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"The Great Transformation Has Begun"

by Fabian Scheidler Monday, Sep. 07, 2015 at 4:21 AM

The core of this system, its over-arching law, is the endless accumulation of capital. That is its main goal to which everything else is subordinated. Persons and nature are used to make more money out of money. Therefore we are degraded to little wheels in this machine.


Interview with Fabian Scheidler

[This interview published on 8/18/2015 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.heise.de/tp/druck/mb/artikel/45/45727/1.html.]

[Fabian Scheidler, born in 1968, studied history and philosophy at the Free University of Berlin and theater at the Academy for Music and the Performing Arts in Frankfurt/ M. Since 2001 he has worked as a freelance author. In 2009 he founded the independent magazine Kontext TV [1] with David Goessmann that produces regular broadcasts on questions of global justice. In 2009 he was awarded the Otto-Brunner media prize for critical journalism. In 2010 he was program coordinator for the Attac Bank Tribunal. His book “The End of the Mega-Machine. History of a Failed Civilization” [2] (2015) uncovers the roots of destructive forces threatening the human future today.]

In your book, you use the picture of a gigantic worldwide machine, the mega-machine, for today’s capitalist world system. Can you illustrate this? Are you aiming at technical aspects or is it a rule term?

Fabian Scheidler: Mega-machine is a metaphor for an economic, political, military and ideological system that arose 500 years ago in Europe and has spread over the whole globe since then. We grew up with the myth that Europe is the starting point for all progress, that we brought science, freedom, democracy, prosperity and civilization to the world. In my book, I go a step further and break down this myth and show the expansion of the mega-machine from the start was connected with extreme violence, inequality and destruction of nature and that many of today’s global crises arise out of this dynamic.

This system is known under different names – capitalist world economy, modern world system, the “modern age” and so on. I use the metaphor of a machine because this system seems to function partly like a machine when one looks at the international division of labor, the financial system, the global energy supply and media- or military machines that are all closely linked together.

The core of this system, its overarching law, is the endless accumulation of capital. That is its main goal to which everything else is subordinated. Persons and nature are used to make more money out of money. Therefore we are degraded to little wheels in that machine.

Obviously the metaphor cannot be taken literally because the system ultimately consists of people who do not cease being human beings while partially relating like machine parts. Most areas of life are infected by the power of the machine. Still we have freedoms, a life beyond the machine and that is important to defend and expand.

Aren’t you a little too optimistic? To me, it seems the last non-capitalist niches, the last free spaces, are disappearing in the crisis. Everything seems subjected to the exploitation logic, even the subculture. Where do you see a “life beyond the machine”?

Fabian Scheidler: Pressure, commercialization and exploitation are all increasing – but not without reaction in the long run. History does not run linear. Look at southern Europe. There is enormous rebellion and new subcultures in southern Europe as in the US.

Resistance, the will to freedom, begins in the head. We can see how faith in the system slowly crumbles and partly collapses. The glamour is gone; people increasingly see the violence and meaninglessness behind it. The ideological power which is an important part of rule fades. Where this is going is completely uncertain but the tears in the system are clearer and clearer.


The long-term approach of your book is very interesting. You trace back the genesis of the present system over a long historical time period. How far back do the “origins” of the “mega-machine” go?

Fabian Scheidler: The origins of the capitalist world economy reach back to the late middle Ages. The highly militarized city-states of Genoa and Venice were two nuclei or germ cells that developed into trading empires at that time and extended from Spain to Crimea. A considerable part of their wealth came from predatory attacks. Genoa and Venice financed many of the crusades including their massacres and gained a part of the spoils, monopolies and military bases as profits. The trading houses then founded banks that lent some of this captured wealth to states and not only to other traders.

There is the stubborn myth that state and the market are antagonists and that capitalism developed out of the pioneering spirit of free and peaceable traders beyond state despotism. But capital and the modern state were closely linked from the start. They developed together in a co-evolutionary way and could never manage without each other. The owners of capital need the physical power of the state for their forceful expansion and for quelling resistance in the population against the increasing exploitation that was enormous from the beginning. And the states need the commercial- and financial capital to finance their mercenary armies.

The modern state was above all a military- and repression machine and required vast amounts of money to build new armies to conquer the world with hundreds of thousands of soldiers and massive cannons. This interlocking of the military state and the logic of money exploitation then produced the incredible aggressiveness of the system that pervades the whole history of the last 500 years.

The Conquista, the violent conquest of Central- and South America, was financed by the banks in Genoa, Augsburg and Antwerp. The tremendous amounts of gold and silver that were seized there were their “return on investment” and drove the European money economy. For America’s Indigenes, the result was the greatest genocide by then recorded in human history. State and economic force were often concentrated in the same hands, for example in early limited stock companies that developed modern colonial empires through their own armies with their own state machines on the debris of the regions they conquered.

You go far back to early antiquity to portray the genesis of power and rule. What in your opinion is the fundamental qualitative breach between capitalism and the earlier social formations in antiquity or the middle Ages?

Fabian Scheidler: In antiquity, there were already trading systems that were closely connected with the militarized state. The invention of coin money played an important role, first made possible large permanent mercenary armies and led to a vast commercialization of the Mediterranean area. Without this invention, the Roman Empire with its gigantic armies would not have been conceivable.

Nevertheless the modern world is different in several essential points. In the mega-machine, capital accumulation becomes independent and automated as an institution with its own logic. In Rome, there was also a huge accumulation of wealth in a few hands but there was a stable end-point, a maximum expansion of the empire and of wealth. The stability of this state had the highest political priority. But the mega-machines demand endless expansion and endless growth.

One of the reasons for this is that the relation of state and private capital is different. Expressed in a simplified way, the state in Rome could control the economy in an authoritarian way while internationally-organized owners of capital in individual nation-states in the modern age have driven the world into a mad location competition and a military competition, enormously fueling the accumulation process.

One peculiarity of the mega-machine is that it began to open up completely new sources of energy, namely coal and later oil. This has given the machine the technical means to rule the whole planet – and gives us the climate disaster today.

Why was hard coal known since antiquity suddenly burnt in England from the 18th century? This can only be understood from the internal dynamic of the system. Production, particularly metal- and armament production, hit their energetic limits at that time. Charcoal was scarce and expensive. Therefore new sources of energy were feverishly sought to accumulate more and build new cannons. Coal was the solution.

The internal logic of institutions is more powerful than their supposed helmsmen.

Who “controls” this monstrous machine? Is it simply the ruling class or do you see a systemic internal dynamic at work here?

Fabian Scheidler: The mega-machine arose out of forces that sought new methods for building and maintaining their wealth and their power. They succeeded in a spectacular way at the expense of the majority of the world population. But there was no master plan for this.

The modern world system emerged from a centuries-long struggle of different forces with- and against each other: merchants, bankers, sovereigns, factory owners, landowners, churches and warlords, not out of conspiracy. From the beginning, there was massive resistance against the capitalist production method and against expulsions, enclosures and wage slavery. This struggle has marked and changed the system again and again, from the Peasant Wars, the French Revolution, the workers- and women’s movements, the anti-colonial liberation movements to 1968. What emerged is so complex and inconsistent that it evades a planned and predictable control even if elites constantly try to guide it.

Rule in this system means a certain hegemony – at least temporarily – in three central areas, the physical power of the state, the structural power of the economy – property, money and debts – and ideological power as exercised by the educational system, the media, political parties and so on. Rule, however, does not mean that its dynamic can be really controlled.

But even people who enjoy the backing of all these powers are often driven by the system without controlling or ruling it. The CEO of a large stock corporation for example is part of a massive machinery. If he misses the profit goal, the company simply spits him out. Ultimately he is only an exchangeable wheel or cog, even if a well-paid cog. The internal logic of institutions is more powerful than its supposed helmsmen. Therefore decrying the greed of individual bankers does not help us. We have to change the institutional logic, the genetic code of the system.

This mega-machine, the capitalist exploitation machine, hits its developmental limits ever more intensely. You speak of ecological and social inner limits. Can you illustrate that?

Fabian Scheidler: The system-immanent limits are economic, social and political. After the postwar boom, the world economy in the mid 1970s skidded into a deep crisis. The accumulation machine stuttered and the profits collapsed. The response was what we know today as “neoliberalism”: forcing wages down, ruining unions, privatizations, flight into low-wage countries, tax havens, financial speculation and so forth.

This restored the profits of big businesses and the class power of the top one-percent. However the other side of this is that people do not have the money any more to buy all the goods and services, at least not at profitable prices. Therefore debts must be piled up everywhere to keep the system going. Consumers must become indebted to keep consuming despite low wages. States must become indebted to compensate for missing tax revenues. Banks have created gigantic debt-domino systems. Such debt bubbles obviously burst some time or other as in the 2007-2009 financial crisis. As a rule, states take over these debts and shift them to the population.

Financial crises become state crises and political crises as in the euro crisis. The point is: the more owners of capital can enforce their short-term interests, the more they destabilize the system from which they live in the long term. Then another process obtrudes. Human work is increasingly replaced by technology. The service positions of the middle class are impacted by computerization, not only farming and industry. The consequence of both processes is a global structural mass unemployment that spreads more and more. In southern Europe, youth unemployment is over 50 percent. The system only expands without giving people a perspective. This obviously leads to social revolt, political crises, turmoil and chaos.

The other limit of the system is ecological. Like every other social system, the capitalist world economy is a sub-system of the biosphere. Everything we do in every moment depends on functioning life-saving systems of the earth: water, breath of air, a tolerable climate, food intake, energy etc.

The logic of endless accumulation forces a constant economic expansion and this expansion destroys the life-saving systems globally at a breath-taking speed. This is true for the supply of freshwater, the soil, forests, oceans and the diversity of species and not only for the climate. Recent studies show we have already started the fastest extinction of species in the history of life on earth. Every year we are losing one percent of our arable soil through industrial farming. The West of the US and North China are moving into a gigantic freshwater crisis – and these are only a few examples. Climate change makes all this much worse.

These ecological crises appear in interaction with the economic, political and social crises. The civil war in Syria for example was kindled by a climate-conditioned drought that eclipses all past reality. The result is more chaos and this chaos undermines the extremely complex, vulnerable, worldwide system that depends on an uninterrupted supply of energy, material and money and needs a minimum in political stability. System breakdowns arise that trigger uncontrollable chain-reactions when these necessary supplies are interrupted by financial crises, energy crises and revolts. We will undoubtedly experience this more and more in the coming centuries.

What is crazy is that this machinery cannot be stopped or throttled.

Do you see an interaction between inner and outer limits of capital? Doesn’t the increasing productivity of the “mega-machine” fuel the squandering of resources since exploitation of value is the irrational end-in-itself of this running amok monster machine?

Fabian Scheidler: Yes, endlessly increased productivity as an end-in-itself to make more money out of money drives us to the ecological and material limits and undermines the economic basis because it makes humans superfluous. What is mad is that this machinery cannot be stopped or throttled. Whoever curbs productivity is punished by the markets and falls behind. Everyone is caught in this hamster wheel. Everyone is pushing the wheel although we are going to hit the wall in this way.

You devote a whole chapter of your book to exiting from the mega-machine. How is a transformational process possible?

Fabian Scheidler: Transformation will happen in any case, whether we want it or not. The question is only what it looks like and where it leads. What comes could be worse than what we have now. That is entirely possible.

In the EU, a new form of authoritarian regime is marked out, a dictatorship of creditors in conjunction with a plundering economy. At the same time we see a corridor of failed states from central Africa to the Middle East, from the Congo, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. Warlords and the mafia rule there. This is also true for the Ukraine and Mexico that according to the neoliberal drastic cure has long been the spoils of rival gangster bands.

Where the journey goes depends on all of us, on whether we can build new forms of the economy and cooperative life and at the same time successfully resist repression, expropriation and exploitation. In my book, I show a series of promising initiatives, small and large, for example building the great networks of solidarity economy as in Brazil or the remarkable wave of cooperatives in the energy sector. The supply of vital necessities like housing, food, health care, water, education, energy, communication and culture must be delivered from the profit logic and the market in the long run and re-organized.

New forms of political organization are crucial so such forms of self-organization can actually catch on and not be washed away by the whirlpool of crisis events. Self-organization is needed where cracks in the system appear to fill political spaces and create framing conditions for another economy. However we are still far removed from this. The World Social Forum is an attempt but it has lost some of its dynamism in the last years.

But I think there will be new attempts to join together the different movements for an exit from the mega-machine. The great transformation has just begun. One of its qualities is that nothing can’t be predicted.

The decline and fall of the most powerful and most dangerous system ever witnessed in world history is occurring before our eyes.

This “transformation struggle” is obviously underway with incredible brutality in the collapsing periphery of the capitalist world system. Do you believe this fall into barbarism in the centers and the periphery can be prevented? Can we organize a democratic and civilized transformation process? In other words, command socialism imploded relatively peacefully without the world plunging in an ocean of fire. Can command capitalism also implode?

Fabian Scheidler: The downfall of command socialism cannot be compared with the downfall of the capitalist world-system. The eastern bloc – at least in the last decades of its existence – was part of this system in some regards, even if many do not want to see this until today. Its downfall happened in a somewhat controlled way with the help of people on the other side of the Iron Curtain who waited for this opportunity. A functioning greater system could simply swallow the East.

What we have now is a downfall of the most powerful and most dangerous system ever experienced in world history – and this is a very different dimension. This system is global and there is no substitute system. I do not think a more guided, planned and controlled transition to something else is possible. Who would control this? What would be the end? This cannot happen without great breaches and without chaotic phases.

The question is who is gaining the upper hand in this chaos. Today’s elites are fighting with all means to keep their privileges and their power. In the long run, they will not be afraid to collaborate with ultra-right forces and are partly already doing this. If we remain passive and simply wait and see what comes, they will have an easy job. But we have a chance if a critical number of people begin to intervene and organize for a more just and more humane world.

The problem is we have largely forgotten self-organization. We expect electricity comes from the wall socket, that someone will give us jobs and that politicians will represent our interests when we cross ourselves every four years. What a very strange idea! But we cannot continue this way in the long run. We must take our life in hand and that can be hard work.


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