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Work- and Social Criticism in the Time of Capitalist Running Amok

by Ernst Lohoff and Maria Wolflingseder Thursday, May. 13, 2010 at 9:41 AM

The term social goes through a fundamental change of meaning. Earlier social described an obligation of society to its members. Today the little word social stands for the caring duty of members of society toward the capitalist machine


By Ernst Lohoff and Maria Wolflingseder

[This article published in 2005 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.streifzuege.org/2004/arbeits-und-sozialkritik-in-zeiten-des-kapitalistischen-amoklaufs.]

No day passes on which politicians, employer associations and so-called economic experts do not offer new proposals to “rescue the social state” and improve the labor market situation. The term “social” undergoes a fundamental change of meaning. Earlier “social” described an obligation of society to its members. Today the little word “social” stands for the caring duty of members of society toward the capitalist mega-machine.

The social state as it developed since the 19th century was focused on collectively cushioning dependent owners of labor power who sell their labor. In all capitalist countries today the consistent individualized surrender or privatization replaces the collective dependence on the market. In the dominant Orwellian newspeak, the motto of this reorganization is “personal responsibility for non-wage labor cost.” If the people finally learn how awful are the blessings of this new freedom and only kneel down in work, then everything will be good. Still the brave new market economy will not bring prosperity for everyone. The brave new market economy only recognizes what can be bought and sold as socially valuable. Everything else is worthless and on principle abandoned to destruction. The so-called plundering economy is established. The capitalist society has a thoroughly irrational and destructive basic character.

The work society arbitrarily declares some activities to be work and others hobbies or private affairs. The activities subsumed under “work” are often completely unnecessary or even absurd for human reproduction. They are time-robbing, nerve-wracking, sickening and massively destructive of nature.

The promises of happiness and freedom are always commodified. We have the freedom to choose between 70 television programs, 30 telephone rates and 20 brands of cat food. We do not have the freedom to live in a healthy environment, eat uncontaminated food and have time and leisure, much less a right to live without a job or without money.


Body and spirit mutate into I-capital and I-shares, into marionettes. Love, sex and sensuality , even sleeping , mutate more and more into productivity factors. Inner emptiness and exhaustion are greater than ever.

More and more views of life and natural resources that previously were not commercialized are pressed in the commodity form as for example the sale of air pollution quotas and the patenting of all human, animal and plant genes. Human organs are traded and children are abducted to be made into capital as a “spare parts store.” Interpersonal love and affected are increasingly gained for money: the form of therapies of all kinds, laughing-, flirting and mourning seminars, messages, partner agencies and prostitution. Parents in the Chechnya border areas give their infants to Austrian and German men through the car window. This shows the huge financial distress.

Isn’t it perverse? No one denies this but everyone plays along. Everyone assumes his role – according to the “practical constraints” as the humanly-contemptuous laws of capitalism are called trivializingly. Everyone knows this cannot continue without bringing more misery and suffering. Nevertheless everyone continues as in the past – as though everything will soon turn to the good. We are all so politically correct but strangely accept all the outrageous madness.


In capitalism, life and sharing social wealth are waste-products or by-products of profit production and integration in the great work treadmill. They cannot and may not be changed. The left has not seriously scratched this dogma up to today. Since the 19th century, the left has referred positively to work. It has fought to help safeguard work and workers. The conflict between reformers and revolutionaries was settled within this horizon. Some want to organize the existing capitalist work treadmill in a more human way and others want their own treadmill.

In the age of mass employment, fighting for better living conditions was always possible under the banner of work. Solidarity existed on the basis of subjection under the work dictate. Given the crisis of the work society, the “right to work” demand has another meaning. The cry for work is the cry to stay in the race in the unfettered competition and in the general destruction competition at any price. In the crisis of the work society, work turns out to be anti-social and disconnecting from the first. No one can escape the competition principle in capitalism. This is because of the basic character of this form of society, not deficient good will.

The demand for more human living conditions can only mean today: attack on the rule of work and the economy. If there should be solidarity again, common resistance against the terror of work and the economy is absolutely essential.


We live in a society that can produce more and more goods with less and less labor. Why should only those who manage to hold a job share in the overflowing material riches? The full employment perspective is a mirage. The time when capital craved massive living labor is over. This fact is constantly hallucinated away and unemployment redefined as a private guilt of the many unemployed. This should be deconstructed, exposed and criticized. The economy knows only one command: minimizing individual operational costs. Nature, workers and society have to pay a high price for this minimization and the price constantly increases. Politics and the economy regard it as self-evident that economic criteria have precedence before all others.

Whoever wants to do something against these crazes cannot be satisfied with criticizing the political and economic rulers. The crazes of the present discussion are rooted in the mad basic structures of the capitalist society. Criticizing the rule of work means thematicizing this basic structure. This represents a fundamental shift of perspective over against traditional anti-capitalism that can only be intimated here. As everybody knows, the “exploitation of labor” always stood in the center of traditional anti-capitalism. Capital was criticized for appropriating the wealth gained by others. But the real problem lies deeper, namely in the character of social riches under capitalist conditions.

Wealth always exists in two forms in modern capitalist society, as physical material wealth and as money-wealth. Like every other society, this society cannot manage without producing goods. As to accumulating mountains of material goods, the capitalist society is enormously superior to all its predecessors. But physical-material wealth never exists alone in capitalist society. It only has a right to exist as a representative of its matching piece, abstract money-wealth. But the money-wealth of society ultimately arises out of living labor capitalistically exploited.

The functioning of capitalist society depends on this strange logic, not whether it can supply consumer durables for everyone, which is not a problem. Its functioning stands and falls with its absorbing enough living labor, capital and money. This is a massive problem or more exactly a problem that cannot be solved. The possibility for producing material goods in no way disappears with the crisis of work. Rather it marks the historical point at which physical-material wealth and money-wealth go their separate ways and cannot be harmonized any more. Therefore the general financing crisis is not an invention of evil-minded rulers. It is the logical consequence of the uncoupling of wealth production from labor.

The demand that politics take more responsibility again testifies to little knowledge about the nature of capitalism. The murderous commodity logic has become universal. What should politics accomplish today? Politics and democracy became great hand in hand with capital. They are unshakably bound to one another. No one wants to see that democracy, market economy and (human) rights are only the appendix of capitalism. Modern democratic consciousness is an expression of the universal commodified thinking that no longer recognizes its own limits. Therefore every solution of social problems can only be conceived on the basis of labor and money in the scope of economic growth. Most people cannot even imagine a self-determined production and distribution of goods without exchange and without pressure. Where does the panicky fear of thinking beyond the death-bringing logic of the capitalist system come from?

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