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In his later works Heidegger quite intentionally avoids the expressions, history

(Geschichte) and historicity (Geschicht-lichkeit), which since Hegel have dominated


reflection upon the "end of metaphysics" and which we associate with the problem of
historical relativism. Instead, he speaks of "fate" (Geschick) and "our being fated"
(Geschick-lichkeit) as if to underscore the fact that here it is not a matter of possibilities
of human existence which we ourselves seize upon - not a matter of historical
consciousness and self-consciousness. Rather it is a matter of what is allotted to man and
by which he is so very much determined that all self-determination and self-
consciousness remains subordinate. Heidegger does not claim that in his philosophical
thinking about history he grasps the necessity in the course which history takes.
Nevertheless, in conceiving of metaphysical thought as a history unified by the
forgetfulness of being which pervades it and in seeing a radicalization of this
forgetfulness behind the age of technology, he is attributing a kind of inner
consequentiality to history. (Gadamer, Hegel’s Dialectic, p.109.)

“The social process is really one indivisible whole” (Ch.7)

The very notion of “equilibrium” or “tranquility” (the term preferred by Joan Robinson)
as applied to “the body politic” was very common in the Middle Ages. Specifically,
Marsilius of Padua spoke of “tranquilitas”, meaning a period of social peace and
prosperity (see O. von Gierke, The Political Theory of the Middle Age.) Interestingly,
both Antiquity and the Middle Ages lacked the notion of “revolution”, which is a modern
European concept originating in the 17th century (see H. Arendt, On Revolution).
Antiquity knew only of “metabole”, meaning social change, of “stasis”, meaning civil
war, and of “homo-noia”, meaning harmony or agreement, and “corruptio”, obviously
meaning corruption, that is, degeneration from a perfect state (a perfectione ad defectum,
from perfection to defect). (On all this, see S. Mazzarino’s invaluable and irreplaceable Il
Pensiero Storico Classico.)

The Dialectics of Nature

There is however one thing of fundamental importance for the methodology of economics which he [Marx] actually
achieved. Economists always have either themselves done work in economic history or else used the historical work of
others. But the facts of economic history were assigned to a separate compartment. They entered theory, if at all,
merely in the role of illustrations, or possibly of verifications of results. They mixed with it only mechanically. Now
Marx’s mixture is a chemical one; that is to say, he introduced them into the very argument that produces the results.
He was the first economist of top rank to see and to teach systematically how economic theory may be turned into
historical analysis and how the historical narrative may be turned into histoire raisonnee. (J. Schumpeter, CS&D, p.44)

The reason why Marx is able “to introduce the facts of economic history into the very argument that
produces the results” cannot be due to any “methodology of economics” because there is no such thing
as a “methodology of economics” just as there is no “methodology of science”. What
characterizes scientific studies is not an identifiable “methodology” but rather a human praxis
that first identifies a desirable outcome and then sets out to apply existing knowledge to achieve
it and, in the practical process of doing so, may or may not come out with that desirable outcome
or other serendipitous outcomes. Each particular scientific experiment is sui generis – it is an
“experience” - and there is no way of abstracting from individual experiments to a broader
“methodology” for the simple reason that no “method” will ever be capable of being scientifically
or logically connected to the predictable (rather than “causal”) relation that is ultimately found
between events.

If we define “theory” as a series of abstract rules that connect facts in a predictive or apodictic
relation by means of experiments, then it is obvious that no “theory” will ever be able to achieve
such a relation by means of a “method” because each experiment is, by definition, a unique
“experience” whose outcome cannot be “formalised” in isolation from the actual experience.
Furthermore, for what concerns the connection of theory with facts, whether in the physical or in
the social sciences, first, the selection of “facts” is itself arbitrary from a “theoretical” viewpoint in
that it is the “theory” that selects the “facts”, which means that the theory itself must be
“arbitrary” from an “objective theoretical” or “scientific” viewpoint”! (Cf. Windelband, “Thus, in
the scientific sense, ‘fact’ is already a teleological concept,” [History and Natural Science, p.181]. We
do not share, of course, the artificial dichotomy of the Marburg School of neo-Kantian
philosophers between “natural sciences” [Natur-wissenschaften] and “social sciences” [Geistes-
wissenschaften]). And second, no amount of theorizing will ever be able to establish any “causal
links” between “facts” independently of the human interest involved in isolating a particular
“chain of causality” among an infinity of other “causal chains” (the point was first established by
Nietzsche from as early as Uber Wahrheit und Luge, and then elaborated by Weber [cf. his
Objektivitat]). After Nietzsche, we ought to know that there is no ordo et connexio rerum et idearum;
after Heidegger, we know that there is no adaequatio rei et intellectus.

So, it is certainly not because of a superior “methodology of economics” that Marxian social theory
presents this “chemical” fusion of fact and theory (or hypothesis) against the “mechanical”
incongruence of bourgeois economic theory. But why, then, does Schumpeter believe that when it
comes to the analysis of capitalist industry and society “Marx’s mixture [of facts and theory] is a
chemical one” whereas that of orthodox bourgeois economics is only “mechanical”? To find out
the answer, let us look at it in reverse, that is to say, let us see why it is that bourgeois economic
theory has no need for “facts” to support it, and then we will be able to deduce at least negatively
what we must not do if we do not wish social theory to be entirely detached from reality.

If we take human beings as isolated individuals and we then ascribe to them “self-interests” that
are insatiable and also absolutely incommunicable and incommensurable with one another, and
if we then assume that they initially “possess” given “endowments” which they are only able “to
exchange” with one another – then it is entirely obvious that we will be able to come up with a
“science of exchange” (Walras’s equilibrium or Hayek’s catallactics or Mises’s praxeology) that will
be the exact replica of Newtonian mechanics in which there is either a unique solution (Walrasian
equilibrium) or else an ex post facto rationalization (Hayek, Mises) for all the possible “exchange
ratios” between all such individuals and for the optimal distribution of their original
endowments to maximize their individual self-interests.

In order to protect its claimed “scientific status”, bourgeois economic theory must separate itself
from the social and physical environment in which it operates – all the more so because it needs
to present its findings as immutable laws of human nature. The peculiarity of this “economic
theory” or “economic science” is that it contains no history! No historical or sociological facts are
needed for this “science” because “history” is the record of metabolic interaction of human
beings not merely inter se, between themselves as individuals or groups, but also and above all
with their physical environment, which is how they pro-duce their needs and in so doing create and
develop new ones, while all the time they transform also their interpersonal relations in the
process.

In sharp contrast, there is no metabolic interaction between the “atomistic individuals” of


orthodox bourgeois economic theory because there is no pro-duction of needs on the part of these
atomistic individuals but only the simple pure “exchange” of “given” endowments – an
“exchange” that “exists” only as a logico-mathematical equation and deduction and never
involves any historical interaction between these individuals. There is no historical change in
neoclassical economic exchange: there is no history in such pure exchange. As Lucio Colletti put it,
in this type of social and economic theory,

[t]he relation between the theory and its object contracts, due to the ideal character of the latter, into a mere
relation of idea to idea, an internal monologue within thought itself. The object of analysis thus slips through
our fingers; it is, as Lenin pointed out [in What are ‘Friends of the People’], impossible for us to undertake
any study of the facts, of social processes, precisely because we are no longer confronting a society, a real
object, but only the idea of society, society in general…. in the place of concrete historical phenomena it has
interpolated the idea; in the place of a concrete, determinate society it has substituted society ‘in general’?
(Ideology and Society, pp3-4).

But Colletti here mixes up two separate matters: the first, which is the more relevant, is that
bourgeois social theory reduces human society to abstract ideas and ceases to treat it as a “living”
organism, that is to say, one that mutates and evolves physio-logically, with the emphasis on the
physicality of human needs: it is this immanent materialism – this stress on the metabolic
production of human needs that are ever-changing - which leads to the requirement of the
“concreteness” of historical analysis. But then Colletti jumps immediately to the bourgeois
dichotomy of concreteness versus generality without specifying in what way the Marxian
approach is more “concrete” except to state that it studies this particular “society” – capitalism -
when in fact the relevant issue is that it is the abstraction from how human needs are satisfied
and pro-duced that makes the “generality” of bourgeois social theory and “science” problematic
because it invariably seeks to justify the status quo and its social exploitation by hypostatising it
into “human nature”. Not the “generality” of bourgeois science is the real problem: the real problem is
that it turns the established order of exploitation into an eternal truth!

“History” is not merely the historia rerum gestarum (the record of personal or institutional actions)
but rather it is the record of how human beings interact with one another and with their physical
environment: history is the record of human metabolic pro-duction. History is the record of how
human beings interact to fulfil and satisfy their changing needs by meta-bolically interacting with
their physical environment. It is this “metabolic interaction” that forms the content of “history”.
History is not just the record of human relations; it is the record of social relations “of pro-
duction” because not just the distribution of the product but above what is pro-duced and how it
is pro-duced are essential to understanding human “history”! It is this immanentism that we are
seeking to expound here by way of a critique of Schumpeter’s work so as to overcome the old
antinomic dualism of materialism and idealism.
But in this pro-duction of their needs, as a discrete albeit dependent aspect of it, the question
arises of how human beings may organize in such a manner that some exploit others in the sense
that the living activity of a section or class of human society is subordinated by another section or
class. In capitalism the specific form of subordination relates to the “exchange” of dead labour with
living labour, and specifically to the reality that such “exchange” can occur only through political
violence because no “exchange” of living with dead labour could take place without such
violence. As we shall demonstrate later in our discussion of the labour theory of value outlined
by Marx in Zur Kritik, the problem with capitalism is not that the concrete living activity of
human beings is reduced to or reified into abstract labour through the forced separation of
workers from the means of production – because no such “reduction” or “reification” is possible
given that all human activity, however violently enforced or alienated, remains living activity.
The problem is instead that living activity is violently made exchangeable and therefore
commensurate with dead labour, with the product of living labour, by means of that violent
separation. In other words, the “exchange” has no “objective” or “market” basis except the
violent institutional organization of human living activity on the part of capitalists.

It is over this discrete, distinct reality of conflict and antagonism in the process of human
metabolic production of their needs that the dialectical method can be applied to assess the validity
of socio-theoretical accounts of this antagonism. The peculiarity of the dialectical method, even
and especially in its pre-Socratic origins, is that it is a “negative” procedure that does not seek to
establish “the truth” – as if “the truth”, as an absolute reality, ec-sisted! For if it did, there would
be no need for the very concept of “truth”, as Nietzsche established as early as “Lies and Truth”.
Rather, dialectics seeks to establish a “dialogue” (whence “dialectics”) between opposing sides
onto a common ground (the polemos, or dispute) from which the dispute may be “resolved” or
better “super-seded” (cf. Giorgio Colli, La Nascita della Filosofia). Dialectics is not a “positive”
method but is rather one that applies in a negative and critical manner to aporetic concepts that
hypostatise or reify human reality as well as to their underlying reality - as is evinced by Hegel’s
emphasis on “the negation of the negation” instead of, as is commonly and erroneously believed,
the “triadic” sequence thesis-antithesis-synthesis. (Cf. on this Norberto Bobbio’s instructive Studi
Hegeliani and Theodore Adorno’s Introduction to Negative Dialectics, which is characteristically
opaque but highlights this “critical” role of the Hegelian method.)

Both formal logic and dialectics rely on the notion of contradiction – but the application of this
notion is what distinguishes the two methods. Both formal logic and dialectics can be applied
negatively to assess the validity of statements about physical events and entities - which are either
true or false at a particular point in time - but not to the individual physical events or quantifiable
entities themselves – which are neither true nor false at any point in time. But unlike formal logic,
although it cannot be applied to scientific findings, dialectics can be applied to statements about
all human activity as well as to the activity itself, including scientific inquiry, if this activity can
be shown to contain antagonistic motives and interests. The “findings” of scientific activity may
be disputed on the evidence but not on the “logic” of the events that are the object of scientific
inquiry: events are never “contradictory”, but statements and conclusions or “findings” about
them can be. To repeat, both dialectics and logic can be applied to statements about human
activity and events; but dialectics applies also to human and scientific activity that may be said to
be antagonistic (for example, research into a harmful product or research that is itself harmful).

As a corollary to the first restriction or qualification – the condition that it apply negatively to
statements, just like formal logic -, the second requirement for dialectics is that it be applied
negatively to assess the validity of both human activities and statements concerning human
activities that contain antagonism or conflicts of interests. This does not extend to formal logic which
can apply only negatively to statements - to assess their validity, not their truth! - but cannot apply
to human activities themselves.

Thus, what distinguishes dialectics from formal logic is the interpretation of the notion of
“contra-diction”. To the extent that human activities and statements and concepts about them
contain antagonism they may be said to be dialectically but not logically “contra-dictory”. Whereas
contradiction in formal logic can apply only to statements in the sense that they are either valid
or invalid, dialectical contradiction applies to statements and concepts concerning human
activities as well as to the activities themselves to the extent that they are antagonistic in that their
purpose or aims are harmful to some humans and that therefore this antagonism must be
resolved and superseded historically because it cannot remain “eternal” or be theo-onto-logical.

The dialectical method is founded on the practical notion that antagonism can be resolved
through its elimination by the opposition or antithesis it contains, in the triple sense that it entails
the antithesis, that it generates it materially and that it seeks to prevent the antagonism of the
antithesis from destroying it materially! Hence, whereas the contradiction of formal logic serves
simply to negate a statement that is contra-dictory but cannot resolve the contradiction
historically, dialectics moves beyond contradictory statements and activities by negating the
antagonism they contain, that is, by showing how this antagonism must be resolved historically
by the negation (the negation of the negation) of both the source of the antagonism (the thesis)
and of the opposition (the antithesis) to which it gives rise and that is contained in and by the
source. Like dialectics, formal logic cannot be applied to events but only to statements; but unlike
dialectics, formal logic cannot be applied to human activities and hypotheses thereof that contain
antagonism because these cannot be “contradictory” in a formal sense but can be so only
dialectically, that is to say, historically.

Precisely on this point, Hegel’s greatest intuition was the notion of Auf-hebung, which rests on the
resolution and supersession of human antagonism and conflict rather than on their
irreconcilability. Perhaps the grandest and noblest instance of the dialectical method at work is
Hegel’s chapter on “Lordship and Servitude” (or “Master and Slave”) in his earliest theoretical
work, the Phenomenology of Mind. The fact that Hegel was wrong about interpreting supersession
as the “reconciliation” (Versohnung) of antagonism – that is to say, the “triadic” notion of the
“syn-thesis” of thesis and antithesis - rather than as “the negation of the negation” of the source
of antagonism, the “thesis”, is a separate matter that we shall discuss later in connection with
Gramsci’s interpretation of the dialectic. Indeed, as Adorno has contended, the hypostatisation of
dialectical concepts – their “positivity”, “immutability” or “closedness” - is a flaw that afflicts
also Hegel’s “phenomenology” or “objective idealism”, despite its undoubtedly revolutionary
role in inspiring the later development of the dialectical method as a critical tool by Marx:

This, then, is the model of that positive negativity: the negation of the negation as a new positive that
appears in Hegelian philosophy as a new model. Incidentally, it should be pointed out that one of the very
striking features of Hegel's philosophy, one whose significance has not been sufficiently appreciated, is its
dynamic nature. By this I mean that it does not regard its categories as fixed, but instead thinks of them as
having emerged historically and therefore as capable of change. Even so, in reality its conceptual apparatus
contains much more that is immutable, incomparably more that is constant, than it lets on. And these
constants come to the surface to a certain degree against the intentions of this philosophy…. (Adorno,
Lectures on Negative Dialectics, p.15)
For it is precisely this 'having something', having it as something fixed, given and unquestioned on which
one can comfortably rely - it is this that thought should actually resist. And the very thing that appears as a
flaw in a philosophy that does not have this quality is in truth the medium in which philosophical ideas that
are worthy of the name can thrive….[Adorno, Lectures, p.25]

(Adorno’s Introduction to Negative Dialectics superbly describes the need for the dialectical
method to embrace “the object” materially, as history, as physis – in other words, to include that
metabolic interaction that is our focus in this work. This is a point that Merleau-Ponty’s
Phenomenology of Perception and the rest of his work – cf. the English collection The Merleau-Ponty
Reader – highlights masterfully. Heidegger elaborates punctiliously the notion of “physis” in “The
Concept and Essence of ‘Physis’ in Aristotle”, reprinted in Pathmarks. His vice, as always, is that,
unlike Nietzsche and Marx, his emphasis is on the physio-logical rather than on the physio-logical
– on transcendence rather than immanence. For a critique, see chapter on “The Ontological
Need” in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. See also our discussion of Colletti just below and our “The
Philosophy of the Flesh” on scribd.com.)

Colletti on Kant’s distinction between “Real Opposition” and “Dialectical Contradiction”

For the sake of illustrating our interpretation of the dialectical method, let us turn to an
interesting and compendious review of “Marxism and the Dialectic” by the illustrious and
erudite Italian philosopher Lucio Colletti.

I shall attempt to clarify somewhat a question…—although one that is very difficult to deal with briefly: the
problem of the difference between ‘real opposition’ (Kant’s Realopposition or Realrepugnanz) and
‘dialectical contradiction’. Both are instances of opposition, but they are radically distinct in kind. ‘Real
opposition’ (or ‘contrariety’ of incompatible opposites) is an opposition ‘without contradiction’ (ohne
Widerspruch). It does not violate the principles of identity and (non)- contradiction, and hence is compatible
with formal logic. The second form of opposition, on the contrary, is ‘contradictory’ (durch den Widerspruch)
and gives rise to a dialectical opposition. Marxists, as we shall see, have never entertained clear ideas on
this subject. In the overwhelming majority of cases they have not even suspected that there were two
oppositions and that they were radically different in nature. In the rare cases where this fact has been noted,
its significance has been misunderstood, and ‘real opposition’ has also been considered as [4] an example
and an instance of the dialectic, even though it was a ‘noncontradictory’, and hence undialectical, opposition.
(“Marxism and the Dialectic”, pp.3-4)

We agree that “contradiction” in dialectics cannot apply to all real events simply on the basis that
they display some form of conflict or “real opposition”, as Colletti calls it. In the case of two
opposing forces, for instance, or colliding objects, it is quite absurd to speak of “contradiction”
because neither the forces nor the objects are “saying” or “meaning” anything. Therefore, for
such “contrarieties”, as Colletti also defines them, neither formal logic (which applies only to
statements in any case, something Colletti totally overlooks above) nor dialectics (which applies
to “contra-dictions” in the broader antagonistic sense) can even remotely apply. The problem
with Colletti’s erudite analysis of the dialectic, however, arises when he tries to define what kind
of events or entities or activities qualify for “real opposition”, to which the dialectic does not
apply. Here is Colletti again:

Let us sum up. Conflicts between forces in nature and in reality, for example attraction/repulsion in
Newtonian physics, struggles between counterposed tendencies, contrasts between opposing forces—all
these not only do not undermine the principle of (non)-contradiction, but on the contrary confirm it. What we
are dealing with in fact is oppositions which, precisely because they are real, are ‘devoid of contradiction’
and hence have nothing to do with dialectical contradiction. The poles of these oppositions, to go back to
Marx, ‘cannot mediate each other’ nor ‘do they have any need of mediation’: ‘they have nothing in common
with each other, they do not need each other, nor are they integrated with each other’, (ibidem, p.9).

It is very simple to find the fatal flaw in Colletti’s argument here – quite surprising, really, in a
thinker of his depth and breadth. The flaw is in equating “forces in nature” (what we call
physical events and quantifiable entities) and “conflicts in reality” which can include social
antagonism. It is to this social antagonism that the notion of “dialectical contradiction” applies, as
we have explained above. Colletti makes the gargantuan fallacy of equating “opposing forces” in
the physical sense and “social conflict” in the antagonistic sense under the common banner of
“real opposition” or “conflicts between forces in nature and in reality”. But the “real opposition”
of social conflict is not the same as the “real opposition” of physical collision between forces and
objects! (Colletti is confusing political “opposition” with physical “opposition”, conflict with
contrast.) We agree with Colletti that dialectical contradictions most assuredly do not apply to the
latter – and formal logical contradiction applies to neither because it applies only to statements:
but there can be no doubt that dialectical contradiction does apply to the former, to social conflict
and antagonism, because that is the real valid meaning of “dialectical contradiction”! As we
explained above, social conflict and antagonism is “dialectically contra-dictory” because it cannot
be eternal or ontological and must be capable of resolution and supersession.

When Colletti asserts – directly quoting Marx from the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, but
quite ferociously out of context - that the “opposing forces” in social conflict “have nothing in
common with each other, they do not need each other, nor are they integrated with each other”, he cannot
be in his right mind – because if conflicting human interests had “nothing in common with each
other” – well then there would be no conflict between them! If they did not “need each other” or
were not “integrated with each other”, then as sure as night follows day the master would not
need the slave and the capitalist would not need the worker! Once again, these lapses are quite
unworthy of Colletti – a Marxist theoretician whom we are fond of quoting and citing – and we
are using them purely for illustrative purposes.

Care must be taken, then, to remember that the dialectical method may be applied only to historically
antagonistic relations: - only to concepts that apply to historical realities that contain antagonism
that explodes the concepts, which cannot be contained by them although it is contained in them,
and that leads to the supersession of the historical reality described by the concepts. The dialectical
method does apply to concepts as concepts if they define an object whose practical
implementation entails exploitation and generates social antagonism. For example, the notion of
“competition”, as we discussed earlier in our study, contains the notion of monopoly (the aim of
competition is to eliminate all other competitors) and therefore social antagonism. This means
that the extrinsication of competition – its practical historical unfolding – will lead to its negation
– monopoly. But “monopoly” still contains in itself the historical antagonism that brought about
the original state of “competition”. It is not until this original state of competition is entirely
destroyed and obliterated by the negation of the negation that competition is finally abolished or
superseded. But this supersession of competition is not a reality that “must” occur because it
somehow “contains” a dialectical contradiction! All it may be said is that it contains
“antagonism”: but whether or not this antagonism results in a specific historical development is
something that no “dialectical method” can “positively” predict!
Adorno uses the example of “concept” and “object” which – like those of “nature” and “society”,
“nature” and “history”, “body” and “mind” - are not dialectical but are ontological and subject
only either to formalism (antinomies, apories as in Kant) or to “reciprocal action” (organic
totality). These concepts give rise either to formalism (Platonic, Kantian, with its chorismos) or to
the notion of “organic totality” (a methexis seen only as ahistorical “organic totality”) both of
which are hypostases, static and immutable concepts, and are therefore amenable to dialectical
critique which unmasks their “separation”, their chorismos, and reminds us that the two
“opposites” are so only because they are not applied metabolically and historically and therefore
immanently – we could say, “concretely” - and are instead exasperated as antinomic dichotomies.
Seen formalistically or reciprocally there appears to be no dialectical relation between them; but
once we examine the content of each concept and seek to apply it historically we find its opposite
is already contained in it. Only when these concepts are applied historically and metabolically
can they contain actual antagonism and in this sense contain also a contra-diction amenable to
dialectical critique. So long as we consider the concepts of economics and sociology, of nature
and society or of body and mind, there is no contradiction except for the fact that they are
hypostatic and aporetic – they are antinomic. It is only once we apply them to historical situations
that they become antagonistic in their “use”, as a matter of praxis, and then their contra-diction
comes to the fore.

This is what Adorno hints at in this passage in which the historical metabolic dimension is
specified by reference to “the confrontation of concepts with objects”:

Instead, the negativity I am speaking about contains a pointer to what Hegel calls determinate negation. In other words,
negativity of this kind is made concrete [historical and metabolic] and goes beyond mere standpoint philosophy [formalism,
organicism] by confronting concepts with their [historical] objects and, conversely, objects with their concepts,
(Adorno, Lectures, p.25).

The obvious danger in treating dialectics as a “positive method” for predicting “scientifically” the
course of history and even of “nature” is that it will then be mistaken for a “positive science” that
can explain events as occurring in accordance with its own “logic” or “laws” in the way that
Engels did in the Anti-Duhring and in The Dialectics of Nature. The danger is that the dialectical
method is abused to lay claim to a view of human praxis, of “history”, and of human “society” as
if it represented a “totality”, “one indivisible whole” or an “organism” whereby the behaviour of
individual members of this “organic totality” may be predicted by reference to the “organic
totality”. This is a pitfall that tempted not just Hegel with his notion that “the whole is greater
than its parts”, but also Marx in his insistence on regarding the capitalist process of production
“as a whole” (see the title to Volume 3 of Capital) in an effort to reconcile individual labour values
with market prices (a flaw exposed by Bohm-Bawerk in “Karl Marx and the ‘Close’ of His
System”). If an entity is defined in terms of a “totality”, it is clear that the interaction of the
entities making up that “totality” will have to be in “harmony” with it – which can never prove
the consistency of the definition because it only serves to expose the tautology of this “closed”
system.

The notion of “totality” will play the most prominent role in all social theory around the turn of the century
as an attempt to overcome the dichotomy or separation of Subject and Object formalised for modern
metaphysics by Descartes with his distinction of res cogitans (soul) and res extensa (body). Of course, in our
classification, this is a “reciprocal action” whose comprehension leads to the notion of “organic totality”. The
way out of this seemingly insuperable opposition – antinomy, apory, dichotomy – between Subject and
Object is quite obviously through its “historicisation”, in the manner indicated by Hegel and then Lukacs,
that is, through the category of “labour” which is the “action” that intervenes to mediate and historicise the
“fixedness” of Subject an Object. But this “history” cannot be comprehended ideally or conceptually by
means of “the dialectical method” – which is the delusion that Lukacs fell into in HCC. As we have seen, the
dialectical method is not a positive tool for predicting the future or guiding praxis, but it is instead a purely
negative critical tool. Lukacs’s Hegelian privileging of the proletariat as “the identical subject-object of
history” has three sources: Schopenhauer’s critique of Kant, Hegel’s dialectical idealism, and Marx’s Theses
on Feuerbach (especially the first, see p.186ff of HCC where Feuerbach’s materialism is discussed explicitly in
this context.

Interestingly, those philosophers for whom there is an unbridgeable hiatus or “separation” (Plato’s chorismos)
between (good) ideal and (bad) reality (or mere appearances [bad] and the real world [good]) are those who
seek the social synthesis – the methexis – but purely as an “ideal”; whereas those who identify reality and
appearance (take the good with the bad) are those who stress the impossibility of “ideals” and the ineluctable
divergence of human needs, the inevitability and inexorability of antagonism – existence as it is, esse est percipi.
(Cf. Adorno, “Essence and Appearance”, Negative Dialectics, p.166, on Nietzsche. Of course, the classic
statement against the “idealists” or “rationalists” from Plato to Hegel and Marx is in K. Popper, The Open
Society and Its Enemies.)

Dialectics cannot be used as a positive method to determine or to predict human historical events:
it can only be used negatively as a critical tool to assess the historical validity of a given socio-
theoretical hypothesis in terms of the tendency of a given antagonistic historical reality or human
activity. In a nutshell, the dialectical method may be dissected into three principles, as Engels did
in Dialectics of Nature and in Anti-Duhring. The first principle, which says that quantitative
increments lead to qualitative change, is a banality when it is not a tautology (incidentally,
Schumpeter uses this approach at pp.220ff of Business Cycles to describe “innovations”, although
he too points out the simplicity of this distinction).

The second is the principle of “reciprocal action” – which means that when two factors are in
opposition, they interact with each other. Hence, it is incorrect to say that “nature” is what
conditions “human beings”, or the opposite, because clearly the two must interact – indeed it is
not possible to conceive of human beings without “nature” and even vice versa because the
concept of “nature” implies a “non-nature” which is clearly human being. This principle is
analytically valid because it serves to distinguish for analytical purposes between different
factors of human reality, but it is historically inapplicable if it is considered purely from the
standpoint of ontological analysis, because then its conceptual framework becomes thoroughly
ahistorical and indeed as banal as the first component of the dialectical method! Any historical
and socio-theoretical analysis that identifies conflicts that cannot be resolved turns quite
evidently into an ahistorical hypostasis; in other words, it turns a problem of human agency into
an ontological entity.

This is why only the third principle of the Hegelian-Marxian dialectical method, the principle of “the
negation of the negation”, is valid both for analytical and historical purposes – because it reminds
us that all analyses of antithetical and conflicting historical concepts must include at the very
least the possibility of the historical resolution, of the over-coming and the super-session of any
antagonism and conflict that may be the object of that historical or socio-theoretical analysis. The
problem with interpreting the dialectic in the sequence thesis-antithesis-synthesis is quite simply
that here the “syn-thesis” is meant to preserve both the thesis and the anti-thesis. Yet, as Gramsci
vehemently argued, the antithesis does not preserve but rather it first negates and then dissolves
(Auf-heben) the thesis – which is why Hegel and Marx preferred to speak of “the negation of the
negation” (in which no part of the thesis is preserved, precisely because it is “negated” by the anti-
thesis) as the supersession of the conflict between thesis and antithesis. Here the moment of
antithesis, the antagonism as negation, must contain (hold and refrain at the same time, see
Cacciari, Il Potere che Frena on this notion of catechon, “containment”) the moment of supersession
of the antagonism – the negation of the negation.

Bobbio on Marxian dialectics:

Di fronte a due enti in contrasto, il metodo della com-[256]


penetrazione degli opposti, o meglio dell'azione reciproca,
conduce a mantenere entrambi i termini del contrasto e a
considerarli come condizionantisi a vicenda; al contrario, il
metodo della negazione della negazione conduce a considerare
il primo eliminato in un primo tempo dal secondo, e il
secondo eliminato in un secondo momento da un terzo termine.
Il primo metodo viene applicato a eventi simultanei, il
secondo, a eventi che si dispiegano nel tempo: perciò quest'ultimo
è un metodo per la comprensione della storia (vuoi della
storia della natura, vuoi della storia dell'uomo), (pp.255-6)

Lo strumento di questa comprensione unitaria era la [261]
dialettica come rilevazione delle opposizioni e loro risoluzione.
Solo che la unità concreta nello studio dello svolgimento
storico gli era apparsa come il risultato della sintesi
degli opposti (negazione della negazione), donde la categoria
del corso storico dell'umanità è il divenire; nello studio
scientifico della realtà, l'unità concreta gli apparve come il
risultato di una interrelazione degli enti che l'intelletto
astratto ha erroneamente isolati gli uni dagli altri ( azione
reciproca ) , donde la categoria unitaria della totalità organica.
Come il divenire è composto di diversi momenti in opposizione,
così la totalità organica è composta di diversi enti
in opposizione. La dialettica, come metodo di risoluzione
delle opposizioni, si presenta là come sintesi degli opposti,
qua come azione reciproca. Il divenire, in altre parole, è il
risultato di successive negazioni, o se si vuole di un continuo
superamento ( il terzo termine ) ; la totalità organica è il
risultato di un intrecciarsi delle reciproche relazioni degli
enti, o, se si vuole, di una integrazione ( che non risolve i
due termini in un terzo ), (Da Hobbes a Marx, pp.260-1).

In the face of two contrasting entities, the method of com-[256] penetration of opposites, or better of reciprocal action,
leads to maintain both terms of the contrast and to consider them as conditions to each other; Conversely, the negation
method leads to considering the first one eliminated at first by the second, and the second eliminated at a later time by a
third term. The first method is applied to simultaneous events, the second, to events unfolding over time: Therefore the
latter is a method for understanding history (whether the history of nature, or of man), (pp. 255-6)...
The instrument of this unitary understanding was [261] the dialectic as detection of oppositions and their resolution. Only
that the concrete unit in the study of the historical unfolding had appeared to him [Marx] as the result of the synthesis of
opposites (negation of the negation), whence the category of the historical course of mankind is the becoming; whereas in
the scientific study of reality, the concrete unit appeared to him as the result of an interrelation of the entities that the
abstract intellect wrongly isolated from each other (reciprocal action), whence the unitary category of the organic totality.
As the becoming is composed of different moments in opposition, so the organic totality is composed of different entities
in opposition. The dialectic, as a method of resolving the oppositions, presents itself there as a synthesis of opposites, here
as reciprocal action. The becoming, in other words, is the result of successive negations, or if one wants of a continuous
overcoming (the third term); instead, the organic totality is the result of the intertwining of the reciprocal relations of the
entities, or, if one wishes, of an integration (which does not solve the two terms in a third), (From Hobbes to Marx, pp. 260-
1).

Notice how in the quotation above Bobbio makes two mis-statements. The first is when he says
that the negation of the negation contains two moments whereby in the first moment the negation
eliminates the thesis, and in the second moment the negation of the negation eliminates the
negation. This is entirely misleading because “the negation of the negation” is, yes, a separate
moment from the negation, and the negation is in turn a distinct moment of the thesis. But these
“moments” are separate and distinct only as “dialectical moments”, only as “aspects” of the
antagonism, certainly not as “chronological moments”! This means that the negation of the
negation is a necessary dia-logical moment of the negation and the negation is a moment of the
thesis: – but these are not chrono-logical moments that are separate in time! What is chrono-logical
is only the necessary extrinsication of the antagonism contained in the thesis in historical time. But
the thesis, its negation and the negation of the negation are dialectical aspects of the one
antagonism whose “resolution” (as Bobbio calls it; we prefer the term “supersession”) must take
place historically if the antagonism in question is indeed historical and not “ontological”: they are
not “moments” in a chrono-logical sense as Bobbio’s explication would lead us to believe.

The second error is that whereby Bobbio confuses “the synthesis of opposites” with “the negation of
the negation”. As we saw above, and as Bobbio himself noted in a later review of Gramsci’s use of
the dialectic (cf. “Nota sulla dialettica in Gramsci”, in Gramsci e la Concezione della Societa’ Civile)
with the analytical acuity that was always his great attribute as a thinker, this identification of
synthesis and negation of the negation is quite incorrect because, although both involve a form of
historical becoming (Italian, divenire), only the latter – the negation of the negation – specifies that
the thesis is not preserved by the antithesis but that both are entirely superseded! The notion of
“syn-thesis” instead, as the very name suggests, involves the preservation of the thesis in the
antithesis as “syn-chronic” and therefore ahistorical or “ana-lytical” moments. This is a point to
which Gramsci held fast (cf. the Quaderni on “Il Materialismo Storico”) – and it is in relation to
Gramsci’s interpretation of the dialectical method that Bobbio finally hits the mark on this
account where earlier (in Da Hobbes a Marx) he had failed to do so.

As Adorno most adroitly insists (in Lectures 1. pp6-7), the antithesis and its negation are already
contained in the thesis – this is why the thesis contains its antagonism -, but are not contained by it
because they explode the thesis – which is what is meant by “contra-diction” intended historically
as the “ex-plosion” of the thesis or the historical extrinsication of the antithesis contained in the
thesis and its resolution and supersession in its negation, that is, the supersession of both thesis
and the antithesis contained in it. This is not a “triadic” movement of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.
There is no “syn-thesis” because the antagonism contained in the thesis (which is a concept that
contains an object that in turn contains real antagonism), which generates the antithesis, does not
preserve the thesis and the antithesis (as the syncretism of “synthesis” implies) but rather
“explodes” both (the thesis can no longer contain in itself the antagonism contained by itself) and is
resolved in the negation of the negation.

Nevertheless, what I intend to present to you as negative dialectics possesses something quite crucially
related to the concept of dialectics [6] in general - and this is something I wish to clarify at the outset. It is
that the concept of contradiction will play a central role here, more particularly, the contradiction in things
themselves, contradiction in the concept, not contradiction between concepts. (Lectures, pp.5-6)

Adorno should specify that there is “contradiction in the concept, not contradiction between
concepts” only because there is “antagonism in the object and therefore contradiction in social
relations themselves”. This is so because “the concept” cannot be isolated from its “object”: the
contradiction that negative dialectics addresses is in “the concept”; but this is only because, most
importantly, there is antagonism in “the object” or the historical reality that the con-cept seeks to
grasp (Latin, con-cepere, to grasp, to capture).

Moreover, there is no synthesis because the negation of the negation is not a “positive” – it is not
a Hegelian “reconciliation” but a real obliteration, overcoming and supersession of the
antagonism implicit in the thesis both as concept (ideology) and as real object (antagonism).

And this is why I would say in general… that the thesis that the negation of the negation is positive, an
affirmation, cannot be sustained. The negation of the negation does not result in a positive, or not
automatically, (Adorno, Lectures, p.17)

The later chapter in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics on “Concept and Categories” discusses the
importance of the “negative” use of dialectics. On Marx’s naturalism see A. Schmidt, Marx’s
Concept of Nature, and C. Luporini, Dialettica e Materialismo. Marx’s insistence on “method” and
particularly on “organic totality” as a conciliation of the nature/society dichotomy is noted by
Schmidt (pp.40ff) but without pointing out its defects – “positivity” as against “negativity” of the
dialectic which then cannot be seen as a “method” but at most as a critical tool. Schmidt correctly
distinguishes between Marx’s emphasis on the historical development of science as reflecting
human interests and needs and Engels’s quite erroneous application of “the dialectical method”
to the development of “nature” itself (!) as in the case of the cell as the “being-in-itself of the
organism”. It is one thing to apply the dialectical method negatively, it is another to apply it
“positively” – as often does Marx with the “reciprocal action” – to claim a superior “com-
prehension” of historical development as “organic totality”. And then it is quite another thing to
transfer, as Engels does, this dialectical analysis and critique to the very internal development –
not of the “science of nature” – but of “nature” itself! It is one thing to claim that human science (of
nature or of history) develops dialectically, and quite another to opine that nature itself (whatever
that is!) obeys dialectical laws!

Schmidt distinguishes between the Marxian application of dialectics to a unified natural-


historical realm whereby the two condition each other and the Engelsian application of the
dialectical method to nature and history as “separate” spheres such that the dialectical method is
abstracted from them and acquires a life of its own (pp.50ff). At p.54, Schmidt concludes:

El intento de Engels, de interpretar el dominio de la naturaleza prehumana y extrahumana en el


sentido de una dialectica puramente objetiva, debe llevar de hecho a la incompatilidad de dialectica
y materialismo en la que insisten algunos criticos. Si la materia se concibe como dialecticamente
estructurada en si’, deja de ser materia en el sentido de la ciencia exacta natural, sobre la cual
Engels y sus seguidores rusos creen poder basar su posicion.
Schmidt is entirely right here. A notion of dialectics that applied as a universal method to which
both history and nature are subject would separate history from nature and be rendered
“incompatible” with the scientific understanding and exploration of this separate “nature”. Yet,
whilst he does chastise the Engelsian abuse of dialectics as “a cosmic positive principle” (p.53),
we cannot agree with Schmidt’s attempt to minimise or obfuscate Marx’s own mistaken use of
reciprocal action as a “positive” method of understanding reality – even in the Marxian
distinction between “investigation” and “presentation”. Dialectics may be used only
“negatively”, to sift out hypostases in historical explanations – including “scientific methods” as
objective procedures to find out “scientific laws”. Schmidt believes that “dialectical
contradictions” arise in human history – which is right so long as we see these “contradictions”
as “dia-logic” tools to guide our “praxis” in a negative sense with regard to the interpretation of
history – that is, to correct hypostases and eliminate antinomies and apories (as applied to
“concepts and categories”, says Adorno) -, but not as intrinsic to human history except in the
sense of “antagonism”. History contains antagonisms whose resolution or supersession invites
dialectical analysis, but it does not contain “dialectical contradictions”.

This is a point that applies most eminently to Lukacs’s own conception of “the dialectical
method”. And in fact, Schmidt does not fail to advert to Lukacs in his own “historical”
interpretation of this “positive” dialectical method, in direct contrast to Engels’s “extension” of it
to “pre-human and extra-human nature” (p.55):

Si el concepto absoluto que se realiza a si mismo desaparece como motor de las contradicciones y
solo quedan como portadores del espiritu hombres condicionados historicamente, ya no solo se
puede hablar tampoco de una dialectica autonoma de la naturaleza exterior a los hombres. Faltan
en este caso todos los momentos esenciales para la dialectica. Esto lo ha senalado criticamente por
primera vez un estudioso de Marx, Gyorgy Lukacs, en Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein:

Los malentendidos que surgen de la exposicion de la dialectica por Engels, estriban esencialmente en el
hecho de que este – siguiendo el falso ejemplo de Hegel – extiende el metodo dialectico incluso al
conocimiento de la naturaleza. Sin embargo, las determinaciones decisivas de la dialectica: accion reciproca
de sujeto y objeto, unidad de teoria y praxis, modificacion historica del sustrato de las categorias como
fundamento de su modificacion en el pensamiento, etc., no estan presentes en el conocimiento de la
naturaleza. [HCC, p.24, fn.6]

In the passage cited by Schmidt above Lukacs specifically refers to “the reciprocal action of
subject and object” – which means that he was referring to “historical” reality, which was the
only reality possible for Lukacs and his “identical subject-object” in HCC, (“an attempt to out-
Hegel Hegel”, p.xxiii) and not also to “pre-human and extra-human nature”. Like Lukacs, Schmidt
misconstrues the Marxian dialectic in that he seems to believe that whilst the third “law”
(contradiction) cannot be applied to “nature”, at least the second “law” – “the law of reciprocal
action” - can be so applied: but Lukacs is referring to human “history” as something to which
“reciprocal action” applies – which is also false in our view – and certainly not to “nature”. This
is confirmed by Lukacs’s concluding sentence to this footnote alerting to the need to canvass the
relation of history and nature in a separate study.

Again, Schmidt clearly maintains that there is such a thing as a “dialectics of nature”, as well as a
“pre-human and extra-human nature” that does obey the second “law of dialectics” – that of
“reciprocal action” – which is nonsense, whereas “human history” or “society” is subject to all
three “laws”. This Manichaean view of the “law of reciprocal action” as a “method” to which
“nature” is subjected is revealed unequivocally by Schmidt in this statement at p.55:

La naturaleza que precede la sociedad humana solo lleva a polaridades y oposiciones de


momentos exteriores unos a otros, y en el major de los casos a la accion reciproca, pero no a la
contradiccion dialectica. El “sistema de la naturaleza” de Engels es, como el de Holbach, un
sistema de meras acciones reciprocas:…

In other words, only “the law of reciprocal action” may be applied to “nature-in-itself”, whereas
the law of negation of the negation can be applied only to human society. Note that Schmidt
seems to object to the interpretation of the dialectic as a “purely objective domain of pre-human
and extra-human nature”, but he has no objection to Engels’s presentation of the dialectical
method as “laws”, presumably because he approves of Marx’s use of these “laws” to the
“unified” (reciprocal action) field of nature and history. At p.56:

Las observaciones criticas aqui formuladas a la concepcion de la naturaleza de Engels, no


significan sin embargo que deba rechazarse directamente el concepto de una dialectica de la
naturaleza. Su proposito es mas bien demonstrar que la teoria Marxista misma contiene ya la
dialectica de la naturaleza con la cual Engels cree deber completarla.

Although the Marxian premise of a “unity” or “organic totality” of the interaction of nature and
society serves to minimise the damage of the “positive” use of dialectics whether in its
investigative or explicatory role, the fact remains that dialectics cannot be used either to
investigate or to explain anything at all! It is not a “positive method” full stop!

Ya que las relaciones de los hombres entre si’, la dialectica del proceso laboral como proceso
natural se amplia a la dialectica de la historia humana en general. (At p.57.)

Clearly here Schmidt elevates what can only be a negative use of dialectics, its dia-logic character,
to an actual positive role as a process that determines “human history in general” – something that is
quite inadmissible because it hypostatizes human history into a “fixed” or “reified” or at least
“determinable” process.

Lukacs denies that any principles of dialectics can be applied to a “nature” that is anything other
than a human construct: thus, he insists on the (equally Manichaean) dichotomy of “history” and
“nature” in Marx whereby “nature” is a human construct not just conceptually but also as the
product of human objectification – a Hegelian subversion of Marx to which Schmidt rightly
objects (at pp.77-8).
Todas las relaciones sociales estan mediadas por cosas naturales, y viceversa. Son siempre
relaciones de los hombres “entre si’” y con la naturaleza.
Asi’ como la naturaleza no se puede resolver en los momentos de el “espiritu” concebido
metafisicamente, tampoco se disuelve en los modos historicos de su apropriacion practica. En
esta falsa perspectiva cae Lukacs en su escrito entitulado Historia y conciencia de clase, que por lo
demas es importante para la historia de la interpretacion de Marx. En vinculacion con su
detallado analisis de los aspectos filosoficos del fetichismo de las mercancias, Lukacs llega a
hablar tambien del concepto de la naturaleza en Marx:

La naturaleza es una categoria social, es decir lo que en un determinado estadio del desarrollo social vale
como naturaleza, el modo en que [78] ocurre la relacion entre esta naturaleza y el hombre y la forma en que
se produce el ajuste entre este y aquella y, por lo tanto, lo que la naturaleza tiene que significar en lo que
respecta a su forma y contenido, su alcance y su objetividad, esta siempre socialmente condicionado.

Lukacs senala con razon que toda conciencia de la naturaleza, asi’ como la naturaleza fenomenica
misma, estan condicionadas sociohistoricamente. Sin embargo, para Marx la naturaleza no es solo
una categoria social. De ninguna manera se la puede dissolver sin residuo segun la forma, el
contenido, el alcance y la objetividad, en los procesos historicos de su apropriacion. [pp.77-8]

This problem of, as Schmidt puts it, “the relation of human beings inter se and with nature” is the
problem of metabolic interaction or production that we have been exploring thus far in our study
of Schumpeter at the level of human beings, or society, and the physical environment. It is time to
move now to the more specific aspect of how this metabolism takes place – the question of
human objectification and labour. Schmidt’s work was published before Lukacs’s 1967 Preface
where he seems to reply almost directly to Schmidt’s criticism (and Colletti’s, outlined in the
Preface to the Italian edition of Schmidt’s work), and fully accepts it. What neither Schmidt nor
Colletti or Lukacs do is allow for the category of human needs that are meta-bolic in that they are
the pro-duct of human objectification as metabolic interaction between humans and their
physical environment (avoid the term “nature” which separates the environment from humans
rather than uniting the two immanently so that the two are distinct but not “opposing”). There is
no antagonism and therefore no dialectic between humans and their physical environment: but
antagonism is mediated nevertheless by human needs that involve the environment (Um-welt,
surrounding world).

All great Marxist theoreticians incorrectly pinpoint this immanent identification of human beings
with their physical environment through the notion of human needs as well as labour as living
activity or objectification precisely because they insist on this equivocal word “nature” with its
“ontological” overtones. (This is something that Heidegger wisely avoids, preferring “physis”,
Pathmarks, p.183.)

This mistaken dichotomy of “nature” and “society” which then gives rise to the view of “nature”
as an “ontological” category – as something “objectively separate” from human being –and
therefore to the translation of human praxis from its immanence to a transcendental relation, is
due in great part to the use of the word “nature” to describe what is really “the surrounding
environment” (Um-welt) of human beings and their metabolic interaction with it. Lukacs
provides a clear example of this misapprehension:
It is true that the attempt is made to explain all ideological phenomena by reference to their basis in economics but,
despite this, the purview of economics is narrowed down because its basic Marxist category, labor as the mediator of
the metabolic interaction between society and nature, is missing…
It is self-evident that this means the disappearance of the ontological objectivity of nature upon which this process of
change is based, (HCC, p.xvii).

Here we can see most clearly how easily “metabolic interaction” between human beings and their
environment (Um-welt) is confused with “the ontological objectivity of nature”, which then again can
be “unified” or “synthesised” with “society” through the dialectic of “reciprocal action” leading
to a static “organic totality” – something that Lucio Colletti punctually does in the Preface to the
Italian edition of Schmidt’s work where he praises the author’s insistence on the phrase
“dialectical materialism” (in opposition to the Engelsian, then Stalinist, Diamat). (We will discuss
Colletti shortly.)

Indeed, it is this notion of “totality” that Lukacs defends as the still valid most important
contribution of HCC –

“It is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of HCC to have reinstated the category of totality in the
central position it had occupied throughout Marx’s works,” (HCC, p.xx).

And this despite the fact that Lukacs acknowledges, by citing his earlier summation in the book,
how his privileging of the notion of “totality” had been at the expense of “economics”: -

“It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference
between Marxism and bourgeois science, but the point of view of totality”.

Lukacs does not consider how these theoretical errors may have resulted from his abuse of “the
dialectical method”, which he had always identified as the “scientific” way of reaching “the point
of view of totality”, re-affirming instead its validity and its lasting centrality to “orthodox
Marxism” (at p.xx, HCC).

[Colletti on “unity” of Marxian method.] But alas these are flaws that have afflicted theoretical
Marxism as well. As an illustration, we can allude to Lucio Colletti’s remarks in Ideologia e Societa’
(at p.16ff) where he discusses Schumpeter’s quotation above concerning Marx’s ability to
combine economic facts and theory in one indissolubly unified synthesis. At first, Colletti agrees
with us that this “chemical mixture” is due precisely to the strict connection in Marxian economic
theory between the interpersonal human side and the relation of human beings as a species to
their physical environment, in such a way that economics is never seen as a question of mere
(universal, eternal) “exchange” but is indeed treated as a theorisation of the satisfaction and
creation of physiological human needs in which “pro-duction” – not “exchange”! – is the
essential aspect. It is from the perspective of the production of human needs that any distinction
between “theory” and “fact”, between “economics” and “sociology”, “nature” and “history” and
– most important for Marxist theory – “structure” and “superstructure” becomes illusory.

Colletti perceives the essential role of production, of metabolic interaction, to the theorisation of
capitalism. But then he immediately falls victim to the confusion of dialectical “synthesis” – that
is to say, the interpretation of Marxian dialectics as the synthesis of thesis and antithesis, instead
of as “the negation of the negation” - with the notion of “organic totality”, of “unity”, of “the
whole” – which is a trap into which much of what we call theoretical Marxism has fallen in the
past.

We can now understand how this unity of economics and sociology [14]
of nature and history in Marx does not signify an identity between the
terms. It involves neither a reduction of society to nature, nor of nature
to society; it does not reduce human society to an ant-hill, nor human life
to philosophical life. But we can also understand, conversely, how the
avoidance of these two unilateral antitheses on Marx’s part is due pre-
cisely to their organic composition, i.e. to their unification in a ‘whole’.
This whole is a totality, but a determinate totality; it is a synthesis of
distinct elements, it is a unity, but a unity of heterogeneous parts. From this
vantage point, it is easy to see (if in foreshortened form) both Marx's
debt to Hegel and the real distance that separates them. (pp.13-4)

Here Colletti confuses both the notion of “negation”, which he wrongly substitutes with
“synthesis”; and he confuses also the last two aspects of Marxian dialectics - one valid and the
other invalid, which, as we emphasised above - must be kept separate. He is quite correct in
insisting on the primacy of the process of pro-duction in the sense of metabolic interaction that we
have outlined in this work as the locus of political antagonism in capitalism. This is essential to
the notion of metabolic interaction or production as a “becoming” (Bobbio’s divenire), that is, as a
historical process of human objectification that can be accompanied by historical forms of
antagonism. But then, as we are arguing, Colletti hypostatises this historical antagonism by
insisting on the separate antithetical analytical categories or “entities” of “nature” and “history”
and their “reunification” or “synthesis” only from the theoretical perspective of an “organic
totality” or “whole” – just like Schumpeter’s vision of “the social process as one indivisible whole” or
Lukacs’s notion of “totality”.

The problem with this notion of “totality”, as Bobbio splendidly explains, is that it depends on a
static antithetical opposition (economics/sociology, society/nature, nature/history) that “does not
resolve the two [opposing] terms [thesis and antithesis] into a third”, that is, into “the negation of the
negation” which is the supersession of this antithetical antagonism through its historical
extrinsication. Consequently, any theory that represents social reality as an “organic totality”, as
a “fixed” or “positive” entity, is not “dialectical” in that it does not allow for the supersession
(Hegel’s Aufhebung) of the social antagonism it seeks to theorise. To refer to a dualism of
“society” and “nature”, for instance, is to posit an antithesis that cannot be superseded for the
simple reason that neither “society” nor “nature” as concepts will ever be able to be “negated”. In
reality, the two terms are not antithetical at all because there is no antagonism, no contra-diction
within them that can be resolved historically.

Perhaps the biggest problem posed by this fictitious antithesis is that human beings come to see
“nature” as an inimical force, an evil, that must be vanquished. See Simone Weil’s “Critique du
Marxisme” in Reflexions.

In expounding his argument, Colletti relies on Dobb, Political Economy and Capitalism, who also
focuses on the limitation of neoclassical theory to the sphere of exchange as a reason for the
disjunction in bourgeois economic theory between its logico-mathematical schemata and
empirical analysis. Unlike Colletti, however, Dobb does not see the metabolic side of capitalist
production; and he refers instead to the emargination by bourgeois theory of all “institutional
and historical factors” – that is, its restriction of economic theory to “inter-personal relations” and
not to “political elements” or “superstructural” ones. Because Dobb was a firm believer in the
labour theory of value, to his mind the central antagonism of capitalism lies in the unequal
distribution of income which is due to “superstructural” institutional factors, for it cannot possibly
centre on antagonism in the process of production because ultimately the value extracted from
this process (that of valorisation, as Marx calls it) is fixed! This is a flaw common to all theories,
including Marx’s, that share the labour theory of value – as we shall see shortly.

It is obvious how the labour theory of value, by insisting on the existence of a Law of Value that
determines prices “scientifically”, removes the focus from the sphere of metabolic production –
whence is derived its artificial separation of what it sees as the superstructural aspects of
capitalism from its presumably strictly economic or structural aspects. The same applies to Lenin’s
remarks (in the Philosophical Notebooks; see ch.1 in Colletti’s Ideology and Society but researched in
great detail in his Il Marxismo e Hegel in turn discussed by K.Anderson in Lenin, Hegel and Western
Marxism, pp223ff ) about how Marxian analysis provides a “skeleton” that moves in lockstep, as
it were, with “flesh-and-blood” factual analysis.

(See also discussion in Schmidt’s chapter 2 on “Historical Mediation of Nature”.) The problematic
relationship of Marx’s labour theory of value (“the structure”) and the politico-economic
institutions of capitalism (“the superstructure”) will be examined next through a close study of
Marx’s seminal text A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Zur Kritik).

And then especially Lukacs in HCC – an excessively Hegelian derivation of his thought that he
did not “recant” even in the 1967 Preface. Lukacs thought that it was his confusion of alienation
with objectification that turned the notion of “totality” into an eschatology, when in fact his very
theorisation of alienation and reification as “the inability to see the totality” as against the
“fragmented” and “reified” form of alienated labour, and therefore the turning of dialectics into a
“method” (cf. p.xxvi), was the real culprit. Just as regrettable is the tendency to isolate this
“method” from political praxis which turns the real phenomena of alienation and reification –
Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” - from specific historical forms of political violence into
“necessary illusions” (Lukacs) that arise directly from the mere “rationalization” of the social
relations of production – as if indeed this “rationalization” could be based on any objective
“rationality” independent of what Weber styled as “the rational organisation of free labour under
the rigid discipline of the factory”. Again, Weber uses “rational” to describe “the rigid discipline of
the factory over free labour”. Yet, as we argued in our Weberbuch, “rationality” consists of this
“rigid discipline of the factory over free labour” and therefore it is superfluous or pleonastic to
describe this as “rational”. But if this were so, then it is impossible to see how we can dispel an
“illusion” that is “necessary” or how we can defeat a “necessity” that is “illusory”! The whole
question of “structure and superstructure” – which Bobbio defined as the crucial concept in
Marxism (in Gramsci) - turns thus into the obscurest of veils and into the most impenetrable
enigma – one that threatens to justify the mystique of “the leadership of the proletariat” charged
with applying the “dialectical method” to political reality so as to decipher its “totality”.

Lukacs rejects “the species” as an abstraction equal to that of “the individual”, see HCC, p193:
“The individual can never become the measure of all things. For when the individual confronts reality he is
faced by a complex of ready-made and unalterable objects…Only the class can react to the whole of reality
in a practical revolutionary way. (The ‘species’ cannot do this as it is no more than an individual that has
been stylised and mythologised in a spirit of contemplation.) And the class, too, can only manage it when it
can see through the reified objectivity of the given world to the process that is also its own fate.”

Heidegger’s more circumscribed phenomenological version is limited to the “authentic”


(eigentlich) perception of everyday reality by the Da-sein as Zuhandenheit, as against its reified
obverse, Vorhandenheit. In each case, the historical subject capable of perceiving reality,
whether sociological (Lukacs) or ontological (Jaspers’s Um-greifende or “all-encompassing”) or
phenomenological (Heidegger), in its Totalitat is exalted against the “partial”, “fragmented”,
“inauthentic”, “reified” experience of “the mass” or “the petty bourgeoisie” or “the mob” in the
“everyday life” imposed by capitalism and its “technology” (Tecknik). The confusion of
“technology” as a pro-duct with the ob-ject is featured in Heidegger’s discussion of Aristotle
(Pathmarks, p211). For Heidegger, only those who accept the being of physis and physis as
being go beyond the domination of subjectivity by technical means – Pathmarks, pp201-2; see
also the blatant elitism of the Einfuhrung discussed by Goldmann. At a political level, the
“inauthentic” perception of “reified” social reality leads to what Lukacs called “the false
consciousness of the proletariat” which therefore requires leadership by the Leninist Party to be
guided back into “totality”. Of course, Lukacs’s Leninist vision of totality suffers the same elitist
fate!]

This “totality”, and not the univocality of inputs and outputs, that is, the “inevitability or apodicticity of
outcomes” (“whenever x, then y”), is what constitutes the “closedness” of Schumpeter’s methodology. The
confusion of “totality” and “inevitability” or apodicticity is the central error in Lawson’s and Moura’s
critiques of this kind of methodology. But the most important failure in their critiques of neoclassical
economic analysis as “closed systems” is that they do not see the categorical imperative of this kind of
bourgeois analysis: - to be able to reduce economic analysis to “pure exchange” of “given resources” or
“endowments” between “atomistic individuals”, and thereby to hide the antagonism in the capitalist mode
of production, instead of confronting the actual metabolic production of fresh resources and human needs
by a living organic community! This flaw is shared by the classification of “closed” and “open” theories
adopted by Langlois and Loasby although their approach, relying more on “evolutionary change” than on
“apodicticity”, is much closer to our own outlined here. Strangely, Schumpeter did not heed the criticism of
his mentor Bohm-Bawerk against the “closedness” (Ab-schluss) of Marx’s schema of capitalist
reproduction (cf. Bohm-Bawerk, “Karl Marx and the ‘Close’ of His Theory”) and apply it to his own
Theorie. It was Marx’s view of human society and of its “reproduction” as a “totality” that degenerates into
an “eschatology” or a “prophetic destiny”, and ultimately into a simple tautology (“it will be because it has
to be; it has to be because it is in its definition” – thus, a simple “equation”, a definition A=B, is translated
into an aetiology, A causes B, and then into a historical evolution, A becomes B) as Bohm-Bawerk intuited
and Bobbio has explained (cf. Da Hobbes a Marx).

II. Darwin.

Marx n'explique jamais pourquoi les forces productives tendraient à s'accroître ; en admettant sans
preuve cette tendance mystérieuse, il s'apparente non pas à Darwin, comme il aimait à le croire,
mais à Lamarck, qui fondait pareillement tout son système biologique sur une tendance
inexplicable des êtres vivants à l'adaptation. De même pourquoi est-ce que, lorsque les institutions
sociales s'opposent au développement des forces productives, la victoire devrait appartenir d'avance
à celles-ci plutôt qu'à celles-là ? [p.15]

….
La grande idée de Marx, c'est que dans la société aussi bien que dans la nature rien ne s'effectue
autrement que par des transformations matérielles. « Les hommes font leur propre histoire, mais
dans des conditions déterminées. » Désirer n'est rien, il faut connaître les conditions matérielles qui
déterminent nos possibilités d'action ; et dans le domaine social, ces conditions sont définies par la
manière dont l'homme obéit aux nécessités matérielles en subvenant à ses propres besoins,
autrement dit par le mode de production. (Weil, Reflections, p.17.)

Simone Weil erects a barrier between social relations of production and forces of
production that in Marx does not exist. In Marx, as Weil correctly perceives stressing the
Hegelian derivation of his worldview, the social relations of production are already
intrinsic part and parcel of what he calls “the forces of production”. The famous Marxian
distinction between “base” and “superstructure” is meant to refer to the “dialectical
contradiction”, in Hegelian parlance, that Marx believed to exist between the forces of
production, which include the social relations of production, and those social relations
that are not “productive” but are rather “ideological”. The historical materialism
propounded by Marx is a direct excrescence of the Hegelian dialectic according to which
“human beings make their own history”. But “they do so in determinate conditions” not
because, as Weil believes, Marx is erecting a barrier – ontological or epistemological –
between objective natural forces of production and subjective historical social relations: -
because for Marx no such barrier or hiatus can exist between Nature and History. Rather,
the “determinate conditions” to which Marx is referring are those self-same “social
relations of production” that ultimately prevail over the ideological superstructure
whenever the two come into conflict.

For Marx, all human reproduction, simple or expanded, all “forces of production” relate
purely and solely to relations between human beings inter se! Nature quite simply plays
no autonomous role – again, ontological or epistemological – in determining social
relations of production. Indeed, Hegel and Marx have this in common – that there is no
separation or schism or hiatus between Nature and History because Nature does not and
cannot play an autonomous role in the course of human history. In this respect, it may be
argued that ultimately Hegel’s and Marx’s systems share a historicist Vichian foundation
and a Judaeo-Christian eschatological teleology. Nowhere in Marx’s entire oeuvre is
there any hint of preoccupation with the effect that “the development of the forces of
production”, dictated by humans, can have on the natural environment that humans share
with all other living things. As Weil herself points out, Marx believed firmly in the
unlimited development of human forces of production. Perhaps the only area in which
Marx comes close to setting a lower limit to human production is in the notion of
“socially necessary labour time”, which seems to refer to the labour time needed for the
reproduction of human populations in line with the most basic human needs. – Although
even in this regard Marx is quick to note that this “necessity” and these “needs” are more
of a historical than of a biological nature. And the unlimited “growth” or “development”
of the forces of production in Marx can be construed only in relation to a notion of
“growth” or “development” that indicated a linear qualitative progress in these forces of
production – something that Weil is clearly going to contest.
Enfin pourquoi [Marx] pose-t-il sans démonstration, et comme une vérité évidente, que les forces
productives sont susceptibles d'un développement illimité ? Toute cette doctrine, sur laquelle
repose entièrement la conception marxiste de la révolution, est absolument dépourvue de tout
caractère scientifique. Pour la comprendre, il faut se souvenir des origines hégéliennes de la pensée
marxiste. Hegel croyait en un esprit caché à l'œuvre dans l'univers, et que l'histoire du monde est
simplement l'histoire de cet esprit du monde, lequel, comme tout ce qui est spirituel, tend
indéfiniment à la perfection. Marx a prétendu « remettre sur ses pieds » la dialectique hégélienne,
qu'il accusait d'être « sens dessus dessous » ; il a substitué la matière à l'esprit comme moteur de
l'histoire ; mais par un paradoxe extraordinaire, il a conçu l'histoire, à partir de cette rectification,
comme s'il attribuait à la matière ce qui est l'essence même de l'esprit, une perpétuelle aspiration au
mieux. Par là il s'accordait d'ailleurs profondément avec le courant général de la pensée capitaliste ;
transférer le principe du progrès de l'esprit aux choses, c'est donner une expression philosophique
à ce « renversement du rapport entre le sujet et l'objet » dans lequel Marx voyait l'essence même du
capitalisme. L'essor de la grande industrie a fait des forces productives la divinité d'une sorte de
religion dont Marx a subi malgré lui l'influence en élaborant sa conception de l'histoire. Le terme
de religion peut surprendre quand il s'agit de Marx ; mais croire que notre volonté converge avec
une volonté mystérieuse qui serait à l'œuvre dans le monde et nous aiderait à vaincre, c'est penser
religieusement, c'est croire à la Providence. (P.16.)

There are at least three distinct implications in Weil’s trenchant critique of Marx’s own
critique of political economy. The first is that, as we pointed out above, all economic
activity, whether analysed from the bourgeois viewpoint or from his own “critical”
standpoint, is seen by Marx as involving purely and solely relations between human
beings and not also between human beings and their environment. Even in the charitable
hypothesis that Marx regards “social relations of production “ as also involving the
natural environment to the extent that they satisfy “human needs”, there can be no doubt
whatsoever that Marx regards “nature” as a wholly passive entity, as an object open
entirely to human use and abuse. The second corollary implication is that Marx sees the
development of the forces of production purely and solely in quantitative terms – in
terms, that is, of the “socially necessary labour time” needed for the reproduction of
human society. And the third implication is that Marx sees this growth or development as
a totally unlimited, unstoppable process of technological progress in the human
exploitation of the environment both in qualitative and in quantitative terms!

The notion of progress indeed contains within itself by implication the linearity of the
changing forces of production in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense – a growing
perfection of these forces (a defecto ad perfectionem). And in turn, this linear
perfectibility of the forces of production implies the univocal ability of human beings to
adapt to their environment and to transform it in a suitable manner. Yet, this Marxian
“scientific” belief in the progress of the forces of production – a belief in what he
considered a scientific discovery of Darwinian proportions - is precisely what Weil calls
into question, and with justifiable reason! For not only does the human transformation of
the environment inevitably raise the possibility of its irreparable degradation, but also,
and consequentially, this degradation calls into question the linearity of human adaptation
both in terms of conscious human agency and in terms of perfectibility in the sense that
this adaptation cannot be determined, judged or least of all measured ex ante, but can
only be determined, if at all, ex post facto! This is why Weil insists on disabusing Marx
about the “Darwinian” basis of his social theory: as Weil rightly points out, Marx’s social
theory is in truth “Lamarckian” in that it relies on the principle that “the function shapes
the organ”. But Lamarck’s functionalist, or better, interventionist theory of evolution runs
directly counter to, where it does not contradict, Darwin’s genetic theory of evolution!
For Lamarck, just as for Marx, it is the positive activity of a species that leads to the
physiological development of organs that are most fitted to its surviving the existing
environment. This interventionist or functionalist theory is founded on the twin premises
that (a) a species pursues actively a function to which it is pre-disposed, and (b) this
active pursuit then brings about the organs or instruments that will lead to the function’s
fulfilment. Quite to the contrary, for Darwin, “the survival of the fittest” occurs not
through active physiological adaptation by a species, but rather through its genetic pre-
disposition to adapt to a changing environment!

The difference between the two theories could not be starker. Whereas for Lamarck’s
theory, the survival of a species is due – in line with what Marx theorized for the human
species - to a process of active and, in the human case even conscious, adaptation, for
Darwin instead this process is entirely passive in the sense that survival of a species or of
some of its members is due entirely (a) to changes in the environment, and (b) to
reproductive competition between its members! In neither case, however, can a species
change its genetic make-up actively to ensure its eventual survival – because both
conditions are constraints external to the collective activity of the species. In other
words, for Darwin, and contrary to Marx’s thesis, no species can ensure its survival
ex ante: for Darwin, and again contrary to Marx, “survival of the fittest” is an
attribute that can be assigned only ex post facto – after the event, not beforehand!

The epistemological and, above all, deontological and therefore practico-political


repercussions of this fundamental reversal of our understanding of our relation to our
natural environment are quite earth-shattering because, forcefully put, they invert the
order of our understanding of how human action affects the natural environment and,
consequently, also our understanding of how human beings should conduct themselves
with regard to that environment. The universal attitude or orientation of humans toward
the environment is that it is a passive “tool” or inert “recipient” of human activity. But
seen from this novel perspective, it turns out that “nature”, far from being a passive or
inert receptacle and quarry for human activities, is in fact a very active or at the very least
“reactive” agent in our complex interaction with the world.

First to be subjected to critical reappraisal is the ubiquitous notion that human beings are
masters of their own destiny, that indeed human beings can shape the external world or
“nature” in conformity with the demands of their needs and the ideality of their spirit or
minds. This pervasive ideology of human sovereignty over the lifeworld is something
that can be traced from the myth of Prometheus all the way to German Idealism, Marxist
theory and the most recent capitalist ideologies of political and social transformation
through the development of “the forces of production”, a process figuratively known as
“progress” or “civilisation”.
Even if we agree, against Weil, that Marx intended “the forces of production” (“the base”
as distinct from “the superstructure”)) to constitute a socially-defined historical and
dialectical force and not a mechanical one, still Weil is entirely right to expose the fallacy
of Marxist thought in terms of the “passivity” or at best the “neutrality” or inertness of
“nature” with regard to human action (cf. in this regard, as a corrective, Hannah Arendt’s
homonymous work, Human Action. We shall address the oblique link between Arendt
and Weil presently). We could identify Marx’s original mistake highlighted by Weil in
his insistent use of the dialectic as a “positive” tool of historical analysis. For the question
then arises of why the development of the forces of production should result, at a
determinate point in history, in the elimination of social oppression:

La réflexion sur cet échec retentissant, qui était venu couronner tous les autres, amena enfin Marx à
comprendre qu'on ne peut supprimer l'oppression tant que subsistent les causes qui la rendent
inévi-

Simone Weil, Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 30

table, et que ces causes résident dans les conditions objectives, c'est-à-dire matérielles, de
l'organisation sociale. Il élabora ainsi une conception de l'oppression tout à fait neuve, non plus en
tant qu'usurpation d'un privilège, mais en tant qu'organe d'une fonction sociale. Cette fonction, c'est
celle même qui consiste à développer les forces productives, dans la mesure où ce développement
exige de durs efforts et de lourdes privations ; et, entre ce développement et l'oppression sociale,
Marx et Engels ont aperçu des rapports réciproques. Tout d'abord, selon eux, l'oppression s'établit
seulement quand les progrès de la production ont suscité une division du travail assez poussée pour
que l'échange, le commandement militaire et le gouvernement constituent des fonctions distinctes ;
d'autre part l'oppression, une fois établie, provoque le développement ultérieur des forces
productives, et change de forme à mesure que l'exige ce développement, jusqu'au jour où, devenue
pour lui une entrave et non une aide, elle disparaît purement et simplement. Quelque brillantes
que soient les analyses concrètes par lesquelles les marxistes ont illustré ce schéma, et bien qu'il
constitue un progrès sur les naïves indignations qu'il a remplacées, on ne peut dire qu'il mette en
lumière le mécanisme de l'oppression. Il n'en décrit que partiellement la naissance ; car pourquoi la
division du travail se tournerait-elle nécessairement en oppression ? Il ne permet nullement d'en
attendre raisonnablement la fin ; car, si Marx a cru montrer comment le régime capitaliste finit par
entraver la production, il n'a même pas essayé de prouver que, de nos jours, tout autre régime
oppressif l'entraverait pareillement ; et de plus on ignore pourquoi l'oppression ne pourrait pas
réussir à se maintenir, même une fois devenue un facteur de régression économique. Surtout Marx
omet d'expliquer pourquoi l'oppression est invincible aussi longtemps qu'elle est utile, pourquoi les
opprimés en révolte n'ont jamais réussi à fonder une société non oppressive, soit sur la base des
forces productives de leur époque, soit même au prix d'une régression économique qui pouvait
difficilement accroître leur misère ; et enfin il laisse tout à fait dans l'ombre les principes généraux
du mécanisme par lequel une forme déterminée d'oppression est remplacée par une autre.

Simone Weil, Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 31

For it is undeniable that Marx regarded “progress” in a linear as well as functionalist


dimension, in terms of socially necessary labour time: for him, the specific “exploitation”
of the worker by the capitalist consists crucially in “the theft of labour time”, that is, in
the quantitative difference between the labour time that is “socially necessary” to ensure
the reproduction of a society and the “surplus labour time” enforced by the capitalist to
realise a monetary profit. Clearly, then, as Weil argues above in opposition to Marx, the
origin of social oppression and its final elimination cannot be found and sought solely in
the relation between humanity and “nature” through “socially necessary labour time” or
“human needs” – that is to say, through an unavoidably mechanical “social function” that
pre-destines human beings to subjugate “nature” actively – consciously and intentionally.
Rather, the origins and eventual elimination of oppression bear an essential and
fundamental relation to the objective “conditions of existence” that constrain how and to
what extent humans can actively “exploit” this (presumably passive) “nature”. The vice
or error of Marx’s critique of capitalism is that it locates its oppression and its eventual
supersession in a purely functional dimension whereby human beings in the historical
semblance of the working class or proletariat are “destined” to overcome the “historical
dialectical contradictions” that this oppression expresses.

Thus, in Weil’s justified critique, the Marxian theory of social oppression and
exploitation fails to confront the specific ways in which oppressive social relations of
production have a deleterious destructive, even cataclysmic effect on the human
“exploitation” of nature itself – and therefore Marx also neglects the reality that at least
part of this “social oppression” may be due to the inalterable limits and constraints that
this “nature” imposes on humanity! In this Marxian functionalist perspective, the relation
between human beings and “nature” is mediated by the forces of production and
obstructed by the social relations of production in such a manner that “nature” appears
irrevocably as a “tool” open to human evolutionary manipulation. This functionalist and
intentionalist perspective vitiates the entire Marxist exegesis of the phenomenon of
oppression.

Bien plus, non seulement les marxistes n'ont résolu aucun de ces problèmes, mais ils n'ont même
pas cru devoir les formuler. Il leur a semblé avoir suffisamment rendu compte de l'oppression
sociale en posant qu'elle correspond à une fonction dans la lutte contre la nature. Au reste ils n'ont
vraiment mis cette correspondance en lumière que pour le régime capitaliste ; mais de toute
manière, supposer qu'une telle correspondance constitue une explication du phénomène, c'est
appliquer inconsciemment aux organismes sociaux le fameux principe de Lamarck, aussi
inintelligible que commode, « la fonction crée l'organe ».

Consequently, for Marx and Marxism, the elimination of social oppression is simply the
inevitable future outcome of humanity’s functional and progressive domination of
“nature”.

Furthermore, and perhaps even more erroneously, Darwin’s theory of evolution


itself(!) is turned upside down – by Marx and by all evolutionary science after Darwin -
and misconstrued as a Lamarckian process of conscious (for humans) and wilful or
intentional (for all animals) “adaptation”! As Weil impetuously yet quite correctly
stresses in the passage below, all science after Darwin has misconstrued his theory of
evolution as an internal “adaptation” by species to their external environment that
ensures “the survival of the fittest”. But the “adaptation” and “fitness” that Darwin
meant is an attribute that is determined entirely by factors external to the actions and
intentions of species – as something that can be attributed only after and not before
the eventual “survival” of a species! In other words, evolution is an objective process
quite independent of the actions and intentions of species.

La biologie n'a commencé d'être une science que le jour où Darwin a substitué à ce principe [i.e. le
fonctionnalisme de Lamarck] la notion des conditions d'existence. Le progrès consiste en ce que la
fonction n'est plus considérée comme la cause, mais comme l'effet de l'organe, seul ordre
intelligible ; le rôle de cause n'est dès lors attribué qu'à un mécanisme aveugle, celui de l'hérédité
combiné avec les variations accidentelles. Par lui-même, à vrai dire, ce mécanisme aveugle ne peut
que produire au hasard n'importe quoi ; l'adaptation de l'organe à la fonction rentre ici en jeu de
manière à limiter le hasard en éliminant les structures non viables, non plus à titre de tendance
mystérieuse, mais à titre de condition d'existence ; et cette condition se définit par le rapport de
l'organisme considéré au milieu pour une part inerte et pour une part vivant qui l'entoure, et tout
particulièrement aux organismes semblables qui lui font concurrence. L'adaptation est dès lors
conçue par rapport aux êtres vivants comme une nécessité extérieure et non plus intérieure. Il est
clair que cette méthode lumineuse n'est pas valable seulement en biologie, mais partout où l'on se
trouve en présence de structures organisées qui n'ont été organisées par personne. Pour pouvoir se
réclamer de la science en matière sociale, il faudrait avoir accompli par rapport au marxisme un
progrès analogue à celui que Darwin a accompli par rapport à Lamarck.

Thus, there are two orders of objections that Weil moves against Marx, and indeed
against nearly all Western political and economic theories of social oppression, as well as
against the ubiquitous misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution as a theory of
(conscious and intentional) “adaptation”. The first order is that Marx’s theory seeks to
establish a mechanical, functionalist link between human needs, forces of production and
oppressive social relations of production. The second order is that this functionalist link,
unlike and contrary to Darwin’s genetic theory of evolution, has a deterministic or even
teleological bias in that human beings are deemed to be capable of dominating
consciously and intentionally their environment or “nature” in accordance with their
“ideation” or planned intentions. Marx himself, in one of the most deservedly renowned
passages in the first Book of Das Kapital, refers to this “ideal” ability of the human
species to plan beforehand in its mind its intended projects in the external world. Marx
calls this Gattungs-Wesen (“species-conscious being”). By contrast and in total
opposition to this erroneous belief, Darwin establishes that the survival of species is due
entirely to factors wholly external to the actions and intentions of existing species –
factors such as genetic heredity and competition within and between species, on one side,
and environmental factors, on the other. Adaptation is therefore seen by Darwin as “an
external necessity”, that is, a necessity independent of the will, actions and intentions
of a species. That explains the overriding role and weight that Darwin attributes to
“chance” or “hazard” in the survival and evolution of species! In the Grundrisse, Marx
fails to understand his own theory of overpopulation engendered by capitalist
accumulation as an external barrier in terms of the unsustainable human demands this
places on the ecosphere. Instead, throughout his writings, Marx always believed, in line
with the Hegelian dialectics of nature, that “the barrier to capital is capital itself” – in
other words, an “internal barrier”!
But this “hazard” or “chance” is not pure fortuitousness, sheer contingency: it is rather
itself constrained by the objective “conditions of existence” of a species which, although
they do not indicate the evolutionary process in a particular or specific direction,
nevertheless delimit or constrain the evolutionary outcomes for that species.

Les causes de l'évolution sociale ne doivent plus être cherchées ailleurs que dans les efforts
quotidiens des hommes considérés comme individus. Ces efforts ne se dirigent certes pas n'importe
où ; ils dépendent, pour chacun, du tempérament, de l'éducation, des routines, des coutumes, des
préjugés, des besoins naturels ou acquis, de l'entourage, et surtout, d'une manière générale, de la
na-

Simone Weil, Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 32

ture humaine, terme qui, pour être malaisé à définir, n'est probablement pas vide de sens. Mais
étant donné la diversité presque indéfinie des individus, étant donné surtout que la nature humaine
comporte entre autres choses le pouvoir d'innover, de créer, de se dépasser soi-même, ce tissu
d'efforts incohérents produirait n'importe quoi en fait d'organisation sociale, si le hasard ne se
trouvait en ce domaine limité par les conditions d'existence auxquelles toute société doit se
conformer sous peine d'être ou subjuguée ou anéantie. Ces conditions d'existence sont le plus
souvent ignorées des hommes qui s'y soumettent ; elles agissent non pas en imposant aux efforts de
chacun une direction déterminée, mais en condamnant à être inefficaces tous les efforts dirigés
dans les voies qu'elles interdisent.

[Bacon] In this optic, in this per-spective, from this a-spect, “nature” cannot be seen as
mere ob-ject, as passive op-position, as Gegen-stand, but rather as an active containment
- indeed, says Weil, as an inter-diction (!), a prohibitive dictation or in-junction that limits
human action by con-straining and re-straining it! It is, if you please, a barrier in guise of
“un-intended con-sequences”. Human beings illude themselves to be demi-gods who can
actively determine the direction of life and the world – to mould the cosmos in our
likeness; when in fact we find that we are in the cosmos and that we must therefore be
conscious of the unintended consequences of our actions due to the restraint and
constraint – the containment – of these actions by our environ-ment, our sur-rounds, our
Um-welt, ambience – “the natural milieu,” says Weil - that con-ditions, hence erects
barriers, to our activity. We pro-pose but nature dis-poses, like a divinity. Nature is the
Epi-metheus (hind-sight) to our Pro-metheus (presumed fore-sight). Nature is both a
hostel for us and hostile to us: it is our host, yet we are its hostile hostages! Nature both
entertains and constrains us.

These are, precisely, the “conditions of existence” – ec-sistence, Da-sein – our being
“thrown” and de-jected in the world, in the cosmos, to which Weil refers repeatedly. And
great part of these conditions of ec-sistence is also our own human nature – by means of
con-flict (a mutual in-fliction of pain) and com-petition (a mutual craving) between and
even within so-called in-dividual (indivisible) humans.

III. Simone Weil.


Au reste la notion du travail considéré comme une valeur humaine est sans doute l'unique conquéte
spirituelle qu'ait faite la pensée humaine depuis le miracle grec ; c'était peut-étre lá la seule lacune á l'idéal
de vie humaine que la Gréce a élaboré et qu'elle a laissé aprés elle comme un héritage impérissable.
Bacon est le premier qui ait fait apparaítre cette notion. Á l'antique et désespérante malédiction de la
Genése, qui faisait apparaítre le monde comme un bagne et le travail comme la marque de l'esclavage et de
l'abjection des hommes, il a substitué dans un éclair de génie la véritable charte des rapports de l'homme
avec le monde : « L'homme commande á la nature en lui obéissant. » Cette formule si simple devrait
constituer á elle seule la Bible de notre époque. Elle suffit pour définir le travail véritable, celui qui fait les
hommes libres, et cela dans la mesure méme oú il est un acte de soumission consciente á la nécessité.
(Reflections, p.80.)

There we have it, then: - final confirmation of the affinity between Weil’s view of Nature
and that first articulated centuries earlier by Francis Bacon in the Novum Organum. (We
examined this Baconian view in our Descartes’s World.) In this view, Nature is not a
mere passive “tool” to be exploited and moulded by humans as they please, without
giving thought as to how Nature might “react” – or better, with the presumption that
Nature cannot possibly “react”. Such human thoughtless Hubris, according to Bacon and
Weil, takes no account of the fact that Nature is much bigger than we are: - that it is not a
“tool” for our gratification, but rather that we are a subordinate part of it, that we are
wholly reliant on Nature for the very survival of our species. If not curbed and contained
by obedience to our natural milieu, on which we are entirely dependent, our Hubris will
be fatally met by Nature’s vengeful Nemesis in the shape of those “unintended
consequences” that only now we are finally experiencing in the guise of the ecological
catastrophe that we are confronting. (Bacon invoked the myth of Proteus to describe
Nature: - as an old man that changes shape to elude all constraints and binds by means of
which humans seek to restrain him. Cf. S. Weeks, “Francis Bacon and the Art-Nature
Distinction.”)

Our illusion to be able unilaterally to command Nature, to dictate to it, is curbed and
nullified invariably and fatefully by Nature in ways that often do not become evident to
us until it is perhaps too late. This is not a surrender to fatalism: Weil is not propounding
the absurd notion that there is an entity, a goddess (Nature) that actively imposes its will
on humans. Instead, she is reminding us of the need to treat Nature as sacramental by
considering, first, that we are an indissoluble part of it, and second that because of this we
must always consider the “unintended consequences” of our activities. There is no
mysticism here: Weil is not saying that Nature is a conscious entity in some kind of
animistic universe. Hers is no pantheism either. Yet, we should treat Nature more like
simpler human groupings did when they depended upon it so much more than we do now
at least in terms of their immediate survival – with reverence not with disdain. This new-
found humility ought to result in our “conscious submission to necessity” – of which
human living labour is the preponderant part. Acknowledging the necessity of human
labour as “obedience to nature” rather than as “mastery and domination” over it is the
fundamental distinguo that Weil introduces against Marx’s own historical materialism
and more particularly his critique of capitalist society and theory of revolution.

It is in this specific context that Weil invites us to view some form of social oppression as
being an ineluctable component of social life – just as the necessity of work is and
forever will be an ineluctable condition of our existence:
Ces conditions d'existence sont déterminées tout d'abord, comme pour les êtres vivants, d'une part par le
milieu naturel, d'autre part par l'existence, par l'activité et particulièrement par la concurrence des autres
organismes de même espèce, c'est-à-dire en l'occurrence des autres groupements sociaux.

But beyond these two ineluctable – Darwinian – elements or components of the


“conditions of existence” that pose an ineluctable measure of social oppression for human
society – beyond this necessity – there lies a third factor that is eminently social and
political, one over which human beings can and invariably do have a say, one that gives
rise to avoidable social oppression. It is to this avoidable social oppression, argues Weil,
that we should turn our efforts to edify a society worthy of human beings. This time, of
course, our efforts will not be distracted or even dissipated, as with Marxism, over the
search for a “revolution” that will be the culmination of a presumed evolutionary
development of “the forces of production”, expunging the decaying remains of bourgeois
“social relations of production” that stymie the advent of socialism. (The evolutionary
socialism of Eduard Bernstein was always complementary to the revolutionary
communism of a Rosa Luxemburg and the Zusammenbruchstheorie in that both relied on
a version of Christian eschatology first laid down by Saint Augustine whereby once
“social conditions were ripe” then “the final crisis and overthrow” of capitalism would
inevitably ensue. This linear progression to socialism dependent on the linear regression
of capitalism mirrors Augustine’s account of how the corruption of the civitas terrena
would precede the advent of the civitas Dei on the occurrence of the Apocalypse and the
Second Coming [Parousia], by means of the “containment” [Greek, catechon] of Evil by
Christendom, the civitas ecclesiae. [See M.Cacciari, Il Potere Che Frena.])
Mais un troisième facteur entre encore en jeu, à savoir l'aménagement du milieu naturel, l'outillage,
l'armement, les procédés de travail et de combat ; et ce facteur occupe une place à part du fait que, s'il agit sur
la forme de l'organisation sociale, il en subit à son tour la réaction. Au reste ce facteur est le seul sur lequel les
membres d'une société puissent peut-être avoir quelque prise. Cet aperçu est trop abstrait pour pouvoir
guider ; mais si l'on pouvait à partir de cette vue sommaire arriver à des analyses concrètes, il deviendrait
enfin possible de poser le problème social. (P.33)

Now, it may certainly be valid, as we have acknowledged already, for Weil to indict the
essential mechanicism of Marx’s historical materialism – and specifically its tendency (a)
to present the evolution of human society to communism as an automatic outcome or
result (Er-folg, suc-cess or succession) of the development of “the forces of production”;
and (b) to present this evolution as the effect of humanity’s unilateral, univocal action on
an inert and passive “nature”. Yet, it is equally undeniable that Marx’s critique of
capitalism provides also the most powerful theoretical and practical framework of
analysis of how and why capitalism has led us to our present catastrophic predicament –
that is, the imminent destruction of human civilisation and of the ecosphere with it! Once
we abandon the extremes of Marx’s eschatological Hegelian (as well as Victorian and
Lamarckian!) Weltanschauung, then we find that Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode
of production contains an enlightening analysis of the aetiology of capitalism as well as
of its modus operandi and dynamic development. It provides also a most useful and
penetrating guide to the possible supersession and overthrow of this mode of production.
Above all, and crucially for Weil’s own environmentalist critique, Marx’s analysis of
capitalism – namely, the enucleation of the double character of labor power as a
commodity and the exegesis of the commodity as the estrangement of human activity
from itself – offers the most valuable insight into why and how this mode of production
does and indeed must lead to the systematic and catastrophic destruction of the
ecosphere.

Let us proceed with order. Marx’s critique of capitalism and theory of its eventual
supersession by communism is predicated entirely on the incongruity between the
growing portion of the working day that goes to the creation of surplus value, from which
the capitalist derives profits, and the diminishing portion of the day that goes to necessary
labour, which serves to reproduce the proletariat. For Marx, this constitutes the ultimate
barrier to capitalism itself – the fact that “at a certain level of development of the forces
of production”, the capitalist “social relations of production” (the imposition of wage
labor and the extraction of profits by capitalists) become “a miserable and untenable
basis” upon which to organize human society. As Weil rightly objects, whilst this
“incongruity” or discrepancy between necessary and surplus labour may prompt a
rebellion or revolution against bourgeois society once “the theft of labor time” becomes
utterly intolerable, nevertheless – as we saw earlier – it is an inconfutable fact that those
“conditions of existence” that Weil specified will still obtain in any form of human
society, past and future, because human needs and wants will always expand to absorb
and consume all the available “surplus” no matter how fast and easily producible. Marx’s
prediction of the advent of communism would then resemble a “bad infinite”, an ever-
receding horizon. Besides, Weil justly objects (at pg.43) that the products of labor are not
what capitalists seek, but rather the social power that their ownership yields – a point that
is indeed central to Marx’s critique of capitalism. This is why Weil insists on the fact that
some form of social oppression will always exist – and therefore our aim ought not to be
to repose our hopes on a final act of revolution to overthrow bourgeois society but rather
on preparing the conditions for a more humane distribution of the burden of oppression
between members of society. More specifically, Weil lays emphasis on the nature and
conditions of human labour given the vital importance that she attributes to human living
labour and its “necessity” as the major component of human “conditions of existence”.
Peut-être cependant peut-on donner un sens à l'idéal révolutionnaire, sinon en tant que perspective possible,
du moins en tant que limite théorique des transformations sociales réalisables. Ce que nous demanderions
àreceding’s la révolution, c'est l'abolition de l'oppression sociale ; mais pour que cette notion ait au moins des
chances d'avoir une signification quelconque, il faut avoir soin de distinguer entre oppression et
subordination des caprices individuels à un ordre social. Tant qu'il y aura une société, elle enfermera la vie
des individus dans des limites fort étroites et leur imposera ses règles ; mais cette contrainte inévitable ne
mérite d'être nommée oppression que dans la mesure où, du fait qu’elle provoque une séparation entre ceux
qui l'exercent et ceux qui la subissent, elle met les seconds à la discrétion des premiers et fait ainsi peser
jusqu’à l'écrasement physique et moral la pression de ceux qui commandent sur ceux qui exécutent. Même
après cette distinction, rien ne permet au premier abord de supposer que la suppression de l'oppression soit
ou possible ou même seulement concevable à titre de limite. Marx a fait voir avec force, dans des analyses
dont lui-même a méconnu la portée, que le régime actuel de la production, à savoir la grande industrie,
réduit l'ouvrier à n'être qu'un rouage de la fabrique et un simple instrument aux mains de ceux qui le
dirigent ; et

Simone Weil, Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 28

il est vain d'espérer que le progrès technique puisse, par une diminution progressive et continue de l'effort de
la production, alléger, jusqu'à le faire presque disparaître, le double poids sur l'homme de la nature et de la
société. Le problème est donc bien clair ; il s'agit de savoir si l'on peut concevoir une organisation de la
production qui, bien qu'impuissante à éliminer les nécessités naturelles et la contrainte sociale qui en résulte,
leur permettrait du moins de s'exercer sans écraser sous 1'oppression les esprits et les corps. À une époque
comme la nôtre, avoir saisi clairement ce problème est peut-être une condition pour pouvoir vivre en paix
avec soi. Si l'on arrive à concevoir concrètement les conditions de cette organisation libératrice, il ne reste
qu'à exercer, pour se diriger vers elle, toute la puissance d'action, petite ou grande, dont on dispose ; et si l'on
comprend clairement que la possibilité d'un tel mode de production n'est pas même concevable, on y gagne
du moins de pouvoir légitimement se résigner à l'oppression, et cesser de s'en croire complice du fait qu'on
ne fait rien d'efficace pour l'empêcher.

We may very well agree with Weil broadly in this regard. The conditions of work in a
capitalist society are oppressive because of capitalist social relations of production and,
indeed, they are embodied in the very “forces of production” that the capitalist utilizes to
produce surplus value. Again, as a vehement and passionate critic of capitalism and
revolutionary herself, Weil does not disagree with this conclusion (see Weil’s own great
work, La Condition Ouvriere). But let us pause an instant on an important observation
Weil makes with regard to the way in which capitalism has transformed our relationship
with Nature at a broad socio-anthropological level. At first, it appears that the current
abysmal level of human conduct toward the ecosphere is a constant in human
“civilisation”. In this specific context, Weil gives a valiant and valid resume’ of how
these relations have deteriorated over the course of human history – one that is perhaps
worth quoting at length:
C'est donc qu'entre une économie tout à fait primitive et les formes économiques plus développées il n'y a
pas seulement différence de degré, mais aussi de nature. Et en effet, si, du point de vue de la consommation,
il n'y a que passage à un peu plus de bien-être, la production, qui est le facteur décisif, se transforme, elle,
dans son essence même. Cette trans

Simone Weil, Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 35

formation consiste à première vue en un affranchissement progressif à l'égard de la nature. Dans les formes
tout à fait primitives de la production, chasse, pêche, cueillette, l'effort humain apparaît comme une simple
réaction à la pression inexorable continuellement exercée par la nature sur l'homme, et cela de deux
manières ; tout d'abord il s'accomplit, ou peu s'en faut, sous la contrainte immédiate, sous l'aiguillon
continuellement ressenti des besoins naturels ; et par une conséquence indirecte, l'action semble recevoir sa
forme de la nature elle-même, à cause du rôle important qu'y jouent une intuition analogue à l'instinct animal
et une patiente observation des phénomènes naturels les plus fréquents, à cause aussi de la répétition
indéfinie des procédés qui ont souvent réussi sans qu'on sache pourquoi, et qui sont sans doute regardés
comme étant accueillis par la nature avec une faveur particulière. À ce stade, chaque homme est
nécessairement libre à l'égard des autres hommes, parce qu'il est en contact immédiat avec les conditions de
sa propre existence, et que rien d'humain ne s'interpose entre elles et lui ; mais en revanche, et dans la même
mesure, il est étroitement assujetti à la domination de la nature, et il le laisse bien voir en la divinisant. Aux
étapes supérieures de la production, la contrainte de la nature continue certes à s'exercer, et toujours
impitoyablement, mais d'une manière en apparence moins immédiate ; elle semble devenir de plus en plus
large et laisser une marge croissante au libre choix de l’homme, à sa faculté d'initiative et de décision. L'action
n'est plus collée d'instant en instant aux exigences de la nature ; on apprend à constituer des réserves, à
longue échéance, pour des besoins non encore ressentis ; les efforts qui ne sont susceptibles que d'une utilité
indirecte se font de plus en plus nombreux ; du même coup une coordination systématique dans le temps et
dans l'espace devient possible et nécessaire, et l'importance s'en accroît continuellement. Bref l'homme
semble passer par étapes, à l'égard de la nature, de l'esclavage à la domination. En même temps la nature
perd graduellement son caractère divin, et la divinité revêt de plus en plus la forme humaine. Par malheur,
cette émancipation n'est qu'une flatteuse apparence. En réalité, à ces étapes supérieures, l'action humaine
continue, dans l'ensemble, à n'être que pure obéissance à l'aiguillon brutal d'une

Simone Weil, Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 36
nécessité immédiate ; seulement, au lieu d'être harcelé par la nature, l'homme est désormais harcelé par
l'homme. Au reste c'est bien toujours la pression de la nature qui continue à se faire sentir, quoique
indirectement ; car l'oppression s'exerce par la force, et en fin de compte, toute force a sa source dans la
nature.

The interesting point here is to see how Weil insightfully characterises human civilization
as an almost linear – and thus perhaps historically inevitable – process of growing
avulsion and indeed revulsion of humanity from Nature in the direction of ever-greater
captivation with and by civilisation itself, that is to say, with other humans – to the point
where human beings are so interdependent and “connected” that they become over-
socialised, to the point that they feel stifled and smothered by the rest of humanity. As
Weil puts it, “instead of being harassed by nature, humans are now harassed by other
humans”. The defect in Weil’s analysis, however, is that she turns this into an ineluctable
destiny, into a reification of human history – indeed, as she concedes, into a “mystery”:

Il faut poser encore une fois le problème fondamental, à savoir en quoi consiste le lien qui semble
jusqu'ici unir l'oppression sociale et le progrès dans les rapports de l'homme avec la nature. Si l'on
considère en gros l'ensemble du développement humain jusqu'à nos jours, si surtout l'on oppose les
peuplades primitives, organisées presque sans inégalité, à notre civilisation actuelle, il semble que
l'homme ne puisse parvenir à alléger le joug des nécessités naturelles sans alourdir d'autant celui de
l'oppression sociale, comme par le jeu d'un mystérieux équilibre. Et même, chose plus singulière
encore, on dirait que, si la collectivité humaine s'est dans une large mesure affranchie du poids dont
les forces démesurées de la nature accablent la faible humanité, elle a en revanche pris en quelque
sorte la succession de la nature au point d'écraser l'individu d'une manière analogue. (P.51)

Weil here succumbs to the same oversight for which she chastises Marx, namely,
forgetting that perhaps the worst aspect of social oppression under the capitalist mode of
production consists precisely of the neglect and abuse with which human beings are led
thereby to treat Nature! In this context, we can turn now to analyze a crucial
development in our discussion of the dialectics of Nature, one that is perhaps implicit in
Weil’s exposition and yet is not – in our view – made sufficiently explicit. Our contention
is that Marx’s critique of capitalism provides implicitly a coherent theory as to why and
how capitalism – apart from perpetuating working conditions that are evidently
oppressive – is a mode of production that fundamentally and catastrophically distorts the
relation between human beings and the ecosphere. As Weil correctly argues, and as we
saw earlier, in part because his Hegelianism led him to treat the environment as a
“quarry” for humanity to exploit, and in part also because his Victorian belief in
“scientific progress” led him to believe that human beings will overcome all “negative
side effects” of technical development, Marx never quite looked into this question in any
detail. There are nonetheless two aspects of his critique of capitalism (developed
particularly in the Grundrisse) that are crucial to the explication of why and how
capitalism does and must destroy the environment. These two aspects are overpopulation
and consumerism, neither of which Weil considers in her otherwise valuable exposition.

It is essential to note that both these aspects of the capitalist destruction of Nature are
intrinsically linked to the capitalist mode of production, that is, to the specific form of
social oppression that the bourgeoisie imposes on workers so as to extract the surplus
labor that is later realised in monetary form as profits: - the first, overpopulation, through
the labor process, where capital is valorised; and the second, consumerism, through the
market process, where surplus value is realised as profit. Weil neglects these two
pernicious aspects of capitalism both in themselves and in their intrinsic connection to the
capitalist mode of production.
Ainsi … apparaît déjà le mal essentiel de l'humanité, la substitution des moyens aux fins. Tantôt la guerre.
apparaît au premier plan, tantôt la recherche de la richesse, tantôt la production ; mais le mal reste le même.
Les moralistes vulgaires se plaignent que l'homme soit mené par son intérêt personnel ; plût au ciel qu'il en
fût ainsi ! L'intérêt est un principe d'action égoïste, mais borné, raisonnable, qui ne peut engendrer des maux
illimités. La loi de toutes, les activités qui dominent l'existence sociale, c'est au contraire, exception faite pour
les sociétés primitives, que chacun y sacrifie la vie humaine, en soi et en autrui, à des choses qui ne
constituent que des moyens de mieux vivre. Ce sacrifice revêt des formes diverses, mais tout se résume dans
la question du pouvoir. Le pouvoir, par définition, ne constitue qu'un moyen ; ou pour mieux dire posséder
un pouvoir, cela consiste simplement à posséder des moyens d'action qui dépassent la force si restreinte dont
un individu dispose par luimême. Mais la recherche du pouvoir, du fait même qu'elle est essen

Simone Weil, Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 42

tiellement impuissante à se saisir de son objet, exclut toute considération de fin, et en arrive, par un
renversement inévitable, à tenir lieu de toutes les fins. C'est ce renversement du rapport entre le moyen et la
fin, c'est cette folie fondamentale qui rend compte de tout ce qu'il y a d'insensé et de sanglant tout au long de
l'histoire. L'histoire humaine n'est que l'histoire de l'asservissement qui fait des hommes, aussi bien
oppresseurs qu'opprimés, le simple jouet des instruments de domination qu'ils ont fabriqués eux-mêmes, et
ravale ainsi l'humanité vivante à être la chose de choses inertes.

It is true: the substitution of ends with the means – or more prosaically put, “the end
justifying the means” whereby human goals are relegated to the remote future while
brutal exploitative means are employed – is perhaps a chronic evil for humanity. Yet,
Weil here curiously avoids, first, the obvious fact that it is only under capitalism (as
Weber sharply observed, following Marx [see his lecture on Sozialismus]) that this
substitution of ends with means comes finally to pervade the very mode of production
and reproduction of human societies in the shape of the end-less accumulation of capital;
and second, curiouser still in an essay largely dedicated to Marxism, the fact that this
realization is perhaps Marx’s greatest discovery. Or rather, Marx’s greatest discovery is
the enucleation of the process whereby the accumulation of capital becomes possible –
and that is, the social creation under capitalism of the “double character”
(Doppelcharakter) of the commodity labour-power. It is the political violence of the
bourgeoisie whereby it turns human living activity (or living labour) into a homogeneous
commodity that can be measured and be given a market price – as if it were a
“quantifiable thing”, an inert object -; it is this bourgeois violence that transmutes like
alchemy human living activity into a reified bazaar of dead products, of marketable
commodities (or “goods” as bourgeois economists have re-baptized them) – an alchemy
that has come to pervade all of our lives and that, as a result, “make humans become the
simple toy of the instruments of domination that they themselves have built…and thus
abases living humanity to be the ‘thing’ of inert things”.

Weil’s macroscopic failure to remark on the essential difference between capitalism and
prior modes of production in terms of its catastrophic impact on the ecosphere through
the universal reification of human social life – from production to consumption –
engendered by the commodification of human living labour: - it is this historically
specific inversion of human living activity (the end) with the inert product of this activity
(commodities or goods or dead labour – the means) that Weil ought to have placed front
and centre of her analysis of social oppression – precisely the way Marx did.

In fairness to Weil, it is entirely plausible to construe her Reflections as an indictment of


the apocalyptically perverse reification and commodification of human living labour –
from an end in itself to a means for realizing profits in the irrationally end-less
accumulation of money-capital that capitalism has unleashed on our sorry planet (endless
because as a purely monetary cipher it has no limit and no rational substantive human
goal). Her real shortcoming, however, is the failure to locate the modality of this
apocalyptic perversion of human living activity and destruction of the ecosphere through
the twin evils of overpopulation and consumerism. It is to this modality and twin evils
that we shall turn presently.

We start from the universally accepted notion that the very essence of capitalism is to
generate profits for capitalists. Profit is the monetary difference between total investment
and total revenue. For a capitalist enterprise to be profitable, the products it sells must
amount to more than the cost of producing them with the cost of capital added (interest at
the prevailing rate over the period of production and sale). This means that in the process
of production the inputs have been “valorised” - their value has grown - and this is then
reflected in the “realisation” of the value through the sale process. But how can the
components of production acquire value? After all, objects (means of production - raw
materials and machinery) are only inert objects and they cannot possibly possess or acquire
“value”. It is obvious that value, and the value added in the process of production, can only
be derived from living labour.

We have therefore a “double character” (Doppelcharakter) of human living labour: - on


one side, as living activity, it is the only possible source of value in the form of dead labour,
as “produced goods”: in this consists the use value of living labour to the capitalist. Yet, on
the other side, the living labour of workers can be “purchased” as labour-power through
the violence of the wage relation “on the market” like any other commodity through its
exchange with the commodities or “goods” produced earlier by the workers themselves, in
other words, with “dead labour”! Thus, the capitalist “purchases” the living labour of
workers as if it were a commodity that can be exchanged like and with any other
commodity or exchange value. It follows that value-as-capital can never be a “fixed”
quantity – a “thing” - but must be instead a social relation in constant circulation from
production in the workplace to sale in the market!

Two things follow from this conclusion: the first is that the value of a particular commodity
cannot be determined until after it is actually sold on the market - until its potential value is
realised. And the second is that this value, once it is realized as money capital, is
determined ultimately by the ability “to purchase” labour-power on the market as if it were
a commodity or exchange value like any other. But this means that the supreme task of the
capitalist, which is to maximize profit and therefore to optimize the accumulation of capital,
must be, first, to reduce the labor time that workers need to reproduce themselves
(necessary labour), and second, to expand thereby the labor time that workers take to
produce the surplus value that will ultimately be realized in the market as profit by the
capitalist. It follows that as the capitalist successfully reduces the necessary labour time for
the workers to reproduce themselves, then, given that a worker can only work so many
hours in a day, the capitalist must increase the number of workers employed in order to
increase the amount of potential surplus value and profit realizable in the market. Marx
himself reached this conclusion in the Grundrisse:

Capital tends both to render human labour (relatively) superfluous and also to push it beyond all
boundaries. Value is nothing other than objectified labour, and surplus value (the valourisation of
capital) is nothing other than the excess of objectified labour on the amount necessary for the
reproduction of the labour force. But living labour is and remains the fundamental requisite of
objectified labour and of surplus value, while surplus labour [disposable labour] exists only in
relation to necessary labour, and therefore only to the extent that there still is necessary labour.
Capital must therefore incessantly create more necessary labour [in absolute terms] to create
surplus labour [and therefore surplus value]. It has to multiply surplus labour (by means of
simultaneous working days [by means of more individual workers]) in order to multiply surplus
value. At the same time, capital has to suppress necessary labour so as to turn it into surplus
labour…It is for this reason that the capitalist seeks the increase of the working population . And it is
the actual process of reduction of necessary labour that enables the capitalist to employ new living
labour [new workers] (and therefore create surplus labour [that is, surplus value]). (In other words,
the production of workers becomes “cheaper”; and therefore it is possible to produce more
workers in the same measure as the time for necessary labour decreases or the time needed for the
reproduction of the labour force decreases....) – K.Marx, Grundrisse, 3.2.25)

Profit in capitalist enterprise, and therefore surplus value, makes absolutely no sense at all
unless it is seen as value that can be (a) increased through the process of production or
“valorisation”, and (b) “realised” through the process of market sale. But once this profit or
surplus value is “realised” through the sale of produced commodities, this profit realised by
capitalists in its monetary form can have absolutely no meaning unless it can be expressed
as purchasing power over fresh living labour! This means that the process of realisation of
profit can have meaning only through the exertion of capitalist command over fresh living
labour, over an ever-expanding population of workers.

Money, to the extent that it exists already as capital, is therefore simply a policy [a legal claim] on future (new)
labour. Objectively it exists only as money. Surplus value, the added objectified labour, in itself is money; but
money now exists as capital, and as such it is a policy on future labour. Here capital enters a relationship no
longer with existing labour, but also with future labour. It also presents itself no longer as consisting merely of
its simple elements in the process of production, but also as money; but no longer as money that is simply the
abstract form of social wealth, but again as a policy [as a claim] on the real possibility of general wealth – on
the labour-force, or better on the labour-force in actu. In this form as a policy or claim on potential labour-
force, its material existence as money is irrelevant and may be substituted by any other claim on the labour-
force. Just as with public credit, each capitalist possesses, in the value already appropriated [as product or
objectified labour, or as money capital], a claim on the future labour-force; by appropriating living labour in
its present form as objectified labour, the capitalist has already appropriated a claim on future labour-
power…. Here is already revealed the ability of capital to exist as a social power separate from its objective
material existence. Here is already implicit the existence of capital as credit. Its accumulation in the form of
money therefore is not at all an accumulation of the material conditions of labour [of the means of
production], but rather of the legal claim to living labour [on workers]. This means posing future labour as
wage labour, as use value for capital. For the new [objectified] labour created [the product] there exists no
equivalent [that is, no existing exchange value]; its possibility [to be valourised through new expanded
production] exists only in a new labour force. (K. Marx, Grundrisse, 3.2.21)
This conclusion is certainly devastatingly simple – but its implications for our ecosphere are
much more devastating, as we are about to see! What it entails is not only that to maximise
profit and its accumulation capital must seek to exploit its existing workers to the very
utmost, but also that it must increase the number of workers it can exploit to the limit of
available social resources! And that is far from all. Capitalists also need the presence of a
reserve army of the unemployed workers that (a) provides competitive tension on
employed workers to drive down wages, and (b) provides a repository of further investment
for capitalists to expand their command over society so that there may be what is called
“capitalist accumulation”. In other words, capitalist accumulation through surplus value and
its monetary equivalent, profit, is nothing other than the expansion of political claims over
excess labour-power through overpopulation.

But overpopulation is only one pillar of capitalist accumulation and, therefore, of the
systematic destruction of the ecosphere. As we indicated earlier, the other aspect is
consumerism. We shall deal with this next.

The reason why we use the term “overpopulation” to indicate the first of the “twin evils” of
capitalism is that capitalism pushes population increase to the limit of sustainability so far as
human and natural resources are concerned. As we have shown, it is impelled to do so by
that end-less accumulation of capital that is its essential goal, it’s raison d’etre. The intrinsic
and imprescindible goal of capitalism is not the achievement of a particular human level of
well-being, but rather the never-ending numerical or accounting task of maximizing the
return on investment – profit. Needless to say, overpopulation has an automatic reflex
therefore in “overconsumption” because, if the working population and the reserve army of
the unemployed exceed what is sustainable, it must follow that the level of consumption is
also unsustainable. Just on its own, the overconsumption needed to satisfy the reproductive
needs of overpopulation will push humanity toward ecological catastrophe.

But that is not enough. Overconsumption is only one intrinsic aspect of overpopulation
which, in turn, is an intrinsic aspect of capitalism. There is a separate reason why capitalism
pushes us toward the destruction of our ecosphere: this aspect we can call consumerism.
Consumerism is distinct from overconsumption in that the latter is tied more strictly to the
process of the extraction of surplus value from workers – hence of the accumulation of
capital and finally of overpopulation. Consumerism is quite distinct from overpopulation
and overconsumption because whereas these are merely factual aspects of the operation of
capitalism, requisite operational aspects of capitalist industry and accumulation,
consumerism is instead the very ideology of capitalism in that it serves not so much an
organic purpose in capitalist production but much rather a propagandistic role in the
subjugation and exploitation of workers. In many languages, the word propaganda was used
earlier especially after World War Two until it was replaced with the far less pejorative
word “advertising”.

Consumerism is, as it were, the sugar-coating that allows workers and the proletariat at large
to swallow the bitter pill of capitalist exploitation and lack of real participatory democracy
in liberal parliamentary bourgeois regimes. How so?
The wage relation is one of violence in that workers would never accept to sell their living
activity in exchange for the product of their labour - that is surely an “exchange” that
amounts to fraud (if unwitting) or violence (if workers are aware of it). But, second, it is also
true that workers could not preserve their “formal freedom” under the law if they rebelled
against this violent coercive transaction - one based on “the need to work”, “to put food on
the table” - and the very fact that workers are willing to work for “a fair wage” means that
the capitalist mode of production does have a minimum of legitimacy (Weber).

Nevertheless, legitimacy does not mean absence of conflict: capitalist society is founded on
social antagonism between capitalists and workers - and specifically on the antagonism of
the wage relation. The question then arises of why the antagonism of the wage relation has
not exploded into open social conflict - into civil war in many advanced industrial capitalist
societies. The answer has to do with capitalist growth and development. Let us see how this
works.

The “specificity” of a capitalist society consists in the ability of capitalists to dominate living
labour, workers, not just through explicit coercion but rather through a complex set of
institutions that force workers to exchange their living labour for the objects that they
themselves have produced, with “dead labour” - again, not through direct coercion from a
particular capitalist toward particular workers because the capitalist does not “own” the
workers as is the case with slavery or with feudal relations where the “serfs” are tied to the
land, the feud or glebe. One of the fundamental institutionals pillars of capitalism – as
against feudalism and slavery, for instance – is that workers are “formally free” in the sense
that their employer (the capitalist) does not “own” them the way feudal lords and ancient
masters did. Because capitalists have no ownership of workers but simply purchase their
labour-power on the “free market”, it follows that capitalists compete with one another for
workers’ labour-power. Part of this competition consists of a simple paradox to which the
bourgeoisie is exposed: although each individual capitalist wants to pay his workers as little
as possible, the same capitalist wants other employers to pay their workers as much as
possible so that they may spend their income on the goods he produces! This is a variant
(the converse, if you like) of the “paradox of thrift” first illustrated by Marx in Capital and
then adopted by Keynes.

The result is that workers’ consumption is distorted in two very nefarious ways, deleterious
to society and to the environment. The first aspect is that capitalists cannot produce goods
that emancipate workers from wage labor – this occurs indirectly through wage-push
inflation and demand-pull as well. The second aspect is that capitalists must employ
marketing to persuade workers to spend their wages on the repressive goods they force
them to produce! This obviously results in the most horrendous irrational waste!

The third aspect is the ideological component of consumerism – “marketing” is a pervasive


bombardment of workers through “consumer choice”!

Profit and Uneven Development


Thus, if we wish to understand why the global population keeps growing to the point where
it is becoming unsustainable for the ecosphere - then we have only the capitalist mode of
production to blame. But, the objection will be promptly moved, if that is so, why is it that
the most advanced capitalist countries are beginning to experience stable or stagnant or
even declining populations? The answer is relatively simple: as capitalist accumulation
grows, the process runs against political and environmental limits as capitalist ruling classes
attempt, first, to keep their own national populations pacified through rising living
standards relative to other nations (!) - but then, second, this first condition requires the
presence of other nations (especially if under the control of authoritarian dictatorships)
where populations of potential workers can absorb the profits accumulated in the more
advanced industrial capitalist countries. This model of international capitalist division of
social labour is premised therefore on the “uneven development” of national economies -
not just in terms of industrial development but also in terms of the adaptation of national
institutions to the industrial requisites of the bourgeoisie. As nations become more
advanced from an industrial viewpoint, they also are left with no choice but to emancipate
their own working classes. Yet at the same time, these more advanced capitalist nations
need to find less advanced nations whose working populations they can exploit and expand
through higher rates of fertility! It goes without saying that this process of “uneven
development” gives rise to tremendous conflicts between the more advanced and the less
advanced capitalist countries - in all sorts of directions from migration pressures, to
international tensions as each nation seeks to unload its domestic wage antagonism on
other countries.