Notes on Fetishism, History and Uncertainty: Beyond the Critique of Austerity

Werner Bonefeld

‘What divides these gentlemen [the French socialists] from the bourgeois apologist is, on the one side, their sensitivity to the contradictions included in the system; on the other, the utopian inability to grasp the necessary difference between the real and the ideal form of bourgeois society, which is the cause of their desire to undertake the superfluous business of realizing the ideal expression again, which is in fact only the inverted projection [Lichtbild] of this reality’ (Marx, 1973, pp. 248-49).


We live at a time that resounds with misery. The headlines have changed from war and terror to what seems like a never-ending global economic crisis. Against the background of debt, default and sluggish rates of economic growth at best, accumulation by dispossession is back en vogue, a whole generation of workers appears redundant, and a whole mass of people have been cut off from the means of subsistence, struggling to survive – and despite appearances to the contrary, war and terror continue unabated. In this context, the notion that capitalism produces deplorable situations is a most optimistic point of view. Deplorable conditions (Zustände) are not the same as deplorable situations (Mißstände). The one says that poverty is a capitalist condition. Challenging it requires a fundamental change in the social relations of production. On the other hand, deplorable situations describe entirely avoidable socio-economic circumstances, be they the result of a chance development, government incompetence, or hard-nosed class-politics. As such it can be rectified by well-meaning political interventions and political programmes that benefit society at large.[1] Instead of capitalist profit, miserable situations require resolution by political means that hold the economy accountable to the democratic aspirations for a freedom from want. Deplorable situations require thus a social activism that challenges This misery and That outrage, seeking to alleviate and rectify This and That. What however are the social preconditions that constitute the necessity of This poverty and That misery? After all, what is needed is a praxis that fights the underlying conditions of misery. Adorno (1972) therefore condemns activism for its own sake, and rejects it as a pseudo-praxis that fights this and that but leaves the conditions that render this and that entirely untouched. In this way, ‘activism’ is not only affirmative of existing society but also regressive – it deludes itself that however bad the situation, it can be rectified by this or that policy, by this or that technical means. The activism of the given situation feels the pain of the world and offers its own programme as the means of salvation. The activism against this or that is delusional in its conception of society. It deceives those whose interests it pretends to represent by making them believe that a resolution to their plight is really just a matter of proper government. In its essence, activism for this cause or that cause is a political advertisement for some alternative party of government. It transforms the protest against a really existing misery that blights the life of a whole class of individuals into a selling point for political gain.

On Society and Economic Nature

Critical thought is none other than the cunning of reason when confronted with a social reality in which the poor and miserable are required to subsidise the financial system for the sake of sustaining the illusion of fictitious wealth. Yet, this subsidy is entirely necessary in existing society, to prevent its implosion. This rational irrationality of a capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction is at the centre of the critique of political economy. Its critique is subversive. It asks why human social reproduction takes this irrational form. Subversion focuses on human conditions and focuses on essentials: ‘Free labour contains the pauper’ (Marx, 1973, p. 604) and capitalist wealth entails the poverty of dispossessed labour in its conception. Its focus on essentials entails intransigence towards the existent patterns of the world. It demands that all relations ‘in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicably being have to be overthrown’ (Marx, 1975, p. 182). Debasement subsists as society unaware of itself; a society that is, in which human sensuous practice exists, say, in the form of a movement of coins that impose themselves with seemingly irresistible force on the acting subjects as if the world of coins were a world apart. The fetishism of commodities makes the human world appear as one that is governed by natural, immutable economic laws. Yet, nature has nothing to do with it. What appears as an objective force of economic nature is and remains a socially constituted force. Society is governed by economic abstractions that appear as forces of nature. Economic nature is a socially constituted nature. Society asserts itself in the form of a relationship between things and thus exists in and through the movement of socially constituted things.

Society is ‘objective’ insofar as and ‘because’ its ‘own subjectivity is not transparent’. Society is subjective ‘in that it refers back to human beings which form it’ (Adorno, 1993a, p. 43). Objectivity ‘realises itself only through individuals’. Society as a mere object comprises the socially necessary delusion that the social structures and social laws are innately natural. ‘The thesis that society is subject to natural laws is ideology’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 355). Social objectivity does not posit itself – it is ‘the posited universal of the social individuals that constitute it’ (1993b, p. 127). What this means is well brought out by Marx (1973, p. 239) when he writes, in the money fetish ‘a social relation, a definite relation between individuals … appears as a metal, a stone, as a purely physical external thing which can be found, as such, in nature, and which is indistinguishable in form from its natural existence’. That is, social objectivity ‘does not lead a life of its own’ (Adorno, 1993b, p. 127). It is a socially constituted objectivity – social relations vanish in their appearance as a metal or a stone, and this appearance is real. There is only one world, and that is the world of appearance. What appears in the appearance of society as a ‘stone’, or a ‘coin’, is however a definite social relationship between individuals subsisting as a relationship between ‘coins’. Society appears as some transcendental thing that governs by means of the ‘invisible hand’, which takes ‘care of both the beggar and the king’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 251). Its transcendent character is real: Money makes the world go round; yet, it does so only because, in capitalism, social individuals are governed by the product of their own hand. In short, the world does indeed manifest itself behind the backs of acting individuals, and society is indeed governed by real abstractions; yet, it is their own world (cf. Marcuse, 1988, p. 151).

Marx’s critique of fetishism amounts thus to a judgement on existence. That is, the critique of political economy amounts to a conceptualised praxis (begriffenden Praxis) of definite social relations in their appearance as relations, say, between coins (Schmidt, 1974, p. 207). It holds that theoretical mysteries find their rational explanation in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice, and argues that this practice exists against itself in the form of relations of economic objectivity. The limit to reification is reified Man, and in the face of reified Man, the critique of fetishism is an attempt at making society conscious of its own ‘monstrous’ world. In short, the meaning of objectivity excludes the possibility that it can also be a subject. However, to be an object is part of the meaning of subjectivity. Subjectivity means objectification. In its capitalist form it appears in the logic of things. Appearance [Schein] “is the enchantment of the subject in its own world” (Adorno 1969: 159). The circumstance that objectification [Gegenständlichkeit] exists in the form of a relationship between coins does thus not imply that there is an as yet undiscovered, and indeed undiscoverable, logic that lies solely within the thing itself. Only as a socially determinate object can the object be an object (see Adorno 1969: 157). Reason exists – but in irrational form. The irrational world is a rational world.

Marx’s work focuses on forms, at first on forms of consciousness (i.e., religion and law), then later on the forms of political economy. This focus on forms entails a critique of social relations that subsist in an inverted form of society– one that is governed not by the social individuals themselves but, rather, one that is governed by ‘product’ of their own hand. That is to say, every social ‘form’, even the most simple form like, for example, the commodity, ‘is already an inversion and causes relations between people to appear as attributes of things’ (Marx, 1972, p. 508) or, more emphatically, each form is a ‘perverted form’ (Marx, 1979, p. 90)[2]. The critique of economic categories as perverted social forms subverts the economic idea of cash, price and profit by revealing their social constitution. The movement of ‘coins’ does not express some abstractly conceived economic matter. It expresses a definite social relationship between individuals subsisting as a relationship between things and coins. In capitalism individuals are really governed by the movement of coins – they carry their relationship with society, and therewith their access to the means of subsistence, in their pockets. Although coins tend to inflate or become depressed, they are not subjects.  Yet, they impose themselves on, and also in and through, the person to the point of madness and disaster, from the socially necessary consciousness of cash and product, money and profit, to poverty and famine, and bloodshed and war. The bourgeois conception of wealth is money as more money, and this idea of more money objectifies itself in the persons as mere ‘agents of value’ (Adorno, 173, p. 311) who depend for their life on the manner in which the ‘logic of economic things’ unfolds – access to the means of subsistence appears to be governed by fate and fate appears in the form of economic growth, which if money does not posit itself as more money cuts off a whole class of people from the means of subsistence. What a monstrosity! An economic thing, this coin, that in its nature really is nothing more than a piece of metal manifests itself as a power by which ‘the life of all men hangs by’ (Adorno, 1973, p. 320). However, this is not a monstrosity of economic nature nor is it one of reified things. That is, the mythological idea of fate becomes no less mythical when it is demythologised “into a secular ‘logic of things’” (ibid., p. 319) or into an abstract system-logic that structures the economic behaviours by means of price signals, which comprises the freedom to wealth and the freedom to starve. Its economic nature is in its entirety a socially constituted nature.

On Society and Praxis

There is, says Adorno, a need for a ‘practice that fights barbarism’, and yet, he argues rightly, there can be no such practice (Adorno, 1962, p. 30). Barbarism cannot be fought in a direct and immediate manner – what really does it mean to struggle against money, resist the movement of coins, combat the law of value, and fight poverty in a society that contains poverty in its concept of wealth? A ‘practice that fights barbarism’ is about the social preconditions that render barbarism. To put this point in entirely different manner: The struggle for humanisation points the struggle against constituted relations of misery in the right direction; the humanisation of social relations is the purpose and end of the struggle for the human emancipation from reified economic relations, from relations in which an increase in social wealth manifests itself to the class that is tied to work in the form of a constant struggle for access to the means of subsistence. However, the effort of humanising inhuman conditions is confronted by the paradox that it presupposes as eternal those same inhuman conditions that provoke the effort of humanisation in the first place. Inhuman conditions are not just an impediment to humanisation but a premise of its concept. What then does it mean to say ‘no’?

It is not the independence of economic categories of cash and coin, value and money, as forces over and above, and also in and through, the social individuals that require explanation. Rather, what requires explanation is the social relations of production that manifest themselves as a relationship between economic things, which assert themselves behind the backs of those same individuals that comprise and sustain society. Adorno’s notion that the ‘total movement of society’ is ‘antagonistic from the outset’ (Adorno, 1970, p. 304) entails therefore more than it first seems. Not only does the fetishism of commodities presuppose antagonistic social relations but society exists also by virtue of the class antagonism. That is to say, ‘society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it’ (Adorno, 1973, 320). The struggle against capitalism is therefore not a struggle for the working class. Whichever way one looks at it, to be a member of the working class is a great ‘misfortune’ (Marx, 1983, p. 477). That is to say, class is not a positive category. It is a critical concept of the false society. The critique of class society finds its positive resolution not in better paid workers or conditions of full-employment, etc. It finds its positive resolution only in the classless society, in which mankind has rid itself of ‘all the muck of ages and found itself anew’ (Marx and Engels 1976: 53). – as a commune of ‘communist individuals’ (Marcuse 1958: 127).

In a world governed by the movement of coins, the critique of class society is entirely negative. A constructive critique of class society does not amount to a critical practice. It amounts, argue Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) and Adorno (1970), to ‘ticket thinking’. Such thinking is ‘one-dimensional’. It argues in interests of the wage labourer with a claim to power. That is, rather than understanding capital as a social relationship, it takes capital to be an economic thing that given the right balance of class forces, can be made to work for the benefit of workers. Ticket thinking proclaims ‘falseness’ (Adorno 2008a: 28). Instead of the ‘optimism of the left’ that puts forth a programme of capitalist transformation which does ‘not talk about the devil but looks on the bright side’ (Adorno 1978: 114), there is therefore need to understand the capitalist conceptuality of social labour.

Affirmative conceptions of class, however well-meaning and benevolent in their intensions, presuppose the working class as productive force that deserves a better, a new deal. What is a fair wage? Marx made the point that ‘”price of labour” is just as irrational as a yellow logarithm’ (Marx, 1966, p. 818). The demand for fair wages and fair labour conditions abstracts from the very conditions of ‘fairness’ in capitalism, which is founded on the divorce of social labour from the means of subsistence, and instead of overcoming this divorce which is the foundation of capital and labour, it proclaims that dispossessed workers be paid better. That is, the divorce of social labour from the means of subsistence transforms labour into a proletarian who is ‘the slave of other individuals who have made themselves the owners of the means of human existence’ (Marx, 1970, p. 13, translation amended). Why does this content, that is, human social reproduction, take the form of an equivalent exchange between the owners of the means of subsistence and the dispossessed seller of labour power, and how can it be that wealth expands by means of an exchange between equivalent values? The seller of labour power is fundamentally a human factor of surplus labour time, which is the foundation of surplus value and thus profit. The equivalence of an exchange between quantitatively different values has thus to do with the transformation of labour into a surplus value producing labour activity which expands social wealth, allowing money to lay golden eggs. Even on the assumption that when hiring labour, equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, this transaction between the seller and buyer of labour ‘is all that only the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of’ (1983, p. 456). That is to say, theory on behalf of the working class affirms the existence of a class of people tied to surplus value production. Chapter 48 of Volume Three of Capital provides Marx’s critique of the theory of class proposed by classical political economy (and shared by modern social science), according to which class interests are determined by the revenue sources (or, in Weberian terms, market situation) of social groups, rather than being founded in the social relations of production as Marx argues (on this see Clarke, 1992). Political Economy is indeed a scholarly dispute over how the booty pumped out of the labourer may be divided and distributed amongst the component classes of society (Marx, 1983, p. 559) – and clearly, the more the labourer gets, the better. After all, it is her social labour that produces the ‘wealth of nations’.

However, the critique of political economy is not political economy. In distinction to political economy’s focus on the distribution of wealth, it asks about the conceptuality of social wealth, that is wealth in the form of value, and it asks how this wealth if produced, by whom, and for what purpose. According to Marx, wealth is produced by labour for the sake of greater wealth in the form of value, and value is value in exchange that becomes visible in the form of money. Value is wealth as valorised value. Time is money. The critique of political amounts thus to a conceptualised practice of capitalist form of social wealth as one that is founded on the transformation of the workers’ life time into labour time. There is no time to waste and there is always more time to catch. This, then, is the ‘nibbling and cribbling at meal times’ as ‘moments are the elements of profit’ (Marx, 1983, pp, 232, 233). The time of value is the time of socially necessary labour time. Work that is not completed within this time is wasted, valueless, regardless of the labour time that went into it, the sweat and tears of its productive efforts, the usefulness of the material wealth that was created, and the needs that it could satisfy. From the appropriation of unpaid labour time to the endless struggle over the division between necessary labour time and surplus labour time, from the ‘imposition‘ of labour-time by time-theft, this ‘petty pilferings of minutes’, ‘snatching a few minutes’ (ibid., p. 232), to the stealing from the worker of atoms of additional unpaid labour time by means of great labour flexibility and ‘systematic robbery of what is necessary for the life of the workman’ (Marx, 1983, p. 402), the life-time of the worker is labour-time. The worker then appears as ‘nothing more than personified labour-time’ (Marx, 1983, p. 233) – a ‘time’s carcase’ (on this, see Bonefeld, 2010b).

The notion, then, that the hell of a class ridden society can be reformed for the sake of workers is regressive in that it projects a ‘conformist rebellion’ (Horkheimer 1985), that, say, instead of ending slavery, seeks a new deal for slaves. Although ‘the world contains opportunities enough for success [communism] …everything is bewitched’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 2011: 20). That is, there is only one social reality, and this is the reality of the ‘enchanted and perverted’ world of capital (Marx 1966: 830), which reproduces itself not despite the class struggle but rather by virtue of it. Sensuous human activity subsists through the world of economic things, and thus appears ‘as a thing’ (Marx 1973, p. 157).

In capitalism, every progress turns into a calamity

Capitalist social relations have produced a staggering expansion in social wealth and phenomenal increase in labour productivity. Within a miniscule historical period of time, it has transformed human society beyond recognition. Nevertheless, despite this unprecedented expansion of human productive power, the time of labour has not diminished. In capitalism, every social progress turns into a calamity. Every increase in labour productivity shortens the hours of labour but in its capitalist form, it lengthens them. The introduction of sophisticated machinery lightens labour but in its capitalist form, it heightens the intensity of labour. Every increase in the productivity of labour increases the material wealth of the producers but in its capitalist form makes them paupers. Most importantly of all, greater labour productivity sets labour free, makes labour redundant. But rather than shortening the hours of work and thus absorbing all labour into production on the basis of a shorter working day, freeing life-time from the ‘realm of necessity’, those in employment are exploited more intensively, while those made redundant find themselves on the scrap heap of a mode of production that sacrifices ‘“human machines” on the pyramids of accumulation’ (Gambino, 2003, p. 104).[3]

Capitalist wealth is wealth in value. Value is category of constant expansion, on the pain of ruin and by means of ruin. Value is wealth in the form of restless expansion of abstract wealth qua destruction. Concealed in the concept of capital as self-valorising value lies the conceptuality of social labour. The necessity of its affirmation qua destruction – discussed by Marx at times as the dialectic between the forces and the relations of production – belongs to the constituted existence of social labour in the form of capital.

Destruction is the constituted nightmare of the capitalist mode of social reproduction:

‘Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence; too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does bourgeois society get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.’ (Marx and Engels 1996: 18–19)

This commentary on globalisation by the 29-year-old Marx is not a brilliant anticipation, which after all turned out to be far too optimistic. Rather, it conceptualises the critical subject and, in doing so, shows what lies within it. What lies within the concept of capitalist wealth are its determinate necessities. These belong to the critical subject of society unaware of itself and constitute its conceptuality. Creation qua destruction is a valid necessity of capitalist social relations – it belongs to its conceptuality [Begrifflichkeit]. “Conceptuality expresses the fact that, no matter how much blame may attach to the subject’s contribution, the conceived world is not its own but a world hostile to the subject” (Adorno 1973: 167). Man vanishes in her own world and exists against herself as a personification of economic categories – an “alienated subject” (see Backhaus 1992) that constitutes the world of things and is invisible, lost and denied in its own world – the expansion of wealth entails the disappearance of wealth as a whole class of people tied to work is cut off from the means of subsistence as if the social metabolism really is governed by the mythical idea of fate.

There is only one human measure that cannot be modified. It can only be lost (Max Frisch)

Marx conceives of communism as the real movement of the working class (Marx and Engels 1976) and argues that history is a history of class struggle (Marx and Engels 1996). This argument recognises that history has been a history of rulers and ruled, and this is the only history that has been – a bad-universality of transition from one mode of domination to another. The universality of history is, however, both real and false. In the history of the victors the victims of history are invisible, and it is their invisibility that makes history appear as a universal history that akin to a sequence of events, records the times of glorious rule, from which the memory of struggle and insubordination is necessarily expunged. The courage, cunning, and suffering of the dead disappears twice, once in a defeat in which ‘even the dead will not be safe’ from an enemy that ‘has not ceased to be victorious’ (Benjamin 1999: 247), and then again in the present, which either denies that the dead ever existed or ritualises their struggles as an heroic act that culminated in the present as the unrivalled manifestation of their bravery (Tischler, 2005). The struggles of the past transform into a monument of history, erected in celebration of the present mode of domination, for which the dead perform the role of legitimising fodder. It is true, says Benjamin, that ‘all the rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them’. There is thus no ‘document of civilisation’ that is ‘not at the same time a document of barbarism’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). History though universal in its appearance, is not some automatic thing that unfolds on behalf of the masters of the world by force of its own objectively unfolding victorious logic. ‘Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession, in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate’ (Benjamin 1999: 248). Nevertheless, however universal the progress of history might appear, the future has not already been written, class struggles have to be fought, and their outcomes are uncertain, unpredictable, and fundamentally open, then and now. What appears linear to us was contested, uncertain and unpredictable at its own time. Its progress towards the present appears logical in its directional dynamic because the time of the present eliminates any doubt in its own historical veracity as a pre-determined outcome of a sequence of recorded events that dated the time of the present in the past.

What alternatives might there have been in the past and how many struggles have been at the knife’s edge and could have led to a course of history that would be unrecognisable to us? There is no inevitability in history, nor is history an irresistible force. It is made by the acting subjects themselves and what is made by Man can be changed by Man. History appears inevitable and irresistible only afterwards, which gives history the appearance of some objective force and directional dynamic, a telos of becoming and achievement, towards which it seemingly strives. For the proponents of present society, history has been concluded. Others say that it is still continuing towards some assumed socialist or communist destiny, at which point it will conclude. History does however not make history. That is to say, ‘[h]istory does nothing, does not “possess vast wealth”, does not “fight battles”! It is Man, rather, the real, living Man who does all that, who does possess and fight, it is not “history” that uses Man [Mensch] as a means to pursue its ends, as if it were a person apart. History is nothing but the activity of Man pursuing its ends’ (Marx 1980: 98). Historical materialism is not the dogma indicated by clever opponents and unthinking proponents alike, but a critique of things understood dogmatically. That is to say, the ‘human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape’, but not conversely, the anatomy of the ape does not explain the anatomy of Man (Marx 1973: 105). If the anatomy of the ape would really explain the anatomy of Man then the ape would already possess Man as the innate necessity of its evolution – a natural teleology or an already written future.[4] The future, however, has not already been written. Nor will it be the result of some abstractly conceived objective logic of historical development. History does not unfold, as if it were a person apart. History has to be made, and will be made, by Man pursuing her ends. These ends themselves are not theologically determined, naturally founded, or historically active. The purpose of capitalism is the profitable accumulation of abstract wealth. The commune of human purpose is not an existing human purpose. Its reality is a negative one. That is to say, linear conceptions of history do not reveal abstract historical laws. They reveal accommodation of thought and practice to the existing ‘objective conditions’. Linear conceptions of history conceive of it as a continuum of progress of the present into its own future.

The political left claims that history is on the side of the oppressed and that the struggle of the oppressed therefore moving with the current of history’s forward march. This proclamation of progress makes ‘dogmatic claims’ (Benjamin 1999: 252) about a future of freed proletarians. How might one conceive of a liberated future that is not also a future present? Benjamin calls the conception of history that conceives of existing reality as transition towards communism, the ‘bordello’ (ibid.: 253) of historical thought. It criticises capitalism with a claim to power, envisages progress as a matter of party political success, advertises itself as the theory and practice of progress of a history that ‘runs its course…according to its own dialectic’ (Lukacs, in Pinkus 1975: 74). At its best this idea of history as imminent progress represents the sentimentality of the epoch, at worst it believes in itself, asserting a dogmatic claim to power for the sake of power.

On the Critique of Progress

History has no independent reality. It appears as a sequence of events, from one battle to another and from this division of labour to that division of labour. This appearance is real but by itself, devoid of meaning. What does it really mean to say that history is a sequence of events? Events of what and what was so eventful? Its appearance as an objectively unfolding force towards the present conceptuality of social wealth is deceptive. It gives rise to the idea of the coming of the society of human purposes as an ‘event’ of historical becoming towards which history somewhat strives. This view of history makes it appear as if the society of the free and equal derives from existing society, demeaning the very idea of the society of human purposes. The difficulty of conceiving of such a society independently from capitalism, has to do with its very idea. In distinction to the pursuit of profit, seizure of the state, pursuit and preservation of political power, and economic value and human resource, it follows a completely different entelechy of human development – on in which wealth is free time, the purpose of humanity its own purpose, and one in which equality is an equality of individuals human needs. For the sake of human emancipation, the idea of history as a force of relentless progress has to be abandoned – the idea of progress is tied to existing society, which legitimises the existence of poverty as a condition of future wealth. History appears as a transcendent force of progress only when one abstracts from it, leading to its description of a sequence of historical events, for which the terms ‘historicity’ provides the name. That is to say, in order to comprehend history, one needs to ‘crack the continuum of history’.[5] One needs thus to think out of history, out of the battles, out of the struggles of the Levellers and Diggers, slave insurrections, peasant revolts, the struggles of Les Enragés, working class strikes, riots, insurrections, and revolutions, including St. Petersburg (1917) and Kronstadt  (1921), and Barcelona (1936) [6], to appreciate the traditions of the oppressed, recognise the smell of danger and the stench of death, gain a sense of the courage and cunning of struggle, grasp the spirit of sacrifice, comprehend however fleetingly the density of a time at which history almost came to a standstill.[7]  History does not lead anywhere; it has no telos, no objectives, no purpose, and it does not take sides. At its worst, it continues on the path of victorious progress under darkened clouds and smoke filled skies. History is made. At best, its progress will be stopped. Such history has not been made yet, though it has often been attempted. In our time, this attempt is called communism – this attempt at negation that seeks to rid the world of ‘all the muck of ages’.

What is cannot be

The true picture of the past, says Benjamin (1999: 247) ‘flits by’. When? How? It flits by ‘at a moment of danger’, at moments of courageous struggle when the time of the present appears to have come to a hold, a time at which everything seems possible, and where everything is up in the air, a time of great unpredictability and uncertainty, and thus a time at which the ‘bloody grimace’ (Adorno 1975: 43) of progress attains actual force in the experience of struggle. Thus the true picture of the past flits by at a time of greatest uncertainty, a time at which the certainty of tomorrow dissolves and at which the monuments of the past crack to reveal their hidden secret. This is the time of historical comprehension, in which the mass produced view of a glorious history transforms form a historicity of events into an experienced history of death and destruction, pillage and rape, enslavement and dispossession. This then is the time of intense uncertainty that reveals the bloody grimace of the past struggles, which up-to-now had hidden in the seemingly civilised forms of rule and power. This then is the time at which the dead victims of history step off the monument built by the state in its role as memory entrepreneur (see Tischler 2005). There is no redemption. There is only the realisation that history was not what it seemed, and there is a sudden understanding of the earlier sacrifice and deadly struggle. The experience of a time at a standstill is intoxicating, and full of danger. It is this experience that allows a glimpse of the past to take hold in the present, revealing a deadly certainty. That is, redemption is a matter of staying alive at a time when the certainty of tomorrow is no more: for ‘even the dead will not be safe’ if ‘the enemy’ wins (Benjamin 1999: 247).

The time of human emancipation is akin to pulling the emergency-break on a run-away train – here and now so that the continuum of history ‘come[s] to a stop’ (Benjamin 1999: 254). Another way of putting this is to say: the future present is both a present in transition towards its own future and a now-time that explodes this continuum of history. The time for pulling the emergency break is not tomorrow. It is now. Compared with the time of the present, Now-Time appears as a myth. The present is the time of seeming certainty and predictability. Now time says that now is the time of uncertainty.  Now is the time to stop the forward march of the time of the clock, adding units of time to units of time, ticking and tacking according to the rhythm of a world in which time is money and money is wealth. Now time appears as a myth because its acuity is a time that does not add to itself (Bonefeld 2010b). It does not move forward in relentless pursuit of abstract wealth, accumulating living labour on the pyramids of abstract wealth, appropriating additional atoms of unpaid labour time for the sake of an accumulation of abstract wealth alone. In Now time, time is courage and cunning. Now is the time for taking aim ‘at the clocks’ so that their ticking and tacking stops, and time ceases to be money and instead becomes a time ‘for enjoyment’ (Marx 1972, p. 252). Now time is not the time of the present. It is a time against the present, seeking to stop it in its tracks. Conceived as a present time, now time ceases as a time that fights barbarism. Instead it converts the ‘no’ of Now Time into a ‘conformist rebellion’ for existing conditions, which it defends with doctrinaire belief in the progress of the present, according to which all will be well in the future once the communist bead of the rosary of history has slipped through our hands.[8]

Towards a Conclusion without Promise

Only a reified consciousness can declare that it is in possession of the requisite knowledge, political capacity, and technical expertise not only for resolving capitalist crises but, also, to do so in the interests of workers. Its world-view describes capitalist economy as an irrationally organised practice of labour, and proposes socialism as a rationally organised practice of labour by means of conscious planning by public authority. The anti-capitalism of central economic planning is abstract in its negation of the capitalistically organised mode of social reproduction. ‘Abstract negativity’ (Adorno 2008a: 25) barks in perpetuity and without bite. Instead, it sniffs out the miserable world, from the outside as it were, and puts itself forward as having the capacity, ability, insight, and means for resolving the crisis of capitalist economy ‘for the workers’ (see ibid.). Abstract negativity describes the theology of anti-capitalism. Theologically conceived, anti-capitalism is devoid of Now-Time. Instead of rupturing the continuum of history, it promises deliverance from misery amidst ‘a pile of debris’ that ‘grows skyward’ (Benjamin 1999: 249). Benjamin’s thesis on the Angel of History says that the poor and miserable will not be liberated unless they liberate themselves, by their own effort, courage, and cunning. Herbert Marcuse focuses the conundrum of this argument most succinctly when he argues that the workers have to be free for their liberation so that they are able to become free (Marcuse 1964). In his view, workers can free themselves only insofar as they are not workers, on the basis of their non-identity. Marcuse’s argument is to the point: to stop the progress of capitalism 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. What really does it mean to say ‘no’ to a capitalistically organised mode of human subsistence? To say ‘no’ to capitalism is simple. But to say what the ‘no’ is, is difficult. For one, the ‘no’ is not external to but operates within that same society which it opposes. Like Marx’s summons of class struggle as the motor of history, the ‘no’ drives the negative world forward. It is its dynamic force. Furthermore, to say what the ‘no’ is compromises the ‘no’ insofar as it becomes positive in its affirmative yes to something that has no valid content except the very society that is opposes. The ‘no’ is immanent to bourgeois society and gives it its dynamic.

There is thus need for a realistic conception of the struggle for the society of human purposes. Class struggle has to be rediscovered as the laboratory of human emancipation. This struggle does not follow some abstract idea. It is a struggle for access to ‘crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist’ (Benjamin 1999: 246). What then is the working class ‘in-itself’ struggling for? ‘In-itself’ the working class struggles for better wages and conditions, and defends wage levels and conditions. It struggles against capital’s ‘were-wolf’s hunger for surplus labour’ and its destructive conquest for additional atoms of labour time, and thus against its reduction to a mere time’s carcass. It struggles against a life constituting solely of labour-time and thus against a reduction of her human life to a mere economic resource. It struggles for respect, education, and recognition of human significance, and above all it struggles for food, shelter, clothing, warmth, love, affection, knowledge, and dignity. It struggles against the reduction of its life-time to labour-time, of its humanity to an economic resource, of its living existence to personified labour-time. Its struggle as a class ‘in-itself’ really is a struggle ‘for-itself’: for life, human distinction, life-time, and above all, satisfaction of basic human needs. It does all of this in conditions (Zustände) in which the increase in material wealth that it has produced, pushes beyond the limits of the capitalist form of wealth. Every so-called trickle-down effect that capitalist accumulation might bring forth presupposes a prior and sustained trickle up in the capitalist accumulation of wealth. And then society ‘suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence’ (Marx and Engels 1996: 18-19). For Benjamin and Marx, the experience of being cut off from the means of subsistence makes the oppressed class the depository of historical knowledge. It is the class struggle that ‘supplies a unique experience with the past’, and understanding of the present (Benjamin 1999: 254). Whether this experience ‘turns concrete in the changing forms of repression as resistance to repression’ (Adorno 1973: 265) or whether it turns concrete in forms of repression is a matter of experienced history. Critically understood, and in distinction to the classical tradition, historical materialism is not only a critique of things understood dogmatically. That is, at its best it thinks against the flow of history and, as such, it really ‘brush[es] history against the grain’ (Benjamin 1999: 248) so that the critical reason of human emancipation does not become ‘a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of’ (Adorno 1973: 143).

The existence of human labour as an economic factor of production does not entail reduction of consciousness to economic consciousness. It entails the concept of economy as an experienced concept, and economic consciousness as an experienced consciousness. At the very least, economic consciousness is an unhappy consciousness. It is this consciousness that demands reconciliation. In sum, ‘freedom is a hollow delusion for as long as one class of humans can starve another with impunity. Equality is a hollow delusion for as long as the rich exercise the right to decide over the life and death of others’ (Roux 1985: 147).


Where is the positive? The society of human purposes can be defined in negation only. History holds no promise at all. History does nothing. It is made. In the struggle against a negative world nothing is certain, except misery itself. Nevertheless, uncertainty is also an experienced concept of struggle (Bonefeld 2004). Historically, it has assumed the form of the ‘council’, the Commune, the Raete, the assemblies: this democracy of the street, which, despite appearance to the contrary, manifests no impasse at all. It is the laboratory of the society of free and equal  – its validity is its own uncertainty.


[1] On the distinction between deplorable situations and deplorable conditions, see Bonefeld (2000).

[2] Adapted from the German original that uses the phrase ‘verrueckte’ Form. In German verrueckt has a double meaning: man and displaced. I translate this as ‘perverted’.

[3] The social calamity of capitalist development is taken from Karl Marx (1983: 416).

[4] On this see Schmidt (1983) and Bonefeld (2010a).

[5] I use this phrase in reference to Holloway’s (2010) negative theory of capitalism.

[6] On the connection between St. Petersburg and Kronstadt, see Brendel (2002).

[7] The notion of thinking out of history, rather than about history, derives from Adorno’s (1973) negative dialectics which argues that for thought to decipher capitalist society, it needs to think out of society. For him, thinking about society, or about history, amounts to an argument based on hypothetical judgements that treat the world as an ‘as if’, leaving reality itself untouched and leading to dogmatic claims about its character. Critical theory, at least this is its critical intent, deciphers society from within, seeking its dissolution as a continuum of inevitable and irresistible social forces, political events, economic laws (of scarcity), and empirical data. On this, see Bonefeld (2012).

[8] The ‘rosary that slips through our hands’ refers to Benjamin’s critique of an historical materialism that has slipped into the theoretical method of historicism, which conceives of history as a sequence of events.


Adorno, T. (1962) Einleitung zur Musiksoziologie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1969) ‘Marginalien zu Theorie und Praxis’, in Stichworte Kritische Modelle 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1970), Ästhetische Theorie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1972), Soziologische Schriften I, in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 8, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1973) Negative Dialectics, Routledge, London.

Adorno, T. (1975) Gesellschaftstheorie und Kulturkritik, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Adorno, T. (1978) Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, Verso, London.

Adorno, T. (1993a) ‘Einleitung’, Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie, dtv, Munich.

Adorno, T. (1993b) ‘Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften‘, in Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie, dtv, Munich.

Adorno, T. (2008a) Lectures on History and Freedom, Polity, Cambridge.

Adorno, T. (2008b) Lectures on Negative Dialectics, Polity, Cambridge.

Adorno, T. and M. Horkheimer (2011) Towards a New Manifesto, Verso, London.

Backhaus, H.G. (1992) ‘Between Philosophy and Science: Marxian Social Economy as Critical Theory’, in W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn and K. Psychopedis (eds.) Open Marxism, vol. I, Pluto, London.

Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations, Pimlico, London.

Bonefeld, W. (2000) ‘Die Betroffenheit und die Vernunft der Kritik’, in Bruhn J, M Dahlmann, and C Nachmann (eds) Kritik der Politik, Ca Ira, Freiburg.

Bonefeld, W. (2004) ‘Uncertainty and Social Autonomy’, The Commoner no 8, Winter 2004, pp. 1-6.

Bonefeld, W. (2010a) ‘History and Human Emancipation’, Critique, 38/1, pp. 61-73.

Bonefeld, W. (2010b) ‘Abstract Labour: Against its Nature and on its Time’, Capital & Class, vol. 34/2, pp. 257-276.

Bonefeld, W. (2012) ‘Negative Dialectics in Miserable Times: Notes on Adorno and Social Praxis’, in Journal of Classical Sociology 12 (1), pp. 122-34.

Brendel, C. (2002) ‘Kronstadt: Proletarian Spin-Off of the Russian Revolution’, in W. Bonefeld and S. Tischler (eds) What is to be Done?, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Clarke, S. (1992) Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, 2nd ed., Palgrave, London.

Gambino, F (2003) ‘A Critique of the Fordism of the Regulation School’, in W. Bonefeld (ed.), Revolutionary Writing, Autonomedia, New York, 2003.

Holloway, J. (2010) Crack Capitalism, Pluto, London.

Horkheimer, M. (1985) The Eclipse of Reason, Continuum, New York.

Horkheimer, M. and T. Adorno (1972) Dialectics of Enlightenment, Verso, London.

Marcuse, H. (1958) Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis, Roudledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Marcuse, H. (1964) One Dimensional Man, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Marcuse, H. (1988), ‘Philosophy and Critical Theory’, in ibid. Negations, Free Association Press, London.

Marx, K. (1970) Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Marx/Engels, Selected Works, vol. 3, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Marx, K. (1972) Theorien des Mehrwerts, MEW 26.3, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K (1973) Grundrisse, Penguin, London.

Marx, K. (1975) Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’. Introduction, in Collected Works, vol. 3, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. (1966) Capital, vol. III, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. (1979) Das Kapital, MEW 23, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K. (1980) Die heilige Familie, in MEW 2, Dietz, Berlin.

Marx, K. (1983) Capital, vol. I, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1996) The Communist Manifesto, Pluto, London.

Marx, K. and F. Engels (1976) The German Ideology, in Collected Works, vol 5, International Publishers, New York.

Pinkus, T. (ed.) (1975) Conversations with Lukacs, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Roux, J. (1985) ‘Das “Manifest der Enragés”’, in ibid, Freiheit wird die Welt erobern, Reden und Schriften, Röderberg, Frankfurt.

Schmidt, A. (1974) ‘Praxis’, Gesellschaft: Beiträge zur Marxschen Theorie 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.

Schmidt, A. (1983) History and Structure, MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Tischler, S. (2005) ‘Time of Reification and Time of Insubordination. Some Notes’ in Bonefeld, W and K Psychopedis (eds) Human Dignity, Ashgate, Aldershot.

The Political Aesthetic in the Works of Adorno and Benjamin

 Yasser Shams Khan

This paper deals with the dilemma concerning the relationship between politics and aesthetics. The following analysis will consider the concept of the political aesthetic and its expression in the works of art by interrogating the related but contrasting theoretical frameworks offered by Adorno and Benjamin: while Benjamin conceptualises the revolutionary potential of technically advanced popular forms of art, Adorno is in favour of the artistically advanced but elitist avant-garde literature. The polarities of these two perspectives, as Adorno puts it, are but “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up” (Adorno and Benjamin, 2007: 123). It is this concept of freedom and the struggle for freedom that will raise the question of the relationship between revolutionary praxis and aesthetic contemplation, within which is embedded the question of how the ‘political’ is represented in the aesthetic domain, and conversely, whether the concept of aesthetics itself is an expression within the socio-economic and political domain.

The ‘political’ and the ‘aesthetic’ are two antithetical concepts conflated together in the expression of the ‘political aesthetic’. The ‘political’ is commonly associated with the immediate, socio-economic i.e. historical reality (1): not just what we see and observe from a phenomenological perspective, but the dynamic distribution of space and time (2) within which individuals associate into collectives engaging in praxis, commitment and transformation of existing forces of production and their concomitant relations of production. The ‘aesthetic’ is understood in the Kantian sense as a “system of a priori forms of determining what presents itself in sense experience” (Ranciere, 2006: 13). In other words, ‘aesthetics’ is the realm of forms, the spiritual realm of ideas, of a priori categories which help us in understanding (verstehen) the sense perceptions of reality as it is. Within this framework ‘politics’ and ‘aesthetics’ can be seen as antithetical concepts: where one is the realm of commitment and praxis, the other is the realm of contemplation, as well as distraction. How then do we explain what is the ‘political aesthetic’? Is it the reconciliation (versöhnung) of contradictory concepts? Or, is it the reflection of the political (understood as the social structures and relations of society) as content within the work of art? I will attempt to deal with these two questions in detail below taking the latter as my initiating point of interrogation of the works of Adorno and Benjamin.

If we consider art as a reflection of society we come across certain theoretical dilemmas. Firstly how do we explain the form of mediation between society and its aesthetic representation in the work of art? To use the socio-economic background instrumentally as an apparatus of explanation of aesthetic content is to take too reductive a view of the aesthetic object, completely removing any subjective element (subjectivity which is objectively determined(3) which forms the basis of the emancipatory potential of the speculative and autonomous domain of the aesthetic. The first thing to recognise here is the autonomous nature of aesthetics and politics as “two incommensurable realities, two independent codes or systems of signs, two heterogeneous or asymmetrical terms” (Jameson, 1974: 6).

The second thing to bring up is the purpose this autonomy of aesthetics is put to serve, which interestingly enough also functions as its premise: freedom of mankind from historical determinism and, more importantly, necessity. The purpose of the political aesthetic in the present, for Adorno, serves as a critique of what is: the contemporary state of society, or more precisely, late capitalism. But a critique of what is, implicitly or explicitly, presupposes the possibility of the expression of the new, the Other or negative of present society, the utopia against which the present is judged and criticised. But the conceptualisation of the new poses a philosophical paradox: how do we imagine the ‘new’ when we are caught within ‘identity’, which does not offer us the possibility to go beyond that identity; or how do we conceptualise the ‘new’, the other of what is, by using the concepts and theoretical tools which are themselves a product of the epistemology of the present?

As an answer to the above question Adorno proposes Negative Dialectics as a method in which the concept (a product of the contemporary epistemology) is retained, but through a process of dereification and constellative critique, the non-identity of the concept is brought into play with its identity, which is then reinserted into totality or the master narrative of capitalism. Thus within this mode of thinking, the external reference, the socio-economic background (late capitalism) is “less to interpret… than to rebuke interpretation as such and to include within the thought the reminder that it is itself inevitably the result of a system that escapes it and which it perpetuates” (Jameson, 2007: 30). However, Adorno posits the experience of the ‘new’ not as a temporal category which implicitly debunks all that is prior to it as obsolete or negated as traditional, reactionary and conventional; the “[new] is at one with aesthetic experience, it is itself in some deeper way the work’s ‘truth content'” (Jameson, 2007: 163). I will briefly return to what Adorno means by the work’s truth content, but what needs to be emphasised here in order to grasp the concept of the ‘new’ is the doctrine of nominalism inherent in Adorno’s negative dialectics and his theory of aesthetics.

Nominalism is a philosophical tendency that denies the existence of abstract universals in favour of particulars. Universal concepts exist subsequent to particular things and not as generalities which subsume particular works. Negative dialectics then is not an objective, general method in the traditional sense but an approach which considers the particularity of each object. Similarly Adorno considers the individual work of art as the ‘windowless monad’ which in itself contains the truth-content, which, paradoxically, is unavailable in the general concept of Art as such. The universal tends to subsume the particulars within it as mere manifestations of the same identity, thus when the very concept of the ‘universal’ is debunked, then every particular becomes unique and unlike any other and so can be said to be ‘new’ in this fundamental sense.

What becomes evident from the above discussion is the incommensurability between the universal and the particular. The relationship between the universal and the particular is contradictory yet indispensable and related, retaining the Hegelian dialectical framework of the identity of identity and non-identity. ‘Contradiction’ itself becomes the very framework of Adorno’s aesthetics. What we need to emphasise then is not only the contradiction between concepts (say between aesthetics and politics) but also within those concepts themselves.

‘Politics’ being the realm of the everyday, commitment and praxis is in this sense the realm of freedom, where one acts according to one’s whims; but our actions, our thoughts, and the very form of praxis is itself socially and historically determined. The antithesis between freedom and historical determinism is best expressed by Kant’s third antinomy. Praxis, the will to act, becomes circumscribed by the objective conditions of historical determinism. What we posited as contradictory to ‘politics’ is ‘aesthetics’, which itself has contradiction as its principle of construction: the contradiction between form and content, between subject and object as well as between the particular (individual work of art) and the universal (Art in general). Adorno considers ‘form’ as ‘determinate negation’ i.e. the consciousness of contradiction which enables us to think about art as aesthetic and anti-aesthetic simultaneously. Art is autonomous (aesthetic) yet it is also social (anti-aesthetic):

Art becomes something through its in-itself [autonomy], and it becomes in-itself by means of the social force of production effective in it. The dialectic of the social and of the in-itself of the artwork is the dialectic of its own constitution to the extent that it tolerates nothing interior that does not externalise itself, nothing external that is not the bearer of the inward, the truth content. (Adorno, 1997: 248)

The nature of this contradiction between art as autonomous and art as social necessarily brings us to the dichotomy in modern society between contemplation and manual labour/work which obviously introduces the class relations existing within society in the form of division of labour. The producers and consumers of art are people from a privileged class, whereas the workers are either disinterested, or if interested at all, then only in the products of the culture industry (which Adorno does not consider as genuine art but an industry) which provides gratification and recuperation between work hours.

This dichotomy between contemplation and work can also be reformulated as one between aesthetics and praxis in which the profound guilt of art can be identified. The pessimism of Adorno’s aesthetics is owing to its “commitment to a social perspective in which the inconsequentiality of the aesthetic is an inescapable fact of life” (Jameson, 2007: 132). The guilt of art (its inconsequentiality) is an expression of its ultimate failure, the ultimate dissatisfaction of the promise of happiness that it offers and it is this dissatisfaction that is the truth-content of the individual work of art. The most authentic works reveal the incommensurability of contradictory terms: the projected harmony in the symbolic realm of the aesthetic is historically unrealizable in a time when there are actual existing contradictions inherent within the capitalist mode of production. Utopia is then the projected harmony of contradictions: the freedom from the instinct of self-preservation, from the necessity of dominating nature for the purpose of survival. Adorno stresses this point in his study of the dialectic of enlightenment. Enlightenment is identified as a tendency to construct the new in terms of a projected past stigmatized as archaic, traditional and obsolete. Adorno and Horkheimer identify this tendency as the always-already in myth as well. Myth and magic were means to dominate nature for the sake of self-preservation; myth thus forms the ur-history of rationalism which is the contemporary means to dominate nature for the same purpose. Utopia then is the absence for the need of self-preservation, the need for sociality and concomitant repression of inner nature. Work in late capitalism becomes the means of self-preservation and its privilege over contemplation is the ideology of the system to reproduce itself. Adorno’s aesthetics then repudiates the work and fallen praxis of the business community of the present age and turns towards the higher form of praxis, not in the effect of the work of art but in its truth-content:

Contrary to the Kantian and Freudian interpretation of art, art-works imply in themselves a relation between interest and its renunciation. Even the contemplative attitude to artworks, wrested from objects of action, is felt as the announcement of an immediate praxis and … as a refusal to play along … Art is not only the plenipotentiary of a better praxis than that which has to date predominated, but is equally the critique of praxis as the rule of brutal self-preservation at the heart of the status quo and in its service. (Adorno, 1997: 12)

If we consider the political aesthetic in terms of the affirmation of the present and one which valorises the function of work/praxis of art in situations of immediacy and in the realm of day to day struggle, then for Adorno, this is merely a dogmatic attempt to subsume individual works of art for political motifs. The truth content of the work of art is better grasped within individual works of art exposing the contradictions within the aesthetic form as determinate negation rather than the expression of content and bluntly stated polemical politics. The autonomy of the work of art which separates it from the social but also endows it “with its capacity to be profoundly historical and social as history and society itself” (Jameson, 2007: 187) through negation also limits its political potential within the field of commitment and praxis in the hope of revolutionary transformation of the social order. Praxis is not a part of the aesthetic and that is the ultimate failure of art, which results in the guilt of art.(4)

If for Adorno the political aesthetic is not a possibility of praxis in the world but a form of higher praxis through ‘second reflection’ and negation, then for Benjamin, the aesthetic holds the political potential to form a link of class solidarity between the modernist artist and the industrial proletariat. We will now explore the other side of the coin, the political aesthetic in the technically advanced popular forms of art.

In the epilogue of his 1936 ‘Work of Art’ essay, Benjamin elaborates the way the practice of politics has been aestheticised; he ends enigmatically by stating that “Communism responds by politicising art”. I will return to the question of the relationship between technology and art which becomes the vehicle for the expression of the political aesthetic, but after circumscribing briefly the theoretical framework which Benjamin occupies.

We will take the statement about the “politicising of the aesthetic” as our point of initiation. Benjamin claims that aesthetics, despite being autonomous, needs grounding in one form of praxis or another(5). He begins the first section of the “Work of Art” essay by stating that “[in] principle a work of art has always been reproducible” (Benjamin, 1969: 218). Earlier the work of art was grounded in ritual and so it was reproduced for ritualistic purposes; but with the subsequent decline of the aura, the work of art shifts its position entirely, especially in the age of technical reproducibility:

At the very moment in which the criterion of genuineness fails to apply to the production of art, the entire social function of art rolls over. Into the place of its founding in ritual, its founding in another praxis has to step [hat zu tritt]: namely, its founding in politics.” (GS 7.1:357, quoted in Fenves, 2006: 67)

When the “criterion of genuineness fails to apply to the production of art” means that in the age of technical reproducibility authenticity and uniqueness are no longer qualities of the artwork. Benjamin’s central preoccupation, despite his varied interests has been the decline of the aura and of authentic experience. Whether it’s his work on Leskov in The Storyteller, or on Baudelaire (Some Motifs in Baudelaire, Paris-Capital of the Nineteenth Century), his ‘Work of Art’ essay or his essays on language (The Task of the Translator, On Language as Such and on the Language of Man) and history (Theses on the Philosophy of History, Theologico-Politico Fragment), Benjamin’s main concern has been the loss of experience of man in the modern urban city. When politics has been aestheticised, that is, when man has become so alienated from himself that he no longer experiences his own destruction with dread, rather, caught in the phantasmagoria of aesthetics, he willingly pursues his own end; that is when aesthetics, through its autonomy and alternate mode of praxis offered by its politicization, is proposed as a solution. Benjamin mourns the decline of the aura(6) in art but it is a necessity for the politicization of technically advanced, mechanically reproduced art which has the revolutionary potential for the arousal of critical class consciousness in the masses. Jameson (1974: 82) writes about the dialectic of nostalgia at work in Benjamin, where “nostalgia as a political motivation is most frequently associated with Fascism”, but it also expresses a deep dissatisfaction with the present “on the grounds of some remembered plenitude” and can be used as a weapon to furnish an adequate revolutionary stimulus.

We will refer to Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire to explicate what we have said above, but before doing so it is crucial that we understand the significance of the concept of ‘allegory’ as an interpretative tool of analysis. Allegory can be considered a legacy of the medieval exegesis of the Old Testament in the light of the fulfilled prophecies in the New Testament (Jameson, 1981). Within the medieval system four levels of interpretation are identified which allow for a comprehensive approach to the text: the literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. The allegorical provides not only a deeper meaning, but an opening of the literal historical meaning of the text to multiple meanings and symbolic references. The moral refers to the personal while the anagogical returns us full circle to a collective, historical dimension; the relationship between the moral and anagogical is mediated by the allegorical. Allegory becomes significant especially in Benjamin for whom the relationship to the past becomes a potent weapon in relation to the present. We return to the dilemma concerning the thinking of the ‘new’ in the present. For Benjamin, the present is subject to the ruin of time, and the future, or the ‘new’ is inconceivable with concepts and tools derived from the present epistemology. The past then offers potent critical tools because of its disjunction with the present. As Hannah Arendt notes in her ‘Introduction’ to Illuminations, “[W]hat guides [Benjamin’s] thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization”, from which what was once living suffers a sea-change which can be brought to the surface of the present as “thought fragments”. Allegory thus becomes a kind of experience and an apprehension of the world in decay after the fall; a recognition not of its overflowing fullness but its lack (Cowan, 1981). When something is allegorical, then it means that its true meaning is elsewhere distinct from its supposed ‘proper meaning’. The first precondition of allegory is the existence of truth, and the second is its absence. Truth in modern society, for Benjamin, exists only in absence. In fact Benjamin draws the distinction between factual knowledge (Erkenntnis) and truth (Wahirheit) stating that the former is possessable and available for presentation, whereas the latter can only be re-presented (Darstellung); thus the significance of constellation as an allegorical mode of representation of truth, truth which is present but inaccessible directly.

For Benjamin, Baudelaire was the last allegorist, the last poet in whom one could find remnants of baroque allegory. He was a lyricist in an age when the writing of lyrics was becoming all the more difficult and impossible because of the decay in experience. For him, living in contemporary Paris was nothing less than an alienating experience best expressed in his poem Le Cynge (The Swan):

Paris changes… But in sadness like mine
Nothing stirs – new buildings, old
Neighbourhoods turn to allegory,
And memories weigh more than stone. (Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal: 91)

Here allegory as intuition in the form of the poet’s nostalgic persona searches for a Paris no longer present, except in allegorical fashion in the image of the swan, or in the relics of an age long past. Allegory transforms things (new buildings, old neighbourhoods) into signs directing us towards the truth beyond itself. Paris becomes the allegory for hell from which it is necessary for mankind to be salvaged and the means for salvation lies in the messianic moment.

The idea of the political aesthetic in Benjamin’s work can best be described in terms of his concept of Messianism (Hamacher, 2005). According to Benjamin historical time is directed towards the attainment of happiness, but the pursuit of happiness is always a non-actualised possibility, a possibility missed in the past which then becomes a possibility for the future: “The further the mind goes back into the past, the more the mass of that increases which has not yet become history at all” (quoted in Hamacher, 2005). The Messianic power offers redemption of the non-actualised possibilities in the hope of realising them. The ‘new’ then refers to the missed possibilities in the past, which precisely by virtue of being missed never became a part of the past and so remain an open possibility of the present:

“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger… In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” (Benjamin, 1969: 255)

In the above passage, Hamacher (2005: 46) notes, Benjamin combines “historical cognition and historical action because… they both point towards the same goal, namely the seizure in the present of the missed possibilities of happiness of the past”. Here we recapitulate Adorno’s assertion of the impossibility of the reconciliation of contemplation and action in the modern state because of the internal contradictions of capitalism. But in Benjamin’s notion of Messianism, the Messianic is precisely that which “consummates all history” (Benjamin, 1978: 312). The now-time (jetszeit) of the messianic fulfilment of happiness is an arresting of the moment of history, “where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions” (Benjamin, 1969: 262). What this configuration refers to is the constellation, formed in stasis, in the now-time. The uniqueness of the possibility of actualisation of every missed possibility of happiness forms a monadic image, more popularly described as the dialectical image:

“The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again… For every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” (Benjamin, 1969: 255)

The dialectical image offers this possible correspondence between the “the image of the past” and the moment of its recognisability: “between a time that offers itself to cognition and a time in which this time becomes accessible” (Hamacher, 2005: 56), or in other words, the possible reconciliation of contemplation and praxis in the Messianic monad.

What then is the relation between technology and art, which for Benjamin, holds the potential for a truly revolutionary aesthetics? I surmise from the above discussion that technology holds the potential to not only revolutionise techniques in artistic production but also in artistic perception. The mass appeal and reception of popular forms of art like films which deploy advance technology to shock the viewer holds the potential to develop in them the appreciative sensorium which would enable them to recognise in past images what earlier went unnoticed. The revolutionary techniques of zooming in, slow motion and montage offer the shock of the unfamiliar in the familiar, the estrangement from what was recognisable, similar to the shocks one experienced in the modern city as ‘a man of the crowd’ (7) or the nostalgia and sense of alienation experienced in Baudelaire’s lyrics, including the effects of surrealism on realism itself.

What then can we conclude about the ‘political aesthetic’? From the above discussion it becomes clear that there are certain assumptions which both Adorno and Benjamin take for granted despite their varying positions. Firstly their approach to the Marxian contradictions in capitalist society is based on the traditional interpretation of Marxian categories.(8) The dialectic of forces of production and relations of production gave rise to the possibility of a new social order (by the development of technology, instrumental reason and bureaucracy) based on a centrally planned economy which was not necessarily socialist. Even according to Benjamin, it is private property that binds technology due to which the proletariat revolution becomes difficult and war becomes the pretext for the exploitation of these productive forces.(9) It is, after all, the idle, distracted proletariat, that will rise in revolution. The origin of the discourse of revolutionary potential in Adorno and Benjamin also can be located within the romantic tradition (10) which “invests aesthetic experience with emanicipatory potential” (McBride, 1998: 465). Where for Benjamin, the film created mass subjectivity thus allowing for the possibility of critical judgment grounded in social subjectivity; Adorno’s autonomous artworks would provoke reactionary responses from subjectively alienated viewers. What remains unclear is that why the critical faculty of the collective subject is inherently progressive (ibid, 469).

For me, the problem of the ‘political aesthetic’ remains a conundrum as neither possibility (that of technically advanced mass art or abstrusely difficult and convoluted avant-garde art) has shown itself potent enough to follow through what both Adorno and Benjamin theorised as the culmination of the authentic aesthetic experience. Where for Adorno the consciousness of the contradictions in form was the representation of the work’s truth-content, for Benjamin, truth itself was never within the work but was present in absence, to which we could only approach through allegory in the constellation generated by dynamic allegorical meaning of the work. I think both theorists offered us the insights from which to recognise the third element which would mediate the relationship between aesthetics and politics: and that third element is interpretation. It is the political and critically conscious interpretation that could mediate, not necessarily reconcile, the two contradictory concepts. Interpretation, as Benjamin identifies philosophical writing to be, is a form of representation (Darstellung) itself, motivated by its own historical contingency and nominalistic approach, but distinguished from poststructuralist pluralism as it is determined by a periodisation of history. This interpretive allegory allows us to relate the aesthetic-political dilemma in the present age to the dichotomy between private and public and the psychological and the social. Without this interpretive allegory, praxis is reduced to work for the system and not against it, and so, maybe for a genuine praxis, one that is collectively mobilised (but not one in which the individual succumbs to the collective losing his qualitative, authentic sense of being and experience) we need to go through the experience of the aesthetic, to come out of it through the other side, equipped with a critical consciousness and gestalt view of totality within which our collective praxis would be circumscribed.


(1)  According to Aristotle, “Man is by nature a political animal” where politics, related to the polis, refers to all aspects of a citizen’s life, and not just the institutions of government, and other related ideological programmes.

(2) Look at the idea of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ in Jacques Rancière (2006).

(3) “Only the subject is an adequate instrument of expression however much, though it imagines itself unmediated, it is itself mediated. However much the expressed resembles the subject, however much the impulses are those of the subject, they are at the same time apersonal, participating in the integrative power of the ego without ever becoming identical with it” (Adorno, 1997: 113). Also see Jameson, “This is a defense of the objectivity of the subjective which clearly holds fully as much for artistic production as for its reception… the ideological vested interests of a group [the personal] also… expressed the objective tendencies of the social system itself.” (Jameson, 2007: 126)

(4) Adorno’s position is strictly in opposition to the Brechtian as well as the Marcusean sense of the political potential of the aesthetic where it is “commodification, and the consumption desires awakened by late capitalism, that are themselves paradoxically identified as the motive power for some deeper dissatisfaction capable of undermining the system itself.” (Jameson, 2007: 142)

(5) This position has been taken by Peter Fenves (2006).

(6) Particularly in ‘The Storyteller’ (in Benjamin, 1969).

(7) See, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ (Benjamin, 1969: 155-200)

(8) For a very insightful critique of Critical Theory, see Postone (2003).

(9) “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for the unnatural utilization, and this is found in war.” (Benjamin, 1969: 242)

(10) See, McBride (1998), who locates, both, Adorno’s view of autonomous art and Benjamin’s views on mass art, within the romantic tradition and its reflection on the role of subjectivity in politics and art.


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Cowan, Bainard. “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory.” New German Critique 22 (1981): 109-122.

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Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 1981.

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Postone, Moishe. Time, labour and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2006.