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The Capitalism of Hopelessness

by Rudolf Sturnberger Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012 at 3:15 AM

Regulated capitalism reached its peak in the class compromise of the 1960s when representatives of workers could put the screws on the steamroller CEOs a little. The enemy and dynamic are lost to capitalism. Capitalism flows into a society without utopia and 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, http://www.heise.de/tp/druck/mb/artikel/35/35385/1.html.]

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

New times need new terms. When things change, thinking usually lags behind temporally until subjects understand what happened. At the moment, it seems, much is at an end and much is in flux. We see the postwar epoch sink and new conditions arise out of the ocean of history – or are they only specters of the past believed dead? Three concepts can be set against the present social changes in a reflexive attempt to classify new phenomena: the capitalism of hopelessness, the barbaric modern age and the genesis of the cooperative sphere.

The capitalism of hopelessness is the capitalism that has lost its enemy. After more than 300 years of its history, it suddenly stands victorious but alone. In former communist countries like Russia and China, it experiences an undreamt-of time of prosperity without a working class at its throat.

On its own and without the corrective of a powerful opposition, capitalism begins to destroy itself with constant and continuing crises. Its favorite occupation, the permanent evaporating of old relations and the permanent revolution of productive forces occurs unrestrained like a moving steamroller without a driver. This capitalism is desperate firstly because it can no longer fulfill its promises of prosperity for the people as in the 1960s. In the old industrial countries, the production of wealth uncouples from the living conditions of its producers. Precariousness in the midst of prosperity is the new sword of Damascenes that hovers over the superfluous of the neoliberal age. The growing number of “minimum achievers” can hardly hope any more for the approval of the “achievers” (Sloterdijk).

Secondly, this capitalism is bleak because it sucks up and neutralizes all utopian energy like a black hole in the universe of ideas. Both the promise of prosperity and the idea of any alternative grow pale in the horizon of concrete capitalism. If comfort is the easing of suffering, there are no promises of salvation any more in this horizon. Only the absurdity of the “Riester-pensions” awaits the German people.

In particular, since the arrival of the capitalist economic form in the England of the 18th century, its dynamic was continuously accompanied by attempts at its negation or at least its taming. Capitalism was like the yin and yang of Taoism. With its force, it always produced a counteracting force. The steam engine and the factory produced the working class. Up to the 2109th century, its organizations – the Social Democratic party in Germany – were united that capitalism should be overcome. Through its cyclical crises, those conditions were produced that press for its abolition.

Across the centuries, worker parties in several revolutions suspended capitalism from time to time. This undertaking was not successful because the evaporating-project of unrestrained capitalism was channeled somewhat. The steamroller was given a helmsman. Regulated capitalism reached its peak in the class compromise of the 1960s when representatives of workers could put the screws on the steamroller CEOs a little.


At the beginning of the 1990s, it was over. “The `magic land’ is burnt out,” Rio travelers sang. The working class has long been merely a “social class on paper,” as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu formulated. Like the English Labor party, the SPD under Gerhard Schroeder was devoted to the project of making people fit for concrete capitalism.

Where mastery and then taming of this economic form was the program in the past, unconditional devotion is now the priority. Social democracy meant the demand that everyone receive the same running shoes before competing in the race amid the current evaporation phases of capitalism and nothing more. The nearly obscene devotion of Schroeder and ex-vice-chancellor Josef Fischer of 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, there are eleven million who earn their livelihood with manual work. They are divided into the worker aristocracy who are corrupted by capital through lucrative supervisory posts and occasional pleasure trips. Workers in the big auto firms and medium-size enterprises profit from the achievements of the past gained through struggle like reasonable wages according to scale, vacation money and protection against unlawful termination but submit to business logic come what may. Workers are 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 fields (Hartz IV is the radical German welfare reform combining unemployment benefits with income support and drastically reducing the duration of benefits. The German Constitutional Court ruled that benefits were insufficient for dignified life).

These workers do not represent a threat to capitalism and are not allied with any utopia any more. Rather it is capitalism itself that threatens. Financial, crises and stock market crashes seem changed into normality. Most “economic experts” cannot think of any explanations for the irrational movements of the financial markets. No air bubbles that are more than cheap comfort leak from the autistic system of theories. Flash-mobs, running amok, individual mass murderers, burning parts of town and plundering are the post-political phenomena of a society without utopia and political alternative. Where social democracy only capitulates to the neoliberal “austerity logic” as in Hungary, forces are ready to cook their little reactionary anti-foreigner or Islamophobic racist and national-ethnic soup with the despair of the voters.


If this picture of the steamroller stands for the relentless nature of the “evaporation” process, the dynamic of the capitalist economic mode may be compared with riding on a tiger. For around 30 years, the Chinese leadership has either been hooked or acquired a taste for this. China shows the unbridled dynamic of this tiger. In contrast, the command socialist planned economy ultimately appeared as an unwieldy and slow tortoise and adopted the capitalist dynamic during the construction years in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. However this riding the tiger is full of dangers. The price for economic dynamism is high. If the reins are too loose, the tiger devours its rider.

Nothing remains of the great social experiment of command socialism… This leftward flight of worker power and rational economic planning from the seething laboratory of old capitalism in the West is historically outdated; the socialist blueprints and plans are faded. Even “organic” economics in the framework of a “people’s community” in which the opposition between capital and labor is supposedly annulled are ideologically blocked by mountains of corpses since the catastrophe of National Socialism.

The tamed Rhine capitalism in its form as a “social market economy” – the fenced-in tiger – of the 1960s and 1970s appears retrospectively to us today as a lost Paradise (which it only was very restrictedly). What remains when we look at the austerity dictatorship of capital occurring in Euro-Europe given the “debt crisis” is a historically unique ideological hopelessness.

Whether a re-regulation of capitalism can stabilize the system again, whether the vast number of workers in Asia’s factories will go the way of social emancipation as in the Europe of the 20th century and whether and how western democracies can be renewed in view of the crises and can resist ethnic anti-social nationalism as in Hunger are still in doubt. The protest movements of the young on the Spanish plazas and elsewhere need answers to their questions and demands so hopelessness can give way to hope.


Konicz, Tomasz, “Democracy in Crisis: The Terror of the Economy is a Danger to Democracy,” July 2012

http://www. capitalismhitsthefan.com





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