Off Limits, Out of Control: Commodity Society and Resistance in the Age of Deregulation and Denationalization (2009)

Ernst Lohoff

Part One: The Commodity’s Final and Fatal Victory

The Heteronomy of Politics

From the end of World War I until well into the 1970s it was generally agreed that the future belonged to a market economy modified by state intervention and socially protectionist policies. This was, especially during the post-World War II boom, a perspective shared by all the dominant social and political powers within the centers of the world market. In the 1960s, this program operated in West Germany and Austria under the brand name of the “Social Market Economy” (Soziale Marktwirtschaft) and in the United States under that of the “Great Society.” In neither instance was there any question that the state had to act as a counterweight to the free play of market forces. The welfare state in particular was regarded as a virtual synonym for modernity itself, and on both sides of the Atlantic the politics of reform meant nothing if not the robust will to build such a state.

But this scenario has, in more recent times, been radically overturned. As the leitmotif of the globalized capitalism developing since the 1980s now has it: whereever the state is, there the market shall be. The welfare state in particular, formerly the epitome of progress, has now come to stand for backwardness and ossification. Everyone knows, even in the world market centers themselves, that the very idea of such a state has ceased to play any ideological role whatsoever in mobilizing contemporary mass movements. Since the turn of the millennium, both in continental Europe and in Great Britain and, prior to that, in the United States, decades’ worth of the welfare state’s social accomplishments have been cast overboard with breathtaking speed.

The liquidators of the welfare state and the proponents of privatization and deregulation justify their efforts as long-overdue corrections to politically motivated errors years in the making. Government “over-regulation,” which paralyzes private initiative, conspires with a welfare state that has “grown out of control” to block — so it is said — the path to growth and prosperity. On and on drone the ideological prayer wheels of market economics about the urgent need to eliminate such obstacles.

Defenders of state regulation and of the welfare state’s erstwhile attempt at social redistribution see things differently. It is not the accomplishments of the welfare state but the decision to eliminate the state that produced them that amounts to the error in policy, a policy lacking any interest in the true common good of modern labor society.1 Each of the conflicting parties arrives at a diametrically opposed assessment when it comes to diagnosing ongoing antistatist developments, but the opposing diagnoses themselves nevertheless follow the very same explanatory model. One side is no different from the other when it comes to the fact that both stubbornly treat state regulation solely as a dependent variable governed by political dissension and decision making. The trials and tribulations of political struggle are what stand out here, in the final instance, as the real causative factors for whatever priority, be it low or high, the state is to be accorded in the production and distribution of wealth in commodity society.

The Left variant of this line of argument ought to be familiar enough: labor-protection laws, reduced working hours, standardized wages, and health, accident, unemployment, and retirement/pension benefits (social security) had all been wrested from capitalism through hard-fought class struggles. Today, capital is exploiting the weakness of the organized working class to take back these concessions and reinstate the old-style capitalism of the “Manchester School.”

Such a view of things gets this much right: the struggles of the workers’ movement supplied the essential impetus for the process of building the welfare state. And, by the same token, its subsequent phasing out is also hardly thinkable without the fierce ideological determination of the neoliberal converts assigned the task of digging its grave. But this interpretation goes wrong by treating the decisions governing the political course of action as prima causa. As a result, what is essential falls by the wayside. In taking up the major political concepts at work here, we are already dealing with forms of reacting to and working through underlying structural developments that lie outside of the purview of political action itself. The architects of the welfare state were therefore only able to achieve lasting success because they added something indispensable to the implementation and universalization of the system of capitalist wealth production. And even in the case of today’s purely market-ideology-driven asset strippers, we are confronted with more than an aberration owing to a politically unfavorable balance of forces; upon closer examination, such enterprises reveal themselves as part of a thoroughly logical, intracapitalist response to a deep-seated structural crisis of labor and valorization. The political paradigm shift points to a fundamental contradiction internal to the production of wealth in commodity society: both the movement toward greater statification and that toward destatification are to be grasped as historical forms of development of this internal contradiction.

A Brief Political Economy of the Public Sector

Let us begin with a clarification of the above contradictory relationship at an initially very basic level, namely with the question of what is to be generally understood, according to the logic of capitalism, by wealth. Marx provides an answer right in the two opening sentences of Capital: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form.”2 This definition can also be read in the sense of a “historical mission,” i.e., an immanent historical tendency of the commodity form. Capitalist society is (in this latter sense) characterized by the drive to convert the largest possible portion of the wealth of society into commodities and to convert all producers of wealth into commodity producers. The more consistently a society achieves this, the purer the form of capitalism characterizing it.

As far as the annihilation of traditional, non-monetary forms of social reproduction is concerned, the above-described historical development has remained faithful to the very letter of the commodity’s “historical mission.” In the metropolitan countries at least, such non-monetary societies had either been wiped out or completely marginalized by the twentieth century at the latest. Parallel to this, meanwhile, a new actor had been taking center stage in matters of wealth production: the state. The increase in activities carried out by the state was of course itself an integral part of the larger process of the monetarization and the transformation of all socially valid activity into paid labor. Yet the state itself played no direct part in the process of commodification. The social wealth generated by state activities did not, in point of fact, consist of an additional mass of commodities produced with optimal marketability in mind. Wherever the state provides goods directly or, in the case of their commercial exchange, has its finger in the pot, what it in fact does is to cancel out the exchange of equivalents as the form of social relations subsisting between commodity owners. So what, then, could have prompted commodity society to put in place alongside itself a form of the production and distribution of wealth (the state) so at odds with its own ideal form of wealth production?

The solution to this riddle lies in the particular character that wealth takes on through its transformation into commodities. This transformation binds together in itself two contradictory moments. The elementary unit of capitalist wealth, the individual commodity, thus represents something fundamentally paradoxical, something that might be termed “asocial sociality” (ungesellschaftliche Gesellschaftlichkeit).3

Looked at from one side, the commodity’s rise to dominance as a form of wealth leads to the formation of a highly socialized system with a correspondingly highly developed division of labor. The historical advance of the commodity has as its logical horizon the world market and hence the fusion of production and consumption into one planetary, interconnected whole. Individual producers and commodity subjects act as the (mutually and fully interdependent) members of a gigantic social unit.

At the same time, the reduction of wealth as such to wealth in its commodity form signifies a systematic desocialization. This is so in two respects. On one hand, desocialization is entailed by the domination of the commodity form, under which social relations exist only as relations between things. From this it also follows that, since society simply cannot function without certain directly social relationships, there can only be a place for the latter in a specialized sphere dissociated from the primary one constituted by the actual thinglike social nexus. On the other hand, however, given the metamorphosis of all the manifold relationships to material goods into what now becomes exclusively a relationship to commodities, we are concerned here with a radically desocialized relational context that tolerates no other occupant besides itself within the seemingly limitless universe of commodities. From the standpoint of the producer, the sensory-material qualities of the product together with its social effect and social reality appear totally irrelevant. Only its marketability is of any concern. From the producer’s perspective there is, correspondingly, no difference whatsoever between poison gas and penny candy, or between violent video games and velvet curtains. The buyer can for her part never acquire anything more than isolated end products, the determinate origins and thus the social dimensions of which lie entirely outside her reach. In the end, the commodity subject, situated in an external relation to all commodities in general, remains utterly and completely unrelated to all commodities that she does not happen to encounter as a buyer or seller. It is only with the merest fragment of the commodity cosmos, residing within a veritable nanosphere of the latter, that the commodity subject can, via payment, enter into any relationship at all. Anyone within the commodity universe who falls out of the cycle of buying and selling immediately finds herself in the uncomfortable position of a fish out of water, cut off, within a hypersocialized world, from everything that makes up human existence.

Yet the inner contradiction between total sociability and radical asociality, thought through to its end, leads to nothing short of self-destruction. A society that actually sought to drive absolutely every expression of life through the needle’s eye of the exchange of equivalents would become incapable of self-reproduction. To avoid breaking itself apart, commodity society is bound to desystematize certain components of the social production of wealth, but only so as to subsume them indirectly within the commodity form. This applies first of all to the broad palette of household activities. The indispensable processes that go into the preparation and subsequent adjustments required for personal commodity consumption, together with central aspects of basic social care giving, are relegated to a sphere dissociated from valorization proper. Commodity society relies implicitly on the fact that someone or something, as a rule feminine “invisible hands” ignored by the official bookkeepers, raise children, take care of family members, and run households.

But commodity society relies on more than just this compressed form of immediately social relations, here made up of activities that are carried out at low (or no) cost and require no large-scale or concentrated output. In order to be able to act as commodity subjects, people must find already in place certain general infrastructural preconditions without which their mode of existence is impossible. There can be no individual movement from one place to another without usable roads for these individuals’ private vehicles. No labor power can enter the labor market without first passing through educational institutions and being fitted to the universal cultural standards that are deemed necessary. In order that the very preconditions for existence as a commodity subject should become universally accessible to all potential commodity subjects, these preconditions may not themselves assume commodity form. The further the development of productivity moves forward, the more profoundly, the more differentially scaled, and the more extensive this system of non-commodity infrastructural outlays becomes, to the extent that only the state as abstract universality is in any position to take its maintenance upon itself. 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. Were it not for the emergence of a wide-ranging sector of state-organized wealth production, the victorious onslaught of the primary commodity form of wealth could never have taken place.

In commodity society, wealth always finds social recognition in the same way, namely through its transformation into monetarized relationships. Whatever does not replace itself with the supreme commodity among commodities is an irrelevant moment of merely private satisfaction. Social significance goes wherever money flows.

The expansion of the state sector also finds its place in the larger historical process of monetarization. The state-linked, secondary, variant form of wealth, however, differs decisively from the monetarization that is synonymous with the advance of the commodity. Observed from the perspective of society as a whole, the production of marketable commodities is transparently that which increases monetary wealth. When observed from this same perspective, state-organized wealth production appears, by contrast, as consumption — that is, as consumption by the state. Commodity society’s secondary (state) form of wealth must be fed by commodity wealth in its primary (private) form.

What is, overall, the deficit-like quality of this secondary form of wealth is itself indebted to a fundamental difference in the form of social mediation. Exchange relationships function strictly according to the principle of equivalence. He who wants to be in possession of a commodity must cede its counter-value to the seller, thereby realizing it as a value. In the state sector, however, this principle of equivalence is breached. Here value does not exchange itself for counter-value. Giving and receiving here diverge, at least in part. The first assumes the form of administratively and juridically established obligations to pay (taxes, levies, and so on) and the second the form of legally established claims to payment.

In the case of state activities financed exclusively by taxes and levies and available free of charge to all potential users, this decoupling of giving and receiving is complete. But even public infrastructure for which monetary payment is binding is in no way subject to the principle of equivalence. This applies not only to public utilities operating at a loss but also and just as much to those which operate at a profit. Their very infrastructural character, their focus on a comprehensive level of service, no matter the mandated area of responsibility, finds its juridical expression in a universal duty to provide such service. Public enterprises are obliged, independent of whatever the particular costs of its provision, to offer every citizen their service or product for an identical sum of payment. In lieu of price, what we have here is the charging of a fee.

Commodity society rests on the basis of one particular commodity, that of labor power. The valorization of value is a system dependent upon human material compatible with valorization. Among the general preconditions for commodity production which it is therefore the task of the state to guarantee is not only access to the commodity of labor-power, but also the maintenance of this commodity at a level of quality that matches the highest attained level of productivity.

This task coincides in part with the state’s ability to supply common infrastructural needs. Current, future, and former sellers of labor power also, as do all other categories of commodity owners, make use of the educational system, of the transportation network, of cultural facilities — not to mention such things as the public water supply. But to the same extent that the owner of labor power rises to the dominant position among all other categories of commodity owners, there falls to the state as regulatory agent yet another function resulting from the special character of the dominant, labor-power commodity. It is this that obliges the state to become a social or welfare state in the narrower sense of the word.

Whoever is in possession of the commodity of labor power enjoys a twofold freedom. Like any other commodity subject she can dispose freely of her commodity and may even take her own hide to market. At the same time, the owner of this commodity is also freed of all possible modes of self-reproduction that could spare her that trip. This second freedom means nothing other than the structural compulsion to work.

The structural compulsion to work, meanwhile, does not always guarantee the possibility that the owner of labor power will be able to live off the proceeds of its sale. Existence as a seller of labor power is, it so happens, bound up with certain routine risks in the individual lives of such salespersons. The ability to work can be lost intermittently (as in the case of illness), or on a continuing basis (as in the case of old age or occupational disability), or it may, temporarily, fail to find anyone able or willing to put it to use. Against the occurrence of such risks, the welfare state and its mandatory insurance programs organize alternative revenue sources and thereby provide the displaced owners of labor power with a secondary, substitute form of access to the wonderful world of commodities. But the welfare state’s socially redistributive policies have never, as a matter of principle, overridden the structural compulsion to work. On the contrary. For one thing, the duration and scope of welfare-state services are as a rule tied to wage income calculated in advance as a sum still to be generated; for another, in the case of all who are officially able to work, officially monitored readiness for work always takes the place of actual work itself. Where readiness for work begins and where it ends certainly leaves considerable room for interpretation. A certain easing of the strict compulsion to sell oneself always represents a kind of collective hedging against the dangers of existence as such for the sellers of labor power.

The Market’s Pyrrhic Victory

Along with the triumphal march of commodity society in the twentieth century came the advance of the state. This was the only conceivable way that the glaring internal contradiction of “asocial sociality” could find even a provisional resolution. But this provisional resolution had a catch. It functions unproblematically only as long as the mass of value-producing labor — that is, labor in its self-objectifying, commodity form — continues to grow. But, no later than the revolution in microelectronics, a depletion of the labor substance (i.e., of the substance of value itself) becomes evident in the core industrial sectors. The discrepancy between continuous increases in the cost of maintaining necessary infrastructural supports and the shrinkage of the value-productive core itself leads to a structural crisis in the financing of the activist, “social” state. Commodity society is now threatened with being crushed by its own faux frais.

The crisis of labor society does not only create problems as far as financing the state’s general array of public services is concerned. At the same time it undermines and renders more pliable what had until then been the statutes governing the practical services required of the state itself. The immediate and primary effect here is to raise the question of what, in any genuine sense, the welfare state now represents.

Commodity society in the age of Fordist mass labor can be described as a form of community based on repressive integration. As previously suggested in this context, the welfare state achieved its real prominence as an instrument both for making labor power fully accessible to the market and for enabling its flexibilization. Its construction was one of the indispensable preconditions for the individualizing or atomizing of universal social welfare provisions and for the suppression of precapitalist forms of reproduction resting on traditional family-based self-sufficiency. Without this protection against the routine dangers that constitute the existence of those who must sell their own labor power, people would hardly have been disposed to enter quite so willingly into this mode of existence.

In light of the crisis in Fordist labor society, more and more superfluous human material — superfluous in the capitalist sense, that is — falls under the jurisdiction of the welfare state. Yet with the change in its clientele, the respective functions of the welfare state’s integrative and disciplinary mechanisms within the system of capitalist valorization begin to diverge. The welfare state’s social safeguards, until now considered to be part of future as well as the current costs of enabling the productive exploitation of labor power, threaten to become, from the standpoint of capitalism as a whole, yet another of those notorious “misallocated resources.” From the perspective of the local communities that begin to take the place of the national economy, the constant investment of scarce monetary resources in people from whom any corresponding return is scarcely to be expected is a “luxury.” The “generosity” with which those “let go” were carried over until being rehired — under the premise that their having been let go was simply the temporarily conferred status of being a potential labor and commodity subject honoris causa — loses its material basis. The welfare state mutates into an authority in charge of selection and exclusion, one that must make the cut between valorizable and unvalorizable human material. If the logic of commodity society is thought through to its bitter end, there remains for the latter of these two types of human material only existence as a monetary subject without money.

The creation of fictitious capital provided the dynamic mechanism necessary to manage and carry forward the underlying crisis of post-Fordist labor society in the 1980s and 1990s. Anticipating the profitable utilization of future labor served as the substitute fuel for the flagging exploitation of actual, present-tense labor and kept the valorization machine running and, in appearance, moving forward. The hopes of casino capitalism found their material basis first and foremost in the new communications technologies. In this field, a new, additional gigantic infrastructure emerged which was supposed to generate provides for the private economic sphere.

The crash of the New Economy, however, delivered its verdict on the above, in double form. Firstly, that, over time, the trick of burning unmined coal comes to nothing. Secondly, that the attempt to turn the investment of substantial sums in the new communications infrastructure into the gold of saleable commodities has strict limits.

But of course the disaster did not herald the end of efforts to privatize the infrastructure. Prompted by the precarious financial conditions of state-held assets, what changed was more a matter of shifting the focus of the enterprise. In place of the capitalizing of unsecured future expected earnings, attention turned increasingly to another means of reheating the economy, less ephemeral than “unmined coal.” What had been the state-owned and state-supplied general, material means required for all present and future social reproduction were now primed to be transformed into robustly profitable commodities. And it is the latter that now suddenly offer themselves up as combustible material ready to be thrown into the open maws of the profit engines, while whatever refuses to let go of its combustion value is ballast to be thrown overboard.

Our own present-day capitalism effaces the difference between the infrastructural preconditions of commodity production and commodity production tout court. This variant of capitalist accumulation models itself on a scene straight out of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The steamer that is to take the hero Phileas Fogg across the Atlantic and back to England runs out of coal too early. Fogg thereupon convinces the captain and crew to burn the ship itself piece by piece so that the boiler can keep up a head of steam.

What consequences does the adoption of Fogg’s method have for commodity society?

The argument as it has been developed above already gives us the answer in its fullest and most fundamental sense: the commodity represents nothing other than the paradox of asocial sociality. In order that, despite this inner contradiction, the general social parameters that are the precondition of commodity society can be rendered secure, a secondary, state-organized form of wealth must take up its place alongside commodity production. But when the state’s contribution to wealth production is converted into commodities, they lose the safeguard provided by the state. Here the advance of the commodity pushes society rapidly towards its own dissolution. The exclusion of those whose labor power can no longer be valorized, the dismantling of the social safety net so as gradually to turn over all responsibility for provision of care to the market — all this proves itself upon closer examination to consist of partial moments in a much more sweeping and generalized process of desocialization.

What the details of such desocialization turn out to be after a given time is dependent on the specific state-organized social programs and services, responsibility for which is currently being turned over to the market. But when it is a question of the most basic and universal infrastructural operations, such as transportation, electrical utilities, the water supply, the mail, and, above all, the further question of the infrastructural goods and services produced by such operations, a problem arises. Pure market relations are not universal but particular relations between the two separate parties to an exchange. The commodity seller never enters into relation with the entirety of all exchange partners, but rather only into as many profitable individual relationships as possible. But such relations collide with the comprehensive and generalized character of infrastructure. Privatization leads unavoidably to cherry-picking and concentration of the supply of goods within core areas of profitability. Economic logic cannot resist neglecting or shutting down lines of production that either do not pay or do so only conditionally. Coupling the privatization of infrastructure with legally stipulated commitments to provide basic care leads, under the banner of cost optimization, to a constant tendency to bid down to nothing the very meaning of basic care and social welfare.

For a functioning infrastructure, reliability of supply is worth a great deal. Such reliability is tied to reserves. The mechanism of valorization as a whole is dependent on the fact that, in the case of electrical, water, and communications infrastructure, potential can be distinguished from actually existing capacity. Maintaining such a difference, however, is a direct slap in the face for economic logic. This logic knows and wants to know only the commandment of minimizing the cost of each individual commodity. Profit maximization implies the minimization of the difference between the potential and actual efficiency of infrastructural systems. But that necessarily leads to a lack of flexibility during the fluctuations and disruptions affecting such systems. Where the market forces its logic onto infrastructure, periodic collapses are as good as preprogrammed. In this regard, the power outages in the United States during the summer of 2003, for example, demonstrated quite clearly the social price exacted by the private sector’s drive to minimize costs when this drive invades infrastructural enterprises.

Using the services provided by public infrastructure has also involved and in most cases continues to involve a cost. Anyone who has water and electricity provided at home or who uses public transportation still has to pay when a public company provides these products and services. The obligation to pay here takes the form of a fee. If the same infrastructure is turned over to the market, the monetary relationship changes, and a price takes the place of the fee. What changes as a result? In the eyes of a public company that is a contractual supplier, all whom it supplies are equal. In principle, the fee does not recognize any difference between bigger and smaller consumers and it is usually constant over a longer time period. Things look different when there is a price. The latter, in principle, prefers bigger customers and shows significant fluctuations.

Privatization was and is sold to the public as a way of getting rid of bureaucracy. Competition and a profit-seeking outlook ostensibly ensure that the most customer-friendly companies with the most attractive level of service will ultimately prevail in the marketplace. Instead, competition between privatized infrastructure providers after the elimination of state monopolies is the guarantee of a hopeless tangle and confusion concerning what is for sale and what it costs. Buying infrastructural goods and services becomes a full-time job for those really interested in finding the best price. The outsourcing of various subdivisions of problem solving and compliance to subcontractors creates confusion about administrative responsibility that in retrospect makes the earlier pedantic state operation look like a refuge of transparency and efficiency — a transition that also occasionally involves life-threatening risks for its new clientele.

The commodification process also seizes hold of health insurance and old-age pensions. In answer to the financial plight inflicted upon such basic social security programs by the crisis of post-Fordist labor society the slogan of the day has become: “personal responsibility.” Translation: turn over responsibility for your fate to market forces. What are the consequences of this shifting of responsibility? Two are immediately obvious. First: if what was formerly financed out of the employer’s share of payroll deductions and other taxes is now to be paid out of an individual worker’s wages, the costs of reproducing labor power as a commodity will, on average, go up. Second: many people are in no actual position to undertake these additional expenditures. For the younger generation in particular, the level of public provision for basic needs and of accumulated pension benefits sinks dramatically. Not only unemployment but the other two routine dangers in the typical experience of all who must sell their own labor power, old age and illness, repeat the same story: poverty.

That the advance of the market into the sphere of welfare benefits makes it harder for more and more people to have any share in them is a fact due mainly to successive changes in the mode of access to such benefits. The establishment of the welfare state meant the partial decoupling of the individual beneficiary’s level of contribution from the general provision of benefits and, at the same time, the grouping together of insured individuals with different degrees of risk into what were, for monetary purposes, forms of association based on shared liability. Precisely these two aspects of the welfare state’s celebrated forms of communities of solidarity were done away with by the accelerating intervention of market forces. The latter led, in the first instance, to the inevitable practice of sorting good from bad levels of risk. It became obligatory for those with a higher individual probability of claiming an insurance benefit to pay for the latter with higher individual premiums. Add to this the fact that the principle of equivalence itself disallows the practice of extending the same insurance benefit in exchange for differing premiums. Social security policies financed through worker and employer contributions were of the greatest benefit to those at lower income levels. The privileged treatment once accorded to the latter falls victim to the onslaught of the principle of equivalence.

This systemic change comes to light most noticeably in the health insurance service. In the competition between public, legally instituted and private health insurers, two opposed interpretations of equality confront each other. Public health insurance providers stand for the principle of equal access for all insured persons. “Personal responsibility,” as the new slogan for private insurers in the medical field, advances the sacred principle of equivalence in its quest to achieve legitimacy. Health mutates from a universally accessible good to a commodity that one must be able to afford. The trend towards cutting people off from health care may trigger some amount of outrage; but all the while the underlying logic of such a trend can even become a kind of advertising slogan in places like this. (Delusional systems are always consistent.) At any rate, not so long ago a major German insurance company advertised with the following slogan: “It’s all the same to a tooth-decay bacterium how much you earn. The same goes for a supplementary health insurance policy from Allianz.”

Part Two: Fightback

What distinguishes present-day capitalism is the split between sensory-material and monetary forms of wealth. For commodity society, moreover, it is only insofar as wealth attains representational form as abstract labor that it has a right to existence. And yet this transformation itself becomes more and more problematic. Market radicalism is at the same time both an ideological reflex of and a form of processing this deep-seated, inescapable, and systemic contradiction. Yet with its widely implemented programs of commodification and deregulation, such market radicalism still cannot confront the fact that the general requirements of commodity production can now be organized only at the cost of social disruptions even more severe than the harsh demands made by contemporary commodity production itself. Capitalism had, with good reason, always assigned the task of such organization to the state as total capitalist. The market-radical concept is, by comparison, sheer hallucination when it comes to perceiving the difference — thinking again here of Phileas Fogg — between the engine itself and the fuel that it burns: for it makes what is tantamount to the structural attempt to keep the ship that is commodity society under steam a while longer through successive acts of self-combustion.

Market-Radical Ideology and Capital’s Systemic Imperative

Throughout the entire history of capitalism, the ideas that have won out and gained decisive influence in conflicts over ideological orientation have been those that, after their own fashion, best reflected the overall logic of the system and the historically most advanced level of internal contradictions achieved by capitalist society at any given moment of its development. As forms of fetishized awareness, however, such dominant ideas were never simply the translation of real-time systemic imperatives onto the level of functional immediacy. No given political tendency or world view is ever exhausted in a set of purely executive functions. The same applies to the presently dominant “free market” and “every-man-for-himself” ideological frenzies. Those who proclaim the latter have, ironically, become today’s most enthusiastic imitators of paleo-Marxism’s erstwhile historical teleology: just as the Second International’s adherents believed they had the iron necessity of history to back them up, so today’s market radicals speak in swaggering tones of “unavoidable constraints” as they implement programs for dismantling the state.

Such self-understanding, however, soon becomes a diversion from what actually supplies the electrical charge for market radicalism’s ideological circuitry. The “free market” and “every-man-for-himself” mania reveals itself most unmistakably, as do all ideologies, in its moments of excess, of overshooting the mark. Yet, as the present epoch’s salvational religion, market radicalism takes on, over and above this, and in the worst possible sense, a visionary and utopian character that accesses reality as a whole, as though making a package deal of itself in both an ideal and a no less real sense. (In its claim to being a program for world transformation, market radicalism has almost cast itself as the rightful heir to socialism itself.) The market radicals are not mere crisis administrators. The nature of their ideology, combining social Darwinism with a work ethic so severe as to be a kind of terrorism, drives its own adherents towards its overfulfillment and hence to a completely one-sided but thereby, ironically, also a highly coherent understanding of contemporary capitalism’s systemic imperatives.

Herein consists both the strength and the weakness of the market-radical project. On one hand, in its contempt for reality, market radicalism, more than almost any of the projects for world transformation that have preceded it, refuses to swerve from a path of completely foreseeable damage and destruction. Forcing its way through social reality, the steamroller of the market radicals’ drive for world betterment leaves behind it one heap of rubble after another. Market radicalism’s ideological overhaul of all that precedes it, however, thereby continuously brings into existence new flanks of attack and social battlefields. Not only does the project of social self-combustion as a whole show itself, even from capital’s own immanent standpoint, to be made up of (to put it mildly) dysfunctional traits; the same can be said of all its individual undertakings as well.

On the other hand, the total and merciless identification with the pure logic of money positions the market radicals, as the only force still occupying the generalized ground of commodity society, as thereby also the only such force able both to provide a coherent interpretation of and perspective on the world — and the only force from which any claim to universality can be expected. (Racist ideologies, by contrast, relinquish such claims to universality.) In view of this capacity, the transitions toward outright sacrifice demanded by market radicalism’s new doctrine of salvation, having formerly entered into competition with neo-Keynesian concepts of crisis management, turn into what is almost an argument in their own favor. For whatever does not at present cause any harm, can in the long run — so the market-radical logic will have it — be of no real help. With market radicalism an ideology comes into play in which, out of their own sheer, abject need, open machine-gunnings and summary executions can be sold to the slain as collateral damage that they themselves have, perforce, already accepted out of what appears to be well-understood, long-term self-interest.

This peculiar dialectic does not show the way to its own, immanent breakup. To oppose it and to occupy, in an emancipatory spirit, the many separate fields of conflict that it opens up, demands a counter-positioning that, for its part, also draws on a universal standpoint, and does so in a manner that sets forth a fundamental critique of the system.

There is no successful resistance without a vision with which to counter “free market” madness.

Commodity society makes all people into commodity and money subjects without distinction. Correspondingly, so as to wrestle over a larger share of social wealth while still resting on the ground of the existing order, all emancipatory currents had to transform themselves into or merge with existing mechanisms for asserting and enforcing banal, competitive self-interests. Striving to let go of their commodity only under the best possible conditions puts the vendors of the labor-power commodity in league with all other categories of commodity owners. In the struggle over social distribution, a recipient of social security payments is, after all, no less enamored of his money than is any given capitalist. And yet, the history of capitalism has, strictly speaking, yet to see a single struggle for improved living conditions that could be reduced to nothing more than the mere putting into effect of vulgar, competitively driven self-interests. The accomplishment of even the most modest collective achievements always presupposes a partial suspension of competition within capitalism’s “human resources.” All the social struggles arising from within the dominant competitive society have survived by forming an image of themselves in opposition to such a society, however vague it may have been. Yet with the fading of these counter-images they have also lost their vehement edge, and, far and wide, what was once their oppositionality loses all force.

In the age of the workers’ movement, the idea of the expropriation of the expropriators — that is, the vision of seizing the great machine of labor and submitting it to the solidarity-based rule of the proletariat — served as a source of power. Yet, with the passing of that age, its corresponding image of another, different society has become profoundly exhausted. The discontent that has greeted the general offensive of market radicalism cannot transform itself into a new emancipatory countermovement until a new, more far-reaching dream takes the place of the one that has faded. The process of forming new solidarities requires that the thought of the direct appropriation of social wealth and of its productive powers becomes, itself, socially contagious. The labor and valorization machine monopolizes all resources for itself while at the same time finding less and less use for the resources of human capital, with the result that even in the metropolitan centers the more or less tolerable conditions of servitude cannot be scraped together. The adequate emancipatory response to this situation can only be the desire to dismantle the labor machine that is suffocating on its own abundance of goods. Only the counter-image arising from the radical critique of commodity society from the ground up will allow for an offensive redrawing of the social battle lines. If both the market and the mechanical demiurge of the state declare that the majority of people are superfluous, do they demonstrate anything other than their own superfluity? Society must free itself from the structural compulsion to reduce all wealth to commodity wealth and all social relations to juridical and commodity relations. For the production of goods this means the transition to a direct social reproduction oriented solely toward criteria of sensuous need, a reproduction that functions without the detours of money and state.

Needless to say, the counter-perspective cannot be translated into a mere program of ad hoc appropriation. It aims rather at profound and correspondingly long-term processes of radical upheaval. Without such a far-reaching outlook and sense of direction, however, the opponents of market radicalism not only remain at a disadvantage, but are also condemned to being worn out in blindly defensive skirmishes.

A Priori Obedience and the Paradigm of Financial Feasibility

In this respect, the current situation actually speaks a completely unambiguous language. The initial phase of grandiose neoliberal euphoria and optimism dating back to the 1980s and early 1990s has subsided.4 However, despite — or rather, precisely because of — the crisis of casino capitalism, all the predominant social forces reveal themselves to be more committed than ever to the market-radical program. The world over, commodification and privatization are the absolute watchwords and demands of the hour. In order that growth and employment become possible again, the market and personal responsibility must finally replace the state’s duty to provide across-the-board care, so it is claimed everywhere. The implementation of this program leaves in its wake a broad swathe of social devastation and provokes resistance and protests. Indeed, in a few countries, the waves of new atrocities are already bringing millions of people onto the streets. And yet the opponents of market-radical rampages remain at a disadvantage in the social array of conflicting forces, and, in the battle for public opinion, hopelessly positioned on the defensive — and this remains so the world over.

The fundamental premises of what now passes as social criticism also bear a decisive share of the responsibility for this intolerable situation. Drawing on what are essentially the nostalgic reminiscences of Fordist capitalism under the protection of the welfare state, the opponents of market radicalism assume as self-evident what also holds as self-evident for the market radicals: social reproduction can only ever be the waste product of successful valorization on all levels of society and of the accumulation of monetary wealth. And sharing just as much in the dominant market-radical consensus, market radicalism’s opponents also treat monetary wealth and material wealth as coextensive. But whoever operates with these axioms performs, against his own intention, a premature act of obedience to the deadly logic of commodity society. Neo-Keynesian arguments stubbornly repeat this, as if only the proof that capitalist growth could be attained in some other manner, with many fewer victims, could legitimate opposition to market-radical rampages. By supposing that the problem of “but where are we going to find the money?” can in fact be solved by the application of its concepts, neo-Keynesianism has already allowed itself to be knocked out of the ring by market radicalism, whose arguments it has already conceded as the criterion of all criteria, thus also acknowledging the overall primacy of the logic of money and profit. It is thus always already on the road to defeat. In the struggle between what are essentially competing hallucinatory systems, the market radicals, in keeping both feet planted on the ground of this logic, will always hold the winning cards.

Commodity society is faced with two tasks that are increasingly irreconcilable with one another. As a system, it is compelled to translate all wealth into its accumulable, monetary form. At the same time, it must face the necessity for preserving the capacity for social reproduction and must prevent any relapse into a situation of lawlessness and anomie. The opposition is ill-advised to deny the structural irreconcilability of the former with the latter simply in order to uphold some putatively alternative formula for valorizing the total social capital in opposition to that of the market radicals. Instead of wasting energy on trying to pass off dubious monetary concepts as plausible, whether to themselves or to its exalted public, the opposition would be better off concentrating on questions of sensuous-material (as opposed to abstract monetary) wealth, along with the very capacity for social reproduction, and making these questions, which have been stricken from the public record by the market radicals under the aegis of a new social Darwinism, the central locus of debate. Whoever consistently works out the direct and indirect costs of market-radical spending cuts and denounces merciless, unrelenting commodification as a program for social suicide is surely under no compulsion to turn around and argue for a form of resistance to such cuts that is obliged to remain compatible with the system of self-valorizing value. The question of legitimacy ought rather to be addressed offensively from the outset. If the present-day capitalist order no longer intends to provide for social reproduction, what possible reason could there be for kowtowing before its logic?

Unlearning the four basic arithmetic operations out of respect for the sacred cow of money is not — what a surprise — the starting point of emancipatory thought, nor is fantasizing that one is the greater expert at manning the control panel of capitalism’s total business operations. When confronted with the paradigm of financial feasibility (“but where are we going to find the money?”) as the criterion of all criteria, emancipatory thinking begins by hitting the delete key. That social security and the general preservation of the preconditions of social reproduction itself should have ceased to be affordable can only become an argument against, say, medical care and public education in the lunatic world of market radicalism. What can be said of the notion that public infrastructure and the life prospects of millions of people must be sacrificed for the sake of a desperate attempt to balance state budgets? Only that it is madness, deserving only aggressive and purposeful incomprehension. Submitting such basic social needs to monetary calculation is tantamount to social suicide and speaks only to the need to uproot the social psychosis embedded in such grotesque procedures.

When the question of what (according to market radicalism) is and is not affordable is viewed in terms of its systematic function instead of being taken at its word, it becomes clear that it is designed to exclude all others, and has always already answered itself in the negative. The only thing that can stand up to such an over-the-top ideology is a relentless negativity ready to go double or nothing, staking everything by making the problem of wealth in its sensuous-material form — and of the social and cultural relationships that mediate sensuous-material wealth — into its single crucial and pivotal question. It must do this in such a way as, so to speak, to remain demonstratively ambivalent towards the imperatives of the existing system, going, ab initio, beyond the significance they have been accorded by commodity society. It is only under the conditions of crisis capitalism that the fundamental struggle over the question of what is actually comprehended within the category of wealth opens up a direct passage to a fully emancipatory formulation of social conflict.

The Struggle Over the Assets of a Bankrupt State

In commodity society only a single criterion separates those activities and goods that are a part of social wealth from those that are not recognized as such — that of their saleability. If paying customers are found for poison gas, its production is counted as part of social wealth; unpaid childcare, in contrast, is not. As set forth in the first part of this essay, there is only one way that commodity society can circumvent this structural blindness and ensure that the general conditions of social reproduction — indispensable, at least, for its own successful operation — are subsequently met: through the intervention of state power. The market-radical project has now trained its gunsights on precisely this restricted form of taking sensuous-material needs into consideration. On one hand, the barriers previously erected by state authorities against the destructive consequences of unregulated competition (environmental legislation, working conditions, regulating the hours of commercial operation) are supposed to disappear. On the other hand, with its demand for restrictions on expenditure and for universal commodification, the business of deregulation targets the redistributive power of the state, insofar as the latter, in the guise of the welfare state, attempts retrospectively to temper the results of total competition. Any opposition that posits a material-sensuous redefinition of social wealth and its corresponding forms of social relations against the dictatorship of abstract monetary wealth can only be formed in frontal opposition to this development. It cannot avoid intervening in the conflict over the power of the state to redistribute wealth, nor can it shy away from raising, in opposition to the market-radical proposal for focusing all state spending on sectors immediately relevant to valorization, demands of its own that run counter to the savaging of social needs imposed by the demands of the market. As long as the bulk of social wealth is forced through the needle’s eye of money, these demands must also, inevitably, take on monetary form as well.

This could at first glance appear as a departure from the basic orientation just set forth for a fundamental critique of money and the state. But a second glance already shows that this is no longer the case. While reformist policies want to take and restore the decomposing state role of the machine operator as an ineluctable social norm, an oppositional movement that struggles for the redefinition of social wealth takes the redistributive power of the state merely as a de facto starting point. The “no” to market radicalism does not imply a “yes” to the glory of the state — in the long term, the struggle is much more concerned with its assets. Will those aspects of public infrastructure that were built up over 150 years be burned down by the market economy in a very short time, or will it be possible to keep out of the oven of valorization the moments of state infrastructure that are worth saving so that a social movement of appropriation can successively occupy and renovate them and then organize them anew, divorced from the function of the machine operator?

What Does Sustainable Mean?

For the time being, public discussion is constrained by the terms of the well-known (or infamous) paradigm of financial feasibility. Emancipatory thought can only confront the poverty of the state finances with offensive ambivalence and insist on the primacy of other criteria.

The struggle over the question of financial feasibility can also be understood as a fight over the meaning of the concept of sustainability. In the 1970s it was once said that those currently alive were abusing the future of the generations to come. What was meant was the destruction of the ecological foundations. Today, the demand “don’t squander our children’s future” does nothing more than legitimate restrictive fiscal policy. The demand is that current social wealth, guaranteed by the state, be sacrificed on the altar of a fictitious monetary future. High time to direct the focus of the concept of the future back on sensuous-material questions, only this time conceived more broadly.

The refusal to recognize the question of financial feasibility as the question of all questions certainly ought not to be confused with the plea for an absolute increase in state spending, and has nothing to do with any sort of orientation toward demand. This difference is already important insofar as the state that has been calibrated on competition between locations is even in times of crisis by no means fundamentally sworn to a restrictive overall fiscal policy, at least not in the centers of the world market. This is significant not only for the distant future, but also for the struggles of the coming years. In practical terms, the transition to an excessive, market-Keynesian deficit policy, also on the foundation of market radicalism, is already looming (in Europe) or has even already been implemented (in the United States). This, however, implies a change, sooner or later, including with respect to the struggle for public opinion. It is possible that soon the debate in credit-worthy states will be less concerned with whether large-scale public borrowing should be pursued, but rather to what end, and to what end the monetary means should be directed. Should the still-enormous redistributive state power in the metropolises be concentrated on areas of expenditure that are held to be relevant for the renewal of the illusions of capitalist growth? Are these societies willing to accept the huge advance costs of elite universities and futureless future industries at a time when the remaining social infrastructure is neglected?

The left-wing neo-Keynesian politics of demand does not have at its disposal any theoretically justifiable criterion for distinguishing between good and bad state expenditure. In the Keynesian framework it makes no difference, as far as growth promotion is concerned, whether the state supports demand by means of the senseless digging and filling-in of holes, increased military expenditure, or social good deeds.5 In a situation in which the opposition also changes its opinion with respect to demand-policies under different auspices, left-wing Keynesianism necessarily begins to lose control with respect to its argumentation. At the same time, it falls into an ideal relationship of mutual liability with its opponent with respect to the foreseeable consequences of such a turn (processes of devaluation, which effect the medium of money itself). In contrast, emancipatory thought, which from the outset shifts material-sensuous questions to the center rather than treating material and immaterial goods as fundamentally exchangeable bearers of precarious growth effects, loses none of its capacity to formulate social conflict. Both the market-Keynesianism of tomorrow and the constellation of the day after tomorrow, which will probably also be essentially characterized by inflationary processes, are from the outset tailor-made for this form of critique.

Against the Standpoint State

State violence exerts a varying influence on the beautiful world of competition between commodity owners, and thus on total social reproduction, in three ways. First, as the state of command and proscription it prevents, to an extent, individualist capitalist agents from, in accordance with the logic of externalization of economic cost, summarily running workers and natural resources without regard to future cost. This it accomplishes through universal conditions and regulations such as environmental legislation and worker protection. At the same time it restricts the actors of particular commodity markets (drugs, weapons) via juridical means and prevents their free-market economic development. Secondly, the welfare state as redistribution guarantees revenue to replace and supplement earned income for groups of people defined according to particular biographical circumstances.6 Thirdly, and finally, state authorities or state-financed institutions appear as producers of infrastructural goods (transportation networks and educational institutions).

In its polemic against these three variants of state intervention, market radicalism advances an extremely monotonous logic. Nothing has ever occurred to the hardcore theory of neoliberalism but the abolition of bureaucratic barriers and relentlessly delivering both infrastructure and the guarantee of livelihood over to the market. Market-radical practice, however, proceeds in a more nuanced manner. It accepts, as a rule, that the prevention of public blood and thunder requires certain restrictions to market freedom, even if the perceptions of what measures are necessary for this vary from country to country.7 Wherever state intervention in regional competition leads directly to an advantage, it is in case of doubt not only permitted, but even eagerly desired.

Even the emancipatory camp can, however, make selective reference to the previous function of the state. But the criteria according to which it will prioritize infrastructure tasks may diametrically oppose the choices at which the apologists for the market economy arrive in their refrain that “we are strengthening our competitive position.” While the market radicals back massive support for elite universities, an emancipatory position will instead discover what is worthy of preservation in the idea of universal education. The market radicals forward the case for unconditional competition between all transport systems. Appropriate to this is the state-subsidized development of unmanned, energy- and land-monopolizing bullet trains, which would enter into competition with airplanes, and like them would be confined to links between large cities. From an emancipatory perspective it seems more desirable to guarantee a comparatively environmentally friendly and above all comprehensive rail system that could thus be used as an alternative to private transport.

Sensuous-Material Criteria and the Monotony of Money

Commodity society disposes over an absolute means of judging the justification for the two branches of the production of material wealth: their economic profitability. The market-radicals want to see this naïve yardstick deployed with respect to all infrastructural goods, even if this means that their comprehensive character and the assurance of supply is destroyed. The necessity of a facility can be derived from the magnitude of the yield.

A society oriented toward sensuous, material, and social needs would not recognize such an unambiguous, objectified standard. This is all the more the case for social movements which are formed in the confrontation with the insanity of commodity society. A certain provisional hierarchy might even distill itself out since completely different successes in mobilization will emerge from the struggle over a way of securing the production of wealth, which is not subjugated to the diktat of profitability. Priorities are de facto established when people show themselves either willing to commit themselves and build up social pressure together, or to let things be.

Admittedly, an abstractly more universal measure must be lacking with respect to needs, so the forms of production for which an oppositional movement of appropriation is heading cannot be reduced to a simple common denominator. A liberated society does not subordinate the organization of the production of wealth to any binding counter-principle for the sake of minimizing economic costs. Rather, it sounds out how differing aims (minimal use of resources, stimulating and low-stress conditions for the immediate producers, long-lasting final product) can best be aligned in different sectors of (re)production. A transcontinental transport network cannot be organized by the same method as local vegetable production or a cultural organization. It is ultimately the specific insanity of our current society that establishes enforced conformity as it subordinates all areas under the logic of money.

Sensuous-material differences are inevitably also expressed in struggle over the configuration of the production of wealth. It will be difficult to transfer an extended, highly complex system of infrastructure (electricity provision, transport networks) from its current state into self-organization. A social movement that opposes the insanity of the market will tend, particularly when it comes to the infrastructural services that have traditionally been organized as an activity of the state, to be content initially to make demands, while in other areas (the production of knowledge) it is already showing what it is capable of.8 A form of state activity that, under compulsion from anti-political pressure, does not conform to competitive logic inevitably has a shimmering character. Dependent on the monetary power of the state, it remains reliant on the business of commodity society in its mobilization of resources. At the same time, anti-political pressure wants to compel the state, as a producer of wealth, to guarantee the security of particular public-universal goods independently of its role as machine operator.

Principle of Equivalence Versus Free Access

It would be absurd for a social movement oriented toward sensuous-material criteria to aspire to a unified form of the production of wealth. However, with respect to the mode of access, things look somewhat different. Commodity society binds every share in social wealth to the principle of the exchange of equivalents. A horizontal movement of appropriation must thus raise in opposition the demand for free access.

Of course, the prospects of implementing this principle in the foreseeable future vary considerably from commodity to commodity. Defense is fundamentally easier than offense. Saving services which the state traditionally offers at no cost (free provision of textbooks, public streets) from commodification is one thing, the decommodification of things such as electricity, gas, or public transport quite another.

A social movement will, in resisting the market-radical ideal of the universal exchange of equivalents, have to content itself again and again with partial successes, and also for the time being to accept less-exclusionary forms of monetary access. Between the alternatives of “unaffordable for the majority” and “freely accessible” are many intermediate steps. A health-care system with income-dependent payments but comprehensive treatment provided to the same extent for everybody is certainly more desirable than the truncated insurance propagated by the neoliberals.

The advocates of free access certainly have on their side an argument that is particularly attractive because it borrows from neoliberal discourse: the rejection of bureaucracy. Nothing is as unbureaucratic and as good value to society as free access to social goods. No fences, no tollbooths. Nothing is as unclear and overcomplicated as highly individualized charges. Above all, the attempt to reintroduce a social element into an insurance system that has been restructured in the direction of the idiocy of equivalence leads to situations which make the old actually existing socialism seem in comparison a stronghold of rationality.

The orientation toward free access by no means leads to an idea of self-service which would blindly accept capitalist wealth in its material structure. The question as to what sort of production can be considered desirable in the first place must be discussed in strict separation from the conditions of access. After the automobilization of society, there are good reasons to introduce an de-automobilization. However, an emancipatory perspective can have nothing to do with the drive to maintain private transport as the preserve of better earners while the socially weak are made to walk or to get on their bike. If countries such as China or India were to catch up with the degree of motorization in the United States, it would without doubt have catastrophic consequences for the environment. But this is only an argument against automobile society as a whole, and not for the exclusion from it of these parts of the world. The acutely justified critique of high-tech medicine in no way legitimates the curtailment of medical services. The content of social standards must be investigated and determined anew. But from an emancipatory perspective, standards must always be universally accessible.

Decommodification and Guaranteed Income

Our point of departure was that contemporary capitalism is characterized by the divergence of sensuous-material and monetary wealth. In the face of this irreversible development, an emancipatory perspective on society as a whole can now only consist in the gradual decommodification and demonetarization of social relationships, and in the transition to a production of wealth that is directly socialized and that follows only sensuous-material criteria. The problem of scarcity disappears along with the needle’s eye of money and exchange.

As a perspective on society as a whole, demonetarization and decommodification promise the transition to a rich society and the end of misery and poverty. However, whoever is struck individually by the fate of decommodification and demonetarization on the basis of existing society will have to deal not with a happy fate but rather with a palpable catastrophe. Anyone whose labor power is decommodified — that is, who sits on the couch unsaleably and does not find another source of money — is not rich, but markedly poor. A movement of emancipation cannot avoid taking this situation into account. As far as the production of wealth is concerned, an emancipatory perspective must protect social wealth from commodification and monetarization, and to decommodify and demonetarize commodified and monetarized wealth. However, as long as a large proportion of social wealth takes on the structure of the commodity, it must of course focus its attention of the matter of how one can attain the necessary universal equivalent, alias money, even if one is in a state of decommodification. The offensive project of the decommodification of the production of social wealth cannot be thought without a parallel defensive undertaking that secures the money supply of those who are superfluous in the capitalist sense, and enables them to have sufficient access even to commodity wealth. The question of making ends meet only decouples from income to the extent that social wealth actually becomes freely accessible, and on this basis all struggles over monetary distribution become unnecessary.

Slum Egalitarianism

This defensive undertaking draws of course on the welfare state, at least in the metropolises. Put more accurately, it can only take shape through the formation of social movements against the attacks that are currently operating at full blast on the traditional compulsory social security system.

The welfare state came into the world as an instrument to make the commodity labor power available. While it protected owners of the commodity labor power from the day-to-day risks that are bound up with their lives as sellers of labor power, it at the same time committed them to this mode of existence by rewarding them with earned entitlements. The so-called reforms of the welfare state are directed against the use of a carrot. Legal entitlements to pensions and other social security benefits are reduced as far as possible. The gradual expropriation of the rights purchased by the sale of labor power is accompanied by forms of providing for the poor that are organized along slum-egalitarian lines. These are divorced from the previous position of the claimant in labor society.

This shift in emphasis took place in recent years, first and foremost, automatically and insidiously, since, with the removal of other forms of social security, more and more people slipped down into the lowest social safety net, which had always been structured in this way. Meanwhile, however, and not only in Germany, what remains of the welfare state is increasingly being converted onto such institutions that provide the poor with a bare minimum (basic state pension, merging of unemployment benefit with welfare).

In spite of all assertions to the contrary, the transition to these slum-egalitarian fallback systems indicates that the prospect of integrating the unvalorizable into regular wage labor has evaporated. However, with the change in model, the compulsion to the availability to work that is bound up with the system of social safeguards in no way dissolves into goodwill. Quite the opposite: the weaker the prospects of actual inclusion in labor society, the more rigid the obligation to simulate labor drills. Administrative violence replaces the carrot.

Forced Labor and Time Appropriation

Given the structural weakness of struggles in pursuit of interests that operate on the basis of labor, it is conceivable that at least in Germany the struggle against the logic of exclusion will in the future have to be pursued primarily in the context of slum-egalitarian mini-incomes.

This compelled change of terrain, far-removed from the defense of earned entitlements, after a certain fashion even approaches a radical labor-critical position. There are two fields of conflict in particular that could potentially be suitable for a wide-ranging debate and mobilization. The first is the pure and simple matter of the question of the size of the planned minimal payments for the unvalorizable. This much is clear: there is no lower limit for the level of provision that results from the logic of political economy itself. Marx was right to draw attention to the fact that the value of the commodity labor power also contains a moral moment. What commodity society concedes to the unvalorizable — whether it concedes anything at all — depends, in contrast, solely on this moral moment.

Secondly, the linking of a share in this minimal provision to the performance of ritual actions that replace labor provides a rich supply of material for conflict. The delegitimation of this insanity is urgently required and leads us back to the consideration with which we started, of the redefinition of social wealth. If Marx is correct to say that the true wealth of a society consists in the time it has available, then what is at stake here is nothing but a gigantic pursuit of the annihilation of wealth, at the compulsion of the state. The content and the precondition of the appropriation of sensuous-material wealth is the appropriation of the time of life.

  1. “Labor society” translates literally “Arbeitsgesellschaft”; that, however, has, so far as we know, no precise equivalent in English. The German here refers to a society constituted not only through the synthesizing nexus of value in the form of commodities and money but also in the form of abstract labor. In a “labor society” one works not only so as to exchange one’s own labor power for commodities and money but, by virtue of this, to produce and reproduce oneself as a member of said society. [Eds.]
  2. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1976) 125.
  3. The term here translated as asocial sociality, ungesellschaftliche Gesellschaftlichkeit, is in the original German mistakenly attributed to Marx. The origin of the term is Kant’s ungesellige Geselligkeit, the social antagonism that consists in the fact that the human tendency to enter into society is permeated with resistances and oppositions, which at all times threaten to break this society apart, of the fourth thesis of the “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim.” This concept resonates with and finds echoes in a great deal of both Hegelian and Marxian social theory. For example: “Division of labour and exchange are the two phenomena which lead the political economist to boast of the social character of his science, while in the same breath he gives unconscious expression to the contradiction of his science — the motivation of society by unsocial, particular interests” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3 [Moscow: International Publishers, 1973] 321). It seems likely that this compatibility led to the attribution of the Kantian expression to Marx, and that in this process Kant’s idiom was transposed into the less archaic-sounding formulation that would be more consistent with a Marxian quotation. [Eds.]
  4. Lohoff is writing well before the outbreak of the crisis that began in 2008. [Eds.]
  5. Incidentally, I have not made up this example. It stems from Keynes, who was entirely candid in this respect. He preferred to explain the consequence of his demand-oriented model with reference to the example of obviously futile labors. In his writings he shows a particular foible for the state construction of pyramids.
  6. An example of a supplementary revenue would be a child benefit; under the rubric of replacement revenue fall welfare and the diverse social security payments.
  7. Here I am thinking of the difference between the liberal American laws with respect to private gun ownership and their more restrictive equivalents in Europe.
  8. Commodity society knows alarmingly little about the actual, material circumstances that it creates. Because they are organized as an appendage of the monetary flows, knowledge of material circumstances is widely strewn and always haphazard at points. A central task of this reorienting movement consists in the first instance of bringing light into the darkness. Such an investigation is not only important in order to reveal the insanity of this mode of production. It also provides an orientation for a later reorganization and also makes visible points at which the highly complex capitalism is vulnerable.