Bernard E. Harcourt | The Abolition of Capital: An Introduction

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In Abolition Democracy 6/13, our seminar turns to the question of the abolition of capital and capitalism. Our challenge is to reimagine and resituate contemporary social movements for the abolition of capital within the framework of abolition democracy. We will do so through a close reading of the mid-century debate within the Frankfurt School over the history and transformations of Western capitalism.

During World War II, several members of the Frankfurt School initiated a conversation over the changing nature of capitalism especially in Germany during Hitler’s Third Reich and the rise of National Socialism. At the time, the new form of state-controlled totalitarian capitalism raised significant challenges to economic theories and histories—whether they were neo-classical liberal theories of a laissez-faire government or Marxist theories of the inevitable crises of accumulation and demise of capitalist modes of production. A well-functioning centralized type of capitalism, involving state planning, defied most prevailing ideas about both capitalism and late capitalism.

The sociologist and economist Friedrich Pollock (who founded with Felix Weil and served as director of the Institute for Social Research at various times), and the political and legal theorist, Franz Leopold Neumann, instigated a debate over competing analyses of National Socialism in Germany. Pollock offered an interpretation of National Socialism as a new form of “state capitalism” and suggested the potential promise of democratically-controlled central planning, in an article titled “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” published in 1941. By contrast, Neumann developed a theory of National Socialism as an irremediable, irrational, and power-driven form of totalitarian monopoly capitalism on the model of Hobbes’s lawless Behemoth (as opposed to Hobbes’s orderly Leviathan), in his book Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, published in 1942. Theodor Adorno would later weigh in on this debate, developing his own particular conception of “late capitalism,” in an essay titled “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” delivered to German sociologists in 1968 and in other writings. Herbert Marcuse as well, in his book One-Dimensional Man published in 1964, offered a related critique of administered living in the welfare state.

By returning to this debate, and to this history, we hope to shed light on today’s many movements for the abolition of capital—ranging from recent writings on the creation of a “common” (including the work of Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century, and Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Commonwealth and Assembly), recent work on the idea of communism (including the work of Étienne Balibar and Slavoj Žižek), as well as recent proposals for a new form of coöperationism (including my work-in-progress titled For Coöperation and the Abolition of Capital).

These questions are also relevant today because of new mixed models of capitalism that combine markets and state control, including possibly new forms of state capitalism, in countries such as China and elsewhere.

But first, a word about the framing of this seminar.

Heartbeat Opera’s Breathing Free

“O welche Lust, in freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben!”

“O what joy, in the open air, freely to breathe again!

Beethoven, Fidelio

In a powerful adaptation of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the stunning and innovative new opera company, Heartbeat Opera, places Beethoven’s libretto squarely in our times and crises of racialized mass incarceration and police violence. Heartbeat Opera sets its production in a modern-day prison that has all the trappings of the Rikers Island jail in New York City. The protagonist, Stan, is incarcerated as punishment for participating in #BlackLivesMatter protests following the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. His wife Leah becomes a prison guard in order to seduce a correctional officer’s daughter, Marcy, and free her husband.

Heartbeat Opera’s performance is a riveting adaptation that brings the ecstasy of Beethoven’s music to bear on the racial injustices of our times. The New York Times described the production as “urgent, powerful, poignant.”[1] I found the production, personally, moving to tears and chilling.

The moment that sent chills down my spine and tears down my cheeks was during Beethoven’s famous Prisoners’ Chorus, “O welche Lust!” (“O what a joy!”), when the live stage production cut to a jumbotron video that then brought us into prisons across the country to watch and hear the prison choirs of men and women artists, incarcerated, singing Beethoven’s chorus in German. In Beethoven’s original as in Heartbeat Opera’s adaptation, the chorus is meant to capture the momentary freedom prisoners feel when temporarily released from their cells. The experience was one of the most moving I had ever experienced, surely the most moving at an opera. A short documentary describes the collaborations with the choirs that led to Heartbeat Opera’s production—including the Oakdale Community Choir, KUJI Men’s Chorus, Hope Thru Harmony Women’s Choir, UBUNTU Men’s Chorus, and East Hill Singers:

We open the seminar Abolition Democracy 6/13 with a presentation of the chorus itself, and a discussion with the director of Heartbeat Opera’s Fidelio, Ethan Heard, and with Ras Dia, the creative producer of their new production, Breathing Free, that builds on the Fidelio performance and adapts it to these times of pandemic, confinement, and uprisings.

Breathing Free is an innovative, digital, on-line operatic performance that incorporates several of Beethoven’s arias into a new composition that encourages and stimulates us to confront police violence, mass incarceration, and racial injustice from an abolitionist perspective. An absolutely brilliant production, Breathing Free includes vocal and dance performances, all by outstanding artists.

In this brilliant work, Beethoven’s chorus is joined to a stunning rendition of an aria from X (The Life and Times of Malcom X) by Anthony and Thulani Davis. That opera follows the entire life of Malcom X, from his boyhood in Lansing, Michigan, through his conversion to Islam, encounters with the law, all the way to his assassination. The aria is situated right after Malcom X was arrested, and he “lets fly the full force of his rhetorical power for the first time.”[2] Staged in the plaza in front of the federal and state courthouses at Foley Square in downtown New York, the scene directly confronts the racial injustices of our criminal legal ordeal. The words of Malcolm X are unrelenting:

I Would Not Tell You What I Know

From X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X)

(Music by Anthony Davis; libretto by Thulani Davis; story by Christopher Davis; performed by Derrell Acon and the BREATHING FREE Band Copyright © 1987 by G. Schirmer, Inc. (ASCAP))

I would not tell you what I know,
you wouldn’t hear my truth.
You want the story but you don’t want to know.
My truth is you’ve been on me, a very long time,
longer than I can say.
As long as I’ve been living,
you’ve had your foot on me,
always pressing.
My truth is white men,
killed my old man,
drove my mother mad.
My truth is rough,
my truth could kill,
my truth is fury.
They always told me, “You don’t have a chance.
You’re a n***** after all.
You can jitterbug and prance
but you’ll never run the ball.”
My truth told me, quit before you start.
My truth told me, stayin’ alive is all you’ve got.
I’ve shined your shoes, I’ve sold your dope,
hauled your bootleg, played with hustler’s hope.
But the crime is mine.
I’ll do your time so you can sleep.
I won’t be out to get you on the street at night,
but I won’t forget any evil that’s white.
My truth is a hammer coming from the back.
It will beat you down when you least expect.
I would not tell you what I know.
You want the truth
You want the truth
But you don’t want to know.

The ambition of this seminar series, Abolition Democracy 13/13, is simultaneously to say these truths and break down the unwillingness to hear them.

W.E.B. Du Bois

This was, in large part, W.E.B. Du Bois’s ambition in his book Black Reconstruction in America. This is the ambition of racial justice and abolition democracy. It is the ambition of abolishing racial injustice. In previous seminars, we explored this ambition by rethinking the abolition of slavery, of the police, and of property. We turn now to the question of the abolition of capital.

In this respect, once again, we can trace roots back to Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, where, in dialogue with Marxian thought and the history of American labor movements, Du Bois discussed the movement toward worker cooperatives within the communities of freed Black men and women.[3] Du Bois recounted, there, the history of the labor conventions, such as the one held in 1869, that called for the “establishment of coöperative workshops.”[4] Du Bois detailed the efforts of the Bureau of Labor, in 1870, to organize “Negro labor,” and its call “to secure funds from bankers and capitalists for aid in establishing coöperative associations.”[5]

But even more, in an essay published in 1935 in The Crisis, titled “A Negro Nation Within the Nation,” Du Bois advocated for an African-American coöperative movement “separate from the national economy and mainstream labor.”[6] Du Bois explicitly argued for a separatist Black coöperatives movement that would no longer depend on “the salvation of a white God” but instead “achieve a new economic solidarity.”[7]

Du Bois began by noting the crises that Black workers faced. Not just the economic downturn caused by the Great Depression, but in addition, forms of segregation, exclusion from the recovery efforts, and on top of that, closed unions and union shops due to outright racism.[8] In his essay, Du Bois confronted what he diagnosed as an insurmountable racism within the working class. The greatest problem facing the African-American community, Du Bois argued, was white labor which excluded, harassed, and terrorized to Black worker.[9] In the face of that racism, Du Bois advocated for separatism and cooperation within the Black community—specifically for the creation of a Black cooperative movement, separate from white society.

Echoing his great book, Black Reconstruction, Du Bois declared that “The main weakness of the Negro’s position is that since emancipation he has never had an adequate economic foundation.”[10]

Du Bois opposed the approach of Booker T. Washington, who sought to educate and train African-American men and women to integrate them into white industry, arguing that there was sufficiently educated leadership. What was missing was the leadership itself. The need, then, was not to fight segregation, as some activists and thinkers like James Weldon Johnson advocated, nor to wait for humanitarian benevolence from white people, but instead to separate and create a Black nation within the nation. Du Bois was willing to bear the burden of more segregation and even more prejudice in order to achieve this economic solidarity. Du Bois explained:

There exists today a chance for the Negroes to organize a cooperative State within their own group. By letting Negro farmers feed Negro artisans, and Negro technicians guide Negro home industries, and Negro thinkers plan this integration of cooperation, while Negro artists dramatize and beautify the struggle, economic independence can be achieved. To doubt this is possible is to doubt the essential humanity and the quality of brains of the American Negro.[11]

Du Bois’s idea was to create a Black cooperative nation within the United States, as a way ultimately to achieve, in the long run, a unified country, without class or racial barriers. In his words, “Negroes can develop in the United States an economic nation within a nation, able to work through inner cooperation, to found its own institutions, to educate its genius, and at the same time, without mob violence or extremes of race hatred, to keep in helpful touch and cooperate with the mass of the nation.”[12] And when they had achieved this, Du Bois concluded, Black Americans would no longer be “refused fellowship and equality in the United States.”[13]

Du Bois’s was a radical vision of coöperation and separatism—one that did not necessarily entail, though, the abolition of property, the creation of a common, or anything close to a communist horizon. It did not require the abolition of capital. But it was a step toward a coöperationist society that no longer depended on the extractive logics of modern capitalism.

Marx on Coöperationism

Although Du Bois embraced the dictatorship of labor in Black Reconstruction and referred explicitly to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”[14]—and on the reading proposed by Amy Allen, deployed a Marxian framework to interpret the history of emancipation from slavery—he did not mention socialism or come close to Marxism in his essay “A Negro Nation Within the Nation.” Du Bois was more pragmatic, politically.

For Marx, by contrast, worker coöperatives and mutual associations represent a necessary, but still tainted, form of economic evolution toward communism. In that sense, coöperatives represent for Marx a step toward the abolition of capital and capitalism. On Marx’s historical account, worker coöperatives are a stage of socialism that will eventually lead to communism. They are defective insofar as they still bear the imprint of private property relations and self-interest: workers in coöperatives are still oriented toward the profitability of their own workshops and burdened by a regime of competition.

As discussed at Abolition Democracy 5/13, Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), characterized worker coöperatives as the first stage of socialism, a stage of economic development that, in his words, is “in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” They represent a step forward, but are nevertheless tainted by “defects” which, in Marx’s words, “are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” They will be followed by a more wholesome transformation of the economy. In the famous words of the Critique, Marx writes:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

As noted last time, worker coöperatives are only a useful step forward toward this horizon, according to Marx, if they are created genuinely by the workers, and are not the product of the state or of capitalist investment. As Marx stressed in his critique: “as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only in so far as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the government or of the bourgeois.”[15]

Contemporary Debates Over Coöperatives

Some contemporary critical thinkers are more favorable to worker coöperatives as an end in themselves. Some embrace the model of a society founded on coöperation as a horizon for social justice.

In their discussion of “the common,” for instance, Dardot and Laval trace and engage the many authors, including at times Hardt and Negri, who embrace a coöperative model, especially in the context of technological innovation and the hope for a new virtual commons, or what is known as the “knowledge commons.”[16]

In my own work, in the first draft of my Open Review manuscript For Coöperation and the Abolition of Capital, I explicitly make the argument for the abolition of capital and its replacement with institutions of coöperation. Worker coöperatives, as well as insurance mutuals, credit unions, non-profits, and other forms of coöperatives (consumer, retail, and producer) represent, on my view, the only proper way forward—as opposed to models that are misleadingly labelled capitalist or communist, but are no more than dirigiste regimes.

These proposals raise the question whether coöperation could serve as a replacement for capital and how they relate to the broader project of social justice. They also raise key questions about the history of capitalism and its transformations over time past—and future horizon.

The Frankfurt School on Late Capitalism

These are precisely the questions that members of the Frankfurt School posed when faced with the radical transformation of capitalism under National Socialism in Germany.

The Frankfurt thinkers, in exile, were trying to understand how capitalism was and would evolve: how it was evolving towards “state capitalism” in Germany; whether it could evolve toward a more democratic form of a controlled economy in the U.S.; how late forms of capitalism were related to monopoly totalitarian capitalism; and whether any of these new forms might lead ultimately to the overcoming of capitalism.

How could capitalism thrive under a totalitarian state given that it was grounded on a theory of the limited state? After all, the state centralization characteristic of Nazi Germany and totalitarianism represented the complete antithesis to laissez-faire economics.

Very different answers emerged, giving rise to a robust debate over notions of state capitalism, monopolistic totalitarian capitalism, late capitalism—even over the continuing relevance of Marxian analysis. It is to this productive debate, which I will flesh out in the next post, that we will turn to at Abolition Democracy 6/13.

Contemporary Resonances

It is important to emphasize the contemporary relevancy of those Frankfurt debates.

Just as the Marxian framework and predictions about capitalism were challenged by National Socialism, today the explanatory matrix of neoliberalism is similarly challenged by the advent of authoritarian neoliberalism in its various forms—white nationalist in Trump’s United States, but different in Erdogan’s Turkey. How does neoliberalism adjust when it is tied to explicit “America First” protectionism and nationalism, for instance? How does it adjust to the European Union project and to Brexit? How does it get translated into Erdogan’s Turkey?

Like the stages of capitalism for Marx, it is possible to periodize neoliberalism. Dardot and Laval describe three periods: First, a period of experimentation with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, as the ideas of the Chicago School start to be implemented in rhetoric, practice, and institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. Second, a period of consensus making surrounding the collapse of the Berlin Wall; this leads to the “Washington Consensus,” a series of agreed-upon practices and institutions associated with the World Bank and the IMF, and ultimately, a belief in the end of history. Third, the period that follows the 2008 Crash: A brief moment when people thought it was the end of neoliberalism, a window in which people were prepared to reevaluate and speak in more moralizing terms about the need for social justice; but then gradually a return to normal, or if anything, an entrenchment of neoliberal ideas and practices. Here, Phillip Mirowski’s book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, is important; it explains well how neoliberalism consolidated itself and now thrives after the 2008 Crash.

The task of critical theory has always been to diagnose crises as a way to put us in a better position to act. The moment of diagnosis became somewhat paralyzing in front of this Frankenstein neoliberalism, to borrow Wendy Brown’s expression.[17] How do we think this all through today? What can we learn from the Frankfurt debates?

Welcome to Abolition Democracy 6/13!


[1] Joshua Barone, “The Nilsson Centennial: The Week in Classical Music,” New York Times, May 18, 2018,

[2] Heartbeat Opera, Breathing Free Digital Program, accessed December 12, 2020,

[3] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 364 and 366.

[4] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 362 and 364.

[5] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 366.

[6] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, xiv.

[7] W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within the Nation,” Current History (1935): 269.

[8] Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within the Nation,” 265-266.

[9] Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within the Nation,” 267.

[10] Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within the Nation,” 266.

[11] Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within the Nation,” 270.

[12] Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within the Nation,” 269.

[13] Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within the Nation,” 270.

[14] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 185.

[15] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 536.

[16] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century, trans. Matthew MacLellan (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 116-123.

[17] Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism’s Frankenstein,” Critical Times 1, no. I (April 2018): 60-79.

Bernard Harcourt