The Difficult Theory of a Mad World

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From its central question, what does critical theory have to do with the critique of political economy?, Werner Bonefeld’s new book, reviewed here by Chris Wright, develops a deep engagement with the Frankfurt School, Marx and a constellation of less translated critics of the value-form.

By Chris Wright, Mute Magazine

I find it hard to tell you

’Cause I find it hard to take

When people run in circles it’s a very, very
Mad world

– Tears for Fears, ‘Mad World’

Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy is a difficult book to approach. Despite its small size, it is a theoretically dense and systematically developed work in which each chapter is premised on grasping the one preceding it. Each of its moments are an intertwining of precisely aimed critiques and novel critical expositions that challenge not just traditional Marxism, but much of the heterodox work alleging to renew Marxian thought in a post-Soviet, neoliberal world.1

The book opens with two questions that will be asked and answered repeatedly from different angles throughout: ‘What does Critical Theory have to do with the critique of political economy?’ and ‘What exactly do we mean by a “critique of political economy” that is different from a radical (“Marxist” or “Critical”) political economy?’

The students of Frankfurt School critical theory transformed the understanding of Capital against traditional Marxism with its technological determinism, historical teleology, and crude matterism that missed the centrality of the critique of social forms in Marx’s oeuvre. Social forms like value or abstract labour do not refer to objects, but the objectification of human relations in which essence and appearance do not coincide. Bonefeld analyses and criticises the main trends of that post-68 critical theory, especially the debates over the first few chapters of Capital. Not only does he revisit his earlier critiques of structuralist Marxism, but he comments critically on Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, who, among other key contemporaries, played a pivotal role in the turn towards the critique of the value-form.

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