This special double issue of Mediations is the third in the ongoing series of dossiers devoted to the publication of important works of Marxist theory from national, regional, and historical zones and times neglected by our own de facto Western Marxist and largely metropolitan theoretical canon. Previous dossier issues of Mediations focused on contemporary Marxist theory from Brazil (23.1, Fall 2007) and then on a range of Marxist work both from and pertaining to South Africa (24.1, Fall 2008). This dossier is the first broadly representative collection in English translation of work from the contemporary German-language school of Marxian critical theory known as Wertkritik, or, as we have opted to translate the term, value-critique or the critique of value.1 It is available for free download as a PDF at the website and can be purchased in print form. The critique of value is understood in these pages as having begun with Marx, who initiated a theoretical project that was as philosophically radical as its implications were revolutionary; an incomplete project that has been taken up only fitfully by Marxism after Marx.2 In Marx’s critique of political economy, value itself and other fundamental categories attendant on it are shown to be concepts both fundamental to the functioning of capitalism and fundamentally incoherent, riddled with contradictions as pure concepts and productive of crisis as actually existing concepts operative in the day-to-day reproduction of social life under capital. While this “esoteric” Marxian critique has been rediscovered from time to time by post-Marxists who know they’ve found something interesting but don’t quite know which end is the handle, Anglophone Marxism, for reasons that will become clear in the course of this dossier, has tended to bury this esoteric critique beneath a more redistributionist understanding of Marx, imagining that there could be a positive Marxist science of the economy, a science that would be oriented toward devolving surplus-value to the labor that creates it.3 But what if the value-relation does not constitute itself in contradiction to labor, but rather encompasses labor as precisely another of its forms of appearance — if labor is, to paraphrase and echo what is perhaps Norbert Trenkle’s most direct challenge to “traditional Marxism,” itself always already a “real abstraction” no less than the commodity form? What then are, for a critical thought still faithful to Marx, the implied forms of revolutionary practice and agency?
The introductory remarks that follow are intended principally for readers with little to no previous knowledge of Wertkritik. The nearly universal absence of English translations that has prevailed up until now — over a period of nearly three decades, in effect an entire generation — has resulted in a virtually total absence of Wertkritik from Anglophone critical theory — even as one of those spaces marked “terra incognita” on the maps drawn up by the conquerors and colonizers of the first phases of the capitalist world-system. Given this absence, the need for a minimum of historical and bibliographical information can hardly be more urgent — even as the context would itself demand to be contextualized, ad infinitum. The bulk of this introduction will consist of a series of interpretive summaries of the thirteen texts selected for translation and conforming to a loosely thematic sequence.4 These summaries, making up the most practical segment of the introduction, are intended only to orient the reader toward the esays themselves. The best introduction to Wertkritik as a theoretical orientation is the essay that begins this collection, Norbert Trenkle’s “Value and Crisis: Basic Questions.” There the reader will find a concise presentation of the “what and why” of value-critique (originally presented as a lecture for this purpose in 1998) that would render an elaborate summary of fundamental tenets here superfluous.
Although its precise origins in the West Germany of the 1970s and 1980s remain a matter of some dispute, Wertkritik’s emergence as a well defined and systematic direction within German-speaking Marxian critical theory is made clear by the sheer mass, range, and depth of the Wertkritik archive, which consists of thousands of pages distributed across publications ranging from short newspaper columns to lengthy journal articles to monographs. Yet it may come as surprise to Anglophone readers to learn that Wertkritik in this systematic sense designates in practice the accumulated work of probably no more than thirty or forty individuals making up two presently non-cooperating theory-oriented collectives, the central core of whose members have for years lived and worked in and around the northern Bavarian city of Nuremberg and whose main activity has been to produce two roughly annual journals — Krisis and Exit! — with Streifzüge, a Vienna-based, loosely Krisis-allied, more pamphletary publication, making up a third venue.5
A smaller number of individuals closely involved in the production of one or the other of these periodical organs have published book-length works as well, most notably and prolifically in the case of Wertkritik’s most prominent author and foundational thinker, the late Robert Kurz. Until his untimely death in July 2012, Kurz wrote voluminously, publishing theoretical essays regularly in Krisis and then, after 2004, in Exit!; contributed regular, short newspaper columns in the left-wing German press (and a monthly column for the Folha de São Paulo, the major Brazilian daily); and authored a number of book-length works as remarkable for their uncompromising but innovative theoretical tenor as they are for their relentlessly polemical militancy. Probably the best known of these is Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus, Kurz’s Black Book of Capitalism, a massive and truly paradigm-shattering reconstruction, from its beginnings to its present-day crisis, of the history of the capitalist mode of production.6 Meanwhile, other, somewhat younger value-critical theorists, most notably Exit!’s Roswitha Scholz and Krisis editors and stalwarts Norbert Trenkle and Ernst Lohoff, have published a stream of profoundly original book-length works.7
Those who imagine themselves at the vanguard of critical theory, Marxist and otherwise, within the privileged zone of today’s unquestioned, convertible currency of a lingua franca, often share an unspoken article of faith according to which one can trust that someone, somewhere will see to it that translations of anything of vital significance will sooner or later find their way into theoretical circulation. When one considers that few of the value-critical theorists publishing in Krisis, Exit!, or Streifzüge are employed as academics, it might appear understandable that the still predominantly university-based audience for contemporary shifts and discoveries in Marxist critical theory would take little notice even of an undertaking as enormous and electrifying as Kurz’s Black Book of Capitalism — despite the rumors that German investment bankers and chief executives are worried enough to have been among the more loyal, if clandestine, readers of Kurz’s journalistic columns. Is the absence of Wertkritik from Anglophone discourse an exceptional, even scandalous state of affairs? Or is such absence rather inevitably the case whenever something genuinely new or simply chronically excluded from the awareness of any cosmopolitan stratum of intellectuals is “discovered”? The editors of this dossier do not pretend to any superiority of judgment. We have, nevertheless, undertaken the work of preparing this dossier in the conviction that the contribution of Wertkritik to Marxist and critical theory generally is of such importance that its absence from contemporary Anglophone debates strikes us as remarkable and possibly symptomatic: a perhaps inadvertently enforced exclusion from a theoretical-critical field of vision, and the removal of what it excludes to a location at which what has for unknown reasons failed to become present for theoretical and critical awareness is presupposed as, by virtue of its contingent absence, necessarily absent, even excluded a priori from such theoretical and critical awareness. There are, of course, important exceptions.8 But English-speaking Marxists have tended to acknowledge the existence of the esoteric Marx as it were only on Sundays, quite as if the inner dynamic of the value form and an understanding of the historical unfolding of events down to the present moment had nothing to do with one another. And perhaps that fact, as much as the hitherto extremely sketchy dissemination of the crisis theories linked to German-language critiques of political economy, from Henryk Grossman, Paul Mattick, and Alfred Sohn-Rethel, via the origins of the neue Marx-Lektüre in Adorno’s classroom in the 1960s, up to and including both the contemporary manifestation of the new reading of Marx and present-day value-critique, explains why the latter has remained mostly unknown ground for Anglophones.9
The difficulty of finding value-critical material in English serves as an exacerbated model for the rest of the non-German-speaking world.10 English-language translations of the occasional short article by Robert Kurz or Anselm Jappe (as often as not thanks to the opportune discovery of Portuguese, Spanish or French translations from the original German) have cropped up now and then on the blogosphere or, if one knew enough to look, in citation indices. And (thanks to the tireless efforts of Joe Keady) a more consistent stream of English renderings of, for the most part, excerpts from the works of Trenkle and Lohoff now appear on the new, online-formatted Krisis. But true to a longstanding intellectual import pattern in the English-speaking world, French remains the quasi-official foreign language of new radical theory — with Italian now sharing the domestic market for exotic wares. Interestingly, the single most important exception to this linguistically imposed localism has been, since the mid-1990s, the still comparatively small but energetic and sustained study of Wertkritik that can be found in and radiating out from the University of São Paulo, thanks ultimately to the efforts of Roberto Schwarz, one of Brazil’s foremost Marxist literary, cultural, and social theorists, whose influential review of the Portuguese translation of Kurz’s Der Kollaps der Modernisierung (The Collapse of Modernization) sparked the intense Brazilian interest in value-critique.11 There followed the inauguration of Kurz’s column for the Folha de São Paulo. With this, shorter writings by Kurz and other well-known value-critical theorists and authors began to appear in Portuguese translation as well. This then made possible the at first spontaneous, now organized publication of translations of the periodical literature of value-critique on websites (including Portugal’s , on which virtually everything published in issues of Exit! appears practically overnight in highly competent Portuguese translation) that are the work of independent radical theory circles, one of which formed in the city of Recife, a relatively peripheral city in the far Northeast but one with an august radical tradition. So much for the notion that theoretical vanguards travel first from metropolis to metropolis!
The phenomenon of so-called “anti-German” communism requires some careful mention here. With its origins in the critical Marxist currents that rejected the Leninism and Mao-Stalinism of the fragmented cadre-organizations and groupuscules known as the K-Gruppen (so called because the first initial of most of their organizational abbreviations was K for kommunistisch) in the late 1970s and 1980s, the “anti-German” German trajectory can be credited with having played an important role in the rediscovery of a range of non-orthodox Marxist traditions, including the first generation of the Frankfurt School (Adorno in particular), the council communists, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, and Hans-Jürgen Krahl. Influenced by their rediscovery of the anti-nationalism of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (and later that of the left-communists), anti-German communists controversially turned away from the reflexive support for movements of national liberation that was near-compulsory among the West-German radical left of the 1970s.12
This anti-national orientation entailed a complex relationship to the nationalist anti-Zionism that since at least 1967 had been the default position on the Left in both East and West. This stemmed in part from critical reflection on the latent anti-semitism that sometimes hides behind criticism of Israel, not the only state with a record of violent and criminal discrimination. But it also went hand in hand with a new understanding, strongly influenced by Moishe Postone’s “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism,” of eliminationist anti-semitism.13 The rethinking of the politics of anti-semitism and anti-Zionism that took place in the German-speaking radical left during the course of the 1990s was closely related to the kinds of attempts, carried on and further developed by Wertkritik in ways visible in some of the essays collected in this dossier, to understand, to analyze, and above all to criticize the capital relation. In particular the “anti-German” tendency led, among other things, to the rejection of two kinds of position that are still popular among large parts of the self-styled radical left. The first is the criticism of the role played by finance capital with respect to the so-called real economy of industrial capital. This criticism, frequently heard in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–8, both ignores the force of the Marxian insight that finance capital is itself dependent on the production of surplus value, and can at times come disturbingly close to mirroring the National Socialist objection to “parasitic” (international, Jewish, exploitive) capital in favor of “productive” (national, German, autochthonous) capital. The second is the anti-Americanism masquerading as opposition to capitalism that would later characterize large sections of the anti-globalization movement, manifesting itself in a hostility to symbols such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
What is clear in the case of both of these phenomena — and what Wertkritik drew from its own complex origins in the political debates and divisions of the era, and despite later criticisms voiced against the “anti-German” tendency as it began itself to take on more and more openly reactionary and even pro-U.S. imperialist positions — is that they are not, appearances notwithstanding, critiques of capitalism at all. The first explicitly appeals to industrial capitalist production (and in doing so erases all class distinctions in the industrial production process), while the second is an argument in favor of local and often smaller-scale production, an argument which is frequently imbued with anti-American ressentiment, and which neglects the capitalist compulsion to valorize value on an ever larger scale. Along these same lines, objections to the actions of the players in the game of “casino capitalism” are misdirected insofar as they see these individuals as responsible for the system within which they act rather than recognizing that the systemic consequences of the compulsion to the valorization of value constitute the sphere within which casino-agency is produced. In doing so, such objections misconstrue financial speculation and public borrowing as causes of the crisis, when in fact they are merely responses to — and more specifically, processes of deferral of — the crisis of exchange value in which capital, which can no longer attain valorization in industrial production, seeks greater returns elsewhere, by means of the inflation of speculative bubbles.14
And as a final observation here: given Wertkritik’s key contributions to crisis-theory, its relative absence within Anglophone economic and political discourse has become especially crippling since the outbreak of the current severe and historically unprecedented crisis of global capitalism in 2007-8. The considerable upsurge of interest in Marx that has been one result of the current crisis — in particular in Marx’s theory of capitalism’s “tendency to self-destruct,” as favorably mentioned by Wall Street’s and the Financial Times’s most listened-to doom-mongering mainstream economist, Nouriel Roubini, in August, 2011 — has in turn given rise to a plethora of theoretical and political debates in left-leaning, Marxism-friendly alternative media in North America concerning the nature and outcome of the Great Recession, as the global economic downturn in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-8 seems to have come to be called, at least within the U.S.15 But what has been missing in this literature has been an analysis that reaches deep into the structure of Marx’s mature critique of political economy and at the same time beyond the limitations of what Kurz refers to as the exoteric Marx: the points and aspects within his work where Marx is concerned with and oriented toward the modernization and development of capitalism, from the historical perspective of his existence in the nineteenth century.
Not surprisingly, and despite the impressive exploratory range of Wertkritik across the at times seemingly endless matrix of social relations mediated through the value abstraction, especially as the latter sinks ever more rapidly and deeply into the array of symptoms that mark what is possibly the terminal crisis of the value form itself, many problematics remain unexplored. Prominent among these, for reasons perhaps not difficult to discern when one considers that they tended to dominate the critical theory of the Frankfurt School from which Wertkritik has had, ironically, to distance itself in order to make full use of its ties to precursors such as Adorno, are the spheres of culture and the aesthetic. But the question of the emancipatory in its immanent relation to the crisis of commodity society may be what finally eludes the critique of value even as it bores its way ever further into the depths of a future as though from front to back. If the associated producers no longer appear as capitalism’s gravediggers, who takes their place? At times Wertkritik refuses to consider that its take on this question requires, at the very least, evidence that the old notion of a political subject, whatever its composition, is worse than its lack — evidence that the current moment coyly witholds. But if one is to find such an immanent ground of emancipation, even if its traces are as yet absent from them, one must start by looking hard into the new and at times uncannily dark illuminations in the mirror held up to our own contemporaneity by the essays that follow.
Marxism and the Critique of Value
Norbert Trenkle’s “Value and Crisis: Basic Questions,” the first text in this dossier, sets forth in condensed form the central tenets of the critique of value.”16 The first, which makes clear Wertkritik’s origins in the Western Marxism stemming from Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and its Frankfurt School offshoots, is the critique of the naturalization of social relations, according to which the fundamentally social categories of commodity-producing, capitalist society — value, commodity, money — appear, in Trenkle’s words, “reified and fetishized, as seemingly ‘natural’ facts of life and as ‘objective necessities’” (1). It is the misrecognition of these categories as transhistorical, as ‘second nature,’ that masks the internal contradictions of capitalist society, contradictions from which stems the latter’s inexorable tendency toward crisis. Thus it is that, for Trenkle, the critique of value is “essentially a theory of crisis” (13).
The point at which value-critique differs sharply from both what it refers to, following Postone, as “traditional” or workers’-movement Marxism as well as from a more “traditional” critical theory becomes most apparent is the concept of labor, which is understood not as a universal precondition of human existence or as a point of departure for the analysis of commodity society, still less as a basis for the construction of a new, liberated society, but as an “oppressive, inhumane, and antisocial activity that both is determined by and produces private property” (2). Labor, which only comes to exist as such as the result of a violent process of appropriation that separates workers from the means of production and existence, is a “specific form of activity in commodity society,” whose highest end is the valorization of value (4).
In the critique of value, labor is made the object of theoretical critique, falling, along with the more familiar, “traditional” manifestations of the value-form under the aegis of what Alfred Sohn-Rethel termed a real or “actually existing abstraction,” a “process of abstraction that is not completed in human consciousness as an act of thought, but which, as the a priori structure of social synthesis, is the presupposition of and determines human thought and action” (7). Trenkle takes issue, however, not only with the claim of Sohn-Rethel but also of Michael Heinrich, both of whom situate the real abstraction in the sphere of circulation and more specifically the act of exchange. For Trenkle and Wertkritik, in contrast, commodity production is not distinct from or opposed to circulation, but always mediated through it: the production of commodities for the sake of their exchange value itself always presupposes the sphere of exchange: “every process of production is from the outset oriented toward the valorization of capital and organized accordingly” (9). This reconsideration of the fundamental categories of the economic sphere of commodity-producing society has radical and profound consequences for the relationship between value-critique and classical economics. For if value is no longer seen as reducible to an empirical category that can be positively determined by calculating the number of hours of socially useful labor that are embodied within any particular product, but a fetishistic result of the internalization of processes of dispossession, then the Marxist attempt to solve, for example, the so-called transformation problem, to explain how a commodity’s price can result from its value and to account for any divergence between them, is revealed to be a category mistake. All attempts to formulate a critique of capitalism from the standpoint of labor or to found a society on the principle that the price workers should be paid for their labor should justly be determined by its (notionally calculable) value will necessarily reaffirm the fetish on which capitalism is based rather than moving beyond it.
Along with these more axiomatic arguments, Trenkle’s brilliantly concise outline of value-critique also sets forth the “basic finding of crisis theory,” namely that “since the 1970s, as a result of the worldwide, absolute displacement of living labor power from the process of valorization, capital has reached the historical limits of its power to expand, and thus also of its capacity to exist” (13). It is this, in turn, that makes up the central claim of the second essay of this dossier, Robert Kurz’s “The Crisis of Exchange Value” (“Die Krise des Tauschwerts”) which has perhaps the strongest claim to be regarded as the founding document of value-critique. The essay was first published in 1986 in Issue 1 of the journal Marxistische Kritik, of which seven issues were published between 1986 and 1989 before it was renamed Krisis for the publication of Issue 8/9 in December 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Marxistische Kritik was itself described in the editorial of its first issue as in certain respects a successor of Neue Strömung [New Current], a journal of radical-Left theory that had been made up of people with a wide range of revolutionary Marxist political backgrounds, former members of groups ranging from the K-Gruppen (which at one point in the 1970s were estimated to have had about 15,000 members among them), to Trotskyist organizations that trace their heritage back to the opposition that formed in the KPD in 1928 under Heinrich Brandler and August Thalheimer, and the operaismo-influenced Autonome and squatters’ movement that had its origins in the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition of the late 1960s. According to contemporary reports, this constellation necessitated considerable discussion over a period of two years before it was possible to overcome the conceptual differences that resulted from such relatively heterogeneous and contrasting traditions, clearing a path for Wertkritik both to begin publishing a theoretical organ of its own and, as part of the same process, to begin to develop along increasingly systematic and rigorous lines.
It is perhaps a legacy of these discussions that Kurz’s essay advances a position that more than a decade later would be described in the editorial to Krisis 12 as “completely naïve, seen from our current perspective.” While it was clear at the time that Kurz’s reading of Marx’s account of relative surplus value implied “a fundamental turn against the primary current of all previous Marxist theory,” the essay was still predicated on a “traditional” Marxist affirmation of the working class as revolutionary subject that will no doubt come as a surprise to anyone whose first point of contact with value-critique was the 1999 “Manifesto against Labor.” In the concluding section of “The Crisis of Exchange Value” Kurz insists that he does not “in any way wish fundamentally to belittle the role of the subject: any true revolution must proceed by means of the subject of a social class and its political mediations” (74). At this point the critique of commodity society and of value and the doctrine of a revolutionary struggle for state power led by the working class were still living side by side in a state of peaceful co-existence. Three years later, this position would be fundamentally rethought in a process that finds what is perhaps its first explicit manifestation in the publication of Robert Kurz and Ernst Lohoff’s essay “The Fetish of Class Struggle” in Marxistische Kritik 7.
“The Crisis of Exchange Value” nonetheless contained the core of what would develop into the collection of ideas that are represented by the texts translated in this dossier. The essay’s opening criticizes the belief of what he refers to as “the Marxist Left” that the “law of value” is merely a “formal law of the social allocation of resources that can be influenced politically,” and argues that as long as value is allowed to hold sway as an element of second nature, such a Left will not be able adequately to understand the developments in the productive forces that characterized the twentieth century (18). Kurz takes issue with the “petrified historical interpretation of Marx” in which the concepts of “productive labor” and “productivity” fail to take into consideration the distinction between use value and exchange value (20). From the perspective of use value, productive labor is any form of useful activity; from that of exchange value, it “refers exclusively to the abstract process of the formation of value” (21). While it is the case that in simple commodity production the two are more or less identical, under the industrial capitalist mode of production they begin to diverge.
Kurz analyzes this divergence with particular attention to the category of relative surplus value, the term Marx gave to the decrease in the ratio of necessary to surplus labor achieved by means not of the absolute extension of the working day but of increases in productivity such that the same magnitude of labor power can produce a greater mass of commodities, or the same mass of commodities can be produced by a lesser magnitude of labor power, lowering production costs, and making capitalist enterprises more competitive on the global market. Kurz claims that “[c]apital has no interest in and cannot be interested in the absolute creation of value,” but is concerned merely with the proportion of this new value that can be appropriated as surplus value (47). However, this increase in productivity results in a decrease in the mass of value in every individual commodity, since less labor time is required for the production of the same unit produced. “With the development of productivity, capital increases the extent of exploitation, but in doing so it undermines the foundation and the object of exploitation, the production of value as such” (48). The substance or content of value is eliminated, but capital must ensure that its forms of circulation persist. “This must lead to catastrophic social collisions” (54-5). Kurz thus identifies an absolute, immanent limit to capitalism, and claims not only that capital and its advocates are necessarily blind to the tendency toward the reduction of value-production, but also that the Marxist Left has failed adequately to address much less to refine its understanding of this problematic. For Kurz writing in the mid 1980s, the crisis dynamic has already begun: each additional increase in productivity and each further rationalization driven by the need of individual capitals to maintain competitiveness on the world market only add nails to the coffin of the self-valorization of value. Capitalism has, in this sense, and if the theory holds true, entered upon its final crisis.
Despite the foreboding predictions of barbarism in this context, Kurz’s strongest attack is directed not against capital and its advocates, but against the failure of the Left to recognize the dynamic of the crisis. From Engels, Kautsky, and Luxemburg’s presentation of Marx’s theory of crisis as a theory purely of overproduction or underconsumption to Bernstein’s rejection of Marx’s theory of collapse altogether, Kurz accuses the historical Left of remaining fixated on the fetishistic, surface-level categories of capital and of thus failing to consider the divergence of contemporary capitalist production from simple commodity production, and the role within this divergence of relative surplus value. Even the ultra-left, Kurz argues — here with respect to Grossman and Mattick — confined themselves to a “value-immanent” critique that remained within the surface categories of market circulation, a claim that will strike readers familiar with Mattick’s Marx and Keynes or his introduction to Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution as curious. “It thus becomes clear,” Kurz nonetheless insists, “that Marxist crisis theory, so far, has in fact not moved beyond a value-immanent mode of observation, and has not seized on the elements of a logical-historical explosion of the value relation as such are included in Marx’s work” (72).
Claus Peter Ortlieb’s “A Contradiction between Matter and Form: On the Significance of the Production of Relative Surplus Value in the Dynamic of Terminal Crisis” begins from a distinction that, though misunderstood almost as often by Marxists as by non- and anti-Marxists, is fundamental to Marx’s analysis of the dynamic of capitalism. As Ortlieb reminds us (following Moishe Postone), no less a figure than Habermas has been led disastrously astray by confusing value and wealth. The former is the legible form that the latter assumes under capitalism; wealth does not for all that disappear in its conceptual nor indeed in its actual distinction from value. Two identical coats, for example, always represent precisely twice the material wealth of one; they will keep two people warm instead of one. But the two coats do not represent twice the value if they were made in a process more efficient than that used to manufacture the single coat.
Although under capitalism the increase in wealth is only accomplished by means of the production of value, there is nonetheless not only a distinction but also a discrepancy between the two. In spite of all the cycles of expansion and contraction that have characterized the history of capitalism, the productivity of labor has increased over time in a unidirectional movement within the development of modern capital. Ortlieb’s argument, like Kurz’s, hinges on Marx’s distinction between absolute and relative surplus value: once the mere intensification of the working day or suppression of wages has reached a natural or legislated limit, the development of capital can henceforth only be accomplished by means of increases in the productivity of labor — that is, by means of decreases in the use of labor relative to output — a decrease which at the same time reduces the value of the product of labor. As local gains in productivity diffuse across the economy, the value of particular goods tends to decrease even as the wealth produced in particular processes tends to increase. For this reason new markets and new products must constantly be found in order to absorb the labor thrown off by increased productivity in existing processes.
While Ortlieb demonstrates that we have reached a point where such continued expansion at the required rate is unlikely — and it is worth noting that economists as solidly establishment as Larry Summers, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury under Bill Clinton, have been led recently to speculate about “secular stagnation” — he does not rule it out: his analysis of the “terminal crisis” is a tendential matter, not a punctual prediction. In any case, for Marxist analysis the “terminal crisis” is no way triumphal, since its issue, barring political intervention, would not be a liberated society but rather universal unemployment and destitution. Moreover, Ortlieb points out that the continuing “resolution” of this process by means of economic growth runs up against an environmental limit, the origin of which is none other than the same contradiction between wealth and value: while environmental factors like a more or less stable global range of temperatures clearly count as wealth, they cannot be accounted for as value, and “if the destruction of material wealth serves the valorization of value, then material wealth will be destroyed” (112).
How, Roswitha Scholz’s essay “Patriarchy and Commodity Society” asks, might we formulate a Marxist-feminist theoretical framework that is able to account for the current crisis and other developments since the end of actually existing socialism? The answer is what Scholz theorizes under the name “value dissociation theory.” The beginnings of such a critique are rooted in the fundamental assertions of value-critique to which Scholz adds what she calls a “feminist twist,” but which amounts to a framework that does nothing less than foreground the centrality of gender relations in the development of capitalism (125). As is the case for value-critical approaches generally, Scholz begins with the assertion that the object of critique should not be surplus value itself (or its production via labor) but rather the “social character of the commodity-producing system and thus […] the form of activity particular to abstract labor” (125). Traditional Marxism tends to foreground only one facet of what should rather be understood as a complex system of relations, ultimately privileging analyses of the unequal distribution of wealth and exploitive appropriation of surplus value over the level at which a more fundamental critique should begin. It is precisely this narrow concentration and focus of traditional Marxism that Scholz breaks open. Indeed, she claims, today the Marxism of the workers’ movements has exhausted itself and has effectively absorbed all the basic principles of capitalist socialization, the categories of value and abstract labor in particular.
Yet, Scholz argues, the critique of value, which argues against this absorption, is itself found wanting insofar as its hitherto inadequate attention to gender means that even an analysis that begins with a fundamental critique of the value form misses a key basis of the formation of capitalism. The immense significance of Scholz’s contribution for Wertkritik proper cannot, therefore, be understated in this regard, as the recent critical production of the Exit! group adopts Scholz’s emphasis on value dissociation and the importance of examining the gendered dimension of the value form. The analysis of value dissociation attempts to capture this previously missing basis and aims to foreground all those elements that can neither be subsumed by nor separated from value — all those characteristics, in other words, that value can neither contain within itself nor eliminate entirely. In a logical operation that builds upon Adorno’s notion of determinate negation, Scholz argues that “capitalism contains a core of female-determined reproductive activities” that are necessarily “dissociated from value and abstract labor” (127). The provocative claim that masculinity should be understood as “the gender of capitalism,” then, can be understood as Scholz’s attempt to foreground the instrumental function of capitalist gender relations in the development of capitalism itself (130). The gendering and subsequent dissociation of an entire range of broadly reproductive activities, therefore, ought not to be considered a side-effect of capitalism and its value form, but rather as a necessary precondition of value, which makes it necessary to speak of the emergence of a commodity-producing patriarchy that determines the historical development of modernity and postmodernity. Indeed, the universalization of gender relations under the principle of value dissociation as part of the development of the capitalist value form reveals itself to be an instrumental aspect of the rise of modernity. Gender without the body, then: gender whose being derives neither from biology nor from “culture,” but rather from the value form in its dissociated development. But gender that is still gender: it is no coincidence that the crash of 2008 is followed not only by an unemployment crisis but also by intensified anxieties about gender norms, as evidenced in the U.S. by a brutal anti-feminist backlash and renewed assaults on reproductive rights.
Such an understanding of the gender relations that structure the social dynamism of capitalism also highlights the shortcomings of the theoretical paradigms that predominate within contemporary gender studies. Deconstruction and the wide field of identity-political and even identity-critical paradigms share a problematic understanding of causality that obscures the necessary connection between gender and value, namely value dissociation as the principle that structures gender relations. The assumption, in other words, that cultural meaning attaches itself to a previously existing gendered social division, misses the fundamental importance of value dissociation for the development of capitalism in the first place. It is thus neither to be considered a consequence of capitalism nor even to be likened to the non-identical as analyzed by Adorno. Rather, Scholz stresses, value dissociation is a precondition for the formation of capitalism. Ultimately, value-dissociation theory allows for important metacritical historicization that reveals, for instance, the ultimate complicity of the deconstructivist paradigm with postmodern forms of capitalism and its social logic. “Consequently, it is not only unnecessary but in fact highly suspect to suggest that we must deconstruct the modern dualism of gender” (135). While the U.S. technological sector will gladly recognize fifty-one genders, such a recognition does nothing to disturb the overwhelming dominance of men in that sector by every metric at every level, or to disrupt the prejudice the women who work in that sector face daily. An examination of the changes in the form of capitalism from the perspective of value-dissociation theory reveals that critics such as Judith Butler “ultimately merely affirm […] postmodern (gender) reality”: postmodern capitalism’s “double socialization” of women in the context of diversity politics and of the structural and logical centrality of difference is a key aspect in what we must understand as “actually existing deconstruction” (135-6).
Norbert Trenkle’s “The Rise and Fall of the Working Man” provides a provocative companion to Scholz’s essay. For Trenkle, as for Scholz, any examination of the ongoing economic crisis in general, and of the crisis of labor in particular, must include an examination of its gender dimension. “The crisis of labor,” he argues, must also be seen as “a crisis of modern masculinity” (143). Like Scholz, who insists that the emergence and development of capitalism cannot be understood without accounting for its gendered social dimension, Trenkle foregrounds the dialectical connection of modern masculinity with the logic of modern real abstraction of labor (while the focus on both subjectivity and labor significantly differentiates Trenkle’s from Scholz’s approach). The attachment of masculine power to the logic of labor power places the working man in a perpetually precarious situation. Since power is bestowed upon him externally — and as this power is connected to the business cycle (and thus beyond the influence of individuals) and therefore carries within itself at any given point the potential for devaluing specific forms of power and labor — it must therefore be aggressively defended and renewed. In consequence, modern man is not characterized by the dominant cultural images of muscular, physical power as such but instead by the ultimate privileging of the will, by the exercise of discipline and self-restraint over the body that puts the emerging masculine subject totally in the service of a system that rests upon the fundamental desensualization of life as the basic precondition for its labor processes. Indeed, Trenkle argues, an examination of the relation between the capitalist form of labor — its real abstraction — and its corresponding form of masculinity reveals that both the body and the material existence of the commodity are nothing more than a necessary evil in a system that is primarily aimed at the generation of money out of money, in the context of which materiality becomes nothing else than a mere representation, a “body” that in the end is nothing but an abstract content postulated by the form of the valorization of value.
But Trenkle’s essay also foregrounds an even more fundamental aspect of a value-critique of capitalism: the relation between capitalist form and its corresponding social dimension. After all, Trenkle argues, the establishment of “this historically unique form of social activity and relation was not possible without the creation of a particular human type” (146). This particular human type reveals itself to be nothing else than the “male-inscribed modern subject of labor and commodities, whose central essential characteristic is that the entire world becomes to him a foreign object” (146). In a logical operation similar to Scholz’s assertion of the dialectical connection of the modern form of value and the feminine-inflected characteristics that are dissociated from value (and that precisely via this operation become its basic precondition), Trenkle stresses that the emergence of the modern working man should not be regarded as a mere consequence of capitalism. Instead, he insists, modern subjectivity itself is constructed according to the compulsory push toward this form of subjectivity without which capitalism (and its value and commodity form) would not have been able to develop in the first place. This form of subjectivity must be regarded not as a matter of passive subjugation but of active complicity in the development of capitalism. While the development of this form of masculinity must, of course, also be analyzed diachronically in its relation to a long history of paternalism that precedes capitalism, its role in capitalism is unique insofar as “the abstract and objectified relation to the world” with which it is associated “becomes the general mode of socialization” (148). The valence of feminine identity, then, differs in comparison with Scholz’s model. For Trenkle, the construction of modern feminine identity takes the form of the construction of a social other, a counter-identity that first and foremost serves to stabilize and ground the parameters of the male subject of labor — without, however, neglecting the role the division of genders plays with respect to the division of labor and capitalist enterprise in general. Ultimately, the purchase of Trenkle’s argument for the current moment is its ability to account for the rise of masculine-inflected aggression (including racist and sexist violence) that for Trenkle must be understood as directly related to the changes and crises of the current form of capitalism, which inevitably brings with them a crisis of masculinity.
In the first part of “Off Limits, Out of Control: Commodity Society and Resistance in the Age of Deregulation and Denationalization,” Ernst Lohoff shows that what in the U.S. appear as “liberal” and “conservative” politics are in fact two sides of the same coin. The liberal side regards the remains of the welfare state as “off limits” and fights rearguard actions against its dismantling and commodification. The other, conservative side regards the welfare state as “out of control” and seeks to dismantle and commodify it. Both camps regard the gulf separating them as essentially political, rather than driven by an underlying economic crisis, and neither questions that the role of the state itself is to guarantee conditions for the the reproduction of capital that cannot be met by capitalism itself. Lohoff points out that the asocial sociality that characterizes capitalism — a social formation that is thoroughly integrated and integrating, but that functions, paradoxically, through atomization and competition — can only be brought under control by the state: “The asocial character of commodity society imposes on the latter, as still another of its essential aspects, the formation of a second, derivative form of wealth,” namely the state (157). But from the perspective of commodity society, this derivative form of wealth (infrastructure, social provision, public education — in sum, all material wealth that is not directly commodified) appears rather as consumption. The symbiotic character of this relation then depends on the state plausibly serving its integrative function, a state of appearances that wanes as the explosive increase of permanently “superfluous” human material begins to fall under the jurisdiction of the state. That is, at the moment that “labor society” as such enters a crisis. The crisis itself is offset by two mechanisms — speculation and finance on one hand, and privatization on the other — and it is this latter mechanism that prompts the debate: “off limits, or out of control”? Lohoff argues that the answer is neither: instead of concentrating our political energies on the state as the flipside and guarantor of commodity society, we should think material wealth as such outside of the money nexus, which is to say outside both the state and the commodity relation. This is easy to say (if not so easy to think), at the level of philosophical critique. But can it translate into a practical politics? The second half of the essay is devoted to thinking through what a counter-politics that aimed at a non-commodity society would look like from within commodity society, and the first maxim is that rearguard defenses of the state cannot be the answer. “The question of legitimacy ought rather to be addressed offensively from the outset” (173). If commodity society can no longer afford social security, this is an argument against commodity society, not against social security. The answer to commodity society’s principle of equivalence is then free access, a slogan that organizes Lohoff’s vision of a counter-politics.
Kurz’s “World Power and World Money” is an attempt to think through the causes and consequences of a looming global economic crisis that was then only in its initial stages. Kurz traces the origins of the crisis to the Reaganite policy of “weaponized Keynesianism” — massive, debt-financed military spending — that, on Kurz’s account, stabilized the world dollar economy and established the dominant global flows of debt and goods that would persist until the onset of the crisis (192). These phenomena are often recognized on the Left as well as on the Right, only in inverted form: greedy bankers and American imperialism, rather than a crisis-induced flight to finance and the arms dollar as the “overarching common condition of globalized capital” (198). Popular slogans such as a more democratic globalization or a return to Fordist employment patterns are therefore not likely to be effective. The closing pages, focusing on the ultimate issue of the current crisis, are necessarily exploratory; speculating on the fate of the oil regimes in the event of a world depression, Kurz does not rule out the danger of an irrational “flight forward” into globalized civil war (199).
Norbert Trenkle’s “Struggle without Classes” is perhaps the most striking contemporary manifestation of value-critique’s rejection of class struggle that began with the publication of Kurz’s and Lohoff’s “The Fetish of Class Struggle” in 1989.17 In the earlier article they had argued that the claim that the working class represents an “ontological opposition to the abstract logic of the valorization of capital,” that the workers’ movement is the gravedigger of capital, should properly be considered as a form of thought that is immanent to a society based on value, an ideology of modern capitalism. A subject capable of overcoming modern capitalism, they argue, “cannot arise from the affirmation of the category of the worker, but only from the crisis, the crisis of value.” They accuse traditional Marxism of mistaking the classes, a “secondary, derived category,” for what are the genuine foundations of society, and of reducing the analysis of the value form to a “merely definitional and uncritical trailer to the ‘true’ theory of capital,” and thus of replacing Marx’s critique of political economy with an affirmative vulgar socialism.
Trenkle insists that the notion that the antagonistic character of class struggle can point to a future beyond capitalist social relations is an illusion, but nonetheless affirms its historically important role in the constitution of the working class as a subject conscious of its ability to act in pursuit of a social mission. In this essay, however, he addresses the consequences of what might be thought of as the converse process, which following Franz Schandl he terms “declassing,” in which four principal trends are identified.18 First, direct production is increasingly replaced in the labor process with functions of surveillance and control, functions which have been internalized by the individual worker, both in the “horizontal hierarchies” of large companies and the precarious conditions of freelance and self-employed labor (204). Second, responding to the demand for flexibility, workers cease to identify with a single function of the labor process. Third, there develop more, and more distinct, hierarchies among workers, particularly with regard to distinctions and divisions between permanent employees and temporary, part-time, and agency workers. Fourth, there emerges as a consequence of long-term unemployment a new underclass that is primarily defined by the fact that its members are not required by the valorization process.
Trenkle rejects the trend, particularly in the anti-globalization movement and its aftermath, to see this underclass as a “precariat,” the contemporary embodiment of working-class, revolutionary subjectivity. That is, while the early value-critical texts on this thematic rejected class struggle on the basis of the co-determination of labor and capital as mutually dependent aspects of commodity society, Trenkle questions whether the category of a class subject is valid under the conditions of contemporary capitalism, suggesting that appeals to the working class now involve the extension of the concept to refer not merely to those workers whose surplus labor turns the wheels of valorization, but to all who are dependent on wage labor, or even all those whose labor power, following Marcel van der Linden, “is sold or hired to another person under economic or non-economic compulsion,” a more or less universal and to that extent meaningless category (qtd. 209). Indeed, this also allows all conflicts to be reinscribed as class struggle and permits the inclusion of reactionary movements such as ethnic nationalisms within the category of anti-capitalist struggles.
Trenkle not only offers an analysis of the fragmentation of capitalism as nothing more than “the intensification of the logic of capital in the stage of its decomposition,” but also discusses the possibility of forms of resistance to this fragmentation and to the tyranny of the commodity-form (219). This is best seen as a growing tendency of the Krisis group and the Göttingen-based group 180° to investigate forms of value-critical political (or, since it rejects the foundation of politics that is the value form, anti-political) praxis. He insists that struggles such as those of “the Zapatistas, the autonomous currents of the Piqueteros, and other grass-roots movements” must not be romanticized or idealized, but identifies them as sites where we might find “approaches and moments which point to the perspective of a liberation from the totality of commodity society” (221). This tentative discussion of praxis is perhaps a point at which value-critique could constructively be brought into contact with Marxist currents outside the German-speaking world. Value-critique has up until now neither engaged particularly thoroughly nor been received by elements of the contemporary ultra-Left that insist both on the importance of struggle and on the abolition rather than the affirmation of the proletariat. This essay may provide the starting point for such confrontations.
In “Violence as the Order of Things,” Ernst Lohoff takes up a series of fundamental questions about violence in the present moment. Given that, with the supposedly final and complete triumph of free-market capitalism and its associated secular-Enlightenment catechism of “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” over its erstwhile Cold War rival all the underlying sources of violent conflict and war ought to have been extirpated as well, how is one to explain the violence with which we are confronted almost daily? How can such epidemic violence be understood as anything other than a paradoxical aberration in the face of an otherwise irreversible march toward world peace? What can be the sources of the violence we see emerging today on all sides? Must it not be categorically different from the more familiar forms of violence that marked previous moments in history?
Counter to the dominant narrative that traces the gradual disappearance of violence in tandem with the subsumption of the state under market forces, Lohoff’s essay illustrates the ways in which capitalism and the rise of Western liberalism are inextricably and indeed constitutively bound up with violence. This relation is, according to Lohoff, particularly marked in the post-1989 era in which we are supposedly witnessing a transition into a peaceful world of globalization but which is instead defined by growing forms of violence that are the result not of momentary aberrations but of the violent core of capitalist modernity, itself pushed to a moment of crisis. Lohoff’s essay traces the history of this violent core that, he argues, lies at the very heart not only of capitalism but also of Enlightenment thought. Thus, any genuinely genealogical tracing of the forms of violence that define our present moment must begin from a clear understanding of the historical changes — in a word, the crisis — affecting that same commodity form.
Lohoff returns to the writings of Hobbes, Hegel, and Freud to show that the Western ideals of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality are not pathways toward peace but instead directly linked to merely temporary suspensions of violence that mask the more fundamental relation: the violent core of the commodity subject and of commodity society. Such a change in perspective, Lohoff argues, allows us to highlight the ways in which war and violence have not been so much eradicated as instead sublimated, controlled, and instrumentalized, that is, brought under the rule of the modern state, the formal genesis of which parallels the rise of commodity society. This brings about the need to reconsider the work not only of Hobbes but also of Hegel. Indeed, from this perspective, according to Lohoff, Hegel emerges, surprisingly, as an apologist and propagandist for rising commodity society to the extent that his theoretical model of consciousness rests upon a logic of violence: the famous need to wager one’s life that is central to Hegel’s account of self-consciousness. Lohoff’s essay concludes with a forceful critique of a contemporary capitalist and free-market ideology that does not, by means of its gradual dissolution of the state and thus of the state monopoly on violence, herald an age of peace, but instead brings once more to the forefront capitalism’s paradoxical but no less essential defining social relation, “asocial sociality.” Only this time Enlightenment’s gradual ideological sublimation of the commodity form’s “violent core” from Hobbes, say, to Rosseau, Kant, and Hegel, from the Leviathan’s deterrent threat of a pre-atomic mutually assured destruction, to the more compassionate faith entrusted to the “volonté generale” (equipped with a guillotine) of the Social Contract, to Kant’s purely rationalized “categorical imperative” (always back-stopped by the sovereign state of exception commanding obedience to enlightened despotism) begins to play out in reverse.
Like Lohoff, Kurz traces the linkage between the dark underbelly of Enlightenment thought and the rise of capitalism. In his essay “The Nightmare of Freedom,” he turns more specifically toward the ways in which concepts such as freedom and equality have not only shaped liberalism (a well-known story) but also Marxism and anarchism, traditions in which these concepts and their attachment to the development of Enlightenment thought occupy a much more uncomfortable position, and indeed have often been explicitly disavowed. Kurz finds in Marx a persuasive account of how freedom and equality emerged not simply as lofty ideals, but rather under precise material conditions that assigned to these concepts a specific material and historical function. Indeed, as Kurz shows, the dominant form of equality (a far from homogenous concept) in modern Western thought is the equality of the market. The freedom to buy or sell on equal ground and by equal means becomes the dominant form of fulfilling and retroactively defining equality and equality’s aims. Under capitalism, all customers are equally welcome, the marketplace is the realm of mutual respect, and the exchange of commodities is an interaction free from violence. Yet, Kurz argues, it is important in this context to return to Marx’s forceful critique of this line of argumentation, which reminds us that the market sphere constitutes only one small facet of modern social life, and that a more profound understanding of these relations begins with the insight that exchange and circulation are secondary to the more fundamental relations of capitalist production. And once we regard capitalist society from the perspective afforded by this more primary relation, the well-worn theory that, like “bourgeois democracy,” principles such as equality, freedom, and non-violence must inevitably suffer betrayal at the hands of the capitalist social relations (that are nevertheless their historical conditions of possibility) is disclosed, more precisely, as itself a thoroughly bourgeois ideology. As Kurz illustrates, it is just this seemingly paradoxical opposition that is constitutive of capitalism: the unfreedom within capitalist production is systemically bound up with the narrative of freedom and equality that underlies the ideology of the market — a tension that, as Kurz argues, becomes even more acutely pronounced under neoliberalism.
What becomes visible here is neither simply an illustration of the limits of discussions that focus on trade and circulation (over and against production or the constitution and reproduction of capitalism’s value form), nor an analysis that foregrounds the violent dialectic of freedom and unfreedom that lies at the heart of capitalism. Instead, the account of the paradoxical ways in which Enlightenment ideals are integrated into the logic of capital demonstrates that freedom as it is understood even by discourses that understand themselves as emancipatory is nothing more than a necessary element of capitalism’s valorization machine. Specifically, this means that we should regard the sphere of circulation and the market not only as a “hypocritical sphere of freedom and equality” (which it of course is), but more importantly as “a naked function of the end-in-itself of capitalist valorization” (290). In this sphere, where abstract value “realizes” itself as money, the freedom that constitutes the logic of free trade is indispensable. Utopias based on a liberated exchange relation, like the LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) championed by Kojin Karatani, realize the logic of capital rather than oppose it.
In “Curtains for Universalism,” Karl-Heinz Lewed brings a startling perspective to the characterization of political Islam. The initial and obvious object of critique, the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis, is hardly taken seriously by anyone on the Left, but Lewed begins with it in order to lay bare the deeper dimensions of his analysis. So, for example, Lewed reminds us that, far from representing the resurgence of an archaic form, Islamic fundamentalism takes shape at the local level as precisely the brutal repression of archaisms, here in the form of longstanding local Islamic traditions that must be suppressed in the name of a standardized system of law and jurisprudence. Furthermore, Lewed not only debunks the widespread (and often murderously aggressive) belief that “Islamism” is the atavistic expression of a hostile and “foreign” culture or civilization. On the contrary, Lewed argues that Islamism is in fact nothing other than a form of appearance of our own “civilization,” rendered superficially “exotic” by ideologies of culturalism. That is, more accurately put, Islamism is disclosed as simply one possible variation on a form of civilization required by the saturation of social relations by the market, that is, by the value relation. To be specific, this saturation necessitates a dialectic of universal and particular such that the generalized pursuit of particular interests cannot dispense with a universal framework to preserve the appearance of a universal redress of interests. But this system of social mediation is itself administered by individuals with particular interests. Such a dialectic proves to be irresolvable in the long run but not uncontainable: the ideological force that keeps the whole dialectic in check is the promise of national progress. The classical anticolonial movements develop on this basis: the colonial sovereign power operates in its own interest rather than that of the colonized territory, which is to say that the local economy, although universal in form is dominated by the particular interest of a foreign power. The strategies of recuperative modernization (nachholende Modernisierung) pursued by the newly independent postcolonial states, once they fail to deliver on the promise of national progress, are assailed on precisely the same basis: governing elites, charged with guaranteeing universal progress, proceed instead to channel the wealth of the new nation back into the service of their own particular needs.
Islamism represents a “solution” to this ideological dilemma, a solution which, since it patently has neither grounds from which to think through, nor any interest in thinking through, the problem of a neo-colonial formation in relation to a critique of the value form, can propose no way out of it, presenting instead a hypertrophied, transcendentally guaranteed version of political universalism. In a reading of a key text by Osama bin Laden, Lewed shows that it is shot through with the rhetoric and logic of Enlightenment politics. Universality, since it can no longer be guaranteed by the sovereign, can only be guaranteed transcendentally, through a religiously-inflected universal law. With this we return, ironically, to Kant, who perceived that the guarantee of universality could only be transcendentally postulated and not empirically established through contract: “The metaphysics of the divine law of the Islamists should, therefore, be seen within the horizon of modern bourgeois relations, as formulated by Kant in The Metaphysics of Morals” (321). It should be emphasized, then, that the political crisis represented by Islamism is the form of appearance of a much more general phenomenon. In understanding Islamism as a cultural matter rather than as the local expression of bourgeois politics as such, the “Enlightened perspective of today…hides the problem of its own foundations” (322).
In Kurz’s examination of the ongoing global economic crisis, assembled from interviews conducted for the Internet magazine Telepolis and the Portuguese internet organ Shift, published by Zion Edições, he not only engages in detail with the economic crisis itself but takes this examination as an opportunity to illustrate the general stakes of a critique of the value form at this moment in history. The result is a programmatic and methodological essay that at every moment parallels the illumination of the object of inquiry with an analysis of the theoretical model with which the operation is carried out. The current global economic crisis constitutes for Kurz the moment at which a range of fundamental contradictions that underlie the valorization of value under finance capital come to a head. Far from being an isolated incident, the current crisis should be more accurately understood as the consequence of the gradual, disproportionate growth of the cost of the necessary mobilization of real capital (material capital) in relation to labor power as a by-product of the increasing integration of science as a productive force with capitalist production in the aftermath of the third industrial revolution, the restructuring of production in the wake of the development of microelectronics. Financing this structure required the massive mobilization of anticipated future profit in the form of credit, whose direct consequence was a series of financial bubbles that, once burst, triggered the recent crisis. Yet, Kurz argues, the problem is to be located at a more fundamental level than that imagined by those who merely point toward the seeming irrationality of finance bubbles, since such bubbles are not aberrations confined to the discrete sphere of finance but rather constitute a symptom of the underlying global economic system that developed into a “deficit economy” (336). The growing gap between the future profit necessary to justify present credits and the profit actually generated ultimately led to a situation in which the “valorization of capital was virtualized in the form of fictional capital that could no longer be matched by the actual substance of value” (339). Even the neoliberal revolution could only strategically defer but not resolve the fundamental contradictions of a deficit economy. Examining the problem from this perspective also illustrates the contradictions underlying current attempts to address the crisis in the form of state-sponsored bailout and stimulus programs that merely displace the problem from one sphere of credit to another while also actively counteracting the logic of the stimulus interventions by the simultaneous implementation of austerity measures. In fact, Kurz predicts, the irrationality of the contradictory state-sponsored measures underlying all current attempts to resolve the crisis — the simultaneity of stimulus and saving programs — does little to change the more fundamental contradictions (the global economy and its logic of value and credit will remain confined to the circulation of deficits), and will likely lead to a further amplification of contradictions that will result in a second wave of the global economic crisis.
Solutions to the current problem, therefore, do no lie in illusory attempts at recreating “good” (most frequently state-controlled) forms of capitalism — as proposed, for example, by calls for a return to Keynesianism. Instead it is necessary to forward a radical critique of the value and commodity forms themselves that is not limited by the desire to leave intact the fundamental principles of capitalism, a limitation that will reduce all attempts at resolving the crisis to mere crisis management and will result in a further intensification of contradictions. Such a critique must centrally include the transition from workers’-movement Marxism to what Kurz calls, in reference to Lukács’s early work, “categorical critique” — a critique that does not seek social emancipation based upon the persistent ontologization of the concept of labor but instead seeks to address capitalism’s “basic forms” (354). Indeed, categorical critique and the corresponding new global social movements for which Kurz calls (calls which are accompanied by a radically revised concept of revolution) aim at the contestation of what he calls, using the concept and term first introduced by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, the dominant “social synthesis”: the negative totality of the specific form of socialization determining the present historical moment, which can only be surpassed by means of a total social revolution that begins in theory as in practice with a categorical critique of the internal barriers of contemporary capitalism, namely the reliance upon abstract labor, its form of the valorization of value, and its corresponding gender relations.
We turn finally to Kurz’s essay “The Ontological Break” in which he explores what is widely understood to be one of the defining problems of theoretical thought and political discussion today. The debate over globalization appears to have reached a moment of exhaustion — why? The reasons for this exhaustion are not linked to what some may understand as the end of globalization. On the contrary, Kurz suggests, the social process underlying globalization is still in its incipient stage. Rather, it is critique that has run out of steam. The dominant approach to globalization is to examine it against the backdrop of national economies. Yet, Kurz suggests, even as critique points toward the end of national economies and the nation state, the reaction to such proclamations is regressively contradictory: the end of the nation state appears merely to reaffirm the commitment to the nation state, to previous modes of economic and social regulation, and to modes of analysis that remain rooted in the logic of nation states and politics. This problem emerges, Kurz suggests, because within such a hermetically sealed form of thought there exist “no immanent alternatives to these concepts because, just like concepts such as labor, money, and the market, they represent the petrified determinations of modern capitalist ontology” (361-2). The main task of critique today, therefore, is to explode the entire epistemological construct by radically historicizing its underpinnings — that is, to return the focus of critique to the precise historical fields within which our concepts of sociality emerge and within which they acquire meaning, force, and necessary historical limits. The endpoint we have reached, therefore, is that of a form of thought, of a range of linked historical concepts. Whenever such a moment of exhaustion is reached, it also carries with it a distinct crisis of theory and critique, for the replacement of the fundamental categories of thought or their revision appears unimaginable, and the endpoint appears untranscendable. Yet, Kurz shows, such a moment of exhaustion must be rigorously historicized with the aim to reveal it not as an endpoint proper, but rather as the endpoint merely of a historically specific form of thought. In order for us to develop forceful accounts and critiques of globalization, Kurz therefore argues, we must bring about nothing less than a profound and complete ontological (and consequently epistemological) break — a break, that is, with those forms of thought that, once dominant, have now run out of steam.
Such a break might begin with Kurz’s suggestion that the perceived crisis of critique we are experiencing contains a misrecognition: “contemporary analysis asserts more than it knows. With its insight into the loss of the regulatory capacity of the nation state and of politics, it involuntarily comes up against the limits of modern ontology itself” (363). Yet the aim radically to re-evaluate the very categories within which critique has played itself out, categories that emerged under historically determinate conditions between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century, is blocked by what Kurz calls an “ideological apparatus, which is as constitutive of modernity as the categorical totality of its social reproduction” (364). This ideological apparatus is, Kurz’s essay shows, nothing other than Enlightenment thought itself. Additionally, he argues, it is important to foreground the fact that modernity was determined by large-scale conflicts between liberalism, Marxism, and conservatism, conflicts that “always addressed specific social, political, juridical, or ideological matters.” Yet these conflicts “never addressed the categorical forms and ontological modes of sociality,” the precise terrain on which the categorical break that can reinvigorate contemporary critique must take place (365). Kurz’s essay outlines the forms such a break and its subsequent modes of critique may take, modes of critique that are aimed at nothing less than the constitution of a new society of critique, a “common […] planetary society” (378).
It is the possibility of such a common planetary society — of life free from mediation through the categories of value and labor — toward which the critique of value is oriented. We present these thirteen texts not merely because we are of the opinion that value-critical voices and arguments — along other recent and contemporary work from the neue Marx-Lektüre not represented in this dossier — can make a significant theoretical contribution to the interpretation and analysis of the ongoing crisis. For the critique of value has profound consequences for both theory and practice, and urgently raises the question of the form(s) that an emancipatory response to the crisis might take. As the renewal of the remorseless critique of everything that exists — the remorseless critique of the mediation of everything that exists through the categories of labor and value — the critique of value both demands and makes possible the instantiation of a means of struggle, of action, of practice that not only goes beyond the constraints of the capital-labor relation, but also aims at the emancipation from value of all aspects of life.
Work on the publication of this book has from the outset confirmed and re-confirmed the impossibility of such a project without the support of an informal collectivity that has, over the years ultimately needed to reach this goal, grown both outwards and inwards, and that has sometimes seemed to shrink and weaken only to prove itself to be just as firmly in place. Offers of help in all aspects of the work have frequently appeared before those of us who had necessarily to stay with the preparation of the book without let-up were even quite aware that we needed it. To the translation work undertaken by the co-editors themselves, many, many others contributed, including especially: Jon Dettman, Ariane Fischer, Elmar Flatschart, Joe Keady, Matt McLellan, Sina Rahmani, Emilio Sauri, Imre Szeman, Geoffrey Wildanger, and Robert Zwarg. Our gratitude to the authors of the texts themselves could hardly be overstated, but for their ex cathedra help we are especially indebted to Elmar Flatschart, Anselm Jappe, Wolfgang Kukulies, Karl-Heinz Lewed, Moni Schmid and Roswitha Scholz, and above all to Claus Peter Ortlieb of Exit! and Norbert Trenkle of Krisis with whom we have been in regular communication throughout this long editorial process, and without whose co-operation — not to mention that of the many other German and Austrian friends and comrades who answered more and less trivial questions on our behalf at their request — this project would scarcely have been possible. And finally we wish to express special thanks for the many kinds and many hours of dedicated assistance provided to us by Joe Atkins, Aaron Benanav, Brett Benjamin, Mark Bennett, Jasper Bernes, David Brazil (together with the California, East Bay chapter of the Public School), Nora Brown, Pat Cabell, Maria Elisa Cevasco, Joshua Clover (together with the many students and other readers of Capital and crisis theories — including early draft translations of this dossier — who sepnt many rewarding hours together in multiple indepedent group study formations under the auspices of the Program in Critical Theory at the University of California, Davis), Kfir Cohen, Sean Delaney, Tanzeen Dohan, Eef, Anna Björk Einarsdottir, Maya González, Christian Höner, Laura Hudson, Fred Jameson, Tim Kreiner, Felix Kurz, Alexander Locascio, Duy Lap Nguyen, Erin Paszko, Jen Phillis, Michel Prigent, Ricardo Pagliuso Regattieri, Pedro Rocha de Oliveira, Gwen Sims, Magnús Snaebjörnsson, Chris Wright, and Michelle Yates. Unnamed here, for the simple fact that they are so many, are the ‘enemies of utopia for the sake of its realization’ — those students, colleagues, activists, and hard-thinking individuals and groups of all kinds who helped with or simply took an interest in this project out of a common desire to understand the crisis-driven, moribund, and lethal capitalism of our present day — to understand it precisely so as to hasten its destruction.
This project could not have been completed without support from the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung; the LAS Award for Faculty Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago; the Killam Research Fund at the University of Alberta; St. Francis Xavier University and the University Council for Research at St. Francis Xavier University; the Arts and Humanities Research Council; the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst; the President and Fellows of Queens’ College, Cambridge; the Peter Szondi-Institut at the Freie Universität Berlin; the School of English, Communication, and Philosophy, Cardiff University.
For all our gratitude to the great many who have helped us, responsibility for all errors remains of course with the translators and editors. And we are confident that despite our best efforts there will still be a great many errors to be found. Anyone who has paid critical attention to translations of theoretical work will be aware that they are all in some way flawed — and yet the vast majority are nonetheless good enough. However, the possibilities enabled by online publication will allow us to correct with relative ease many of the errors that we find and that are drawn to our attention. We invite readers to participate in a process of open peer review, and to send notice of any errors and inconsistencies of translation, or other errors or inaccuracies, to email@example.com before June 30, 2014; the gamma or definitive print edition will be published in summer 2014.
- Neil Larsen, Mathias Nilges, Josh Robinson, and Nicholas Brown
for the Mediations editors.
- We use “Wertkritik,” “value-critique” (and variations, e.g., “critique of value,” “value critical,” and so on) to refer specifically to the theories represented in the output of the journals Exit!, Krisis, and Streifzüge. (Since its founding in 2004, Exit! has tended, following the work of Roswitha Scholz, to refer exclusively to Wertabspaltungskritik, or the “critique of value-dissociation” — a term that effectively labels the same systematic theoretical and critical standpoint, although Exit! would argue that their theoretical understanding of it differs from that of the post-2004 Krisis.) This is to an extent a label of convenience that goes back to before 2004, up until which time most of the figures associated with Wertkritik in Germany were to a greater or lesser extent affiliated with and in many cases involved in the production of the “first” Krisis, of which, between 1986 and the end of 2003, twenty-seven issues had been published, the first seven under the title of Marxistische Kritik. The publication of Krisis 28 in 2004 marked the beginning of a resolution, however unsatisfactory, to a conflict-ridden and at times highly polemical public split in the pre-2004 Krisis that saw two of its central figures, Robert Kurz and Roswitha Scholz, along with others including Hanns von Bosse, Petra Haarmann, Brigitte Hausinger and Claus Peter Ortlieb, found the jounral Exit! as an alternative project, which began publication later in that same year.
We are of course aware that this term, as well as references in English to “value-critique” or “critique of the value form,” can and often are taken to refer much more broadly to works of Marxian critical theory and of advanced Marx scholarship written mainly in German and as well as in some fewer cases to works and authors writing in English, French, Portuguese and a scattering of other languages. Principal among these works are those of Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt and some others who, influenced by such seminal works as Roman Rosdolsky’s landmark study, The Making of Marx’s Capital (first published in English in 1977), began the task of a serious re-examination of Marx’s theory of value (and his critique of value) in Capital and the until then little-known or -studied Grundrisse This early work, acknowledged as a crucial source for, if also subject to critique by, the self-designating representatives of what we here designate as value-critique or Wertkritik, can also be traced through to the work on Marxian theory and critique of the value form associated with the neue Marx-Lektüre or “new reading of Marx.” The latter began to emerge in the 1960s (drawing inspiration from Evgeny Pashukanis and Isaak Rubin, as well as from the German-language critical Marxist traditions) and is now probably most prominently represented by the important Marx scholarship as well as critical and polemical writings of Michael Heinrich. As can be seen from several of the texts in this collection, an intense polemic has sprung up between leading theorists associated with both current value-critical journals Krisis and Exit! and Heinrich himself, who has also become probably the most prominent of contemporary Germanophone critics of crisis theory à la Wertkritik. Our decision to employ the term “Wertkritik” in this more restricted sense is not to deny that their are interconnections between Wertkritik more narrowly defined and the neue Marx-Lektüre, but rather to recognize that within this context there exist a range of tendencies, of which Wertkritik, the subject of this dossier, is one.
- Kurz distinguishes between the exoteric and the esoteric Marx. The former develops from the perspective of modernization, and is the Marx that has been dominant in the political reception of his work, most particularly by Lenin and his followers, and by social democracy, and remains dominant in what value critics tend to refer to as labor-movement or workers-movement Marxism. The esoteric Marx, which involves the development of a categorical critique of capitalism, a critique that is never brought to completion within Marx’s work, remains much less accessible. For Kurz this esoteric Marx has been written out of history by Marxism’s elevation of the exoteric Marx to a dogma.
- It is interesting to note the willingness of theory-influenced scholars in the humanities to see the force of the critique of the logic of the (“positivist”) social sciences, but only very rarely to acknowledge the force of its continuation and development in Marx’s critique of political economy, and the implications of this continuation for practice in the humanities. In this of course the reduction of the first generation of the Frankfurt School’s radical and potentially world-changing critique to a cultural or merely academic project mirrors long after the event the neglect of the force of Marx’s critique of political economy that was transformed into a left-wing political economy that survives today, and not only in the representatives of the transfigured image of actually-existing socialism.
- This “thematic” sequence runs as follows: I. “value – crisis,” comprising the first three selections; II. ”value – gender,” comprising the following two; III. “crisis and the heteronomy of politics,” comprising selections six, seven, and eight; IV. “value and the critique of enlightenment,” made up of nine, ten, and eleven; and V. “capitalism (and theory) at their historical limit-points,” referring to the final two works, twelve and thirteen.
- This dossier, perhaps the first project since 2004 to have involved the mutually sanctioned publication of works by writers on both sides of the split, is not the place to rehearse the details of a conflict that mixed (and often conflated) political and personal disagreements. Many of the relevant documents are publicly available, and it is a story that is ultimately much less interesting than the necessarily only partial account of the theoretical resources offered by the critique of value that is told by the translations collected in this dossier. Since 2004 has published eleven issues, most recently in July 2013. Krisis 33, the journal’s last paper issue, was published in 2010; the journal recently switched to an online-only format whereby theoretical articles of often substantial length are published on the organization’s ; as Beiträge or contributions (in line with the journal’s subtitle of “Contributions to the Critique of Commodity Society”) alongside more journalistic and blog-style pieces. Both organizations also organize a weekend-long public seminar involving (usually) four presentations by regular contributors and occasionally invited guests, and lengthy discussion. has been published in Vienna since 1997. Regular contributors to Exit! include Robert Kurz (until his death in 2012, although there remains a flow of posthumously published material), Roswitha Scholz, Claus-Peter Ortlieb, Udo Winkel and, more recently, Elmar Flatschart, while frequent contributors to and editors of Krisis include Norbert Trenkle, Ernst Lohoff, Karl-Heinz Lewed, Peter Samol, Stefan Meretz and Julian Bierwirth. Figures associated with Streifzüge include Franz Schandl and Petra Ziegler.
- Robert Kurz, Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus: ein Abgesang auf die Marktwirtschaft, was first published in 1999 (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn) and after several re-editions an expanded, second edition was released in 2009. A PDF of a reset version of the 2002 impression is downloadable from the Exit! . Work is ongoing on an English translation. During his life Kurz wrote more than a dozen monographs, a writing career that began with the publication of Der Kollaps der Modernisierung: Vom Zusammenbruch des Kasernensozialismus zur Krise der Weltökonomie [The Collapse of Modernization: From the Collapse of Barracks Socialism to the Crisis of the World Economy] (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn, 1991).
- Roswitha Scholz’s Das Geschlecht des Kapitalismus: Feministische Theorie und die postmoderne Metamorphose des Patriarchats [The Gender of Capitalism: Feminist Theory and the Postmodern Metamorphosis of Patriarchy] (Bad Honnef: Horlemann, 2000) represents a decisive turn of the critique of value toward its implications for our understanding of the relationship between gender relations and capitalism. Scholz further develops this inquiry in . Perhaps the most significant (and certainly the most timely) collaboration between Ernst Lohoff and Norbert Trenkle is their 2012 analysis of the ongoing crisis, Die Große Entwertung: Warum Spekulation und Staatsverschuldung nicht die Ursache der Krise sind [The Great Devaluation: Why Speculation and Public Borrowing are not the Causes of the Crisis] (Münster: Unrast, 2012). See also Josh Robinson’s review Mediations 27.1-2 (Winter 2014) 365-68.
- Among them, of course, Moishe Postone ranks as the most outstanding. The fact that Postone’s great work, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, continues, despite important critiques undertaken of the latter by both Kurz in Exit! and, more recently, by Lohoff in Krisis, to be perhaps the one monograph-length work most carefully studied and scrupulously cited by Wertkritik — after Marx’s Capital that is — deserves, to be sure, more careful assessment than has been possible in this brief introduction. Postone’s work itself, although increasingly known among Anglophone readers, continues to circulate far more widely in German translation and in Germany itself than in English.
- Both Helmut Reichelt and Hans-Georg Backhaus studied under Adorno in Frankfurt. The appendix to the latter’s account of the dialectic of the value form consists of extracts from a transcript of Adorno’s seminar of summer 1962 on Marx and the fundamental concepts of sociological theory (Dialektik der Wertform: Untersuchung zur Marxschen Ökonomiekritik [Freiburg: Ça ira, 1997] 501–13). A translation of this transcript by Verena Erlenbusch and Chris O’Kane is forthcoming in Historical Materialism.
- See, however, internet-published translations that include a series of shorter items by Kurz that have appeared on libcom.org (at ) and a range of translations at . It is worth noting that the former are mostly translated into English from Spanish translations (possibly themselves translated from the Portuguese) while many but by no means all of the latter come via the French of Wolfgang Kukulies and Anselm Jappe. A particularly significant contributor to this culture of the freely available and widely read translations is Alexander Locascio, who has translated and published on his blog a wide range of texts from the neue Marx-Lektüre, Wertkritik, and from the German speaking critical Marxist left and ultra-left more widely. His translation of Michael Heinrich’s Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Eine Einführung (Stuttgart, Schmetterling: 2004) was published as An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 2012).
- For a sense of Roberto Schwarz’s investment in Wertkritik, see Mediations 27.1-2 (Winter 2014) 357-61. Schwarz has always been centrally interested in the question of combined and uneven development, which is to say in the way capitalism as a total process is experienced and indeed functions differently in diverse local contexts. See Robert Kurz, O Colapso da Modernização: da derrocada do socialismo de caserna à crise da economia mundial, translated by Karen Elsabe Barbosa (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1991).
- Kurz’s concept of recuperative nationalism finds its most extensive exposition in Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus, 206–17, in which he analyses the appeals made to German nationalism by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Gottfried Herder, and above all Friedrich List, and the persistence of these appeals both under actually existing socialism and in twentieth-century development economics. In this dossier the concept is rethought and deployed in essays including Lohoff, ; Lewed, ; and Kurz, and
- Moishe Postone, “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’,” New German Critique 19 (Winter 1980) 97–115. A translation of this essay by Renate Schumacher had previously appeared in the Frankfurt am Main student journal Diskus 3-4 (1979) 425–37.
- On this see in particular Lohoff’s and Trenkle’s account of the role of fictitious capital in the current crisis in Die Große Entwertung: Warum Spekulation und Staatsverschuldung nicht die Ursache der Krise sind (Unrast: Münster, 2012), and Trenkle’s 2008 response to the earliest unfolding of this crisis in translated by Josh Robinson.
- “I mean, Karl Marx had it right, at some point capitalism can destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without not having excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand, and that’s what’s happening. We thought that markets work, they’re not working, and what’s individually rational: every firm wants to survive and thrive and thus slashing labor costs even more — my labor costs are somebody else’s labor income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process. [...] I think that there is a risk that this is the second leg of what happened in the Great Depression. We had a severe economic and financial crisis and then we kicked the can down the road with too much private debt, households, banks, governments, and you cannot resolve this problem with liquidity. At some point when there’s too much debt either you grow yourself out of it, but there is not going to be enough economic growth, it’s anemic, either you save yourself out of it, but if everybody spends less and saves more in the private and public sector you have the Keynesian paradox of thrift: everybody saves more, there is less demand, you go back to recession and that ratio becomes higher. Or you can inflate yourself out of the debt problem, but that has a lot of collateral damage. So if you cannot grow yourself or save yourself or inflate yourself out of an excessive debt problem, you need debt restructure and debt reduction for households, for governments, for financial institutions, for highly leveraged institutions, and we’re not doing it. We’re creating zombie households, zombie banks, and zombie governments and you could have a depression.” Nouriel Roubini, interview with Simon Constable, . Meanwhile Catherine Rampell, writing in March 2009, charts the rise of the phrase “Great Recession,” dating the rapid expansion in its use to December 2008. At the same time, she also observes how “[e]very recession of the last several decades has, at some point or another, received this special designation.” “‘Great Recession’: A Brief Etymology”
NYT Economixblog, March 3, 2013.
- Readers can find full publication information in the . Page numbers in the editors’ note refer to (MCM′, 2014).
- Robert Kurz and Ernst Lohoff,