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On Economic Compulsion

A Review of Werner Bonefeld

April 2, 2024

A Critical Theory of Economic Compulsion: Wealth, Suffering, Negation
by Werner Bonefeld

Capitalist society is characterized by domination that occurs, as Marx put it, “behind the backs” of the people in that society. Werner Bonefeld’s important new book analyzes this form of domination—what it is, what it does, why it exists, and most importantly, what its existence reveals to us about societies that are characterized by it. As a closely argued contribution to critical theory, it is a demanding book, but a rewarding one.

Bonefeld is closely associated with the loosely defined tradition known as Open Marxism, which includes both Marxist theorists and theoretically informed empirical researchers. Open Marxism emphasizes the antagonism and contradictions inherent in capitalist society, against the economism and determinism of many other Marxist traditions. In A Critical Theory of Economic Compulsion, Bonefeld continues to develop Open Marxism as a body of theory, by drawing together other Marxian theories and lines of inquiry descended from the Frankfurt School. While the book can certainly stand on its own, it is best read as a continuation of the arguments in his 2014 book, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy (Bloomsbury). Both books intervene in contemporary theoretical debates about what kinds of domination are specific to capitalism; about class struggle as both an explanatory category in social theory and as a phenomenon requiring explanation; and about theories of value, fetishism, and real abstraction. These are rich, challenging, heady matters of tremendous importance insofar as we urgently need to understand capital and its domination of social individuals and nature if we are to abolish such domination.

Bonefeld presents an interpretation of Marx’s critique of political economy that emphasizes the historical specificity of capitalist society. Real, historical societies are significantly different from each other; their character as societies per se is far less illuminating than their character as determinate, particular societies. It is capitalism’s “capital-ness,” so to speak, that really matters. This theoretical move banishes any appeal to human nature or other inherent or essential qualities, while still retaining a notion of systemic dynamism, social logic, and structural constraints on the actions and attitudes of social individuals.

Bonefeld offers a powerful critique of both economism and determinism, and especially those interpretations of Marx that imagine his critique of political economy to be a normative vindication of productive labor. Capitalist social relations consist of social categories and roles constituted through the activity of real people, yet those people are in turn dominated by those very categories and roles. While the proposition is posed abstractly here, the processes are antagonistic, concrete, and bloody, regularly consigning many to suffering and starvation. Capitalist society is subordinated to economic compulsion—the compulsion to valorize capital, which appears as self-expanding value. All people—rich and poor, capitalists and workers—are dominated by the historically specific social form that is value—although the resulting harms do not evenly afflict all.

One of the concepts at the heart of Bonefeld’s book—and at the heart of Marx’s critique of political economy—is a critique of the specific form that wealth takes in capitalist society. Wealth in capitalism is self-increasing money (about which we will say more below). This form of wealth necessarily entails suffering because that wealth is simultaneously, inevitably, also a form of poverty or deprivation. One element of that deprivation is capitalism’s recurrent tendency toward crisis. Another element that Bonefeld emphasizes—and here the book is particularly original—is what he calls “social coldness,” referring to the various forms of indifference and impersonal relationships which capitalism generates and proliferates. At the same time, he insists that the answer to social coldness is not social warmth. There are deeply oppressive and destructive ways to take a close interest in people, after all.

More generally, Bonefeld cautions that we cannot simply embrace the opposite of what we dislike—choosing warmth over coldness—because this only affirms that which we dislike, at the expense of critically investigating how the thing we dislike came to be. Living wages, stricter workplace safety standards, or a universal basic income necessarily affirm exploitative and unfree social conditions even as they mitigate them. Marx stressed a similar point in Value, Price and Profit when he called for abandoning the slogan “a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work” in favor of “abolish the wage system.” Bonefeld calls us to recognize that capitalism remains capitalism despite transitory or surface variations in its institutional or cultural determinations. Too many critiques of “neoliberal” or “financialized” capitalism are insufficiently far-reaching in their emancipatory ambition and insufficiently thoroughgoing in the depth of their critiques of capitalist social relations. They critique this or that appearance of capitalism rather than capitalism itself. On this point Bonefeld  criticizes prominent theorists of socialism such as Leo Panitch, Nancy Fraser, Rahel Jaeggi, or Wolfgang Streeck. He argues that what they want, whether they know it or not, is really a perfected capitalism. Such theorists take up what Bonefeld, following Moishe Postone, calls “the standpoint of labor,” which envisions an apotheosis of productive labor rather than the end of capitalist production.

Economic compulsion is the rule of capital as a social relation, not rule by capitalists as a class. This means that class is organized in a specific way in capitalism, operating behind our backs to a significant degree, rather than consciously. Bonefeld argues powerfully that social domination in capitalism occurs through, and is mediated by, historically specific concepts and categories. This sense of “domination” can be confusing if one thinks of domination in terms of the physical overpowering of one person by another, or the subordination of one person’s will to another. Those kinds of domination certainly happen in capitalism, but they are not the heart of the matter. In capitalism, we are dominated impersonally and behind our backs, such that the array of choices available to us—the ways we go about understanding those choices and reasoning our way to decisions, as well as the consequences of those choices—are all deeply constrained in specific ways. Put simply, capital structures all of our starting points and capacities, and it dynamically interrupts our lives as well, through deep uncertainty and pervasive harms. To illuminate how such compulsion can occur, it is necessary to closely examine Marx’s account of value in his critique of political economy.

Put simply, capital structures all of our starting points and capacities, and it dynamically interrupts our lives as well, through deep uncertainty and pervasive harms.

Bonefeld draws particular attention to the centrality of money in value relations. Bonefeld is emphatic that money is the actual, social form assumed by value. Money is not merely a symbol that represents value, nor is it a mere immaterial mystification of real social relations. Workers are compelled to sell their labor-power in the pursuit of the commodities they must buy if they wish to live; capitalists are compelled to compete with one another in the pursuit of surplus value that can only be realized through the sale of commodities. The production of commodities, the pursuit of surplus value, and the valorization of capital all presuppose money as the form of value, which in turn mediates the production and exchange of commodities and hence capital accumulation. Value is a historically specific form of determinate social relations—rather than being a substance that is stolen from workers—and it is a social relation that is specifically monetary in character. Value’s necessary appearance is as money, a socially objective abstraction that dominates concrete individuals. How can this be?

For Bonefeld, money is not a mere representation or an expedient for the exchange of values that are “actually” produced in such a way that they exist in pre-monetary terms. Money as the form of value mediates and dominates exchange, since capitalist production posits exchange as the moment of the realization of commodities as values, and hence the valorization of capital. And production itself only takes place insofar as it is expected to result in the realization of surplus value through exchange, which must be mediated by money.  The aim of capitalist production is always to maximize surplus value, an aim which can be achieved only through a series of contradictory unities: the production process (abstract and concrete labor), the valorization of capital (production and exchange), and the commodity itself (use-value and exchange-value). Non-monetary accounts of production accept the appearances of “the reified world,” Bonefeld argues; they miss what is essential about the impersonal compulsions through which capitalist society is reproduced despite its contradictions. They are too quick to attach unwarranted importance to ephemeral features of capitalism. They focus on what distinguishes different forms of appearance of capitalism like “neoliberalism,” “financialization,” etc. rather than focusing on what these forms of appearance have in common: an emphasis with reformist political implications insofar as the political project becomes not capitalism’s abolition but its reform.

Money is essential to the valorization process because the social validation of production is impossible without it. The capitalist production process is a contradictory unity of concrete labor and abstract (that is, value-positing and exchange-presupposing) labor; the pursuit of surplus value for the sake of the valorization of capital is always its goal. The labor time expended in the production of commodities can only be validated as socially necessary through exchange mediated by money. Commodities’ validation as values occurs in the moment of their exchange, not their production. This disjuncture between production for the sake of surplus value and commodity-exchange as the realization of surplus value (and hence the valorization of capital) is the source of capitalism’s inevitable and inalterable tendency to crisis, as Bonefeld’s late co-thinker Simon Clarke argued1Simon Clarke, Keynesianism, Monetarism, and the Crisis of the State (Elgar, 1988); Marx’s Theory of Crisis (Macmillan, 1994)..

Capitalist production takes place for the sake of the accumulation of a peculiar and perverse form of wealth, rather than the fulfillment of individuals’ wants and needs. This leads to all sorts of irrationalities. Things that many people want and need go unmade, because the pursuit of surplus value is indifferent to questions of want or need. Things that no one needs, from atmospheric carbon dioxide to microplastics to cruise missiles, are churned out in vast quantities—again, because the pursuit of surplus value trumps other considerations regarding what is to be produced. And existing goods, wealth, and productive units get destroyed on a regular basis—taking with them a lot of working class people’s access to money, which hinders their access to the means of subsistence: shelter, water, food. The scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which hungry people watch an orchard owner pour kerosene over excess oranges springs to mind as a concretizing example.

Capitalists generally do not directly rule as a class, whether through their control of the means of production or through the operation of the bourgeois state. The exercise of state power in liberal polities does not offer a haven from economic compulsion, nor a means to limit it so much as, at most, a means to organize it. Law and the state are not anterior to capitalist social relations. For Bonefeld, it is nonsensical to posit either “the economy” or “the state” as existing independently of one another. They are determinate and distinct, but they are also mutually presuppositional appearances of a contradictory social totality. To think of them as autonomous from one another—“relatively” or otherwise—is to succumb to the fetishism of bourgeois society, which collapses appearances into essences and treats capitalism as natural and eternal.

One important point in Bonefeld’s account is that the domination we suffer occurs through our own social activity. The critique of political economy is not a conspiracy theory that identifies specific social actors as responsible for society’s ills. The economic categories of capitalist society dominate us and yet they are nothing but our own creations. They enjoy a seeming objectivity; they act upon us—as though they were external, natural forces—to compel us to valorize capital on pain of death and ruin. But they are our own creations—creations capital compels us to enact—and as such there is always the possibility that we could stop making them.

Capitalism is a specific kind of society that reinforces or reproduces itself over time, regardless of variations on the specific expressions of capitalist social relations.

The book’s theoretical arguments have important political ramifications which directly bear upon Bonefeld’s criticisms of various left positions that populate the Marxist tradition and correlate with various theoretical outlooks. He repeatedly stresses the point that some opponents of capitalism remain too uncritically accepting of capitalism’s apparent naturalness. Political forces like democratic socialism —and other views that imagine socialism to be the achievement of distributive justice through the public provision of commodities—are, however unwittingly, not opponents of capitalism but partisans of one kind of capitalism against another kind. If the generalized production of commodities for the sake of the realization of surplus value through monetary exchange persists, then so do the domination, exploitation, immiseration, and indignities that come with it. A “better” capitalism, despite the real-world stakes it will have for some people, does not move humanity any further away from capitalism. This is because capitalism is a specific kind of society that reinforces or reproduces itself over time, regardless of variations on the specific expressions of capitalist social relations.

For Bonefeld, emancipation from exploitation is not the achievement of justice. He argues that normative critiques of capitalism rely too much on its constitutive contradictions, and that they fail to recognize that the norms to which they appeal are far more compatible with—even integral to—capitalism. Many such critics, Bonefeld contends, take concepts like equality, fairness, and non-discrimination and abstract them from bourgeois society. They then criticize bourgeois society for failing to live up to them. But even a more equitable capitalist society would still be one in which most people are exploited and separated from the means of production and subsistence. Heavily regulated labor markets would not free most people from the compulsion to sell their labor-power. The vigorous enforcement of laws forbidding discrimination in employment would not abolish the subordination of individuals’ wants and needs to the social compulsion to valorize capital through the production and sale of commodities.

Bonefeld may reject such arguments from fairness, but that doesn’t mean that A Critical Theory of Economic Compulsion is bloodless or cold. No reader will fail to recognize that his account is saturated with fury against domination and exploitation, and with an uncompromising insistence on the urgent possibility of overcoming capitalist social relations with a society appropriate to human dignity. That said, the book could do more to provide on-ramps to readers who are new to Bonefeld’s and his close co-thinkers’ ideas.2Interested readers should begin by consulting Bonefeld’s 2014 book, as well as the Open Marxism anthologies published by Pluto Press. Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, by Simon Clarke—another key contributor to Open Marxism and a close co-thinker of Bonefeld’s—explores many similar themes. An important recent example of empirical inquiry grounded in the Open Marxist tradition is Jack Copley’s Governing Financialization, which investigates the transformation of state capacities in response to the global economic crises of the 1970s and 80s. Some of the critical interpretations of other Marxists are presented in a compressed or dense manner, such that the unfamiliar or the unconvinced might not be moved. However, these are minor issues relative to the originality and importance of the ideas presented.

Bonefeld’s account of economic compulsion can help to make sense of the urgent and desperate struggles of the present. He refuses to instrumentalize existing struggles by prescribing strategies, goals, or programs that they should adopt or follow. “Communism is not anything positive,” Bonefeld declares—meaning that it is not some historically invariant ideal that we should try to fulfill. Rather, it is “the self-reflective negation” of “the logic of reification” through which capitalist society appears eternal, natural, and inalterable. This negation emerges from the self-activity of people resisting capitalism’s domination, which is to say that it is not a plan worked out in advance of being executed. Bonefeld’s argument points to the value and importance of interpreting and learning from existing and on-going struggles—against climate change and ecocide; against the marginalization, exclusion, and elimination of racialized and surplus populations; against the growth of nationalism, eliminationist reaction, and hypertrophying state violence and surveillance; and against the subordination of people’s flourishing to the valorization and accumulation of capital. Such struggles, Bonefeld contends in the book’s closing pages, are what will ultimately usher in a transformation of capitalist social relations. Emancipatory class struggle consists not in the vindication of labor as it presently appears as a category or a class, but in the negation of the perverse, inverted world of economic compulsion.

Given the urgency of both capitalism’s spectacular violence and its day-to-day miseries, some readers may be understandably frustrated with the abstract theoretical presentation of this point. Certainly the book is not in any sense a practical how-to guide. It is meant to sharpen our critical faculties so that we can better perceive how even the best possible outcomes in a capitalist society are still relationships of domination. No form or degree of domination is acceptable. A Critical Theory of Economic Compulsion urges us to reject an inhumane world and the proffered solutions that “are infused with the inhumanity” of that world. It calls for us to demand and struggle for a wholly different one.



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