In this review essay written in 2003 for Le Monde Libertaire on the occasion of publication of the first French edition of the “Manifesto Against Labor”, Charles Reeve discusses the Krisis Group’s critique of capitalism and concludes that there is “nothing new under the sun” here, that the Krisis Group presents its critique of reformism as if it were a novel discovery when in fact it is the heritage of “the revolutionary currents of Marxism and anarchism”—which the Group does not bother to mention—and that its proposals to implement a “break with the categories of labor” are “neo-reformist” and not so different from the positions of the civil society movement it ridicules.
The Krisis Group: A Mountain Gives Birth to a Mouse – Charles Reeve1
The texts of the Krisis Group, led by Robert Kurz, a sociologist and editor in Germany of the journal, Krisis, have remained for the most part unknown in France. This gap will be partly filled by the publication of the Manifesto Against Labor.2 Its critique of the work ethic, a critique that is not couched in the usual jargon of the left, gives this text, in which the Krisis Group seeks to characterize the current situation of capitalism, an air of boldness. For the Krisis Group, it is from the very beginning a matter of refuting the reformist prescriptions for correcting the evils of casino capitalism: nostalgic reminiscences of Keynesianism, demands for a social wage, or even the Tobin Tax advocated by ATTAC. For Kurz and his friends, speculation is a consequence of the investment crisis, rather than the investment crisis being caused by speculation. “The criterion of profitability itself, together with the immanent foundations of labour society, should be attacked as being obsolete”.3 The Krisis Group also distinguishes its perspectives from the projects of the diverse socialist currents that sought to use quantitative demands in economic and trade union struggles as the lever of social emancipation. That process of integration has now given way to the collapse of the world of labor; hence, “the traditional left has finally reached a dead end”.4 That is why, in the proposals designed to bring about its rejuvenation, “The categorical break is replaced by ‘social-democratic’ and Keynesian nostalgia”.5 The Krisis Group emphasizes the statist nature of the proposals for a social wage and guaranteed basic income, thus confirming other critiques.6
So far, nothing new under the sun! With respect to the critique of modern reformism, the Krisis Group just repeats—but with a pronounced taste for self-sufficiency—what has already been written by others. A very common case in the academic world; we read the Krisis Group coldly with the impression that the critique of contemporary capitalism began on the day that its members began to think about it. Besides a few references to “situationism” and the currents of the Italian Left and some expressions that they picked up from reading Paul Lafargue’s The Right To Be Lazy (never cited), they sweep everything else without distinction, good and bad, all mixed together, into the trashcan of history.
So no one will be surprised to see, behind a workers movement reduced to trade unionism, a simple “pacemaker of the capitalist labour society”.7 It is significant that, in its search in the void, this Manifesto does not refer at all to the revolutionary outbreaks of the 20th century or the revolutionary currents of Marxism and anarchism.
The constitutive or defining central idea of the analyses of the Krisis group: capitalism is a system whose purpose is “the labour society”; “the history of the modern age is the history of the enforcement of labour.”8 “Labour is an end-in-itself especially in the respect that it is the raw material and substance of monetary capital yields–the limitless dynamic of capital as self-valorising value. Labour is nothing but the ‘liquid (motion) aggregate’ of this absurd end-in-itself.”9 This labor-vector is never defined as a social and historical relation; nor is it specifically characterized as alienated wage labor.10 However, it is because the worker is dispossessed of his own activity that he loses control over his own life. It is human activity transformed into a commodity that lies at the basis of these separations. In the theoretical productions of the Krisis Group, the idea of profit is absent; the concept of its exploration hardly matters in view of the fact that “the social machinery [is] designed to function as an end-in-itself”.11 The bourgeois valorization of labor is not the driving force of the system, whose purpose now is to make people work! This discourse—which turns religious morality upside down by making not working man’s natural calling—features an abundance of moralistic formulas: “cynical principle”, “maniac end-in-itself machinery of the commodity producing system”, “a law on how and when to sacrifice humans”, “crusade in the name of the ‘labour idol’”, and even, “‘Any job is better than no job’ became a confession of faith, which is exacted from everybody nowadays”.12 So, if the proletarian is worried about getting a job it is not because he has no other choice because the sale of his labor power is his only means of survival?
What characterizes the crisis of the “labour society” according to the Krisis Group? Let us take a look at some elements of their response: “The society ruled by labour does not experience any temporary crisis; it encounters its absolute limit. In the wake of the micro-electronic revolution, wealth production increasingly became independent from the actual expenditure of human labour power to an extent quite recently only imaginable in science fiction.”13 More precisely, “More labour is rationalised away than can be reabsorbed by expansion of markets. As a logical consequence of rationalisation, electronic robotics replaces human energy or new communication technology makes labour superfluous….”.14 It follows that, in a society that “Society has never before been so much of a labour society as it is now when labour itself is made superfluous. On its deathbed labour turns out to be a totalitarian power….”.15 The Krisis Group seems to have forgotten that this need to constantly increase the productivity of labor, to replace living labor with machines, is intrinsic to the process of capital production. In periods of crisis, not all of the labor force finds a buyer in the market, and the appearance of labor as superfluous would therefore not be merely a consequence of that particular situation. To proceed from this conclusion to an interpretation of a “catastrophist” type would represent a mystification, a return to millenialist expectations, and presenting the current contradictions of capitalism as insoluble. Throughout all of its history, capitalism has been capable of reestablishing, at the price of barbarism, new conditions for the production of profit, it has created new markets, and thus perpetuated itself. Capitalism is foundering but it will not go under by itself, in order to bring it down the intervention of social forces that are resolved upon inscribing an emancipatory project upon reality is necessary. This is where one finds the only “absolute” limit of the system.
“The categorical break with labour” is associated by the Krisis Group with the restoration of “solidarity”.16 The latter must be embodied in “new forms of social organization (free associations, councils) [that] are in control of all the material and social means of social reproduction”.17 After having identified the proletarian historical subject, strikes and trade union integration into the reformist trade union movement, the Krisis Group has the ambition of setting up the milestones of “a new emancipatory theory”.18 The latter will emerge in the form of self-organization around “the struggle for an autonomous social time fund”.19 Concerning this theme the reader of the Manifesto may profitably consult other texts by the Group.20 And then a thick fog descends upon the city!
The sector Kurz calls the “third sector” (NGOs and non-profit associations) is defined as “the embryonic form of an emancipatory and non-commercial reproduction”; it is necessary to “radicalize it and unite it with the perspective of a supersession of the system of commodity production”.21 A different axis of struggle is associated with this sector: “the paralyzing of the nervous system of capitalist reproduction”,22 through strikes waged by truck drivers and blockades initiated by ecologists against the transport of radioactive materials. Finally, squats, independent day-care centers, consumer groups, cooperatives, occupations of land in the poor countries, are all susceptible to organizing a “field of autonomous reproduction”23 and have the potential to express the demand for a non-capitalist form of production. These alternative niches within society, and the temporary autonomous zones, theoretically disclaimed by the Manifesto, are reclaimed in practice. Will all of them opt for subversive insubordination? How can these embryos abolish the system? Will there be some kind of supersession without a radical break? It is just these questions that the Krisis Group does not ask. Here, as elsewhere, the abandonment of the categories of class leads to a kind of “alternative movement”24 that is not unlike the one promoted by civil society activism.
Its corporativist spirit prevents the Krisis Group from overlooking the fact that “… it is necessary to clear space for intellectual and mental freedom to enable the thinking of the unthinkable…. Only an explicitly formulated critique of labour along with a corresponding theoretical debate could bring about a new public awareness; the latter being the indispensable prerequisite for the constitution of a social movement that puts labour critique into practice”.25 Here we have returned to the old issue of the role of the intellectuals in the elaboration of consciousness. And if this is “thinking the unthinkable”, the responses of the Krisis Group are just as disappointing and as pretentious as the neo-reformist proposals it criticizes. The insults of “do-it-yourself squad of reformism” and “theoretical illiterates”26 which are directed by the Krisis Group at the advocates of the social wage might very well be turned against the Krisis Group itself. The lavish praise in the introduction of the French editors—who rank the "Manifesto" in third place on the hit parade of radicality, just behind the Communist Manifesto and On the Poverty of Student Life—is hardly deserved. A mountain gives birth to a mouse.
Originally published in French under the title, “Quand la montagne accouche d’une souris: le groupe Krisis à la recherche des limites indéapassables du système” in Le Monde Libertaire, no. 1324, June 12-18, 2003. The French original is available online (in August 2014) at: http://www.monde-libertaire.fr/n1324-12-18juin-2003/11174-la-montagne-accouche-dune-souris?format=pdf
Translated in August 2014 from the Portuguese translation available online at: http://comunism0.wordpress.com/category/charles-reeve/
- 1 An expression used to describe situations in which high expectations are not confirmed by the results.
- 2 Manifeste contre le travail, editions Léo Scherr, Paris, 2002. Originally published in German under the title: “Manifest gegen die Arbeit”, in Zeitschrift Krisis–Beiträge zur Kritik der Warengesellschaft, June 1999; available online in August 2014 at the website of the Krisis Group: http://www.krisis.org/1999/manifest-gegen-die-arbeit. [An English translation of this essay is available online (as of August 2014) at: http://www.krisis.org/1999/manifesto-against-labour. Subsequent citations of the “Manifesto Against Labour” will refer to the English translation of this text as it appears on the website of the Krisis Group, except where specifically indicated otherwise—American Translator’s note.]
- 3 Ibid.
- 4 Ibid.
- 5 Ibid.
- 6 In France, the following texts have addressed this issue: Claude Guillon, L’Économie de la Misére, La Digitale, 1999; Charles Reeve, “La vraie mission de l’État”, Oiseau-tempête, no. 7, Fall 2000; Nicole Thé, “Revue garanti: quelques interrogations malvenues”, Les Temps Maudits, no. 11, October 2001; Laurent Guilloteau, “Il faut mater le précariat!”, Multitudes, no. 8, March-April 2002; and as a summary of all of the above views, Laurent Geffroy, Garantir le revenue, Recherches 2002, La Découverte.
- 7 “Manifesto Against Labour”, op. cit.
- 8 Ibid.
- 9 Ibid.
- 10 Here, as elsewhere, the confusion introduced between the ideas of labor as human activity and as wage labor that produces commodities for others (the capitalists), is comforting to those for whom human activity cannot be anything but the reproduction of today’s alienated labor.
- 11 “Manifesto Against Labour”, op. cit.
- 12 Ibid.
- 13 Ibid.
- 14 Ibid.
- 15 Ibid. [Translation slightly revised—American Translator’s Note.] Here the Manifesto takes up, in its own way, the idea of the “end of work”, which has spread among certain so-called “radical” milieus over the last few years, some of which have concluded from this idea that classes, and therefore the class struggle, have disappeared [Author’s Note].
- 16 Ibid.
- 17 Ibid.
- 18 Ibid.
- 19 Robert Kurz, “Anti-Economics and Anti-Politics”, Krisis, no. 19, 1997. [An English translation of this essay is available online (as of August 2014) at: http://libcom.org/library/anti-economics-anti-politics-reformulation-social-emancipation-after-end-marxism-robert-. Subsequent citations of this essay will refer to this English translation at the “Libcom” website—American Translator’s Note.]
- 20 See, e.g.: Ibid.
- 21 Ibid.
- 22 Ibid.
- 23 Ibid.
- 24 Ibid.
- 25 “Manifesto Against Labour”, op. cit.
- 26 Ibid.