Acid Communism

Like so many of his neologisms, Mark Fisher’s ‘Acid Communism’ encapsulates a crisis of disambiguation, hurling a provocation into our midst. The phrase — which was to be the title of his next book, now unfinished following his death in January 2017 – has garnered considerable attention as many wonder what kind of variation on Marx’s manifesto might be occasioned by this new corrosive qualifier.

In truth, Acid Communism resists definition. The word ‘acid’ in particular, by invoking industrial chemicals, psychedelics and various sub-genres of dance music, is promiscuous. With so many uses and instantiations in various contexts, it is as difficult to cleanly define as ‘communism’ is in the 21st century. This textual promiscuity is no doubt what attracted Fisher to the phrase, but this has not stopped recent attempts to concretely define it in his absence.

Jeremy Gilbert, a former collaborator of Fisher’s, has led the way, writing a number of articles that turn Acid Communism into a one-dimensional and purely affirmative project, seeking the rehabilitation of the countercultural utopianism of the 1960s and ‘70s. In the New Statesman, Gilbert writes on ‘acid’ in particular and the way that the word still connotes “the liberation of human consciousness from the norms of capitalist society [as] a desirable, achievable and pleasurable objective.” (Gilbert, 2017). What is absent from Gilbert’s summaries is made clear here. Is such a liberation of human consciousness desirable? Certainly. Achievable? Possibly. But pleasurable? Not always; not essentially.

Acid Communism is a project beyond the pleasure principle. It is not only a project for the recuperation of the counterculture’s lost potentials but also the expression of a desire for an experimental (rather than prescriptively utopian) leftist politics. This is a maneuver present within so many expositions of communism. Marx and Engels themselves wrote how “communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” (Marx & Engels 2017, 102). Acid Communism is, then, a project for seeking ‘the outside’ of sociopolitical hegemony. As Fisher acknowledged in so many of his writings, this requires an acknowledgement of the fact that to disturb normality is inherently disturbing, but “terrors are not all there is to the outside.” (Fisher 2016, 9).

In the unpublished introduction to Acid Communism, Fisher quotes Michel Foucault explaining that the challenge now is “not to recover our ‘lost’ identity, to free our imprisoned nature, our deepest truth; but instead […] to move towards something radically Other.” (Foucault 1991, 120). This Other is the spectre that Marx and Engels first conjured out of European history; for Herbert Marcuse, it was “the spectre of a world that could be free.” (Marcuse 1998, 93). What haunted Fisher was a similar notion: a collective subject that has long been desired but still resists instantiation. As he wrote in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, the “required subject — a collective subject — does not exist, yet the crisis, like all the other global crises we’re now facing, demands that it be constructed.” (Fisher 2009, 66). Here a spectre is not what is left of something dead and lost. It is atemporal; an “eerie entity”, as Fisher would say, representing both a failure of absence and a failure of presence. It is desire without absolute lack.

For Marx, “desire” is so often inseparable from the commodity. It is never without object. On the very first page of Capital, quoting Nicholas Barbon, Marx defines it in a footnote: “Desire implies want; it is the appetite of the mind, and as natural as hunger to the body.” (Barbon 1696, 2-3). In The Communist Manifesto, however, desire becomes insatiable and speculative: “In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.” (Marx & Engels 2017, 55). The production of politics has had much the same effect, eroticising desire, launching it into unknown and forbidden lands; beyond borders, boundaries and limits. Pleasure becomes, in contrast, fatally associated with the familiar.

Acid, in its promiscuity, allows this speculative desire to flow back through communism in both new and forgotten ways. Writing in 1977, Gilles Deleuze offers the most succinct summary of how such a desire functions, explicitly in contrast to Foucauldian “pleasure”:

[T]here is no subject of desire, and no object either. The objectivity of desire itself is only its flows. There is never enough desire. Desire is the system of a-signifying signs out of which unconscious flows are produced in a social-historical field. Every unfolding of desire, in whatever place it may occur, such as a family or a school in the neighbourhood, tests the established order and sends shock waves through the social field as a whole. Desire is revolutionary because it is always seeking more connections. (Deleuze 2006, 81).

In this way ‘Acid’ is desire, as corrosive and denaturalising multiplicity, flowing through the multiplicities of communism itself to create alinguistic feedback loops; an ideological accelerator through which the new and previously unknown might be found in the politics we mistakenly think we already know, reinstantiating a politics to come.


Every New Year’s Eve, the Dutch anarchist scene gathers to celebrate the upcoming year at a detention center. Detention Center Schiphol, near Amsterdam Airport, is the place where ‘illegal’ refugees are kept before they are deported back to the country they’ve fled. The people on the other side of the wall not only hear new year’s wishes in several languages, and music to dance to, but also slogans like “No borders, no nations, stop deportations” and “tout le monde déteste la police.” The anarchists demand the abolition of the prison system and scream at the top of their lungs to communicate their dislike of borders and the nation-state. The new year ritual, however, is more than a symbolic protest, it is an act of solidarity and a way of interacting with, and caring for, each other right now.

Marx’s name justified some of the most horrific regimes because it takes time and strong leaders to bring the perfect communist socialist society into existence. But also in the rare cases when fighting for communism didn’t result in an authoritarian leader taking over, the primacy of one specific struggle – class struggle – over others has caused many movements to neglect important hierarchies and power relations within the group and society at large. Most anarchists agree with large parts of the problem analysis developed by Marxists: capitalism is a problem because it exploits workers. We should strive to eliminate the division of labor, and the unjust valuation of capital in respect to labor, rather than leading a life dictated by capital. Anarcho-capitalists aside – who aren’t considered anarchists by the other currents of anarchism anyway – anarchists of all kinds share a large part of the Marxist analysis. Bakunin and Marx agreed on a lot of things, but fell out over the question of how to accomplish the society in which those problems were not present. “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”, wrote Bakunin. Marx gave an analysis of the problems with capitalism, but how to proceed was less clear, as underlined by the results of the different attempts of implementing Marx’s thought in different countries. As Peter Hudis reminds us, Marx did not mention the state in the first chapter of volume 1 of Das Kapital, nor does it come up in the discussions on a post-capitalist society in Friedrich Engels’ third volume (2012, 175). At Marx’s 200th birthday we’ve seen attempts to, in Marx’s name, establish communism, and the result of the so-called ‘end of history’ under global capitalism. What we’re left with is freedom without socialism: there is privilege and injustice, but we are afraid to act because of socialism’s history of slavery and brutality.

The term ‘state illusion’ refers to the idea that a radical transformation of society is best accomplished through winning state power. Anarchist Gustav Landauer wrote that “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another” (2010, 214). We thus don’t have to win over state power – where possible we can already start behaving differently today.

The term anarchism comes from the Greek prefix ‘an’ and the verb ‘archein.’ It means no beginning, no leadership, no rule: no government. Besides ‘no government,’ it can also mean ‘no beginning’: we can start right now, we don’t have to wait for any radical revolution or overthrow of government before we start battling privilege and injustice and creating a more just world. When we look for an answer to the problems we are facing today – be it climate destruction, racism, sexism, or increased inequality and poverty – it seems clear that focusing on winning state power is just as ineffective as waiting for government intervention by those already in power. We have to act now and do whatever we can, rather than wait for the revolution.

Anarchists cannot provide a blueprint of what the world should look like. Change should be tried through experimenting. And people should experiment for themselves – no central committee can implement anarchism from above, and no revolutionaries can force the abstinence of government and centralization upon people. If we want to see what the value of Marxism is, we can look at its economic theories and problem analyses. For solutions, we have to experiment, look, prefigure and try on our own. There is no blueprint for utopia. Ana Cecilia Dinerstein argues that in autonomous organizing, value is confronted with hope (2015, 211). Autonomous organizing, in which the anarchist principles of nonhierarchical, anti-capitalist, horizontal organizing are applied, prefigures what a post-revolutionary society should look like, but also already brings it into being right now. Ignoring the walls that divide the refugees from the privileged citizens, singing and dancing, wishing each other a happy new year: it is a first prefiguration, an act of solidarity, an attempt at creating the society we want to see. The anarchist emphasis on doing what is possible now, their way of organizing and interacting, is providing the blueprint for the society that is to come without falling into the trap of the state illusion.


Nonhuman animals are not often considered a factor of importance in Marxist thought, and insights from Marxist thought are not often considered to be relevant to animal studies (Cochrane 2010). Marx himself did not write about nonhuman animals in much detail and saw humans as distinct from all other animals. Even though he had read Darwin (Benton 1993), who famously argued that differences between humans and other animals are of degree and not kind, and recognized the capacities of nonhuman animals to produce, as well as the animal nature of humans (Cochrane 2010), he saw humans as special animals and his theory is anthropocentric in different ways. His historical account for example focuses solely on human history and teleology, not recognizing animal agency or the importance of nonhuman animal- (or interspecies-) labor in capitalism. He also explicitly addresses the human capacity for transcending their animal nature, in contrast to other animals (ibid.). The focus is on human liberation, and the idea of justice for nonhuman animals seems irrelevant from this perspective.

However, as several authors have pointed out (Benton 2003, Noske 1989, Painter 2016, Perlo 2002), Marxist concepts can shed light on specific characteristics of the position of nonhuman animals in capitalist societies, and a focus on nonhuman animals can bring to light dimensions of capitalism that are otherwise obscured. I will first briefly focus on the latter point, the relevance of thinking about animals for Marxism, and then turn to the first in more detail. Our economic, cultural, and social structures are in large part built on nonhuman animal labor and matter. The rise of capitalism is interconnected with the exploitation of nonhuman animals, and the remnants of their bodies are omnipresent in most of the objects and artifacts humans produce. The book PIG 05049 (2007), by Dutch artist Christien Meindersma, illustrates this by documenting what happens to the body of one pig after slaughter. Some body parts are made into food for humans, but her bones, skin, and whatever else is left, are used to make all kinds of objects and materials, ranging from aspirin to gasoline to porcelain. If one would take animal matter out of these products without replacing them, our physical world would collapse. This material use is furthermore interconnected with the production of cultural symbols in capitalism (Shukin 2009).

Nonhuman animal labor is also an important economic force in our societies (Hribal 2003). Barns are filled with chickens laboring for our eggs, cows who are impregnated to keep creating milk, and so on. While many nonhuman animals are used as objects, this does not mean they have no agency. Historian Jason Hribal (2003, 2007) claims that nonhuman animals are part of the working class. He argues they partly instigated the industrial revolution by being unreliable workers and were a driving force in the rise of capitalism. Their cooperation and resistance also shaped human labor and instruments. Rethinking production and labor thus also asks for rethinking relations with other animals. Here it is also important to recognize that the lives of nonhuman and human animal workers are often closely interconnected (see for example Hovorka and Geiger 2015). Human workers in slaughterhouses often suffer from large welfare issues (Pachirat 2011). For poor families, using animal workers is sometimes their only way of surviving. Vulnerable human and nonhuman groups are also often collectively affected by capitalism. Western habits of consumption may hurt animals in industrial farming, together with the non-western human and nonhuman animals whose habitats are destroyed in growing soy for these farmed animals. To analyze or improve the position of one of these groups an intersectional approach is needed. More attention to how different groups are collectively affected might also lead to greater solidarity, which can help bring forward social change.

This brings us to the second point, the relevance of Marxist criticism for theorizing the social and political position of nonhuman animals. First, while capitalism is not necessary for animal oppression – human oppression and use of nonhuman animals seems the standard in most if not all social, political and religious settings – the Marxist focus on material conditions and economic structures can help to criticize the specific forms of oppression nonhuman animals in capitalist societies suffer from. The scale of their oppression is unprecedented and the strong focus on profit in capitalism is interconnected with the lack of progress in bringing about social change. Philosopher Dinesh Wadiwel (2016) shows that under capitalism animals are objectified and commodified for human consumption, for example in undergoing material transformations in order to become meat. They no longer only have use value for humans; they also have exchange value. This benefits humans economically and symbolically, because through using other animals human value is reified.

Second, a focus on nonhuman animal labor is important because, contrary to what Marx thought, other animals work. They work for and with humans, for example in entertainment, experiments, the police force, the army, and health care. They work for themselves, for example to build nests, bridges, houses and gardens, for food, and for artistic reasons (Bekoff 2002): they also work collectively, for example in hunting or building. Some species of nonhuman animals make other animals work for them; certain species of ants for example farm aphids, keeping them close-by through using chemicals on their feet (Oliver et al. 2007). Nonhuman animals cannot perform certain tasks humans can, but animals of many species can do things humans cannot, such as weaving webs. Theorizing labor relations between humans and other animals under capitalism is important for reasons of justice, and in order to work towards new interspecies communities (Meijer 2017).

This aspect of their lives has not been given much attention in animal philosophy so far (Cochrane 2016, Kymlicka 2017). The focus in this field has long been on suffering and/or liberation, instead of formulating new relations. Recent approaches that focus on nonhuman animal agency, politics, and subjectivity, however, point precisely to the importance of forming new relations and communities with other animals, arguing that relations with other animals are unavoidable and that better relations are possible. A focus on nonhuman animal labor can help bring forward animal studies in different ways. From recognizing that other animals work it may follow that humans understand them more fully as co-beings in shared communities (see Kymlicka 2017 for examples). Those thinking about fair interspecies relations need to take into account that work for many other animals is part of living a fulfilled life. This means something different for different species, but boredom is one of the biggest problems for zoo animals and domesticated animals living under the conditions of factory farming, together with loneliness. These animals also very often suffer from alienation (Noske 1989). Finally, it is important to recognize that the conditions under which nonhuman animals live can certainly be improved under capitalism, but that that is not enough to bring about actual change for them. It does not suffice to give nonhuman animals bigger cages or better food: we need to challenge the conditions that enable their large-scale exploitation, beginning with the fact that many of them, as sentient beings, are considered human property, and the fact that humans think they own the planet that we all live on.


The concept of association has its own history, which clearly informs the Marxian use of the term. With Rousseau the term “association” first enters the terminology of social philosophy; he uses the term to positively describe the linking between free and equal citizens. In the Second Discourse Rousseau speaks of “free association, which obliged none of its members,” (Rousseau 2002, 116) as a form of societal organization. In the Contrat Social it will be the contract itself that constitutes the association of a free society. In both cases association appears as self-determined connectivity of the members of a free and equal society.

With this tradition, the term association slowly gains specific connotations. They are linked to the idea of an emancipated society. After Rousseau, Claude Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier specified egalitarian forms of organization as “associations.” Saint-Simon reflected on associations as the form of organization of the classe productive, a professional organization for scientists, artists, and workers that should, in the end, reorganize society. Beyond social atomism, and beyond the market and the state, associations were considered as extrinsic systems of social organization which would not adequately represent the productive classes of society. The idea of an association of producers who would “work together and market their goods in common” (Beecher & Bienvenu 1971, 66) was the central idea of Fourier’s utopianism. Association, for Fourier, Saint-Simon, and their followers, stood for an alternative form of organization. Such associations were meant to connect with the separate field of social production directly, independently of market mediation.

In part related to the theoretical efforts of early socialists, so-called associations became the central element in the working class’s actual self-organization on the ground. Strikes during the French Revolution of 1830, for example, engendered a movement committed to the ideals of associationism. In 1848, Paris alone hosted around 300 of such associations with an approximate collective membership of some 50,000 people. The idea of common labor in self-organized associations, an idea that Charles Fourier had originally conceived for agricultural contexts, will become the leading slogan for urban craftsmen and the organizing industrial working-classes in the early and decisive years of struggle.

In this way, Marx, too, refers to these historical connotations in his use of the term “association,” famously so in the Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx and Engels write, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx & Engels 1976, 506). In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx writes: “The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called…” (Marx 1976a, 182). It will do so by spreading the idea and political form of the self-organization of producers, beginning with every productive unit, as broadly as possible.

Marx and Engels emphasize in the Communist Manifesto that within the bourgeois order a relation between the laborers emerges as its immanent product, something that is already present in a latent form. “The advance of industry,” they write, somewhat teleologically, “whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association.” (Marx & Engels 1976, 496). Time and again “association” describes a form of social organization which functions as means and end for the egalitarian organization of society. From The German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto to Capital (the “Verein freier Menschen” mentioned in the chapter on fetishism is presented to the English-speaking world as the “association of free men”, (see Marx 1976b, 171), this use of the term association can be found as a description of socialist politics and the working class’s self-organization, which transgresses the repressive and alienated organizational forms of state and capital.

Wherever Marx speaks about the organization of a future society, the term association is used to characterize the free and non-coercive form of social organization, through which goods are collectively produced and freely distributed. What Marx finds in the loose and voluntary structure of association is a representation of a collective potential of workers to communally manage the production and distribution of material wealth on both a small and large scale. That which is normally concealed by the socially necessary illusion generated by the commodity form, which is to say, labor, itself gains visibility and autonomy in and through associations.

When sketching outlines of a future society, Marx confronts the institutionalized spheres of state and capital with this self-organizing capacity of the material producers.

Association is a free form of coordination—it helps organize an intrinsic link between the social producers that might otherwise remain invisible. In and through associations the sphere of symbolic representation (the sphere of distribution, the state) is thus confronted with the hidden dynamic of production. In labor-struggles production articulates itself in a way that is normally excluded from an apparent logic of representation.

At least three layers that are crucial for any Marxian version of a future society are implied in the conception of association. First, the model of politics: associations help in articulating labor directly without separating the logics of material production from the sphere of politics (without separating, as in the terminology of Arendt or Habermas, work or labor from action or interaction, and thus, from politics). Second, the organization of social producers who, through the lens of the sphere of circulation, otherwise appear as isolated individuals, as mere owners of commodities. It is the method of free association that lays bare the inner connectivity of the various parts of social production. The particular dynamic and quality of labor associations is, in other words, to organize social elements that in the manifest structure of representation appear as isolated. Third, associations open up new dimensions of social life by re-arranging the conditions for social production. The satisfaction of social needs can directly be addressed in and through their collective articulation. By addressing the field of social production directly, associations help to imagine and produce new forms and conditions of social life. In other words, labor associations are means of poietic production which articulate the forces of a latent structure.

If you wish, you can call these three dynamics of associations (which sketch outlines of a Marxian version of a future society) aesthetic: they integrate muted elements of material practice (and thus, materiality) into the orders of representation, they form new meanings by bringing latent connections to the fore, and they open up new horizons of social practice. Politics can be beautiful.

Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

Marxism is a funny sport: more than in any other philosophical tradition, Marxists can be judged and evaluated by the degree to which they are ‘good Marxists.’ This is not so much about the degree to which they succeed in presenting convincing paradigms of social and cultural theory, but rather about the degree to which they manage to stick to the original program, to integrate the key elements of the originally Marxian theory, and the implications they would have for political practice. How much of a Marxist program was the program of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS)? How good a Marxist was a scholar like Hoggart or Hall (Hebdige, McRobbie, and Gilroy)? And, of course, when and for how long?

Founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart, the Centre, although not really claiming to be Marxist, published important work on quotidian working-class culture, and, further developed by his more famous successor Stuart Hall, focused mainly on forms of cultural struggle, which classical Marxism had neglected for a long time. Differing greatly from classical Marxism, the strict analysis of political economy never mattered much in the CCCS. The starting point (clearly so in Hoggart’s 1957 work The Uses of Literacy and as in E.P. Thompson’s highly influential 1964 The Making of the English Working Class) was working class culture as a source and means of political articulation. This presupposed an extended understanding of culture and a shift away from the normative orientation in cultural theory, and it led to an understanding of culture which interpreted cultural struggles as dominant sources in the formation of political identities. In some ways the CCCS thus developed its own version of Western Marxism, successively moving into its own version of Post-Marxism and identity politics by continuously shifting away from the main parameters of classical Marxism’s understanding of political struggle (based on labor and economic struggles). Nonetheless, the representatives of the CCCS cultural-analytical program (first and foremost Stuart Hall himself, but also allied thinkers such as E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams) were amongst the most visible intellectuals in Britain’s New Left (Stuart Hall being the first editor-in chief of the still powerful New Left Review), especially so during the dark age of Thatcherism.

The strongest link to maybe-not-so-classical Marxism but at least to canonical Marxist theory was the explicit reference to the work of Antonio Gramsci, whose concept of hegemony (devoid of its strategic roots in its Leninist fashion, as a merely analytical tool) probably became the most important concept in the political strategy of the CCCS’ version of cultural theory. Clearly, this was the way in which Stuart Hall had understood the centre’s program: “Rightly or wrongly, and especially in the 1970s, the Centre developed, or tried to develop, what I would call a Gramscian project.” (Hall 1990, 17). The understanding of Gramsci’s conception of hegemony quickly developed in non-Marxist directions. In the words of the centre’s specialist on Punk music, Dick Hebdige, hegemony was simply to be understood as the power to “exert ‘total social authority’ over other subordinate groups, not simply by coercion or by the direct imposition of ruling ideas, but by ‘winning and shaping consent …’.” (Hebdige 1979, 16). Both the concept of class and the idea that hegemony could be an aim of a party-oriented strategy had been replaced with some more general idea of cultural politics.

As a central – somewhat Marxist – point of reference, the concept of hegemony was allowed to stray from the classical doctrine and to enter the world of new struggles, new lines of conflict and, more terminologically, new social movements. Much as in the explicitly (and self-declared) post-Marxist theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the focus on the cultural determination (and articulation) of social struggles allowed not only the diversification of the classical Marxist horizon, it also left behind for good the emphasis on political economy and class struggle.

In the research program of the CCCS this development is linked to the central lines of conflict that were to be analyzed within the field of (widely understood) popular culture: next to class conflicts, generational conflicts (specifically in the analysis of subculture or youth culture), racial conflicts, and, last but not least, gender conflicts, became central. Stuart Hall was sufficiently clear about this aspect of the CCCS’ program, too: “What we are talking about is the struggle for cultural hegemony, which is these days waged as much in popular culture as anywhere else.” (Hall 1993, 106). Much of the analysis of these dynamics in popular culture remained faithful to the critical analysis of hegemony and was thus still Marxist, if not in content, then at least in some structure. Undeniably, each of these overlapping fields of analysis produced valuable and deeply influential research, and each of these fields could later (simplistically) be identified with second-generation scholars who had specialized in these lines of conflict (as Paul Gilroy on race and the post-colonial condition, or Angela McRobbie on gender, fashion, and girls’ culture).

So much for the analyses and concrete cultural studies. If one looks into the history of the CCCS’ (and its representatives’) publications, one finds surprisingly few original attempts at genuine theory. For philosophers, certainly for theory-philic Marxists, this sounds like a disadvantage. The immense amount of literature that the centre’s representatives have produced was of a different kind: Cultural Studies meant analyses, inquiries into the field of lived cultural practice and not so much abstract theorizing, grand theory, or metaphysics. In this sense, typical theoretical publications which emerged from the context of the CCCS were handbooks, providing theoretical instruments for eclectic cultural analyses. They assembled key concepts and commented on recent contributions to cultural theory without any emphatic systematic interest of their own.

As a genuine and original theoretical program, however, a program that clearly determined the further development of any media-theoretical analysis, the CCCS produced an approach to audience research and the theory of media reception. Condensed in a short article by Stuart Hall, the CCCS presented a new vision of the active role of the audience in the production of cultural meaning. As much as any cultural object was encoded (first produced), it could be decoded (creatively appropriated). Reception finally appeared as an active process that could confront the institutional order of media production with deviance and subversion. Next to ‘dominant codes’ certain possible layers appeared where ‘oppositional codes’ could enter the sphere of mass culture. Thus, the program of the CCCS emphasized the creativity of audiences in making sense of their own world. Methodologically this ended the dominance of the Volksempfänger, which had been kept in place for too long by Marxist cultural pessimists.

Some “pessimism of the intellect”, however, to allude to Gramsci, could have been helpful for the Birmingham program, and, maybe, some sectarianism too. In 1990 already, at the beginning of the decline of any broader claims to leftist cultural hegemony, Stuart Hall stated (referring specifically to the situation in the US) that “‘cultural studies’ has become an umbrella for just about anything” (Hall 1990, 22). Its critical potential faded with the growth of its theoretical indeterminacy. No theoretical tradition is ever fully innocent concerning its legacy, and one may doubt if contemporary cultural studies are of much help in articulating the relevant political antagonisms of the present. Birmingham’s trail-blazing approach to popular culture became all-too popular. As an effect of these dialectics, the Birmingham centre was closed in 2002.

Beauty Industry

The notion “beauty industry” is employed in various fields and from manifold angles, including everyday language. In order to make a critical interrogation of the beauty industry fruitful for Marxist thought, and vice versa, both the beauty industry and the ‘hidden labor of beauty’ (Black 2004, 66-91) must be situated within an analysis of the capitalist gendered division of labor. Marxist feminists have furthered Marxist thought by emphasizing and analyzing the fundamental necessity of house and care work (‘reproductive labor’) in capitalism. Attending to the beauty industry from a Marxist feminist perspective allows for extending the analysis of the capitalist gendered division of labor beyond these domains of ‘care work’ or ‘emotional labor’.

In line with Euromonitor, the beauty industry can be defined as including fragrances, hair and skin care products, sun care, color cosmetics, men’s grooming products, bath and shower products, as well as oral and baby care, and as overlapping with other industries and services such as fashion, hairdressers and beauty salons, and plastic surgery and other more medical services (Jones 2010, 9). The use of products to increase attractiveness and alter one’s scent goes way back in history to ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well as medieval Chinese, Arabs, and Europeans (ibid., 4). The development of the beauty industry, however, was initiated by a number of female and male entrepreneurs during the nineteenth century. The mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of beauty salons and of businesses that marketed beauty products, workplaces which in industrialized countries such as the UK or the US provided some of only a few employment opportunities for White (mostly working-class and some middle-class) women as well as for US Black women and men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Black 2004, 15-21). The history of the beauty industry is by-and-large a history of “large numbers of small and medium-sized entrepreneurial firms” rather than of “capital-intensive, mass marketing and mass production industries” (Jones 2010,15). It would become a mass-industry and increasingly globalized only by the 1920s and 1930s, a trend that intensified massively after World War II (Black 2004, 20-26). Currently, in the 21st century, the beauty industry is a multi-billion-dollar global industry, with consumers having each spent on average more than 330 dollars on cosmetics around the world in 2008 (Jones 2010, 1).

The gendered division of labor in capitalism is of at least twofold significance when it comes to the beauty industry. First, in many industrializing countries, a gendered division of labor started to unfold in the White bourgeoisie in the late 18th century (e.g., Sieder 1987) and generalized to the White (e.g., Rendall 1993) and only partly to people of color and black working classes throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., Collins 2000, 53f.). This division of labor assigned the wife to reproductive labor in the private sphere of the home and the husband to productive labor in the public sphere. Reproductive labor includes all activities that are needed in order to reproduce the workers’ ability to work, e.g., cleaning, cooking, having and raising children, and many other chores. For the middle-class wife of bourgeois societies in particular, domestic duties increasingly went along with representational as well as consumption responsibilities since the second half of the 19th century (Penz 2010, 14). The woman then became and has, to some extent, remained “the index of [the husband’s] economic situation, the prestige-object of a household, who is ceaselessly occupied in the task of creating fine distinctions” (Vinken 2005, 5), while the husbands’ attire grew more and more homogenized and plain. Beautification practices, in turn, became more and more inextricably linked with femininity.

Second, services and products of the beauty industry, as well as a considerable amount of beauty labor carried out by employees, are increasingly required by a continuously expanding service sector. Furthering discussions about the significance of ‘emotional labor’, especially in the care work occupations, Witz, Warhurst, and Nickson (2003) have examined the rising importance of aesthetics in contemporary organizations as ‘aesthetic labor’. Bourdieu (1984) already hinted at the fact that this form of labor is both fundamentally classed and gendered when he pointed out that it was mainly women of the petit-bourgeoisie who “devote such great investments, of self-denial and especially of time, to improving their appearance and are such unconditional believers in all forms of cosmetic voluntarism” (ibid., 206). What is more, he differentiated between professions with traditionally male representational functions (e.g., diplomacy) and rather new “representational and ‘hosting’ functions” (ibid., 152) which rely on traditional notions of femininity and had led to a market for certain physical attributes where “beauty thus acquires a value on the labour market” (ibid., 153). Following this train of thought, Black (2004) has hinted at the necessity of situating aesthetic labor within a gendered and classed analysis of changes in late capitalist labor markets. Especially for the working classes, traditionally masculine skills valued in the manufacturing sector are becoming increasingly obsolete while the service sector, which relies on skills and features that are traditionally coded as feminine, is ever-expanding. In this sense, Lovell considers femininity as – albeit limited – embodied cultural capital that “may begin to have a competitive market advantage compared with the attributes of traditional working-class masculinity” (Lovell 2000, 25). However, Black (2004, 126) points to the hidden aesthetic labor behind supposedly natural femininity as it requires considerable skills which need to be learned as well as continuous extensive labor, both of which “remain unrecognised when they are viewed as an immanent characteristic of femininity”. Thus, in a sense, aesthetic labor is a form of reproductive labor required in the service sector.


The bohème comes up three times in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The term, partly synonymous with the famous Lumpenproletariat, serves to label French prince-president Bonaparte, after his 1851 coup Emperor Napoleon III, as a “bohemian”, and to label as “noisy, disreputable, rapacious bohème” (Marx 1990, 134) the personnel he assembled at high levels of government. The latter phrase is typical for the style of enumeration in Marx’s attempt to pinpoint the corruption of a bourgeoisie willing to “forfeit the crown” “in order to save its purse” (67). In his view, the bourgeoisie abandons its historical class mission of developing democratic public spheres and industrial production, in favour of an orgiastic filling of purses and bellies under authoritarian rule. Bohème is one of his names for this self-abandonment.

The most poetic of Marx’s outbursts into enumeration is the one that introduces la bohème as a French word, mirroring the Lumpenproletariat upon which follows his list of names for class corruption: Bonaparte made Paris’s Lumpen his political army, Marx writes, and he mimics that army’s composition in his writing, as he invokes the skandalon of an association whose organization is reduced to mere parataxis, opened up by the “alongside” at the start of a sentence (whose main clause doesn’t even have a verb in the German original):

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquerealls, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars-in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème (75).

As a political analysis, Marx’s Brumaire describes an ideologically non-class-based political rule in the interest of finance capital, which makes “all classes, equally powerless and equally mute, fall on their knees before the rifle butt” (121). As a piece of philosophy of history, this text famously opens with the historical events that repeat themselves, tragedy returning as farce. Being one embodiment of that illegitimate repetition called farce, the bohème itself has a career in its proto-conceptual repetitions in several post-Marxisms. These reappearances make up the margins from which this Marxian word is highlighted and stares at – not only – me. (Along the lines of problematizing recurrence – the impossibility to fulfil the tasks of history “ohne Rückerinnerung”, “without recalling” – Marx’s bohème could join the ranks of the unreliable Gespenster opposed to production-inspiring Geister in the Brumaire and other Marx classics and, ultimately, of Derrida’s Specters of Marx.)

Jacques Rancière’s 1983 reconstruction of Marx’s criticism of class (de)composition reads like a parody of Marx’s parody of the Bonapartist parody of history. Rancière highlights humorously the humour – and also the humus: the gardening and geology discourse – at work in Marx’s writing. Drawing on the Lumpenproletariat and its bourgeois counterpart, the “finance aristocracy”, both synonyms of bohème in the Brumaire, Rancière shows that what causes Marx’s indignation is ultimately the “inconsistency of classes as such” which his teleology runs into: a teleology of classes performing their tasks in a dialectics of revolutionized production (Rancière 2004, 95). Marx’s bohème/Brumaire-text features at an early stage of Rancière’s political theory of democracy as a tearing-loose from organic or functionally assigned social identities. In his 2005 conception of populism as the embodiment of politics, Ernesto Laclau references Marx’s work on Lumpenproletariat and bohème and their “distance from the productive process” in unfolding a theorem of heterogeneity. According to Laclau, in the high degree of autonomy of the state vis-a-vis society and in the impossibility to base politics of mobilization on class as a coherent foundation, Marx confronts nothing less than the “emergence of political articulation”. Laclau replaces Marx’s flowery names with the terms outsider and underdog, designating the heterogeneous (instead of functionally integrated) position of a part of the population that performs itself as a militant people through its political articulation (Laclau 2005, 142–53). 

To Rancière’s democratic and Laclau’s populist bohèmes we should add the early fascist bohème of sociologist, philosopher of history and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer. In several studies on the bourgeoisie’s turn to the far right, culminating in his study of Nazi and Italian Fascist propaganda, i.e., a politics of mobilization, written in 1936-1938 (but not published because Adorno rejected it for its unreliable Marxism), Kracauer borrows two terms from Marx’s Brumaire: the concept of bonapartism, then current in socialist theories of fascism as a dictatorship that “pretends to stand above the classes” (Kracauer 2011, 371); and the bohème. This is his name for the popular subject of fascism in its early movement stage. “Remnants of the army”, “high-brow writers”, “unemployed”, “young people”: Kracauer’s enumeration, under the umbrella term bohème, of types that, lumped together, make up Mussolini’s and Hitler’s “cliques”, is reminiscent of Marx’s, from which he also quotes the “plünderungslustige Bohème” (Kracauer 2013, 17). So, does Kracauer see Nazis as a rabble of society? No. What he highlights about them, in connection with his view of them as a bohème, is, first, how they resemble “artists” in their conception of politics (propaganda) as an autonomous art of forming masses and even realities. (Kracauer later expands the critique of anti-realism in his film theory.) Second, there is Kracauer’s equation of bohème with his formal (almost proto-Laclauian) usage of the term outsider. Being outsiders relative to a stable (production-derived) organon of classes is Kracauer’s common denominator for the fascist “Faschingsbande”, carnival gang, and for the middle classes, especially the white-collar Angestellten. He theorizes the latter as being “ideologically shelterless” – “dispossessed” and “proletarianized” while constantly worried about their security, repressing the fact that Fordist capitalism has nullified their bourgeois privilege and identity (Kracauer 1963, 99). Middle-class philistines and bohemians (not to be confused with the more recent, politically greenish, fusion of bourgeois and bohemians into bobo’s) make up a non-class to be articulated politically – which fascism did all-too successfully.

Now that the fascist farce partially repeats itself roughly a century after the March on Rome, with right-wing populism and nationalist-authoritarian governance on the rise, how can the reiterations of Marx’s bohème serve political diagnostics? (Provided we are mindful of the anti-migrant and heterosexist stereotyping which the term historically implied.) Bohème can highlight differences between authoritarian rule well-established in a nationalist law & order-mode, and early, genuine movemental stages of right-wing anti-institutional mobilization. At these stages, colourful warrior types – from Germany’s AfD, mutated from a club of monetarist professors into a movement led by nationalist revanchists and paranoiacs, to Trump – rise to power; without keeping it for long unless they trade their bohème charisma for the habitus of “security” technocrats.

Big Data

The reality of today’s dividual data sets – enormous accumulations of data that can be divided, recomposed and valorized in endless ways – is one of worldwide streams, of deterritorialization and of machinic expansion, most succinctly expressed as Big Data. Social media such as Facebook need the self-division of individual users just as intelligence agencies continue to retain individual identities. Big Data, on the other hand, is less interested in individuals and just as little interested in a totalization of data, but is all the more so in data sets that are freely floating and as detailed as possible, which it can dividually traverse – as an open field of immanence with a potentially endless extension. These enormous multitudes of data want to form a horizon of knowledge that governs the entire past and present, and so is also able to capture the future.

The collection of data by economic and state actors, especially secret services, insurance, and banking industries, has a long tradition, but it has acquired a completely new quality with machine-readability and the machinic processing of the data material. This quality applies not only to credit-rating agencies or intelligence agencies, but also to all areas of networked everyday life, all partial data of individual lives, about children, divorces, debts, properties, consumption habits, communication behaviors, travelling habits, internet activities, movements in real space, whereabouts, health, fitness, eating habits, calorie consumption, dental care, credit card charges, cash-machine use, to name only a few. Refrigerators, ovens, thermostats, smart-guide toothbrushes, intelligent toilet bowls, networked offices, networked kitchens, networked bedrooms, networked bathrooms, networked toilet facilities – all controllable via smartphone, all accessible via cloud. This machinic data can potentially be combined, for instance for the logistics of individual thing-movements, and made accessible according to dividual logics.

In order to traverse, divide and recombine these data, cooperation is needed from those who were previously called consumers. Participation means the most comprehensible free (especially in the sense of unpaid) data exchange possible, not only sharing existing data, but also producing new data. Data valorization plays out in the terrain of externalizing production processes and activating consumers, as it has been intensified since the 1990s in all economic areas. Crowds, multitudes, dispersed masses – their modes of existence and living are captured, stretched, appropriated and exploited beyond the realm of paid labor. Scoring, rating, ranking, profiling. Consumers who are activated and generate value with their activity do not have to be paid. The open source model of program development by the crowd has meanwhile become established as a business model and spread to all economic sectors. Free labor in free association (as Marx once wrote), but to the advantage of the enterprises of the New Economy.

Everything is free, but one who does not pay is not a consumer but a product. The fact that this is now widely known hardly seems to open up opportunities for change in the modes of subjectivation. The daily work of the ‘users’ in the social network consists of adding more and more details to the image of themselves and their social environment and thus – posting after posting and like after like – creating an increasingly identifiable target for advertising messages. In the context of accelerated technological developments under conditions of monopolized access to data for a few corporations, and an increasingly exclusive focus on valorisation, new communication structures have emerged. Meanwhile, the bourgeois public has taken note of this with some horror, and under the slogan of ‘fake news’, as it became clear that the usual agnostics of valorization – be it advertising for billionaires with political ambitions, for soft drinks or EU-exits – becomes much more effective in highly efficient and at the same time less regulated and opaque structures.

Under similar auspices of intensified valorization, machine learning is developing, a recent trend that has led to a quantum leap in the development of statistical approaches to artificial intelligence, not least through the opportunities created by big data. The ‘intelligence’ of the software is no longer implemented according to abstract categories and/or sample data; the algorithms themselves (although at the moment still mostly ‘supervised’) generate their logical structures using patterns that they recognize in huge data sets. The advances in artificial intelligence usually accompanying debates on human and machine intelligence have now receded into the background in the face of the massive labor market problems that these technologies will cause in the given economic system.

All of this calls for a reappropriation of the present that carries us to the other side of dividual economy. How, then, can economy be envisioned as not based on individual property, on the dis/possession of each and every individual, but as using the abstract-dividual line to compose new forms of sociality? An economy that implies forms of distribution other than dividends as claims of shareholders: a dividend beyond the realm of measures and metrics, of modularizing and modulating, of number and code, where that which is to be distributed is not well-ordered by “common sense,” as the “best distribution,” but rather as an ever broader and wider distribution, spread, dispersion, proliferation of social wealth?


After the endless crisis of Marxism, the universal applicability of a materialist reading of history has lost much of its credibility, but it has opened up a new perspective on Marx as a uniquely perceptive commentator not only of his own time, but also of ours. One of the most remarkable essays in this respect is his commentary on the rise of the future French emperor Napoléon III in Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (1852). Marx’s detailed account of French politics between 1848 and 1852 has generally been considered a “largely unintelligible compendium of anomalies”, and at best as the “untidy version of the 1859 Preface”. But in fact, this text “reveals that Marx was a pioneer analyst of the politics of representation and a first-rank theorist of contingency.” (Carver 2004 104, 108-9). In times when political leaders are ridiculed as idiots and feared as ghosts of an uncanny past, Marx’s analysis of Bonapartist rule offers what might be called a “spectral” analysis of the vicissitudes of political power.

Many considered Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873), nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, and emperor of the French Second Empire (1852-1871), to be a fool. After a hare-brained coup d’état against the regime of king Louis Philippe in 1836, he went into exile in London, where he wrote Des Idées Napoléoniennes (1839), in which he claimed his uncle’s legacy as a new Caesar, as “exécuteur testamentaire” of the French Revolution, and as savior of the French nation (Bonaparte 1839, 15-30). Despite his adoption of the cloak of Napoléon, a second coup d’état the nephew staged in his uncle’s name in 1840 was also a failure “beyond comedy”, as the Journal des Débats commented: “One shouldn’t kill fools, but they should be locked up” (quoted in Milza 2004, 128). And so it happened. Nevertheless, Louis Bonaparte was able to amass a following, which in 1846 helped him to escape from prison and to go back to London.

Louis returned to Paris two years later, after the revolutionaries of 22-24 February 1848 had ousted king Louis Philippe, and only a few days before Karl Marx entered the city. Although Marx quickly moved on to Germany, he became a witness and commentator of the remarkable turn in the career of Louis Bonaparte. On the basis of the new constitution, reintroducing general male suffrage, Louis won a seat in the National Assembly in the by-elections of June 1848, and on 10 December he won the first presidential elections by a landslide, notably because of the support of the French farmers, who probably supported anyone by the name of Napoléon. Within four years, he became president for life, and finally emperor Napoléon III. Even then, the famous author and member of the National Assembly, Victor Hugo, wrote a scathing critique entitled Napoléon le Petit in which he argued that Louis was “a personnage vulgair, puerile, theâtral et vain”. He was maybe after all “not an idiot”, but definitely a crook and a fraud, who “doesn’t speak but only lies” (Hugo 1852, 19, 21, 34 and 39).

In Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, Marx initially seemed to follow the ridicule of Hugo. He famously opened his comments on Louis Bonaparte’s path to power with the statement that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 1852, 103). Yet in opposition to this ironical reading of political history, Marx then seemed to present a materialist analysis of his times, arguing that “upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of different and distinctly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations” (Marx 1852, 128).

However, as Marx remarked in the 1869 preface to the second edition of Der achtzehnte Brumaire, he rejected not only Hugo, who unintentionally gave the “little Napoléon” world-historical proportions, but he also criticized the materialist reading of the events by the anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who ultimately had celebrated the coup of Louis Bonaparte as a necessary moment in the march towards democracy (Marx 1869). Instead, the gist of Marx’s argument was that history is not fully determined by class dynamics. For one thing, “sentiments and illusions” are transmitted “through tradition and upbringing” as a result of which people “may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting-point of his activity” (Marx 1852, 128). It was as a result of such “traditional” self-conceptions that labor was divided between workers and farmers, the latter of whom were deceived about their position due to their relation to the land. But also the bourgeoisie was divided between the supporters of the house of Bourbon (which ruled during the Restoration between 1815 and 1830) and the Orléanist supporters of the dethroned king Louis Philippe, who were both unaware of the actual basis of their difference as a conflict within the bourgeoisie between landed property and financial capital. More importantly, the bourgeoisie became only belatedly aware of “the logical conclusion [of] its own parliamentary regime”, namely that it “lives in struggle and by struggle” (Marx 1852, 142).

The result of these accumulated contradictions was a general confusion about “alliances whose first proviso is separation; struggles whose first law is indecision; wild, inane agitation in the name of tranquility; most solemn preaching of tranquility in the name of revolution; passions without truth, truths without passion; heroes without heroic deeds, history without events” (Marx 1852, 125). In these opaque conditions, Louis Bonaparte was able to rise above the warring parties, and to present himself as the savior of the nation, who claimed to serve the interests of “the people”, yet in his claim to restore “order” actually saved the bourgeoisie from its own divisive weakness. At the same time, it brought him increasingly into conflict with the parliamentary party of order, leading to a pattern not unfamiliar to the observer of contemporary Trumpist politics:

As often as the ministers dared to make a diffident attempt to introduce his personal fads as legislative proposals, they themselves seemed to carry out, against their will only and compelled by their position, comical commissions of whose fruitlessness they were convinced in advance. […] He behaved like an unrecognised genius, whom all the world takes for a simpleton. (Marx 1852, 140)

The conflict with the parliamentary party of order became even more intense after it abolished universal male suffrage – according to Marx “the coup d’état of the bourgeoisie” (Marx 1852, 146). It enabled Louis Bonaparte to present himself as the only representative of the people’s interest – who thus should have no limit to his presidential term. To plead his case directly with the people, he toured around the country, accompanied by the members of the “Society of 10 December”, an untidy assembly of  “pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème” (Marx 1852, 148). Like Trump’s community of twitterati after him, Louis Bonaparte thus successfully created an alternative theatre of political representation that became a fundamental challenge to parliamentary power. It helped Louis to stage the coup d’état of 2 December 1851, and a plebiscite that legitimized his installation as emperor exactly a year later.

The essence of Marx’s explanation of the success of Louis is expressed in the famous line “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx 1852, 103). Against the tendency to interpret this statement as a confirmation of historical determinism, it actually forms the starting point for a “spectral” analysis of political power, defined not by any iron laws of history, but by the imaginary force of the past, in which the “tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (Marx 1852, 103).

In many different ways, Marx emphasized the spectral nature of the historical processes he was witnessing. It was not just the “specter of communism” which was haunting Europe, but more importantly the ghosts of the past defined the present by a process which Marx described as “world-historical necromancy” (Marx 1852, 104). It was evidently first of all the spirit of Napoléon which inspired the remarkable rise of the nephew, but before that already, the contemporary political stage had been dressed by the players of the past. Just like the French Revolution had re-enacted the Roman Republic, so had the revolutionaries of 1848 followed the script of 1789. But while in previous revolutions, “the resurrection of the dead […] served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old”, in the revolution of 1848 “only the ghost of the old revolution walked about” (Marx 1852, 105). Louis Bonaparte was no more than a degenerate schemer who “conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery” (Marx 1852, 149). He was so enthralled by staging his own image that he became “the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history” (Marx 1852, 150).

Despite its imaginary character, this masquerade of history had a fundamental political impact. By resurrecting the ghost of Napoléon, Louis forged a constituency out of a formless mass of individuals. On the one hand, he constituted “himself chief of the Lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally” (Marx 1852, 148). On the other hand, he forged a unity from the “vast mass” of the small-holding peasants, who “live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another”, “formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes”and therefore . “incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name”. In this respect, Napoléon performed an essential role: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself” (Marx 1852, 187-8).

Marx’s aesthetic theory of representation – prefiguring Ankersmit’s (2002) notion that representation is not a mimetic copy, but a creative imagining of what is represented – implied that civil society was subjected to a “state machine” led by a “casual adventurer from abroad, raised up as leader by a drunken soldiery.” (Marx 1852, 186). Louis positioned himself at the same time as the impartial champion of the public order and as mouthpiece for large sections of French society that so far had failed to find a political expression of their interests. Yet the success of the new emperor’s imaginary power was also due to the fact that it had entertainment value for a society that according to many succumbed under petty self-interest: “Violent political passions have little hold on men who have in this way attached their entire soul to the pursuit of wellbeing,” argued Tocqueville (1840, 1139). Or as one of the main protagonists of the revolution of 1848, Alphonse de Lamartine, argued more pointedly in 1839, “La France est une nation qui s’ennuie!” – 1968, prefaced by a similar discourse of boredom, was in many ways a re-enactment of 1848 (Lamartine 1839; Viansson-Ponté 1968). Louis Bonaparte was leader of the bohème, and the political dandy par excellence, who turned politics into a costume party, dressing up in military attire as the emperor that had long been dead, and thereby demonstrating the imaginary nature of Bonapartism as a mode of political power.

In the end, Marx rejected the scenario Bonapartism enacted as that of the French Revolution “in reverse” (Marx 1852, 124). In this zombie-version of history “Men and events appear as inverted Schlemihls, as shadows that have lost their bodies. […]  When the ‘red spectre’, continually conjured up and exorcised by the counterrevolutionaries, finally appears, it appears not with the Phrygian cap of anarchy on its head, but in the uniform of order, in red breeches” (Marx 1852, 125).This obsessive re-enactment of the past contrasted sharply with  the nature of a truly social revolution, which “cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. […] In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead” (Marx 1852, 106).

The utopian energy of this progressive revolutionary ideal defined the political logic of the century between 1848 and 1968. But this legacy of the social revolution survives today only “sous une forme spectrale”, in the guise of a melancholic longing for a past long gone (Traverso 2016, 21). Marx’s analysis suggests that the demise of progressive history at the same time revealed the spectral nature of political representation. Bonapartism, and related forms of political power such as populism, are “specters of democracy”, that might bring power to the imagination, but it may also awaken the specters of the past that haunt us in our political nightmares.


The concept of biocapitalism emerged within debates on global bio-industries, including reproduction industries, and the political project of a ‘bioeconomy’ that the OECD advocates since the mid-2000s. ‘Biocapitalism’ refers to processes of the primary valorization of materials derived from human bodies and nonhuman living beings, to the meaning of these processes for capitalist accumulation strategies and to related transformations of modes of labour, exploitation and subjectivation. Although the realities and prospects of biocapitalism make it necessary to go beyond Marx’ critique of political economy and to include analyses of gender relations, the (post)colonial situation, 21st-century biopolitics, and human-nature relations, Marx’ theory of capitalism provides crucial insights on which a critical theory of biocapitalism can build. In particular, Marx’ analysis of the commodity-form, his concept of labour, the theory of primitive accumulation, and his analysis of the ground-rent are widely discussed with respect to biocapitalism. Basically, a critical theory of biocapitalism needs to explain how it is possible that materials such as egg-cells, sperm or organic tissue circulate as disposable things. Although these ‘things’ must, to a large extent, be conceived of as proto-commodities rather than as commodities proper because their exchange is rarely fully monetized, Marx’ critique of commodity fetishism is instructive. It reveals that an analysis and critique of biocapitalism should not focus on the ‘things’ in question – their specific biological properties, respectively their naturalness or artificiality. In contrast, what needs to be scrutinized are the social practices and relations through which body materials come to function as commodities or proto-commodities, and that constitute subjects as proprietors of their bodies and body materials. To a large extent the difficulties that a critical theory of biocapitalism faces result from the fact that primary valorization refers to materials and processes which do not exist in unmediated ways but which are made accessible or generated only through techno-scientific procedures, and thus knowledge production and technological intervention. Because biocapitalism refers to organic or sub-organic materials and processes, analyses of biocapitalism are frequently shaped by a vitalist vocabulary. In order to translate this vocabulary into a critical social theory, and to make clear that what is at stake is not ‘life itself’ but historically specific practices and relations, it is helpful to refer to Marx’ vocabulary of political economy. According to Christian Zeller, Kean Birch and David Tyfield, Marx’ analysis of ground-rent provides a model for understanding how, in biocapitalism, rent is derived from knowledge which is enclosed as intellectual property. Other scholars draw a comparison between biocapitalist primary valorization and Marx’ analysis of the process of primitive accumulation. Following Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, the constitution of new biocapitalitst resources and (proto-)commodities can be understood as new enclosures and as another extension of capitalist accumulation to its non-capitalist milieu. Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby stress that this extension entails qualitative modifications, namely an “experimental intervention into the temporality of living matter” and an “active shaping of the body through scientific technologies” (Cooper & Waldby 2015, 94). Indeed, the enclosure of common land in 17th-century England, too, not only constituted private property but transformed society at large and modes of existence, including body and nature relations. Not least, primitive accumulation, broadly conceived, included the shaping of the labouring subject, or of individuals that conceive of themselves as proprietors of a potential called ‘labour power’. Neither ‘labour’ nor ‘labour power’ are thus universal concepts, as Marx highlights in the Introduction to the Grundrisse from 1857, but belong to bourgeois society. This insight should be kept in mind if the concept of labour is used to politically articulate biocapitalist relations of exchange as exploitation. Although it certainly makes sense to argue that monetized or semi-monetized practices such as surrogacy, egg cell and tissue ‘donation’, or participation in clinical trials should be regulated through labour legislation in order to guarantee some legal protection, Marx’ analysis of wage labour opens up another perspective: the transformation of social relations that rely on the appropriation of foreign labour power. A critique of biocapitalism thus has to do more than claim legal protection of labour, body, and nature. It needs to scrutinize all social relations that account for the production, circulation and consumption of bio-materials. Accordingly, a critical theory of biocapitalism cannot restrict itself to an accumulation-centred analysis of capitalism but needs to understand (bio-)capitalism as social formation that integrates monetized and non-monetized economic forms, multiple forms of power and domination, and re-shapes subjectivities, needs and desires. In addition, it re-shapes body politics and human-nature-relations and constitutes new forms of extractivism. Certainly, a critical theory of biocapitalism – which still needs to be formulated – has to renounce the double temptation of techno-determinism and economism, but it can get much inspiration from the praxeological aspects of Marx’ thought.