Are free individuals the necessary prerequisites for a successful struggle for freedom?

By Anselm Jappe:

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that our old enemy, capitalism, seems to be undergoing a very serious crisis. The bad news is that, for the moment, no discernable form of social emancipation is really within our reach; furthermore, nothing can guarantee that the possible end of capitalism will lead to a better society. It is like realizing that the prison in which we have been held for many years is burning, but the doors are still locked.

I would like to begin with a personal anecdote. I visited Mexico for the first time in 1982. I was 19 years old, with a backpack over my shoulder. I was living in Germany at the time. Back then, people were talking about the “Third World” and its poverty, but it was an altogether different matter to become personally acquainted with it and to see the shoeless children begging on the street. In Mexico City, I stayed at a kind of youth hostel that was managed by some people from Switzerland. One night, after returning to the hostel, emotionally affected by the sight of the city’s poverty, I began to read a copy of the German magazine Der Spiegel that I found there. I was drawn to a long article about the state of German society, which at that time appeared to have reached its peak. The description was devastating: all it evoked was depression, drug addiction, shattered families, unmotivated youth and social decline. I felt like I was at the bottom of an abyss. I already had some experience of the practical and theoretical critique of capitalism, and I viewed the latter with the utmost disdain. But never before had I felt such a vivid sense of what kind of world we live in, a world in which some die of hunger and the others, those who are supposedly on the winning side, are so unhappy that they stuff themselves full of drugs or kill themselves. I felt that the poor are unhappy and so are the “rich”, so that capitalism means suffering for everyone. I understood that this system, in the final analysis, is not good for anybody, that “development” for the poor so that they can become like the rich does not do anyone any good, and that commodity society is the enemy of the human species.

At the same time, in 1982, this system seemed to be strong, very strong. It was depressing to reflect upon the correlation of forces between those who, in one way or another, wanted to change this system, and the system itself, with the consensus that it managed to uphold despite everything and with the material benefits that it was still capable of providing.

Today, it seems that the situation has radically changed. These days, in Europe, political institutions and the media invoke scenarios of possible catastrophes, of the Argentinian variety. We need only mention that a very serious crisis of capitalism, which has become permanent since at least 2008, is perceived on all sides. Perhaps some of you have read a translation of one of my articles [1] in which I tried to imagine what would happen if money, all money, were to progressively lose its value in the wake of a financial and economic catastrophe. It was published in France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, and many readers commented on it: I think, however, that up until only a few years ago I was classified with the people who see UFOs….

An initial observation that must be made is that this crisis of capitalism is not due to the actions of its enemies. All modern revolutionary movements and almost all social critique have always imagined that capitalism would be defeated by organized forces determined to abolish capitalism and replace it with something better. The hard part was to defeat the immense power of capitalism, which was based as much on what it had crammed into the heads of the people as on the weapons wielded by its armies; but once this was achieved, the solution would be within reach. In fact, the existence of a project for an alternative society was what, in the last instance, would cause revolutions.

What we are seeing today is the collapse of a system, its self-destruction, its exhaustion, and its downfall. Finally, it has reached its limits, with the limits of the valorization of value, which were embedded within its nucleus from the beginning. Capitalism is essentially value production, which is represented in money. In capitalist production, the only things of interest are things that make money. This is not primarily due to the greed of a handful of evil capitalists. It derives from the fact that only labor can confer “value” on commodities. This means that technology cannot add supplemental value to commodities. The more machinery and new technologies are used, the less value each commodity contains. But competition incessantly drives the owners of capital to utilize labor saving technologies. In this way, capitalism is undermining its own foundation, and has been doing so from its very inception. Only the continuously expanded production of commodities can counteract the fact that each commodity contains ever less “value”, and therefore less surplus value as well, transformable into money. The ecological and social consequences of this mad race for greater productivity are well known. But it must also be emphasized that the fall of the mass of value cannot be eternally compensated for and that it will finally precipitate a crisis of the accumulation of capital itself. In the last few decades, insufficient accumulation was compensated for by simulation by means of finance and credit. Yet this kind of “artificial life support” for capital has also encountered its limits and the crisis of the valorization mechanism now appears to be irreversible.

This crisis is not, as some people are trying to depict it, a trick on the part of the capitalists, for the purposes of imposing even more unfavorable measures on the workers and the recipients of public assistance, and to dismantle public structures and increase the profits of the banks and the super-rich. It is true that some economic actors have made big profits off the crisis, but this only means that an ever-diminishing pie is being divided up into bigger slices among a much-reduced number of competitors. It is obvious that this crisis is out of control and threatens the survival of the capitalist system as such.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that we are witnessing the final act of the drama that began 250 years ago. The fact that capitalism has reached its limits—in terms of economics, the environment and energy supplies—does not mean that it will collapse overnight, although this cannot be entirely ruled out, either. Instead, we can foresee a long period of decline for capitalist society, with some islands scattered about the world where, sometimes sheltering behind the protection of walls, capitalist reproduction will still function, and with extensive regions of the earth written off, where the post-commodity subjects will try to survive any way they can. Drug trafficking and dump scavenging are two of the most emblematic aspects of a world that has reduced human beings to the status of “garbage”, human beings whose biggest problem is no longer the fact that they are exploited but simply the fact that not only are they superfluous from the point of view of the commodity economy, they cannot return to the pre-capitalist forms of a subsistence economy based on agriculture and crafts, either. Where capitalism and its cycle of production and consumption no longer function, it will not be possible to return to older social forms. There is a risk that new configurations might arise that combine the worst elements of prior social formations. And there is no doubt that those who will live in the sectors of society that still function will defend their privileges with all means at their disposal, with constantly improved weapons and surveillance technologies. Like a dying animal, capitalism can still wreak havoc, not only by unleashing wars and violence of all kinds, but also by causing irreversible environmental harm, with the dissemination of GMOs, nano-particles, etc. Thus, the poor health of capitalism is only a necessary condition for the advent of a free society; it is by no means a sufficient condition, in philosophical terms. The fact that the prison is in flames does us no good if the doors are locked, or if they open up over a precipice.

This implies a great difference between the present and the past: for more than a century, the mission of revolutionaries was to figure out how to kill the monster. Once this was achieved, it was inevitable that socialism, the free society—or whatever name you want to call it—would follow. Today, the task of those who would have once been revolutionaries is reversed: confronted by the disasters caused by the permanent revolutions unleashed by capital, the most important task is to “preserve” some of the essential acquisitions of humanity and to attempt to cultivate them so that they assume a higher form.

It is no longer necessary to prove the fragility of capitalism, which has exhausted its historical potential for development—and this is good news. It is also good news that it is no longer necessary to conceive of the alternative to capitalism under forms that actually constitute the its continuation. I would say that there is much more clarity with regard to the goals of the struggle today than there was forty years ago. Fortunately, two ways of conceiving post-capitalism—which are often mixed together—which dominated the entire 20th century, have lost a great deal of credibility, although they are far from having disappeared. On the one hand, the project that entails the use of the State, centralization and modernization to suppress the market, and that confides the struggle to achieve this goal to mass organizations led by official functionaries. Putting everyone to work was the principle goal of these forms of “real socialism”: we have to remember that, for Gramsci as well as for Lenin, Henry Ford’s factory was the model for communist production. It is true that the Statist option still has its supporters, whether in the form of enthusiasm for the caudillo Chavez, or in the form of proposals for more State intervention in Europe. But in general, Leninism in all its varieties has been forced to relinquish its control over opposition movements over the last thirty years, and this is a very positive development.

The other way of conceiving the abolition of capitalism in a form that instead appears to be its intensification and modernization is based on a blind faith in the benefits of the productive forces and technology. In both cases, the socialist or communist society was conceived essentially as a more just distribution of the fruits of the development of an industrial society that is otherwise largely unchanged. The hope that technology and machines will solve all of our problems suffered some severe setbacks over the last forty years, as a result of the rise of environmental consciousness and because the paradoxical effects of technology on human beings have become more obvious. (I would like to mention, in connection with this topic, that Iván Illich, despite some reservations that could be formulated about some aspects of his work, possessed the enormous merit of revealing these paradoxical aspects, and thus shattered the belief in “Progress”). While the belief that technological progress will lead to moral and social progress no longer assumes the form of the exaltation of “socialist” steel mills or nuclear power plants, or the unconditional praise of productivism, it has nonetheless been resurrected in the often grotesque hopes that some nourish with regard to computer technology and “immaterial” production. This is true, for example, of the current debates concerning “expropriation”, recently associated with the concepts of “the commons” and “the commonwealth”. It is true that the entire history (and pre-history) of capitalism has been the history of the privatization of resources that were previously held in common, as is demonstrated by the exemplary case of the enclosures in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. According to a widely held opinion, at least in the computer technology milieu, the struggle for free distribution and unlimited access to digital wealth is a battle that has the same historical importance and will be the first such battle in many centuries that the advocates of free distribution and common use of resources can win. However, digital wealth is never the same thing as essential goods. It would be nice to have free access to the latest music or video, but food, heat or housing cannot be downloaded from the internet. To the contrary, they are subjected to an increasingly more intensive imposed scarcity and commercialization. File sharing might be an interesting practice, but it is nothing but an epiphenomenon compared with the depletion of the world’s fresh water or global warming.

Today, technophilia under various renovated forms seems less “old-fashioned” than the project to seize power and might constitute a major obstacle to achieving a profound break with the logic of capitalism. However, proposals such as that of curtailing economic growth, eco-socialism, radical ecology, or the resurgence of peasants movements throughout the world demonstrate, in their variety and with all their limitations, that one part of today’s oppositional movements do not believe that technological progress has the mission of leading us to the emancipated society. And this is good news, too….

So, I would say that there is now greater clarity with regard to the general outlines of a real alternative to capitalism. General proposals like those that were presented at the seminar held at CIDECI [Centro Indígena de Capacitación Integral, Chiapas, Mexico] at the end of 2009 seem to me to be totally reasonable [2]. Above all, it is of the utmost importance not to limit ourselves to a critique of only the ultra-liberal form of capitalism, but to also to direct it at capitalism as such, that is, the commodity society based on abstract labor and value, money and the commodity.

Now that we are a little more convinced that capitalism is in crisis, and if we have a little more clarity about the alternatives, the following question arises: how do we get there from here? I do not want to discuss strategic or pseudo-strategic considerations here, but would instead like to ponder the question of what kind of women and men can carry out the necessary social transformation. This is the root of the problem. First of all, I will say that we could have the impression that the veritable “anthropological regression” triggered by capital, especially during the last few decades, has also affected those who can or who want to oppose capitalism. This is a major transformation that is not always given sufficient attention. The commodity economy was born in very narrow sectors in a handful of countries; it subsequently conquered the world over a period of two and a half centuries, not only in the geographic sense but also within each society (this process has sometimes been referred to as “internal colonization”). Gradually, every activity, every thought or feeling, within capitalist societies, took the form of a commodity or could be satisfied by commodities. The effects of the consumer society and its particularly harmful consequences when it is introduced into the context of traditional societies that are considered “backward” (and here we could also cite Iván Illich) have often been described. All of this is well known and it would be superfluous to repeat it here. But what has not been presented with sufficient clarity is the fact that, due to this development, capitalist society no longer appears to be divided into merely rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited, managers and managed, executioners and victims. Capitalism is, in an increasingly more obvious way, a society governed by the anonymous, blind, automatic and uncontrollable mechanisms of value production. Everyone seems to be simultaneously participants in and victims of this mechanism, even though, of course, the various roles assumed and the compensations received are not the same.

In the classical revolutions, and at their high point in the Spanish Revolution of 1936, capitalism was fought by populations that perceived capitalism as an external force, an imposition and an invasion. Against this external force, they opposed totally different human values, and ways and goals of life. Although we do not have to idealize them, they constituted a kind of qualitative alternative to capitalist society. Whether or not they recognized this fact, these movements derived a large part of their power from their being rooted in certain pre-capitalist customs: in their predilection for the gift, generosity, life in common, scorn for material wealth as an end in itself, and in another way of perceiving of the passage of time…. Marx had to admit during the last few years of his life that what remained of the ancient collective property in land among numerous peoples could constitute a basis for a future communist society. Today, these forms still exist, above all among the indigenous peoples of Latin America and I leave it up to you to decide if they can form the basis of a future emancipated society that has deep roots in the past. I guess your answer is yes….

While this trend constitutes a ray of hope, we have to recognize the import of a contrary trend whereby, almost everywhere, in the so-called “developed” countries, the mega-cities of the rest of the world, and even in the most isolated rural zones, individuals are less and less likely to view the ubiquitous commodity as an alien imposition on their traditions and instead view it as an object of desire. Their demands must be understood as essentially related to the conditions of their participation in this realm, as was previously the case with the classical workers movement. Whether it takes the form of a wage conflict mediated by the trade unions or a revolt in the suburban fringe, the issue is almost always access to the wealth of commodity society. There is no doubt that such access is generally necessary for survival in the commodity society. But it is equally true that these struggles do not raise the demand of abolishing the current system and creating other ways of living. In a way, the individual who belongs to the contemporary “developed” societies appears to be more removed than ever from an emancipatory solution. He lacks the subjective foundations for liberation, and therefore also the desire for liberation, because he has internalized the capitalist way of life (competition, success, speed, etc.). In general, his protests are indicative of his fears of being excluded from this way of life, or of not being able to attain it; on very few occasions they are a reflection of his mere rejection of this way of life. Commodity society has exhausted the living sources of imagination among children, who are surrounded from their very first years with veritable de-cerebration machines. This is at least as serious as pension cuts, but it does not drive millions of people into the street for protest marches or to besiege the producers of video games and children’s TV programming.

The protest movements that are now appearing on the scene do not lack a certain ambiguity. Often, people protest simply because the system did not keep its promises. In this manner, they demonstrate for the defense of the status quo, or rather the status quo ante. Let us take a look at the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs. In this case, it is the financial sector that is held responsible for the current crisis. It is claimed that the financial sphere rules the economy, and ultimately society as a whole. According to the currently widespread critique of finance, the banks, the insurance companies, and the speculative funds are not investing in real production but divert almost all available money towards speculation that only enriches the speculators, while destroying jobs and generating poverty. Finance capital, so they say, can impose its law even on the governments of the most powerful countries, when it does not actually just buy their cooperation. They also buy the media. Thus, democracy is being evacuated of all substance.

But, just how sure are we that the absolute power of the financial sphere and the neoliberal policies that support them are the primary cause of the current disruption? What if, to the contrary, they are only the symptom of a much more profound crisis? Far from being a factor that disrupts an economy that is itself healthy, speculation is what has allowed the economy to preserve the fiction of capitalist prosperity for the last several decades. Without the crutches offered by financialization, market society would already have collapsed, along with its jobs and its democracy. What the financial crises herald is the exhaustion of the basic categories of capitalism: commodity and money, labor and value.

In order to confront the totalitarianism of the commodity, we cannot limit ourselves to shouting at the speculators and other big-time thieves: “Give us our money back”. It is instead necessary to understand the highly destructive nature of money, of the commodity, and of the labor that produces them. To petition capitalism to become healthy again, to carry out a more equitable distribution and to become more just, is an illusion. The current catastrophes are not the result of a conspiracy on the part of the greediest fraction of the ruling class; they are instead the inevitable consequences of the problems that have always been inseparable from the very nature of capitalism. Living on credit is not a perversion susceptible to reform, but more like the last gasp for capitalism and all those who live in this system.

Once we understand this we can avoid the snares of populism, which claims to liberate “the workers and honest investors” (viewed as simple victims of the system) from the rule of an evil force personified in the figure of the speculator. A pretense to save capitalism by attributing all its shortcomings to the activity of a minority of international “parasites”: Europe has already experienced such a movement.

The only choice left is a real critique of capitalist society in all its aspects, and not just its neoliberal guise. Capitalism is not just the market: the State is its other face (while it is at the same time structurally subject to capital). The State can never be a public forum for sovereign decision-making. Even under the dual denomination State-Market, capitalism is not, or is no longer, a mere coercive power that is imposed from the outside upon always-refractory subjects. For a long time now, the way of life that capitalism has created has been accepted almost everywhere as highly desirable and its possible destruction is perceived as a catastrophe. Invoking “democracy” (even “direct” or “radical”) does no good if the subjects whose voice is supposed to be restored are just so many reflections of the system that contains them.

This is why the slogan, “We are the 99%”, said to have been coined by a former advertising executive turned anti-advertising activist, Kalle Lasn of Adbusters, which the media consider to be brilliant, to me seems deranged. Is it enough to be liberated from the rule of the richest and most powerful 1% of the population for all the rest of us to live happily ever after? Among the “99%”, how many of them spend hours in front of their television, exploit their employees, rob their clients, park their cars on the sidewalk, eat at McDonald’s, beat their wives, let their children play video games, participate in sexual tourism, spend their money on designer clothing, check their cell phones every two minutes, or in other words are an integral part of capitalist society? Herbert Marcuse had already defined the paradox quite clearly, the real vicious circle of any project of liberation (which, since his time, has only become more serious): slaves must already be free in order to win their freedom.

Some might consider these criticisms to be excessive, ungenerous, or even sectarian. It will be said that the crucial thing is that people are finally starting to take action, protest, and open their eyes, and that only later will they articulate the reasons for their rebellion; only then will their degree of consciousness will be raised. This is possible and in fact, our salvation depends on this. But in order to reach this point, it is indispensable to criticize everything that must be criticized in these movements, instead of running along behind them. It is not true that any opposition or any protest is in itself good news. With the disasters that will henceforth be produced in an endless succession, with economic, ecological and energy crises that are becoming ever more serious, there can be absolutely no doubt that the people will rebel against what is happening to them. But the whole question revolves around how they will react: they could decide to become drug dealers, or send their wives out to walk the streets; they could steal the organic carrots grown by a peasant or join a militia; they could plot a useless massacre of bankers or devote themselves to hunting immigrants. They could limit their activities to acting to ensure their own survival in the midst of the collapse. They could join fascist or populist movements that designate scapegoats for popular vengeance. Or, on the other hand, they could fight for the collective construction of a better way of life on the ruins left by capitalism. Not everyone will choose this last option; it is even the most difficult one. If it does not attract enough people, it will be crushed. Thus, what we can do today is essentially the following: do what we can to help assure that the protests of every kind that will inevitably arise make the right decisions. There can be no doubt that the presence of features that derive from pre-capitalist societies can make a decisive contribution to the construction of the road to the future.

Translated from the Spanish text of a speech delivered at the “Second International Symposium for Reflection and Analysis: Planet Earth: Anti-Systemic Movements”. CIDECI, December 30, 2011 to January 2, 2012:



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