Why Capitalism Forces Us to Do Without and Why We Could Work Less
By Lothar Galow-Bergemann and Ernst Lohoff
Excerpt from a text in the book Shutdown. Klima, Corona und der notwendige Ausstieg aus dem Kapitalismus ISBN 978-3-89771-292-8, Unrast Verlag, 14,00 €
The world as we know it is disintegrating at a rapid pace. For years, the word crisis has taken on a life of its own – regardless of whether it is a matter of climate, finance, economics, social systems, democracy, migration, or international relations. In the critical social sciences, people talk of an age of “multiple crises” (Brandt/Wissen 2017). With the spread of the corona virus, this general crisis has come to a head at a speed and scale that hardly anyone could have previously imagined.
The corona and climate crises demonstrate how ‘our economy’ is failing to meet the existential challenges of the time. Eternal growth, maximum profit, and rising share prices are the lifeblood of the economy. Without them, it immediately begins to crumble. The climate crisis reveals that growth programmed for infinity will amount to the destruction of the planet in the medium rather than the long term. The challenge posed by the corona pandemic, on the other hand, has abruptly demonstrated that such an economy can produce mountains of corpses in a very short time1 if it is not subjected to massive intervention. At first, many countries tried to rein in the market economy to varying degrees and, on the whole, not very successfully. Incidentally, in doing so, they did a remarkable job, in the blink of an eye, of reducing to absurdity much of what had previously been considered irrevocable and sacred – from the “debt brake” to faith in the supposedly beneficial effects of the market itself. For a brief moment, it became clear that acting against the economic logic of capital is not only possible, but also necessary for survival. This is an important experience that should be sustained, because it is highly valuable for any emancipatory movement.
But it did not take long for the brutal constraints of capital exploitation to gain more and more ground against the lukewarm health policy measures. Just a few days into a shutdown that was only half-hearted from the start, voices that wanted to start up the economy again, come hell or high water, grew louder and louder. In Germany, Alexander Dibelius, an investment banker and doctor (!) who defended the murderous consequences of economic logic with shameless candor, set the tone, asking “Is it fair that ten percent of the – really threatened – population should be protected, while the vast majority and the entire national economy are extremely handicapped, with the possibly dramatic consequence that the basis of our general prosperity will be massively and lastingly eroded?” (Handelsblatt, March 23, 2020).
Consequently, he downplayed the threat of a pandemic, which is causing extremely serious health damage and many fatalities around the world, as “a wave of influenza,” which is “not as fatal for mankind as the plague in the Middle Ages or similar epidemics” (ibid.). This investment banker’s way of thinking, which gave the doctor in him no chance, soon set the tone. A whole chorus of exit pushers from business and politics soon sang the same tune. It became all the more popular due to the fact that it quickly proved enormously adaptable to the “third position” or Querfront of united political insanity, as soon became manifest in the so-called corona demonstrations. “Better people die than the economy collapses” was the message that was expressed sometimes more, sometimes less openly. In principle, this is what it always came down to, regardless of whether it was a cynical US president categorically ruling out a further lockdown in the event of a second pandemic wave (zdf.de, May 22, 2020) – even as the number of officially registered corona deaths in his country was approaching the 100,000 mark – or a German parliamentary president mumbling pseudo-philosophy and saying that one could not “subordinate everything to the protection of life” (Der Tagesspiegel, April 26, 2020) and a southern German mayor saying that, in any case, it was only about “people who would be dead in half a year anyway” (Der Tagesspiegel, April 28, 2020). Where ethics has to follow economics, sooner or later all dams of humanity break.
In Germany, too, state measures have been inconsistent and contradictory from the start. Even at the time of the relatively strongest restrictions, 60 percent of all employees had to continue working on-site (Welt online, April 2, 2020) and were allowed to spread the virus for the benefit of the economy. In Germany, the people who died from corona would have had an average of nine years left to live (tagesschau.de, May 8, 2020). Not to mention all the people in the Global South whose infection was neither detected nor treated and who died from it without the world taking much notice. Poverty and hunger increased worldwide. For many people, the choice between plague and cholera came down to this: “we would rather die of the virus than starve to death” (Der Tagesspiegel, June 4, 2020). An economy that proved extremely susceptible to disruption and crisis in the face of a pandemic stole and continues to steal the lives and health of many people worldwide.
But all this marked only the beginning of the dislocations. Almost all economists expected a severe global economic crisis in the wake of the corona crisis. Last spring, chief commentator for Die Welt Jaques Schuster wrote that it was not yet clear “whether the consequences of the pandemic … will only plunge Europe into a severe recession or into a deep depression with national bankruptcies and the return of the horde as a political entity, as we know it from the interwar period” (Die Welt, May 23, 2020).
Today, even capitalism’s most notorious fans don’t deny its colossal crisis potential. States and central banks had absolutely no choice but to generate trillions in bailout packages around the globe in the blink of an eye, far eclipsing anything that had been seen before in ‘money creation’ – even in the financial crisis of 2008/2009 and the years that followed. ‘Solid’ coverage of government spending programs became more distant than ever. As early as spring, for example, the European Commission said that it would not pay off the bonds it had to borrow on the financial markets for this purpose until 2058 (FAZ, May 27, 2020). The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is already planning for the year 2070 (Der Tagesspiegel, March 25, 2020). Mind you, this is not a matter of the mountains of debt that had previously accumulated, but rather only those that have now been saddled on top of that. Do the players themselves still believe that the exploding national debt can be repaid? Probably not. Especially since, as sure as night follows day, further serious crises will follow in the next few decades, which will of course make gigantic government rescue packages necessary once again.
Capitalism confronted with the corona virus punishes people threefold: first, with far greater damage to life and health than would be caused by a new epidemic in a reasonably structured economy; second, with declining living standards for many – even to the point of increased poverty and hunger; and third, with the prospect of a future of even more economic and political crises. It doesn’t take any great expertise to see what would happen under capitalist rule if the virus were to prove to be particularly persistent and mutative or if no vaccine was found for a long time. One does not even want to think about the occurrence of a completely new pandemic, which could possibly have a significantly higher mortality rate than COVID-19. When an economic system staggers so badly in the face of a challenge that could recur at any time, literally ruining many people with it, turning away from it proves to be a matter of bare survival.
Compared to the life-threatening potential of the climate crisis, however, the corona pandemic still looks rather modest. Global warming is leading to a dystopian future of rising sea levels, floods, heavy rains, droughts, heat records, and storms in increasingly rapid succession. All the assurances that this process can be fought with ‘market-based tools’ are about as convincing as trying to put out a burning house with gasoline. The sustainability discourse is not as new as it still seems to some. In fact, it is quite old hat. Internationally, it has been going on at least since the Club of Rome’s report on the limits to growth in 1972 (Dennis Meadows, et al.). The fact that we find ourselves on the road to a climate catastrophe half a century later, despite countless conferences, resolutions, and declarations on sustainability, points to the fundamental ecological incompetence of the capitalist economic system. Finally, when the president of the European Commission, while announcing her ‘climate package’ 47 years after 1972, declared that climate protection must become, of all things, the engine of growth (Deutschlandfunk, 30.11.2019), this says everything about the prospects for the global climate under capitalist conditions.
Even if a miracle were to happen and, despite economic growth, CO2 emissions were to decline decisively thanks to the accelerated expansion of wind power and solar energy and the transition to electromobility, little would be gained. That’s because the climate crisis is only one aspect of a comprehensive resource and biosphere crisis and as long as the growth imperative remains untouched, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will only ever be bought with intensified over-exploitation of other, non-fossil natural resources.2
The lockdown in spring 2020 demonstrated in its own way that the growth imperative must be eliminated if the process of global warming is to be brought under control. No sooner had the growth engine been throttled due to the pandemic than significant positive ecological effects suddenly became apparent. This applied, for example, to air and water quality. Satellite images from NASA showed a significant decrease in nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions (Wissenschaft.de, March 19, 2020). What politicians have been unable to accomplish for decades, the fight against the virus accomplished in no time at all. To the extent that the lockdown ended, of course, all these positive phenomena immediately came to an end again.
The short-term ecological collateral benefit of the lockdown convincingly demonstrated that the reconciliation of economy and ecology cannot be achieved without freeing wealth production from the compulsion to grow. But wealth production, in turn, cannot be liberated from the growth constraint without a redefinition of what social wealth is supposed to be in the first place. For if we say that someone is rich and, in saying so, mean that he possesses a lot of money or capital, we merely reproduce a very specific concept of wealth – the capitalist one. But what people really need to live is material wealth such as food, clothing, housing, education, knowledge, health, culture, and so on. The fact that, for example, supplying a society with food today depends on, among other things, the chemical and automobile industries remaining ‘profitable’ – because only then can there be ‘jobs’ and ‘purchasing power’ – has no material justification whatsoever, but is due solely to the abstract production of wealth under capitalism.3 The transition to a new concept of wealth begins in the head, although a change of the concept of wealth is, admittedly, not enough. For social relations to take on sensual reason, it is essential to strip social wealth of its capitalist form. Society must move from producing commodities to producing simple goods. We need production which, unlike the production of commodities, serves no other purpose than that of satisfying human needs. The dissolution of society into separate private producers and the domination of abstract wealth, which must be represented in money, must be overcome.
This perspective seems strange at first. That is not least because, as a social goal, it propagates a state of affairs which, according to the prevailing doctrine, has always existed. If one follows the official reading, the production of goods and commodities are fundamentally one and the same and the sensual needs of people are the alpha and omega of all economic activity, even in capitalist society. According to the Duden dictionary, which adheres to the definitions in the economics textbooks, an economic good is a “good that serves to satisfy human needs” and the word economy supposedly refers to the “totality of institutions and measures that relate to the production and consumption of economic goods.”4 From this perspective, the fact that wealth is measured and represented in monetary terms appears to be a purely technical matter.
Karl Marx, in his 19th century Critique of Political Economy, explained why this understanding is misleading and to what extent commodity market goods are part of social wealth. It is not because of their use value that skirts, canvas, cars, and the like embody social wealth. They only do so insofar as they represent exchange value and thus abstract wealth. Its permanent increase, the self-purposeful process of transforming money into more money, forms the actual content of all economics in the commodity-producing society.
If proof were needed that the official doctrine does not do justice to capitalist reality, the corona pandemic provides it in the form of the incalculable economic costs and burdens of the shutdown. Let us place ourselves for a moment in a society in which the production of wealth really had no other content than to provide for people and in which exchange value and abstract wealth would play no role. If such a society were forced to undergo a pandemic shutdown of the kind that occurred in the spring of 2020, the consequences would be extremely limited. As is well known, a virus such as Sars-CoV-2 does not reduce houses to rubble, it does not disable computers, nor does it destroy machinery or damage infrastructure. Even in the economic sectors directly affected by the shutdown, the material wealth that already exists remains completely unaffected. If a restaurant has to close for a few weeks, the kitchen remains cold and the dining room empty, but neither the buildings nor the furnishings are damaged. And as far as the cook and waiters are concerned, the enforced break does not mean any loss of expertise. From a purely material point of view, Sars-CoV-2 can only result in losses of prosperity in two respects: first, to protect life, society must mobilize more human and material resources for the medical sector than usual – resources that are then no longer available for other uses; second, the sectors of the economy affected by restrictions provide fewer new goods and services than they would without them. This is, of course, only a temporary phenomenon for the duration of the restrictions.
As for the loss of material wealth, there have, of course, been numerous events in history far more drastic than the corona pandemic. The worst of the 20th century was World War II. Since capitalist society mercilessly translates everything into monetary terms,5 the lives lost, destruction wrought by war, and productive potential wasted on war purposes also, perversely, add up to a monetary sum. According to common estimates by historians, World War II cost the United States, the country with by far the largest wartime economy, $4 trillion, or just under €3.4 trillion in today’s terms.6 This scale is highly revealing in that it provides a standard for comparing the costs of the corona pandemic. Of course, it is not yet possible to predict how high these will ultimately turn out to be. That depends not least of all on the further course of the pandemic. According to estimates from Deutsche Bank, however, the measures in spring 2020 alone could cost the German state up to 1.9 trillion euros, roughly as much as the entire process of reunification.7 Added to this are the European Central Bank’s emergency bond-buying programs. As early as March, the Frankfurt-based monetary guardians launched the PEPP (Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme) in the amount of €750 billion, which was already increased to €1.35 trillion in June.8 Compared to the devastation caused by the Second World War, the losses of material wealth in the wake of the corona pandemic are likely to be measured in tenths of a percent. The total economic costs, on the other hand, are of a similar order of magnitude. If bourgeois economics were to take its own basic assumptions seriously, it would have to throw its own discipline into the dustbin, given this discrepancy. If money, as is always claimed, were really only a technical means for mediating goods and monetary flows a way for mediating people’s preferred ways of meet their needs – a mere reflection of material flows – then the immense economic costs that all economic experts see could not exist at all.
If, on the other hand, we follow Marx’s lead and take the formation of abstract wealth and its permanent multiplication as the actual content of the economic activity in commodity society, then it is no longer puzzling why the capitalist economy reacts so hypersensitively to the shutdown. Machines can be turned on and off without harm. Humans even require time off in order to able to continue working. By contrast, the social relationship of capital – that is, the self-interested process of transforming money into more money – simply cannot take a break to pick up where it left off a few weeks later. Any standstill, even a mere slowdown of the capital cycle, already represents capital destruction and is therefore fatal for ‘our economy’.
As far as individual companies are concerned, this connection jumps immediately to mind. During the shutdown, most operating expenses have continued while revenues have collapsed. This means a shrinking of the capital stock and, accordingly, a restart will require either sufficient reserves or financing through new loans. But that’s not all. In addition to commodities for the goods market, the world of abstract wealth includes another division, namely goods traded on the capital markets, such as stocks and bonds. This part of abstract wealth is formed by the upfront transformation of expected returns into additional social capital (see Lohoff/Trenkle 2012 as well as Lohoff 2014). Because of its peculiar formation, this fictitious capital (Marx) reacts particularly sensitively to a shutdown. When profit expectations vanish into thin air and companies slide into the red, the price of their shares does not fare well and the bonds of such companies can also become distressed. There is a threat of mass “devaluation” of fictitious capital (see Lohoff/Trenkle 2012). Central banks’ excessive monetary policy is aimed exclusively at banishing this danger, while governments primarily create substitutes for devalued functioning capital with their credit-financed programs.
The domination of abstract wealth – the orientation of the economy toward the self-interested multiplication of money into more money – makes the economy vulnerable to crisis. This peculiarity is again increased significantly by the dependence of today’s capitalism on financial market dynamics. However, the absurd form of wealth called abstract wealth becomes a problem not only with the staccato of crises of the present era. From the point of view of sensual reason and human needs, even the ‘normal state’ of capitalism is a scandal. We have always paid for our obedience to the dictatorship of abstract wealth by losing a lot of time and quality of life. Nonetheless, we only become aware of this when we have seen through the historical peculiarity of this form of wealth and understand that it is neither God’s will nor natural law and, consequently, we can also get rid of it. And not only that: we will in fact have to do so under penalty of our own downfall.
What do we actually have to work for in these so-called ‘normal’ times? How much time in the lives of millions of people must be spent doing things that have nothing at all to do with supplying necessary consumer goods, but rather only with the maintenance of the commodity-social order? We need only think of the financial industry, the banks and insurance companies, generally the entire monetary system. How many human and natural resources are squandered on taxation, trade, and advertising? How much on labor administration, justice, police, prisons, armaments, and the military? How many people work overtime without end, suffer heart attacks and burnout, wear themselves out amid the brutal competition – just so that ‘their’ company can produce more superfluous and harmful cars than the ‘competitors,’ who have to vie for the market’s favor in the same way? And there, where it should be about the things that are really necessary – be it food, health care, or education – how much working time is spent just to make sure that these areas can be at least halfway ‘financed’? How many ships and airplanes are built for the sole reason that the abstract production of wealth demands the eternal race for the ‘cheapest offer,’ even if it is 10,000 km away? How much energy and how many resources, how much human power and skill do they consume as they permanently circumnavigate the globe in ever increasing numbers and ever tighter cycles? How much material transport and how many human trips, how many computers, how many office buildings and production facilities serve the sole purpose of driving the production of fast-moving, superfluous, and environmentally harmful things to ever new heights because it pays off economically – with the consequence that there will logically be even more of these material transports, journeys, computers, office buildings, and production facilities afterwards? How many people are involved in the production, trade, and promotion of products that break down within a short period of time and have to be replaced by new, similar ones (Valdivia 2004)?
Radical reduction of working hours is possible, but not under capitalism …
… continue in the book Shutdown. Klima, Corona und der notwendige Ausstieg aus dem Kapitalismus. Order at Unrast-Verlag.
1 In March 2020, for example, a nighttime convoy of military vehicles in Bergamo, Italy, removed the bodies of Corona victims because the cemetery there was overcrowded (Der Tagesspiegel, March 19, 2020); in New York City, bodies were stacked in refrigerated trucks due to a lack of capacity to bury them all (Der Tagesspiegel, May 1, 2020); and in Ecuador, bodies were simply left lying on streets and in homes (Frankfurter Rundschau, April 15, 2020).
2 ‘Qualitative growth’ is a pipe dream that confuses the shift from consumption of natural resources to consumption of new resources with its reduction. See the article “Wie Sand am Meer” by Ernst Lohoff in this volume.
3 On the concept of abstract wealth and the question of its abolition, see also the text “Verdrängte Kosten” by Norbert Trenkle in this volume.
5 One cannot translate the colorful variety of qualitatively different consumer goods into a monetary quantity without abstracting from their material side and treating them as abstract wealth. Bourgeois economics does not have a concept of abstract wealth, but it always de facto treats material wealth as a representation of abstract wealth.