The Ontological Break: Before the Beginning of a Different World History (2005)

Robert Kurz

The debate over globalization seems to have come to a point of exhaustion. This is not, however, because the underlying social process has exhausted itself — the process itself is still in its incipient stage. Rather, the forms of interpretation have prematurely run out of steam. The guild of economists and political scientists has filled entire libraries with discussions of the boundaries of national economies blown open by the globalization of capital and with discussions of the resulting dissolution of the nation state and political regulation as a frame of reference. Yet this widespread set of realizations has largely remained without consequence. The more clearly analysis shows that nation and politics have become obsolete, the more stubbornly political and theoretical discourse tries to hold on to the concepts of nation and politics. The concepts that were developed to cope with the problem correspondingly appear weak and unpersuasive.

The problem is that there are no immanent alternatives to these concepts because, just like concepts such as labor, money, and market, they represent the petrified determinations of modern capitalist ontology — and thus also represent its categories. If we understand ontology not anthropologically or transhistorically, but rather as historically contingent, then ontological concepts or categories of sociality indicate distinct historical fields; in Marxian terms: a form of society or a mode of production and a mode of living. The modern system of commodity production constitutes a historical ontology of this kind.

Within such a field there exist at any given point in time a multitude of alternatives and arguments. These, however, remain confined to and move within the same historical-ontological categories. The critique and suspension of the categories themselves appears to be unthinkable. Thus, it is possible to critique a certain politics in order to replace it with another; but within modern ontology it is impossible to critique politics in itself and replace it with another mode of social regulation. For this we lack the appropriate form of thought, and therefore all the concepts as well. Only the determinate content of politics is malleable, but not the categorical form or mode of all content. The same goes for the categories of nation, state, rights, labor, money, and market, as well as of the individual, subject, and gender relations (social masculinity and femininity). At any given point, any of these categorical forms can be modified, only in a quasi-adjectival sense. Yet the category itself and its corresponding social mode are never put up for substantial negotiation.

The analytical insight that the process of globalization renders nation and politics obsolete can therefore not be worked through with the means and methods the modern social sciences have to offer. It is today no longer the case that it is a matter of substituting a specific content with a different, new content within the same social form — say, the substitution of the dominant political constellation with another. Such strategies would, for example, propose that the world power United States could be replaced by a new Euro-Asian power bloc, or that the neoliberal political economy could be surpassed by the return to Keynesian paradigms. Rather, globalization questions the political mode and national form as such.

What this means is that 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. But when one category falls, all others must fall like dominoes. For the historical formation of the modern system of commodity production can only exist as a totality, in which one basic condition presupposes another and the different categories determine each other.

It is, therefore, not the case that the loss of political authority would not affect the economy or even allow it to run free. On the contrary, the political constitutes the mode of regulation of the modern system of commodity production, which cannot function economically without such regulation. Globalization itself, which blows up the frame of the national and thus destroys the political as mode of regulation, is conditioned, in turn, by the fact that abstract labor, as the form of productive value and surplus-value generating human activity within the development of productive forces, is increasingly replaced by fixed capital (Sachkapital). The resulting depreciation of value pushes management toward the transnational rationalization of the business economy. In the same way that scientified objective capital substitutes for labor, capital is de-substantialized and the valorization of value reaches its historical limits; the “depreciation” of nation and politics is nothing more than a product of this process. Yet, once the categorical structure of forms of production, reproduction, and regulation has been diluted, forms of individuality, of the subject, and its androcentric determination of gender, also become obsolete.

What seems at first to be a particular crisis of the political and its national limits is in reality a crisis of modern ontology. Such a categorical crisis demands in response a categorical critique. Yet, such a project currently lacks both appropriate forms of imagination and adequate concepts. Until now, critique has been immanent to dominant categories, relating only to determinate content, and not to the ontological forms and modes of the modern system of commodity production — hence the current paralysis of thought and praxis. The planetary administration of this ontological crisis cannot hold back the dissolution into barbarism of a global society defined in capitalist terms. On the contrary, it becomes instead an integral part of the descent into barbarism.

What is required here is an ontological break — from which global discourse, however, still shies away, even the radical Left. What predominates in its place are regressive ideas that seek to reverse the movement of the wheel of history in order to avoid this utterly unthinkable ontological break. While the hardliners of crisis administration want to separate the majority of humanity from their own conditions of existence, most self-styled critics of globalization seek ideally to escape to the past from the very object of their critique; they fall back on hopelessly reactionary paradigms of nation, politics, and Keynesian regulation, or journey even further back in time to the ideals of romanticized agrarian societies. An integral part of this regressive tendency is the religious madness that rages in all cultural spheres and exceeds all comparable manifestations in the breaks in the history of modernization.

In order to be able to think clearly and question modern ontology as such it would be necessary to understand this ontology as historically determined. For only in this way does the thought of its overcoming become possible. The ontological crisis of the twenty-first century can only be resolved if the history of the constitution of those apparently natural, a priori categories of modern commodity production from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century are not only newly illuminated but also fundamentally re-evaluated.

This task, however, is blocked by an ideological apparatus, which is as constitutive of modernity as the categorical totality of its social reproduction. The foundation of this ideational, and, in its ontologically affirmative character, always already ideological apparatus is constituted by Enlightenment philosophy. All modern theories are equally derived from this root, liberalism just as Marxism, as well as the bourgeois-reactionary movements of counter-Enlightenment and antimodernity. For this reason, all of these theories are equally incapable of formulating the required categorical critique and realizing the necessary ontological break.

The once world-shattering conflicts between liberalism, Marxism, and conservatism always addressed specific social, political, juridical, or ideological matters. However, they never addressed the categorical forms and ontological modes of sociality. In this sense, liberals, Marxists, conservatives, and the radical Right could equally be patriots, politicians, subjects, androcentric universalists, and statesmen, labor-, rights-, or finance-enthusiasts, and were distinguished only by nuances of content. Because of their common grounding in Enlightenment thinking, the seemingly conflicting ideologies of modernization reveal themselves in the context of the crisis of modern ontology to be one and the same ideological apparatus in the sense of a common persistence with this same ontology at any price.

The insight that can occasionally be gleaned in postmodern discourse since the 1980s — that Left, Right, and liberal ideologies have become interchangeable — points to the hidden foundation that is common to them in the same way that neoliberalism as an ideology of crisis currently determines, with only minimal variations, the entirety of the political spectrum across party lines. Postmodern thought, however, has noticed this interchangeability solely phenomenologically and superficially, and hence without questioning the underlying ontology of modernity. Instead, postmodernism seeks to sneak past the ontological problem by means of simply rejecting all theories of modernity’s ontology as dogmatic and totalitarian claims — as if the problem were inherently theoretical and not in fact a problem emerging from the reality of the social mode of reproduction. In this way, the basic categories of the modern system of commodity production are certainly not criticized, but are instead only removed from the focus of the critical gaze without, however, being escapable in social practice. Postmodernism, too, thus proves to be an integral part of the total ideological apparatus and, despite assertions to the contrary, a derivative of Enlightenment philosophy.

Enlightenment thought explicitly grounded, expanded, consolidated, and ideologically legitimated the categories of modern ontology that prior to the eighteenth century were still unstable. For this reason, the required ontological break must be accompanied by the radical critique of the Enlightenment and of all those forms of philosophy, theory, and ideology that emerged from it. In rejecting its foundations, all the rest is rejected as well. The ontological break consists precisely in this.

However, the Enlightenment did not only develop the categories of labor, value, commodity, market, law and policy, legal status, androcentric universalism, subject, and notions of abstract individuality as conceptual reflections of a social ontology of modernity that was born out of a blind historical process; the Enlightenment simultaneously placed them within a logical and historical context so as to make them sacrosanct.

Earlier agrarian social forms also possessed their own respective historical ontologies: ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, no differently from Greco-Roman antiquity, imperial China, Islamic culture, and the Christian Middle Ages. But all of these ontologies were in a certain sense self-sufficient. They were defined in themselves, did not need to be assessed against any other ontology, and were under no pressure to justify themselves. While there existed in each case relationships with foreign cultures of the same period, these “others” were usually negatively defined as “barbarians,” “unbelievers,” or “pagans.” Such definitions, however, were not based on historical-philosophical systems and only represented incidental limitations.

The modern system of commodity production, in contrast, needed to ground its ontology in a reflexive manner — reflexively, however, not in the sense of a critical project but rather in the sense of a project of legitimating itself as a system. Indeed, it was the compulsion to justify the new, foundational claim to the subjugation and battering of individuals that produced the Enlightenment’s philosophy of history. The monstrous demands of capitalism, which directly aims to transform the process of life in its entirety into an immediate function of its logic of valorization, could no longer be based on a loose assemblage of traditions.

On one hand, it was necessary to bestow upon the specifically modern ontology the dignity of an objective natural relation. That is, it was necessary explicitly to transform an historical ontology into a transhistorical and anthropological ontology — being-human as such. On the other, this resulted in the need to establish a logical relation between this modern, now transhistorically reasoned ontology and all previous historical formations and all concurrent noncapitalist (still predominantly agrarian) cultures.

The result could not have been any other than a stamping of the mark of inferiority on the past. This not only represented a new worldview, but also a revaluation afresh of all values. In agrarian societies, people understood themselves as the children of their parents not simply in the ontogenetic sense, but in the phylogenic and socio-historical sense as well. The oldest people were celebrated in the same way as ancestors and mythic heroes of the past were. The golden age was located in the beginnings and not in the future; the unsurpassable ideal was the mythical “first time” and not the “end result” of a process of exerting effort.

Enlightenment philosophy of history did not reflect on this worldview in a critical way. Rather, it turned it on its head. Ancestors and “primitive men” were regarded as unemancipated children in an historico-phylogenic sense, who only reached adulthood in modern ontology. All previous historical periods appeared first as errors of humanity, later becoming imperfect and immature prior stages of modernity, which, in turn, went on to represent the culmination and end point of a process of maturation — the “end of history” in the ontological sense. History was then for the first time systemically defined as development — from simpler or ontological forms to higher and better ones. That is, as the progress from the primitive to the actual state of being human in the context of commodity-producing modernity.

On one hand, the specifically historical ontological categories of modernity were established transhistorically, as if they had always been there. Even the concept of ontology itself appeared to be synonymous with anthropological, transhistorical, or ahistorical circumstances. For this reason, it became impossible to seek other historical ontologies and to determine their own specificities. Instead, the Enlightenment projected its modern categories, which it constituted and legitimated, onto all of the past and the future. The only remaining questions all followed the same principle: what were “labor,” the “nation,” the “political,” “value,” the “market,” “money,” the “subject,” and so on, like in ancient Egypt, among the Celts, or in the Christian Middle Ages; or, conversely, how will the same categories look in the future and how will they be modified? In adopting this ontologization of modern categories, Marxism, too, was merely able to formulate its “socialist alternative” in an adjectival sense, as simply another thematic accentuation or regulation within the same social and historical form.

On the other hand, from the perspective of such a projection, past societies inevitably appeared as categorically imperfect. What were, in fact, other historical ontologies were defined (and consequently disfigured) as categorically “immature,” not yet sufficiently developed modern ontology. Similarly, all contemporary societies that had not yet been completely determined by modern ontology were fitted into the same schema; these were equally seen as underdeveloped, immature, and inferior. Constituted in this way, Enlightenment philosophy of history essentially served as the legitimating ideology of internal and external colonization. In the name of that philosophy of history and its schemata, the submission of society to a system of the valorization of value — as well as its associated abstract labor with intolerable and disciplinary demands — can be propagated as historically necessary and as part of a change for the better.

The concept of barbarism, borrowed from agrarian civilizations, emerged as a pejorative definition of previous or contemporary noncapitalist humanity: “barbarism” became synonymous with a lack of civility in the sense of capitalist circulation (market subjectivity and legal form) and, as such, with a lack of submission to modern ontology. We still have no other concept at our disposition to characterize destructive, violent, and destabilizing tendencies that threaten the social context. Already Marx used the concept of “barbarism” critically by relating it to the history of the formation of the system of commodity production in reference to both “primitive accumulation” and the history of the disintegration of modernity in crises of capitalism. The break with modern ontology as it is required today requires us to move beyond Marx and to reveal as barbaric (and thus to destroy the foundations of) the core of the capitalist social machine, to destroy abstract labor and its inner structure of discipline and reified human administration that is generally misunderstood as civilization.

This task of the ontological break is nonetheless complex and difficult to grasp, since the philosophy of history produced by the Enlightenment is legitimated paradoxically not simply as affirmative, but also as critical. The ideological apparatus established by the Enlightenment blocks the necessary ontological break precisely because it has been able to move within this paradox for a long time. Liberal bourgeois criticism always focused solely on the social conditions that prevented the imposition of modern ontology. Both in the sense of internal and external colonization, this was a question of the remnants left behind by agrarian formations. Among these remnants were not only previous relations of domination in the form of personal dependencies, but also certain conditions of life that detracted from the modern demands of abstract labor. In this way, the majority of religious holidays of agrarian societies were abolished to provide a clear path for the transformation of the temporality of life into the functional temporality of the valorization of capital.

The Enlightenment criticized older forms of personal dependency solely to legitimate the new forms of reified dependency of abstract labor, market, and the state. This criticism contained repressive aspects because it was linked to the propaganda of abstract diligence, discipline, and submission to the new demands of capitalism, along with destroying, together with old forms of domination, universal human achievements of agrarian relations. In fact, an older ailment was only replaced by a new, and in many ways even worse ailment. It was nevertheless possible for the liberal ideology of the Enlightenment to champion still-emergent modern relations as liberation from the feudal burden and to represent itself as shedding light on the dark superstitions of the Middle Ages. Feudal violence was condemned, while the abstract labor of modernity was “tortured into” people with an unprecedented violence, as expressed by Marx. The concept of criticism, in general, was identified by Enlightenment liberalism with the criticism of agrarian society, as capitalist modernity, with its atrocities, appeared as progress, even while in the real world it represented something very different for great masses of people.

During the late nineteenth century and even more in the twentieth, the concept of criticism shifted more and more to internal capitalist relations, after agrarian society had practically already disappeared along with its structures of personal dependency. Obviously, this was not a question of modern ontology and its categories, but only of the overcoming of old contents and structures through new structures, still founded on the same ontological ground. The system of commodity production, that is, capitalism, is inherently not a static situation, but rather a dynamic process of constant change and evolution: but it is a process that always develops in the same manner and under the same formal categories. It is a constant struggle between the new and the old, but it is at all times only the struggle between the capitalist new and the capitalist old. For the liberal understanding of criticism, the capitalist old has taken the place of the ontologically old, that is, of the now no-longer-existing feudal agrarian social relations. The ontological break between the proto-modern and the modern has been replaced by the permanent structural break internal to modernity and its ontology. This internal dynamic operates under the label “modernization.” Henceforth, liberal criticism has been formulated in the sense of a modernization of modernity.

This process of permanent modernization in the ontological categories of modernity itself undergoes an additional legitimation by means of an opposite, complementary, and immanent critique, which is in turn legitimated in a romantic or reactionary manner. The supposedly good “old” is cast against the nefarious “new,” without, however, subjecting the modern ontology to the slightest criticism. This is not even a defense of the actual premodern ontology present in agrarian society. Rather, the reactionary or conservative movement of antimodernity, too, is an invention of modernity and a derivative of the Enlightenment itself.

This is a bourgeois critique of bourgeois existence, which, since the end of the eighteenth century, has been loaded with images of an idealized agrarian society and with a system of pseudo-feudal values — similar to an opposing liberalism, which is loaded with the ideals and values of capitalist circulation (freedom of the autonomous subject integrated into the market, and so on). Yet pseudo-agrarian ideals were from the beginning formulated from within the categories of modern ontology, and not against it. Just as romanticism helped in the birth of modern abstract individuality, conservatism and its more radical versions of reactionary thought became propagators of modern nationalism and its ethno-ideological, racist, and antisemitic legitimation. In the Protestant work ethic and in social Darwinism, there was always a commonality between conservatives and reactionaries with liberalism that suggests their common roots in Enlightenment thinking.

The more the ideological attachment of conservative and reactionary thought to the idealized agrarian society faded, the clearer its position within the modern ontology and its dynamic needed to be. In this context, the romantic and reactionary current followed in the same path as liberalism — only with reversed polarity. Just as liberal critique stood opposed to the capitalist old in the context of a permanent, modernization of modernity interior to capitalism, thus acting as the advocate of the capitalist new, so too did conservative and reactionary countercritique operate in the name and as advocate of the respective capitalistic old in opposition to the capitalist new, which was perceived as a force of demoralization and disintegration.

Since this immanent polarity marked the same ontological field, however, their immanent opposition at the same time shielded this field from any possible metacriticism. Apart from the intolerable demands on human beings, the discomfort and destructive potential of the modern system of production created an increasing tension that could constantly be shifted to or canalized in the internal movement between progress and reaction, between liberalism and conservatism. The destructiveness of modernity should be redeemed by the ultimate impulse of modernization (progress), or, on the contrary, tamed by activism on behalf of the present situation of modernity directed against its own dynamic (conservatism or reaction). It is precisely for this reason that the critique of the social and historical ontology underlying this position was blocked.

However, the bourgeois-immanent contradiction inherent in liberalism on one hand, and conservative or romantic reaction on the other, formed far from the only obstacle for a critique of modern ontology. Instead, a second wave of criticism developed within this ontology that superimposed itself on the first. The second wave was sustained on one hand by the Western labor movement and on the other by so-called liberation movements on the periphery of the world market, including the Russian Revolution and the anticolonial movements and regimes. In all of these historical movements, a fundamental critique of capitalism, which was articulated, in many ways, by recourse to Marxist theory, was officially established. Nevertheless, this second wave was also fundamentally limited primarily to the modern ontology of the system of commodity production and, thus, to its categories. The return to Marx was limited to the components of this ontology retained by Marx himself, while all of the other moments of his theory that went beyond this remained muted or ignored.

The reason for the historical phenomenon of this second wave of affirmative criticism, which superimposes itself onto the opposition within the bourgeoisie, must be sought in the problem the social sciences call “historical noncontemporaneity.” Modern ontology did not structurally or geographically develop in uniformity, but in discontinuous spurts.

In the countries of the West that gave rise to the system of commodity production, only a few categories were formed, while others remained underdeveloped. This was particularly true for the formation of the modern subject, of abstract individuality, and associated forms of law and politics. Neither the Enlightenment nor liberalism could establish these categories as abstract and general, equally legitimate for all members of society. Universalism, formulated theoretically, fell apart as a consequence of its confrontation with social limits. Enlightenment thinkers and liberals persisted in the understanding of the “man” of modern ontology solely as the male, propertied citizen, while the mass of wage laborers, male and female, were on one hand subjugated to the discipline of abstract labor, yet remained on the other both on the juridical and on the political level ontologically exterritorialized. In order to complete its process not of a subjective but of a reified form of dependence, modern ontology needed to generalize the former relation. Only by means of political and juridical integration could the categorical subjugation of man be completed.

From that constellation, the labor movement in the West assumed the specific function of a modernization of modernity that consisted in the struggle of wage laborers for recognition as integrated subjects of law, politics, and participation in the state (universal suffrage, freedom of coalition and assembly). But here categorical critique was also blocked, and instead of the ontological break, the labor movement undertook the completion of modern ontology. It assumed in part the role of liberalism in the actual, practical universalization of certain modern categories. Liberalism, in turn, proved to be incapable of such universalization, instead revealing itself as a conservative force in this respect. Consequently, the labor movement accused liberalism of betraying its own ideals and itself adopted the principal ideologemes of the Enlightenment, including the Protestant work ethic.

The modern ontology of the system of commodity production, however, also included specific gender relations insofar as all moments of life and reproduction, whether material, psychosocial, or cultural-symbolic, that were not subsumed by capitalist categories were designated as feminine and in practice delegated to women — throughout all historical developments internal to this ontology. The recognition of female wage laborers — and, in general, of women — in bourgeois society as subjects of law and of civil society and political life, a recognition that was denied by the majority of Enlightenment philosophers, possessed only limited validity even after the second wave of value-immanent criticism: on one hand, they moved within the official spheres of society, but at the same time kept one foot “outside” because they continued to represent those dissociated moments that could not be systemically integrated. In this way, modern ontology is not a closed totality, but rather broken and self-contradictory, mediated by what Roswitha Scholz calls specifically gendered “relations of dissociation.” As a result of the relation of dissociation corresponding with modern ontology, the bourgeois recognition of women had to remain correspondingly fragmented and incomplete. The abstract individual is, in reality and in its complete form, masculinized, in much the same way that abstract universalism for this reason always remains androcentric.

The positive dialectic of bourgeois recognition was repeated on a larger scale on the periphery by movements for national independence and free participation in the global market. In this case, the critique of capitalism referred to the structure of colonial and postcolonial domination in relation to the more advanced Western nations, but not to its basic social categories. Here too it was a question of a recognition perfectly situated in modern ontology rather than in its critique or overcoming. Thus, both the Russian and Chinese Revolution and subsequent liberation movements in the southern hemisphere assumed a function within the modernization of modernity, namely, the recuperative modernization of national economies and states on the periphery. Consequently, this historical movement also had to be grounded in the idealized categories of modernity and in their legitimation carried out by the Enlightenment, thus remaining confined within androcentric universalism.

The asynchrony at the heart of modern ontology produced a gap in development — geographically and within society itself — which gave rise to both the seemingly radical critique and the liberal critique of Enlightenment. The Western labor movement, the revolutions of the East, and the national liberation movements in the southern hemisphere were merely different versions of a recuperative modernization in the context of that asymmetry. These attempted to get into the system of commodity production, and not to get out of that historical ontology. That option could be taken positively as progress and development, as long as the world system as a whole still afforded a space for a subsequent modernization of modernity.

Such a space for development, however, no longer exists. In the third industrial revolution, modern ontology as such reaches its historical limit. The very same categories within which the entire process of modernization took place are becoming obsolete, as is clearly illustrated on the level of labor as well as in concepts such as nation and politics. With that, the ashynchrony internal to the system of commodity production also disappears. But this, of course, does not mean that all societies have reached the highest level of modern development or that we have surpassed situations of uneven development and reached a new situation of positive planetary contemporaneity. Rather, asynchrony ceases to exist because the system of commodity production is experiencing a large-scale ontological crisis. Whatever the level of development achieved by particular societies, they are all hit by this ontological or categorical crisis.

The different world societies still very much experience decidedly different material, social, and political structural situations. Many countries are only in the beginnings of modern “development”; others remain stuck in the intermediate stages of this development. Yet the gap between such societies no longer mobilizes a dynamic of recuperative modernization — it only mobilizes the dynamic of barbarism. The ontological crisis produces a negative contemporaneity, a doomsday of modern categories, which gradually travels across still-unequal conditions. There is no going back to the old agrarian society, but the development of modern ontological forms, inasmuch as it has taken place, has broken down. Entire industries disappear; entire continents are decoupled; and in the Western core countries, too, the growing crisis is simply managed without any prospects for change.

Everywhere and on all levels of the exhausted capitalist ontology the crisis hits not only capitalist categories, but also the gendered relations of dissociation. Gender relations are “out of control”; the increasingly fragile masculine identity corresponding to the total and one-dimensional subjectivity of abstract labor, law, politics, and so on, begins to break apart. It decomposes into a “feral” state (Roswitha Scholz), which becomes an integral component of the tendency toward barbarism and sets loose a new potential for gratuitous violence against women. Barbarism can no longer be held at bay by a simple and already-failed inherent recognition of women. Rather, it requires an ontological break with the totality of the historical field of capitalist modernity, a field in which the relations of dissociation are inherently gendered.

The same ontological crisis, however, paralyzes critique more than ever. The paradigms of socialist critique of capitalism (immanent to its categories and ontologically positive) are so deeply rooted in asynchrony that they seem unable to surpass a general paralysis of thought. The ghostly reiteration of such forms of thought remains unsuccessful, since they are unable to reach the necessary complexity of categorical critique to respond to the context of the ontological break. In a way, liberalism, conservatism, and classical Marxism have all together become reactionary. The ideologies of modernization decompose and mingle. Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment have become identical. Today there are antisemitic communists and racist liberals, conservative Enlightenment thinkers, radical pro-market socialists, and sexist and misogynist utopians. Recent social movements have up until now proven to be impotent in the face of the problems of ontological critique and negative contemporaneity. Despite the enormous diversity of inherited conditions, these problems can be formulated and resolved only in common, as those of a planetary society.