The new historical simultaneity - Robert Kurz

The new historical simultaneity - Robert Kurz

In this 2004 article, Robert Kurz discusses the condition of “simultaneity” caused by the concluding phase of the discontinuous “catch-up modernization” of the world’s nations that culminated in “the constitution of the transnational structures of capital” in which the traditional workers movement and leftist politics, inseparable from the national form of capitalism and its “Enlightenment ideology”, have been rendered obsolete and ineffective, and asserts that critique “must become more profound and must understand the repressive assumptions behind these concepts instead of demanding the realization of their ideals” (“nation, political regulation, bourgeois recognition”).

The New Historical Simultaneity: The End of Modernization and the Beginning of another World History – Robert Kurz

The debate over globalization currently appears to have reached a state of exhaustion. This is due not to a weakening of the underlying process, but to a lack of air for new interpretive ideas. Almost no one dares to speak of the end of the history of modernization. In the meantime it is clear that entire libraries are being written about the fact of the globalization of capital (the transnational dispersion of economic functions), dissolving the separation between the national economy and the world market and thus the whole previous referential framework.

But the consequences to be deduced from this recognition have until now usually been deferred. The old concepts are still dragged along, even though they no longer correspond to the new reality.

For a long time it was considered the ultimate in critical reflection to uphold national particularity against the abstract universality of the modern capitalist mode of production.

In the 1970s, so-called Eurocommunism asserted that Marxist theory had often been too universal and must therefore be finally “concretized” in national terms, towards the end of creating a popular socialism decked out in the “colors” of France, Germany, Italy, etc. But this announcement was already reactionary at the moment of its formulation. In the globalization process, the relation was turned upside-down. National particularity was itself converted into an empty abstraction; it was, of course, still present, but only as the sediment of a past epoch. History is national only by virtue of the history of the past, but no longer of the future. From now on there will no longer be a French history, a German history, Brazilian history, Chinese history….

Historical concretion in the immediate referential space of world society will no longer refer in the future to national particularities and contexts, but to transnational ones. This also applies (and does so directly) to cultural identities, social movements and “post-political” conflicts.

The shattered national community is not, however, the only essential characteristic of the past epoch which is becoming obsolete. The spatial structure of the reciprocally delimited national particularities was also chained to a temporal structure of reciprocally delimited stages of capitalist development. The universe of nations was a universe of historical non-simultaneity. Since the modern system of commodity production only gradually spread from Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, the various eras of capitalism were found in direct contact with one another. What was still the future for some was the present for others, or the immediate past. This historical temporal unevenness only produced the paradigm of “development”, which was presented in capitalist categories as a catch-up race involving the historically backward. Great Britain, Germany and other continental European countries passed through a similar “catch-up modernization” in the 19th century; in the 20th century, confronted by the West, Russia, China and the former colonial countries of the global South were limited to repeating the same course. In this case, the nation became the specific space of historical non-simultaneity.

The classical western workers movement was also established by an analogous paradigm; only in this case “catch-up modernization” did not refer, or at least not primarily, to one’s own nation’s position vis-à-vis the most advanced nations, but above all to the legal and political position of the wage worker in comparison to the other social classes within the same nation. What was at stake was the “recognition” of the wage-earners as juridical subjects of their labor power and as full citizens. The right to universal and equal suffrage, equal rights for women, the right to strike, freedom of association, the freedom of assembly and autonomy in wage negotiation were important aspects of this “catch-up modernization” linked to domestic social relations, which were only attained, even in the most advanced western countries, during the course of the 20th century. The diplomatic recognition of the historically backward countries of the East and South as nations in the world market corresponded to the domestic legal and political recognition of the wage workers as citizens and subjects endowed with legal rights.

But this recognition was, in a sense, a historical trap. Thus, as the societies of the various regions of the world were confirmed and established as formal subjects of capitalism just like individual wage workers, they were likewise also inevitably condemned to the national and social forms of the modern system of commodity production. The States of “catch-up modernization” as well as the national workers parties and trade unions underwent a transformation, becoming the executors of the false “natural laws” of that system. Under the conditions of globalization, there is nothing left for them to do but to administer the capitalist crisis in a more or less repressive manner. What social democracy had already practiced after the First World War is now being repeated on a global scale.

It may perhaps be thought that this negative development tarnished the glory of “national liberation” and the national workers parties. To a certain extent this is true. Throughout the world, a great deal of dissatisfaction smolders against the political institutions of the traditional left, which completely lost their oppositional character precisely at the onset of the new world crisis, since they remained attached to the paradigms of “catch-up modernization” which had already been emptied of any substance. But these paradigms are so deeply rooted that they are still effective even among the discontented themselves. There is something uncanny about the way the new opposition, targeting the former opposition which has now been admitted into the representative institutions of the dominant system, blindly clings to the obsolete habits of the bygone universe of non-simultaneity. The critique of the co-management of the crisis on the part of the old national liberation movements and traditional workers parties which have now assumed power thereby reveals itself to be weak and unreliable, since it tends to repeat, in terms of its contents, what had objectively failed long ago.

This aspect is yet more marked in the worldwide movement against globalization, with its protests, social forums and conferences in Porto Alegre, Paris, Berlin, etc. This movement is, on the one hand, organized transnationally, but, paradoxically, besides its individual members, relies on national party organizations along with groups operating on the transnational level; among them there are even some whose parent organizations have ascended to State power and execute exactly those “economic laws” against whose effects the global social movement is fighting.

But the content of the majority of the demands of the global social movement is still principally totally alien to the globalization process. At least partially transnational due to its form, the movement would like to implement a kind of “political regulation” of the financial markets and the general conditions of commodity production and distribution, even though the logic of this regulation is bound to the framework of the national state. It thus wishes to revive, from now on and on a global scale, precisely that procedure which has already failed on the terrain of the national state, which is the only terrain suitable to this project. It is an irremediably anachronistic and unrealistic option.

This reductive critique still implicitly springs from the assumption that societies will still be able to “grow” within the framework of bourgeois modernity, despite the fact that globalization and the Third Industrial Revolution have already burst that framework. This also applies to their economic and philosophical assumptions, which are equally anachronistic.

In its economic aspect, their critique expects that the gigantic mass of cheap global labor will still represent a reserve for capital valorization, only now no longer in the form of national development, but in the form of transnational globalized capital. Some hope, while others fear, that an era of traditional exploitation could arise from this conjuncture. This alternative rests to some degree on the concept of “average social productivity”. This average level of the application of science to production is relatively high in the developed capitalist countries and relatively low in the countries of the periphery. It is therefore expected that with increasing globalization a new average productivity will be produced on a global level, which will be lower than the current western average and higher than that which currently prevails in the east and south. It is believed that, on the basis of this new standard, it will be possible to absorb a considerable portion of the momentarily unutilized global labor power in capital’s valorization process.

But this calculation is flawed. How is the average productivity measured? It is measured by the average level of the application of science and technology to production. However, what is decisive is the framework to which this average actually refers, which is necessarily the national-economic framework of social production. It is only within the domestic space of a national economy that the common limiting conditions apply which can generally produce something like a “social average”. A common level of development of the infrastructure, the education system, etc., comprises part of this social average. On the level of the world market, however, no such common limiting conditions of that kind exist.

For this reason, one cannot even establish an average global level of productivity. The relations between nations or regions of the world on the world market offer no analogy with businesses within a national economy. Thus, within the global framework, the level of productivity of the oldest western industrial countries, those which are most developed in capitalist terms, is necessarily imposed. To the extent that the national space becomes objectively obsolete due to globalization, this level forms the immediate and unfiltered global criterion for all participants in the market.

It is illusory to hope, in the new transnational system of reference, that the measurement of the average social productivity will diminish and that unutilized labor power will once again more easily rejoin production.

As for the philosophical dimension, a similarly anachronistic expectation informs the thinking of the dissidents. This is due to the fact that the philosophy of the so-called Enlightenment, whose roots lie in the 18th century, is still considered to be the impassable horizon of ideas. It is thought that the world can, in this sense as well, continue to evolve within the framework of bourgeois modernity. In this respect, the new opposition has not advanced one step beyond the old. But the Enlightenment paradigm is just as exhausted as the economy of the modern system of commodity production, of which it was simply the philosophical expression. The central Enlightenment ideals of liberty”, “equality” and the “self-reliance” of the “autonomous individual” are, conceptually, hewed from the “abstract labor” of the profit economy, from the totalitarian market and universal competition, for the capitalist subject-form. Liberty and equality in the Enlightenment sense were always equivalent to the self-subjection of man to the social forms of the capitalist system.

The struggle of the classical workers movement and the national liberation movements for juridical and political “recognition” could appeal to Enlightenment philosophy because they only had the goal of entering and growing within those forms, whose social limiting-condition was formed by the nation exactly as the economic aspect was. Only national systems of bourgeois law exist. By bursting through the national framework, globalization makes not only the economic form of the bourgeois subject obsolete, but also its juridical and political form. With this, Enlightenment philosophy is historically finished. It makes no sense to invoke the idealism of bourgeois liberty once again, since, for this kind of liberty, a space of emancipation no longer exists.

This also applies to the regions of the world which never advanced beyond the dictatorial beginnings of a universalization of the modern subject-form. Like economic productivity, bourgeois subjectivity is also measured by the homogeneous global standard, where most human beings have no standing.

It is evident that the new worldwide social movement still has not become aware of these conditions. The constitution of the transnational structures of capital is equivalent to an epoch of historical simultaneity. Despite the fact that the various situations which constitute the current starting-points, legacies of the past, are different, the problems of the future can only be formulated as problems which are common to a contiguous world society. As judged by their form as well as by their content, the old leftist paradigms are obsolete: nation, political regulation, bourgeois recognition, Enlightenment ideology. Critique must become more profound and must understand the repressive assumptions behind these concepts instead of demanding the realization of their ideals.

Otherwise it will fall into the void without having any effect at all.

Robert Kurz

German original: "Die neue historische Gleichzeitigkeit. Das Ende der Modernisierung und der Beginn einer anderen Weltgeschichte", at Published in Folha de São Paulo, Sunday, January 25, 2004, under the title "A nova simultaneidade histórica. A crítica precisa apreender os pressupostos repressivos dos obsoletos paradigmas da esquerda". Spanish translation by Luiz Repa.

Translated from the Spanish translation in October 2008.

Another English translation of this text may be viewed at the website of EXIT!:

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Alias Recluse
Jan 2 2014 21:14


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