In this essay first published in 1994, Robert Kurz examines the history of “politics” as the “regulatory system” of “the modern commodity production system”, from the inception of capitalism to its high point immediately after WW2—when “the last residues … of the pre-modern constitution” were eliminated and when “politics” was finally totally absorbed by “economics”—and its current crisis, heralding “the historical collapse of the system”, manifested as “the environmental crisis, the crisis of the society of labor, the crisis of the nation-state and the crisis of gender relations” in an era when democracy “is nothing but the completed subjection to the subjectless logic of money”.
The End of Politics: Theses on the Crisis of the Regulatory System of the Commodity Form – Robert Kurz
Modern self-consciousness, developed in the West after the Enlightenment, systematically dehistoricized and ontologized the forms of socialization and their concepts. This applies to all the currents of the history of modernization, including the Left and Marxism. This false ontologization ultimately refers to the basic concepts of “economics” and “politics”. Instead of recognizing this pair of concepts as specific to the commodity production system of modernity, they are imposed upon all pre-modern (and future) societies as a blind assumption and are judged to be part of human existence as such. Historical science then investigates what “economics” or “politics” was like among the Sumerians, in ancient Egypt or during the so-called Middle Ages. In this way, not only is the possibility of understanding pre-modern societies basically foreclosed; so is the possibility of understanding modern society itself.
Pre-modern societies had a “process of metabolism with nature” (Marx), but not an “economy”; they had internal and external conflicts, but not “politics”. In western tradition and history itself, from which these concepts are derived, they originally meant something totally different than what they mean today, perhaps even the opposite. There was no socially differentiated “economic” sphere, much less a dominant “economic” sphere; nor were there, consequently, “economic” criteria: their analytical differentiation and consideration as dominant is a post festum undertaking of modern consciousness, which renders the comprehension of the nature of the investigated historical formations more difficult. Logically, there was no distinct “political” sphere, much less one that complemented the economy, nor therefore was there any properly “political” criterion. Questions of common interest conformed to criteria that were altogether different. Nor could these relations be described by modern concepts of “public” and “private” space; much of the alleged pre-modern public space was “private” in our sense of the word and vice-versa.
The problem can be solved by pointing out that it is a question of substantially distinct forms of social universality. The “abstract universality” of pre-modern societies or of advanced agrarian cultures was essentially determined by a fetishistic system whose vestiges are today known as “religion”. In the modern sense, however, this concept now refers to a differentiated sphere (marginally complementary to the spheres of “economics” and “politics”), whereas the religious dimension of pre-modern societies embraced the reproduction of life itself. Although it sounds like a pure paradox to modern consciousness, it must be said that religion contained within itself “economics” and “politics” and therefore could not have been “religion” in the modern (differentiated) sense. Religion was not an “ideological superstructure”, but the basic form of mediation and reproduction, and this was just as true with regard to nature as to social relations. This does not mean, of course, that people survived on manna from heaven. As long as society is not conscious of itself, the process of appropriation of nature, as a human and social process, must pass through a system blindly constructed of symbolic codes. In the situation of being unconscious of himself, man, largely disconnected from the genetic code, needs a social form of abstract universality in order to act as a subject. The unconscious constitution of such abstract universality can be called (following Marx) fetishism.
But historical fetishistic constructs are numerous: their succession (if it is possible to speak in this manner) configures a meta-history and cannot be explained by the base/superstructure schema, nor by the materialism/idealism opposition. The “historical materialism” of Marx itself succumbs with respect to this question to a false ontologization of specifically modern problematics. Economic concepts like “surplus product” or “agrarian mode of production” cannot be set up as the basis or as the cause of the pre-modern and abstract universality which takes the form of religion; in the same way, furthermore, that the abstract universality of modernity cannot be deduced from the pure and simple materiality of the industrial forces of production. In both cases, we see distinct fetishistic symbolic codifications which cannot be directly determined in “material” terms, but which always represent a relation to nature in which both “material” as well as “ideal” moments emerge.
Unlike the religious form of pre-modernity, the abstract universality of modern societies is determined by the commodity form. The modern fetishistic constitution is no longer the religious constitution of society, but something completely different: it is the commodity and money, money which is “productively” capitalized, which thus founds a new form of social universality. Its novelty is not attenuated by the fact that the commodity and money also existed in pre-modern societies, or, more exactly, by the fact that one can recognize similar relations of exchange in these forms. But it was not only the aspect of those forms we today define as “economic” which underwent a fundamental transformation in modernity by means of the “productive” capitalization of money (including in this case the relation to nature): the impact of those very forms on the symbolic codification of social reproduction was decisively modified. If the commodity and money in pre-modern societies remained a marginal moment within the social universality determined by religion, in modernity, on the other hand, it is religion which constitutes a marginal moment in the social universality determined by money and the commodity—a universality which thus shows itself to be comparatively “secularized”. The stages of the process of transformation from one fetishistic situation to another can be historically reconstructed.
All fetishistically constituted social formations, that is, all those based upon their own unconsciousness and on the blindly produced social “laws of reproduction” of a “second nature”, necessarily contain a feature of absurd dualism and “structural schizophrenia”. In fact, the splitting of human consciousness into, on the one hand, the relative consciousness of “first nature” and, on the other hand, the unconsciousness pertaining to the constitution of social and historical “second nature”, must be manifested in the expressions, attitudes, institutions, reflections, etc., of the “subject” which has its origin in this contradiction. This structural schizophrenia is, however, much more pronounced in the modern era based upon the production of commodities (and only in these conditions that it can be recognized) than in the advanced pre-modern cultures. This is due to the specific quality of the social form of the commodity, which creates a much stronger differentiation than that produced by the constitution of pre-modern fetishistic societies.
The ancient religious constitution directly touched all aspects of life and united society by means of a mass of traditions which could only be altered slowly and with difficulty. Religion was present in everything in an immediate way, due to its determining the social code from its roots (unlike today’s “religion”); it was a matter of a diffuse form of abstract universality which spread itself like a cloud over social consciousness. Everything had to be directly based on religion. Overall, this diffuse immediacy of religion also caused it to manifest itself in a superficial variety; the surface covering of abstract universality was, so to speak, more loose (for example, in the para-state formations), which by no means contradicts the firmly-rooted character of “second nature” as such.
For its part, the modern constitution in the form of the commodity does not immediately appear as a totality but is mediated by differentiated and apparently autonomous “spheres” (a favorite field of descriptive analysis for functionalist and historically-blind systems theories like that of Luhmann). The form of the totality (commodity and money) appears at the same time as a particular “functional sphere” of the so-called economy; or, to put it another way, the totality in the form of the commodity has to first be mediated with itself by means of its “becoming other” (the true social foundation of the whole Hegelian edifice). Thus, the structural schizophrenia can no longer be spread out all over society as in the pre-modern religious constitution, but must be manifested as a separation of functional spheres (“economics” and “politics”), and from that basis as institutional separation.
The abstract universality whose tendency was towards the unmediated, diffuse and relaxed, which was the result of the deeply-rooted religious structure and involved a totality only slightly different from the social and life-process, was therefore broken apart with the modern transformation of the fetishist constitution into a system of separate spheres, in which the form of the total commodity mediates its own process of becoming. The now-institutionalized structural schizophrenia caused the separate spheres to appear in the form of logically and institutionally opposed pairs, in which the mediating nexus is manifested on the surface, without leaving any trace of its origins. Just as the totality in the form of the commodity is broken down into the “individual/society” structural opposition, social space into the “public/private” opposition and everyday life into the “work/leisure time” opposition, so also is the functional nexus of this totality split into the “economics/politics” opposition.
In contrast to pre-modern societies, the “process of metabolism with nature” is no longer codified by religious traditions, but by the process of abstraction of the commodity form: the transformation of the material and sensible content of reproduction into “abstract things”, whose phenomenal form is money indifferent to that content. Social universality no longer presents itself directly, through the religious constitution and the traditions to which the latter gives birth (the only possible form of mediation, in that case, is direct force), but is mediated through the mechanism of the market, which progressively incorporates the whole relation to nature. The social nexus, no longer directly represented and codified by tradition and by force, but only indirectly by the mediation of the market, is however incapable of completely replacing the nexus based on tradition and force.
Paradoxically, through the mutual repulsion typical of the commodity form, men are much more dependent on social relations within the “process of metabolism with nature” than they were in pre-modern society, which was characterized in this respect by small autarchic units of production. Commodity society, which by its own logic tends towards an always-increasing specialization in the relation to nature, only indirectly represents a higher socialization, or, conversely, in the phenomenal form of “de-socialization”, by means of the blind and subjectless mechanism of the market. Since commodities cannot become subjects by themselves, and since, therefore, in commodity relations the individuals undergoing this (absurd in itself) “asocial socialization” must nonetheless relate to one another, directly but on a secondary level, the subsystem of “politics” must be formed where these secondary direct relations can be dealt with. From this extreme degree of socialization—still determined by a strong separation and disconnection of people, now only indirectly mediated among themselves in their relations with nature—arises a need for regulation much greater than that of pre-modern society, a need which is transferred to the separate functional sphere of “politics”.
The institutional space of the (primary and indirect) functional sphere of the “economy” is the market; the institutional space of the (secondary and direct) functional sphere of “politics” is the State. In the modern fetishist constitution based upon the commodity form, the State is thus something completely unlike its counterpart in pre-modern societies, just like the rest of the falsely ontologized social categories. The State apparatus assumes the regulatory functions of the totalized production of commodities (law, logistics and infrastructure, foreign policy, etc.), and the decisions with respect to these functions must by one means or another pass through the “political process” and its corresponding sphere. Overall, one can say that abstract universality no longer spreads as an unmediated totality like a cloud over society but, as a mediated totality, it brings about a schism in society’s foundations in the form of the dichotomies, private/public, market/State, money/power (or law), and economics/politics.
The asocially socialized individual (who thus feels like an abstract pole opposed to “society”) therefore becomes the intersection point of two opposed series: private-market-money-economy, on the one side, and public-state-power/law-politics, on the other. Such opposition is not only complementary but openly antagonistic, since opposed interests develop out of both series. That which on the private plane arises as positive, as virtue and ambition, are revealed on the public plane as negative, as vice and sloth. The interest in constant money-making is antagonistic to law or to certain aspects of law, while the interest of the subject himself in the greatest possible degree of juridical security is antagonistic to unbridled money-making. In the same way, the interest in money is in itself international and without frontiers, while, in the interest of its own self-affirmation, it has to subject itself at the same time to the national interest of the State, etc.
The reduction of the “concept of politics” to a friend vs. foe antagonism, as elaborated by Carl Schmitt, thus has some truth to it, although undoubtedly not in the sense intended by its author. The ultimate definition of “politics” as the friend vs. foe distinction is only the externalization of a structural contradiction latent in the private life of the subject himself determined by the commodity. Individuals, as institutional subjects of commodity society, are among themselves both friends and enemies, two spirits in constant confrontation in one breast. The structural schizophrenia characteristic of all fetishist societies was only aggravated, institutionalized and differentiated in the constitution of modernity in the form of the commodity. It thus hastens towards a decisive historic test: the more it develops the system of commodity production on its own terrain, the more it cleaves in two the human subject which serves as its support, which is then revealed as the hideous duplicity of “homo oeconomicus” and “homo politicus”.
The splitting of the system of commodity production into the functional spheres of “economics” and “politics” became one of the principal sources of the ideological struggles and antagonisms of modernity. Both poles of internal opposition arrived at their antagonistic complementarity, each with its own identity. The ideological opposition, however, between “economic liberalism” and “statism” was long overshadowed by the conflicts within the “statist” or “political” pole. This fact is explained historically. Not only do we have a structural antagonism within the commodity production system, but we also have, at the same time, the antagonism of this system as such with regard to the old pre-modern constitution and its traditions, its powers and its forces. From the Renaissance until well into the 20th century, the history of the system of commodity production was also the history of its ongoing affirmation; only since the end of the Second World War (or, in the strictest sense, since the 1980s) can we consider the last residues and remains, or even the simple memories, of the pre-modern constitution to have been definitely eliminated.
In this history the internal contradiction was necessarily obscured and distorted by the contradictions of affirmation, i.e., by the way that the modern fetishist system constituted itself and formulated its internal conflict as an external conflict with the old system. In this historical perspective, the statist and political pole could prevail, since it had a dual function: first, as one of the two internal polarities of the capitalist system; second, as the external opposition of the system to the pre-modern constitution of the agrarian society of the Medieval Estates. The direct functional sphere of “politics”, which from the point of view immanent to the system was merely secondary, thus received an additional role with the bourgeois revolutions, which were essentially “political”, since they had to directly impose, in institutional conflict with the old system, a new form of unconsciousness, while at the same time on the side of the “economy” the process of transformation was effected spontaneously and, so to speak, by osmosis.
It was from this historical situation that the emphasis on the political was born. The secondary character of this sphere was ignored or even turned into its opposite: “the primacy of politics” and its various celebrations arise as a reflection of the unequal level of development in the different regions, countries and continents. In other words, “politics” became a mode of affirmation of the system of commodity production against pre-modern resistance and backwardness; only in this way was it able to assume its characteristic emphasis, utterly unjustified by its immanent role in the system. Thus, the truly polar opposition internal to the system was, for a long time, not the pattern of formulation of conflicts; rather, the internal problem of the contradiction and the external problem of modernization were reproduced and amalgamated within the “political” pole as an antagonism between right and left, in a metaphor derived from seating arrangements of the revolutionary Convention in Paris.
The predominance of the political pole and its mode of appearance, for the most part, as the left/right alternative within the political sphere, were nourished, in turn, by two sources. On the one hand, the powers of the old declining constitution and the still-immature instances of tempestuous growth, having been largely overcome (or more precisely, combined and amalgamated in diverse combinations, always dissolved again, of the old and the new fetishist forms) were obliged to assert themselves, in their own defense, on the terrain of the new and in their functional configurations. The result was inevitable, which did not prevent repeated and more tenacious conflicts. In other words: the old powers, upon being dismantled, were obliged to appear in the arena as “political parties” (or in their embryonic, surrogate or travestied forms) and thus involuntarily contributed to the creation of the modern functional sphere of “politics”, as well as to the antagonistic form of the self-mediation of the modern system of commodity production.
The left/right opposition within politics thus reproduced, in typical or ideal terms (in the historical empiria, of course, these terms are always “impure” and riddled with contradictory and tangled vectors, including those of the innovative constitution itself), the external opposition of the developing system to pre-modern society or even its predecessors. The “left” was then the radical vanguard of the new system, and thus of the bourgeois revolution; the right, meanwhile, was the party of tradition and of the corresponding establishment; the “moderates” were relatively “leftist” against the establishment and relatively “rightist” against the party of radical modernization. In the ideological confusion of this constellation, the opposition to the new system, which was afflicted by its own deficiencies and catastrophes, could be unambiguously “rightist” without thereby risking being perceived from another (retrospective) point of view as leftists, as occurred with Balzac and above all with the romantics, who were used for self-serving ends by the most diverse critics of later eras. Institutionally, this constellation corresponded to a still-undeveloped party system, insofar as behind the parties one could discern the old Estates and their representative corporations, sometimes in a leadership position.
The second source of emphasis on politics (and of the antagonism within politics) arose from the dispute concerning the forms of modernization of the functional elements of the modern system itself. Here, positions clashed which could be understood as polarized reactions to the same system of reference, whose elements were formed in a non-contemporaneous and contradictory way. In order to develop, the system of commodity production had to break through the frontiers of the old society at two points: one, as an overcoming of the multifaceted local obscurity, through the constitution of national economies and states; the other, as an overcoming of social stupidity, though the constitution of democracy and the social state. Both moments mutually conditioned each other, but in the course of their development they were distributed inconsistently or even antagonistically all across the left/right schema.
The right secured predominance with regard to the issue of the nation, by means of which the left/right opposition no longer represented the struggle between the new and the old constitutions within the nascent political sphere, and was formulated on the terrain of the new system itself. If the emphasis on nation building during the period between the French Revolution and 1848 was still modulated by the left and burdened with liberal or socialist contents, which reached its apex in the struggle against the “right” composed of the followers of Metternich and their absolutism, the center of gravity of nationalism shifted from then on increasingly towards the right, as market society evolved and created its own legal prerogatives (now, of course, truly “political”). The right’s nationalism, meanwhile, cannot so easily become enthusiastic about the construction of democracy and the social state. This by no means indicates that such institutions were not also being integrated by the right; but despite everything from Bismarck’s social legislation to the social programs of the fascists and national socialists, the political right always preserved a basically Estate-oriented tendency, enriched by an elitist ideology, a current which could never completely free itself of reactionary and dysfunctional residues in its confrontation with the modern system of commodity production.
The left, on the other hand, achieved preponderance on the field of democracy and the social state, which the left enveloped in a metaphysical aura (just as the right had done with the nation). The emphasis on “democratization” arose as a registered trademark of the left, which adopted the pathos of the bourgeois revolution, saturating it with the “social question”. Neither democracy nor left socialism, however, could unreservedly rid themselves of national ideology, since the conflict carried on by the left, which accompanied “democratization” and “socialization”, being essentially a conflict within the national commodity society under construction, appeared to partially put into question the nation and the national state as unifying elements. As the management of national ideology by the right gave form to the will to external self-assertion (against other nations and other “national interests”), the left therefore had to orient itself more towards “internal unity” (and even coercive “internal unity”).
But just as the right was not deprived of its social and democratic (or, ironically enough, social democratic) aspects, the left did not lack its own national and ideologically nationalist aspects, as the social democracy enthusiastically demonstrated in the First World War and was more recently proven by the national elements in the bourgeois revolutions of the historically backward nations (the Soviet Union and Third World). Ultimately, the national element always was accepted with reservations on the left—although at times more or less tacitly—by virtue of the basic orientation of the democratic and socialist trend. Due to these reservations, the national ideology could never be mobilized with as much force and impact as it was on the right.
This constellation, which corresponded to an advanced stage of the rise of the system of commodity production (since the end of the 19th century), affirmed a more highly developed party system, which lasted until the middle of the 20th century. The left/right schema only then acquired its own contours within the context of the new constitution. One could speak of an “era of ideology” and of an “ideologization of the masses”, who were then unleashed from their bonds in the Estate System and from the subsistence economy by the rise of the form of the total commodity. The parties which still retained a base in the Estate System were replaced by ideological parties which represented interests completely translatable at that time into the commodity form; only in these parties did politics attain its proper essence, as a mode of imposition of the new constitution: only with the appearance of these parties was a true political sphere for all of society elaborated.
The ascendant phase, then far from being terminated and overcome, was no longer related only to external institutional technical adjustments, but to the form of the subject as such; and not only with an elite, but with the masses under construction. If the social universality in the pre-modern religious constitution was embodied exclusively by the respective elites, insofar as the masses were subjected to them in a secondary way, in the modern configuration of the commodity form, on the other hand, the masses must be directly incorporated. The naturally unmediated character of the pre-modern relation to nature corresponded to a secondary, mediated and personified existence of the social universality: inversely, the modern relation to nature, no longer direct but mediated by the commodity form, must correspond to the unmediated character of the fetishist universality of society in the form of the subjectivity now common to all, without any social particularity. Once the producers were disconnected from the immediate relation to nature, and once they were transformed into units of expenditure of quantities of abstract labor, so too was the abstract universality transformed, from an omnipresent yet diffuse fog of the typical consciousness of the religious constitution, to a totality which is also omnipresent but now rigid, the totality of money and its self-valorization.
But just as the self-valorization of money—as the fetishistic “form of representation” of abstract labor converted into the blind tautological goal of society—is only possible through the mediation of the market, that is, it can only “realize itself” in acts of buying and selling in large quantities, including, without exception, all human beings, so it was necessary, in radical contrast to pre-modern society, to also impose a mandatory subjective form for everyone, a form which is homogeneous, “egalitarian” and dictatorially at the mercy of money. The realization of the fetishistic self-valorization of money, in fact, is only possible by means of the “free” act of will of men as total subjects of buying and selling. This necessity is compatible with neither traditional bonds or with the restriction of the fetishistic form of universality to a “depository subject” elite. The rise of the new constitution, dominated by commodity fetishism, thus appears, retrospectively, as liberation from the coercions of the religious constitution, as emphasis on egalitarianism and “free will”; from the perspective of the future, however, it is revealed as ideological obscurantism, since this new egalitarianism of the total money form generates not only new social differences and much more brutal, novel phenomena of poverty and of dispossession of all the means of production, but also new and no less brutal coercions. “Free will” is in no way “free” in relation to its compulsory laws, to which human needs and potentials are no less sacrificed than in the pre-modern fetishistic constitution. The old subjection to religious tradition and to its personifications is simply replaced by the (even more hopeless) subjection to the impersonal and reified power of money and its “laws”, which, like the religious traditions of the pre-modern era, are blindly accepted as laws of nature.
During the rise of the modern fetishistic system of commodity production, at each stage of its development, these unapprehended correlations nourished new ideological productions and a new transformation of the political sphere that was in the process of formation. The replacement of the politics of the 19th century, still influenced by the Estates System, and of the correspondingly still-immature party system, by the ideologization of the masses and their emphatic insertion into politics—Marxist social democracy was the precursor and protagonist of this tendency, which then began to be increasingly incorporated by the “right”—thus corresponded not only to the internal logic of the modern fetishistic system, but also to the problematic specific to its rise since the end of the 19th century. The “Fordist” transition towards mass production, concluded in Europe with the First World War (by the last year of the war the conflict could be said to have been motorized), demanded as a logical consequence the step towards mass consumption of capitalistically produced commodities and, with this, to mass political democracy, whatever its phenomenal form. This might scandalize the fetishists of democracy, but this “democratization” and the consequent politicization of the masses also formed part of the fascist, national socialist and Stalinist regimes, insofar as they promoted the technological, ideological and “de-traditionalizing” mobilization of the masses, which is the prerequisite for the total commodity and consummated democracy.
Democratization is nothing but the completed subjection to the subjectless logic of money. Once the masses reach this stage, which happened shortly after the Second World War, the sphere of “politics” was obliged, once again, to alter its modus operandi. The political mobilization of the masses, which in the most backward regions of the world still celebrated some victories (Third World “liberation movements”), started to become dysfunctional in the most advanced commodity producing societies. The masses had already fully entered the phase of “money-makers” and no longer had to be subjected to compulsory mobilization or ideological stimulation for that purpose. Thus, after the modern fetishistic system had almost completely concluded its history of ascent after the Second World War and had become identical to itself, its ideological fervor had to disappear and the political emphasis had to be paralyzed due to the new conjuncture. From this perspective, the movement of May 1968 can also be understood (although this does not exhaust its meaning) as the last superficial disturbance of the democratizing and political impulse. The profound logic of the system has for a long time tended towards “de-ideologization” and “de-politicization” (at least in the traditional sense of the emphatic concept of politics).
The party system itself necessarily followed this transformation. The parties lost their recently acquired ideological aspect and were converted into so-called “peoples parties”, that is, agglomerations of constituencies and interests standardized by the commodity form, in which the remnants of the old Estates, of the social classes and the ideologies of the defunct ascendant phase of the system are now only vaguely visible. Thus arrived the fashionable ideology of the absence of ideology, whose content is mute, blind and unreserved consent to the now-mature criteria of the fetishism of modernity. With the collapse of State Socialism, with the end of decolonization (whose final act was probably South Africa) and with the negative unification of the system of commodity production into a totalized “one world”, the transformation of the “political” sphere into a “non-ideological” sphere was definitively achieved.
Perhaps the traditional politicians, right wing as well as left wing, each in his own way lamented this fact; but there is obviously no way to return to the past. While those on the “left” cry tears of nostalgia for the democratization which was ideologically drilled into them, those on the “right” did not miss the opportunity to heap scorn on the “shopkeeper’s spirit” and to recall with yearning the times when politics was still a warlike monster with waving flags, marching into cannon fire. For their part, the “realists” without any distinct politics or homeland consider themselves in step with the times, with the world and with the fulfillment of modernity when they render homage to the sterile “spirit of consensus” of a now-disenchanted “politics”, proclaiming it as the greatest legacy and the logical conclusion of western rationality.
With the historical conclusion, however, of the system, which became the total world system, the emphatic moment of “politics” only evaporated, exhausted with regard to its role in the system’s ascent, and from now on reduced to a mere immanent function. Thus, upon the disappearance of the dual function of the political sphere, the polar antagonism of the functional spheres of “economics” and “politics” becomes visible for the first time, in which the commodity production system must mediate with itself. The more that the ideological surplus of the ascendant phase evaporated and the barren end-in-itself of the valorization of value appeared in its obscene nakedness, stripped of its brilliant ideological finery, the more the dependent and secondary character of the functional political sphere became obvious. “Politics” now shows a tendency towards being reduced more and more openly and one-dimensionally to political economy. In the same way that in pre-modern societies everything had to be based on religion, so, too, today everything must be based on the economy. It is enough to hear how the term “market economy” acquires a liturgical sound in the mouths of all historical idiots after 1989, from the American president to the Russian ex-communists, not to forget the German Green Party. Whatever helps and is useful to the “market economy” is good, and it is commendable to use everything, dead and alive, for the market economy.
And in the same way that, in the previous stages of the system’s formation, the right/left antagonism was represented by legitimists and republicans or by fascists and socialists, so too one now finds it represented by monetarists and Keynesians, by free market radicals and interventionists. The right/left antagonism within politics, which previously appeared to be autonomous and primary in relation to the economy and which obscured the antagonism between the spheres of the “economy” and “politics”, is now completely “economized”; both sides are oriented in terms of “political economy”. This situation was only fully established after 1989. Obviously, the sky did not fall, since the social process had already been moving in that direction, at increasing velocity, since the end of the Second World War and was apparent long before. To know how to create new “jobs” and to stimulate growth, or to know whether the economy should be stimulated by supply or by demand, now exercises the mind to the same degree as, previously, the question of knowing whether only the taxpayers or also the landless should have the right to vote, or whether a war was just or unjust, or what was the best way to serve the “fatherland”. It is clear that the old political-ideological antagonisms are still present, but only as empty husks, worn out and faded. Even the neo-nazi no longer justifies his economic demands in the name of the race, but, to the contrary, bases his racism on economic interests.
This political-economic vehemence also explains why the political sphere as such cannot disappear with the historical end of the ascendant phase of the commodity production system and yield to a direct socioeconomic “coordination” of interests in the form of the commodity. It is not “politics” as such that disappears with the conclusion of the system’s affirmation, but its dual function and its apparently autonomous emphasis, its ideological garb, etc. What remains, as the inevitable and irreducible core at the base of the system, is “politics” as a secondary function of the ongoing process of self-mediation of the now-unchallenged, ubiquitous and totalized commodity form. The fact that politics is left over as a residue, results from the fetishistic nature of this process. The abstract universality of modernity—duplicated in the forms of money (primary) and State (secondary)—or the “Volonté Générale” as the subjectless “god” of unconscious socialization, requires these spheres of self-mediation. Precisely because the god of the totalized commodity form is not an effective exteriorized subject, but a historical product in peoples’ heads, who nonetheless imposes all historical actions upon them, precisely for that reason they have to execute the self-mediation of the subjectless system, although by way of the schizophrenia of their own thought and activity; they have to help the chimerical god and act as something other than themselves. “Politics”, now totally naked and disenchanted, will therefore continue to be an indispensable functional sphere of the system.
The need for the functional sphere of “politics”, described here in theoretical terms, can also be explained from the perspective of immanent activity. First, the diverse interests which take the form of the commodity cannot by their own efforts be directly “coordinated” to assume acceptable forms. This would mean that subjects in fact capable of understanding and desiring, conscious of their sociability, would communicatively enter into relations with one another and directly decide upon the utilization of material and intangible resources; in this case, however, it is no longer a question of subjects configured by the commodity form. From the perspective of the constituted interest, on the other hand, no decision is possible lacking the marginal conditions and the “tertiary” instance. If sociability were to resolve itself into a unilateral socioeconomic institution and all the bearers of functions in the commodity form were to be discovered only in an unmediated form as “syndicated” in their special interests, then nothing more could be coordinated, since there would no longer be an application for the common criterion (for the Volonté Générale). This would mark a return to brute force and, thus, to the rapid dissolution of the whole structure. “Coordination” has to take place within a system of imperative rules (law), which cannot be established on the same plane as the development of the conflict of interests in the commodity form; to the contrary, it must pass through the opposed functional sphere of “politics”.
Secondly, the political-statist sphere is not only necessary as “arbiter” of conflicting and therefore unmediated interests, but also as provider of those resources which, like the infrastructure, become general conditions of the whole process of valorization, without thereby participating directly in the valorization of money. Thus, such aggregates cannot be abandoned to the furies of particular interests, since no particular manifestation of valorization could voluntarily put forward enough money for the faux frais of the whole system, and the resources required for the simple “coordination” of particular interests could never be attracted in sufficient quantity. As “arbiter” of the conflict of interests and as depository of the juridical form, as well as the administrator of infrastructure, the state thus remains indispensable for the system as “ideal collective capitalist”. In this sense, the sphere of “politics”, as the form of the system’s self-mediation, cannot disappear.
After the historical demystification of “politics”, its secondary and dependent character is now revealed, although it will continue to be necessary. Politics is a simple form of mediation of something that transcends it, over which it, as “politics”, cannot have autonomy; thus, the commodity form as such and its laws of motion remain outside of the “free will” of the subjects of the commodity, as well as, logically, outside the “free will” of the “political” form of their will, which is only a derivative form. The State is the synthesis of particular interests and, therefore, an “ideal collective capitalist”, but not in the sense that it can attain to a meta-will, which would have the economy as a basis, upon which it could effectively and “freely” act, limited only by the quantity and quality of its “methods of power”. This was the political and statist illusion that was nourished during the now-concluded history of the rise of the state. If in that stage the “economy” was capable of appearing to have been “politicized”, today it is “politics” which necessarily appears to have been “economized”. With this development, the true relation in the field of the system of commodity production is re-established.
At this point, we also witness the historical defeat of the apparently incorruptible paradigm of the left regarding “economism”. Its conceptual basis is an elementary sophism: the commodity form as the form of the totality is confused with the superficial functional sphere of the “economy”, in which the commodity and money are active and appear immediately in an empirical form; the commodity form, in the fullest sense of the word, then appears reduced to a mere “economy”, over which “politics” would have the capability of autonomous and decisive intervention. Strictly speaking, one would then no longer have a concept of the totality, i.e., the mediated totality is conceptually dissociated into “economics” and “politics”, which cannot be recognized (at least in a coherent form) as functional spheres derived from something identical and superior; or, even the concept itself of the totality is distorted in the political sense (“capitalism” as a false concept of subjectively-understood “power”). Ironically, the usual leftist “critique of economism” itself argues in “economistic” terms, each time that it simply attributes the commodity form to the visible functional sphere of the “economy”, instead of recognizing it as the form of the totality which also contains the sphere of “politics”. The opposition between “economics” and “politics” can, then, no longer be understood as the conflict inherent to the commodity form and to its fetishistic constitution, which results from the problem of its self-mediation, but only as an external and unmediated opposition, which opens the door (again, as usual) to the hypostatization of politics by the left.
The real secret of this hypostatization is the total incapability of all the traditional forms of the “left” to manage to even approach the problem of superseding the commodity form. At its root, the “critique of economism” was always a flight from this problem; thus it quickly jumped towards “politics”. Instead of the overcoming of the commodity form, which was never even considered, all kinds of variants of “political” regulation arose, which were to exercise political control over the commodity form, ontologized and reduced to the functional sphere of the “economy”. The hypostatization of the concept of democracy generally forms part of this conception. Capitalism, understood in absolutely reduced terms, must be overcome not by means of the overcoming of the modern form of fetishism, but by its “democratization” and “politicization”. This leftist politicizing campaign, totally ideological and unconscious concerning the system’s real constitution, was complemented by an equally politicizing inverse hypostatization of capitalist state power, which is considered to be capable of achieving autonomy in relation to its “economic base”, an instrumental relation to the latter, and a general position of command. The left, just as it absurdly wanted to overcome capitalism in its “political” form, ignoring the immanent systemic character of the functional political sphere, also inflated the adversary, the capitalist State and its political depositors, into a meta-subject and the presumed demiurge of the whole process. This image of a “superior” enemy did not go beyond the functional surface, since the critique did not penetrate into the heart of the capitalist mode of production.
The idea of state-political direction of the “economy” (not overcome and still in the form of the commodity), whether as a revolutionary or a reformist “workers” power, or as an imperialist center of command, always circulated with new variants through the theories of the workers movement, Marxism and the left. This concept was held in common by both camps of the schism between the social democrats and the communists; it can be found in Lenin as well as in Hilferding, although in different forms. In the theory of Adorno and Horkheimer concerning the “authoritarian State”, accompanied in terms of vulgar economy by the research of Friedrich Pollock, this idea reached a new apogee, although in a pessimistic tone. It judged that the State had definitively put the valorization process and the market mechanism under its control, in a negative, “erroneous” and authoritarian manner, and had transformed them into a planned and hierarchically structured system.
As understandable as this conception might be under the direct impact of national-socialism, it is still a fundamental theoretical error. The state-political mode of the system’s affirmation, amongst whose depositors was national-socialism itself, was confused with the system’s structural logic and with its perfection. The same error is also found in the “workerism” of the extreme left (Negri and others), where it is now historically less excusable; and, finally, this same error still arises in the efforts of Habermas and the postmodern theorists (Baudrillard), where Marx’s “theory of value” or even “value” in general is assumed to have been “superseded”. These positions do not recognize the potential for crisis in the valorization process or devoutly believe in the fantastic simulacra of “fictitious capital”. All of the most recent new left radicalism is profoundly entangled in this grossly erroneous theoretical paradigm, whose historical roots it is incapable of recognizing.
The left’s critique of “economism” can therefore only be explained by the political surplus of the ascendant stage of bourgeois history; the left itself (and “leftism” in general) is thus revealed as a mere element of this stage, as a pole within the modern constitution, and not as its critique. Such a critique has yet to be made and cannot be formulated from the perspective of the traditional left. The bourgeois anxiety of the critique of “economism” can be explained by reference to the immanent functional nexus. The alleged autonomy of “politics” is already belied by the fact that the political sphere has no means of influence at its own disposal. Everything the State does through the intermediary of politics has to be done by means of the “market”, i.e., in the form of money. In fact, every measure and every institution must be “financed”. The problem of “financing” causes the whole autonomy of “politics” to capsize, including the so-called “relative” autonomy, oft-evoked by the left (even this phrase was, most of the time, a profession of faith in Marx’s unresolved critique of economics; in reality, the left always treated the alleged autonomy of “politics” as absolute).
The dependence of “politics” on the financing of its measures and, as such, on the money form of the market, is absolute, since the political and state sphere cannot autonomously create money. Whenever the State tries to claim for itself the responsibility for circulating money, this already constitutes a moment in the system’s collapse: the functioning of the presses at the Mint and the production of “money without substance”, that is, the State’s unproductive circulation of money, is always punished with a hyperinflation that is ruinous for the system. What is absurd is to present this alleged intervention of pseudo-circulation by the State of money as a “reformist measure”, as the political radicalism of the left casually tries to do. On the contrary, inflation is the point of surrender of the political sphere on the intangible terrain of the form of representation of “value”. The definitive breakdown of politics on this terrain, a recurring fact of history, never was, in this sense, overcome or postponed through political means, but always and only by way of a subsequent historical advance of the valorization of money, independently of all “politics”.
This limitation of the State reveals the true impotence of the political sphere; it is the decisive point at which the autonomy of “politics” and of the State’s ability to command must be put to the test. The State, therefore, can only collect resources to finance all its measures by means of successful processes of valorization which are mediated by the market. Its function of gathering tribute and the authoritarianism connected with this function make it appear, to the historically and structurally uninformed eye, as the commander of the whole process while, in reality, it is barely the “minister” (servant) of the fetishistic end-in-itself, in whose blind movement it remains inextricably entangled. All of its deliberations, rulings and laws, for the “control” of which the political process is fought out, appear ridiculously ineffective when their financing has not been regularly “earned” in the market process.
This is true, finally, of the means of power themselves. The tanks, jets and military electronic systems also, obviously, have to be financed before becoming available; and vice-versa, the valorization process, the laws of the market and the financial markets, do not give the least impression of being special forces units or specialists in torture, fighter aircraft or armies on the march. Thus it becomes obvious, even in the empirical relation of the two functional spheres, “economics” and “politics”, what the true relation of forces is, whose rule was never interrupted, although it had been momentarily concealed by the cloud of dust kicked up during the system’s rise. Only by means of the blind systemic impulses of real accumulation can a field of action be created for “politics”. The character of totality of the commodity form relegates politics to a subordinate and subject functional figure, which appears as its dependence upon the “economy”. There is no situation of dual power to resolve between money and power: power can only be the “minister” of money. In this role, in fact, power—as well as the functional sphere of politics—is unmasked as the phenomenal form of the fetishistic totality, dominated by the social form of the commodity. “Politics”, by its essence, cannot organize human and natural resources, even if it were the sphere of direct social communication; such communication, at any rate, is not “free” or open, but buried in the blind codification of the commodity form and its “laws”, which always have precedence, as unconscious quasi-natural laws of “second nature”, over all the consciously-created juridical enactments of the State and the political sphere.
This unfortunate circumstance has caused, above all, a current to prevail which, as “liberalism” or “economic liberalism”, has accompanied the history of the modern fetishistic system from its beginnings. Its creed is the “freedom of the financially solvent”; “freedom of movement for free citizens”, so to speak. Initially, liberalism corresponded with the revolutionary “political” birth of the system, an avalanche against the old, largely still pre-modern powers. At the same time, however, it brought with it an “anti-political” impulse, in that it was anti-State (thus, also, indicating a certain kinship between radical liberalism and anarchism, both clinging equally to the commodity form); it thus showed itself to be the paradoxical political depository of the contrary pole to politics in general, i.e., of the dissociated “economic” functional sphere. For this reason, liberalism, in the ascendant stage, with its political rhetoric, gave the watchword to the political right and left: to the socialists and the “communists”, nationalists, “conservatives”, fascists, etc. Within the political sphere, which in reality was suspicious enough, it maintained itself as a very marginalized foreign body like the old monarchists and parties of the nobility, although for diametrically opposed reasons. If the latter embodied the obstacles of the pre-modern past, liberalism, for its part, represented the “real economic” core—in a way, the hidden totality of the social commodity form, which had yet to historically affirm itself in society; even so, in superficial appearance and ideological conception, it embodied the self-movement of the “economy” against the applications of “political” regulation.
From this perspective, liberalism assumed a central ideological position in the beginning as well as at the end of the modernization process—from the invisible hand of Adam Smith’s theory to today’s neo-liberalism, which has infiltrated into all parties. If the old liberalism was itself necessarily “political”, today its paradox is reversed: it represents the “economic” criteria in “politics”, and it becomes the general ferment (no longer limited solely to the liberal parties) of the economization of “politics”. The “economic freedom” which it advocates is, on the surface, the hardly subjective or destructive freedom of the “financially solvent”; actually, behind this freedom lurks the savage “freedom” of the unleashed fetishistic form, monstrous and subjectless, for which liberalism is the direct agent in “politics”. Its completely “economistic” creed, already formulated by Adam Smith in its basic contours, points to the total regulation of all human questions by way of the blind “market forces”, which is identical to the blind submission of all human and natural resources to the fetishistic “god” of the valorization of value, which is the tautological self-movement of money.
Liberalism is also, naturally, spread out over a vast ideological spectrum. The classical positions allowed the state-political sphere a certain external regulatory function (the “night-watchman State”) and the monetarist position of contemporary neo-liberalism (Milton Friedman) wants, above all, to establish the State as the austere “guardian” of monetary stability, upon the basis of which the “invisible hand” of the market could act. Extremist liberalism (Hayek, for example), even wants to abandon money as such to the blind “market forces” and to dissolve the central banks; in the most extreme case, it wants to eliminate the state-political sphere in general, towards the end of directly subjecting all vital functions and tasks (even “security”) to the market mechanism. Taken as a whole and, of course, in its most radical positions, liberalism completely ignores the functional and systemic need for a political sphere. The objective differentiation of the latter, in the system’s blind historical process, only appears to them as a subjective “error” or a vicious aberration.
Its clearly asocial character also rises to the surface with its unconditional capitulation to the foolish criteria of the immediate process of valorization. The ideological assertion that the market mechanism is in itself social and regulates the “distribution of resources” for the well-being of all, rapidly becomes open cynicism from the moment that it is known that such a thing evidently never happens in reality. Liberalism then asserts that the growing misery must be imputed to the lack of willingness to work on the part of the poor and the excluded, to laziness and moral turpitude; or, in an idea-impoverished discourse, it even says that poverty and misery will always exist and that such a fate must be accepted, since the market and its criteria, conceived as an eternal natural necessity, despite all expectations, do not “allow” anything more to innumerable people.
Having arrived at this point (as documented, for example, in the recent speeches of Margaret Thatcher and Otto Graf Lambsdorff), liberalism reveals itself to be the exact opposite of the human freedom to shape one’s own life. Since there is an obvious abundance of unproductive and ruined resources (or, conversely, resources which have been mobilized destructively), which would “allow” of being put into motion in accordance with criteria different from those of the market, liberalism as determinant force thus leads, naturally, to every kind of civil war. In the end it paradoxically transforms itself into its opposite, since it leaves itself no other alternative than to voluntarily put itself under the wing of armed power (whether mercenaries or gangsters), that will laugh at its expense, without it being able to make any significant progress towards an understanding of the laws of motion of the subjectless commodity form and the mediation of the market. The unconsciousness of all those involved with respect to the true motives and results of their own actions is now always assumed.
Liberalism is, openly, the complementary opposite of politicism, whether of right or left. Against the always-infrasystemic critique of the left (and at times of the right) of “economism”, it constitutes the frank ideology and propaganda of a “real economism”. In this respect it reveals a paradoxical ideological entanglement of these two positions. The left’s critique of “economism” has its relative rationale—or more correctly, its pretext—when it fights a conception which in reality has little support, one which defends a direct and mechanistic dependence of politics on the empirical economic process. It is clear that even today, politics is not a directly dependent variable, for example, of the Gross Domestic Product, of import and export prices, etc. But, unlike the past ascendant stage of the system, this empirical economic process is in actuality much closer to politics, almost to the point of paralyzing it. The direct empirical dependence of “politics” on the “economy” is, undoubtedly, never manifested in such a way that the course of the political process mechanistically reproduces the course of the economic process or follows it directly. The greater weight of the functional economic sphere is shown by the fact that its process restricts and strangulates the possibilities for “political” action, which can lead in the political sphere, for example, to irrational explosions, desperate actions, regressive currents, etc., which are obviously not mere speculative “reflections” of empirical “economic development”.
Beyond that, however, the true error of the critique of “economism” is what it does not say, in its ignorance concerning the structural fetishistic constitution of the total commodity form. The critique of “economism” ends up excluding any critique of socialization in the form of the commodity or of the social form of the commodity as such, and attempts to compensate for this omission by means of political fantasies. In this secret acquiescence to the system, it enters into contact with liberalism, which in an equally unconscious manner makes the same assertion, but in an inverted form. The critics of “economism” of the left or the right and the liberal “real economists” join their voices in a common celebration of the commodity production system; the former meet with their lover surreptitiously, shyly, and with an attitude that is “critical of economism”; the latter do so openly, singing the praises of “real economism”.
The crisis of the whole frame of reference is today obvious, and has become known to the public as the “crisis of politics”. As that form of the totality of the commodity manifests itself as the dominant principle in the end of its ascendant stage and as the “economic subsystem” consequently imposes its structural dominion over the “political subsystem”, the political sky falls. Politics lives through its economic demystification as a distortion of all its parameters. Although explicitly rightist parties (or parties of the extreme right) still exist and new ones are even being formed, all parties (even those of the left) shift towards the right as a reaction to the crisis; and although neo-liberalism presents itself as a specific ideology and the liberals as a specific party, the position of economic liberalism and market radicalism is being insinuated to some extent into all parties and ideologies, on the left as well as the right. The decisive point is the increasing abandonment of “politics” to autonomized economic criteria. This development, besides extinguishing the historical emphasis of politics, makes the existential crisis of the entire mode of socialization become visible. The “crisis of politics” grows with the “crisis of the economy” and that of its core category, “labor”; the crisis of the subsystems points towards the crisis of the whole commodity system, which reaches its absolute historical limit at the precise moment that it leaves its ascendant stage behind, having become identical to itself only for a brief historical moment.
As its present circumstances and course of development make increasingly clear, the “crisis of politics” means not only the loss of its historical emphasis and hypostatization, so that it now collaborates, in the most perfect tranquility, as a reduced and demystified system, thus corresponding to its true functionalist sterility. The structures which until now formed the backdrop for the whole social process as a “condition for the possibility” of politics are becoming visible or are entering into public consciousness, and are today making themselves noticed as disturbances of basic functions. These disturbances, which herald the historical collapse of the system, are essentially manifested as the environmental crisis, the crisis of the society of labor, the crisis of the national state and the crisis of gender relations. And, in precisely those domains, the tacit backdrops of “politics” see the light and emerge from silence. The clamor of the social catastrophe, provoked by its decline, is transformed directly into the death rattle of “politics”, whose regulatory function is disintegrating, together with the functional economic mechanism. To the exact same extent that the foundations of the system, unreachable by “politics”, lose their capacity to function, so also the political sphere necessarily begins to go into a tailspin of falsehood.
Since the beginning of the industrial system under the commodity form, its destructive potential in relation to biological nature was lamented. This destructive force resides in the process of abstraction set in motion by the commodity form, that is, in money’s indifference to any material content. As long as the commodity form only possessed a peripheral existence within the interstices of pre-modern constitutions, the destructive character of this “real abstraction” (Sohn-Rethel) and of its “non-concrete” dealings with the world’s concrete material could only be manifested in a dispersed and occasional way. But as the commodity form became the social form of the totality in the form of capital, its destructive character in relation to “first nature” also had to come to the fore. At first, the environmental crisis thereby unleashed was limited to certain sectors and regions; it followed in the wake of the industrialization process in the commodity form. It is therefore logical that, with the structural and global perfection of the commodity production system after the Second World War, it became a direct threat to humanity. Affecting the soil, air, water and climate, the destructive potential of the total commodity form reached the most elementary foundations of life, thus becoming, starting in the 1970s, a perennial political issue.
But even with regard to so-called environmental issues, the non-autonomous and structurally dependent character of politics is becoming evident; more than a quarter century of environmental debates have provided ample practical proof of this fact. By virtue of its own essence, politics can only resolve functional problems immanent to the logic of money, but not those problems caused by that logic as such. Just as the state has to finance all its regulatory measures, this holds true, of course, for environmental policies. Natural foundations are destroyed by the abstract logic of money; but the repair of these natural foundations, in turn, costs money, which first has to be “earned”. In order to repair the destruction caused by money, society must, therefore, make more money and provoke more destruction. It is easy to imagine such a circle becoming increasingly vicious, to the detriment of nature and the preconditions for life.
It is therefore impossible to solve the environmental problem from the standpoint of the structural logic of the system. And since politics cannot occupy any other functional space than that of the state, it must in the last instance capitulate in the face of the potential of environmental destruction. It then goes on to concentrate on secondary measures, which cost the state as little as possible, like the legal interventions to “internalize” the “environmental costs” on the part of business; currently, one hears talk of “environmental taxes” (especially the tax on energy consumption). These purely legalistic measures, which even come to provide the state with a supplementary income, are rendered ridiculous, however, by the logic of the system.
In the first place, they are confronted by international competition. Since the arena in which the state and its laws are effective is restricted to the nation, and since the loser states in the world market are not parties to international environmental agreements, the world market must penalize the most expensive products, by way of environmental taxes, with the loss of competitive capacity, rapidly demonstrating the absurdity of this measure.
It is argued that such an effect could be avoided if the state, in order to compensate for environmental taxes, would reduce labor costs (wage disbursements, contributions to social security, etc.) and, in this manner, limit the rise in the prices of products penalized by the market mechanism. This would mean, however, that the state itself would pay the environmental tax, since it would have to reduce its income elsewhere and subsidize the measures which until now have been paid for by others (by the “social passengers”). But the entire edifice reveals its illusory character when it is claimed that the state would be capable of financing measures for the reduction of labor costs with the environmental tax. A clearly absurd discourse, since this tax has to be used, for the benefit of nature, to drastically reduce energy consumption and to force industry to invest in consumption-reduction measures in order to free itself from the tax. In a word, if this legal measure is enacted, the environmental tax would not be collected in a quantity sufficient to be able to finance the long-term programs which would accompany such a tax in social and market terms.
The effect, therefore, of an environmental tax on energy consumption is easy to predict. Large industry will invest in energy-saving measures, but will recoup the costs of these measures in prices, which will become a threat to competitiveness; or, then, it will ignore the cost repercussion, on account of competition, but will undertake a campaign lobbying the state to reduce the burden of these costs on business. The state, in turn, as large industry reacts to the environmental tax with energy-saving investments, will collect less tax money than is necessary to finance the reduction of labor costs, which will put it in a very difficult predicament, and to compensate for this decline it will enforce budget cuts elsewhere, etc. Ultimately, if big industry prefers to pay the environmental tax before investing in energy-savings, the state would be capable of financing the cost increases with the compensation of increasing labor costs, but altogether it will collapse into a zero-sum game, and the real goal will not be achieved, since the destruction of nature will continue as before, only now with an environmental tax. Small business, for its part, now incapable of assuming the investment costs of a drastic reduction in energy consumption, will then be between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, it will suffer from the environmental tax; on the other hand, the state will only be able to finance small-scale compensation measures, due precisely to large industry’s investments in energy savings.
Whichever way you turn, the alternative is the same: either the environmental tax on energy stumbles over the problem of financing, or it is reduced to a zero-sum game and cannot realize its environmental objective. Under no circumstances will the structural system of money’s valorization allow itself to be motivated by the subsystem of “politics”, which constitutes its systemic function. An environmental “politics” is therefore a contradiction in terms, since the remedy is worse than the illness. In general it does not risk confronting the principle of the valorization of money, which constitutes the real problem. This contradiction is in itself nothing but the phenomenal form of the subjects’ structural schizophrenia in the form of the commodity; it is thus manifested, as it effects the environmental question, in each individual of the commodity form, and not only in the great institutions structured in the commodity form. In the environmental crisis each individual money-earner sees the horizon of their interests dramatically fractured. The interest in money produced by the system obliges one to take part in the always-increasing destruction of nature, while the elementary interest in life and survival demands the overcoming of the logic of money. This latter interest, however, is in its essence transcendent of the system, and is only manifested by hypocritical evasions. The unhappy attempt to limit the environmental impact of money by means of money leads to absurdity to the same extent that natural resources are destroyed which even the big corporations cannot pay for with all their money. “Environmental politics”, on the other hand, is the false alibi of a humanity which, thanks to the schizophrenia of the commodity form, has become its own murderer.
The environmental crisis can be postponed, cynically reserving the final biological catastrophe for our children and grandchildren, while money still flows for the most urgent damage control measures. But in the meantime the “crisis of the society of labor” superimposes itself on the environmental crisis. The capitalist mode of production (the system of commodity production) manifests itself as the valorization of money; the latter, however, is nothing but the representation of past (“dead”) abstract labor. Capital in the form of self-valorizing money—an absurd end-in-itself—is therefore based upon the tautological and incessant business expenditure of quantities of abstract labor. Constant growth is necessary for the system, since employed living labor must revalorize the accumulated mass of dead labor, which means that we are dealing with a process of geometric progression. Although it is periodically interrupted by “valorization crises”, the latter do not succeed in returning to the previous level of capital accumulation. In reality, due to the productivity increase demanded by competition, the level of accumulation prior to the devalorization crisis is again attained even more quickly than before.
The crux of the problem lies in the fact that, thanks to the increase in productivity, less “value” is produced per product and per unit of capital employed, since “value” is a relative concept, measured by the respective level of the historically growing productivity of the capitalist system to which it is applied. This immanent tendency to crisis can only be compensated for by the absolute extension of the mode of production as such, in order to make further accumulation possible. As soon as the increase of productivity due to the application of science exceeds in absolute terms the extension of the mode of production, the compensation mechanism begins to fail. The global society of commodity production is today at this stage. What the language of sociology calls the “crisis of the society of labor” is, in the last instance, the absolute historical limit of the accumulation of capital. The whole social process of life and of reproduction is prolonged in an increasingly more painful way by means of past “labor”-substance and by way of the loss of value.
But the wellspring of the capitalist fetishist form is exhausted by virtue of its own internal mechanism. This society’s fundamental contradiction—that it is based on the incessant transformation of “labor” into money, even though it has now reached the point where, by its own development, it is incapable of profitably mobilizing enough “labor” within the standard of productivity that it has created—is no longer manifested only cyclically, but has become permanent and visible on the surface, and has become a historical paralysis. And it is here that the absurdity of the traditional extremism of the left becomes obvious, which denies a terminal crisis of capital accumulation, since it cannot transcend the paradigm of “labor” and it clings on that basis to the bourgeois concept of the subject; for this subject, capital must always be capable of “exploiting” labor power ad infinitum.
This question once again makes explicit the structural dependency and impotence of “politics”, which cannot intervene in the basic mechanisms of the system’s functioning. When the real source of money dries up, the political sphere weakens, precisely because it possesses none of its own means of life. On the one hand, the remaining historical wealth is consumed and the historically backward and the late-comers are the first to be affected by the crisis of the system and plunged into ruin. It has already been observed in innumerable cases that this outcome cannot be contained with statist and political means. The “old” nations of the capital fetish can resist longer, by virtue of their greater historical volume of substance, although they are also being affected by the phenomena of decline. For its part, dead labor appears as “substance”, accumulated in the more or less “substantial” form of money and of the reserves of competitive capital.
On the other hand, both the collapsing economies and the countries of the capitalist heartland try to prolong reproduction based on the commodity form with the creation of “money without substance” (state and consumer credit, circulation of money). The credit for this, that is, the access to a fictitious capitalization of future “labor” (international financial markets, derivative forms of money capital) is provided by the respective standards of productivity. But the diverse forms of “fictitious capital” (Marx) cannot be sustained when, from the basic mechanism of the valorization of capital-producing abstract labor power, enough “real” substance no longer flows. Even this problem is evaded by the old left extremism, attached to a bourgeois concept of “exploitation” within the commodity production system. The “financial crisis of the taxation state”—already discussed with the partial structural disconnection of fictitious capital from the real substance of labor, arising with the financing of the First World War—is today entering its terminal phase, which was considered to be impossible by politicians of all tendencies. In most of the states of today’s world capitalist society, hyperinflation, the collapse of state finances and the end of monetary autonomy itself already show the limits of the capacity for political action within the autonomous medium of money. It is only a question of time (in the medium- or even the short-term) when the supposedly “stable currencies” of the capitalist centers phenomenally manifest the real loss of substance which has already occurred and, thus, when the world financial system collapses.
And here it is shown that in practice the “structural crisis of the society of labor” logically leads—by means of the loss of substance of the politically immune money—to the “structural crisis of politics”. The basic loss of the “economy’s” functions is reproduced as the loss of the functions of “politics”, which on its own terrain of state action, is increasingly monetarily strangulated. There is no other remedy for it than to stick to its destiny and follow the turbulent or openly catastrophic course of the disturbance of its basic functions. Trivially, the political debate about the distribution of resources is transformed into the debate about the restriction of resources. According to the situation of the national economy in a planet-wide crisis, this leads to the exclusion of entire regions or sectors of the population. The social state shrinks or is liquidated, state infrastructure sectors decline, environmental measures are limited, and the political claim to regulation becomes weaker and is finally threatened with extinction. At this point, the last glimmers of light from political life follow the progressively weaker economic cycle, upon which the structural crisis of the valorization of money has long been superimposed.
Just as the environmental crisis and the crisis of “labor” and of the valorization of money mutually conceal and paralyze “politics”, so also is the globalization of capital superimposed upon both forms of systemic crisis, which breaks the old molds of customary national economies, more radically abolishing even the arena for action of the political sphere. The same productive forces which structurally destroy the structural functional mechanism of “labor” and of the valorization of money from within, also dissolve, step by step, the national frameworks of the economy at all levels. After the internationalization and globalization of financial markets came the internationalization and globalization of production itself and, likewise, that of the labor markets. This is less and less a matter of import and export of commodities and capital between national economies; rather, the import and export of commodities are only phenomenal forms of a total capital which directly globalizes itself.
The state is no longer the functional nexus of a coherent national economy, nor is it the “ideal collective capitalist”. Just as the loss of money’s substance strangulates state and political action on the monetary plane, so does such action lose the capacity to control and influence what is left of the real accumulation of productive capital; finally, the movement of “fictitious capital” escapes its control as well. Residual real accumulation and “fictitious capital”: both seek refuge in the structural “no man’s land” (G. Reimann) of the markets, which act outside of the boundaries of national economies, in spite of all of them being formally located on the territory of one nation or another. The state becomes the hostage of the “conjunctural” question and of financial movements and international speculation. This loss of control, which is barely dissimulated with difficulty, exhausts and weakens the last energy reserves of “politics”. The political sky also falls in the sense that the clear distinction between foreign and domestic politics disappears. There is no more “foreign” or “domestic” in terms of the national economy, which disorients politics, since it is by its nature incapable of following this reversal of its system of references.
The crisis of the entire political and economic system, which has reached its historical limits, extends beyond the visible functional spheres, even to the depths of “privacy”—not only in the sense that mass structural unemployment, the new poverty and the loss of political control are increasing, but also as the decline of the subject form itself. Today it is hard to recognize this, like the crisis in general and its concept, because (“leftist”) social critique has until now been incapable of thinking beyond the commodity form, due to the simple fact that it confounded the progressive formation and “revelation” of the subject of the commodity form with its decline. A genuine paradox. So that now it can no longer historically decipher the effective terminal crisis and the effective ruination of the subject, but can only discover in the latter what was already known, that is, the eternal return of an always-identical capitalism.
This observation also applies to the most advanced (and in many respects already transcendent of the system) leftist theory of Horkheimer and above all of Adorno. The decisive and dated reduction of this conception can be summarized thusly: the process in which the individual, the subject of the commodity form, becomes identical with himself was confused with its progressive decline, since the ascent of the commodity production system was confused with its decline. The culminating point, the point of an overcoming considered as “lost” or failed had then been asserted to lie, erroneously, at some point on the ascending curve of modernization, in actuality still unconcluded, whether in 1848 or 1918 (or any time in between), instead of conceiving the level only attained today (which for Adorno and Horkheimer was still in the future) by worldwide negative socialization, of the forces of production, of the crisis form and of the crisis of the subject at its summit, after which the commodity production system of modernity, rather than being overcome (which is possible only now), instead plunges into the abyss.
What in Adorno was still theoretical tragedy has been transformed in many Adornians—and managers of the exploitation of Critical Theory—into theoretical farce. Adorno was still capable, with regard to capital’s allegedly negative, statist and “false” overcoming, of sending his “message in a bottle”; there is, however, no message in a bottle of a message in a bottle. All practical and theoretical activity of a social critique which no longer cites on its own behalf a specific historical reason and can only issue in an elaborate public imprecation, is as superfluous as an extra thumb, thus representing little more than intellectual escapism. If, according to its own admission, everything was already said a long time ago, then to insist on conversation becomes suspect and may be more intimately related to the criticized ideology than it would ever admit. Pseudo-radical “negative politics”—so to speak, radicalized resignation (which is even proud of its pretended “negative realism”)—is only the complement of “positive politics and realism”, in such a manner as to embrace anyone from the left academic socialists, to the left wing of social democracy, and even to the members of the Green Party which integrates mainstream leftists and former leftists. The current remains of left Adornian radicalism (among others) do not recognize themselves: they do not analyze their own historical situation, since with their now-obtuse theoretical instrumentarium, they are not even capable of knowing the commodity production system of the last several decades.
The unsuccessful theoretical overcoming of the social commodity form is also revealed in Adorno by the fact that he does not locate (although not unequivocally) his positive reference in the explicit overcoming of the commodity form as such, but in a utopian or even ideological image from the past, in the agent of circulation (more or less secretly idealized) with the emphatic subjectivity of the old bourgeois cult; and thus in an idealized “circular reason” and a false hypostatization of democracy. Ever since the French Revolution the left has hidden behind this ideological concept of democracy, in which the logic of the circulation of commodities appears as the archetype of discursive communication in the political sphere. It is ultimately a matter of the “ideal” reign of the totality of commodity production, reduced to circulation, instead of its vile reality. We are told this openly and contrary to its sacralization by the radical left: “in the last instance”, Adorno remains a bourgeois radical democrat, clinging to a mistaken concept of reason derived from the sphere of circulation, who does not coherently go beyond the commodity form (although he goes much further than the majority of his later disciples). Habermas has not “betrayed” the Adornian level of reflection, but has rather, with his “communicative reason” (of which the commodity form is clearly the root), made it manifest, with less cryptic formulations than those of Adorno. In this way, the deadly “real abstraction” is not overcome.
The basic dilemma of Adorno and the Adornians brings in its train two others. First, bourgeois individuality and subjectivity are not criticized as fetishistic, but their historical evolution is measured against the standard of their false and ideological ideal. Hence the confusion between “coinciding with its own concept” and decline, where even the concept of “decline” is already derived from that same ideological standard. Instead of arriving at the critique of the fetishistic character of subjectivity as such, starting from the analysis of the historical development of the subject, it stops with expressing its regrets for the lost possibilities of the subject, conceived emphatically and ideologically. The celebrated lack of shame in saying “I” (Minima Moralia, Sec. 29) forms part of the structure of the “I” deduced from the commodity form in general, and not only from its “decline”, as that which is in truth the historical “coinciding with its own concept” of this fetishistic “I” is erroneously conceived.
In the second place, the reason for the alleged decline is basically misinterpreted. Just as the false emphatic concept of the subject is connected to circulation, the real development appears as a growing subjection of the sphere of circulation to statism and therefore to the political sphere. This is why Critical Theory adapts itself too perfectly to the political emphasis of the history of the rise of capitalism up to the mid-twentieth century (occasional “economistic” slips do not invalidate this basic tendency of Critical Theory). The difference compared to other leftist and rightist politics resides solely in the negative character of Adornian politics; together with the ideological reign of circulation, the likewise-idealized “discursive democracy”, as a political structure, is conceived as dominated and invalidated precisely by the work of the presumed statist rule over circulation, which leads to its “suppression”! (A more recent demonstration of this superficial “democratic” analysis, received with jubilation by left radicals, can be found in the works of Agnoli.)
As stated above, such an error in these authors is historically comprehensible in light of the impact of national-socialism (as well as that of the Stalinist Soviet Union); but postwar development rapidly contradicted this paradigm. Under the wings of the Pax Americana, we now face the triumph of circulation (competition) and democracy, which are plunging down from their high point to the terminal historic crisis of the social commodity form. It is thus not surprising that an ideological theory (long banalized, in comparison to Adorno’s) should maintain the concept of a latent or manifest state domination over circulation and democracy, and that it should see its false idealized goal become increasingly distant, as it is no longer capable of explaining this reality. Just as it is always gushing over the possibilities of the subject, instead of radically criticizing it for its fetishistic character, so too does it express its concerns about “circular reason” and democracy, instead of subjecting them to a radical critique as elements of the constitution based upon the commodity form.
If such a perspective does not allow us to discern the absolute historical limits of the commodity production system on the plane of ecology, of the “society of labor” (capital accumulation) and globalization (dissolution of cohesive national economies), neither can it be used to discern the true crisis of the subject, which only becomes evident with the crisis of the commodity form itself. This crisis is manifested on the one hand as a crisis of the political subject, since the regulatory function of “politics” is beginning to fail, and hence as a crisis and decline of the “bourgeois public sphere”; on the other hand, it also appears on the dark side of the subject, that is, in the hidden and intimate quarters of “privacy” in the form of the commodity. It is not by chance that the identity of the crisis of the “public sphere” assumes the form of a fundamental crisis of gender relations. Just like the other hitherto tacit and obvious assumptions of the commodity production system, like biological nature, “labor” and the nation state, so also the assumption of “femininity” begins to emit the loud, shrill sounds of disruption, as a result of the system’s development.
Such assumptions, of course, were never absolutely tacit, since the internal contradiction of the system of commodity production was always present. But one can, cum grano salis, speak of tacit assumptions, to the extent that the formation of “labor” and of the nation state, as well as the domestication of woman and nature (otherwise ideologically comparable) brought about by the commodity form, only today becomes to a great extent unsustainable and starts to lose the grounds of its “obviousness” constructed over the centuries. Concerning the relations between the sexes, the “structurally masculine” character of subjectivity in the form of the commodity is clear. Despite the fact that Horkheimer and Adorno, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, touch upon this point (although once again in cryptic formulations), they do not in the end manage to go beyond the “masculinity” constructed under the commodity form, precisely because they do not go beyond the fetishistic concept of the subject and “circular reason”. It is not surprising that contemporary Adornians of the extreme left completely ignore the corresponding critical flights of their master and have little to say, in theoretical terms, about the manifest crisis of gender relations—which is also revealed in their somewhat scornful attitude towards feminism (since they prefer to learn about harsh reality with their gloves on). Feminist theory, by contrast, when it refers to Adorno and Horkheimer, is well aware of this problem.
It is not at all strange that “circular reason” and the interconnected “public” and “private” spheres should prove to be structurally masculine, contradicting their abstract, universal and apparently asexual character. Historically and structurally, abstract universality only really exists as a context for masculine life. The masculine subject of the commodity is private as a money-circulating subject, who pursues his monetary interests; he is “public” as a political subject, when referring discursively to “general issues”. But behind this façade of the structurally masculine “public” and “private”, a completely different space opens up, in which all the moments of reproduction that cannot be understood under the rubric of the commodity form are “segregated” (Roswitha Scholz). This space appears to be a completely different power from the “private” and is situated beyond the “private sphere” of the masculine monetary subject. “Private sphere I” is the interior sphere within the context of masculine life; “private sphere II” is the sphere behind the serene and cozy space of “femininity”, beyond competition and the political sphere. From the perspective of the context of feminine life, which is restricted to this space of “private sphere II”, the “private sphere I” of men and the political sphere appear, conversely, as the “outside”; both are “public sphere”, in opposition to the private sexual corner for which “the woman” is responsible.
Woman’s emancipation in bourgeois terms and in the form of the commodity, as it has taken place during the last few decades, does not contradict this basic relation, but makes it obvious, precipitates it into crisis and reveals it, therefore, as a central moment of the crisis proper. Once again, the same productive forces which, in their form determined by the form of the commodity, destroy natural foundations, annihilate “labor” as the substance of capital accumulation and dissolve the cohesion of national economies, also destroy the relation between the sexes centered on the commodity form, as they lead to the undermining of the traditional female role, paid activity for women and the “structural masculinization” of female “identity”. Thus, involuntarily, a cornerstone of the constitution of the commodity form is removed, and this outcome is irrationally lamented as “the decline of the family”, of education, etc. The until-now largely tacit and separate function of “private sphere II” no longer works. At this point, it does not matter whether women work as hard as men, equally greedy for “me” and ready for competition, in the ambit of “private sphere I”, towards which they flow in ever greater numbers, or if they “only” submit under a double burden, i.e., under the structural contradiction of an existence duplicated in “private sphere I” and “private sphere II”. The result is the same: the separate space of rest and rehabilitation “behind” economic and political competition falls into ruin.
Politics is no more, and maybe even less, capable of acting effectively on this plane of the crisis than it is with regard to the functional economic mechanisms. Woman’s emancipation by way of the commodity form does not resolve the ideal concept of circular equality, but makes its fundamental contradiction as a systemic crisis explicit. The already partly manifest dissolution of the context of female life indirectly puts the entire context of the structurally masculine “public sphere” into question, in both its economic as well as political dimensions. It is therefore not only fought by the system’s representatives openly or half-heartedly, and not only does it run up against the line of resistance of male everyday behavior, which is becoming increasingly brutal, but it also cannot count upon any favors from certain contemporary Adornians of the extreme left. A theoretical project that maintains its adherence to “circular reason” must also cling to its structurally masculine character. It is one more point where the tentacles of pseudo-radicalism do not reach the radical critique of the commodity form and of its masculine structural domination, but instead engage in nostalgic yearning for the ideal bourgeois family (as the “leftist” apostate Claus Leggewie has already taught us: from this perspective, left variations of a “radical” ideological cast are also perfectly possible). The cloying and distorted image of the mother, which sporadically appears in Horkheimer and Adorno, is a case in point. In the last analysis, it is possible that the Adornians of the extreme left (and maybe even some decidedly non-feminist Adornians) will reveal themselves not only as run of the mill democrats, but as also run of the mill “little boys” and “little girls”, and the “reconciliation with nature” might ultimately seek shelter—under the aegis of a sexually fetishistic biologism—in the elegant lecture hall of an underdeveloped Critical Theory, prolonged beyond its time.
The grandchildren of Critical Theory, like the rest of the left, cannot transcend their “being on the left” immanent to the system and end up proclaiming again and again, faced with the (denied) crisis of the system and its development, the danger of the dissolution of democracy in a new fascism or a new form of “total domination”. Nor do they cease to propose, as is their habit, the Adornian version of the “lesser evil”: defense of “circular reason” and of democracy against the allegedly imminent totalitarianism, instead of confronting democracy and the commodity form as such. “Negative politics” could easily reverse itself into a positive form and align itself with the “united front of all democrats”. In this sense, too, the tragedy of the original returns as the farce of the copy. The absence of history in this advanced form of “leftist” thinking is thus definitively proven, worn out in eternally recurrent dualistic principles and incapable of establishing an adequate relation between structure and history.
“Total domination” was a preparatory stage of democracy and not its opposite, in a historical constellation destined to return. It will not be “politics” that will once again exercise a presumptive control over the “economy” or a presumptive totalitarian suspension of circulation, but precisely the contrary: we face the catastrophic end of politics. The progressive loss of capacity for political regulation indicates the extinction of the capacity for economic and social reproduction as well as the reproduction of the “goods” of the commodity production system. In its historical end it is not the renewal of “total domination”, as the return of a past form from its ascendant period, but rather the decomposition, after secondary barbarism, of the civilization based on domination. The chaotic gang warfare and the ephemeral “economy of looting” in the lost regions of the planet are premonitions of a different kind of barbarism, distinct from that which was inherent to civilized domination. We cannot rely on the latter’s forms to give us an idea of the future. Despite the fact that from the legitimate point of view of immediate moral feeling the atrocities do not differ, it is finally a question of something else, within the context of the economization and state-ization and in that of the unconscious elimination of the economy and the State. Theoretically, one can say nothing more about the latter, since no social frame of reference for it exists.
For that very reason, however, it is not anti-fascism that is called for today, whether or not it is a product of Adornian reflection, but the radical critique of the democracy of the market economy. There is no “circular reason” to defend, since its own development leads to barbarism, and this in a more profound and coherent theoretical sense than described in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. It is for that reason that gang violence is not counterposed to democracy, but mixes with the actions of the democratic apparatus, while the open-ended stage of “politics” is transformed into the post-modern theater of simulation. Berlusconi and Reagan, Collor de Mello and Tapie are not the heralds, much less the bearers of a new totalitarian offensive, but a “post-political” phenomenon, as is correctly asserted by Paul Virilio and others. The substantial totalitarianism of modernity is that of the commodity form and therefore of democracy itself. So, the end of civilization in the form of the commodity and thus the end of “politics” are effectively the “false and negative overcoming” of the system, although in a somewhat statist way. So that, in the end, Adorno is partly correct, although in a completely different sense than expected by his theoretical descendants.
Originally published in German as “Der Ende der Politik” in Krisis No. 14, Horlemann Verlag, Bad Honnef, 1994. Translated from the Spanish translation, “El fin de la política”, available online at: