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The Crisis in the Crisis or How Sick is the System

by Konrad Paul Liessmann Friday, Jul. 31, 2009 at 2:10 AM

Crisis is a synonym for experiences of difference. It changes something. Afterwards nothing will be as in the past. Until recently the "manager" and "business" were models for all areas of life. Do private vices always become public virtues?


Is capitalism only suffering from a bladder inflammation or does a heart attack threaten?

By Konrad Paul Liessmann

[This article published in:, June 19, 2009 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

[Does capitalism only suffer from a bladder inflammation or does a heart attack threaten? While no one knows, many act as though a possible heart defect could be corrected with a vitamin pill. That cannot be healthy. Konrad Paul Liessmann, born in 1953, is a professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna. An essayist and literary critic, he was Austrian “Scholar of the Year” in 2006. His latest books are “Theory of Lack of Education” and “The Future Comes.”]

The clever remark that one first knows when something began when it ends comes from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The people who experienced Black Friday of 1929 did not know this was the beginning of the most dreadful chapter of modern history. The people who experienced the collapse of historic banks and auto manufacturers do not know what page in the book of history was opened. First in retrospect, we will know whether and in what crisis we will be in at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

This reflection is not a superfluous historical-philosophical speculation. Assessment of the situation and the question what should be done are speculation to a great extent. When is a crisis a crisis? When stock prices crash? When economic growth falls? When inflation climbs? When the unemployment rate increases? When anxiety and anger are shown in opinion polls? Or is a crisis first a crisis when there is political radicalization, mass demonstrations, barricades, strikes, plundering and burning parts of town?

Because we have no reliable indicators to identify the extent and the character of the crisis, we also have no really plausible theories about the causes of this crisis. To that extent, the crisis actually offers everyone a chance. Everyone can see the cause where he or she likes. The unregulated financial sector, the greed of managers, the greed of small investors, the rotten credits of Americans, casino capitalism, a misguided industrial policy, too much or too little state, too much or too little private, the failure of markets or incursions in markets are possible causes. The list could be continued and only reflects the interests of those relying on one or another assumption.

If this crisis should have grave social and political consequences, people will argue decades from now what were the deeper causes and the real triggers. If this crisis should lead to a recovery of the economy and continuance of the status quo, it will not leave more than a footnote for the discourse of the future.

Crisis, as the etymology of the word suggests, is a phase in which things disassemble. This definition distinguishes crisis and criticism that both come from the same root. We resolve distinctions in criticism but are struck by distinctions in crisis. To begin with, crisis is a synonym for experiences of difference. It changes something. Afterwards nothing will be as in the past. In the crisis discourse of the last months, disunity prevailed on whether this base definition reflects reality. If one insisted “only” a crisis of the US financial sector occurred that would hardly spread to Europe, this thesis is quickly refuted by the reality of a fundamental system- and structural-crisis that can only be conquered through an essential financial and social-political reorganization although stock prices will hardly recover. The bottom of the crisis was already crossed, we were told. Almost no one spoke of system criticism. That this unquestioning faith in the stock exchange, the spellbound staring at the conduct of “investors” and trust in long discredited rating processes are moments of the crisis and cannot be signs of its conquest is not recognized any more.

What has changed that we must speak of a crisis? Economic cycles, rising or falling numbers of unemployed, bursting speculation bubbles, ups and downs on the stock exchanges, bankruptcies, new business start-ups and stagnating or declining growth rates are all part of the daily routine of capitalism. In the past, people said capitalism by its nature was prone to crisis and really lives from crisis-laden cycles. Seen this way, the crisis of capitalism is not a crisis but its normality. In the last years, we were persuaded this crisis-susceptibility was mastered and the normality of capitalism was a constant growth from which everyone would profit, some more and faster and others less and slower.

None of the renowned economic trend- and future researchers saw this crisis coming. The crisis was not part of the picture of our world. One could say: what happens now is the return to a forgotten normality. We experience this paradoxically as crisis.

This return to “normality” appears in many areas of society. When crises occur, the fictions and illusions of a society come back on the ground of reality. One’s perceptions must be sharpened. Now it is clear nothing happens without the state or without political decisions. Whether one credits markets with everything or defines the causes of the crisis, the way out is only possible through state interventions, guarantees and bailouts. How quickly the former propagandists of the free market now line up for temporary payments or even partial nationalizations from the long-ridiculed state! This seems somewhat dubious. Whoever changes his conviction so quickly obviously had no conviction…

The popular thesis that the state – or the tabooed public authority – should now leap in the breach to save what can be saved and then withdraw bled white or without a penny to its name when the crisis is over and leave the field again to the private pursuit of profit is a little frivolous and shows we are still far from a real renaissance of the political and a neutralization of the primacy of the economy.

Sometimes the speculation presses that the crisis was consciously provoked to get what would hardly have been possible without the crisis. Mass layoffs are not a problem any more since excessive demands are not made in a serious crisis. Obviously every crisis has a disciplinary effect. Some talk about the crisis seems like the baroque sermon.

The return to “normality” also appears in that the “virtual” economy also has a hard landing on the ground of reality. The virtual economy is always the irritation of the real economy and classical industrial production that sets the standard for the deepness of the crisis where the sharpest social effects can be felt.

In the crisis, we are more removed than ever from the knowledge society. If it were not so sad, one could be amazed that proposals for overcoming the crisis now come from the entrepreneur side that constantly imagined itself already in the future. These proposals are entirely oriented in the early capitalist conditions of the 19th century: wage restraint and extended working hours with simultaneous short-time work and mass unemployment. The economy can only get going through such measures in the short-or medium-term. But this cannot be called either a future-oriented concept or a post-industrial society.

The role model ideology of the last years was also brought back to the ground of reality. Until recently, the “manager” and the “business” were regarded as models for all areas of life so professors were stylized as knowledge managers and museum directors as CEOs. Public institutions, educational institutions, hospitals, churches and the “res publica” altogether were seen as “enterprises” carried out in a profit-oriented way according to operational perspectives. These models are now somewhat battered.

Until recently, the sentence “This would not be possible in the private economy” was an irrefutable universal argument. In the meantime, people know everything is possible in the private economy. This does not mean returning to old antiquated models of bureaucratic rule. In crisis, there are different demands for different activities that do not all have a place in the model of the manager or business. The picture of the incorruptible official gains charm in light of the recent conduct of top managers.

When the crisis is a crisis, then the values underlying our past thought and action are also in crisis. Is it true that competition, efficiency, growth and pursuit of gain are such central values that they must permeate all areas of life? Do we not need other, perhaps very new values?

But be on guard: the concept of moral values is itself a loan from the economy that was first resolved in the 19th century and had a clear meaning. The moral rules, imperatives, maxims and virtues regarded as obligatory should be handed over to the free play of subjective preferences. In the first place, values in the economy express subjective judgments that can change at any time. By their nature, virtues can always be devalued, upgraded and re-evaluated or given new meaning. Things or qualities are valuable that people either liked or did not want others to violate. The call for “new values” is an indicator of changed preferences and does not constitute any new morality. The market functions rather well in the area of values because it signals to us what our values are really worth and what values underlie our conduct. As a rule, they are not the values of Sunday speeches.

The market obviously does not need any morality except one: payment morality. If it were true that “greed” is a decisive motive of this crisis, then no new values would be needed for its correction. Remembrance of the ancient ideal of moderation would be enough.

Denouncing the striving of people for happiness and success, money and profit is not central but rather recognizing that moment in which this aspiration can become excessive and counter-productive. What we may have lost is the sensitivity for what is really appropriate or inappropriate in certain situations. We have no idea any more that something can reach a limit. Whoever only knows “on and on” and “more and more” ultimately loses the capacity for pleasure because stopping or pausing is needed for that. In its innermost, capitalism is still an ascetic religion.

The uncertainty about how we should understand the present is ultimately expressed in our conduct. If this crisis actually reaches the roots of our system – which cannot be excluded – we must try to react with a fundamental criticism of capitalism. But history has tied our hands in this regard. The terrible experiences that humanity has had with all the attempts to conquer capitalism no longer allow us to naively tinker on a great alternative although this is obviously intellectually possible. Capitalism is not a natural law, even if some of its apologists like to see it that way. Not reading Marx on account of the failure of the command socialist experiment is not particularly wise. However no perspective of conquering capitalism is on the historical horizon. Under the assumption of a fundamental system crisis, the attempt to find or produce where it is lacking that balance between private interests and public welfare, between market and state, between individual freedom and social security, between the model of boundless greed and responsible moderation would be more realistic.

It is time to develop models that at least make the consequences of the crisis more tolerable and distribute the burdens and costs evenly when crises cannot be avoided. Reflecting in an unbiased way about a general basic income and its financing possibilities, about a new concept of work that does justice to the social and technological conditions of our society and relieving the factor labor for tax purposes, the Tobin- and machine tax, reforms of the global financial- and credit system, money and the possibilities of complementary currencies, the relation of decisional power and responsibility would be helpful themes.

Hardly any of the current ideas and measures goes in this direction. What will be done are possibly necessary ad-hoc actions that do not put the system in question. The most obvious excesses of the financial markets and their removal and restraint that made this crisis visible would not be really impaired. That was stopped for a long time and is not reconsidered.

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