the autophagic society

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By Eleutério Prado*

Anselm Jappe's new book, The autophagic society – capitalism, excess and self-destruction (Antígona, 2019), does not present an optimistic future for human society. But this prediction cannot be seen as a problem, since, as is well known, the pessimism of reason can and must be combined with the optimism of the will. It so happens that the eventual lack or insufficiency of this last character trait can compromise this interesting work, which does not lack boldness in understanding the current historical moment. Now, you have to ask why.

The overwhelming account that is presented there is part of an allegory, the Greek myth of Erysichton, who was supposed to have been king of Thessaly in a distant time. Seeing the world as part and parcel of his limitless domain, he fells a sacred tree to use in the construction of his palace. His narcissistic ego knows no bounds. Thus, he is not capable of cultivating reason, common sense in his relationship with the world.

Demeter, the goddess of harvests, faced with this serious crime, awakened in him, as a punishment, an insatiable hunger. To satisfy her, this monarch began to eat everything he found around him. After destroying nature and therefore his own kingdom, as his hunger was limitless with no alternative, he turned to eating himself.

Jappe adopts this myth as a pertinent metaphor for what is currently happening in the suicidal evolution of human society, not just here and there, but in its entirety. This is now in an advanced process of human consumption and the environment bequeathed by nature, in such a way that it has already begun to destroy itself as an achieved and possible civilization. “The myth thus anticipates” – he says – “in an extraordinary way, the logic of value, of the commodity and of money” as characterized by Marx in The capital. Especially when taking into account that capital has now become a genocidal “subject”.

In Marx's work, as is well known, capital is presented as an insatiable social relationship that feeds on surplus value and, thus, on surplus labor in a tendentially infinite way. In doing so, with the only apparent purpose of producing use values ​​that satisfy human needs, the capital relation, on the contrary, inexorably consumes, while persisting in existence, human and non-human nature as well.

As in the presented myth, from a certain point, the dynamics of capital enters a path of destruction that leads, little by little, to a state in which its self-destruction occurs. Now, if this logic was capable in the past of overcoming the “rural idiocy” of medieval society, the mode of production based on capital is now obliterating the future of the society it created – and which does not seem capable of abandoning its incessant process. continuous modernization. The idiocy of the past was thus replaced by “imbecile cleverness”.

Anselm Jappe is one of the theorists of the current of contemporary critical thought that calls itself “critique of value”, whose main founders are two well-known thinkers in Brazil: Moishe Postone and Robert Kurz. This lineage of reflection that comes from Marx is, however, the opponent of what it itself calls “traditional Marxism”. In his view, this last trunk, as well as its various branches, never wanted to emphasize the intrinsic irrationality of the capital accumulation process. He preferred, on the contrary, to concentrate on the question of distributing the fruits of the progress that results from it.

Thus, in summary, if social democracy struggled only to improve the distribution of the direct and indirect results of capitalist production, revolutionary Marxism, still with a merely distributive purpose, wanted to overcome private ownership of the means of production and, thus, the competition of capitals – but not commodities, money and capital as such. To this end, it suppressed competition, putting in its place a centrally planned economy, conducted under the aegis of the state.

The “critique of value” does not generally define itself as Marxist, but rather as a radical critical theory of capitalism and, by extension, of a model of Marxism that it considers to be mistaken. His understanding of the world is based on the understanding of the capital system found in Marx's mature works, but without adopting, however, his presentation of history. It rejects both historical materialism and the dialectic of class struggle as an engine for transforming society.

Therefore, the critique of value distinguishes an exoteric Marx from an esoteric Marx. The first would be a “dissident son of the Enlightenment (…) that intended to point the way to reach a fairer organization of society, which should be achieved through class struggle”. The second, esoteric, would be the one that “criticized the basic categories of capitalist society: value and abstract work, merchandise and money”. Thus, if the first would have been attached to the society of progress and work, the second pointed to the overcoming of sociability that engenders the fetishism of merchandise, money and capital.

The lineage of “criticism of value” recalls the presentation of present value in the first chapter of the first book of The capital. Marx begins by exposing the commodity as an elementary form of wealth in the capitalist mode of production. Here it appears, as the classical economists had already said, as use value and exchange value. As the utilities of goods are incommensurable with each other, the exchange ratio between any two goods can only be explained as a form of manifestation of the values ​​that are implicit therein.

Now, economic value in general, for Marx, is constituted by a social substance, which consists of the abstract and socially necessary work to produce the commodity. Consequently, the fundamental social relation of the world of commodities does not appear as such, but as a relation of things that have value. There is not a direct social relationship there, but an indirect one. For this very reason, this social relationship does not appear as such in exchange, since what emerges there is only the exchange of things that have value, that is, of goods.

The original critical thought, to reveal this enigma of commodity exchange, then says that it presents itself as a “social relationship of things”. Now, it is precisely this concealment of the social relationship that is at the base of what is called “commodity fetish”. This is why, therefore, merchandise is configured as a mysterious thing for common sense; since it carries in its thing character a sociability that remains unconscious as such for social actors. They therefore do not know what they are actually doing.

Jappe has a correct understanding of commodity fetishism, or rather the fetishistic character of all manifestations of the products of labor under capitalism, which always present themselves in the form of commodities. Here, capital is usually presented in the form of merchandise or money. This, however, is nothing more than the universal commodity.

Here it should be noted that Jappe has a somewhat totalizing understanding of the world centered on the economic system. Here, the awareness and will of the human support of the capital relation seems to be well colonized by the very objective way of existing of the capital relation. That is, the social logic of capital and the mental logic of the capitalist owner, according to him, converge and tend to converge: “Fetishism is not a false conscience or a simple mystification, it is, rather, a form of total social existence that lies upstream of any separation between material reproduction and psyche, since it determines the very forms of thinking and acting”.

Perhaps, he could argue – if asked about this 'totalisation' – that it is found in the work of Marx himself. Didn't this author say that capital, which remains as such and even always increases, transiting from one mercantile form to another, must be seen in the capitalist mode of production as an automatic subject?

From this perspective, couldn't its “human” support also be seen as a subject, a historical creation of the modern era that emerged together with the capital relationship? Or rather, he would not configure himself as a “subject-form”, as a beforehand history found in the “human” head, a way of thinking in line with the automatic subject's own way of being? Jappe thinks so: for him, in the modern era, the generic human being received the “subject-form” and thus became a mere projection of capital: “In a society where commodity fetishism dominates, there can be no true human subject: it is value, in its metamorphoses (commodity and money), which constitutes the true subject. The human “subjects” are its trailer, they are its performers and “employees” – “subjects” of the automatic subject”.

In fact, what is thus presented is a deviation from the Marxian dialectic. Note that, in The capital, Marx never says of capital that it is form. Differently, he says that merchandise and money are forms of capital, thus assuming, evidently, that the value that is valued is the “subject” of capitalism. Value is therefore the content of these forms.

Note that, in Logic According to Hegel, the reflexive pair “form/content” belongs to the logic of essence (moment in which the subject is still presupposed) and that the pair “subject/object” belongs to the logic of the concept (moment in which the subject is posited). Therefore, if this same logic is also found in the presentation of The capital, the category “form” presupposes the category “subject”. Thus, within this discourse, the notion of “form-subject” that aims to understand the support of the capital relationship cannot fail to appear as mixed.

It is necessary to remember here the difference between determination and position that appears in the dialectic that comes from Hegel and that is present in Marx. For the latter author, in capitalism, man is not a posited subject, but only a presupposed subject; that is, someone who may eventually become an effective subject in the course of history. In this sense, as Ruy Fausto showed, what is placed in the economic sphere of society are certain historical predicates of the generic being “man”, that is, roughly speaking, the capitalist and worker predicates.

That is why Marx considers both as personifications, respectively, of capital and labor power. People are there, yes, but not simply as people and not as true subjects either, but only as supports. That's why he says: "the economic characters embodied by people are nothing more than the personifications of economic relations".

Consequently, the automatic subject referred to by Marx is not a true subject either, since he only passes through the forms of merchandise and money, whose supports are created by concrete work with the help of nature. As this creation is destined for the market, the social process reduces these concrete works to abstract work, private works to social work, complex works to simple work. Hence the thesis that commodity-producing work is alienated, it is a mere expenditure of human energy at the service of capitalist production. Or rather, it is an expenditure of muscles and brains that constitutes the base from which the social process reduces concrete work to abstract work.

Moreover, a necessary condition for the generic human to one day become a subject – therefore, a true subject – is that the fetishism inherent to the forms of existence of mercantile and capitalist sociability has been historically overcome. From another perspective, he himself has to overcome himself in the course of the struggle for a good life to come, overcoming the alienation and estrangement that this sociability inevitably creates.

It is not possible to know, before this social transformation takes place, all the determinations that this human subject may have. It can be anticipated, however, that it is a process of emancipation in which the human suppresses the social structure centered on the capital relationship which, while it exists, remains unconscious for those who work there.

None of this implies that being subjected to the logic of capital, that is, to the irrational rationality of always more, always more, always more value, cannot and should not be severely criticized. Well, this is what Jappe does in the penultimate chapter of the book called “The crisis of the subject-form”. It is noted by the very title of the chapter that he considers this “subject” as a “subject-form”. In this way, he rightly criticizes the revolutionary agent of traditional Marxism, as he ultimately does not seek to overcome the positive feedback logic inherent in capital. On the contrary, he wants to maintain it, wanting only to create an economic system, nominally commanded by the working class, that guarantees a much more egalitarian distribution than that produced by capitalism based on competitive markets.

The category “form-subject” – which Jappe submits to criticism – is indeed problematic, since it implies blocking any transformation that may come through a process of self-realization that begins within the capitalist system. Behold, it is necessary to start the formation now of a democratic and ecological subject that starts to truly respect the human being and nature. The idea of ​​form-subject tends to lead critical thinking – believes this reviewer – to a dead end.

In the last chapter of the book, Jappe writes: “it is useless to waste time with the thousand and one details of a direct democracy as a guarantee of anti-manipulation (…) if everything that is decided in the most democratic way is always the execution of unconsciously presupposed systemic imperatives ”. Those who read the conclusion of the book are left with the impression that the author does not see any concrete prospect of overcoming capitalism, even if, at the end of the book, he declared, referring to the capitalist categories, that “it is possible to live without them ”.

The review is well underway, but the main contribution of Anselm Jappe's book to a better understanding of contemporary society has yet to be mentioned. It is found in the first three chapters: “The fetishism that reigns in this world”, “Narcissism and capitalism”, “Contemporary thought in the face of fetishism”.

This block consists of an effort to bring psychoanalytic reflection to the field of criticism of political economy, with the aim of obtaining a better understanding of capitalism, in particular, the one that evolved after the end of World War II. “It seems” – he says – “so far no one has tried to investigate the relationship between narcissism and the logic of value”. If in liberal capitalism “libidinal energy was channeled to work, with repression of sexuality”, which generated obsessive neuroses, in neoliberal capitalism it is directed towards an insatiable consumerism that, by normalizing narcissism, imprisons people in an endless void .

As he points out, there seems to be a link between narcissistic perversion and the exacerbation of competition not only in the economic system, but also in the world of social and cultural life. The logic of competition, which always aims to make money generate more money, requires cold, calculating, selfish people who take their surroundings, that is, things and people, merely as objects of manipulation and exploitation with a view to satisfaction of the very “egos” that, in fact, are not in charge.

Jappe wants to show that this way of being can be derived from “secondary narcissism”, that is, from the egotistical feeling for which there is no psychologically independent external world and which has a life of its own. Yeah, the narcissist sees the surroundings as a mere projection of himself. Even if he makes excessive use of people and things, “his inner world is very poor: he invests nothing in his relationships with people and things and, consequently, receives nothing from them that truly congratulates him”.

Well, it should be mentioned that the book by Jappe discussed here consists, at this point, in a resumption of the theme of Christopher Lasch's work, mainly the one developed in The culture of narcissism (Imago, 1983) and the least me (Brasiliense, 1986). This author, already in the 1970s, was able to bring psychoanalytical reflection to a better understanding of contemporary society, especially in the United States, without connecting it, however, to the logic of capital.

Finally, it must be said that Anselm Jappe's path in this long volume crosses many fields of knowledge: philosophy, political economy, psychoanalysis, sociology and politics. And which, therefore, is not easily offered for a comprehensive synthesis. But also – see – this is not and cannot be the objective of the review. She only intends to leave an invitation so that the autophagic society be read, discussed and, eventually, criticized, since it contains a decisive theme for all those who do not want to conform to the destiny that is projected in it – even if in a strongly critical way.

*Eleutério Prado He is a retired and senior professor in the Department of Economics at FEA/USP.

REFERENCES

Anselm Jappe – The Autophagic Society Capitalism, excessiveness and self-destruction – Antígona Ed – Jan 2000 (https://amzn.to/3qDZeiB).

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