Crisis Theory in a Crisis Society

Interview with Norbert Trenkle (Krisis)

Interviewers and translators: Timo Ahonen and Markus Termonen. Originally made for the Finnish Magazine Megafoni (http://megafoni.kulma.net).

How can the postindustrialized situation be reacted to, which is represented as a phase of rupture, and in which some present solutions solely inside the current model of wage work and others support a fixed citizen’s income as the central form of social security? In other words, how can the mechanisms disintegrating solidarity and the capitalist relations of production be critized without stagnating into the defense of welfare state or taking on the form of past industrial classes? These questions and others are discussed in this interview with Norbert Trenkle from the German Krisis-collective. The group, concentrating on theoretical productivity, aims to criticize the capitalist society in a constitutive way by focusing on e.g. work, capital and commodity production. As topics in this interview we also have the current meaning of “leftism” and some questions concerning action methods.

First of all, could you give a representation of the origins, stages, productions and efforts of your group?

To begin with, Krisis refers to a socio-critical publication of the same name, which we have been publishing since 1986. The publication was originally called Marxistische Kritik, which already tells something about our “political” origin. We have developed out of Marxism, respectively neo-Marxism, in the wake of the so-called “movement of 1968,” although most of the members of the group are to young to have been part of this movement themselves. In the 1980s, when the limits of Marxism became increasingly clear, that is, its inability to formulate an adequate social critique of the state of capitalist development, we saw no reason to join the advocates of the market economy and the state. On the contrary. We saw and see the failure of Marxism because it was by no means a radical enough critique of society. On the whole it remained a bourgeois modernization theory, and contrary to its own claim, never advanced to a fundamental critique of capitalist society. Such a critique must start with the basic forms of society: commodity, value, labor, and money. It is not by chance that Marx, in his main work, Capital, begins exactly with these categories, and that he chooses them as starting points of his analysis and critique as a whole. This is because these categories constitute capitalist society.

However, except for a few rare exceptions, Marxism has never understood this. It has always focused on the secondary and derivative level of exploitation and class rule. Because of that, the decisive dimension of Marx’s theory has been left out. The first years of our development were therefore characterized by an analysis of Marxism, or better said: by a fundamental critique of Marxism. For us, it was certainly never a matter of pitting a somehow interpreted “true Marx” against Marxism. Naturally Marx must also be historically situated, that means, that he, just like any other theoretician, was in many ways limited by the perspectives of his own era. However, he laid down the foundations for a social critique which is really only becoming relevant today: the critique of capitalism as a commodity-producing, or in other words, commodity-fetishistic system. In short, this means comprehending and critiquing capitalism as a society in which social relations have become autonomous from humans, have power over them and dominate them as relations between things–that means, commodities.

Our efforts have been and are directed toward driving this critique forward, in focusing it and above all, in concretizing it in relation to the actual development of the global capitalist system. In addition, we do not limit ourselves to publishing Krisis once or twice a year, but we also organize seminars, participate in discussion events, publish articles in other periodicals and newspapers, and write books–in short: we intervene in the discourse of social critique on many levels.

An anti-wage labour proposition has a very central place in your agenda. In Marxist concepts this would mean the defense of “living labour” (a non-alienated and non-commodified labour). Which possibilities or obstacles–concerning this defense–do you see arising in the development of the new forms of labour, the so-called immaterial work (the production of information, communication and affects)? Also, what is your general criticism of the idea of a “citizen’s income”?

Our critique is not only directed toward “wage labor,” but against work as such. Therefore, for example, we published a pamphlet two years ago that we purposely gave the name Manifesto Against Work. A fundamental difference to traditional Marxism is concealed here. That is to say, Marxism has always critiqued capitalism from the position of labor. Work was regarded as a positive antithesis to capital and it was therefore also the goal of the class struggle to liberate “living labor” from capital. However, work is an inherent category of bourgeois society; it is a very specific form of activity that is characteristic of capitalism or more precisely: it constitutes the core of capitalist societalization. What does this mean? First of all, the specificness of work is due to the fact that, in capitalism, social connectivity is produced by it. Humans enter their social relations through work by producing, buying, and selling products of work, namely commodities, and by selling themselves as labor power. It therefore does not matter, what is produced or how it is produced, but rather if the dealt with commodity can be sold. Under these conditions, an abstraction of the product’s properties and production conditions takes place.

The driving force of this restless movement of production for production’s sake is the valorization of capital, that is, the abstract end in itself of making more money out of money. However, the activity form of the same movement is labor itself. Labor, like capital, is in principle indifferent to the total process. This is quite obviously expressed in the social-democratic slogan of “work, work, work.” And it becomes especially clear, when wage workers struggle for their jobs in obviously dangerous or ecologically damaging areas of production such as the nuclear or auto industry. Of course, as far as that goes, one cannot blame them, because they, like the majority of people in our society, are also dependent upon selling their labor power in order to live. But for that very same reason, it shows that work is not an antagonistic counterpart to capital, but only its other pole within the taken for granted reference system of the commodity society.

Of course, there is an inherent conflict of interest between work and capital. For the interests of the workers in getting as good as possible wages and working conditions which are somewhat tolerable and not too health-impairing is a cost factor which every enterprise would like to reduce as much as possible. However, the general tendency nowadays is to place this conflict of interests directly into the individuals themselves. That is made clear by the armadas of subcontractors, pseudo self-employed, and small entrepreneurs that represent capital and labor in one person. But also the new management concepts of a “flat hierarchy” and self-motivation–especially in the new sectors of the information, communication, and service industries–have the “entrepreneur in the enterprise” as an ideal. The same, however, also applies to the extensive sectors of misery in the “informal economy” where people are forced to do work as the smallest of entrepreneurs. Here the fundamental identity of capital and labor as social principles of coercion, which still remain in effect when humans are no longer needed from the viewpoint of valorization, becomes perfidiously visible.

That does not mean, that labor struggles are unnecessary or even wrong. However, it is necessary to make a change of perspective. It is not a matter of liberating work, but of liberation from work. That means, creating social conditions under which humans can decide freely about how, in what form, and for what purpose they want to become active. In this context, a citizen’s income is a very paradoxical demand. On the one hand, it wants to remove the coercion of having to work by liberating humans from the necessity of having to earn money at any price. But with money (which is to be available to everybody), it uncritically takes for granted the production of commodities and therefore work. Although the demand is initially positive because it even questions the ruling fetishism of work, the critique remains half-hearted and is deflected back before it reaches the fundamental problem. The citizen’s income has, by the way, practically only a chance in the central countries of the world market, but even there at the most at a poverty level and as a replacement for existing social benefits, just as was already demanded by the early neo-liberal Milton Friedman back in the 1960s.

Is it possible that the reduction of the wage work institution will bring about–at least temporarily–a reduction of basic social services and benefits (“security”), and does this open possibilities for spontaneous and mutual co-operation rather than to the disappearance of collectivity? These problems are also connected to the questions of how to encourage people to participate or move their asses in the centre of the general atomization process, and how to make use of situations of social crisis (how to create ruptures, but at the same time avoiding futile confrontations of “revolutionary vanguards” and the repression machinery).

The constant decrease of work in the core areas of production is an expression of the fundamental crisis of capitalism, which began in the 1970s when Fordism ended. The cause is the enormous increase in productivity in the course of the so-called “microelectronic revolution” that has enabled an ever larger production of commodities with an ever smaller amount of labor power. As such, this development could be quite positive because it creates an opportunity for a wealth of material production and available free time for everyone in the world. However, in capitalist society this opportunity can not be realizable, because the criterion for production is not the satisfaction of human needs, but the valorization of capital. The “microelectronic revolution” therefore leads to the paradoxical result of increasing pauperization in the middle of an enormous potential for wealth. More and more people become superfluous for capitalist valorization, have no chances of selling their labor power, and are cut off from accessing the wealth of society because they can no longer earn money in a “regular way.” At the same time, this means that the basis of capitalist valorization, which consists of the economic utilization of living labor power, increasingly shrinks. That means: The “crisis of work” is necessarily also a crisis of capital. It manifests itself in an intensification of worldwide competition, an increasing centralization of capital (corporation takeovers and mergers), and a concentration of profitable global production into ever fewer locations.

One of the results of this crisis is the dismantling of social systems which is taking place everywhere. However, I think it would be overly optimistic to say that it opens possibilities for a spontaneous cooperation. On the contrary. First of all, with this dismantling daily competition is increased and a desolidary climate is created. Of course, as a reaction to this crisis and social dismantling, different forms of self-help are simultaneously created, but as a rule they have the character of emergency measures, remain mostly group-particular, and rarely join together with a socio-critical orientation. They are therefore easily swallowed up by the neo-liberal crisis administration. It is not easy to answer the question of how to find a way out of this awkward situation. In any case, a resistance against the ever harsher unreasonable demands of the neo-liberal crisis administration is necessary. But this resistance can not only stop with a mere defense of the welfare state–which would anyway only be a perspective in the few countries of the capitalist center and then only at the expense of the rest of humanity–but must also develop into a movement which radically questions the foundations of capitalism: commodity and money, state and nation, work, and the patriarchal relations between the sexes.

Your perspective seems to avoid the old-fashioned, rigid “leftism,” but it’s still nevertheless “leftist” in this era when the social-democratic leftism has “progressed” into a “third way” neo-liberal rip-off (the situations in Finland and Germany being quite similar actually). Which current social movements are putting into practice the leftist perspective of yours? Also, is a leftist identity really useful anymore? What are the most essential claims of these movements?

When we speak of “left” and “right,” it may help to more closely examine the origin of these concepts. They are derived from the sitting order of the French National Convention in the era of the French revolution: The radical Jacobins sat on the left, the conservative powers on the right, and in this respect these concepts only describe an inner polarity of the bourgeois social order. However, during the previous two hundred years the left has understood itself a social power that wanted to transcend capitalism. But by closely examining in retrospect its political programs and practices, one sees quite clearly, that it only represented an element of historical development with whose help the commodity society was able to assert itself. I must only call to mind the nearly religious attitude towards the state and work. In the historical process the left has never played the role of a power which transcends the system. Instead, it has contributed to generalizing work and the production of commodities as social forms.

Therefore, when Tony Blair and all of the other representatives of the “New Social Democracy” claim to stand “beyond left and right,” they then reveal more, then they know: namely, the fundamental identity of both of these poles, which is presently revealing itself because its reference system, the commodity-producing society, has reached its historical limits. Of course, Blair and associates do not at all stand outside of this reference system. What they call “realism” or “pragmatism” is nothing more than the management of its crisis process in an era when the inherent antithesises of right and left have in reality become increasingly obsolete.

In comparison, a radical critique of capitalism is really directed toward a “hereafter” of the prevailing social order and could then therefore no longer be named “leftist” in a strict sense. However, it is not a matter of words. It is about a new anticapitalist orientation that surpasses and transcends the old “leftism” in an emancipatory sense. Social movements with such an orientation do not yet exist; and also, last but not least, because the traditional left still symbolically occupies the place of a system opposition, even though it can less and less fulfil the expectations of such an opposition.

The main strategy of the current anticapitalist movements has been to organize global action days (Seattle, Washington, Prague, etc.), which are, however, possibly facing their end as the action forms are starting to repeat themselves, as the interest of the mainstream media gets smaller once the surprising character vanishes, and as the neo-liberal power structure is practising its repressivity more openly (violating the civil rights of demonstrators, etc.). Which ways out do you see in this “looming cul-de-sac”–possibly the opening towards the civil society and taking the alternatives more clearly into the level of our everyday lives? On the other hand, the organization of the numerous movements is tied very closely to this difficult question….

I also see the danger that the anti-globalization protests could wear themselves out, even though the massive repression in Genoa initially contributed to both a broader awareness and a certain solidarity within the general public. But no different form of activity helps against this danger because its most important reason lies elsewhere. The danger lies in that the protests in their critique and orientation remain very diffuse and to a large extent do not have an anticapitalist character, but are directed toward some kind of illusionary “reforms” of the commodity-producing world system. This initially makes possible a broad movement, but on the other hand, it only creates a very loose, precarious solidarity which can fall apart at any time. And this will happen the sooner the socioeconomic crisis process makes itself felt more severely in the hitherto largely privileged countries of the world market. But first of all, the completely contradictory demands and interests which have hitherto been able to peacefully coexist in the movement, will come into conflict with each other. I am thinking, for example, of the contradiction between the interests of the Western unions in protectionist measures and the demands for an opening of the markets for imports from the Third World. Or also of the contradiction between the leftist-Keynesian cries for jobs and ecological requirements.

Secondly, it will also show that the demanded “reforms” of the international finance market and the appeal to the state to regulate the market more strongly is completely illusionary. And not because the political will would be lacking–a movement could certainly give a helping hand to that, if it is strong enough–but because the economic foundations no longer exist for it. Especially the illusional belief in the state is a typical example which shows that the ideological bits and pieces of the traditional left are also still around in the anti-globalization movement, even though they have long since been obsolete. For the labor movement, be it “reformist” or “revolutionary,” was always to the greatest extent fixated on the state (this is true of the mainstream labor movement). But there is no way back to the times of Keynesianism and Fordism, which by the way, were not so “golden” as the social-democratic nostalgics would have us believe. Also, there is no way forward to a new system of “regulation,” for example, on a European or global level, because the crisis of the state and politics is itself part of the all-embracing and fundamental crisis process. No solutions should therefore be expected from this side. Nevertheless, in the capitalist crisis centers the state shall for some time remain a powerful authority; not in the least because of its repressive function. Therefore social movements will naturally have to continue to come to grips with it and confront it. But that is a different matter than cultivating an illusional belief in the state.

In the anti-globalization movement, however, there is also the illusion of a “civil society.” Because this concept is so diffuse and vague, almost anything can naturally be projected into it. But it does stand for a widespread basic consensus, namely the idea of being able to control capitalism, of enriching it by elements of self-organization, and of “civilizing” it. “Civil society” concepts generally are therefore not contradictory to the illusional belief in the state, but only supplement it. It is completely overlooked that the modern commodity-producing society would still not be a benevolent system if all humans could permanently make decisions about what is to happen; for the basic logic of the system is thereby always taken for granted. Therefore, only alternatives that are compatible with this basic logic can be decided about. Every self-organization within the existing forms will thus be reduced to absurdity because they result in a self-organization of competition, “economic rationality,” and cost reduction. This is, moreover, a painful experience which all cooperatives and self-managed businesses have had to experience time and time again.

Particularly in the crisis process, a democratic or “civil-social” control reduces it self to a self-management of the increasing misery, like it can be observed in many municipalities where associations and citizen’s initiatives and so forth are allowed to participate in the distribution of ever diminishing budgets. They can then themselves decide whose money is or is not going to be cut, just like in the modern management concepts where the employees can decide how they can reach the always predetermined general goal of a maximum possible work performance and therefore permanently control themselves. That is not only especially perfidious, but also even mostly has a system-stabilizing effect because the concerned then identify themselves even more with the predetermined imperatives and coercions. They then seem to be “self-placed” and it becomes even more difficult, to question them.

I thereby do not want to say that the idea of social self-organization is wrong. On the contrary. An emancipation from the commodity-society system can only mean that the interconnection of global society can no longer be transmitted behind the backs of humans through the repressive channels of market and state, but consciously through staggered, differentiated, and non-hierarchical structures of social self-organization. But this is exactly what is not meant by the concept “civil society.” This concept gives the illusion that capitalism can be “tamed” and “civilized.” The praise of the “civil society” to a certain degree reminds me of the mystification of “the proletariat” and “the people.” The civil society appears as the embodiment of “good” against the “evil capital” and the “evil state,” although it is nevertheless only an integral part of the system itself. This does not rule out the possibility that an anti-capitalist movement can develop out of that sector of society which is commonly called the “civil society.” But this is based on the prerequisite of destroying the “civil society” illusion. In a certain way the crisis process also has its part in this. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that the promises by means of system-inherent improvements can never be redeemed (only has to think of the protection of the climate and the worldwide pauperization), but on the contrary, the standards are being increasingly lowered everywhere. It is decisive though, how these experiences are assimilated. The disappointments can turn into resignation or can be regressively assimilated into racist, anti-Semitic, and social-Darwinist patterns.

It is therefore very important to develop a discourse and carry it into the anti-globalization movement. This discourse must insist that there can only be a way out of the worldwide spiral of misery, violence, and destruction of the of the social and ecological life bases if the foundations of the commodity-producing global system are questioned. If it is possible to make this clear, the spark might ignite and the movement–or a part of it–will develop into a radical anti-capitalist movement. The potential for this certainly exists, because the displeasure with the growing unbearableness of global crisis-capitalism is widespread, even if it has hitherto mostly expressed itself in forms which are diffuse or inherent to the system.

The discussion concerning “The Black Book of Communism” has been vivid from country to country (e.g. in Finland, where it was published as a translation in autumn 2000) and one of you, Robert Kurz, has written “The Black Book of Capitalism”, evidently as a reaction to this whole mess. What do we have to learn from these discussions and what do you think has been their most central function–the legitimation of the “end of history” (as in the work of Francis Fukuyama) or a pure concern and shock about the genocides?

The Black Book of Capitalism by Robert Kurz is not a reaction to The Black of Communism, even though the title initially suggests this and naturally polemically hints at it. It has a completely different character. It depicts the bloody, grim, and repressive history of the modern commodity society and takes a particular look at the interconnection of real historical processes and ideological reflections. For example, it shows which role the Enlightenment had in the carrying out and internalization of capitalist coercions, such as the coercion of having to work.

In comparison, The Black Book of Communism is a very disgusting work, which has no other goal than legitimizing the prevailing conditions and disseminating the message that there is no alternative to capitalism. Empirically the book brings almost no new knowledge and a fundamental theoretical reflection is of course abstained from. And naturally the authors could not come upon the idea that the crimes carried out by Stalin and associates were not at all the results of a somehow failed attempt to transcend capitalism, but must be understood as a genuine expression of capitalist logic. For “real socialism” was not an alternative system to capitalism, but a specific historical form of catch-up capitalist modernization. It was the form in which the commodity-producing system in the peripheral states (that is, the lagging states of the world market) was carried through. The brutality with which this happened, is in a sense the time-compressed repetition of that what was done to humans in Western Europe and its colonies in the past four centuries. It is not at all to be relativized, but it does not speak in favor of capitalism, but clearly against it. This is an integral part of the history of capitalism, even if the authors of The Black Book of Capitalism and most of its readers naturally do not want to see this consequence. However, their horror is not really hypocritical, but it has a projective character. In the crimes of so-called communism they unconsciously recognize the mirror image of their own dark history. And that must naturally be vehemently avoided.

Your work has been “only” theoretical. Exactly what kind of function do you see for theoreticians and theory in the social movements? How can the unofficial leaderships of intellectuals and their representative positions be avoided?

Theory is a specific form of reflection, which is as particular to capitalist society as is work, politics, nation-state and such things. It is a form of reflection that is separated from daily life. This is necessary because social relations are quasi automatically produced behind the backs of the members of society, which then must in retrospect be arduously deciphered. This also and specifically applies to a socio-critical theory. It is necessary because the social logic against which it is directed is not readily apparent. But socio-critical theory thereby finds itself in a fundamental contradiction: it moves within the framework of that, which it critiques. But that is, by the way, a contradiction which not even an anti-capitalist movement on the level of practice can escape from, for no one stands outside of the existing social order, even if he or she struggles against it.

There is certainly no quick way out of this contradiction. Although socio-critical theory, in accord with its own claim, presses forward to become practical, this claim cannot be readily realized. In any case, the “unity of theory and practice,” which is often readily chanted by the left is wrong. For this always means that theory commands practice, or vice versa, theory subjugates itself to the tactical demands of a no longer reflecting practice. In the end, both sides perish, as can be observed by studying the history of the labor movement. The relationship of theory and practice can only be that of a mutual exchange. Both sides must respect each other as being independent, must mutually acknowledge each other, and must refer to each other under this condition.

What we as theoreticians can initially accomplish in this process, is the deciphering of the destructive fetishistic logic of this society and the critique thereof in this manner. By doing this and trying to concretize the critique of diverse phenomena, also on the diverse levels of society, something like a negative point of orientation develops for a possible anti-capitalist practice. Negative in the sense, in that it becomes clear what must be struggled against and transcended. But socio-critical theory must also be aware of its own limitations. It cannot and must not give instructions for such a practice or even create any future plans that must be “realized.” Above all, it must not try to postulate any principle for a postcapitalist society. For if anything at all can be said about postcapitalist society, it can be said that it will not be subjugated to an everywhere valid, abstract-universal central principle, like in the case of the prevailing society that must for better or for worse obey the dictum of valorization. Although, out of this critique, rough statements can be made about what a transcendence of the commodity society could mean, they must remain at a very abstract level and can in the end only be concretized by a social movement. It can, for example, be said that in a postcapitalist society humans will no longer and indirectly form their social relations, which take place behind their back, through the fetishistic forms of money, work, labor, and state. Above I would have described it with the expression “structures of social self-organization.”

But at the same time, from this theoretical insight it follows than an anticapitalist movement must not be orientated toward conquering the state (which is in accordance with the traditional revolutionary models). As a perspective for action, it can rather be stated: starting a process of direct appropriation of the social connections (from the means of production, existence, and communication, and through means of cultural expression up to the relations of daily life) in the course of which new forms of social agreements and understandings must be developed. What this means exactly cannot be anticipated, but must be “discovered” in a long process and through many experiences and attempts. And in this process the relation of theory and practice will naturally ultimately change according to the extent that reflection is carried as an essential part into the social performances of action.

But we have by no means reached this point, and it is not even certain, if we are ever going to reach it. Today the question arises as to what socio-critical theory can contribute so that an anticapitalist movement develops out of the protest and resistance against the prevailing conditions. A “strategy” for that does not exist. But by the intervention of social critique on the level of discourse, and by playing the own melody of the prevailing conditions back to them, as was nicely expressed by Marx, a social critique can perhaps function as a catalyst for the formation of such a movement.

Postmodern theory is a controversial topic in your work. Have the postmodern intellectuals provided any useful influences for the new social movements? It must be emphasized that postmodernity does not “happen” solely in the works of postmodern intellectuals: many of the current social phenomena–such as the rhizomatic communication networks, the rapid flow of the capitals, the socio-cultural orientation towards irony and self-reflection, the ridiculing of ideologies, the fragmentation of popular culture, etc.–are parts of our everyday lives. Therefore is it reasonable to ask if the postmodernists are in a way fighting an old enemy, because the Empire (the current global sovereignty as defined by Negri and Hardt) is able to adopt postmodern phenomena or at least to “recuperate” them?

We do in fact have a quite critical relationship to postmodern theory or in any case to most theories that can be included under this label. However, I do think that some of them have produced important socio-cultural contributions. That is especially true of the critique of identity logic and identity politics with their repressive mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, which is therewith interrelated with the analysis and critique of racism, sexism, nationalism, and all such related structures. Unfortunately, the consequence has mostly been an uncritical pluralism and relativism, which as such, is certainly compatible with capitalist logic. Moreover, uncritical pluralism and relativism in a sense correspond to the current phase of social development in which social atomization is constantly progressing, in which great flexibility and mobility is demanded, and in which capitalism is undermining institutions and identity (for example, politics and heterosexual relationships) of which it itself is dependent on, but without being able to put anything new in their place. To this situation, the often mentioned virtues of irony and ambivalence fit like a lid to its pot. They are at the very most critical up to the point (and normally not even that far) that the basic forms of society would have to be questioned. They stand for a continuation under social conditions whose absolute boundaries have been visible for a long time; this is suspected, however, but does not find a conscious expression. To that extent, one can say that the fundamental crisis of capitalism in a sense reflects itself in the postmodern theories, but without them being able to think about this, because on the level of totality, they have declared a ban on thinking.