Norbert Trenkle in a interview with Salih Selcuk for the magazine YARIN (February 2005)
1. Although culturalistic ideologies still have strong appeal (Huntington, Bin Laden, micronationalists, neo-antiSemites, etc.), the call for political-economic explanations of the present world situation becomes ever louder. Has culturalism had its day?
Unfortunately not. I don’t believe that we can sound the all clear. On the contrary: the more intolerable the living situation for the majority of the world population becomes, because capitalism has basically declared it to be superfluous, the more cultural and religious-fundamentalist ideologies can find a sounding board. For they explain the world in simple categories of good and evil, friend and enemy, right and wrong, and therefore offer false securities during a time when everything is falling apart. It is conspicuous that the upswing of these ideologies is very closely linked to the worldwide capitalist crisis. In the so-called Third World countries this upswing began in the 1970s when it became obvious that the hopes for a catch-up modernization and a certain economic and political equalization with the central capitalist countries would not be fulfilled. At this moment the hegemonic nationalist-liberation and socialist ideologies lost their attractiveness and credibility. In the West the same development began somewhat delayed when the crisis there also became more tangible and the prospects for the future became ever more bleak.
The collapse of so-called real socialism has even accelerated this development worldwide because now the ideological counterpart to liberal capitalist ideology is missing. For even if one can say that real socialism wasn’t really an alternative to capitalism, but only a certain variety of state organized catch-up modernization, certain ideological ideas of a different form of society were tied to its existence. This ideological gap has been filled by culturalism. Instead of speaking of the rivalry of different systems (that were not so different), now the “battle of cultures” is propagated at all levels and put into practice.
2. How does the Left react to that? What can it do to work against this trend?
Since the seventies and eighties part of the Left has produced numerous very important contributions to the critique and deconstruction of national, ethnic, sexual, and other seemingly substantial identities. Theorists like Foucault, Balibar, or also Hobsbawm have shown how such identities were actually fabricated in the course of establishing modern capitalist society and are therefore anything but “original” and “natural.” This is a very pivotal cognitive improvement compared to past social theory. Unfortunately the change of direction towards this cultural paradigm and towards identity and ideology critique was accompanied by a neglect of economic critique. That now takes its toll, considering that because of the advancing capitalist crisis, economic questions are again becoming the focus of attention, as you already mentioned. Here the traditional Left, which reduces capitalism to class rule and exploitation or even only imperialism, comes into play.
The awful thing is that such a reduced critique of capitalism is perfectly compatible with culturalism and nationalism, for example, when cultural or national identities are brought into play against “the USA” or “the West” under the heading of anti-imperialism. Another example is the foreshortening of the critique of capitalism to a critique of speculation and of finance markets, as is standard practice in the anti-globalization movement. That is not only factually false, because finance market speculation is only one aspect of the complete economization of all human relations under the rule of capitalism, but not its cause. In addition, this reduced critique is often accompanied by a partly subliminal and partly open anti-Semitism that identifies “the Jews” with finance capital and makes them responsible for all evil in the world.
These tendencies must be sharply criticized. The Left once stood for social emancipation. But if it mingles in this manner with culturalism and anti-Semitism, it becomes reactionary. That is where I see a clear sign that the traditional Left has reached its limits. A fundamental paradigm change in the critique of capitalism is therefore due.
3. In your opinion, what must this paradigm change consist of?
Fundamental is first of all the realization that the compulsions and impositions of capitalism cannot be attributed to the will of a ruling class or otherwise powerful groups, but are the result of its inner, dynamic system logic. This system logic has become independent of humans and appears to be a “natural law” even if it is in reality only a specific form of social organization that is historically specific and can be therefore be overcome. In capitalism humans do not enter relations with each other directly, but via the roundabout way of commodity, labor, and money. The relations of humans have therefore taken on a material form and appear to them as an apparent external power in the form of “material constraints” that they have created themselves, but which they must submit themselves to, as long as they do not overcome capitalist logic.
In this context Marx speaks of the fetishism of commodity production. With that he wants to say in modern society humans are ruled by their own social relations instead of consciously being in charge of them. What is more, he intentionally chooses a religious metaphor. For the modern humans are subject to the compulsions of commodity production, capital valorization, and labor probably even more than earlier societies were subject to their fabricated religious ideas, laws, and taboos. The capitalist human believes in the omnipotence of the market at least as much as the pope believes in the Holy Ghost. Capitalism is basically a deeply religious society even if in the paradox form of total secularization. Take, for example, the fatalism with which the compulsion toward permanent growth is accepted. Even though everyone knows that ultimately the natural resources and even also the human basis of life are destroyed, and at the same time social misery is not reduced but worsened, capitalist society submits to this compulsion as if it was god-given. And that is only example out of many.
4. What does that mean for the past leftist critique of society? Has it become obsolete? What must be overcome, what can be retained?
Well, what must be retained is the fundamental drive to overcome capitalism, and the social liberation from domination and oppression. But this perspective must be newly defined. The relevant guiding goal must be the abolition of commodity production because all the compulsions of capitalism and all forms of domination and oppression in capitalism, be it factory work, politico-military conquest or the subjugation of women, are ultimately attributed to it. The same can be said of the forms of consciousness. The fetishism of commodities is actually not an external economic phenomenon, but a comprehensive social structure that really fundamentally molds the thoughts and actions of humans in the form of nationalism, racism, and culturalism. These ideologies and forms of consciousness are an expression of a desire for identity and differentiation which was actually first produced by capitalism. For this isolates humans from each other, makes them competitors, and permanently produces new exclusions. The division of the world into nation states has actually thereby played a very important role. Even if culturalism refers to supposedly “original” values and traditions, it is a thoroughly capitalist phenomenon and not at all anti-capitalist.
But also the abstract universalism of the so-called Western values are an expression of capitalist logic and its compulsions. Western values are basically an ideological reflection of the practical universalism of commodity production, which has an inner compulsion to subjugate the whole world. In this respect Western values are only the other side of culturalism. Both inseparably belong together (like Huntington and Bush prove) and must be overcome together.
5. What could be done to overcome the fabricated culturalistic antagonisms and prevent a war. Which role could Turkey play?
At the theoretical level it is important to see the inner connection between the twin pairs of culturalism and Western values with the general structure of commodity-producing society and to critique the identity fabrication. On a practical level there is the worldwide basic task of opposing any ethnization of social, economic, and political conflicts. In practice that naturally means something different in each country and region. In Germany, for example, that means fighting racism, which is directed toward immigrants, especially toward Turkish immigrants and Muslims. I know too little about Turkey, but in general it can be said that it is important to oppose the increasing ethnic and fundamental tendencies because they are purely and simply anti-emancipatory. One thing should certainly be clear: an overcoming of capitalism requires a social liberation movement that must be transnationally orientated from the start, a movement therefore, which in solidarity disregards all the boundaries defined by capitalism.