What is regressive anti-capitalism? Notes on the difference between critique of capitalism and critique of capitalists

by Emanzipation und Frieden (Emancipation and Peace)

Thanks to korynmalius for the translation 🙂 (Original in deutsch)

Since 2008, the crisis refuses to go away. The idea of an eternally prosperous market-economy is dead and gone, and so is the “critique of capitalism”. But, unfortunately, something lurks under this title: resentment. This is also true for part of the Left, who, although—I will grant you this—at least it fights the populist slogans about “those lazy Greeks who wait for our hand-outs”, in other respects is in the same category as what you can hear down the pub. Namely, when it rants about “greed, banksters, parasites and speculation”, it puts “left-wing critique” down to the level of a TV debate, of the Finance Minister or of Ms. Maier: “They are guilty!”

“You = greedy. Us = honest”

In the minds of the peddlers of resentment, the greedy and the lazy have something in common. “They are parasites and they deceive us, honest workers.” Protest movements such as Occupy and the movement against the “Stuttgart 21” exist mostly in the idea that “those above” cheat and lie to “us”. Sometimes it is simply “The Man”, sometimes the “politicians” or “parasites” or even the “greedy banksters and speculators” who are to blame for everything. This worldview stays well away from analysing social relations. It is the spontaneous, unthinking outcry against the outside world, which does not look further than the tip of its nose, it blames a few people as responsible for everything, and fervently defends the good, massive collective of honest dupes. “Critique of capitalism” as bad caricature.

“Labour = good. Capital = bad”

Although this regressive anti-capitalism is allowed to pass off as theory, it remains very short of the critique of capitalism we must make. The object of this criticism is only exploitation, ie. the production of surplus-value and its appropriation by capitalists. As necessary as this critique is, it is also important, in order to understand the nature of capital, to understand the crisis and to develop an emancipatory perspective. The key to this is to recognize that we live in a commodity-producing society, which is not driven by the production of material wealth, but by the recovery of value. In a society ruled by value, everything, even people, become commodities. Ultimately, value is the social relationship between individuals who confront each other as commodity-owners. The value of commodities is measured by the socially-necessary labour-time needed to their production or reproduction. Capital itself is self-expanding value. Thus: capital is in the end nothing else than accumulated labour. Then, regressive anti-capitalism claims commodity-producing and value-adding labour and establishes it as a positive opposite pole against capital. Therefore, it designs the working-class as bearer of social emancipation.

Although Karl Marx laid the foundations for a reflective critique of capitalism (which are overlooked by most Marxists), he was not always without his own problematic reductions. Unfortunately, mass-murderers such as Stalin, Mao, etc. used his unfortunate phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” in order to claim a filiation to him. Even today, more-revolutionary-than-thou fighters despise “in the name of the working-class” the achievements of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and strive for a party dictatorship.

But the idea that commodities, value and labour are as natural as the air we breathe is no invention of the Left tradition. It originates from its never having called the bluff of commodity fetishism, which dominates bourgeois society (see MEW 23, 85ff.).

“Finance capital”—Obsession instead of analysis

As long as money is supposedly a means of exchange of commodities, that is, as long as it represents something concrete, it is deemed “perfectly natural” for the unthinking inhabitants of the commodity-producing society. There is some conscious discomfort when considering credit—but without it, the commodity production could not maintain itself. A significant aversion to the noticeable abstraction which rules society is made into an aversion to interest-rates—which are also necessary, since in the end the money-commodity also has its value. This feeling turns to complete hatred, as seen as it considers the figure of the speculator. Speculation in commodity production, the justification of which is not said to be material needs, but the anonymous market, is unavoidable. The commodity-subject, however, fantasizes about a good capital (which is supposed to be “productive”) and a bad capital (supposedly “unproductive”).

This misunderstanding of the nature of commodity-production also leads to the construction of an especially evil “finance capital”, which is supposed to be distinct from the lesser evil of “capital”. For example, Lenin’s imperialism theory is based on this assumption, which accuses this “finance capital” of all sorts of “machinations”, “swindles”, “corruption”, “parasitism”, etc. (see, LW 22, 187ff.), which paved the way for the spreading of conspiracy-fantasies among the Left. The “reformist” Left hardly differs on this issue from Leninists —no wonder, as Lenin had drawn a lot from the Social-Democrat theory-writer Hilferding. Many people who do not identify as “Left”, subscribe nonetheless to this most restricted critique of capitalism and direct all of their aversion uniquely against “finance capital” and its representatives. National-Socialists also directed and direct their hatred against the “nationless finance capital”. So once again, a large social consensus is reached from “extreme left” to “extreme right” against the supposedly “unproductive parasites”, which comes from a poor understanding of the relationships which underlies the commodity-producing society.

Dangerously close

There is no point avoiding the issue: this type of “critique of capitalism” is not far from anti-Semitic resentment. The film “Jud Süß” (1940) presents the hard-working, deceived “people like you and me”, against a greedy manipulative financer who is responsible for their misfortune, and ends up being hanged under popular acclaim. Over 20 million people, a record at the time, flocked to the cinema and watched with glee what they thought they felt and wished for. Hardly a year and a half later, the Wannsee Conference decided the organized extermination of the greedy who suck us dry… “Naturally” the greedy in the National-Socialist film was “the Jew”. But the same pattern is still at work today: Wherever it is believed that greedy people are to blame for our misfortune, the desire for blood is not far behind.


The strong hand may gasify the vermin – un/conscious destruction wish of striking Telekom employees, in 2007

Cheap recipes from the pressure-cooker

Pseudo-alternatives, the twin sisters of such “analyses”, are on sale at every street-corner. Within an hour, social charlatans present, to a public who longs for simple answers, how-to guides for a better world. It is called something like “welfare economics”, for example, and goes like this: We all want what we all think is good, we write it now also in the constitution. Then we create some kind of monster called a “democratic bank” and, soon, all is well. As if we could make the expansion of capital right by a majority decision… The insipid idea that one should simply abolish interests makes its way. As if in a society in which everything is a commodity, money, the supreme commodity, could have no price. The remedy is supposed to come from “negative interest rates”. Just as if these had not just had a crisis. So the German state injects money into investments, to recover less than what they have put in (seriously). They hope that at least investors will recover part of their money. If we follow the interest critics, the crisis should now quicly disappear… Another magic trick which has great chances of realisation is what Attac has been championing for years. Governments now also demand a transaction tax on international investments. But the effects of this would be—even if we could close every “loophole” with the help of an international super-bureaucracy—marginal at best. Experiments in Sweden and other countries (Ministry of Information and Documentation of the Bundestag) show it: neither would there be an increase of investments into the so-called “real economy” in which capital is finding it harder and harder to reproduce itself (see below), nor would there be a significant increase in tax revenue: if the tax is “high enough”, and affects effective financial transactions, they will therefore not take place. If it is too low, they might result in a slight increase in revenue, but it does not change a single thing to the larger problem of the global house of cards crashing down.

False hopes in the state

Regressive anti-capitalism remains faithful to the state. No-one will expect a free association of emancipated individuals from people who places their hopes in a ruling apparatus. The so-called “real Socialism” was the worst offspring of state idolatry—a frightening mistake which left millions dead, oppressed and exploited. Disdain for individual freedom and democratic rights, collectivism and party dictatorship were presented as a result of economic order that—contrary to all propaganda—did not overcome capitalism, but only replaced society with an ineffective and bureaucratic state capitalism. Blind to this bitter experience, a zombie left still dreams of a “socialism of the 21st Century” and looks—again and again—in the embarrassing failure that is Leninism for answers.

But even “softer” forms of state advocacy are dead-ends. It is true that Keynesian recipes, which relied on state intervention and demand orientation, from Roosevelt’s New Deal to the successes of the 60s, but already in the 70s they stopped being effective. Only neoliberalism, with its brutal social consequences, could avert the ghost of inflation and “zero growth”. Blind to this fact, the superficial critiques of capitalism see “the neoliberals” as the root of all evil and believe in all seriousness to a trip back to the “social market economy” of the 60s.

The state is also treated economically not as a solution, but as part of the problem. It must do everything it can to maintain capital utilization. The least it works, the more its base falters: controlling fluxes only in “booming economies”. To wish that the state spent all the lovely money it put into bank bail-outs into education, environment, health and social issues is all too understandable. But that would be the death of a successful reproduction of capital, as it only functions today with trillions of fictitious capital. The state is trapped: if it makes stimulus packages to mitigate the crisis, it endangers its credit. If it strengthens and develops conservation programs, it is ruining the economy. Only a few countries like Germany could still displace the consequences of this dilemma to other countries such as Portugal and Greece. But the exported unemployment returns under the form of the euro-crisis. Even in China (declining growth rates, rising inflation) and in the US (constant maneuvering on the verge of bankruptcy), the state has its back to the wall.

Allusions to a reflective critique of capitalism

Nothing hinders real change more than hasty answers. That a compelling alternative to the market economy has yet to be established is not an argument to accept these. Radical, that is, going to the root of things (from the Latin radices), critique poses for example the question: Why must we always work more and longer, when we can produce much more material wealth today than ever before with very little work, thanks to microelectronics? Pushing back the age of retirement to 67 because fewer and fewer young people cannot pay for more and more old people? Rubbish! Thanks to skyrocketing labour productivity, we could we have long been working only 5 hours a week and quit at age 40 or so. But one should work to death and the others are “not needed”. People become superfluous when work finally becomes superfluous.

Why does so much evil follows so much good? Because in the commodity-producing society, the whole immense material wealth is forced through the bottleneck of commodities, value and money. And because of the self-expanding value (read: capital) obsessively saws the branch on which it sits: on the one hand he can only live by the relationship of labour, on the other hand it has to make work constantly superfluous (Marx make about “the capital … as a processing contradiction “, MEW 42, 601f). That is why capital can increasingly reproduce itself only as fictional capital – a Marxist term that explains a lot more than Hilferding’s and Lenin’s “financial capital”. And it is not random if the financial markets crash simultaneously with the productive power microelectronics revolution since the mid-70s. These crush the so called “real capital”, and are, on the other hand, the essential prerequisite for capital reproduction today to take place at all. Anyone who wants to eliminate the unreasonable demands of the capitalist crisis should stop dreaming of “regulating financial markets”, arresting “banksters” or lynching “the greedy”. The capital relationship itself must be overcome.