Value-Dissociation, Gender and the Crisis of Capitalism

Interview by Clara Navarro Ruiz with Roswitha Scholz

First of all, we would like to share some moments of your career with the Ibero-American readers. What were your defining experiences as a student? How did your politicization take place? In what social context? Which theoretical references or concepts were important in this process? Were there any breaks? How did you come to join the Krisis Group, or how were you involved in its founding? What significance did the split of this group and the founding of EXIT! have for you, where you further developed your theoretical approach of the value-dissociation critique?

As a young person, I read a lot. In the 1970s, the zeitgeist was left-wing, and I was infected by it. In my youth I read a lot of existentialist texts. Especially novels and plays by Sartre, but also Camus. I also read The Second Sex by de Beauvoir. Other authors included Erich Fromm, Bertrand Russell, and psychoanalytic literature by Freud, Adler, Jung, and Wilhelm Reich. Whether I understood all this at the time is debatable. I also read feminist literature by Alice Schwarzer, Carla Lonzi, Shulamith Firestone, Klaus Theweleit and others, as well as anti-psychiatry texts by Basaglia, Szasz, Laing and many others. I read an introduction to Marxism by a Polish Jesuit priest whose name escapes me. Basically, though, I identified Marx primarily with Eastern Bloc Marxism and the K-groups, all of which were deeply suspect to me. In any case, my attitudes placed me on the anti-authoritarian left.

I was already in a women’s center when I was 17, but I was an absolute outsider and didn’t dare to say much. Then I went to a second-chance school and concentrated on that for a couple of years. Before that, I had trained as a pharmacy assistant and worked for a pharmaceutical wholesaler for a few years. I come from a lower class background. When I was studying social pedagogy at the University of Applied Sciences, I attended seminars on the Frankfurt School. That was something quite different from the Marxism of “really existing socialism” and the K-groups! I soon realized that I needed to know more about Marx in order to understand these texts and so I joined the “Initiative Marxistische Kritik,” which offered a Marx course, and Robert Kurz was a central figure there. In the meantime, I had also become suspicious of the “sponti” left, which couldn’t live up to its own claims, e.g. everything was supposed to be anti-hierarchical and pro-social, but de facto there were many authoritarian informal structures; free love and sex were advocated, while in reality others were treated as commodities on the love market, so to speak. The promise of emancipation in the here and now was a lie. Anyone who didn’t habitually fit into this scene (language, clothing, etc.) was effectively excluded. There was a double standard. But it was not only these experiences that led me to distance myself from a “false immediacy.” It was also leftist teachers at school in the course of my secondary education who taught me that leftist theory is necessary and not just useless chatter that is of no use in practice.

Incidentally, the study of Marx and critical theory made me realize how questionable existentialism is, e.g. the talk of the “abstract individual” in the “German Ideology” – and how it comes about at all – was very enlightening for me. This individual is presupposed in existentialism without justification. Later, when I went to university (I studied mainly sociology, education and philosophy, but also attended seminars in other subjects), I looked for interesting non-Marxist theories that could be made fruitful for feminism. Feminism was a topic that had been on my mind since puberty. The value critics of the time were not exactly open-minded about feminism, to say the least. At university I also attended several seminars on symbolic interactionism and phenomenology. In the end, however, I came to the conclusion that the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” with its inclusion of psychoanalysis is a key work to which feminist theory must critically connect.

I was involved in the founding of the Krisis group as an outsider, so to speak, because of the conflicts around feminism, but also because of questions of the subject and ideology. I did go to the bar with them, but unlike in previous years, I was no longer involved in a working context within the Krisis group. Together with others, I had formed an outsider group, which, however, did not go as far as the critique of value-dissociation, but moved in the dualistic cosmos: patriarchy-capitalism critique. In this group we dealt with the history of the women’s movement and feminist theory.

In the first years of our being together, there were always fierce clashes with Robert Kurz about feminism. To my amazement, it then made perfect sense to him when I presented him with the thesis that “value is the man.” From then on, he tried to introduce this thesis into the Krisis group, which consisted of men, as its mastermind, but to his surprise he succeeded only with difficulty, in contrast to other innovations. There were fierce arguments and resistance. Some thought that critique of value-dissociation was only an aspect of the critique of value, not a dialectically conceived basic context, whereby neither value nor dissociation were to be deduced separately as origins, i.e. dissociation was to be categorically subordinate to value. This remained the case until the Krisis split.

Then, in the mid-1990s, I started working more intensively on the value-dissociation theory. I was pretty much alone in this. On the one hand, there were the androcentric Marxists and value critics (Robert Kurz was busy at the time with a large number of his own publications; moreover, he had little idea of theoretical approaches that were relevant to the development of value-dissociation critique from a feminist perspective). On the other hand, however, there were hardly any Marxist approaches left at that time, feminist theory was mainly oriented towards the deconstructivism of a Judith Butler; objective structures were hardly an issue in this discussion. In our working group on surplus value theory, I was under massive pressure to consider queer theoretical approaches. And so, I was relegated to working in silence. Especially as a woman, you do need a certain amount of steadfastness to “do your thing” when there is a lot of resistance from the outside. I think I also internalized a little bit of an attitude that came from my time with existentialism.

As far as the split in the Krisis group is concerned, I have already said that there was a tension here between the critique of value-dissociation and the critique of value in the Krisis group. However, the differences were not only based on theoretical content. Sexist behavior also characterized the general atmosphere in the Krisis group – as in many left-wing groups. This went so far that one Krisis man slapped me in the face after a disagreement. I was completely taken aback; I would not have thought that such a thing was possible. Nevertheless, I dismissed this as a slip. The reason I didn’t fight back harder at the time was because I was afraid the whole group would break up, and then where would I have published? At the beginning of the 2000s, a woman was to be expelled from the editorial board (she was the only other member of the inner core of the Krisis group besides me, not so much as a purveyor of theory as I was, but as a member of the editorial board) because she rejected a Krisis man who tried to get involved with her. After she had turned him down, he could no longer stand her in the group because he felt unappreciated. This was the immediate cause for the split of the group. Parts of the group went along with it, others did not. In addition, Robert Kurz had written a large number of books and texts since the early 1990s. If he had been the driving force of the Krisis group until then, and if he had been expected to be the “Supreme Leader,” so to speak, he was now reproached for exactly that. In short, it was, as the cliché would have it, about patricide in the male alliance. In the process, I was accused, also stereotypically, of having broken the Krisis group. And in fact, I had rebelled in many ways, thus disturbing the peace of the Brotherhood.

Since the founding of EXIT!, the critique of value-dissociation has been taken more seriously and has become part of our self-representation, but there is a tendency, especially when new people join – and these are mostly men – to treat the critique of dissociation as a subordinate contradiction. Over time, however, we have become picky about this. For example, if someone doesn’t acknowledge value-dissociation as a basic structuring social context from the outset, he/she won’t be included in the editorial board. But we nevertheless accept articles for publication in EXIT! even if their content does not strictly conform to the criteria of the “value-dissociation” critique, but contain topics and ideas that are interesting, whatever their shortcomings. On the whole, however, we regard the critique of value-dissociation as an absolute framework. It has also long since been clarified how it is to be taught in the so-called theory-practice context. This was also an important point in the Krisis split: they thought that value critique should become more practical and meet people where they are in their everyday lives. At EXIT! it is clear: we are a theory group and we see theory as an independent field of social practice, and theory cannot be directly and platitudinously broken down to the political level. We are by no means against a practical socio-critical engagement – on the contrary – for example against neo-fascist tendencies, but such an engagement cannot be played off against a necessary theory formation on another level.

Theoretically strong groups like EXIT! are hard to find in the Spanish context outside of the academic framework. How would you define the social-theoretical context of the EXIT! group, which has no firm ties to so-called social movements, party-political foundations or the university? This has to do not only with the social location of the theory, but also with the ability to influence and change the existing.

It is indeed the case that there are few theory groups that do not have some sort of institutional background – especially nowadays. When I was a student in the 1980s, it wasn’t quite like that. There was still a lot of the spirit of ‘68. Marxist theory, even in the universities, began to establish itself in the 1970s and for a long time still had an APO[1] smell to it. In the first half of the 1980s, being established was still rather frowned upon– unlike today. Critical social theory cannot simply be reserved for a reified university business and its associated constraints in terms of content and methodology, which, when combined with careerist intentions under precarious living conditions, allow a conformist attitude to flourish.

It is not easy to maintain oneself as a separate project for the development of leftist theory. This is not only because of financial problems (we are financed by private donations). In addition, there is always the insistence on the practical relevance of the critique of value-dissociation. This is a structural problem for a theory group that is not associated with a university, which would automatically legitimize theoretical endeavors, so to speak. Most people interested in theory on the left have some kind of connection to the university or want to get into the university. Today we are confronted with this is on the one hand, and on the other hand with the demand to become practical. Once again, one needs strong nerves and a certain steadfastness to resist the demands  made of non-university theory. It has always been the position of the old critical theory that, if necessary, one must have the courage to go outside the city walls if there is no other way. In this sense, I think that extra-institutional theory formation is very important. Precisely because it seems all too obvious today that alternatives to capitalism must be sought, a theoretical distance and a categorical classification of one’s own position and situation are essential in order not to fall for pseudo-concepts that do not really advance the process of social transformation, but rather inhibit it.

Especially after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Marxist and feminist theorizing has become hand-wringing. I very much hope that in the future there will also be movements of intellectuals on the left who resist the university or otherwise institutional Procrustean bed into which they are supposed to fit if they want to get a job, and who dare to swim against the tide. Usually you don’t have any real chance to influence or change things at the university, you are rather made to fit in and mutate into a “lurch” (Horkheimer/Adorno) for the sake of self-preservation. This doesn’t mean that you can’t accept outside money or participate in left-wing establishment events, just that there would be a cost. There may be niches in academia where other things are possible, but that is not the rule. From these niches, it would then be necessary to carry the corresponding ideas into the university and to create unrest.

Can you tell us something about your collaboration with Robert Kurz? How did you influence and enrich each other’s work? Were there any differences? Were they mediated?

As far as the collaboration with Robert Kurz is concerned, it’s quite simple. We never sat down together according to a schedule and had structured, disciplined discussions; we just did it. We weren’t divided into two parts: life here, and our theory projects and the associated collaboration there. Correcting each other’s texts was sometimes quite conflictual, but we dealt with it humorously, calling it “bickering on the computer.” What is not true, however, is that Robert Kurz and I wrote several books together, as the Wikipedia entry about me says. We wrote our texts separately and then it was time for the “computer bickering.” In the evenings, in a relaxed atmosphere, over a glass of wine, we discussed all sorts of things, and in this way – even in controversy – we influenced each other. We had different focuses. Roughly speaking, Robert Kurz’s main topics were economics and politics, and mine were feminism, “race,” class, gender and the “subject.” Atmospherically, our cats were important – but I won’t go into that here. Our lives were often scrutinized – even in the context of Krisis. We didn’t have any children, which was somehow unnatural. Poor Robert Kurz had to talk to his wife all the time, he wasn’t even allowed to relax in a separate private sphere! Some people simply cannot understand that the formation of theory is not simply toil and trouble, but can be a passion, as it was with Marx, despite having many children, especially when women have this attitude.

There were, of course, substantive differences between Robert Kurz and myself. At the beginning of our relationship, these mainly concerned feminism, the subject and ideology (see above). A controversial issue in the early 1990s was the assessment of racism and anti-Semitism, which were making waves at that time. There were tendencies in Robert Kurz to say that these were to be understood as a symptom of the process of the decay of capitalism; for me, on the other hand, it was equally important to see such tendencies in a country-specific context, i.e. as far as Germany was concerned: the Nazi rule and the Holocaust had to be taken into account. I then wrote an article about this in Krisis: “The Metamorphoses of the Teutonic Yuppie,” in which I also criticized the positions of Krisis. While Kurz accepted and appreciated this article and later, for example in the “Black Book,” classified Germany’s specificity in the process of modernization with regard to the Holocaust, there were fierce defensive reactions against this text in the rest of Krisis. Today, after the split, the Krisis homepage is full of texts that target precisely the kind of structural anti-Semitism that had been fiercely contested in the discussion of the text at the time. Of course, there is no written evidence of this dispute. But the discussion with me at that time is not mentioned at all, and it seems as if people had always held this view.

In this context, one area of conflict in the relationship between Kurz and myself was the confrontation with the so-called anti-Germans in the first half of the 2000s. Kurz was very angry about their bellicose attitude and then broke with all sorts of journals in which he had been publishing regularly. He then wrote a whole book about the anti-Germans; in my opinion, that would not have been necessary – two or three basic articles on the subject would have sufficed. Today I understand his agitation at that time a little better; after all, the Iraq war accomplished nothing. Many people died in the process, and it was based on lies about the weapons arsenals, as even Colin Powell admitted afterwards. Moreover, such interventions only prepared the ground for the Islamic State, as was widely reported in the press. Nevertheless, I don’t think that such an intense engagement of Robert Kurz with the “anti-Germans” would have been necessary. In order not to be confused with them – they, too, have a value-critical foundation, albeit a different one than the critique of value-dissociation (which cannot be pursued here) – a few texts would have sufficed.

Another difference between me and Kurz concerned the question of whether pre-modern societies are also fetish societies or whether fetishism refers to modern societies. Kurz took the former position, I the latter. I am also not sure that firearms play the central role in the constitutional process of capitalist patriarchy that Robert Kurz ascribes to them. There were other differences as well, not all of which I can go into here. They were just there in our life together. That’s just the way it was. We were able to deal with them, they were not so dramatic that they would have developed a centrifugal force. Once Robert Kurz said to me that he couldn’t be with a Bavarian monarchist; admittedly we both laughed heartily.

On the whole, however, we pulled together. Besides Adorno’s critical theory, Kurz was the second main pillar of the critique of value-dissociation. The critique of value-dissociation would not have existed if Kurz, as the leader of the Krisis gang, had not massively supported it – against all the resistance from within the group. Thus, in addition to the immediate practice of the value-critical men’s alliance, which was opposed to its content, this was ultimately another major cause of the Krisis split. Moreover, one must see that Kurz correctly predicted the desolate crisis situation in the world today. Today there is a lot of talk about the end of capitalism, but not so long ago Kurz was often declared crazy and not to be taken seriously.

The approach of the critique of value-dissociation is based on the incompleteness of the critique of value. To put it simply (and without taking into account individual critical statements of the EXIT! group), it places at the center of its critique only the category of labor as a social relation and a central concept of the commodity-producing society. Capitalism is to be understood as a total civilizational whole and at the same time as a particular and historical entity. This in itself represents a decisive correction to traditional Marxism, which is centered on surplus value and its distribution/appropriation. For your part, you have developed the thesis that the assertion of the value dynamic is necessarily accompanied by a “dissociation” of reproductive labor and of the “femininity” traditionally associated with this labor. Could you explain the central elements of this thesis and its unfolding?

In doing so, I assume that it is not only value as an automatic subject that constitutes the totality, but that equal account must be taken of the “fact” that in capitalism there are also reproductive activities that are primarily carried out by women. In this context, “value-dissociation” essentially means that female-determined reproductive activities, as well as the feelings, characteristics and attitudes associated with them (sensuality, emotionality, caring, etc.) are dissociated from value/surplus value. Female reproductive activities in capitalism thus have a different character than abstract labor, which is why they cannot be easily subsumed under this concept; it is a side of capitalist society that cannot be grasped by the Marxian conceptual system. This side relates to value/surplus value, necessarily belongs to it, but on the other hand it is outside of it and is therefore its precondition. (Surplus) value and dissociation are thus in a dialectical relationship. The one cannot be derived from the other, but both emerge from each other. In this sense, value-dissociation can also be understood as a metalogy that transcends the internal economic categories.

The categories of political economy, however, are not sufficient in another respect; the dissociation of value must also be understood as a specific socio-psychological relationship. Certain inferior qualities (sensuality, emotionality, weakness of character, and the like) are dissociated from the male subject and projected onto the woman. Such gender-specific attributions essentially characterize the symbolic order of capitalist patriarchy. Thus, beyond the moment of material reproduction, both the socio-psychological and the cultural-symbolic dimensions of capitalist gender relations must be taken into account. It is precisely on these levels that capitalist patriarchy reveals itself as a social totality. However, in the case of value-dissociation, understood as a basic social context, it is crucial that it is not a matter of a rigid structure, as in some sociological structural models, but of a process.

It can be assumed that a contradiction of substance (products) and form (value) is, in a sense, the law of crisis theory, which ultimately leads to crises of reproduction and the disintegration/collapse of capitalism. Schematically speaking, the mass of value per individual product becomes smaller and smaller. The result is an abundance of products while the total mass of value decreases. The decisive factor here is the development of productive power, which in turn is related to the formation and application of (natural) science. With the microelectronic revolution (culminating today in “Industry 4.0”), in contrast to the Fordist era, in which the production of relative surplus-value was compensated by the additional need for labor to generate surplus value, abstract labor is now becoming obsolete. The result is a devaluation of value and a collapse of the (surplus) value relation. Robert Kurz wrote as early as 1986 that this collapse should not be thought of as a single event, even though sudden collapses, e.g. bank failures, mass bankruptcies, will certainly be part of it, but rather as a historical process, a whole epoch, perhaps lasting several decades, in which the capitalist world economy will no longer be able to escape from the maelstrom of crisis and devaluation processes, swelling mass unemployment, and so on. Today, it has long since become clear that the very impossibility of making profits through the extraction of surplus value, mediated by this process, has led not only to a shift to the speculative level, but also the decline of capitalism.

This structure and dynamic, however, must now be modified according to the critique of value-dissociation. Dissociation is not a static moment in contrast to the dynamic moment of the logic of value, but is itself at the same time dialectically upstream of it and makes the moving contradiction possible in the first place, which is why a moving logic of value-dissociation must also be assumed. Dissociation is thus deeply involved in the elimination of living labor. In the process, it has also changed itself.

Especially in the natural sciences, whose application to the production process constitutes the development of productive power in capitalism in the first place, but also in the development of labor science, which is concerned with the optimal increase in efficiency and rational organization of the production process (keyword Taylorism), a dissociation of the feminine and corresponding images of women were almost the silent socio-psychological prerequisite of their existence, which also finds its expression on the symbolic-cultural level (women are less rational, worse at mathematics and the natural sciences than men, etc.). But it is not only in scientific, philosophical, theological, etc. discourses since modernity that a dissociation of the feminine can be observed. Rather, this classification was realized and materialized in the Fordist phase itself, which was conditioned by the dissociation of the feminine, in that the man now became the breadwinner of the family and the woman the housewife in the enforced nuclear family, at least according to the ideal. The more social relations became objectified, the more a hierarchical gender dichotomy took hold. This dissociation of the feminine is a precondition for the development of the productive forces, which first establishes capitalist patriarchy with its “moving contradiction” and as such first brings about its development as a decisive condition for the production of relative surplus value, and that the gap between material wealth and the form of value finally widens more and more. From the point of view of historical processes, objectification and the formation of hierarchical gender relations are mutually dependent and not contradictory. Such a dissociation of the feminine as a prerequisite for the development of productive power ultimately led to the microelectronic revolution, which made not only abstract labor, but also classical-modern gender norms and the housewife obsolete.

From an economic point of view, the expansion of reproductive, caring and nurturing activities, which used to be carried out privately, and which have now been transferred to the professional sphere, is a component of the crisis, since the mass of surplus value has to be redistributed in order to finance them; however, in the context of moving contradiction and a capitalism that has reached its limits, these redistributive possibilities no longer exist. Thus, there is also a reproductive deficit when women can no longer carry out such activities because they are doubly burdened, i.e. they are equally responsible for family and work. Professionally performed care and welfare activities also reach qualitative limits, since they are largely contrary to considerations of efficiency, even though they often end up professionally in the care sector or similar services. In principle, women today are expected to take on all kinds of work, including work that has traditionally had a masculine connotation, even though they are still responsible for care work, including in the private sphere.

Dissociation has thus by no means disappeared, which is also reflected, for example, in women’s lower earning potentials and opportunities for advancement. It should be emphasized that value-dissociation is not located in the split spheres of private and public, with women assigned to the private sphere and men to the public sphere (politics, economy, science, etc.). Rather, value-dissociation runs through all levels and spheres, including those of the public sphere; it forms the basic structuring context of society as a whole. This is shown, among other things, by the fact that women often earn less than men, even though they do the same work and are on average better educated than men today.

On the other hand, when abstract labor becomes obsolete, there are also tendencies toward the “housewifification” of men. The patriarchy becomes feral when the institutions of family and gainful employment erode in the face of increasing tendencies towards crisis and impoverishment, without patriarchal structures and hierarchies having fundamentally disappeared. Today, women are forced to work just to survive. In the slums of the so-called Third World, it is women who initiate self-help groups and become crisis managers. At the same time, however, they are expected to take over the functions of “rubble women” [Trümmerfrauen] in the commanding heights of the economy and politics in this country [Germany], when the cart is stuck in the mud in the fundamental crisis.

The dissociation of value as a historical-dynamic basic structuring context combined with the development of productive forces based on it thus undermines its own foundation, the caring activities performed in the private sphere. The central point here is that the changes – not only in gender relations, but in social relations as a whole – must be understood in terms of the mechanisms and structures of value-dissociation in their own historical dynamics and not, as has already been said, in terms of “value” alone.

Theoretically, then, the hierarchical gender relationship is thus limited to modernity and postmodernity. This does not mean that this relationship does not have a pre-modern history, but under capitalism it took on a completely new quality. Women were now supposed to be primarily responsible for the less valued private sphere, while men were supposed to be responsible for the capitalist sphere of production and the public sphere. This contradicts views that see capitalist-patriarchal gender relations as a pre-capitalist vestige. For example, the nuclear family as we know it did not emerge until the eighteenth century, and public and private spheres as we know them did not develop until the modern era.

The critique of value-dissociation does not simply assume that a critique of value is inadequate; rather, it raises this critique to an entirely new level of quality.

In addition, your theory of value-dissociation has engaged with the discourses of difference that were widespread in the 1980’s and 90’s, coming from feminist critique. This engagement had important implications for the qualitative determination of your own theory, which then defines itself as a “realist dialectic” and configures a “broken totality.” How does the critique of value-dissociation assess these discourses of difference? How does it critique these discourses and how does it enrich itself through this critique?

In order to do that, I have to say something about the history of feminism/feminist theory in Germany since 1968. First of all, the 1970s were about the connection between Marxism and feminism. How can the oppression of women be theoretically integrated into a workers’ movement Marxism? Then, in the early 1980s, it was mostly about making the connection between capitalism, women’s oppression, the destruction of nature, and colonization/the Third World. Then in the second half of the 1980s, the discourse on women’s differences began. The white women’s movement was accused by black women, Latinas, lesbians, etc. of stereotyping them and making the white woman’s position as housewife the standard for theorizing. This discourse overlapped with one that assumed a multiplicity of life trajectories, individualization tendencies, etc. in the Western industrialized countries against the background of welfare state security. It was now assumed that “the woman” (but also the man) did not exist, but that there were “many” different shades of these two genders. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Marx became passé in feminism. Now a culturalist deconstructivism in the sense of Judith Butler reared its head and became the feminist master theory. Materialist theory was mega-out, culturalist, poststructuralist theory mega-in. It was no longer about the gender division of labor, for example, but about how gender is discursively produced. Gender now no longer seemed to be something real, fixed, but discursively negotiable and, in a vulgar constructivist understanding of the left milieu, freely selectable. Cultural relativist theories moved in. Gender relations were supposed to differ fundamentally from culture to culture, and a universal view of them was taboo. Language, discourse, and culture were, so to speak, substitutes for an old materialist understanding of totality.

Instead, the critique of value attempted to explain the collapse of the Eastern bloc itself in Marxist terms, beyond an old workers’ movement Marxism, by making the category of value the center of its essays and interpreting Marx from there. By that time, I had long since landed as a feminist in the critique of value – with all the dissatisfactions I have already explained – when, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, in my preoccupation with feminist theory, not least the persecution of witches, the thought came to me: “value is the man,” and in this context I also realized that a reference to the dialectic of the Enlightenment on the part of feminist theory was unavoidable. And so it came about organically, as it were, that the previously posed questions about the connection between the domination of nature, the oppression of women, anti-Semitism and racism could be dealt with through a critique of value-dissociation. As far as differences, not only between men and women, are concerned, Adorno’s critique of the logic of identity was very illuminating for me. In contrast to the postmodernists and poststructuralists, he was not concerned with hypostatizing difference, but with respecting and looking at the individual, particular object. This was what the theory of value-dissociation was supposed to convey. By the way, it was by no means the case that the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s was simply blind to other dimensions of inequality, such as “race”/ethnicity, and certainly not to class, and was only concerned with women’s emancipation, as was often claimed in the 1990s. It was just that at that time it did not hypostatize difference against the background of culturalist and poststructuralist views. A primarily cultural relavatist view has the consequence that existing commonalities in the oppression of women can no longer come into focus. In this respect, I did not first adopt a way of thinking about differences from a post-structuralist oriented women’s movement, because this was already there before. Nevertheless, I think that for a long time, even in Marxist theory as a whole, the importance of culture and the symbolic order has not been given enough attention. It is therefore important not to negate this level in the abstract, but to include it in the sense of a certain negation in the critique of value-dissociation, as something separate and at the same time belonging to it, similar to the psychoanalytical level.

Of the various authors in the EXIT! group, you are undoubtedly the one who has most strongly emphasized the connections between the critique of value-dissociation and the Critical Theory of the so-called first generation of the Frankfurt School. Theodor W. Adorno seems to be very important for your thinking, as some texts (The Significance of Adorno for Feminism Today, The Theory of the Sexual Dissociation and Adorno’s Critical Theory, Social Form and Concrete Totality) show. You claim his importance for feminism in general and for the critique of value-dissociation in particular. Could you tell us in what sense one can speak of the topicality of Adorno’s thought?

Adorno was not on the workers’ movement Marxist steamship, nor was he an Eastern Bloc socialist. The struggle for money was not his central point of reference; rather, he was concerned with alienation, reification and fetishism at the heart of society. The economy played only a marginal role for him. His critique of fetishism should be taken up again today in economic terms, but without adopting his primitive recourse to “exchange” as the basic form of capitalism. Instead, the moving contradiction and the abstract labor/care activity in the sense of the (surplus) value-dissociation theory are to be taken as the core of capitalist-patriarchal socialization. Adorno, in a reversal of Hegel, had already seen that the whole is the untrue and thus argued for a broken totality in order to explode the hermetic. A broken totality is indeed what we have today. At the exit of postmodernism, however, it becomes clear that this does not necessarily lead to emancipation, but to (civil) war. If differences are allowed to float freely, as poststructuralism had theoretically anticipated, this, in conjunction with processes of material impoverishment in the “collapse of modernization” (Robert Kurz), leads to barbarism. As already mentioned, however, Adorno was never abstractly concerned with differences per se; in his case, non-identity was always claimed against the background of total capitalism and its reifying thinking. The positivist thinking of difference in postmodernism, however, corresponds only laterally to a classical modernist thinking of identification and classification. In this respect, one should continue to insist on the recognition of the non-identical as a prerequisite for a different society, without, however, leaving it in abstraction, and this also means not recognizing every barbaric difference, but also not making the identical the standard. In this respect, a further developed Adorno is highly topical today. A new recourse to Lenin and a workers’ movement Marxism, as can be observed again today, is of course far removed from this and desperately tries to activate old ideas that have long since lain in their graves.

On the other hand, you have had to distance yourself from Adorno’s thinking, especially from the confusion between Adorno’s non-identical and your own concept of the “dissociated.” Could you explain this difference?

Adorno derived a critique of the logic of identity from exchange. What is decisive, however, is not simply that the common third – disregarding qualities – is the socially necessary labor time, the abstract labor, which stands, as it were, behind the equivalence form of money, but that this in turn makes it necessary to exclude what is connoted as feminine, namely “domestic work,” the sensual, emotional, non-identical, not clearly ascertainable by scientific means, and to regard it as inferior. In this way, however, the dissociation of the feminine is by no means congruent with Adorno’s non-identical. For it is precisely the “special” object of the gender relation, which is at the same time a fundamental social relation, that would itself require a “concept” on a very fundamental theoretical level; for it is significant that it is precisely this relation and “the feminine” that was regarded as a dark realm that existed precisely as a dualistic opposition to the conceptual. It would be somewhat absurd to declare half of humanity to be non-identical; nevertheless, and precisely because of this, the thought-form of the non-identical emerges from this basic structure. The thought-form of the logic of identity is thus established with value-dissociation as the socially-constituting basic structuring context, and not first with exchange or value. Dissociation is therefore not the non-identical. It is, however, the precondition for a formal and positivist way of thinking that abstracts from the particular quality of the concrete thing and any corresponding differences, contradictions, breaks, etc. becoming dominant in science and politics. However, it is crucial to start from a modified conception of the moving contradiction according to the theory of value-dissociation (see above), which ultimately leads to the obsolescence of abstract labor, but also of household activities in the modern sense. We can only speak of abstract labor when capital has begun to move on its own foundations and has taken a course within itself against the background of the logic of value-dissociation. Non-identity is that which is not absorbed in the concept, the structure. At the same time, the non-identical cannot be concretely defined from the outset, since it is itself always bound to the concrete content and to the thing in itself.

For the critique of the logic of identity from the perspective of the critique of value-dissociation, this means that the various levels and areas and the “thing” itself must not only be irreducibly related to one another, but must also be equally considered in their “inner” connection on the level of  value-dissociation as a negatively dialectical basic context of the in-itself broken social totality. In this respect, however, the critique of value-dissociation goes much further than the traditional critique of value. Since the critique of value-dissociation has always been aware of its limitations, it does not make itself absolute as an overarching meta-level, but knows exactly how to acknowledge the “truth” of other, particular levels and areas as well. For example, it must acknowledge the socio-psychological and psychoanalytical dimension, which it cannot theoretically grasp because of its necessarily high level of abstraction. In Adorno’s case, “woman” is not the non-identical, but this is only established through exchange; the dissociation of the feminine merely ekes out a descriptive existence, it has neither a categorical status nor is it the non-identical.

Incidentally, in accordance with such a certain critique of the logic of identity, one must not take a linear view when analyzing the capitalist-patriarchal development in the different regions of the world. This development has not taken place in the same way in all societies, up to and including (formerly) gender-symmetrical societies that have not yet completely adopted modern gender relations; however, it must also take into account differently knitted patriarchal relations that have been superimposed by modern Western, objectified patriarchy in the course of the development of the world market, without having completely lost their distinctiveness.

Another reference figure in your thinking is undoubtedly Karl Marx. I would like to ask a few questions about this figure: What are the main theoretical challenges for Marx-inspired thought? This question does not refer to an academic Marxism, but a Marxism that understands itself as a contemporary radical critique of capitalism.

Marx is, of course, the classic of the radical critique of capitalism, who showed that capitalism must collapse not for moral reasons but because of its objective dynamics, without, however, denying the subjective level. Individuals repeatedly generate the fetishistic dynamic, which becomes independent of them and thus ultimately dominates them. It is, of course, the fundamental dimension of value-dissociation in its contradictory complexity that poses the greatest challenge, since, as I have said, it cannot be grasped in simple economistic terms. Marx was a child of his time. One cannot simply say that we need to work out this and that about Marx and then his theory will be perfect and we will have worked him out correctly – in the sense of what he lacked. The dynamics of the moving contradiction has led to the fact that in its historical realization, at the latest in the 4th Industrial Revolution, dimensions of capitalism become visible that Marx himself did not yet have systematically on his radar: specifically racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Gypsyism, and the destruction of nature. A merely androcentric theory of the moving contradiction, a dynamic that has long concealed these repressions that are becoming visible today, must deal with this.

There are many things in Marx’s work that still need to be worked out: for example, the problem of the relationship between productive and unproductive labor, the rate of profit, the problem of price transformation, etc., which would need to be examined even more closely than in Robert Kurz’s Geld ohne Wert. And all this has to be thought about. However, I do not believe that a solution to the problem of a value-dissociation society as a fragmented totality can be found by focusing only on such problems. It’s necessary to work on both, although I don’t think it’s worthwhile to cram Marx indefinitely and still aspire to reconstruct him into old age when you have snow-white hair. It cannot just be a Marx-philological approach. Today, we have long been aware of its limitations, which is why one cannot promise oneself access to the ultimate truth from a meticulous reading of Marx. The crucial and difficult point here is that, in terms of the critique of value-dissociation, the critique of (surplus) value and the critique of dissociation can neither be lumped together nor treated separately from each other. They are thus to be regarded as both separate and negatively-dialectically intertwined, but this also means that they cannot exist as a logically coercive unit.

In some of your recent texts (After Postone, Fetish Alaaf) and in reference to Geld ohne Wert by R. Kurz, you have begun to speak, in contrast to commodity fetishism, of a “fetishism of capital” as a central critical point for cogent critique of capitalism. Could you briefly explain the difference between commodity fetishism and capital fetishism?

This is, of course, a difference that is still entirely within the realm of an androcentric reading of Marx’s “Capital.” But I will first explain the difference against the background of this contrast. The chapter on the commodity fetish in Capital follows methodological individualism for didactic-methodological reasons. Abstract labor is mentioned here, but it is not systematically considered. The first 150 pages are an introduction to the understanding of capital, which is what Marx is actually concerned with. Capitalism in the narrower sense does not exist until capital has begun to stand on its own feet, that is, since the second half of the 18th century. Many interpretations of Marx assume a simple commodity form as the cell form of today’s capitalism, even though this simple commodity form never existed as a principle of socialization, not even in niche form. This is not to say that the commodity fetish chapter should simply be neglected. But Marx wants to point to the capital fetish, which only comes into effect from a higher density of socialization. Only then does the moving contradiction begin to “work” and society become truly independent vis-à-vis the individuals. This would not even be possible in a fictitious situation of simple commodity production, because here there would still be personal, not objectified domination. Within this reading – and only within this reading – the analysis of the commodity form then also has its place. In this context, Kurz criticizes not only a “methodological individualism” with regard to the commodity form (“cell form”), but also with regard to the concept of capital, the capital fetish, and a Marxian understanding that takes individual capital as the starting point. “What transcends the acting subjects and constitutes the real movement of valorization, however, is the whole of the ‘automatic subject,’ the constitutive and transcendental a priori, which only appears in individual capital, but is not categorical. Total capital alone is the self-movement of value, so to speak, a ‘breathing monster’ that confronts the actors, even though they themselves produce […] in Marx’s words, ‘self-valorizing value, a breathing monster that begins to ‘work’ as if it had ‘love’ in its body’” (GoW, p. 178). One of the central moments is the competition between the individual capitals as a necessity of mediation to the capitalist whole which is mediated in-itself. It is not possible to start from individual capital and then aggregate this level upwards.

Within the theory of value, there seems to be a certain proximity between your thinking and that of Moishe Postone, who is better known in the Ibero-American academic space. He too speaks of labor as a specifically capitalist “social relation.” What connects and what distinguishes your approach from that of the North American author?

Postone’s thinking overlaps in many respects with the old critique of value; my criticism of it, as of the old critique of value, is that he does not assume value-dissociation as a basic structuring context, but argues reductively in terms of value theory. But even within the framework of value theory, Postone knows no crisis theory. For him, it’s not a matter of abstract labor becoming obsolete, but rather he assumes a treadmill effect; when jobs are eliminated, new ones are created. This is actually illogical if one thinks the “moving contradiction” through to its logical conclusion. Moreover, labor in capitalism is not simply a “social relation” but an “abstract-material substance,” as Robert Kurz calls it. And in this respect, abstract labor is the inner bond of capitalist socialization.

In principle, the capital form is the actual starting point of an analysis of capitalism and not the commodity form, as in Postone (see above). Robert Kurz formulates this as follows: “Under the condition of this a priori whole, production is already the unity of ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ labor, in the result the unity of material product and the object of value. In social terms, only the aspect of ‘abstract’ labor, as the expenditure of human labor or life energy (nerve, muscle, brain), is ‘valid’ in ‘concrete’ labor. Thus, ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ labor do not fall apart into two separate spheres, but are aspects of the same logic, which overlaps all spheres, but allows the concrete side to be valid only as a manifestation of the (real)abstract. The product, for its part, is therefore only socially ‘valid’ as an object of representation of this real-abstract substance, as the object of value” (GoW, p. 204). Against this background, “labor” only emerged in capitalism and can and must be abolished. For Postone, on the other hand, the concept of labor is ambiguous. There are certainly passages in which he ontologizes labor. But as little as (concrete) labor can be ontologized, one must insist on an abstract-material substance of social labor, which Postone – and here he is contradictory – sees as the “creator of value,” but then determines this value as a social relation and only insofar assumes a dialectic of “concrete” and “abstract” labor.

In Postone, surplus value is primarily an emanation of value (as it is also in part in an old critique of value); in a new critique of value (of dissociation), on the other hand, it is an indispensable dynamic moment in the self-realization of value, without which abstract labor as a tautological end in itself would have no meaning and a “moving contradiction” would be impossible. It exists in Postone, but it is a secondary moment. And, of course, care activities, which are predominantly carried out by women, are not systematically considered in Postone. A care crisis in the context of a general fundamental crisis of the capitalist-patriarchal system as a whole cannot be grasped by Postone, whereby, to repeat, gender relations and the dissociation of value as a basic capitalist-patriarchal social context are not included in the care dimension.

Given theMarxist and critical-theoretical roots of your thinking, does the theory of value-dissociation have, in your opinion, the possibility of being a critical theory of the present? How do you evaluate this possibility? How do you see the relationship between theory and politics?

For a long time, the critique of value (and dissociation) with its thesis of the end of capitalism, of capitalist patriarchy, was presented by the ruling left establishment as crazy; today, the mainstream left assumes the end of capitalism, even if it is then often supposed to be saved from itself (for example, by Varoufakis). Politics is seen as the salvation, instead of seeing without blindness that it has come to its end with capitalism itself. It is merely itself the fetish administration in the form of a general will. Politically-practically, it is a matter of turning against the new fascism, but not of renouncing its androcentric-democratic roots for that reason.

In the spirit of the last question and considering your work on postmodern individualization and its theoretical reverberations, do you think that both have lost their relevance and impact due to the current deep crisis? What role have theories of individualization (difference vs. inequality) played in recent decades? What other forms and theories of subjectivation can replace them?

I think that in recent years, even in the so-called developed countries, the individualization of prosperity supported by the welfare state has turned into a self-responsible individualization of misery without a safety net or a double bottom. For a long time, the perspective of (accepted) difference corresponded to this individualization of prosperity– after all, it also corresponded to a lifestyle orientation of its own for many years. However, when the middle class threatens to fall, the inequality dimension is quickly activated and an obsolete working class and proletariat are conjured up, especially when it comes to the falling, poor, pitiful Western man. The real underclasses/“proletariats” today are formed via “race” and gender, with the “Jew” as the alleged string-puller in conspiracy theories bringing the world to the brink, and with the “Gypsy” as the alien-racial anti-social person occupying the lowest rank. To this I can only respond with my critique of value-dissociation, which has always been paradoxical in itself. I, as a theoretical individual, cannot concoct new forms of subjectivation; these must already emerge from the dynamics of value-dissociation, which, since they are fetishistic, have always known the dialectic of the logic of structure and action, with the former having the upper hand. The dynamics of the Third World and the fear of antisociality now strike back at members of the First World and the middle classes. Social AND economic inequalities must now be put on the agenda beyond a traditional class struggle thinking. “Class” in the Marxian sense is not a category that has any essential meaning in today’s decaying patriarchy. It is history. Today’s talk of workers and a proletariat that would have helped Trump and the right to power is at best a political fighting term, but in times of Industry 4.0 and a globalized world society it is not even suitable for a sociological determination of the social fabric. Social and economic inequalities can no longer be dealt with in such terms.

I would now like to come back to feminism. How do you assess the current situation within academic feminism? Even if critical economic texts are regaining space, they are sharing it with a revival of sociological discourses, which is opening up a so-called “fourth wave of feminism.” Gender studies is also still receiving a lot of attention. What do you think about this situation?

The crux of the matter is that the critique of value-dissociation is not taken seriously as a basic logic. Academic feminism does not assume a fragmented totality in a negative dialectical way, but is based on a sociological understanding of society. In Germany, an attempt has already been made at the university level to make my theory of value-dissociation explicitly sociological and political. On the other hand, there have also been efforts, especially outside the university, to incorporate central moments of the critique of value dissociation into non-university feminist theory groups. I can only mention this here without going into further detail. On the whole, the critique of value dissociation, as well as the simple critique of value, is being cut off at the university level in Germany. I hope, of course, that the critique of value-dissociation will spread beyond the long-established university and scene establishment, and that within leftist universities and leftist milieus there will be protests against entrenched organizational structures, methods, and content that move in well-trodden paths and do not want to allow anything else.

As the crisis increases the number of subjects who are monetized but do not have access to money, forms of feminism that focus on care work are also spreading: the valorization of motherhood, the rediscovery of the feminine as “the other” of capitalism, the return to communal bonds, to a certain immediacy, and so on. How are we to understand these approaches in the context of the social decomposition in which we currently find ourselves? (see above).

I have already said that value and dissociation are dialectically mediated with each other, that one emerges from the other. It also follows that the dissociated can thus be conceived as an Other, as something abstractly different from value, not as something better, as it is also conceived in some leftist and feminist approaches. In times of social decomposition, this also awakens a need for an imagined ideal world of the past. In a highly complex globalized and technologically sophisticated world, people want manageable structures, especially when living conditions become precarious and even the middle class is threatened with collapse. Then the call for women as mothers, as gentle crisis managers, becomes louder (“Mary spread out her mantle, make it a screen and protection for us,” as it says in an old Catholic hymn). As I said, women in the slums of the Third World are often crisis managers in their immediate lives, having to secure money and survival. It is completely wrong for this to be seen as emancipation in left-wing and feminist groups; rather, such crisis management tendencies can be exploited to maintain the status quo on the basis of a supposed maintenance of order. False immediacy can be costly for feminist and leftist intentions that settle into a comfort zone built on fantasies. What is ignored is the need for a planning perspective that does not simply dictate from above, as in the socialism of the Eastern bloc, but rather, formulated in terms of systems theory, places the overall system and the subsystems in an appropriate relationship to one another. Moreover, the recourse to old gender roles and the left’s turn to the communitarian correspond to new needs for normality and conformity, which in their Biedermeier-like character appear oppositional and thus provide a breeding ground for Querfront politics.

What can we learn from the women in the peripheral countries of capitalism if we want to counteract the processes of social decomposition that are coming upon us with the collapse of modernization? What do the possible differences show about the inequalities of  value-dissociation and how it develops?

It would be a complete fallacy to believe, after what has been said so far, that women in the Third World, when they are responsible for money and survival in the slums, are brave and tough and should be held up as role models. The fact that women in patriarchal capitalism have to be egg-laying mealy-mouths has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with emancipation. It is not the case that the housewife and mother in Western countries is the model of progress for the Third World as well, as was long thought; rather, in the course of the decomposition tendencies of capitalist patriarchy, the crisis existence of women in developing countries is the harbinger of things to come for women in the so-called highly developed countries as well. To be a woman in such a situation is a misfortune, not a fortune. It is true that in Germany, for example, the welfare state coffers are still somewhat larger than in the so-called Third World; however, the crisis is eating its way further and further into the European centers via Southern Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, etc.). The further decline of the middle class will mean that women will no longer be able to afford domestic and nursing help, e.g. from Eastern Europe, as they have been able to do in the past, but will have to do these jobs themselves, taking on many additional jobs at the same time. At the same time, men no longer have the role of breadwinner and therefore do not feel responsible for their families and offspring. The institutions of family and gainful employment have long been eroding in this country too, and this will become even more pronounced in the course of Industry 4.0 and increasing robotization and abstraction.

Women are supposed to do the social work as crisis managers, so to speak, while men are supposed to be authoritarian and, in the Carl Schmittian sense, the keepers of order, one might say. The fact that there are also a few female leaders on the right is irrelevant here; it only shows that value-dissociation is a basic structuring social context in which individuals are not absorbed into the cultural patterns and women can also be or are (co-)perpetrators.

You have also made important contributions to the theory of anti-Semitism and racism as false solutions to capitalist crises. These phenomena are undoubtedly gaining new relevance in the face of the xenophobic, nationalist resurgence in Europe (AfD, Front National, Donald Trump’s election victory in the US, etc.). How can the intensification of xenophobia and racism be countered from the perspective of value-dissociation theory?

A broad anti-fascist movement is necessary in any case. But it would be completely wrong to fall into a hurrah-democratism. Because democracy itself is the womb from which anti-Semitism, antiziganism, racism and also sexism and homophobia crawl. The famous people, the demos, voted for Trump by a majority, for example. That’s why you can’t just appeal to an idealized democracy, which is itself essentially exclusion. Postcolonialist works and historical studies, for example, bear eloquent witness to this. I don’t want to deny that Obama wanted overcome these mechanisms of exclusion. But he deported more migrants than any US president before him. But he did it with a humane and democratic discourse. Trump presents himself as the wolf who cannot hold back, as the one who dares to proclaim reality in all its harshness. The state and democracy are institutions for moderating the fetishistic relations that are now going off the rails; that is why, in their impotence, they are increasingly resorting to relations of domination based on “strongmen.” Certain developments in law should not be understood as civilizational ruptures beyond democracy, but are a structural part of this process, part of the “civilizational process” itself.

This process of civilization now also brings with it corresponding forms of consciousness; a positivist view, also in science, a view that hypostatizes alleged data, facts and supposed everyday certainties. The critical accusation of “post-facticity” against Trump etc. merely refers to this basic fact. Superficially, then, it is the others who are responsible for one’s own misfortune in this “pathic projection.”

This (everyday) positivist view is by no means limited to the dominant culture. From a particular point of view, equality feminists and multicultural feminists, gays and Islamists, right-wing gays and conservative feminists, etc. are fighting each other today. The problem between Turks and Kurds has been existed for a long time, different strands of Islamism are also fighting each other, and so on. This shows today the omnipresence of a general competition resulting from the moving logic of value-dissociation. There are tendencies of a “multicultural barbarism” today, as Robert Kurz once said. Group-specific and individual identities are to be fettered in various ways, instead of seeing that they, and also the struggles for them, are the result of the capitalist-patriarchal form.

It is therefore crucial to make it clear that a view outside of this overarching level leads to barbarism. This does not mean disregarding particularities, peculiarities, or individuality, including hybrid identities, as long as one always thinks of such dimensions as liquefied at the same time.

However, all this has to be related to the value-dissociation-form as the dominant social relation, even if they do not merge into it and represent something else. In THIS sense, it would also be a matter of achieving a new universalism, beyond the universalism of the Enlightenment, which already has exclusion inherent in itself.

Even in broad “anti-fascist” movements, massive imbalances can arise that reproduce what they seek to thwart. In this respect, from the perspective of the critique of value-dissociation, it is necessary to consider with whom one can ally oneself, and with whom not. There is no patent remedy for this. However, it is crucial to always maintain a reflexive distance that does not join cheap antifa impulses that are barbarically divided within themselves. In Germany, for example, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this has been the case for anti-imperialists/anti-nationals on the one side and anti-Germans on the other, although even here the fronts no longer seem so clear-cut and bizarre ideological distortions sometimes occur. But I cannot go into this here. It is necessary to assert a broad vision within an antifascist movement that is bitterly necessary. But this cannot be posed from the point of view of the critique of value-dissociation, but must be set in motion by itself; an external and voluntarist invective along the lines of value-dissociation would make no sense. A rule of thumb here is never to make oneself compatible with Querfront movements or to give them even the smallest concession. Syriza, Podemos, or even “Die Linke” in Germany, for example, which in any case only pursue system-imminent reformist goals, are by no means immune to this, as is well known. An emancipatory, value-critical perspective goes beyond this from the outset. No false compromises, even if one is then thrown back on oneself. I find particularly dangerous a perspective close to the critique of value that defends small networks, solidarity economy and decentralization, sometimes with open source and new technologies tendencies, and that has gained strength since the split of the Krisis group; this includes the return of old-new tendencies that rely on technology from an apology of progress that expects – in the line of traditional Marxism – that all problems will be solved in the future, as happens in accelerationism and speculative realism, which puts its hopes in an extraterrestrial mission to conquer other planets.

Note: “GoW” is “Geld ohne Wert” [Money without Value], Horleman-Verlag Berlin, 2012.

[1] TN: APO, short for Außerparlamentarische Opposition, or extra-parliamentary opposition, was a political protest movement in West Germany during the late 60’s and early 70’s, and formed a central part of the German student movement.

Originally published in Spanish in Constelaciones. Revista de Teoría Crítica, no. 8-9 (2017)

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