Capital as subject and the existence of labor

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Werner Bonefeld
Open Marxism
Volume 3, 1995

Editorial note

Been reading furiously through the Theories of Surplus Value and the 1863 manuscripts on the relation of “subject” and “object” in Marx’s later writings. My hunch is that Postone is right in his reversal of Lukács, who had the proletariat as the simultaneous subject-object of History. For Postone, it’s capital that is the simultaneous subject-object of History. The thing is, they’re both right. And I’m not saying this just so as not to pick a side, though I think ultimately it’s Lukács who gets the better of Postone (at the precise moment the latter seems to have the upper hand).

Living labor or variable capital — i.e., the proletariat as the embodiment of wage-labor — is the subjective factor in production. Dead labor or constant capital — i.e., the bourgeoisie, or rather the means of production they own, as the embodiment of capital — is the objective factor in production. Early in Capital, Marx identifies the vitality of labor-power as “the subjective factor of the labor process,” and goes on to state that “the same elements of capital which, from the perspective of the labor process, can be distinguished respectively as the objective and subjective factors, as means of production and labor-power, can be distinguished from the perspective of the valorization process as constant and variable capital.”

 However, under capitalism these roles appear reversed: the products rule over their producers. Consider a couple passages from the 1863 manuscripts. First,

Objectified, past labor… becomes the sovereign of living, present labor. The relation of subject and object is inverted. If already in the presupposition the objective conditions for the realization of the worker’s labor capacity and therefore for actual labor appear to the worker as alien, independent powers, which relate to living labor rather as the conditions of their own preservation and increase — the tool, the material [of labor] and the means of subsistence only giving themselves up to labor in order to absorb more of it — this inversion is still more pronounced in the result. In both directions, therefore, the objective conditions of labor are the result of labor itself, they are its own objectification, and it is its own objectification, labor itself as its result, that confronts labor as an alien power, as an independent power; while labor confronts the latter again and again in the same objectlessness, as mere labor capacity.

[Die vergegenständlichte, vergangene Arbeit wird so zum Herrscher über die lebendige, gegenwärtige Arbeit. Das Verhältnis von Subjekt und Objekt wird verkehrt. Wenn in der Voraussetzung schon dem Arbeiter die gegenständlichen Bedingungen zur Verwirklichung seines Arbeitsvermögens und daher zur wirklichen Arbeit als fremde, selbständige Mächte gegenüber erscheinen, die sich vielmehr zur lebendigen Arbeit als die Bedingungen ihrer eignen Erhaltung und Vermehrung verhalten — Werkzeug, Material, Lebensmittel, die sich nur an die Arbeit hingeben, um in sich selbst mehr Arbeit einzusaugen —, so erscheint dieselbe Verkehrung noch mehr im Resultat. Die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit sind selbst Produkte der Arbeit und, soweit sie von der Seite des Tauschwerts betrachtet werden, nichts als Arbeitszeit in gegenständlicher Form. Nach beiden Seiten hin sind also die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit Resultat der Arbeit selbst, ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, und es ist diese ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, sie selbst als ihr Resultat, die ihr als fremde Macht, als selbständige Macht, gegenübertritt und der gegenüber sie immer wieder in derselben Gegenstandslosigkeit, als bloßes Arbeitsvermögen, gegenübertritt.]


Since the economists identify past labor with capital — past labor being understood in this case not only in the sense of concrete labor embodied in the product, but also in the sense of social labor, materialized labor time — it is understandable that they, the Pindars of capital, emphasize the objective elements of production and overestimate their importance as against the subjective element, living, immediate labor. For them, labor only becomes efficacious when it becomes capital and confronts itself, the passive element confronting its active counterpart. The producer is therefore controlled by the product, the subject by the object, labor which is being embodied by labor embodied in an object, etc. In all these conceptions, past labor appears not merely as an objective factor of living labor, subsumed by it, but vice versa; not as an element of the power of living labor, but as a power over this labor.

[Da die Ökonomen die vergangene Arbeit mit dem Kapital identifizieren — vergangene Arbeit hier sowohl im Sinne der konkreten, in den Produkten realisierten Arbeit, als im Sinne der gesellschaftlichen Arbeit, materialisierter Arbeitszeit — , so versteht sich bei ihnen, als den Pindaren des Kapitals, daß sie die gegenständlichen Elemente der Produktion geltend machen und ihre Bedeutung überschätzen gegenüber dem subjektiven Element, der lebendigen, unmittelbaren Arbeit. Die Arbeit wird ihnen erst adäquat, sobald sie Kapital wird, sich selbst gegenübertritt, das Passivum der Arbeit ihrem Aktivum. Das Produkt ist daher bestimmend über den Produzenten, der Gegenstand über das Subjekt, die realisierte Arbeit über die sich realisierende etc. In allen diesen Auffassungen tritt die vergangene Arbeit nicht auf als bloß gegenständliches Moment der lebendigen und von ihr subsumierten, sondern umgekehrt; nicht als ein Machtelement der lebendigen Arbeit, sondern als Macht über diese Arbeit.]

Capital is the actual, albeit unconscious, form of society’s self-objectifying subjectivity, while the proletariat is rather its potential form. Only by becoming conscious of its position within the totality of production (in other words, by attaining class consciousness in the Lukácsean sense) can the subjectivity of the latter be actualized. Wage labor and capital are, after all, only two sides of the same value-relation, constitutive of yet antithetical to one another. Inverting this inverted relationship — expropriating the expropriators, negating the negation — humanity masters its own social organization and finally sets itself off from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Marx’s famous dictum that “the emancipation of the workers [object] must be the task of the workers themselves [subject]” captures precisely this image of the proletariat as subject and object of social emancipation. Yet this “historic mission” does not mean affirming the class essence of workers. Socialist revolution will not result in universal proletarianization; capitalism has already accomplished this. “Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class.”

Postone is of course understandably wary of the “notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary Subject, in the sense of a social agent that both constitutes history and realizes itself in socialism.” He writes: “Far from entailing the realization of the proletariat, overcoming capitalism involves the material abolition of proletarian labor.” But Lukács wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment:

Subjectively, i.e. for the class consciousness of the proletariat, the dialectical relationship between immediate interests and objective impact on the whole of society is located in the consciousness of the proletariat itself. It does not work itself out as a purely objective process quite apart from all (imputed) consciousness — as was the case with all classes hitherto. Thus the revolutionary victory of the proletariat does not imply, as with former classes, the immediate realization of the socially given existence of the class, but, as the young Marx clearly saw and defined, its self-annihilation.

Qua embodied negativity, as the negative condition of class society and the promise of its dissolution, “affirmation” of the proletariat can only mean abolishing the present state of affairs. This is what Engels meant when he remarked that “communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, capital is nothing other than the alienated agency of unrealized humanity. The proletariat does not presently represent the material human community in nuce, but it alone is capable of realizing it. By taking command over the accumulated instruments of production, it finally makes possible the advent of a truly human history. Lukács confirms this:

The “realm of freedom,” the end of the “prehistory of mankind” means precisely that the power of the objectified, reified relations between men begins to revert to man. The closer this process comes to its goal the more urgent it becomes for the proletariat to understand its own historical mission and the more vigorously and directly proletarian class consciousness will determine each of its actions. For the blind power of the forces at work will only advance “automatically” to their goal of self-annihilation as long as that goal is not within reach. When the moment of transition to the “realm of freedom” arrives this will become apparent just because the blind forces really will hurtle blindly towards the abyss, and only the conscious will of the proletariat will be able to save mankind from the impending catastrophe.

Werner Bonefeld addresses some of these same issues in the essay appended below, albeit in a somewhat different manner than I do here. He’s addressing Bob Jessop, rather than Postone, whose work he engages with elsewhere. Bonefeld makes many similar points, although as a rule he tends to denigrate “class consciousness.” I take this to be symptomatic of his anti-Leninism, but otherwise agree with his position.

To be sure, he’s right that “[i]n Marx’s work there is hardly any reference to ‘class consciousness’… Marx was not interested in the psychology of the working class.” Nevertheless, though the word Klassenbewußtsein does not appear in Marx’s work, its rudiments can be made out in numerous places. E.g., the Manifesto, where it is written that “the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

(As far as I can tell, Kautsky coined the “class consciousness,” indicated by Engels’ 1891 comment: “Instead of ‘class-conscious,’ which in our circles is an easily understood abbreviation, I would say the following to facilitate universal understanding and translation into foreign languages: ‘with workers conscious of their class position,’ or something like it.”)

Personally, I think the issue of proletarian consciousness, what Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution called “the subjective factor in the socialist transformation,” is indispensable. “The stronger [the] contradiction [within production] becomes,” wrote Lenin in 1899, “the more developed become the objective conditions for this transformation, as well as the subjective conditions [объективные условия этого превращения, так и субъективные условия], the workers’ consciousness of this contradiction [сознание противоречия работниками].”

Contra Kautsky, sixteen years later, Lenin thundered: “Not every revolutionary situation…gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the… objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.” Continue reading

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Structural antisemitism

From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

Whether or not the aforementioned remarks were unintentional is of no consequence here. I have no interest in singling out individuals as virulent antisemites, even if a strong case could be made in certain instances. Here larger forces are at work, which operate according to a dynamic the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone has called “structural antisemitism.” Postone provided a fairly succinct definition in an interview with Martin Thomas for the German publication Krisis, distinguishing it from other forms of racism:

It’s true that the Israeli government uses the charge of antisemitism to shield it from criticisms. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism itself isn’t a serious problem. The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism. The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism. Racism rarely, to the best of my knowledge, constitutes a whole system that seeks to explain the world; whereas antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the Left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have.

He goes on to explain that “[antisemitism] represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews.” Marx of course was careful, for all his fulminations against the bourgeoisie, to assign precedence to the impersonal logic of capital over and above its personification in individual capitalists. Capitalists are merely the “character masks” of capital, and are as much subject to its control as the workers they employ (despite enjoying a greater share of the wealth generated by it).

Building on Postone’s argument, as well as the arguments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Werner Bonefeld writes: “Modern antisemitism is ‘the rumor about the Jews’ as the incarnation of hated forms of capitalism, which implies that antisemitism expresses resistance to capitalism.” This thesis is not without its problems, of course. For all its faults, however, especially in turning an historical accident of capitalism’s development into a logical necessity, the structural antisemitism argument is generally sound. Just as I would say there structural anti-black racism exists because of the role played by transatlantic slave trade in the colonization of the New World, not to mention its lingering legacy in postbellum labor relations. In other words, there is a logical role each can conveniently play (for historic reasons) in the systemic structure of capitalism.

Leftists often have this delusion where they think anyone who doesn’t simply parrot cable news anchors or political pundits is just an inch away from a comprehensive Systemkritik. Seeing the Illuminati behind everything is supposedly the first step on some inevitable road to a critique of the capitalist totality. Hence the isomorphy between the average “critical” narrative (including most leftist ones) and the antisemitic narrative. Both boil down to a critique of who makes up the management of a social structure — or at best, a critique of the mode of management — rather than a critique of the fundamental social relations themselves. It’s easier to stick with the idea that you just have to weed out “a few bad apples” than it is to tear apart the ideological fabric of everything that surrounds you. Continue reading

Antizionism is NOT antisemitism, al-quds 2014

Reflections on Left antisemitism

Now also split into four parts, for readability:

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

The furore currently unfolding in Britain over allegations of left antisemitism cannot pass without some comment on my part. Not because I’m Jewish, though I am. And not because I’m an astute observer of British politics, which I’m not. Rather, it’s because the issue arises with such frequency and remains so contentious within the Anglo-American Left, as well as its continental European counterpart. Here I would like to examine the phenomenon more broadly.

Some helpful literature, too, for anyone interested:

  1. Ber Borochev, Class Struggle and the Jewish Nation (1908)
  2. Nobert Elias, “On the Sociology of German Anti-Semitism” (1929)
  3. Max Horkheimer, “The Jews and Europe” (1939)
  4. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate (1946)
  5. Ernst Simmel, ed., Antisemitism: A Social Disease (1948)
  6. Maxime Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1981)
  7. Moishe Postone, “Notes on the German Reaction to the Holocaust” (1983)
  8. Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz (1998)
  9. Mario Kessler, On Anti-Semitism and Socialism: Selected Essays (2005)
  10. Marcel Stoetzler, ed., Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology (2014)



Opportunistic accusations

First, a few words about the situation in the UK. Over the past couple weeks, a number of prominent Labour Party officials and student activist leaders have come under scrutiny for making antisemitic remarks. Three main figures have been at the center of the controversy so far:

  1. Malia Bouattia
    1. Bouattia, who was recently voted president of the National Union of Students (NUS), took aim at the “Zionist-led media” in 2014 for its sympathetic coverage of Israel during the bombardment and invasion of Gaza earlier that year. Unfortunately, this occurred at an event organized by the Tricontinental Anti-Imperialist Platform to celebrate the Palestinian resistance. A promotional banner with the figure of Hassan Nasrallah emblazoned across it could be seen in the background as she addressed the audience. Nasrallah, general secretary of the Shi’ite paramilitary group Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a notorious antisemite.
    2. Perhaps even more outrageously, Bouattia was almost solely responsible for blocking an NUS motion to condemn ISIS a few weeks later. Such a measure, she contended, was potentially “Islamophobic.” Though an amended version of the motion was eventually passed, this was only after news outlets had got a hold of the story and mocked her mealymouthed prevarications to a fare-thee-well. Roza Salih, the coordinating officer who initiated the proposal, was baffled by Bouattia’s objections. In an interview with Workers Liberty, she voiced her consternation: “I’m extremely disappointed and frustrated…What was Islamophobic about it? I myself come from a Muslim family, and would never propose a motion that was Islamophobic. Either way, it is not Islamophobic to condemn ISIS and its backers!”
    3. Confronted on these issues, Bouattia has proved for the most part evasive. At any rate, she has done little to assuage concerns. “Zio-media” is an epithet that shows up in texts by David Duke and his ilk, and comes much too close to age-old refrains about the Judenpresse for comfort.
  2. Naz Shah
    1. Shah, who unseated the far more objectionable fuckwit George Galloway in the district of Bradford West not twelve months ago, was then discovered to have approvingly shared an offensive image on social media a few months prior to her run for office. Beneath a map of Israel juxtaposed onto a map of the United States, a series of bullet points suggesting that conflict in the Middle East might be resolved by deporting Israeli Jews to the US en masse. (Galloway’s claim that “the Zionist movement from Tel Aviv to New York” would rejoice at her election appears all the more absurd in retrospect).
    2. Around the same time, Shah also urged her friends to get out to the polls since “the Jews are rallying.” Many have noted how similar this statement is to Netanyahu’s bit about how “the Arabs are voting in droves,” spurring Jewish voters to turn out.
    3. To her credit, Shah has apologized unreservedly for her 2014 posts. I’m not too big on the whole culture of heartfelt apologies followed by public self-criticism, but she’s at least remained tactful and reserved throughout the media shitstorm of the past couple weeks. Which is more than can be said for some who have come to her defense. Enter now the former mayor of London.
  3. Ken Livingstone
    1. Livingstone is low-hanging fruit by anyone’s estimation. Back in 2005 he compared Oliver Finegold, a journalist for the Evening Sun, to a Nazi concentration camp guard after learning he was Jewish. “You are just like a concentration camp guard,” declared Livingstone. “Only doing it because you’re paid to, right?” The Evening Sun may be a right-wing rag, but that’s really not the point. Directing such a remark at a Jewish news reporter is insensitive no matter who that person works for.
    2. Fast-forward to 2016: Livingstone takes it upon himself to come to Shah’s rescue, despite the fact she was handling the matter quite well on her own. Almost immediately he makes everything worse: “When Hitler won the election in 1932, his policy was that Jews should be moved to Israel. Hitler supported Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Never mind the fact that in 1932, Israel did not yet exist. Palestine didn’t even exist, in the sense of a free and autonomous state. There was only the Palestinian mandate, which was under British rule at the time. Generally speaking, as Sam Kriss has pointed out, something like Godwin’s Law should apply in contemporary discussions about Israel. Yes, the temptation the establish a “cruel historical irony” in terms of Zionism’s relationship to Nazism may seem irresistible at times, rhetorically speaking, but it’s still fucking stupid.
    3. In the days that have passed since committing this gaffe, Livingstone has somehow managed to dig himself deeper. Corbyn wisely decided to suspend Livingstone, as that kind of liability was the last thing he or Labour needed right now. Questioned about his suspension, Livingstone likened accusations of antisemitism made against him to false accusations of rape. He then went on to grant a radio interview where he apologized for his poor timing, and the disruption it caused. But he would not apologize for what he actually said, since it was supposedly a statement of fact. Livingstone even appealed to the authority of the American Trotskyist Lenni Brenner, discussed later, to bolster his claims. (Incidentally, as Bob from Brockley points out, Livingstone takes liberties with Brenner’s arguments).

Obviously it is no coincidence that these charges are being leveled at the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party with local elections on May 5 around the corner. Especially in the case of Naz Shah, whose term in office has been fairly uneventful up to now. Last year Shah even came out in support of Yvette Cooper, a staunchly pro-Israel candidate, something which at least ought to complicate the picture of her currently being drawn. Right-wing opportunism is nothing new, however, both on the part of the Tories and butthurt Blairites within the Labour Party, whose neoliberal legacy seems threatened by the sudden rise of Corbyn. A great deal of the outrage expressed so far has been cynical, all the more so when one recalls the antisemitic imagery The Sun deployed last year against Ed Miliband’s doomed campaign.

It is therefore important to recognize the politically-motivated character of these attacks, and stand with Bouattia and Shah against slurs, lies, and innuendo from the Right, even as we continue to criticize them from the Left. Bouattia in particular ought not be made immune to criticism, as the residual Stalinism of her positions has already been noted by Daniel Cooper. Shah cannot really be considered a leftist at all, more a liberal than anything else. Livingstone is someone I could more or less do without. He is an embarrassment. The one and only good thing that could come of this debacle, as Alan Johnson writes in Ha’aretz, is the prospect of his replacement by Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race. (Hat-tip goes out to Michael Gaul and Elena Louisa Lange for sharing this article). Continue reading