In the vortex of permanent crisis

Image_Marcio Costa


Some essential points of the critique of value

The capitalist system entered a serious crisis. This crisis is not only cyclical, but final: not in the sense of an imminent collapse, but as the disintegration of a centuries-old system. It is not a prophecy of a future event, but the confirmation of a process that became visible in the early 1970s and whose roots go back to the very origin of capitalism.

We are not witnessing a transition to another regime of accumulation (as was the case with Fordism), nor the advent of new technologies (as was the case with the automobile), nor a shift in the center of gravity towards other regions of the world. ; but to the depletion of the very source of capitalism: the transformation of living labor into value.

The fundamental categories of capitalism, as Marx analyzed them in his critique of political economy, are abstract labor and value, merchandise and money, which are summarized in the concept of “commodity fetishism”. denunciation of “greed”, would miss the point.

It is not about being Marxist or post-Marxist or interpreting Marx's work or completing it with new theoretical contributions. It is necessary to admit the difference between the “exoteric” Marx and the “esoteric” Marx, between the conceptual nucleus and the historical development, between the essence and the phenomenon. Marx is not “outdated”, as the bourgeois critics say. Even if we retain above all the critique of political economy and, from within it, especially the theory of value and abstract labor, this would still constitute the most important contribution to understanding the world in which we live. An emancipatory use of Marx's theory does not mean “overcoming” or complementing it with other theories, or even trying to re-establish the “true Marx” or even always taking him literally, but, above all, thinking about the world today with the instruments he left at our disposal. It is necessary to develop their fundamental intuitions, sometimes against the letter of their texts.

The basic categories of capitalism are neither neutral nor suprahistorical. Its consequences are disastrous: the supremacy of the abstract over the concrete (hence its inversion), commodity fetishism, the autonomization of social processes in relation to conscious human will, man dominated by his own creations. Capitalism is inseparable from big industry, value and technology go hand in hand – they are two forms of determinism and fetishism.

Furthermore, these categories are subject to a historical dynamic that makes them increasingly destructive, but also opens up the possibility of overcoming them. In fact, the value runs out. Since its beginnings, more than two hundred years ago, capitalist logic has tended to “saw off the branch it is sitting on”, as competition leads each individual capital to employ technologies that replace living labor: this brings an immediate advantage to capital. in question, but it also reduces the production of value, surplus value and profit on a global scale, thus making it difficult to reproduce the system. The different compensation mechanisms, the last of which was Fordism, are definitely exhausted. “Outsourcing” will not save capitalism: it is necessary to take into account the difference between productive work and unproductive work (of capital, of course!).

In the early 1970s, a triple, if not quadruple, breaking point was reached: economic (visible in the abandonment of the dollar's peg to the gold standard), ecological (visible in the Club of Rome report), energetic (visible in the "first of oil"), to which are added the changes in mentality and ways of life after 1968 ("liquid modernity", "third spirit of capitalism"). Thus, mercantile society began to collide with its limits, sometimes external and internal.

In this permanent crisis of accumulation – which means a growing difficulty in making profits –, financial markets (fictitious capital) have become the main source of profit by allowing the consumption of future gains not yet realized. The worldwide boom in finance is actually the effect, not the cause, of the capital appreciation crisis.

The current profits of some economic actors do not demonstrate that the system as such is in good shape. The cake is getting smaller every day, even if we cut it in bigger pieces. Neither China nor other “emerging countries” will save capitalism, despite the savage exploitation of which they are the stage.

It is necessary to criticize the centrality of the concept of “class struggle” in the analysis of capitalism. The role of classes is more a consequence of their position in value accumulation as an anonymous process – classes are not its origin. Social injustice is not what makes capitalism historically unique, it existed long before. It was abstract work and money representing it that created an entirely new society, in which the actors, even the “dominant ones”, are essentially the executors of a logic that goes beyond them (a finding that does not exonerate certain figures from their responsibilities).

The historical role of the labor movement was constituted, above all, beyond the proclaimed intentions, in promoting the integration of the proletariat. This proved to be effectively possible during the long ascending phase of capitalist society, but it is no longer possible today. It is necessary to resume a critique of production, and not just the equal distribution of presupposed categories (money, value, work). Today, the issue of abstract work is no longer “abstract”, but directly sensitive.

The Soviet Union was essentially a form of “convergence modernization” (through autarky). The same goes for the revolutionary movements of the “periphery” and for the countries where they were able to govern. Its bankruptcy after 1980 is the cause of several current conflicts.

The triumph of capitalism is also its failure. Value does not create a viable society – even if it is unjust – but destroys its very foundations in all domains. More than continuing to look for a “revolutionary subject”, it is necessary to overcome the “automaton subject” (Marx) on which mercantile society is founded.

Alongside exploitation – which continues to exist, and even in gigantic proportions – is the creation of a “superfluous” humanity, if not a “humanity-waste”, which has become the main problem posed by capitalism. Capital no longer needs humanity and ends up devouring itself. This situation constitutes a favorable terrain for emancipation, but also for barbarism. More than a North-South dichotomy, we are facing a “global apartheid”, with walls around islands of wealth, in each country, in each city.

The impotence of States in the face of world capital is not just a problem of ill will, but results from the structurally subordinate character of the State and politics to the sphere of value.

The ecological crisis is insurmountable in the capitalist context, even considering “degrowth” or, even worse, “green capitalism” and “sustainable development”. As long as the mercantile society lasts, productivity gains will make an ever-increasing mass of material objects – whose production consumes real resources – represent an ever-smaller mass of value, which is the expression of the abstract part of labor – and is just production. of value that counts in the logic of capital. Capitalism is therefore essentially, inevitably, productivist, oriented towards production for production's sake.

We are also experiencing an anthropological crisis, a crisis of civilization, as well as a crisis of subjectivity. There is a loss of the imaginary, especially that which is born during childhood. Narcissism became the dominant psychic form. It is a worldwide phenomenon: a Playstation can be found in a cabin in the middle of the forest as well as in a loft. new Yorker. Faced with the regression and decivilization promoted by capital, it is necessary to decolonize the imaginary and reinvent happiness.

Capitalist society, founded on work and value, is also a patriarchal society – and it is so in essence, and not just by accident. Historically, the production of value is a man's business. In fact, not every activity creates value by appearing in market exchanges. The so-called “reproductive” activities carried out above all in the domestic sphere are generally attributed to women. These activities are indispensable to the production of value, but they do not themselves produce value. They play an indispensable but auxiliary role in the society of value. This society consists of both the sphere of value and the sphere of non-value, that is, the combination of these two spheres. But the sphere of non-value is not a "free" or "non-alienated" sphere, on the contrary. This sphere of non-value carries the status of “non-subject” (and even at the legal level for a long time), since these activities are not considered as “work” (however useful they may be) and do not appear on the market.

Capitalism did not invent the separation between the private, domestic sphere and the public sphere of work. But it accentuated it quite a bit. It was born – despite its universalist pretensions that were expressed through the Enlightenment – ​​in the form of a domination of Western white men, and it continued to be founded on a logic of exclusion: separation between, on the one hand, the production of value , the work that creates it and the human qualities that contribute to it (especially internalized discipline and the spirit of individual competition) and, on the other hand, everything that is not part of it. A part of the excluded, especially women, was particularly “integrated” into the mercantile logic over the last few decades and could reach the status of “subject” – but only when it showed that it had acquired and internalized the “qualities” of Western white men. . Generally, the price of this integration consists of a double alienation (family and work for women). At the same time, new forms of exclusion are created, particularly in times of crisis. It is not, however, a question of demanding the “inclusion” of those excluded in the sphere of work, money and subject status, but of putting an end once and for all to a society where only participation in the market gives the right to be a “subject”. Patriarchy, no more than racism, is not an anachronistic survival in the context of a capitalism that would tend towards equality ahead of money.

Populism is currently a great danger. Only the financial sphere is criticized, and left and right elements mix in it, sometimes evoking the distorted “ainti-capitalism” of the fascists. It is necessary to fight capitalism en bloc, not just its neoliberal phase. A return to Keynesianism and the welfare state is neither desirable nor possible. Is it worth fighting to “integrate” into a dominant society (get rights, improve your material condition) – or is that simply impossible?

It is convenient to avoid the deceptive enthusiasm of those who add up all the current forms of contestation in order to deduce the existence of a revolution already in action. Some of these forms run the risk of being recovered by a defense of the established order, others can lead to barbarism. Capitalism itself carries out its own abolition, that of money, work, etc. – but it depends on conscious action that what comes next will not be worse.

It is necessary to overcome the dichotomy between reform and revolution – but in the name of radicalism, because reformism is by no means “realistic”. Too much attention is often paid to the form of contestation (violence/non-violence, etc.) rather than being interested in its content.

The abolition of money and value, of merchandise and work, of the State and the market, must take place immediately – not as a “maximalist” program nor as a utopia, but as the only form of “realism”. It is not enough to free oneself from the “capitalist class”, it is necessary to free oneself from the capitalist social relationship – a relationship that involves everyone, whatever their social roles. It is, therefore, difficult to draw a clear line between “us and them”, or even to say “we are the 99%”, as many have done.movements of places”. However, this problem can present itself in very different ways in different regions of the world.

It is by no means a question of carrying out any form of self-management of capitalist alienation. The abolition of private ownership of the means of production would not be enough. The subordination of the content of social life to its value-form and its accumulation could, at the limit, pass for a “ruling class” and unfold within a “democratic” way, without being any less destructive. The problem lies neither with the technical structure as such nor with a modernity considered as insurmountable, but with the “automaton subject” that is value.

There are different ways of understanding the “abolition of work”. Conceiving its abolition through technologies runs the risk of reinforcing environmental technology. More than simply reducing working time or making a “compliment to laziness”, it is about going beyond the very distinction between “work” and other activities. On this point, non-capitalist cultures are rich in lessons.

There is no model from the past to be reproduced as such, some ancestral wisdom that guides us, some spontaneity of the people that will certainly save us. But the very fact that all of humanity, for long periods, and even a good part of humanity until recently, has lived without capitalist categories demonstrates at least that they have nothing natural and that it is possible to live without them.

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy, and author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra)

Translation: Daniel Pavan

appendix to the book The autophage society: capitalism, démesure et autodestruction. Paris, La Découverte, 2020.


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