In-Against-and-Beyond: Negativity, Autonomy, and Class Struggle

Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism Eds. John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros, & Sergio Tischler (London: Pluto Press 2009)

Negativity and Revolution is a rigorously argued collection of critical essays, edited by John Holloway, Fernando Matamoros, and Sergio Tischler that meshes Adorno’s forbiddingly dense Negative Dialectics with an open-ended autonomist Marxism, as such, there is a great deal to recommend the book and much to draw from it.
As a mode of thought, the negative dialectical method renders any reconciliation with the ‘given’ reality of the present impossible, but no less than this material negation of the existent, it embodies contradiction, rupture, antagonism and refusal: opposing the false assurances of reconciliation and closure promised by positive identity-thinking, and this goes as much for a certain form of dialectics as for neo and post structuralisms. The similarities with ‘autonomist’ Marxism are more obvious then than they might at first seem. As Holloway argues, Tronti and the other original theorists of Italian autonomia and operaismo reversed the traditional objectivist wisdom of orthodox Marxism to put the revolutionary social subject at the forefront of their political project. The autonomist project saw class struggle as being truly a dynamic, open-ended struggle in which the proletariat could forcefully initiate action, and take the offensive, not merely being pushed and pulled by objective forces outside its control, but “as driving force, not as reaction”. (p.15)

Holloway’s introductory essay, Why Adorno? will do much to dispel the myth that both Adorno and the original Frankfurt School have little to offer us in 2009, besides historical interest. Adorno meets Tronti, in particular is a hugely important essay seeking as it does to create a meeting between two at first seemingly disparate figures: the one too frequently dismissed as disdainful aesthete and mandarin from another era, the other neglectfully and wrongly seen as belonging to a particular place and time – 1970s Italy – that has also passed. Adorno’s icy refusal to ever falsely reconcile his thought with the present is one of its greatest strengths – and there are many. Adorno offers a way of thinking that accepts nothing, including its own assumptions as given, and resists containment by any spurious attempt to create for it a positive identity or reconciliation with the present. As Holloway convincingly argues, the significance of the concept of a negative dialectic is in the fact that this mode of thought takes as its standpoint the subject: collective and individual, who is exploited, oppressed, and rendered as nothing by capital and at best secondary to objective forces and conditions by other so-called revolutionary modes of thought. But to look to Adorno’s method is not to seek to ‘preserve’ his mode of thought as a perfected model to which we should look for every answer or in which we might hope to find some notion of salvation, rather it is to adopt certain aspects of his thought and adapt them to better suit our own time and place, to go beyond it.

“The development of the autonomist project (the drive towards social self-determination), requires critical theory (just as indeed the development of critical theory requires the autonomist project).” An autonomous political project then, would be one that could develop is own self-awareness and understand how social self-determination must depend on such an understanding: the tasks of a reinvigorated critical theory become the goals of a radical political project, this political project becomes the task of critical theory. That a subjectivity exists in spite of everything, would surely offer ample evidence that non-identity is the first attempt at becoming, at self-creation in and against the objective world of capital and instrumental reason. This subjectivity is a non-identical ‘negation of the negation’ of all that suppresses and mutilates us and reduces human beings to objects in the service of money and power.

Adrian Wilding’s essay gives a good critical overview of Adorno’s later years and his work of the time. Similarly, the fractious. almost non-relationship between Adorno and the late-‘60s student left is explored in some depth. It could be argued that the post-war order of the FederalRepublicoffered an early, sustained example of that fatal late twentieth century habit of forgetting and the absence of a sense of history toward even those recent events of the immediate past. The post-war process of democratic reconstruction and reconciliation seemed able to accommodate the values and ‘causes’ of Fascism to an unnerving degree, a conclusion reached by both Adorno and Horkheimer and the student radicals albeit in radically disparate ways.

Adorno was at the very least sympathetic to the student movement in Germany, but his unease with it seems to have been based as much on his fear of being made a figurehead or guru – as happened frequently to more media-friendly figures of the time, as to the fear that, as Wilding argues, the impulsive demand for action, of ‘some kind’ at any cost was a “symptom of alienation rather than a solution to it.” (p.25)  We might argue, without hopefully conceding too much to Adorno’s more patrician disavowals of radical politics,  a critical recognition that in ‘political practise’ we can see more often than not the shadow of instrumental reason, the ultimate force for compromise and reconciliation, but also coercion and compulsion. It could also be argued, that the fact that the weakest most ephemeral manifestations of the so-called ‘new left’ were so effortlessly diffused and incorporated by the forces they tried to oppose, underscores the point: conversely, the most radical elements from that time could not be contained and return as an implacable antagonism in the present. It could also be argued that Adorno and the FrankfurtSchoolwere forever performing a balancing act with ‘political’ practise: the refusal to offer an instant form of praxis to the movement without being taken for withdrawn mandarins, and just enough dialogue (theoretically at least) to engage without becoming its ‘spokesmen’. In this task Critical Theory, it could be argued, with the exception of Herbert Marcuse in the United States, mostly failed, but this does not detract from the undoubted strength of Adorno’s thought in its negativity and antagonism with the present. The difficulty in such a task is to avoid “denouncing theory” in favour of ‘practise’ but also not to fall into a straightforward veneration of the intellectual or academic as revolutionary sage around whom is gathered a rapt circle of disciples. Despite the accusation – from Georgy Lukacs no less – that the Frankfurt School offers little more than a despairing haute-bourgeois retreat to permanent residency at the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’, Adorno’s mode of thought offers no such contemplative despair, but a determination to face down the world defined and shaped by capitalism without conceding the slightest thing to it: pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will indeed. As Wilding forcefully concludes,

“Critical Theory, by contrast understands that conceiving the social whole means overcoming the divisions within and between disciplines, that grasping the whole is infinitely related to the conceivability of changing it.” (p.34)

Alberto R. Bonnet’s essay is a provocative critique of the aporias of post structuralism, specifically those of Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze’s theory may speak of Marx but it is, as Bonnet shows, haunted by the ghost of liberalism. The obsession with ‘multiplicity’, ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’ is not so very radical in practise, since such divergences are in fact the lifeblood of late capitalism. To invoke Marx, whilst celebrating ‘difference’ is a futile task: ‘difference’, the particular contours and specifications of which the market is constantly refining itself to. Bonnet unsparingly takes this concept to task when he argues that it “cannot be distinguished from its use in referring to competition amongst workers in the privileged segments of the labour market: one must make the difference in relation to others if one wants to impose oneself in the selection of personnel.” (p.51)

In a dizzying excursion into the Deleuzian concept of ‘desire’ and singularity versus plurality, Bonnet argues – successfully it would seem – that for all his invocation of a Marxian ontology, Deleuze’s theory looks remarkably comfortable and well-accommodated within the capitalist postmodern epoch. Real opposition is based on negation and refusal: “both resistance and power are reciprocally constituted in antagonism and any priority or externality is a mere illusion.” (p.54) For all its breathless talk of desire and resistance, Deleuzean practise ends up as yet another postmodern celebration of the localised act, and the micro-political, that changes nothing. 

In the fifth essay, Darij Zadnikar analyses the contribution of Adorno’s thought to a Marxism resistant to notions of a ‘vanguard’ leading or directing class struggle, but one that makes surprisingly extensive use of Hardt and Negri’s ‘multitude’. Without digressing into the merits or not of the concept of ‘multitude’, Zadnikar’s enthusiasm for the plurality and heterogeneity of the global alter-globalization movement begs the Marxist question: is not the strength and weakness of the movement under discussion – non-doctrinaire and non-vanguardist – but also by equal turns – fragmented and hesitant, itself a product of “the structural changes and particularities of contemporary capitalism”? (p.80) One does not need to ‘privilege’ a social subject to see a negative universality at work in the ‘multiple’ antagonistic subjectivities that unify into a cohesive collective negativity; but Zadnikar seems a little to fearful of such a ‘universality’, that this must almost by definition equal Leninism and its elusive goal of the conquest of state power. However, he does give a strikingly good description of the average Leninist or labour party with its solemn desire to mirror and supplant established political parties, its belief in the need for hierarchical order and party discipline, and cynically seeing in the movement only what it thinks can be gained for its own particular ends.

Zadnikar makes some additional points that will make for discomforting reading for those who continue to view the proletariat in mock-heroic terms as struggling salt of the earth, in particular as blue-collar factory workers: as if this objective and arbitrary category, created and imposed by capital had some inherent and lasting value of its own that should be defended and preserved. The positive affirmation of labour – specifically manual labour – is completely foreign to Marxism and its definition of the proletariat as “social negativity”, as Zadnikar argues, although he again seems reluctant to see the specific relation of labour to capital in its fullest sense, and balks at any notion of class struggle as ‘the motor of history‘; instead it seems it is just one more particular struggle among many. But once again, his critique of vanguard parties is second to none, “Vanguardism is the absolute realisation of representative politics.” (p.85). Despite its limitations, Zhadnikar’s essay certainly offers plenty of practical examples of refusal and creative resistance, and perhaps most importantly by reiterating Subcommandte Marcos’s stress on “shitting on all the vanguards,” it also cautions that “refuting such a vanguardism by a Deleuzian abolition of dialectical thought seems to restore an activist post-vanguardsim,” (p.93) something we should be no less careful to avoid.

Closing the second section of the book, is John Holloway’s short essay on Negative and Positive Autonomism: Or Why Adorno? Beginning this time from the standpoint of Tronti and operaismo, he sets out the referents for an autonomist practise that starts from a revolutionary subjectivity rather than the ‘objective conditions’ of capital preferred by orthodox Marxism. But Holloway’s theory is doubly important because unlike standard ‘autonomism’ he does not assign a ‘positive’ character to the working class. By contrast, Holloway diagnoses a critical weakness in operaismo’s lack of “questioning of the positivity of the categories” (p.96), seeing in this, a form of identity thinking not dissimilar from Marxian orthodoxy. The later development by Negri especially, of a series of objective ‘paradigms’ arriving at ‘Empire’, loses even the original subversive power of operaismo in its headlong embrace of such categories as ‘flexibility’ and other watchwords of so-called ‘post-Fordism’, with antagonism and negativity being dissolved by the harmless multiplicity of ‘difference.’ As Holloway contends, “the struggle against capital becomes diluted into a struggle for genuine democracy.” (p.97), Hardt, Negri and Virno’s political project suddenly seems remarkably lacklustre. Holloway then argues that a ‘negative’ autonomism must start from not only the working class against capital in the class struggle, but “negativity in place of positivity.” Invoking his famous concept of ‘the scream’ that opens Change the World Without Taking Power, Holloway sets out to define the negative subject resisting, negating, refusing, screaming ‘No!’ at the totality of capitalist social relations. This theory correctly contends that what interests us is not the stability of capitalism, but the instability, the crisis of capitalism – particularly the crises wrought by the class struggle. Such an insight has some definite echo of Walter Benjamin’s appeal in the Theses on the Philosophy of History that “it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency”, amidst life lived under conditions of a permanent crisis for humanity.

“The working class is the negation and crisis of capitalism and therefore the negation of and crisis of itself. To negate capital is to negate that which creates capital, that is abstract or alienated labour. To negate abstract labour is to struggle for the emancipation of that which is negated everyday by abstract labour, that is to struggle for the emancipation of useful or  creative doing. “(p.97)

As Holloway concludes, this negative autonomist project “means a struggle against the working class itself as a class and as (abstractly) working,” (p.98). The class struggle can be seen as the struggle to refuse being objectified and reduced to the category of a proletarian, to refuse alienated, reified labour, and to refuse the categorisation and identity imposed by capitalism.

The third section of the book opens with a provocative essay by Sergio Tischler which argues that Adorno’s concept of non-identity is of key importance for an autonomist Marxist project. Tischler’s essay is without doubt one of the best in this volume, seeking as it does to contrast Adorno’s negative dialectical method with dialectical materialism become state ‘diamat’, and found in the positive syntheses of Lukacs. Whereas orthodox Marxism made dialectical thought into a parody of itself with its simplified formulae and explanations direct from a central committee, Adorno’s non-identarian thought seeks to negate without any positive synthesis or resolving closure. To apply this mode of thought – which is by its very nature highly politicised – to an explicitly autonomist practise, is the task Tischler sets for himself. There is a distinction to be made, as Tischler shows, between the concept of ‘totality’ as the terrain of critique: of calling everything into question, and a positive idea of final synthesis – for Lukacs, of course, this was taken care of by the party. For Adorno, by contrast, contradiction and negation is the essential truth of dialectics, not positive synthesis, and it is his emphasis on the particular within the universal and conversely, the universal within the particular, that further resists any final, unifying synthetic totality. It is this same moment of contradiction and negativity that is of particular importance to an autonomist political practise. As Tischler concludes:

“Thus the category of totality is critical only if thought of as contradictory, that is, starting from its overflowing or excess. So one could claim that particularity, conceived as the crisis of totality, is the theoretical effort to think of the overflowing in non-identarian, anti-system terms. […] In other words, in negative dialectics the concept is at the service of non-identity; that is, of the excess of reality which overflows the unity achieved at the expense of the mutilation that homogeneity implies.” (p.109)

Werner Bonefeld’s essay is entitled Emancipatory Praxis and Conceptuality in Adorno and is an excellent primer for anyone wanting an exact ‘political’ situating of Adorno in the present era. “The task of a critical social theory is to demystify rigidified, thing-like congealed relationships, rendering their immediacy transparent,” (p.125). To this we could add, that Adorno is especially important to such a project, in his insistence that any such theory must be aware of its own shortcomings, or rigidify into a similarly petrified frozen object: the orthodox tradition of ‘Marxism’ instantly springs to mind. “By means of vicious circularity,“ Bonefeld argues, explanation becomes tautological,” (p.126) referring to the reified nature of much ‘theory’, which especially in standard academic disciplines bears little relation to anything ‘critical’ at all, but is instead a straightforward circular process of identification, determination, and categorisation; it is unfortunate that critical theories such as Marxism should also follow this same pattern, but Bonefeld is careful to distinguish this from an autonomist political praxis employing an Adornian dialectical negativity.

The political project of a reflexive negative dialectic demands that “antagonism has to be a moment of the concept itself […] forcing it to operate against itself.” (p.134). As Bonefeld shows in the course of the essay, “Dialectics opens concepts” (p.139) as such, the negative dialectical method aims at an immanent critique of the social world, but also itself. Antagonism, the negative dialectical moment breaks open what had previously been seen as given, immutable and inevitable.

The fourth section of the book begins with Marcel Stoetzler’s interestingly off-topic essay on Adorno, Non-Identity, and Sexuality, a subject that has had little serious treatment until now. Stoezler takes as his starting point Adorno’s belief that romantic love is an immeasurable non-quantifiable form of happiness, but one that, like everything else under late capitalism, is mutilated and distorted by instrumentality. Love becomes an aggregate of calculating, mutual self-interest: from the legal ownership of marriage (backed up by pre-nuptial agreements) to the ‘permissive’ nature of the market which allows anything as long as it can be bought and sold, love and sexuality are degraded into a barely recognisable imitation of themselves. One of the strengths of Stoezler’s analysis is his selection and critical comparison of some of the very few texts on the subject, mostly from the 70’s with Adorno’s few but telling thoughts on the subject. However, the essay does more than merely compare and juxtapose, indeed as Stoezler states by way of a quote from Adorno, “No emancipation without that of society,” we might add that any politics based on an exclusive identity, be it gender, or sexuality which excludes the wider nature of society is at best doomed to fail, and at worst already comfortably on its way to being absorbed within it. More generally, we can see in the ‘repressive desublimation’ famously observed by Marcuse, an obvious flipside to straightforward sexual repression embodied in traditional bourgeois values and attitudes: in this flipside to traditional ‘morality’ (monogamy, marriage, toleration of homosexuality so far as it tries to replicate the heterosexual couple) there is of course the commercial repository of unlimited, unlicensed alienation, from scantily-clad magazine cover stars to the equally consumable products of pornography and prostitution. Anything you want is yours, as long as you are willing to pay for it.

Stoezler concludes his remarkable essay by noting that sexuality in relation to an Adornian non-identity,

“All aspects of modern bourgeois subjectivity are intrinsic aspects of one ensemble of       social relations, the capitalist mode of production that can only be overcome as an ensemble.” (p.179)

In the penultimate essay of the volume, Fernando Matamaros seeks to ‘fan the spark of hope’ in Benjamin’s phrase by declaring solidarity with the fall of metaphysics. Matamoros states with a notable turn of phrase, “We could say that like God, metaphysics as a conceptual object is the geometric centre of the discordant and antagonistic time of contradictory and concurrent standpoints,” (p.189) further going onto argue that it is indeed the meta that seeks to go beyond the given as “determined by the concept,” which offers us much in the way of a non-identarian mode of thought. The ‘metaphysical’ is the vertiginous sense of the possible once negation and hope call everything back into question; Adorno’s negative dialectical method allows us to do just that. Matamaros adds to this. Matamaros concludes that our task is not to attempt to “romantically trace back,” (p.224) but recognise instead the constellations “in our present” mapped between the past and future as moments of insubordination, subversion, and hope.

The final essay in the volume is by José Manuel Martinez on mimesis and distance in Adorno’s thought. Martinez offers a succinct explanation of what exactly we mean by negation, stating “Negation is not the abolition of the real, but criticism of the real.” […] but it is also “not enunciable a priori” but depends on conflicts and subjects which are themselves variable. In the section reflecting on Adornian mimesis in relation to art, Martinez offers a definition of Adorno’s view of the work of art as a ‘copy’ of existent, ‘given’ reality that indicts this world in its mimetic form as culture.  Outside of the realm of art and culture, however,Martinez argues that mimesis exists in Adorno’s thought as the fragmentary. embodied in his fondness for aphorisms “related to particular conflicts that are expressed in particular conceptual constellations that depend on the perception of a particular situation.” (p236).

Adorno’s thought offers few consolations for those who would hope for final explanations and ‘the answer’ in any sense; negative dialectics break open any such false certainty, even in their own method. Not just this, but to ‘politicise’ Adorno by drawing a theoretical linkage between his thought and an autonomist political practise equally grounded in antagonism, negativity and refusal, to better understand both, is the task this book and its authors set for themselves – and us – and on this, they more than succeed.


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