Interview on The Black Book of Capitalism - Robert Kurz

Interview on The Black Book of Capitalism - Robert Kurz

Robert Kurz discusses his book, The Black Book of Capitalism, which he describes as a "radical-critical history of modernization since the 18th century", summarizes his views on "class struggle" in the context of his critique of value and labor, refers to the "dominant order" as "an accumulation of infamies" and calls for a movement "that will directly appropriate resources and bypass the detour of the market, the State, money and politics".

Interview on The Black Book of Capitalism” – Robert Kurz

An interview with Robert Kurz conducted by Dieter Heidemann (Professor of the Department of Geography at the University of Sao Paulo) and Cláudio Duarte on February 15, 2005.

DH (Dieter Heidemann): The original title of your latest book was “The Satanic Mills”; why did you change it?

RK (Robert Kurz): Actually, among the various titles I considered, my favorite was The Satanic Mills, which evokes the 18th century English romantic poet, William Blake. It was a proverbial expression of people’s first experiences with the capitalist system of manufacture. But, legally speaking, the title had already been used for a novel. Besides which, the editor preferred the title, “The Black Book of Capitalism”. He expected it would have a greater impact and would get more attention due to its contrast with “The Black Book of Communism”, published by a group of French authors, which was translated into various languages. That book is a tiresome list of the crimes of the State Socialist regimes, a work of pure propaganda without any critical-historical substance, directed against an enemy that no longer exists. Of course, if I wanted to just make a list of the crimes of western capitalism, I don’t think that even 100 thick volumes would suffice.

DH: The book is a history of the imposition of modernity and liberalism. What is the guiding thread of your analysis?

RK: I wanted to write a radical-critical history of modernization since the 18th century that would be an integrated presentation of aspects that are not only usually presented in an apologetic manner, but are also usually treated separately.

The book is:

1) a history of the three great industrial revolutions (introduction of the manufacturing system with the steam engine at the beginning of the 19th century, Fordist “self-mobilization” with the assembly line and the rationalization of the corporate economy during the first half of the 20th century, and the microelectronic revolution on the eve of the 21st century);

2) a history of the science of political economy with its constant vacillations between the poles of market and State;

3) a history of the bourgeois legitimating ideology intent on the naturalization and biologization of the social (the capitalist economy and its social consequences are treated by this ideology as a matter of “natural law” that is beyond all criticism);

4) a history of the disciplining of the “human material” and of the internalization of the norms of capitalist behavior resulting in today’s “self-regulating man”;

5) a history of the socialist labor movement and of State Socialism, not as a contrasting model, but as an “immanent aspect” of bourgeois modernization;

6) a history of the great crises that characterize the essence of this system.

I always use original quotations from contemporary observers. After three centuries, it is clear that capitalism was never anything but a system of blatant insults to human life and behavior; for the great majority of men in the past and the present it never brought an increase of well-being, but always only new advances in mass poverty and desperation.

DH: We find the theoretical reference points of your social analysis in the debates published in the journal, Krisis: what significance does the critique of value have for your radical critique of the modernization process and the fetishism of commodity production?

RK: The Black Book of Capitalism is also an attempt to concretize the critique leveled by the “Krisis Group” against the conventional understanding of Marxist theory by referring to the testimony of historical and contemporary data. The “Marxism of the labor movement” mistakenly understood the elementary forms of capitalist socialization (abstract labor, value/commodity-form, money, market, State, nation, democracy) as positive, almost ontological social preconditions for existence. On this apparently neutral basis, it played its part in the “class struggle”. The “class struggle” was therefore only an internal form of competition within the framework of capitalist categories and their iron shell. It was a struggle over distribution, for more “rights”, whose partial and always temporary success bound men ever more closely to the dominant system, even in terms of their own subject-form. Today, the “class struggle” is on the wane throughout the world and is in danger, despite all the ongoing social catastrophes, of becoming an extinct model, because in the crisis of the third industrial revolution, the common system of references, the seemingly neutral foundations of modern commodity production, is shaken to its roots. The “critique of value” means taking this fact into consideration and, for the first time, radically questioning the forms of social relations of market and State, which have become so natural. From this perspective capitalism is not a problem of “undistributed surplus value” and of individuals’ monetary wealth, but of an insane end-in-itself: the “valorization of value”, the absurd cybernetic circular return of money to itself. Capitalists and executives are just functionaries of this “automatic subject” (Marx). The social relation objectified in universal competitive and monetary forms in anonymous markets is possible only by way of a pre-existing system of labor markets, in which men must sell themselves in order to become the raw material for the capitalist “world machine”. The fundamental crisis of labor markets will therefore sooner or later reveal itself as a crisis of capitalism itself.

DH: How, then, do you develop the critique of labor, considered as a characteristic of the modern world?

RK: Marx vacillated between a positive ontologization and a radical critique of labor. The labor movement, as its name indicates (Labor Party, the workers’ point of view, etc.) mistakenly understood labor as a springboard for emancipation and as a counter-model to capitalism. The abstraction of labor, however, is not the opposite, but the living state of aggregated capital itself; labor is not an anthropological and supra-historical precondition for existence but the specifically capitalist form of activity of modernity, an abstract consumption of human energy within the functional arena of the capitalist economy. This abstraction already contains indifference with regard to the content, the meaning and the ends of the needs of life. Labor as abstract determination is the active side of the irrational capitalist end-in-itself.

The Black Book does not derive the concept of abstract labor in a logical-definitive way from the value-form (Marx already did this in Capital), since it has quite another form of presentation: the system of abstract labor is analyzed in its concrete-historical development, including, of course, the last 100 years of capitalism that Marx did not live to see. At the conclusion of this development it is evident that only in the third industrial revolution does the apparent naturalness of the labor abstraction become practically and theoretically obsolete. The technology of computers and automation either renders various human activities superfluous within the functional arena of capitalism or else robots carry out these activities. On the other hand, work is disappearing even faster in those industries, national economies or regions of the world that, due to the weakness of their respective capitals, cannot utilize microelectronics and are therefore overwhelmed by their competition.

DH: Speaking of national economies, what forms are assumed in the course of the rise and fall of the nation-state?

RK: The so-called nation, which is just as historical as labor, was an invention of the 18th century. It is nothing but the cultural and imaginary outer shell of the capitalist State and of the irrational form of legitimation of a “military-political continuation of competition by other means”. The Black Book is an effort to understand both the historical integration of workers and socialism in national customs, as well as to understand the crisis of the national context within the current globalization of capital. The concept of “national liberation” is now revealed as a contradiction in terms. Appealing to the nation is not an alternative to globalization, and is reactionary besides. The left needs transnational forms of action and organization so as to once again meet capitalist development on equal terms. A post-capitalist future can only be imagined within the context of post-national forms of reproduction.

DH: Together with the State, democracy and citizenship also played a role in the imposition of the modernization process. How do you relate liberalism, social democracy and State socialism to the system of commodity production?

RK: As long as capitalism was not fully developed, the system of bourgeois rights was not perfected either. The universality and equality of the legal form were not yet fully established; particularly in the political arena (suffrage, rights of assembly, freedom of association, etc.), a great part of the population was totally or partially excluded from the enjoyment of bourgeois rights. This is why the concern for change was directed above all towards the political sphere. Under the name of democracy, the demand for “political equality and freedom” was declared to be the historical goal. The Black Book analyzes this orientation as an historical illusion. The integration of the masses into the modern citizenry was at the same time a process of domestication that forced consciousness and action into the molds of capitalist society. This is why the various dictatorships of modernization were by no means counterpoints to democracy, but manifestations of a passing historical phase of democracy itself. The hope that democratic systems of decision-making could regulate the existing economic system has long been cruelly discredited. Thus, before the members of the society of commodity production can even begin their democratic debate, they are already defined a priori as economic competitors. The valorization of money, the market and competition create irrational alternatives that can only become the objects of democratic procedures a posteriori. Democracy’s charm has today become quite definitely insipid. For critique, the globalization of capital and the economic totalitarianism of the market lead not only to democratic politics, but also to a politics that is in itself absurd.

DH: How does The Black Book utilize this critique of globalization and the collapse of casino capitalism when you speak of “unemployed money”?

RK: Today, in many countries and regions of the world, the system of commodity production, and with it the monetary economy, is actually collapsing. In the western heartland and in parts of the periphery, the crisis of labor does not appear only as a crisis of capital because here the “substance of labor”, that is, the real economy, was replaced by an uncoupling of the financial markets. Capitalization by means of the stock exchanges of speculative “casino capitalism” raised hopes for fictitious profits to be made well into the 21st century. Hopes that will never be realized. The Black Book analyzes this development by comparing it with the scale of the speculative bubbles of the first and second industrial revolutions. Just like the previous ones, this one, too, must burst. It is, furthermore, much more clear that the scale of “fictitious capital” is today much greater than it was in the past. In the third industrial revolution capital is making its own “substance of labor” superfluous in a much more profound manner. When this bubble bursts, the explosion will shake world capitalist society to its roots.

DH: How do you assess the prospect for a process of social emancipation which goes beyond labor, the class struggle, the traditional labor movement and a mere “culture of rejection”?

RK: The irrational functional mechanism of capital can only transform the gigantic productive forces of microelectronics into mass unemployment, a stress on efficiency and, finally, the collapse of the financial system. The emancipatory perspective, on the other hand, can only consist in the transformation of these productive forces into more leisure and a good life for everyone. This will, however, require the rise of a social movement that will no longer define itself by reference to the capitalistically constructed form of competing interests. It must be a “movement of appropriation” that will directly appropriate resources and bypass the detour of the market, the State, money and politics. This will only be possible by breaking with the subject-form and form of consciousness characteristic of these institutions and forms. To achieve this goal, a “culture of rejection” could be a step in the right direction, as could the development of “forms of mutual aid” that transcend the market and the State, as could revolts against the blatant insults of economic totalitarianism (even the “I love you” computer virus). What will be decisive will be whether the future social movements embrace the radical critique of capitalist categories, or if, instead, they choose to undertake the self-management of poverty. Theory cannot, by itself, outline a concrete program and offer this program to the world as if it were a new laundry detergent. The perspective can only be made more concrete by the joint action of theory and emancipatory social movements.

DH: The book’s literary form corresponds to the violent reality of the modernization process. Its language, which waxes indignant in response to the details of its narrative, and its sarcastic scorn and irony, recall Adorno, do they not?

RK: Some critics have called The Black Book a “pamphlet of insults directed against the market economy”. I accept this critical assessment with pleasure. Only from the distance of the bourgeois academy do theory and historical analysis appear as the neutral observation of neutral objects. A social critique, however, presupposes an existential commitment of the entire man, and therefore involves emotion as well. The dominant order is not just a system of functional mechanisms but also a detestable insult and an accumulation of infamies. All real critics, from Marx to Adorno, carried out their precise analyses with irony and in the spirit of the rejection of “modernization”, whose stupidity and violence constitute an insult to all human reason.

DH: How has the book been received in Germany?

RK: The Black Book was the object of much more attention and had larger print runs than The Collapse of Modernization (published in the early 1990s). Along with the Krisis Group’s Manifesto Against Labor, it presented questions for a new debate on the left and reached a large number of readers. Obviously, the reviews in the media, with few exceptions, are extremely negative, since the book violates the taboo of an apparently definitive social consensus: “the market economy and democracy”. The spokespersons of the old left also had an allergic reaction to the book, even more acute than their reactions to the previous publications of the Krisis journal, since they are watching their ship go down.

Robert Kurz
February 15, 2005

Portuguese translation at:

Translated from the Spanish translation by Contracorriente at:

The Black Book of Capitalism was originally published as Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus: ein Abgesang auf die Marktwirtschaft (Frankfurt am Main, Eichborn Verlag, 1999). It has not yet (September 2011) been published in English translation.