Rebranding Capitalism

The liberal end as an authoritarian beginning: When left-liberal business editors write about the end of capitalism, they mean its descent into authoritarianism. A review of Ulrike Herrmann’s “The End of Capitalism.”

Tomasz Konicz

For just where fails the comprehension,

A word steps promptly in as deputy.

With words ’tis excellent disputing;

Systems to words ’tis easy suiting;

On words ’tis excellent believing;

No word can ever lose a jot from thieving.

Mephisto in Goethe’s Faust, Part 1

At last! After all these long years,[1] in which critics of value, like lonely voices in the wilderness, have addressed the self-destructive tendencies of capital, and warned of the collapse of the process of civilization due to the incompatibility of capitalism and climate protection,[2][3] it now seems that the mainstream of published opinion is also taking up this issue. This is hardly surprising in view of the manifest systemic crisis, in which all attempts to nurse capital back to health are bound to fail.[4] While the opportunistically closed-off “Left Party,” in which national-social and left-liberal rackets fight for hegemony,[5] clings to its dull social demagoguery, Ulrike Herrmann, economics editor of the daily newspaper taz, the left-liberal organ of the ruling Green Party, has written a book on the “end of capitalism,” the subtitle of which at least notes the incompatibility of “growth” and climate protection.[6]

Isn’t that great? Herrmann’s radical crisis theory, for years thoroughly marginalized, not least in the taz, now seems to be becoming “mainstream”! The former Keynesian Herrmann, who still in her 2018 bestseller Kein Kapitalismus ist auch keine Lösung (No Capitalism Is Also No Solution) refused to part ways with her beloved capitalism, thoroughly misinterpreting Karl Marx in the process, now sees no alternative to an alternative system. Unlike many arch-conservative leftists who are still stuck in the 19th century, Herrmann seems to have undergone an enormous change of heart within a few years, from a healthy worshipper of capitalism to a post-capitalist. Better late than never!

What does it matter if some of the central statements of her new book give the impression of having been simply copied from texts of the critique of value, without a citation or a simple reference to where Herrmann suddenly gets her wisdom, which includes the inevitability of the “demise” of capitalism? Take, for example, when she writes that there is no alternative to “renouncing growth,” because otherwise things would end violently in the long run, having “destroyed the foundations of life.”[7] This is an – admittedly rather hairy – rendition of a central thesis of the critique of value.[8] The same applies to the (former?) Keynes fan’s observation that Keynesian stimulus programs boost the economy in times of crisis, but at the same time literally fuel the climate crisis.[9]

In the late-bourgeois media and political establishment, where competition and copyright are sacred, intellectual theft is considered a serious offense; it is pursued by “plagiarism hunters” and can end the career of a politician or journalist. Without saying so, Herrmann seems to be shamelessly drawing on the resources of value-critical crisis theory, which has been systematically marginalized for years, not least in her newspaper. Measured by the standards of the liberal middle class to which she belongs, this is unacceptable; it comes close to intellectual theft.

But within the left, within progressive, emancipatory forces, different rules apply. Ideally, an open-source approach prevails, so to speak. Here, insights and theoretical findings are common property that can and should be disseminated and, above all, criticized and further developed by all interested parties. Insight is a collective process gained in dialectical discussion, in dispute. And Herrmann’s book – in contrast to most of the intellectual exhalations of the “Left Party,” which is passing into open decay – seems to fulfill a central progressive claim in the manifest systemic crisis: It clearly emphasizes that overcoming capitalism is necessary for survival. Por la causa, for the sake of the cause, it is also important to remember that Herrmann acts as a multiplier. In her media appearances, with the support of the green and liberal media, she can reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, not hundreds or – if all goes well – thousands, as is now common in the left-wing scene.

So, is the struggle for a post-capitalist future finally becoming mainstream in the face of the manifest systemic crisis? Or, to put it another way: Is Herrmann’s book a progressive contribution to the crisis debate? First of all, one might have doubts about this after reading the effusive praise Herrmann heaps on capitalism for its alleged merits (democracy! prosperity! comfort!) before discussing the ecological barriers of its development. Here, of course, the narrow-minded perspective of the German, white middle class comes into play, which confidently ignores the catastrophic conditions in the periphery of the world system and the underclass in the centers.

But here, too, one could argue that the praise of capitalism is intended to soften the necessary rupture that the middle class itself would suffer if it were to part intellectually from its golden capitalist thought-cage. On the other hand, it becomes more difficult to maintain a positive assessment of her argumentation when Herrmann starts to develop quite concrete specifications for an “alternative” way of doing business – which look suspiciously like the old state capitalism of the 1930s – with reference to the slogan “System Change, not Climate Change.”

The economics editor of the taz refers quite specifically to the wartime economy of Great Britain, which is supposed to serve as a model for a post-capitalist alternative (the wartime economy of the Nazis, by the way, differed little in its basic features, with the exception of forced labor in the last years of the war). State planning, rationing and a renunciation of consumption are cited as methods by which the reduction of emissions would have to be achieved quickly. Finally, Herrmann demands that every citizen be assigned the same CO2 limit of one ton per year, so that the rich would have to cut back far more than the middle class or the poor.

This plea for state capitalism is flanked by ideas from the alternative ecological milieu of the Greens: the degrowth movement, the barter economy, or the public goods economy. The sharing of goods, the reduction of working hours, an unconditional basic income, and vocational reorientation are mentioned in this context as supporting measures of a state-planned “survival economy.”[10] A state capitalism with a green tinge, so to speak. The renunciation of consumption in the face of state-organized rationing of goods and joint yoga courses – this is what Herrmann’s “system alternative” seems to amount to, and it can only be sold as such because the taz journalist takes great care not to elaborate a concept of capital, as even the weekly newspaper Freitag noted in its review of the book.[11] That capital is a process of the unlimited valorization of waged labor in commodity production, a totality that shapes the entire society in its image,[12] Herrmann, in her previous book, at least still suspected in her discussion of Marx.[13] All that remains of this is the regressive and nebulous talk of “growth.”

It is simply not clear what Herrmann means by capitalism, so capitalist institutions, processes or phenomena can be sold as post-capitalist. A renunciation of consumption, as Herrmann demands, implies the continued existence of consumption, which is, after all, only an expression of commodity production. Consumption, as opposed to the satisfaction of needs, is always commodity consumption, that is, a by-product of the pursuit of maximum profit. In a post-capitalist society, however, human needs would have to be freed from the constricting corset of the commodity form. Herrmann thus wants to abolish capitalism while retaining the “elementary form” (Marx) of capital, the commodity as the bearer of value. A necessary liberation of needs from the consumption compulsion of the commodity form in post-capitalism, however, could save resources on a massive scale without being perceived as a “renunciation of consumption.”

Oh yeah, and private ownership of the means of production is also supposed to be a part of the overcoming of capitalism, in the “Democratic Private Planned Economy” (Thus Herrmann on British wartime capitalism). Hermann’s post-capitalist labeling fraud, however, applies above all to the state, which is not a counter-principle to the market and capital, but, in its capacity as the “ideal total capitalist” (Marx/Engels), a necessary pole of capitalist societies, guaranteeing the functioning of the overall system as a corrective agent. Historically, the state was also the midwife of capital, by means of the monetization of feudal levies in the firearms economy (Robert Kurz) of absolutism, and it is dependent on the valorization process of capital through taxes.[14] Without sufficient capital valorization there is no state – and vice versa. That is why, in the crisis episodes of the past decades, many states on the periphery collapsed one after the other and became the notorious “failed states,” because in these places the economic crisis of capital had grown to such an extent that even the state apparatuses had gone wild.

In her middle-class-compatible fetishism of the state, the taz author is thus once again completely Keynesian. At this point, at the latest, the fact that Herrmann only copied the ecological side of the crisis process of capital from the critique of value, without adequately perceiving its economic dimension, takes its revenge.[15] The current systemic crisis is not a mere re-enactment of the crisis of enforcement (Robert Kurz) of the 1930s and 1940s, when Fordism made its breakthrough as a new regime of accumulation with the total mobilization for war.[16] There is no prospect of a new regime of accumulation, which is why the tendencies of state erosion are spreading more and more, even in the centers. In Germany, this takes the form of right-wing networks and rackets, which are acting with increasing self-confidence (the taz reported, for example, on the coup plans of Uniter & Co.) – and to whom Herrmann now wants to entrust control of the reproduction of society as a whole. State capitalism is already a crisis reality in many places: for example in China, in the form of the Russian state oligarchy, or even in Egypt, where the Egyptian military is building a “war economy” without war.[17] State expansion and state erosion often go hand in hand.[18]

Of course, Herrmann would indignantly reject suggestions that she would look to Russia or Egypt as models. But this is – like the state Nazi networks in the FRG – the harsh reality of the crisis, not the Keynesian ideal of the impartial regulating state. The capitalist state, too, is caught up in the socio-ecological crisis of capital. And at the same time, it is a common capitalist crisis reflex, as the above shows, that the role of the state increases in times of crisis. The authoritarian and “brutalizing” state will play a greater role in the further course of the crisis. And that is why Herrmann’s statements must be called ideology, justification. It provides the justification for the coming era of authoritarian state crisis management in the capitalist systemic crisis, which is now not only devastating the periphery, but is also fully taking hold in the centers. The German middle class’s fear of the crisis is likely to provide mass support for this authoritarian flight into the arms of the seemingly strong state – from which the German right is likely to benefit (the AfD is already on the rise).

This justification takes place through the gutting of the concept of capitalism, which degenerates into a mere empty phrase that can be filled with content at will. It is a strategy borrowed from the advertising industry, where it has become a habit to fill words with content at will. Since capitalism has fallen into disrepute due to its permanent economic and ecological crisis, its form of crisis must be given a new label, a new tag: the capitalist crisis management that Herrmann propagates is no longer capitalism, according to the central ideologem of the taz editor. That is why Herrmann does not give a definition of capital, as Freitag criticized; she has to remain vague so that this ideological sleight of hand can succeed.

Actors from the Green Party, the party of the social austerity of Agenda 2010 and the wars of aggression that violated international law, are thus leading the production of ideology in the climate crisis: the chimera of “green capitalism” that has been successfully propagated for years is now giving way to a mere relabeling of the looming authoritarian crisis management as post-capitalism. This is a Mephistophelian trick that takes ideology to a new level: it is a rebranding of capitalism that operates with empty words while capitalism has a very bad reputation due to its permanent crisis.

And that is why it is also legitimate to be outraged by the fact that Herrmann, here completely the bourgeois competitive subject, is basically committing intellectual theft, taking central insights of value critique out of their theoretical context and incorporating them distortedly into her state-capitalist ideology. But this approach is characteristic of this rapidly brutalizing middle-class milieu in its ruthless crisis competition, which we must also judge by its own copyright standards.

Finally, it should be noted that this late Keynesian fetish of the state, even in its idealized and largely unrealistic version, has nothing to do with emancipation, if this is to be understood as the overcoming of capitalist fetishism and its absurd regime of coercion, which is driving towards socio-ecological collapse. Emancipation is not “hollow talk” pursued by “do-gooders,” but the necessary, conscious shaping of the reproduction process in a thoroughly conflictual, egalitarian discourse encompassing all of society. And this liberation of democracy from the fetishistic fetters of capital would ultimately be more efficient than any state economy, which inevitably tends towards authoritarianism, as a look at the history of the GDR or the Soviet Union shows. But the most efficient social reproduction possible, freed from the capitalist irrationality of limitless valorization, would be urgently needed, especially in view of the escalating climate crisis.

Ulrike Herrmann, Das Ende des Kapitalismus. Warum Wachstum und Klimaschutz nicht vereinbar sind – und wie wir in Zukunft leben werden, kiwi, 2022

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[1] https://www.konicz.info/2008/07/14/mit-vollgas-gegen-die-wand/

[2] https://konkret-magazin.shop/texte/konkret-texte-shop/66/tomasz-konicz-kapitalkollaps

[3] https://www.mandelbaum.at/buecher/tomasz-konicz/klimakiller-kapital/

[4] https://www.konicz.info/2020/04/11/konjunktur-fuer-gesundbeter/

[5] https://www.xn--untergrund-blttle-2qb.ch/politik/deutschland/linkspartei-opportunismus-in-der-krise-7288.html

[6] https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/ulrike-herrmann-sieht-kapitalismus-am-ende-100.html

[7] https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/ulrike-herrmann-sieht-kapitalismus-am-ende-100.html

[8] https://www.konicz.info/2019/05/27/minimalprogramm/

[9] https://www.nd-aktuell.de/artikel/1147322.klimaschutz-die-weltverbrennungsmaschine.html

https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Das-Virus-die-Weltwirtschaft-und-das-Klima-4679329.html

[10] https://taz.de/Kapitalismus-und-Klimaschutz/!5879301/

[11] “Unfortunately, the author does not give us a clear concept of what she wants to call capitalism in essence, although that would actually be necessary if one wants to explain the necessity of the end of capitalism.” Source: https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/das-ende-des-kapitalismus-ulrike-herrmann-will-geplante-kriegswirtschaft

[12] https://www.untergrund-blättle.ch/politik/theorie/emanzipation-in-der-krise-7306.html

[13] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kein_Kapitalismus_ist_auch_keine_L%C3%B6sung#Karl_Marx

[14] See also: Robert Kurz, The Bang of Modernity. Innovation through Firearms, Expansion through War: A Look Back to the Origins of Abstract Labor. Online at : https://www.exit-online.org/textanz1.php?tabelle=transnationales&index=3&posnr=167&backtext1=text1.php

[15] https://www.untergrund-blättle.ch/wirtschaft/schuldenberge-im-klimawandel-7112.html

[16] Robert Kurz, Die Demokratie frisst ihre Kinder, Bemerkungen zum neuen Rechtsradikalismus. https://exit-online.org/textanz1.php?tabelle=autoren&index=37&posnr=49&backtext1=text1.php

[17] https://carnegie-mec.org/2022/01/31/retain-restructure-or-divest-policy-options-for-egypt-s-military-economy-pub-86232

[18] https://exitinenglish.com/2022/08/12/a-new-quality-of-crisis/

Originally published on konicz.info on 12/14/2022

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