A brief review of the history of the “value critique” current and its antecedents, with particular emphasis on its relation to the tradition of the critique of modernity, technology, and the ideology of progress, as well as a discussion of the capitalist recuperation of the “transgressive” cultural politics that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s partly in connection with the search for a replacement for the proletariat as “revolutionary subject”.
The Princess of Clèves Today – Anselm Jappe
Precapitalist societies, as well as industrial capitalist society during its first stages, were based on a dichotomous hierarchical organization: masters and slaves, aristocrats and peasants, exploiters and exploited, capitalists and proletarians, as we are told on the first page of the Communist Manifesto. These social groups were opposed to each other in almost every way, and this was the case even though they shared the same form of religious consciousness and the same worldview. At the base of social reproduction was the theft of the surplus production created by the direct producers; this theft was initially carried out by violence, and violence also remained the method of last resort to assure the distribution of social “roles”. Normally, however, this theft was justified and disguised by a vast apparatus of “superstructures”—from education to religion—which guaranteed the peaceful submission of those who, in reality, had little interest in accepting a social distribution of rights and duties that was so unfavorable for them and who, in reality, actually had the ability to overthrow this state of affairs if they were to achieve enough unity and were resolved to do so. Once this order was subjected to challenge—essentially, from the onset of the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment—the revolution (or profound reforms; in any case, a drastic change of course) was imposed as a foregone conclusion. Opposition to the material mode of production was accompanied by the questioning of all of its justifications, from the monarchy to religion, and even, during the most advanced stages of this opposition, of the family, the educational system, etc. The dichotomy was then clearly highlighted: a tiny fraction of exploiters ruled all the rest of the population by means of violence and, above all, by cunning—a cunning that would later be called “ideology” or “manipulation”. These classes had nothing in common; the exploited were the bearers of all the human values denied by the ruling classes. It was very hard to break the power of the rulers, who had accumulated a considerable quantity of means of coercion and seduction, and often successfully divided the exploited classes, or else intimidated or corrupted segments of them. But there was no doubt that the day would come when, despite all the obstacles, the “subaltern” classes would overthrow the social order, and replace it with a just and good society such as the earth had never seen. If the members of the ruled classes exhibited in their real life multiple defects and egotistical attitudes with respect to their peers, this was because the upper classes had inoculated them with their vices; furthermore, the revolutionary struggle would not fail to eliminate these defects, which were not inherent to the ruled classes.
This portrait, only vaguely sketched in the summary above, inspired all the supporters of social emancipation for two centuries. And it is not as if it were false. Although it was always one-sided, it partially corresponded with certain realities. The anarchist movement in Spain of the first decades of the 20th century, which in 1936 produced “the most advanced model of proletarian power in all time” (Guy Debord), was probably the movement that came closest to the formation of a counter-society, openly opposed to the values of capitalist society, within capitalist society itself (but not with respect to the movement’s own self-consciousness; we need only think of its exaltation of labor and industry). Furthermore, its solid roots in clearly pre-capitalist local traditions played an understandably prominent role in this “otherness” with respect to bourgeois society, something that was always cruelly lacking in—for example—the German workers movement, whose revolutionaries, according to Lenin’s well-known expression, bought train tickets before taking the station by assault (which, however, did not prevent Lenin from maintaining that the German Post Office was the model for the future communist society that had to be constructed in Russia).
In the last few decades the idea that social emancipation will consist in the victory of one part of capitalist society over another part of that same society has lost its luster. This idea endured for as long as the ruled part of society did not consider itself to be part of that society, but only bore its yoke as that of an alien rule. If, however, this schema can still find partial application today—perhaps—in certain particular cases like that of Chiapas, it can by no means be applied to capitalist society in the fully developed form it has assumed since 1945. The distinctive feature of this society is not the fact that it is based on the exploitation of one part of the population by another. This exploitation certainly exists, but it is not specific to capitalism; it also existed before capitalism. What is specific to capitalism—and what makes it historically unique—consists rather in the fact that it is a society based on generalized competition, commodity relations that affect all aspects of life, and money as the universal mediation. Equalization before the market and money, which “only” understand quantitative differences, has gradually eclipsed the old classes, but without by any means making this society less conflict-ridden or less unjust than it was before.
This equalization existed in embryo from the very inception of the industrial revolution because it is of the very nature of capitalism as valorization of labor-value and self-referential reproduction of money. It became predominant after the Second World War, at least in the Western countries; but it has only been over the last few decades, with the advent of so-called “postmodern” society, that it has become entirely obvious. And it was also during the last twenty years that theoretical reflection began to register this fundamental change. The “dichotomous” view, of course, has not died; its principle version is the concept of “class struggle”, the axis of all variants of traditional Marxism and even of certain forms of thought that do not define themselves as Marxist (from Pierre Bourdieu to the main currents of feminism). The anxiety provoked by the recent globalization of capital has given new impetus—from the social democrats of ATTAC to the neo-workerist advocates of “intellectual capital”—to concepts that question the mere distribution of capitalist “goods”, such as money and the commodity, but never their existence as such.
A different kind of analysis of the contradictions of the capitalist system is beginning to emerge, however. This analysis abandons the centrality of the concept of the “class struggle” (without denying, however, that class struggles exist and often for good reasons), but not in the manner of Tony Blair, who in 1999 declared: “My friends, the class war is over.” What this new kind of analysis certainly does not abandon is social critique; to the contrary, it attempts to locate its authentic challenges in contemporary reality. It thus grants a central place to the critique of the commodity and of its fetishism, of value, money, the market, the state, competition, the nation, patriarchy and labor. It discovered its initial inspiration in a previously neglected aspect of Marx’s works. A fundamental stage in its elaboration was the founding in Germany of the journal, Krisis: Contributions to the Critique of Commodity Society, in 1986 (originally entitled Marxistische Kritik); other contributions (which had arisen independently) were the publication in the United States of Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory in 1993,1 and—from a somewhat different perspective—the publication in France of Jean-Marie Vincent’s Critique du Travail: Le faire et l’agir in 1987.2
It is true that the publication of a few theoretical works—which, furthermore, were hardly received with unanimous approval by the media that were supposedly sympathetic to radical criticism—is not necessarily in and of itself an event of any importance or the sign of an epochal change. But it could indicate the recognition, although limited, of a development that has been underway for some time already: we have reached the point in history where it is utterly insufficient to change the forms of distribution and managerial personnel within a way of life that is accepted by all its participants. We are instead confronted by a crisis of civilization, the decline of a cultural model that pertains to all its members. This claim is not itself new; it is something that was already noticed during the period between the wars, especially by observers considered to be “bourgeois” or “conservative”. During that era, ideas concerning social emancipation, with few exceptions, shared the general confidence in “progress” and were only concerned with the unequal distribution of its benefits. In other respects, the notion of technological, industrial and economic progress, and that of social and moral progress, were conflated and appeared to go hand in hand; the ruling classes of the time were seen by those who were proponents of progress as “conservative” by nature and opposed on principle to “progress”, “change” and “reforms”. With authors like Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the critique of “culture” crossed paths with the critique of “capitalism” for the first time. But it would not be until the 1970s that critiques of modern life, embracing all of its aspects, would be widely disseminated. On the one hand there was the critique of “technology”, as elaborated by authors such as Ivan Illich, Günther Anders, Jacques Ellul, Bernard Charbonneau, Michel Henry, Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch and Neil Postman; but there were also the ecological theories and the critique of “development” as exemplified in the works of MAUSS, Serge Latouche and François Partant. With regard to the question of the causes of these problems that were so well described, this type of analysis was often limited to pointing towards a kind of regrettable deviation on the part of humanity. At the same time, the situationists and, in more general terms, the protest associated with “artistic critique” (Boltanski and Chiapello), initiated by the Dadaists and the Surrealists, as well as the critical sociology elaborated by Henri Lefebvre, placed the main emphasis on more “subjective” aspects; that is, dissatisfaction with life in the “society of abundance” even though basic needs have been satisfied.3 But these critiques, even more so than those of the first variety, were still based on a dichotomous worldview: “us” against “them”, the necrophilic “masters of the earth” against “our” will to live.
The new theory of commodity fetishism was intended to overcome the limitations of these critiques. For the theory of commodity fetishism, the problem was not the metaphysical destiny of “humanity in its relation to technology”, as Martin Heidegger framed it, nor was it a conspiracy of the powerful evil men against the good people. Instead the new theory claimed that the crux of the problem resides in the “subject-form” common to all those who live in commodity society, although this does not mean that this form is the same for all subjects. The subject is the substrate, the agent, the bearer that the fetishist system of valorization requires to assure production and consumption. It is not completely identical to the individual or the human being, who may on occasion feel the subject-form as a straightjacket (for example, the roles imposed by the words “male” and “success”). This is why Marx called the subject of the valorization of value the “automatic subject”, the opposite of the autonomy and freedom with which the concept of “subject” is ordinarily associated. The subject is therefore that from which we must be emancipated, and not that through which and in terms of which we must be emancipated.
Viewed in this manner, the supersession of capitalism cannot consist in the victory of a subject created by capitalist development itself. Yet this is precisely how the theories of emancipation have understood this supersession for a very long time. Capitalism was considered to be the inefficient, unjust and parasitic management of something that, in itself, was very positive: the progress and industrial society created by proletarian labor, science and technology. Thus, communism was often contemplated as the simple continuation of the “conquests” of capitalism by other subjects and a different regime of ownership rather than as a profound break with the past. The positive evaluation of the “subject” in the traditional theories of emancipation assumed that the subject was the basis of the supersession (rather than the basis of the development) of capitalism and that it was necessary to help the subject fully realize its essence, to develop its potential, which, as such, had nothing to do with the system of domination. The revolution would then allow, for example, for labor to be shared by all of society, transforming everyone into workers. At most, the subjects would have to rid themselves of certain corrupting influences, but would not have to question their own existence as laborers, information technology workers, etc. The revolutionary expectation did not imply a specific reflection on what had constituted this subject and seemed to be unaware of the fact that it could contain in its deepest structure elements of the commodity system, which would furthermore explain the incredible capacity of this system for self-perpetuation, self-regeneration, and its ability to “recuperate” those critiques that were directed against it.4 The substance of this subject can be designated in different and even contrary ways. For the traditional workers movement, it resides in productive labor, which was the pride of the proletariat; for the leftists of the 1970s, it could reside in the resistance to work, in personal creativity, or in “desire”. But the conceptual structure was the same: the purpose of revolutionary activity was to allow the deep core of the subjects to emerge and overcome the restrictions imposed on them by an artificial society that only served the interests of a minority.5
Hence the famous quest for the “revolutionary subject”, who, according to the occasion, has been identified with workers, peasants, students, the marginalized, women, immigrants, the peoples of the global south, “immaterial” workers, and precarious workers. This quest was finally condemned to failure, but not because the subject did not exist, as structuralism and poststructuralism preached, which perceived it as nothing more than an illusion. Subjects exist, there is no doubt about it, but they are not the expression of a “human nature” that is prior to or external to capitalist relations; they are the product of the capitalist relations that they in turn produce. Workers, peasants, students, women, marginals, immigrants, the peoples of the global south, immaterial workers and the precarious, each of whose subject-forms, along with their whole lifestyle, their mental attitudes and ideologies, is created, or transformed, by the socialization they undergo at the hands of commodity society, cannot be mobilized in their current form against capitalism. As a result, there can be no workers, peasants or precarious revolutions, but only revolutions carried out by those who want to break with capitalism and with the very subject-form that capitalism imposes and that each person finds within himself. For this reason, no revolution, in the broadest meaning of the term, can consist today in a positive evaluation of what each person is now and that the latter only has to be liberated from the chains that bind it.
Ultimately, currently fashionable concepts like that of the “multitude”, which is the most democratic one, consist precisely in this panegyric on the subjects in their empirical and immediate existence. One is thus spared the effort of making an individual break with one’s own subject-form, which is not simply imposed from the outside, but which structures one’s own personality at its deepest level, for example, in the almost universal presence of the spirit of competition.
Unfortunately, the general exacerbation of living conditions in capitalism is not making the subjects more capable of overthrowing it, but increasingly less capable of doing so, because the totalization of the commodity-form engenders ever more subjects that are totally identical to the system that encompasses them. And even when these subjects express a dissatisfaction that goes beyond a mere declaration that they are disadvantaged, they are incapable of discovering within themselves the necessary resources for a different kind of life or even simply for having different ideas, since they have never experienced anything different. Instead of asking ourselves, like the environmentalists, what kind of world shall we leave to our children?, we must ask ourselves, as Jaime Semprun put it so well: to what kind of children shall we leave this world?6
One will then understand the importance of the critique of “progress”, “technology” and “modernity”: despite the heterogeneous character and numerous weaknesses of its analyses, this critique has begun to cast doubts on the general meaning of the road that industrial society has followed and has also proposed a change in its meaning, and not just in the way it is managed. This also implies a critical perspective on the attitude of the ruled groups; so that capitalists and workers, employees and managers, rich and poor are no longer presented as absolutely different, but as united by the same effort of remodeling the entire world with the help of technologies without worrying about the consequences. It is therefore this civilization as a whole that is challenged and along with it, the types of personalities, mentalities and psychic structures created by this civilization. Modern society is no longer—or not exclusively—understood as a “violation of the masses by propaganda” (Sergei Tschachotin)7 and by force, but also as a circular production of social reality involving individuals and structures that for the most part takes place by means of unconscious processes; this is where this critique can merge with the categories of the critique of fetishism. On the other hand, the dichotomous view associated with the ideology of the subject flatters the narcissism of the commodity subject by allowing it to externalize the negative aspects of commodity socialization which it experiences in itself and to project them onto “other” subjects, whether finance capital or immigrants. It is understood that it is much more difficult for contemporary subjects, even when they perceive themselves as “critics”, to acknowledge something like the description of narcissism offered by Christopher Lasch,8 once this same narcissism is found in the dominant culture and in almost all forms of protest; or Ivan Illich’s critique of modern medicine and its denial of suffering,9 which is generally considered to be an aspect of progress; or the rejection of the technologies of assisted reproduction and genetic therapy, which are so highly esteemed by the public; or in more general terms, the revulsion towards consumerist individualism.
The current decomposition of the system is by no means a result of the efforts of its revolutionary enemies, nor even of a kind of passive resistance—against work, for instance. It is instead derived from the fact that the basis for the life of each and every one of us in commodity society, that is, the perpetual transformation of labor into capital and capital into labor—and consequently the productive consumption of labor power and the valorization of capital—is being exhausted before our very eyes, due essentially to the replacement of living labor power by technology. This provokes the anxiety and the panic of the subjects, whose life depends, directly or indirectly, on this valorization of labor, whether we are talking about the managing executive of your “average European business” or an African looter-militiaman, a welfare recipient in the United States or a Russian miner. In one way or another, everyone has the impression that the ground is disappearing from under their feet, and it is this struggle for a piece of an always-shrinking pie that is leading to barbarism at all levels. The “warlord” and the high level executive are just as implicated as the unemployed racist or the thief in the shantytown: all of them are competing to appropriate the scraps and leftovers of commodity society. In this context, nationalist, racist or anti-Semitic ideologies or any ideologies that advocate other forms of “exclusion” spread with ease, especially among the “lowest” layers of society. The global society of labor is undergoing self-destruction after having destroyed all the old forms of solidarity, or almost all of them: virtually all that remains are subjects conquered by the principle of competition at any price, whether as individuals or within the framework of corporate bodies such as nations, ethnic groups, families, mafias or gangs. Humanity is definitely ill-prepared to confront the generalized dissolution of social bonds and their productive foundations.
This situation provokes a great deal of discontent, but this discontent no longer leads to the demand for better conditions for all, as was often the case with the classic proletariat or even the student movement of the 1960s.10 Furthermore, the various expressions of discontent do not cohere into a solid whole, into a vast movement that would unite all the victims of the earth against the stratum of the powerful, exploiters and manipulators who impose their rule; however much the great strategists of the “another world is possible” movement continue to evoke such a “popular front”, which often goes hand in hand with certain conspiracy theories (everything is the fault of high finance, or the U.S. government, or the neoliberals, or the neoconservatives, or the Jewish “lobby” or other lobbies).
Every inhabitant of the earth, or almost every inhabitant, has become in the first place a subject of competition, in a constant state of war against all its other subjects. The somber description of the beginnings of human society offered by Hobbes, the true origin of the bourgeois conception of life in society, was instead a prophecy that took several centuries to come true. To his depiction we must add one more exhibit: over the long term, perpetual and uncontrolled competition is absolutely unsustainable. It leads to madness. Wanton murders, whether they involve the school massacres in the United States (and other countries) or suicides, are its most eloquent testimonials. In a society where individuals live exclusively for the purpose of selling themselves and being accepted by the god of the market, and where all possible vital energies are sacrificed to the laws of the economy, a veritable “death drive” is unleashed, which lays bare the nothingness that lies at the bottom of a system whose only professed goal is the accumulation of capital.
It is no longer a question, then, of the fact that some of those who participate in this competition are victorious over others: for example, the victory of the owners of labor in its living phase (labor power) over the owners of labor in its dead phase (capital). What must be subjected to challenge is instead the very civilization itself of which these individuals are only the expressions of different agents acting on its behalf. Such an idea, despite all obstacles, can today open up a way forward more easily than any idea in over twenty years. We no longer need to debate some things: “real socialism” and the chances of reforming it, “national liberation movements”, state-sponsored social progress (the France of Mitterand or the Cuba of Castro), the possibility of working within the “left wing” trade unions and parties to radicalize them…. So many illusions have just faded away on their own, which at least has the merit of clearing the field. People have to be finally convinced that neither the state nor the market are capable of developing in the direction of a more human society and that, to the contrary, within the framework of the aggravation of world competition, both are leading towards social and even anthropological regression.
In the span of just a few decades, the perspective has been precisely inverted: today it is no longer a matter of trying to overthrow a powerful system that is hard to fight, and whose collapse, should it be achieved, would automatically lead to something better. Instead, we have to prepare for ways to emerge intact from the dissolution of that system, which is already underway. For generations of revolutionaries, the problem consisted in waging a frontal assault on the ruling order, which possessed an infinite array of weapons with which it could defend itself. If, however, the “progressive” faction were to emerge victorious from this test of force, the advent of socialism, communism, or whatever name was given to the radiant future that was planned, was automatic. And this was understandable: the only force that could derail capitalism from its course was, in conformance with this perspective, the existence of a class that had decided to do away with it and was strong enough to bring this program to a successful conclusion. Capitalism, then, could only disappear as a result of the action of an enemy that acted precisely in accordance with the goal of replacing it with another social order. What was supposed to provoke the collapse of capitalism was the “desire for communism” among the masses, so that the end of capitalism and the beginning of the liberated society would coincide exactly.11 But this historical opportunity, if it ever existed at all, has been irremediably lost, and now the theory of social emancipation confronts an unprecedented situation. Capitalism has visibly become what it essentially was from its inception:12 a beast that devours itself, a machine that destroys itself, a society that, over the long term, cannot be endured by anyone, since it consumes all social bonds and all natural resources in order to preserve the mechanism of value accumulation, which becomes increasingly difficult. With each passing day capitalism is undermining its own foundations. By saying this we are not pronouncing a “prophecy” concerning the future collapse of capitalism, but only summarizing what is taking place every day right before our eyes. The fact that certain economic actors still make big profits must not be confused—as so often happens—with the state of health of capitalist society as a general system of social reproduction. The gradual collapse of capitalist civilization (if we may be allowed to employ this oxymoron) is obvious. But this collapse is by no means the result of the conscious intervention of men who desire to replace it with something better. Its end approaches more or less automatically, as the consequence of its own basic logic, which is dynamic and self-destructive, an aspect that distinguishes it from all previous societies. Capitalism has done more harm to itself than all of its enemies together have ever been able to encompass. But this is only halfway good news. This collapse by no means necessarily implies the emergence of a society that is better organized: first of all, because it is the consequence of the action of blind forces that, as such, are in and of themselves destructive. And also, because capitalism has had enough time to extirpate all the other forms of social life, of production and reproduction, which could have constituted a point of departure for the construction of a post-capitalist society. When its end does come, there will be nothing left but a devastated earth where the survivors will fight over the remains of capitalist “civilization”. This is already the everyday reality of a large part of the “global South”; and it is beginning to be an everyday reality for a growing part of the “developed” countries, even in the outskirts of the great cities. Abandoned to its own dynamism, capitalism does not lead to socialism, but to ruin. If it were capable of having intentions, one would assume that its intention is to be the last word of humanity.
But horror films sometimes have a happy ending. Not all is lost. The race towards the abyss in the name of profitability is not met only with resignation. The same energies that were in the past directed towards revolution are now beginning to be oriented towards avoiding the collapse into barbarism. An emancipated society or, at least, a better society than the one we have now, is still possible. But we must build it on the rubble of capitalist society. In order to accomplish this we need above all a major effort of theoretical clarification, an effort that takes into account the degree to which the conditions of the emancipatory project have changed. The old fronts have entirely shifted and blurred; if this fact is not recognized, if we obstinately persist in following the same trail that was blazed fifty or a hundred years ago, then many well intentioned people will be prevented from understanding today’s world—whose defects, however, they clearly perceive—and acting accordingly.
In such a situation, there is no longer a dichotomy between a party of order, on the one side, and a party of disorder and subversion, on the other. The meanings of words like “reforms”, “conservative”, “freedom”, “transgression” or “provocation”, are almost the opposite of what they were in days gone by; the observation of this development is quite instructive. For a century and a half, two factions confronted one another—generally identified as that of the “bourgeoisie” and that of the “proletariat” or the “people”—and each faction possessed, as a whole, a series of programs relating to practically every aspect of life. Bourgeois society, whose economic face was capitalism, also implied—at least in its ideal-typical form—ubiquitous hierarchies in social relations; the importance of religion in private and public life; authoritarianism within the family and the educational system; nationalism and militarism; an oppressive and hypocritical sexual morality; a classical and elitist art; the predominance of rationality over the imagination, of saving over spending, of production over consumption, of calculation over immediate enjoyment, of the collective over the individual, and a fortiori over the “different” individual; the rule of men over women, adults over children, whites over people of color, etc. Anyone who feels opposed to bourgeois society needs only choose, on every occasion, the pole that bourgeois society has established as inferior; the cult of “transgression” consists in this attitude. This is not so much a matter of what Boltanski and Chiapello call “social critique” (the traditional workers movement) as it is a characteristic of “artistic critique”, whose importance, since the time of the Surrealists, only increased until it finally came into its own after 1968. For several decades, the transgressive attitude in the world of art, customs and everyday life could conceive of itself as “symbolic subversion” that attacked the foundations of bourgeois society at least as effectively as the social struggles; it was even capable of thinking, for example, that the protest against sexual morality could serve as a lever for a total transformation. In retrospect, however, it seems that in most cases cultural protest mistakenly identified as essential features of capitalist society aspects that were instead archaic or anachronistic elements inherited from its previous stages.
After 1968, capitalism, with its “new spirit”, not only made concessions in the field of transgressive politics in order to blunt the edge of social unrest, but took advantage of the occasion to dump some useless ballast and rid itself of numerous structures that had become obstacles to its own development. We certainly do not have to tell our readers that capitalism cannot exist with young people who live in austere conditions, are chaste and save their money. But most “progressive” milieus have not cared to keep abreast of this paradigm shift and relentlessly persist in their “transgressive” ways, and constantly beat the same dead horses, kick down the same open doors and revel in the support they provide to postmodern society in its efforts to disencumber itself of the humanist and classical debris that is so prejudicial to republican progress and equality in the labor market. Who would dare to say, in a democracy, that it is better to study Greek and Latin in the schools than computer science and business management, or that an opera is more valuable than rap music, or that Michelangelo is better than a comic book?
It has been a long time since the capitalist system ceased to be the “party of order”. It has been capable of deriving great advantage from “artistic” protests in order to reconstruct a chaotic society that serves its purposes. The dissolution of the family, “free” education in the schools, the apparent equality of men and women, the disappearance of notions like “morality”: everything redounds to its benefit from the moment when these developments are disconnected from a project for generalized emancipation and are translated into their commodity forms. We do not, of course, by any means, want to yield to nostalgic reveries for the times when teachers could paddle their students, or for compulsory military service, the catechism or Padre Padrone-type families. For while it is true that one part of the politics of the last twenty years has been inspired by a perverted—or perhaps faithful—version of the “ideas of ‘68” (in public education, for instance),13 other managers of the same political system have recently loudly accused the “thought of ‘68” for being responsible for every evil. But this reproach has no content; it is like the undifferentiated resort on some occasions to Keynesian economic policies, and then on other occasions to monetarist policies, which are employed by the left as well as the right, depending on the situation and regardless of any ideological considerations.
We have to face the facts, which are hardly comforting: the situations and the conflicts of the past are scarcely of any help in deciding what to do today. Neither the social movements nor the cultural protests of yesterday have anything useful to teach us about what we can do right now. One example: in 1963, the Belgian Surrealist Louis Scutenaire provoked a scandal (which led Gallimard to refuse to publish the book that contained this aphorism) when he wrote: “Last night I reread The Princess of Clèves. With my asshole.” A few decades later, the president of the republic not only said the same thing in more media-friendly terms, but was also allowed to publicly express his aversion for such useless things.
These considerations might seem somewhat bleak. Undoubtedly, they are not grist for the mills of contemporary militantism and do not lend themselves to being translated into a practical everyday “political” strategy. But over the last century and a half, many “concrete” proposals and many “practical” activities have led to consequences that were contrary to their original intentions. Perhaps what is called for, then, is a modest theoretical step forward, a simple attempt to spread awareness that goes in the right direction: our only chance lies in putting an end to industrial capitalism and its foundations; that is, the commodity and its fetishism, value, money, market, state, competition, nation, patriarchy, labor and narcissism, instead of adapting to these things, appropriating them, improving them or using them. If these last few decades, which were otherwise so inauspicious, have helped some people to understand this historical necessity, then they will not have been completely in vain.
[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]
- 1M. Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.
- 2J.-M. Vincent, Critique du Travail. Le faire et l’agir, Presses universitaires de France, Paris, 1987.
- 3On a less theoretical level, the “counterculture” of the sixties and seventies arrived at the same critique: it rejected the way of life proposed by capitalist society instead of complaining about how hard it is to find a place in it.
- 4We are not speaking here of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories, which have simply evaded the question of the dialectic between subject and object and denied even the possibility of tracing the multiplicity of social phenomena to the effects of certain underlying principles, such as commodity value and its fetishism.
- 5This explains the excessive emphasis that the “radical” currents, from the Trotskyists to the Situationists, have always placed on the role of “the treason of the leaders”. They invariably assumed that “the proletarians” or “the people” are essentially revolutionaries, “in themselves”, and that they would always make the radical choices if the maneuvers of the leaders and the bureaucrats did not always—unfortunately and inexplicably—prevent them from doing so.
- 6And as, for some mysterious reason, Nicholas Sarkozy said during the electoral campaign.
- 7See: Serge Tchakhotine, Le Viol des foules par la propagande politique, Gallimard, Paris, 1939.
- 8C. Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1979.
- 9I. Illich, Medical Nemesis. The Expropriation of Health, Calder & Boyars, London, 1975.
- 10Of course, the worldwide demonstrations against the Iraq war and, especially, the concern about the environment, display a scope that can be said to be general. But pacifism is only sporadically expressed and even then it is based on a very emotional foundation, while the resistance against “harmful phenomena” only rarely takes the form of a movement, and is rather the affair of experts and government conferences, except when it assumes the form of struggles, authentic but narrowly focused, against a harmful phenomenon in one’s own “backyard”, which generally avoids questioning the kind of lifestyle—industrial society and the comforts its offers—that produced the phenomenon in question (waste incinerators, nuclear power stations, High Speed Rail Transport, etc.).
- 11While so-called “orthodox” communists (Leninists) linked the consolidation of this emancipatory impulse in the masses with a dramatic deterioration—which they considered to be inevitable—of the living conditions of the masses, caused by the capitalist economy, the so-called “radical” currents (leftists) were more “voluntarist” and “subjectivist”, and put their faith for the most part in a rejection of capitalist life, one that could arise at any moment, regardless of the economic situation and as a result above all of the existential radicality of the militants.
- 12As is so accurately described by the non-Marxist historian Karl Polanyi, who analyzed the beginnings of the industrial revolution in his classic work, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time  (Beacon Press, Boston, 1957).
- 13With regard to this issue, see D.-R. Dufour, L’Art de réduire les têtes. Sur la nouvelle servitude de l’homme libére à l’ère du capitalisme global, Paris, Denoël, 2003; J.-Cl. Michéa, L’Enseignement de l’ignorance, Castelnau-le-Lez, Climats, 2001; N. Oblin and P. Vassort, La Crise de l’Université française. Traité contre une politique de l’anéantissement, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2005.