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Bonefeld notes and thoughts

I recently read two books by Werner Bonefeld, his Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy and his The Strong State and the Free Economy, and I thought I’d jot down some notes and/or thoughts I had in response. They’re both good, I learned a lot, was glad to have read them. Critical Theory is an overview of a Marxist account of capitalist society integrating that account with Frankfurt School type critical theory, showing the benefit of connecting those accounts (which isn’t to say they’re necessarily separate, they were in the early days of the Frankfurt School but rather became so later over time). It’s a fairly synoptic book and I can imagine referring back to it and digging around in its citations.


A few points really stood out for me in Critical Theory, speaking to some of my own preoccupations: the system-immanent character of class struggle (at least some class struggle in any case), exchange as social (in)validation, the discussion of crisis, and the account of the state and depoliticization. Quickly for now, each in turn: certainly in any given instance of class struggle we presumably wish success to the people with the least power, but such conflict is not per se anticapitalist. Capitalism’s ordinary operations are regularly contested and to an important respect capitalism’s reproduction occurs via conflict. Capitalism’s development over time is particularly struggle-driven. This poses a challenge politically insofar as it suggests a need for more than simply wishing the subordinate contenders success or understanding improvement over time as simply ‘workers win more often,’ because it’s not clear that victory in system-immanent conflict necessarily builds up to system-rupturing conflict. (This is me riffing on Bonefeld, to be fair, so the vagueness is mine, not his.)


Now for social validation. Capitalism is a system where production happens then is followed by a process of determining after the fact if that production was a good idea - the criteria of that determination being about profitability, not human need. This leads to irrationalities in that harmful products and pathological needs get produced (because anticipation of future validation reacts back on decisions on how to steer production), in that substantively beneficial products aren’t made enough (again due to anticipation of validation or invalidation) such that substantively important needs go unmet (the scene in Grapes of Wrath of oranges being destroyed before hungry people springs to mind), and periodically existing product, wealth, and productive units get destroyed as well, taking with them a lot of working class people’s access to money and so to means of subsistence.


I think the discussion of retroactive or post-festum validation is helpful for avoiding a fruitless debate that sometimes comes up about whether value is created in production or exchange and instead orienting toward the peculiarity and destructiveness of capitalism as a society characterized by commodity production - meaning a package deal of making stuff and of exchange (commodities being defined by exchange) and their relationship. Rather than look for which of those social locations creates value, it’s more fruitful to talk about how those social locations operate in tandem as phases in the compulsory repetition of the circuit of capital where money becomes more money, M...M’, or a little less abbreviated: M-C...P...C’-M’, the apostrophes indicating transformation, M meaning money, C, meaning commodities, P meaning production, hyphens indicating exchanges and ellipses indicating passage of time. Value inheres in and arises from the entire process and compels its repetition.


Now for crisis, and more briefly. Bonefeld presents capitalism as necessarily crisis-generating, as inherently crisis-prone, while also stressing that these crises are the form of capitalism’s reproduction. Capitalism generates crises and these crises afflict the denizens of society but do not threat capitalism: crisis is not a matter of capitalism undermining itself.


Finally, class struggle, then depoliticization and the state. The working class gets access to means of subsistence via selling labor power. This is distinct from the capitalist class, who get access to means of subsistence by buying labor power and other production goods then setting the labor power into motion working on the production goods, then selling the resulting products for more money than the initial outlay. As Marx puts it, if memory serves, workers sell to buy - sell their labor power to get money to spend on what they want and need - while capitalists buy to sell - buy labor power for the reasons I mentioned already, resulting in more money. One important takeaway point from this is that workers and capitalists alike share an interest within capitalism in having productive enterprises remain productive and in business: a plant closure cuts off incomes to the employees laid off as a result. Workers of course struggle over lots of facets of their lives in capitalism, but in the short term anyway they want capital to accumulate, want M to become M’, because the breakdown of the process means layoffs, hence constricted access to money and resulting interruption in access to means of subsistence.


Capitalism is not markets and commodities. Capitalism is a society where social wealth takes the form of commodities, and that kind of society has the state, the specifically capitalist state, as a key element of its existence. Part of what the state does is to serve to render one zone of social life as the economy, the domain of commodity production and exchange, which includes it being rendered apolitical despite involving what are clearly in a substantive sense political qualities. That is to say, the state is a force of depoliticization, having two related effects: constraining people to act within market logics - to remain economic actors, so to speak, which also means legal actors - and preventing the occurrence of activities that break out of market logics or become forms of extra-economic and illegal action.

It’s good stuff, and there’s more in the book that I’ve left out here.


Now, in less detail, The Strong State and the Free Economy. The book provides an overview of a school of German economic thought called ordoliberalism then provides an overview of the EU via those ideas and their influence on the EU. Briefly, ordoliberals are conservative economists who understand free markets as tending to undermine their preconditions absent state intervention to continue to guarantee the presence of those preconditions. To put it another way, free markets are freed markets, meaning markets freed from non-market constraints; that freeing is enacted by the state, such that the free market is a political project enacted by the state; life in market societies tends to generate constraints or attempts to impose constraints on markets (such as unionization and welfare state guarantees) as well as efforts to act anti-social relative to markets (such as fraud), rendering markets no longer free. (The above is sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit.) Taken together this means that the state has to remain vigilant and ready to act in order to prevent the outbreak of any politics and so to retain a monopoly of politics. Like Critical Theory does, this book presents an account of the state as depoliticizing, with that depoliticization being part of how the state fosters the reproduction of capitalist social relations. I think the implication that capitalist social relations periodically get politicized - I suppose in a sense what’s class struggle if not the politicization of some elements of social relations, even in the most localized and mitigated forms of class struggle? - is a very interesting one as is the corresponding implication about the capitalist state as serving to defuse or prevent politicization.


The book also presents an account of the EU as a form of supra-national law that isn’t democratic even within capitalism’s forms of democracy, constraining members states but also relying on them, uniting them into an executive wing of a body of rule. Part of what various EU regulations and governing bodies do is constrain options for democratization of, well, anything via the state, by placing a lot of key economic and social policy decisions outside parliamentary control, leaving little option for navigating other than increasing labor and its productivity. At the same time, the government of member states ends up being the enforcer for and legitimizer of those increases. To a significant degree the EU amounts to an ordoliberal governing body, unable to do much at all along Keynesian lines and only able to help clear out extra-economic/political challenges to the economy’s operations, though again a lot of that clearing out and legitimating occurs via the domestic state of EU member countries.


I found it thought provoking. I also think the implication is interesting that capitalism is friction-laden in the sense of tending to involve conflicts that tend to create politicization, while I’d also want to stress that much of the time the politicization is between different versions of capitalism or different capitalism-compatible pathways/decisions/sequences of events, so to speak. That’s an area of resonance between the two books, the generation of system-immanent forms of conflict as a normal part of the system’s reproduction and which over times shapes the system’s development. I’d say the ordoliberals represent a perspective with a strong preference for one set of versions of capitalism (liberal capitalism) in opposition to other versions (keynesian etc), which has tremendously important ramification for people’s lives while at the same time ordoliberal vs keynesian (either as abstract positions for economists or as actual ways to institutionalize capitalist social relations/actual versions of capitalism) is still a matter of in-house disputes among partisans of capitalism. In the long run, the hope is for breaking out of capitalism per se, not settling for the best version thereof. On that, I liked that Bonefeld concludes Strong State with clear rejection of so-called progressive nationalism as well as more openly conservative nationalism. The role of international bodies and agreements in constraining states into (or, giving states depoliticized cover for) austerity measures will foster more of these nationalist false friends in relation to or simply within the left, I think, so it’s good to try to be ready to criticize them.

Good pair of books, I’ll likely be returning to them, much to chew on, and I hope they get a wide uptake.

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