Lives and death of capitalism

Elyeser Szturm
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By Anselm Jappe*

Commentary on the homonymous book of articles and interviews by Robert Kurz, centered on the analysis of the 2008 economic crisis, and on his last work worthless money

Robert Kurz, the main theorist of the “critique of value”, died on July 18, 2012 in Nuremberg (Germany), as a result of a medical error. He was 68 years old. Premature death interrupted an immense work carried out 25 years ago. Born in 1943 in Nuremberg, where he spent his entire life, Kurz took part in the “student revolt” in 1968 in Germany and in the intense discussions within the “New Left”. After having rejected Marxism-Leninism, without joining the “Greens”, who at the time were going through the[I]"realist" in Germany, founded in 1987 the magazine MarxistischeKritik, renamed as Krisis after few years.

The rereading of Marx proposed by Kurz and his first companions in the struggle (including Roswitha Scholz, Peter Klein, Ernst Lohoff and Norbert Trenkle) did not only bring them friends on the radical left. This saw its dogmas being upset one after the other, such as “class struggle” and “work”, in the name of questioning the foundations of capitalist society: mercantile value and abstract work, money and merchandise, State and nation.

Kurz, a prolific author with a beautiful and vigorous pen, often controversial, reached a wider audience with his book The collapse of modernization (Paz e Terra, 1992), which stated, at the exact moment of the “Western triumph” following the end of the USSR, that the days of the world mercantile society were numbered and that the end of “real socialism” only represented a stage. A regular contributor to important newspapers, notably in Brazil, a notable lecturer, Kurz, even so, preferred to stay out of Universities and other institutions of knowledge, managing to live thanks to a proletarian work.

The twelve books and hundreds of articles he has published are located, roughly, on two levels: on the one hand, a fundamental theoretical elaboration, conducted through long essays published in Krisis and Exit! (founded in 2004 after the split with Krisis). On the other, a continuing commentary on the deepening crisis of capitalism and an investigation of its past — especially through a grand history of capitalism, The Black Book of Capitalism (Record, 1999), which was, even with its 850 pages, a bestseller in Germany, but also The War of World Reordering (2003) the world capital (2005), and his articles in the press.

Lives and death of capitalism (Lignes, 2011) gathers around 30 articles and interviews focused more on the analysis of current events. The volume is an extension of the collection of articles released in France Warning to castaways (Lignes, 2005). The new texts are dated from 2007 to 2010 and mainly cover the period marked by the crisis of capitalism that broke out in 2008, considered the most serious since 1929.

Indeed, the critique of value is mainly known for its assertion that capitalism is plunged into an irreversible crisis — Kurz has even been qualified, in certain media, as a “prophet of the apocalypse”. For twenty years, even in periods of apparent definitive victory of capitalism in the 1990s, Kurz maintains, supported by a rigorous reading of Marx, that the basic categories of the capitalist mode of production are running out and have reached their “historical limit”: already you don't produce enough "value". Now, value (which contains surplus value, hence profit), expressed in money, is the only objective of capitalist production — the production of “use values” is only a secondary aspect.

The value of a commodity is given by the amount of “abstract work” that was necessary for its manufacture, that is, work as pure expenditure of human energy, without regard to its content. The less work a commodity contains, the less its “value” (and it must be work that corresponds to the level of productivity established at a given moment: ten hours of work by an artisan weaver can be “worth” only one hour, from the moment when it does in ten hours what a weaver with a machine produces in an hour, as soon as the production system became industrial).

Since its inception, capitalism has lived this contradiction: competition has harassed each capitalist to replace living labor with machines, thus obtaining an immediate advantage in the market (he obtains lower costs). By doing so, it is the mass of value as a whole that decreases, while the costs of technologies — which do not create value — increase. Consequently, the production of value runs the risk of strangling itself on its own at all times and perishing due to lack of profitability. Profit — the visible face of value, the one that interests the agents of the mercantile process — is only possible if the accumulation regime works.

For a long time, the internal and external expansion of commodity production (towards other regions of the world and within capitalist societies) was able to compensate for the diminished value of individual commodities. But, from the 1970s onwards, the “third industrial revolution”, that of microelectronics, made work “superfluous” in such proportions that no compensation mechanism was sufficient. Since then, the mercantile system has essentially survived thanks to “fictitious capital”: it is money, which is not the result of value creation obtained through the productive employment of labor power, but which is created by speculation and credit, and whose future profits (but, in gigantic proportions, impossible to realize).

According to Kurz, this theory of the ineluctable crisis is present in Marx (but in a fragmented and ambiguous way; the “Fragment on the machines” in floorplans is the most significant passage): capital accumulation is not a stable mode that could go on ad infinitum and to which only the “struggle of the oppressed” will put an end, as all Marxism after Marx proclaimed. Kurz demonstrates that the “collapse theory”, far from being the object of a broad consensus among Marxists, as is often claimed, presented itself much more like a “sea serpent”.

The collapse theory

Some theorists accused each other of relying on this theory of collapse, but hardly anyone admitted that capitalism could collide with its internal limits even before a proletarian revolution. The only theories that analyzed these limits, those of Rosa Luxemburg (The accumulation of capital, 1912) and Henryk Grossmann (The law of accumulation and collapse of the capitalist system, 1929), were, according to Kurz, in the middle of the road and did not exert any real influence on the labor movement.

Kurz thus presents his own crisis theory as an absolute novelty — made possible by the fact that the internal limit of value production, predicted on a theoretical level by Marx, was actually reached in the 1970s. crisis came to light, after being denied for a long time, even by the left. But, for Kurz, the explanations currently given by “leftist economists” (in fact, simple neo-Keynesians), who relate it to “underconsumption”, are too insufficient. There is no longer a possible solution within the framework of mercantile society, which no longer fits into the straitjacket of value from the moment in which technologies have almost entirely replaced human labor.

When each commodity only contains “homeopathic” doses of value — therefore surplus value, therefore profit — nothing changes with regard to its (eventual) usefulness for life. But for the value-based mode of production, this situation is deadly; and, in a society wholly subject to the economy, the downfall risks bringing the whole of society into barbarism.

Kurz does not limit himself to these generalities, he analyzes the evolution of the crisis in detail. Reading the official statistics against the current, he proves, among other things, that China will not save capitalism, that the recovery of the German economy is based, like everything else, on new debts, that after the 2008 crisis, what did was just shift the “bad credits” from the private sector to the States and that services are generally “unproductive” work (in the sense that they do not produce value) and cannot replace jobs lost in industry, etc.

It demonstrates why neither the neo-Keynesian “heating the economy programs” nor the austerity monasteries can have a chance of solving the crisis and less than ever the proposals for “job creation”: the fundamental problem — which is also the reason for if you have hope! — is exactly constituted by the “end of work”. Work and value, commodity and money, are not eternal data of human life, but relatively recent historical inventions. We are currently experiencing its end — which will not happen in a day, evidently, but in the space of a few decades, as Kurz needs it to be, by distancing himself a little from his previous, more “catastrophic” short-term predictions.

The financialization of the economy and speculation, far from constituting the causes of the crisis, contributed for a long time to “push it with its belly”, and continue to play this role. But in this way, we are accumulating an even greater crisis potential — and, to begin with, the explosion of gigantic world inflation, a sign of the devaluation of money as such. Blaming the “bankers” or locating the causes in a kind of neoliberal conspiracy, as almost all left-wing critics do, means, according to Kurz, ignoring the problem.

This is the reason why Kurz was, above all, skeptical in relation to the emancipatory potential of the new protest movements, whose overt or implicit anti-Semitic tendencies he stigmatizes. He frequently accuses the left — in all its variants — of not wanting, in fact, to leave the capitalist framework, considered by it as eternal. Therefore, it only proposes a slightly more “fair” distribution of value and money, without taking into account either the negative and destructive role of these categories or their historical exhaustion.

Worse still, the different representatives of the left often end up proposing to co-manage the slide towards barbarism and misery. Instead of chasing after protest movements and flattering them, Kurz constantly opposes them with the need to resume a radical anti-capitalist critique (in its contents and not just in forms!); this critique should help them get rid of their shortcomings. It is not enough to change administration officials: capitalism is an unconscious fetishist system, ruled by an “automatic subject” (Marx's expression) of valuing value. The personal domination of the legal owners of the means of production over the sellers of labor power is nothing more than the “sociological” translation, visible on the surface, of the self-referential mechanism of capital accumulation.

Em worthless money (Lisbon, Antigone, 2014), Kurz uses the heavy artillery of the critique of political economy at an essentially conceptual level. Even though it was released a few days after the author's death, the book is neither a summary nor a theoretical testament, conceived as the first part of a vast project to refound the critique of political economy.

In this work, Kurz deals with four major interconnected themes: the fundamental difference between pre-capitalist, proto-capitalist and capitalist societies, and the role of money within them; the birth of capital and mercantile value from the XNUMXth century; the internal logic of capital when fully developed; the internal contradiction and logical internal limit of capitalist accumulation in the course of its historical evolution up to the present.

Always proceeding through fierce polemics with German Marxists, little known in France, (M. Heinrich, H.-G. Backhaus, E. Altvater, WF Haug) and going through quite subtle demonstrations (and perhaps even a bit mysterious for non-Germans). beginners), Kurz achieves surprising results in its simplicity. He does not borrow from almost any author in the Marxist tradition, but only from Marx himself (only Adorno and Lukács de History and class consciousness seem to serve as a partial inspiration for him, and much more with regard to the dialectical approach).

Kurz does not intend to “reestablish what Marx really said” and present himself as the only interpreter. He actually seeks to develop and deepen the most radical and innovative side of his thinking. A part of his work – the “exoteric Marx” – remained, according to Kurz, in the terrain of the bourgeois philosophy of the Enlightenment and its belief in “progress” and the benefits of work. It is in the other part — which remained a minority and fragmented — that the “esoteric” Marx carried out a veritable theoretical revolution, which almost no one for more than a century knew how to understand or continue.

These different aspects of Marx's theory are closely intertwined (this is not a question of successive “phases” at all!). The deepest core, based on the theory of value, did not become truly current until the decline of capitalism. Kurz does not propose, therefore, to “interpret” Marx, nor to “correct” him, but to return to his most fruitful intuitions, even opposing them to other ideas of the master.

Compared to his previous books, Kurz deepens here two themes that had previously been more implicit. He claims that what we call “value” and “money” did not exist before the fourteenth or fifteenth century, and that the phenomena that appear to us to be money or value in pre-capitalist societies actually played a fundamentally important role in them. different. Capitalism was born not as a particular outgrowth in a timeless—or at any rate very ancient—existence of value and money, but at the same time as these.

Kurz makes only brief excursions into “factual” history, but he examines in detail the “category” structure of the critique of political economy. For this purpose, it is necessary to focus fire on “methodological individualism” (which he identifies with “positivism”), considered by him as the foundation of all bourgeois thought and which would have equally “infected” almost all of Marxism. It would even be present in Marx's own thought, side by side with his more authentically dialectical inspiration, which explains the contradictions within his work.

Insisting on the difference between essence and phenomenon, being and seeming, hidden categories and visible facts, Kurz places himself — without saying so explicitly — in the field of Hegelian dialectics and the difference between reason and understanding. Kurz had never expressed himself so clearly about his methodological foundations. It is not, however, a matter of restarting, as in the 1970s, gargling the word “dialectic” and making it a universal method.

Kurz always draws his energy from polemics against an adversary: ​​here, the inability of bourgeois thought to go beyond isolated facts and their eventual “reciprocal effects”. The "whole" is not simply the sum of particular elements, it has a quality of its own; the particular elements are not what they appear to be at a single glance, as in the empirical view. They reveal their true nature only by being understood as determined by the whole.

Kurz does not, however, give himself to preliminary methodological considerations in an abstract way, but develops his approach by developing his reasoning about a given object: it is not a question of analyzing (as Marx himself often does, at least in the first volume of The capital) the structure of a particular capital — not even an “ideal-typical” capital — to then conceive of “total capital”, which would do nothing more than reproduce the structure of a particular capital, as the aggregation of these particular capitals. Likewise, the particular commodity can only be analyzed as part of the total mass of commodities.

the money form

Kurz begins his book by discussing a problem that apparently has more to do with Marxian philology. In the first chapter of The capital, Marx analyzes the commodity and its value in a purely logical way. The same logical chain then leads to the existence of money; and some further steps are still necessary to arrive at the capital. Is this logical succession also the reflection of a historical succession? Marx is not clear about this and seems to hesitate.

For the old Engels, on the other hand, and for later Marxists, it was already certain: logic corresponds to history. It is the “logical-historical” approach. For them, market value existed long before capital. For thousands of years there was “simple commodity production” without capital. Since always, or almost, men have attributed a “value” to their products, based on the work they spent to manufacture them. Money has also existed for a long time, but it only served to facilitate exchanges. Capitalism only came after money had accumulated to the point of becoming capital and finding a “free” labor force before it.

Such an approach, Kurz protests, “naturalizes” or “ontologizes” value and work, transforming them into eternal conditions of all life in society. Even post-capitalist society is reduced to a kind of “conscious application of the law of value” (this oxymoron was one of the stated goals of “real socialism”!) or to forms of “market without exaggerated capitalism”. It can be seen that the reading of Marx that Kurz proposes, however theoretical and far removed from “praxis” it may seem at first sight, can have quite “practical” consequences.

Kurz takes up, sometimes correcting it, “the new reading of Marx” proposed in Germany since 1968 by certain students of Adorno (H.-G. Backhaus, H. Reichelt): in his analysis of the value-form, Marx would examine the categories of merchandise, abstract work, value and money as they appear in a developed capitalist regime, “which walks with its own legs”.

It would be a conceptual reconstruction that starts with the simplest element, the “simple commodity form”, to arrive at the “logical” genesis of money; the existence of capital, which appears in this deduction as a consequence, is actually already a presupposition of the analysis in the simplest form. Value as a quantity of abstract labor only exists where money and capital exist. The intermediate stages of the Marxian construction, such as the “developed value-form”, where the exchange of commodities takes place without the mediation of commodity-money, are simple stages of demonstration — they do not correspond to anything real.

Without the existence of commodity money (precious metals), values ​​cannot be related to each other as values. Therefore, commodity production without money cannot exist, and the Marxian theory of the value-form can only be valid for capitalism. The unclear status of value-form analysis in Marx himself corresponds both to difficulties of exposition (the presuppositions are at the same time the consequences, and vice versa) and to Marx's oscillation between historical and logical, between dialectic and empiricism.

Therefore: nothing of value without money, no money without capital. But, they will readily retort, commerce, markets, and money—and even coinage—have been around for millennia; primitive forms can be found even in the Stone Age. For the traditional historical-logical interpretation, which sees in Marxian analysis a summary of real historical evolution, this does not constitute a problem: value has always existed, it guarantees, in the same way as money from a certain time onwards — but as “niches ”, that is, only for the exchange of surpluses. It was, as regards its structure, the same money and value as it is today. The gradual growth of these exchanges, mainly at the end of the Middle Ages, led to the formation of capital.

Kurz reproaches Marxism when it thinks like this, when it does not distinguish itself from bourgeois science in its positivist approach, which only considers isolated facts; when seeing a person who gives a bag of wheat in exchange for a piece of gold in ancient Egypt, in the Middle Ages and today, he concludes that in all these cases it is the same thing; commodity for money, therefore trade, therefore market…

For Kurz, empirical facts demonstrate nothing without a “categorical critique” that places them in their context. Thus, without having determined what money is in the capitalist mode of production (not only its practical functions, but what it is), we cannot decide whether the shells or pieces of gold that circulated in non-capitalist societies corresponded to money. in the modern sense. This is what Kurz steadfastly denies. Historically, money precedes value, he says. But what money? Money in the capitalist sense is born, says Kurz, with the spread of firearms, from the end of the fourteenth century.

What seems like money to us in pre- and non-capitalist societies had yet another sacral function: born of sacrifice, the gift made products circulate, within the framework of a network of obligations, in which people invested with sacral power played a central role. It was another form of fetishism. There was evidently production and circulation of goods, but no “economy”, “labour” or “market”, not even in rudimentary or “not yet developed” forms (as Kurz claims in opposition to Karl Polanyi, with whom he agrees in other respects). .

Kurz only briefly goes into a historical analysis of the role of money (reserved for future works, which unfortunately will no longer be published) and only cites a few authors. Among them, the medievalist Jacques Le Goff, who denies the existence of “money” in the Middle Ages (and which Kurz opposes to Fernand Braudel, for whom “the market is universal”). Premodern money had no "value": the source of its importance was not that it was a quantitatively determined representation of a general social "substance" such as labor in modern societies.

Capitalism does not constitute, in Kurz's eyes, an intensification of antecedent social forms, but a violent rupture. The enormous thirst for money aroused by the arms race from the XNUMXth century onwards represents the big bang of modernity, generating, over the course of a few generations, a system based on money (which completely changes its function: from a symbol, in a personal relationship of obligations, it becomes a principle of universal social mediation in the post of material representative of abstract work), labor value, abstract labor itself, capital and, of course, the State (which also changes functions).

It could be said that Kurz started here a great work in which almost everything is still to be done. It is clear that his approach will enable exchanges with those who study the “gift” along the lines of Marcel Mauss (who, like Michel Foucault, is the subject of some very interesting but very brief observations).

The refusal of “methodological individualism” also bears fruit in the Kurzian rereading of Marx and in the critique of Marxism's adaptation to the criteria of bourgeois political economy (marginalist and neoliberal). According to Kurz, numerous difficulties in Marx's theory (such as the famous problem of the transformation of values ​​into prices) disappear when one abandons the analysis of particular commodities and particular capital in favor of total capital (a category that can be apprehended only by the concept, not on an empirical level), of which private commodities and private capital are only “aliquot parts”.

One cannot determine the value of a particular commodity; but that does not mean that this value is only created in exchange (here, Kurz constantly polemicizes against any and all “relativist” conception of value, which he qualifies as typically postmodern). Value is “really” (in the sense of a fetishist projection) given by the abstract work, which constitutes its “substance”. What counts is the global (or total) mass of value; the particular commodity has no measurable “value”, but manages to realize a “price” in the competition. Indeed, a commodity can have almost zero value (when it is produced by machines) and still fetch a high price. The sum total of values ​​and the sum total of prices necessarily coincide - but not the value and price of the particular commodity.

This displacement of the conceptual axis from particular capital to the level of total capital (Marx hesitated between the two approaches, and Kurz, so to speak, freed him from his uncertainties) effectively allows Kurz to clarify, in a surprising way, problems such as the relation between the rate and the mass of profit or the question of productive work. Certainly many “Marxist economists” will not agree, but they can hardly avoid measuring forces with Kurz's arguments.

The discussion goes far beyond an erudite battle between Marxist economists when it comes to the question of the “internal limit” of capitalist production caused by the fall of the total mass of value. Kurz dedicates the last part of the book to this, specifying arguments that he has been raising for a long time.

The “heart of darkness” of capitalism

On the other hand, the ending is a little unexpected: he wonders if we are not heading towards “worthless money” again. While the nominal mass of money in the world (including stocks, real estate prices, credits, debts, financial derivatives) is constantly increasing, what money is considered to represent, work, is reduced to ever-increasing proportions. smaller times. Thus, money has almost no “real” value anymore, and a gigantic devaluation of money (first in the form of inflation) will be inevitable. But after centuries during which money has constituted social mediation on an ever-increasing scale, its unorganized but enforced devaluation cannot bring about anything more than a gigantic social regression and the abandonment of a large part of social activity when seen as no longer “profitable”.

The end of the historical trajectory of capitalism runs the risk of pushing us towards a “perverse return” of sacrifice, towards a new and post-modern barbarism. In effect, capitalism is annulling even the meager “progresses” it has brought and incessantly demanding “sacrifices” from men in order to save the money fetish. The cuts in public health are even thought by Kurz in relation to the human sacrifices of ancient history, practiced to appease the angry gods, and he ends by stating that “the bloodthirsty Aztec priests were humane and sweet, compared to the bureaucrat-sacrifices of the global fetish”. of capital when it has reached its historic internal limit.

Why have Kurz's theories, despite their undeniable intellectual force, so far had only what can be called a limited impact on the critique of capitalism, at least in France? They are much discussed on the internet, and Kurz had a certain bookstore success in Germany, especially in the 1990s. But, although the crisis of recent years has brought confirmation of his analyses, the critique of value continued to maintain its somewhat “esoteric” character. — a speech for “insiders”.

Why do those whom Kurz called Marxist “dinosaurs” (even in their post-modern versions) and Keynesian “alternative” economists, linked, according to him, to the phase of capitalism that has definitely come to an end, and whose discourses are practically evolved in forty years, have they once again become the points of reference for those who want to combat the devastation of life by capital?

Kurz always claimed that capitalism is disappearing, at the same time as its old adversaries, especially the labor movement and its intellectuals, who had completely internalized work and value and whose horizon did not go beyond the “integration” of workers – and then of other “subaltern” groups—in mercantile society. Why does the critique of value, which claims to have understood the fundamentally new character of the current situation, find it so difficult to “penetrate” the public?

A first — less important — reason is the absence of a strategy for occupying public space: Kurz, like the other founders of the critique of value, are neither academics nor media experts, limiting themselves to the spaces that are made available to them. They always prefer the in-depth seminar with the magazine's readers to participating in a large eclectic colloquium. Staying on the sidelines is a sign of honor for them, but slows down the spread of their ideas. Furthermore, Kurz's prose, known to be scathing and brilliant in his "dissemination" writings, is sometimes, in more theoretical works, difficult to read and even more so to translate, somewhat comparable to Adorno's.

But, at a deeper level, it is mainly the theory of crisis and the questioning of the class struggle that arouse resistance. For Kurz, we are no longer in the presence of a “cyclical” or “growth” crisis of capitalism, but we are living at the end of a long historical epoch, not knowing whether the future will be better or whether it will be, above all, the fall into a precarious situation. in which the vast majority of humanity will no longer be useful or to be exploited, but simply “superfluous” (for capital appreciation). And no one can control such a racing machine! This perspective is soon rejected, because it is really scary, much more scary than the statement that petty speculators steal our money (but that the State will restore justice for the people!).

The critique of value does not want to be accepted and is not at the service of the needs of an audience. It criticizes in effect almost all forms of opposition, past and present, which remain prisoners of the value-form and which have even contributed to its full development. Likewise, Kurz rejected almost the entire Marxist tradition and frequently entered into polemics with its contemporary representatives, breaking with the consensus and rites of university Marxist milieus. Thus, they opposed him, as long as possible, a “conspiracy of silence”.

But even those who recognize the heuristic power of the reading of capitalist reality proposed by Kurz often disapprove of the critique of value, as it does not indicate a possible “practice”. “Analysis is true—but what to do?” we hear someone say.

Kurz is clear about this: theory is already a form of praxis, it mainly contributes to denaturing the categories of capitalist life. But he is as suspicious of movements directed against the most superficial aspects of capitalism, such as the financial market – and liable to degenerate into populism – as well as of the “false immediacy” of “alternative economy” projects. Creating a society in which the production and circulation of goods no longer pass through the autonomous mediation of money and value, but which are organized according to needs — that is the enormous task that imposes itself after centuries of mercantile society. If Kurz formulates the need for it, he does not explain how to get there. But few theories have come as close as yours to the “heart of darkness” of the capital's fetish system.

*Anselm Jappe, professor of aesthetics at the École d'art de Frosinone it's from Tours, is the author, among other books, of death credit (Hedra, 2013)

Translation by Robson JF de Oliveira

References

Robert Kurz. Lives and death of capitalism. Crisis Chronicles. Texts translated into French by Olivier Galtier, Wolfgang Kukulies and Luc Mercier. Editions Lignes, Paris, 2011 (https://amzn.to/44gXhq7).

Robert Kurz. Geld ohne Wert. GrundrissezueinerTransformation of the Kritik of the politischenÖkonomie, Horlemann, Berlin, 2012 (https://amzn.to/44i83MR). [Worthless money. Foundations for a transformation of the critique of political economy].


[I]Young refers to the process by which birds go through molting.

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