Politics and the Question of the Embryonic Emancipatory Form

[Part 1 of 5 of the essay »Anti-economics and Anti-politics« by Robert Kurz, published under CC by-nc-sa]

The misery of the radical critique of the commodity production system, that is, of a “mode of production based on value” (Marx), appears to reside in the fact that it is incapable of representing a historical praxis (not to be confused with just any little practical activity), of taking the initiative, of finding a way out and heralding a common mass consciousness, and is thus condemned to an esoteric existence, confined to socially remote domains of purely theoretical reflection or even philosophical speculation, and ultimately to a gradual descent into an eccentric sectarian existence. Even if an emancipatory socialization eliminating fetishistic forms of the commodity and money were possible—it would still be a book sealed with seven seals for this form of critique.

Nor is minoritarian Marxism exempt from this fault, that Marxism which, up until now, understands itself “in some way” as a critique of value or disseminates more or less vaguely a critique of value. In fact, this type of Marxist critique of “commodity fetishism”, which hearkens back to the young Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, to the critical theory of Adorno and Horkheimer or also, in part, to the French Situationists and Guy Debord, either consciously denied the decline and limitation of the critique of fetishism in modern political economy, or failed to notice existentialist traits in its practical unfolding—when it was not transformed (as in the case of Lukács) into shameless apologetics for the commodity production system of “real socialism”. The communism of the new left, for its part, composed in part of Maoist ingredients, in part of Italian “workerism”, never went beyond, in the best of its hypotheses, a Platonic critique of “money-commodity relations”, lacking as it did a critique based in antieconomic and philosophical terms, and remained the prisoner of quite crude notions, and was reduced in practice to a hedonistic mask for the old ideology of the workers movement.

These now-historical peripheral currents of Marxism, which rose to predominance and coalesced in a changing form in the period of the reformulation of the New Left, have one thing in common (as has already been discussed countless times in Krisis): they categorically refuse to acknowledge the logical formula negatio est determinatio, i.e., they are as silent as the grave concerning the concrete overcoming of the fetishistic determination—imposed by value—of the capitalist form of reproduction. Such ignorance, which is above all theoretical, is nourished by the fact that the question of supersession is dissociated, on the one hand, into a simple negation (“by this means, we declare and uphold that we are against capitalism-imperialism and that we want to overthrow it”) and, on the other hand, in an absolutely empty pragmatic praxis of the “liberated society”, which must be established only after capitalism (after the “collapse” of capitalist power).

When the question of power is so resolved, then it would be easy, so to speak, according to the model of the advertiser’s slogan (“and then everything works on its own”), to regulate, for the benefit of all, the productive forces unleashed by capitalism. The two fossils of left radicalism and former Green fundamentalism in western Germany, Rainer Trampert and Thomas Ebermann, could even, during the ceremonies, vainly insist on drawing up the program for this in 15 minutes, but this is not exactly the problem in the face of a capitalism which rules without opposition.

An effective movement of supersession cannot be conceived in this manner. Between capitalism and non-capitalism one does not find only the question of power or of “available force”. The supersession of reproduction under the commodity form is not a more or less technical and organizational affair to be undertaken after the (political and juridical) “expropriation” of the capitalists, but the supersession of all relations and forms of social consciousness structured by value or by the “value-split” between the sexes (Roswitha Scholz). And this will not happen easily or without facing resistance (since the consciousness of the masses as well as theoretical consciousness have been conditioned, in a centuries-long process, by the commodity form), or as an instantaneous polar reversal of post-capitalist forms. Instead, the movement of radical critique and social emancipation from the capitalist creed is only susceptible of being understood by means of a particular project of conceivable “voluntary change”, since social negation and mediation would otherwise be impossible. And this project cannot by any means remain suspended in the form of a moral or metaphorical indeterminacy until some “D-Day”, without penetrating the theoretical structure in the form of concrete definitions.

This is even more necessary because post-capitalist reproduction must not fall below but instead exceed the level attained by capitalist socialization. From such a perspective, it is utterly impossible to separate negation and positive supersession. While the potentials to which capitalism itself gave birth are manifested solely in the destructive aspect of the capitalist form, it is necessary to indicate in what manner said potentials, once superseded, will act in a different way and will be regulated by institutions of direct social communication, transcending bourgeois socialization within the parameters of the commodity form. This is the prerequisite for a movement of supersession to follow its course.

The above considerations also apply to all those factors that are presented in bourgeois economics as problems of “resource distribution”. How should the concrete aspect of the cooperation of millions of people in the functional division of their reproduction be manifested, from the flow of resources from metallurgy to mining, when all of this can no longer be administered by the “invisible hand” of the fetishistic form of value? Those so-called planning problems will by no means be resolved in 15 minutes by eminences like Trampert or Ebermann.

Even if, in its general outlines, the question of planning were reformulated and resolved in theoretical and analytical terms that transcend the commodity and money forms, towards the end of putting post-capitalist experiences into practice, the problem of the transition always simultaneously arises; before the movement of transformation would be capable of developing on its own terrain, the problem of the practical movement of transformation, of the famous “approximation” to a reproduction whose matrix would not be the commodity form, would have to be addressed. Where and how to begin, within the existing capitalist form of socialization which rules over all reproduction, with the intention of finding in the latter, so to speak, an internal breach and to break free of it, to take the first step, to point out a formulable beginning for social emancipation?

The mainstream of the old Marxism of the workers movement simply avoided this problem and replaced it with another: a political and statist orientation towards the “question of power” (see the article, “Crisis and Liberation. Liberation within the Crisis. A Post-political Digression,” by Ernst Lohoff, in Krisis, No. 18). In other words, it was not organized in an anti-capitalist form with reference to reproduction and everyday life, but only politically, as a historical and abstract “expression of will”, without a reproductive basis in reality, that is, as a “political party” (and, in a similar fashion, the trade union struggle was waged for demands immanent to the system). It subordinated everything to the goal of the political seizure of power, so that later, by means of state interventions—and consequently “from above”—it would try somehow to “invert” capitalist reproduction in accordance with the socialist standards of the planned economy. Here, political power appears as the Archimedean point, and an alternative state apparatus (the “Workers State”) appears as the central lever of the inversion.

It is not by chance that, with the above operation, the problem of a system of reproduction no longer connected to value, and its corresponding “approximation”, disappeared completely. The struggle for demands immanent to the system, which by definition remain on the terrain of bourgeois relational forms, is held to be an “approximation” to the question of power and is therefore also immanent to the system (as an “introduction” to it). This is completely logical, since the question of power in the positive sense, as a question of the establishment of an alternative state force, is also restricted to the (“political”) sphere of bourgeois socialization.

As a result, value is not clarified, but transformed into a neutral, ontological object. Means and ends, reform and revolution, trade union struggle over the distribution of wealth and political program, can only be contained within a unity which, as “the struggle for water for tea and for State Power” (Bertolt Brecht), is unconditionally kept confined within the bourgeois form of reproduction of commercial and monetary relations. The critique of value within the context of the not-yet superseded Marxism of the workers movement—that critique which abdicated its own concretion—was forced to swim, directly or indirectly, in these political waters and, for that very reason, remained esoteric and non-existent as a critique of value.

In fact, the conduct of the old Marxism in either case, whether esoterically critical of value and timidly political or openly Statist and value-ontologizing, is essentially the same in terms of its “inconsistency”, which is to say that anti-capitalism does not appear (even with regard to only its theoretically elaborated possibilities) as a formulable form of socioeconomic existence and reproduction (representable seminally) beyond capitalism, as a form which struggles for its right to exist and affirms itself against the dominant form of socialization, but instead appears as a simple indirect mobilization of abstract negation, which is not in itself contrary to the commodity form, since it always finds itself led towards a superficial abstract goal, an alleged transcendent point of transformation.

Social emancipation thus remained a simple promise of an imaginary future. First, it will be necessary to cross the vale of political tears, before seeing the promised land of “socialism” and occupying it in practice. This was actually the program of social reform, immanent to the commodity form, in the heartland of capitalism as well as in the “catch-up modernization” of the capitalist periphery; in the meantime, these two formations have been largely destroyed. The idea of a politically centered inversion—and, for that reason, an abstract one—in the political heaven, instead of on the socioeconomic earth, was identical to confinement in the fetish form of the bourgeois mode of socialization.

The problem outlined here is that of the “embryonic form”. Historical materialism analytically demonstrated and recognized that capitalist and bourgeois socialization under the form of the commodity arose as an embryonic form within feudal society. It did not begin with the political revolution (such as the French Revolution, for example), but much earlier, so that later, gradually, after a long development, it would prove to be a conscious power with its own intentions regarding the question of political power. The embryonic socioeconomic forms of capitalism underwent a long period of development while the “parallel and superior” feudal power was still dominant. When “the feudal husk was cast off” in the bourgeois revolutions, bourgeois sociability under the form of the commodity was already practically established: not only indirectly, as a useless political form, but directly and positively, as a real form of socioeconomic production. The political movement did not precede the new form of reproduction, as an expression of an abstract symbolic will; to the contrary, it was the secondary consequence of the new form of reproduction, its necessary phenomenal form.

It is of great importance not to lose sight of this historical circumstance, since historical materialism “pisses its pants”, so to speak, as soon as it is called upon to define the so-called socialist revolution. On the one hand, it blindly assimilates the bourgeois form of the political movement, in all its manifestations (from the concept of revolution to that of the political party), which indicates the character of the old Marxism as a simple secondary offshoot of the bourgeois Enlightenment and of socialization via the commodity form. On the other hand, such an attitude, for that very reason, cannot base itself upon an already-existing non-bourgeois and non-commercial form of reproduction. The patent lie of the Marxism of the workers movement is revealed in this absence of an actually existing embryonic form. The properly bourgeois form of political action cannot correspond to a non-bourgeois and non-commercial form of existence.

One makes a virtue out of a necessity; the bourgeois character of political immobility was defined as a peculiar feature of political transformation. Supposedly, the specific characteristic that must distinguish the socialist from the bourgeois revolution was that the former is not capable of assuming a real embryonic form. According to this view, the potentials for the transformation of the development of the capitalist productive forces, thanks to their “total” character affecting society as a whole, must not be presented and mobilized according to the criterion of an embryonic social and communicative form that transcends value-mediated socialization, but in accordance with the criterion of directly social organization. That is, “all or nothing”; the total immediacy of the ruling form of value, without any intermediate socioeconomic movement. Instead, only the political movement—and thus a movement that is positively connected to the State—reflecting a contradiction inherent to the capital relation, which by virtue of its very essence must remain on the terrain of capitalist categories (value, commodity, money, capital, wage system, State, democracy). In practical terms, and with respect to the definition of the goal, this led to a bureaucratic vision which could only gain plausibility in the context of social democratic and “communist” state fetishism—in the respectful socialist idea of the “good” State, of the “Workers State”, or, to formulate it polemically, of the eschatological “Third Reich” of the “blue ants”, under the sign of the productive forces on a gigantic scale.

This idea, which is in many aspects more closely related to the academic socialism of Lassalle than to the socialism of Marx (although Marx and Engels themselves were not completely immune to its influence), with the vigorous collaboration of the trade union and socialist party apparatus—whose typology represented, generally, a chamber of horrors of the railroad uniformity of the proletariat, of the Prussian goose-stepping mentality, and above all of a belief in the State and in the authority of the “armies of labor”—suppressed all attempts to realize an autonomous “anti-economic” reproduction against the constraints of the totalitarian system of commodity production. Anything of that kind, however immature its form, appeared to compete with the strategy of “seizing power” and with the “top-down” principle of the total planned economy of the ant-State (whose basis was the commodity form).

It would, of course, be unjust to unilaterally pronounce this verdict on the trade union and political apparatus of the workers movement, however great its responsibility for obscuring and crushing the weak, insecure and immature beginnings of the “embryonic form”. In fact, the old cooperative movement of the 19th century, like the so-called alternative movements of the New Left of the late 1970s, summoned forth from the career politicians and fetishists of State Planning all the slanderous catch-phrases of the Marxist catechism: massive petit bourgeois-ism and confused mentality, abandonment of the whole perspective of the social totality, technological backwardness and self-exploitation, the brutalization of country life and, finally, retreat to bourgeois society in the form of bankruptcy or capitalist “professionalization”.

What survived, in the case of the oldest cooperatives of the workers movement, were the strictly capitalist enterprises, like the Co-Op or the Neue Heimat, both of which, as everyone knows, became laughingstocks as a result of their peculiar susceptibility to corruption scandals. What remained of the recent alternative movement, for its part, basically occupied niches in the market of casino-capitalism with an artisanal production of luxuries for an amiable and honorable clientele, or with a noble or ethnic gastronomy, or with cultural properties (commercial or dependent on the State). Here, a potential middle class and petit bourgeois of the most sordid variety accumulated, which either yearned for Keynesian handouts, or feels “proud”, after such a long time, of its little property worked for and acquired “with its own hands”—the latter kind is consecrated to the Protestant masochism of labor and is politically situated between the mafia of the SPD and the Realos of the Green Party. From this sector, in a long crisis, a movement towards a social-nationalism of the “radical right” or of the “left” could issue. Although there are, in the rest of the alternative movement, people who did not renounce their emancipatory pretensions or their radical critique of society, they no longer find an adequate social terrain for their expression.

It is therefore not a question of once again disinterring, intact and unmediated, in opposition to the failed and ultimately never emancipatory State Socialism, the idea of the cooperative movement of the 19th century or of the alternative movement of the early 1980s. To the contrary, it is a matter of critically overcoming the false polarity between state-economic politics and the petit bourgeois socialism of the clodhoppers. The real question is to ascertain whether or not the radical critique of value should be driven forward, from the theoretical and practical point of view, towards the embryonic socioeconomic form of a transformation that can lead to a way out of fetishistic structures. A problematic of this kind is exposed not only to theoretical and practical difficulties (above all in a situation characterized by the economic peace of casino capitalism and of the evident paralysis of spontaneous movements), but is also affected by the current indolence of the old leftist pseudo-radicalism and its remains, which are still mumbling to themselves.

In fact, up until this point, the whole critique proffered by the various left radicalisms against the mainstream of the old workers movement has systematically avoided the problem of the embryonic form of an emancipation that would transcend commodity production. Just like their opponents, the partisans of State Socialism, the old left radicals completely ignore the question of the basic formal determination, in order to seek refuge in an illegitimate, bourgeois-enlightenment emphasis on the “class” subject or the “class struggle” or, barring that option, in order to practically implement the bourgeois revolutionary politics of a pretentious Jacobinism in a particularly martial form. As has been pointed out countless times in Krisis, explicitly anti-State left radicalism, descended from anarchism, remains even more strictly in thrall to the unsuperseded forms of mediation of the commodity production system, that is, at the other pole of bourgeois subjectivity, since the trend of argumentation linked to Proudhon opens the door to (tendentially anti-Semitic) formulations of a critique whose object is limited to interest-bearing capital.

Even the initiatives of the Paris Commune of 1871 and of the anarchists defeated in the Spanish Civil War do not arrive at any legitimate idea of non-commercial reproduction, although there always remains the task of critically reconstructing their history for the purpose of preparing, by means of historical reflection, a new movement of emancipation that transcends the commodity form. Those who are least capable of contributing to this project are obviously the “orthodox” managers of the plundering of Critical Theory, who want to remain in the situation of paralysis which incapacitates mediation, in order to leave the problem floating in esoteric reflection and to scold all those who want to supersede it.

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