THE LAST STAGE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS
From the classic petty bourgeoisie to universal human capital
published in the Folha de São Paulo
by Robert Kurz
[This article published in Sept 2004 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://exit-online.org/textanz1.php?tabelle=autoren&posnr=176.]
Since the mid-1980s, postmodern discourse has dominated the global theoretical discussion for almost two decades, especially on the left. The critique of political economy was replaced by the critique of language, and the analysis of objective material conditions by the arbitrariness of subjective interpretation; traditional leftist economism was replaced by an equally shortened leftist culturalism, and social conflict was replaced by media simulation. In the meantime, however, the situation has changed radically. The economic crisis is now also affecting large social strata in the West that had previously been spared. Therefore, the social question is returning to the intellectual discourse.
But the interpretations remain strangely pale and seem almost anachronistic. The polarization between rich and poor, which is inexorably intensifying, has not yet found a new term. When the traditional Marxist concept of "class" suddenly becomes popular, it is rather a sign of helplessness. In the traditional understanding, the "working class", which produces the surplus value, has been exploited by the "capitalist class" through "private ownership of the means of production". None of these terms can accurately represent the problems of today.
The new poverty is not created by exploitation in production, but by exclusion from production. Those still employed in regular capitalist production are already among the relatively privileged. The problematic and "dangerous" mass of society is no longer defined by its "position in the production process" but by its position in secondary, derived areas of circulation and distribution. These are the permanently unemployed, recipients of state transfer payments, or cheap service providers in the areas of outsourcing, up to and including miserable entrepreneurs, street vendors, and waste collectors. By legal standards, these forms of reproduction are increasingly irregular, insecure and often illegal; employment is irregular; incomes are at or below the subsistence level.
Conversely, it is no longer possible to define a "capitalist class" in the old sense according to the standards of classical "private ownership of the means of production". In the form of the state apparatuses and infrastructures as well as in the form of the large (today transnational) stock corporations, capital appears in a certain sense as socialized and anonymized; it has turned out to be an abstract form of the whole of society that can no longer be personalized. "Capital" is not a group of legal owners, but the common principle by which the life and actions of all members of society are determined not only externally, but also in their own subjectivity.
In and through the crisis, a structural transformation of capitalist society takes place once again, dissolving the old, apparently clear social situations. The core of the crisis is precisely the fact that the new productive forces of microelectronics are melting away labor and thus the very substance of capital. The increasing reduction of the industrial working class is creating less and less real added value. Monetary capital is fleeing into the speculative financial markets because investment in new factories has become unprofitable. While growing sections of society outside of production are impoverished or even impoverished, only a simulative accumulation of capital through financial bubbles is taking place.
Logically, this is nothing new, because this development has been shaping global capitalism for two decades. What is new, however, is that now the middle class in the western countries is also getting under the wheels. The US-American essayist Barbara Ehrenreich had already published a book in 1989 about "the middle class' fear of the crash". But the problem was then postponed for a full decade because the speculative financial bubble economy of the 1990s, together with the upswing in information technology and the commercialization of the Internet, once again awakened new blossoming dreams. The collapse of the New Economy and the bursting of the financial bubbles in Asia and Europe, and to some extent also in the United States, have now been brutally beginning to realize the previously feared collapse of the middle class since 2000.
But who is this middle class and what role does it play in society? In the 19th century the world of social classes was still simple and transparent. Between the class of the capitalists, i.e., the private owners of the social means of production, and the class of wage laborers, who have nothing but their labor power, stood the class of the so-called petty bourgeoisie. This old middle class was characterized by the possession of its own small means of production (workshops, stores, etc.), in which it had to use mainly its own labor and that of its family to sell its products on the market. The expectation of the Orthodox Marxists was that these "small bourgeoisie" would gradually disappear through competition from the big capitalist enterprises and descend to the class of industrial wage laborers until society was fully polarized into the two main classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat.
But already in the early 20th century, the famous debate between Bernstein and Kautsky over the "new middle class" was taking place in German social democracy. This meant certain technical, economic and intellectual functions as they had emerged from the process of capitalist socialization. As production became increasingly scientific and infrastructures expanded accordingly (administration, engineering, education and training, health care, communications and the media public, institutions of research, etc.), a new social category emerged, which according to the old scheme was "neither fish nor fowl". They were not capitalists because they did not represent large money capital; nor were they classic petty bourgeoisie, because they did not have their own means of production and were themselves largely dependent on wages or only formally independent; but neither were they proletarians, because they were not employed as "immediate producers", but as functionaries of the capitalist development of the productive forces in all spheres of life.
It is true that as early as the nineteenth century there were teachers and other state officials as well as those business administration functionaries whom Marx had described as "officers and non-commissioned officers of capital. But these social categories were so insignificant in terms of numbers that they could not be called a "class" in their own right. It was only with the new demands of capitalism in the 20th century that the corresponding functions became so massive that they constituted a new middle class. While in the Marxist debate at the beginning of this development Kautsky sought to press the new middle classes into the old scheme and somehow classify them into the proletariat, Bernstein wanted to see in this social phenomenon a stabilization of capitalism that would make a moderate reform policy possible.
At first Bernstein seemed to be right for a long time. The new middle class was increasingly proving to be a social category distinct from the traditional working class, not only in terms of content and place of activity, but also economically. Barbara Ehrenreich cites as a criterion that, for these people, their "social status is based on education rather than on capital ownership or other assets. The higher qualification, whose education takes a long time to reach the age of 30 or beyond and devours large resources, increased the value of the labor force far beyond the other average fluctuations.
In this context, the term "human capital" was born. Employed engineers, marketing specialists or personnel planners, self-employed doctors, therapists or lawyers, and teachers, scientists or social workers paid by the state "are" capital in a dual sense. On the one hand, through their qualification for the work of other people, they behave strategically, guiding and organizing in the sense of the utilization of capital; on the other hand, they behave in part (especially as self-employed or as executives) towards their own qualification and thus towards themselves as "human capital" like a capitalist in the sense of "self-utilization. The new middle class does not represent capital on the level of external material means of production or money, but on the level of organizing qualification for the process of utilization with a high level of the use of science and technology.
In the course of the twentieth century, many new functions of this kind developed and the new middle class grew in number. Especially the development after the Second World War, together with the new forms of Fordist production and the leisure industries, brought an additional push in this direction; this can be seen in the fact that in most countries the proportion of students increased from generation to generation. The worldwide student movement of 1968 demonstrated the growing importance of this social sector, but it was also a first signal of crisis. While the emergence of the new middle class had in fact stabilized capitalism in Bernstein's sense and was associated with progressive reforms, a process of destabilization was now beginning.
It is true that the new structural mass unemployment in the wake of the Third Industrial Revolution and the globalization of capital initially affected mainly the direct industrial producers. But it was already becoming apparent that the new middle class would not be spared either. The rise of this class had in many respects been accompanied by the expansion of state infrastructure, education and the bureaucracy of the welfare state. But the crisis of real industrial exploitation led ever deeper into the financial crisis of the state. Suddenly, many areas that had previously been considered proud achievements appeared as unnecessary luxuries and ballast.
The buzzword "lean state" made the rounds; funds for education and culture, for health care and numerous other public institutions were cut back; the dismantling of the welfare state began. Even in large corporations, entire sectors of skilled work fell victim to rationalization. The crash of the New Economy even devalued the qualifications of many high-tech specialists. Today it is clear that the rise of the new middle class had no capitalist base in its own right, but depended on the social redistribution of the surplus value from the industrial sectors. To the same extent that the real social production of added value is plunged into a structural crisis by the Third Industrial Revolution, the secondary sectors of the new middle class are gradually being deprived of their breeding ground.
The result is not only growing unemployment among academics. Through privatization and outsourcing, the "human capital" of qualifications is devalued and degraded in status even within employment. Intellectual day laborers, cheap laborers and miserable entrepreneurs as "freelancers" in the media, private universities, law firms or private clinics are no longer the exception, but the rule. Nevertheless, even Kautsky is not right in the end. For the new middle class may be falling, but not into the classic industrial proletariat of the immediate producers, who have become a slowly disappearing minority. Paradoxically, the "proletarization" of the qualified strata is linked to a "deproletarization" of production.
The devaluation of qualifications is accompanied by an objective expansion of the concept of "human capital". Contrary to the decline of the new middle class, a new kind of general "downsizing" of society is taking place in a certain sense, the more the industrial and infrastructural resources appear as anonymous mega-structures. The "independent means of production" shrinks down to the skin of the individual: everyone becomes their own "human capital", even if it is only the naked body. A direct relationship is created between the atomized individuals and the economy of value, which only simulates itself through deficits and financial bubbles.
The greater the differences in income between rich and poor in the context of this financial bubble economy, the more the structural differences of the classes disappear in the fabric of capitalist reproduction. It is therefore pointless for some ideologues of the crumbling former new middle class to claim for themselves the former "class struggle of the proletariat" which no longer exists. Social emancipation today demands the overcoming of the social form common to all. Within the commodity producing system, there is only the quantitative difference of abstract wealth, which is existential to the point of survival, but nevertheless remains emancipatorily sterile. A Bill Gates is just as petty bourgeois as a miserable entrepreneur; both have the same attitude towards the world and use the same phrases. With these phrases of the universal market and of "self-exploitation" on their lips, they jointly cross the gate to barbarism.
Subsequent remark: This text has provoked discussions among Brazilian intellectuals. Dieter Heidemann (São Paulo) writes about a letter to the editor in the Folha de São Paulo, which uses the expression "Boias-frilas": "The expression >Boias-frilasBoias frias<. boia is the>handle mansub-entrepreneursgatosBoia fria" became a general metaphor for the most precarious working conditions in Brazil. The letter to the editor calls the jobbing academics "Boias frilas" = "Boias freelancer".
THE "COLLAPSE OF MODERNIZATION" - 15 YEARS LATER
by Robert Kurz
Interview for the magazine "Reportagem", São Paulo
[This article published in October 2004 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.exit-online.org/textanz1.php?tabelle=autoren&index=29&posnr=168&backtext1=text1.php.]
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, you had been part of a group that had been working on a radical critical theory for years. Soon after, your book "DER KOLLAPS DER MODERNISIERUNG" was published. In which social context did you create the value critique of the modern commodities-producing system?
Our starting point was not in the field of academic theory. We were all activists of left social movements. In the early 1980s we felt that the ideas of the then "new left" had been exhausted since 1968. There was an impulse to critically reappraise our own history. We no longer wanted to participate in the "manic-depressive cycle" of political campaigns. Theory was no longer to be tied directly to political practice, in other words, it was to lose its legitimizing character and be taken seriously in its autonomy. This meant alienation from the political left.
Despite all its criticism of Stalinism, the "new left" had largely failed to question the socialist, post-capitalist character of the Soviet Union. The few theoreticians who instead spoke of "state capitalism" were mostly oriented towards Chinese Maoism and could not get beyond a sociologically condensed theory of the "power of the bureaucracy". However, further theoretical investigation revealed that the real problem of so-called real socialism was a different one. The social orders that had emerged from the Russian Revolution and from the anti-colonial liberation movement remained "value-based modes of production" (Marx). The social form of the modern war-producing system could not be overcome. All categories of capital were preserved; they were to be moderated and controlled only in a national form of state-politics. As in the West, people were subjected to the system of "abstract labor" (Marx). This was not a transformation beyond capitalism, but exactly the opposite, a transformation into capitalism. This corresponded to the real historical situation of the East and the South. These societies had not reached the limits of capitalist development, but were lagging behind this development on the periphery of the world market. Therefore, despite their Marxist, anti-capitalist nomenclature, the revolutions of the East and South were in reality bourgeois revolutions of the historical stragglers; regimes of "catch-up modernization" emerged from them. The bureaucracy was a consequence of this constellation, not the independent cause of repressive conditions in post-revolutionary societies. Basically, only in other ideological guises were phenomena repeated, as they had also characterized the absolutist and bourgeois-revolutionary early history of capitalism from the 16th to the 19th century.
On the one hand, the last decades of the twentieth century brought a qualitatively new crisis that challenged a critique of traditional reformism and neoliberalism. Initially, this led mainly to a critique of "abstract labor" as a fundamental category of reproduction of the modern commodityproducing system, because the crisis was an expression of the inner barrier that the "labor society" had encountered. On the other hand, after structuralist Marxism had reached an impasse and postmodern thinking prevailed at the universities, any analysis that followed Marx was accused of being economistic. In this respect, how have you critically received the economic categories of traditional Marxism and how does your new crisis theory differ from these analyses.
This new interpretation of the history of modernization in the 20th century raised the problem of how it was possible to come up with it "against the grain" of Marxism. For innovations in social theory must always be expected to be able to explain themselves. This is where the new crisis theory began. The previous Marxist theory had always regarded crises as temporary interruptions in capitalist accumulation, i.e. essentially as cyclical crises or as structural breaks in the transition to a new model of accumulation. Thus, crisis theory remained as much caught in the horizon of "abstract labor" and thus of the social forms of the modern commodity-producing system as the idea and practice of state-political socialism.
The absolute inner barrier of accumulation was either not considered possible at all or, with the few exceptions (such as Henryk Grossmann), did not refer to "abstract labor" as the "substance of capital" (Marx). Our new crisis theory now, in contrast, developed the thesis of an absolute inner barrier of accumulation through the "desubstantialization" of capital in the 3rd industrial revolution of microelectronics. For the first time in capitalist history, the de-rationalization of labor is happening faster and on a larger scale than the expansion of markets by reducing the price of products. Thus the previous compensation mechanism for the crisis is extinguished. Capital no longer flees from real accumulation into the "fictitious capital" (Marx) of financial bubbles, which must, however, eventually burst, not just cyclically but structurally. As the historical barrier of accumulation is revealed in this crisis of new quality, the commodity-producing system of the "value-based mode of production" (Marx), "abstract labor" and thus also the previous Marxist work ontology becomes obsolete.
In this way, the own historical location of the new, more fundamental critique of capitalism was determined in crisis theory. But it was only in the book "The Collapse of Modernization" that the critique of the concept of socialism based on "abstract labor" and commodity production and the new crisis theory could be systematically brought together. The crisis of the basic common forms of the commodity-producing system had to manifest itself first among the historical stragglers, but it would eventually eat its way into the centers of Western capital. The end of "catch-up modernization" is the beginning of the end of modernity and its "abstract work" in general, thus also the end of politics as a form of regulation and the end of the nation as a reference space of the commodity-producing system, as the crisis-like process of globalization practically proves. All interpretations that want to understand the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the previous socialism as the "victory" of Western capitalism are unfounded. For the 21st century, the task of a new radical critique of society is thus set, namely to turn the crisis of "abstract labor", value form, production of goods, political regulation and national limitation into a conscious critique and overcoming of this formal context of modern society.
This is thus a critique that no longer refers only to the category of labor. Rather, it becomes clear how, against the background of the crisis, forms of thought and practice, whether social, economic, or political, cling to modern ontology without grasping the potency of the negativity expressed in the crisis. Here in Brazil, for example, in the first discussions of the "collapse of modernization", expressions such as "metaphysical diabolic", "misstep" and "catastrophism" were used. What were the resonances of your analysis in the so-called "public opinion" in general and specifically, what was the reception in the traditional left?
The emergence of this new analysis and critique, so completely contrary to the prevailing views, caused astonishment. Clairvoyant intellectuals such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger in Germany and Roberto Schwarz in Brazil considered the new critical theory worthy of making it known to a wider audience; otherwise "The Collapse of Modernization" could neither have appeared nor been translated. The reception in the bourgeois public and on the left was divided. For some, it was a coherent explanation of the Eastern collapse and the Western crisis "from a single source"; especially many intellectuals in East Germany, who had fallen into depression after the end of the GDR, saw the new interpretation as a saving light at the end of the tunnel, because it offered them the theoretical possibility of not having to process the end of "their" socialism as an unconditional acceptance of Western capitalism. For the others, this new theory and interpretation of world social reality was completely absurd, "esoteric" and more or less "crazy"; especially the radical crisis theory was denounced as sheer "apocalypticism".
It was conspicuous that the positive as well as the negative reception of "The Collapse of Modernization" referred equally almost exclusively to the analytical level, while the theoretical foundations, the critique of "abstract labor" and commodity form, were either not perceived at all or only as a kind of theoretical "UFO". It became surprisingly clear how deeply theoretical consciousness across the spectrum of philosophical and politico-economic positions was embedded in the immanence of modern social and economic theory.
In this respect, the negative recipients with their furious outcry about "esotericism" and "apocalypticism" were even closer to the point, because they at least suspected that the ontology of modernity was radically questioned here. This soon dawned on some of those on the left who had agreed to the new analysis. Especially the intelligentsia socialized in the GDR became much more reserved as soon as the radical critique of the Marxist work ontology, political form and nation emerged as integral moments of the new theory-building. Subsequently, traditional Marxism in Germany attempted to form itself several times against the new approach of "value criticism" (the label for the new critical theory that had become commonplace in the meantime), which was experienced as the destruction of its own identity.
Even those sections of the bourgeois public that had initially registered the new approach as a kind of "interesting intellectual glass bead game" became more dismissive and closed off to the same extent as the crisis manifested itself in practice and actually began to penetrate the Western centers. On the other hand, all sorts of do-gooders, obscurants, and sectarians increasingly tried to attach themselves to the new theory; from the "money reformers" in the wake of Silvio Gesell to right-wing nationalist, reactionary anti-modernists who, however, complained (similar to several traditional Marxists) about the critique of the nation as if it were not a necessary component in the critique of modern ontology.
However, no new theory of social effectiveness has ever reached the level of a new ontology other than through the hardening of the dominant consciousness, through the vehement rejection of older positions of social criticism that have become obsolete, through partly eclectic and obscure receptions, and through gross misunderstandings. As soon as a narrow circle of reception is broken, such phenomena are inevitable. Therefore, the contradictory response to "The Collapse of Modernization" in the larger social space could only be an incentive to further develop and concretize the new theory. There were already a sufficient number of mediators, translators, and independent intellectual collaborators who took up the new theory formation. Apart from Germany and Austria, value-critical discussion circles and contexts were formed in Brazil, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal.
In the further development of your reflections, new content was integrated into this critical theory. It was made clearer how much modern ontology, despite the crisis, continues to influence the most diverse aspects of thinking and understanding. What new elements have been incorporated into critical theory and how has value criticism been further developed?
The new theory initially focused on a further development of the critique of political economy. Although crisis theory and critique of the commodity-producing system, including the forms of politics and nation, were new contents, the thinking of these contents still moved within the framework of a traditional understanding of theory. The abstract-universalist character of any theory formation in the modern world as a moment of its ontology remained unreflected, as did the concept of the subject and the related modern gender relations. Following the pattern of Hegelian philosophy, the new approach followed a "derivation-logical" procedure, in which the relationship between being and appearance was to merge like a mathematical equation. This abstract-universalistic thinking of all modern theory rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment was combined with an equally unreflected persistence in the Enlightenment metaphysics of history: the modern commodity-producing system was questioned for the future on the basis of crisis theory, but for the past it continued to be understood as so-called "progress" beyond the alleged darkness, naturalness and animalism of the pre-modern agricultural world. In the wake of Marx, value-critical theory addressed the fetishism of the apparently rational modern age in a new way; however, like Marx himself, it placed this new discovery in the ideological philosophy of history of this false rationality.
This mode of theory was not broken up from within, but from without; and this was done by a "female" intervention. It is not without reason that the abstract-universalist theoretical approach corresponded to a male-aligned structure in the central group of value-critical theory formation, in which there were no women. The author Roswitha Scholz, who comes from feminist theory, has been criticizing the Hegelian, universalistic understanding of value-critical theory as androcentric since the early 1990s. With the complex theory of secession, she attempted to break open the hermetic, seemingly self-contained logic of derivation of this understanding.
Roswitha Scholz's essay "Der Wert ist der Mann" (Value is the Man), which was fundamental for the development of the theory of secession and which was published in Brazil in 1996 in the journal "Novos Estudos CEBRAP", strongly recommended by Roberto Schwarz, surprisingly remained almost completely unnoticed here. Can you elaborate a bit more on what the term secession means, what theoretical status it has in relation to the critique of the commodity form, and finally, what meaning secession has for the critique of value and subject.
According to her approach, secession means that the structure of value (the commodity form) as the basic form of the process of exploitation claims to be total, but in reality large parts of social reproduction, both in material terms ("housework", care, education, etc.) and in socio-psychological and cultural-symbolic terms ("love", empathy, affection, etc.), cannot be grasped by the forms of value and "abstract labor". These moments were therefore separated from official sociality and assigned to women historically and socially. In this respect, women are, according to a term taken up from the feminist debate, "doubly socialized": on the one hand, they also belong to the official formal context in terms of occupation, form of money, etc.; on the other hand, they are structurally responsible for all moments in life that do not fit into this official context. However, because these moments that do not come up in "abstract work" and value-form/money-form are considered inferior from the standpoint of the ruling form, the status of women in the commodity-producing system of modernity is also structurally inferior: they are usually paid less, are found in much less leading positions than men, are considered "irrational", less assertive, and often an appendage of men. What is split off is not a separate, neatly demarcated "area," but rather the split runs through all spheres of society. It is true that in the process of capitalist development certain parts of what was split off have been incorporated into the official universe of the commodity form through commercialization or nationalization. But on the one hand, there is always a large remainder of living conditions that cannot be grasped by money and the state; on the other hand, in the crisis, many vital moments of reproduction fall out of the logic of the commodity form and are delegated back to the femininely connoted relationship of secession. The relationship of value or utilization is not conceivable at all without a simultaneous relationship of secession; therefore the concepts for these two sides of modern society are at the same level of theoretical abstraction and only together as a relationship of value and secession do they form the inherently contradictory concept of modernity.
In light of the theory of separation, the seemingly neutral universe of "abstract labor" and commodity form proves to be structurally "masculine". The optical illusion of abstract universalism is created by restricting reflection to the circulatory sphere, in which apparently all cats are grey. If, however, the analysis is not limited to the surface of circulation (the so-called "exchange abstraction"), it becomes apparent that the relationship of separation overlaps the entire process of social reproduction. On a global scale, large parts of non-Western humanity also fall out of the false universalism. The seemingly neutral subject of modernity is in reality the male-white Western subject (abbreviated MWW).
Likewise, the abstract-universalistic, derivative-logical theory formation of modernity since the Enlightenment has in reality only referred to the male- and white-western internal structure of the commodity form. The split-off is repressed and has no concept. The theory of splitting off follows on from Adorno's critique of the modern concept of theory. The concept does not work like an equation, it is to be reflected in its brokenness. The critique of value, commodity and "abstract labor" must therefore be expanded to a critique of splitting off. Here the split-off is not the "better half" or the positively occupable non-value, but only the equally negative flip side of the coin.
The emancipatory overcoming of the modern commodity-producing system includes overcoming the relationship of separation in which women (and non-Western humanity as well) are set as inferior. This inferiorization is not to be reevaluated ideologically, but rather abolished together with the value relationship.
But this approach was not accepted unanimously and without contradiction by the entire group, was it?
The theory of secession was only accepted with great resistance in the context of the previous value critique as a male-aligned, androcentric-universalist theory formation, and was not generally integrated. It did, however, at least form the basis for the essay "Subjectless Rule" (1993), in which for the first time the crisis and critique of the commodity-producing system was also theoretically defined as a crisis and critique of the modern subject and its positive concept; and it did so beyond the half-hearted postmodern attempts at "abstract labor" and commodity form vis-à-vis conceptless postmodernism. This approach was expanded in the major historical study "Black Book Capitalism" (1999) into an empirically underpinned critique of the Enlightenment and its philosophy of history. For the first time, in the context of value-critical theory-building, the modern commodity-producing system no longer appeared as "progress" even for the past. At the same time, this critique explicitly distanced itself from any romanticization of premodern agrarian society. It was not a reactionary evocation of past conditions, but rather a radical critique of ontological thinking. The theory of crisis was expanded to include the dimension of the crisis of the male-white Western subject (MWW) and continued to the explicit (until then merely implicit, reduced to the critique of political economy) critique of modern ontology and the ontology of fetish relations in general. However, this expansion remained essentially limited to the theoretical reflection of certain individuals and to individual works; it was no longer fully shared by all participants in the earlier value-critical theory-building process, without the dissent that had begun to emerge openly.
What role did the publication of the "Manifesto against Labor" play in this moment of a hybrid hybrid hermaphroditic stage of "non-integrated integration" of the theory of secession in relation to the sedimentation of the crisis context or possibly to internal divisions of different individual perspectives?
In the coexistence of already subliminally opposing positions, the critique of "abstract labor" was once again formulated in a joint project on a different, no longer purely theoretical level. The social debate on the "crisis of the labor society", the socially repressive measures of the capitalist crisis management and the first signs of a new social movement suggested that the theoretical "secret tip" of value critique should be made known to a larger audience. The result of these considerations was the "Manifesto against Labor" (1999), which quickly attracted a great deal of attention, had a large circulation and was translated into numerous languages. The authors themselves were surprised by its success. It had been a trial balloon, and obviously it touched a nerve in the crisis society. It was pronounced what was generally felt, but had no voice.
However, the preparation of the manifesto had by no means been free of conflict. This was not only due to the stylistically unusual form, which forced many revisions. It was no coincidence that the point about gender relations was added later. Above all, however, the expectations regarding the function of the manifesto diverged widely. For some, it was a matter of a selective concretization and literary shaping of the theory of value-criticism and the theory of secession, in order to make it known to a broader public and to interest activists of social movements struggling with the problems of the crisis of the working society in theoretical reflection. For the others, on the other hand, the Manifesto had already reached a point of culmination and transition to social practice; the Manifesto was intended to go "into the broadest sense" in a completely different way, namely as a fundamental reorientation of value-critical activity in order to gain a foothold in the new social movements with a focus on labor criticism in an "anti-political" and journalistic way.
In your 1991 book, "The Collapse of Modernization," you anticipate the September 11, 2001 assassination attempt for 10 years when you write that fundamentalism and "Islamic secondary ideology (...) gives birth to aggressive kamikaze and commando enterprises. After September 11, we notice a strengthening of conservative aspects in the European left, which probably also intensified the internal conflicts of the crisis editors. How did these conflicts develop and what role did the secessionist and subject critique play at that moment?
Internal contradictions even on the smallest scale are often accelerated by major external "historical events". The terror of September 11, 2001, in New York shook the Western centers sociopsychologically to the core. In the large crisis and collapse zones of the periphery, September 11 was not perceived so intensively; perhaps because barbarism has long since become commonplace there. For the United States and Western Europe, however, these terrorist attacks were a shock and a signal that the previous way of life was coming to an end and that the maelstrom of the crisis was also affecting everyday life with unpredictable violence. This symbolic perception released many hidden and repressed conflicts at all levels of society, in political currents and theoretical groups as well as in personal relationships. The left was polarized as it had not been for decades. In the face of dark threats, the Intelligentsia suddenly discovered "Western values" and parts of the left invoked the alleged "bourgeois promise of happiness" that had to be defended against the "barbarism of the Third World". The historical metaphysics of the Enlightenment came up like a mental flatulence.
Until then, the new value-critical and secessionist theory formation had concentrated on the journal "Krisis", which also became internationally known. The heated ideological and socio-psychological climate after September 11 now also made the contradictions dance in the "Krisis" context. The theory of gender-sociologically and culturally symbolically determined separation was not shared by all participants to the same extent, but was only externally courted and tolerated by some. Above all, it remained a thorn in the side of the veteran theory men that the concepts of value form and separation should be on the same level of abstraction and be of equal importance. To the extent that the theme of secession was taken up at all, it appeared in varying degrees as a "real" totality of the commodity-producing system as a subordinated "area", instead of understanding secession itself as a category of totality (together with the value or commodity form) in a new, broken, no longer Hegelian understanding. In relevant texts to this day, the relationship of secession is mostly understood only as a historical-empirical "appearance" and as a supposedly delimitable, subordinated "sphere" (instead of as a moment of the concept of essence) and thus theoretically shortened. In this way, however, the critique of the subject, i.e. the male-white Western subject form (MWW), also remains - also to varying degrees - shortened. Open or hidden, the idea is effective that certain elements of this subject "must" be taken into the future of an emancipated society. By not consistently criticizing modern ontology in this respect, remnants of the Enlightenment metaphysics of history are preserved. Closely connected with this, similar to Adorno, is an unclear concept of "exchange abstraction", whereby "abstract labor" as well as secession appear as the results of this "exchange abstraction"; thus, it is not "abstract labor" and secession that form the essential, overarching categories, but rather the apparently "neutral" circulation. However, a false concept of circulation as an alleged essence and overarching context of society constitutes the main source of all bourgeois Enlightenment ideology.
The criticism of the Western reaction to mega-terrorism and of the world-order wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were initially formulated jointly, only touched the surface; in the deeper layers of theory-building, however, a completely opposite understanding of the criticism of the subject, Enlightenment, and modern ontology had formed, which came to light eruptively in the toxic atmosphere after September 11. When in spring 2002, under the title "Bloody Reason", split-theoretically founded and polemically trenchant theses on the critique of the Enlightenment and its current ideological revival were to appear in "Krisis" among the mainstream of the Western intelligentsia, an attempt was made for the first time in the history of value-critical theory formation to prevent the imprinting of the text of a central author by formal means. Subsequently, the core of the previous context of theory formation split into two groups, which for the time being still operated under the common umbrella of "Krisis". This split was associated with personal ruptures and strong motives of competition and self-assertion on the part of those who in many respects (though by no means consistently and uniformly) had got stuck in the old, androcentric-universalist mode of theory-building. To the same extent that women were accepted into the inner circle, some men withdrew. Finally, in February 2004, the "discontinued models" took the "Krisis" label by surprise by instrumentalizing the formal level of the supporting association in the manner of classic party and power politics and chasing away the majority of the editorial staff (including women).
But this purely formal "assumption of power" naturally did not bring back the old theoretical status quo. The value-critical and secession-critical theory formation is now being continued by the majority editorial staff and newly added people with the theory journal EXIT! around which a new organizational context has also been constituted. The usurpatory group of Rest-"Krisis", on the other hand, has very quickly oriented itself to transforming the value critique, which has remained on the level of a "theoretical approach" that has become obsolete, down to the kind of journalistic and propagandistic "practice" that it had already indicated after the "Manifesto against Labor". The dimension of ideology critique is largely abandoned in order to gain influence in the new social movements as smoothly as possible, rather in the manner of the traditional left. EXIT!, on the other hand, rejects any movement opportunism and any trivialization of a shortened critique of capitalism in order to emphasize instead the ideology-critical intervention with regard to the burgeoning social movements, projects, etc., without negating them as such.
Can your exclusion from the Krisis editorship, which according to you resulted from practical-theoretical differences with regard to the theory of secession and the critique of the Enlightenment subject, also be analyzed in a broader context of the development of the worsening crisis of the commodity-producing society?
The splitting of the former "crisis" context is clearly in the context of an intensification of the crisis in the western centers, but also in the periphery. Now everywhere it is no longer simply a matter of opinions, "interesting" theoretical considerations, etc. from the role of the spectator, but of naked existence under the conditions of conditions of collapse. The precarization also affects the intellectual, academic, journalistic-media and state-infrastructural spheres. After the agrarian and industrial "immediate producers", the "new middle class" is also plunged into the maelstrom of the world crisis of the Third Industrial Revolution. It is practically evident that all these areas do not have an independent economic basis in the fabric of capitalist accumulation, but are dependent on the redistribution of surplus value from the industrial center. If this structural dependence was covered up for a time by the financial bubble, it is now being violently asserted. As a result, the entire education and research system, as well as the media, is being negatively reorganized and melted down along the lines of the industrial crisis.
As has long been the case with the lower classes, the fragmentation of the unresolved gender-connoted separation relationship is now asserting itself among the former "new middle class" as a kind of "housewife-making of the man" (a term from German feminist theory in the 1980s). But even those "career women" who, not least in the academic sphere, had penetrated into the structurally "masculine" public sphere now find themselves exposed to the crisis conditions. Right down to the groups of radical, emancipatory theory-building, the rage of competition and the struggle for survival is released on the ground of the commodity-producing system. But most of those who cut their ties in order to somehow succeed and grab the last chance for a career, hire on sinking ships.
Here in Brazil, the social climate of frightened and pressured optimism, including among parts of the left following Lula's election as president, constantly points to China as the example of a promising future with alleged development potential. How do you assess these prospects?
As the internal structural crisis becomes hopeless, "positive thinking" clings to the hope of external carriers of a new age of accumulation. After Japan and the "little tigers", China is now being conjured up as the new carrier of global growth and as a model. But this hope is as deceptive as the earlier ones. The high Chinese growth rates are solely due to the low starting level. As soon as the threshold of intensive growth dependent on huge investments in infrastructure and microelectronic upgrading is reached, growth rates will fall just as steeply as those of the earlier hopefuls. Apart from this, Chinese growth is based on a completely one-sided export industrialization that passes the enormous mass of the population by and will tear apart the body of social reproduction. But even the minority export industrialization is completely one-sidedly oriented toward the United States and dependent on the global deficit structures concentrated on the last world power. The Chinese crisis will be worse than any previous one.
The internal barrier of the global commodities-producing system is a general one, but it meets with very different developmental conditions of this system. This leads to the optical illusion, especially in the periphery, that there could still be a connection to a level that has long been obsolete in the West itself. But the "catch-up modernization" has not only failed as such, but it also meets the crisis of the West itself and can no longer orient itself on it. The former "non-simultaneity" of development has been levelled out, but not positively, but negatively. The new global "simultaneity" of the crisis also requires a new perspective that, from very different points of departure, envisages a different kind of socialization beyond the form of values and secession. Humanity is not prepared for this, but it has no other choice.
As became clear in the course of our conversation, there is probably a need to adopt a clearly differentiated theoretical position. We find ourselves in a simultaneous social and categorical crisis, which brings all concepts that move the reproduction of the modern into such disrepair that no coherent theory can be created with new positive categories. It is therefore necessary to start from negativity. What does this mean, given the constant worsening of the crisis, for the various social movements that are serious about a perspective of emancipation from the modern commodity producing society?
For the theory it is important not to be misled and to resist the contradictions, instead of exposing oneself to a false reality with cheap recipes. In the everyday life of the theoretical groups, solidarity and mutual help without pathos is called for, but this should not be confused with the ideologization of a diffuse "everyday" concept that is charged with apparent emancipation. The emancipatory overcoming of the modern commodity-producing system and the associated separation requires a social intervention on a high level, to the preparation of which a critical theory formation can only contribute if it remains at a distance from events and does not give in to the pressure of a practical claim of false immediacy.