Capital, Our Enemy: Notes on the End of the Tranquil Times
The following is a translation from the French of the essay Notre ennemi, le capital (2017) by the contemporary Marxist philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa. Class Unity is pleased to provide this translation as a service to the Anglophone left, which is too often cut off from intellectual developments in other languages. This book, along with a number of Michéa’s other works, can be found in the original French at Éditions Flammarion. We encourage all interested readers, including those not fluent in French, to purchase a copy of the original so as to support the author.
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“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
(Sunday Times, May 3rd, 1981)
“Although many other consequences of this social order testify to its monstrosity, its ephemeral character and its aberrations in even cruder and more manifest ways, nowhere does its absurdity emerge more definitively than in this imperceptible and silent degeneration of entire peoples, forcefully showing that the final immanent tendency of the capitalist system is nothing other than the annihilation of the human species. The struggle against this order is a necessity for the preservation of humanity.”
Rosa Luxemburg, “Demographic Statistics in France” (1898), in Le Socialisme en France, Agone, 2013.
“Having barely escaped the massacres of the Commune, we remind those who would be tempted to forget, that the Versaille left, no less than the right, ordered the massacre of Paris, and that the army of slaughterers received congratulations from both. Right Versaillais and left Versaillais should be equal before the people’s hatred.”
Manifesto of the Outcasts of the Commune, London 1874
In his preface to the first German edition of Capital, published in London in July 1867, Marx wrote that the “final goal of this work is to unveil the economic laws of motion of modern society”. It was therefore very clearly, in its spirit, trying to intellectually arm the workers of his time against the new harms, and new forms of servitude and alienation brought by a social and economic system that was itself entirely new (otherwise, he would have probably contented himself with writing a work called The Alliance of the Throne and the Altar or simply, Reaction). One understands then that Marx never once dreamed – no more, indeed, than did the other great socialists and anarchists of the 19th century – of inscribing his political struggles under the banner of the “left”, whether it was a “radical” left or “leftmost left”. What best translates the constant spirit of the latter is above all May ‘68’s famous slogan: “Run faster comrade, the old world is behind you!” (an “old world” in which – Orwell noted ironically – the “progressive” man of the left could equally include “war, nationalism, religion and monarchy” just as well as “peasants, teachers of Greek, poets and horses”). But the true socialist maxim (we will later see what exactly this term means) should rather be, to the contrary: “Run slower, comrade, the new world – of climate change, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley – is in front of you!”. In choosing Capital, Our Enemy as the title of this essay, I simply wanted to emphasize the necessity and urgency of returning to the lost treasure of original socialist critique, convinced as I am that at a time of globalization and triumphant liberalism, it is first and foremost the continual and senseless pursuit of the quest for capitalist profit which threatens to eventually destroy nature and humanity.
The starting point of this little book is an interview given to the young socialist degrowth website Le Comptoir and written down in January and February 2016. It is reproduced here without any modification. As for the notes that accompany this interview – as well as the “scolies” that follow it – they were written between March and April 2016. The reader should not worry about the branching structure which is the natural consequence of this (a structure which makes possible, at least it’s always my feeling, a more “dialectical” mode of exposition – or if you prefer a more youthful formula, “3D”). In fact, these “scolies” were first constructed to be readable as independent chapters, according to a linear order (including their notes). There is thus no reason for the reader to change anything in their habitual manner of reading and so interrupt their progress in useless back and forths between the principal text and the notes which expand or prolong it. I thank the team from the site Le Comptoir – and in particular Kevin Victoire and Mikael Faujour – for their initiative and collaboration.
Question 1: The last five decades have been marked in the West by the advent of consumer society and the arrival of mass culture, which have carried out an unprecedented uniformization of life. Pasolini, of whom you are a great admirer, noted forty years ago that the popular classes have been “affected in the bottom of their souls, in their ways of being” and that the soul of the people has not only been “scratched, but lacerated, violated, soiled forever”. In these conditions can we really speak of the people and of common decency?
It should first be remembered that the necessary precondition of what you call “consumer society” (as established in the United States in the early 1920s) is the inherent need of all liberal economies to infinitely pursue the process of capital accumulation. This is a contradictory need – because we live in a finite world – but one which has constituted the main (though not exclusive) key to understanding the movement of modern societies since the Industrial Revolution. In a world where everyone sooner or later ends up being placed in competition with everyone else – in keeping with the liberal principle of extension of the field of struggle – it is in fact vital, if one wishes to stay in the race, to constantly increase one’s starting capital (any “conservative” attitude being by definition suicidal in an “open” and theoretically competitive economy).
Of course, this systemic injunction towards “growth” and “innovation” cannot be explained solely by the dominant tendency of capital –- as confirmed by any game of Monopoly – to steadily concentrate in fewer hands (62 individuals today possess a fortune equivalent to that of the poorest half of humanity!). By subordinating all production of goods and services to the prioritized demand of “return on investment” (even though most goods so produced reveal themselves to be utterly useless, or even toxic or harmful for the climate and human health) it simultaneously encourages the positivist dream of a “value-neutral” world – whose ultimate categorical imperative would be business is business – thus helping to increasingly drown the most precious human virtues (those that form the basis of, for example, daily civility and the practices of reciprocity and mutual aid) in the “icy waters of selfish calculation” (Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party). This is, moreover, the reason why the first socialists’ critique rarely halted at just the unequal and mind-numbing aspects of the new mode of industrial production (William Blake’s famous Satanic mills). It also targeted just as much – if not more – the kind of atomized, mobile and aggressively individualist society which represented its moral, psychological and cultural complement (“this society” – noted Pierre Leroux – “where everyone wants to be a monarch” and which Proudhon described for his part as “the reign of individual absolutism”). Once one has recognized this structural link between “the demoralization and isolation that encloses each in his own private misery” (Jaime Semprun) and this daily war of all against all which constitutes the essence of economic liberalism, one can better understand the logical reasons why the global rampage of liberal policies – against the backdrop of the left intelligentsia’s renunciation of all radical critique of the system of capital accumulation from the 1970’s onward – could not continue without indefinitely undermining the very foundations (whether anthropological, moral or cultural) of any truly common life.
That said, and unless one supports the unbelievable Judge Burgau’s hateful and mistrusting vision of the “subaltern” classes during Outreau’s trial (a vision in which it is not difficult to find the true psychological and intellectual background of all the mediatized and academic crusades against “populism”), it seems premature to conclude that the notions of “common decency” or of “the people” (itself currently reduced by State sociology to an improbable collection of “minorities”) belong hereafter to a bygone past. Because though it is effectively incontestable that whole portions of the moral and cultural universe of ordinary people – to reuse Orwell’s expression – have been deeply impacted by the effects of the “axiologically neutral” dynamics of legal and market globalization (just look at the constant progression of “autistic” or antisocial behaviors in the public sphere), it appears evident to me that this “dissolution of all social ties” (Debord, Letter to Jean-Francois Martos, dated 26 December 1990) is still very far from having attained the final stage of global atomization that Marx associated with the axioms of political liberalism in Chapter 6 of Volume I of Capital. Namely, a society where “everyone thinks only of himself and no one worries about anyone else” and in which “the only force that impels individuals into each other’s presence or relationships is their egotism, their personal profit, and their private interests”. (Such a description could apply much better, however, to the pitiless world of modern elites.)
Most studies of this subject (predominantly, it is true, in Anglo-Saxon countries) indeed very clearly confirm that the traditional values of mutual aid and solidarity – those that Marx (I refer here to the works of Teodor Shanin and Kevin Anderson) ended up considering in the last years of his life to be one of the most indispensable conditions of socialist revolution – are still massively present in the popular environment. If you doubt this, just ask yourself the following question: by what miracle, indeed, would ordinary people – the vast majority of whom have to live today on less than 2,000 euros a month – take on the inevitable hazards of daily existence (job losses or descents into precarity, health accidents, moves imposed by the liberal policy of “flexibility”, water damage or robbery, repairs to the old car needed for shopping and going to work etc.) if the essence of what Mauss calls the “spirit of the gift,” that traditional practice of mutual aid or “lending a hand” – between parents, friends, neighbors or colleagues, did not still exist to a considerable extent? By all evidence, the now widespread idea among the academic clergy that “the ‘people’ no longer exists” is more a case of wishful thinking by those who personally have everything to fear from their political awakening, than an objective analysis of the real world.
Question 2: Today our cultural liberalism, which has been hegemonic for a long time, appears to have lost some vigor. More and more voices, from Zemmour to Finkielkraut, attack the “pensée unique” (economic and social liberalism, ed.) in the media, and break with political correctness. At the heart of the “government left”, the “Valls line”, security-minded and less concerned with cultural issues, seems to have won out over the “Taubira line”, which is more lax. Nevertheless, the market economy sees fewer and fewer challenges. Is the “libertarian” phase of liberalism, which emerged after May 68 and which you have abundantly analysed in your work, now behind us?
It seems to me that this is one of those optical illusions which make the society of the spectacle so charming! And since this illusion comes primarily from the current political situation, it seems indispensable to me that we look at its roots. At the beginning of 1996, in their Remarks on the Paralysis of December 1995, the editors of Encyclopedie des nuisances announced with their customary lucidity “that there would be no ‘exit from crisis’; that economic crisis, depression, unemployment, the precarity of all, etc., had become the very operating model of the global economy; that it would be more and more like this”. Twenty years later, one has to admit that this judgment (which at the time aroused the smirks of those in the know) has not only been entirely confirmed by the facts but has also equally found a growing echo among all the popular classes of Europe (and now even in the United States), as abundantly demonstrated by increasing abstentionism, spoiled ballots, or the growing votes for so-called “anti-establishment” or “populist” parties. It appears as though the popular classes are everywhere coming to realize, even if in mystified forms, that the two great parties of the liberal bloc (those which Podemos correctly call “the dynastic parties”) have no other concrete ideal to propose to them than the continual dissolution of their specific ways of life – and their last social achievements – in the endless movement of global growth, whether it’s painted green, or the colors of “sustainable development”, the “energy transition” and the “digital revolution”.
In the face of this new situation, where those below appear less and less amenable, from experience, to the virtues of the singular alternatives (alternation between two establishment liberal parties in western liberal democracies, ed.), the left wing and the right wing of the liberal castle (whose ultimate differences now mostly lie in their leaders’ personal ambitions and in the still marked particularities of their historical electorates) find themselves forced more and more to reflect in common on different ways to “govern otherwise”. In other words, to prolong for a few more decades the survival of a system that is taking on water from all sides. One of the most promising solutions, in the medium term, would unquestionably be a new type of “historic compromise”, whether this compromise takes the form of a German-style “grand coalition”, a French “republican front” or if the international situation permitted, a new “sacred union”. So firstly it’s in light of this historically unprecedented context (and probably also the threats of global economic and financial crisis accumulating on the horizon – I refer here to the decisive analyses of Ernst Lohoff and Norbert Trenkle in The Great Devaluation, Post-Editions, 2014) that it makes sense, in my eyes, to contextualize the way in which the left wing of the liberal bloc is currently muting some of the most divisive aspects of its “social” program. It would be very difficult to convince the popular categories that still traditionally vote for the right, notably in rural places (in the 19th century, right wing parliamentarians were moreover often called “rurals”) to durably support a coalition government if the left wing of this government didn’t stop, at least for a while, endlessly waving the red flag of abolishing all taboos of common morality, all still existing protective borders and all shared ways of life, so well analyzed by E.P. Thompson, which are the basis of their regional and popular identity (let’s note all the same that this furious crusade against all “taboos” of the past never goes as far as to question, in general, the old family custom of inheritance, to which these left intellectuals – even those fondest of “deconstruction” – remain personally very attached).
However, this reconfiguration of the political landscape – ultimately, once again, very plausible (it’s what the financial markets would favor in any case) – should not lead us to endorse the illusion that the “libertarian phase of liberalism” is, to use your expression, “behind us” now. In a world whose essence is ceaseless “motion”, as all the evangelists remind us every instant, it should be more obvious than ever – unless you believe still, in the era of capitalist globalization, that the true objective of a modern liberal right wing is to defend the Catholic Church, the rural world and “traditional” values – that cultural liberalism (or if you like, the liberal counterculture) represents by definition the only psychological and intellectual construction that can legitimize in real time, and in the totality of its manifestations, the planet-wide dynamic of capitalism. And this is precisely because the value-neutrality of the latter necessarily leads it to emancipate itself permanently from “all moral or natural limits” (Marx). It is moreover not by chance that this left counter-culture (as Georges Perec is one of the first to have underlined) has for so long provided the mystifying universe of modern advertising – in other words, the discourse that merchandise uses for itself – the essence of its language, its codes, and its United Colors of Benetton imagery.
As for all these “postmodern” academics, nourished on the mother’s milk of Foucault and Derrida, who still believe, or pretend to believe, that the natural ideology of liberalism is some “neoreactionary” (to borrow the term popularized by the spin doctor Daniel Lindenberg) mixture of “conservativism”, Calvinist austerity and nostalgia for the “hetero-patriarchal” family (In Why I Am Not A Conservative – a text written in 1960 – Hayek provides, following Ayn Rand’s lead, all the necessary clarifications on this point), I strongly advise them to turn their gaze for an instant toward Silicon Valley, which has represented for decades the most successful synthesis of liberal businessmen’s greed and the “Californian” counter-culture of the Sixties’ far-left (Steve Jobs and Jerry Rubin are remarkable examples). As we know, it is effectively in this new Mecca of global capitalism – thanks to Google’s financing, among others – where the delusional “transhumanist” project (buoyed by the eternal illusion of finally discovering an inexhaustible source of capital wealth) of utilizing all modern scientific and technological resources – cognitive science, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology – in the service of the industrial production of an “augmented” (possibly immortal) human being, as well as a new roboticized environment which will regiment his daily life including its most intimate aspects, is being carried out.
How can one not see, even there, that this Promethean project – which the Attalis of the world already present to us as the “capitalism of the future” – accommodates itself infinitely better to the moral relativism of the postmodern left, to the ideology of No Borders, or Christiane Taubira’s incessant calls (who we too often forget was the longtime muse of Bernard Tapie) for a permanent “anthropological revolution”, than to the sluggish electoral rhetoric about a “Republican leapfrog” that Manuel Valls is today provisionally obliged to use. Or to the “neoconservative” and religious ideology of the small towns of the American heartland that make all readers of Libération tremble.
If we want to escape the mystification skillfully maintained by the media and by what Engels called the “far left line of the bourgeoisie”, it is, therefore, indispensable to re-learn how to distinguish the intuitions and ideas birthed directly by the daily experience of the popular classes, with all the ambiguities and illusions that can naturally be tied to the often contradictory character of this experience (this we could call simply, “thought from below”) from the veritable dominant ideology which constitutes its negation. In other words, from this “thought from above”, always tuned to the material and “moral” interests of the elite in power, and which has as its primary function the ability to define at every moment – in the officially “neutral” tone of “objective” information and “scholarly” expertise (whether its privileged source is the ideas of right wing economists or left wing sociologists) – not only the “right” responses (those that are politically or economically “correct”) but equally and perhaps above all, the “right” questions and the language in which one must formulate the latter (everyone notices the amount of energy deployed in the last few months by noble media professionals – with help from psychological “experts” – to divert the terms “radical” and “radicalization” from their original meanings).
It’s only then that one can begin to understand once more that the economic liberalism of Adam Smith, Turgot or Voltaire, far from taking as its source the “reactionary” thought of a Bossuet or Filmer, truly finds its most natural philosophical expression in the political and cultural liberalism of the Enlightenment (whose numerous emancipatory aspects I obviously do not dream of denying for a single instant, notably anywhere patriarchal and theocratic systems still hold sway) and in the corresponding progressive idea that any step forward always constitutes a step in the right direction (challenging such a dogma would require effectively admitting that, on a certain number of points, it was better before, a proposition that all intellectuals of the left, in the contemporary sense of the term, must reject with the same horror as a medieval theologian who would reject the idea that Christ was not born of a virgin).
This analysis allows one to understand, moreover, that in deciding to put an end, during the roaring 1980s, to the political and philosophical compromise that still partially chained it, since the Dreyfus Affair, to the socialist critique of liberal modernity – in order subsequently to don the magnificent new clothes of “Californian” cultural liberalism (a posthumous victory for Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber) – the Mitterandian left thus inevitably condemned itself (as Rawi Abdelal shows so well in Capital Rules, Harvard University Press, 2009) to become one of the most active headquarters for the European liberal counterrevolution; to become, in other words, one of the predominant sources of all the moral and intellectual justifications for the headlong rush into the future which defines capitalist society. Was it not, moreover, the excellent Emmanuel Macron himself – who never fails, by the way, to bring up how much he owes to his Althusserian education – who proudly proclaimed that to be left wing today is above all to do our utmost to make every young person “want to become a billionaire”?
And in case this analysis still seems excessive, there exists moreover a very simple and to my mind infallible criterion that allows one to determine instantly, for any society that is divided into classes, what is the true dominant ideology, and consequently what is the only pertinent use of the term “politically correct”. In the 16th century for example – when the legitimization of the nobility’s power rested above all on Christian ideology – it was often the case (and above all prudent!) that a radical thinker would disguise his atheism under the mask of sincere belief in the official religion. The inverse attitude – a true believer trying at any cost to pass for an atheist – would have been an obvious sign of insanity. Let’s apply this criterion to the ideological debates of contemporary liberal France. One will notice it is no less often the case that an intellectual suspected of holding “reactionary”, “racist”, or “disgusting” ideas (one will find all the necessary blacklists in the pages of Le Monde or Liberation) will seek desperately to convince his interlocutors that he has remained faithful to the fundamental “values” of the left (or at least, that one could not suspect him of being on the right or far-right). One struggles to imagine, on the other hand, the inverse situation. In other words, that of a left or far-left intellectual, recognized as such, nevertheless exhausting himself to convince his audience that he is the victim of a misunderstanding, and that he has, in reality, always fought for the ideas of the right, or far-right.
It seems to me that this should definitively put into perspective the “postmodern” idea that Silicon Valley and global capitalism could never durably prosper outside the shadow of the “patriarchy”, “racism”, and the most austere and “conservative” Christian values (values that every true “anticapitalist” should therefore work to deconstruct first). And it should once more vindicate Marx when he defined the political and cultural liberalism of the “republican” bourgeoisie (“The sphere of merchandise’s circulation” – he writes in Capital – “is in reality a true Eden of natural rights of the man and citizen”) as the only coherent philosophical complement to an economy founded on the private appropriation of the great means of production and the indefinite accumulation of capital. Indeed, the baroque idea never occurred to him – nor moreover to Proudhon or Bakunin – to define himself as a “man of the left”.
Question 3: The crisis of the left demands criticism of its methods, its teachings, its ability to rally support, and of the reasons for its failures in a context that, in theory, should be opportune for socialist and anticapitalist ideas. What do you think are the reasons for this failure?
‘This “crisis of the left” – in an economic and social context which – as you remind us – should be “opportune for socialist and anticapitalist ideas” may seem very strange at first glance. Was it not George Orwell who observed in 1937 that “every empty stomach is an argument in favor of socialism”? But the key to the mystery can be found in fact, in Orwell’s remark. It’s that “socialism” and the “left” are, from the beginning, two different and logically distinct histories, which only partially overlap. The first one – born in the emancipatory and tumultuous context of the French Revolution – revolves entirely around the notion of “Progress” (itself borrowed from the dominant currents of Enlightenment philosophy), which has long permitted its innumerable adherents to ideologically justify all their battles against the power of the nobility and those “forces of the past” – including popular traditions – whose privileged symbol was the Catholic Church (from which stems this visceral anticlericalism that gives the French left a specific tinge hardly found in Protestant nations). Moreover, it’s the central role played by the notion of “Progress” (or the “direction of history”) in the left’s imagination which explains why today it’s always the concepts of “Reaction” and “reactionaries” – which don’t make any precise political sense outside of the context of the 19th century and what Arno Mayer  called “the persistence of the Ancien Regime” – which continue to define the hard core of all its analyses and the principle behind all its excommunications.
Not only, as anyone can see, is there absolutely nothing in this original DNA of the left which can radically question the integral subordination of human life – starting with that of workers – to the sole impersonal demands of the endless accumulation of capital (servitude being always defined in the liberal ideology of “rights of man” as a relationship of personal dependence, conceived solely on the model of feudal relations). But once one has understood that the capitalist mode of production – far from being based in a “conservative imaginary” – could not reproduce itself without colonizing new regions of the globe and new spheres of human life (“this constant shaking of the entire social system, this perpetual agitation and insecurity that” – Marx wrote in 1847 in the Manifesto of the Communist Party – “distinguishes the bourgeois age from all predecessors”), one is led to conclude that the “software” of the left will immunise its users less against the “utopias of market progress, peopled by responsible citizen-consumers” (as Jaime Semprun puts it) than all the “reactionary” ideologies put together (we know moreover of Marx’s glowing admiration for Balzac’s writings).
As for the different socialist currents – whose philosophical unity was their common desire to promote the “social emancipation of the proletarians” – they appear first as the fruit, under the specific conditions of the nascent Industrial Revolution, of English, French and German workers’ protests against the new capitalist organization of work founded on the “incessant movement of renewed profits” (Marx, Capital, Volume I, 1867) and at the same time against the atomized, dehumanizing and “Benthamian” society which was its natural complement. From there, not only did they constantly critique the new “aristocracy of money’s” insatiable thirst for profit and the establishment of a continuous competition of all against all (starting with the working classes of the world against each other) but equally – it helps to remember in these naively liberal times – they critiqued this profoundly abstract vision of liberty and equality that underpinned the principles of 1789 (and whose real social implications the Le Chapelier law already clearly showed in 1791). Which is to say that the first socialists’ relationship to industrial modernity was less enthusiastic than that of the republican left (even if, of course, certain gateways between socialism and the Jacobin petty bourgeoisie of the far left have always existed, for example during the Paris Commune). And their conception of “Progress” – without evoking here authors like Gustav Landauer or William Morris – was much more complex and dialectical than that which underlay the positivist discourse of the 19th century left (the latter having rarely ventured beyond the purely humanitarian condemnation of the new industrial proletariat’s living conditions). In a word, the founders of socialism always took care to distinguish the liberal and bourgeois Republic of the “Blues” (that which – whatever indispensable liberties it gives to atomized individuals – necessarily leaves the system of accumulation of capital and class inequalities intact) from the social Republic invoked by the “Reds”, by which they sought to win – in the words of the call made during the Commune by the libertarian socialist Andre Leo (the pseudonym of Victoire Bera) – “The land for the peasant and the tool for the worker”.
Of course, most of these first socialists – partisans, by definition, of a classless society – never hesitated to join forces with the liberal and republican left whenever the latter had to face down monarchist and clerical reaction, to the point of having to “defend the Republic that persecuted them” as Lissagaray wrote in 1876. It indeed goes without saying that this particular aspect of Enlightenment heritage – the struggle against all surviving forms of the Ancien Regime’s inegalitarian institutions (which most socialists were careful not to confuse with the liberal liquidation of peasant community traditions or journeyman workers’ mutual aid structures) – was placed at the heart of their program (I have never claimed that the intersection of the liberal and socialist programs was a total void!). But it was done, in general, without the least illusion about the attitude this left republican bourgeoisie would adopt once the purely political combat for the extension of the citizen’s fundamental liberties placed the crucial question of the social emancipation of workers on the agenda. As Lissagary wrote in his History of the Commune, socialists had to work at all times to “smash the political decor” (the indispensable, but minimal and abstract one that the ideology of “rights of man” helped install) to bring about the great day of the “question of the proletariat”.
Just as importantly, this critical support that the socialist workers gave regularly to the left in its defining battle against “Reaction” never led them to wish to fuse with it under the sole pretext of a common but abstract defense of “republican values”. A few years after the massacre of the Parisian workers – a massacre accomplished under the merciless command of the main leaders of the liberal left at the time, from Adolphe Thiers to Jules Favre – when some militant socialists, faced with the threat of the monarchy’s restoration came to envisage the possibility of a more organic alliance with the left (or at least with its radical wing), the Commune’s refugees in London hastened to remind “those who would be tempted to forget, that the Versailles left, no less than the right, ordered the massacre of Paris, and that the army of slaughterers was applauded by both. Left Versaillais and Right Versaillais should be equal before the hatred of the people; because it is against the people, always, that the radicals and the Jesuits are in agreement” (Today, such a statement would doubtless be received by the credulous readers of Le Monde and Liberation as the sign of a “rightward drift of society” and the return of a particularly nauseating “populism”).
It is thus uniquely, once again, in the very particular context of the Dreyfus Affair, and under the major influence of Jaures, that the new project of definitive integration of the socialist workers’ movement into the supposedly politically homogeneous camp of the “republican” left and the “forces of progress” would truly take shape, despite the strong initial resistance of Guesde, Vaillant and Lafargue (and on another level, the anarchosyndicalist movement). A project that moreover would not end up imposing itself definitively except in the framework of the rise of fascism in the 1930s (this is how in February 1921, in a resolution of its national council, the SFIO itself had to publicly reaffirm that it was a party of “class war and revolution” and as such “neither left blocs nor ministerialism – both condemned in theory and in practice – will find the least chance of success in its ranks”). But, as Rosa Luxemburg immediately understood (while also unambiguously approving of Jaures’s courageous call to intervene in Captain Dreyfus’s favor), it was a project whose political implications could only turn out to be disastrous. This is why, after affirming that “we in Germany still do not have the bad habit of confusing ‘far left radicals’ with social democracy” (a stone thrown at all the Olivier Basancenots still to come), and then lauding “the undying historical merit of the old parties, the Guesdists and Blanquists (as well as, to a certain extent, the Germanists) for having known how to separate the working class from the republican bourgeoisie”, she did not hesitate to place the partisans of Jaures before their immense historical responsibilities: “The political tactic of the Jaures wing” – so she wrote – “despite his sincere conviction and the greatest devotion to the proletarian cause, leads directly to the reintegration of the working class into the republican camp, in other words, the annihilation of all the work accomplished by socialism for the past quarter century” (“The Socialist Crisis in France” (1900), in Le Socialisme en France, Agone, 2013). And to chill the republican enthusiasm of Jaures and his friends Millerand and Viviani at the prospect of imminent socialist participation in a left government, she added the following clarification, as lucid as it was prophetic: “The entry of socialists into a bourgeois government is not, as one might think, a partial conquest of the state by socialists, but rather a partial conquest of the socialist party by the bourgeois state” (an analysis that didn’t apply, however, to municipal alliances).
Contemplating the sad field of ruins that today extends before our eyes, one understands better the extent to which Rosa’s dark predictions were entirely justified (except of course that the bourgeois state’s conquest of the left has long since turned out to be total, rather than partial). This isn’t to say that the final accounting of this new left born after the Dreyfus affair is entirely negative. Far from it. The alliance of the worker’s movement and the republican bourgeois left (long symbolized in France by the radical party) has not only allowed the last vestiges of the Ancien Regime to be finished off everywhere, and saved the liberal Republic from the claws of fascism and the colonial lobby. It has also long since made possible, within the framework of the Fordist and Keynesian compromise, real improvements in the living conditions of the laboring classes, even if the price of these improvements was almost always the growing integration of labor unions into the direct management of the capitalist system (from whence comes their dramatic inability even today, to intellectually break with the illusion that unlimited material growth is, in the words of George Bush,”the solution and not the problem”). The problem is that such a compromise between the working class and the progressive bourgeoisie simultaneously made it philosophically problematic for any serious effort on the part of the new “left” parties to attack in common – and not just with words – the deep roots of an economic and social system which has from the beginning rested on the growth of capital via the continuous exploitation of living labor, the suicidal pillaging of the planet, and the ever more dehumanizing reign of merchandise and consumerist alienation.
It has therefore only required the generalized crisis of the “Fordist” model of capital accumulation at the beginning of the 1970s to progressively lead the dominant Western classes to kiss the Keynesian compromise goodbye (in other words, the redistribution to the working classes via the mechanisms of the welfare state, of a non-negligible share of the “fruits of growth”) and immediately throw what remained of the “socialist left” and the old organized workers’ movement into a state of deep ideological crisis. Moreover, given the widespread idea among the many “repentants” of the Trotskyist and Maoist intelligentsia that any desire to oppose the blind dynamic of capital accumulation must inevitably lead to the gulag or transform France into a new North Korea (Michel Foucault and Bernard Henri-Levy having played the decisive intellectual role here as we know), all the conditions have come together – against the backdrop of the Soviet Empire’s decline – for the old liberal and republican left of the 19th century (best symbolized by Francois Mitterand and Jacques Delors – worthy heirs, in this respect, of Adolphe Thiers, Clemenceau and “the Republic of Jules”) to definitively retake control of affairs. And thus to begin the process of erasing one by one the last traces of the former alliance, tied together in Emile Loubert’s presidency, with the official socialist movement (and this, of course, under the mask – assuredly more appropriate to the market economy’s continuous headlong rush into the future – of this “liberalism of morals” whose primary function Jean-Pierre Garnier reminded us recently is to “camouflage the perpetuation of liberalism itself”).
In these conditions, and faced with the amplitude of the moral, political and intellectual failure of the modern left (is it not symptomatic, for example, that when it still occurs to “postmodern” intellectuals of the left to use the word “worker” it’s almost always to discuss the case of “sex workers”?), can one still reasonably believe that it would be enough to simply revive the original “radicalism” – to return, in other words, to a “truly left” left – to regain the trust or even just the ear of the popular classes who are today hiding in abstentionism and the neo-Boulangist vote? I fear, alas, that this is once again an illusion with no future. Because these two things are really but one. Or rather, what we mean here by the phrase “left of the left” (or “radical left”) is simply the identical reconstitution of the former defensive alliance that the socialist movement and the progressive bourgeoisie forged at the time of the Dreyfus affair, and which has succeeded overall in enduring to the end of the 20th century (thanks to, among other things, the unifying virtues of the battles against colonialism and fascism). But this once again leads one to forget, firstly, that the unified struggle of the “republican camp” and the “forces of progress” against a once undeniably monarchist, clerical and “reactionary” right wing, long ago exhausted its historical raison d’etre (unless you assume that the secret objective of Alain Juppé or Christine Lagarde is to return a Bourbon to the throne and re-establish the full temporal power of the Church). And secondly, that the economic pillar of the “Fordist-Keynesian” compromise on which the social democratic policies of redistribution have long rested (in other words, a mode of capital accumulation which depended essentially on the value already produced in the “real” economy, and not – as has become massively the case since the 1980s – on one whose use of structural indebtedness and sophisticated circuits of “fictitious capital” allows it to be capitalized in advance) already began to explode during the 1970s.
Or, on the contrary, perhaps by “a truly left” left one simply means a left definitively liberated from the socialist burden, thus free to once again embody the simple “Party of Movement” – opposed to all the “Parties of Order” and all the surviving remnants of the “old world” – which defined its essence during the Restoration and the Second Empire. On one hand, this is exactly what the reign of Francois Mitterand allowed to happen (the old republican triptych – “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – having rapidly become again the only conceivable motto of what is now an essentially “citizen” left). And on the other hand, it assumes the definitive abandonment of any radical – or even coherent – critique of the capitalist organization of society, because the revolutionary dynamic (according to Marx’s words) of this form of organization cannot be grasped in its true dialectic nor understood in a truly critical manner through the sole metaphysical and abstract antitheses of “Progress” and “Reaction”.
It is moreover this incapacity, common to all types of “progressive” thought, of perceiving the capitalist system as anything other than a “force of the past” based on a “traditionalist” and “patriarchal” imaginary (and any reader of Orwell will immediately recognize in this form of extreme blindness the mark of ideological schizophrenia) which explains how a “movement” left will always suffer the worst philosophical difficulties when trying to grasp this planetary and culturally homogenizing mode of production in its constituent dimension as a “total social fact”. In other words, to understand that ultimately it is only the same indissolubly cultural and mercantile logic (what Debord called the “Spectacle” and Marx this “circulation of money as capital which possesses its ends in itself” and thus which cannot allow itself “any limits”) which can make fully intelligible not only the continual reinforcement of class inequalities and the descent into precarity of an ever-growing number of ordinary people, but also the problems of schooling and modern urban life, the progressive erasure of all borders still offering a minimum of protection to the poorest classes, the growing recourse to surrogacy, telesurveillance or “artificial reproduction of human beings”, the insane paving of cultivable land and the correlated destruction of peasant farming by Monsanto’s chemistry and “productivism” of the European Union, the growing corruption of professional sports at the highest levels, the proliferation of childhood cancers and global warming, or even the continued progression of daily incivility and insecurity, the globalization of organized crime and human trafficking of all kinds. But there can be no doubt today that the popular classes – precisely because they are always the first victims – resent, infinitely more deeply than all left-wing sociologists combined, the humanly disastrous effects of this ever-stronger dialectical integration of the economic, the political and the cultural. Unless, therefore, the modern left succeeds in “exchanging the people” – as Eric Fassin recently suggested (the vote of foreigners constituting, for this left wing clone of Agnes Verdier-Molinie, the indispensable starting point of this strategy) – it is therefore high time for it to begin to understand that, if this flamboyant “cultural liberalism” that has today become its defining electoral marker and its ultimate haven arouses such rejection from the popular classes, it is often because they have already understood it to simply be the logical “social” corollary to the economic liberalism of Milton Friedman and Emmanuel Macron (what Jacques Julliard judiciously calls “the alliance of the pink pages of the Figaro and the rainbow pages of Liberation”).’
Question 4: ‘According to you, what are the paths of “self-criticism” that would help to overcome this failure?’
At this point, it’s certainly not a simple “self-criticism” that will permit the left to mend fences and regain the respect of the popular classes. Unless, of course, this self-criticism signifies a complete paradigm shift, with the knowledge that such a shift could not easily be accomplished in a short time (keeping in mind, moreover, that it would be equally necessary to question the status and privileges of all those – elected officials of all kinds, countless “associated” leaders, professional intellectuals, etc. – who have an obvious personal interest in maintaining the current divisions). This necessity to act with urgency isn’t merely rhetorical. Since 2008, indeed, the global capitalist economy has entered into what Immannuel Wallerstein called the “terminal phase of its structural crisis.” A phase which can, of course, still stretch itself over decades and a crisis that is characterized primarily by the fact – already highlighted by Andre Gorz – that the dynamic of accumulation of capital, because it rests essentially on the productivity of the financial industry, “cannot perpetuate itself or function except on fictive bases, which grow ever more precarious”. This means, in other words, that we are already in the historical moment (which Rosa Luxemburg predicted in 1913 would present itself as a long “period of catastrophes”) where the problem of the progressive disconnection of the capitalist system from human life will begin to manifest in more and more concrete and pressing ways. If, therefore, we want this already inevitable progressive exit from capitalism to take place in the most civilized and peaceful way possible (which no one can foresee today), it has become more indispensable than ever – as Engels wrote in 1895 – that “the masses themselves take part in it, that they already understand what is happening, and why they must intervene with their bodies and with their lives”. But such a large gathering of the popular classes (a gathering that would need, furthermore, to be sufficiently solid and coherent to attract – like in May 68 – a large portion of the new urban middle classes into its ideological orbit) will have no chance to be born as long as these classes do not see themselves offered a plausible political alternative other than the one – imposed continuously by the media and the parties of the liberal bloc – that proposes to place in eternal opposition the heroic defenders of the “open society” and the “modern world” against those who “turn inward” and “reject the other” and against all forms of “backwardness” (and by the way, sometimes one wonders – based on the moralizing and distrustful tone that most left wing artists and intellectuals adopt when lecturing the more modest classes – if they still retain a minimum of elementary psychological common sense).
In these conditions, and if we don’t want to see re-enacted before our eyes the umpteenth version of the Pied Piper story – with Marine in the role of the rat hunter this time – it becomes a bit more urgent every day, on one hand, to work to remove ourselves from a totemic system of classification that everyone can see doesn’t work for anyone but the dominant class anymore, and on the other, to begin to relearn – according to the beautiful words of Juan Carlos Monedero, one of Podemos’s most lucid theoreticians – to “trace with our hands a lightning bolt that shows who is below and who is on top” (an analysis that moreover led Pablo Iglesias to remark with humor that one could thus “define Podemos by saying we have done everything the left said we shouldn’t do”). Naturally, such a call for a return, after three decades of the liberal and “citizen” left’s absolute ideological hegemony, to the “transversal” divisions of original socialism (it’s not a coincidence that one of Podemos’s major political reference points – besides the decisive contribution of Latin America’s revolutionary movements – is the work of Antonio Gramsci), doesn’t come from nowhere. It finds its most concrete political origin in the astonishing Movement of May 15th, 2011 – the occupation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol – which led part of the Spanish people, against a backdrop of crisis and growing precarity, to turn all the tables of official political law in one blow by daring to proudly proclaim for the first time in a long while: “We are not left or right, we are those below against those above!” The watchword spontaneously used by those of the Paris Commune (“Workers, make no mistake, this is the great struggle. It is parasitism and work, exploitation and production which are at stake. If you want the reign of Justice, workers, be smart, stand up!”). And whose existence the major French media immediately tried to conceal, going as far as rebaptizing the movement of 15-M the “movement of the indignant” (thereby suggesting that this popular movement owed much more to Stephane Hessel’s ideas than those of Antonio Gramsci or Ernesto Laclau).
This doesn’t mean that Podemos is exempt from all critique. Not only is the real political and social base of the dominant class assuredly a lot larger than the modest “1%” that Podemos has denounced in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement (neglecting this fact can only lead to grave disillusionment as it necessarily amounts to under-estimating the reigning oligarchy’s capacity for mobilization, including military mobilization). But one can equally regret that Podemos’s program is so discreet, for the moment, about the concrete means (for example the use of local currencies and short circuits [N]) which would permit the gradual removal of ordinary people’s lives and local communities from the destructive grip of the global capitalist market and European bureaucracy (despite the “bet on degrowth” promised by Monedero, Pierre Thiesset has without question said all that needs be said about this in the February 2016 issue of Decroissance). It may even be that the experience of Podemos – for want, among other things, of the same international popular solidarity that was so cruelly missing for the Greek people – will get bogged down and fall short (this is moreover an eventuality that the movement’s leaders have had the intelligence and courage to imagine). And this is without even taking into account the predictable fact – as Carolina Bescansa, one of Podemos’s leaders highlighted ironically – that all “those who benefited from this distinction when it dominated the political chessboard” will “fiercely defend the left-right axis” and won’t fail to accuse “whoever blames it or questions if it is the best axis of differentiation to explain what happens of being populist, right wing, leftist, communist, Bolivarian, fascist, Thatcherite, pro-Iranian, etc” [O].
It remains that Podemos is today the only radical European movement with a mass base that has clearly understood that, if one wishes to really gather the vast majority of the popular classes around a program of gradual deconstruction of the capitalist system (and not simply grow its electoral privileges), one must begin by questioning the old system of divisions based on the “blind trust in the idea of progress” (Juan Carlos Monedero) whose ever more paralyzing philosophical assumptions (like the “party of tomorrow” – that of Silicon Valley – against the “party of yesterday” – that of peasant farming or book culture) have offered the European left the ideal means for more than thirty years to disguise its total reconciliation with capitalism under the much more seductive cover of a permanent “citizen” struggle against all “reactionary” and “backwards” (or even “red-brown!”) ideas.
Whatever destiny holds for Podemos, the immense historical merit of this movement is indeed that of having been able to accomplish this veritable cultural revolution (the return of the anticapitalist divisions of the original socialist, anarchist and populist movements above the left/right opposition) which alone, could still keep afloat the project of uniting the vast majority of popular classes around a truly emancipatory program. Without such a cultural revolution – the political alliance of all “those below” that it makes conceivable once more – nothing would be able to guarantee that the inevitable crumbling of the global economic and financial system or the ecological catastrophes to come would be able to peacefully give way to a “free, egalitarian and decent” society (as George Orwell put it) instead of a somber and desperate world like Mad Max or Blade Runner. In these times, which hardly incline one to optimism, the sole fact that Podemos exists is already, in itself, a veritable breath of fresh air.’
* * *
[A] Liberal Utopia and Actually Existing Capitalism
[B] Flaubert, the Left, and Minorities
[C] The Later Marx
[D] Liberalism and the Anthropology of the Gift
[E] Transhumanism, the Ultimate Religion of Capital
[F] Rights of Man and Political Liberty
[G] The Progressive Counter-Revolution
[H] The Social Question
[I] Clochemerle and the Politics of the Urinal
[J] Internationalism and Foreign Labor
[K] The Dreyfus Affair, or Socialism’s Great Turning Point
[L] Socialism from Above, and Socialism from Below
[M] Ideology’s New Clothes
[N] Local Autonomy, Complementary Currencies, Short Circuits
[O] Intellectuals, The People, and Social Networks
[P] The Winter of Capitalism
* * *
Liberal Utopia and Actually Existing Capitalism
The idea that “free and not false” competition should be – according to the words of Milton Friedman in Free to Choose – the only means in keeping with the demands of individual liberty that can “coordinate the activity of millions of people, in which each seeks only their own interest, such that all find their situation improved, without needing to speak with or like each other” has been, since Adam Smith, one of the fundamental dogmas of economic liberalism (one of the very first formulations from the 17th century can be found in the pioneering work of Boisguilbert). It takes a lot, however, for empirical reality to correspond to this ideal schema. As Orwell emphasized, “The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led.” To see the capitalist system’s permanent tendency to form cartels, trusts and oligopolies as a simple betrayal of the “true” liberal spirit, therefore, appears about as serious as thinking that a player who always ends up taking avenue Foch or rue de la Paix is twisting the true spirit of the board game Monopoly. But this inherent gap between the ideology of free competition and its historically concrete forms of existence can be explained equally by the difference that exists by definition between the liberal ideologue’s point of view – solely interested, as a supposedly impartial spectator, in conditions of general market equilibrium – and those of every economic agent taken on their own. As Pierre-Yves Gomez remarks, “If you think about it, the economic actors defined by liberal anthropology have no interest in competition. When they compete they make fewer profits, no monopoly profits, no profits from their position in the market, or from the possibility of producing more expensively without being challenged. A business has only one desire, to be a monopoly; a business leader has only one desire, to make deals with his competitors to maintain, for example, elevated prices … One always has the impression that the liberal world is composed of people whose sole desire is to compete when the opposite is true, even proceeding from liberal premises. To win, individuals have an interest in getting along, to collude to limit their costs and thus augment their profits.” Of course, the market economy’s tendency to concentrate capital – thus to restrain in part the field of “real” competition – itself finds its limits within the particular conditions of the global economic war (the hypothesis formerly suggested by Karl Kautsky of a planetary capitalist firm which would eventually end up controlling all global production hardly seems possible, if only for geopolitical reasons). It remains that Pierre-Yves Gomez’s analysis clarifies once again what must always distinguish liberal metaphysics (this utopia of a “free and not false” competition, functioning in the interests of all) and this actually existing liberalism which intertwines, in continuous wild competition, hostile takeovers, rent-seeking (in land as well as the patent system) and illicit agreements, even purely criminal ones. A war of all against all, to be sure (indeed, every day it defines the moral and psychological horizon of our daily lives a little more). But one with ever more unequal weapons. And thus one that is ever more lethal for the working classes of the entire world.
Flaubert, the Left, and Minorities
It’s doubtless in Flaubert that we find one of the first signs of the fascination with “minorities” which sits at the heart of all of the liberal left’s political constructions today. “I swooned eight days ago,” he writes in a May 1867 letter to George Sand, “before an encampment of bohemians who had set up in Rouen . . . What was so admirable was how they aroused the hatred of the bourgeoisie, while being as inoffensive as sheep . . . This hatred comes from somewhere very deep and very complex. It can be found among all the ‘people of order’. It’s the hatred directed against the bedouin, the heretic, the philosopher, the loner and the poet, and there is fear in this hatred. I, who am always for minorities, find it exasperating.” This liberal solicitude for minorities (which by itself is justified, of course) is nevertheless always accompanied in Flaubert by mistrust and an even more marked hatred for the popular classes. “How stupid the people are!” he writes for example to his friend Louis Ménard. “An eternal race of slaves who cannot live without the bat and the yoke. So it won’t be for them that we fight on, but for our sacred ideal. Let them die of hunger and cold!” (Letter from April 30, 1848). Flaubert’s later attitude toward the Paris Commune cannot therefore be surprising: “I believe,” he writes again to George Sand, a few months after the repression of the Parisian insurrection, “that we should have condemned the whole Commune to the galleys and forced these bloody imbeciles to clear Paris’s ruins with chains around their necks, as mere convicts” (letter from October 1871). As can be seen, there exists no contradiction of principle, within a liberal perspective, between the sympathy that it demands to be put on display in all circumstances for “minorities” or the “marginalized” – as good conscience dictates – and on the other hand the profound distrust that it implies for the immense majority of the popular classes (this unformed troupe of “hicks”, “dogs”, “rednecks” and other “average Joes”, who are by definition outside the “circle of Reason”). This is what partially clarifies the singular psychology of the modern left wing intellectual (who no longer even has the excuse of possessing Flaubert’s literary genius).
Finally, we should note that – if only to measure the extent to which the modern left’s incessant denials always rely on a dressing up of the original meanings of words – in August-September of 1973, Les Temps Modernes dedicated a special 550-page issue to the problem of “minorities” in France. But it concerned itself, under such a title, with glorifying what was at the time considered the anti-capitalist and emancipatory struggle of the Bretons, Basques, Alsatians, Catalans, Occitans and Corsicans (truly one of the most original and subversive aspects of the May 68 revolt). It’s useless to point out that – for those who are most fanatical (or, in other words, for those who are most concerned with their university and media careers) – such a struggle could no longer be understood today as anything other than a prime example of a “populist” and “identitarian” drift, indeed as the leading indicator of a return “to the darkest days of our history” and a “rightward drift of society”. Since then it is difficult when faced with the left’s continual shifts of opinion, not to ponder the famous Soviet dissident joke: “You never know what the past holds for you.”
The Later Marx
The works of Kevin B. Anderson (Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies) and Teodor Shanin (Late Marx and the Russian Road) have definitively established – relying, among other things, on the discovery of some of Marx’s unedited manuscripts – how the latter’s encounter with populist Russian intellectuals progressively led him, from the middle of the 1870s onwards, to considerably reassess his initial negative judgment of communitarian forms of organization in traditional peasant societies (and most particularly – as can be seen in his last manuscripts conserved at Amsterdam’s International Institute of Social History – those in Russia, India, China, Algeria and Indonesia). It’s moreover this encounter with the Narodniki which led him in part to revise his assessment of a whole series of major historical issues, for example, the political significance of the Cipaye revolt and that of the Taipings (and, in a more general manner, the very meaning of European colonisation). One regrets only that these two essays – now indispensable for whoever wishes to grasp the final thinking of Marx in all its complexity – have left in the shadows the decisive role in the evolution of the “later Marx” played by his meeting with the young Russian populist Elizabeth Dmitrieff in 1870 (a future member of the Commune, friend of Eugene Varlin and Benoit Malon, she managed Narodno Dielo – “The People’s Cause” – the main organ of the Narodiniki). As Kristin Ross underscores (L’Imaginaire da la Commune, La Fabrique Editions, 2015, p 35), “for Marx, the meeting with Dmitrieff and the intensive reading of Tchernychevski’s writings on the agricultural commune had considerable effects because they led him to begin thinking about a plurality of paths to socialism – a turn which wouldn’t be realized until many years later in his correspondence with a young Russian woman, Vera Zasulich.” One of the young Lenin’s first concerns (cf. “Those who are friends of the people and how they struggle against social democracy”, Rousskoie Bogatsvo review, 1894) would be moreover how to hide this aspect, too awkward in his eyes, of the thinking of the “latter Marx” (the same remark being just as relevant in another sense for the famous question of the “Asian mode of production”). It’s doubtless the appearance of these new kinds of “disciples” that incited Marx, in the evening of his life, to confide in Paul Lafargue that for his part he was not a “Marxist”.
Liberalism and the Anthropology of the Gift
At the heart of modern Western philosophy (of which liberalism represents the most radical and coherent theoretical deployment), there is first of all the belief that a human being is “independent by nature” (above all defined by this absolute ownership of oneself which remains the ultimate foundation of all the other forms of private property) and that he cannot come to be associated with his peers – whatever the nature of this association – unless he can find a personal interest (like for example these British “citizens”, who, the day after Brexit, declared themselves willing to renounce their nationality of origin for the sole purpose of conserving the practical advantages of European citizenship). From there stems this idea, which runs contrary to all the lessons of modern anthropology – and those of psychoanalysis – that the contract is the only authentically human way to tie oneself to others (where purely temporary, like the act of exchange connecting a buyer and seller). Thus the correlated reduction of all human community to a simple market “peopled by contracting particles with no relations between them but those founded on the calculation of interests”. It’s above all this inherent link between “possessive” liberal individualism (ideally – wrote Renan – the fully modern individual should be “born an orphan and die celibate”) and this theory of “rational egoism” which is its logical corollary, which explains why the notions of gift, mutual aid or selfless acts (as well as that of common decency) are today systematically perceived as naive and mystifying by almost the entirety of the media and academic clergy. From this point of view, liberalism appears above all like a philosophy of suspicion and generalized deconstruction (a “skepticism-turned-institution”, writes Pierre Manent). The fact that the mystery novel – where the principal protagonists are all suspects in turn – has become one of the most creative genres of modern literature is a revealing sign.
It is largely to oppose this reductive vision of human nature that the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber has progressively come to designate (not without a good dose of provocation) as “everyday communism” (baseline communism) the ensemble of these psychological moral and cultural structures that, in reality, govern a part of our daily interactions (at least in the world of ordinary people) that is still essential, including in modern western societies. “If a pipe breaks,” he writes, for example, “and the person repairing it says, ‘hand me the wrench’, his companion won’t usually respond ‘what’s in it for me?’ – even if they work for ExxonMobil, Burger King or Goldman Sachs. This is probably why,” Graeber continues, “the day after great disasters – floods, giant blackouts, or economic crashes – people often behave in the same way: they return to a basic communism. For an instant, however brief it is, hierarchies, markets etc., become a luxury no one can afford. All those who have experienced such a moment can speak of its specificities: strangers suddenly become brothers and sisters, society seems to be reborn. It’s important because it shows us that we’re not just talking about cooperation. In fact, communism is the foundation of all human sociability.” (Cf. Debt: The First 5,000 Years)
I have no objection in principle to this singular application of the word “communism” when used to designate these elementary forms of reciprocity and mutual aid without which no human community could sustain itself. What’s essential is to see that such analyses are inscribed above all in the field of research that Marcel Mauss opened up in 1924 with his famous Essay on the Gift (as Graeber himself recognizes in sometimes promoting a “Maussian approach” in other texts). This constant imbrication between the “traditional” paradigm of the gift (in other words, the triple obligation, supported by a sense of honor, of “giving, receiving and returning”) and the radical critique of liberal anthropology isn’t astonishing at all when one knows that Marcel Mauss’s work can’t be solely reduced to its anthropological dimension. Maus, who was closely associated with the cooperative movement and labor councils, who from the very first was a militant in the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO), who was an original administrator of L’Humanite (where he maintained, alongside Jaures and Lucien Herr, the subject of “cooperatives”), was perfectly aware that his anthropological research on the question of the gift offered the best philosophical guarantee possible for the project of a popular worker’s socialism capable of intellectually and morally resisting all statist and authoritarian temptations. And he accordingly refused to dissolve all positive references to the moral and cultural heritage of previous societies (“we must return to the archaic,” he was even going to write in Essay on the Gift) in the acid bath of lazy “progressivism”. One can doubtless understand better why his work is so little appreciated (like that of Karl Polanyi, for analogous reasons) by most of the coopted (indeed, increasingly consanguineous) mandarins of the modern liberal university.
Transhumanism, the Ultimate Religion of Capital
As is often the case, it’s the very media-friendly Raphael Liogier – whose remarkable gifts of prediction on all questions of Islam everyone already knows – who was able to formulate, with the utmost honesty, or at least naïveté, the basic postulates of the new Siliconist left (to use Pierre Musso’s expression). “It’s a bit narcissistic”, he declared in 2015, “to think that the best, the absolute, the ideal, is man such as he exists today . . . Who says this, apart from the very man who fears change and who for this reason feels the need to retrench himself? One could say that it is equivalent to a kind of nationalism. One retrenches oneself into one’s identity, but in this case, one retrenches oneself into one’s corporeal identity” (“Islamist plague, Transhuman Anthrax: The Time of the Inhumans”, which is available online on the excellent site Pieces et main-d’oeuvre, 2016). Before this strange fascination with a genetically modified man of the future (the liberal variant of Saint Paul and Stalin’s new man), covered from head to toe in microchips, biologically liberated from the heavy burden of siestas and connected in real time to all his clones on the planet, one thinks inevitably of the famous piece of American criticism: “If the fascists ever return amongst us, it won’t be in brown shirts. It will be in white lab coats.” And it must require a mighty self-hatred to end up wanting to change one’s identity to this extent and to have no other dream than to become a pure and simple technological assistant.
Rights of Man and Political Liberty
It’s one thing to acknowledge, alongside all the 19th century socialists, that the “bourgeois republic” (or liberal republic) represents on the level of individual freedoms an obvious political progression relative to all forms of absolutism and patriarchal repression. It’s another thing, however, to consider the liberal language of the “rights of man” to be the sole possible philosophical foundation for any defense of political liberty. This second thesis would amount to forgetting – without even evoking Habeus Corpus or the precious tradition of “civic republicanism” – that many thinkers of Antiquity already possessed an acute sense of the principle of liberty. “Liberty,” writes Cicero for example, “cannot live in any State except one where supreme power belongs to the people. One must recognize that there exists nothing more pleasant than this and that if liberty is not equal for all it is no longer liberty. But how could liberty be equal for all, not only in a kingdom where servitude is undisguised and cannot be denied but also in the States where citizens are free in name only?” Contrary to what a great number of post-Mitterand left activists still seem to believe – perfect inheritors, on this point, of the colonial ideology of Jules Ferry and the Third Republic – that the history of human civilization certainly does not begin with France in 1879. A minimum of knowledge of ancient societies – for example, that of Pharaonic Egypt, of Mesopotamia or the Western Middle Ages – would suffice, moreover, to perceive that a certain number of political or “social” freedoms, which are supposed to characterize capitalist modernity alone, in the eyes of a theologian of the “direction of History” – whether they concern the status of women, conditions for divorce, the protection of the weakest or relationships to homosexuality – were not as alien to those societies as most “progressive” ideologues still imagine today (in his classic work on the formation of political persecution in Europe, published in 1987, British historian Robert Moore shows very convincingly that most “minorities”, starting with Jews, heretics and lepers, enjoyed a much more protected status and much more tolerance before the appearance of the modern centralized state from the 11th century onward).
The Progressive Counter-Revolution
If by “revolution” one means the “continual upheaval of production and the constant shaking of the whole social system” it is clear that a capitalist society is, in its very principle, eminently revolutionary. (“Let’s build things inside a world already in motion!”) If, on the other hand – and in a classic manner – one reserves the term “revolution” for the political process which permits a people to take hold, even if only for a few weeks, of a power heretofore kept out of reach by a caste or oligarchy, one would have to conclude that the movement, which progressively led in the second half of the 1970s to the uncontested triumph of liberal ideas (as much in the economic sense as in the political and “social” sense), must be defined, in its dominant aspects at least, as a veritable cultural counter-revolution. What’s important to see here is that, in the historically unprecedented conditions of the capitalist system, all officially “progressive” and futuristic movement – in the image of Silicon Valley’s ideologues – may therefore reveal itself at the same time to be profoundly counter-revolutionary. This was, moreover, what king Louis-Philippe himself declared at the time of his Belgian exile, faced with the dramatic spectacle of the days of June 1848: “The Republic is lucky,” he exclaimed. “At least it has the right to fire upon the people!” Such is indeed, ultimately, the permanent contradiction in which the Post-Mitterrand left Versaillais (or far left) must struggle today.
The Social Question
Whenever the rules of the singular alternatives once again confer to a left wing party the task of “loyally managing the capitalist system”, one can be certain that the latter will not fail to disguise its liberal administration of the system beneath a continuous flux of so-called “social” reforms (gay marriage, the extension of the vote to foreigners, decriminalization of cannabis, struggle against the accent circonflexe, etc). For the left this is a structural constraint that is just as powerful as that which constantly obliges a party of the right to mask its battle on behalf of the richest beneath the lying veil of defending “traditional values”, common sense, or the work ethic. It should thus be clear, at present, that under a left wing government, the primary objective of any so-called “social” reform – at least whenever it’s imposed from above – is always to serve as a diversion (even if only, for example, to divert citizens’ attention from the negotiations this party simultaneously conducts in secret and behind closed doors, over the Trans-Atlantic Treaty). From this point of view, one would have to be imperviously naïve – or a celebrity – not to understand immediately that the true background of the psychodrama surrounding “marriage for all” – now the quintessential emblem of all social reforms – could be nothing other than the “responsibility pact” (which would create one million jobs!) and the future labor law reforms. These were two Brussels-inspired projects that Francois Hollande had in mind, of course, right at the moment that he gave his speech on Bourget.
That said, this doesn’t mean that one must reduce the notion of “social questions” solely to their political instrumentalization by the liberal left. From the moment the capitalist system definitively acquires the status of total social fact, it becomes practically impossible to remove oneself from its ideological grip without also engaging in a critical reflection on the ensemble of its moral and cultural questions. The solution is therefore not to reject a priori all the demands that may emanate from “minorities” – whatever they may be – on the pretext of their supposedly “secondary” character (as if the very act of supporting these demands implied forgetting the system’s “principal contradiction”). It’s rather to learn to discern, within the concrete judicial schema under which each new “social” reform is currently imposed on the people, the multiple points of entry for the dominant ideology, indeed the mechanism that tends inexorably, in the details, to reinforce the invasion of market logic into our daily lives a little bit more.
But this is a task in which it is impossible to acquit oneself correctly unless one begins by recognizing – as Michael Sandel reminds us – that every so-called “social” question places us right away “on morally controversial terrain, where it’s not possible to preserve a neutral position between two rival conceptions of the good life.” In other words, it places us on a moral and philosophical terrain, with all that that necessarily implies in terms of truly democratic debate and total freedom of expression. It’s therefore completely illusory to imagine being able to resolve a “social” problem in an anticapitalist (thus humanely emancipatory) way, if one has at one’s disposal only the axiologically neutral tools of liberal rights and its contradictory call to indefinitely extend “the right to have rights”. (“Only nothingness may be neutral”, Jaures used to say.) This is to say that it’s certainly not the left or far left intelligentsia that today appears best placed to carry out such a fight. This is especially evident when one is aware of its growing aversion to democratic debate and freedom of expression. (It is the modern left which, for more than twenty years, has been at the origin of almost all the repressive laws that allow a simple opinion – whether abject or morally unacceptable – to be transformed into a common law offense).
Some will no doubt welcome with skepticism this idea, hardly Taubirian, it’s true, in which the best chance of ensuring true popular support for the so-called “social” struggles (against sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.) resides first in our philosophical aptitude in tying them “dialectically” (once their rational center is extracted from the liberal gunk) to the permanent struggle of those below to oppose a social system whose entire weight they must carry every day. I would therefore encourage all the hesitant spirits on this point to discover Pride as soon as possible – the 2014 film by British director Matthew Warchus. This little masterpiece of modern political cinema, based entirely on real events, retraces the exemplary engagement in 1984 of a small London-based socialist lesbian and gay group (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, LGSM) alongside the British miners whose fierce resistance Margaret Thatcher swore to break once and for all. This a priori improbable encounter between the militant gay Londoners and the Welsh miners of the little village of Onllwyn – who at first were understandably surprised and reticent, giving rise to many scenes that are both moving and irresistibly funny – progressively leads the latter, via the limitless dedication of these combatants arrived from another world, gradually to let go of their most tenacious prejudices, without having to abandon the slightest bit of their traditional worker identity. And this is one of the film’s great strengths. To the extent that they become able, by the end of this collective adventure, to define for themselves all the elements of a new common language – one dreams of the objective of the leaders of Podemos – made possible precisely by this common and fraternal struggle against their common enemy. (Here one can refer to the decisive role played by the concept of “chains of equivalence” in Ernesto Laclau’s populism.) Indeed, the Welsh miners union doesn’t hesitate to lend its loud support – in the guise of a Maussian counter-gift to the LGSM activists – to London’s Gay Pride parade the next year (to the great displeasure, no doubt, of many Thatcherite gays and local LGBT equivalents). It’s necessary to add that this marvellous lesson in practical socialism, so keeping with the Orwellian spirit (and consequently the polar opposite of the ideas of Noel Mamere, Jean-Michel Ribes or Najat-Vallaud Belkacem), applies equally to the other “social” demands, provided they possess truly emancipatory content (which is sadly far from always being the case). This is because true universalism, as Hegel taught, never constitutes a starting point. It is always the result of a “dialectical” process and common political struggles: “The unity of the abstract Universal and its inherent exception” – as Slavoj Žižek notes for example in Jacques Lacan in Hollywood, and Others (Editions Jacqueline Chambon, 2010, p. 138).
Clochemerle and the Politics of the Urinal
The fusion that Jaures and Millerand called for between the socialist workers’ movement, which had up to then held itself apart from traditional parliamentary disputes, and the radical republican left didn’t become fully normalized until the 1930’s under the growing threat of Hitlerian fascism (from this point of view, it’s the experience of Popular Fronts which roots in our collective imagination the idea, which none dream to challenge today, that a left sensibility includes by definition a “socialist”, or anticapitalist dimension). (It was this integrated whole which would define thenceforth the new 20th century left.) This means, among other things, that until the end of the 1920’s – as long as we leave the Parisian scene to the side and turn our attention to the “provinces”, which Albert Thibaudet called the true site of politics – what most often still defined a “man of the left” (an expression that became widespread only after the Dreyfus affair) was much less his struggle against the capitalist modernisation of the world than his fierce republican and “radical” opposition to “reactionary forces,” that is, the last surviving elements of the power of the Catholic Church and the old landed aristocracy.
In this respect, reading Clochemerle, Gabriel Chevallier’s little masterpiece is very clarifying. What could be, in October 1922, when the novel’s action is supposed to take place, the primary concern of a left wing municipality? The dialogue between Barthelemy Piechut, the village mayor, and Ernest Tafardel, the teacher, leaves no doubt on this subject. “We must find something, Tafardel, which will highlight that we are a superior, advanced municipality. Don’t you agree?” – “Of course, Monsieur Piechut, of course! We must help Progress penetrate the countryside, and tirelessly root out obscurantism. This is our great task, as men of the left.” Tafardel naturally has an idea ready. Isn’t the village cemetery “Clochemerle’s only public monument not to carry the republican motto: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity? Is this not a kind of negligence that plays into the hands of reactionaries and priests? Does the Republic not appear to allow its control to stop at the threshold of eternal rest? Does this not imply that the dead escape the jurisdiction of the parties of the left?” But as the mayor leads him at once to observe: “The dead, Tafardel, belong to the past. We must look to the future. It’s an idea of the future that I ask of you . . . Let’s find something that produces a greater effect, which matches a time of progress, like ours.” This “idea of the future” will be, as we know, the construction of the famous urinal. A municipal building that indeed has “its usefulness, as much for hygiene as for manners,” but which will strike a decisive blow against local reactionary forces, symbolized by the priest Ponosse, the Baron Alphonsine de Courtebiche and the notary Girodot. (“When I think that the great lords of Louis XIV urinated in the stairways of the palace!” Tafardel exclaims, as a learned historian.) An idea of the future – or a symbolic marker as we would say today – that the teacher takes pains to welcome with the greatest enthusiasm (“a rare manifestation in this sad and little-known man, for whom joy was rusted, because he only ever employed it in service of the correct cause, on special occasions: the victories achieved over the desolate obscurantism which still covers the French countryside”): “For an idea, Monsieur Mayor, it’s quite an idea! A truly republican idea! Quite in the spirit of the party in any case. An egalitarian measure to the greatest extent and hygienic.”
As can be seen, when the mayor Barthelemy Piechut and the teacher Ernest Tafardel, whose contemporary political and intellectual equivalents wouldn’t be difficult to find, dream of an “egalitarian measure to the greatest extent”, they don’t intend to question the gap that exists between the living conditions of Clochemerle’s agricultural workers and those of the rich winegrowers who employ them. (It must be said that Barthelemy Piechut – the narrator makes sure to clarify from the beginning – is “the biggest winegrower and owned the best slopes exposed to the southeast, those which produced the fruitiest wines”.) It’s of course the fact that there will be thenceforth the same urinal for everyone. One thus understands why, the modern left, once freed from the socialist mortgage, which was the essential work of the Mitterand years, could logically do nothing other than return to its first loves: in other words, the politics of the urinal and the “civic” symbolic markers, whether “marriage for all”, legalisation of cannabis, voting rights for foreigners, or the “feminisation” of spelling. This is the return of Clochemerle, essentially, but in the era of liberal globalization and Silicon Valley.
Internationalism and Foreign Labor
The placement of workers in systematic competition with each other – of which the use of foreign labor is but one example among many – has always represented the most efficient weapon at capitalists’ disposal (alongside the formation of what Marx called “the reserve industrial army”, or in other words a permanent army of the unemployed) for exercising continuous downward pressure on wages and thus augmenting capitalist profits. This is why the struggle against this concerted strategy of the largest European employers from the beginning occupied a central place in all the reflections and programs of the old continent’s working classes. In Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Classes, written in 1845, Engels devotes an entire chapter to the problems posed by Irish immigration – not hesitating to pass judgment on its degrading moral and cultural consequences – concluding that it incontestably constituted one of the causes of the “abasement in which the English workers find themselves, a cause which contributes to the ceaseless reduction of this social class’s living standards” (In his April 9th 1870 letter to Sigfried Meyer and August Vogt, Marx takes up Engels’s analysis, underlining in turn that this influx of foreign labor “reduces the wages and the moral and material situation of the English working class”). It is therefore unsurprising that the struggle against this constant strategy of the European bosses played a central role in the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association in September 1864. In July 1863 – only a few days after the immense success of the London workers meeting favoring Polish national independence, to which a French delegation composed of Tolain, Perrachon, Cohadon and Limousin arrived to offer their support – George Odger and the four other leaders of the English trade unions invited their French comrades to sustain their support for this nascent movement for international solidarity: “The brotherhood of peoples” – they wrote – “is extremely necessary for workers’ interests. Because every time we try to improve our social condition via the reduction of the work day or higher salaries, we are always threatened with the importation of French, Germans or Belgians who will work for cheaper”. “The blame doesn’t belong to our continental brothers” – the statement took care to specify, to cut short any xenophobic interpretation – “but rather to the absence of any systematic connections between the industrial classes of the different countries concerned.” “This is why” – the English syndicalists concluded – “we hope that such relationships will establish themselves soon and will result in elevating excessively low wages to the level of the best paid, to prevent the bosses from placing us in a competition that lowers us to the most deplorable state to suit their miserable greed”. A few months after this call, whose decisive role all historians today agree upon, the First International was born in St. Martin’s Hall in London, thus offering English and Continental workers an initial means of efficiently coordinating their struggles and putting into practice their internationalist ideal. Whether for example, immediately organizing a response to the English bosses’ efforts to break the 1867 London basketmakers’ strike through the importation of Belgian workers (“The next day” – the general council of the IWA noted with satisfaction – “these workers understanding their duty, returned to Belgium, having been compensated for their time by the London basketworkers”) to actively contributing, that same year of 1867, to the establishment of the English proletariat’s financial solidarity with the Parisian bronze workers. By all evidence, the constant invitation by the modern left and far left to definitively lift all obstacles to the “free movement of workers” the world over rests on a very different understanding of internationalism than that of the original socialist movement.
The Dreyfus Affair, or Socialism’s Great Turning Point
In a September 2015 article published in the website regards.fr (which he co-edits with Clementine Autain), the historian Roger Martelli finally found the psychological explanation for my (in his eyes, untenable) thesis, that until the Dreyfus Affair, the original socialist critique did not situate its battles under the banner of “the union of all left forces” but on the contrary, under that of worker autonomy. Such a diabolical persistence in error – which Roger Martelli doesn’t fail to specify can only open “a boulevard to the National Front” – should be explained by the fact that “Michea doesn’t like Jaures and detests the Dreyfus Affair” (Does this mean one should love it?). But that said, I can see very clearly where the excellent Roger Martelli wants to go with this. He belongs to that category of ideologues – whose proliferation is of course encouraged by liberal philosophy – who judge it inconceivable to criticize someone whom one is supposed to like, and thus conclude in the most tranquil manner that if someone is opposed to their point of view the only reason must be a personal animosity towards them.
I obviously won’t dwell on the infantile foundations of such a conception of political debate (“if the teacher gives me a bad grade, it’s because she doesn’t like me”). I will rather invite our historian, because such is his title, to study as quickly as possible the countless lively and passionate debates that the Dreyfus Affair aroused immediately within the international social democratic movement. And particularly Rosa Luxemburg’s writings – she then represented, with Franz Mehring, the most combative and coherent wing of this movement – on this key episode in the history of the modern socialist movement. He will thus be able to verify for himself that this grande dame of socialism (assassinated alongside Karl Liebknecht in 1919, during the bloody repression of the Spartacist movement, ordered by a government of the left) not only felt an immense admiration for Jean Jaures, but that she equally supported without reserve his decision to rally the French Workers Party, despite the initial reticence of Guesde, Vaillant and Lafargue, to the side of Emile Zola and the republican left in their struggle in favor of Dreyfus. “Jaures was right” – she declared for example in 1900. “For the first time, the working class has been led to take part in a grand political battle. Jaures and his friends have driven it to the fight and thus inaugurated a new epoch in the history of French socialism.”
Nevertheless, this profound respect for Jaures – I know how difficult this point must be for Roger Martelli to understand – didn’t blind Rosa Luxemburg to the worrying places the Dreyfus struggle was going to lead. Because from the moment that it was not only a question of supporting the left in its legitimate struggle against the nationalist state and the clerical and monarchist right wing (to tie together, in other words, an essentially tactical and defensive political alliance) but well and truly to fuse with the left, in this “‘republican’ soup of left unity that the great mind of Jaures must maintain”, the socialist movement was placed almost inevitably on a politically disastrous and eventually suicidal path; that of an organic alliance “called the republican bloc with different radical bourgeois parties, thus with the enemies of the working class.” Rosa Luxemburg would moreover have the occasion to declare, from 1902, the sad effects of this predictable dissolution of all serious criticism of the capitalist system in the formless magma of a now purely “citizen” left. “Since Jaures and all his group rallied the bourgeois “republican” camp because of the Dreyfus Affair, ” – she noted – “All socialist accomplishments have in large part been downgraded. The ministerial socialists, far from raising the least criticism of the bourgeois republicans, have participated on the contrary with the greatest ardor in bourgeois charlatanism during the elections. There hasn’t been any discussion of social or economic problems, customs policy, taxes or class antagonisms; instead, there is only the choice between ‘republicans’ or ‘nationalists’ – such has been the sole choice that the ‘socialists’ have presented to the working class. Jaures’s electoral campaign presented itself under the banner of common candidates, reciprocal support, and the most fraternal alliances between socialists and bourgeois parties!” And before this “republican farce” of a left union thenceforth integrating socialists (it’s moreover only from this point onward that the latter began to define itself as the new “far left”, a term previously reserved for the heirs of Gambetta and the Jacobin, radical petite bourgeoisie), Rosa Luxemburg exhorted her comrades for the last time not to fall into this trap laid out for them. “All those” – she wrote – “who haven’t yet lost all instincts of political self-preservation will shrink from cohabitation with radicalism. And the pull of unified, ‘old school’ socialism should be enough to free them from those reluctantly accepted connections and re-assemble them on the basis of proletarian struggle.”
Such analysis of the political consequences of the Dreyfus Affair and Jaures’s strategy – which sounds strangely prophetic in the France of Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron – still appears incredibly lucid to me (which doesn’t mean that Jaures wasn’t simply wrong about everything, of course). But doubtless Roger Martelli and Clementine Autain would prefer to see this as proof that Rosa Luxemburg didn’t like Jaures, hated the Dreyfus Affair and above all hoped to open up a wide boulevard for fascism.
Socialism from Above, and Socialism from Below
The only merit which one can retrospectively accord to the “new philosophy” – since this is how the ideological movement begun by Andre Glucksmann and Bernard Henri-Levy was described in the second half of the 1970s – is that of having dealt a final blow to the simplistic but intellectually reassuring idea, that the “Soviet” state was nothing other than a “betrayal” of the original socialist ideals (a good example, by the way, of the “nothing to do-ism” – or this “no amalgams” that Jean Birnbaum so well described). It became much more difficult afterwards for left intelligentsia to continue to deny the obvious logical connections that tied certain aspects of Marx’s thought with “really existing socialism”. That said, and however pertinent the critique may be on this point, it can’t lead us – as the new left has done since Michel Foucault – to consider the question of socialism to be definitively closed (and still less to legitimize the equation – nowadays indisputable in mainstream media – of socialism with the “gulag”). It’s under this old term of “socialism”, that we still tend too often to confuse two levels of consideration that we must learn to separate. On one side, the critique of the new social and economic order which began developing in Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution (England being the classic location of this new system of production and exchange). And, on the other, that of the positive description – whether detailed or not – of the “ideal” society which would sooner or later replace it.
On the first point – that of the radical critique of capitalism – there weren’t obvious divergences between the different schools of this nascent socialism. All agreed that the ideal of liberty and equality promoted by Enlightenment philosophy and the French Revolution (an ideal that most socialist currents – Fourier being the only exception – never called into question as such) had as its principal practical effect the favoring of the emergence of a new aristocracy – that of money – and the correlative appearance of new forms of servitude and alienation (those tied to wage earners and large scale industry). From whence came their implacable critique, for the most part pronounced in very similar terms, of the very foundations of the new capitalist system – the reign of self-interest, atomised individuals and the obsessive hunt for profit – of which Marx’s Capital represents the most intelligent and developed form even today (even Bakunin, his mortal enemy, didn’t fail to acknowledge this many times). If therefore, by “socialism”, we mean this radical critique of the “motion of modern society,” to use Marx’s expression, then it’s clear not only that there’s nothing “archaic” about it, but that it has probably become, in the specific conditions of globalized capitalism, even more timely than ever. And this is the case no matter what negative judgment one renders on Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. Anything else is merely the question of “post capitalist” society and the concrete forms it’s supposed to take. Because here, on the contrary, one can see facing each other from the beginning, two very different schemas of interpretation (which can of course, philosophically combine on occasion – even in the same thinker) and which one can symbolize, via extreme simplification, with the names of Marx and Proudhon.
By revealing the “economic laws of motion of modern society” (das okonomische Bewegungsgesetz der modernen Gesellschaft) in their chemically pure form – relieved of the historical and geographical particularities of the Manchester of his time – Marx accomplished a tour de force which has very few equivalents in the history of philosophical thought; that of describing, in the 19th century – when capitalism was just taking its first steps – a whole series of systemic tendencies that its modern development never ceases to confirm day after day (and even more since its entry, at the end of the 1970s, into its “neoliberal” cycle). But this came at the price, unfortunately, of a major political ambiguity. Because if Marx is doubtless the one who best understood the essence of the capitalist dynamic (it forces the capitalist – he says – “to ceaselessly expand his capital in order to conserve it, and it can only be expanded employing a progressive accumulation”), one must understand that he was at the same time, literally fascinated by the multiple “revolutionary” implications of the then entirely new reality of large scale industry (from this point of view, Marx belongs, to Mme Garo’s satisfaction, within the tradition of Saint-Simonian socialism). This fascination appears no more clearly than in his analysis of the relations between this nascent large-scale industry and traditional agriculture. “In the sphere of agriculture” – he writes for example – “large scale industry acts in a more revolutionary manner than anywhere else in the sense that it makes the peasant, the bulwark of the old society, disappear and replaces him with the wage earner” (Capital, book 1, fourth section). Marx clarifies with unfeigned enthusiasm: “The most routine and irrational exploitation is replaced by the technological application of science. The capitalist mode of production definitively breaks the link between agriculture and manufacturing that united them from their infancy, but it creates at the same time the material conditions for a new and superior synthesis.” This rejection on the principle of the idea that a socialist society could indeed need – whether for ecological reasons or the quality of use value – to maintain and encourage certain forms of small peasant agriculture (a rejection which already contained a germ of the ideal of an agriculture at once industrialized and fully collectivised) flows clearly from Marx’s constant conviction (at least until his encounter with the Russian populists) that only the “centralization of the means of production and the socialization of work” carried out by large scale capitalist industry would be able to confer to the future global socialist society its material and technological base.
This somewhat ambiguous thesis – because it tends, in a certain manner, to consider the socialist society to be the legitimate heir of the bourgeois revolution – finds one of its privileged sources in Marx’s analysis of the contradictory character of capitalist development. This is supposed to rest on a “social division of labor” which officially confers only to the market, since Adam Smith, the job of bringing “face to face independent producers who recognize no authority other than competition, no force other than the pressure exerted by their reciprocal interests, just as in the animal kingdom the war of all against all, bellum omnium contra omnes, describes more or less the conditions of existence of all species.” It’s this mystique of free enterprise which according to Marx explains why the bourgeoisie always “lets out loud cries and swoons when one speaks of control, of social regulations of the production process! They denounce any effort of this kind as an attack against the rights of Property, of Liberty, of the capitalist Genius” (Capital, book 1, fourth section). But the problem – Marx never fails to remind us – is that competition, and the permanent technological revolution which is its logical consequence, always ends up in practice favoring the concentration of capital in ever fewer hands – whether those of Bill Gates, Carlos Ghosn or Vincent Bollore. And in this way, it confers to the process of modern industrial production – that of great transnational enterprises – this ever more centralised, coordinated and planned character that liberals nevertheless denounce elsewhere. As David Harvey underlines, the old liberal dogma that sees a mortal threat to “free enterprise” in every idea of economic planning and centralized management of the production process is permanently “contradicted by the internal organization of Toyota or Walmart. The great corporations have recourse to sophisticated techniques of quality control, input-output analysis and optimisation of time management. In short, they plan every aspect of production to its smallest details.”
It’s precisely this structural contradiction between, on one hand, the ever greater socialisation and centralization of the process of capitalist production – whose ultimate horizon, if the geopolitical background didn’t make it highly unlikely, would be the transformation of “the whole of society into one vast factory” – and, on the other, the still private character of its present organization, which makes the replacement of the capitalist mode of management of large-scale industry by a “socialist” system historically inevitable. In other words, replacement by a system whose organization would allow it finally to bring to its logical endpoint (“one vast factory”) the process of socialization of work inaugurated by capitalism. Because once the private ownership of the means of production is abolished, according to Marx, nothing could ever prevent the now “associated” producers from coordinating and rationally planning the production of all goods and services necessary for human life at planetary scale, and without ever having to resort to the least bit of market exchange (the latter assuming by definition private ownership of exchanged goods). As Lenin summarized with typical frankness in State and Revolution (and on this point he reveals himself to be a much better reader of Marx than Mme Garo), under a socialist regime “all of society will be nothing but one sole office and one sole workshop, with equality of work and equality of wages”. Indeed – and this is precisely what differentiates Lenin, who went as far as to validate the Taylorist organization of labor – Marx always takes care to clarify that under capitalist imperatives the management of socialized work (or of the “collective worker”) inevitably takes the form of “factory despotism”. The fact remains that he hardly ever questions the “axiological neutrality” of the new industrial machinery (whose type of “use” would be the only way to differentiate one system from another), nor does he accord any political limitation to the future planetary process of “socialist” production, whether dictated by good sense or local autonomy. This risks legitimizing the fantasies of Victor Considerant about the “unitary government which would be the center of large industrial operations carried out by nations on different continents” and the “culminating point of administrative hierarchy established as a network over the entire globe” (The Social Destiny, 1834). Whatever Marx’s reticence about “boiling the pots of the future” one must acknowledge that his image of the “rational” socialist society leads him almost always – except perhaps in his last writings – to fall on the side of socialism from above.
One can then understand better what could have moved Pierre Leroux, the founder of French socialism, to deplore in 1834 the tendency of one part of the (at the time) nascent socialist movement to favor, consciously or not, the advent of a “new papacy … which would transform humanity into a machine in which the true living beings, individuals, would be nothing more than useful material, rather than themselves the arbiters of their own destiny.” A society in which, by consequence, the individual would have “become a bureaucrat, and uniquely a bureaucrat, and would be regimented, with an official doctrine to believe and the Inquisition at his door”. In line with this anti-authoritarian socialism, and particularly concerning the question of individual liberties, it is right to bring back Proudhon’s obstinate struggle, and in a general way, that of all those after him who refuse the very idea of “state socialism”. This “libertarian” or radically democratic form of original socialism was opposed on principle to all ideas of economic planning (it even occurred to Proudhon to employ the term “economic centralization” to describe this planning). But, in the eyes of its partisans, such a project – in itself indispensable once one rejects the idea of coordination of productive activities by the sole logic of the market – had to always root itself primarily in communal autonomy and the correlative right of individuals to exercise direct control over their immediate conditions of existence. To deploy itself – according to Proudhon’s famous formula, which Bakunin took up – from “the bottom up and the circumference to the center” (Proudhon didn’t subscribe to the myth of a purely “horizontal” society). Of course, such a “federal” organization of society (the upper echelons – themselves places under the permanent control of those below – having the sole vocation of taking charge of tasks that the lower levels could not, or should not, determine by themselves, for example, youth education, the distribution of essential raw materials or the organization of transport systems) in practice raised a multitude of concrete problems which led to inexhaustible theoretical debates within the “anarchist” movement (these problems, however, seem to me much less complicated to resolve, if one thinks about it, than those engendered by the project of integral and centralized planning of planetary production, or conversely, the complete abandonment of human life solely to the impersonal and anonymous laws of the “self-regulating” market). It remains that this constant preference for the “federal” principle explains in large part the much more flexible position of Proudhon and his successors on all questions concerning, for example, individual liberty, market exchange, credit or small private property (a position that orthodox Marxists – enthusiastic defenders of future “sovkhozes” and the industrial “kombinats” – didn’t fail to immediately denounce as essentially “petit bourgeois”).
If we keep in mind the existence of these two traditions – that of Marx and that of Proudhon – it should thus be clear that the crumbling of what Orwell called the “Soviet myth”, in itself inevitable and salutary, implies in no way, from a strictly philosophical point of view, the invalidation of socialism from below (the efficiency of certain experiments in libertarian management of production and exchange during the Spanish Civil War would tend to prove the contrary). If one wants to escape the despairing idea that the essence of modern politics today should reduce itself solely to the choice between totalitarian barbarism and liberal capitalism (in other words, between the figure of the “worst” and the “lesser evil”), it is high time to learn to reread the heretical work of Proudhon with new eyes and with it, all the temporarily lost treasure of anti authoritarian socialism. But that assumes, of course, that one has first definitively sent packing all the liberal mythologies that the “new philosophy” was able to transform into mediatized facts forty years ago.
Ideology’s New Clothes
Our political, moral and philosophical convictions (or, if one prefers a more Marxist term, our “ideology”) inevitably carry the mark of the position we occupy in society, thus the point of view that this position determines. Machiavelli acknowledged this in his own way, when – careful to justify his claim to “discuss and give rules of princely government” (he who presented himself as a “man of base and lowly condition”) – he noted in his dedication to Lorenzo de Medici that “as those who paint landscapes descend onto the plain to regard the nature of the mountains and high places, and place themselves atop mountains to see the low areas, so too one must be a prince to understand the nature of peoples, and one must be of the people to know the nature of princes” (The Prince, 1513). In this sense, the recourse to the notion of “ideology” is nothing but a way to take note of the fact that we are always condemned to observe social relations from a certain angle and that there exist therefore a certain number of things that our societal position prevents us from perceiving (or at least, as Marx clarified, which it forces us to perceive in reverse.)
This classic representation of ideology shows itself to be very insufficient however in accounting for the new kinds of reality denial and intellectual blindness which began to spread throughout the world after the First World War and the Russian Revolution. It is no longer a question of some banal optical illusion that could make it possible to understand how the conscience of “those above” most often finds its raison d’etre in the near-impossibility of perceiving or even occasionally imagining the real living conditions of those upon whom their domination is exercised. It is an entirely new mental regime – that of the “mind reduced to the state of a gramophone” – which is impossible to understand fully without equally involving psychological categories. This is what slowly led Orwell to systematically return to the concept of “schizophrenia”. His analysis of this new mental regime, which from 1945 occupied an increasingly important place in his articles and essays, was organized around four fundamental themes. First, he observed, the functioning of the “mind reduced to the state of gramophone” is always accompanied by the total indifference to the genius of language (there is no ideology without “double talk”, or in other words, without mechanical and stereotypical discourse), absolute distrust of ordinary morals, and an all-consuming thirst for power which is often disguised even from itself under the mask of devotion to the cause. But according to Orwell, it finds its sociologically privileged support above all in the intelligentsia of the new middle classes, whose profoundly contradictory social status (these classes essentially include what Andre Gorz called the “agents dominated by domination”) leads them almost inevitably to develop an ambiguous, indeed doubled vision of reality. “I have before me” – he writes for example in 1946 in Where Literature Dies – “what must be today a very rare pamphlet: written by Maxim Litvinov in 1918, and outlining the recent events of the Russian Revolution. It makes no mention of Stalin, but it gives high praise to Trotsky, as well as Zinoviev, Kamenev and others. What could be the attitude of even the most intellectually scrupulous Communist, to such a pamphlet? At best, the obscurantist attitude of saying that it is an undesirable document and better suppressed. And if for some reason it were decided to issue a garbled version of the pamphlet denigrating Trotsky and inserting references to Stalin, no Communist who remained faithful to his party could protest.” And Orwell adds, “but the significant thing is not that [these forgeries] happen, but that even when they are known about they provoke no reaction from the left-wing intelligentsia as a whole.” This is why, he concludes, “a totalitarian state which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably install a system of schizophrenic thought in which the laws of common sense would remain useful in daily life and certain technical sciences, but which politicians, historians and sociologists would ignore.” It is indeed, the existence of such a system of “schizophrenic” thought which makes intelligible not only the incredible blindness of left intellectuals throughout the 20th century before the true nature of Stalinism and Maoism (or in our time and on a completely different register, the wholly obvious links which unite, for example, the no border and no limit imaginary of cultural liberalism and that of endless capital accumulation) but equally the systematic blacklisting and corresponding witch hunts of all those who – in the precise image of Orwell, Camus or Simon Leys (all accused in their time of being “new reactionaries” or even “agents of the CIA”) dared to point out that the king wears no clothes.
My reference to Anderson’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes (published in 1837) is anything but innocent. It’s certainly not by chance that Simon Leys chose to publish his iconoclastic analysis of the Maoist “cultural revolution” under the title President Mao’s New Clothes. Or even that Orwell insisted that the BBC broadcast his radio adaptation of the Danish writer’s tale (In a letter to his friend Dwight MacDonald on January 3rd, 1946, did he not write that “people have had more than enough of this Russian business. It remains only to see who will say that the king wears no clothes”?). It must be said that the situation described in the story presents quite a troubling analogy with the “system of schizophrenic thought” to which the left intelligentsia, one century later, gave its definitive letters of nobility. It illustrates, for example, in particularly luminous fashion, the contradiction in which all popular perception of reality finds itself inevitably inscribed once the daily grip of a dominant ideology passes a certain degree of intensity. It’s not so much that the subjects applauding their emperor as he passes by have lost all good sense to the point of being incapable of seeing for themselves that he is naked. But the weight of the ideological tools put in place by the two charlatans is such (to hear them tell it, only a bad subject of the emperor – in other words, a politically incorrect subject – would fail to notice how magnificent his new clothes are) that each of these subjects by themselves is led to think, in fear and trembling, that they are the only one who perceives the king’s true nudity. And out of fear of seeming “reactionary”, and having thus to face the daily consequences of this infamous status, they find themselves led logically to say out loud the opposite of what they think deep down.
To the extent, however, where it remains clear – in Anderson’s story – that the ordinary man (the ordinary decent man – Orwell often writes) keeps intact his capacity to see what’s in front of his eyes, it remains very difficult to sort him into the category of an ideologue, strictly speaking. And it’s therefore only, once more, the dissuading presence of this system of ideological surveillance charged with defining in every instant what it is politically correct to see and not see, which can lead him thus to imitate the effects of schizophrenia in deciding to close his eyes to all that he’s not supposed to see (even if it means letting off steam in the voting booth where – as Don Camillo reminded Peppone – “Stalin doesn’t see you”). Quite different, however, is the case of the ideological intellectual of the 20th century, whose curious mode of thought rests on the prior disqualification of common sense as such (a simplified version of Bachelard’s analysis being enough to give an “epistemological” varnish to this operation). But from the moment where it is indeed this desire to break with the “two plus two equals four” of ordinary perception (Orwell) that defines the essence of this new mental regime (is it necessary to point out that left intellectuals of the 19th century, from Benjamin Constant to Emile Zola, would never have accepted such compromises with truth?), it becomes possible, fully articulating the implications of the tool put in place in the Emperor’s New Clothes, to describe in advance, and with astonishing precision, the two main forms that the modern ideological perversion will have to cover.
At the first level – let’s say that of the average left intellectual, whether academic, journalist or activist – the modern ideologue is someone who constantly manages – more or less unconsciously – to refuse to see what’s before his eyes any time reality contradicts dogma (and let’s note by the way that this is – Orwell insists a lot on this idea – a psychological capacity which assumes a certain degree of “emotional poverty”). Only this process of continuous neutralization of the senses’ testimony – and in a more general way, that of all common sense – can allow this type of intellectual to avoid at every moment and with all good conscience, the incessant contradictions (one calls to mind the famous Soviet joke: “He lies like an eyewitness”). This is – as Orwell notes in a June 1945 letter to The Tribune – “the effect of the Russian myth on the socialist movement here. At this moment, we all more or less openly apply this system of ‘two weights, two measures’ with regard to morality.” This is how – he continues – we can sincerely “cry out that mass deportation, forced labor and suppression of free speech are atrocious crimes, while at the same time we proclaim that these things are perfectly normal if they are done by the USSR or its satellite states: and where necessary, we make this plausible by fiddling with information and eliminating the facts that are hard to accept” (Orwell concludes that one “certainly cannot construct a healthy socialist movement if one is obliged to close one’s eyes to any crime as long as it has been committed by the USSR”). Naturally, this “schizophrenic” mode of thinking (“Please hide the gulag that I cannot see”) is in itself independent of the “sophisms of the moment”. And the Stalinist intellectual is far from representing the only possible specimen. Any liberal ideologue, for example, can see very well (except perhaps Luc Ferry) that the idea of exponential growth in a finite world – additionally, a world already subject to a growing ecological disaster – constitutes an absolute impossibility. One half of his brain nevertheless immediately deactivates this idea of common sense so that the other half can peacefully unfurl its system of equations as though it were nothing (it’s indeed often only on this condition that an “economist” can allow themselves to be invited on the show C dans l’air or “Informés” on France Info). As we know, it’s precisely this new mode of “schizophrenic” intelligence that Orwell chose to call doublethink in his book 1984 (“to consciously persuade the unconscious, then become unconscious of the act of hypnosis that one has just perpetrated”).
This elementary form of lying to oneself – which in a certain sense, falls under Sartre’s analysis of “bad faith” and “meta-stable” behaviors – only represents the first degree of modern ideological perversion, however (even if the vast majority of left intellectuals abstain in general – thank goodness – from going much farther). Because beyond this now banal refusal to admit that “the king wears no clothes”, there still exists a much more perfected type of ideological denial of reality. That which regularly leads a certain number of intellectuals, however brilliant they may otherwise be, to really see the splendor of the emperor’s new clothes, to the point of showing themselves to be able to describe the tiniest details with infinite precision. One naturally thinks here of the countless Western intellectuals, so cruelly mocked by Simon Leys (of whom Maria Antonietta Macciocchi will always be the unsurpassable model) who could tranquilly testify upon their return from China – a country where the terrible power struggles tied to Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” had nevertheless caused hundreds of thousands of deaths – that they had really seen materialize before their eyes the kingdom of political freedom and the workers’ paradise (some, most often graduates of the Ecole normale superieure, were even capable at the time to see with their own eyes the wheat fields mature faster and the cows give more milk under the generous sun of “Maoist thought”). Of course, this mystical aptitude to see what isn’t there is not limited either to the enchanted perception of totalitarian societies. It can also equally lead an ideological brain to really see, for example, that the members of the French football team are almost all white (and that it is by all evidence purely “racist” criteria that preside over their selection or non-selection), that the average life expectancy of human beings makes a great leap forward “every three months” (even while it has begun to fall in the United States) or even that the quality of modern high school students continues to rise (considering the pace at which sociologists really see it rising over the past thirty years, the historical and literary knowledge of a high school senior must today be close to that of a newly-hired teacher in the 1950’s). This type of ideological hallucination today takes its most accomplished form (the art of collective denunciation – and the petitioner’s fever that it requires – having become a full-time “academic” activity) in the well-known figure of the professional witch hunter – or if you prefer Orwell’s vocabulary, the “thought police”. That the latter shows himself thus capable – as in the McCarthyist era – to spot the Bolshevik hidden under the bed in the blink of an eye, or in our time, the uniformed “Red-Brown” (the free adaptation by today’s far left of the old Stalinist concept of the “Hitlero-Trotskyist”) who goose-steps outside the university windows or embarks on sinister “Islamophobic” crusades under the fallacious pretext that women have the same rights as men. Of course, it isn’t until this schizophrenic (and quite frankly paranoid, in some cases) mode of thought reaches its ultimate heights – think for example of the idea of a “red-brown” conspiracy of universal ramifications asserted urbi et orbi by poor Jean-Loup Amselle (The New Red-Browns, op. cit) – that it becomes hard to resist Orwell’s hypothesis of a true ideological dementia, whatever aspect of personal history (generally Oedipal) predisposes someone to become a new Dr. Folamour or in the image of Dider Daeninckx, an informant by trade.
Finally, to complete this analysis, let’s note that in his essay on James Burnham and the Era of Organizers (published in 1946), Orwell himself had insisted on describing the type of human being he deemed most susceptible to this type of delusional temptation. “Abstaining from admiring Hitler or Stalin” – he wrote – “shouldn’t require an enormous intellectual effort. But it does require a moral effort. That a man as gifted as Burnham was able for a while to consider Nazism to be a quite admirable thing, that could and probably would construct a social order capable of functioning and lasting, shows the extent to which what we today call “realism” can compromise one’s perception of reality.” One certainly doesn’t have to look much farther for the roots of the chronic distrust on the part of most modern left and far-left ideologues towards the very idea of moral sense or common decency.
Local Autonomy, Complementary Currencies, Short Circuits
In April 2016’s La Decroissance, Vincent Cheynet warns his readers against the dangers of “local currency” functioning outside any democratic political or institutional framework (the risks of Uberization of local life would be very high). He seems however to neglect the fact that true local currencies – at least those that “degrowth” wants to encourage – have never had the goal of circulating like the classic model of currency does (from this point of view, it’s rather the “Pacific franc” of New Caledonia and French Polynesia which most correspond to Vincent Cheynet’s proposed definition). In reality, they constitute simple complementary currencies whose “purchasing power” would theoretically only apply to certain types of locally produced goods and services and ideally according to certain social, ecological and political norms defined in common and guaranteed by appropriate democratic structures (basically, a bit like if one part of family allowances took the form of vouchers for acquiring truly necessary products for moral and material education and not for brand name sneakers or video games). This would have the advantage of thus favoring the output of a “short circuit” economy (whose quality of products is necessarily easier to control by the users than those one finds in mass production) and thus progressively diminishing the dependence of a given region’s inhabitants – concerning the most indispensable products for their daily lives – on the agro-industrial lobby and the erratic movements of the global market. This renders more or less inevitable – Vincent Cheyney is a thousand times correct on this point – a decisive political confrontation with the Brussels oligarchy whose main objective is to criminalize in advance – in the name of free enterprise and “free and not false competition” – any measure that a European country could be led to take, under pressure from the popular classes, to remove itself even partially from the diktats of the global market and great industrial lobbies.
Let’s underline, such is the reigning confusion on this point, that it’s only under certain very precise historical and social conditions – as Marx ceaselessly reminds us – that “money” comes to function as capital and currency as “universal equivalent” (that is, with an “axiologically neutral” ability to purchase any merchandise). Most so-called primitive societies – many of whom are unaware of class divisions – use numerous forms of “currency” (even if only in their relations with neighboring tribes). But their operating mode – as demonstrated by, among others, Jean-Michel Servet and the researchers of the Anti-Utilitarian Movement in Social Sciences (MAUSS) – is founded in reality on entirely different anthropological principles than those that govern modern market societies. Only the astonishing lack of culture of a large part of the modern French far left (Claude Allegre, Philippe Meirieu and Facebook have unfortunately gone this way) can lead one to permanently confuse the relative universality of currency with the historically determined character of capital.
Intellectuals, The People, and Social Networks
One could define the “socialism of intellectuals”, in the way that Jan Makhaiski meant it, as one that first of all sees the “Revolution” as an end in itself and the final key to personal redemption (the Revolutionary Catechism of Netchaiev, written in 1868, representing the most extreme form of such a point of view). It’s uniquely within this psychological framework that the strange question of the “revolutionary subject” has been able to take shape; in other words, the question of this privileged group of humans whose “historical mission” would be to bring about heaven on Earth. But to the extent that this Messianic approach leads one inevitably to consider the “revolutionary subject” as a simple means to accomplish the prophecies of Theory, it goes without saying that the privileged status of the latter can never be guaranteed. If therefore, for such and such reason, the indigenous proletariat or local peasantry came to disappoint the intellectual hopes that had been religiously placed on them, another elected group would not fail to immediately take over, whether immigrants, the youth, women, the lumpenproletariat, or even, as with Judith Butler, drag queens. This is moreover the reason why today so many left intellectuals conclude so happily that “the people don’t exist” (which absolves them, moreover, from having to think more deeply about the real roots of their privileged lives). By this we mean that the only thing that matters in their eyes is the correct theory and its self-proclaimed guardians.
It’s therefore one of Podemos’s great merits to have broken from the beginning with this sacrificial vision of the Revolution and at the same time with this “world of hatred and slogans” (Orwell) which is its inevitable complement. What is singular, essentially, about the founders of this movement – at least in the academic and intellectual world – is above all their uncommon empathy with “those below”, whatever the particular history of each member of the popular classes and their current degree of ideological consciousness: “How you voted yesterday” Juan Carlos Monedero writes for example – “doesn’t matter to us; it doesn’t matter to us the ideology with which you give order to your world; it doesn’t matter to us how you read, and with which words, or what you see in the mirror; it doesn’t matter to us how you interpret the past and also if you don’t want to confront the reasons why you have rejoined the silent majority now. Today, all of that matters less than knowing that beyond your history, you agree with the fact that no one should be evicted from their home because they can’t pay the rent or the mortgage; no one should be forced to go to bed early to beat the cold because they can’t afford to pay for the heating where they live; if you agree that a society where children are poor and hungry is a broken society that must be reinvented; if you agree that we have to make it so common goods are redistributed in common, that women do not continue to have to take on multiple responsibilities that are all of our responsibilities, and do not have to give up their lives to offer others a more dignified one; that the corrupt should pay their taxes because wealth is a social construction in which all of us are necessary; that we have obligations and rights in our communities and we all live and exist together, and that wherever we came from, we are the raw material of our hopes and dreams.”
It’s only if one begins to address oneself to “ordinary people” in this simple and warm tone – a thousand leagues from the autistic discourse that characterizes most far left activist organizations – that it then becomes eventually possible to move beyond the “Keynesian” limits of the initial program (those that Pierre Thiesset rightly highlighted), and to begin a second phase, thanks to habits developed by debating and struggling in common – and more radically attack the very foundations of a system “that doesn’t question your ideas, whatever they may be, nor look at the color of your skin or your place of birth, when it takes away your housing, expels you from your job, and increasingly limits the domain of democratic decision-making.” As one suspects, there would be many, in the professional far left, who would not fail to judge such a program from the beginning to be insufficiently “radical” – under the pretext, for example, that it doesn’t aim right away to gather all the victims of the capitalist system via an ideological catechism in which no politically correct hot button issue would be left out. But these supercilious critics quite simply forget (or pretend to forget) that in reality, nothing could be more “radical” at this point of political decomposition to which we have arrived, than a minimal platform that could succeed in mobilizing the majority of the popular classes, in the right direction from the beginning. The popular classes whose capabilities of revolt have been paralyzed for decades precisely because of the survival of these old ideological divisions which have become not only the surest guarantee of the oligarchic system’s perpetuation but equally the first condition of the material and symbolic privileges of all those who have made the personal choice to live off them, whether on the political, media, academic or associative level.
However, the decision, decisive on its own, to place political theory at the service of the people and not, as has been the case up to now, the people in service of Theory (Gramsci went as far as to raise the idea in November 1917 of a “Revolution against Das Kapital”), does not make the other problems disappear as if waving a magic wand. Because even if Podemos – which we musn’t forget was not organized as a political party until 2014 – has already succeeded in making itself heard by an important fraction of the Spanish people (which should, by the way, provoke more modesty from the French “radical” left in its critiques of the movement), the most fearsome obstacle of all remains to be overcome (without even taking into account the fact that as soon as a political party acquires a certain amount of power – indeed a certain number of elected officials – it inevitably attracts careerists and the ambitious, like light attracts butterflies at night).
The most suitable places for raising awareness and revolt among ordinary people are almost always where they live (the neighborhood, the village or the commune) and where they work (the factory, the workshop, the farm, the office, the school, the hospital, etc.). Not only because it’s in the places where most of their daily existence takes place that it’s logically easiest to awaken their power to work in common (protests against school or pre-school closures, industrial pollution, social service, indecent living conditions, daily insecurity, etc.). But also, and above all, because it’s these primary territories which constitute the main place of initiation into the common life – which includes, among other things, the habit of discussion with one’s neighbor or colleague who doesn’t necessarily think like us (a habit which is easily lost, on the other hand, as soon as one finds oneself enclosed in the solipsism of a religious or political sect). And it’s therefore one of the foremost places of learning about democratic debate and daily victory over the “contradictions among the people” (one can moreover wonder what would be left of the true rebellious French spirit without the existence of neighborhood and village cafes).
An organization that truly gave itself the objective of giving voice and power to those below would thus never be able to mobilize them and in so doing allow them to become aware by themselves of the real nature of the system which mutilates their power to live, unless it succeeds one way or another to root itself durably in these primary territories (like for example the communist party during the Great Epoch – at the time organized into company and neighborhood cells – which ended up constituting a veritable counter-society capable of mobilizing the most diverse categories of people, from amateur athletes to youths from the banlieue – the communist youth were very strong then – to artists to veterans). But in the state of advanced decomposition that has affected nearly all traditional forms of political, union or associative mediation (the liberal atomization of the world has obviously played a central role in such decomposition) this desire to go to the people – to take up the Russian populists’ formula – runs up against much more powerful obstacles than before. The natural reflex of the new social movements – including Podemos – is first to seek to compensate for this initial absence of popular roots by relying massively on the new world of “social networks”. Of course one can’t blame them. It’s not only one of the most efficient ways today to short circuit the mainstream media and the traditional political organizations that the “iron law of oligarchy” (Robert Michels, Political Parties, 1914) has slowly led to close in on themselves and cut themselves off from ordinary people. But it’s equally one of the fastest ways to implement certain decision making procedures that are at least as “democratic” as those that fall under the logic of representative democracy (it’s Proudhon who said that “one must have lived in the isolation booth called the National Assembly to conceive how men who are completely unaware of the state of a country are almost always those who represent it”).
The problem is that the glittering universe of the new social networks is anything but politically neutral. Firstly, because it manifests in its very structure all the effects of the “Siliconian” vision of the world: “Instead of building walls” – bragged Face CEO Mark Zuckerberg – “we want to help people to build more bridges. Instead of dividing people, we want to bring them together. And we build it one connection at a time, one innovation at a time, day after day.” A well-honed propaganda speech, but which amply confirms, once its “citizen” newspeak is decoded (and noticeably the famous liberal opposition between “bridges” and “walls”) that these new “social networks” have indeed been conceived and perfected by the cool capitalism of Silicon Valley with the sole aim – according to Guy Debord’s famous formula – of “bringing together the separate while keeping it separated” (what Sherry Turkle described as being “together alone” and Jean-Pierre Lebrun described as “living together without anyone”). As such, they presuppose a world in which this perpetual connection of all with all finds, in reality, its ultimate principle in the predictable and ever stronger decline of all primary social linkages (and one must effectively be very naive, or very immature, to see in Facebook a “golden age of friendship” or in Twitter a superior form of democratic debate).
But this new world of social networks isn’t just tied to a societal project – assumed to be “egalitarian” and “horizontal” – in which connection has definitively taken precedence over social linkages (or may even replace it altogether, as in the case of the Japanese otakus who remain cloistered twenty four hours a day in front of their computer screens). To the extent that it demands a certain number of technologically sophisticated means, lots of free time (how can one stay up every night when one must get up every morning?) and above all certain culturally specific habits (for example that of living with one’s eyes locked to the screen of one’s computer or smartphone) it leads almost inevitably to the accordance of disproportionate social and political weight to the new middle classes of the big cities (and particularly their youth). But if it’s indisputable that these classes – organically tied to the technical, managerial and cultural framework of the capitalist mode of production – are affected more and more by the crisis and precarity (notably since 2008), it is just as indisputable that their ambiguous social status (and their relatively privileged way of life, if one compares it to what those below must undergo daily, notably in rural places) hardly predisposes them, at least for the moment, to question the imaginary of consumer capitalism in a really coherent fashion. One need only think, among a thousand other examples, of their naive confidence in the supposedly “emancipatory” virtues of cultural liberalism and “mobility”, their inherent mistrust of any existing “borders” or even their belief that the nation-state (itself most often reduced to the mere existence of police by the most extreme segments of the new middle class youth) still represents the true decision-making center of modern capitalist power. When indeed – as Thomas Frank ironically points out – concerning the commercial and financial world of today, “the problem is rather the fact that the state hardly regulates or controls anything”.
Within these conditions, the risk is therefore very great for any social movement that has “fallen in love with itself” to see any nascent common front of the popular classes progressively give way, under the benevolent regard of the mainstream media, to a simple Facebook revolution (with its professional bloggers and their many perpetually connected followers) in which the power to decide the concrete orientation of the movement will end up in the hands of this new precarious “petite bourgeoisie”, who, left to themselves and their supposedly “libertarian” fantasies (think for example of the paradox of these “unmixed meetings” in a movement that, like Nuit Debout, initially wanted to be “unifying”), have in reality very little chance of arousing the enthusiasm and support of those below. That is, if with their student folklore and their “pseudo-intellectual gibberish” (as Thomas Frank puts it), they do not manage to push some into the arms of the far right parties, or at the very least confirm that abstentionism remains the best choice at the end of the day.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that a social movement that would seek support principally using social media and digital technologies at the beginning is thus condemned to failure (especially since the inevitable deepening of the global capitalist economic crisis will not fail to dispel a large number of the illusions that these new middle classes still entertain about “progress”, “growth” and “modernity”). But it implies, however, that any movement of this kind must very quickly become aware of the inherent limits of the so-called “digital democracy” (“social networks open the path to a participatory democracy,” Matthieu Ellerbach, President of the Young Juppéists, celebrated recently – and significantly). That is, since the social networks – to the extent that the sort of “connection” they facilitate every day assumes the predictable decline of all real common life – tend to almost inevitably return through the back door this atomising image of liberalism that one thought had been chased out the front door (they encourage individuals, for example, to group themselves solely according to their personal affinities, according to the well known model of Facebook “communities”, even though what correctly defines the essence of a common life – therefore humanly and morally instructive – is firstly the fact that it obliges us to live with people we haven’t chosen, whether neighbors, parents or colleagues).
So it’s not a question of definitively banning – especially in these difficult times when the political settlement must be almost entirely rebuilt – all political use of digital technologies (like these computerless schools where Silicon Valley’s masters take care to send their own children – a sign that their lucidity is far superior on this point than that of many “radical” intellectuals). But above all, we must finally become aware that the time has come to learn to think with the social networks against the social networks. At least if we sincerely desire – like Podemos – to find real political support among those who live light years from the world of Foucault and Judith Butler (and I don’t see moreover how one might concretely succeed without establishing direct and permanent links – where they live and work – with the really existing popular classes, or at minimum, not permanently working to get rid of one’s most tenacious class prejudices about their lifestyles and ways of thinking). There is, one fears, an art of social linkages that is very hard to put into practice, and for which the left, with all its new liberal fascination for “digital culture”, “youthism”, and the “world of tomorrow” has not thought for a single instant how to prepare its newest faithful. It’s nevertheless the only way that movements like Podemos will be able to preserve their chances to become the real representatives of the popular classes and complete the work they have so well begun. I can’t say as much, unfortunately, for all these social movements that, in precisely the opposite way to Podemos immediately exclude any other starting point than that offered by today’s so-called “radical” left and which therefore finds itself from this simple fact, almost mechanically condemned to go around in circles endlessly in various large city squares of our connected planet, awaiting their turn to be consumed by the fire.
The Winter of Capitalism
“It is today easier to imagine the end of the world” – wrote the American philosopher Fredric Jameson – “than that of capitalism”. One couldn’t imagine a better way to summarize the paradox of our time. To the extent that the logic of capital prints its dehumanizing stamp on the whole planet and on almost all spheres of existence – including the most intimate – the awareness of the most negative effects of liberal globalization (growing precarity of daily life, more and more massive and indecent inequalities, destruction of nature and catastrophic disturbance of the climate, dissolution of social linkages and the “identities” that conferred, for better and worse, a human meaning to individuals’ lives, etc.) has doubtless reached an unprecedented level. But at the same time, the conviction that an exit from this globalized system – thus the simultaneous renouncement of certain technological and existential prosthesis which allow individuals to compensate for the loss of their autonomy – could only mean an anxious leap into the unknown, compounded by psychologically unacceptable sacrifices, has itself progressed by even greater proportions (and in demonizing as “conservative” or “reactionary” any questioning of modernity, the left intelligentsia has played a decisive role in this terrible defeat of critical thought). From there derives this ever more invasive twilight feeling that the liberal mode of life to which we are so attached (in every sense of the term) represents at the end of the day a lesser evil, and that all that remains is to learn to stand out personally and make it out of this new global war of all against all as a “winner” (an exercise to which the new middle classes of the big metropolises are infinitely better prepared than the popular classes who are still accustomed to a minimum of common and solidaristic life).
It would come off very badly to adopt here the tone of the great lord of the “party of intelligence” (or the “civilized minority”) and speak ironically about the limits of common decency and good sense, which seem so visibly incapable of immunizing ordinary people against the idea, for example, that our public debt is because our labor laws are too rigid and our system of social protection too generous, or against the belief that chemical agriculture and industrial farming can resolve humanity’s food problems (it goes without saying that one can be a “good person” in one’s daily life – this was the theme of Old Man and the Child by Claude Berri – while subscribing to all the mystifications of official propaganda). On one hand, it’s quite understandable that those who have lost the ability to move by themselves prioritise the use of their crutches above all else. And, on the other hand, the more and more sectarian and autistic tendencies that currently characterize the so-called “anticapitalist” far left by their nature discourage any individual with good sense from undertaking their own radical critique of the world around them. One could, of course, begin by reminding those who thus see capitalism – and its myth of unlimited economic growth – as the final word in the human adventure, that the material and moral conditions of existence which we still enjoy in our western societies are hardly representative of real life for most people on a planetary scale (from which springs, moreover, this sad and ambiguous “desire for the Occident”, according to the words of Alain Badiou, which today motivates most new “migrants”, logically fascinated by the mediatized images of the western capitalist way of life – notably through American television shows – which parade on a loop before their eyes). As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out (The New Class War. The True Causes of Refugees and Terrorism, Fayard, 2016), the feeling of stupor which gripped the French people after the terrible attacks of January and November 2015 can be explained by the fact that we are still living for the timebeing in a relatively protected environment, though whole sections of the global population have such senseless and criminal violence as their daily horizon (violence which tends moreover to be exercised more and more as Zizek correctly insists – against women). But the true problem is elsewhere. After all, if the capitalist system was really – as most left intellectuals believe – a “conservative” system structurally backed up by a “moral order”, “Judeo-Christian values” and the “hetero-patriarchal” family (a system thus which only aims to reproduce itself identically since the 19th century), there would still be some sense in wanting to prolong our current way of life by any means necessary, on the pretext that it appears to be the least bad option possible, and the only one, in any case, still able to guarantee a minimum of individual liberties. From this point of view, I admit to entirely understanding the legitimate aspects of the “old-fashioned” liberals’ struggle, from Marcel Gauchet to Pierre Manent, especially knowing the delusional “pack” that has leapt after them. The problem – and here again the old Marx was correct – is that the capitalist system is in essence dynamic and “the continued extension of the reign of merchandise is inscribed in the depths of the logic of capitalism, which cannot adjust to a state in which market saturation weighs on its dynamic of growth” (Philippe Moati). I will therefore leave to the side all the moral and philosophical objections that one can address to the modern liberal world (they are the most important in my eyes but I know that for a progressive intellectual, they can only ever represent a petit-bourgeois sensibility). As I will with the project of limitless material growth, because they are known by a large number of people (even though the extent of the ecological disaster on the horizon is still massively underestimated) to the point of having even given birth, in the most “advanced” circles of the ruling classes, to the contradictory project of “green capitalism”, based on the illusion that use value and exchange value could one day end up coinciding (in simpler terms, we can’t save nature and capitalism at the same time). I will content myself with exposing the reasons for which, from a strictly economic point of view, the global capitalist system has well and truly entered into the “terminal phase of its structural crisis” (per Immanuel Wallerstein’s formula), such that “for the first time in history, the old problem of knowing if the mass of men love freedom becomes irrelevant: because now they will be forced to love it” (Guy Debord, preface to the fourth Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle).
Contrary to the positivist illusions that most economists of the right and sociologists of the left still entertain, the “social sciences” are distinguished above all from the so-called exact sciences (mathematics, physics, geology, etc.) by the fact that they are structurally indissociable from a certain number of predictable philosophical and political biases (which already suffice to once and for all invalidate the myth of the neutral and impartial media “expert”). In the case of modern economic “science”, philosophy’s main point of entry is certainly the question of the origin of capitalist profit. Perhaps one assumes that the surplus value created by the investment of capital “is born like an inherent virtue, like that of trees that grow” (Capital, book III, chapter 24). Or, on the contrary, that capital – even the very modest amount deposited at the savings bank – can never accrue interest except to the extent where living labor has been spent somewhere in the world, in one form or another, and has not been remunerated equally to the value it has produced (most liberal economists obviously don’t deny – except for a few singular spirits who still fantasize about the possibility of a purely “immaterial” and entirely automated capitalist economy – that living labor is required to produce goods. They only contest the idea that exploitation of this living labor is the ultimate origin of capitalist profit). I will therefore choose here to philosophically privilege (if only to honestly warn the reader) the second of these postulates, not only because it demands far fewer intellectual acrobatics than the first (Aristotle noted that “money does not have children”), but also, and above all, because it allows us to clarify in an incomparably more satisfying way the internal limit against which the global capitalist system is hurling itself. Or if you like, the systemic limit of accumulation without limits.
The dynamic of capitalism is inhabited, from the beginning, by a fundamental contradiction. On one hand, it rests on the continual exploitation of living labor (if the workers’ strike became general, that country’s economy would of course halt on the spot). But on the other hand, under the continual spurring of global economic competition, it must ceaselessly rely on a permanent technological revolution (the surest means of augmenting a business’s productivity) to replace, whenever possible, the living labor of the worker by machines, software, or even, like today, by robots (machines, software and robots that additionally have the good taste to never complain or go on strike). From this point of view, one can say alongside Ernst Lohoff and Norbert Trenkle that “capitalism is constantly engaged in a race against itself”. It’s above all this original contradiction of the capitalist system that led Marx, in book II of Capital, to formulate his theory of the “tendency of the average rate of profit to fall” and in the process, to prophesize the failure, inevitable in his eyes, of this historically determined system of production. If therefore, by all evidence, things during the short 20th century haven’t gone exactly as Marx predicted, it’s in reality only because he massively underestimated the capacity of capitalism to transform itself into a “consumer society” and thus slow down the maturation of its fundamental contradictions for a few decades.
The singularity of the “Fordist” moment – itself indissolubly tied since the 1930s to so-called Keynesian stimulus policies – came from knowing how to make use of all the practical consequences of the idea that the popular classes weren’t only a potential workforce – according to the dominant vision of the 20th century capitalists and of Marx himself (as shown for example by his very rigid theory of the worker’s salary) – but also represented consumption power and thus, a new virtually unlimited outlet for modern large-scale industry. It’s therefore not so much that this “golden age” of Fordist capitalism – which was also, certainly not by accident, that of great Hollywood cinema – overcame capitalism’s fundamental contradiction. But that, in this entirely new context of mass consumption, the continuous productivity gains made possible by permanent technological revolution found themselves largely compensated, over the course of decades, by the existence of an always growing demand for basic material goods required by the new modern way of life: automobiles, household appliances, telephones, radio and then television sets, etc. Demand that could only favor an ever more significant reliance on a salaried workforce, to the point of making near full employment conceivable, a particularly favorable outcome for the trade unions of the time. If it indeed required ever fewer hours of living labor to produce one car or one refrigerator (which equally diminished the value and price of each product), the industrial quantity of cars and refrigerators it was now necessary to manufacture to respond to this mass demand (itself powerfully stimulated by the new advertising industry and consumption’s already systematic reliance on credit) managed quite well not only to maintain at the same level but even to considerably increase the global volume of socially necessary living labor; and therefore that of added value which is the ultimate source of all real profit. “For a short historical instant – observe Lohoff and Trenkle – one could convince oneself that capitalism had succeeded in surmounting its internal contradictions, and transforming itself into a balanced system capable of tirelessly reproducing itself on its own”. Concretely this is explained by impressive rates of economic growth, accompanied by strong and continued hikes in productivity, and laid the foundations for a growing improvement in general life and work conditions in the capitalist regions of the center. An ever growing number of men were integrated into the capitalist salary system, which means they were forced to put their labor in service of capital appreciation. Parallelly, they presented themselves and their salaries to the market as consumers, assuring with their purchasing power that the mass of products found an outlet, and production could always keep growing. In this way the boom sustained itself, and thus produced the illusion of perpetual growth from which everyone would profit in one way or another.
This “Fordist” dynamic, founded on the growing production of basic consumer goods nevertheless couldn’t prolong itself eternally. As Philippe Moati notes, just taking the case of France, “between 1954 and 1975, the proportion of worker households that owned a car went from 8% to 74%. These proportions bounded from 3% to 91% for refrigerators and less than 1% to 87% for televisions. The data from the census describing the state of lodgings are edifying: in 1954, only 10% of lodgings were equipped with a bathtub or shower, and 27% with interior bathrooms. In 1975, these proportions had passed to 70-74%”. In other words, by the end of the Trente Glorieuses, most of the population had access to “modern comfort”. One has but to reconcile this fact which Marx didn’t take into account – the relative saturation of the market for basic materials – with, on one hand, the ever more marked hardening of the global economic war (Japan’s entry into the competition, as a pioneer of technological innovation, played a major role) and on the other, the combativeness of a workers movement at the height of its power, to understand that from the end of the 1960s, at least in Europe and the United States, the ever stronger “rationalization” of the process of production – which constantly translates into the eradication of living labor – would become harder and harder to compensate by the maintenance of the industrial rhythm of the Fordist era. From there, this constant drop in the average rate of profit, and thus of investment and growth, which we begin to see in all western countries at the beginning of the 1970s, as well as the correlative appearance of mass unemployment (the steady decline of industrial employment disguised slightly by the progression of service jobs, except that these in most cases, do not produce new value). In these historically unprecedented conditions, the policies of Keynesian stimulus imposed throughout the 1970s, as much by the left as by the right (“We are all Keynesians now,” Nixon proclaimed in 1971), policies that had no real effectiveness except in the framework of Fordist growth, could only add the spectacular development of double digit inflation to this new form of mass unemployment (this is the era called stagflation), ceaselessly renewed injections of public money producing fewer and fewer concrete responses in the so-called “real” economy. If “growth” was still possible, it was thus increasingly a jobless growth.
It’s in this historically precise context – that of the failure of these so-called “Keynesian” stimulus policies – that the “neoliberal” ideologues (the reforms recommended in France by Jacques Delors, Pierre Beregovoy, Michel Rocard or Pascal Lamy having already seen their first forms of social and political experimentation in Pinochet’s Chile) would slowly succeed in convincing the dominant classes – of the left and the right – that it would be possible to stem once and for all the drop in the average rate of profit and growth’s steady decline if they succeeded in establishing a new regime of capital accumulation based on the gradual disappearance of the “welfare state” which had been put in place after the Liberation. To believe these disciples of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and German ordoliberalism (the anti-statism of Michel Foucault having played a non-negligible role on the left in this political evolution of elites, as witnessed by the fact that his assistant Francois Ewald became one of the greatest figures of Medef, France’s largest employers federation), all that was needed was to suppress all remaining judicial, political and cultural obstacles to continual expansion of market logic and, the most essential point of this ideology, to the productivity of the financial industry to be quickly able not only to revive growth but equally to offer the dominant western classes a new source of investment of unprecedented profitability for their capital. This quite simplistic policy – if at least one still believes with Marx that it’s productive living labor which is the ultimate material source of all added value – would at first find undeniable success, although guaranteed to run out of steam, as evidenced for example (just at the beginning of the 90s) by the rapid decline of inflation – thanks to the new interest rate policy – and a relative return of growth in western countries. But this largely deceptive success, can be explained – other than the fact that massive privatizations, the new balance of power between labor and capital in the sharing of “productivity gains”, the spectacular crumbling of the Soviet bloc and the incorporation of numerous emerging countries in the globalized economy had opened the field considerably for immediate profit – above all by the fact that, contrary to a still widespread idea, there is hardly any sense today in contrasting a “real” economy which is healthy and in service of the common good with a “perverted” capitalism, which is purely financialized and parasitic (even if the infinite “securitization” of initial debts and the “leverage” they ceaselessly produce would carry the relative disconnection of these two sectors of capital to previously unknown heights). On one hand, a still significant fraction of new financial capital continues to be invested in the “real” economy (from which came the lift-off of the “new economy” in the 1980s, or the massive surge of money into professional sports). On the other, an endlessly growing part of the profits of industrial capital today comes from these new financial investments which the biggest industrial firms currently judge to be more profitable than productive investment (to the extent that it could be said of the firm Siemens that it was “a bank with an electronic goods department”). One can take, moreover, the full measure of the illusions aroused by this “golden age of fictitious capital” (Lohoff and Trenkle) by reading, among a thousand other examples, the retrospectively delusional prophecies that Guy Sorman formulated in 1985 – against a background of devilish disco music – in his bestseller L’Etat minimum (Albin Michel, p.107). “Thanks to the American recovery” – wrote this particularly influential neoliberal evangelist – “since 1982, we have exited the era of doubt. In the ten preceding years, the opinion that the times of strong growth belonged definitively to the past, that history was closed, dominated, even among economists. The West seemed to have to accommodate itself to a lasting slump, a blocked future based on shared poverty and shared work. We now have proof that this prognosis was false. We can reconnect with the fabulous numbers of the Trente Glorieuses of the postwar era because the Americans have done it. What is true for the United States is true for the rest of the world and naturally for France” (and one shudders to think that such a prophet contributed the most to promoting the charms of neoliberal ideology to the political elites of the left and right in France).
This new regime of “financialized” accumulation (using Michel Aglietta’s term) nevertheless implies, eventually, a radical reversal of the basics of classical capitalism. To the extent that the property titles that now constitute the essence of new capitalist wealth (stocks, Treasury bonds, infinitely “securitized” speculative products etc.) represent above all an “accumulation of rights, legal titles, on production yet to come” (to use the definition given by Marx of “fictitious capital” in book III of Capital) they inevitably lead the largest part of the new mode of capital accumulation to be no longer reliant, as previously, on value already produced by the daily exploitation of living labor, but on the contrary, solely on the anticipated value of future growth. This is a point of crucial importance. Many left economists still believe that the capital that has accumulated for thirty years in the form of senseless financial wealth in the last instance represents only a parasitic misappropriation of value already produced in the “real” economy (a thesis that can only reinforce the opposition between the great industrialist, who is honest and useful to society, like Vincent Bolloré, and the greedy unscrupulous speculator, for example, Vincent Bolloré). And that it should therefore be possible, for a government that finally cares for the interests of its people, to one day recover most of it to finance socially useful investments or even to redistribute it among the more modest classes. But once one has become truly aware that this fabulous wealth that ceaselessly accumulates in the financial sector is today more than twenty times larger than global GDP, it is difficult not to come to the more logical conclusion, to the contrary, that “he who attributes monetary wealth to transfers from the real economy can just as easily defend the idea that the oceans are exclusively composed of water that has flowed over the last few months from the lake of Constance” (Lohoff and Trenkle). In other words, a long time has already passed since the principal motor of the global capitalist economy stopped being, like in the beautiful days of the Fordist era, the production of concrete goods – whether we mean cars, smartphones, fighter jets or industrial tomatoes – and became “fictitious capital”, that is this fabulous sum of speculative bets (with any debt, a gamble by definition, becoming even more speculative once it’s been “securitized”) on economic wealth to come, which one only hopes – crossing one’s fingers – will end up, one of these days, being vindicated by real growth. The fact, for example, that in 2011, according to the estimates of the Bank of International Settlements, only 1% of daily economic transactions involved exchanges of real goods illustrates the role of the financial industry and fictitious capital, which have now become the motor of the economy (high frequency trading – that is the progressive replacement of traders by robots – contributes to supercharge this process of financialization even more). From this point of view, what Lohoff and Trenkle so correctly call “inverted capitalism” (one which now relies much less on present exploitation – which is still very real of course – of the workers of the world than on their future exploitation) rests firstly on the conviction, optimistic to say the least, and in any case contrary to all popular wisdom, that one can live almost eternally from selling the fur from a bear who hasn’t yet been killed, or the audacious idea that twenty “you will have its” are worth infinitely more than one good “here you are” (and perhaps here we have one of the reasons why the fables of Jean de la Fontaine have almost entirely disappeared from schools).
Of course, this ingenious “neoliberal” construction cannot stand – even though, since 2008, all the blinking lights of “inverted capitalism” have started flashing red – without the richest owners of financial assets – also known as the great creditors of the planet – still holding, against all odds, the religious certainty that the so-called real economy, thanks notably to scientific progress and techniques to come, will always continue to discover, as in the past, new sources of capital development, capable of indefinitely reviving the unlimited “growth” cycle (even if in their daily practice everything occurs as though these creditors have really ended up believing, as Marx said ironically, that “capital produces interest like the pear tree produces pears”). Such is really, in the end, the ultimate foundation of these recurring mediatized discourses about the “third industrial revolution”, the “digital economy” or even these “industries of the future” which are supposed to define, in Silicon Valley’s image, the radiant face of the “capitalism of tomorrow”. The problem is that because of their increasingly high tech character – and the ever more automated production processes they employ – these new sectors of the so-called new economy in reality only create a proportionally very small number of new jobs. Certainly still large enough to guarantee fabulous profits to the business that dominate these new sectors (even though one must take into account the part due to rent effects and monopoly effects made possible by the system of patents and intellectual property). But not enough, however, to hope to entirely compensate – as opposed to what happened during the preceding industrial revolutions – the effects of this general tendency toward the removal of productive living labor which has become, more than ever, the law of the capitalist economy (I leave to the side all the exceptions springing from the necessarily unequal development of globalized capitalism). So that even if an extraterrestrial intervention miraculously allowed the provisional reversal of this systemic obstacle – the constant decrease in the quantity of socially necessary work in these “innovative” industries dear to Jacques Attali or Jeremy Rifkin – it would change strictly nothing about the fact that the moment the global volume of derivatives exchanged every day in financial markets has no commonality with the global economy’s possibilities of real production (without even taking into account the ecological limits such material production runs up against more and more), the hypothesis that the planet’s already accumulated debt could one day be covered in totality by economic growth to come has today become totally utopian (and even more so considering a large part of modern states’ borrowings serve essentially to cover their preceding ones).
The global economic system, and the growing pyramid of debts – or promises of future reimbursement, on which it increasingly rests (because owning a financial asset is always to own the right to a future that capitalist society – as Lohoff and Trenkle note – “assuredly does not have”) – cannot hope to prolong its continual headlong rush into the future (what left intelligentsia prefer for their part to call “Progress”) unless the states and central banks – as they’ve tried to do since 2008 – finally succeed in permanently changing (resorting to quantitative easing or the repurchase of toxic private assets) the explosion of this gigantic global speculative bubble that neoliberal policy has mechanically created since the 1980s. But when, once again, the existing gap between the financial markets’ expectations and the possibilities of the “real” economy becomes definitively unbridgeable, this amounts to believing that these states and central banks will finally succeed at long last in finding the miraculous means of refilling the barrel of Danaides or cleaning the Augean stables (hence, the manifest inanity, in the medium term, of all so-called austerity policies). And when indeed even the different liberal governments, thanks to a new, particularly favorable balance of power (“grand coalition” “Republican front”, etc.) succeed in transferring to the popular classes of the entire world the job of repaying in full the failed gambles of the global elites and private finance (the Greek people have already had the luxury of pondering this question), it remains that this will only have the effect of slowing down – for a few decades at best, and at worst a few years – the now inevitable moment of contact with the iceberg. Such that it appears impossible, from this point of view, to escape the glacial conclusion of Lohoff and Trenkle when they point out that “ultimately, the dynamic of fictitious capital itself destroys the only talent that capitalism can still boast after the end of Fordism: its aptitude for prior capitalisation of the production of future value. The question is not whether the post-Fordist casino economy will break from this internal contradiction but when this moment will be reached and under what form this rupture will take place”. Unless one believes, of course, in a capitalist night of August 4th, where the biggest owners of the global debt – Goldman Sachs and Jose Manuel Barroso in the lead – out of pure love of humanity will henceforth give up defending their indecent privileges, their tax havens and their Mafia-style practices.
It has now been more than 100 years (The Accumulation of Capital was published in 1913) since Rosa Luxemburg announced that the “final phase of capitalism” would doubtless coincide with a long and painful “period of catastrophes”. By the light of the 20th century – itself sufficiently fertile with monstrous events – we have long been able to believe that this sombre prediction of capitalism’s winter had been definitively proven wrong by the facts. But in reality, it was only premature. In the age of Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, the capitalist system – because it had to first historically separate itself from the societies of the Ancien Regime – still contained in its daily functioning a whole series of “conservative” political and cultural elements, which were, in reality, profoundly foreign to its true essence (this is, in short, what John Ruggie and David Harvey proposed to call, in another context, embedded liberalism). These elements were nevertheless strong enough to blur the view of a great number of socialists and anarchists of the time – notably regarding the ideological role the “patriarchal” family or the Catholic Church were supposed to play in the development of capitalist relations – and thus prevent them from taking the exact measure of all capitalism could do once it finally turned to its own “axiologically neutral” political and cultural basics. But since at present this system has globally succeeded in surpassing most historical, political and cultural obstacles which hindered its free globalized development (this is the entire point of the ideological counter-revolution accomplished by the new western left from the end of the 1970s onward – from Helmut Schmidt to Tony Blair, passing by Francois Mitterand or Bill Clinton), Rosa Luxemburg’s prediction is about to recover its burnish. And we then risk very quickly discovering for ourselves what is meant by a long and painful period of catastrophes. Political, psychological, moral and cultural catastrophes of course (and without any doubt, on a foundation of growing brutalization of daily life and human relations). Repeating ecological and climatic catastrophes (we’re already there). But equally – if Marx’s analysis of capital’s dynamic is still broadly justified – the eventual catastrophic implosion of the global economic and financial system itself, an implosion that will moreover be even more devastating now that almost everything is “connected” and will thus mechanically interlock a whole series of chain reactions whose totality of effects can be predicted by no one.
The question today is thus not only to know if progressive exit from the capitalist system is in itself desirable. This exit will take place no matter what, and one can moreover trust the most lucid circles of the “transnational capitalist class” (to use Leslie Sklair’s term) to have already started to seriously reflect on the new economic, social and cultural pillars that in the world to come will best permit this planetary elite to maintain, or even eventually extend its current powers and privileges (one can only be certain that the totalitarian control of individuals by the new technologies of Silicon Valley will play a decisive role here, doubtlessly to the delight of the new modernist and “accelerationist” left). This assuredly gives an unprecedented relevance to Rosa Luxemburg’s constant intuition that sooner or later, the choice on which humanity’s ultimate destiny would depend is within her famous quote: Socialism or Barbarism. It’s time to begin to realize this, and more importantly, to politically and personally prepare ourselves. All the more so since, the way things are going, we may reach this historically crucial point more rapidly than predicted, such that, as Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract, “human beings may perish if they don’t change their way of being”. The end of the tranquil times has already begun.