Yes and No:
On the Question of the Global Social Subject

There is really no such subject, only the traces of its blood.

    Theodor W. Adorno


The concept of the revolutionary subject is now so widely maligned, contested, and easily misunderstood that it cannot be deployed without further determination. It was popularized by Guy Debord’s critical history of the workers’ movement, “The Proletariat as Subject and Representation,” written from a council communist standpoint. Debord drew on Georg Lukács who, in his early left-communist days, claimed that the proletariat is the “subject of total social reality”[1] —subtly subversive because if the class is an historical subject capable of self-activity, this undercuts Lenin’s doctrine that the will of the vanguard party must drive it ‘from outside.’[2] 

These notions have lost considerable ground to the apparently contrary claim—now disseminated more often as a meme than an argument—that capital, as a self-moving social totality, is in fact said subject. This is, at least at present, close to the truth. But Adorno gets closer: “hitherto…there has been no global subject;” capital, for all its power to dominate individuals and drive society’s historical trajectory, is a “global subject devoid of subjectivity.”[3] Those theorists like Tony Smith who today term capital a “pseudo-subject” are, from a critical, materialist perspective, correct.[4] Capital in its blind, totalizing M-C-M’ drive appears as a “transcendental subject,” yet it’s one “completely outside individual consciousness,” thus it “becomes a fetish.”[5]

Outside the fantasy of fichtean idealism, a collective ‘subject’ alienated from individual subjectivities can be “a subject only in an improper sense.”[6] It moves behind our backs yet only through our perverted practice, by vampirizing our life-activity, our time—which it’s “abstract[ed] from” but “dependent on.”[7]

Capital-as-(pseudo)-subject really refers to “society in the form of the economic object,”[8] the reign of accumulation’s fetishized categories, which are animated by, yet compel, the individual subjects’ real practical activity, congealed in them. Hans-Georg Backhaus has that cute diagram showing how “society as subject and society as object are the same and yet not the same.”[9] Yet he stipulates: “the [social] ‘objectivity’ represented by the diagram also takes on a subjective character and, conversely, the subject takes on an objective character, insofar as the socio-economic ‘categories,’ ‘laws,’ and ‘forces’ determine the economic agents, that is the subjects. These subjects are thus transformed into objects and ‘produced’ by the socio-economic categories.”[10] In other words, the capital-process appears as ‘subject’ due to “the inversion of the subject into the object and vice versa,” “the rule of the object over the human, of dead labour over living, of the product over the producer.”[11]

Alfred Schmidt rightly insists, though, that a critical theory “refuses merely to register the reified, pseudo-objective structures of capitalist everyday life;”[12] rather it “holds fast to the potential of society as subject, and to the belief that, in all its manifestations, society should be measured critically against the concept of its own subjectivity.”[13] That is, our potential to abolish “social conditions which assume the form of objective powers, indeed of overpowering objects”[14] and build “a self­-determining, mature society which is also liberated in terms of its content.”[15] Indeed, Adorno stresses that the species’ very survival now depends on the development of a truly “self-conscious global subject,”[16] (re)appropriating its social powers, historically constituted in estranged form as the powers of capital. 

Can this mean the proletariat? Yes and no. Moishe Postone clarifies matters powerfully and succinctly: “The proletariat…is a historically specific category of alienation” that must be grasped “as the not-yet-Subject — that which constitutes the alienated Subject (Capital) and which becomes Subject by overthrowing capital and in the process abolishing that labor, essential to capital, which defines the proletariat itself.”[17] So long as there’s no new pseudo-subject (party or ‘workers’ state’ or ‘socialist’ commodity economy) set up over and against the world proletariat doing the overthrowing, in and through the revolutionary transformation it “abolish[es] itself — and therefore capital — thereby allowing humanity to become the historical Subject.”[18] The proletariat as commodified labor compelled to valorize capital is “immediately placed wholly on the side of the object,”[19] thus as we once wrote, the proletariat could only become progressively an historical subject “to the extent to which it had succeeded in abolishing itself as proletariat.”[20] But then the subject that would emerge would no longer be the proletariat, but humanity—a humanity that has never yet existed.[21] Thus the proletariat can be a subject strictly in the revolutionary process—in the process of overcoming all the determinations of its own condition, and globally unifying the species as a classless society.[22] The nuances of the dialectic at play here are excellently conveyed by a member of post-situ group For Ourselves, in his critique of Gilles DauvĂ©: “What a communist revolution means is the re-owning of subjectivity by the masses of workers and other proletarians, self-organized as a class. It means that the proletariat has ceased to reproduce itself unconsciously, as the proletariat, through the mediation of capital, and has begun to transform itself consciously, according to its own needs and desires, into the community of producers. In doing so, it ceases to be the proletariat. ... As Marx put it, ‘the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing.’ By this, he not only meant that capitalist society denies proletarians their humanity, renders them ‘nothing’ but masses of living labor whose sole function is to produce surplus-value, but he also meant that the proletariat does not fully exist until it begins the task of abolishing itself. Like a photon of light, the proletariat exists as a subject only in a state of motion. As Hegel would have said, it exists only ‘in-itself,’ and thus, ‘for another,’ i.e., for capital. When it starts existing ‘for-itself,’ it must also negate itself, since its individual members cannot exist really for themselves except by abolishing all classes, and therefore, their own.”[23] Indeed, Guy Debord himself was well aware that communist revolution meant the self-abolition of the proletariat[24] — his concept of ‘the proletariat as subject’ is best understood as a critical concept: a weapon against domination by our own representation, against those forces aiming to paint capitalism red and keep us on the object-side of the social process, sellers of labor-power.[25] 

This may all sound like a metaphysical hangover, but it’s adequately materialist to speak of a global social subject if the historical practice of humanity as a whole is mediated consciously (rather than through reified economic categories) with individual subjectivities—“if the social process of production and reproduction were transparent for the subjects, if the subjects determined that process.”[26] This certainly doesn’t imply some kind of homogenous volonté générale[27] (an assumption that scares many people away from this kind of talk). The diversity of individuals’ needs and desires—within the proletariat and within future humanity—is no barrier to the self-conscious, self-reflexive collective transformation of our circumstances, so long as “real dialogue” has “impose[d] its own conditions.”[28] A subject is not a subject without internal tension and heterogeneous experience! Indeed Adorno made clear that a global social subject depends not on “undifferentiated unity,” but on what he called “the communication of the differentiated”[29]—or, more explicitly, “council democracy.”[30]




[1] Georg Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?” [1919] in History and Class Consciousness (MIT 1972), 21.

[2] Lenin’s Infantile Disorder pamphlet disciplined Lukács back into line, and he shrunk from many of the politically-incorrect implications of his early insights—that class consciousness emerges directly from proletarian experience, leading to the formation of workers’ councils: “organizational expressions of…the power of the proletariat. … the true index of the progress of the revolution.” Lukács, “On the Question of Parliamentarianism” [1920] in Tactics and Ethics (Verso 2014), 61.

[3] Theodor W. Adorno, History and Freedom [1965] (Polity Press, 2006), 118.

[4] “Capital is Everything, an Absolute Subject subsuming every nook and cranny of social life to the imperatives of commodification, monetarisation, and valorisation. But capital is equally Nothing in and of itself, a mere Pseudo-subject, a parasite, a ghost, a ‘vampire,’ whose self-valorisation turns out to be nothing but a forced appropriation of the creative powers of living labour (and the powers of science, machinery, nature, pre-capitalist cultural achievements, and so on, that living labour mobilises). In one sense these capacities are capacities of capital. But in another sense capital, as pure form, has no capacities on its own.” Tony Smith, Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism (Brill 2017), 129. Riccardo Bellofiore gives Smith shit for precisely this argument, but those theories which neglect its second moment cease to be critical, and become a kind of neo-harmonist ‘value-form fichteanism.’ Capital is a negative totality because its movement of abstract forms remains dependent on the nonidentical moment of materiality subsumed to it — crisis is the return of the repressed.

[5] Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies [1963] (MIT 1993), 15.

[6] Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory” [1937] in Critical Theory: Selected Essays (Continuum 1975), 200.
Capital qua social totality exists as an “active subject” “nonconscious[ly],” through “the blind outcome of conflicting forces…not the result of conscious spontaneity on the part of free individuals.” Horkheimer counterposes to this pseudo-subject the historical possibility that “humanity will for the first time be a conscious subject and actively determine its own way of life,” rather than merely “personify the working of an incalculable social mechanism” [translation amended]. Ibid., 200, 233 & 197.

[7] Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, 45.

[8] Werner Bonefeld, “Negative Dialectics and the Critique of Economic Objectivity” History of the Human Sciences vol. 29, no. 2 (2016), 60.

[9] Adorno, “Introduction” in The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology [1969] (Harper & Row 1976), 34.

[10] Hans-Georg Backhaus, “Between Philosophy and Science” in Werner Bonefeld et al., eds., Open Marxism vol. 1 (Pluto Press 1992), 59-60.

[11] Karl Marx, “Results of the Immediate Process of Production” [1864] in Capital vol. 1 (Penguin 1976), 990.

[12] Alfred Schmidt, History and Structure: An Essay on Hegelian-Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History [1971] (MIT 1983), 61.
“It is not the creed of critical theory that societal being determines consciousness; it is the diagnosis of a condition to be transcended. The prehistory of humanity makes individuals into ‘personifications of economic categories.’ Only when individuals succeed in determining their life-process in a common effort will blind fate turn into freedom and historical materialism cease to be the correct explanation of human affairs.” Schmidt, “The Idea of Critical Theory” in Judith Marcus et al., eds., Foundations of the Frankfurt School of Social Research (Routledge 1984), 77.
Schmidt critiques state-capitalist ideological apologia—notably its most sophisticated species, Althusserian structuralism—for raising “what in Marx is the object of critique” to “the rank of a scientific norm,” “only concerned to ‘reflect’ already in fact reified relations in the interests of the ruling powers.” Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx [1962] (NLB 1971), 192. Thus the terminological specification ‘critical theory’ is no euphemistic dilution, but born of strict fidelity to marxism’s strongest motives, in defiance of its innumberable perverters.

[13] Adorno, Introduction to Sociology [1968] (Stanford 2000), 138.

[14] Marx, Grundrisse [1857] (MECW 29), 40.

[15] Adorno, Introduction to Sociology, 138.

[16] Adorno, “Progress” [1962] in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (Columbia 1998), 144.

[17] Moishe Postone, “On Nicolaus’ ‘Introduction’ to the GrundrisseTelos no. 22 (December 1974), 144.

[18] Postone, “Necessity, Labor, and Time” Social Research vol. 45, no. 4 (Winter 1978), 782.

[19] Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” [1923] in History and Class Consciousness, 167.

[20] A New Institute for Social Research, “Lukács Beyond Lukács” (2019).

[21] “[The proletariat] claims only that it will provide the key to the larder of human­ity when it is abolished: yet it does not claim to carry, let alone to be, this larder. In its dehumanization it teaches, with radical precision, that there has never yet been human life, but always just economic life.” Ernst Bloch, Traces [1930] (Stanford 2006), 18.

[22] “When the proletariat is victorious, it by no means becomes the absolute side of society, for it is victorious only by abolishing itself and its opposite. Then the proletariat disappears as well as the opposite which determines it” in “the total redemption of humanity.” Marx & Engels, MECW vol. 4, 36; Marx, MECW vol. 3, 186.

[23] ‘Louis Michaelson,’ “Communism, Organization, and Consciousness: A Critique of Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement” (1974).

[24] “It is not enough to be for the power of workers’ councils in the abstract; it is necessary to demonstrate what it means concretely: the suppression of commodity production and therefore of the proletariat.” “On the Poverty of Student Life” [1966] in ed. Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 427.
Debord carefully terms the proletariat “the only pretender to historical life.” Our claim can be redeemed, “the project of conscious history” realized, only through putting an end to our proletarianization: “where economic id was, there ego shall be.” “The possibility of the subject’s existence depends on the outcome of the class struggle.” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle [1967] (Bureau of Public Secrets 2014), 39, 35, 20 [translation amended].

[25] As an acid test, it works like a charm—all one has to do to identify our enemies is utter the word ‘subject’ and see who starts frothing at the mouth. Recall that the first major attack on the concept of the historical subject came from Althusser, who with the unwavering instincts of a leninist lackey recognized a challenge to the separate power of his precious party (committed to eternalizing a barren world populated with structures and instances and apparatuses, nary a human in sight—in other words, capitalism) that might crack its pseudo-revolutionary façade. The enthusiasm for alterity, hybridity, multitudes, networks, and sprouting potatoes came later, a lot of sexed-up abstruse verbiage coating the bitter pill of resignation to impotent (and illusory) liberal pluralism: ‘don’t get your hopes up, the global power of the workers’ councils ain’t happening, settle for throwing the occasional brick at a demo and reveling in your marginality.’

[26] Adorno, Negative Dialectics [1966] (Continuum 2007), 263.

[27] In fact, the concept has gained its determinacy in opposition to two such ‘wills:’ the law of value, blindly asserting itself over our heads, and the party-dictatorship over the proletariat, imposing the correct line with iron discipline.

[28] Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 84 & 117.

[29] Adorno, “On Subject and Object” [1969] in Critical Models, 247.

[30] Adorno, “Theses on Need” [1942] in Constelaciones: Revista de Teoría Crítica no. 6 (December 2014), 466. For more on this thread in his thinking, see: Sebastian Kanally, “The Concept of the Global Subject in Adorno” (2019).

A New Institute for Social Research