Fetishism and Its Negations: On John Holloway and Theodor Adorno


By David Black


Hobgoblin No. 4 2003



Whereas Hegel begins his Science of Logic with the category of “Being” and Marx begins Capital with the “Commodity,” John Holloway’s starting point in Change the World Without Taking Power – the Meaning of Revolution Today (Pluto Press 2002) is the “Scream”: an expression of the struggle for the negation of “a world we feel to be negative,” the “rupture in the social flow of doing” and the severing of “the done from the doing.”

As Holloway points out, the young Karl Marx discussed the self-negation of doing in terms of “alienated labor” in his 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts and later continued the theme in the section in Capital on commodity fetishism. Marx, in Capital, analyses how what we produce in the self-negation of our humanity under capitalism becomes a commodity, “an object outside us, with life of its own; one that denies its origin in human labor”; or as Holloway interprets it, “a done which denies its own relation to doing.” From the “topsy-turvy” world of the Commodity, Marx moves on to the concept of Value, in which, Holloway explains, the self-negation of doing and the triumph of “power-over assume “ever more opaque forms of the suppression of power-to.” Money, capital, profit, rent, interest and capital all serve to invert the relation between people and things, between subject and object.
In probing the “meaning of revolution today,” Holloway sees a “tragic dilemma”: the “urgency” and “apparent impossibility” of revolution are “two sides of the same process” and this urgency “intensifies to the degree that the fetishism of social relations becomes more penetrating and pervasive.” Since “the fracturing of doing is the fracturing of sociability,” this would imply that a new “sociability” must be the basis for any non-fragmented society. But the prospect of reversing the fracturing with a new principle of sociability comes up against of the pervasiveness of the capitalist “Identity” principle. To expound on this problem, Holloway relies on Theodor Adorno of the “Frankfurt School.”

According to Adorno, capitalism “identifies” by capturing subjectivity with a fixed concept, in which one meaning is seen as more basic than any other: labor is “free,” capital is “wealth,” state-control is “socialism.” Identification can be seen in physical action as well mental classification: victims of “ethnic cleansing” are identified before the death squads move in. In the “democratic” world, Holloway writes, “A state is inconceivable without the definition of citizens and the simultaneous exclusion of non-citizens. 856,000 Mexican were detained on the frontier with the United States in the last six months.” Within the “Marxist tradition” (even leaving aside the horrors of its political “practice”), “the transformation of negative thought into a defining ism” has created a framework that limits and obstructs the mental labor necessary for preparing the ground for a true uprooting of the fetish.


Holloway discusses three possible “solutions” to the “tragic dilemma” in which the fetish asserts and re-asserts its “identifying” grip on humanity:

1. Give up and become a post-modernist: “The concepts of revolution and emancipation are abandoned and replaced with the idea of micropolitics... a multiplicity of struggles focused on particular issues or particular identities: struggles which aim at a re-arrangement but not an overcoming of alienation” (a variation on this disillusionment is the melancholic Leftist intellectual: “denouncing the horrors of capitalism... prophesizing the doom that is to come, but with little hope of being heard”). (74-5)

2. Stick to the “traditional Marxist” focus on a binary antagonism of the proletarian and capitalist class. Holloway concedes that the separation of doing from done implies a “dual class” analysis – capital versus labor; bourgeoisie versus proletariat – but this antagonism is usually seen by “Marxists” as a polarization of externalities, “which leaves the two sides untouched in their fundamentals.” In a simple world of “good” workers and “bad” capitalists, revolution would be a straightforward project of organizing the “good” (or, for the slightly more “sophisticated” little vanguards, of struggling for “ideological hegemony”).(76-7) In Holloway’s view, this dualistic focus on the external antagonism ignores the “explosion” of “power” and “separation” that takes place “inside us” as part of the “identification” process:

The idea that someone is X without the simultaneous realisation that she is not X is rooted in something that is very far from obvious: namely the daily repeated seizure from the doers of the product of their doing and its definition as the property of someone else. This very real, very material identification (this thing is mine, not yours), spreads like a crack into every aspect of our social organisation and every aspect of our consciousness. (68)

Holloway’s critique also extends to “post-autonomist” Marxism, in particular Negri and Hardt, who in their book, Empire, counterpose the revolutionary potential of the global “multitude” to the “imperial sovereignty” of deterritorialized global capital. By adopting an explicitly “antihumanist” new “paradigm,” in which “interactive and cybernetic machines become a new prosthesis” of our “post-human bodies and minds,” they substitute, in Holloway’s judgement, the “logic of synthesis” for the “movement of negation.” Holloway does however accept Negri and Hardt’s argument that revolution can no longer be conceived of in terms of seizing state power. The Power that needs to be negated lies “in the fragmentation of social relations” rather than any “particular person or institution.” (167-75)

3. “Look for hope in the nature of capitalist power itself.” For Holloway, dialectic is “the consistent sense of non-identity [Adorno], the sense of the explosive force which is denied.” “All expressions of human emancipation” and “all images of a society based on mutual recognition of human dignity, all exist only in the form of their negation. But they exist.”(76)

The actual existence of forms of negation is, Holloway argues, to be seen in new mass movements such as the Zapatistas, who “have said that they want to make the world anew, to create a world of dignity, but without taking power.” The struggles of such forces have found resonance in the growth of anti-capitalism amongst the world’s youth in “what might be called an area of anti-power… [which] corresponds to a weakening of the process by which discontent is focused on the state.” The “would-be revolutionary parties no longer have the capacity they once had to channel discontent towards the struggle to seize state power. It is also true of social democratic parties…”(20-1)

Subjectivity and Totality

In examining further the internal relation of revolutionary subjectivity to “the nature of capitalist power itself,” Holloway explains how in Lukacs’ theory of Reification, bourgeoisie and proletariat are both “imprisoned” within the fetishized “immediacy” of capitalist relations. From the bourgeois point of view, Lukacs says, to go beyond that immediacy towards a historical perspective of totality would be “suicidal,” for it would expose bourgeois rule as transitory. On the other hand, from the proletarian standpoint, “to become aware of the dialectical nature of its existence is a matter of life and death.” Despite the reification process which “cripples and atrophies,” it “remains true that [the worker’s] humanity and soul are not changed into commodities.” The fact that “in the commodity the worker recognises himself and his relations with capital” has explosive revolutionary implications. For although the worker may be “objectively transformed into a mere object in the process of production,” the actuality of the “split” between subjectivity and objectivity in his or her “total personality” can be made conscious. But the making of revolutionary consciousness implies that a mediation is needed to overcome the immediacy of reification, otherwise “the unmediated consciousness of the commodity” remains “precisely an awareness of abstract isolation” and of the “merely abstract relationship” to the material antagonism that creates it – as if capital was merely external to the worker’s consciousness.(80-88)

In an attempted solution to the problem of mediation, Lukacs distinguishes between the given “psychological” consciousness of the proletariat – of what is – and its “imputed” revolutionary consciousness of what ought to be. Holloway alleges that, although Lukacs is aware that “every definition degenerates into an illusion,” he remains trapped within the idea that Marxist theory provides a “total” knowledge of reality. True, Lukacs does attack Engelsian Marxism for lapsing into a metaphysical materialism in which the reflecting consciousness of the subject is determined by the reflected object. There is however, a tendency in Lukacs towards the opposite error: of positing a subject-object identity. This results in Lukacs’ bringing in a deus ex machina in the form of the Party, which “infers” the “thoughts and feelings which men would have” if they were able to assess their particular situation in relation to the actions needed to revolutionize the totality of relations. But despite this apparent collapse of mediation into identification, there does remain some creative dialectical tensions in Lukacs’ theory of reification because the move towards Totality is posited as an aspiration rather than a pre-theorized reality. Holloway builds on this notion to suggest that:

Once the categories of thought are understood as expressions not of objectified social relations but of the struggle to objectify them, then a whole storm of unpredictability blows through them. Once it is understood that money, capital, the state are nothing but the struggle to form, to discipline, then it is clear that their development can be understood only as practice, as un-predetermined struggle.(176)

Adorno, in Negative Dialectics (1966), sees in Lukacs an attempt to resolve the subject-object dichotomy into Totality by means of a subjective act of “pure immediacy” (the Party taking power) – a position that is as “untrue” as the fetishism it purports to challenge. Also, Adorno warns, in the concept of totality there is a danger of suppressing of heterogeneity and diversity under the tyranny of identity: “A liberated mankind would by no means be totality.” Adorno sees the main threat posed in the post-1945 world after the experience of fascism as, “Absolute reification… [which] is preparing to absorb the mind entirely.” Holloway agrees, saying, “Over all our reflections on identity stands the terrible warning of Adorno: Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death.” (75)

This association of Hegel’s “negation of the negation” with the Nazi Holocaust is a disturbing claim. To see how Adorno came to make it we need to look briefly at the origins of “identity philosophy” and the “domination of the concept” in post-Kantian German idealism. Fichte, Schelling and Hegel were dissatisfied by Kant’s determination that the categories of the understanding applied to phenomena do not penetrate the reality of “things-in-themselves.” In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the basis of all possible experience, knowledge and meaning is the forms of sensibility (time and space) and the categories of the understanding. In Fichte’s view, Kantian practical reason can only be validated by presupposing a pre-conscious, free, originary act, prior to, or predicated of, the empirical discourse of the sensible forms. For Fichte, the basis of all empirical discourse and categorical thought lies in the foundational act of the “absolute ego.” The ego, as the I, is posited in essential relation with the not-I, and establishes the meaning of this relation as its own self-realization. Fichte claims that the acts of positing ego and non-ego account for the transcendental unity of apperception which Kant leaves unexplicated.

When the not-I is understood as another free self, the resulting intersubjectivity constitutes a “free moral agent,” somewhat resembling the Jacobin General Will. Under the moral law, the origin of which must remain “absolutely inconceivable” and mysterious, being is energized with “intellectual intuition” and embodied in a revolutionary “subject,” self-constituted as above, and morally independent of, civil society. In this way Fichte’s moral will retains the categorical imperative of Kantian practical reason whilst eliminating the unknowable thing-in-itself.

In engaging with the Kantian dualism, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel sought to re-interpret Spinoza’s idea that thought and being are in essence attributes of an infinite absolute substance, which exists in and for itself. In Spinoza’s universe all natural objects are “modes” of the universal attributes of space; and humans, as objects, are modes of divine attributes, because humans manifest the “pure” universal truths of thought in science, mathematics and philosophy. Under the initial influence of Spinoza, Schelling attempts to overcome Kantian dualism by means of an intuition of knowledge and nature as being like two branches of the same stream. Schelling rejects Fichte’s view of absolute knowledge as manifestation of the absolute ego. Instead of Fichte’s positive first principle established through negative determination, Schelling intuits an unconditioned being, whose validation depends on its ability to account for the mysteries and history of the world. Absolute identity is postulated objectively as the intelligence of nature, in its infinite progress through consciousness and self-consciousness towards subject-object identity. This objectivity of the absolute can however, only be intuited by those blessed with genius, especially in the field of art, because it is only great art that reflects the self-separated absolute identity in the ego.

Adorno, in Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy (1958), says that Hegel comes much closer than Schelling to the “mystery” of spirit, which turns out to be none other than “social labor” – the universality that the “active, [Kantian] transcendental subject” is an expression of. The “social force field,” in which the individual is determined from the outset by the totality, can in turn only realize itself “in and through individuals.” Adorno says that Hegel’s “civil society” of social labor is “an antagonistic totality,” which survives only in and through its unresolvable antagonisms. This is why “the state is appealed to in desperation as a seat of authority beyond this play of forces.” But because “civil society” does not constitute freedom, Spirit has to indulge in what Adorno calls Hegel’s “apologetics,” a “bourgeois mask that utopia has to put on to avoid being immediately recognized and apprehended; to avoid remaining impotent.” (p47)

Adorno however, in his “final” judgement on Hegel in Negative Dialectics, puts forward a much more severe critique, arguing that the “utopian aspect” of Hegel’s thought had been negated by such horrors as Auschwitz. Adorno ca lls his own philosophy “negative dialectics” because he is so opposed to identifying human beings with fetishized, inhuman social systems. Adorno takes Hegel’s concept of absolute negativity (the negation of the negation) as a final affirmation of identity philosophy.

Adorno’s judgement is appealed by Dunayevskaya in her 1974 paper for the Hegel Society of America (published in the collection The Power of Negativity). She points out that Adorno, in the earlier work (Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy), insists that “Subject-object cannot be dismissed as a mere extravagance of logical absolutism”; for if genuine cognition isn’t just a photocopy theory of reality then in “must be the subject’s objectivity.” Dunayevskaya, who “was never looking forward to anything so greatly as his Negative Dialectics,” was disappointed to see Adorno extend the critique of commodity fetishism to the “fetishism of the concept” in such a way that the subjectivity is barely conceptualized at all, and least of all as the proletariat. Adorno, in tackling what he takes to be the “theoretical inadequacies of Hegel and Marx” seeks “to free dialectics from such affirmative traits” as Hegel’s “negation of the negation” and implicitly Marx’s “expropriation of the expropriators.” In Dunayevskaya’s view, for Adorno, “the next step was irresistible, the substitution of a permanent critique, not alone for absolute negativity, but also for ‘permanent revolution’.”

In Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic of “absolute negativity” is seen as containing the affirmative moment of the transcendence of alienation. In contrast, for Holloway the revolutionary “is inconsistent with any idea of a guaranteed negation-of-the-negation happy ending: the only way that dialectics can be understood is as negative dialectics (cf. Adorno), as the open-ended negation of the untrue, as revolt against unfreedom.” But in Hegel’s dialectic, as Hudis and Anderson see it (in their introduction to Dunayevskaya’s Power of Negativity), absolute negativity signifies “not only the negation of external obstacles, but also the negation of the earlier negation. The power of negativity gets turned back on the self, upon the internal as well as external barriers to self-movement.” In Dunayevskaya’s view the absolute for Hegel is no closure on reality, as symbolized by the mournful night-flight of the Owl of Minerva:

'...his philosophy is “the end” only in the sense that “up to this moment” philosophy has reached this point with “my” philosophy of absolute negativity”…. When subjected to the dialectical method from which according to Hegel, no truth can escape, the conclusion turns out to be a new beginning. There is no trap in thought. Though it is finite, it breaks through the barriers of the given, reaches out, if not to infinity, surely beyond the historic moment.'. [The Power of Negativity, Lexington Books 2004 p.184)


Adorno's one-dimensional explanation of reification, as the spread and permeation of exchange-value into every area of life, leaves out important aspects of Marx's theory of value. As Gillian Rose points out (in The Melancholy Science 1978 p. 141), for Adorno, “reification” generalizes the theory of value and of commodity fetishism without taking up the theory of surplus value, or any theory of class formation and state power, and does so with “minimal reference to the actual productive relations between men, and without any identification of a social subject.”

Whilst Adorno, in damning Hegel’s “negation of the negation,” seeks "to free dialectics from such affirmative traits,” Holloway seeks to free class struggle from any positive political vision of an alternative to capitalism. In contrast to Adorno however, Holloway does not see academic “permanent critique” as any substitute for a multi-faceted, permanent struggle of social subjects against capitalism: “The moving force of crisis is the drive for freedom, the reciprocal flight of capital and anti-labor, the mutual repulsion of capital and humanity. The first moment of revolution is purely negative.” What needs to happen eventually, contends Holloway, is the “considered rejection of capitalism as a mode of organisation” and the “militant construction of alternatives to capitalism.”[204-15] But, for the present, Holloway calls for “an anti-politics of events rather than a politics of organisation.” [29] For Holloway,the problem of how to actually negate value-production is separated from “practical” issues in current struggles. As a theorist Holloway, just as much as Lukacs and Adorno, fails to transcend the aporia of the Kantian “ought.”

(Published in The Hobgoblin #5 2003)

[Revised Dec 2 2010]

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