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The 2008 global financial crisis has led to the re-emergence in public discourse of the idea that capitalism could end. For many, it was proof of the notion that capitalist civilisation has an endemic tendency towards crisis that will ultimately bring about its demise. Must we assume, however, that such an eventuality would inevitably result in the liberation of humanity, as many orthodox Marxists claim? Through a collection of specially revised essays, first published in France between 2007 and 2010, Anselm Jappe draws on the radical new perspective of “the critique of value” as a critical tool with which to understand today’s world and to re-examine the question of human emancipation. The Writing on the Wall offers a powerful new analysis of the decomposition of capitalism and its critics.
|Publisher:||Hunt, John Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Anselm Jappe is a professor of philosophy, teaching in Italy. In his writings, he has attempted to revive critical theory through a new interpretation of the work of Karl Marx. His book "Guy Debord" was an intellectual biography of Guy Debord, prime mover of the Situationist International.
Read an Excerpt
The Princesse de Clèves Today
As the beginning of The Communist Manifesto states, pre-capitalist societies, as well as industrial capitalist society in its first phase, were based on a dichotomous and hierarchical organisation: masters and slaves, aristocrats and peasants, exploiters and exploited, capitalists and proletarians. These social groups were opposed to each other in almost every way, even though they shared the same form of religious consciousness and the same worldview. At the base of social reproduction was the theft of the surplus production created by the direct producers; this theft was initially carried out by violence, and violence was also the method of last resort to assure the distribution of social "roles". Normally, however, this theft was justified and disguised by a vast apparatus of "superstructures" — from education to religion — which guaranteed the peaceful submission of those who, in reality, had little interest in accepting such an unfavourable distribution of rights and duties in society and who, at the same time, potentially had the ability to overthrow this state of affairs if they were united enough and resolved to do so. Once this order was put up for debate — essentially, from the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment — revolution (or profound reforms; in any case, a drastic change of course) was the necessary outcome. Opposition to the material mode of production was accompanied by the questioning of all of its justifications, from monarchy to religion, and even, during the most advanced stages of this opposition, of the family, the education system, etc. The dichotomy was then clearly highlighted: a tiny fraction of exploiters ruled all the rest of the population by means of violence and, above all, by cunning — a cunning that would later be called "ideology" or "manipulation". These classes have nothing in common; the exploited are the bearers of all the human values denied by the ruling classes. It is very hard to break the power of the rulers, who have accumulated a considerable quantity of means of coercion and seduction, and often successfully divide the exploited classes, or else intimidate or corrupt segments of them. But there was no doubt that the day would come when, despite all the obstacles, the "lower" classes would overthrow the social order, and replace it with a just and good society such as the earth had never seen. If the members of the ruled classes exhibit in their present life multiple defects and egotistical attitudes with respect to their peers, this is because the upper classes inoculated them with their vices; furthermore, the revolutionary struggle will not fail to eliminate these defects, which are not inherent to the ruled classes.
This portrait, caricatured to only a slight degree here, has served to galvanise all the supporters of social emancipation for two centuries. It was not a false depiction. Although it was always one-sided, it partially corresponded with certain realities. The anarchist movement in Spain of the first decades of the twentieth century, which in 1936 led "a social revolution and the most advanced model of proletarian power ever realised", was probably the movement that came closest to the formation of a counter-society within capitalist society itself and largely opposed to its values (but not as completely as this movement believed itself to be; we need only think of its exaltation of work and industry). Furthermore, its solid roots in clearly pre-capitalist local traditions played an understandably prominent role in this "otherness" with respect to bourgeois society, something that was always cruelly lacking in — for example — the German workers' movement, whose revolutionaries, according to Lenin's well-known observation, would have bought train tickets before storming the station (which, however, did not prevent Lenin from maintaining that the German Post Office was the model for the future communist society that had to be constructed in Russia).
In the last few decades the idea that social emancipation will consist in the victory of one part of capitalist society over another part of that same society has lost its lustre. This idea held sway as long as the ruled part of society was deemed not to be part of that society, but only bore its yoke as that of an alien rule. If, however, this schema can still find partial application today — perhaps — in certain particular cases such as Chiapas, it can by no means be applied to capitalist society in the fully developed form it has assumed since 1945. The distinctive feature of this society is not the fact that it is based on the exploitation of one part of the population by another. This exploitation certainly exists, but it is not specific to capitalism; it also existed before. What is specific to capitalism — and what makes it historically unique — consists rather in the fact that it is a society based on generalised competition, on commodity relations that affect all aspects of life, and on money as the universal mediation. Equalisation before the market and money, which "only" understand quantitative differences, has gradually eclipsed the old classes, but without by any means making this society less conflict-ridden or less unjust than it was before.
This equalisation existed in embryo from the very inception of the industrial revolution because it is consubstantial to capitalism as valorisation of labour value and self-referential increase of money. It became predominant after the Second World War, at least in the West; but only over the course of the last few decades, with the advent of so-called "postmodern" society, has it become self-evident. It was also during these last twenty years that theoretical reflection began to take note of this fundamental change. The "dichotomous" view, of course, has not died; its most common avatar is the concept of "class struggle", the axis of all variants of traditional Marxism and even of certain forms of thought that do not define themselves as Marxist (from Pierre Bourdieu to the main currents of feminism). The anxiety caused by the recent globalisation of capital has given new impetus to concepts — from the social democrats of ATTAC to the neo-workerist advocates of "intellectual capital" — that only question the distribution of capitalist "goods", such as money and the commodity, but never their existence as such.
However, a different kind of analysis of the contradictions of the capitalist system is beginning to emerge. This analysis abandons the centrality of the concept of the "class struggle" (without denying, however, that class struggles exist and often for good reasons), but not in the same way that Tony Blair declared, in 1999: "the class war is over." Indeed, this analysis certainly does not abandon social critique; on the contrary, it attempts to find within it what is really at stake in social critique today. In so doing, it grants a central place to the critique of the commodity and of its fetishism, of value, money, the market, the state, competition, the nation, patriarchy and work. It discovered its initial inspiration in a previously neglected aspect of Marx's works. A fundamental stage in its elaboration was the founding in Germany of the journal Krisis: Contributions to the Critique of Commodity Society in 1986 (originally entitled MarxistischeKritik); other contributions (which had arisen independently) were the publication in the United States of Moishe Postone's Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx's Critical Theory in 1993, and — from a somewhat different perspective — the publication in France of Jean-Marie Vincent's Critique du Travail: Le faire et l'agir in 1987.
Of course, the publication of a few theoretical works — which, moreover, were hardly received with universal acclaim within self-appointed critical circles — is not necessarily in and of itself an event of any importance or the sign of an epochal change. But it could indicate the as-yet-limited recognition of a development that has been underway for some time already: we have reached the point in history where changing the forms of distribution and managerial personnel within a way of life that is accepted by all its participants will absolutely no longer do. We are instead confronted by a crisis of civilisation, the decline of a cultural model that concerns all its members. This claim is not itself new; it was made particularly during the period between the wars by observers considered to be "bourgeois" or "conservative". At that time nearly all ideas of social emancipation shared the general confidence in "progress" and were only concerned with the unequal distribution of its benefits. Moreover, the notion of technological, industrial and economic progress, and that of social and moral progress, overlapped and appeared to go hand in hand; the ruling classes of the time were seen by those who were proponents of progress as "conservative" by nature and opposed as a matter of principle to "progress", "change" and "reforms". With authors like Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the critique of "culture" crossed paths with the critique of "capitalism" for the first time. But it would not be until the 1970s that critiques of modern life, which embraced all of its aspects, would be more widely disseminated. On the one hand, there was the critique of "technology" articulated by authors such as Ivan Illich, Günther Anders, Jacques Ellul, Bernard Charbonneau, Michel Henry, Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch and Neil Postman; but there were also the environmental theories and the critique of "development" elaborated by MAUSS, Serge Latouche and François Partant. Nevertheless, when it came to discerning the causes of these problems that were so well described, these analyses were often simply pointed towards a kind of deplorable moral failing on the part of humanity. At the same time, the Situationists and, in more general terms, the debate that issued from "artistic critique" (Boltanski and Chiapello), initiated by the Dadaists and the Surrealists, as well as the strain of critical sociology elaborated by Henri Lefebvre, put more "subjective" aspects at the forefront of protest such as dissatisfaction with life lived in the "society of abundance" even though basic needs have been satisfied. But these critiques, even more so than those of the first variety, were still based on a dichotomous worldview: "us" against "them", the necrophilic "masters of the world" against "our" will to live.
The new theory of commodity fetishism seeks to overcome the limitations of these critiques. For it, the problem is not the metaphysical destiny of "humanity's relationship to the essence of technology" as Martin Heidegger termed it, nor is it a conspiracy of powerful evil individuals against good people. Instead this new theory claims that the crux of the problem resides in the "subject-form" common to all those who live in commodity society, although this does not mean that this form is the same for all subjects. The subject is the substrate, the agent, the bearer that the fetishistic system of valorisation of value requires in order to assure production and consumption. It is not completely identical to the individual or the human being, who may on occasion feel the subject-form as a straightjacket (for example, the role of "male" or "breadwinner"). This is why Marx called the subject of the valorisation of value the "automatic subject", the opposite of the autonomy and freedom with which the concept of "subject" is ordinarily associated. The subject is therefore that from which we must be emancipated, and not that through which and in terms of which we must be emancipated.
Viewed in this manner, the supersession of capitalism cannot consist in the victory of a subject created by capitalist development itself. Yet this is precisely how the theories of emancipation have long understood this supersession. Capitalism was considered to be the inefficient, unjust and parasitic management of something that, in itself, was very positive: the progress and industrial society created by proletarian labour, science and technology. Communism was often thought of as the simple continuation of the "conquests" of capitalism by other subjects and with a different regime of ownership; not as a profound break with the past. The positive valorisation of the "subject" in traditional theories of emancipation assumed that the subject was the basis of the supersession (and not the basis of the development) of capitalism and that it was necessary to help the subject fully realise its essence, to develop its potential, which, as such, had nothing to do with the system of domination. The revolution would then enable labour to extend across society as a whole, transforming everyone into workers. At most, subjects would have to rid themselves of certain corrupting influences, but would not have to question their own existence as labourers, information technology workers, etc. The revolutionary hope placed in the subject did not result in any specific reflection on what had constituted this subject, and seemed to be unaware of the fact that it could contain in its deepest structure elements of the commodity system, which would furthermore explain the incredible capacity of this system for self-perpetuation, self-regeneration, and its ability to "recuperate" critiques directed against it. The substance of this subject can be identified in different and even contrary ways. For the traditional workers' movement, it resided in productive labour, which was the pride of the proletariat; for the leftists of the 1970s, it could reside in resistance to work, in personal creativity, or in "desire". But the conceptual structure was the same: the purpose of revolutionary activity was to allow the inner essence of subjects to emerge and overcome the restrictions imposed on them by an artificial society that only served the interests of a minority.
Hence the famous quest for the "revolutionary subject": identified, in succession, with workers, peasants, students, the marginalised, women, immigrants, the peoples of the global South, "immaterial" workers and casual workers. This search was finally condemned to failure, but not because the subject does not exist, as structuralism and poststructuralism preach, perceiving it as nothing more than an illusion. Subjects exist, there is no doubt about it, but they are not the expression of a "human nature" that is prior to or external to capitalist relations; they are the product of the capitalist relations that they in turn produce. Workers, peasants, students, women, marginal individuals, immigrants, the peoples of the global South, immaterial workers and casual workers, each of whose subject-forms, along with their whole lifestyle, their mental attitudes and ideologies, is created, or transformed, by the socialisation they undergo at the hands of commodity society, cannot be mobilised in their current form against capitalism. As a result, there can be no workers', peasants' or casual labourers' revolutions, but only revolutions carried out by those who want to break with capitalism and with the very subject-form that capitalism imposes and that each person finds within himself. This is why today no revolution, in the broadest sense of the term, can consist of a positive valorisation of what one already is, as though we only need to be liberated from the chains that have been foisted upon us. Yet, currently fashionable concepts, such as — the very democratic — "multitude", consist precisely in praising to the skies subjects in their empirical and immediate existence. One is thus spared the effort of making a break with one's own subject-form, which is not simply imposed from the outside, but which structures one's own personality at its deepest level, for example, in the almost universal presence of the spirit of competition.
Unfortunately, the general exacerbation of living conditions in capitalism is not making subjects more capable of overthrowing it, but increasingly less capable of doing so, because the totalisation of the commodity-form creates ever more subjects that are totally identical to the system that encompasses them. And even when these subjects express dissatisfaction that goes beyond a mere declaration that they are disadvantaged, they are incapable of discovering within themselves the necessary resources for a different kind of life or even simply for having different ideas, since they have never experienced anything different. Instead of asking ourselves, like the environmentalists, what kind of world will we leave to our children?, we must ask ourselves, as Jaime Semprun put it so well: to what kind of children will we leave this world?
Excerpted from "The Writing on the Wall"
Copyright © 2016 Anselm Jappe.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Pars Destruens 13
The Princesse de Clèves Today 14
Politics without Politics 33
Violence to What End? 44
The Writing on the Wall 60
Part 2 Pars Construens 83
The "Dark Side" of Value and the Gift 84
"Common Decency" or Corporatism? Observations on the Work of Jean-Claude Michéa 104
Degrowthers, One More Effort If You Want to Be Revolutionaries! 126
From One Utopia to Another 133
Part 3 Pars Ludens 139
The Cat, the Mouse, Culture and the Economy 140
Is There an Art after the End of Art? 156