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The Capitalism of Hopelessness

by Rudolf Sturnberger Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2011 at 3:19 AM

The capitalism of hopelessness is a capitalism where the enemy is lost, where capitalism can no longer fulfill its promise of prosperity for the people as in the 1960s and where capitalism neutralizes all utopian energy and alternatives. Public jobs must be created in the emergency.


The enemy and the dynamic of capitalism are lost. Capitalism flows into a society without utopia and political alternative

By Rudolf Sturnberger

[This article published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis 8/29/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

New times require new terms. When things change, thinking commonly lags behind until people understand what is happening. At present many things seem to be at an end and much is in a state of flux. We see the sinking postwar epoch and new conditions arising from the ocean of history. Or are they only the specters of the past believed to be dead? Three concepts or abstractions are offered here as an attempt at classifying the new phenomena: the capitalism of hopelessness, the barbaric modern and the genesis of the communal sphere.

The capitalism of hopelessness is a capitalism where the enemy is lost. After more than 300 years of its history, capitalism stands suddenly victorious but alone. In former communist countries like Russia or China, it experiences an unexpected prosperity. A working class that wants to seize capitalism by the throat does not exist any more.

All alone and without the corrective of a powerful opposition, capitalism begins to destroy itself with continuing and persistent crises. Its favorite occupation, the permanent vaporization of old conditions and the permanent revolution of the productive forces occurs in a volatile and unbridled way like a moving steamroller without a driver. Firstly, this capitalism is hopeless because it can no longer fulfill its promises of prosperity for the people as in the 1960s. Rather the production of wealth in the old industrial countries is uncoupled from the living conditions of the producers. Precariousness in the midst of prosperity is the new sword of Damocles that hovers over the superfluous of the neoliberal age. The growing number of “under-achievers” can hardly hope any more for the approval of the “achievers” (Sloterdijk).

This capitalism is also hopeless for another reason because it sucks up and neutralizes all utopian energy in the universe of ideas like a black hole. Thus the promise of prosperity and the picture of any alternative fade in the horizon of concrete capitalism. If comfort is the mitigation of suffering, there are no promises of salvation any more in this horizon. Only the absurdity of the German “Riester pensions” still waits.

Capitalism’s dynamic was continuously accompanied by attempts at its negation or at least its taming since the origin of the capitalist economic form in the England of the 18th century. Capitalism was always like the Yin and Yang of Taoism. With its force, it always produced a counter-acting force. The steam engine and the factory produced the working class and its organizations agreed up to the 20th century that capitalism would be overcome. Through its cyclical crises, capitalism produced those permanent conditions that press for its repeal.

Across the centuries, worker parties labored on that repeal. Capitalism was suspended in several revolutions. This undertaking was not really successful since the vaporization project of unrestricted capitalism was channeled somewhat through social legislation and other regulations. Regulated capitalism reached its peak in the class compromise of the 1960s when representatives of workers could join in the leadership of the steamroller and turn the screw a little.


The compromise was over at the beginning of the 1990s. “The wonderland has burnt out,” Rio Resser said. In any case the working class had long become merely a “social class on paper” as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued. Like the English Labor party, the SPD under Gerhard Schroeder was devoted to the project of making persons fit for concrete capitalism.

Unconditional devotion now replaces the earlier overcoming and then taming of this economic form. Social democracy was reduced to the demand that everyone receive the same running shoes before entering the race in the current evaporation phase of capitalism. There is nothing else. The nearly obscene devotion of Schroeder and ex-vice-chancellor Josef Fischer from the Greens to capital in the form of director- and advisor-posts after their political careers is the biographical dimension of this intellectual capitulation.

Workers continue to exist in hopeless capitalism. In Germany, around eleven million earn their money with manual work. They are divided in the worker aristocracy who are corrupted by lucrative supervisory posts and occasional pleasure trips and the regular personnel in the mammoth automobile firms and medium-size enterprises. They profit from the past achievements gained by fighting like reasonable pay, vacation money and protection from unlawful termination. They are subject to the booms and busts of business logic. “One” is in competition with other nations, regions and locations. Lastly, there is the increasing precariousness of subcontracted workers, insecure employees and the “uncoupled” (cf. the French sociologist Robert Castel) of the Hartz IV realm (Hartz IV is the German welfare reform that combined income support and unemployment benefits, radically reduced the duration of benefits and was recently declared inhuman by the German constitutional court).

These workers do not represent a threat to capitalism any more and no utopia is associated with them. Rather capitalism threatens itself. The financial crises and stock market crashes seem changed into normality. No explanations on the irrational movements of the financial markets occur to the socialized “economic experts.” No air bubbles leak anymore from the autistic system of theories of neoliberal economics as cheap comfort. Flash mobs, running amok, individual mass murders, burning parts of town and pillages are the post-political phenomena of a society without utopia and political alternatives. Where social democracy only served the neoliberal “austerity logic” as in Hungary, forces are ready to cook their little reactionary, anti-foreigner, Islamophobic, racist and ethnic soup.


If the picture of the steamroller stands for the inexorability of the “evaporation” process, the dynamic of the capitalist mode can be compared with riding a tiger. For around 30 years, the Chinese leadership has insisted what happens in China shows the raging dynamic of this tiger. In contrast, the socialist planned economy seems like a clumsy and sluggish turtle even if the building years in the Soviet Union of the 1930s had a capitalist dynamic. Still this ride on the tiger is full of dangers. The price for economic dynamism is high. Since the reins are too loose, the tiger devours its rider.

Nothing remains of the great social experiment of commu8nal socialism with the exception of North Korea. Perhaps all previously socialist-defined countries like Vietnam and Cuba will try to exploit the tiger for themselves after the collapse of the former eastern block. From the bubbling laboratory of the old concrete capitalism in the West, this escape route to the left toward worker power and national economic planning is historically antiquated. The socialist blueprints and plans have faded. Since the catastrophe of National Socialism, the rightwing end of “organic” economics in the framework of an “ethnic community” in which the opposition between capital and labor is supposedly annulled is ideological and blocked by mountains of corpses.

Retrospectively the tamed Rhine capitalism as the “social market economy” of the 1960s and 1970s – the tiger powerfully fenced in – appears to us today as a lost paradise (which it was only very conditionally). What is left when we look at the austerity dictatorship of capital carried out in Euro-Europe given the debt crisis is a historically unique and ideological hopelessness.

Whether a new regulation of capitalism can stabilize the system again, whether the working multitudes in Asia’s factories take the path of social emancipation as in the Europe of the 20th century and whether and how the western democracies can be renewed in view of the crises and ward off an ethnic, anti-social nationalism as in Hungary remain open questions. The protest movements of the young on the Spanish plazas and elsewhere need immediate answers to their questions and demands so hopelessness can give way to hope.

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