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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Non-market socialism: Life Without Money – An Interview with Anitra Nelson

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (Pluto Press, London, 2011) that Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman have edited is a remarkable collection on the praxis of non-market socialism. For the contributors of the volume, socialism/communism is not just a state or goal which we have to achieve in some distant future; rather, it is built through immediate practices that reject capitalism and its key institutions – market and money. They regard the manipulation of these institutions for their gradual transcendence to be deceptive, as “the market system, and its quasi-god money, is a strong barrier to the political and cultural reforms needed to establish socialism.” The volume critiques the reduction of socialist revolution to combinatorics of state power and economic reformism.

The following discussion with Anitra Nelson, one of the editors of the volume, tries to bring out the chief tenets of non-market socialism, providing an insight into the politics of diverse experiences in this regard. Prof Nelson teaches at RMIT University in Melbourne (Australia) and has been active in the women’s liberation, peace, disability, environmental and solidarity movements. One of her previous works, Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (Routledge, London, 1999), is considered to be an important contribution in the Marxist critique of political economy. 


Pratyush Chandra (PC): Life Without Money? Isn’t the title itself sufficiently utopian? In fact, the whole collection seems to present an explicit defence of the utopian element in the socialist project. How do you relate this utopianism to the scientificity that the critique of political economy claims? Aren’t we being prescriptive, which Marx tried to avoid all his life?

Anitra Nelson (AN): These are familiar, provocative questions worth a detailed response. Your first three questions imply that being utopian is negative and against the scientific method employed by Marx, while the last one indicates that Marx avoided being prescriptive and so we should as well. Let’s acknowledge that the terms ‘utopian’, ‘scientific’ and ‘prescriptive’ all point to Marxian controversies associated with conflicting interpretations of Marx. I will discuss them in turn as a way of elaborating on our interpretation of Marx and the way we need to address current environmental and political challenges that we face as a global community. But, first, let me briefly describe our book and the position it advocates.

Life Without Money

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies has ten contributors advocating a non-market socialist position to address our current crises, i.e. in order to realise socialism we need to dispense with money and markets as a fundamental strategy and not simply expect money and markets to evaporate eventually as a result. The collection argues why we need to pursue this strategy as well as how we might do it, by offering some practical examples and theoretical visions. I initiated the project. Co-editor Frans Timmerman and I co-wrote two chapters and I was the sole author of a third. Some of the responses in this interview draw on an unpublished paper, ‘Money or socialism’ that we presented at the Historical Materialism Australasia Conference, held 20 July 2012 in Sydney. You can read more about the book and its contributors in the book’s website.

Non-market socialism

We decided that a non-market socialist position needed to be promoted urgently because humans have laid the basis for our extinction using capitalist practices and thinking. The recent rise in intensity, frequency and scope of natural disasters is linked substantially to climate change. Human beings cannot live with even a small rise in their body temperature, and any variation around the average tends to involve debilitating symptoms. Similarly, the earth is changing itself to cope with global warming in ways that will make our environments hostile to our continued existence as a species. We believe that the results of these changes will produce dramatic effects in years, not just decades or by the end of the century.

We see non-market socialism as the only way to address the combined crises we face, which are results of a capitalist system based in production for trade, relying on monetary accounting and exchange. This system contorts and confuses the values, relationships and structures that ideally exist between people and between people and nature. At the heart of the capitalist system is the practice and concept of money as a measure, even a god. The structure and relations of capital are impossible without the practice and concept of money as a general all-purpose means of exchange and unit of account. Capital is money that begets more money.  Thus monetary values come to dominate social and environmental values in more and more intensive and expansionary ways. The modern state arises as a handmaiden to capital. We buy and we vote; we are servants to both.


I always love the questions that pose that we are utopian, using ‘utopian’ pejoratively and referring to Marx to support their position. The irony of this attack is that Marx argued against what he called utopian socialists, such as Proudhon, specifically because they did not appreciate that capital evolves from money as a chicken does from an egg. Invariably those suspicious of a non-market socialist line — because they think money is okay and believe that Marx thought money was okay — call us utopians while Marx would have called them utopians! However, I do not look at Marx as a god. So, I am not appealing to Marx’s words here as evidence of the truth, or as a matter of faith. It just so happens I agree with Marx’s analysis in this instance. Furthermore, I believe his concept of money embodies some of the strongest insights responsible for making his wider analysis relevant to us today.

Marx (1976 [1867]: 126) starts Capital I by examining the ‘cell’ of capitalism, the commodity, which is both a use value and an exchange value. He immediately unpacks the contrast between the qualities or purposes of a good or service, its use value, and its exchange value, which is a ‘quantitative relation’. Use values can be expressed as implicit quantities, such as human beings, who can be weighed in kilograms and measured in centimetres and compared with one another. But commodities are brought into a relationship with one another on the market through their exchange value, their price, with money as the ‘common denominator’ (Marx 1970 [1859]: 28). It is clear then that money as a unit of account is not at all a measure but rather some kind of variable standard.

Marx (1976 [1867]: 89–90) considered this introduction would challenge the reader and ‘present the greatest difficulty’ because ‘the commodity-form of the product of labour’ and ‘value-form of the commodity’ took the ‘money-form’. As for money, Marx (1976 [1867]: 90) wrote that ‘the human mind has sought in vain for more than 2,000 years to get to the bottom of it’. Thus, amongst others, Althusser (1971) counselled workers/readers to skip the first couple of chapters. I think that this was probably the worst possible advice. Instead the advice should be to dwell on these chapters, which — as autonomist Marxist Harry Cleaver ably shows in his 1979 work Reading Capital Politically — provide the building blocks for a revolutionary analysis of contemporary capitalism.

Careful reading of Part I of Capital I (1976 [1867]) and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1970 [1859]) avoid the ridiculous conclusion that money is not a problem, only capital is. Marx opposed those who seemed to think that they could simply redefine money, issue it on different terms, regulate it in new ways, or give goods and services ‘prices’ at a distribution centre or before they reached the market (a contradiction in terms). He started his analysis of capital with money and commodities because he thought many socialists and political economists had underestimated the role of money. Yet, in actual fact, money was both the ‘ultimate product of commodity circulation’ and simultaneously ‘the first form of appearance of capital’ (Marx 1976 [1867]: 247). Proudhon, for instance, thought the social system could be altered by monetary and price reform. Marx said democratization of credit was impossible because capitalists exploit and control workers by using money, credit and debt.

In other words, if Marx were here today, he would be questioning, like we do, those socialists who only see money as a neutral tool or ineffectual form rather than appreciate that money is at the basis of practices that developed and maintain class and private property.


Marx’s dialectical approach not only allows but also demands a holistic appreciation of context, relational dynamics and transparent values. In this approach form and content can be analysed distinctly only within an overarching acknowledgement of their integration. For instance, the ‘money form’ is of, with and by the content of capital. His scientism was a call for boldness and bravery in social and political analysis. He sought the spare, essential patterns that explained economic dynamics and he engaged with the model that evolved, whatever it might imply. As a non-market socialist I would ask other Marxists to be scientific in this sense and consider whether it is simply too much of a challenge, too inconvenient, to contemplate the task of disassembling a world rotating on money.


Both the theory and practice of filmmaking and screenwriting refer constantly to ‘point of view’ (POV). The easiest example of POV is the location, slant and scope of a camera on subjects and scene. As political activists we are often poised like the cinematographer and camera within a POV. Marx positioned himself very firmly within the values of an alternative world to capitalism — whether we call it communism, socialism or anarchism hardly matters — and wrote his analyses from that POV.

Whether Marx was prepared to admit it or not this POV was, in itself, prescriptive and determined his specific dialectical method of being ‘scientific’. Not only that but a major part of his empirical and conceptual analyses, and the constant praxis operating between the two, was determined by the challenges of, and implications for, revolutionary strategies. He made no apologies for prescription here. Indeed this focus was the centre of his political and intellectual life. He and his wider family’s involvement in the rise and fall of the Paris Commune is a prime example. The rudders in his practical and theoretical approaches were essentialism and minimalism, to get to a socialist society as quickly and easily as possible.

It is true that there are points in Marx’s analysis where he gets out of explaining how a principle or criterion of socialism might operate in practice by saying, ‘Don’t you worry about that, they’ll work it out.’ Furthermore, he cautions theorists against creating blueprints which might deprive socialists of making decisions about what they do and how they do it because this act contradicts or undermines the democratic authority socialism embodies as self-governance. He has faith in socialist problem-solving once the structures, relations and values are firmly in place. By implication planned socialism, its centrist organisation and bounded markets would seem at odds with Marx’s perspective.

Marx had no quibbles at all in continuously engaging with contemporary prescriptions. His main points here were to do with breaking with money per se, rather than thinking that all you had to do was to ‘tinker’ with it and achieve large-scale change, let alone revolution. Marx’s analyses of existing experiments, such as workers’ cooperatives and labour money, assessed their (in)capacity to fulfil the principles of decision-making being transparent and just, and production efficiently and effectively satisfying social needs. Today, non-market socialists make the same points about the plethora of half-baked schemes — fair trade, carbon trading, community currencies and so on — that cannot lead to socialism unless they go hand-in-hand with political movements to erode capitalism, private property, and create a global commons focusing on production for everyone’s basic needs. Of course, many of those schemes do not profess to be socialist, mostly claiming to be on the way to either a higher stage of capitalism — developing ‘social capital’ or ‘natural capital’, terms that would drive Marx insane — or the more nebulous ‘postcapitalism’.

In short, we argue that we must unpack the terms of what postcapitalism might be to become conscious and deliberate collaborative managers of our co-existence. If this discussion is unfairly labelled discourses on utopia or prescriptive, so be it.

PC: The pragmatic socialists have always viewed money, exchange and the market important as transitional tools to achieve socialism. But, in your vision, this reduction of money to a mere tool also seems to obstruct any meaningful imagination of sustainable post-capitalism. Do you think the problems of market socialism and the social-democratic vision of socialism lie in their shared basic understanding of the meaning and power of money and market (and thus, capitalism)? What do you mean when you say, ‘the soundest critiques of capitalist developments need to be conducted in terms of use values’?

AN: Money and markets represent capitalist power, not only a vernacular of power, but also, and more importantly, existing material practice of power. We must recover that power over the means of our existence, over the conditions and practice of our existence. You cannot have capital without money. You cannot have abstract labour or labour for wages without money. Especially people who have no money understand that money is not a neutral tool, it’s a form of control. Capitalists are defined by money, their power is monetary power, their logic is a market-based logic. If our strategies for confronting, undermining and overwhelming capital are based in these simple facts, it is not hard to challenge the system. Non-market socialism is pragmatic.

In as much as market socialists and social-democratic socialists support market processes and mechanisms, I think that they share a basic misunderstanding of monetary and market practices and how they constitute capitalism. Twentieth century examples of centrally planned and market-oriented socialism, best described as state capitalism, clearly failed to democratise power and, in many ways their systems of production and distribution mimicked capitalist work and consumption. Socialist managers seemed to use market models as instruments of power to control the masses much as we are contained in capitalism. For me, socialism must mean sharing power, the power to decide what is produced, how it is produced and for whom. Socialism must be state-free and class-free because states and classes represent exclusive power.

Many critiques of capitalism highlight the contradictions between, on the one hand, economic values and dynamics and, on the other hand, the embodied social and environmental use values of resources, workers, goods and services. Many environmental and social activist campaigners appeal to a logic of use values rather than exchange values to advocate their position. For instance, they will argue that an old-growth forest has more use values and reproductive and sustainable potential to the communities that rely on it for all their basic needs, such as food, potable water, shelter, clothing and medicines, than its use for making profits for a multinational conglomerate that plans to clearfell the trees, sell them for timber, let or help the remaining forest ecosystem die, and replace it all with a tree farm. Similarly, anti-nuclear campaigners will argue that the industry is unnecessary to fulfil people’s basic needs and a risk to their wellbeing and livelihoods, while the nuclear industry will argue that it will create ‘clean’ energy to sustain growth, jobs and profits. These examples contrast arguments based in use values and those based on exchange values.

In as much as the Left continues to consciously and conscientiously argue and propose options that are based on a logic of use values we can offer a clear and unequivocal alternative to capitalism. Once we start to try to convince capitalists and the state to be more environmentally and socially sound using arguments based on economic values — ‘You can make more money this way’; ‘Why not trade in environmental values?’ — we are lost.

Again, the first couple of chapters of Capital I (1976 [1867]) — and earlier drafts of similar material in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1970 [1859]) and the Grundrisse (1973 [1857–8]) — show how important the concept of use value was to Marx’s concept of work for capital and the importance he gave to the obfuscation of use values through commodity fetishism. On the one hand, labour becomes standardised and interchangeable in the process of the production and exchange of commodities: ‘uniform, homogenous, simple labour’, ‘labour in which the individual characteristics of the workers are obliterated’, in short ‘abstract general labour’ (Marx 1970 [1859]: 29 — italics in the original). On the other hand, the quantitative relation ultimately realised in the form of a price not only represents ‘materialised labour’ but also, in the same process, ‘the qualitative difference between their use values is eliminated’. The analytical groundwork for his subsequent analysis is to show us what use values are, despite their obliteration through work and production for money. They are all we need to exist. It is capitalist ideology that mystifies the significance of money and makes us believe in its necessity and efficiency instead of ourselves.

The alienation implicit in commodity production, in capitalism, in a good or service sold for money occurs via market processes, which:

  • obliterate the human agency, which has produced the commodity
  • objectify the socially necessary labour-time as value per se
  • through a price, define the commodity in terms of its social wealth, thereby eliminating any sense of the commodity’s use value.

In one stroke, within the first few pages of all these early works of Marx, we readily understand that workers, the subjects and objects of capital(ists), will experience the world in a market-filtered and dominated way. Capitalists cannot in practice appreciate environmental and social values. The system they employ reduces everything to a market assessment, a monetary value, a price.

Furthermore, Marx’s analysis shows the absurdity and risks of efforts to try to set prices, which today focuses on making prices reflect environmental values, as in carbon and water-trading schemes or pricing forests and other environmental ‘assets’. Similarly, it is pointless to calculate and try to institute wages for housework. In my opinion his painstaking ethnography around commodity production and exchange found at the start of Capital I and his earlier works is Marx at his finest. He reveals the absurdity of market values, alludes to the workings of the market as absolutely distinct from meeting basic human needs and the needs of ecological systems. The political conclusion is:

“The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and natural form.” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 173)

To institute socialism we only need to understand the potential, limitations and needs of a natural and built world held in commons along with the basic needs of humans — and share decision-making based on a discourse of use values and distinct measures appropriate to differing use values (Buick 1987). There is no need for a universal unit of account or means of exchange.

In his chapter on money, markets and ecology in Life Without Money, John O’Neill discusses the non-monetary thrust of Otto Neurath, who, a century ago, argued against Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek for an in natura socialist economy. In short, Neurath envisaged an economy based on use values, ecological and social values, that did not rely on any kind of standard for comparison, any universal measure, such as money. In tandem O’Neill, an ecological economist and political philosopher as well as a political economist, discusses deliberative democracy as a current that he thinks can offer ways for people to decide together what and how they produce and for whom.

Meanwhile, many socialists today fail to acknowledge the revolutionary significance of consciously acting, as well as thinking, on the basis of use values rather than exchange values. Acknowledging money as a tool of power, rather than efficiency, and as the organising principle of capitalism points to revolutionary strategies which undermine capitalism non-violently and involve instituting direct democracy in the process. So, I do not reduce money to a ‘mere tool’ at all. Rather, I see it as omnipotent, so powerful in fact that even committed and passionate socialists can complain that they cannot envisage a socialist future without some kind of monetary framework or role for money and markets.  What a dictatorship of the imagination money and its market has wrought, that even its most ardent detractors cannot think outside their prison walls.

PC: The second half of the book discusses various experiences of building a moneyless future. However, don’t you think that the marginal and isolated nature of some of these experiences and their permissibility within capitalism dilutes their capacity to become models for a socialist future? Do you think Marx’s appreciative, yet cautionary, note on cooperatives in his various writings (e.g. The Inaugural Address to the First International) are valid for understanding the scope and limits of these experiences?

AN: Again, as it so happens, my stance is quite close to Marx’s. I too have been a longstanding critic of a range of movements that regard cooperatives and, say, the Parecon (participatory economics) models of Michael Albert and Robert Hahnel as embryonic or, worse still, fully fledged institutions of a socialist future. Specifically either integration within the market, which is the hallmark of many productive cooperatives, or use of quasi-monies — a labour voucher system in the case of Parecon — have problems that Marx pointed to. We do not condone either in Life Without Money and include a brief critique of an alternative exchange/currency LETS (labour exchange or local energy trading system) by Adam Buick.

I find the space-to-exist-within-capitalism argument somewhat self-defeating. Anyway, aren’t we referring more to a forcefully created space within which to resist capitalism? Does the fact that you and I are able to conduct this conversation freely within a capitalist society mean that nothing we say can be valid for a post-capitalist future? Of course not. We conduct this discussion in resistance and defiance of capitalism. We are isolated and marginalised because that is part of the game. It might seem weird for someone like me, who spent years on a painfully detailed and constructive critique of Marx’s concept of money, to say this but I prefer to make a stand in practice than to wax lyrical about pure theory. I prefer activity to text. I prefer creation to criticism. I tolerate — even enjoy — theory, text and criticism but only because they help me live and enable me to change the way I live. I want to do. To do is to be.

The practical examples that we discuss in our book are not offered as ready-made solutions but rather constructive ways to move if we are to realise socialism in the short amount of time we now have left to do so — in decades not centuries. We are already in a process of species suicide. We are already in a process of renewal of what it is to be human. We cannot afford to think in terms of a long-term plan or reformism, if only because of the haste with which we must move. It is fitting that we take the most accurate route. There will be a revolution or, literally, nothing left of our species. We try to identify, then, embryonic and/or hybrid forms, which allow us to begin right now and know that the way we are going is contributing to establishing and maintaining socialist values, socialist production and socialist exchange.

Two well-known examples discussed in our book are Twin Oaks community in Virginia (USA) and the squatting community Can Masdeu in Catalonia (Spain). Neither promote themselves as non-market socialist. In reality both communities are open to diverse philosophical beliefs. However, their practices and approaches are near enough to non-market socialism for us to use them in our analysis. They both eschew money and markets but could not exist without a negotiated existence within capitalism, the prison we all live in. They struggle to impose alternative values and practices within, alongside and usurping capitalism. They are not ghettos. They welcome visitors and attract enough to open spaces for ‘the public’ weekly, have visitors stay and hold workshops and other activities in partnership with local and global environmental and social activist campaigners.

In 2012, I spent three weeks at Twin Oaks, living like a member and six weeks in Barcelona exploring, not only Can Masdeu but also other communal experiments, such as the eco-industrial post-capitalist colony of Ca La Fou. To me they seem less marginal and isolated than many Marxists and anarchists, both those within and those outside their fragmented parties, scholarly academies and other institutions of resistance, which seem to have little impact on mainstream society. All that said, many members of these communities are, of course, socialists and/or anarchists! Twin Oaks community and Can Masdeu exist in the fluid, ad hoc and self-governing networks that made the Occupy movement possible on a global scale. The people who move in and out of them have not waited for agreement on a correct line. They have not waited for a revolution. I see their potential in two integrated spheres — creating productive and democratic structures separate from, and in competition to, capitalism.

PC: You have been involved in the intentional community movement in Australia. Can you give a brief account of your experience in terms of its significance and limitations?

AN: During the 1990s I lived in two communities. Commonground, located in central Victoria refers to itself as an intentional community along the style of a commune. In his From Utopian Dreaming to Community Reality: Cooperative Lifestyles in Australia (1995: 140), Bill Metcalf referred to it as ‘the smallest, but also the most radical and dramatic, in this book’. Indeed, when I was there, it was self-organising on the basis of anarchist, feminist and socialist values. Twin Oaks had been an inspiration to one of the founders and certain ways that Twin Oaks operated were experimented with and instituted at Commonground. This included a ‘labour credit’ system — distinct from a labour voucher or quasi-money system — in which people elected to work on tasks that the community collectively deemed as work for a set number of hours per week.

Since Commonground had fewer than twenty people living there as members at that time, it was easy to timetable all the tasks that needed doing, then members and working visitors would select and negotiate their personal work schedule for the forthcoming week at a meeting held each Monday morning. Commonground owned almost 40 hectares of rural bush land, which gave it the opportunity to practise a modicum of sufficiency alongside its core mission to serve the social change movement. I relished my time there because it brought me into contact with so many people seeking social and environmental change, and the experience of communal life was overwhelmingly positive.

During my period at Commonground, and while I was completing my PhD on Karl Marx’s theory of money, the concept and practice of a common purse was being hotly contested within the community’s inner core. I witnessed the tensions that compromises with capitalism and a market mentality entailed as some core members argued for the cooperative mission to be fulfilled in a more business-like way, albeit a non-profit business. This was a struggle against principles of what I would later refer to as collective sufficiency — as distinct from individualised self-sufficiency — and environmental justice. The balance had always been in favour of social rather than environmental considerations. I found that hard to understand because, for me, environmental and social justice are — or can be — bound together. As I understand it, this fracture has been institutionalised within the community — as it is within the wider Left in Australia, of which it remains an active part.

After a couple of years’ living at Commonground — where everyone lived and worked under one roof — we sold the land that I owned jointly with them adjacent to their 40 hectare property, and I bought into Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative, located in a peri-urban or semi-rural enclave on the edge of Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne. This cooperative was explicitly not an intentional community but rather was developed to preserve 132 hectares of box-ironbark woodlands while providing a site for housing for each of its shareholder-members. The members own the land as a cooperative, which determines the rules under which people build and live there, jointly managing the land for conservation purposes.

Given that you could not borrow money to build on the cooperative, potential membership seemed to be limited to the well-off, though to purchase a share with its house site attached cost less than 20 per cent of comparable land purchases in the area and many had built mud-brick homes using their own labour, making it accessible to DIY activists. Though some of the members had been communists and/or radical activists, this cooperative was more mainstream than Commonground. However, I was attracted by its environmental bent and its singular achievement of spreading many of its environmental practices to a wider landscape of more than 100 private properties in the form of regulations, which became an Environmental Living Zone under the state’s planning code in 1986. Despite its limitations I concluded that it had the potential to act as a transitional form between private property and holding the Earth as a commons. Although not the hothouse that Commonground was, the co-management of land demanded sophisticated skills in communications and decision-making, which was based as much as possible on consensus. However, after a serious car accident, I left mainly because it was not convenient to public transport and I needed to be closer to places I worked and socialised in.

PC: Do you find the question of building a ‘life without money’ emerging from class struggle itself? In contrast to the voluntarist stress on the escape from the logic of capital, is it not true that the central concern in Marxist theory of praxis has been to build upon the solidarity and coordination embedded in the daily ‘guerrilla struggle’ against capital and the increasing political and economic self-capacity of the working class?

AN: In short, yes to both questions. The best reference points here are those writing in the autonomous Marxist tradition. The third chapter in Life Without Money is by autonomous Marxist Harry Cleaver and focuses on working for money.

Cleaver emphasises that Marx had a labour theory not because he saw capitalism as the means to dominate people as workers and consumers. Capitalism redefines life as work: market-oriented production and consumption. Marx’s theory of alienation was a critique of capitalist work; socialism and communism meant freeing work from that perversion. Post-capitalism meant increasing our free time to enable a growth of individuality and humanity replacing labour as the source of value in society. Revolution meant workers’ gaining control of the means of production and making work meaningful through self-organised cooperation and collective self-realisation.

Cleaver attacks the standard socialist position that leads to work under socialism being much the same as under capitalism except that the state, not capitalist, extracts the workers’ surplus value:

“The primary difference is that in ‘socialist development’ government plans and organises most of the investment. From the Soviet Union’s extraction of an agrarian surplus to finance industrialisation to the current Venezuelan Government’s appropriation and reinvestment of oil profits, the process remains approximately the same no matter the rhetoric in which these processes are cloaked.” (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 48)

Moreover, the accumulation characteristic of twentieth century socialism meant that the sense of human diversity ‘implicit in Marx’s notion of the transcendence of labour value by an indeterminate free time has been both ignored and contradicted’ until, over the last few decades, some movements have revealed ‘the possibilities of real multilateralism in post-capitalist society’ (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 52). Cleaver celebrates our alternative socialist tradition of collective grassroots cooperation; as capitalism intervenes in and shapes people’s lives, they resist. If they resist on the basis of work refusal then ‘the struggles of those of us who are waged and the struggles of those of us who are unwaged are inherently related’ (Cleaver in Nelson & Timmerman 2011: 60). Cleaver’s book Reading Capital Politically (1979) skilfully deconstructs class and re-elaborates class with capitalist money at the centre, thus embracing non-worker consumers and other structurally marginal people.

A non-market socialist position distances itself from any intense or central emphasis on worker cooperatives and schemes that compromise with the market or mimic capitalism. We prefer hybrid models, such as the temporary autonomous zone discussed by Bey (1985) and elaborated in Terry Leahy’s chapter in our book. Instituting a hybrid is a defiant and forthright challenge. It might focus on: expanding community gardens where there is decision-making on what is grown, how and where, as well as sharing work and produce; or squatting spaces and using ‘trash’ for art activism; or spreading crop and swap meets, holding them more and more frequently based on growing kinds of goods and services. These hybrids are not pure embryonic forms of a new society but rather act as half-way points stepping away from capitalism towards an holistic socialism. Monitoring and revising the operation of hybrids not only develops a clearer critique of capitalism but, more significantly, also enables us to be actively experimenting with being socialist. Such hybrids act as cells conscientiously working to overcome systemic barriers to greater networking between hybrids, with the potential to produce an holistic alternative future of expanding and interrelating hybrids. Developing more confidence in these alternative cells and networks we can withdraw more of our labour from the capitalist economy and polity — work refusal — and instead actively produce a new society.

PC: One of the most remarkable features of this collection is its readiness to traverse through various revolutionary traditions against capitalism. One tradition that finds space throughout the collection is that of anarchism and its various shades. How do you see the divergences and convergences between these two revolutionary traditions — of Marxism and anarchism? Further, you yourself admit that this collection can be seen as a sequel to Rubel and Crump’s volume on non-market socialism. Do you agree with Rubel’s characterisation of Marx as the theoretician of anarchism?

AN: My interpretation of Marx fits very comfortably with Maximilien Rubel’s. Though not in the first instance being conscious of the traditions that my interpretations of everyday life fell into, I too read Marx as if I were an anarcho-communist, non-market socialist or autonomous Marxist. In my twenties, I referred to myself as an anarcho-communist. While I was immediately attracted to anarchism’s open creativity and anti-state position, it always seemed too broad a church to me to support without qualification. Its representatives embraced the whole spectrum, the best and worst of political philosophies. Anyway, I had socialist values, so they came first and anarchism became the qualifier. This, of course, seemed to make me objectionable to most of my friends who neatly and commitedly kept to one camp or the other. That I was first and foremost a women’s liberationist only muddied the waters further. It is only when I chanced on the collection on non-market socialism by Rubel and Crump (1987) that I found my political home.

While they define non-market socialism as a market-free, money-free, class-free and state-free society, we add that non-market socialism needs to be want-free, sustainable and just as well. Yes, our book very much updates and expands on the Rubel and Crump collection. It is current and broad in its scope, whereas Rubel and Crump took a more historical approach, which makes their collection more fragmented and partial. The anarchist Terry Leahy wrote the chapter in Life Without Money on the gift economy, though his discussion is broad-ranging, his analysis drawing on permaculture, patriarchy and feminism.

The somewhat bad name of anarchists amongst socialists has to do with the diffuse nature of anarchist writings, their seemingly undisciplinary and joyfully undoctrinaire philosophies and anarchism’s attraction to charismatic, egotistic loose cannons. The conflict between Bakunin and Marx was to prove typical. However, in my lifetime, several connected pressures have forced a critical rapprochement. For those of us committed to environmental activism, amongst our politically sophisticated and experienced brethren, socialists proved very slow on the uptake and anarchists were more open supporters. Working from the grassroots demands a different style of politicking and creativity that anarchism can inform. Most importantly, the statism of the Marxist Left shackled its development while anarchism had done away with the state as a first principle.

PC: You have devoted considerable space in one of the initial chapters to developing a concise critique of the so-called actually existing socialisms and the debates around market and money during their revolutionary phases. You have endorsed Che Guevara’s attitude in Cuba against statisation, market and money. Can you summarise his vision of the socialist future as you understand it? How do you relate this with the questions of state and political power with which Che was always concerned as an armed revolutionary?

AN: In the early years of Soviet power the party elite seriously discussed instituting a moneyless economy. A debate occurred in Cuba also, in the mid-sixties, around whether and how to diminish the role of money. In neither Russia nor Cuba did the founding revolutionaries come to power with a clear theory or plan for how socialist exchanges might differ from market-based evaluation.

Many of the Russian leaders, such as Trotsky and Stalin, expected money would simply disappear almost of its own accord as communism developed (Bettelheim 1968: 60; Rosdolsky 1977: 130). In Russia they decided to abolish money but not monetary accounting. The debate on replacing a monetary unit of account with one based on labour, measured in time or energy, produced an enormous volume of literature in 1920–1921. It was influenced by the work of Austrian economist Otto Neurath, whose thoughts John O’Neill discusses in depth in his chapter of Life Without Money. Anyway, any advance to a moneyless communism was halted when all state industries were directed to follow principles of precise economic accounting, including demanding money for taxes as well as state-produced goods and services. While Lenin acknowledged that his New Economic Policy would ‘inevitably lead to… a revival of capitalist wage-slavery’, he defended it as a tactical retreat ‘to make better preparations for a new offensive against capitalism’ (Lenin 1976: 184­–5). I regard it a salutary lesson that this retreat solidified into a barrier to the advance of socialism.

I became particularly fascinated with the split that occurred between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, especially around economic matters and the question of ‘money’, in which I sided with Che, though I do not think he went far enough. Is that because he did not believe we had to do away with money completely, as non-market socialists believe, or because he was pushing his point about as far as he could at the time? At least Che appreciated that this was, at base, a political rather than an economic matter, pointing to the development of a substantively political democracy as the organising principle of society. Alas, at least publicly, he believed in a limited usefulness for a unit of account — which is the fundamental function of capitalist money — but his arguments here were practical, associated with international trade, rather than ideal. As it was, he failed in his limited attempt to reorient the revolutionary strategy. It is significant that he broke with the Cuban revolution at this time because it leaves hanging the question of his essential vision of socialism. I do not think that what is left in historical records can clear up some of these key points.

Che embraced Marx’s position that monetary values reflected abstract labour, not wants or available resources. Che said that prices set by state agencies were not market prices, that planning should not mimic market forces and the law of value, but instead consciously account for non-economic factors. Belgian economist and Marxist Ernest Mandel supported Che’s position that socialism negated monetary values and trading relations. However, Che lost the debate with Castro, who agreed with abolishing money ultimately but not immediately. Che’s vision of socialism was rooted in voluntary, passionate work and a new consciousness, free of the discipline of the market.

PC: Recent developments in Latin America have rejuvenated debates on revolutionary strategies everywhere, even among the Left in Australasia. The fabricas recuperadas movement and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Argentina, the barrios movement to establish popular control over urban resources in Venezuela, the rise in Indigenous assertion and power in Mexico and Bolivia and the landless workers’ movement in Brazil — all have redefined much of the older debates on social control, political organisations, state etc. Many Marxists in the autonomist tradition have affirmed and critically articulated the significance of these developments. Do you find any enrichment of the discourse on market and money, as central to socialist imagination, in these experiences?

AN: Yes, experimentation in DIY revolutions, being active in spaces of resistance, is basic to the thrust of non-market socialism. We all live under intensifying capitalism, and resistance can come in unexpected forms. While we are suspicious of state socialism, we must use whatever support we are offered to show that grassroots activity is the backbone of socialism. Joan Martinez-Alier reminded a class — who I spoke with about our book at the Summer School and Workshop on Political Ecology, Environmental Justice and Conflicts in Barcelona in July 2012 — that in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) people experimented with non-monetary exchange as well as collective production. As Allende’s Chile (1970–1973) fell to opposition forces, it was the same. As we take control of the forces of production and produce for a socialist future, then we must use our own values and distribution networks based on the logic of need and use values, not monetary values and the market.

Three contributors to Life Without Money participated in panels at the 2012 Left Forum in New York City: ecofeminist Ariel Salleh, Frans Timmerman and I. Key speakers at the Left Forum included Autonomous Marxist John Holloway, who lives in Mexico, and Marina Sitrin whose work on horizontalism (horizontalidad) in Latin America and the global Occupy movement is particularly relevant. An indication of the significance of the rejuvenation of non-monetary relations in everyday acts by Europeans in defiance of the global financial crisis is the Homage to Catalonia study led by Manuel Castells (Conill et al. 2010), some findings of which appear in his Aftermath: The Culture of the Economic Crisis (Castells et al. 2012).

The Occupy movement has been impressive if only because it has been so widespread, demonstrating a broad disenchantment with representative democracy and market economies right across the world. The general-assembly models, endorsement of horizontalism, direct engagement between crowds and speakers, the naming of the ‘1%’ against the ‘99%’ and the word ‘occupy’ identifying their chief demand has put capital in disarray and on alert. More than that, this movement is supported by many of those who are experimenting with production for direct use, alternative and gift exchange, and liberation from trade, consumption and exchange values.

PC: What is a compact society? You talk about collective sufficiency and networks, which connect the local with the global — thus establishing a global compact society. Can you explain the basics of this post-capitalist future, and how it will transform our needs and activities, and counter the negative impact on the environment?

AN: In Life Without Money, we elaborate a local–global compact society, not to lay down a hard and fast plan for a non-market socialist future but to stimulate people’s imaginations and counter those who regard it as impossible. Most significantly, for our activist practice, we need to have a clear idea of where we are going and how our different activities might ultimately constitute a socialist future. We want as many people as possible elaborating ideas of a post-capitalist future so we can argue, experiment and establish this society.

To distinguish ours, we needed to name it somehow. I liked the way that the word ‘compact’ worked in two directions, socio-political and the other environmental and material. The noun ‘compact’ refers to a social agreement and, used as an adjective, ‘compact’ is associated with efficiency and economy, referring to a condensed, small and efficient use of space. The concept of a compact world is one of multiple horizontal cells, which aim for relative collective sufficiency within neighbourhoods and bioregions, connected by networks of various sizes appropriate to their functions, with voluntarily created and agreed to compacts structuring the production and flow of goods and services. ‘Collective sufficiency’ is a term we coined to refer to material, basic-needs sufficiency evolving on the basis of a commons and people working together to ensure their communal sufficiency (in contrast to individuals or singular households developing ‘self-sufficiency’).

My concept of these cells owes much to the principles and design features of permaculture. ‘Permaculture’ — a movement starting in Australia but quickly taking root in various places globally — stands for permanent and sustainable culture, integrating human practices with natural processes to yield security in food and other basic needs (Holmgren 2003, 2012).

I was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA, 1920–1991) from the early 1980s to its dissolution ten years later. I was particularly attracted by the success of green bans led by CPA officials, especially Jack Mundey, and the builders unions’ who refused to work on developments that they deemed environmentally or socially unsound (Burgmann & Burgmann 2011). I had always been — and remain —particularly frustrated with the conservative role of unions in Australia and green union strikes and activism singularly broke that mould. These actions initiated the green bans movement worldwide. My mother was practising permaculture as a gardener in the 1980s. I became more attracted to it as an efficient and sustainable approach through my political activities, drawing on anti-state and anti-capital political discourses, and growing evidence of the accuracy of the analyses of 1970s social and environmental activists who initiated more environmentally sound approaches to life.

As a set of design principles and sustainability practice, and care-and-share values, permaculture readily indicates how productive cells might function. The permaculture movement is weaker in pre-visioning the how, i.e. the relationship base, of a global commons, non-monetary production and exchange. In other words many permaculturists imagine that it is simply a matter of the economic and political structures’ absorbing their values in a higher stage of capitalism. Even if they speak in terms of post-capitalism, there are still money and markets, non-profitable firms and representative government. In contrast, non-market socialism and the concept of a compact world introduce governance and economy as challenges still to be addressed.

We often get asked if a compact society is, in effect, a return to living in the cave. People are particularly mystified that any form of advanced technology could be possible without capitalism, the magic womb. Or, of course, they offer the one other path to the same ends: state socialism, whereby the state, robot-like, dictates the establishment and maintenance of large-scale machinery in its own image. In contrast, my approach to technology is one of minimalism. I support small and appropriate technology that is established and maintained on the basis that it does not cost the Earth too much and is efficient, meaning effective, socially. Examples include some forms of renewable energy and biomimicry. Use of computers and Internet needs to be transformed to end or involve only a miniscule amount of harmful substances, such as rare earth minerals and waste, and the ways they are made need to take account of the conditions and working styles of the people making them. Diversity and resilience are both enhanced by relatively autonomous collectively sufficient neighbourhoods and bioregions.

My political activities have been very personal, grounded in everyday life, mainly in environmental grassroots movements, which are open and exploratory, and my philosophy has evolved experientially. These experiences have given me confidence that: a grassroots revolution is possible; we can ‘take over’ the state by replacing its functions in an almost unrecognisable way because, as such, it functions mainly to support capital and a non-market socialist politics is embedded in people’s direct and immediate control, of the means of production and distribution; socialism must be modest and efficient and effective at a personal and neighbourhood level.

By seeing our basic human needs and the needs of the environment in direct, scientific and practical forms and then advancing to discussing options for just and sustainable futures in terms of such use values would be a real advance. Marx’s clear analysis, based as it was on use values — in contradiction to the political economists’ submersion in economistic terms and approaches — offers a clear way forward for the Left to reassert historical-materialist methods.



Althusser, Louis (1971) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London: New Left Books.

Bettelheim, Charles (1968) Planification et rapports de production. In his La Transition Vers l’Economie Socialiste. Paris: Maspero.

Bey, Hakim (1985) T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Brooklyn: Autonomedia.

Buick, Adam (1987) The alternative to capitalism. In Buick, Adam and John Crump (eds) State Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management. Houndmills (Hampshire): Macmillan. Accessed 22 December 2012 at

Burgmann, Meridith & Verity Burgmann (2011) Green Bans movement. Dictionary of Sydney. Accessed 22 December 2012 at

Castells, Manuel, João Caraça, & Gustavo Cardoso (eds) (2012) Aftermath: The Culture of the Economic Crisis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cleaver, Harry (1979) Reading Capital Politically. Brighton (Sussex): Harvester Press (The 2012 Indian Edition published by Phoneme Books, New Delhi).

Conill, J, M Castells & A Ruiz (dirs.) (2010) Homenatge á Catalunya II. Accessed 19 November 2012 at IN3 (Open University of Catalonia) —

Holmgren, David (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn: Holmgren Design Services.

Holmgren, David (2012) Holmgren Design Services [website]. Accessed 22 December 2012 at

Lenin, Vladimir (1976). Collected Works 33: August 1921–March 1923. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl [1867 (1976)] Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. I. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, Karl [1859 (1970)] A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl [1857–8 (1973)] Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Politcal Economy (Rough Draft). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Metcalf, Bill (1995) From Utopian Dreaming to Community Reality: Cooperative Lifestyles in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Nelson, Anitra (1999) Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities. London: Routledge.

Rosdolsky, Roman (1977) The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’. London: Pluto Press.

Rubel, Maximillien & John Crump (1987) Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Macmillan Press.

Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle…


Autonomy, as a revolutionary perspective realising itself through self-organisation, is paradoxically inseparable from a stable working class, easily discernable at the very surface of the reproduction of capital, comfortable within its limits and its definition by this reproduction and recognised within it as a legitimate interlocutor. Autonomy is the practice, the theory and the revolutionary project of the epoch of “fordism”. Its subject is the worker and it supposes that the communist revolution is his liberation, i.e. the liberation of productive labour. It supposes that struggles over immediate demands [1] are stepping stones to the revolution, and that capital reproduces and confirms a workers’ identity within the relation of exploitation. All this has lost any foundation.

In fact it is just the opposite: in each of its struggles, the proletariat sees how its existence as a class is objectified in the reproduction of capital as something foreign to it and which in its struggle it can be led to put into question. In the activity of the proletariat, being a class becomes an exterior constraint objectified in capital. Being a class becomes the obstacle which its struggle as a class has to overcome; this obstacle possesses a reality which is clear and easily identifiable, it is self-organisation and autonomy.

Towards Communist Refoundation

 Radical Notes 

Sectarianism has, for quite some time now, been the greatest bane of militant revolutionary working-class struggle. That this global phenomenon has become especially pestilential for the Indian communist movement would hardly amount to an overstatement. The fragmentary and effete disarray with which labour has, since the severe repression of the various communist and Left-democratic movements through the sixties and the early seventies, been confronting late capitalism in this part of the world, unambiguously indicates the restorative upswing that capitalism has been on. Neo-liberalism is the embodiment of this restorative political project. Communists, particularly on the subcontinent, must, if they wish to effectively rise up to the rather confounding challenges being posed by late capitalism, revive the Marxist legacy of “refoundation”, the constant reclamation of the “hidden science” of working-class struggle from the ideological vagaries into which it inevitably and continually falls. If sectarianism is the inescapable evil necessity of revolutionary politics, refoundation is the equally indispensable dialectical antidote.

Sects, as far as the working-class movement is concerned, are nothing but ideological-organisational forms of particular experiences of that movement in its respective active struggles against capital at its diverse moments of contradiction. To that extent, these various experiences are crucial not merely because their forms serve to foreground their respective historical specificity in that eternal and fundamental antagonism between capital and labour, but, more importantly, because they also show how that essential and universalising battle of labour against capital to transcend the horizon of the latter to obtain to a new, counter-capitalist horizon of autonomous, unalienated, non-contradictory becoming is implicated in each of those ‘experiential’ forms.

Clearly then, the defence of such sects becomes necessary insofar as such defence is the insulation of the counter-capitalist, revolutionary horizon – which is constituted through the enactment of specific determinate struggles against the variously concomitant reigning subjectivities of capital at its diverse moments – from the invasive forces of capitalist restoration. But the paradox of such a political programme lies in the fact that the defence of the universal and universalising revolutionary logic of becoming is arrested by and congealed in the forms of one of its many particular moments. Such a defensive manoeuvre – “war of position” in Gramsci’s terms – while necessary is, in itself, not sufficient to bring about the unfolding of the revolutionary logic in its total universality. If anything, such hypostatisation of the revolution into a form or identity serves to brush it against its own grain, which ought to be the critical expression of the singular, unalienated process in inverse opposition to a static system of different(ial) and competing forms.

The revolution, in such circumstances, willy-nilly becomes another name for restoration. For, how else does one describe a political process that in the name of perpetuating the revolution ends up imposing the form through which the universal logic of the revolutionary process found itself expressed at one of its particular moments on all the other diverse historical moments of capital-labour contradiction?

The only way then in which communists can prevent this necessity of defending the revolutionary good, as it appears at a particular moment of capital-labour conflict, from turning into its evil counter-revolutionary opposite is by continuously re-enacting or refounding – Gramsci’s “war of movement” – the universalising logic of the revolutionary process at all the other historical moments of capitalist domination. The defence of the revolutionary horizon, as it is at a moment, should then be seen as the condition that makes possible the refounding of the revolutionary logic. Equally, refoundation is an impulse which alone can truly fulfil the act of defending the revolutionary horizon by ensuring that such a defence does not degenerate into a reactionary gesture of saving the momentary appearance of the revolutionary process, thus confining its infinite totality in the prison of that particular appearance.

The failure of the working-class movement, and its various ideological-organisational currents, to grasp this dialectical unity and express it in its multiple practices is responsible for the distortion of a complementary and composite politico-ideological ensemble – the defence of the revolution and the refoundation of the universal revolutionary logic – into a phenomenon of competitive struggle among various sects. Sectarianism is the name of this game. To speak in Jacobin tongues, critique without virtue leads to anarchic destructiveness, but virtue without critique becomes a shibboleth of counter-revolution. The trick of walking the tightrope of revolution successfully is to know where the stress should fall and when.

Given that the world revolutionary movement, particularly its South Asian segment, has been thoroughly hobbled by intense sectarianism, our stress should, without doubt, fall on the side of critique. This critique would be nothing but the first important step towards a refoundationist thrust that seeks to free up the possible debates, which ought to occur among Leftists of different hues, but have not as they lie concealed in and distorted as oh-so many sects. For far too long the advocates and proponents of these diverse Left streams have erred on the side of defending the revolutionary logic as it was expressed in the specificity of their experiences without making any attempt to figure out how that same logic could be – have often in fact been – expressed in other historical experiences framed by the concrete forms of political-economic contradictions. That burden, therefore, now falls on us.

To err on the side of refoundation would mean to take on the unenviable but unavoidable revolutionary task of explicating how the universal essence of the singular revolutionary process became constitutive of localised and momentary appearances of the historical experiences that form the various sects of the working-class movement, and how that universality could be discerned in and extracted from the specificity of forms of its localised experiences in order to yet again transform it into the formative basis of new social subjects of working-class politics in the varying forms of historical concreteness of political-economic contradictions. Refoundation is thus a two-pronged gambit – to see an essential unity among the various existing sects of working-class politics as well as zero in on hitherto uncharted moments of capital-labour contradiction so that they can be transformed into grounds or foundations for the universal revolutionary logic of singular and autonomous processuality to express itself anew.

The refoundation of communist praxis involves a much-needed re-reading of classics, both within and outside the communist-Marxist canon. These textual objects of re-reading could be crucial explicatory works in their entirety, exchanges that comprise important debates, movements, or vital concepts that have leapt out of texts to acquire an ideological life of their own. In this regard, the entire endeavour must be to engage with the texts in a spirit of critical assimilation, wherein experiences specific to certain locations are generalised for other essentially similar locations within capitalist historicality by extracting the universality of the critical-revolutionary essence constitutive of those local experiences, even as the forms of those experiences are as such discarded. In short, refoundation is an act of generalising the logic of revolution even as it struggles against the overgeneralisation of forms of that logic in the same movement. It is a struggle that must necessarily be waged on the terrain of ideas to constantly regain the revolutionary edge of theory, which in its absence vegetates as a sterile and abstract philosophised fetish.

Refoundation, however, has to be much more than the discernment of the singular-universal of the revolutionary subjectivity in its various multiple moments from the vantage point of hitherto unmapped locations or moments of capital-labour conflict. As communists we all know what revolutionary theory is in the abstract and how it can become truly revolutionary by becoming the motor of a revolutionary practice that is determinate to a concrete situation. For that alone, refoundation would be pretty much a pointless enterprise. It must, therefore, simultaneously also be an exercise to learn how exactly particular theoretical formulations, practices, movements or debates, which have emerged out of their respective local experiences of the working-class movement, went about their business of seeking to express the universality of class struggle and revolution in the specificity of their experiences in order to redefine the fetishes of their respective antithetical positions, which had been assigned to them by capital and its reigning  subjectivity, into potent forms of class struggle and revolutionary supersession of capitalism. By the same token, therefore, any half-way rigorous refoundationist exercise must run the historical risk of evaluating how successful its various textual objects have been on that score – that is, how much have those formulations or movements under study been able to steer clear of the contagious fetishism of capital at their respective foundational moments.

We must try, to the best of our abilities, not to flinch from carrying out such refoundationist evaluation, which is bound to carry a combative, even unpleasant, charge. We need not claim to speak from an Archimedian point. Yet, we ought not to be deterred from speaking the truth and turning quietist. The fear that our experience of truth would be falsified at another moment that would not be ours should not hold us back. As scientific socialists we know that the “truth is always partisan” and it is forged in the fire of struggle. That is precisely why refoundation is not merely a rarefied exegetical enterprise, but an endeavour of revolutionary hermeneutics where every word is sought to be returned, in an act of radical decisionism, to the materiality of its flesh. This refoundationist turn would eventually deliver unto the working-class movement the Young Marx’s “party of the concept”. A concept that is not merely an academic idea but something that emanates from the materiality of critique and resistance, wherein every falsification of a prior truth is its culmination and fulfillment. Clearly, refoundation is as refoundation does.