Ljubodrag Simonović: Contemporary critique of capitalism
CONTEMPORARY CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM
The critique of capitalism should be based on two methodological postulates. First: the nature of a certain social (historical) phenomenon is determined by the tendencies of its development – of what it is developing into. Second: the nature of a social (historical) phenomenon conditions the nature of its critique. The nature of capitalism, that is, the tendency of its development as a destructive system, conditions both the nature of the critique of capitalism and the political strategy for the fight against capitalism. This is not to suggest the creation of a uniform way of thinking, but a way of thinking that endeavors to ask questions of an existential and essential nature. Such a way of thinking represents a contraposition to the ruling ideology, manifested in the “Coca Cola culture” that tends to marginalize the essential in order to assign a spectacular dimension to the marginal.
A concrete critique of capitalism cannot be based solely upon essential humanism; it must also be based upon existential humanism. The ideals of the French Revolution – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – present a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the future. The struggle to preserve life on the planet and increase the certainty of man’s survival as a cultural (social) and biological (natural) being represents a conditio sine qua non of the struggle for the future. Instead of the Marx’s notion of “alienation” (Entfremdung), the key notion in the critique of capitalism should be destruction. Marx’s revolutionary humanism opposes capitalism as a system of non-freedom, injustice, and non-reason, and advocates freedom, social justice, and a reasonable world, which means that it appears in the essential sphere. Existential humanism emerges in relation to capitalism as a destructive order that annihilates nature and man as a biological and human being – and places the struggle for the survival of the living world in the foreground, which means that it appears in the existential sphere. The affirmation of man as a creative and libertarian being is a response to the world where man is alienated from himself as a creative and libertarian being. The assertion that man is a life-creating being is a response to the world based upon the destruction of life: the struggle for freedom becomes the struggle for survival. The struggle for a reasonable world does not only represent an essential, but also an existential challenge. At the same time, Hegel’s (Marx’s) dialectic can be accepted only conditionally as the starting point for the development of a critique of capitalism, for its (historical) pyramid of freedom is founded upon existential certainty.
The “traditional” Marxist critique of capitalism, from the point of view of what-is-yet-to-be (Bloch’s noch-nicht-Sein), is of an abstract nature. The concrete nature of the capitalist positive also conditions the nature of the negative, which is a critical consciousness and a political practice based on it. Contemporary man cannot attain an appropriate historical self-consciousness starting from an absolutized and idealized anthropological model of man as a universal creative being of freedom, but only by starting from the existential challenges that capitalism, as a destructive system, poses to man. Man’s becoming a human being (what he, in his essence, is – a totalizing libertarian, creative and life-creating being) and the world’s becoming a human world is conditioned by capitalism’s becoming capitalism (that is, its turning into what it essentially is – a totalitarian destructive order). A concrete future cannot be grounded in what man desires to do based on his own authentic human needs, but only in what man must do if humankind is to survive. The essential level of the future is directly conditioned by existential challenges. The development of capitalism has further diminished the chances for the future to be the product of man’s free (visionary) creative practice (Bloch’s “openness“), which is in turn conditioned by consequences generated by capitalism as a destructive order. Objective possibilities for the creation of a new world and the possibility of man’s realization as a universal free creative being are conditioned by the developmental capacities of capitalism as a destructive order. This is the basis for a concrete dialectic of the future. A destroyed nature, a mutilated man, the accumulated destructive powers of capitalism that could momentarily destroy humankind – this also represents an objective situation that inevitably conditions the probability of the future and its planning. It is not man who assigns to himself tasks that, as Marx asserts, he can complete, it is capitalism that imposes a crucial task on man: to preserve life on the planet and to save humankind from destruction. To meet the challenge of the historical task imposed on man by capitalism means to face up to capitalism as an order that destroys life.
The capitalist destruction of nature and man as a biological and human being has not had a significant influence on the development of the left-wing critique of capitalism, the formation of the proletariat’s class-consciousness and socialist revolutions. An analysis of capitalism as a destructive order cannot be found in Marxist theorists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Engels’ view that capitalism creates the possibility for “the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” suggests a radical break with capitalism, but it overlooks the fact that humanity’s future is directly conditioned by the destructive consequences of capitalism. Bloch’s theory clearly shows the limitations of the Marxist critique of capitalism. It repeatedly associates utopia with “happiness”, “dignity”… Utopia appears essentially opposed to capitalism. When Bloch writes about capitalistically produced “objective possibilities” for the creation of a new world, he has in mind the development of productive forces, but he does not consider the consequences of these productive forces on the environment and man or the potential threats to the survival of man and the living world posed by capitalist technique. His theory is also based on existential apriorism: capitalism is the order of non-freedom, not the order of destruction. Even in Lukacs (History and Class Consciousness), workers’ class-consciousness does not include the consciousness of capitalism as a destructive order, so, consequently, workers’ self-consciousness does not involve the consciousness of the need to fight for the survival of nature and humanity. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics takes up the existing (capitalist) world as a world of non-freedom and injustice and not as a world of destruction. This conditions the nature of the “negative”, meaning a critical and changing relation to the existing world, as well as the idea of the future. Even in his later works (published in the West in 1970, and in Serbia in 1978, under the title The Criteria of Time), Marcuse does not write about the destructive nature of capitalism; about the consciousness of the destructive nature of capitalism as an integral part of contemporary revolutionary consciousness; about a possible integration of humanity based on the efforts to stop the destruction of global life… Instead of the destruction of nature, what is emphasized is its “impoverishment” and the need for its cultivation through a cultivation of senses. The main motives for fighting against capitalism are liberation from oppression, women’s emancipation, the establishment of creative work… A strategic target in the fight against capitalism is discerned primarily in its oppressive and not its ecocidal character. The revolutionary and post-revolutionary thought in the USSR is dominated by the principle of absolutized productivity (“Stakhanovism”), whereas possible global destruction is never discussed. The Yugoslav Praxis philosophy is also not concerned with the development of capitalism as a destructive order, and its relation to capitalism is primarily founded on Marx’s critique and the concept of “alienation”. Its vision of the future, based on the idea that man is a universal creative being of freedom, has an abstract character since it does not consider capitalism as a totalitarian destructive order. Praxis philosophy is dominated by Hegel’s dialectics, which involves existential certainty and an open future. The capitalist destruction of nature is not of primary importance, with emphasis being put on the finite amount of natural resources. The questions asked are essential and not existential. Kangrga’s “speculation”, which amounts to searching for the meaning of life regardless of the trends in the development of capitalism as a totalitarian order of destruction and the lethal consequences of capitalism is a typical example of the abstract relationship of Praxis philosophy to the future. It is no accident that its adherents are not concerned with a critique of sport, which embodies the underlying principles of capitalism and, as such, is an industry of death. At the political level, the Praxis critique is primarily aimed not at capitalism, but at Stalinism and the USSR. This is the main reason why the West held its doors wide open to the Praxis philosophers. Considering that the development of capitalism as a totalitarian destructive order remained outside the reach of their critique, it can be said that Praxis philosophy remained historically marginalized.
As far as Antonio Negri is concerned, his view clearly illustrates the essence of his thought: “We cannot return to any other social form, nor can we proceed towards isolation. On the contrary, we must push our way through the Empire in order to reach the other side. Deleuze and Guattari claimed that we must accelerate the process of the globalization of capital and not oppose it. ‘But which,’ they asked, ‘is the revolutionary road? Does it exist? To withdraw from the world market…? Or, perhaps, to take the opposite direction? To go even further, that is, with the market movement, decoding and deterritorialization?’ The Empire can successfully be opposed only at its level of generalization and by pushing the processes it offers beyond their current limits. We must accept that challenge and learn to think globally and act globally. Globalization must be opposed by counter-globalization, the Empire by counter-Empire.” (Emphasis in the original by A.N.)
What are the “processes” offered by the “Empire” that should be “pushed”, what are their “current limits”, and what is there beyond “their current limits”? Here, Negri comes close to Marx’s view that with the development of capitalism, its inner limitations will force it to self-destruct. Negri overlooks the most important point: that capitalism has become a totalitarian destructive order and that the “Empire” is developing in a way that is detrimental to man as a human and biological being, to the climate conditions in which man can survive, and to the living world. Keeping in view the fact that capitalism has become a totalitarian ecocidal and genocidal order, to insist on bringing globalism to its full completion through the development of capitalism actually means to insist on accepting the destruction of humanity and the living world. The “Empire” is not a tunnel at the end of which shines the star of freedom. It is rather a cave where the dazzling artificial light of “consumer society” blinds man and prevents him from realizing that there is no way out of the cave. To bring the capitalist contradictions to their completion means to bring life on the planet to an end. The end of globalism does not only correspond with the “end of history”, but also with the end of humankind.
By becoming a global order of destruction, capitalism has created a global existential crisis. The West used to be synonymous with the “capitalist world”. Today, there are global centers of economic power that threaten Western domination as they conquer the world markets by increasingly destroying nature and man as a human and biological being. In the increasingly ruthless struggle for survival and domination, capitalist concerns destroy the foundations of humanity’s future. We should again point out the fatal illusion that humanity can, as Negri claims, create a new world by following the path of capitalist globalism. Only by fighting against capitalism can the emancipatory legacy of civil society be preserved; by saving the germ of a novum from which a new society can grow. At the same time, it is only by fighting against capitalism that global destruction can be prevented. Capitalistically degenerated humankind cannot create a new world on burned down forests, hopelessly contaminated soil, polluted rivers and seas, nuclear waste dumps, in a scorching sun…
The increasingly dramatic development of capitalism as a destructive order contradicts Marcuse’s view, expressed in his talks with Enzensberger (which is, in a way, Marcuse’s political testament), that we should opt for “educational” and “defensive” tactics in the struggle against capitalism. Marcuse appeals to the “best formula” of Rudi Dutschke: “… a long march through the institutions is recommendable both beforehand and afterwards”. The development of capitalism proved both Dutschke and Marcuse wrong: the institutions of bourgeois society have become the means by which capitalist corporations realize their ecocidal and, on that basis, genocidal policies. Instead of a further radicalization of the critical and changing relationship to capitalism as an order with increasingly harmful consequences for life on the planet, Marcuse’s (like Horkheimer’s, Adorno’s and Habermas’) political thought contributed to an “abatement” and pacification of the struggle against capitalism. The “long march through the institutions” based on the notion that “capitalism should be changed from within”, has become one of the ways of sterilizing the struggle against capitalism and “purchasing time” for capitalist concerns, which brought the world to the edge of the abyss. The members of the Frankfurt School robbed Marx’s thought of its revolutionary substance. Marx’s thought was transposed from the sphere of a class struggle to the sphere of a theoretical analysis of capitalism, which blunted its critical and changing edge. Instead of being revolutionary, dialectics has become an analytical method.
Rather than developing workers’ class-consciousness, the members of the Frankfurt School, hovering in a political vacuum, depart from the “fact” that the working’ class in the “advanced industrial society” has not become a revolutionary force. They helped to create the misconception that the conformist behavior of the working class in the developed capitalist countries – rather than being the product of the class domination of the bourgeoisie, which managed, through the “consumer” way of living, to pull workers into the capitalist spiritual sphere (contemporary “bourgeoising of the proletariat”/Reich) – is the final integration of workers into the capitalist order. Instead of fighting to liberate workers from their spiritual slavery and thus revealing the true character of contemporary forms of class subordination, they throw workers on history’s political garbage heap, turning concrete political (class) issues into theoretical issues. That is the context of Marcuse’s claim that Marx’s proletariat in developed industrial society has become a “mythological idea”. Indeed, by “burying” the working class as a potentially revolutionary agent of social change, the members of the Frankfurt School reduced the future to a mythological idea. A deadly fear of workers has always been the basis of the bourgeois political practice. The most important strategic goal of bourgeois political activity is to deal with workers’ class-consciousness and to prevent their political organization and political struggle. Hence the most important task of the ideological sphere of capitalism, with the entertainment industry in the forefront, is workers’ de-politicization. Workers’ de-politicization and their integration into the capitalist order is not only carried out by way of the ideological sphere, but also by way of their “consumer” life-style, which is completely within the function of the increasingly fast pace of capitalist reproduction and which deprives man of his reason and thus his critical, changing and visionary consciousness. It can therefore be concluded that the critique of capitalism proposed by the members of the Frankfurt School is not conditioned by the nature of capitalism, but that the “nature of capitalism” is adjusted to a political conception which, ultimately, amounts to dealing with workers’ class struggle and to the “humanization” of capitalism.
The political theory of Oskar Lafontaine illustrates the adjustment of the critique of capitalism to the fight for power in the political arena of contemporary capitalism, dominated by a petty-bourgeois consciousness based on conformism. Instead of advocating the fight against capitalism as an appropriate response to the capitalist destruction of life and man as a human and natural being, Lafontaine appeals to the abstract citizen and offers him “reasonable” solutions, originating in the propaganda floscule that “German social democracy is based on the Enlightenment”. Political struggle, which is not only a struggle for freedom but also for survival, is replaced by the effort to make the (petty)bourgeois “reasonable” with a rational alternative to the established “progress”. Behind this approach lies the political strategy of social democracy that, in its fight for votes, tries to reassure the dominant petty bourgeois consciousness, which is not ready for a radical political struggle but can only jeopardize the “stability” of the ruling order and, thus, the achieved consumer standards as its unquestionable life and value challenge. His critique of capitalism lacks dramatic overtones indicating the true nature of capitalism as a destructive order – which calls for a radical confrontation with capitalism. In that context, Lafontaine’s struggle against capitalism excludes the struggle against capitalists, that is, any class struggle. At the same time, his books selectively deal with social phenomena, while intentionally avoiding the questions that cannot be properly answered without irritating the vast majority of the public.
The Revolution of Hope by Erich Fromm is a typical example of how the nature of capitalism can be subjected to such a political project that involves man’s renouncing the fight that could result in toppling the capitalist order. Rather than developing people’s consciousness about the destructive nature of capitalism and the necessity to fight against it in order to preserve life on the planet, Fromm insists that man’s goodness will lead to the “humanization of technology” and, thus, to the humanization of life. Like Marcuse, he also “threatens” humanity with fascism should it start a radical struggle against capitalism. Fromm’s Revolution of Hope deals with the critical thought that seeks to confront the destructive capitalist mania with a radical political struggle and actually purchases time for capitalism. It is no accident that Fromm’s book is entitled “The Revolution of Hope”. “Hope” obtains a mythological dimension and as such becomes the spiritus movens of the humanization of technology. What should become humanity’s basic integrative force is not the hope that technology can be humanized, but the faith that capitalism can be defeated and life on the planet saved.
As for the contemporary communist movement, one of its most important characteristics is its dogmatism and mythological consciousness. Instead of an idea of the future reached in relation to capitalism as a totalitarian destructive order, their basis for a critique of capitalism is an idealized picture of the “socialist past”. Revolutionary consciousness lacks a vision of the future “since the future has already happened”. A fight for the “future” becomes a fight for “restoring” the past. Rather than an integrative visionary consciousness, we have a sectarian consciousness, which appears in the form of “Stalinists”, “Maoists”, “Trotskyists”, “Titoists”, etc. There is the personality cult, which is a way of alienating workers’ political being and libertarian potential on which the possibility of creating a humane world is based. At the same time, by abolishing visionary consciousness, communists deal with the dialectical way of thinking and become prisoners of a quasi-religious consciousness. The argument and the dialog, based on the analysis of current trends in the development of capitalism, are replaced by propaganda slogans and an uncompromising combat with those who question the given “truths”. They repeatedly resort to “scientific socialism”, according to which the appearance of socialism is inevitable and reduces historical materialism to naturalistic determinism. The most fatal result of this thought is the view that capitalism cannot (and must not) be a destructive order, meaning that any critique of capitalism as an order that ever-more dramatically destroys nature and humankind is undesirable. Thus, communists relinquish the fight to protect the environment and pass it to the political forces whose aim is not to step out of capitalism, but to “perfect” it.
A dogmatic way of thinking, based on progressism and the myth of the omnipotence of science and technology, also conditions the communists’ dogmatic relation to sport. The critique of sport and Olympism is almost non-existent in communist circles. This is not only due to their failure to understand the essence of sport and their glorification of the “real socialism”, where sport held a prominent political place, but to the truth that sport has become the most important spiritual drug for workers and that it is not, therefore, politically advantageous to subject it to critique. Indeed, sports stadiums have turned into contemporary concentration camps, where young people’s critical and changing consciousness and their faith in the future are being destroyed. The production of “hooligans” is one of the ways in which capitalists turn young workers into fascist hordes that will be directed against the left-oriented youth and the workers’ movements. Football fans are one of the most important forms of organization of capitalist crusaders, while games are used to homogenize and militarize them. Not only do clashes between rival football fans erode their critical mind and their faith in a humane world, but young people acquire the combat skills and brutality demanded by capitalists in their conflict with the opponents of capitalism. At the same time, communists firmly stick to their ideology of “record-mania”, which glorifies the productivity principle on a quantitative scale. It produces an ecocidal consciousness and contributes to the destruction of man as a natural and human being.
The idea of communism should be emptied of its shadows of the past and offered a possibility for the development of its emancipatory potential. It should, above all, discard its thinking that based on mythological romanticism since it deals with a visionary consciousness without which there can be no future. At the same time, to restore the obsolete forms of the critique of capitalism stops people from understanding the destructive nature of capitalism and developing an appropriate critique and appropriate forms of struggle against capitalism. Communism has never existed, anywhere in the world. It is a possible future for humankind. Communism does not mean the end, but the beginning of a true history of humanity.
If we consider the importance of Karl Marx, as the most significant figure in the creation of the workers’ movement, and his thought, as the basis for any critique of capitalism and a vision of the future, there is a question of political justification in criticizing Marx’s critique of capitalism. All the more so because capitalism produced such an existential crisis that it is doubtful whether we still have time for a “new” critique of capitalism that can integrate global political thought in the fight against capitalism and the creation of a new world. Can Marx’s thought, in spite of its shortcomings, still be more beneficial to the workers’ movement than the contemporary critique of capitalism, which is yet to be critically appraised and can cause confusion among the critics of capitalism who fight for a new world – and thus weaken the fight against capitalism at a time when the creation of a united and uncompromising global anti-capitalist movement has become a precondition for humanity’s survival?
The increasingly dramatic ecological crisis created by capitalism, which affects more and more people, will inevitably lead to the immediate existential threat to humanity becoming the source of a critical and changing relation to capitalism. By becoming a totalitarian destructive order, capitalism stepped out from the theoretical and political framework of Marx’s critique of capitalism, which insists on social justice and freedom, and, therefore, the contemporary critique of capitalism can no longer be reduced to Marx’s critique of capitalism. Marx’s thought is one of the concrete forms of the communist critique of capitalism and one of the concrete historical forms of the fight for a communist society. The historical continuity of the idea of communism must not be sought only in theory, but, above all, in the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat against capitalism. Marx’s view that the “correct theory is the consciousness of a world-changing practice” means that the link connecting us to Marx and other fighters for a communist society is an uncompromising fight against capitalism, and not citations from Marx’s works. The fight against capitalism and for a communist society represents the basis of the historical continuity of the idea of communism.
Translated from Serbian by Vesna Todorović
English translation supervisor Mick Collins
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