Negativity and Democracy: Marxism and the Critical Theory Tradition

By Vasilis Grollios

Vasilis Grollios, Negativity and Democracy: Marxism and the Critical Theory Tradition, Routledge, 2017. (Routledge Advances in Democratic Theory Series)

Despite the crisis and the fact that many people regard bourgeois parliamentary democracy as a system that does not and cannot express their needs, the same model persists. People have become even more shackled within its intellectual framework and look for parties or politicians that will act as saviors and alter the current political situation. Instead of debunking the philosophical anthropology, the values that are adopted by those who occupy the state and by those who support the bourgeois form of democracy, people continue to embrace and reiterate their faith in these very values – growth, interpreted as the perpetual accumulation of wealth, competition and hard work – and seek politicians who will more effectively implement them for the common good. Different parties occupy states all the time yet the logic according to which we are supposed to live remains the same. To what extent is the irrational rationality of capitalism, which evaluates everything in terms of money multiplication, being produced by ordinary people who only attempt to fulfill a decent livelihood?

Through exploring and elaborating on the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School, my book, Negativity and Democracy: Marxism and the Critical Theory Tradition, challenges the view that democracy should be understood as a call for a more effective domination of the people, as another kind of power or as a demand for the replacement of the elite that currently holds power, even by a party that claims to be socialist or Marxist.

For the critical theorist, the concept of democracy is theorized in terms of negative dialectics. Negative dialectics attempts to make us aware of the human content that lies hidden inside fetish-forms such as the state, the bourgeois form of democracy, values as money or the trinity formula of capital, rent, and wage. The critical theory of democracy poses the question of how it is possible for people, on the one hand, to be the only subjects of history, and on the other, to be ultimately dominated by the aforementioned forms, over which they have no control. Why does human doing – that is to say, the way that we come into contact with each other and with nature to fulfill our basic needs – take forms that we cannot control, that do not express our needs and that ultimately dominate us? Why does this content take these forms? Could one say that we ourselves built the bars of our prison? Are we the victims of capital or we should be proud of being the crisis of it? What is it that which dominates us: the state and the politicians along with the big corporations and banks or a deeper dynamic that we ourselves create? Such questions point to the complexity of the concerns of critical theory: in attempting to reveal and unravel the very essence of the apparent fetish-forms, it poses much deeper questions than those posed by traditional theory.

In this study, I support the idea that the early theorists of the Frankfurt School employed a dialectics that was negative and open. For these theorists, critical theory has a specific meaning and purpose, which is to denaturalize and thus defetishize the forms that make up the topsy-turvy world by penetrating to their real content, thus revealing the hidden human content of the forms. This conceptualization of critical theory is at odds with the way in which most researchers currently use the term: they attribute to it a vague meaning that has very little to do with how it was perceived by the founders of the critical theory tradition, that is, the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists.

My hope is that a critical-negative analysis can help us act in open and negative terms towards social reality and thus understand the non-apparent, hidden character of social fetish-forms such as the state, value as money and the bourgeois-liberal-representative form of democracy. In so doing, our efforts to change the world and our struggle for democracy might bring to an end our reproduction of the mystified forms that estrange us from our dignity and will instead succeed in opening new cracks in the capitalist mode of production.

It should be noted that the aim of this book is not to present a diverse collection of studies on the concept of negativity and democracy. Instead, there is a common theme running throughout the book: key to the philosophy of all the major figures of the Frankfurt School/critical theory tradition is the notion of the ‘enchanted’, bewitched, ‘topsy-turvy world’ (K. Marx, Capital, Volume 3, CW 37, Lawrence and Wishart, 1998, p. 817) or the ‘concept of the spell and all its implications’ (Adorno, History and Freedom, Polity, Great Britain, 2006, p. 173), which can come to the fore only with a philosophical account of the dialectics between appearance/form and essence/content. The research goal that the major thinkers of the critical theory tradition shared was to investigate how fetishism is a process that is produced and reproduced by us by and through our daily doing. Irrespective of the varied conclusions that these critical theorists reached as a result of their philosophical investigations, the concepts of negativity, contradiction and their analysis of fetishism as a process played a defining role in their understanding of the spellbound social totality, a role that is not encountered in any other social theory tradition. My study elaborates on the common perspective that these theorists shared.

More specifically, I will also support among others the unique idea that in Adorno not only the concept of the spell, but all the key notions in his philosophy hold an inherent political meaning that can come to the fore only if they are connected to its idea that ‘society remains class struggle’ (Adorno, “Society”, in Boyers Robert (ed.) The Legacy of the German Refugee Intellectuals, Schocken Books, New York, 1969, p. 149). Horkheimer also adopts a similar concept of the spell, of fetishism since he recognises ‘the irrationality of the world’ (Horkheimer, Dawn & Decline. Notes 1926-1931 and 1950-1969. New York: The Seabury Press. p. 104) in which ‘men must submit to conditions they themselves create as to something alien and overwhelmingly powerful’ (Ibid. p. 51). These conditions determine the way in which the ‘topsy-turvy world’ appears, that is, in the inverted, distorted forms previously mentioned. He even calls for a ‘Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom’ (Ibid. p. 52). Marcuse holds, in regard to dialectics and fetishism, that ‘[t]he entire dimension that has been neglected in Marxian theory […] [is] how social institutions reproduce themselves in the individuals, and how the individuals, by virtue of their reproducing their own society act on it’. (Marcuse, “Heidegger’s Politics. An Interview”, in Marcuse, Heideggerian Marxism, p. 175). My chapter on Marcuse is the only I know that puts this idea at the center of its analysis.

Vasilis Grollios teaches in the Greek Open University. He has taken all his degrees form the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece and has conducted postdoctoral research in the University of York, UK. He has published articles on J.S.Mill and Critical Theory in Constellations, Journal of Political Ideologies, Capital and Class, Critique: A Journal of Social Theory and Critical Sociology.

To get a discount on the book, download the flyer here. A review copy of the book can be obtained by emailing Grollios.


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1 thought on “Negativity and Democracy: Marxism and the Critical Theory Tradition

  1. Good morning, my opinion is that we need more politicians bent on working for society instead of working for a change of political system

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