A 2006 interview with Robert Kurz on “the end of modernization”, the decline of culture, and the process of individualization or social “atomization”.
2006 Interview with Robert Kurz – José Galisi Filho
What do you mean by the end of modernization?
The concept of modernity is quite flexible and is understood in entirely different ways, depending on the context in which it is considered. Among historians, for example, there is the concept of “pre-modern”, which is dated between the 16th and 17th centuries, and the modern, which includes the entire historical process since then. In philosophy, the beginning of modernity is often associated with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, upon which all the later ideologies and theories up until our time are directly or indirectly based. For most economists and sociologists, on the other hand, the modern era began with industrialization in the early 19th century, which later gave rise to a history of various industrial revolutions, which has today reached its culmination in the third industrial revolution of microelectronics.
In the field of art and culture, the concept of the modern was for all intents and purposes established as a concept only in the 20th century, before the First World War, and the “classic modern” epoch did not extend beyond the 1950s and 1960s, when it seemed to be exhausted and gave way to so-called postmodernity.
In the field of art and of the cultural apparatus, the theme of the end of modernity and the beginning of the post-modern has since been extended to philosophy, theories of history, sociology and even economics. The “new economy” of casino-Internet capitalism was described as a postmodern socioeconomic paradigm, as a new era of capital accumulation and prosperity, whose bubble burst only a few years ago in the most pathetic manner.
The disorientation appearerd to be so complete that Jurgen Habermas already proclaimed, in the early 1980s, a “new non-transparency”. The problem consists in the fact that, in the development of the modern, the perspective of the social totality and of history is becoming increasingly more elusive. The social sciences have become “disarticulated”, as theories now refer more and more only to “parts of the system”. The totality is lost, and it is precisely on the basis of this retreat and vacuum that postmodernity crafts its cult of this disconnection.
In post-history, history itself was atomized; in sociology, the “processes of individualization” (Ulrich Beck) have been rehabilitated; and in economics, the “microeconomic” viewpoint has been emphasized and the capitalist totality dissolved in the particularity of “economic subjects”.
This same atomization is also taking place in art, the culture industry and alternative lifestyles. Every man for himself and let the devil take the hindmost. This tendency towards atomization is not only pure ideology, but also implies social goals as well, which, however, have not been examined up until now. Society seems to be dissolving into an absence of any real connections, and this process is understood in a way that is just as devoid of any real social basis, that is, it is duplicated in ideological terms. In this sense, the postmodern is, so to speak, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We get another perspective entirely, however, when we consider society and history as a whole. Modernity constitutes a continuum and a categorical connection, a certain historical formation of society, differentiated from its traditional agrarian-religious forms. What is essential in this process is the constitution of capitalism, on the one hand, that is, of the modern system of commodity production, and, on the other hand, of modern gender relations, in which patriarchy, as well as social reproduction, were “objectivized”.
“Abstract labor”, the commodity form, the mediation of the world market and universal competition became central determinations. These seemingly neutral forms are also “structurally masculine”, that is, they mirror the masculine supremacy in politics and economics and, in a certain sense, also in the cultural apparatus. Women are represented in the latter sector, but they are also, as the sociologist Regina Becker Schmidt points out, “doubly socialized”, because those moments that do not contribute to social reproduction (domestic work, raising children, empathy, companionship) in “abstract labor”, in politics and in the cultural apparatus are separated by rising capitalism from official sociability and historically relegated to women. Capitalism, the objective of the modern system of commodity production of the “valorization of capital” and of its political sphere, thus also constitutes a system of “gender separation” (Roswitha Scholz).
What is thus understood as “modern”, however, does not constitute some kind of static continuum; it is dynamic. For this reason, the concept of “modern” goes hand in hand with that of modernization. Modernization was initially a process of external and internal colonization, that is, a process of the consolidation of modern social categories by way of European colonization, externally, and of the subversion of the old agrarian-religious relations and personal bonds of dependence, internally. This process developed at an unequal pace and was completed in various parts of the world outside of Europe and North America in intermittent successive waves, which extended well into the 20th century. This is why one may also speak of “historical non-simultaneity”.
Secondly, however, the concept of modernization designates the development of modern relations on the basis of “their own foundations” (Marx), the history of the Industrial Revolution, the emerging metamorphoses of the political sphere (democratization) and the new forms of expression and of gender separation.
The postmodern era is therefore essentially different from the modern era. On the other hand, the postmodern discourse assumes that modernization has reached its historic limits. Capitalism and its division between the sexes has become, in globalization, a planetary system and, in its simultaneity, this internal development seems to have been exhausted. While there are indeed new forms of individualization, the Internet, the transnational economy, and the modern social categories are becoming hollow and vacuous. Economic, social and technological changes no longer correspond with new contents and perspectives. This is demonstrated with particular clarity in the sensitive sphere of art and culture. But this dynamic is only external. With Paul Virilio, we may speak of a “polar inertia”.
All of this goes hand in hand with a “radicalized economic crisis”, which has spread from the periphery even to the capitalist centers, in the specter of unemployment and of mass poverty, in deteriorating infrastructures, in the decline of the middle class, as people are increasingly being driven into social precariousness, including many intellectuals and artists. The growing global migration is also part of the syndrome. Viewed as a whole, we are facing a global crisis of a new kind. The postmodern era is not an era beyond the modern era, but an era of crisis that is inseparable from the modern era, an era of critical transformation towards the unknown, since one cannot be “more modern”, that is, modernization has no more room to expand.
Mainstream theory and science do not understand this new situation and seek merely to let the wind take them where it may, because they do not want to recognize the postmodern era as the crisis of the modern era which has reached its historic limits. In part, the postmodern is presented as an allegedly complete new era of self-reliant virtuality and of “open” contingencies, while social reality collapses in the reality of the harsh presuppositions of capitalism, which can no longer even be fulfilled.
It is in this sense that Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens speak of a “reflexive modernization” and of a “new discovery of politics”. The modern era must become “self-reflexive” in relation to the potentials and dangers that it has itself engendered, especially with regard to ecological balance. In this respect, however, there is no way to proceed that is compatible with the modern era. The capitalist destruction of vital resources continues unabated and politically there is nothing new to be discovered, because politics, as a corrective instrument for the regulation of the nation-State, can no longer affect the globalized crisis.
With regard to everyday relations, this fundamental crisis is also obvious. Atomized individuals can no longer endure each other’s presence, amorous relations are becoming unstable, the division between the sexes is breaking down, and everyday life and personal behavior are, so to speak, “barbarized”. Postmodernity, as a new era, or as the continuation of modernization, is simply a deceptive whitewash.
And how do you define our era as opposed to the cycle that is coming to an end with the current stage of capitalist accumulation?
If we can describe our time as the crisis of modernity, a crisis that is distinguished by a loss of substance, then this problem has an elementary social basis in the economy of the modern system of commodity production. According to Marx, abstract labor constitutes the transfer of human energy for the purpose of valorizing the substance of capital. In the third industrial revolution of microelectronics, this substance is itself becoming increasingly more superfluous.
For the first time in the history of capitalism, the rationalization of production has overtaken the expansion of markets. As human labor power, in successive waves, is withdrawn from the productive process, real capital lags behind. This is no longer an instance of the further mutual interconnection of the economic and social totality. The transfer of production capacity to low wage countries, like China or India, is not a zero-sum game, but is linked to the export of high technology. In those countries it is limited only to a minority of export-oriented “special economic zones”.
In globalization, there is no longer any kind of national economic “development”, in which the population as a whole can be integrated. In this sense, as well, modernization has come to an end. Capitalism is becoming a capitalism of minorities. It establishes the planetary interconnection of humanity, yet only in a negative sense, as a process of crisis, which everywhere dissolves the basic connections of social existence. World capitalist society as it is currently constituted can no longer integrate the majority of the world’s population.
This is not only a problem of mass poverty and unemployment, however. Increasing social fragmentation is also to the same extent liberating, on the large and small scale, “post-political” processes of disintegration. All over the world, as a continuation of competition by other means, new relations of force are emerging. We can speak, on the one hand, of a stealthy process of privatization. Instead of the traditional kinds of war we are seeing civil wars of a new type arise amidst the prevailing anomie, civil wars that are associated with a particular kind of violence against women and children. The zones of insecurity expand with each passing day.
Planetary capitalism is suffocating not only as a result of its own self-produced uncertainty. To the same extent that labor power is devalorized, a “de-substantialization” of capital is simultaneously taking place. Value and its form of appearance as money are the result, when all is said and done, of transferred human energy, and only for this reason do products assume their commodity form, that is, the form of an abstract “reification of value” as opposed to their palpable qualities. By devalorizing living labor power, the third industrial revolution is destroying value itself and poses a threat to the entire system of commodity production. The crisis of “abstract labor” is becoming the crisis of capital itself, because the “valorization of value” is coming up against its historic limits.
How should we understand cultural production in this context? Do you think that, in the sphere of art, modernity is our Antiquity?
I think, with regard to the economic relation as the center of official society, that there is a clear distinction between the modern and the postmodern. The modern was the continuation of the historic rise and consolidation of abstract labor. The substance of capital is becoming, in the process of accumulation, increasingly more rarefied. It is affecting ever more spheres of life and its influence has extended to cultural production, which is organized within the capitalist logic of the culture industry.
Literature and art immanently reflect this substantial movement, which is known as modernization, even to the most remote pores and interstices of everyday life, such as changes in psychic relations, social character, sexuality and the perception of the world. With regard to this point, both the traditional leftist critique as well as the critique associated with the old camp of real socialism, and also the conservative critique in all of its versions, have spared no efforts. But this critique always has the dynamic of the expansion of abstract labor as its unspoken assumption.
This is evinced not only from the cultural point of view, but also from the political and economic perspectives. Political “democratization” was identical with the integration of the masses into capitalism. The recognition of the wage worker as a subject of civil rights, as well as a citizen (universal suffrage, women’s right to vote only in the 20th century, the right to strike and the freedom of assembly), only constitutes the other side of the coin of his submission to abstract labor. And real socialism was merely an alternative system, conceived on the basis of the same social and ontological foundations. As real socialism on the periphery of the global market after the October Revolution, it developed as a paradigm of catch-up modernization, in which abstract labor was not abolished, but only introduced and applied later than elsewhere.
On the other hand, the postmodern represents the process of dissolution and decline of abstract labor. The end of real socialism belongs to this context and signals the end of catch-up modernization. The unified world system can no longer generate a substantial unity, except in small islands of decreasing profitability. While the classical cohesion of the modern nation-state dissolves, the de-substantialization of capital now radiates in the reverse direction, to all domains of existence, as a feeling of general prostration and crisis.
The crisis of the economic substance and, consequently, the crisis of politics, have become the crisis of modern male identity, which is anchored in that substance, while women, due to their dual socialization and categorization in the separate moments of real reproduction, were always only semi-integrated. In this crisis, the conquests of the feminist movement are being successively—and up until now without meeting much resistance—revoked. On the terrain of this retreat, the deflated masculine identity has gone out of control, expressing itself, everywhere, in ever greater sexist violence.
The old demons of modernization, dressed up in new clothes, are making a comeback—racism, anti-Semitism, ethno-nationalism—among both men and women. They only represent a destructive relation to the new existential threat to reestablish, in an imaginary way, the lost social nexus under the rubric of the “other”.
The same decline can be observed in cultural production. That is why the crisis of culture and art is not due only to the financial crisis and the precarious living conditions of their practitioners, but also to their contents. The new is just a rehashed version of the old (retro). It is not just television programs that are infinitely repeated. Used-up fashions and contents return to circulation after shorter and shorter intervals. Culturally, the dynamic of development is being transformed into a kind of eternal recurrence of the same.
Now that everything has become indifferent, art can no longer be provocative. Nudity and tasteless bloodbaths on the German stage provoke a big yawn. What is really sensational today in Germany is when the actors appear on stage with their clothes on. There is no more cultural content that can be expressed in the capitalist form, precisely because it has itself lost its content. Social fragmentation and disintegration as universal disconnection are becoming a lack of universal content or a de-realization of all the critical contents of the past, that once served to counteract this development.
Technological reductionism is also demonstrated in communications. The more individuals are mobilized by the multimedia technological arsenal, the less they have to say to each other.
The social sciences are not immune to these tendencies. Ulrich Beck also speaks of himself, when he refers to a self-inflicted loss of meaning and of the unreality of sociology. The unreality of sociology is the same as that of art and culture, and it is just as “guilty”, to the same degree that it tries to conceal this loss of substance by inventing empty concepts. This is why sociology can no longer offer any kind of response to the urgent problems of the crisis. It superficially describes some phenomena, but refuses to recognize the correlation between them.
There is only one way out of this postmodern merry go round: if theory once again addresses “the totality”, beginning with the crisis of “abstract labor” and of modern gender relations, carrying out a radical critique of the capitalist ontology, which, for the obsolete critics of the past was merely positively assumed. Perhaps, with such a profound critical undertaking, it would be possible to once again restore its provocative qualities to art.
Can one still speak of the class struggle? Can the proletariat still be considered to be a force of opposition against capital?
Ever since the onset of industrialization, the modern era was distinguished by the class antagonism between “wage labor” and “capital”, between “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie”. This opposition appeared to be ontological, because “abstract labor” was understood as an eternal natural necessity and only in a totally external sense as the substance of capital. In official bourgeois ideology, the capitalist form was inseparable from the necessity of “labor” itself, and in socialist ideology “eternal labor” was supposed to free itself from the capitalist form.
Today, the social assumptions common to both ideologies are eroded and it is perceived that both sides are, so to speak, at least in part, half right. The abstract substance of labor is in fact an inseparable part of the capitalist form, but only to the extent that this form is steadily evacuated of its own substance. The “ontology of labor” is revealed to be just as historically limited and as obsolete as the universal commodities and the monetary form of capital.
Those “labor armies” invoked by Marx in his time are disappearing as the organized basis of the class struggle. It only seems that today the mobilization of these “armies” is being repeated in the special economic zones of China and India, while at the same time in those countries, in their domestic markets and agricultural production, “labor” is, to a great extent, being demobilized. From the global point of view, the absolute volume of regular labor is constantly declining.
Capital reacts to this internal crisis with the constitution of an economy that is interconnected like a financial bubble. Once real investments and factories, machines and labor power are increasingly less profitable and “overcapacity” prevails everywhere, this overcapacity must be demobilized on an increasingly more vast scale (with plant closures, for example). Finance capital takes refuge in virtual (fictitious) accumulation in the financial markets. Profits no longer come from the production or sale of commodities, but almost exclusively from the insubstantial increases of the market prices of stocks and real estate, from transactions involving the securities of corporations and their subsidiaries (hostile takeovers, for example).
Just like the social sciences in their theoretical reflections, capital also seeks, from a practical economic point of view, to go with the flow. The export-oriented special economic zones of China and India, managed by the transnational corporations, are also in reality dependent on the economy of the financial bubble, especially on the foreign trade deficit of the United States, and do not represent any kind of real productive accumulation.
The sociological process of individualization described by Ulrich Beck was, from the beginning, bound to this economic virtualization of capital. In the latter, the classical proletariat is dissolving and the traditional class struggle is losing, along with “labor”, its ontological basis. When, in 1986, Beck called attention to the liberation of people from their old class bonds, he totally ignored the crisis character of this same economic process. In the meantime, he has himself had to backtrack from his initial optimism, but he still refuses to acknowledge the internal relation between individualization and the crisis character of virtualization.
The opposition between poverty and “abstract wealth” (Marx) is dramatically radicalized in the monetary form, but it no longer results from the exploitation of living labor power. People are indeed being individualized and socially atomized, as capital faces ever greater challenges to its accumulation. Within this new mass poverty, various levels of social disparity are developing, which can no longer be traced to a common denominator of a uniform social “class”.
While the remnants of the social welfare state still exist in the western countries, an increasingly larger number of people are becoming dependent on payments from public resources, which goes hand in hand with the increasing national debt. The more these transfer payments are restricted as part of an attempt to manage the crisis of the state, the more the forms of precarious labor multiply, beyond the ambit of normal industrial jobs.
Most of these new employment relations are no longer based on the production of goods, but take place in the sphere of circulation, in the pure market processes of buying and selling or individual services, pseudo-self employment, compulsory community services performed by the beneficiaries of unemployment insurance, jobs for which people are paid one euro, part time home aid positions, housemaids, teams of street sweepers, work in call centers, phone sales, temp work, as well as so-called sub-work (a few hours a week in the supermarket bagging groceries or stocking shelves), work in bars, small-scale street vendors, one or another kind of “poverty business” and even simple begging.
This tendency has already affected many members of the young generation of middle class academics, who, to a great extent, cannot find any regular appointments and have to take jobs that pay little or nothing right up until they are almost 40 years old, or even contracts for temporary labor. In France there is talk of a “génération precaire”.
In these conditions, individuals are not only socially and psychologically, but also economically, atomized. They no longer find a common framework for the unification of the forms of organization of their precarious jobs. Under the pressure of the threat of impoverishment and of the exacerbation of their living conditions, they devise new kinds of social struggles, such as the mass protests of the students in France. But these social movements (as well as the so-called antiglobalization movements and their social forums) can no longer be unified under the label of “class struggle” or under that of a “working class”, as the anachronistic traditional left vainly seeks to accomplish. Already in the 1970s the “new social movements” had exhausted the paradigm of the old “class struggle”.
This naturally resulted in a weakening of the power and capacity of these movements to achieve their demands. They often assumed the form of purely “single-issue movements” that addressed specific questions. Social protests also were fleeting and failed to mount any sustained form of organization. This was in part due to the fact that the obsolescence of the “working class” and the end of the “class struggle” between opposed social forces not only imposed obstacles with regard to organizational matters, but also, as in the new social movements, imposed similar obstacles in sociology and cultural practices, because the perspective of the social totality was lost.
There is no longer any common goal, the old understanding of “socialism” has been liquidated, along with the ontology of “labor”. At the very moment of its historic crisis, capitalism seems to be a pure and insurmountable condition of social nature. In order to unify the social movements of atomized men and women as a new historic force it will also be necessary to establish new common goals beyond capitalism, a generalized critique of “abstract labor”, of the modern system of commodity production and of its gender divisions.
At the present time, not much in the way of these necessary changes is discernable. Instead, what we see is widespread capitalist nostalgia. The more that capital, by way of its own dynamic, undergoes “de-substantialization” and the more obsolete and precarious the remaining “labor” becomes, the more prevalent the longing for a past time of stable labor relations and the “economic miracle” of the postwar era.
This nostalgia is dangerous, because the illusory nature of these retrospective fantasies influences consciousness as a contradiction and assumes destructive ideological forms. The new poor, and precisely the most educated among them, are not better people. It is precisely the resentment generated among them that leads them to hunt for culprits, instead of critically questioning their socially changed conditions of existence. The capitalism of the virtualized financial bubble, in which they would themselves love to participate and get rich, simultaneously appears as a subjective threat, by way of its “locusts” in Private Equity Funds and other investment devices, a threat that is very close to the ideology of anti-Semitism (the cliché of “Jewish financiers”).
Conspiracy theories are therefore all the rage in best-sellers, as well as in a truncated and vulgar “critique” of capitalism in the form of an obtuse anti-Americanism. The old clearly-demarcated borders of the past between “right” and “left” are dissolved in the crisis of socially common assumptions. The future will depend on whether or not these social movements establish priorities that go beyond the old class struggle and nostalgic, anti-Semitic and anti-American tendencies. Or, to put it another way, whether they can successfully adopt a radical critique of the seemingly natural laws of the social forms of modernity.
In Heiner Mueller’s piece on the Prussian Enlightenment, “Gundling”, about Lessing, the domestication of the body, by way of a straightjacket, is presented by the teacher to his students, in a lunatic asylum, as an “instrument of the dialectic” for the treatment of a patient suffering from compulsive masturbation. “Each person becomes his own Prussia”, he ironically affirms. This instrument, however, only seems to further inflame the intensity of the patient’s masochistic impulse to new heights. The almost total colonization of the imaginary by the new virtuality has made it possible to dispense with the real straightjacket. What remains of the domain of fantasy?
It is undoubtedly a good metaphor from Heiner Mueller. It is necessary to establish a connection between the evacuation of subjectivity and the virtualization of capital, insofar as, with the increasing repression of individuals, they undergo a corresponding removal from reality in their immersion in the virtual.
What happens in the financial bubble also takes place concretely in everyday human relations. In psychology, we have the concept of the instability of the “borderline” personality. Mueller’s scene refers to the Tantalus-like process of the internal colonization of subjectivity. As capital, with increasing technological intensity, withdraws from reality and penetrates our private lives, our feelings and our thoughts, and stamps our dreams with the seal of economics, without restoring the living substance that has been withdrawn, self-repression increases, and individuals behave, in almost every domain, like small businessmen, managing this hollowed-out substance.
Then what takes place is the total economization of relations, of women, of children, and of friends. Everything must occur in accordance with a “managerial quality” and it must be organized like a small company, because, just as fewer and fewer real companies exist, we must be all the more vigilant in extending this structure against ourselves. This form without a content is also very barbarous in its crudeness and easily leads, in practical life, to physical aggression, because the unbearable idea of a growing unreality in the virtual inevitably seeks an outlet. This world is making us capable of and prepared for anything. Individuals are becoming increasingly more unpredictable.
Interview conducted by José Galisi Filho, Ph.D., the University of Hannover (Germany).
Translated from the Portuguese in October 2014.
Originally published in Tropico, Antivalor, Rio de Janeiro.