Capitalist expropriation theorem

Image: Yayoi Kusama


Presentation of the newly edited book by Klaus Dorre

Is it possible to articulate the critique of the German tradition and non-Western Marxist reflection? In the global South, we certainly have some examples. Among them, the most expressive is Roberto Schwarz. Concerned with understanding the amalgamation between the production of culture and value, the Brazilian author, born in Austria, turned the Machado screw to think about the coexistence between market and slavery, efficiency and violence, capitalism and non-capitalism in Brazil. The Schwarzian intellectual project implies, therefore, assuming a critical program for the intellection of peripheral society. Influenced by the (typically Western, mostly German) dialectic between art and economics, Schwarz presents the (typically non-Western) dialectic between capitalist inside and outside. Thus, there is “a critic on the periphery of capitalism”.

But what about the opposite: the “periphery of capitalism” in the (German) critic? Could Western Marxism be provoked by the non-Western? The answer is positive. But it did not happen in Frankfurt, but in a parallel tradition that goes back to the revolutionary and anti-imperialist Marxism that originated in the 1968 protests and that brings together names like Rudi Dutschke and Elmar Altvater. It is maintained and expanded in the work of Klaus Dörre.

Undoubtedly, this statement would astonish the reader of German origin. First of all, Klaus Dörre is a professor at the prestigious Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena, which had Hegel, Fichte and Schelling on its faculty, considered the cradle of idealism and romanticism. In addition, he acquired notoriety for the radicalism with which he has conducted the so-called School of Jena. A program that, after the 2008 crisis, seeks to reactivate the category of capitalism as a means of overcoming the analytical deficits of German sociology since it triggered its normative turn with Jürgen Habermas and the second generation from Frankfurt. Alongside Stephan Lessenich and Hartmut Rosa, Klaus Dörre launched a manifesto which, by indicating the centrality of capitalist accumulation in modern society, argues that sociological diagnoses should focus on the conditions and social effects of such accumulation. The authors demand the return of the critique of capitalism in the social sciences.

As seen, Klaus Dörre's work presupposes the limits of the Habermasian normative project of an unfinished modernity – and here are the first encounters with non-Western Marxist sociology, which never accepted it. Habermas' theory was constructed through a speculative exercise aimed at emptying the immanently critical power of the Marxian notion of work, canceling the character of social mediation from its composition. For the Frankfurtian author, work would be separated from the sphere of interaction and, as such, reduced to the scope of productivity, technique and instrumental reason. This type of distinction has been the engine of ideas that sought throughout the 1970s and 1990s to say “goodbye to the proletariat”. Klaus Dörre has been a radical questioner of these ideas. It forms part, therefore, of a chapter in a history of sociology in which authors such as Ricardo Antunes have profoundly participated. On the one hand, such history has been devoted to tracing a heterogeneous and complex picture of the “world of work”; on the other, it opposes the richness of Marx's concept of social totality to the interaction/work dichotomy.

In Klaus Dörre, we can see how this dichotomy artificially distinguishes what was historically constructed in a unitary way, namely, capitalist sociability is an indivisible process that interweaves expropriation of means of subsistence, commodity production and society. Without this interweaving reference, the sensor for the perceptions of capitalist relations, for the contestation of its institutions and for the creation of alternatives is lost. If we admit – as Habermas does – a communicative-interactional sense free of coercion, the most that the critique could reach would be the thesis of the “distortion” of dialogic interactions or “systemic colonizations of the world of life”.

The unrealized social meaning would thus be a criterion for judging pathologies. With that, criticism would depend on the investigation of meaning, and what could be considered a diagnosis of capitalism – colonizations – becomes a prerequisite for an ethical model. It should be noted that the “unfulfilled social meaning” is indifferent to the material instance, a must be opposed to being. When one abandons the Marxian understanding that work is the structuring network of contradictions of the social whole, sociology becomes normative. As such, it replaces criticism with the defense of norms that, in modern times, take the form of rights. It therefore becomes liberal.

Klaus Dörre blames this normative project not only for the creation of a thought conformed to institutional stability, but also for the exclusion of political economy from sociological analysis, which, in turn, made it incapable of offering plausible diagnoses about the contradictions and crises of capitalism. Ironically, this exclusion is considered a “silent assumption of the most important premises of neoharmonic theories of accumulation”. It is not, therefore, just a matter of canceling the roots of social criticism since Marx. From Habermas, the belief in the soothing role of economic growth was adopted, which, supposedly achieved by social-bureaucratic capitalism, would be susceptible to mere imbalances – regulation crises – that would not undermine social integration. For Dörre, this would be a great illusion, which is renewed with each economic recession. And at this point we can identify a second encounter with non-Western Marxism.

In peripheral countries, the historical and open interconnection between redistributive inequalities, imperatives of capital and state violence always emphasized that conclusions about the advent of a supposed post-material society were rushed. Pacification of the social conflict by the State? End of the work? For the global South, the normative theory of welfare and growth was nothing more than mystification. Social experience revealed, on the contrary, constant economic instability, permanent repression against non-white people, criminalization of protest, deepening of inequalities, expansion of the cheapening of the workforce and legalization of its precarious conditions. Only a social critique, built from a Eurocentric point of view, could cast shadows on this reality.

In the present book, Klaus Dörre demonstrates that such a look was supported by an excessive faith in the bonds of union of the great Fordist company. This faith, according to him, did not only serve to hide the functioning of the capitalist system in the so-called Third World. It also made it possible to hide that, within European social-democratic capitalism, the economy oriented to the market and profit was already anchored in the expropriation of certain groups. In his words, the sectors of prosperity developed “through the functionalization of women's reproductive activities, the exploitation of migrants or the social exclusion of a minority by the majority”. Like Klaus Dörre, non-Western Marxism has always been more sensitive to the debate on gender, race and (neo)colonialism in light of the category of work.

The author of Jena does not limit himself to criticizing historical or spatial shadings produced by the normative theory of well-being and growth. He goes further and shows the impossibility of sustaining it in contemporary Germany. For this, he makes reference to the advance of the extreme right and authoritarian power. His definition of a “predator state” shows that Western Europe stabilized prejudiced classifications to enable repressive and anti-popular measures.

In fact, Dörre presents the German crisis based on an innovative thesis on precariousness. For him, capitalist development establishes a dual labor market. On the one hand, skilled jobs and legal protection that ensure a time frame that enables long-term planning; on the other, workers and unskilled workers who live with unemployment, informality and are subject to chance and unpredictability. Capitalism thus produces an internal and an external. The first refers to commodity exchange relations (including labor power), which, provided by the contract between parties, authorizes the private appropriation of collectively created surplus value.

The second, in turn, corresponds to the expropriation of means of subsistence and spoliation of living conditions through privatization and low remuneration. According to Dörre, both are related and make capitalist expansion possible through what he calls “discriminatory precariousness”: the internal, as an objective of regular occupation and social stability, intensifies competitiveness and forces external groups not only to subject themselves to any remuneration (which already is delimited by the risk of unemployment), but also to accept credit and financial aid that reaffirm prejudiced connotations, fueling more inequalities in relation to internal groups.

Throughout this book, this reflection is conducted from Marx's formulations on the industrial reserve army, Bourdieu's thesis regarding the Algerian subproletariat, the contemporary debate of global labor history and the survey of data and empirical research from the Dörre himself and German sociology. Obviously, the notion of discriminatory precariousness has parallels with what Frantz Fanon described as “the colonized's dreams of possession”. These parallels are, in fact, approximations with non-Western Marxism thanks to Klaus Dörre's alignment with the capitalist inside-outside dialectic.

Neither in non-Western Marxism nor in Klaus Dörre's thought does such a dialectic imply the acceptance of an understanding of society in a dichotomous way, as Habermas does, for example. On the contrary, to use an expression by Francisco de Oliveira, it presupposes “a symbiosis and an organicity, a unity of opposites”. Non-Western Marxism has elaborated this symbiosis to explain that backwardness is not a pre-modern remnant, but constitutive of capitalist modernity. Klaus Dörre uses it to describe current German capitalism. To this end, he suggests that Germany is today a “precarious society of full employment”. That is: the contradictory dynamics between stable employment and underemployment generated a context in which participation in the labor force reached record levels, but the volume of working hours and the expansion of the low-wage sector did as well. It is, therefore, a society in which the “backward” outside is an integral element of the modern “inside”.

With this, Klaus Dörre curiously offers us a re-updating of Marx's first considerations regarding an old German situation. Against the Young Hegelians, who insisted on the dichotomy between modern nations (England and France) and ancien régime (Germany), Marx states that “the status quo German is the sincere realization of the ancien régime" it's the "oldn regime it is the hidden deficiency of the modern state”. There is no naturalization of political or social position. Although “no more than the world order comedian, whose real heroes are dead”, dthe german point of view ancien régime it is its actuality; from the perspective of democratic countries, its negation is veiled, but, as such, constituent.

The present experience of an openly violent outside for the liberal world, the explanation of the condition of Germany in the first half of the XNUMXth century reveals what such a world fails to see: that, despite its form of equality and freedom, inequality, repression and political participation low intensity are maintained. To explain this picture, Marx formulates the concept ancien régime modern. A concept that reveals that the modern “inside” expands and feeds on the late “outside”, encompassing it.

This elaboration of the political State cannot be recognized by the normative project of unfinished modernity, for which the promises of the latter are measures of judgment of social practices. Therefore, Habermas claimed the contemporaneity of the Young Hegelians. Klaus Dörre does not accept it. And he does so in a radical way: the reflection of society and the State cannot be developed without a critique of political economy. His description of the German contradictions is therefore apprehended by a theory of capitalism. It is, in other words, an analysis of accumulation, based on rereadings of late Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. Around the Polish author may lie the secret of the relationship between Klaus Dörre and non-Western Marxism.

The concept of primitive accumulation is central to this book. In his reconstruction of Chapter 24 of Book I of The capital, it is presented as a set of expropriatory acts that separate producers from the means of production. In order to guarantee their subsistence, the expropriated mass is forced to sell its labor power to those who have become the sole owners of the respective means. With this, primitive accumulation acquires a specific meaning for Klaus Dörre: it is the violent institution of capitalist social relations in spaces where it is not yet fully valid, that is, where there are groups and activities not yet constituted by the logic of mercantile exchanges. It is important, however, to point out that Klaus Dörre adheres to the thesis that in Marx primitive accumulation is an event in the prehistory of capitalism. From this, he appropriates the Luxembourgian theory.

Rosa Luxemburg was never treated as indispensable to Western Marxism, notwithstanding her contribution to the German socialist debate of the early XNUMXth century. A woman from Poland (a peripheral and stigmatized region in Europe), the author elaborated a model of capitalist development based on criticisms (heresies, for some) of Marx's reproduction schemes. And more: it attributed, in an innovative way, fundamental relevance to non-European societies for the dynamics of capitalism.

Klaus Dörre analyzes the Luxembourg thesis in detail. He is aware of his misinterpretations of Marxian schemes and the problems with the notion of underconsumption. For Rosa Luxemburgo, the surplus value produced in capitalist spaces cannot be completely realized due to the weakening of demand; therefore, non-capitalist environments are colonized, opening new markets that allow for the absorption of surpluses. Klaus Dörre examines the limitations of this thesis, which, if one considers the capacity for investments, financing through credit and capital profitability, would need to admit that, within the capitalist spaces themselves, there would already be means for realizing surplus value, without needing to resort to an out. On the other hand, in addition to Marxist political economy, Klaus Dörre recognizes the importance of the Luxembourgian formulation for (neo)Keynesians – Joan Robinson, for example, considered the best economist who never won the Nobel Prize, was an enthusiast of Rosa Luxemburg's ideas.

Questions of economic theory are essential. But Klaus Dörre's proposal is different: to sociologize Rosa Luxemburgo, or rather, to reinterpret her as a starting point for social criticism. From this perspective, he maintains that capitalist society does not exist in pure form. On the contrary, it coexists with other modes and relations of production in a circular manner and at the expense of destructive processes. From this perspective, capitalism is defined as an uninterrupted dynamic of removing obstacles to accumulation. For Dörre, the engine of capitalist expansion is the Landnahme. We chose to translate it as a regime of expropriation or simply expropriation, a key concept for non-Western Marxism.

Klaus Dörre understands expropriation (or Landnahme) as the violent seizure of non-commodified spaces that already existed or were created by technological and social innovations. With that, he maintains that capitalism works according to an inside-outside dialectic that requires the existence of an other to enable its permanent development. This thesis is defended in a critical dialogue with the conceptions of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter), social incorporation of the market (Polanyi) and accumulation by dispossession (Harvey).

However, anyone who expects to find in Klaus Dörre's book merely the theoretical formulation of a reflection that dares to challenge the paths of German social criticism is mistaken. This daring extends to empirical analysis. We have already seen that he deeply investigates the precariousness of work. The concept of expropriation is also used to explain specific economic policies based on the spoliation of public and collective goods. In this case, Dörre examines themes that are at the center of the current discussion, including the role of State debt, rescue packages for the financial system in crises (such as the one in 2008), austerity measures, privatizations, the dynamics of low growth, investor pressure on political systems and speculative bubbles.

At the same time, the theory of expropriation also unfolds in analyzes of Wear. Dörre proposes cycles of capitalism and offers a description of the regimes of expropriation: the social-bureaucratic and the financial or, in more diffuse terms, Fordism and neoliberalism. Each of these cycles is understood by the general characteristics of its functioning – for example, regulations, production models, types of capital/labor relationship, forms of investment, cultural patterns and protest experiences. The emphasis, however, falls on the analysis of the financial regime of expropriation. Klaus Dörre demonstrates the implications of the transfer of decision-making capacity from the State to the capital market.

For him, this means the imposition of the centrality of interest-bearing and fictitious capital, which tends to the overproduction of assets, securitizations and derivatives, arising from the negotiation of loans on the stock exchange. This overaccumulation seems disconnected from the productive economy, but, deep down, it depends on the expropriation and exploitation of labor to ensure the interest of investors and claim the appreciation of “papers”. For this reason, according to Dörre, the financial regime of expropriation is verified by the commodification of means of subsistence, lower wages, increased dependence of the working class on the market and family indebtedness.

It is, as can be seen, a regime subject to multiple crises. Klaus Dörre analyzes each of them, but gives special emphasis to the relationship between finance, growth and ecology. According to the author, when a financial bubble bursts and generates a sudden devaluation of assets, there is intense pressure to overcome the recession. And this is only possible through the violent expropriation of non-commodified spaces, among them, environmental reserves (primary forests, ocean floor) not yet accessible to the capital circuit. They fuel economic growth. Klaus Dörre called this state of affairs the “double ecological-economic crisis”: the shift of all existing energy to overcoming economic stagnation entails deepening environmental destruction. Neither of the two crises can thus be confronted without aggravating the other. From this cul-de-sac, Klaus Dörre calls for ecosocialism, a fundamental movement for Brazil, but which curiously has gained more strength in Europe.

Klaus Dörre is a European observer, more precisely German. What, however, brings you so close to non-Western Marxist thought and concerns? On the one hand, Germany itself. It is a country that has increasingly become peripheralized in several dimensions. But it's not the only one; this obviously applies to the entire West. In a certain sense, Klaus Dörre adheres to the thesis that the primary contradiction between the capitalist/modern inside and outside has its privileged place of observation in peripherization and precariousness. In Germany, it is now visible.

On the other hand, this geographical relocation of his place of reflection also has a global effect: the German peripheries increasingly confirm that enlightened capitalist society always carries and contains violence and barbarism. Here is our invitation to the Brazilian reader: to know how European Marxist theory is becoming non-Western. This is if she wants to explain the dynamics of world capitalism. Klaus Dörre wants and does!

*Guilherme Leite Goncalves is a professor of sociology of law at UERJ. Author, among other books, of A harbor in global capitalism: unraveling intertwined accumulation in Rio de Janeiro (boitempo).



Klaus Dorre. Capitalist expropriation theorem. Translation: Cesar Mortari Barreira & Iasmin Goes. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2022, 248 pages.


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