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Capitalism Criticism: Inexorable Struggle for Survival

by Werner Seppmann Friday, Jul. 08, 2005 at 3:00 AM

"The civilized foundation of cooperative human life is furtively undermined by the capitalist form of organizing society.. Rational objectives often capsize into social irrationa-lity.. Unemployment is a form of violence.."



The process of de-civilization advances faster and faster. A half-hearted capitalism criticism will not stop this de-civilization.

By Werner Seppmann

[This article published in: Junge Welt, 6/25/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Capitalism criticism long made taboo is discussed again. However the “strong” words readily accepted by large parts of the public never reach the core of the problem. The economic mis-developments that were Muntefering’s immediate theme were not related to the socially destructive character of the capitalist reproduction character of the capitalist reproduction dynamic and its unrelenting capital accumulation. Identifying intellectually the social polarization and processes of exclusion and impoverishment as the elementary law of the capitalist way of socialization was also carefully avoided.

This “capitalism criticism” is an “overture” to a “new” reformism. Everything deserving criticism in the current crisis development including the subjugation of human life interests under the calculus of short-term profit maximization is considered a “deviation” from an organized system of human metabolism with nature acceptable in principle and worth defending. In a certain way, Muntefering’s intervention reflects an interpretation within the movement of globalization critics that – ignoring essential points – strives for a socially compatible and ecologically “sustainable” organization of the capitalist “modern age”.

Such analyses prove increasingly inadequate for the intensified problems. The present crisis has started a dynamic of socio-cultural self-destruction that can hardly be stopped by partial measures. The civilized foundation of cooperative human life is furtively undermined by the capitalist form of organizing society.

Several aspects of this tendency of socio-cultural self-destruction are very striking:

Individual advantages are often only gained at the expense of others through the structural conditions in the economy and society. The concentration on immediate profit leads to neglect of many long-term aspects.

Rational objectives regularly capsize into social irrationality on account of the dominant structures of economic life. According to capitalist “efficiency criteria,” it is “reasonable” to exclude surplus sellers of labor power without thinking about the resulting social disorganization phenomena.

The universalization of violence and the decay of cultural standards mark the capitalist-dominated world system. Militarily-flanked hegemonial strategies are reflected in the aggression escalation in the interior of “developed” countries.

The capitalist form of developing productive capacities is connected with reduced prosperity for broad sectors of the population. Poverty and neediness are spreading globally and within metropolitan societies despite increased social wealth.

Meaningful work on which social reproduction and individual identity are based is denied an ever-larger part of the population. They are excluded from elementary social connections.

People are often told to their faces that they are not needed economically any more and are socially useless according to the prevailing rules of the game. The “superfluous” are increasingly socially marginalized and forced to zones of neediness. The readiness of the dominant block to actively encourage social division has a striking background. The number of persons necessary for surplus value production has rapidly decreased and will continue decreasing. There are plausible estimates that sufficient jobs will only exist for 20 percent of the working population in the foreseeable future.


In its consequences, unemployment is an act of violence, an attack on the integrity of working people. The unemployed are humiliated and exposed to an inner-psychic conflict through the devaluation of an essential orientation pattern to which they are hardly equal any more in a climate of intensified competition and social contradictions. In its pressure to optimize conditions, capital has torn asunder social connections and instrumentalized people for exploitation. Life contexts imparting feelings of reliability and mentally stabilizing people and forms of solidarity have been destroyed by the pressure of working- and living conditions in risk capitalism in the purgatory of “deregulation” and “flexibility.” “Besides national resources, the capitalist modernization process”, the social-psychologist Gotz Eisenberg writes, “also consumes those assets of tradition on which broken continued existence depends, the identity-giving connections, family, moral standards and all the virtues of `little people’ who form the social cohesion of society.”

The pressure of crises and change instilling fear is the lever for adjusting living conditions and human feelings and thoughts to the exigencies of a radicalized commercializing economy. The institutionalization of insecurity guarantees the universal controllability of the “whole person,” leading him or her to be completely integrated in the self-valorization cycle of capital.

Intellectually understanding their contradictory life situation is hardly still possible for people in risk capitalism through the structural “inscrutability” of social conditions. Orientation models that are just to reality are lost to them through the ruin of the class milieu. Experiences of social threat and exclusion have their correspondences in feelings of powerlessness and syndromes of anxiety leading to further damage of mental powers of resistance and stability.


Whoever is not socially marginalized is forced to a fragmentary “identity” through the functional principles of a “flexible” capitalism. People must be maneuverable and unscrupulous if they do not want to break down. They must be morally “disposable” and “able to cope with a heavy workload” if they want to master their life within “deregulated” social conditions. As positive qualities, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, a pioneer of a “post-modern thinking,” identified subjective demands for a “contemporary” existence: “elasticity, tolerance and maneuverability.” That such qualities of “post-modern” people, their “flowing identities” and “pliable psyches,” correspond exactly to the demand process of a “neoliberal economy” does not occur to this pseudo-critical stylish philosophy.

While flexibility and agility are urged as qualities of subjects, ruthlessness as a maxim of social conduct and practical persuasiveness has a new categorical imperative: “Act so your interests can prevail without regard for the consequences.” An attitude prepared for conflict in this social environment is demanded of people as well as an obsessive relation to themselves. A US bank manager speaks of a “progressive capitalism whose raw and brutal climate imposes a strict discipline on participants.” A pressure to self-commodification, an instrumentalized capitalist individuality and a personality structure oriented to the competitive society are envisioned. Whoever does not succumb must constantly try to give his best. He may not stop since social existence can only be secured by striving forward.

Everyday subjects are divided in their identity structure and fragmented like the social conditions surrounding them by the dominant pressure of adaptation and the often contradictory demands. Reliable orientation points as prerequisites of self-determined life are hardly available to them any more. They are driven and ruled by objective pressures. They often see themselves confronted with threatening social situations (job- and existential uncertainty) to which they are only able to react with resignation and desperate rage. In their helplessness, large parts of the population are susceptible for irrational worldview fragments, authoritarian interpretation models and racist delusions since they promise a deceitful orientation security and psychic relief in a world experienced as inscrutable and threatening.

With its humiliations and threats, the dominant capitalist life praxis is in contradiction to the personal obligations of a middle-class society that once inscribed universal prosperity and the rationality of social conditions on its flag. Instead, it produces social contradictions and a technocratic rationality with a destruction tendency that can hardly be restrained.

Through the radicalization of profit strategies, a confrontation climate is generalized. A great pressure for action prevails that does not consider either individual ability or social orientations. An egoistic élan of enforcement has become normality. With visible pride, a manager of the media corporation Bertelsmann told the press about his conduct in rehabilitating a merged rival through job cuts. I “shot according to the motto: Even if it strikes an innocent one, it is responsible. The innocent must also be moved.” Individual and social conditions are no longer in keeping with the times. The businesses constantly increase their profitability. But whoever is over 50 will be removed from occupational life. Living conditions in globalized capitalism are marked by the inexorability of the struggle for survival, the absolute emphasis on performance and the ruthless striving forwards. The consequences are repression and elimination of the weak and superfluous.


The repression- and exclusion strategies marking economic life dominate the social climate even in the private areas. They form the breeding ground for collective and individual forms of violence, for a “culture of hatred” (Hobsbawm) that can hardly be controlled and that increases in extent and intensity and has become a “foregone conclusion” in many social areas.

Through a universalized pressure of existence and probation, a hostile attitude toward fellow-persons develops since they are experienced as the “opposition” to their own interests. In a situation of high unemployment, everyone is felt to be a rival for the scarce jobs. Consideration is seen as an obstacle to success through the deregulated performance expectations. The result is a brutalization of behavior patterns and a decay of socio-cultural standards. Capitalist competition- and crisis pressure, internalized striving for success and self-oppression, institutionalized exclusion and socio-cultural “pathologies” form a dense plexus of causes and effects. Therefore the aggressive youth who hits his fellow-student lying on the ground is only a reflection of that “successful” manager who pockets extra-bonuses for destroying many jobs. “Like acid rain, the cynicism and amorality of the big bounty-hunters seep through from the top of the (social) pyramid to the middle” (J. Ziegler).

The increasing brutalization of social relations is described in the everyday consciousness with the terms “social coldness” and “cut-throat society” or “elbow society.” Even in the kindergartens and elementary schools, an uninhibited competitive conduct in everyday life is encouraged. Children are urged to “use their elbows.” From the second grade, schools sort students as to whether they see the connection of competition, learning readiness and personal advancement through the demands of schools and the pressure of parents.


The grave economic forms of contradiction only represent one side of capitalist reality. Individual distress, enforced mental conformity and social estrangement are closely connected with the development of social crises. The consequences of this emotional instrumentalization and disciplining of human subjectivity have not been emphasized enough in leftist discussions. Mental injuries are massively produced and emotional devastations are caused by compulsive forms of self-discipline. The competition- and adjustment-pressure of social performance represents a permanent contradiction to human needs of personal development.

Whoever can no longer keep up with the speed of the “performance-oriented society” and cannot stand up to the psychic suffering resulting from increased demands and the feeling of latent insecurity flees – often at the price of self-destruction – to legal and illegal drugs. Addicts (estimated at 150,000 in Germany) are only the most visible expression of this problem complex. The millions of persons dependent on alcohol and tablets are a clearer reflection of the pathological state of a society in which people feel isolated and lost despite highly developed communication possibilities.

Many people suffer under social relationlessness and ruthlessness, uncertain future perspectives and the unrelenting pressure to perform. They are burnt out and feel their life is meaningless despite their constant effort. They sense they are missing something essential in their lives and have been driven without living themselves. The conditions change at a speed that only a few can follow. The “flexible person” is uprooted (R. Sennett) since social bonds stand in the way of an economic self-exploitation and the demanded universal availability that often requires unlimited commitment of time and geographic mobility.


The dominant socialization principles prove less and less adequate to current problems and are artificially kept alive at the price of increasing contradictions. The inability to react appropriately to existential problems is an expression of a fatal circle of alienation and self-estrangement that unites rulers and ruled in developed corporations. Because the struggle for survival absorbs all intellectual and mental strength, creative socio-cultural competence cannot develop any more to the necessary extent. A normative and emotional vacuum arises since more and more intellectual and mental energy must be mobilized to repress the elementary contradictions. Inner and outer threat scenarios are “cultivated” to divert from the social contradictions. What earlier was the “threat from the East” is today “Islamic terrorism” that imperialist policy itself nourishes and whose “combating” takes the form of an authoritarian structuring of many social areas. The “state of emergency” insidiously becomes normality.

The assumption that every strategy for solving problems flows into a system question is strengthened within the dominant block along with the inability to think beyond daily affairs and develop perspectivist orientations. Deficient future orientation and incapacity for consistent political organization complement one another. Because change perspectives are taboo, tendencies of social disintegration can develop their own dynamic and condense to a fundamental crisis of civilization. Possible and necessary change is obstructed, the problems intensify and society in its totality is destabilized. Then problems of civilization decay move into the center of social reality.

[The author has published “Dialectic of De-Civilization. Crisis, Irrationalism and Violence” (1995) and “Actuality of Capitalism Criticism” (2003).]

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But what do we do? Meyer London Friday, Jul. 08, 2005 at 7:26 AM
The answer B_A Friday, Jul. 08, 2005 at 3:29 PM
'Cubans are starving.' Sheepdog Friday, Jul. 08, 2005 at 4:41 PM
Future of Capitalism Chop Chop Friday, Jul. 08, 2005 at 5:56 PM
sorry, johnk, but you'll have to do better than that IP Freely Saturday, Jul. 09, 2005 at 10:06 AM
BTW IP Freely Saturday, Jul. 09, 2005 at 10:08 AM

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