A wide-ranging and comprehensive summary of Robert Kurz’s views on capitalism, economic crisis, gender relations, the environmental crisis, postmodernism, abstract labor, Marxism, the failure of the left, technological change, the State, etc., transcribed from an interview that took place three years before his death.
Interview with IHU Online, March 30, 2009 – Robert Kurz
IHU Online: Are the current financial and environmental crises linked to the “collapse of modernization”?
Robert Kurz: The word collapse is a provocative cliché, and is generally used in a pejorative sense, so that the representatives of radical crisis theory can discredit someone by implying that they should not be taken seriously. Not only the capitalist elites, but also the representatives of the left, prefer to believe that capitalism is capable of eternal self-renewal. It is of course true that a global social system will not go to pieces from one minute to the next, like someone who suddenly dies of a heart attack. But the era of capitalism is over. After all, modernization was only the implementation and further development of this system, and it does not matter whether the mechanisms were those of private capitalism or State capitalism.
Despite all external differences, their common basis consists in the “valorization of value”, that is, the transformation of “abstract labor” into “added value”. This is not, however, a subjective purpose, but an end-in-itself that has ended up becoming autonomous. The capitalists as well as the wageworkers, along with the state employees, are functionaries of this end-in-itself that has gotten loose and cannot be controlled, which Marx called the “automatic subject”. In this case, universal competition forces a blind dynamic of the development of productive capacity, which constantly generates new conditions of valorization before finally encountering an absolute historical barrier.
Its internal economic barrier consists in the fact the productive forces have been developed to such a degree that “abstract labor” as the “substance” of “added value” is so diminished by the rationalization of the productive process that it has become impossible to increase real valorization (reale Verwertung). This “desubstantialization of capital” or “devaluation of value” means that products themselves are no longer commodities, and can be represented in monetary form as the generic form of value, restricted to mere consumption goods. The purpose of capitalist production, however, is not the manufacture of consumption goods to satisfy people’s needs, but the end-in-itself of valorization. Thus, according to capitalist criteria, to reach the internal economic barrier it is necessary to shut down production and, therefore, society’s means of existence, until all possible means can be made available.
In real terms, this situation had already arisen during the mid-1980s, with the third industrial revolution. Capitalism prolonged its life in a “virtual” form, partly by a historically unprecedented level of indebtedness (in anticipation of future added value, which in reality can never be recouped); and partly by the expansion, also on a scale never before seen, of the so-called financial bubbles (stocks and real estate). This pseudo-accumulation of monetary capital “devoid of substance” was also used for the real production of commodities.
A global condition of deficits resulted with one-way flows of exports, principally to the United States. The assembly zones for exports from China and India, however, do not represent a real expansion of “abstract labor”, because their starting point was not real acquisitive power, but monetary capital “devoid of substance” represented by debt and financial bubbles. For more than two decades the illusion was fostered that “growth driven exclusively by finance” was feasible. Regardless of the form it assumed, the end of this illusion consisted solely in a financial crisis. The celebrated “real economy” has in reality not been real for a long time, but has been artificially nourished with financial bubbles “devoid of substance”. Now capitalism has been reduced to its real basis of valorization. The result is a new crisis of the world economy, without any real new potential for valorization on the horizon.
At the same time, capitalism is running into its natural external limitations. To the same extent that “abstract labor” was rendered superfluous as a transformation of human energy into “added value”, so too did technological advances in the use of fossil fuels (oil, gas) accelerate. The blind dynamic of the socially uncontrolled development of productive capacity led, on the one hand, to the predictable exhaustion of fossil energy resources and, on the other hand, to the destruction of the global climate and of the natural environment, which was equally predictable.
The external natural barrier and the internal economic barrier present us with a diverse temporal horizon. While the end of the real “valorization of value” has already taken place in the past and the capitalist economy is now undergoing its historical crisis that will unfold over the next few years (approximately over during the next decade), the absolute natural barrier has yet to be encountered (within three decades at the most). The economic crisis and the concomitant shutdown of productive capacity slows down the rate of exhaustion of energy resources—at the cost of increasing global social poverty in its capitalist form. Simultaneously, however, the processes that are currently destroying the foundations of the ecosystem and the climate are registering such rapid progress that they cannot be stopped, which is why the external natural barrier will be reached anyway.
The capitalist destruction of nature
The end of modernization therefore means that, besides having to abolish the capitalist form of reproduction, a post-capitalist society will for many years have to contend with the consequences of the capitalist destruction of nature. For the purposes of theoretical analysis and critique of the crisis, it is important to identify the internal interconnection between the two historical barriers of capitalism. One runs the risk, however, of playing one of these two aspects of the historical crisis off against the other; this is true for both sides: for the capitalist elites as well as for the representatives of an “environmental reductionism”, which only recognizes the external natural barrier. Capitalist crisis management and environmental reductionism could very well enter into a perverse alliance, which would lead to the denial of the economic barrier and, in the name of the environmental crisis, would preach an ideology of “social renunciation” to the impoverished and miserable masses. In opposition to this, we must insist that the crisis, the critique and the supersession of the capitalist structure have priority, because the destruction of nature is a consequence, not the cause, of the system’s internal barrier.
IHU: Why do you say that the scandal of the crisis is also the scandal of the postmodern left?
RK: The crisis is not any kind of scandal, but an objective process resulting from the blind dynamic of competition and the uncontrolled development of productive capacity. With regard to the postmodern left, one could speak of scandal insofar as it dismissed, for the most part, the critique of political economy. The “economism” of the traditional party Marxists was only criticized in order to definitively eliminate the negative objectivity of the capitalist categories of “abstract labor” and “valorization of value”. The crisis dynamic that is inherent to capitalism is goes totally unnoticed, having been transformed into “unlimited possibilities”. Like the neoliberal elites, the postmodern left believed in “finance-driven growth” and it became the ideological expression of fictitious capital. Economic virtuality was complemented by the technological virtuality of the internet. The Second Life of virtual space underwent a mutation and turned into life “properly speaking”, and the alleged “immaterial labor” of Antonio Negri ended up as the further extension of the capitalist ontology of labor. The real problem of the substance of “abstract labor” was denied; an ideological “anti-substantialism” (or anti-essentialism), in contrast to Marx, denounced this problem of substance as the mere metaphysics of a passé way of thinking, instead of recognizing that it exhibits the “real metaphysics” of capitalism, which is nonetheless quite material. At the same time, there was a predilection for the sphere of circulation. The capitalist financial illusion that acts of purchase-sale can also generate growth, like the real production of commodities, also constitutes the implicit premise of postmodern thought. The indebted subject of the market and consumption appeared to be the bearer of reproduction and a possible emancipation, although no one could say just what the latter would consist of.
This false economic and technological virtuality had its philosophical counterpart in an epistemology that no longer sought to criticize and overcome the fetishistic “real appearance” of capital, but seduced people to believe in their abilities to “realize themselves” under these conditions. According to virtualist illusions, the “iron cage” (Max Weber) of the commodity producing society was redefined as “ambivalence” and “contingency”, always open to all. In reality, even the negative truth of the critique is no longer based in the prevailing conditions, but may be “produced” and “negotiated”. For the postmodern left the negative nature of capital is dissolved into an indefinable “plurality” (Vielfalt, diversity) of phenomena, in contrast to a disconnected “plurality” of social movements, without identifying the concrete core of capital.
Postmodern thought and neoliberalism
In social terms, the postmodern left was a trendsetter of capitalist individualization and flexibilization. The abstract flexible individual was not recognized as a form of the bourgeois subject in crisis, but was instead viewed as an anticipation of individual freedom, but within capitalism. Instead of appearing as the final form of existence of the totalitarian market and as the menacing “war of all against all” in the universal competition of the crisis, individualization appeared as the atomized form of “self-realization” and the “flexible human being” (Richard Sennett); it was presented not as a defenseless object at the mercy of capitalist impositions, but as its own “sovereign”, that could conquer new spaces and transform itself into anything it wants. The similarity between postmodern thought and neoliberal ideology has always been indisputable, despite their external contrasts. Now, the postmodern left is face to face with the remains of its illusions and is confronted by the harsh reality of a monumental crisis, which it never wanted to acknowledge and for which it is therefore unprepared.
IHU: Is today’s left experiencing an existential crisis? Before proposing alternatives to the current world crisis, shouldn’t the left resolve its own problems first? Do you think that there is a theoretical vacuum or a “methodological maladjustment” on the left, with respect to the search for a common basis for theory?
RK: The current existential crisis of the left consists precisely in the fact that it was incapable of transforming Marxism and reformulating the critique of political economy in accordance with 21st century conditions. Naturally, there can be no return to the paradigms of a bygone era. The label of “postmodernity” was false, because the real social transformation of capitalism did not establish new social spaces, but precisely demarcated the transition to their historical destruction. Neither the end of the old workers movement, nor the collapse of “real socialism”, was critically assimilated. The postmodern transition did not go beyond traditional Marxism, it just gave conferred a little continuity on an otherwise empty shell. While the perspective of the socialist goal disappeared entirely and was dissolved into that false “plurality” of merely particular aspirations, the paradigm of the “working class” was transformed into an untenable multitude of interchangeable social subjects; in Negri’s case, this culminated in the utterly vacuous concept of “multitude”, which means everything and nothing. The evacuation of the subject is correlated with a virtualization of social struggles, which to a great extent still only possess a symbolic character, and are less and less capable of real intervention.
To characterize this situation as the “impasse” of the left is a euphemism. Both the old left and the postmodern left are coming to an end. The ontological subject of “labor” no longer exists because “labor” ended up being revealed as the historical substance of capital and has become obsolete. Along with “labor”, the paradoxical Marxist concept of the “objective subject” in itself, which only needs to be transformed to the subject “for itself”, is liquidated in historical terms and cannot be perpetuated by any substitutes. In this sense, the “theoretical vacuum” of the left is identical with its “methodological maladjustment”. The left never managed to grasp the subject-object dialectic of modern fetishism. The result was that it succumbed to a crude objectivism or else an equally crude subjectivism. The oscillation between these two poles of fetishism sealed the doom of a good part of the debates of the left, which was incapable of abandoning this polarity.
For a new social emancipatory movement, the most important thing is no longer to be awakened by the kiss of an “objective subject”, but to engage in a critique of the subject form, without any ontological safety nets, and to interpret it as a form of capitalist existence. The “subject” form can only be an agent of the “automatic subject” of capital valorization and cannot be confused with the will to engage in emancipatory action, which must be constituted on its own terms and cannot have an ontological basis. This is a very difficult idea to think about, because it was precisely the postmodern left that refrained from the critique of the subject (The later Foucault came to appeal to the particularized subject). This critique had failed primarily because it was not connected with the critique of political economy.
This problem is also linked to the critique of modern gender relations. While it is true that both the traditional left and the postmodern left made their obligatory obsequies to feminism, neither ever really took it seriously. Feminism, for its part, despite some meritorious analyses, was largely limited to defining woman as an “objective subject” that was just as paradoxical as the “working class”. The postulate of a feminine “subject formation”, therefore, leads to the same dead end. Feminism, too, fell victim to the postmodern transition and dissolved the “divergent” (abgespalten) feminine form of existence in capitalism into a “diversity” of particular emancipatory aspirations that do not touch upon the central problem.
It is also important to take the critique of modern patriarchy just as seriously as the critique of political economy, and not treat it as a “derivative” (abgeleitet) and secondary question. In this case, it is of fundamental importance to understand that the apparently neutral categories of capital and the respective “subject” form are themselves already “male”, and that capitalist “rationality” is androcentric from its origins. The dissolution of the traditional family and of the respective gender roles does not affect this argument, because the androcentric character of capitalism continues under other forms. The critique of these social forms and the critique of capitalist gender relations mutually condition one another and must be considered together.
The critique of the “objective subject” of “labor” and of the “divergent” female existence is not a word game, but has enormous practical consequences for the abolition of capitalism. It also results in the liquidation of the old Marxist idea of social emancipation and of socialism “within” capitalist categories, which must only be regulated and controlled in another way. At the historical limits of capitalism, the challenge arises of the “categorical critique” of the connection between “abstract labor”, the commodity form and “the valorization of value”, as well as the gender relations within that context. This is also hard to conceive, because these existential conditions are internalized, having furthermore even been endorsed by postmodern thought. But the formulation of the new socialist goal on the basis of a “categorical critique” could lead to the development of exigencies immanent to the transition that are also suitable for the process of the historical crisis, thus acquiring real power to influence the course of events. Without the unifying focus on the nucleus of capitalism, social movements will remain defenseless and particularized. It is to be feared, however, that the left, taken by surprise by the crisis, will end up trusting to quite austere notions of alleged “salvation”, thus reaffirming its historical impotence.
IHU: What aspects of the current situation are contributing to the conversion of politics into an endangered species? Could it be said that the economy “colonized” politics? Is politics being re-conceptualized as a result of what is taking place?
RK: Politics centered on the State as the coordinating authority is falling by the wayside not because it was colonized by the economy, but because it long ago failed to work according to its own premises. The problem must not be considered only in view of the external conditions of the globalization of capital, which exploded the borders of the national economy. The regulatory power of the State was extinguished primarily due to the fact that there is really nothing of substance left to regulate. Capitalist valorization in the forms of “abstract labor” of money has always constituted the premise of the State, a premise it cannot shirk. When capital is devalorized by the development of productive capacity itself, the State can only react via the inflationary issue of money by its central bank. This does not overcome the lack of substance of virtualized capital, but exacerbates it as it devaluates the medium—which is an end-in-itself—called money. It so happens that the authority of the central bank is purely formal; its printing of money can only provide a means of expression for the substantial production of added value by way of “abstract labor”, but it cannot replace it.
The limits of State credit were already reached during the late 1970s. During that era, the expansion of State credit, evacuated of all substance, was punished by the inflationary wave. The illusion of neoliberalism consisted in the fact that it attributed inflation exclusively to the activity of the State. Neoliberal deregulation only transferred the problem of State credit to the financial markets. Although the punishment of inflation was transferred, due to the transnational character of the economy, to the financial bubbles, the inflationary potential began to heat up during the era of global deficits up until 2008. This process, at first, was interrupted because from that time forward virtual capital and along with it the world economic situation are breathing their last. But if the State is once again invoked as the “authority of last resort” and as a deus ex machina, its economic and emergency policies once again will provoke the devalorization of money itself; the only difference will be that this will take place in a higher stage of development and to a much greater extent than it did thirty years ago.
The rebirth of politics
In this scenario, the hope for a “rebirth of politics” is the biggest bubble of all. The harm inflicted by political damage mitigation policies will be even greater than those inflicted by the current crisis. The State will only be able to regulate the definitive death of capitalism. With regard to this issue, the left is also disoriented as long as it does not question the basic underpinnings of the system. Just as the alleged “autonomy” of particular social and symbolic movements disappears in the face of the internal barrier of valorization, it is to be feared that the left will undergo a regression to its traditional statism, because it cannot think of anything else. Even now, most of those who pretend to engage in left social critique do not practically go farther than a little Keynesian nostalgia. If the left expects to carry out its “social reforms” by taking the streetcar of statist administration, it will end up derailing along with it and, once the carnival of virtualism is over, it will become a trendsetter of inflationary politics. And it is quite deserving of such a fate.
IHU: What other left forces could arise in the present situation?
RK: Because the left has failed, a total prisoner of capitalist categories, people will naturally ask if there are the other forces of social emancipation. There will certainly be revolts and social conflicts when people are deprived of their basic living conditions, however precarious they may be. These eruptions could also take a right wing turn, and could take the form of sexism, racism, anti-semitism and nationalism, although these ideologies do not have the slightest chance of comprising a successful reactionary solution of the crisis. There are also spontaneous social uprisings that vaguely understand themselves as leftist, like the one that has been taking place in Greece over the last few months. Some leftists, who are using them against the necessary theoretical transformation, are already mythologizing these marginal young people who are viscerally reacting against the suppression of their vital needs.
But the cult of spontaneity is always beyond shame. The spontaneous revolts of the youth, however organized they may be, will end up being completely nullified, if they cannot acquire a critical notion of the situation that is in conformity with the era. Thus, there is no alternative but to develop a new socialist goal by way of a categorical critique that cannot be bound to the “false character of immediacy” of spontaneous praxis. It is necessary to endure this stressful task to prevent the emerging social resistance from suffocating in its own hot air generated to try to inflate the balloon of the “philosophy of life”.
IHU: You say that world society must free itself from the game of real economism and organize its resources in a new way, outside the State and the market. In this regard, how can the left carry out revolutionary activities and change the current situation? What should the proposals of the left be in this case, with regard to the financial crisis?
RK: It must be emphasized that it is precisely society that must be universally liberated from the real economism of capital. It is true that a new form of reproduction can only be successful beyond the market and the State. During the last few years, this formula is being used more frequently in the sense of a separate cooperative alternative economy, existing “alongside” the social production network of capital, so to speak, and which in some way will have to be gradually extended. This only carries on in the mold of postmodern “colorful” particularism. However, the formation of a negative society (negative Vergesellschaftung) of capitalism can only be abolished as a whole, or else it will not be abolished. The cooperative alternative economy already has a long history and it has always failed, the last time in the 1980s.
This crisis of historical proportions will not improve the conditions for such ideas—to the contrary. This is because an “alternative” reproduction restricted to a small space is not only linked to hidden social duties, but also by remaining subject to the functions of the market and of the State, so that on its own account it can only satisfy a few vital needs. The real reproduction of individuals is inserted in a chain that Marx, under capitalist conditions, called “social labor”. This structure can only be transformed in its entirety; it cannot begin with potatoes or software and find that it has created a “model” on a miniature scale, which only needs to be applied to society as a whole. The “Platonism of the model” is the product of bourgeois economic theory, not of radical critique.
When in the midst of a full-blown crisis, due to a lack of “financing”, water and electricity are cut, and medical assistance collapses along with the capitalist distribution of food products, what is then at the top of the agenda is not the gradual “joining into a network” of communes that will attempt to redefine life, or the “formation of networks” of virtual barter, but the transformation of the capitalist mode of “network formation” of society as a whole. For this purpose, what is needed is an organized resistance of all of society against the crisis management that establishes its own goals on the level of social synthesis.
The solidarity economy as placebo
Thus, the particularist placebos of the “solidarity economy” type, which generally consist in a confused mixture of subsistence economy, illusory “economic reforms” and an abstract communitarian ideology, are nothing but red herrings. We want to make a curse into a blessing. It is quite consistent that these proposals are enamored with “solutions for the financial crisis” linked to Keynesian nostalgia. There is no solution to the financial crisis; the very concept of “finance” must be attacked, if one intends to seriously propose a new mode of reproduction that goes beyond the market and the State.
IHU: Considering that we live in the information age and are experiencing the crisis of capital, what new trends in the capital-labor relation are manifested in the world of labor? Considering the insertion of new technologies in current society, but also in the crisis, is deglobalization possible in the age of information technologies? Can we conceive of a new global economy?
RK: Information technologies as the basis of the third industrial revolution were just what generated the development of productive capacity that necessarily had to come up against the internal barrier of capitalism. Under capitalist conditions, it is a matter of pure “crisis technology”, which can only unleash positive potentials beyond valorization. The illusion of postmodernism and finance capitalism consists in the fact that information technology implies new forms of “immaterial labor”, in a so-called information society, as well as new relations between capital and labor, with more “self-determination” for the workers. In reality, the “information age” had already led to mass unemployment, under-employment and instability in labor relations in the past. This supposed self-determination has already led to a compulsory “self-responsibilization” of individuals by the valorization process. Antonio Negri attempted to characterize this negative development as the choice in favor of “autonomous self-valorization” (autovalorisazzione). This term is becoming a fashionable word for repressive labor management, which was transformed into the proposal to define individuals as “independent entrepreneurs of their labor power” and as “managers of their own human capital”, in order to place them completely at the mercy of the conditions of capitalism in crisis. The new crisis dramatically exacerbated these tendencies and once and for all refuted all the attempts to try to make the capitalist form of information society appear to possess “ambivalence” with an emancipatory potential. The postmodern metaphysics of ambivalence are finished.
Globalization cannot be reduced to information technology. Under capitalist conditions it can only be part of the globalization of capital, under whose command one also finds information. It is to be expected that, in the wake of inflationary State policies, the course of the crisis will lead to a “deglobalization” as an effort is made to withdraw towards the protectionist egoism of national economies, which are still only formal; and all of this will be accompanied by neo-nationalist ideologies. But this cannot overcome the crisis, it will even make it worse. One could also ask whether the internet is sustainable—not because of a possible technological collapse (although in this respect as well there are signs of capacity having reached its limits), but because it depends on a formidable infrastructure, whose “financing” is just as dubious as everything else. A merely virtual globalization is not sustainable if it is not linked to the transnational reproduction of material beyond capitalism. The blabbermouths of the blogosphere and the intolerant freaks of the internet may yet be in for a rude surprise.
IHU: How can one speak of ethics in the current molds of capitalist society?
RK: In all fetishistic historical formations, ethics never went beyond an attempt to socially coexist with the given conditions of reproduction, which are blindly taken for granted, without any perspective of overcoming them. Even modern bourgeois ethics pretends to attempt to resolve contradictions and crisis, without touching the root causes. In modern bourgeois ethics, radical critique must be replaced with a canon of rules of moral conduct for individuals, so that, within the existing forms, a person can get along with his fellow man. What is susceptible to failure is not the system, but only the individual morality. The current crisis, of course, has also been attributed to the moral shortcomings of bankers and executives. It is not by chance that the biggest “rescue package” is devoted to ethics, which is actually on the rise for a change. Unfortunately, this package is totally empty. The “automatic subject” is not accessible to any ethical imperative; ethics is therefore more or less the last thing with which critical theory should worry about.
March 30, 2009
Translated from the Spanish translation made for sinpermiso.info by Carlos Abel Suárez.
Translated from the Spanish version available online at: http://www.aporrea.org/ideologia/n211481.html