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Class Acts in Political Economy

Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: Review

by Paul Cammack on November 2, 2016

bonefeldYou might think, at first sight, that Werner Bonefeld’s book Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy is not for you, especially if you dive into the introduction unprepared. Think again. There is more than one way into it, and from the formidable theoretical apparatus and sometimes abstruse expression there emerges a clear and compelling analytical framework which holds fast to the fundamental insights of Marx’s and Engels’ first formulations of historical materialism, recognises that their approach changed over time and was never complete, places the antagonistic social relations intrinsic to capitalism front and centre, and goes on to explore with force and originality the political side of ‘political economy’. Marx did not subscribe to the idea of the economy as a separate reality with its own system of independent laws. His view of the world was irreducibly social, and it hinged, in capitalism, upon the relationship between capital on the one side, and ‘free labour’ on the other. Bonefeld brings out how this relationship presupposes a particular form of politics – the state as the political authority of the free labour economy. The argument is beautifully summarised in the brief section (182-5) ‘On the critique of political economy’, and I recommend that you go straight to it after reading through the introduction, in order to get your bearings. It might even make sense to read Chapter 8 in full at this point, then Chapter 7, before going back to the beginning and starting again. Whatever your strategy, this is a book that will repay close and repeated study.

The key point here is that a free labour economy (an economy in which the propertyless majority are obliged to sell their labour power or their capacity to work to capitalists who own the means of production, addressed in Chapters Four to Six) ‘presupposes the state as the political authority of that freedom’: ‘In its role as market police, the state is fundamentally a security state, ever vigilant in its surveillance of society to secure the proper use of freedom, “policing” not only compliance with the rule of law but also the will for enterprise. Whether there is disorder or order is a matter, not of law but political decision’ (182). It follows that ‘The idea that the economy comprises an independent reality expresses a theological conviction’:

The capitalist state is neither independent from the economy nor does it derive from it, nor does the economy comprise a structured system of independent economic laws. Capitalist economy is a socially constituted system of human reproduction that is antagonistic from the outset. its cohesion, organisation, integration and reproduction are matters of state (182, emphasis mine).

As you read the book, hold on to this thought. Bonefeld properly treats capitalism as a system in which when viewed as a connected whole, as Marx put it, ‘and in the constant flux of its incessant renewal, every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction’ (Capital, I, 711). Right at the start, he asserts that the ‘rational irrationality of a capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction is at the centre of the critique of political economy. It asks why human social reproduction takes this irrational form of an economic logic that asserts itself over the acting subjects as if by a force of nature’ (1). Treating the critique of political economy as a critical social theory, and ‘economic nature’ as ‘in its entirety a socially constituted nature’, he sets out to explore ‘the specific character of the capitalistically constituted social relations that assert themselves in the form of economic forces beyond human control’ (2): it follows, crucially, that the focus of Marxist theory is capitalist society on its own terms, not capitalist society as one specific case among others of transhistorical laws, dialectical or otherwise, at work; and on the same argument, that its focus is not the nature of ‘man’, or the worker as a transhistorical category, but the class relationship between the owners of the means of production and the sellers of labour power in the capitalist system as the particular community in which they live (cf. Grundrisse, 832). The opening chapters develop this perspective on the basis of the work of Adorno in particular, in line with and against the ‘new reading of Marx’ undertaken by Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt (and Moishe Postone). This is a literature with which I (and no doubt others) am not familiar, and in view of that I touch only lightly on it in this review; but the manner in which it is critically developed here is largely self-explanatory and thoroughly compelling, leading to the liberating understanding of the categories of political economy as ‘the finite and transient products of the finite and transient reality of capitalist social relations as an existing totality’ (7), and enabling a new and exhilarating perspective on global capitalism. In relation to the ‘new reading’, Bonefeld argues that it is essential to go beyond ‘the argument that the capitalist social relations manifest themselves in the inverted form of objectively valid, seemingly natural economic abstractions’ (10) to explore Adorno’s insistence that [capitalist] society is ‘antagonistic from the outset’ (11). This entails a focus directly on the origins or historical constitution of capitalism, the state, class antagonism and class struggle as ‘the dynamic force of a negative world’ (7), or on ‘Man in her social relations’ (9), and it involves not just a critique of the economic form of society but also a critique of its political form – requiring ‘an argument about the relationship between world market and national state’, and an account of the state as the political form of capitalist social relations (11). Bonefeld, that is to say, takes the ‘new reading’ as a fruitful starting point because it focuses directly on the capitalist system rather than on broader transhistorical themes, but critiques it for stopping short at the notion of value as the essence of society, or the ‘merely logical derivation of economic forms’, insisting as does Marx that if ‘definite social relations between men’ assume ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’, it is because of the ‘peculiar social character of the labour that produces them’ (9, citing Capital, I,165):

the exposition of the capitalist categories falls short if it proceeds as a merely logical derivation of economic forms. These forms are the forms of definite social relations, which are historically branded and antagonistic from the outset. In distinction to the new reading, the social antagonism does not derive from the economic categories as the real-life expression of their contested movements. Rather, as I set out to argue, the class antagonism is the constitutive premise of the economic categories (9; and see also the extended discussion of Marx’s method, 88-95).

ccIt is one of the key features of the book, then, that although it takes the ‘new reading’ of Marx as a starting point, it mostly argues against and beyond it, albeit still on the basis of Adorno’s ‘negative dialectics’ (on which see further Bonefeld’s two articles in Journal of Classical Sociology and Capital & Class, both of which are very helpful). Against this background, Chapter Two takes up the theme of political economy as ‘a theory about the manner in which society organises its reproduction’, and its critique, which asks ‘why human social reproduction manifests itself in the form of self-moving economic forces that assert themselves behind the backs of the acting subjects, indifferent and indeed hostile to their needs’ (21-2). This entails a debunking of the claims of ‘economics’ (22-28), a critique of Althusser’s separation of ‘scientific socialism’ from the idea of alienation and his claim that the structure of capitalist economic relations reflects broader general economic laws of history (28-35), and an explication of the need to focus on ‘the actual, given relations of life’, or the relations and forces of production specific to capitalism, not the specific relations of production of capitalism in the context of enduring and transhistorical forces of production (36-40):

This point is fundamental not only because it characterises the distinction between classical political economy and Marx’s critique of political economy, it is fundamental also for the distinction between the critique of political economy as a critical social theory and the traditional Marxist account of political economy that ascribes a material force to history, which purports historical materialism to be a dialectics between the trans-historically conceived, or in any case naturally determined, forces of production and the historically specific social relations of production (37).

In short, the form taken by labour in capitalism is specific to capitalism, ‘the commodity form of labour power, which is founded on the divorce of labour from the means of subsistence’, and, like capitalist profit, ‘entails the class relationship between the buyer of labour power and the producer of surplus value as the seller of labour power’ (42).

The third chapter takes up the theme, introduced in Chapter Two, of ideology as ‘the “socially necessary appearance” of definite social relations in the inverted form of real economic abstractions’ (38). The task of critical social theory is to trace it back to its roots, in the commodification of labour power and the social antagonism constitutive of capitalism, or to ‘[turn] the relations of economic activity upside down to find their rational explanation in the comprehension of human practice’ (58). In capitalism, ‘individuals are governed by abstractions, and their life-circumstances really are dependent on the movement of economic quantities’ (emphasis mine): ‘it is the profitable extraction of surplus value from living labour upon which the social reproduction of a whole class of dependent sellers of labour depends in its entirety. The higher the rate of return on exploited labour, the greater the prospects for the labourer to achieve a contract of future employment’ (59). The world of economic rationality is a perverted world, and capitalist society does not reproduce itself despite the social antagonism at its centre, but through it (60). In this ‘world of economic objectivity, the person appears as an investor in her own labour power, and thus an entrepreneur of labour power, seeking to maintain access to the means of subsistence by maintaining her employability as an effective producer of surplus value’ (65).

Chapter Four turns to the historical foundations of capitalism in the ‘complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realise their labour’ (81, citing Capital, p. 874). This feature – most prominently and often confusingly addressed in terms of ‘primitive accumulation’ – is both the original and continuing premise of capitalist production, and is therefore inherent in the concept (rather than being or having become an auxiliary mechanism to be invoked from time to time and place to place when extended accumulation enters into crisis). It is essential to it that ‘the labourer is unable to subsist other than by selling her labour power in exchange for a wage’ (81). And here Bonefeld quotes briefly from the passage towards the end of Capital, Chapter 23, on ‘Simple Reproduction’ that comes before Marx’s concluding observation that the capitalist process of production, ‘seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer’ (724): ‘Capitalist production … reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited’ (723). It is this circumstance, the separation of the worker from the means of production, ‘hidden’ in the law of value and the apparent equality of acts of exchange, that entails that the law of value ‘contains the force of law-making violence within its concept’ (82), and presupposes the state as the political authority of the free labour economy. ‘Primitive accumulation,’ then, ‘is the centrifugal point around which revolves the specific capitalist form of social labour’ (83); the extended passage running from p. 83 (‘In capitalism the terror of separation …’) to p. 85 develops the point, suggesting in turn that ‘The understanding of primitive accumulation as the constitutive premise of the existent economic forces destroys their deceptive appearance as forces of nature’ and that ‘Capitalist accumulation reproduces its constitutive presupposition in dispossession as the result of its own, innate social laws of reproduction’, before concluding that: ‘As a result of its own realisation, primitive accumulation is a permanent accumulation’. This has clear implications for the issue of transhistorical conceptions of labour: the productive labourer in capitalism is the historically specific ‘dispossessed producer of surplus value’ (87). The doubly free labourer, ‘free of the means of production, free to sell her labour power’ (90), is the ‘indispensable prerequisite of the commodity form’ (93).


Abstract Labour (2014) by Emily Floyd

The two chapters that follow develop this analysis of the ‘doubly free labourer’ or ‘dispossessed producer of surplus value’ further, first in relation to the issue of class and struggle, then in relation to time and money, and ‘abstract labour’. Bonefeld condemns standard sociological and ‘traditional’ Marxist accounts of class alike for working at the level of appearances within the economic structure of capitalism as an ‘objectively given framework of social development’, rather than subjecting it to critique. Class ‘denotes a social relationship that though independent from the individuals prevails in and through them as the dispossessed producers of surplus value whose access to subsistence depends on the successful sale of their labour power, and the conditions of trade are regulated by the rate of accumulation, and thus the profitable employment of their labour power in competition with all other workers’. It is a ‘living contradiction’, entailing both unity as a manifestation of class antagonism, and the disunity of competing sellers of labour power (107). Class struggle is therefore ‘incessant’ (108, and further discussion 108-9); and it hinges upon the character of time as money: as spelled out in an excellent section, 109-114, the labourer must secure her own means of survival, or produce and reproduce herself from day to day, while the capitalist must extend the working day beyond the necessary time required for the labourer to do so, in order to accumulate surplus value (111). So in the perverted world of capitalist accumulation, ‘the increase in the productivity of labour does not entail the shortening of the working day. It is only the shortening of the necessary labour time that is aimed for’ (113). Bonefeld then turns to ‘abstract labour’ and time as money. The rather muddled debate that he reviews need not detain us. In accordance with his overall approach he defines abstract labour as the ‘socially determined, specifically capitalist form of labour that manifests itself in exchange’, or ‘the time of value, that is, socially necessary labour time’ (121), rightly differentiating it from any transhistorical conception of labour as physiological expenditure of human energy (123) to focus on commodities, as exchange values, as ‘the social form of abstract labour’ (131). In short, concrete labour is productive labour, and productive labour is concrete labour, but what is specific about capitalism is that ‘concrete labour has to take the form of its opposite, undifferentiated and identical, phantom-like abstract labour, to count as socially necessary labour, thus achieving value-validity’ (132). Not only that, but socially necessary labour time is remorselessly reduced over time, and not all labour put into commodities produced for exchange will turn out to have been socially necessary (135). The capitalist, therefore, ‘frantically seek[s] to make the expenditure of concrete labour-time under his command count socially as necessary social labour time’ (135), with formidable consequences for the labourer: ‘Upon the sale of labour-power, the labourer enters a race for time that expresses itself in the demand for increased labour productivity. This is a race without winners. It is a race for economic progress to avoid economic ruin’ (135-6). So only the abolition of abstract labour can lead to human emancipation.

Chapter Seven, framed as an appreciative critique of Robert Cox’s characterisation of the world market as a nebuleuse (Cox, 1991), addresses it as the space within which these processes play out: the critical insight that in capitalism ‘social individuals are controlled by the products of their own hand asserts itself in the form of the world market as “an objective social force”‘ (147); national states are not counter-posed to the world market but rather subsist through it, as do inter-national relations: ‘capitalist society is fundamentally a world-market society and the national state is the political form of this society’ (148); and the ‘history of capitalist society is a world-market history’ (149). Capitalist production is ‘unthinkable without foreign trade’, and it is in and through the world market that ‘the “domestic” valorisation of social labour is confirmed and contradicted, that is, it is in and through the world market that expended labour acquires value-validity as an expenditure of socially necessary labour time’: so ‘whoever wants to speak about the division of labour has to speak about the world market’ (149). It follows that to speak of ‘globalisation’ as a recent development or the displacement of states by the world market makes no sense, because the idea of a ‘national economy’ itself makes no sense. This is crucial to a Marxist perspective on the global economy: ‘capital is not some domestic economic force that responded to national constraints by “globalising” itself. Rather, “the world market, international capitalism, the global system of social relations that has grown up for the first time in history” emerged at the same time as the national state’ (151-2, quoting Colin Barker, in The State Debate 1991: 205). Connecting back to abstract labour and socially necessary labour time, then, the concept of capital entails ‘not only the complete independence of the individuals from one another but also their complete dependence on the seemingly impersonal relations of the world market’ (152). In summary:

The worker’s dependency on continuous employment, which is the condition of her sustained access to the means of subsistence, is a matter of the profitable expenditure of her labour in competition with her fellow producers of surplus value on a global scale. This, then, is the invisible thread by which the social individual is entangled in the world market, this real abstraction of capitalist society that asserts itself behind the backs of those same social individuals who produce and sustain it with their own hands (153).

The world market is ‘at once the pre-condition and the result of capitalist production’ (Theories of Surplus Value, p. 253, cited 153); and it is ‘in the markets of the world that money first functions to its full extent as … the directly social form of realisation of human labour in the abstract’ (Capital, I, 240-41, cited p. 154). But to treat it as a ‘nebuleuse’, as Robert Cox does, is to go only part way, to accept the idea that it actually is an ‘objective social force’, and in doing so to treat it uncritically, overlooking the fact that it is created by society but appears to prevail over individuals as an objective force.

The final section of the chapter then turns to ‘the world market and crises’ (155-9), arguing that the compulsion upon every capitalist to compete on the world market and therefore to reduce the socially necessary labour time of production creates a situation that is inherently crisis-ridden: ‘Crisis is a necessary form of capitalist social reproduction’ (155). The point is of fundamental importance. And just as ‘every social process of production is at the same time a process of reproduction’, capitalist crisis is a crisis of production and of reproduction, because workers depend upon wages to secure their survival from day to day: ‘On pain of ruin, [capital] has to extract surplus value by diminishing the necessary labour of social reproduction, and yet it cannot accumulate surplus value without positing necessary labour. Capitalist reproduction entails crisis not just in the form of capital devaluation and liquidation of existing values, bankruptcy and liquidation. Most importantly, it manifests itself as a crisis of social reproduction, in which it appears as if the producers of surplus value are suddenly cut off from the means of subsistence’ (157). Capitalism develops human productive capacity in a fundamentally contradictory way, remorselessly driving socially necessary labour time down while at the same time depending upon it to produce commodities and realise surplus value in ever increasing amounts. Newly generated capital that cannot be converted into directly productive activity becomes available as financial capital and expanded credit, involving ‘a gamble on the future exploitation of labour’, or the future extraction of surplus value, and intensifies the inherent instability of the system as a whole. Within this broader framework, the nation state ‘exists through the world-market society of capital and is confined “within limits imposed by the contradictory form of the accumulation of capital on a world scale”‘ (159, citing Clarke, in Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn and Kosmas Psychopedis, eds, Open Marxism, Vol. 1, 1982).

The development of the argument through from the productive labourer in capitalism as the dispossessed producer of surplus value to crisis as the necessary form of capitalist reproduction in the world market is a prelude to  the core contribution of the book, the discussion in Chapter Eight of the state. Bonefeld rejects the ideas of the state as either a strategic arena for the advancement of hegemonic projects or an economically determined superstructure, seeing it instead as the political form of capitalist society: ‘the political world is the social world in political form’. Although this perspective builds upon what has gone before, it is developed here from the work of Smith and Hegel on the antagonism inherent in class society, and ‘the neoliberal theory of the state, particularly of German neoliberal thought, which establishes a coherent account of capitalist economy as a practice of government’. Crucially, ‘the institutional separation of state and society does not confer on the state an independent political logic of constitution and development. Rather, the political state is the premise of the non-coerced, depoliticised exchange relations between the buyers of labour power and the producers of surplus value who in spite of their manifest inequality pursue their interests in liberty as equal legal subjects, based on the rule of law’ (166): Hegel ‘saw the state as the political force of bourgeois society and charged it with containing the class antagonism’ (167), and Smith similarly, far from proclaiming the essential harmony of market relations, ‘held the state indispensable for maintaining the system of perfect liberty’ (169). This is the Smithian ‘strong state’, in which order, established and enforced by ‘police’, is the precondition of law, and the removal of impediments to market freedom ‘also entails the provision of morally committed participants in market freedom’:

That is, the system of perfect liberty amounts to a constant effort of restraining the passions of competition and profit-making by the rules of justice. It amounts also to a constant effort of facilitating “the will” for competition and enterprise on the part of the class divided social individuals. There is thus need to facilitate the moral sentiments of the system of perfect liberty in “the will” of individuals, contain the passions of “self-love”, curb the rebellious character of the poor and facilitate further improvements in the productive power of labour to sustain the progress of the common wealth (170).

This reading of Smith, in which the state ‘is charged with making the system of perfect liberty valid in the mentality of society’ (171), points not only to Foucauldian governmentality, but also to the challenge facing governments around the world in the twenty-first century, and is absolutely topical in its focus. The same perspective runs through German ordoliberalism from Röpke and Rüstow to Böhm, Hayek and Müller-Armack, for whom economic liberty is a practice of government, and ‘concentrated and organised coercive force’ is the precondition of free economy: ‘The laws of equivalent exchange are premised on order, and the establishment of order is a political matter’; and in turn, the order of freedom ‘entails surveillance as a means of freedom’ (176). In this uncompromisingly bleak vision, politics belongs to the state, not to society: ‘The great danger for the democratic state is the democratisation of society’ (180). A brief discussion of this ‘political theology’ – the argument for the employment of ‘concentrated force’ and ‘law-making violence’ to ‘sustain the existent social relations’ (180-81) when the rule of law fails to do so, referencing Carl Friedrich, Milton Friedman, Carl Schmitt, Wilhelm Röpke, Friedrich Hayek among others, leads to the summary statement on the critique of political economy (182-5) highlighted at the beginning of this review, on the state as ‘the indispensable force of capitalist social reproduction’ (183).

doeThe final chapters then conclude that the critique of political economy is a matter of of addressing ‘the capitalistically organised social relations of human reproduction that assume the form of a movement of economic things, which objectify themselves in the person’ (196), not of condemning ‘bad’ capitalists or bankers for their greed, as if a policy of industrial renewal and national development, or better behaviour on the part of identified enemies of national harmony, would eliminate crisis, breakdown and austerity – an approach seen by Adorno and Horkheimer (whose Dialectic of Enlightenment is a key source here) as entailing ‘the elements of antisemitism’. Bonefeld develops the point eloquently to expound the ‘deadly notion’ that antisemitism (here in the form of a critique of rootless financiers and speculators as inimical to national community, integrity, solidarity and homogeneity of purpose) expresses resistance to capitalism, insisting that ‘the anti-imperialist idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend is entirely regressive’ (199). The chapter works through a particularly poisonous version of the false dualism between labour, industry and the nation on the one hand and money, finance and the world market on the other, and its pernicious political consequences.

In sum, the final chapter proposes, a ‘society of human purposes, universal human emancipation’ (219), in which humanity is a purpose and not a means, and time is not money, is a ‘different reality’ to that of capitalist society, which is our own world, that prevails not only over us but also in and through us, and is therefore hard to imagine. There is a basis for hope of emancipation in the argument that if ‘the social individual depends for her life on the independent movement of the economic forces over which she has no control, … this movement is not the doing of economic nature. It is her own doing’ (220). But at the same time, following Herbert Marcuse, ‘to bring the progress of capitalism to a standstill and found society anew requires a non-capitalist identity, and the difficulty of its conception is a simple one: such an identity does not belong to the present, which is a capitalist present’ (224-5). The starting point for a realistic conception of the struggle for the society of human purposes, then, is the realisation that it can be defined ‘in negation only’ (226), a stance that sweeps away much of the ‘muck of ages’, and compels us to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our relations with our kind.

Even after several readings, I do not claim to have absorbed all the lessons of this remarkable text. But make no mistake about it. For all its rebarbative language, its consistently eccentric use of the definite article, and its slew of typographical errors (the worst being the omission of ‘not’ before ‘appear as direct relations’ in the quotation on p. 129), it is the starting point for a newly invigorated critique of political economy, because it brings production and reproduction, primitive accumulation, politics and crisis together into a single frame in which the central figure is the worker specific to the capitalist mode of production in its fully developed form – the dispossessed producer of surplus value in the world market.

This post was previously published on Paul Cammack’s critical political economy site What’s Worth Reading

Paul Cammack
Paul Cammack graduated in English Literature in 1971, went to Chile (1971-3), got into studying and teaching Latin American and Third World Politics and shifted into global political economy, most recently at the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and City University Hong Kong. He is currently Honorary Professorial Research Fellow in the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. Recent publications are available at, and recent book reviews at
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