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Please Disrupt Capitalism! and The Return of Hope

by Andreja Schneider-Dorr and Horst Eberlein Wednesday, May. 01, 2019 at 2:38 PM

The old quotation from Gramsci describes our plight: "The old dies and the new cannot come into the world. It is the time of the monster." The Good News is that the time of no alternatives is over. The Bad News is that the wrong alternatives are discussed.


By Andreja Schneider-Dorr

[This 2017 article is translated abridged on the Internet, www.linksnet.de.]

The future is booming. Reflections on how digitalization will structure our life and work are poured over us like the billions of venture capital that Silicon Valley invests in start-ups. Old and new questions about our economic order are joined to these future visions. First, we will look at the thesis of ending capitalism. Then we look at turbo-capitalism that seems to be fueled by digitalization. How can we become the heroes of the storyline?

The end of capitalism again and again

This is not the first time in the history of capitalism that its end is envisioned. Many express their doubts and misgivings. Jeremy Rifkin sees the zero marginal cost society coming (2014). Wolfgang Streeck analyzes how market expansion strikes its natural limits and commendably gives up on big visions. There are many insightful opinions on the end of capitalism. Those said to be dead live longer.

Everything is possible if we make the effort. That was and is the general narrative of capitalism for many people while a part of the cake. There were several system crashes while everyone still wants the part of the cake subject to the performance dictates. People slaved away under disgusting conditions during the beginnings of industrtialization and its wretched misery. Working- and living conditions became tolerable thanks to the common union struggle for social security and better wages.

The economic miracle of Germany with the social market economy in the 1960s brought many people more social security and prosperity. But life went downhill from the 1970s: the inflation crisis, state indebtedness, growing unemployment and dismantling social rights. The 1990s were years of budget consolidation and the nascent austerity policy. The Dot.com bubble at the beginning of the 2000s triggered an even greater crash, the 2007 financial market crisis. Past crises of capitalism always appeared in phases. Crises reduce resources and possibilities. Everything will be better afterwards. However, the last downturn was seen as the worst capitalist crisis since the 2nd World War. The crisis reveals systemic errors and is not only a crisis cycle. The further decline of growth, the continuing rise of total indebtedness and the growing inequality of income and wealth together fuel a race to the bottom. Instead of genuine reforms, there is an abundance of cheap money. On first view, that may be good and salutary. Germany has a record 44.3 million employed persons and the economy grows almost two percent.

Capitalism and democracy do not seem to like each other. To Germans, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz sees “an economically-based fear” in the unjust distribution of income and taxes. The government underrated the importance of a decent income for the dignity of the person (interview with Stiglitz in sueddeutschen.de, 10/18/2017). Record employment does not mean good jobs and minimum wage does not mean a good wage. Somehow, the diffuse sense that something has fallen apart is everywhere.

In further observations on the life and death in the capitalism tragedy, it seems capitalism has found a new playmate to cause even more folly: digitalization.

Capitalism and digitalization leading the way

For many decades, business has been the crucial place for the production of goods and services…

Business as a coordination form had such success that most economic activities and state regulatory efforts were oriented in business. Protective measures for working persons developed along the assumptions: a person works in service of another and is obliged to foreign-determined work in personal dependence.

In the course of digitalization, business models arise that do without entrepreneurship and without employees.

The business model of our time is the platform. The following dictum is almost the definition of the platform economy: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi enterprise, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. And Airbrb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.” This is the advantage of the platform economy over conventional markets: “The Internet is the most powerful mechanism we can imagine to perfectly match individuals needing something and people with something to offer…”

How do the superstars gain their incredible market power? They are celebrated as disrupters of the old economy. Established businesses can be destroyed by disrupting technologies of up-and-coming businesses. The established business recognizes the potential and faces the dilemma without knowing whether to continue with its established business model or to invest in new disrupting business fields…

Is the person the hero of the storyline?

Seen in the light, digital capitalism does not celebrate disruption or the network effect. It celebrates the dismantling of social protection, that branches are destroyed that brought people livelihoods. Profits arising in these business models by trampling on social rights must not be celebrated as disruptive. They despise persons who only serve as a controllable mass for the platforms – whether through our data or through our labor. This is not digital capitalism introducing a revolution in favor of humanity. This is digital feudalism that can subject our life to a hard test. Alone we cannot survive. How can we be heroes of the storyline?

Not cuddling to Silicon Valley would be a start. A social security net does not suddenly become worthless. Risks like sickness, old age, accident, removal and personal bad luck are not only individual.

Instead, we should demand our rights and craft new rights… The European Union would do well to create rights here and guarantee minimum standards in the platform economy. Monopolies should not be supported. Cooperatives must be promoted. We become heroes of the storyline through enlightenment and data protection. We accept amenities and comforts of our brilliant gadgets without knowing what we triggered. Do we buy because Google, Facebook and Amazon want this? Do we pay a fair price?

Do we freely decide at the end or do others decide?


By Horst Eberlein

[This article published on February 5, 2017 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet, https://religionskritik.blog.rosalux.de.]

The future is lost. The neoliberal utopia is exhausted along with leftist alternatives. The decades of a conservative-orthodox neoliberalism from Thatcher to Kohl and its generalization under the Blair to Schroeder governments and finally its authoritarian deepening and anchoring in the crisis years have brought about social inequalities and a polarization of society that can hardly be controlled. The structural crisis is not solved and cannot be solved in the old frameworks. The attempts to stabilize financial market capitalism only prolong the agony and tear apart the European Union and our societies. However, the situation is not marked by awakening. Rather, the old quotation from Gramsci is valid. “The old dies and the new cannot come into the world. It is the time of the monster.” The New Right in its different forms is such a monster.

The political field is polarized between a liberal and an illiberal capitalism, between defending globalized capitalism with changed means (Clinton, Merkel, May and so forth) and turning to a social-national and authoritarian ethno-racist fortress capitalism (Trump, Le Pen, Petry and so forth). The good news is that the time of no alternatives is over. The bad news is that the wrong alternatives are discovered. A solidarity-democratic response to the crisis was missing up to now. The “loss of a general positive idea of the good” dominates (Eribon).

The need for this idea of the good is great. New movements and initiatives constantly put this idea on the agenda. Occupy Wall Street and the campaign for Bernie Sanders, the battle for the Labor Party that often flared up, the militant strike against the new labor laws in France, the Indignados and the rise of Podemos in Spain, the projects for self-organization and solidarity structures like the battles for a leftist government in Greece are examples. The welcoming initiatives for those fleeing to Germany, the demonstrations against CETA and TTIP and the De-growth movement are striking. Many urge a new politics of the good life. But the integrating power helping the new in the world is lacking in Germany, the neoliberal power center of the EU. The unifying power for a change of political direction lacks the solidarity of many. Constituting and making visible the democratic camp or solidarity is the common strategic challenge of the left. Hope and power must meet in a third pole, a pole of solidarity to intervene effectively in the hegemonial constellation, the current line of conflict between “above” and the right wing.

Times of excruciatingly slow developments and sudden turns for the worse

The last decades were only seemingly times of stability. In reality, the international situation has become more threatening. Wars break out or smolder at the southern and eastern borders of the EU. States are destroyed and disintegrate. The attempts to integrate the EU through markets and the Euro brought the EU project to the edge of collapse.

Fear and uncertainty grow where hope for prosperity and social participation prevailed two-and-a-half decades ago. Life cannot continue this way. Politics is now in a permanent crisis mode and state of emergency out of the creative policy of neoliberalism. Years ago one could say barbarism crawled up to us. Now it is running or jogging.

This situation produces tensions that erupted more and more frequently in the last years. Leftist politics must stop combining long-term defensive battlers with very fast acting in open situations. The “proxy war” can quickly become a “movement war” and a standstill. Still, the left is not prepared intellectually, organizationally or politically for a conflicting strategy of changing moments.

We are in a situation in which no change of direction is possible but rather modifications – right-wing and left-wing, authoritarian and democratic. Intense inequality, classes and dislocations in the “descent society” (Nachtwey) are vigorously discussed again. Ever-greater investment programs will be debated as well as lowering the pension age or the displacement of subcontracted labor and precarious employment. In foreign policy, agitators and those seeking cooperative solutions face one another. Some modifications were already achieved: the minimum wage and more flexible rules for pensions at 67. More of this is possible, partial concessions to take the edge off the growing protest without changing the fundamental orientation of politics. The oligarchic power structures of politics, companies and advisory agencies, fortified interests of parts of organized workers and regional locations and institutional blockades reinforce one another on global, EU and nation-state planes. A change of direction must be paid for and this is impossible with the continuance of the austerity policy.

But a neoliberal continuance is not secure. The crisis is too deep. The left must adjust to a political crisis where the ruling elites cannot continue as in the past and previous policy seems neither effective nor legitimate. Therefore, the resistance increases enormously under the banner of the New Right. A new severe financial crisis and economic crises are conceivable at any time, the acute aggravation of international conflicts (even among the super-powers) or massive terrorist attacks, devastating environmental catastrophes and the fast disintegration of the EU after the French presidential election – these results are possible. This has provoked a nervous tension among the rulers that shakes their foundations. The rulers see themselves challenged by the New Right and increasingly share the hopes of the New Right.

In today’s situation, all past ideas about leftist policy are put to a test. A perspective of changing direction to the left seems almost hopeless and yet is increasingly urgent and socio-ecological transformation increasingly urgent and more acute. How can the left adjust to these contradictions?

Saying what is is the first revolutionary act. What the left in Germany needs first of all is a consistent analysis and an open strategic discussion… A common action and power perspective must be created and cannot arise spontaneously… This requires uniting perspectives that make possible a common narrative and corresponding practices, not petty polarizing debates. Clarity must be gained to avoid sinking in the broth of endless ambiguities with which anything and everything can be justified.

The three battle lines of the left in this crisis

The social left faces three battle lines in a complicated situation. Firstly, it must defend liberal democracy which it has always rightly criticized on account of its miniaturization to a formal democracy with formal political equality and limited to the political field. The loss of this democracy would open the door to open barbarism. Secondly, it must protest social democracy in its narrowed social-democratic form of a redistributing, paternalistic social state. Its authoritarian “modernization” and austerity policy erosion had a threefold effect.

The left cannot only resist attacks on liberal social democracy. It must, thirdly, develop its own solidarity praxis of social organization and become a charismatic third pole, a pole of solidarity…

The strategic tasks of the left…

Initiatives of a new emancipative and democratic form of the social state could be developed… In today’s situation, the governing political caste, the corporations and the super-rich, have refused to finance the community. Our situation is also marked by the normality of corruption and greed, the competition fetish that tears asunder what is common, the web of society – and against its political twin, the radicalizing right-wing populism that seeks protection at the expense of degrading other social groups, preaches hatred and sows violence.

In contrast, we are working on an end of capitalism, on a society Bernie Sanders calls socialism. Free health care, education and affordable housing for every one is part of that vision, free public services from libraries to local public transportation, democratic discussions on the ecological reconstruction of cities, transportation, energy supply and agriculture and much more time for one another and for life… Ways in capitalism leading beyond capitalism are vital… the word socialism is expressible again…

We should make clear how we feel. The right-wing works

with fear, resentment and hatred. We must emphasize solidarity and hope as concrete praxis, not as an appeal… A political left without a strong independent and critical social left anchored in the neighborhoods, enterprise initiatives and movements must fail. The warm stream of hope can draw strength from the experience of solidarity and self-empowerment can speak differently about government…

Tolerance and working in the third pole

When is it possible for the opposition to influence government policy and when is it impossible to form a leftist government because the social and political forces are lacking. A government participation of the Left Party on the federal plane is prohibited. Renunciation on a real politik that takes seriously the claim of fundamental political change would be completely different. The left cannot afford the luxury of nursing and spreading illusions…

We should raise very simple questions: Can pensions protect people from poverty? Is austerity policy responsible? Can the financial sector be rebuilt? Is state investment necessary? Are social and ecological investment programs vital? Should the dominance of the export models be abandoned? What constitutes a real peace policy?

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