Preface to Credit unto Death - Anselm Jappe

Balthazar in Babylon

Anslem Jappe’s preface to his 2011 book, Credit unto Death: The Decomposition of Capitalism and its Critics, in which the author cautions his readers that “emancipation cannot be the simple result of capitalist development” but will instead “be a leap into the unknown, without a net”, and that the “the crisis is not … synonymous with emancipation”, a claim that “defines the theme of this book”.

Submitted by Alias Recluse on February 1, 2013

Credit unto Death. The Decomposition of Capitalism and its Critics – Anselm Jappe


The decline of capitalism, now patently obvious, does not always provide confirmation of the critiques that have been leveled at it by its traditional adversaries. It appears, to the contrary, that its old enemies are walking hand in hand with it towards the same wastebasket of history. The question of social emancipation is beginning to be posed in a new way. It must be subjected to reexamination. This is the purpose of the “value critique” elaborated since the 1980s by the German journals Krisis and Exit! and by its leading theoretician, Robert Kurz, as well as by Moishe Postone in the United States. In 2003 I published The Adventures of the Commodity: Towards a New Critique of Value, in which I tried to summarize the critique of value for the French-speaking public. The book begins with an analysis of the basic concepts of Marx—value, abstract labor, money, the commodity—in order to progress, by stages, to some considerations on the current state of the world and to engage in a polemic with other ways of criticizing contemporary capitalism.

Since then, I have put that theory to the test by utilizing it as an interpretive framework in order to determine whether it is more effective than other perspectives as an evaluative guide for understanding today’s world. Credit unto Death contains ten of my contributions to the debate in France, published between 2007 and 2010. While these texts were written on different occasions and often exhibit a “topical” character, it is nonetheless true that they all deal with the same questions, but without excessive repetition. They may be read separately because they were written separately, and because each of them contains some explanatory material relating to its critical assumptions, that is, the critique of value and commodity fetishism. In this sense, they also constitute a kind of introduction to the critique of value for those who have not read The Adventures of the Commodity or this current’s other books that have been published in French editions.1 In effect, each text comprises a brief summary, depending on the topic it addresses, of a different aspect of value critique: crisis theory, the structure of the commodity, fetishism, etc. I thought it preferable to let these summaries stand in the form of separate articles, instead of combining them into a kind of introductory text, which would have disarticulated them, rendered it impossible to read them separately, and at the same time, obliged the reader to “cross the desert” of preliminary concepts. Except for “The Cat and the Mouse”, all these articles were originally written in French and published in French journals. All of them have been specially revised for this book.

Essentially, these texts analyze the decomposition of contemporary capitalism and the reactions this decomposition has engendered. The first part, pars destruens, includes four articles that appeared in the journal, Lignes. “The Princess of Clèves Today” appeared in November 2007 in issue no. 23-24 of the same journal, which was devoted to the theme, “Twenty Years of Political and Intellectual Life”. Its title refers to the words of Mr. Sarkozy, who, when he was still only a candidate for the presidency of the Republic, expressed his view that it was scandalous that questions about Madame de La Fayette’s book should be featured in civil service entrance examinations. His statements triggered a wave of indignation and sarcasm, and the princess became, more than three centuries after her fictional exploits, a symbol of the rebellion against state educational policy. “Politics without Politics” was published in issue no. 25 (March 2008), which was devoted to the theme, “Political Decomposition/Recomposition”. “Violence: What Use Is It?” was published in issue no. 29 (May 2009), which was devoted to the theme, “On Violence in Politics”, and appeared after the “Tarnac Affair”, which I also discuss in that article. “Credit unto Death” was published in issue no. 30 (October 2009), which was devoted to the theme, “Crisis as Mode of Governance”. This article was disseminated on an international scale thanks to translations into Italian, Portuguese, Greek and Dutch. These first four articles address the gradual collapse of capitalism that culminated in the crisis of autumn, 2008. This crisis, in effect, vindicated that aspect of the critique of value that had always aroused the greatest degree of incredulity, on the left as much as on the right: the claim that there is an internal limit to capitalist production. But these essays do not speak only about the self-destruction of capitalism and its slide towards barbarism; they also address the similarly destructive and barbarous reactions triggered by the decomposition of capitalism. Large portions of what passes today for a critique of capitalism are here examined as part of the problem, rather than as part of the solution: thus, the civil society movement of the ATTAC variety, the emphasis on financial speculation and the critiques whose sole target is high finance; but also the proposals that suggest a return to “politics” and “class struggle”, as well as the appeal to a regenerative violence, by means of which capitalist barbarism is supposed to be defeated with its own weapons. These kinds of reactions to the crisis are here designated generally as “populism”; for, despite their aura of radicalism, none of them really criticizes the foundations of capitalist production, but only propose to make some adjustments, hunt scapegoats, and rehabilitate forms of opposition that have in reality collapsed along with capitalism itself or, even worse, degenerate into simple posturing.

The first section of the book could have been given the title, “No”, just as the second part—the pars construens—could have borne the title, “Maybe”. In the latter I examine some of the recent responses to the obvious quagmire in which capitalist society finds itself and which, from the point of view of a radical critique of commodity society, must be addressed. For, despite their often serious limitations, these ways of addressing the problem appear to be capable of pointing the way, at least from afar, to roads that lead to a real supersession of capitalist society. They thus participate in what is often called a “critical dialogue”. “The ‘Hidden Side’ of Value and the Gift”, published in issue no. 34 of the Revue du MAUSS (second half of 2009), which was devoted to the theme of “What to Do with, and What to Think of Marx Today?”, undertakes, in the leading publication of the theoreticians of the “gift”, a comparison between the theory of the gift as it has been elaborated by the MAUSS group (Anti-Utilitarian Movement in the Social Sciences) over the last thirty years, and the critique of value, various aspects of which are summarized in this article. It may thus constitute an introduction to the critique of value and it might be advisable to read it first. “Common Decency or Corporativism? Observations concerning the Work of Jean-Claude Michéa” was published, after having first appeared on the website of MAUSS, in issue no. 6-7 of the journal Illusio (Spring 2010). It analyzes one of the most interesting and original contributions to social criticism published in France in the last ten years. “Advocates of Curtailing Economic Growth—One More Step…!” first appeared, in part, in issue no. 258-259 (July 2009) of the Spanish journal El Viejo Topo, as my response to a survey regarding the movement in favor of “curtailing economic growth”. It analyzes the merits and the limitations of this movement, which has undergone a major increase in popularity over the last few years. “From One Utopia to Another” appeared in issue no. 2 of D’Ailleurs, the journal of the École régionale supérieure d’art de Besançon, devoted to the theme of “utopias”. It examines the ambiguity of the concept of “utopia”, which is once again enjoying a surge of popularity among one part of the public.

Finally, the third part, pars ludens, confronts a particular sector: contemporary art and the role of culture in the decline of capitalism. “The Cat, the Mouse, Culture and the Economy”, is a contribution to a symposium held in 2008 in Mexico as part of the “Fifth Forum of Public Art”, and was published in issue no. 263 (December 2009) of El Viejo Topo. I have read this speech before various audiences in art schools in France and it has met with quite positive responses, despite its very severe judgment—or perhaps because of its severe judgment?—of contemporary art and its subordination to the commodification of life. “Is There an Art after the End of Art?” was published in 2007 in the Catalog of the 9th Lyon Biennial of Contemporary Art, which featured the title, “The History of a Decade That Has Not Been Named”. The text of this article has been considerably expanded; however, it preserves its “seminal” character, that is, its attempt to sketch the outlines of a future investigation. Sometimes, just one sentence contains the seed of manifold possible developments.

Can we characterize the considerations that appear in this book as “optimistic” or as “pessimistic”? On the one hand, the critique of value has always predicted the fall of capitalism, and even catastrophic developments. This book could have been entitled, Mene, Tekel, Peres. Those were the mysterious words that, according to the Old Testament (Daniel, Chapter 5), were written by a supernatural hand on the walls of the palace of King Balthasar of Babylon, at the very moment when he believed he was at the peak of his career; words that lead the king to discover that he has been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and that his reign has been delivered over to his enemies, who are waiting on the other side of the walls. To some extent this describes the affliction of radical critique, since it does not propose to save “our way of life”. Crisis theory has always met with resounding rejection, from traditional Marxists as well as bourgeois thinkers. The last few years, however, have provided undeniable confirmations of its validity. In 2002 I gave a speech in London on the situationists in which I also evoked the serious crisis of capitalism. A review in an English Marxist publication admitted that my speech was very interesting, but claimed that it was unfortunately marred by “surrealistic assertions” about the “approaching collapse of capitalism”. I wonder whether now, six years later, they still find my assertions to be so surrealistic.

This is, however, small consolation. For the crisis is not, now even less than ever before, synonymous with emancipation. This claim, which defines the theme of this book, is by no means optimistic, but it need not mean that “Billancourt should lose all hope”, either.2 It is not the purpose of the critique of value to offer pertinent advice for everyday action. This often causes a certain disappointment in those people who want a radical social critique, but who then ask, “what can we do with such a nice theory?” It is necessary, however, for critique to avoid succumbing to the demand that it always provide concrete solutions for every particular situation. Although it is legitimate to expect that a critique of capitalist society should also be able to reveal a possible praxis of supersession, there are good reasons to insist on the necessary independence of theory. If we were only allowed to think or say things that can be immediately translated here and now into the form of action, the formulation of radical theory would no longer be possible. The “categorical break” that constitutes the horizon of the critique of value cannot be directly converted into a political strategy, unlike, for example, the theories of the “multitude” or the “another world is possible” movement; nor does it permit an instantaneous application to one’s personal life. As compensation, however, the theoretical conceptualization of a break with the basic categories of capitalist socialization, even if it cannot be realized immediately, allows one to preserve an open perspective that transcends the countless contemporary proposals that seek to change the present without having to change anything.

We are being channeled towards a situation where humans will be nothing but “waste” (Zygmunt Bauman). The countless people who survive by picking through mountains of garbage—and not only in the “Third World”—shows us where a humanity that has devoted itself to the valorization process as its supreme goal is heading: humanity itself becomes superfluous when it is no longer necessary for the reproduction of the capital-fetish. There are increasing numbers of people who are no longer “useful” for anything, not even for being exploited, while they have been deprived of any other means of subsistence. And those who still possess resources often put them to a disastrous use. In these circumstances, we have no other recourse than to fundamentally rethink the project of human emancipation. The old prescriptions are scarcely of any use in a world that has changed so much.

One thing that cannot be doubted is that emancipation cannot be the simple result of capitalist development, and that it is not just a matter of replacing its management personnel, or of “liberating” the forces that it has created but not allowed to be used for good purposes. There is no historical tendency towards communism, the revolution or emancipation, nor is there any teleology, nor any current in which the forces of emancipation can allow themselves to be swept forward; nothing that guarantees its victory, no stages that naturally succeed one another. There are no forces created “behind the back” of capital that will finally abolish it, nor is there any “dialectical” reversal, nor any cunning of reason. Social emancipation, if it is to take place, will be a leap into the unknown, without a net, rather than the execution of a sentence dictated by history.

To the contrary, it is the tendency to disaster that has an objective basis. Indeed, the evolution of commodity society has something preordained about it, because its crises and its collapse are fixed in its very nucleus, and its history is the unfolding of the potential of that nucleus. It is the catastrophe that is programmed, not emancipation; what is abandoned to its spontaneous course only leads to the abyss. If there are “laws of history”, they are always for the worse; human freedom and happiness are never their result, but must always be achieved in opposition to them.

The expectation that capitalism will not only be its own gravedigger, as generations of revolutionaries have proclaimed, but that it will also create the foundations of the system that will replace it, are found not only in this “positive” version (to inherit from capitalism, to bring about the victorious ascent of that which capitalism has itself engendered, whether it be the proletariat or the productive forces), but also, and above all during the last few years, in a “negative” version as well. According to this “negative” version, capitalism produces such devastation that it will compel humanity to get rid of it or, at the very least, to subject it to drastic changes. Even in this assumption, capitalism is conceived as the best ally of the revolutionary, as the force that will bring about emancipation, although indirectly, instead of leading us head-on into a wall. This is “catastrophism”,3 available in ecological and/or economic versions: confronted by extreme danger, people will wake up and perform the miracle. The instinct of survival will make humanity stop at the verge of the precipice and recognize that the continued existence of capitalism is incompatible with its most basic interests of survival. Unfortunately, however, there is no generalized instinct of survival, individual or collective. There are people who drive their cars while they talk on the cell phone and smoke at the same time, and there are entire civilizations that have collapsed rather than change their ways. Furthermore, awareness of environmental threats does not necessarily lead to emancipation, but is just as likely to lead to authoritarian solutions, to the intensification of competition to inhabit uncontaminated locations, or new wars. Nor does economic disaster imply a “call” to emancipation, as the essays in the first part of this book attempt to demonstrate.

The word “emancipation” is not yet as discredited as the word revolution. Originally, it designated the liberation of a slave, who ceased to have a master and attained independence. One is always emancipated from something; one exchanges heteronomy for autonomy and becomes one’s own master. From what do we have to be emancipated today?

It is not just a matter of being emancipated from the rule of one group of human beings over another: the capitalists over the proletarians, the rich over the poor, the men over the women, the whites over the blacks, the north over the south, the heterosexuals over the “deviants”…. However much these demands may be justified in each particular case, they generally lead to the continuation of the disaster with a more diversified managerial personnel and with a distribution of advantages and disadvantages which is not even more equitable, but which only changes the type of injustice. In the best case, it could lead to situation where everyone in the whole world has the right to eat at McDonalds and to vote in elections, or to be tortured by a police whose skin is the same color, who are the same gender, and speak the same language as their victims. One can never escape from the structural coercions of the system by democratizing access to its functions.

Emancipation, consequently, can only be liberation from that which prevents autonomy at a more general and more profound level. One can only refer to the capitalist and technological system as a whole, without privileging either one of the two aspects of the “megamachine” (Lewis Mumford): not by means of a simple “appropriation” of industrial technology by a society that claims to be “non-capitalist”, nor by means of a total abandonment of technology, or of its excesses, but only by destroying the valorization of value, abstract labor and capital. Fetishism as a system, now entirely prevalent, in which no decision—major or minor—is any longer possible, must be frontally attacked.

What is required is to keep the horizon of the possible open, to block the deviations toward irreversible consequences. If genetically modified organisms are disseminated everywhere, or if we reach a point where humans are cloned, or if the ozone layer disappears for good, what good will it do to continue to engage in the struggle for social emancipation? On another level, we can be sure that the implementation of unprecedented technologies of surveillance and tracking of a multitude of people, and their acceptance as guarantors of our freedom or security (whether in the form of the Internet, sub-dermal microchips, nanotechnology, surveillance cameras, Facebook, cell phones, credit cards, or digital fingerprints; without even taking into account the fact that the refusal to use these technologies could cause one to be labeled a suspicious person and could lead to one’s imprisonment, as we have already seen) will make all structured social opposition almost impossible.

Everyone is familiar with Walter Benjamin’s observation, made at the high point of fascist ascendancy: “Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race travelling in the train applies the emergency brake.”4 Applying the emergency brake; something that cannot be done with only Saturday demonstrations, and even less by elections or thanks to “consumer choice”. Perhaps we will never understand why men react so differently to the same situations and the same challenges, beyond “objective” circumstances. But this answer, too, is only another way of saying that everything is still possible.

Almost every article in this book contains a reference to the ideas of Jaime Semprun (1947-2010), the driving force behind the Encyclopédie des Nuisances. He was one of the rare intellectuals of our epoch whom I admire, despite our differences. I would like to dedicate this book to his memory.

[Translated into English in January 2013. Based on the Spanish translation of Anselm Jappe, Crédit à Mort: La décomposition du capitalisme et ses critiques, Éditions Lignes, Fécamp, 2011. Spanish translation by Diego Luis Sanromán: Crédito a muerte: La descomposición del capitalismo y sus críticos, Pepitas de calabaza, Logroño, 2011]

  • 1Our analysis owes a great deal to the work of Robert Kurz. The following books by Robert Kurz have yet to be published in Spanish editions: The Collapse of Modernization, 1991; The Black Book of Capitalism, 1999; The War for World Order, 2003; World Capital, 2006. [For an online selection of the works of Robert Kurz in English, see:]
  • 2“Il ne faut désespérer Billancourt”: words spoken by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1956 after his return from a trip to the USSR. At that time Billancourt was one of the main centers of working class activism, located in the region of the Île-de-France (Note of the Spanish Translator).
  • 3Cf. R. Riesel and J. Semprun, Catastrophisme, administration du désastre et soumission durable, Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des nuisances, Paris, 2008. [English translation available at:]
  • 4W. Benjamin, “Notes préparatoires pour les theses sur le concept d’histoire”, Oeuvres, Vol. III, Paris, Gallimard, 2000, p. 442.