Grace Lee Boggs: Naming the Enemy

This article was originally posted on the Boggs Center’s website.


A specter is haunting the American people– the specter of destruction by capitalism. In its limitless quest for profits capitalism has defiled our human relationships by turning them into money relationships. It has transformed Work from a precious human activity into Jobs which are done only for a paycheck and which have become increasingly meaningless and increasingly scarce as the profits from our labor are invested in increasingly complex machines. It has undermined the Family ties by which human beings down through the ages have absorbed naturally and normally the elementary standards of conduct and the sense of continuity with the human race which make us human. By encouraging us to value material things more than social ties, it has turned us into a society of selfish individualists and materialists, seeking to compensate for the spiritual emptiness of our lives by the endless pursuit of distractions.It has despoiled the Land, Waters and Air on which our lives depend.

Up to now, most Americans have been able to evade facing this destructiveness because it was primarily other peoples, other races, other cultures which were being destroyed. For the sake of westward expansion the Native Americans were massacred and their survivors driven into the world’s first concentration camps. To clear the land and build the agricultural infrastructure necessary for industrial development, millions of Africans were enslaved and the ideology of racism created. Convinced that it was our destiny to rule the entire continent, Americans seized the Southwest from Mexico. When we came to the end of the American frontier, we reached out to Latin America and the Pacific. When capitalist expansion and centralization created the Great Depression, we got our economy moving again by producing for World War II. After the war we used our economic power and monopoly of nuclear weapons to protect capitalism in Europe from socialist revolution and to crush revolutionary struggles in the Third World by supporting and installing military dictatorships.

Ever since World War II it has been able to keep going only by producing weapons of destruction and by turning us into mindless consumers, unable to distinguish between our Needs and our Want, utilizing the mass media with the same cunning with which Hitler turned the German people into collaborators in their own destruction. New shiny cars and appliances have been pushed as sure ways to win love for ourselves. Women (and men) have been turned into sex objects. Credit cards have been promoted as badges of status.

As this brainwashing process has gained momentum over the last few decades, the moral and social fabric of our society has been steadily undermined. Our small towns and communities, in which neighborliness and character were more important than money, have been replaced by suburbs. Our judgment has been so distorted that we now consider “square” those who still value self-reliance and hard work, while we admire the “big spender.” Banks and loan sharks, whom we once viewed with suspicion, we now consider our friends, while more and more we fear those closest to us, our families, co-workers, and neighbors. Crime, mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, teen-age pregnancy and venereal disease have reached near epidemic proportions because, instead of depending upon each other for company and comfort (as human beings have done down through the ages), we look to more colorful goods and new, more exciting experiences to make us feel good.

Pursuing private happiness in the form of material goods, we did not care that we were passing on these materialistic and individualistic values to our children. Instead of recognizing that we were breeding criminals by the supreme value we had put on material things, we tried to project the blame for crime onto others. We ignored the growing threat to our health from the Love Canals that were being created by the dumping of industrial waste in our waters and our earth. We closed our eyes to the degrading lives being lived by the millions whom capitalism had already cast onto the Welfare rolls, little dreaming that the same fate was being prepared for us

But now the chickens have come home to roost. While we were collaborating with capitalism by accepting its dehumanizing values, capitalism itself was moving to a new stage, the stage of multinational capitalism. Big capitalists have been swallowing up smaller ones, creating giant corporations who buy and sell other giant corporations all over the world. A few hundred multi-national corporations now move capital and goods everywhere and anywhere, according to where they can make the most profit.

These multinational corporations have no loyalty to the United States or to any American community. They have no commitment to the reforms that Americans have won through hard struggle. Instead of giving more each year, they demand that we accept less or else.

If American workers do not accept wages and benefits competitive with those of Japanese or Mexican or Filipino workers, they do not hesitate to shut down a plant that has been the heart of the economic life of a city or region.. City workers and school teachers find that they are no longer needed; small businesses go bankrupt. So millions of workers, skilled and unskilled, blue collar and white collar, have already been laid off . Whole cities have been turned into wastelands by corporate takeovers and by runaway corporations. Yet our city and state officials, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, white or black, continue to compete with one another to offer tax breaks and reduced worker benefits to these corporations, knowing full well they will pick up and leave when they can make more profit elsewhere.

Meanwhile, because American capitalism no longer dominates the world market, our government can no longer afford the reforms with which all administrations since the Great Depression have tried to make capitalism more palatable. So social and Welfare programs are being ruthlessly dismantled; unions are being busted or immobilized; the moral, environmental and civilized restraints on capitalist expansion which have been won only after decades of struggle are being abandoned.

That is why we must now make a second American revolution to rid ourselves of the capitalist values and institutions which have brought us to this state of powerlessness or suffer the same mutilation, the same destruction of our families and our communities, the same loss of national independence as over the years we have visited upon other peoples and other nations.

Moishe Postone: Capitalism, Temporality, and the Crisis of Labor

This Lecture was presented by the American Academy in Berlin.

“The current crisis has laid bare the contradictory and shaky character of contemporary capitalism. Yet the essentially inchoate responses to the crisis have dramatically revealed the absence of a robust conceptualization of post-capitalist society and, by implication, of a robust critique of capital. One result has been the continued hegemony of neoliberal discourses and policies. Moishe Postone seeks to fundamentally rethink the core categories of Marx’s critique of political economy in the fall 2015 Ellen Maria Gorrissen lecture. He argues that Marx’s mature critique of political economy, as elaborated in the Grundrisse and Kapital, provides the basis for a different critical theory of modernity with contemporary significance.”


Wolfgang Streeck: How Will Capitalism End? (¿Cómo terminará el capitalismo? – incluído en Español)

This article was originally published in the New Left Review.  En español aquí.


There is a widespread sense today that capitalism is in critical condition, more so than at any time since the end of the Second World War. [1] Looking back, the crash of 2008 was only the latest in a long sequence of political and economic disorders that began with the end of postwar prosperity in the mid-1970s. Successive crises have proved to be ever more severe, spreading more widely and rapidly through an increasingly interconnected global economy. Global inflation in the 1970s was followed by rising public debt in the 1980s, and fiscal consolidation in the 1990s was accompanied by a steep increase in private-sector indebtedness. [2] For four decades now, disequilibrium has more or less been the normal condition of the ‘advanced’ industrial world, at both the national and the global levels. In fact, with time, the crises of postwar oecd capitalism have become so pervasive that they have increasingly been perceived as more than just economic in nature, resulting in a rediscovery of the older notion of a capitalist society—of capitalism as a social order and way of life, vitally dependent on the uninterrupted progress of private capital accumulation.

Crisis symptoms are many, but prominent among them are three long-term trends in the trajectories of rich, highly industrialized—or better, increasingly deindustrialized—capitalist countries. The first is a persistent decline in the rate of economic growth, recently aggravated by the events of 2008 (Figure 1, below). The second, associated with the first, is an equally persistent rise in overall indebtedness in leading capitalist states, where governments, private households and non-financial as well as financial firms have, over forty years, continued to pile up financial obligations (for the us, see Figure 2, below). Third, economic inequality, of both income and wealth, has been on the ascent for several decades now (Figure 3, below), alongside rising debt and declining growth.


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Steady growth, sound money and a modicum of social equity, spreading some of the benefits of capitalism to those without capital, were long considered prerequisites for a capitalist political economy to command the legitimacy it needs. What must be most alarming from this perspective is that the three critical trends I have mentioned may be mutually reinforcing. There is mounting evidence that increasing inequality may be one of the causes of declining growth, as inequality both impedes improvements in productivity and weakens demand. Low growth, in turn, reinforces inequality by intensifying distributional conflict, making concessions to the poor more costly for the rich, and making the rich insist more than before on strict observance of the ‘Matthew principle’ governing free markets: ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.’ [3] Furthermore, rising debt, while failing to halt the decline of economic growth, compounds inequality through the structural changes associated with financialization—which in turn aimed to compensate wage earners and consumers for the growing income inequality caused by stagnant wages and cutbacks in public services.

Can what appears to be a vicious circle of harmful trends continue forever? Are there counterforces that might break it—and what will happen if they fail to materialize, as they have for almost four decades now? Historians inform us that crises are nothing new under capitalism, and may in fact be required for its longer-term health. But what they are talking about are cyclical movements or random shocks, after which capitalist economies can move into a new equilibrium, at least temporarily. What we are seeing today, however, appears in retrospect to be a continuous process of gradual decay, protracted but apparently all the more inexorable. Recovery from the occasional Reinigungskrise is one thing; interrupting a concatenation of intertwined, long-term trends quite another. Assuming that ever lower growth, ever higher inequality and ever rising debt are not indefinitely sustainable, and may together issue in a crisis that is systemic in nature—one whose character we have difficulty imagining—can we see signs of an impending reversal?

Another stopgap

Here the news is not good. Six years have passed since 2008, the culmination so far of the postwar crisis sequence. While memory of the abyss was still fresh, demands and blueprints for ‘reform’ to protect the world from a replay abounded. International conferences and summit meetings of all kinds followed hot on each other’s heels, but half a decade later hardly anything has come from them. In the meantime, the financial industry, where the disaster originated, has staged a full recovery: profits, dividends, salaries and bonuses are back where they were, while re-regulation became mired in international negotiations and domestic lobbying. Governments, first and foremost that of the United States, have remained firmly in the grip of the money-making industries. These, in turn, are being generously provided with cheap cash, created out of thin air on their behalf by their friends in the central banks—prominent among them the former Goldman Sachs man Mario Draghi at the helm of the ecb—money which they then sit on or invest in government debt. Growth remains anaemic, as do labour markets; unprecedented liquidity has failed to jumpstart the economy; and inequality is reaching ever more astonishing heights, as what little growth there is has been appropriated by the top one per cent of income earners—the lion’s share by a small fraction of them. [4]

There would seem to be little reason indeed to be optimistic. For some time now, oecd capitalism has been kept going by liberal injections of fiat money, under a policy of monetary expansion whose architects know better than anyone else that it cannot continue forever. In fact, several attempts were made in 2013 to kick the habit, in Japan as well as in the us, but when stock prices plunged in response, ‘tapering’, as it came to be called, was postponed for the time being. In mid-June, the Bank for International Settlements (bis) in Basel—the mother of all central banks—declared that ‘quantitative easing’ must come to an end. In its Annual Report, the Bank pointed out that central banks had, in reaction to the crisis and the slow recovery, expanded their balance sheets, ‘which are now collectively at roughly three times their pre-crisis level—and rising’. [5] While this had been necessary to ‘prevent financial collapse’, now the goal had to be ‘to return still-sluggish economies to strong and sustainable growth’. This, however, was beyond the capacities of central banks, which:

cannot enact the structural economic and financial reforms needed to return economies to the real growth paths authorities and their publics both want and expect. What central-bank accommodation has done during the recovery is to borrow time . . . But the time has not been well used, as continued low interest rates and unconventional policies have made it easy for the private sector to postpone deleveraging, easy for the government to finance deficits, and easy for the authorities to delay needed reforms in the real economy and in the financial system. After all, cheap money makes it easier to borrow than to save, easier to spend than to tax, easier to remain the same than to change.

Apparently this view was shared even by the Federal Reserve under Bernanke. By the late summer of 2013, it seemed once more to be signalling that the time of easy money was coming to an end. In September, however, the expected return to higher interest rates was again put off. The reason given was that ‘the economy’ looked less ‘strong’ than was hoped. Global stock prices immediately went up. The real reason, of course, why a return to more conventional monetary policies is so difficult is one that an international institution like bis is freer to spell out than a—for the time being—more politically exposed national central bank. This is that as things stand, the only alternative to sustaining capitalism by means of an unlimited money supply is trying to revive it through neoliberal economic reform, as neatly encapsulated in the second subtitle of the bis’s 2012–13 Annual Report: ‘Enhancing Flexibility: A Key to Growth.’ In other words, bitter medicine for the many, combined with higher incentives for the few. [6]

A problem with democracy

It is here that discussion of the crisis and the future of modern capitalism must turn to democratic politics. Capitalism and democracy had long been considered adversaries, until the postwar settlement seemed to have accomplished their reconciliation. Well into the twentieth century, owners of capital had been afraid of democratic majorities abolishing private property, while workers and their organizations expected capitalists to finance a return to authoritarian rule in defence of their privileges. Only in the Cold War world did capitalism and democracy seem to become aligned with one another, as economic progress made it possible for working-class majorities to accept a free-market, private-property regime, in turn making it appear that democratic freedom was inseparable from, and indeed depended on, the freedom of markets and profit-making. Today, however, doubts about the compatibility of a capitalist economy with a democratic polity have powerfully returned. Among ordinary people, there is now a pervasive sense that politics can no longer make a difference in their lives, as reflected in common perceptions of deadlock, incompetence and corruption among what seems an increasingly self-contained and self-serving political class, united in their claim that ‘there is no alternative’ to them and their policies. One result is declining electoral turnout combined with high voter volatility, producing ever greater electoral fragmentation, due to the rise of ‘populist’ protest parties, and pervasive government instability. [7]

The legitimacy of postwar democracy was based on the premise that states had a capacity to intervene in markets and correct their outcomes in the interest of citizens. Decades of rising inequality have cast doubt on this, as has the impotence of governments before, during and after the crisis of 2008. In response to their growing irrelevance in a global market economy, governments and political parties in oecd democracies more or less happily looked on as the ‘democratic class struggle’ turned into post-democratic politainment. [8] In the meantime, the transformation of the capitalist political economy from postwar Keynesianism to neoliberal Hayekianism progressed smoothly: from a political formula for economic growth through redistribution from the top to the bottom, to one expecting growth through redistribution from the bottom to the top. Egalitarian democracy, regarded under Keynesianism as economically productive, is considered a drag on efficiency under contemporary Hayekianism, where growth is to derive from insulation of markets—and of the cumulative advantage they entail—against redistributive political distortions.

A central topic of current anti-democratic rhetoric is the fiscal crisis of the contemporary state, as reflected in the astonishing increase in public debt since the 1970s (Figure 4, below). Growing public indebtedness is put down to electoral majorities living beyond their means by exploiting their societies’ ‘common pool’, and to opportunistic politicians buying the support of myopic voters with money they do not have. [9] However, that the fiscal crisis was unlikely to have been caused by an excess of redistributive democracy can be seen from the fact that the buildup of government debt coincided with a decline in electoral participation, especially at the lower end of the income scale, and marched in lockstep with shrinking unionization, the disappearance of strikes, welfare-state cutbacks and exploding income inequality. What the deterioration of public finances was related to was declining overall levels of taxation (Figure 5) and the increasingly regressive character of tax systems, as a result of ‘reforms’ of top income and corporate tax rates (Figure 6). Moreover, by replacing tax revenue with debt, governments contributed further to inequality, in that they offered secure investment opportunities to those whose money they would or could no longer confiscate and had to borrow instead. Unlike taxpayers, buyers of government bonds continue to own what they pay to the state, and in fact collect interest on it, typically paid out of ever less progressive taxation; they can also pass it on to their children. Moreover, rising public debt can be and is being utilized politically to argue for cutbacks in state spending and for privatization of public services, further constraining redistributive democratic intervention in the capitalist economy.


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Institutional protection of the market economy from democratic interference has advanced greatly in recent decades. Trade unions are on the decline everywhere and have in many countries been all but rooted out, especially in the us. Economic policy has widely been turned over to independent—i.e., democratically unaccountable—central banks concerned above all with the health and goodwill of financial markets. [10] In Europe, national economic policies, including wage-setting and budget-making, are increasingly governed by supranational agencies like the European Commission and the European Central Bank that lie beyond the reach of popular democracy. This effectively de-democratizes European capitalism—without, of course, de-politicizing it.

Still, doubts remain among the profit-dependent classes as to whether democracy will, even in its emasculated contemporary version, allow for the neoliberal ‘structural reforms’ necessary for their regime to recover. Like ordinary citizens, although for the opposite reasons, elites are losing faith in democratic government and its suitability for reshaping societies in line with market imperatives. Public Choice’s disparaging view of democratic politics as a corruption of market justice, in the service of opportunistic politicians and their clientele, has become common sense among elite publics—as has the belief that market capitalism cleansed of democratic politics will not only be more efficient but also virtuous and responsible. [11] Countries like China are complimented for their authoritarian political systems being so much better equipped than majoritarian democracy, with its egalitarian bent, to deal with what are claimed to be the challenges of ‘globalization’—a rhetoric that is beginning conspicuously to resemble the celebration by capitalist elites during the interwar years of German and Italian fascism (and even Stalinist communism) for their apparently superior economic governance. [12]

For the time being, the neoliberal mainstream’s political utopia is a ‘market-conforming democracy’, devoid of market-correcting powers and supportive of ‘incentive-compatible’ redistribution from the bottom to the top. [13] Although that project is already far advanced in both Western Europe and the United States, its promoters continue to worry that the political institutions inherited from the postwar compromise may at some point be repossessed by popular majorities, in a last-minute effort to block progress toward a neoliberal solution to the crisis. Elite pressures for economic neutralization of egalitarian democracy therefore continue unabated; in Europe this takes the form of a continuing relocation of political-economic decision-making to supranational institutions such as the European Central Bank and summit meetings of government leaders.

Capitalism on the brink?

Has capitalism seen its day? In the 1980s, the idea that ‘modern capitalism’ could be run as a ‘mixed economy’, both technocratically managed and democratically controlled, was abandoned. Later, in the neoliberal revolution, social and economic order was reconceived as benevolently emerging from the ‘free play of market forces’. But with the crash of 2008, the promise of self-regulating markets attaining equilibrium on their own was discredited as well, without a plausible new formula for political-economic governance coming into view. This alone may be regarded as a symptom of a crisis that has become systemic, the more so the longer it lasts.

In my view it is high time, in the light of decades of declining growth, rising inequality and increasing indebtedness—as well as of the successive agonies of inflation, public debt and financial implosion since the 1970s—to think again about capitalism as a historical phenomenon, one that has not just a beginning, but also an end. For this, we need to part company with misleading models of social and institutional change. As long as we imagine the end of capitalism being decreed, Leninist-style, by some government or central committee, we cannot but consider capitalism eternal. (In fact it was communism, centralized as it was in Moscow, that could be and was terminated by decree.) Matters are different if, instead of imagining it being replaced by collective decision with some providentially designed new order, we allow for capitalism to collapse by itself.

I suggest that we learn to think about capitalism coming to an end without assuming responsibility for answering the question of what one proposes to put in its place. It is a Marxist—or better: modernist—prejudice that capitalism as a historical epoch will end only when a new, better society is in sight, and a revolutionary subject ready to implement it for the advancement of mankind. This presupposes a degree of political control over our common fate of which we cannot even dream after the destruction of collective agency, and indeed the hope for it, in the neoliberal-globalist revolution. Neither a utopian vision of an alternative future nor superhuman foresight should be required to validate the claim that capitalism is facing its Götterdämmerung. I am willing to make exactly this claim, although I am aware of how many times capitalism has been declared dead in the past. In fact, all of the main theorists of capitalism have predicted its impending expiry, ever since the concept came into use in the mid-1800s. This includes not just radical critics like Marx or Polanyi, but also bourgeois theorists such as Weber, Schumpeter, Sombart and Keynes. [14]

That something has failed to happen, in spite of reasonable predictions that it would, does not mean that it will never happen; here, too, there is no inductive proof. I believe that this time is different, one symptom being that even capitalism’s master technicians have no clue today how to make the system whole again—see, for example, the recently published minutes of the deliberations of the Federal Reserve’s board in 2008, [15] or the desperate search of central bankers, mentioned above, for the right moment to end ‘quantitative easing’. This, however, is only the surface of the problem. Beneath it is the stark fact that capitalist progress has by now more or less destroyed any agency that could stabilize it by limiting it; the point being that the stability of capitalism as a socio-economic system depends on its Eigendynamik being contained by countervailing forces—by collective interests and institutions subjecting capital accumulation to social checks and balances. The implication is that capitalism may undermine itself by being too successful. I will argue this point in more detail below.

The image I have of the end of capitalism—an end that I believe is already under way—is one of a social system in chronic disrepair, for reasons of its own and regardless of the absence of a viable alternative. While we cannot know when and how exactly capitalism will disappear and what will succeed it, what matters is that no force is on hand that could be expected to reverse the three downward trends in economic growth, social equality and financial stability and end their mutual reinforcement. In contrast to the 1930s, there is today no political-economic formula on the horizon, left or right, that might provide capitalist societies with a coherent new regime of regulation, or régulation. Social integration as well as system integration seem irreversibly damaged and set to deteriorate further. [16] What is most likely to happen as time passes is a continuous accumulation of small and not-so-small dysfunctions; none necessarily deadly as such, but most beyond repair, all the more so as they become too many for individual address. In the process, the parts of the whole will fit together less and less; frictions of all kinds will multiply; unanticipated consequences will spread, along ever more obscure lines of causation. Uncertainty will proliferate; crises of every sort—of legitimacy, productivity or both—will follow each other in quick succession while predictability and governability will decline further (as they have for decades now). Eventually, the myriad provisional fixes devised for short-term crisis management will collapse under the weight of the daily disasters produced by a social order in profound, anomic disarray.

Conceiving of the end of capitalism as a process rather than an event raises the issue of how to define capitalism. Societies are complex entities that do not die in the way organisms do: with the rare exception of total extinction, discontinuity is always embedded in some continuity. If we say that a society has ended, we mean that certain features of its organization that we consider essential to it have disappeared; others may well have survived. I propose that to determine if capitalism is alive, dying or dead, we define it as a modern society [17] that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation, through a ‘labour process’ combining privately owned capital with commodified labour power, fulfilling the Mandevillean promise of private vices turning into public benefits. [18] It is this promise, I maintain, that contemporary capitalism can no longer keep—ending its historical existence as a self-reproducing, sustainable, predictable and legitimate social order.

The demise of capitalism so defined is unlikely to follow anyone’s blueprint. As the decay progresses, it is bound to provoke political protests and manifold attempts at collective intervention. But for a long time, these are likely to remain of the Luddite sort: local, dispersed, uncoordinated, ‘primitive’—adding to the disorder while unable to create a new order, at best unintentionally helping it to come about. One might think that a long-lasting crisis of this sort would open up more than a few windows of opportunity for reformist or revolutionary agency. It seems, however, that disorganized capitalism is disorganizing not only itself but its opposition as well, depriving it of the capacity either to defeat capitalism or to rescue it. For capitalism to end, then, it must provide for its own destruction—which, I would argue, is exactly what we are witnessing today.

A Pyrrhic victory

But why should capitalism, whatever its deficiencies, be in crisis at all if it no longer has any opposition worthy of the name? When communism imploded in 1989, this was widely viewed as capitalism’s final triumph, as the ‘end of history’. Even today, after 2008, the Old Left remains on the brink of extinction everywhere, while a new New Left has up to now failed to appear. The masses, the poor and powerless as much as the relatively well-to-do, seem firmly in the grip of consumerism, with collective goods, collective action and collective organization thoroughly out of fashion. As the only game in town, why should capitalism not carry on, by default if for no other reason? At first glance, there is indeed much that speaks against pronouncing capitalism dead, regardless of all the ominous writing on the historical wall. As far as inequality is concerned, people may get used to it, especially with the help of public entertainment and political repression. Furthermore, examples abound of governments being re-elected that cut social spending and privatize public services, in pursuit of sound money for the owners of money. Concerning environmental deterioration, it proceeds only slowly compared to the human lifespan, so one can deny it while learning to live with it. Technological advances with which to buy time, such as fracking, can never be ruled out, and if there are limits to the pacifying powers of consumerism, we clearly are nowhere near them. Moreover, adapting to more time-consuming and life-consuming work regimes can be taken as a competitive challenge, an opportunity for personal achievement. Cultural definitions of the good life have always been highly malleable and might well be stretched further to match the onward march of commodification, at least as long as radical or religious challenges to pro-capitalist re-education can be suppressed, ridiculed or otherwise marginalized. Finally, most of today’s stagnation theories apply only to the West, or just to the us, not to China, Russia, India or Brazil—countries to which the frontier of economic growth may be about to migrate, with vast virgin lands waiting to be made available for capitalist progress. [19]

My answer is that having no opposition may actually be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogeneity, on a pluralism of organizing principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable. Capitalism as we know it has benefited greatly from the rise of countermovements against the rule of profit and of the market. Socialism and trade unionism, by putting a brake on commodification, prevented capitalism from destroying its non-capitalist foundations—trust, good faith, altruism, solidarity within families and communities, and the like. Under Keynesianism and Fordism, capitalism’s more or less loyal opposition secured and helped stabilize aggregate demand, especially in recessions. Where circumstances were favourable, working-class organization even served as a ‘productivity whip’, by forcing capital to embark on more advanced production concepts. It is in this sense that Geoffrey Hodgson has argued that capitalism can survive only as long as it is not completely capitalist—as it has not yet rid itself, or the society in which it resides, of ‘necessary impurities’. [20] Seen this way, capitalism’s defeat of its opposition may actually have been a Pyrrhic victory, freeing it from countervailing powers which, while sometimes inconvenient, had in fact supported it. Could it be that victorious capitalism has become its own worst enemy?

Frontiers of commodification

In exploring this possibility, we might wish to turn to Karl Polanyi’s idea of social limits to market expansion, as underlying his concept of the three ‘fictitious commodities’: labour, land (or nature) and money. [21] A fictitious commodity is defined as a resource to which the laws of supply and demand apply only partially and awkwardly if at all; it can therefore only be treated as a commodity in a carefully circumscribed, regulated way, since complete commodification will destroy it or make it unusable. Markets, however, have an inherent tendency to expand beyond their original domain, the trading of material goods, to all other spheres of life, regardless of their suitability for commodification—or, in Marxian terms, for subsumption under the logic of capital accumulation. Unless held back by constraining institutions, market expansion is thus at permanent risk of undermining itself, and with it the viability of the capitalist economic and social system.

In fact, the indications are that market expansion has today reached a critical threshold with respect to all three of Polanyi’s fictitious commodities, as institutional safeguards that served to protect them from full marketization have been eroded on a number of fronts. This is what seems to be behind the search currently under way in all advanced capitalist societies for a new time regime with respect to labour, in particular a new allocation of time between social and economic relations and pursuits; for a sustainable energy regime in relation to nature; and for a stable financial regime for the production and allocation of money. In all three areas, societies are today groping for more effective limitations on the logic of expansion, [22] institutionalized as one of private enrichment, that is fundamental to the capitalist social order. These limitations centre on the increasingly demanding claims made by the employment system on human labour, by capitalist production and consumption systems on finite natural resources, and by the financial and banking system on people’s confidence in ever more complex pyramids of money, credit and debt.

Looking at each of the three Polanyian crisis zones in turn, we may note that it was an excessive commodification of money that brought down the global economy in 2008: the transformation of a limitless supply of cheap credit into ever more sophisticated financial ‘products’ gave rise to a real-estate bubble of a size unimaginable at the time. As of the 1980s, deregulation of us financial markets had abolished the restrictions on the private production and marketization of money devised after the Great Depression. ‘Financialization’, as the process came to be known, seemed the last remaining way to restore growth and profitability to the economy of the overextended hegemon of global capitalism. Once let loose, however, the money-making industry invested a good part of its enormous resources in lobbying for a further removal of prudential regulation, not to mention in circumventing whatever rules were left. With hindsight, the enormous risks that came with the move from the old regime of m–c–m´ to a new one of m–m´ are easy to see, as is the trend toward ever-increasing inequality associated with the disproportionate growth of the banking sector. [23]

Concerning nature, there is growing unease over the tension, now widely perceived, between the capitalist principle of infinite expansion and the finite supply of natural resources. Neo-Malthusian discourses of various denominations became popular in the 1970s. Whatever one may think of them, and although some are now considered prematurely alarmist, no one seriously denies that the energy consumption patterns of rich capitalist societies cannot be extended to the rest of the world without destroying essential preconditions of human life. What seems to be taking shape is a race between the advancing exhaustion of nature on the one hand and technological innovation on the other—substituting artificial materials for natural ones, preventing or repairing environmental damage, devising shelters against unavoidable degradation of the biosphere. One question that no one seems able to answer is how the enormous collective resources potentially required for this may be mobilized in societies governed by what C. B. MacPherson termed ‘possessive individualism’. [24] What actors and institutions are to secure the collective good of a liveable environment in a world of competitive production and consumption?

Thirdly, the commodification of human labour may have reached a critical point. Deregulation of labour markets under international competition has undone whatever prospects there might once have been for a general limitation of working hours. [25] It has also made employment more precarious for a growing share of the population. [26] With the rising labour-market participation of women, due in part to the disappearance of the ‘family wage’, hours per month sold by families to employers have increased while wages have lagged behind productivity, most dramatically in the capitalist heartland, the us (see Figure 7). At the same time, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions notwithstanding, labour markets typically fail to clear, and residual unemployment on the order of 7 to 8 per cent has become the new normal, even in a country like Sweden. Sweatshops have expanded in many industries including services, but mostly on the global periphery, beyond the reach of the authorities and what remains of trade unions in the capitalist centre, and out of view of consumers. As sweated labour competes with workers in countries with historically strong labour protections, working conditions for the former deteriorate while unemployment becomes endemic for the latter. Meanwhile, complaints multiply about the penetration of work into family life, alongside pressures from labour markets to join an unending race to upgrade one’s ‘human capital’. Moreover, global mobility enables employers to replace unwilling local workers with willing immigrant ones. It also compensates for sub-replacement fertility, itself due in part to a changed balance between unpaid and paid work and between non-market and market consumption. The result is a secular weakening of social counter-movements, caused by a loss of class and social solidarity and accompanied by crippling political conflicts over ethnic diversity, even in traditionally liberal countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Norway.


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The question of how and where capital accumulation must be restrained in order to protect the three fictitious commodities from total commodification has been contested throughout the history of capitalism. But the present worldwide disorder in all three border zones at the same time is something different: it results from a spectacularly successful onslaught of markets, expanding more rapidly than ever, on a wide range of institutions and actors that, whether inherited from the past or built up in long political struggles, had for a time kept capitalism’s advance to some extent socially embedded. Labour, land and money have simultaneously become crisis zones after ‘globalization’ endowed market relations and production chains with an unprecedented capacity to cross the boundaries of national political and legal jurisdictions. The result is a fundamental disorganization of the agencies that have, in the modern era, more or less successfully domesticated capitalist ‘animal spirits’, for the sake of society as a whole as well as of capitalism itself.

It is not only with respect to fictitious commodities that capital accumulation may be hitting its limits. On the surface, consumption of goods and services continues to grow, and the implicit premise of modern economics—that the human desire and capacity to consume are unlimited—would seem to be easily vindicated by a visit to any large shopping mall. Still, fears that markets for consumer goods may at some point become saturated—perhaps in the course of a post-materialist decoupling of human aspirations from the purchase of commodities—are endemic among profit-dependent producers. This in itself reflects the fact that consumption in mature capitalist societies has long become dissociated from material need. [27] The lion’s share of consumption expenditure today—and a rapidly growing one—is spent not on the use value of goods, but on their symbolic value, their aura or halo. This is why industry practitioners find themselves paying more than ever for marketing, including not just advertising but also product design and innovation. Nevertheless, in spite of the growing sophistication of sales promotion, the intangibles of culture make commercial success difficult to predict—certainly more so than in an era when growth could be achieved by gradually supplying all households in a country with a washing machine. [28]

Five disorders

Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint. The capitalist pursuit of profit is open-ended, and cannot be otherwise. The idea that less could be more is not a principle a capitalist society could honour; it must be imposed upon it, or else there will be no end to its progress, self-consuming as it may ultimately be. At present, I claim, we are already in a position to observe capitalism passing away as a result of having destroyed its opposition—dying, as it were, from an overdose of itself. For illustration I will point to five systemic disorders of today’s advanced capitalism; all of them result in various ways from the weakening of traditional institutional and political restraints on capitalist advance. I call them stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy.

Six years after Lehman, predictions of long-lasting economic stagnation are en vogue. A prominent example is a much-discussed paper by Robert Gordon, who argues that the main innovations that have driven productivity and economic growth since the 1800s could happen only once, like the increase in the speed of transportation or the installation of running water in cities. [29] Compared to them, the recent spread of information technology has produced only minor productivity effects, if any. While Gordon’s argument may seem somewhat technologically deterministic, it appears plausible that capitalism can hope to attain the level of growth needed to compensate a non-capitalist working class for helping others accumulate capital only if technology opens up ever new opportunities for increasing productivity. In any case, in what looks like an afterthought Gordon supports his prediction of low or no growth by listing six non-technological factors—he calls them ‘headwinds’—which would make for long-term stagnation ‘even if innovation were to continue . . . at the rate of the two decades before 2007’. [30] Among these factors he includes two that I argue have for some time been intertwined with low growth: inequality and ‘the overhang of consumer and government debt’. [31]

What is astonishing is how close current stagnation theories come to the Marxist underconsumption theories of the 1970s and 1980s. [32] Recently, none other than Lawrence ‘Larry’ Summers—friend of Wall Street, chief architect of financial deregulation under Clinton, and Obama’s first choice for president of the Federal Reserve, until he had to give way in face of congressional opposition [33] —has joined the stagnation theorists. At the imf Economic Forum on November 8 last year, Summers confessed to having given up hope that close-to-zero interest rates would produce significant economic growth in the foreseeable future, in a world he felt was suffering from an excess of capital. [34] Summers’ prediction of ‘secular stagnation’ as the ‘new normal’ met with surprisingly broad approval among his fellow economists, including Paul Krugman. [35] What Summers mentioned only in passing was that the conspicuous failure of even negative real interest rates to revive investment coincided with a long-term increase in inequality, in the us and elsewhere. As Keynes would have known, concentration of income at the top must detract from effective demand and make capital owners look for speculative profit opportunities outside the ‘real economy’. This may in fact have been one of the causes of the ‘financialization’ of capitalism that began in the 1980s.

The power elites of global capitalism would seem to be resigning themselves to low or no growth on aggregate for the foreseeable future. This does not preclude high profits in the financial sector, essentially from speculative trading with cheap money supplied by central banks. Few seem to fear that the money generated to prevent stagnation from turning into deflation will cause inflation, as the unions that could claim a share in it no longer exist. [36] In fact the concern now is with too little rather than too much inflation, the emerging received wisdom being that a healthy economy requires a yearly inflation rate of at least 2 per cent, if not more. The only inflation in sight, however, is that of asset-price bubbles, and Summers took pains to prepare his audience for a lot of them.

For capitalists and their retainers, the future looks like a decidedly bumpy ride. Low growth will refuse them additional resources with which to settle distributional conflicts and pacify discontent. Bubbles are waiting to burst, out of the blue, and it is not certain whether states will regain the capacity to take care of the victims in time. The stagnant economy that is shaping up will be far from a stationary or steady-state economy; as growth declines and risks increase, the struggle for survival will become more intense. Rather than restoring the protective limits to commodification that were rendered obsolete by globalization, ever new ways will be sought to exploit nature, extend and intensify working time, and encourage what the jargon calls creative finance, in a desperate effort to keep profits up and capital accumulation going. The scenario of ‘stagnation with a chance of bubbles’ may most plausibly be imagined as a battle of all against all, punctured by occasional panics and with the playing of endgames becoming a popular pastime.

Plutocrats and plunder

Turning to the second disorder, there is no indication that the long-term trend towards greater economic inequality will be broken any time soon, or indeed ever. Inequality depresses growth, for Keynesian and other reasons. But the easy money currently provided by central banks to restore growth—easy for capital but not, of course, for labour—further adds to inequality, by blowing up the financial sector and inviting speculative rather than productive investment. Redistribution to the top thus becomes oligarchic: rather than serving a collective interest in economic progress, as promised by neoclassical economics, it turns into extraction of resources from increasingly impoverished, declining societies. Countries that come to mind here are Russia and Ukraine, but also Greece and Spain, and increasingly the United States. Under oligarchic redistribution, the Keynesian bond which tied the profits of the rich to the wages of the poor is severed, cutting the fate of economic elites loose from that of the masses. [37] This was anticipated in the infamous ‘plutonomy’ memorandums distributed by Citibank in 2005 and 2006 to a select circle of its richest clients, to assure them that their prosperity no longer depended on that of wage earners. [38]

Oligarchic redistribution and the trend toward plutonomy, even in countries that are still considered democracies, conjure up the nightmare of elites confident that they will outlive the social system that is making them rich. Plutonomic capitalists may no longer have to worry about national economic growth because their transnational fortunes grow without it; hence the exit of the super-rich from countries like Russia or Greece, who take their money—or that of their fellow-citizens—and run, preferably to Switzerland, Britain or the United States. The possibility, as provided by a global capital market, of rescuing yourself and your family by exiting together with your possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich to move into endgame mode—cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind but scorched earth.

Closely related to this is the third disorder, the plundering of the public domain through underfunding and privatization. I have elsewhere traced its origin to the twofold transition since the 1970s from the tax state to the debt state to, finally, the consolidation or austerity state. Foremost among the causes of this shift were the new opportunities offered by global capital markets since the 1980s for tax flight, tax evasion, tax-regime shopping, and the extortion of tax cuts from governments by corporations and earners of high incomes. Attempts to close public deficits relied almost exclusively on cuts in government spending—both to social security and to investment in physical infrastructures and human capital. As income gains accrued increasingly to the top one per cent, the public domain of capitalist economies shrank, often dramatically, starved in favour of internationally mobile oligarchic wealth. Part of the process was privatization, carried out regardless of the contribution public investment in productivity and social cohesion might have made to economic growth and social equity.

Even before 2008, it was generally taken for granted that the fiscal crisis of the postwar state had to be resolved by lowering spending instead of raising taxes, especially on the rich. Consolidation of public finances by way of austerity was and is being imposed on societies even though it is likely to depress growth. This would seem to be another indication that the economy of the oligarchs has been decoupled from that of ordinary people, as the rich no longer expect to pay a price for maximizing their income at the expense of the non-rich, or for pursuing their interests at the expense of the economy as a whole. What may be surfacing here is the fundamental tension described by Marx between, on the one hand, the increasingly social nature of production in an advanced economy and society, and private ownership of the means of production on the other. As productivity growth requires more public provision, it tends to become incompatible with private accumulation of profits, forcing capitalist elites to choose between the two. The result is what we are seeing already today: economic stagnation combined with oligarchic redistribution. [39]

Corrosions of the iron cage

Along with declining economic growth, rising inequality and the transferral of the public domain to private ownership, corruption is the fourth disorder of contemporary capitalism. In his attempt to rehabilitate it by reclaiming its ethical foundations, Max Weber drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed, pointing to what he believed were its origins in the religious tradition of Protestantism. According to Weber, greed had existed everywhere and at all times; not only was it not distinctive of capitalism, it was even apt to subvert it. Capitalism was based not on a desire to get rich, but on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling and to a rational organization of life. Weber did expect the cultural values of capitalism to fade as it matured and turned into an ‘iron cage’, where bureaucratic regulation and the constraints of competition would take the place of the cultural ideas that had originally served to disconnect capital accumulation from both hedonistic-materialistic consumption and primitive hoarding instincts. What he could not anticipate, however, was the neoliberal revolution in the last third of the twentieth century and the unprecedented opportunities it provided to get very rich.

Pace Weber, fraud and corruption have forever been companions of capitalism. But there are good reasons to believe that with the rise of the financial sector to economic dominance, they have become so pervasive that Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world. Finance is an ‘industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption; [40] where the largest firms are not just too big to fail, but also too big to jail, given their importance for national economic policy and tax revenue; and where the borderline between private companies and the state is more blurred than anywhere else, as indicated by the 2008 bailout or by the huge number of former and future employees of financial firms in the American government. After Enron and WorldCom, it was observed that fraud and corruption had reached all-time highs in the us economy. But what came to light after 2008 beat everything: rating agencies being paid by the producers of toxic securities to award them top grades; offshore shadow banking, money laundering and assistance in large-scale tax evasion as the normal business of the biggest banks with the best addresses; the sale to unsuspecting customers of securities constructed so that other customers could bet against them; the leading banks worldwide fraudulently fixing interest rates and the gold price, and so on. In recent years, several large banks have had to pay billions of dollars in fines for activities of this sort, and more developments of this kind seem to be in the offing. What at first glance may look like quite significant sanctions, however, appear minuscule when compared to the banks’ balance sheets—not to mention the fact that all of these were out-of-court settlements of cases that governments didn’t want or dare to prosecute. [41]

Capitalism’s moral decline may have to do with its economic decline, the struggle for the last remaining profit opportunities becoming uglier by the day and turning into asset-stripping on a truly gigantic scale. However that may be, public perceptions of capitalism are now deeply cynical, the whole system commonly perceived as a world of dirty tricks for ensuring the further enrichment of the already rich. Nobody believes any more in a moral revival of capitalism. The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.

A world out of joint

We come, finally, to the fifth disorder. Global capitalism needs a centre to secure its periphery and provide it with a credible monetary regime. Until the 1920s, this role was performed by Britain, and from 1945 until the 1970s by the United States; the years in between, when a centre was missing, and different powers aspired to take on the role, were a time of chaos, economically as well as politically. Stable relations between the currencies of the countries participating in the capitalist world economy are essential for trade and capital flows across national borders, which are in turn essential for capital accumulation; they need to be underwritten by a global banker of last resort. An effective centre is also required to support regimes on the periphery willing to condone the low-price extraction of raw materials. Moreover, local collaboration is needed to hold down traditionalist opposition to capitalist Landnahme outside the developed world.

Contemporary capitalism increasingly suffers from global anarchy, as the United States is no longer able to serve in its postwar role, and a multipolar world order is nowhere on the horizon. While there are (still?) no great-power clashes, the dollar’s function as international reserve currency is contested—and cannot be otherwise, given the declining performance of the American economy, its rising levels of public and private debt, and the recent experience of several highly destructive financial crises. The search for an international alternative, perhaps in the form of a currency basket, is getting nowhere since the us cannot afford to give up the privilege of indebting itself in its own currency. Moreover, stabilizing measures taken by international organizations at Washington’s behest have increasingly tended to have destabilizing effects on the periphery of the system, as in the case of the inflationary bubbles caused in countries like Brazil and Turkey by ‘quantitative easing’ in the centre.

Militarily, the us has now been either defeated or deadlocked in three major land wars since the 1970s, and will in future probably be more reluctant to intervene in local conflicts with ‘boots on the ground’. New, sophisticated means of violence are being deployed to reassure collaborating governments and inspire confidence in the us as a global enforcer of oligarchic property rights, and as a safe haven for oligarchic families and their treasure. They include the use of highly secretive ‘special forces’ to seek out potential enemies for individualized destruction; unmanned aircraft capable of killing anybody at almost any place on the globe; confinement and torture of unknown numbers of people in a worldwide system of secret prison camps; and comprehensive surveillance of potential opposition everywhere with the help of ‘big data’ technology. Whether this will be enough to restore global order, especially in light of China’s rise as an effective economic and, to a lesser extent, military rival to the us may, however, be doubted.

In summary, capitalism, as a social order held together by a promise of boundless collective progress, is in critical condition. Growth is giving way to secular stagnation; what economic progress remains is less and less shared; and confidence in the capitalist money economy is leveraged on a rising mountain of promises that are ever less likely to be kept. Since the 1970s, the capitalist centre has undergone three successive crises, of inflation, public finances and private debt. Today, in an uneasy phase of transition, its survival depends on central banks providing it with unlimited synthetic liquidity. Step by step, capitalism’s shotgun marriage with democracy since 1945 is breaking up. On the three frontiers of commodification—labour, nature and money—regulatory institutions restraining the advance of capitalism for its own good have collapsed, and after the final victory of capitalism over its enemies no political agency capable of rebuilding them is in sight. The capitalist system is at present stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption and international anarchy. What is to be expected, on the basis of capitalism’s recent historical record, is a long and painful period of cumulative decay: of intensifying frictions, of fragility and uncertainty, and of a steady succession of ‘normal accidents’—not necessarily but quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.

[1] A version of this text was delivered as the Anglo-German Foundation Lecture at the British Academy on 23 January 2014.

[2] I have explored these arguments more fully in Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, London and New York 2014.

[3] Matthew 25:29. This was first described as a social mechanism by Robert Merton in ‘The Matthew Effect in Science’, Science, vol. 159, no. 3810, pp. 56–63. The technical term is cumulative advantage.

[4] See Emmanuel Saez, ‘Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States’, 2 March 2012, available via Saez’s personal web page at uc Berkeley; and Facundo Alvaredo, Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, ‘The Top 1 per cent in International and Historical Perspective’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 27, no. 3, 2013, pp. 3–20.

[5] Bank for International Settlements, 83rd Annual Report, 1 April 2012–31 March 2013, Basel 2013, p. 5.

[6] Even that may be less than promising in countries like the us and uk, where it is hard to see what neoliberal ‘reforms’ still remain to be implemented.

[7] See Armin Schäfer and Wolfgang Streeck, eds, Politics in the Age of Austerity, Cambridge 2013.

[8] Walter Korpi, The Democratic Class Struggle, London 1983; and Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Cambridge 2004.

[9] This is the Public Choice view of fiscal crisis, as powerfully put forward by James Buchanan and his school; see for example Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, Ann Arbor 1962.

[10] One often forgets that most central banks, including the bis, have long been or still are partly under private ownership. For example, the Bank of England and the Bank of France were nationalized only after 1945. Central bank ‘independence’, as introduced by many countries in the 1990s, may be seen as a form of re-privatization.

[11] Of course, as Colin Crouch has pointed out, neoliberalism in its actually existing form is a politically deeply entrenched oligarchy of giant multinational firms; see Crouch, The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge 2011.

[12] See Daniel A. Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context, Princeton 2006; and Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels, eds, Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way between West and East, London 2012.

[13] The expression ‘market-conforming’ is from Angela Merkel. The Chancellor’s public rhetoric appears deliberately designed to obfuscate and mystify. Here is her September 2011 statement on the subject in original Merkelspeak: ‘Wir leben ja in einer Demokratie und sind auch froh darüber. Das ist eine parlamentarische Demokratie. Deshalb ist das Budgetrecht ein Kernrecht des Parlaments. Insofern werden wir Wege finden, die parlamentarische Mitbestimmung so zu gestalten, dass sie trotzdem auch marktkonform ist, also dass sich auf den Märkten die entsprechenden Signale ergeben.’ A rough translation might run: ‘We certainly live in a democracy and are also glad about this. This is a parliamentary democracy. Therefore the budget right is a core right of parliament. To this extent we will find ways to shape parliamentary co-decision in such a way that it is nevertheless also market-conforming, so that the respective signals emerge on the market.’

[14] So, if history proves me wrong, I will at least be in good company.

[15] As reported by Gretchen Morgenson, ‘A New Light on Regulators in the Dark’, New York Times, 23 April 2014. The article presents ‘a disturbing picture of a central bank that was in the dark about each looming disaster throughout 2008’.

[16] On these terms, see David Lockwood, ‘Social Integration and System Integration’, in George Zollschan and Walter Hirsch, eds, Explorations in Social Change, London 1964, pp. 244–57.

[17] Or, as Adam Smith has it, a ‘progressive’ society—one aiming at growth of its productivity and prosperity that is in principle boundless, as measured by the size of its money economy.

[18] Other definitions of capitalism emphasize, for example, the peaceful nature of capitalist commercial market exchange: see Albert Hirschman, ‘Rival Interpretations of Market Society: Civilizing, Destructive or Feeble?’, Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 20, no. 4, 1982, pp. 1463–84. This neglects the fact that non-violent ‘free trade’ is typically confined to the centre of the capitalist system, whereas on its historical and spatial periphery violence is rampant. For example, illegal markets (drugs, prostitution, arms etc.) governed by private violence raise huge sums of money for legal investment—a version of primitive accumulation. Moreover, legitimate public and illegal private violence often blend into one another, not only on the capitalist frontier but also in the support provided by the centre to its collaborators on the periphery. One also needs to include public violence in the centre against dissenters and, when they still meaningfully existed, trade unions.

[19] Although recent assessments of their economic performance and prospects are much less enthusiastic than they were two or three years ago. Lately the euphoric ‘bric’ discourse has been succeeded by anxious questioning of the economic prospects of the ‘Fragile Five’ (Turkey, Brazil, India, South Africa and Indonesia; New York Times, 28 January 2014). Reports on accumulating problems in Chinese capitalism have also become more frequent, pointing, among other things, to the extensive indebtedness of local and regional governments. Since the Crimean crisis, we have also been hearing about the structural weaknesses of the Russian economy.

[20] ‘Every socio-economic system must rely on at least one structurally dissimilar subsystem to function. There must always be a coexistent plurality of modes of production, so that the social formation as a whole has the requisite structural variety to cope with change’: Hodgson, ‘The Evolution of Capitalism from the Perspective of Institutional and Evolutionary Economics’, in Hodgson et al., eds, Capitalism in Evolution: Global Contentions, East and West, Cheltenham 2001, pp. 71ff. For a less functionalist formulation of the same idea see my concept of ‘beneficial constraint’: ‘Beneficial Constraints: On the Economic Limits of Rational Voluntarism’, in Rogers Hollingsworth and Robert Boyer, eds, Contemporary Capitalism: The Embeddedness of Institutions, Cambridge 1997, pp. 197–219.

[21] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time [1944], Boston 1957, pp. 68–76.

[22] Or even ‘transgression’, if we go by the German: Steigerungslogik.

[23] Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Ken-Hou Lin, ‘Income Dynamics, Economic Rents and the Financialization of the us Economy’, American Sociological Review, vol. 76, no. 4, 2011, pp. 538–59.

[24] C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford 1962.

[25] Consider the attack on the last remnants of the 35-hour week in France, under the auspices of a Socialist president and his party.

[26] From the capitalist frontier, it is reported that leading investment banks have begun suggesting to their lowest-level employees that they ‘should try to spend four weekend days away from the office each month, part of a broader effort to improve working conditions’: ‘Wall St Shock: Take a Day Off, Even a Sunday’, New York Times, 10 January 2014.

[27] Think of the gigantic potlatch organized every year before Christmas by the consumer-goods and retail industries, or of the day after Thanksgiving, ominously referred to in the us as ‘Black Friday’ because of the ubiquitous price reductions and the collective shopping hysteria it inaugurates. Imagine the desperation if nobody showed up!

[28] The vital importance of a consumerist culture for the reproduction of contemporary capitalism cannot be underestimated. Consumers are the ultimate allies of capital in its distributional conflict with producers, even though producers and consumers tend to be the same people. By hunting for the best bargain, consumers defeat themselves as producers, driving their own jobs abroad; as they take up consumer credit to replenish their reduced purchasing power, they supplement consumerist incentives with legal obligations to work, entered into as debtors and enforced by lenders. See Lendol Calder, Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit, Princeton 1999.

[29] Robert Gordon, ‘Is us Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds’, nber Working Paper no. 18315, August 2012.

[30] According to Gordon, that rate amounted to 1.8 per cent per annum. Under the impact of the six adverse forces, it would, in the future, fall to 0.2 per cent per annum for the bottom 99 per cent of the American population: Gordon, ‘Is us Economic Growth Over?’, pp. 18 ff. (Growth for the top one per cent is of course a different matter.) Note that Gordon believes that, in fact, the basic growth rate will be lower than 1.8 per cent.

[31] Gordon’s exercise in forecasting was and is widely debated. Doubts have been raised in particular with respect to future technological progress in artificial intelligence and robotics. While progress on this front seems likely, however, it is unlikely that its fruits will be equitably shared. Without social protection, technological advances in these areas would be destructive of employment and would give rise to further social polarization. Whatever technological progress would add to growth would probably be cancelled out by what it would add to inequality.

[32] See, among many others, Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy, Stagnation and the Financial Explosion, New York 1987. For an interesting assessment of the applicability of underconsumption theory to post-2008 capitalism, see John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences, New York 2009.

[33] Presumably also because he would have had to declare the substantial income he received from Wall Street firms after his resignation from the Obama administration at the end of 2010. See ‘The Fed, Lawrence Summers, and Money’, New York Times, 11 August 2013.

[34] The same idea had been put forward in 2005 when Ben Bernanke, soon to follow Alan Greenspan at the Fed, invoked a ‘savings glut’ to account for the failure of the Fed’s ‘flooding the markets with liquidity’ to stimulate investment. Today Summers casually subscribes to the view of Left stagnation theorists that the ‘boom’ of the 1990s and early 2000s was a chimera: ‘Too easy money, too much borrowing, too much wealth. Was there a great boom? Capacity utilization wasn’t under any great pressure, unemployment wasn’t under any remarkably low level. Inflation was entirely quiescent. So somehow even a great bubble wasn’t enough to produce any excess in aggregate demand.’ A video of Summers’ speech is available on the imf website.

[35] Paul Krugman, ‘A Permanent Slump?’, New York Times, 18 November 2013.

[36] Their absence, of course, was one of the reasons why excess profits could come about and depress demand in the first place.

[37] In the us and elsewhere, the rich mobilize against trade unions and minimum-wage statutes, although low wages weaken aggregate demand. Apparently they can do so because the abundant supply of fresh money replaces mass purchasing power, by enabling those who have access to it to make their profit in the financial sector. Demand from below would make it attractive for the ‘savings’ of the rich to be invested in services and manufacturing. See, in this context, the call late last year by the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, which represents manufacturing firms, for members to pay their workers better, as too many people are stuck in low-pay employment. See ‘Companies urged to spread benefits widely’, Financial Times, 30 December 2013.

[38] Citigroup Research, ‘Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances’, 16 October 2005; ‘Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer’, 5 March 2006.

[39] Nota bene that capitalism is about profit, not about productivity. While the two may sometimes go together, they are likely to part company when economic growth begins to require a disproportionate expansion of the public domain, as envisaged early on in ‘Wagner’s law’: Adolph Wagner, Grundlegung der politischen Oekonomie, 3rd edn, Leipzig 1892. Capitalist preferences for profit over productivity, and with them the regime of capitalist private property as a whole, may then get in the way of economic and social progress.

[40] Including at the highest level: both Blair and Sarkozy are now working for hedge funds, their time as elected national leaders apparently considered by them and their new employers as a sort of apprenticeship for a much better-paid position in the financial sector.

[41] Reports on banks having to pay fines for wrongdoings of various kinds can be found almost daily in quality newspapers. On 23 March 2014, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that since the beginning of the financial crisis, American banks alone have been fined around one hundred billion dollars.

Eric Cheyfitz: The Disinformation Age


“My meaning of disinformation is a real historical break in political discourse so that what begins to happen – and it is reflexive rather than conscious or planned by any particular entity – is that another history starts to emerge which itself is detached from actual history. That [detached] history takes hold and becomes the status quo in a particular nation state… What ultimately happens is that there is no longer a political vocabulary to deal with political realities, so consequently, problems can’t be solved. And the status quo, which is increasingly an unequal status quo, is exacerbated. And that’s where we are. We have intense income inequality in this country [the U.S] that is not being dealt with; we have endless war in this country that is not being dealt with, and we have absolutely no language to address these issues.”

Listen to the full interview below.


David Graeber: Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit

This article was originally published in The Baffler.

Art by Mark Fisher

A secret question hovers over us, a sense of disappointment, a broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like. I am referring not to the standard false promises that children are always given (about how the world is fair, or how those who work hard shall be rewarded), but to a particular generational promise—given to those who were children in the fifties, sixties, seventies, or eighties—one that was never quite articulated as a promise but rather as a set of assumptions about what our adult world would be like. And since it was never quite promised, now that it has failed to come true, we’re left confused: indignant, but at the same time, embarrassed at our own indignation, ashamed we were ever so silly to believe our elders to begin with.

Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them?

We are well informed of the wonders of computers, as if this is some sort of unanticipated compensation, but, in fact, we haven’t moved even computing to the point of progress that people in the fifties expected we’d have reached by now. We don’t have computers we can have an interesting conversation with, or robots that can walk our dogs or take our clothes to the Laundromat.

As someone who was eight years old at the time of the Apollo moon landing, I remember calculating that I would be thirty-nine in the magic year 2000 and wondering what the world would be like. Did I expect I would be living in such a world of wonders? Of course. Everyone did. Do I feel cheated now? It seemed unlikely that I’d live to see all the things I was reading about in science fiction, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t see any of them.

At the turn of the millennium, I was expecting an outpouring of reflections on why we had gotten the future of technology so wrong. Instead, just about all the authoritative voices—both Left and Right—began their reflections from the assumption that we do live in an unprecedented new technological utopia of one sort or another.

The common way of dealing with the uneasy sense that this might not be so is to brush it aside, to insist all the progress that could have happened has happened and to treat anything more as silly. “Oh, you mean all that Jetsons stuff?” I’m asked—as if to say, but that was just for children! Surely, as grown-ups, we understand The Jetsons offered as accurate a view of the future as The Flintstones offered of the Stone Age.

Surely, as grown-ups, we understand The Jetsons offered as accurate a view of the future as The Flintstones did of the Stone Age.

Even in the seventies and eighties, in fact, sober sources such as National Geographic and the Smithsonian were informing children of imminent space stations and expeditions to Mars. Creators of science fiction movies used to come up with concrete dates, often no more than a generation in the future, in which to place their futuristic fantasies. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick felt that a moviegoing audience would find it perfectly natural to assume that only thirty-three years later, in 2001, we would have commercial moon flights, city-like space stations, and computers with human personalities maintaining astronauts in suspended animation while traveling to Jupiter. Video telephony is just about the only new technology from that particular movie that has appeared—and it was technically possible when the movie was showing. 2001 can be seen as a curio, but what about Star Trek? The Star Trek mythos was set in the sixties, too, but the show kept getting revived, leaving audiences for Star Trek Voyager in, say, 2005, to try to figure out what to make of the fact that according to the logic of the program, the world was supposed to be recovering from fighting off the rule of genetically engineered supermen in the Eugenics Wars of the nineties.

By 1989, when the creators of Back to the Future II were dutifully placing flying cars and anti-gravity hoverboards in the hands of ordinary teenagers in the year 2015, it wasn’t clear if this was meant as a prediction or a joke.

The usual move in science fiction is to remain vague about the dates, so as to render “the future” a zone of pure fantasy, no different than Middle Earth or Narnia, or like Star Wars, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” As a result, our science fiction future is, most often, not a future at all, but more like an alternative dimension, a dream-time, a technological Elsewhere, existing in days to come in the same sense that elves and dragon-slayers existed in the past—another screen for the displacement of moral dramas and mythic fantasies into the dead ends of consumer pleasure.
Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened? The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies. The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects. Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the “hyper-real,” the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would. Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this. The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

In the earliest formulations, which largely came out of the Marxist tradition, a lot of this technological background was acknowledged. Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” proposed the term “postmodernism” to refer to the cultural logic appropriate to a new, technological phase of capitalism, one that had been heralded by Marxist economist Ernest Mandel as early as 1972. Mandel had argued that humanity stood at the verge of a “third technological revolution,” as profound as the Agricultural or Industrial Revolution, in which computers, robots, new energy sources, and new information technologies would replace industrial labor—the “end of work” as it soon came to be called—reducing us all to designers and computer technicians coming up with crazy visions that cybernetic factories would produce.

End of work arguments were popular in the late seventies and early eighties as social thinkers pondered what would happen to the traditional working-class-led popular struggle once the working class no longer existed. (The answer: it would turn into identity politics.) Jameson thought of himself as exploring the forms of consciousness and historical sensibilities likely to emerge from this new age.

What happened, instead, is that the spread of information technologies and new ways of organizing transport—the containerization of shipping, for example—allowed those same industrial jobs to be outsourced to East Asia, Latin America, and other countries where the availability of cheap labor allowed manufacturers to employ much less technologically sophisticated production-line techniques than they would have been obliged to employ at home.

From the perspective of those living in Europe, North America, and Japan, the results did seem to be much as predicted. Smokestack industries did disappear; jobs came to be divided between a lower stratum of service workers and an upper stratum sitting in antiseptic bubbles playing with computers. But below it all lay an uneasy awareness that the postwork civilization was a giant fraud. Our carefully engineered high-tech sneakers were not being produced by intelligent cyborgs or self-replicating molecular nanotechnology; they were being made on the equivalent of old-fashioned Singer sewing machines, by the daughters of Mexican and Indonesian farmers who, as the result of WTO or NAFTA–sponsored trade deals, had been ousted from their ancestral lands. It was a guilty awareness that lay beneath the postmodern sensibility and its celebration of the endless play of images and surfaces.


Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail to happen? There are two possibilities. Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic (in which case, we need to know why so many intelligent people believed they were not) or our expectations were not unrealistic (in which case, we need to know what happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects).

Most social analysts choose the first explanation and trace the problem to the Cold War space race. Why, these analysts wonder, did both the United States and the Soviet Union become so obsessed with the idea of manned space travel? It was never an efficient way to engage in scientific research. And it encouraged unrealistic ideas of what the human future would be like.

Could the answer be that both the United States and the Soviet Union had been, in the century before, societies of pioneers, one expanding across the Western frontier, the other across Siberia? Didn’t they share a commitment to the myth of a limitless, expansive future, of human colonization of vast empty spaces, that helped convince the leaders of both superpowers they had entered into a “space age” in which they were battling over control of the future itself? All sorts of myths were at play here, no doubt, but that proves nothing about the feasibility of the project.

Some of those science fiction fantasies (at this point we can’t know which ones) could have been brought into being. For earlier generations, many science fiction fantasies had been brought into being. Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television—and that was pretty much what they got. If it wasn’t unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, then why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?

In fact, even as those dreams were being outlined, the material base for their achievement was beginning to be whittled away. There is reason to believe that even by the fifties and sixties, the pace of technological innovation was slowing down from the heady pace of the first half of the century. There was a last spate in the fifties when microwave ovens (1954), the Pill (1957), and lasers (1958) all appeared in rapid succession. But since then, technological advances have taken the form of clever new ways of combining existing technologies (as in the space race) and new ways of putting existing technologies to consumer use (the most famous example is television, invented in 1926, but mass produced only after the war.) Yet, in part because the space race gave everyone the impression that remarkable advances were happening, the popular impression during the sixties was that the pace of technological change was speeding up in terrifying, uncontrollable ways.

Alvin Toffler’s 1970 best seller Future Shock argued that almost all the social problems of the sixties could be traced back to the increasing pace of technological change. The endless outpouring of scientific breakthroughs transformed the grounds of daily existence, and left Americans without any clear idea of what normal life was. Just consider the family, where not just the Pill, but also the prospect of in vitro fertilization, test tube babies, and sperm and egg donation were about to make the idea of motherhood obsolete.

Humans were not psychologically prepared for the pace of change, Toffler wrote. He coined a term for the phenomenon: “accelerative thrust.” It had begun with the Industrial Revolution, but by roughly 1850, the effect had become unmistakable. Not only was everything around us changing, but most of it—human knowledge, the size of the population, industrial growth, energy use—was changing exponentially. The only solution, Toffler argued, was to begin some kind of control over the process, to create institutions that would assess emerging technologies and their likely effects, to ban technologies likely to be too socially disruptive, and to guide development in the direction of social harmony.

While many of the historical trends Toffler describes are accurate, the book appeared when most of these exponential trends halted. It was right around 1970 when the increase in the number of scientific papers published in the world—a figure that had doubled every fifteen years since, roughly, 1685—began leveling off. The same was true of books and patents.

Toffler’s use of acceleration was particularly unfortunate. For most of human history, the top speed at which human beings could travel had been around 25 miles per hour. By 1900 it had increased to 100 miles per hour, and for the next seventy years it did seem to be increasing exponentially. By the time Toffler was writing, in 1970, the record for the fastest speed at which any human had traveled stood at roughly 25,000 mph, achieved by the crew of Apollo 10 in 1969, just one year before. At such an exponential rate, it must have seemed reasonable to assume that within a matter of decades, humanity would be exploring other solar systems.

Since 1970, no further increase has occurred. The record for the fastest a human has ever traveled remains with the crew of Apollo 10. True, the commercial airliner Concorde, which first flew in 1969, reached a maximum speed of 1,400 mph. And the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144, which flew first, reached an even faster speed of 1,553 mph. But those speeds not only have failed to increase; they have decreased since the Tupolev Tu-144 was cancelled and the Concorde was abandoned.

None of this stopped Toffler’s own career. He kept retooling his analysis to come up with new spectacular pronouncements. In 1980, he produced The Third Wave, its argument lifted from Ernest Mandel’s “third technological revolution”—except that while Mandel thought these changes would spell the end of capitalism, Toffler assumed capitalism was eternal. By 1990, Toffler was the personal intellectual guru to Republican congressman Newt Gingrich, who claimed that his 1994 “Contract With America” was inspired, in part, by the understanding that the United States needed to move from an antiquated, materialist, industrial mind-set to a new, free-market, information age, Third Wave civilization.

There are all sorts of ironies in this connection. One of Toffler’s greatest achievements was inspiring the government to create an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). One of Gingrich’s first acts on winning control of the House of Representatives in 1995 was defunding the OTA as an example of useless government extravagance. Still, there’s no contradiction here. By this time, Toffler had long since given up on influencing policy by appealing to the general public; he was making a living largely by giving seminars to CEOs and corporate think tanks. His insights had been privatized.

Gingrich liked to call himself a “conservative futurologist.” This, too, might seem oxymoronic; but, in fact, Toffler’s own conception of futurology was never progressive. Progress was always presented as a problem that needed to be solved.

Toffler might best be seen as a lightweight version of the nineteenth-century social theorist Auguste Comte, who believed that he was standing on the brink of a new age—in his case, the Industrial Age—driven by the inexorable progress of technology, and that the social cataclysms of his times were caused by the social system not adjusting. The older feudal order had developed Catholic theology, a way of thinking about man’s place in the cosmos perfectly suited to the social system of the time, as well as an institutional structure, the Church, that conveyed and enforced such ideas in a way that could give everyone a sense of meaning and belonging. The Industrial Age had developed its own system of ideas—science—but scientists had not succeeded in creating anything like the Catholic Church. Comte concluded that we needed to develop a new science, which he dubbed “sociology,” and said that sociologists should play the role of priests in a new Religion of Society that would inspire everyone with a love of order, community, work discipline, and family values. Toffler was less ambitious; his futurologists were not supposed to play the role of priests.

Gingrich had a second guru, a libertarian theologian named George Gilder, and Gilder, like Toffler, was obsessed with technology and social change. In an odd way, Gilder was more optimistic. Embracing a radical version of Mandel’s Third Wave argument, he insisted that what we were seeing with the rise of computers was an “overthrow of matter.” The old, materialist Industrial Society, where value came from physical labor, was giving way to an Information Age where value emerges directly from the minds of entrepreneurs, just as the world had originally appeared ex nihilo from the mind of God, just as money, in a proper supply-side economy, emerged ex nihilo from the Federal Reserve and into the hands of value-creating capitalists. Supply-side economic policies, Gilder concluded, would ensure that investment would continue to steer away from old government boondoggles like the space program and toward more productive information and medical technologies.

But if there was a conscious, or semi-conscious, move away from investment in research that might lead to better rockets and robots, and toward research that would lead to such things as laser printers and CAT scans, it had begun well before Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) and Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty (1981). What their success shows is that the issues they raised—that existing patterns of technological development would lead to social upheaval, and that we needed to guide technological development in directions that did not challenge existing structures of authority—echoed in the corridors of power. Statesmen and captains of industry had been thinking about such questions for some time.


Industrial capitalism has fostered an extremely rapid rate of scientific advance and technological innovation—one with no parallel in previous human history. Even capitalism’s greatest detractors, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, celebrated its unleashing of the “productive forces.” Marx and Engels also believed that capitalism’s continual need to revolutionize the means of industrial production would be its undoing. Marx argued that, for certain technical reasons, value—and therefore profits—can be extracted only from human labor. Competition forces factory owners to mechanize production, to reduce labor costs, but while this is to the short-term advantage of the firm, mechanization’s effect is to drive down the general rate of profit.

For 150 years, economists have debated whether all this is true. But if it is true, then the decision by industrialists not to pour research funds into the invention of the robot factories that everyone was anticipating in the sixties, and instead to relocate their factories to labor-intensive, low-tech facilities in China or the Global South makes a great deal of sense.

As I’ve noted, there’s reason to believe the pace of technological innovation in productive processes—the factories themselves—began to slow in the fifties and sixties, but the side effects of America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union made innovation appear to accelerate. There was the awesome space race, alongside frenetic efforts by U.S. industrial planners to apply existing technologies to consumer purposes, to create an optimistic sense of burgeoning prosperity and guaranteed progress that would undercut the appeal of working-class politics.

These moves were reactions to initiatives from the Soviet Union. But this part of the history is difficult for Americans to remember, because at the end of the Cold War, the popular image of the Soviet Union switched from terrifyingly bold rival to pathetic basket case—the exemplar of a society that could not work. Back in the fifties, in fact, many United States planners suspected the Soviet system worked better. Certainly, they recalled the fact that in the thirties, while the United States had been mired in depression, the Soviet Union had maintained almost unprecedented economic growth rates of 10 percent to 12 percent a year—an achievement quickly followed by the production of tank armies that defeated Nazi Germany, then by the launching of Sputnik in 1957, then by the first manned spacecraft, the Vostok, in 1961.

It’s often said the Apollo moon landing was the greatest historical achievement of Soviet communism. Surely, the United States would never have contemplated such a feat had it not been for the cosmic ambitions of the Soviet Politburo. We are used to thinking of the Politburo as a group of unimaginative gray bureaucrats, but they were bureaucrats who dared to dream astounding dreams. The dream of world revolution was only the first. It’s also true that most of them—changing the course of mighty rivers, this sort of thing—either turned out to be ecologically and socially disastrous, or, like Joseph Stalin’s one-hundred-story Palace of the Soviets or a twenty-story statue of Vladimir Lenin, never got off the ground.

After the initial successes of the Soviet space program, few of these schemes were realized, but the leadership never ceased coming up with new ones. Even in the eighties, when the United States was attempting its own last, grandiose scheme, Star Wars, the Soviets were planning to transform the world through creative uses of technology. Few outside of Russia remember most of these projects, but great resources were devoted to them. It’s also worth noting that unlike the Star Wars project, which was designed to sink the Soviet Union, most were not military in nature: as, for instance, the attempt to solve the world hunger problem by harvesting lakes and oceans with an edible bacteria called spirulina, or to solve the world energy problem by launching hundreds of gigantic solar-power platforms into orbit and beaming the electricity back to earth.

The American victory in the space race meant that, after 1968, U.S. planners no longer took the competition seriously. As a result, the mythology of the final frontier was maintained, even as the direction of research and development shifted away from anything that might lead to the creation of Mars bases and robot factories.

The standard line is that all this was a result of the triumph of the market. The Apollo program was a Big Government project, Soviet-inspired in the sense that it required a national effort coordinated by government bureaucracies. As soon as the Soviet threat drew safely out of the picture, though, capitalism was free to revert to lines of technological development more in accord with its normal, decentralized, free-market imperatives—such as privately funded research into marketable products like personal computers. This is the line that men like Toffler and Gilder took in the late seventies and early eighties.

In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development. Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns. To some degree this had always been true: the billions poured into missile research had always dwarfed the sums allocated to the space program. Yet by the seventies, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities. One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.

A case could be made that even the shift to research and development on information technologies and medicine was not so much a reorientation toward market-driven consumer imperatives, but part of an all-out effort to follow the technological humbling of the Soviet Union with total victory in the global class war—seen simultaneously as the imposition of absolute U.S. military dominance overseas, and, at home, the utter rout of social movements.

For the technologies that did emerge proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. Computers have opened up certain spaces of freedom, as we’re constantly reminded, but instead of leading to the workless utopia Abbie Hoffman imagined, they have been employed in such a way as to produce the opposite effect. They have enabled a financialization of capital that has driven workers desperately into debt, and, at the same time, provided the means by which employers have created “flexible” work regimes that have both destroyed traditional job security and increased working hours for almost everyone. Along with the export of factory jobs, the new work regime has routed the union movement and destroyed any possibility of effective working-class politics.

Meanwhile, despite unprecedented investment in research on medicine and life sciences, we await cures for cancer and the common cold, and the most dramatic medical breakthroughs we have seen have taken the form of drugs such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Ritalin—tailor-made to ensure that the new work demands don’t drive us completely, dysfunctionally crazy.

With results like these, what will the epitaph for neoliberalism look like? I think historians will conclude it was a form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones. Given a choice between a course of action that would make capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and one that would transform capitalism into a viable, long-term economic system, neoliberalism chooses the former every time. There is every reason to believe that destroying job security while increasing working hours does not create a more productive (let alone more innovative or loyal) workforce. Probably, in economic terms, the result is negative—an impression confirmed by lower growth rates in just about all parts of the world in the eighties and nineties.

But the neoliberal choice has been effective in depoliticizing labor and overdetermining the future. Economically, the growth of armies, police, and private security services amounts to dead weight. It’s possible, in fact, that the very dead weight of the apparatus created to ensure the ideological victory of capitalism will sink it. But it’s also easy to see how choking off any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that could be different from our world is a crucial part of the neoliberal project.

At this point all the pieces would seem to be falling neatly into place. By the sixties, conservative political forces were growing skittish about the socially disruptive effects of technological progress, and employers were beginning to worry about the economic impact of mechanization. The fading Soviet threat allowed for a reallocation of resources in directions seen as less challenging to social and economic arrangements, or indeed directions that could support a campaign of reversing the gains of progressive social movements and achieving a decisive victory in what U.S. elites saw as a global class war. The change of priorities was introduced as a withdrawal of big-government projects and a return to the market, but in fact the change shifted government-directed research away from programs like NASA or alternative energy sources and toward military, information, and medical technologies.

Of course this doesn’t explain everything. Above all, it does not explain why, even in those areas that have become the focus of well-funded research projects, we have not seen anything like the kind of advances anticipated fifty years ago. If 95 percent of robotics research has been funded by the military, then where are the Klaatu-style killer robots shooting death rays from their eyes?

Obviously, there have been advances in military technology in recent decades. One of the reasons we all survived the Cold War is that while nuclear bombs might have worked as advertised, their delivery systems did not; intercontinental ballistic missiles weren’t capable of striking cities, let alone specific targets inside cities, and this fact meant there was little point in launching a nuclear first strike unless you intended to destroy the world.

Contemporary cruise missiles are accurate by comparison. Still, precision weapons never do seem capable of assassinating specific individuals (Saddam, Osama, Qaddafi), even when hundreds are dropped. And ray guns have not materialized—surely not for lack of trying. We can assume the Pentagon has spent billions on death ray research, but the closest they’ve come so far are lasers that might, if aimed correctly, blind an enemy gunner looking directly at the beam. Aside from being unsporting, this is pathetic: lasers are a fifties technology. Phasers that can be set to stun do not appear to be on the drawing boards; and when it comes to infantry combat, the preferred weapon almost everywhere remains the AK-47, a Soviet design named for the year it was introduced: 1947.


The Internet is a remarkable innovation, but all we are talking about is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office, and mail-order catalogue. Had the Internet been described to a science fiction aficionado in the fifties and sixties and touted as the most dramatic technological achievement since his time, his reaction would have been disappointment. Fifty years and this is the best our scientists managed to come up with? We expected computers that would think!

Overall, levels of research funding have increased dramatically since the seventies. Admittedly, the proportion of that funding that comes from the corporate sector has increased most dramatically, to the point that private enterprise is now funding twice as much research as the government, but the increase is so large that the total amount of government research funding, in real-dollar terms, is much higher than it was in the sixties. “Basic,” “curiosity-driven,” or “blue skies” research—the kind that is not driven by the prospect of any immediate practical application, and that is most likely to lead to unexpected breakthroughs—occupies an ever smaller proportion of the total, though so much money is being thrown around nowadays that overall levels of basic research funding have increased.

Yet most observers agree that the results have been paltry. Certainly we no longer see anything like the continual stream of conceptual revolutions—genetic inheritance, relativity, psychoanalysis, quantum mechanics—that people had grown used to, and even expected, a hundred years before. Why?

Part of the answer has to do with the concentration of resources on a handful of gigantic projects: “big science,” as it has come to be called. The Human Genome Project is often held out as an example. After spending almost three billion dollars and employing thousands of scientists and staff in five different countries, it has mainly served to establish that there isn’t very much to be learned from sequencing genes that’s of much use to anyone else. Even more, the hype and political investment surrounding such projects demonstrate the degree to which even basic research now seems to be driven by political, administrative, and marketing imperatives that make it unlikely anything revolutionary will happen.

Here, our fascination with the mythic origins of Silicon Valley and the Internet has blinded us to what’s really going on. It has allowed us to imagine that research and development is now driven, primarily, by small teams of plucky entrepreneurs, or the sort of decentralized cooperation that creates open-source software. This is not so, even though such research teams are most likely to produce results. Research and development is still driven by giant bureaucratic projects.

What has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.

My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.

The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.


If all this is true in the social sciences, where research is still carried out with minimal overhead largely by individuals, one can imagine how much worse it is for astrophysicists. And, indeed, one astrophysicist, Jonathan Katz, has recently warned students pondering a career in the sciences. Even if you do emerge from the usual decade-long period languishing as someone else’s flunky, he says, you can expect your best ideas to be stymied at every point:

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.

That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.

In the natural sciences, to the tyranny of managerialism we can add the privatization of research results. As the British economist David Harvie has reminded us, “open source” research is not new. Scholarly research has always been open source, in the sense that scholars share materials and results. There is competition, certainly, but it is “convivial.” This is no longer true of scientists working in the corporate sector, where findings are jealously guarded, but the spread of the corporate ethos within the academy and research institutes themselves has caused even publicly funded scholars to treat their findings as personal property. Academic publishers ensure that findings that are published are increasingly difficult to access, further enclosing the intellectual commons. As a result, convivial, open-source competition turns into something much more like classic market competition.

There are many forms of privatization, up to and including the simple buying up and suppression of inconvenient discoveries by large corporations fearful of their economic effects. (We cannot know how many synthetic fuel formulae have been bought up and placed in the vaults of oil companies, but it’s hard to imagine nothing like this happens.) More subtle is the way the managerial ethos discourages everything adventurous or quirky, especially if there is no prospect of immediate results. Oddly, the Internet can be part of the problem here. As Neal Stephenson put it:

Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one; it—or at least something vaguely similar—has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.

And so a timid, bureaucratic spirit suffuses every aspect of cultural life. It comes festooned in a language of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurialism. But the language is meaningless. Those thinkers most likely to make a conceptual breakthrough are the least likely to receive funding, and, if breakthroughs occur, they are not likely to find anyone willing to follow up on their most daring implications.

Giovanni Arrighi has noted that after the South Sea Bubble, British capitalism largely abandoned the corporate form. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had instead come to rely on a combination of high finance and small family firms—a pattern that held throughout the next century, the period of maximum scientific and technological innovation. (Britain at that time was also notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. A common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries.)

Contemporary, bureaucratic corporate capitalism was a creation not of Britain, but of the United States and Germany, the two rival powers that spent the first half of the twentieth century fighting two bloody wars over who would replace Britain as a dominant world power—wars that culminated, appropriately enough, in government-sponsored scientific programs to see who would be the first to discover the atom bomb. It is significant, then, that our current technological stagnation seems to have begun after 1945, when the United States replaced Britain as organizer of the world economy.

Americans do not like to think of themselves as a nation of bureaucrats—quite the opposite—but the moment we stop imagining bureaucracy as a phenomenon limited to government offices, it becomes obvious that this is precisely what we have become. The final victory over the Soviet Union did not lead to the domination of the market, but, in fact, cemented the dominance of conservative managerial elites, corporate bureaucrats who use the pretext of short-term, competitive, bottom-line thinking to squelch anything likely to have revolutionary implications of any kind.


If we do not notice that we live in a bureaucratic society, that is because bureaucratic norms and practices have become so all-pervasive that we cannot see them, or, worse, cannot imagine doing things any other way.

Computers have played a crucial role in this narrowing of our social imaginations. Just as the invention of new forms of industrial automation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had the paradoxical effect of turning more and more of the world’s population into full-time industrial workers, so has all the software designed to save us from administrative responsibilities turned us into part- or full-time administrators. In the same way that university professors seem to feel it is inevitable they will spend more of their time managing grants, so affluent housewives simply accept that they will spend weeks every year filling out forty-page online forms to get their children into grade schools. We all spend increasing amounts of time punching passwords into our phones to manage bank and credit accounts and learning how to perform jobs once performed by travel agents, brokers, and accountants.

Someone once figured out that the average American will spend a cumulative six months of life waiting for traffic lights to change. I don’t know if similar figures are available for how long it takes to fill out forms, but it must be at least as long. No population in the history of the world has spent nearly so much time engaged in paperwork.

In this final, stultifying stage of capitalism, we are moving from poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies. By poetic technologies I refer to the use of rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality. Poetic technologies, so understood, are as old as civilization. Lewis Mumford noted that the first complex machines were made of people. Egyptian pharaohs were able to build the pyramids only because of their mastery of administrative procedures, which allowed them to develop production-line techniques, dividing up complex tasks into dozens of simple operations and assigning each to one team of workmen—even though they lacked mechanical technology more complex than the inclined plane and lever. Administrative oversight turned armies of peasant farmers into the cogs of a vast machine. Much later, after cogs had been invented, the design of complex machinery elaborated principles originally developed to organize people.

Yet we have seen those machines—whether their moving parts are arms and torsos or pistons, wheels, and springs—being put to work to realize impossible fantasies: cathedrals, moon shots, transcontinental railways. Certainly, poetic technologies had something terrible about them; the poetry is likely to be as much of dark satanic mills as of grace or liberation. But the rational, administrative techniques were always in service to some fantastic end.

From this perspective, all those mad Soviet plans—even if never realized—marked the climax of poetic technologies. What we have now is the reverse. It’s not that vision, creativity, and mad fantasies are no longer encouraged, but that most remain free-floating; there’s no longer even the pretense that they could ever take form or flesh. The greatest and most powerful nation that has ever existed has spent the last decades telling its citizens they can no longer contemplate fantastic collective enterprises, even if—as the environmental crisis demands— the fate of the earth depends on it.

What are the political implications of all this? First of all, we need to rethink some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of capitalism. One is that capitalism is identical with the market, and that both therefore are inimical to bureaucracy, which is supposed to be a creature of the state.

The second assumption is that capitalism is in its nature technologically progressive. It would seem that Marx and Engels, in their giddy enthusiasm for the industrial revolutions of their day, were wrong about this. Or, to be more precise: they were right to insist that the mechanization of industrial production would destroy capitalism; they were wrong to predict that market competition would compel factory owners to mechanize anyway. If it didn’t happen, that is because market competition is not, in fact, as essential to the nature of capitalism as they had assumed. If nothing else, the current form of capitalism, where much of the competition seems to take the form of internal marketing within the bureaucratic structures of large semi-monopolistic enterprises, would come as a complete surprise to them.

Defenders of capitalism make three broad historical claims: first, that it has fostered rapid scientific and technological growth; second, that however much it may throw enormous wealth to a small minority, it does so in such a way as to increase overall prosperity; third, that in doing so, it creates a more secure and democratic world for everyone. It is clear that capitalism is not doing any of these things any longer. In fact, many of its defenders are retreating from claiming that it is a good system and instead falling back on the claim that it is the only possible system—or, at least, the only possible system for a complex, technologically sophisticated society such as our own.

But how could anyone argue that current economic arrangements are also the only ones that will ever be viable under any possible future technological society? The argument is absurd. How could anyone know?

Granted, there are people who take that position—on both ends of the political spectrum. As an anthropologist and anarchist, I encounter anticivilizational types who insist not only that current industrial technology leads only to capitalist-style oppression, but that this must necessarily be true of any future technology as well, and therefore that human liberation can be achieved only by returning to the Stone Age. Most of us are not technological determinists.

But claims for the inevitability of capitalism have to be based on a kind of technological determinism. And for that very reason, if the aim of neoliberal capitalism is to create a world in which no one believes any other economic system could work, then it needs to suppress not just any idea of an inevitable redemptive future, but any radically different technological future. Yet there’s a contradiction. Defenders of capitalism cannot mean to convince us that technological change has ended—since that would mean capitalism is not progressive. No, they mean to convince us that technological progress is indeed continuing, that we do live in a world of wonders, but that those wonders take the form of modest improvements (the latest iPhone!), rumors of inventions about to happen (“I hear they are going to have flying cars pretty soon”), complex ways of juggling information and imagery, and still more complex platforms for filling out of forms.

I do not mean to suggest that neoliberal capitalism—or any other system—can be successful in this regard. First, there’s the problem of trying to convince the world you are leading the way in technological progress when you are holding it back. The United States, with its decaying infrastructure, paralysis in the face of global warming, and symbolically devastating abandonment of its manned space program just as China accelerates its own, is doing a particularly bad public relations job. Second, the pace of change can’t be held back forever. Breakthroughs will happen; inconvenient discoveries cannot be permanently suppressed. Other, less bureaucratized parts of the world—or at least, parts of the world with bureaucracies that are not so hostile to creative thinking—will slowly but inevitably attain the resources required to pick up where the United States and its allies have left off. The Internet does provide opportunities for collaboration and dissemination that may help break us through the wall as well. Where will the breakthrough come? We can’t know. Maybe 3D printing will do what the robot factories were supposed to. Or maybe it will be something else. But it will happen.


About one conclusion we can feel especially confident: it will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism—or any form of capitalism. To begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system. Must the new system take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must? Only by breaking up existing bureaucratic structures can we begin. And if we’re going to invent robots that will do our laundry and tidy up the kitchen, then we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or the desperately poor willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

Havin Guneser: On Kurdish Struggle at EZLN Hydra Seminar


“Without understanding how masculinity was socially formed, one cannot analyze the institution of state and therefore will not be accurately be able to define the war and power culture related to statehood… This is what paved the way for femicide and the exploitation and colonization of peoples…”

Listen to the full talk by Havin Guneser here.



Paul Mattick with John Clegg and Aaron Benanav: The Economic Crisis in Fact and Fiction

This article was originally published June 3, 2011 in The Brooklyn Rail.

Source: UK Progressive.

Paul Mattick’s most recent book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Future of Capitalism, was just published by Reaktion Books. In late April, he sat down with John Clegg and Aaron Benanav of the journal Endnotes.

Rail: Recent reports suggest that the economy is growing again. The unemployment rate is stabilizing, or even declining, and the Dow is trending upwards. So was the crisis really that deep? What makes you think that we haven’t already seen the end of it?

Paul Mattick: Quite a few things. One is the ongoing difficulties in the world as a whole with regard to state finances and unemployment. It is a mistake to look simply at the United States. This is a global problem. There has been a parade of fiscal crises in Europe: in Portugal and to a certain extent Spain. The attempt to master the crisis has led to deepening depression-conditions in England and Greece. It has even reached China, where apparently high growth rates are leading to seemingly problematic rates of inflation—exactly like the pseudo-growth of the 1970s, which generated high inflation rates in the west. Even with respect to the United States, and I wouldn’t be so impressed by measures such as employment going up and down. To a certain extent, this reflects the fact that people are dropping out of the labor force. There are of course minute changes from month to month in the number of people who get jobs, but overall conditions remain extremely poor.

It’s also worth remembering that the GDP growth rate is an artificial construction. For example, since economic theory assumes that everyone who receives money is being paid for some service or good that has been produced, whenever someone from Goldman Sachs gets a bonus, that appears as part of the growth figures. If you give Lloyd Blankfein a $35 million bonus, it’s assumed that he has performed $35 million worth of services. The truth is that the growth rates are increasingly a measure of activity in the financial sector, so even today, all this remains completely imaginary. It’s nice if a person here or there gets a job, but the truth is the city of Detroit is still 25 percent smaller than it was ten years ago. The unemployment rate in Tampa, Florida—which I happened to read about today—even if it is one percent lower than it was last month, is still 11 percent. All over the world unemployment rates remain high. There is very little lending from banks, very little investment, and very little actual economic growth.

Rail: You spoke about this being a world crisis. Could say a little more about the major state responses to the crisis? How coordinated were those responses at a global level? Were there differences in the way that the crisis was handled between the US, Europe and East Asia, or between rich and poor countries?

Mattick: I don’t think the responses are very coordinated. As always in a period of crisis, there is an increase in competition: the different regions jockey to do the best they can for their national capitals. In the United States there was a small attempt at stimulus. It largely took the form of trying to preserve the financial structure, which is important not just in the United States but for the world economy. In Germany, they sat back and hoped that they would be able to export capital goods to other countries, while in the weaker economies of Europe, there were very serious collapses. The governments of Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece are now trying to safeguard the positions of local financial operators, to bail out the bond holders, to bail out the banks and to force local populations to bear the brunt of it. So the Euro bloc has become weaker as the better off countries, especially Germany and to a lesser extent France, find themselves having to pay for the collapsing situation in the weaker countries. In China, again, there is a different situation, because China doesn’t have a normal capital market. The Chinese government controls internal finance and created an enormous amount of debt in order to stimulate the Chinese economy, which is now running into serious problems. They’ve spent two years building empty cities and financing real estate bubbles. Now they seem to be reaching the limit of this, which people are very afraid of, both in China and in the rest of the world.

So each part of the world deals with the crisis on a different basis. If you have a lot of oil, like Qatar or Saudi Arabia, then you can sell it to the West and have a lot of money to play with. You can spend $36 billion trying to lower the level of protest in your cities. But if you don’t have any money, like Egypt, then you have to deal with a restless population. You are dependent on the richer countries propping you up.

Rail: Turning to the explanation of the crisis, we’ve often heard that the crisis was a matter of financial deregulation, but an alternative explanation common focuses on global trade imbalances between the US and China. To what extent are these imbalances responsible for financial bubbles, and can they be corrected?

Mattick: Well, there are of course trade imbalances, but the question is, why are there imbalances? Production facilities have tended to move from high-wage areas to low-wage areas. For example, the United States moved production from the northern and middle-western states to the south, then to South America and Asia. Rather than investing in new machinery, companies are trying to increase profit rates by lower the cost of labor power globally. In China, a large percentage of production occurs in facilities that are the result of foreign investment. So there is a Chinese economy, but the Chinese export-economy mostly just assembles goods that are produced elsewhere. Europe, the United States and certain countries in Asia, like Japan or Taiwan, are moving production to China, where extremely low-wage workers put together stuff that is then shipped to the rest of the world. So to an extent the appearance of a shift of production to China is an illusion. These are Western companies hiring Chinese workers—and paying a portion of the proceeds to the Chinese bureaucracy, so they’ll provide the production facilities and police the labor force. These factories remain dependent on Western investment and Western consumers. This is simply part of the attempt to lower labor costs in the West.

Rail: Internet econo-blogger Tyler Cowen recently wrote a book claiming that the US economy has been stagnant for the last forty years. He blames this stagnation on the exhaustion of existing technologies: “We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau.” Would you agree with this explanation?

Mattick: No. You could say that the Western economy—not just in the United States but in Western Europe also—entered into a period of crisis in the mid-1970s. So for forty years there has been, not exactly stagnation, but very low levels of growth compared to the period right after the Second World War. Of course, there has been a lower level of technological development in this period than there was in the past. But this is largely due to the fact that there has been less money to invest. You could say if they had gigantic quantities of money available, companies today could probably develop solar power. After all, they have to find some substitute for fossil fuels. They say that it’s too expensive—but it’s too expensive because there isn’t sufficient capital to invest in the production of new forms of energy. To say that it’s too expensive is simply another way of saying that capital is not generating quantities of profit sufficient for developing new technologies. The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough scientists in the world, or enough mathematicians or solar workers. The problem is that they don’t have enough money. That also explains why, even with the existing technology, they’re not able to employ millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America. There simply is not enough money to continue at the given scale of investment. So it’s easy to blame this on a kind of failure of science, but that’s not the problem. The engineers are there, the science is there. The problem is that nobody has the money to invest in it, and that is a failure of capitalism to generate enough profit to continue its expansion.

Rail: But how much truth is there in this idea of stagnation, more generally? Wasn’t there a recovery in the 1980s? To what extent is the crisis today related to the crisis of the 1970s?

Mattick: I think this is the crisis of the 1970s. What you had from the 1980s onwards was various kinds of speculative bubbles. There was a certain amount of gain—gains made by moving the labor force to low wage areas. But since labor is only a small part of the productive system at the present time, there has been a low rate of profit and little technological development. So, beginning in the mid-1970s, there has been a steady shift away from investment in production and into investment in speculation, the buying and selling of companies, mergers and acquisitions, finance, etc. Much of what was called globalization in the 1990s was simply the buying and selling of stocks in various parts of the world. You can even see this in the vocabulary. As I point out in my book, what used to be called developing nations are now called developing markets—but the markets they have in mind are stock markets and real estate markets. There has been a general flow of money from investment in production to investment in finance. From the mid-1970s on—as Professor Robert Brenner of UCLA points out—there has been a decline in levels of investment decade by decade, and a decline in profitability, and this is simply another way of describing a situation of stagnation.

What’s going on now is the reappearance of the crisis that should have happened in the mid-1970s. The key idea in my book is that this crisis was put off by the creation of debt in all these forms: private debt, public debt, government debt. This was a historical novelty. There was a Keynesian idea during World War II that you could borrow money and then stop. But after the war, they were so afraid there would be a new crisis that they started to maintain, at all times, some low level of government spending. When the Golden Age ended in 1975, they got scared. There was an enormous outpouring of credit—and the invention of new credit instruments. And they managed in one way or another to put off the crisis for forty years. But there was a limit.

Finally it came in 2008—they just couldn’t keep the whole thing going any more. The apparatus of debt had been erected on a foundation of IOUs, which became so great that it couldn’t be sustained with respect to the actual production of value. I think this is a major event. I might be wrong—economics is not an exact science—but I think this is a deep depression. Some might compare it to the depression of the 1930s, but governments today don’t have the money they had in 1930. There is no repetition in history—that’s why you can’t learn from the past—so this is an absolutely unique situation: a major depression, but one in which the Keynesian apparatus is no longer available because the money has already been spent. The US has 14 trillion dollars in national debt. So now they just don’t know what to do.

Rail: Could you tell us what actually explains the long-term decline in the world economy since the 1970s?

That’s very complicated and contentious. Unfortunately, I believe that economics is a field in which the theories are mostly fake. Economics is more like a religion than a science. I think there is really only one explanation of the long term development of the capitalist system which seems to make sense, and which describes what has actually happened. This is the theory Karl Marx outlined Capital, which was published in the 19th century. This is a strange fact because today, for example in physics, no one would say we still have to read Newton. But the truth is that in the analysis of capitalism we have not advanced very far beyond Marx.

Basically Marx’s idea is that capitalism, like every society, is an organization of the human production process, which means that people work on their natural environment and transform it into forms that they can consume. Human beings are peculiar in that this process is culturally rather than biologically determined. In our culture today, social reproduction is dependent on the fact that access to natural resources is controlled by a small group of people, through the medium of money. Which means that the people who actually control the production process are interested not in production per se, but in an increase in their social control, which we call the making of profits. Goods are only produced if they can be produced in such a way that the owners of the production process—of capital—are able to make a profit. But since the human labor involved in the production process is the only source of the increase in social wealth, and since, under capitalist conditions, the attempt of owners of industry to compete with each other leads to a displacement of labor by machinery, this leads—in a way which is very hard to explain in a few minutes—to a decline in the rate of profitability. Marx thought that the cure for this tendency would be the recurrent phenomena of depressions. In a depression, capital investments are devalued, which allows the labor performed using the existing means of production to count for more. So depressions should lead to periods of prosperity. Roughly that seems to be what has happened in the history of capitalism. There has been a tendency for periods of prosperity to lead to depressions, and periods of depression to lead to renewed prosperity. This process has been going on, more or less, since the beginning of the nineteenth century. We are now in a renewed period of depression, due to the large expansion of capital that took place after the Second World War.

This is an almost meaningless description of an extremely complicated phenomenon, but the truth is there is no simple way to talk about it. It’s a very complex system, and it has to be analyzed in rather abstract terms. But as far as I can see, the history of capitalism as a system has pretty well confirmed Marx’s analysis, even though he made it very close to the beginning of capitalism. And I see no reason therefore to not accept that analysis as the explanation of what’s going on today.

Rail: But hasn’t economics made some advances since the 19th century? If not in contemporary academic economics departments, then at least through the great economists of the past hundred years, like Friedrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, or John Maynard Keynes. Haven’t they added something?

Mattick: Friedrich Hayek has a mathematically sophisticated version of the mid-18th century theory of the economy, which was somewhat inaccurate then and even more inaccurate now. The one figure who made some progress is Keynes, who understood that the economics he had learned in college was inadequate to explain the events of his own lifetime, particularly the Great Depression. He could see that the theory that people like Hayek still believed—that capitalism is a system which fully utilizes all natural and human resources—was nonsense. Not only had there been crisis after crisis in the 19th century. There was now a crisis in the 20th century that was very serious. So he could see that capitalism is unable to utilize fully the resources that nature and human beings put at the behest of the economy. Keynes was driven back to a version of theories from the early-19th century, when people questioned—in response to the development of capitalist crises of the beginning of that century—the dogma that capitalism was a completely rational, welfare-maximizing system. Keynes had the idea that if the capitalists were unable or unwilling, for various psychological reasons, to utilize their social resources to create full employment (and thus the full use of natural and human resources), then the government should step in and borrow resources to do so. By the time Keynes had this idea, governments had already been doing this: Hitler in Germany and Roosevelt in the United States. But the falsity of Keynes’s analysis of the situation was shown after the Second World War, when it turned out that even during the ensuing period of prosperity, it was impossible for capitalist governments to cease to prop up the economy. The capitalist economy was not able to create a real prosperity on its own basis. It was still dependent on the government for additional finance. So the whole idea—that capitalism was naturally efficient but that under certain conditions inefficient, that in those moments the government could prime the pump, get the system going, and then withdraw—turned out not to be true. Thus Keynes’s theory was already recognized by the 1970s to be a failure, which accounts for the disappearance of Keynesianism in academic economics and the rise of various anti-Keynesian economic theories—and even this von Miesean return to a primitive belief in the trucking and bartering of goods as the foundation of social peace.

Rail: Speaking of Keynes, your father (Paul Mattick) wrote something of underground classic on the subject—Marx and Keynes—in 1962. To what extent did you rely on your father’s work when writing Business as Usual? On the surface, at least, we noted a stylistic difference between these two books. Does that indicate any difference of method?

Mattick: No, I would say not. And actually I would say that my father was very much a pupil of an earlier Marxist theorist, Henryk Grossman, who in one sentence of his great book The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System already had the entire content of Marx and Keynes. Grossman pointed out that, since the government is not an economic actor—it does not own economic resources—government involvement in the economy can only be at the expense of the private economy. It cannot be profit-creating and therefore cannot solve the problems of capitalist profitability. What was important about my father’s book is that it was a kind of thought experiment. The book was written in the late 1950s, although no one was willing to publish it. Everyone believed then that Keynesian methods had put an end to the business cycle, that the economy could now be controlled or even fine-tuned by government interventions. So my father said, let’s assume that Marx’s analysis is correct—what does that imply for the future of Keynesian methods? And he predicted more or less what happened: that Keynesianism would be unable to prevent a return of the business cycle—and even that the next depression would take the new form of a combination of inflation and stagnation. So you could say that it was one of the few examples in the history of social science in which there was an experiment, in which somebody said: okay, here’s this thing that people are doing all over the world—will it work? If this theory’s correct, then it can’t work. It didn’t work, so he was right. But actually I would say the credit doesn’t belong to my father. It belongs to Mr. Marx. It was simply an attempt to say that if Marx was right, then Keynes must be wrong. And it turned out that Marx was right and Keynes was wrong. But this was something that no one was willing to recognize. So this book is completely unread, completely unmentioned, completely unnoticed. But from a scientific point of view it’s an interesting phenomenon—that someone was able to make a prediction in social science that turned out to be correct. The fact that it has been ignored shows that, as a friend of mine once said, social science is mostly social and not very much science.

Rail: Contemporary left-economists, often relying on Keynes, have criticized recent austerity measures as detrimental to the recovery effort. Yet you argue that reductions in deficit-spending, with all their consequences for living standards, would be a necessary element of any real recovery on a capitalist basis. What would you say, then, to the workers who occupied the capitol building in Wisconsin? Are they acting in vain, or even against their own interests, if they want to retain their jobs?

Mattick: I would say that they are acting in their own interests insofar as what they are really fighting for is not the economy, but their pensions, their food, their living standards, their rent, etc. They are under an illusion if they think that their welfare is concordant with the welfare of the economy. People have to learn that the welfare of the economy, in a moment like this, is in contradiction to their own welfare. In Wisconsin, workers apparently went along with their unions, who were willing to sacrifice their members’ living conditions in order to prop up the Wisconsin economy. A more rational point-of-view on the part of Wisconsin workers would be to say, to hell with the Wisconsin economy!—we want food, we want boats to go sailing on the lake, we want pensions, and we want nice schools for our children. The truth is there is now a real conflict between the interests of ordinary people, so-called—that’s to say the working class—and the interests of the capitalist economy. The preservation and future prosperity of capitalism demands the impoverishment of the population, and if they prefer to be impoverished to save capitalism, well then, they will be impoverished. The instinctual desire not to be impoverished seems to me a intelligent one, but the problem is that they don’t yet understand that capitalism is not going give them back their pensions and their wages.

Rail: Does that mean that it’s simply impossible to fight against cuts?

Mattick: I think that anti-austerity struggles have to become more radical. They have to concentrate on immediate material goods. For example, there are now millions of people who have been thrown out of their houses. There are a lot of empty houses, so people have to begin moving into those houses. There is a lot of food, so people have to take the food. If factories have closed, people need to go into the factories and start producing goods. But they cannot expect that employers are going to give them jobs. If they could be employed profitably, they already would be, as I say in the book. And they can’t expect the government to give them jobs. The government doesn’t have any money. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important ways to fight austerity. This is still a rich country. There’s all sorts of stuff around. People have to begin to take the stuff that’s there. They have to demand the immediate improvement in their living conditions—very concrete things. So instead of asking for work, which they cannot get, they should just ask for food. A very intelligent move would be to say, OK, you can’t give us jobs—then just feed us, feed us for nothing. It’s not like there’s no food.

Rail: Your book ends on a somber note—the vision of a coming catastrophe at once economic and ecological. We were hoping for a little more optimism from someone who believes, as you’ve said in another article, that another world is possible. Is this just an empty gesture or phrase? What is that other world, what does it look like, and what can people do to make it a reality?

Mattick: Well that’s what is so frustrating because it’s so obvious. We have this enormous productive apparatus. We have a world full of buildings, offices, schools, factories, farms, and technology. And there is absolutely no reason why people shouldn’t simply take that stuff and start using it. What holds them back is that, on the one hand, it doesn’t occur to them that they can do it and, on the other hand, that the police, the army—an enormous apparatus—prevents them from doing it. The way people are raised makes it very hard for them to think that you can just take this over, that this belongs to you. It’s funny—I was reading an article written in 1831 by the French revolutionary Blanqui with the wonderful title: “The man who makes the soup deserves to eat it.” He says it’s all very simple: if all the owners of capital were to disappear, the world would be exactly the same—you would have the same farms, the same factories—but if all the workers disappeared, then everyone would starve to death. We have not advanced one bit beyond that point of view. The problem is that people are so used to the existence of capitalism, they’re so used to the idea that you have to work for somebody else, that they don’t see that they can just take it over. What will move people to take that step? I think that it takes a very drastic experience to push people out of their normal mode of behavior.

This is why—although I don’t like catastrophe and personally I’m terrified by it like everybody else—you can see that there is a positive side, too. Let’s take a very present-day experience. People in Egypt have lived in tremendous poverty for a long time. But in the last year, the price of food went up by something like eighty percent. It just was too much. There was an enormous uprising. They got rid of Mr. Mubarak and his sons, and now they have General Tantawi—the army officers call him Mubarak’s poodle—Mr. Tantawi is running the country. So instead of Mubarak, his poodle is running the country. Nothing has changed. They’re in exactly the same position. Now they find—oh my God, it’s bigger. People think, OK, well, the next step would be to fight the army, but that’s a more serious problem. As long as the army was not willing to shoot you, you could get rid of one or two people. Now, how are you going to fight the army? You would have to have enormous strike movements and it would be very bloody, so you can see why people are scared.

However, it’s not impossible. The coming catastrophes are going to be gigantic—I read recently that the Indians are now building a wall between India and Bangladesh. They know that 100 million people are going to try to get into India just to live because of floods due to global warming and rising sea levels. So they are preparing to kill 100 million people. The American government is preparing militarily to prevent Mexicans from storming into the United States, as people starve in Mexico. So this is what the future holds. The existing situation is poised on an edge of catastrophe, which might take fifty years to unfold. At some point, people will have to deal with it. I don’t know if that’s optimism.

When I was younger, it seemed like it was about to happen: people in the streets, freedom, socialism—but it turns out that the human race is sluggish. The task is also scary. The army is big. Society is hard to understand, and no one really knows what’s going on. And it’s millions of people, and there’s religion, and there’s parents. I walk down the street, and I think, it’s just insane—don’t people know what’s happening? In 75 years this whole area is going to be under water, and they’re worrying about what kind of jeans they want to buy! It’s hard to imagine that what you experience right now is not going to be there in twenty years. During the First World War, it took until 1916 before the big demonstrations began in the cities of Germany. And it took another two years before people finally said, we’re not going to fight anymore. And that was rather mild—the First World War was nothing compared to the Second, and that was nothing compared to what’s coming now. Nearly 60 million died in the Second World War. Now we’re talking about hundreds of millions starving to death and drowning. So that’s why I’m not chipper about it. Socialism or barbarism, as Luxembourg said. Those are our two alternatives.

Kali Akuno: Until We Win: Black Labor and Liberation in the Disposable Era

This article was originally published Sep 4, 2015 in Counterpunch.


Since the rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, Black people throughout the United States have been grappling with a number of critical questions such as why are Black people being hunted and killed every 28 hours or more by various operatives of the law? Why don’t Black people seem to matter to this society? And what can and must we do to end these attacks and liberate ourselves? There are concrete answers to these questions. Answers that are firmly grounded in the capitalist dynamics that structure the brutal European settler-colonial project we live in and how Afrikan people have historically been positioned within it.

The Value of Black Life

There was a time in the United States Empire, when Afrikan people, aka, Black people, were deemed to be extremely valuable to the “American project”, when our lives as it is said, “mattered”. This “time” was the era of chattel slavery, when the labor provided by Afrikan people was indispensable to the settler-colonial enterprise, accounting for nearly half of the commodified value produced within its holdings and exchanged in “domestic” and international markets. Our ancestors were held and regarded as prize horses or bulls, something to be treated with a degree of “care” (i.e. enough to ensure that they were able to work and reproduce their labor, and produce value for their enslavers) because of their centrality to the processes of material production.

What mattered was Black labor power and how it could be harnessed and controlled, not Afrikan humanity. Afrikan humanity did not matter – it had to be denied in order create and sustain the social rationale and systemic dynamics that allowed for the commodification of human beings. These “dynamics” included armed militias and slave patrols, iron-clad non-exception social clauses like the “one-drop” rule, the slave codes, vagrancy laws, and a complex mix of laws and social customs all aimed at oppressing, controlling and scientifically exploiting Black life and labor to the maximum degree. This systemic need served the variants of white supremacy, colonial subjugation, and imperialism that capitalism built to govern social relations in the United States. All of the fundamental systems created to control Afrikan life and labor between the 17th and 19th centuries are still in operation today, despite a few surface moderations, and serve the same basic functions.

The correlation between capital accumulation (earning a profit) and the value of Black life to the overall system has remained consistent throughout the history of the US settler-colonial project, despite of shifts in production regimes (from agricultural, to industrial, to service and finance oriented) and how Black labor was deployed. The more value (profits) Black labor produces, the more Black lives are valued. The less value (profits) Black people produce, the less Black lives are valued. When Black lives are valued they are secured enough to allow for their reproduction (at the very least), when they are not they can be and have been readily discarded and disposed of. This is the basic equation and the basic social dynamic regarding the value of Black life to US society.

The Age of Disposability

We are living and struggling through a transformative era of the global capitalist system. Over the past 40 years, the expansionary dynamics of the system have produced a truly coordinated system of resource acquisition and controls, easily exploitable and cheap labor, production, marketing and consumption on a global scale. The increasingly automated and computerized dynamics of this expansion has resulted in millions, if not billions, of people being displaced through two broad processes: one, from “traditional” methods of life sustaining production (mainly farming), and the other from their “traditional” or ancestral homelands and regions (with people being forced to move to large cities and “foreign” territories in order to survive). As the International Labor Organization (ILO) recently reported in its World Employment and Social Outlook 2015 paper, this displacement renders millions to structurally regulated surplus or expendable statuses.

Capitalist logic does not allow for surplus populations to be sustained for long. They either have to be reabsorbed into the value producing mechanisms of the system, or disposed of. Events over the past 20 (or more) years, such as the forced separation of Yugoslavia, the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, the never ending civil and international wars in Zaire/Congo and central Afrikan region, the mass displacement of farmers in Mexico clearly indicate that the system does not posses the current capacity to absorb the surplus populations and maintain its equilibrium.

The dominant actors in the global economy – multinational corporations, the trans-nationalist capitalist class, and state managers – are in crisis mode trying to figure out how to best manage this massive surplus in a politically justifiable (but expedient) manner.

This incapacity to manage crisis caused by capitalism itself is witnessed by numerous examples of haphazard intervention at managing the rapidly expanding number of displaced peoples such as:

* The ongoing global food crisis (which started in the mid-2000’s) where millions are unable to afford basic food stuffs because of rising prices and climate induced production shortages;

* The corporate driven displacement of hundreds of millions of farmers and workers in the global south (particularly in Africa and parts of Southeast Asia);

* Military responses (including the building of fortified walls and blockades) to the massive migrant crisis confronting the governments of the United States, Western Europe, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc.;

*The corporate driven attempt to confront climate change almost exclusively by market (commodity) mechanisms;

*The scramble for domination of resources and labor, and the escalating number of imperialist facilitated armed conflicts and attempts at regime change in Africa, Asia (including Central Asia) and Eastern Europe.

More starkly, direct disposal experiments are also deepening and expanding:

* Against Afrikans in Colombia,

* Haitians in the Dominican Republic,

* Sub-Saharan Afrikans in Libya,

* Indigenous peoples in the Andean region,

* The Palestinians in Gaza, Adivasis in India,

* The Rohingya’s in Myanmar and Bangladesh,

* And the list goes on.

Accompanying all of this is the ever expanding level of xenophobia and violence targeted at migrants on a world scale, pitting the unevenly pacified and rewarded victims of imperialism against one other as has been witnessed in places like South Africa over the last decade, where attacks on migrant workers and communities has become a mainstay of political activity.

The capitalist system is demonstrating, day by day, that it no longer possesses the managerial capacity to absorb newly dislocated and displaced populations into the international working class (proletariat), and it is becoming harder and harder for the international ruling class to sustain the provision of material benefits that have traditionally been awarded to the most loyal subjects of capitalisms global empire, namely the “native” working classes in Western Europe and settlers in projects like the United States, Canada, and Australia.

When the capitalist system can’t expand and absorb it must preserve itself by shifting towards “correction and contraction” – excluding and if necessary disposing of all the surpluses that cannot be absorbed or consumed at a profit). We are now clearly in an era of correction and contraction that will have genocidal consequences for the surplus populations of the world if left unaddressed.

This dynamic brings us back to the US and the crisis of jobs, mass incarceration and the escalating number of extrajudicial police killings confronting Black people.

The Black Surplus Challenge/Problem

Afrikan, or Black, people in the United States are one of these surplus populations. Black people are no longer a central force in the productive process of the United States, in large part because those manufacturing industries that have not completely offshored their production no longer need large quantities of relatively cheap labor due to automation advances. At the same time agricultural industries have been largely mechanized or require even cheaper sources of super-exploited labor from migrant workers in order to ensure profits.

Various campaigns to reduce the cost of Black labor in the US have fundamentally failed, due to the militant resistance of Black labor and the ability of Black working class communities to “make ends meet” by engaging in and receiving survival level resources from the underground economy, which has grown exponentially in the Black community since the 1970’s. (The underground economy has exploded worldwide since the 1970’s due to the growth of unregulated “grey market” service economies and the explosion of the illicit drug trade. Its expansion has created considerable “market distortions” throughout the world, as it has created new value chains, circuits of accumulation, and financing streams that helped “cook the books” of banking institutions worldwide and helped finance capital become the dominant faction of capital in the 1980’s and 90’s).

The social dimensions of white supremacy regarding consumer “comfort”, “trust” and “security” seriously constrain the opportunities of Black workers in service industries and retail work, as significant numbers of non-Black consumers are uncomfortable receiving direct services from Black people (save for things like custodial and security services). These are the root causes of what many are calling the “Black jobs crisis”. The lack of jobs for Black people translates into a lack of need for Black people, which equates into the wholesale devaluation of Black life. And anything without value in the capitalist system is disposable.

The declining “value” of Black life is not a new problem – Black people have constituted an escalating problem in search of a solution for the US ruling class since the 1960’s. Although the US labor market started to have trouble absorbing Afrikan workers in the 1950’s, the surplus problem didn’t reach crisis proportions until the late 1960’s, when the Black Liberation Movement started to critically impact industrial production with demands for more jobs, training and open access to skilled and supervisorial work (which were “occupied” by white seniority-protected workers), higher wages, direct representation (through instruments like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers), constant strikes, work stoppages, other forms of industrial action, militant resistance to state and non-state forces of repression and hundreds of urban rebellions.

This resistance occurred at the same time that the international regime of integrated production, trade management, and financial integration, and currency convergence instituted by the United States after WWII, commonly called the Bretton Woods regime, fully maturated and ushered in the present phase of globalization. This regime obliterated most exclusivist (or protectionist) production regimes and allowed international capital to scour the world for cheaper sources of labor and raw materials without fear of inter-imperialist rivalry and interference (as predominated during earlier periods). Thus, Black labor was hitting its stride just as capital was finding secure ways to eliminate its dependence upon it (and Western unionized labor more generally) by starting to reap the rewards of its post-WWII mega-global investments (largely centered in Western Europe, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan).

One reward of these mega-global investments for US capital was that it reduced the scale and need for domestic industrial production, which limited the ability of Black labor to disrupt the system with work stoppages, strikes, and other forms of industrial action. As US capital rapidly reduced the scale of its domestic production in the 1970’s and 80’s, it intentionally elevated competition between white workers and Afrikan and other non-settler sources of labor for the crumbs it was still doling out. The settler-world view, position, and systems of entitlement possessed by the vast majority of white workers compelled them to support the overall initiatives of capital and to block the infusion of Afrikan, Xicano, Puerto Rican and other non-white labor when there were opportunities to do so during this period.

This development provided the social base for the “silent majority,” “law and order,” “tuff on crime,” “war on drugs,” “war on gangs and thugs” campaigns that dominated the national political landscape from the late 1960’s through the early 2000’s, that lead to mass incarceration, racist drug laws, and militarized policing that have terrorized Afrikan (and Indigenous, Xicano, Puerto Rican, etc.) communities since the 1970’s.

To deal with the crisis of Black labor redundancy and mass resistance the ruling class responded by creating a multipronged strategy of limited incorporation, counterinsurgency, and mass containment. The stratagem of limited incorporation sought to and has partially succeeded in dividing the Black community by class, as corporations and the state have been able to take in and utilize the skills of sectors of the Black petit bourgeoisie and working class for their own benefit. The stratagem of counterinsurgency crushed, divided and severely weakened Black organizations. And the stratagem of containment resulted in millions of Black people effectively being re-enslaved and warehoused in prisons throughout the US empire.

This three-pronged strategy exhausted itself by the mid-2000 as core dynamics of it (particularly the costs associated with mass incarceration and warehousing) became increasingly unprofitable and therefore unsustainable. Experiments with alternative forms of incarceration (like digitally monitored home detainment) and the spatial isolation and externalization of the Afrikan surplus population to the suburbs and exurbs currently abound, but no new comprehensive strategy has yet been devised by the ruling class to solve the problem of what to do and what politically can be done to address the Black surplus population problem. All that is clear from events like the catastrophe following Hurricane Katrina and the hundreds of Afrikans being daily, monthly, and yearly extra-judicially killed by various law enforcement agencies is that Black life is becoming increasingly more disposable. And it is becoming more disposable because in the context of the American capitalist socio-economic system, Black life is a commodity rapidly depreciating in value, but still must be corralled and controlled.


A Potential Path of Resistance

Although Afrikan people are essentially “talking instruments” to the overlords of the capitalist system, Black people have always possessed our own agency. Since the dawn of the Afrikan slave trade and the development of the mercantile plantations and chattel slavery, Black people resisted their enslavement and the systemic logic and dynamics of the capitalist system itself.

The fundamental question confronting Afrikan people since their enslavement and colonization in territories held by the US government is to what extent can Black people be the agents and instruments of their own liberation and history? It is clear that merely being the object or appendage of someone else’s project and history only leads to a disposable future. Black people have to forge their own future and chart a clear self-determining course of action in order to be more than just a mere footnote in world history.

Self-determination and social liberation, how do we get there? How will we take care of our own material needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, defense, jobs, etc.)? How will we address the social contradictions that shape and define us, both internally and externally generated? How should we and will we express our political independence?

There are no easy or cookie cutter answers. However, there are some general principles and dynamics that I believe are perfectly clear. Given how we have been structurally positioned as a disposable, surplus population by the US empire we need to build a mass movement that focuses as much on organizing and building autonomous, self-organized and executed social projects as it focuses on campaigns and initiatives that apply transformative pressure on the government and the forces of economic exploitation and domination. This is imperative, especially when we clearly understand the imperatives of the system we are fighting against.

The capitalism system has always required certain levels of worker “reserves” (the army of the unemployed) in order to control labor costs and maintain social control. But, the system must now do two things simultaneously to maintain profits: drastically reduce the cost of all labor and ruthlessly discard millions of jobs and laborers. “You are on your own,” is the only social rationale the system has the capacity to process and its overlords insist that “there is no alternative” to the program of pain that they have to implement and administer. To the system therefore, Black people can either accept their fate as a disposable population, or go to hell. We have to therefore create our own options and do everything we can to eliminate the systemic threat that confronts us.

Autonomous projects are initiatives not supported or organized by the government (state) or some variant of monopoly capital (finance or corporate industrial or mercantile capital). These are initiatives that directly seek to create a democratic “economy of need” around organizing sustainable institutions that satisfy people’s basic needs around principles of social solidarity and participatory or direct democracy that intentionally put the needs of people before the needs of profit. These initiatives are built and sustained by people organizing themselves and collectivizing their resources through dues paying membership structures, income sharing, resource sharing, time banking, etc., to amass the initial resources needed to start and sustain our initiatives. These types of projects range from organizing community farms (focused on developing the capacity to feed thousands of people) to forming people’s self-defense networks to organizing non-market housing projects to building cooperatives to fulfill our material needs. To ensure that these are not mere Black capitalist enterprises, these initiatives must be built democratically from the ground up and must be owned, operated, and controlled by their workers and consumers. These are essentially “serve the people” or “survival programs” that help the people to sustain and attain a degree of autonomy and self-rule. Our challenge is marshaling enough resources and organizing these projects on a large enough scale to eventually meet the material needs of nearly 40 million people. And overcoming the various pressures that will be brought to bear on these institutions by the forces of capital to either criminalize and crush them during their development (via restrictions on access to finance, market access, legal security, etc.) or co-opt them and reincorporate them fully into the capitalist market if they survive and thrive.

Our pressure exerting initiatives must be focused on creating enough democratic and social space for us to organize ourselves in a self-determined manner. We should be under no illusion that the system can be reformed, it cannot. Capitalism and its bourgeois national-states, the US government being the most dominant amongst them, have demonstrated a tremendous ability to adapt to and absorb disruptive social forces and their demands – when it has ample surpluses. The capitalist system has essentially run out of surpluses, and therefore does not possess the flexibility that it once did.

Because real profits have declined since the late 1960’s, capitalism has resorted to operating largely on a parasitic basis, commonly referred to as neo-liberalism, which calls for the dismantling of the social welfare state, privatizing the social resources of the state, eliminating institutions of social solidarity (like trade unions), eliminating safety standards and protections, promoting the monopoly of trade by corporations, and running financial markets like casinos.

Our objectives therefore, must be structural and necessitate nothing less than complete social transformation. To press for our goals we must seek to exert maximum pressure by organizing mass campaigns that are strategic and tactically flexible, including mass action (protest) methods, direct action methods, boycotts, non-compliance methods, occupations, and various types of people’s or popular assemblies. The challenges here are not becoming sidelined and subordinated to someone else’s agenda – in particular that of the Democratic party (which as been the grave of social movements for generations) – and not getting distracted by symbolic reforms or losing sight of the strategic in the pursuit of the expedient.

What the combination of theses efforts will amount to is the creation of Black Autonomous Zones. These Autonomous Zones must serve as centers for collective survival, collective defense, collective self-sufficiency and social solidarity. However, we have to be clear that while building Black Autonomous Zones is necessary, they are not sufficient in and of themselves. In addition to advancing our own autonomous development and political independence, we have to build a revolutionary international movement. We are not going to transform the world on our own. As noted throughout this short work, Black people in the US are not the only people confronting massive displacement, dislocation, disposability, and genocide, various people’s and sectors of the working class throughout the US and the world are confronting these existential challenges and seeking concrete solutions and real allies as much as we do.

Our Autonomous Zones must link with, build with, and politically unite with oppressed, exploited and marginalized peoples, social sectors and social movements throughout the US and the world. The Autonomous Zones must link with Indigenous communities, Xicano’s and other communities stemming from the Caribbean, and Central and South America. We must also build alliances with poor and working class whites. It is essential that we help to serve as an alternative (or at least a counterweight) to the reactionary and outright fascist socialization and influences the white working class is constantly bombarded with.

Our Autonomous Zones should seek to serve as new fronts of class struggle that unite forces that are presently separated by white supremacy, xenophobia and other instruments of hierarchy, oppression and hatred. The knowledge drawn from countless generations of Black oppression must become known and shared by all exploited and oppressed people. We have to unite on the basis of a global anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonial program that centers the liberation of Indigenous, colonized, and oppressed peoples and the total social and material emancipation of all those who labor and create the value that drives human civilization. We must do so by creating a regenerative economic system that harmonizes human production and consumption with the limits of the Earth’s biosphere and the needs of all our extended relatives – the non-human species who occupy 99.9 percent of our ecosystem. This is no small task, but our survival as a people and as a species depends upon it.

The tremendous imbalance of forces in favor of capital and the instruments of imperialism largely dictates that the strategy needed to implement this program calls for the transformation of the oppressive social relationships that define our life from the “bottom up” through radical social movements. These social movements must challenge capital and the commodification of life and society at every turn, while at the same time building up its own social and material reserves for the inevitable frontal assaults that will be launched against our social movements and the people themselves by the forces of reaction. Ultimately, the forces of liberation are going to have to prepare themselves and all the progressive forces in society for a prolonged battle to destroy the repressive arms of the state as the final enforcer of bourgeois social control in the world capitalist system. As recent events Greece painfully illustrate, our international movement will have to simultaneously win, transform, and dismantle the capitalist state at the same time in order to secure the democratic space necessary for a revolutionary movement to accomplish the most minimal of its objectives.

Return to the Source

The intersecting, oppressive systems of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy have consistently tried to reduce African people to objects, tools, chattel, and cheap labor. Despite the systemic impositions and constraints these systems have tried to impose, Afrikan people never lost sight of their humanity, never lost sight of their own value, and never conceded defeat.

In the age of mounting human surplus and the devaluation and disposal of life, Afrikan people are going to have to call on the strengths of our ancestors and the lessons learned in over 500 years of struggle against the systems of oppression and exploitation that beset them. Building a self-determining future based on self-respect, self-reliance, social solidarity, cooperative development and internationalism is a way forward that offers us the chance to survive and thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

Kali Akuno is the Producer of “An American Nightmare: Black Labor and Liberation”, a joint documentary project of Deep Dish TV and Cooperation Jackson. He is the co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, and a co-writer of “Operation Ghetto Storm” better known as the “Every 28 Hours” report.. Kali can be reached at or on Twitter @KaliAkuno.

Krisis Group: Manifesto Against Labour

This article was originally published Dec 31, 1999 by the Krisis Group.


1. The rule of dead labour

A corpse rules society – the corpse of labour. All powers around the globe formed an alliance to defend its rule: the Pope and the World Bank, Tony Blair and Jörg Haider, trade unions and entrepreneurs, German ecologists and French socialists. They don’t know but one slogan: jobs, jobs, jobs!

Whoever still has not forgotten what reflection is all about, will easily realise the implausibility of such an attitude. The society ruled by labour does not experience any temporary crisis; it encounters its absolute limit. In the wake of the micro-electronic revolution, wealth production increasingly became independent from the actual expenditure of human labour power to an extent quite recently only imaginable in science fiction. No one can seriously maintain any longer that this process can be halted or reversed. Selling the commodity labour power in the 21st century is as promising as the sale of stagecoaches has proved to be in the 20th century. However, whoever is not able to sell his or her labour power in this society is considered to be „superfluous“ and will be disposed of on the social waste dump.

Those who do not work (labour) shall not eat! This cynical principle is still in effect; all the more nowadays when it becomes hopelessly obsolete. It is really an absurdity: Never before the society was that much a labour society as it is now when labour itself is made superfluous. On its deathbed labour turns out to be a totalitarian power that does not tolerate any gods besides itself. Seeping through the pores of everyday life into the psyche, labour controls both thought and action. No expense or pain is spared to artificially prolong the lifespan of the „labour idol“. The paranoid cry for jobs justifies the devastation of natural resources on an intensified scale even if the destructive effect for humanity was realised a long time ago. The very last obstacles to the full commercialisation of any social relationship may be cleared away uncritically, if only there is a chance for a few miserable jobs to be created. „Any job is better than no job“ became a confession of faith, which is exacted from everybody nowadays.

The more it becomes obvious that the labour society is nearing its end, the more forcefully this realisation is being repressed in public awareness. The methods of repression may be different, but can be reduced to a common denominator. The globally evident fact that labour proves to be a self-destructive end-in-itself is stubbornly redefined into the individual or collective failure of individuals, companies, or even entire regions as if the world is under the control of a universal idée fixe. The objective structural barrier of labour has to appear as the subjective problem of those who were already ousted.

To some people unemployment is the result of exaggerated demands, low-performance or missing flexibility, to others unemployment is due to the incompetence, corruption, or greed of „their“ politicians or business executives, let alone the inclination of such „leaders“ to pursue policies of „treachery“. In the end all agree with Roman Herzog, the ex-president of Germany, who said that „all over the country everybody has to pull together“ as if the problem was about the motivation of, let us say, a football team or a political sect. Everybody shall keep his or her nose to the grindstone even if the grindstone got pulverised. The gloomy meta-message of such incentives cannot be misunderstood: Those who fail in finding favour in the eyes of the „labour idol“ have to take the blame, can be written off and pushed away.

Such a law on how and when to sacrifice humans is valid all over the world. One country after the other gets broken under the wheel of economic totalitarianism, thereby giving evidence for the one and only „truth“: The country has violated the so-called „laws of the market economy“. The logic of profitability will punish any country that does not adapt itself to the blind working of total competition unconditionally and without regard to the consequences. The great white hope of today is the business rubbish of tomorrow. The raging economical psychotics won’t get shaken in their bizarre worldview, though. Meanwhile, three quarters of the global population were more or less declared to be social litter. One capitalist centre after the other is dashed to pieces. After the breakdown of the developing countries and after the failure of the state capitalist squad of the global labour society, the East Asian model pupils of market economy have vanished into limbo. Even in Europe, social panic is spreading. However, the Don Quichotes in politics and management even more grimly continue to crusade in the name of the „labour idol“.

Everyone must be able to live from his work is the propounded principle. Hence that one can live is subject to a condition and there is no right where the qualification can not be fulfilled.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Foundations of Natural Law according to the Principles of Scientific Theory, 1797

2. The neo-liberal apartheid society

Should the successful sale of the commodity „labour power“ become the exception instead of the rule, a society devoted to the irrational abstraction of labour is inevitably doomed to develop a tendency for social apartheid. All factions of the comprehensive all-parties consensus on labour, so to say the labour-camp, on the quiet accepted this logic long ago and even took over a strictly supporting role. There is no controversy on whether ever increasing sections of the population shall be pushed to the margin and shall be excluded from social participation; there is only controversy on how this social selection is to be pushed through.

The neo-liberal faction trustfully leaves this dirty social-Darwinist business to the „invisible hand“ of the markets. This conception is utilised to justify the dismantling of the welfare state, ostracising those who can no longer keep abreast in the rat race of competition. Only those who belong to the smirking brotherhood of globalisation winners are awarded the quality of being a human. It goes without saying that the capitalist end-in-itself may claim any natural resources of the planet. When they can no longer be profitably mobilised, they have to lie fallow even if entire populations go hungry.

The police, salvation sects, the Mafia, and charity organisations become responsible for that annoying human litter. In the USA and most of the central European countries, more people are imprisoned than in any average military dictatorship. In Latin America, day after day an ever-larger number of street urchins and other poor are hunted down by free enterprise death-squads than dissidents were killed during the worst periods of political repression. There is only one social function left for the ostracised: to be the warning example. Their fate is meant to goad on those who still participate in the rat race of fighting for the leftovers. And even the losers have to be kept in hectic moving so that they don’t hit on the idea to of rebelling against the outrageous impositions they face.

Nevertheless, even at the price of self-annihilation, for most people the brave new world of the totalitarian market economy will only provide for a live in shadow as shadow-humans in a „shady“ economy. As low-wage-slaves and democratic serfs of the „service society, they will have to fawn on the well-off winners of globalisation. The modern „working poor“ may shine the shoes of the last businessmen of the dying labour society, may sell contaminated hamburgers to them, or may join the Security Corps to guard their shopping malls. Those who left behind their brain on the coat rack may dream of working their way up to the position of a service industry millionaire.

In Anglo-Saxon countries this horror scenario is reality meanwhile as it is in Third World countries and Eastern Europe; and Euroland is determined to catch up in rapid strides. The relevant financial papers make no secret of how they imagine the future of labour. The children in Third World countries who wash windscreens at polluted crossroads are depicted as the shining example of „entrepreneurial initiative“ and shall serve as a role model for the jobless in the respective local „service desert“. „The role model for the future is the individual as the entrepreneur of his own labour power, being provident and solely responsible for all his own life“ says the „Commission on future social questions of the free states of Bavaria and Saxony“. In addition: „There will be stronger demand for ordinary person-related services, if the services rendered become cheaper, i.e. if the „service provider“ will earn lower wages“. In a society of human „self-respect“, such a statement would trigger off social revolt. However, in a world of domesticated workhorses, it will only engender a helpless nod.

The crook has destroyed working and taken away the worker’s wage even so. Now he [the worker] shall labour without a wage while picturing to himself the blessing of success and profit in his prison cell. […] By means of forced labour he shall be trained to perform moral labour as a free personal act.

Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, Die deutsche Arbeit (The German Labour), 1861

3. The neo-welfare-apartheid-state

The anti-neoliberal faction of the socially all-embracing labour camp cannot bring itself to the liking of such a perspective. On the other hand, they are deeply convinced that a human being that has no job is not a human being at all. Nostalgically fixated on the postwar era of mass employment, they are bound to the idea of reviving the labour society. The state administration shall fix what the markets are incapable of. The purported normality of a labour society is to be simulated by means of job programmes, municipally organised compulsory labour for people on dole or welfare, subsidies, public debt, and other policies of this sort. This half-hearted rehash of a state-regulated labour camp has no chance at all, but remains to be the ideological point of departure for broad stratums of the population who are already on the brink of disaster. Doomed to fail, such steps put into practice are anything else but emancipatory.

The ideological transformation of „scarce labour“ (tight labour market) into a prime civil right necessarily excludes all foreigners. The social logic of selection then is not questioned, but redefined: The individual struggle for survival shall be defused by means of ethnic-nationalistic criteria. „Domestic treadmills only for native citizens“ is the outcry deep from the bottom of the people’s soul, who are suddenly able to combine motivated by their perverse lust for labour. Right-wing populism makes no secret of such sentiment. Its criticism of „rival society“ only amounts to ethnic cleansing within the shrinking zones of capitalist wealth.

Whereas the moderate nationalism of social democrats or Greens is set on treating the old-established immigrants like natives and can even imagine naturalising those people should they be able to prove themselves harmless and affable. Thereby the intensified exclusion of refugees from the Eastern and African world can be legitimised in a populist manner even better and without getting into a fuss. Of course, the whole operation is well obscured by talking nineteen to the dozen about humanity and civilisation. Manhunts for „illegal immigrants“ allegedly sneaking in domestic jobs shall not leave behind nasty bloodstains or burn marks on German soil. Rather it is the business of the border police, police forces in general, and the buffer states of „Schengenland“, which dispose of the problem lawfully and best of all far away from media coverage.

The state-run labour-simulation is violent and repressive by birth. It stands for the absolute will to maintain the rule of the „labour idol“ by all means; even after its decease. This labour-bureaucratic fanaticism will not grant peace to those who resorted to the very last hideouts of a welfare state already fallen into ruins, i.e. to the ousted, jobless, or non-competitive, let alone to those refusing to labour for good reasons. Welfare workers and employment agents will haul them before the official interrogation commissions, forcing them to kow-tow before the throne of the ruling corpse.

Usually the accused is given the benefit of doubt, but here the burden of proof is shifted. Should the ostracised not want to live on air and Christian charity for their further lives, they have to accept whatsoever dirty and slave work, or any other absurd „occupational therapy“ cooked up by job creation schemes, just to demonstrate their unconditional readiness for labour. Whether such job has rhyme or reason, not to mention any meaning, or is simply the realisation of pure absurdity, does not matter at all. The main point is that the jobless are kept moving to remind them incessantly of the one and only law governing their existence on earth.

In the old days people worked to earn money. Nowadays the government spares no expenses to simulate the labour-„paradise“ lost for some hundred thousand people by launching bizarre „job training schemes“ or setting up „training companies“ in order to make them fit for „regular“ jobs they will never get. Ever newer and sillier steps are taken to keep up the appearance that the idle running social treadmills can be kept in full swing to the end of time. The more absurd the social constraint of „labour“ becomes, the more brutally it is hammered into the peoples‘ head that they cannot even get a piece of bread for free.

In this respect „New Labour“ and its imitators all over the world concur with the neo-liberal scheme of social selection. In simulating jobs and holding out beguiling prospects of a wonderful future for the labour society, a firm moral legitimacy is created to crack down on the jobless and labour objectors more fiercely. At the same time compulsory labour, subsidised wages, and so-called „honorary citizen activity“ bring down labour cost, entailing a massively inflated low-wage sector and an increase in other lousy jobs of that sort.

The so-called activating workfare does even not spare persons who suffer from chronic disease or single mothers with little children. Recipients of social benefits are released from this administrative stranglehold only as soon as the nameplate is tied to their toe (i.e. in mortuary). The only reason for such state-obtrusiveness is to discourage as many people as possible from claiming benefits at all by displaying dreadful instruments of torture – any miserable job must appear comparatively pleasant.

Officially the paternalist state always only swings the whip out of love and with the intention of sternly training its children, denounced as „work-shy“, to be tough in the name of their better progress. In fact, the pedagogical measures only have the goal to drum the wards out. What else is the idea of conscripting unemployed people and forcing them to go to the fields to harvest asparagus (in Germany)? It is meant to push out the Polish seasonal workers, who accept slave wages only because the exchange rate turns the pittance they get into an acceptable income at home. Forced labourers are neither helped nor given any „vocational perspective“ with this measure. Even for the asparagus growers, the disgruntled academics and reluctant skilled workers, favoured to them as a present, are nothing but a nuisance. When, after a twelve-hour day, the foolish idea of setting up a hot-dog stand as an act of desperation suddenly appears in a more friendly light, the „aid to flexibility“ has its desired neo-British effect.

Any job is better than no job.

Bill Clinton, 1998

No job is as hard as no job.

A poster at the December 1998 rally, organised by initiatives for unemployed people

Citizen work should be rewarded, not paid. […] Whoever does honorary citizen work clears himself of the stigma of being unemployed and being a recipient of welfare benefits.

Ulrich Beck, The Soul of Democracy, 1997

4. Exaggeration and denial of the labour religion

The new fanaticism for labour with which this society reacts to the death of its idol is the logical continuation and final stage of a long history. Since the days of the Reformation, all the powers of Western modernisation have preached the sacredness of work. Over the last 150 years, all social theories and political schools were possessed by the idea of labour. Socialists and conservatives, democrats and fascists fought each other to the death, but despite all deadly hatred, they always paid homage to the labour idol together. „Push the idler aside“, is a line from the German lyrics of the international working (labouring) class anthem; „labour makes free“ it resounds eerily from the inscription above the gate in Auschwitz. The pluralist post-war democracies all the more swore by the everlasting dictatorship of labour. Even the constitution of the ultra-catholic state of Bavaria lectures its citizens in the Lutheran tradition: „Labour is the source of a people’s prosperity and is subject to the special protective custody of the state“. At the end of the 20th century, all ideological differences have vanished into thin air. What remains is the common ground of a merciless dogma: Labour is the natural destiny of human beings.

Today the reality of the labour society itself denies that dogma. The disciples of the labour religion have always preached that a human being, according to its supposed nature, is an „animal laborans“ (working creature/animal). Such an „animal“ actually only assumes the quality of being a human by subjecting matter to his will and in realising himself in his products, as once did Prometheus. The modern production process has always made a mockery of this myth of a world conqueror and a demigod, but might have had a real substratum in the era of inventor capitalists like Siemens or Edison and their skilled workforce. Meanwhile, however, such airs and graces became completely absurd.

Whoever asks about the content, meaning, and goal of his or her job, will go crazy or becomes a disruptive element in the social machinery designed to function as an end-in-itself. „Homo faber“, once full of conceit as to his craft and trade, a type of human who took seriously what he did in a parochial way, has become as old-fashioned as a mechanical typewriter. The treadmill has to run at all cost, and „that’s all there is to it“. Advertising departments and armies of entertainers, company psychologists, image advisors and drug dealers are responsible for creating meaning. Where there is continual babble about motivation and creativity, there is not a trace left of either of them – save self-deception. This is why talents such as autosuggestion, self-projection and competence simulation rank among the most important virtues of managers and skilled workers, media stars and accountants, teachers and parking lot guards.

The crisis of the labour society has completely ridiculed the claim that labour is an eternal necessity imposed on humanity by nature. For centuries it was preached that homage has to be paid to the labour idol just for the simple reason that needs can not be satisfied without humans sweating blood: To satisfy needs, that is the whole point of the human labour camp existence. If that were true, a critique of labour would be as rational as a critique of gravity. So how can a true „law of nature“ enter into a state of crisis or even disappear? The floor leaders of the society’s labour camp factions, from neo-liberal gluttons for caviar to labour unionist beer bellies, find themselves running out of arguments to prove the pseudo-nature of labour. Or how can they explain that three-quarters of humanity are sinking in misery and poverty only because the labour system no longer needs their labour?

It is not the curse of the Old Testament „In the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread“ that is to burden the ostracised any longer, but a new and inexorable condemnation: „You shall not eat because your sweat is superfluous and unmarketable“. That is supposed to be a law of nature? This condemnation is nothing but an irrational social principle, which assumes the appearance of a natural compulsion because it has destroyed or subjugated any other form of social relations over the past centuries and has declared itself to be absolute. It is the „natural law“ of a society that regards itself as very „rational“, but in truth only follows the instrumental rationality of its labour idol for whose „factual inevitabilities“ (Sachzwänge) it is ready to sacrifice the last remnant of its humanity.

Work, however base and mammonist, is always connected with nature. The desire to do work leads more and more to the truth and to the laws and prescriptions of nature, which are truths.

Thomas Carlyle, Working and not Despairing, 1843

5. Labour is a coercive social principle

Labour is in no way identical with humans transforming nature (matter) and interacting with each other. As long as mankind exist, they will build houses, produce clothing, food and many other things. They will raise children, write books, discuss, cultivate gardens, and make music and much more. This is banal and self-evident. However, the raising of human activity as such, the pure „expenditure of labour power“, to an abstract principle governing social relations without regard to its content and independent of the needs and will of the participants, is not self-evident.

In ancient agrarian societies, there were all sorts of domination and personal dependencies, but not a dictatorship of the abstraction labour. Activities in the transformation of nature and in social relations were in no way self-determined, but were hardly subject to an abstract „expenditure of labour power“. Rather, they were embedded in complex rules of religious prescriptions and in social and cultural traditions with mutual obligations. Every activity had its own time and scene; simply there was no abstract general form of activity.

It fell to the modern commodity producing system as an end-in-itself with its ceaseless transformation of human energy into money to bring about a separated sphere of so-called labour „alienated“ from all other social relations and abstracted from all content. It is a sphere demanding of its inmates unconditional surrender, life-to-rule, dependent robotic activity severed from any other social context, and obedience to an abstract „economic“ instrumental rationality beyond human needs. In this sphere detached from life, time ceases to be lived and experienced time; rather time becomes a mere raw material to be exploited optimally: „time is money“. Any second of life is charged to a time account, every trip to the loo is an offence, and every gossip is a crime against the production goal that has made itself independent. Where labour is going on, only abstract energy may be spent. Life takes place elsewhere – or nowhere, because labour beats the time round the clock. Even children are drilled to obey Newtonian time to become „effective“ members of the workforce in their future life. Leave of absence is granted merely to restore an individual’s „labour power“. When having a meal, celebrating or making love, the second hand is ticking at the back of one’s mind.

In the sphere of labour it does not matter what is being done, it is the act of doing itself that counts. Above all, labour is an end-in-itself especially in the respect that it is the raw material and substance of monetary capital yields – the limitless dynamic of capital as self-valorising value. Labour is nothing but the „liquid (motion) aggregate“ of this absurd end-in-itself. That’s why all products must be produced as commodities – and not for any practical reason. Only in commodity form products can „solidify“ the abstraction money, whose essence is the abstraction labour. Such is the mechanism of the alienated social treadmill holding captive modern humanity.

For this reason, it doesn’t matter what is being produced as well as what use is made of it – not to mention the indifference to social and environmental consequences. Whether houses are built or landmines are produced, whether books are printed or genetically modified tomatoes are grown, whether people fall sick as a result, whether the air gets polluted or „only“ good taste goes to the dogs – all this is irrelevant as long as, whatever it takes, commodities can be transformed into money and money into fresh labour. The fact that any commodity demands a concrete use, and should it be a destructive one, has no relevance for the economic rationality for which the product is nothing but a carrier of once expended labour, or „dead labour“.

The accumulation of „dead labour“, in other words „capital“, materialising in the money form is the only „meaning“ the modern commodity producing system knows about. What is „dead labour“? A metaphysical madness! Yes, but a metaphysics that has become concrete reality, a „reified“ madness that holds this society in its iron grip. In perpetual buying and selling, people don’t interact as self-reliant social beings, but only execute the presupposed end-in-itself as social automatons.

The worker (lit. labourer) feels to be himself outside work and feels outside himself when working. He is at home when he does not work. When he works, he is not at home. As a result, his work is forced labour, not voluntary labour. Forced labour is not the satisfaction of a need but only a means for satisfying needs outside labour. Its foreignness appears in that labour is avoided as a plague as soon as no physical or other force exists.

Karl Marx, Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844

6. Labour and capital are the two sides of the same coin

The political left has always eagerly venerated labour. It has stylised labour to be the true nature of a human being and mystified it into the supposed counter-principle of capital. Not labour was regarded as a scandal, but its exploitation by capital. As a result, the programme of all „working class parties“ was always the „liberation of labour“ and not „liberation from labour“. Yet the social opposition of capital and labour is only the opposition of different (albeit unequally powerful) interests within the capitalist end-in-itself. Class struggle was the form of battling out opposite interests on the common social ground and reference system of the commodity-producing system. It was germane to the inner dynamics of capital accumulation. Whether the struggle was for higher wages, civil rights, better working conditions or more jobs, the all-embracing social treadmill with its irrational principles was always its implied presupposition.

From the standpoint of labour, the qualitative content of production counts as little as it does from the standpoint of capital. The only point of interest is selling labour power at best price. The idea of determining aim and object of human activity by joint decision is beyond the imagination of the treadmill inmates. If the hope ever existed that such self-determination of social reproduction could be realised in the forms of the commodity-producing system, the „workforce“ has long forgotten about this illusion. Only „employment“ or „occupation“ is a matter of concern; the connotations of these terms speak volumes about the end-in-itself character of the whole arrangement and the state of mental immaturity of the participants comes to light.

What is being produced and to what end, and what might be the consequences neither matters to the seller of the commodity labour power nor to its buyer. The workers of nuclear power plants and chemical factories protest the loudest when their ticking time bombs are deactivated. The „employees“ of Volkswagen, Ford or Toyota are the most fanatical disciples of the automobile suicide programme, not merely because they are compelled to sell themselves for a living wage, but because they actually identify with their parochial existence. Sociologists, unionists, pastors and other „professional theologians“ of the „social question“ regard this as a proof for the ethical-moral value of labour. „Labour shapes personality“, they say. Yes, the personalities of zombies of the commodity production who can no longer imagine a life outside of their dearly loved treadmills, for which they drill themselves hard – day in, day out.

As the working class was hardly ever the antagonistic contradiction to capital or the historical subject of human emancipation, capitalists and managers hardly control society by means of the malevolence of some „subjective will of exploitation“. No ruling caste in history has led such a wretched life as a „bondman“ as the harassed managers of Microsoft, Daimler-Chrysler or Sony. Any medieval baron would have deeply despised these people. While he was devoted to leisure and squandered wealth orgiastically, the elite of the labour society does not allow itself any pause. Outside the treadmills, they don’t know anything else but to become childish. Leisure, delight in cognition, realisation and discovery, as well as sensual pleasures, are as foreign to them as to their human „resource“. They are only the slaves of the labour idol, mere functional executives of the irrational social end-in-itself.

The ruling idol knows how to enforce its „subjectless“ (Marx) will by means of the „silent (implied) compulsion“ of competition to which even the powerful must bow, especially if they manage hundreds of factories and shift billions across the globe. If they don’t „do business“, they will be scrapped as ruthlessly as the superfluous „labour force“. Kept in the leading strings of intransigent systemic constraints they become a public menace by this and not because of some conscious will to exploit others. Least of all, are they allowed to ask about the meaning and consequences of their restless action and can not afford emotions or compassion. Therefore they call it realism when they devastate the world, disfigure urban features, and only shrug their shoulders when their fellow beings are impoverished in the midst of affluence.

More and more labour has the good conscience on its side: The inclination for leisure is called „need of recovery“ and begins to feel ashamed of itself. „It is just for the sake of health“, they defend themselves when caught at a country outing. It could happen to be in the near future that succumbing to a „vita contemplativa“ (i.e. to go for a stroll together with friends to contemplate life) will lead to self-contempt and a guilty conscience.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Leisure and Idleness, 1882

7. Labour is patriarchal rule

It is not possible to subject every sphere of social life or all essential human activities to the rule of abstract (Newtonian) time, even if the intrinsic logic of labour, inclusive of the transformation of the latter into „money-substance“, insists on it. Consequently, alongside the „separated“ sphere of labour, so to say at the rear, the sphere of home life, family life, and intimacy came into being.

It is a sphere that conveys the idea of femininity and comprises the various activities of everyday life which can only rarely be transformed into monetary remuneration: from cleaning, cooking, child rearing, and the care for the elderly, to the „labour of love“ provided by the ideal housewife, who busies herself with „loving“ care for her exhausted breadwinner and refuels his emptiness with well measured doses of emotion. That is why the sphere of intimacy, which is nothing but the reverse side of the labour sphere, is idealised as the sanctuary of true life by bourgeois ideology, even if in reality it is most often a familiarity hell. In fact, it is not a sphere of better or true life, but a parochial and reduced form of existence, a mere mirror-inversion subject to the very same systemic constraints (i.e. labour). The sphere of intimacy is an offshoot of the labour sphere, cut off and in its own meanwhile, but bound to the overriding common reference system. Without the social sphere of „female labour“, the labour society would actually never have worked. The „female sphere“ is the implied precondition of the labour society and at the same time its specific result.

The same applies to the gender stereotypes being generalised in the course of the developing commodity-producing system. It was no accident that the image of the somewhat primitive, instinct-driven, irrational, and emotional woman solidified only along with the image of the civilised, rational and self-restrained male workaholic and became a mass prejudice finally. It was also no accident that the self-drill of the white man, who went into some sort of mental boot camp training to cope with the exacting demands of labour and its pertinent human resource management, coincided with a brutal witch-hunt that raged for some centuries.

The modern understanding and appropriation of the world by means of (natural) scientific thought, a way of thinking that was gaining ground then, was contaminated by the social end-in-itself and its gender attributes down to the roots. This way, the white man, in order to ensure his smooth functioning, subjected himself to a self-exorcism of all evil spirits, namely those frames of mind and emotional needs, which are considered to be dysfunctional in the realms of labour.

In the 20th century, especially in the post-war democracies of Fordism, women were increasingly recruited to the labour system, which only resulted in some specific female schizophrenic mind. On the one hand, the advance of women into the sphere of labour has not led to their liberation, but subjected them to very same drill procedures for the labour idol as already suffered by men. On the other hand, as the systemic structure of „segregation“ was left untouched, the separated sphere of „female labour“ continued to exist extrinsic to what is officially deemed to be „labour“. This way, women were subjected to a double-burden and exposed to conflicting social imperatives. Within the sphere of labour – until now – they are predominantly confined to the low-wage sector and subordinate jobs.

No system-conforming struggle for quota regulations or equal career chances will change anything. The miserable bourgeois vision of a „compatibility of career and family“ leaves completely untouched the separation of the spheres of the commodity-producing system and thereby preserves the structure of gender segregation. For the majority of women such an outlook on life is unbearable, a minority of fat cats, however, may utilise the social conditions to attain a winner position within the social apartheid system by delegating housework and child care to poorly paid (and „obviously“ feminine) domestic servants.

Due to the systemic constraints of the labour society and its total usurpation of the individual in particular – entailing his or her unconditional surrender to the systemic logic, and mobility and obedience to the capitalist time regime – in society as a whole, the sacred bourgeois sphere of so-called private life and „holy family“ is eroded and degraded more and more. The patriarchy is not abolished, but runs wild in the unacknowledged crisis of the labour society. As the commodity-producing system gradually collapses at present, women are made responsible for survival in any respect, while the „masculine“ world indulges in the prolongation of the categories of the labour society by means of simulation.

Mankind had to horribly mutilate itself to create its identical, functional, male self, and some of it has to be redone in everybody’s childhood

Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

8. Labour is the service of humans in bondage

The identity of labour and bondman existence can be shown factually and conceptually. Only a few centuries ago, people were quite aware of the connection between labour and social constraints. In most European languages, the term „labour“ originally referred only to the activities carried out by humans in bondage, i.e. bondmen, serfs, and slaves. In Germanic speaking areas, the word described the drudgery of an orphaned child fallen into serfdom. The Latin verb „laborare“ meant „staggering under a heavy burden“ and conveyed the suffering and toil of slaves. The Romance words „travail“, „trabajo“, etc., derive from the Latin „tripalium“, a kind of yoke used for the torture and punishment of slaves and other humans in bondage. A hint of that suffering is still discernible in the German idiom „to bend under the yoke of labour“.

Thus „labour“, according to its root, is not a synonym for self-determined human activity, but refers to an unfortunate social fate. It is the activity of those who have lost their freedom. The imposition of labour on all members of society is nothing but the generalisation of a life in bondage; and the modern worship of labour is merely the quasi-religious transfiguration of the actual social conditions.

For the individuals, however, it was possible to repress the conjunction between labour and bondage successfully and to internalise the social impositions because in the developing commodity-producing system, the generalisation of labour was accompanied by its reification: Most people are no longer under the thumb of a personal master. Human interdependence transformed into a social totality of abstract domination – discernible everywhere, but proving elusive. Where everyone has become a slave, everyone is simultaneously a master, that is to say a slaver of his own person and his very own slave driver and warder. All obey the opaque system idol, the „Big Brother“ of capital valorisation, who harnessed them to the „tripalium“.

9. The bloody history of labour

The history of the modern age is the history of the enforcement of labour, which brought devastation and horror to the planet in its trail. The imposition to waste the most of one’s lifetime under abstract systemic orders was not always as internalised as today. Rather, it took several centuries of brute force and violence on a large scale to literally torture people into the unconditional service of the labour idol.

It did not start with some „innocent“ market expansion meant to increase „the wealth“ of his or her majesty’s subjects, but with the insatiable hunger for money of the absolutist apparatus of state to finance the early modern military machinery. The development of urban merchant’s and financial capital beyond traditional trade relations only accelerated through this apparatus, which brought the whole society in a bureaucratic stranglehold for the first time in history. Only this way did money became a central social motive and the abstraction of labour a central social constraint without regard to actual needs.

Most people didn’t voluntarily go over to production for anonymous markets and thereby to a general cash economy, but were forced to do so because the absolutist hunger for money led to the levy of pecuniary and ever-increasing taxes, replacing traditional payment in kind. It was not that people had to „earn money“ for themselves, but for the militarised early modern firearm-state, its logistics, and its bureaucracy. This way the absurd end-in-itself of capital valorisation and thus of labour came into the world.

Only after a short time revenue became insufficient. The absolutist bureaucrats and finance capital administrators began to forcibly and directly organise people as the material of a „social machinery“ for the transformation of labour into money. The traditional way of life and existence of the population was vandalised as this population was earmarked to be the human material for the valorisation machine put on steam. Peasants and yeomen were driven from their fields by force of arms to clear space for sheep farming, which produced the raw material for the wool manufactories. Traditional rights like free hunting, fishing, and wood gathering in the forests were abolished. When the impoverished masses then marched through the land begging and stealing, they were locked up in workhouses and manufactories and abused with labour torture machines to beat the slave consciousness of a submissive serf into them. The floating rumour that people gave up their traditional life of their own accord to join the armies of labour on account of the beguiling prospects of labour society is a downright lie.

The gradual transformation of their subjects into material for the money-generating labour idol was not enough to satisfy the absolutist monster states. They extended their claim to other continents. Europe’s inner colonisation was accompanied by outer colonisation, first in the Americas, then in parts of Africa. Here the whip masters of labour finally cast aside all scruples. In an unprecedented crusade of looting, destruction and genocide, they assaulted the newly „discovered“ worlds – the victims overseas were not even considered to be human beings. However, the cannibalistic European powers of the dawning labour society defined the subjugated foreign cultures as „savages“ and cannibals.

This provided the justification to exterminate or enslave millions of them. Slavery in the colonial plantations and raw materials „industry“ – to an extent exceeding ancient slaveholding by far, was one of the founding crimes of the commodity-producing system. Here „extermination by means of labour“ was realised on a large scale for the first time. This was the second foundation crime of the labour society. The white man, already branded by the ravages of self-discipline, could compensate for his repressed self-hatred and inferiority complex by taking it out on the „savages“. Like „the woman“, indigenous people were deemed to be primitive halflings ranking in between animals and humans. It was Immanuel Kant’s keen conjecture that baboons could talk if they only wanted and didn’t speak because they feared being dragged off to labour.

Such grotesque reasoning casts a revealing light on the Enlightenment. The repressive labour ethos of the modern age, which in its original Protestant version relied on God’s grace and since the Enlightenment on „Natural Law“, was disguised as a „civilising mission“. Civilisation in this sense means the voluntary submission to labour; and labour is male, white and „Western“. The opposite, the non-human, amorphous, and uncivilised nature, is female, coloured and „exotic“, and thus to be kept in bondage. In a word, the „universality“ of the labour society is perfectly racist by its origin. The universal abstraction of labour can always only define itself by demarcating itself from everything that can’t be squared with its own categories.

The modern bourgeoisie, who ultimately inherited absolutism, is not a descendant of the peaceful merchants who once travelled the old trading routes. Rather it was the bunch of Condottieri, early modern mercenary gangs, poorhouse overseers, penitentiary wards, the whole lot of farmers general, slave drivers and other cut-throats of this sort, who prepared the social hotbed for modern „entrepeneurship“. The bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th century had nothing to do with social emancipation. They only restructured the balance of power within the arising coercive system, separated the institutions of the labour society from the antiquated dynastic interests and pressed ahead with reification and depersonalization. It was the glorious French revolution that histrionically proclaimed compulsory labour, enacted a law on the „elimination of begging“ and arranged for new labour penitentiaries without delay.

This was the exact opposite of what was struggled for by rebellious social movements of a different character flaring up on the fringes of the bourgeois revolutions. Completely autonomous forms of resistance and disobedience existed long before, but the official historiography of the modern labour society cannot make sense of it. The producers of the old agrarian societies, who never put up with feudal rule completely, were simply not willing to come to terms with the prospect of forming the working class of a system extrinsic to their life. An uninterrupted chain of events, from the peasants‘ revolts of the 15th and 16th century, the Luddite uprisings in Britain, later on denounced as the revolt of backwards fools, to the Silesian weavers‘ rebellion in 1844, gives evidence for the embittered resistance against labour. Over the last centuries, the enforcement of the labour society and the sometimes open and sometimes latent civil war were one and the same.

The old agrarian societies were anything but heaven on earth. However, the majority experienced the enormous constraints of the dawning labour society as a change to the worse and a „time of despair“. Despite of the narrowness of their existence, people actually had something to lose. What appears to be the darkness and plague of the misrepresented Middle Ages to the erroneous awareness of the modern times is in reality the horror of the history of modern age. The working hours of a modern white-collar or factory „employee“ are longer than the annual or daily time spent on social reproduction by any pre-capitalist or non-capitalist civilisation inside or outside Europe. Such traditional production was not devoted to efficiency, but was characterised by a culture of leisure and relative „slowness“. Apart from natural disasters, those societies were able to provide for the basic material needs of their members, in fact even better than it has been the case for long periods of modern history or is the case in the horror slums of the present world crisis. Furthermore, domination couldn’t get that deep under the skin as in our thoroughly bureaucratised labour society.

This is why resistance against labour could only be smashed by military force. Even now, the ideologists of the labour society resort to cant to cover up that the civilisation of the pre-modern producers did not peacefully „evolve“ into a capitalist society, but was drowned in its own blood. The mellow labour democrats of today preferably shift the blame for all these atrocities onto the so-called „pre-democratic conditions“ of a past they have nothing to do with. They do not want to see that the terrorist history of the modern age is quite revealing as to nature of the contemporary labour society. The bureaucratic labour administration and state-run registration-mania and control freakery in industrial democracies has never been able to deny its absolutist and colonial origins. By means of ongoing reification to create an impersonal systemic context, the repressive human resource management, carried out in the name of the labour idol, has even intensified and meanwhile pervades all spheres of life. Due to today’s agony of labour, the iron bureaucratic grip can be felt as it was felt in the early days of the labour society. Labour administration turns out to be a coercive system that has always organised social apartheid and seeks in vain to banish the crisis by means of democratic state slavery. At the same time, the evil colonial spirit returns to the countries at the periphery of capitalist „wealth“, „national economies“ that are already ruined by the dozen. This time, the International Monetary Fund assumes the position of an „official receiver“ to bleed white the leftovers. After the decease of its idol, the labour society, still hoping for deliverance, falls back on the methods of its founding crimes, even though it is already beyond salvation.

The barbarian is lazy and differs from the scholar by musing apathetically, since practical culture means to busy oneself out of habit and to feel a need for occupation.

Georg W. F. Hegel, General outlines of the Philosophy of Right, 1821

Actually one begins to feel […] that this kind of labour is the best police conceivable, because it keeps a tight rein on everybody hindering effectively the evolution of sensibility, aspiration, and the desire for independence. For labour consumes nerve power to an extraordinary extent, depleting the latter as to contemplation, musing, dreaming, concern, love, hatred.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Eulogists of Labour, 1881

10. The working class movement was a movement for labour

The historical working class movement, which did not rise until long after the fall of the old social revolts, did not longer struggle against the impositions of labour but developed an over-identification with the seemingly inevitable. The movement’s focus was on workers‘ „rights“ and the amelioration of living conditions within the reference system of the labour society whose social constraints were largely internalised. Instead of radically criticising the transformation of human energy into money as an irrational end-in-itself, the workers‘ movement took the „standpoint of labour“ and understood capital valorisation as a neutral given fact.

Thus the workers‘ movement stepped into the shoes of absolutism, Protestantism and bourgeois Enlightenment. The misfortune of labour was converted into the false pride of labour, redefining the domestication the fully-fledged working class had went through for the purposes of the modern idol into a „human right“. The domesticated helots so to speak ideologically turned the tables and developed a missionary fervour to demand both the „right to work“ and a general „obligation to work“. They didn’t fight the bourgeois in their capacity as the executives of the labour society but abused them, just the other way around, in the name of labour, by calling them parasites. Without exception, all members of the society should be forcibly recruited to the „armies of labour“.

The workers‘ movement itself became the pacemaker of the capitalist labour society, enforcing the last stages of reification within the labour system’s development process and prevailing against the narrow-minded bourgeois officials of the 19th and early 20th century. It was a process quite similar to what had happened only 100 years before when the bourgeoisie stepped into the shoes of absolutism. This was only possible because the workers‘ parties and trade unions, due to their deification of labour, relied on the state machinery and its institutions of repressive labour management in an affirmative way. That’s why it never occurred to them to abolish the state-run administration of human material and simultaneously the state itself. Instead of that, they were eager to seize the systemic power by means of what they called „the march through the institutions“ (in Germany). Thereby, like the bourgeoisie had done earlier, the workers‘ movement adopted the bureaucratic tradition of labour management and storekeeping of human resources, once conjured up by absolutism.

However, the ideology of a social generalisation of labour required a reconstruction of the political sphere. The system of estates with its differentiation as to political „rights“ (e.g. class system of franchise), being in force when the labour system was just halfway carried through, had to be replaced by the general democratic equality of the finalised „labour state“. Furthermore, any unevenness in the running of the valorisation machine, especially when felt as a harmful impact by society as whole, had to be balanced by welfare state intervention. In this respect, too, it was the workers‘ movement who brought forth the paradigm. Under the name „social democracy“ it became theever largest „bourgeois action group“ in history, but got trapped in its own snare though. In a democracy anything may be subject to negotiation except for the intrinsic constraints of the labour society, which constitute the axiomatic preconditions implied. What can be on debate is confined to the modalities and the handling of those constraints. There is always only a choice between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, between pestilence and cholera, between impudence and dullness, between Kohl and Schröder.

The „democracy“ inherent in the labour society is the ever most perfidious system of domination in history – a system of self-oppression. That’s why such a democracy never organises its members free decision on how the available resources shall be utilised, but is only concerned with the constitution of the legal fabric forming the reference system for the socially segregated labour monads compelled to market themselves under the law of competition. Democracy is the exact opposite of freedom. As a consequence, the „labouring humans“ are necessarily divided into administrators and subjects of administration, employers and employees (in the true sense of the word), functional elite and human material. The inner structures of political parties, applying to labour parties in particular, are a true image of the prevailing social dynamic. Leaders and followers, celebrities and celebrators, nepotism-networks and opportunists: Those interrelated terms are producing evidence of the essence of a social structure that has nothing to do with free debate and free decision. It is a constituent part of the logic of the system that the elite itself is just a dependent functional element of the labour idol and its blind resolutions.

Ever since the Nazis seized power, any political party is a labour party and a capitalist party at the same time. In the „developing societies“ of the East and South, the labour parties mutated into parties of state terrorism to enable catch-up modernisation; in Western countries they became part of a system of „peoples‘ parties“ with exchangeable party manifestos and media representatives. Class struggle is all over because labour society’s time is up. As the labour society is passing away, „classes“ turn out to be mere functional categories of a common social fetish system. Whenever social democrats, Greens, and post-communists distinguish themselves by outlining exceptionally perfidious repression schemes, they prove to be nothing but the legitimate heirs of the workers‘ movement, which never wanted anything else but labour at all cost.

Labour has to wield the sceptre,
Serfdom shall be the idlers fate,
Labour has to rule the world as
Labour is the essence of the world.

Friedrich Stampfer, Der Arbeit Ehre (In Honour of Labour), 1903

11. The crisis of labour

For a short historical moment after the Second World War, it seemed that the labour society, based on Fordistic industries, had consolidated into a system of „eternal prosperity“ pacifying the unbearable end-in-itself by means of mass consumption and welfare state amenities. Apart from the fact that this idea was always an idea of democratic helots – meant to become reality only for a small minority of world population, it has turned out to be foolish even in the capitalist centres. With the third industrial revolution of microelectronics, the labour society reached its absolute historical barrier.

That this barrier would be reached sooner or later was logically foreseeable. From birth, the commodity-producing system suffers from a fatal contradiction in terms. On the one hand, it lives on the massive intake of human energy generated by the expenditure of pure labour power – the more the better. On the other hand, the law of operational competition enforces a permanent increase in productivity bringing about the replacement of human labour power by scientific operational industrial capital.

This contradiction in terms was in fact the underlying cause for all of the earlier crises, among them the disastrous world economic crisis of 1929-33. Due to a mechanism of compensation, it was possible to get over those crises time and again. After a certain incubation period, then based on the higher level of productivity attained, the expansion of the market to fresh groups of buyers led to an intake of more labour power in absolute numbers than was previously rationalised away. Less labour power had to be spent per product, but more goods were produced absolutely to such an extent that this reduction was overcompensated. As long as product innovations exceeded process innovations, it was possible to transform the self-contradiction of the system into an expansion process.

The striking historical example is the automobile. Due to the assembly line and other techniques of „Taylorism“ („work-study expertise“), first introduced in Henry Ford’s auto factory in Detroit, the necessary labour time per auto was reduced to a fraction. Simultaneously, the working process was enormously condensed, so that the human material was drained many times over the previous level in ratio to the same labour time interval. Above all, the car, up to then a luxury article for the upper ten thousand, could be made available to mass consumption due to the lower price.

This way the insatiable appetite of the labour idol for human energy was satisfied on a higher level despite rationalised assembly line production in the times of the second industrial revolution of „Fordism“. At the same time, the auto is a case in point for the destructive character of the highly developed mode of production and consumption in the labour society. In the interest of the mass production of cars and private car use on a huge scale, the landscape is being buried under concrete and the environment is being polluted. And people have resigned to the undeclared 3rd world war raging on the roads and routes of this world – a war claiming millions of casualties, wounded and maimed year in, year out – by just shrugging it off.

The mechanism of compensation becomes defunct in the course of the 3rd industrial revolution of microelectronics. It is true that through microelectronics many products were reduced in price and new products were created (above all in the area of the media). However, for the first time, the speed of process innovation is greater than the speed of product innovation. More labour is rationalised away than can be reabsorbed by expansion of markets. As a logical consequence of rationalisation, electronic robotics replaces human energy or new communication technology makes labour superfluous, respectively. Entire sectors and departments of construction, production, marketing, warehousing, distribution, and management vanish into thin air. For the first time, the labour idol unintentionally confines itself to permanent hunger rations, thereby bringing about its very own death.

As the democratic labour society is a mature end-in-itself system of self-referential labour power expenditure, working like a feedback circuit, it is impossible to switch over to a general reduction in working hours within its forms. On the one hand, economic administrative rationality requires that an ever-increasing number of people become permanently „jobless“ and cut off from the reproduction of their life as inherent in the system. On the other hand, the constantly decreasing number of „employees“ is suffering from overworking and is subject to an even more intense efficiency pressure. In the midst of wealth, poverty and hunger are coming home to the capitalist centres. Production plants are shut down, and large parts of arable land lie fallow. A great number of homes and public buildings are vacant, whereas the number of homeless persons is on the increase. Capitalism becomes a global minority event.

In its distress, the dying labour idol has become auto-cannibalistic. In search of remaining labour „food“, capital breaks up the boundaries of national economy and globalises by means of nomadic cut-throat competition. Entire regions of the world are cut off from the global flows of capital and commodities. In an unprecedented wave of mergers and „hostile takeovers“, global players get ready for the final battle of private entrepeneurship. The disorganised states and nations implode, their populations, driven mad by the struggle for survival, attack each other in ethnic gang wars.

The basic moral principle is the right of the person to his work. […] For me there is nothing more detestable than an idle life. None of us has a right to that. Civilisation has no room for idlers.

Henry Ford

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. […] On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value.

Karl Marx, Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy, 1857/8

12. The end of politics

Necessarily the crisis of labour entails the crisis of state and politics. In principle, the modern state owes its career to the fact that the commodity producing system is in need of an overarching authority guaranteeing the general preconditions of competition, the general legal foundations, and the preconditions for the valorisation process – inclusive of a repression apparatus in case human material defaults the systemic imperatives and becomes insubordinate. Organising the masses in the form of bourgeois democracy, the state had to increasingly take on socio-economic functions in the 20th century. Its function is not limited to the provision of social services but comprises public health, transportation, communication and postal service, as well as infrastructures of all kind. The latter state-run or state-supervised services are essential for the working of the labour society, but cannot be organised as a private enterprise valorisation process; „privatised“ public services are most often nothing but state consumption in disguise. The reason for that is that such infrastructure must be available for the society as a whole on a permanent basis and cannot follow the market cycles of supply and demand.

As the state is not a valorisation unit in its own and thus not able to transform labour into money, it has to skim off money from the actual valorisation process to finance its state functions. If the valorisation of value comes to a standstill, the coffers of state empty. The state, purported to be the social sovereign, proves to be completely dependent on the blindly raging, fetishised economy specific to the labour society. The state may pass as many bills as it wants, if the forces of production (the general powers of humanity) outgrow the system of labour, positive law, constituted and applicable only in relation to the subjects of labour, leads nowhere.

As a result of the ever-increasing mass unemployment, revenues from the taxation of earned income drain away. The social security net rips as soon as the number of „superfluous“ people constitutes a critical mass that has to be fed by the redistribution of monetary yields generated elsewhere in the capitalist system. However, with the rapid concentration process of capital in crisis, exceeding the boundaries of national economies, state revenues from the taxation of corporate profits drain away as well. The compulsions thereby exerted by transnational corporations on national economies, who are competing for foreign investment, result in tax dumping, dismantling of the welfare state, and the downgrading of environment protection standards. That is why the democratic state mutates into a mere crisis administrator.

The more the state approaches financial emergency, the more it is reduced to its repressive core. Infrastructures are cut down to proportions just meeting the requirements of transnational capital. As it was once the case in the colonies, social logistics are increasingly restricted to a few economic centres while the rest of the territory becomes wasteland. Whatever can be privatised is privatised, even if more and more people are excluded from the most essential supplies.

When the valorisation of value concentrates on only a few world market havens, a comprehensive supply system to satisfy the needs of the population as a whole does not matter any longer. Whether there is train service or postal service available is only relevant in respect to trade, industry, and financial markets. Education becomes the privilege of the globalisation winners. Intellectual, artistic, and theoretical culture is weighed against the criterion of marketability and fades away. A widening financing gap ruins public health service, giving rise to a class system of medical care. Surreptitiously and gradually at the beginning, eventually with callous candour, the law of social euthanasia is promulgated: Because you are poor and superfluous, you will have to die early.

In the fields of medicine, education, culture, and general infrastructure, knowledge, skill, techniques and methods along with the necessary equipment are available in abundance. However, pursuant to the „subject to sufficient funds“-clause – the latter objectifying the irrational law of the labour society – any of those capacities and capabilities has to be kept under lock and key, or has to be demobilised and scrapped. The same applies to the means of production in farming and industry as soon as they turn out to be „unprofitable“. Apart from the repressive labour simulation imposed on people by means of forced labour and low-wage regime along with the cutback of social security payments, the democratic state that already transformed into an apartheid system has nothing on offer for his ex-labour subjects. At a more advanced stage, the administration as such will disintegrate. The state apparatus will degenerate into a corrupt „kleptocracy“, the armed forces into Mafia-structured war gangs, and police forces into highwaymen.

No policy conceivable can stop this process or even reverse it. By its essence politics is related to social organisation in the form of state. When the foundations of the state-edifice crumble, politics and policies become baseless. Day after day, the left-wing democratic formula of the „political shaping“ (politische Gestaltung) of living conditions makes a fool of itself more and more. Apart from endless repression, the gradual elimination of civilisation, and support for the „terror of economy“, there is nothing left to „shape“. As the social end-in-itself specific to the labour society is an axiomatic presupposition of Western democracy, there is no basis for political-democratic regulation when labour is in crisis. The end of labour is the end of politics.

13. The casino-capitalist simulation of labour society

The predominant social awareness deceives itself systematically about the actual state of the labour society: Collapsing regions are excommunicated ideologically, labour market statistics are distorted unscrupulously, and forms of impoverishment are simulated away by the media. Simulation is the central feature of crisis capitalism anyway. This is also true for the economy itself.

If – at least in the countries at the heart of the Western world – it seems that capital accumulation is possible without labour employed and that money as a pure form is able to guarantee the further valorisation of value out of itself, such appearance is owing to the simulation process going on at financial markets. As a mirror image of labour simulation by means of coercive measures imposed by the labour administration authorities, a simulation of capital valorisation developed from the speculative uncoupling of the credit system and equity market from the actual economy.

Present-time labour employed is replaced by the tapping of future-time labour that will never be employed in reality – capital accumulation taking place in some fictitious future II so to speak. Monetary capital that no longer can profitably be reinvested in active assets, and is therefore unable to consume labour, has increasingly to resort to financial markets.

Even the Fordistic boom of capital valorisation in the heydays of the so-called „economic miracle“ after World War II was not entirely self-sustaining. As it was impossible to finance the basic preconditions of labour society otherwise, the state turned to deficit spending to an unprecedented extent. The credit volume raised exceeded revenue from taxation by far. This means that the state pledged its future actual revenue as a collateral security. On the one hand, this way an investment opportunity for „superfluous“ moneyed capital was created; it was lent to the state on interest. The state settled interest payment by raising fresh credit, thereby funnelling back the borrowed money into economic circulation.

On the other hand, this implies that social security expenditure and public spending on infrastructure was financed by way of credit. Hence, in terms of capitalist logic, an „artificial“ demand was created which was not covered by productive labour power expenditure. By tapping its own future, the labour society prolonged the lifetime of the Fordistic boom beyond its actual span.

This simulative element, being in operation even in times of a seemingly intact valorisation process, came up against limiting factors in line with the amount of indebtedness of the state. „Public debt crisis“ in the capitalist centres as well as in Third World countries put an end to the stimulation of economic growth by means of deficit spending and laid the foundation for the triumphant advance of neo-liberal deregulation policies. According to the liberal ideology, deregulation can only be effected in line with a sweeping reduction of the public-sector share in national product In reality costs and expenses arising from crisis management, whether it is government spending on the repression apparatus or national expenditure for the maintenance of the simulation machinery, do compensate cost saving from deregulation and the reduction of state functions. In many states, the public-sector share even expanded as a result.

However, it was not possible to simulate the further accumulation of capital by means of deficit spending any longer. Consequently, in the eighties of last century, the additional creation of fictitious capital shifted to the equity market. No longer dividend, the share in real profit, is a matter of concern; rather it is stock price gains, the speculative increase in value of the legal title up to an astronomical magnitude, which counts. The ratio of real economy to speculative price movements turned upside down. The speculative price advance no longer anticipates real economic expansion but conversely, the bull market of fictitious net profit generation simulates a real accumulation that no longer exists.

Clinically dead, the labour idol is kept breathing artificially by means of a seemingly self-induced expansion of financial markets. Industrial corporations show profits that don’t come from operating income, i.e. the production and sale of goods – a loss-making branch of business for a long time – but from the „clever“ speculation of their financial departments in stocks and currency. The revenue items shown in the budgets of public authorities are not yielded by taxation or public borrowing, but by the keen participation of fiscal administrations in the financial gambling markets. Families and one-person households whose real income from wages or salaries is dropping dramatically, keep to their spending spree habit by using stocks and prospective price gains as a collateral for consumer credits. Once again, a new form of artificial demand is created resulting in production and revenue „built upon sandy ground“.

The speculative process is a dilatory tactic to defer the global economic crisis. As the fictitious increase in the value of legal titles is only the anticipation of future labour employed (to an astronomical magnitude) that will never be employed, the lid will be taken off the objectified swindle after a certain time of incubation. The breakdown of the „emerging markets“ in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe was just a first foretaste. It is only a question of time until the financial markets of the capitalist centres in the US, the EU (European Union) and Japan will collapse.

These interrelations are completely distorted by the fetish-awareness of the labour society, inclusive of traditional left-wing and right-wing „critics of capitalism“. Fixated on the labour phantom, which was ennobled to be the transhistorical and positive precondition of human existence, they systematically confuse cause and effect. The speculative expansion of financial markets, which is the cause for the temporary deferment of crisis, is then just the other way around, detected to be the cause of the crisis. The „evil speculators“, they say more or less panic-stricken, will ruin the absolutely wonderful labour society by gambling away „good“ money of which they have more than enough just for kicks, instead of bravely investing it in marvellous „jobs“ so that a labour maniac humanity may enjoy „full employment“ self-indulgently.

It is beyond them that it is by no means speculation that brought investment in real economy to a standstill, but that such investment became unprofitable as a result of the 3rd industrial revolution. The speculative take off of share prices is just a symptom of the inner dynamics. Even according to capitalist logic, this money, seemingly circulating in ever-increasing loads, is not „good“ money any longer but rather „hot air“ inflating the speculative bubble. Any attempt to tap this bubble by means of whatsoever tax (Tobin-tax, etc.) to divert money flows to the ostensibly „correct“ and real social treadmills will most probably bring about the sudden burst of the bubble.

Instead of realising that we all become inexorably unprofitable and therefore the criterion of profitability itself, together with the immanent foundations of labour society, should be attacked as being obsolete, one indulges in demonising the „speculators“. Right-wing extremists, left-wing „subversive elements“, worthy trade unionists, Keynesian nostalgics, social theologians, TV hosts, and all the other apostles of „honest“ labour unanimously cultivate such a cheap concept of an enemy. Very few of them are aware of the fact that it is only a small step from such reasoning to the re-mobilisation of the anti-Semitic paranoia. To invoke the „creative power“ of national-blooded non-monetary capital to fight the „money-amassing“ Jewish-international monetary capital threatens to be the ultimate creed of the intellectually dissolute left; as it has always been the creed of the racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-American „job-creation-scheme“ right.

As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. […] With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis.

Karl Marx, Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy, 1857/8

14. Labour can not be redefined

After centuries of domestication, the modern human being can not even imagine a life without labour. As a social imperative, labour not only dominates the sphere of the economy in the narrow sense, but also pervades social existence as a whole, creeping into everyday life and deep under the skin of everybody. „Free time“, a prison term in its literal meaning, is spent to consume commodities in order to increase (future) sales.

Beyond the internalised duty of commodity consumption as an end-in-itself and even outside offices and factories, labour casts its shadow on the modern individual. As soon as our contemporary rises from the TV chair and becomes active, every action is transformed into an act similar to labour. The joggers replace the time clock by the stopwatch, the treadmill celebrates its post-modern rebirth in chrome-plated gyms, and holidaymakers burn up the kilometres as if they had to emulate the year’s work of a long-distance lorry driver. Even sexual intercourse is orientated towards the standards of sexology and talk show boasting.

King Midas was quite aware of meeting his doom when anything he touched turned into gold; his modern fellow sufferers, however, are far beyond this stage. The demons for work (labour) even don’t realise any longer that the particular sensual quality of any activity fades away and becomes insignificant when adjusted to the patterns of labour. On the contrary, our contemporaries quite generally only ascribe meaning, validity and social significance to an activity if they can square it with the indifference of the world of commodities. His labour’s subjects don’t know what to make of a feeling like grief; the transformation of grief into grieving-work, however, makes the emotional alien element a known quantity one is able to gossip about with people of one’s own kind. This way dreaming turns into dreaming-work, to concern oneself with a beloved one turns into relationship-work, and care for children into child raising work past caring. Whenever the modern human being insists on the seriousness of his activities, he pays homage to the idol by using the word „work“ (labour).

The imperialism of labour then is reflected not only in colloquial language. We are not only accustomed to using the term „work/labour“ inflationary, but also mix up two essentially different meanings of the word. „Labour“ no longer, as it would be correct, stands for the capitalist form of activity carried out in the end-in-itself treadmills, but became a synonym for any goal-directed human effort in general, thereby covering up its historical tracks.

This lack of conceptual clarity paves the way for the widespread „common-sense“ critique of labour society, which argues just the wrong way around by affirming the imperialism of labour in a positivist way. As if labour would not control life through and through, the labour society is accused of conceptualising „labour“ too narrowly by only validating marketable gainful employment as „true“ labour in disregard of morally decent do-it-yourself work or unpaid self-help (housework, neighbourly help, etc.). An upgrading and broadening of the concept labour shall eliminate the one-sided fixation along with the hierarchy involved.

Such thinking is not at all aimed at emancipation from the prevailing compulsions, but is only semantic patchwork. The apparent crisis of the labour society shall be resolved by manipulation of social awareness in elevating services, which are extrinsic to the capitalist sphere of production and deemed to be inferior so far, to the nobility of „true“ labour. Yet the inferiority of these services is not merely the result of a certain ideological view, but inherent in the very fabric of the commodity-producing system and cannot be abolished by means of a nice moral re-definition.

What can be regarded as „real“ wealth has to be expressed in monetary form in a society ruled by commodity production as an end-in-itself. The concept of labour determined by this structure imperialistically rubs off onto any other sphere, although only in a negative way in making clear that basically everything is subjected to its rule. So the spheres extrinsic to commodity production necessarily remain well within the shadow of the capitalist production sphere because they don’t square with economic administrative time logic even if – and strictly when – their function is vital as it is the case with respect to „female labour“ in the spheres of „sweet“ home, loving care, etc.

A moralising broadening of the labour concept instead of radical criticism not only veils the social imperialism of the commodity producing economy, but fits extremely well with the authoritarian crisis management. The call for the full recognition of „housework“ and other menial services carried out in the so-called „3rd sector“, raised since the 1970s of the last century, was focused on social benefits at the beginning. The administration in crisis, however, has turned the table and mobilises the moral impetus of such a claim straight against financial hopes in making use of the infamous „subsidiarity principle“.

Singing the praise of „honorary posts“ and „honorary citizen activity“ does not mean that citizens may poke about in the nearly empty public coffers. Rather, it is meant to cover up the state’s retreat from the field of social services, to conceal the forced labour schemes that are already under way, and to mask the mean attempt to shift the burden of crisis onto women. The public institutions retire from social commitment, appealing kindly and free of charge to „all of us“ from now on to take „private“ initiative in fighting one’s very own or other’s misery and never demand financial aid. This way the definition juggle with the still „sacred“ concept of labour, widely misunderstood as an emancipatory approach, clears the way for the abolition of wages by retention of labour on the scorched earth of the market economy. The steps taken by public institutions bear out that today social emancipation cannot be achieved by means of a re-definition of labour, but only by a conscious devaluation of the very concept.

Along with material prosperity, ordinary person-related services would increase immaterial prosperity. The well-being of the customer will improve if the „service provider“ relieves him of cumbersome chores. At the same time the well-being of the „service-provider“ will improve because the service rendered is likely to strengthen his self-esteem. The rendering of an ordinary, person-related service is better for the psyche [of the service provider] than the situation of being jobless. Report of the „Commission on future social questions of the free states of Bavaria and Saxony“, 1997

[…]Properly thou hast no other knowledge but what thou hast got by working: the rest is yet all a hypothesis.

Thomas Carlyle, Working and not Despairing, 1843

15. The crisis of opposing interests

However much the fundamental crisis of labour is repressed and made a taboo, its influence on any social conflict is undeniable. The transition from a society that was able to integrate the masses to a system of selection and apartheid though did not lead to a new round of the old class struggle between capital and labour. Rather the result was a categorical crisis of the opposing interests as inherent in the system as such. Even in the period of prosperity after World War II, the old emphasis of class struggle was on the wane. The reason for that was not that the „preordained“ revolutionary subject (i.e. the working class) had been integrated into society by means of manipulative wheelings and dealings and the bribes of a questionable prosperity. On the contrary, the emphasis faded because the logical identity of capital and labour as functional categories of a common social fetish form became evident on the stage of social development reached in the times of Fordism. The desire to sell the commodity labour power at best price, as immanent in the system, destroyed any transcendental perspective.

Up to the seventies of last century, the working class struggled for the participation of ever larger sections of the population in the venomous fruits of the labour society. Under the crisis conditions of the 3rd Industrial Revolution however, even this impetus lost momentum. Only as long as the labour society expanded, was it possible to stage the battle of opposing interests on a large scale. When the common foundation falls into ruins, it becomes more or less impossible to pursue the interests as inherent in the system by means of joint action. De-solidarity becomes a general phenomenon. Wage workers desert trade unions, senior executives desert employers‘ associations – everyone for himself, and the capitalist system-god against everybody. Individualisation, so often invoked, is nothing but another symptom of the crisis of labour society.

It is only on a micro-economic scale that interests may still be able to combine. Inasmuch as it became somewhat of a privilege to organise one’s very own life in accordance with the principles of business administration, which, by the way, makes a mockery of the idea of social emancipation, the representation of the interests of the commodity labour power degenerated into tough lobbyism of ever smaller sections of the society. Whoever is willing to accept the logic of labour has to accept the logic of apartheid as well. The various trade unions focus on ensuring that their ever smaller and very particular membership is able to sell its skin at the cost of the members of other unions. Workers and shop stewards no longer fight the executive management of their own company, but the wage earners of competing enterprises and industrial locations, no matter whether the rivals are based in the nearest neighbourhood or in the Far East. Should the question arise who is going to get the kick when the next internal company rationalisation becomes due, the colleagues next door turn into foes.

The uncompromising de-solidarity is not restricted to the internal conflicts in companies or the rivalry between various trade unions. As all the functional categories of the labour society in crisis fanatically insist on the logic immanent in the system, that is, that the well-being of humans has to be a mere by-product or side effect of capital valorisation, nowadays basically any conflict is governed by the „St. Florian-principle“. (German saying/prayer: „Holy St. Florian, please spare my home. Instead of that you may set on fire the homes in my neighbourhood“. St. Florian is the patron saint of fire protection.) All lobbyists know the rules and play the game. Any penny received by the clients of a competing faction is a loss. Any cut in social security payments to the detriment of others may improve one’s own prospect of a further period of grace. Thus the old-age pensioner becomes the natural adversary of all social security contributors, the sick person turns into the enemy of health insurance policy holders, and the hatred of „native citizens“ is unleashed on immigrants.

This way the attempt to use opposing interests inherent in the system as a leverage for social emancipation is irreversibly exhausted. The traditional left has finally reached a dead end. A rebirth of radical critique of capitalism depends on the categorical break with labour. Only if the new aim of social emancipation is set beyond labour and its derivatives (value, commodity, money, state, law as a social form, nation, democracy, etc.), a high level of solidarity becomes possible for society as a whole. Resistance against the logic of lobbyism and individualisation then could point beyond the present social formation, but only if the prevailing categories are referred to in a non-positivist way.

Until now, the left shirks the categorical break with labour society. Systemic constraints are played down to be mere ideology, the logic of the crises is considered to be due to a political project of the „ruling class“. The categorical break is replaced by „social-democratic“ and Keynesian nostalgia. The left does not strive for a new concrete universality beyond abstract labour and money form, but frantically holds on to the old form of abstract universality which they deem to be the one and only basis for the battle of opposing interests as intrinsic to the system. However, these attempts remain abstract and cannot integrate any social mass movement simply because the left dodges dealing with the preconditions and causes of the crisis of the labour society.

This is particularly true of the call for a guaranteed citizen’s income. Instead of combining concrete social action and resistance against certain measures of the apartheid regime with a general programme against labour, this demand produces a false universality of social critique, which remains abstract, intrinsic to the system, and helpless in every respect. The motive force behind the cut-throat competition described above cannot be neutralised that way. The full swing of the global labour treadmill to the end of time is ignorantly presupposed; where should the money to finance a state-guaranteed income come from, if not from the smooth running of the valorisation machine? Whoever relies on such a „social dividend“ (even this term speaks volumes) has on the quiet to bank on a winner position of his „own“ country in the global free-market economy. Only the winner of the free-market world war may be able to afford the feeding of millions of capitalistically „superfluous“ and penniless boarders for a short period; furthermore it goes without saying that the holders of foreign passports are then „naturally“ excluded.

The do-it-yourself squad of reformism is ignorant of the capitalist constitution of the money form in every respect. In the end, as it becomes apparent that both the labour subject and the commodity-consuming subject are doomed to perish, they only want to rescue the latter one. Instead of calling into question the capitalist way of life as such, they wish that despite crisis, the world is to be buried under a vast column of fuming cars, ugly concrete piles, and trashy commodities. Their main concern is that people may still be able to enjoy the one and only miserable freedom modern humans can conceive of: the freedom of choice in front of supermarket shelves.

Yet even this sad and reduced perspective is completely illusionary. Its left-wing protagonists – and theoretical illiterates – have long forgotten that capitalist commodity consumption has never been about the satisfaction of needs, but is and has always been nothing but a function and mere by-product of the valorisation process. When labour power cannot be sold any longer, even essential needs are regarded as outrageous luxury claims, which must be lowered to a minimum. That’s why, under the circumstances of crisis, a citizen’s income-scheme will suggest itself as a solution. As an instrument for the reduction of government spending, it will become the cheap version of social benefits, replacing the collapsing social insurance system. It was Milton Friedman, the brain of neo-liberalism, who originally designed the concept of a citizen’s income just for the reduction of public expenditure. A disarmed left now takes up this concept as if it is a lifeline. However, citizen’s income will become reality only as pittance – or it will never be.

It has appeared, that from the inevitable laws of our nature some human beings must suffer from want. These are the unhappy persons who, in the great lottery of life, have drawn a blank.

Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798

16. The abolition of labour

The categorical break with labour will not find any existing, objectively determinable social camp, as it was the case in respect to traditional social action as inherent in the system. It is a break with the false and misleading laws and the common-sense thinking of a „second nature“, and by no means the only repeated and quasi-automatic execution of the latter. Instead of that, the break requires a negating consciousness, refusal and rebellion without being able to rely on the backing of whatsoever „law of history“. No abstract-universal principle can provide the point of departure, but only the repulsion of one’s very own existence as a subject of labour and competition and the flat refuse of a life to rule on an ever more miserable level.

For all its predominance, labour has never succeeded in completely wiping out the disgust at the constraints brought about by this form of social mediation. Apart from all the forms of regressive fundamentalism, the competition complex at the heart of social Darwinism in particular, a potential for protest and resistance does still exist. Anxiety and uneasiness is widespread, but was repressed to the socio-psychic subconscious and thereby silenced. For this reason, it is necessary to clear space for intellectual and mental freedom to enable the thinking of the unthinkable. The labour camp’s world monopoly of interpretation must be contested. Theoretical reflection of labour can serve as a catalyst. It is the task of theory to fiercely attack the ban on thinking and to say loudly and clearly what nobody dares to think, but many people sense: the labour society is nearing its end. And there is definitely no reason to deplore its demise.

Only an explicitly formulated critique of labour along with a corresponding theoretical debate could bring about a new public awareness; the latter being the indispensable prerequisite for the constitution of a social movement that puts labour critique into practice. The interior controversies of the labour camp are exhausted and become more and more absurd. That is why there is a dire need for a re-determination of social conflict lines along which a social movement against labour can form up.

It is necessary to describe in broad outline what are the possible goals for a world beyond labour. However, it is not a canon of positivist principles that feeds the programme against labour, rather it is the power of negation. In the course of the enforcement of labour, the basic means and social relations constituting life were alienated from humans. The negation of labour society is only possible if humans re-appropriate their capacity of social existence as social beings on an even higher historical level. The opponents of labour will strive for the constitution of global associations of free individuals who are ready to wrest the means of production and existence from the labour idol’s hand and its idle running valorisation machine in order to take charge of social reproduction themselves. Only in struggling against the monopolisation of all social resources and potentials for material wealth withheld by the powers of alienation as objectified in market and state, can social realms of emancipation be conquered.

This implies that private property must be attacked in a different way. For the traditional left, private property was not the legal form intrinsic to the commodity producing system, but merely an ominous and subjective capitalist „control“ over resources. That gave rise to the absurd idea that private property could be overcome in terms of the categories of the system itself. State property („nationalisation“) seemed to be the counter model of private property. The state, however, is nothing but the outer cloak of forced community or, in other words, the abstract generality of the socially atomised commodity producers. Hence, state property is a form which itself is derived from private property, no matter whether garnished with the adjective „socialist“ or not.

In the crisis of labour society, both private property and state property become obsolete because any of them require a smoothly running valorisation process. That is the reason why tangible assets increasingly turn into dead assets. Industrial and legal institutions jealously guard them and put them under lock and key to make sure that the means of production decay rather than be made available for other purposes. A takeover of the means of production by associations of free individuals against the resistance of the state, its legal institutions, and the repressive constraints exerted by them, implies that these means of production will no longer be mobilised in the form of commodity production for the anonymous markets.

Commodity production then will be replaced by open debate, mutual agreement, and collective decision of all members of society on how resources can be used wisely. It will become possible to establish the institutional identity of producers and consumers, unheard-of and unthinkable under the dictate of the capitalist end-in-itself. Market and state, institutions (once) alienated from human society, will be replaced by a graded system of councils, from town district level to the global level, where associations of free individuals will decide about the flow of resources in letting prevail sensual, social, and ecological reason.

No longer will labour and „occupation“ as and end-in-itself govern life, but the organisation of the wise use of common (species) capacities which will no longer be subjected to the control of the automatic „invisible hand“, but will be conscious social action. The material wealth produced will be appropriated according to needs and not according to „solvency“. When labour vanishes, the abstract universality of money and state will dissolve as well. A one-world society with no need for borders will take the place of the separated nations – a world where everybody can move freely and will be able to avail himself of universal hospitality.

Critique of labour does not mean to coexist peacefully with the systemic constraints and take refuge to some social niche-resort, but is in fact a declaration of war on the prevailing order. The slogans of social emancipation only can be: Let’s take what we need! We no longer bow under the yoke of labour! We will no longer be down on our knees before the democratic crisis administration! The basic prerequisite is that the new forms of social organization (free associations, councils) are in control of all the material and social means of social reproduction. In that, our vision differs fundamentally from the limited goals of the narrow-minded lobbyists of an „allotment garden“ socialism.

The rule of labour brought about a split in human personality and mind. It separates the economic subject from the citizen, the workhorse from the party animal, abstract public life from abstract private life, socially constituted maleness from socially constituted femaleness, and it confronts the isolated individuals with their very own social species capacities and social commonality as an extrinsic foreign power dominating them. The opponents of labour are striving to overcome this schizophrenia by means of a concrete re-appropriation of the social context through conscious and self-reflecting human action.

Labour, by its very nature is unfree, unhuman, unsocial activity, determined by private property and creating private property. Hence the abolition of private property will become a reality only when it is conceived as the abolition of labour.

Karl Marx, Draft of an Article on Friedrich List’s book: Das Nationale System der Politischen Oekonomie, 1845

17. A programme on the abolishment of labour directed against the enthusiasts of labour

The opponents of labour will certainly be accused of being nothing but dreamers. History has shown that a society that is not based on the principles of labour, repression, free market competition, and egoism cannot work, they will say. Do you, apologists of the prevailing order, really want to claim that the capitalist commodity production has brought about at least a passable life for the majority of the global population? Do you call it „smooth working“ if, due to the rapid growth of the productive forces, billions of humans are ostracised and can consider themselves lucky when they can survive on waste dumps? What about those billions of other people who can only endure their harassed life under the rule of labour in isolating themselves and numbing their minds by exposing themselves to a constant stream of dreary „entertainment“ and fall mentally and physically sick in the end? What about the fact that the world is made a desert currently just to breed more money out of money? Well! That’s the way your marvellous labour system „works“. To be honest with you, we really don’t want to cover ourselves with the glory of such „exploits“!

Your conceit rests on your ignorance and the weakness of your memory. In justification of your present and future crimes, you rely on the disastrous state of the world as brought about by your earlier crimes. It slipped your mind – actually you suppressed all memory of it – that the state was obliged to commit mass murder to drum your false „law of nature“ into people until it became their second nature to consider it a privilege to be employed under the orders of the system idol who drains their life energy for the absurd end-in-itself.

It was necessary to eradicate all the institutions of social self-organisation and self-determination constituting the old agrarian societies before mankind was ripe to internalise the rule of labour and selfishness. Maybe you did a thorough job. We are not over-optimistic. We cannot know whether Pavlov’s dogs can escape from their conditioned existence. It remains to be seen whether the decline of labour will lead to a cure of labour-mania or to the end of civilisation.

You will argue that superseding private property and abolishing the social constraint of earning money will result in inactivity and that laziness will spread. So you confess that your entire „natural“ system is based on nothing but coercive force? Is this the reason why you dread laziness as a mortal sin committed against the spirit of the labour idol? Frankly, the opponents of labour are not against laziness. We will give priority to the restoration of a culture of leisure, which was once the hallmark of any society but was exterminated to enforce restless production divested of any sense and meaning. That’s why the opponents of labour will lose no time in shutting down all those branches of production which only exist to let keep running the maniac end-in-itself machinery of the commodity producing system, regardless of the consequences.

And don’t believe that we are only talking about the car industry, defence industry, and nuclear industry, that is to say, industries, which are obviously a public danger. We also think of the large number of „mental crutches“ and silly fancy-goods designed to create the illusion of a full life. Furthermore, those occupations will disappear that only came into being because the masses of products had and have to be forced through the bottleneck of money form and market relations. Or do you think we will be still in need of accountants, controllers, marketing advisers, salesmen, and advertising copywriters if things are produced according to needs and everybody can take what he or she wants? Why should there be revenue officers and police forces, welfare workers and poverty administrators when there is no private property to protect, no poverty to administer, and nobody who has to be drilled in obeying alienated systemic constraints?

We can already hear the outcry: What about all these jobs? That’s right! You are welcome to figure out what part of its lifetime humanity squanders every single day in accumulating „dead labour“, in controlling people, and in greasing the systemic machinery. Entire libraries are cram-full of volumes describing the grotesque, repressive, and destructive properties of things produced by the end-in-itself social machinery. If we would only switch it off, we could bask in the sun for hours. Don’t be afraid however. That does not mean that all activity will cease if the coercion exerted by labour were to disappear. It is the quality of human activity, though, that will change as soon as it is no longer subject to a sphere of abstract (Newtonian) time flow, divested of any meaning and a mere end-in-itself, but which can be carried out in accord with an individual and variable time scale fitting with one’s own way of life. The same applies to large-scale production when people will be able to decide themselves how to organise the procedures and sequences of operation without being subjected to the compulsions of valorisation. Why should we allow the impertinent impositions forced upon us by means of the „law of competition“ to haunt us? It is necessary to rediscover slowness and tranquillity.

What will not vanish are housekeeping and the care for people who became „invisible“ under the conditions of the labour society, basically all those activities that were separated from „political economy“ and stamped „female“. Neither the preparation of a delicious meal, nor baby care can be automated. When along with the abolition of labour the gender segregation will dissolve, these essential activities can be brought to the light of a conscious social (re-)organisation beyond gender stereotypes. The repressive character of the „chores“ will dissolve as soon as people are no longer subsumed under what essentially constitutes their life. Men and women likewise then can do those things according to the circumstances and the actual needs.

Our contention is not that every activity will turn into pure pleasure. Some of them will, some of them will not. It goes without saying that there will always be necessities. But who will be scared of that if it doesn’t consume one’s life? There will be always more that can be done of one’s own accord. Being active is as much a need as leisure. Even labour was not capable of wiping out this need, but exploited it for its own ends, thereby sucking it dry like a vampire.

The opponents of labour are neither fanatics of blind activism nor do they champion passive loafing. Leisure, dealing with necessities and voluntary activities are to be balanced wisely, taking in account actual needs and the individual circumstances of life. As soon as the productive forces are freed from the capitalist constraints of labour, disposable time for the individual will increase. Why should we spend long hours in assembly shops or offices when machines of all kind can do such „work“? Why should hundreds of human bodies get into a sweat when only a few harvesters can achieve the same result? Why should we busy our intellect with dull routine when computers can easily accomplish the objects?

Only the lesser part of technology can be adopted in its capitalist form, though. The bulk of technical units will have to be reshaped because they were constructed in accordance with the narrow-minded criterions of abstract profitability. On the other hand, for the same reason, many technological conceptions were debarred from realisation. Even though solar energy can be produced „just round the corner“, labour society banks on centralised large-scale power stations at the hazard of human life. Ecologically friendly methods of cultivation are well known long since, but the abstract profit calculation pours thousands of toxic substances into the water, ruins the fertile soil, and pollutes the air. For mere „economic-administrative“ reasons, construction components and groceries are sent round the globe although most things could be produced locally and could be delivered by short-distance freight-traffic. For the most part, capitalist technology is just as absurd and superfluous as the entailed expenditure of human energy utilised in the industrial process.

We don’t tell you anything new. You do know all these things very well. Nevertheless, you will never draw the logical consequences and will act accordingly. You refuse to decide consciously how to make use of the means of production, transportation, and communication wisely and which options should be discarded because they are destructive or simply unnecessary. The more hectically you reel off your mantra of „freedom and democracy“, the more grimly you refuse any social freedom of choice in respect of even essential matters because of your desire to keep on obeying the ruling corpse of labour and its pseudo „laws of nature“.

But that labour itself, not merely in present conditions but insofar as its purpose in general is the mere increase of wealth – that labour itself, I say, is harmful and pernicious – follows from the political economist’s line of argument, without his being aware of it.

Karl Marx, Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844

18. The struggle against labour is anti-politics

The abolition of labour is anything else but obscure utopia. In its present form, global society can not survive for more than 50 or 100 years. The fact that the opponents of labour have to deal with the clinically dead labour idol does not necessarily make their task any easier. The more the crisis of labour society is worsening and reformist attempts of „repair work“ fail, the more the gap is widening between the isolated and helpless monads as constituted by (capitalist) society and the potential formation of a movement that is ready to re-appropriate the socially constituted species capacities. The rapid degeneration of social relations all over the world proves that the old ideas and sentiments on labour and competition are unshaken, but are readjusted to ever-lower standards. Step-by-step de-civilisation seems to be the „natural“ course of the crisis despite widespread discontent and unease.

Especially because of these bleak prospects, it would be fatal to refrain from criticising labour practically by means of a comprehensive socially all-embracing programme and to confine oneself to the scraping of a bare living in the ruins of labour society. Criticism of labour will only stand a chance if it swims against the tide of de-socialisation instead of being carried away by it. The standards of civilisation, however, cannot be defended by means of democratic politics, but only by fighting against it.

Those who aim at the emancipatory re-appropriation and transformation of the entire social fabric can hardly ignore the authority that has so far organised the general conditions. It is impossible to rebel against the expropriation of the social general capacities without heading for confrontation with the state. The state is not only the custodian of about 50 percent of the national social wealth, but also guarantees that all social capacities are compulsorily subject to the dictates of valorisation. It is a truism that the opponents of labour cannot ignore state and politics. Yet it is also true that the opponents of labour can not succeed in being supportive of the state.

If the end of labour implies the end of politics, a political movement for the abolition of labour is a contradiction in terms. The opponents of labour make demands on the state, but they do not form a political party and will never do so. The whole point of politics is to seize power (i.e. to become „the administration“) and to carry on with labour society. That’s why the opponents of labour don’t want to take the control centres of power, but want to switch them off. Our policy is „anti-politics“.

State and politics of the modern age and the coercive system of labour are inseparably intertwined and have to disappear side by side. The twaddle about a renaissance of politics is just an attempt to haul back the critique of economic terror to the right road of positivist civil action. Self-organisation and self-determination, however, is the exact opposite of state and politics. Winning socio-economic and cultural freedom is not feasible in a political roundabout way, through official channels, or other wrong tracks of this sort, but in constituting a countersociety. Freedom neither means to be the human raw material of the markets, nor does it mean to be the dressage horse of state administration. Freedom means that human beings organise their social relations on their own without the intervention and mediation of an alienated apparatus.

According to this spirit, the opponents of labour want to create new forms of social movement and want to occupy bridgeheads for a reproduction of life beyond labour. It is now a question of combining a counter-social practice with the offensive refusal of labour.

May the ruling powers call us fools because we risk the break with their irrational compulsory system! We have nothing to lose but the prospect of a catastrophe that humanity is currently heading for with the executives of the prevailing order at the helm. We can win a world beyond labour.

Workers of all countries, call it a day!

Immanuel Wallerstein: Secular Stagnation, or is it worse?

This article was originally published Sep 15, 2016 in Agence Global. 


The world’s economists have been wrestling with something they have found difficult to explain. Why is it that stock market prices have continued to go up despite the fact that something called growth seems to be stagnant? In mainstream economic theory, it’s not supposed to work that way. If there’s no growth, market prices should decline, thereby stimulating growth. And when growth recovers, then market prices go up again.

Those who are faithful to this theorizing say that the anomaly is a momentary aberration. Some even deny it is true. But there are others who consider the anomaly to be an important challenge to the mainstream theorizing. They seek to revise the theorizing to take into account what many are now calling “secular stagnation.” The critics include various prominent persons, some of them Nobel Prize laureates. They include such different thinkers as Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and Stephen Roach.

While each of these persons has a different line of argument, they share some beliefs. They all believe that what the states do has a large impact on what happens. They all believe that the present situation is unhealthy for the economy as a whole and has contributed to a significant increase in the polarization of real income. They all believe that they should try to mobilize public opinion to put pressure on governmental authorities to act in specific ways. And they all believe that, even if the present unhealthy and anomalous situation may last for some time yet, there do exist appropriate state policies that will make possible a less polarized and unhealthy economy.

In short, and this is my main point here, none of the critics are ready to go further and accept the argument that the capitalist system as such has entered a phase of inevitable decline. This means that there does not exist any governmental policy that will restore capitalism’s functioning as a viable system.

Not so long ago, secular stagnation was a term used by many analysts primarily to describe the state of the Japanese economy beginning in the 1990s. But since 2008 the use of the concept has been applied to diverse areas – Eurozone members as Greece, Italy, and Ireland; oil-rich states as Russia, Venezuela, and Brazil; recently the United States as well; and potentially such previously strong economic actors as China and Germany.

One of the problems for those who seek to understand what has been happening is that different analysts use different geographies and different calendars. Some are talking of the situation state by state and some are trying to assess the situation in the world-economy as whole. Some see secular stagnation starting in 2008, others in the 1990s, still others as of the late 1960s, and a few as of even earlier.

Let me propose once again another way of viewing secular stagnation. The capitalist world-economy has existed in parts of the globe since the sixteenth century. I call this the modern world-system. It has steadily expanded geographically, finally encompassing the entire globe since the mid-nineteenth century. It has been a very successful system in terms of its guiding principle, the endless accumulation of capital. That is, seeking to accumulate capital in order to accumulate still more capital.

The modern world-system, like all systems, fluctuates. It also has mechanisms that limit the fluctuations and push the system back to equilibrium. This looks like a cycle of ups and downs. The only problem is that the downs never return to the previous low point, but rather to one somewhat higher. This is because, in the complex institutional pattern, there is resistance to going all the way down. The real shape of the cyclical rhythms is two steps up and one step down. The point of equilibrium is therefore moving. In addition to the cyclical rhythms, there are secular trends.

If one measures the abscissa of the trends, they move toward an asymptote of 100%, which of course they cannot cross. Somewhat before that point (say, about 80%), the curves begin to fluctuate wildly. This is the sign that we have moved into the structural crisis of the system. It bifurcates, meaning that there are two different, almost opposite, ways to choose the successor system(s). The only thing that is not possible is to make the present system operate in its previously normal fashion.

Whereas before that point, great efforts to transform the system resulted in little change, now the opposite is true. Every small effort to change the system has great impact. It is my argument that the modern world-system entered into this structural crisis circa 1970 and will remain in it for another 20-40 years. If we wish to assess useful action, we need to bear in mind two different temporalities, the short term (at most three years) and the middle term.

In the short term, what we can do is minimize the pain of those most negatively affected by the increasing income polarization that is occurring. Real people live in the short term and need some immediate relief. Such relief, however, will not change the system. Change can come in the middle run as those favoring one or another kind of successor system obtain sufficient strength to tilt the bifurcation in their direction.

Here is the danger of not going far enough in critical analyses of the system. Only if one sees clearly that there is no way out of persistent stagnation can one in fact become strong enough to win the moral and political struggle. One prong of the fork stands for the replacement of capitalism by another system that will be as bad or even worse, retaining the crucial features of hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization. The other prong stands for a new system that is relatively egalitarian and relatively democratic.

In the years to come, there may be upturns that seem to indicate that the system is functioning again. Even the level of employment in the system as a whole, the key measure of the state of the system, may rise. But such a rise cannot last long because the global situation is too chaotic. And the chaos paralyzes the readiness of both powerful entrepreneurs and simple persons to expend their remaining capital in ways that will risk loss and therefore their survival.

We are in for a wild ride and a very unpleasant one. If we are to behave sensibly, clarity of analysis is the first requirement, followed by moral choice, and political judgment. The bottom line is that we are way past the point in which there is any way that capitalism as a historical system can survive.