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Purgatory of the Market

by Jens Jessen Tuesday, Aug. 02, 2005 at 3:13 PM

"The new capitalism is also a totalitarian movement that cannot or will not rest until it has seized the whole world and put everything in private hands that previously was subject to state or civil control.."


The new capitalism has become a worldview. Not satisfied with the economy, new capitalism seeks to dominate our life and thought.

By Jens Jessen

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT 30/225 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2005/30/Kapitalismusserie.]

Capitalism has changes its image. The time of jubilation of 1989 when the collapse of the socialist camp was generally celebrated as a triumph of the free market economy seems long ago today. Only the conservative sociologist Nicolas Luhmann, certainly no nostalgic of socialism, did not speak of any victory at that time. He said one could at best venture the judgment that socialism collapsed earlier than capitalism.

The prophetic quality of Luhmann’s remark cannot be disputed any more. The approval ratings for capitalism have fallen dramatically everywhere in the world, even in its original western countries. For a long time, capitalism has not only been treated as a problem for the left. All the authors interviewed in our series on the “future of capitalism,” whether scientists, philosophers or writers, whether from Europe, America or the third world, whether conservatives, liberals or leftists agreed that capitalism that blessed the West with fabulous prosperity can only be seen today as a threat.


Even the economic leaders who anxiously shake their heads on television talk shows protest they are handed over to the system of the free market and have no freedom in their decisions. They don’t want to carry out any mass layoffs but capital profit requires it. They don’t want to shift any jobs to foreign countries but competition forces it. They don’t want to close or gut firms but the stock exchange with its relentless focus on stock prices unfortunately makes it unavoidable.

This is an astonishing circumstance. Description of capitalism as a system of unavoidable pressures was always a theme of leftist capitalism criticism. What brings entrepreneurs today to use the alien Marxist description as a self-description? Is this only a rhetorical trick to delegate personal responsibility to the system? Or are they beginning to feel themselves as victims of that alienation in always having to do something other than what they really want?

The social philosopher Hartmut Rosa recently proposed a minimal definition of the classic Marxist term “alienation” that suits our present situation: Everyone who moves on the capitalist market feels forced to something he would never do apart from the market for his survival. No one wants to destroy the environment but the necessity of lowering production costs forces him to this. Everyone wants to help the losers of society but the necessities of reducing social costs bring the state to exclusion. Everyone suffers under the hysterical sequence of technological innovations but the competition presses producers to produce constantly new goods.

However this lowering of action possibilities to zero was the classic argument of leftist system criticism. Leftists wanted to see the system as a whole overturned because social-democratic reforms and moral appeals could do nothing against its laws. A good Marxist always knew that the businessman was not a bad person but one who could do nothing other than what the system demanded.

In contrast, the traditional defenders of capitalism have always denied this system character. To them, the emphasis on unavoidable historical processes was nothing but a shaky construction of philosophy of history. They never claimed that all political will and all political morality had to capitulate before the capitalist logic or self-dynamic.

What about today? What has happened so that social democrats whose historic merit was always the taming of capitalism think capitalism is a system that cannot restrain itself any more? What changed new capitalism so its followers and profiteers experience it as coercion?

Globalization is the generally accepted answer though on closer examination a strange answer. Globalization in this context is nothing but the expansion of market competition beyond the national framework to the world. The cheapest producers of a rich country compete with even cheaper producers of poor countries. However this only means capitalism has grown. Can it change its stripes? Or does its expansion to underdeveloped countries mean that it has fallen back as a whole into an early phase of development that corresponds to the classic Marxist description?

If we assume capitalism is really a system where everything is unavoidable or inevitable, then its future chances are miserable. Citizens in the developed countries who once tamed capitalism will not put up with its regression to the untamed state without resistance. The founding of a leftist German party beyond social democracy is only the first sign of a political anger that could soon assume slightly pre-revolutionary forms.

Couldn’t capitalism be seen conversely not as a system and its exactions as changeable and not inevitable? Then the speech about system pressures would obviously be mere ideology related to communist propaganda. This time ideology is presented by the defenders of the free market and by capital itself to intimidate society and permanently increase profit rates.


On first view, this possibility may seem like a naïve suspicion. But it has some surprising evidence. With their attempt to immunize the market economy against all criticism, the new ideologies take a step beyond Marx by treating the principle of competition as a natural law.

To them, the rules of the free market are not rules that society gives (and can retract) but eternal forces comparable to gravity against which it is pointless to rebel. A country that restricts competition in its interior will lose the competition between countries.

The new economism explains all phenomena of society in culture (rise and fall of cultural genres) and in education (decline of classical high school) with this model. In other words, the justification of the new market ideology is the simplest kind of Darwinism. In this perspective, the development of human culture occurs as uncontrollably as evolution.

Such a claim of eternal laws according to which the future can be predicted is the essential characteristic of all totalitarian movements according to Hannah Arendt’s classic definition. These movements are free from all moral considerations. Victims and victors are fixed from the beginning according to these laws. The destruction of those condemned to destruction (those weak on the market) cannot be prevented, only accelerated as the National Socialists sought to accelerate the destruction of allegedly bad races of people and the Bolshevists wanted to speed up the destruction of so-called dying-out classes.

This will to acceleration is another characteristic of neo-capitalist ideologists that they share with the totalitarian movements of the past. Neo-capitalist ideologists in no way want to watch how the victorious example of the western economic style spreads by itself over the world. Rather this style should be advanced by extortionate free trade agreements and even by war in cases of especially refractory lands. The American media started its triumphant howl in view of Afghanis listening to transistor radios, drinking Coca Cola and chewing gum. For a moment, it seemed the original goal of the war, liberation from a terror regime, completely faded behind the triumph of western consumer culture.

However this was only an appearance. For capitalist ideology, the liberation of the Afghanis already came with those products formerly denied the people. This also joined the new economism with a totalitarian movement. The new economism did not only preach exactions and hardships but also an end to all exactions. Its promise of freedom, democracy and prosperity is not promised to all people but only those who submit to the economic program regarded as a source of the blessings (good things) in life.

This connection of the eternal with the accidental, universal human rights with a particular modern economic style and the fading out of the historical course that the idea of democracy can claim before capitalism also characterize (like all distortions of truth) the ideological character of economism. Capitalism has even claimed to be a democratic institution insofar as the consumer votes at the cash register with every purchase and the market out of self-interest cannot afford any discrimination.

The sovereign fading out of the circumstance that capitalism in the past thrived in dictatorships and was not seriously hindered by the apartheid regime in South Africa shows very clearly that demagogy is involved here, not empiricism. The claim that popular rule exists through consumption is not far from that Bolshevist argument that parliamentarianism and the constitutional state are superfluous accessories since true popular rule is already realized in public property.

In fact the propaganda of the Bush regime that preaches exporting democracy is in no way satisfied with establishing democratic institutions if these do not decide for unbridled competition. The American attempt to open everything formerly organized and controlled by the state to free trade including education, water supply and infrastructures of transportation proves what is central: an empire seeking to force its image, way of life and economic style on the whole world, not democracy.


The new capitalism is also a totalitarian movement that cannot or will not rest until it has seized the whole world and put everything in private hands that previously was subject to state or civil control. This raging will for self-reproduction and leveling all distinctions is almost at the heart of Hannah Arendt’s famous analysis of the elements and origins of total rule (1955). Totalitarian ideologies with a peculiar hostility to the state like to understand themselves as movements rather than parties. Everything controllable, static and bound by rules must vaporize before the dynamic principle of the movement. Everything individual, tradition-determined, culturally special and resistant should pass through capitalism as through a purifying purgatory. At its end is the one standardized and redeemed world.

Unfortunately for devout believers, it can never be said when the movement is fulfilled. Those who force their image on the world are not satisfied with an inferior portrait. The flawed reproduction encourages them to trash the copy and begin again”, the Indian author Amitau Ghosh wrote in the series in DIE ZEIT. One could add with Hannah Arendt: “The process of a perpetual and unlimited accumulation of power making possible expansion for its own sake and constantly fed anew needs ever-new material to renew itself and not come to a standstill.” In the words of Amitau Ghosh, “the connection of capitalism and empire represents a program of permanent war – that idea in which Trotskyites were once intoxicated and which those neo-conservatives now adopt who invented the Project for the New American Century.”

The principle of totalitarian rule does not emphasize the fulfillment of goals but the element of constant insecurity that keeps people from forming judgments and oppositional conduct. The peculiar culture hostility of the new capitalism would prevent intellectual and critical forms of advanced civilization in favor of a dull mass entertainment (supposedly because the advanced civilization is not competitive). “However the consistent suppression of all higher forms of intellectual activity by the modern mass leaders” has “deeper causes than the natural aversion against what one does not understand. Total control cannot allow free initiative in any areas of life”, according to Hannah Arendt.

In the DIE ZEIT series, the American sociologist Richard Bennett similarly described the paralysis of all independent impulses for action. “The new insecurity is in no way only an undesirable side-effect of the unstable markets programmed in the new capitalism. This insecurity is an intended and not unintended element.” Moreover uncertainty has entered deeply in the organization structure of modern businesses with their flat hierarchies and constant changes on the leadership plane. The continual purges and sudden ups and downs of professional careers prevent any familiarity with oneself and development of professional experience. This is what Hannah Arendt wrote about the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin and it resonates with Richard Sennett’s description of new capitalism.


The advantage of a structure in which “there are no reliable intermediate layers between the highest authority, the leader, and the ruled” is obvious. Through the “absence of any secure hierarchy the dictator remains absolutely independent of all of his subjects and can undertake very rapid and surprising changes of his policy at any time.” If leader (or dictator) is translated with entrepreneur and politics with business goals, a firm is characterized that according to the standard of shareholder-value can move flexibly on the market, that is erratically, unbounded and without any regard for co-workers and consumers.

Our overview ends with this most incredible inner change that brings new capitalism in its production sites near totalitarian movements. The parallels are obvious. They raise the question why capitalism that managed in its past history without intimidation and ideological promises of salvation sought refuge in its last stretch in gross propaganda lies and utopian programs.

Some date the sudden change from 1989 and the end of the socialist challenger who had forced capitalism for decades to put on a human face. Has capitalism now dropped its mask? With the same right, it could be said capitalism has now put on its fierce grim mask. However this did not happen in 1989 but with the collapse of the new markets in 2000 and the attack of Islamic fundamentalism on the World Trade Center, that is in the moment when it was obvious that capitalism could sink and in any case had internal and external enemies who cannot be won over with good persuasion. This would not be the first imperial system in history that in the moment of its peril was wicked and a danger for civilized humanity.
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