Who is to blame? - Anselm Jappe

Who is to blame? - Anselm Jappe

A short essay contesting the notion that the current economic crisis is the result of "greed" or irresponsible speculation by evil bankers or investment firms, asserting instead that it is an effect of a generalized crisis of value production caused by the falling rate of profit--an immanent law of capitalist production--and further maintaining that, rather than precipitating the crisis, the massive expansion of fictitious capital over the last 30 years was the only way its onset could be delayed until now.

Who Is To Blame? – Anselm Jappe

This time, all the commentators agree: what is now taking place is not a simple temporary adjustment of the financial markets. We are facing a crisis that is deemed to be the worst since the Second World War, or since 1929. But whose fault is it, and how can it be overcome? The answer is almost always the same: the “real economy” is healthy; the world economy is endangered by the insane mechanisms of a financial system that is totally out of control. The most facile answer, but also the most widespread, attributes all responsibility for this to the “greed” of a clique of speculators who have been gambling with everyone’s money as if they were in a casino. However, this artifice of reducing the arcana of the capitalist economy, when the latter is not functioning properly, to the schemes of an evil conspiracy, has a long and dangerous history. The search for scapegoats, for “Jewish bankers” or other culprits, to serve as targets for the indignation of the “honest folk” composed of workers and small savers, would be the worst possible solution.

To contrast a “bad”, predatory and unbridled “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism with a “good”, more responsible “continental” capitalism, is not a serious proposition either. During the last few weeks we have seen that they are distinguishable only by minor details. All who demand—from ATTAC to Sarkozy—“more regulation” of the financial markets perceive the madness of the stock markets as merely an “excess”, or a tumor on an otherwise healthy body.

But what if financialization, far from having ruined the real economy, has helped it to survive past its expiration date? What if it has breathed some life into a moribund body? Why are we so sure that capitalism is exempt from the cycle of birth, growth and death? May it not contain intrinsic limits to its development, limits that do not reside solely in the existence of a declared enemy (the proletariat, oppressed peoples), or in the exhaustion of natural resources?

These days it has once again become fashionable to quote Karl Marx. But the German philosopher did not speak only about the class struggle. He also foresaw the eventuality that some day the capitalist machine would stop running on its own, through the exhaustion of its dynamic. Why? Capitalist commodity production contains, from its very inception, an internal contradiction, a veritable time bomb built into its very structure. Capital can only be made fruitful, and thus be accumulated, by the exploitation of labor power. The worker, however, in order to generate a profit for his employer, must be equipped with the necessary tools, and today this means cutting-edge technologies. This results in a permanent race—compelled by competition—to use the newest technologies. At each step, the first employer to adopt the newest technologies wins, because his workers produce more than those who do not use these new tools. But the system as a whole loses because technology is progressively replacing human labor. The value of each commodity consequently contains a constantly diminishing portion of human labor—which is, however, the only source of surplus value, and therefore of profit. The development of technology reduces the profit of the system as a whole. During the last century and a half, however, the expansion of commodity production on a global scale was capable of compensating for this tendency of the value of each commodity to fall.

Since the 1970s, this mechanism—which was nothing but a flight forward—has stalled. Paradoxically, it was the increase in productivity derived from the use of microelectronics that plunged capitalism into crisis. In order to make the labor of the few remaining workers conform to the standards of productivity of the world market, ever more gigantic investments were necessary. The real accumulation of capital threatened to come to a halt. This was the moment when “fictitious capital”, as Marx called it, came to the fore. The suspension of the dollar’s convertibility to gold in 1971 eliminated the last failsafe, the last connection between finance and real accumulation. Credit is nothing but an anticipation of expected future profits. But when the production of value, and therefore of surplus value, stagnated in the real economy (which has nothing to do with stagnation with regard to the production of things: capitalism functions on the basis of surplus value production and not on that of products with use value), the only thing that henceforth allowed the owners of capital to obtain the profits that were impossible to obtain in the real economy, was finance. The rise of neo-liberalism after 1980 was not a sinister maneuver on the part of the most greedy capitalists, nor was it a coup d’état staged with the help of a few complacent politicians, as some on the “radical” left would have us believe (who must now decide: either graduate to a straightforward critique of capitalism, even if the latter does not proclaim its adherence to neo-liberalism; or participate in the management of an emerging form of capitalism that would include some of the critiques directed against its “excesses”). To the contrary, neo-liberalism was the only possible way to extend the life of the capitalist system just a little longer, a system whose fundamentals were never seriously questioned by anyone, on either the right or the left. Numerous businesses and individuals could preserve an illusion of prosperity for a little longer thanks to credit. Now this crutch is broken, too. The return to Keynesianism, however, which has been suggested to some degree from all sides, will be utterly impossible: there is no longer enough “real” money in the hands of the States. For the moment, “those in charge” have managed to postpone the Mene, Tekel, Peres of their system by adding another zero to the whimsical numbers written on their screens, to which nothing corresponds. The loans recently conceded to save the Stock Markets are ten times larger than the losses that made the markets tremble ten years ago—real production, however (GDP, let’s say) has increased by approximately 20-30%! This “economic growth” has no real basis of its own, but was caused by the financial bubbles. But when these bubbles burst, there will be no “soft landing” after which everything can begin all over again.

Maybe there will not be a “Black Tuesday” like there was in 1929, or a “Judgment Day”. But there are good reasons to believe that we are experiencing the end of a long historical epoch. The epoch in which productive activity and products are not used to satisfy needs, but to feed the incessant cycle of labor that valorizes capital and capital that employs labor. Commodity and labor, money and government regulation, competition and market: after the financial crises that have repeatedly struck over the last twenty years with increasing intensity, there looms the crisis of all these categories. Categories which, it is always good to recall, have not always and everywhere formed part of human existence. These categories took possession of human life during the last few centuries, and could evolve into something different: something better or something worse. Whatever the outcome, it is not the type of decision that can be made at a meeting of the G-8. . . .

Anselm Jappe
Original text published in 2011.

Spanish translation by Carlos Lagos.

Translated from the Spanish translation posted on the website, “Comunización. Materiales para una concepción integral del movimiento comunista”, at:

http://comunizacion.org/page/4/

Posted By

Alias Recluse
Sep 10 2011 03:01

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Malva
Sep 10 2011 08:10

This is great thanks for posting it.

LBird
Sep 10 2011 09:09

I've just printed this off, to pass round the pub later, at half-time during the footie.

Sad bastard, eh?

Malva
Sep 10 2011 21:12

Could the admins possibly jazz up the Anselm Jappe tag a bit with a photo, a blurb and key article, please? I'll try and add as much English stuff as poss. Maybe do some more translations if I have time.

AIW
Sep 11 2011 08:38
Quote:
The most facile answer, but also the most widespread, attributes all responsibility for this to the “greed” of a clique of speculators who have been gambling with everyone’s money as if they were in a casino.

If you're saying there's not greedy bankers then you're wrong cos there are.

Quote:
The search for scapegoats, for “Jewish bankers” or other culprits, to serve as targets for the indignation of the “honest folk” composed of workers and small savers, would be the worst possible solution.

You're confusing Capitalism with Feudalism. Under Feudalism, Jews were the only people allowed to practice usury and they were prevented, (by the feudal authorities who benefited from borrowing the money then rather than pay it back organised pogroms) from other employments. Capitalism can be seen as the legalisation of Christian usury.

Quote:
The rise of neo-liberalism after 1980 was not a sinister maneuver on the part of the most greedy capitalists

Yes it was.

Quote:
The value of each commodity consequently contains a constantly diminishing portion of human labor—which is, however, the only source of surplus value, and therefore of profit.

Isn't labour (to Marx) the only source of value rather than of surplus value?
Mechanisation can reduce the amount of labour it takes to make something and that has made stuff cheaper.
It's irrelevent but I think that as well as value being created by labour it is also created by other physical processes like fossilisation; there is caloriphic value, potential use value, in un-mined coal.
When Marx said that Capitalism was unstable he hadn't thought about the potential for bail outs. The state prevents the collapse of capitalism by re-circulating capital.

Malva
Sep 11 2011 09:01
Quote:
If you're saying there's not greedy bankers then you're wrong cos there are.

I don't think he is denying that there are people within the system that are more greedy than others. Rather, Jappe is attacking analysis of what is happening that relies on moral arguments rather than an understanding of the historical moment and what it says about the capitalist system at this point. Also, so what if there are dishonest bankers? Isn't an 'honest' banker still exploiting people in exactly the same way?

Quote:
You're confusing Capitalism with Feudalism. Under Feudalism, Jews were the only people allowed to practice usury and they were prevented, (by the feudal authorities who benefited from borrowing the money then rather than pay it back organised pogroms) from other employments. Capitalism can be seen as the legalisation of Christian usury.

I think that you have misunderstood the actual meaning of Jappe's sentence. He his criticising those (anti-semites) who blame the crisis in capitalism on Jews, those (on the Left) who blame specific individuals in the financial services. Rather, he is saying, what is needed is a totalising critique of the very system itself. Jappe is critiquing views that understand the problem as one between workers, or even just good people, versus evil capitalists. For Jappe, as for the SI, a more accurate and critical understanding of what is happening demands us to think of capitalism in terms of workers versus capitalists in general and (above all things) the economy itself.

Quote:
Isn't labour (to Marx) the only source of value rather than of surplus value?

Jappe is simply reiterating Marx's idea of "the tendency of the rate of profit to fall". Personally though I think, along with Debord, that this is rather made up for by the massive expansion of the service sector.

Quote:
Yes it was.

Again I think Jappe has a habit of not expressing himself well when it comes to explaining these sort of arguments. I think it is better to see what he is trying to get the reader to think about here: He is saying that neo-liberalism has to be seen as an essential way in which capitalism saved itself from collapse, at least for a while. He is arguing against people who think that neo-liberalism is a conspiracy, rather he is saying that capitalists saw this as the only way to keep the system going.

Again so much of Jappe's analysis is about attacking points of view that do not strike at the totality of the economic system itself.

Arbeiten
Sep 13 2011 23:13

yes AIW I think you have missed Jappe's rhetorical strategy rather than his actual analysis. He is not saying that there arn't 'greedy bankers' and he is not confusing capitalism with feudalism. He is critiquing the liberal left position on the crisis....

dys
Sep 20 2011 22:50
Malva wrote:
Quote:
Isn't an 'honest' banker still exploiting people in exactly the same way?

Not always. Tax evasion, laundering, fraudulence & corruption can account for other forms of exploitation.

Steven.
Sep 23 2011 09:44

I think in part this is a good article, in terms of its critique of the standard left view crisis.

However, the other aspect of it seems to rely on decadence theory, which implies that capitalism at some point will run out of steam and collapsed by itself. While an optimistic point of view (for those of us who oppose capitalism) I don't support it myself. Aufheben have a great and pretty comprehensive critique of it here:
http://libcom.org/aufheben/decadence

soc
Sep 23 2011 10:28

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the honest and dishonest banker are sitting in the same position in the surplus distribution. Therefore the 'dishonesty' doesn't account for a different form of exploitation, but have more to do with how the layers of bourgeoisie are struggling for higher shares in the surplus value. The economic growth is the bosses term to the objective surplus grows through (extensive and intensive all together) exploitation. Either the exploited masses grow with the extensive investments, bringing new resources, new labour in to the process, or lowering the wages, making the workday more intensive or longer. Now if this growth slows down, what we experiencing today, the shares of the over all profit falls, and there's a 'scarcity' situation within the ruling class, and individuals, groups and layers are having hard time to extract more for themselves, therefore they're playing distribution tricks, tax evasion, laundering, fraudulence & corruption to realize more from the production.

With honesty and dishonesty, the scheme is the same: The ruling class needs more growth to satisfy its need for profit, and the pressure on the capitalists goes with either 'honest', 'lawful' and for the left-liberal standpoint acceptable solutions, or with trickery. The result is the same, and structure of exploitation did not change much.

Even if you take the mortgage problems in account, you will find that the site of surplus transfer to different layers to the capitalist class has little to nothing to do with the form of exploitation (e.g. if you pay your taxes, or the employer instead of you, the form of exploitation is still the same).

Malva
Sep 23 2011 10:34
Quote:
the honest and dishonest banker are sitting in the same position in the surplus distribution

This is the point exactly.

AIW
Sep 24 2011 07:32

precisely

juan
Dec 23 2012 02:18

Both Henryk Grossman and, to a slightly lesser extent, Paul Mattick provided breakdown theories -

Grossman, http://marxists.org/archive/grossman/index.htm

Mattick,, http://marxists.org/archive/grossman/index.htm

No doubt others did as well, these simply happen to be the ones I read.

IIRC, Trotsky had a 'long curve' theory which led from origination into death but 'death' was not necessarily transition to socialism [ what Rosa L. termed barbarism was also an option depending upon class forces and consciousness].

Otherwise, nice article.

Juan