have refined by Reichelt, Backhaus and Bonefeld. These elements can be drawn together as follows: the critical theory of society holds that capitalist society is a negative totality that consists in the domination of external nature and internal nature for the purpose of valorisation; as the political form of this purpose the capitalist state is responsible for insuring that this type of domination is perpetuated. I believe such a notion of critical theory can be shown to be relevant by illuminating how and why the Harper government has so enthusiastically promoted energy policies of unrivalled ecological destruction.
Yet much of the critical commentary on the Harper government consists in condemnation that might be said resemble traditional theory in its moral criticisms of bad types of capitalism or Harper’s character flaws. These commentaries thus fault ‘corporate ideology’ and even provide psychological analyses of Harper himself as a ‘paranoid and narcissistic’ ‘useful idiot’. In both cases, these criticisms engage in what Adorno referred to as surface critique, providing an asocial account that focuses on individual decisions rather than the social dynamics that compelled these decisions. Yet, I think the present conjuncture can be better explained by drawing on the line of analysis from above.
From this perspective, the domination of nature for the purpose of valorisation and the state as the political form of this purpose, provide the basis for a more deep-seated explanation that reads the state of extraction as exemplary of the neoliberal expression of this social logic. This can be seen by contextualizing the development of the contemporary regime of extraction accumulation within the context of the neoliberal project and then tracing the consequences of such a dynamic in terms of the pronounced domination of nature and the increased immiseration and maiming of individuals. I sketch these developments in closing.
As Jim Standford and Sam Gindin point out the neoliberalisation of the Canadian economy began in response to economic stagnation in the 1970s. As Gindin shows the neoliberal project was part of a global offensive to raise profits at the expensive of the western working class by securing property rights, market freedoms and profits through various forms of economic restructuring. This was particularly true in Canada where the workforce was sharing an unprecedented share of the GDP. The state, as the political purpose of capital, played an instrumental role in instituting this project by implementing policies that assured this restructuring. As Bonefeld indicates, these decisions can be seen as examples of the states role in facilitating ‘the order of economic freedom’ by ‘sustaining the capitalist relations of production and exchange’, and seeking the further progress of the system of free labour’. Finally, they contextualize the present.
This can be seen in the two policy decisions that Stanford attributes to the neo-liberalisation of Canada; the dramatic shift in monetary policy in the early 1980s, which was engineered to make mass unemployment a ‘deliberate, permanent feature of the economy’ and the FTA. The consequences of these policies, especially in the case of the FTA, laid the institutional and political framework for a huge shift in the focus of Canada’s economy. As Stanford also notes, ‘several factors’ coincided with these policies that further weakened Canada’s traditional exports, at the same time that demand for resource commodities skyrocketed, shifting Canada’s economy to renewed dependence on the extraction and export of raw natural resources (or “staples”), led by a massive expansion of bitumen production and export from northern Alberta.’
From this perspective, a critical theoretical reading of the state of extraction comes into light. Such a theory does not fault Harper or read this development as a deficit in democracy, but views this type of production for exchange as representative of the domination of nature for the purpose of valorisation qua neoliberal capitalism. Consequently, the numerous state policies, which have been shaped ‘around maximizing the extraction of wealth from the country’s natural resources’ can be seen as further expressions of the states role in sustaining these particular capitalist relations of production and exchange’. For not only is this type of neoliberal production, and the state policies that foster this production, an instance of securing property rights and symptomatic of globalization and free trade, it is also relatively mechanized, requiring a small workforce and thus contributing to permanent unemployment, the erosion of living standards and wage depletion.
As a result, although Canada’s overall GDP increased from $600bn to 1.7 over the course of the last 20 years, income inequality has actuality increased. For, while ‘The Alberta tar sands are the world’s largest industrial project with investments in the hundreds of billions of dollars, only 20,000 people worked there in 2011. For all its rapid growth Canada’s oil and gas sector created only about 16,500 new jobs between 2000 to 2011, the same period in which 520,000 manufacturing jobs were lost’. This has led to a situation in which one in seven children live in poverty and Income inequality has increased faster than the US, with the rich getting richer and poor and middle class losing grounds over the past 15 to 20 years. In other words, in this instantiation of the neoliberal project, “Most of Canada’s increase in wealth went to the big shareholders in the resource industries,” says Daniel Drache, a political scientist at Toronto’s York University. “It mainly went to the elites.” This is to say nothing of the unparalleled degradation, and domination of nature, that this type of valorisation consists in, nor of their environmental impact.
What’s more, as these statistics indicate, this economic dependence on extraction seems to have set up a dynamic, in which the petro dollar has further weakened other export industries, making the economy more reliant on it and thus compelling the state to institute more policies that further expand this type of accumulation, meaning that these inequalities and degradations are only set to increase. In this light, we see the relevance of Adorno’s chracterization of human history as ‘progressive natural domination’, continuing ‘the unconscious one of nature, of devouring and being devoured.’ We see how the ‘law which determines how the fatality of mankind unfolds itself is the law of exchange’. Finally, we see a point where this process of domination second nature spews out tatters of subjugated nature to the point where it might annihilate natural history.
In providing a single existential judgement against this new barbarism by unfolding a strand of critical theory that views these developments as an instantiation of the conceptuality that holds sway in reality and views the state as a political purpose of this reality, premised on the continued domination of external and internal nature, I hope that I have not only demonstrated the relevance this strand of critical theory holds for the critique of the capitalist culture of extraction, but have provided a lens through which to understand the genesis of these developments, in order to negate them.