Robert Kurz, Marxian philosopher, journalist and editor of the journal Exit! sadly passed away on 18 July 2012, aged 68. Robert Kurz was one of very few people in recent years with the ability to analyse the capitalist system at the level of its own sophisticated terms. His finest writings have yet to be translated into English. We publish below a round-table symposium he took part in on the economic crisis that was held earlier on in 2012.
Other participants included Thomas Ebermann, Michael Heinrich and Joseph Vogl.
Michael Heinrich, political scientist and mathematician, is managing editor of the journal “Prokla” and author of the book An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (Monthly Review Press, 2012). Thomas Ebermann is a journalist. Joseph Vogl is a professor of German Literature at the Humboldt University of Berlin and author of the book Das Gespenst des Kapitals (2010). Hermann L. Gremliza is publisher of the leftist monthly magazine konkret. This article originally appeared in German in the December 2011 issue of konkret. An unedited transcript of the full discussion has just been published in the book No way out? 14 Versuche, die gegenwärtige Finanz- und Wirtschaftskrise zu verstehen, edited by Germann L. Gremliza.
Gremliza: What happens if the worst of the worst occurs, the scenario that everyone is drawing up: the collapse of the financial system? Will there be no more bread rolls, is there going to be a power blackout, are the subway trains going to stand still? Or is it going to be the big bust-up from which August Bebel saw the revolution rising up? The end of capitalism?
Vogl: Neither one nor the other. Production will not come to a standstill, nor will capitalism go under in this manner. For various reasons: first, a collapse of the financial system is the precondition for the possibility of some long overdue acts of redistribution: redistribution from top to bottom. And besides, one can assert in good conscience that something like this capitalism, whatever it is, will not collapse as a result of its internal tensions or contradictions.
Kurz: One has to distinguish between a crisis or even the collapse of capitalism, and the transcendence of capitalism. Those are two different kettles of fish. The actual emancipatory transcendence of capitalism depends upon a critical consciousness, which can either develop or not. That is independent of the crisis. Capitalism is an imposition which should always be criticized. The crisis, on the other hand, is purely objective, not a result of criticism, but rather of a systemic logic independent of the consciousness of social agents. However, the conditions of critique can intensify and change, as can practical critique through crisis developments. A collapse of the global financial system is actually overdue. In a manner that is unprecedented in the history of capitalism, the future creation of surplus-value is already mortgaged. Capitalism has already used up its future to such an extent, that a recovery is simply no longer possible. There is now, step by step, a process in which this unreal, anticipated value creation is realized as a crisis development. What happens when a collapse occurs? It isn’t just a collapse of the financial system. Rather, what is pre-financed here for a miserably long time is actual reproduction. Everything is indebted.
Gremliza: So the lights are going to go out?
Kurz: Yes, I think so. A collapse would mean that everything that can no longer actually be financed will be brought to a standstill. And we’re already experiencing that, but up ’til now the shock has been absorbed. Now, if in the dimension reached thus far a crash occurs, then things will come to a standstill in the real sphere of reproduction. Starting with the state sectors of infrastructure, healthcare, education all the way to industrial production and private services, everything.
Heinrich: I disagree. One has to see the current crisis within the context of the crisis processes of the last ten to fifteen years. In the 1990s we had currency crises, the Asia crisis, and after the turn of the millennium the New Economy crisis, then the financial crisis of 2008 and now the euro crisis. In these crises, it became clear that an inflated financial system had emerged which in its extent no longer fit the so-called real economy. In the last thirty years, there was a whole series of processes of redistribution between capital and labor, between state and business, there were international current account deficits. On average, capital gained quite a bit worldwide. It is the victor of these distribution struggles. That has led to a situation that Marx described as an excess of money capital, which has flowed into a multitude of financial securities. For the functioning of capital, an adjustment of these securities is necessary. Claims have emerged which can no longer be realized. A part of these financial claims has to be written off and devalued.
If that happens, not one single factory is destroyed. That doesn’t cause a baking oven to stop working. This process of devalorization and adjustment won’t be a gentle process. If it comes to bank collapses, if interbank trading collapses, then that will have an effect on lending to businesses. Some businesses will file for bankruptcy. A collapse of the financial system can certainly lead to an economic crisis, in which we won’t just have a fall in economic performance of five percent like in Germany in 2009, but rather 10 or 20 percent, with an enormous rise in unemployment and a massive decline in living standards. We can see all this already in Greece. But that doesn’t mean the end of capitalism.
Ebermann: If we’re talking about predictions, certain things have to be said: what kind of hyperinflation is to be expected in two or three years; when the great currency reform is on the agenda; when all of our small savings are in the trash bin. More important is the question: who emerges from this crisis, if everybody loses, as the relatively smallest loser, that is to say, the winner? Mrs. Merkel has announced: Germany will emerge as the winner, and has set some things into play so that this will be the case. Some of that is threatened.
The smarter brains of the elite in Germany and France came to the conclusion that they are not strategically able to compete against the USA. Germany and France cannot rule Europe alone, so they hatched a plan to realize this with a few other states by means of the EU. That is the point of departure: a roughly equal economic power, in the long term maybe even comparable military clout. That is the project of the EU. In contrast to the subliminal assertion that we’re Europe’s paymaster and its poor victim, it’s actually brought immense advantages to Germany: Germany has a fantastic export volume within the eurozone, which is not hindered by any currency or customs borders. Germany treat many countries, for example Greece, as merely export markets. Their ability to compete is eradicated, and as long as they received credit, they had to buy German export goods. So a transfer of wealth to Germany took place. Germany is well positioned in terms of currency policy. If the euro didn’t exist and Germany were forced to complete with its strong D-Mark, its problems would be comparable to those of Switzerland or presumably even worse. So it was said: Europe is open to us, in terms of power politics and economically, we can compete with the USA as a global reserve currency, later even with China.
However, in this process where the EU as a German-French project is constituted out of different competing nation-states, there are considerable contradictions. The newspapers say it’s outrageous that the politicians are fighting amongst themselves. As if the pursuit of national interests is something unusual. That’s funny. Everyday, the Süddeutsche Zeitung says the politicians should reach an agreement. As if Sarkozy could simply disregard the fact that French banks would suffer more in the case of a Greek bankruptcy than German banks. Or as if Germany could disregard the fact that Sarkozy’s idea of turning on the money-printing presses would cause considerable damage to the project of making the euro the leading global currency.
The sovereign confidence that Germany would emerge as the victor has yielded to all kinds of concerns, so that one can say: the ideal total capitalist has a problem at the moment articulating a coherent perspective. But now there’s a discussion concerning the point at which our domination of the poor suckers, the nations of the periphery and their markets, becomes counterproductive. Germany is, measured against other corners of the world, suffering from an extreme nationalist narrow-mindedness: no turning on the printing presses, no eurobonds – those would be too expensive for Germany – no transfer union. That is the enormously chauvinistic standpoint, with which the population is very much in agreement. The German subordinate is always worried that his sovereign does not grant him enough privileges relative to other countries and foreigners. That is the concern of Hans-Olaf Henkel, which he shares with broad masses of the population. How it will all end, I don’t know.
Heinrich: You’ve correctly emphasized the aspect of competition between states. However, the new situation for about ten years is that those of us in the core of the EU have a common currency, and the common currency is the strongest economic bond conceivable. The question is, whether this foundation still fits the fragmented political superstructure. It’s true that the ideal total capitalist doesn’t know at the moment what exactly it should do. But the question is whether this ideal total capitalist can still act at all at the national level, or whether it must rather act at the European level. But at that level, these competing interests are predominant. We have a situation in which the ideal total capitalist is not in a position to implement – in part against the interests of individual capitals – policies which in the long term would be necessary for these interests of capital. This situation is comparable to that in the USA. Over there, there’s a unified state, but its political class is largely handicapped at the moment. There, we also have a situation where the ideal total capitalist doesn’t exactly know what to do. In both capitalist centers, the state is rather inhibited in its function as ideal total capitalist.
Vogl: What is a completely new constellation is what one could call globosclerosis. The entities as well as the criteria for political decision-making processes do not actually exist at the moment, they have become blurred. That is an effect of this system. And of course that has something to do with the economy and distribution, with the location of these decisions. At the moment, it’s unclear which political, economic, national, or international entity could actually assume the form of a decision maker.
I disagree with Robert Kurz. One can call it adjustment or whatever. I think, a rather dramatic adjustment has been occurring for a long time. In particular, the finance industry has taken an old Marxist lesson to heart and recognized that for the sake of the system’s survival, one has to moderate the conflict between labor and capital, and has thus built in regular mechanisms of conciliation. One of these cynical mechanisms of conciliation has been the gradual disconnection between the reproduction of capital and the labor process – by means of various developments: not solely by means of the precarization of labor, but also by means of the “prosumer”, consumers who themselves engage in the production of the products that they buy, the IKEA principle and so on. For at least ten or twenty years, a process has been set in motion – with the relative independence of capital reproduction from the burden of labor and thus from mechanisms such as the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.
Kurz: I regard that as a rumor.
Vogl: The tendency of the rate of profit to fall has to do with the irresistible harshness of the factor labor, which cannot ultimately be banished from the process of production. One cannot forget, that which has been referred to as financialization since the 1970s, in essence was triggered by industry in the United States. Certain rates of return on investment were – despite a decline in wage costs, despite automation, despite outsourcing to Latin America – no longer possible, and reinvestment flowed into financial products. There is a direct connection. One can see, I think, that new forms of capitalist resources have been constituted. People around Antonio Negri call it biocapitalism. That means, that certain human resources are absorbed, which are not defined in labor relations.
Heinrich: I have huge doubts about that.
Vogl: Think of Facebook or Google, where at the moment the greatest returns are made. That has nothing to do with productive labor, but rather with the absorption of usage periods.
Heinrich: There are surely a number of examples of labor being exploited in different ways. That’s true in the case of outsourcing all kinds of services, where wage laborers are turned into formally self-employed workers, who are actually still wage laborers, but without the protections that were once fought for. But none of that seems to me to fundamentally alter the capitalist model. Those are simply, as Marx had already analyzed, different forms of compensation and control.
Capitalism, and here I would agree with Robert Kurz, is a process with a trajectory. It is not simply the repetition of the eternally same. There are developments, not just the development of the means of production, but also the thorough capitalization of new spaces, geographically as well as in terms of depth. If the health care system is privatized, then that means it is subsumed to the process of the valorization of capital. There are always processes in which something historically new happens, but in terms of talking about a point of culmination, I don’t see the arguments that could substantiate that.
We always have such decisive points. The dollar crisis of 1969, Nixon’s abolition of the gold standard in 1973, even then one could say: we have never before experienced such a currency crisis and such changes – this is now the great culmination point. But in fact, it was a turning point: one capitalist model was replaced by another. The strongly regulated, Fordist, Bretton Woods capitalism of the 1950s and 1960s was replaced in the 1970s by post-Fordist, neoliberal capitalism, which brought capitalism the enormous gains on which it is now choking. So it’s a process with a trajectory, but this process is much more complicated than just saying it’s reaching a tipping point, as if to say: “first things go up, as if one were climbing a mountain, and then on the other side they go down again.”
In the financial crisis, we’re seeing that on the one hand the state plays a role as a financial actor, it takes on debt, it creates money and credit by means of the central bank, and it also plays the role of regulator. It’s connected to these developments at various levels. At the moment, it’s also decisive that state entities have so far not been able to implement what would be necessary for capital in the long term, in order to secure its valorization.
In order to secure this, the state would have to ensure a regulated devaluation of all these different financial claims. The question arises as to what form this devaluation will take: a completely unregulated, chaotic form, which would leave in its wake plenty of crisis-laden breakdowns, which would be substantially more powerful than those we’ve been used to in the last few years; or in a form characterized by competition, meaning that a few countries have to bear almost the entire burden, and others hardly any; or even in a cooperative form, where even Germany recognizes that one cannot ruin sale markets if Germany wishes to remain the global export leader or the runner-up export leader. The form in which this devaluation occurs is unclear, but it does not merely concern questions of competition. We’re dealing with a far-reaching bottleneck of the political system, in the EU as well as in the USA.
Ebermann: It’s rather hilarious how many people are blaming the banks. That permits the inference that no matter what happens, the state retains its sacred character. And people, when they answer poll questions or even demonstrate, express the fear that the state is losings its sovereignty to the financial sector. The state that has arranged everything in that way, is the state we have now. The state is apparently the one entity which is not being subject to critique. Rather, what I read in every single line of protest is that this state is hard-pressed by the financial markets.
Let’s take a look at competition on the global market, and let’s assume there exists roughly equal productivity across the market. That means, let’s assume that actors on the world market have equally good infrastructure, equally long machine running times, equally educated labor personnel, a relatively advantageous organic composition of capital, and so on. Assuming all this, it will be decisive as to which actor manages to cut social benefits of the non-productive, as well as which actor manages to keep wages low. That’s all behind us, without the process having been concluded. Something that characterized the consciousness of entire generations is now over: the idea that victory on the world market, despite all the abstinence necessary to achieve it, leads to growing possibilities for consumption.
That was the core of “Modell Deutschland.” That also accounts for the terrible longing for the return of the time in which we laughed at the Italians because they had so many strikes it killed their economy, and our diligence was rewarded with greater possibilities for consumption. That bid is no longer valid. People know that with regard to export quotas, they live in a victorious nation, while at the same time their possibilities for consumption are declining and they’re looking forward to poverty in old-age, far beyond what’s currently discussed as a crisis of state finances.
People have tried to make sense of this, and their completely wrong answer is: our protests should not be directed against those who have done this to us as a powerful subject, as the state, but rather our enemy is in the financial sphere. That is the starting position that one faces politically, and which is scary for plausible reasons. That is the core of a possible reactionary protest, regardless of how harmless or headless they are still running around in Frankfurt
Vogl: You’re certainly right, that every so-called crisis has a slight tendency to imprint things with a Manichean stamp: here the good state, there the evil financial markets. What goes along with that is an act of misrecognition, which does not see the great contribution of the nation-states in establishing this system. Is it not the case, especially in Germany, that alongside all the other problems we essentially have a crisis of government? A peculiar conceptual breakdownis occuring. It’s unclear how, where and according to what principles and mechanisms decision-making processes are actually functioning.
Ebermann: Well, that which is concealed behind the term “crisis of government”, which causes me to smirk, I would define as a problem of the authoritarian character. The authoritarian character would like it if the political sphere would make clear announcements and then implement them. Now we’re in a situation where even the person who doesn’t exactly pay attention know that just isn’t the case at the moment. An amusing example: a few months ago, the first part of the evening news was: stress test for the banks. Almost all of them passed the stress test. Everything that was relevant was just excluded.
Vogl: Above all else, their holdings in government bonds were excluded.
Ebermann: Yes. Then there were like 30 talk shows that were intended to reassure, with around 100 experts, who were all satisfied with the stress tests. Legendary: the Phoenix roundtable [translator's note: Phoenix is a public television channel jointly operated by the public broadcasters ZDF and ARD]. Even a reader of the daily newspaper who isn’t very interested in politics notices: a claim is raised and then has to be dispensed with. A year ago, Merkel still said: no aid for anybody. That was Madam No. The position is untenable and has to be dispensed with. And all of that makes the authoritarian character nervous. He wants clear announcements and is tortured by the fear that there is some kind of excessive benevolence toward foreign countries.
How joyous it would be, if the demonstrations that exist right now would call out: “Let’s finally give the Greeks a few hundred billions!” Or: “Stop picking on the Greeks!” Instead, the authoritarian character thinks that Germany is being picked on by the financial markets. That’s insane. I would have nothing against a nice crisis of governance. That would imply the desire for the abolition of domination.
Kurz: If one assumes that there will once again be winners and losers, then one has already assumed a precondition: capital accumulation, as Georg Fülberth says, has 500 years ahead of it.
Ebermann: That’s also my perspective.
Kurz: One could ask: who will be the next world power after the USA, who will decide the battle over what will be the global currency? But if one assumes that we are dealing with a systemic crisis in a deeper sense, a crisis of negative socialization as such, then these questions as posed are fundamentally wrong. Because it might be the case that there is no victor, that instead there’s a process of repeated setbacks for the real process of reproduction.
And in this process, postmodernist ideology plays an important role. Vogl addressed that. One could say ironically: my capital accumulates without value and without labor. Postmodernist ideology, which celebrates its triumphal march in the fields of literary and cultural studies, and which not coincidentally entered the stage in the course of the neoliberal revolution, in the course of the decoupling of the financial superstructure, in the course of the indebtedness of the world economy in new dimenstions, behaves in an affirmative manner towards the phenomena of crisis. It assumes that capitalism will never reach its limits, but will always discover new horizons in which the old laws are no longer valid. That was also said in the field of economics with regard to the New Economy, until the whole thing crashed. This kind of thought nurtures the illusion that a virtualization of capitalism is sustainable. Fundamentally, develops since 2008 have discredited this.
Today, it is asserted that there is a great structural crisis, the crisis of an accumulation model, but from which a new model will develop. But the precondition for that would be that on a new scale, real labor, the use of labor-power, is absorbed. It’s doubtful whether new sectors like biotechnology or microelectronics are in a position to substantially absorb abstract labor on a large scale. My thesis is, that the abstract use of labor-power, which the valorization process requires for its reproduction, will not occur at the necessary level. Furthermore, a large part of the labor processes that have been generated are based upon an anticipated valorization. The deficit flow between China and the USA, but also within Europe show that the real use of abstract labor at the necessary scale no longer exists.
So one can pose the question: how are things looking with the various participants on the world market? China has not transcended the crisis, they’ve raised one investment ruin after another. They’ve built entire ghost towns. All of that presupposes that the Pacific deficit flow will continue at an extended scope. But in the USA, the potential no longer exists to absorb all that at the financial level, and it has to be absorbed there.
Something is happening now at the level of “normal” capitalist reproduction on a large scale that previously only happened in wartime economies: direct financing through the money presses. Up ’til now, that has not been transformed into real demand at a large scale; rather, it has merely absorbed bad loans. But that solves nothing. They’re still there. If the economic cycle dips, then the states and the world economy have no other option than to finance real demand by turning on the presses. That is the inflationary potential. In Great Britain, there’s already five percent inflation. In the eurozone and the USA three percent, in China six percent. The politicians will probably regard inflation policies as the lesser evil. But that would devalue money, the end in itself.
Gremliza: So either the big bust-up, or 500 more years?
Heinrich: Maybe a mixture of both. I’ll try to make clear the main difference between me and Robert Kurz. I think you’re too oriented towards Fordism and post-war Wirtschaftswunder capitalism. And you correctly say there’s no starting point for something like that occuring again the near future – a long the lines of: “we have a structural crisis, but soon everything will take off again, like in the 50s and 60s.” I agree with you up to that point.
But then you draw the conclusion: if there is no possibility for something like that occuring, then capitalism is about to collapse. But Fordism and the “economic miracle” of the fifties and sixties were not the peak of capitalism, but rather an exceptional situation historically, the economic and political preconditions of which can be exactly stated. Accumulation will continue to proceed, even if bumpily. Even if all these financial claims are devalued, that doesn’t destroy a single factory. Maybe this or that enterprise will go bankrupt, but then it will be bought cheaply by a competitor and will continue to produce. With regard to your argument that production processes are set in motion that owe their existence to deficit flows, I can only say: so what? Then some creditor will go bankrupt. That doesn’t mean that everything will collapse.
Kurz: Well, the productive enterprises themselves will go bankrupt.
Heinrich: But what’s that supposed to mean, go bankrupt? Either they will be bought out cheaply by others, or overproduction will be shut down, and that means greater profitability for the remaining enterprises, more profit. Employment, the number of wage-laborers, continues to rise globally. There is no indication that capitalism is coming to an end, quite the contrary.
Ebermann: […] in generally, there is a longing in the world, which is served in particularly by the camp of the parliamentary left: there can only be a crisis because somebody has made a mistake. That’s the big headline. We have to find those who have made the mistake…
Kurz: … or who have acted in a morally questionable fashion…
Ebermann: … or who are greedy. This search for greedy and flawed behavior still forms the consciousness of the few people who hit the street in protest. It’s important to have an idea of how crisis-prone capitalism is, without people making mistakes. In the Bundesliga, every year two teams are relegated to the second league. That’s inexorable. Even if everybody does everything correctly, two teams are demoted.
One dimension that we haven’t spoken of yet: I can’t predict what wars await humanity. The last reserve of the USA, if things should become considerably worse for them than the Europeans, is an insanely superior military power. All the old images, of extinction by nuclear war and such, I can’t get them out of my head. I also can’t bring them up here as predictions in an argumentative way.
But I can say this: if everything continues on the same track, in ten years in Germany we will have a hitherto unknown level of poverty among the elderly. At my age, I can no longer achieve a pension that would be at the same level as Hartz IV benefits. Many people have lived like that. And the generation that’s 15 or 20 years younger than me, is under even more pressure. Even without an intensification of the crisis and even without a collapse, such catastrophes await us. When a devaluation of small savings is added to this, that will lead to catastrophic poverty.
What German productive superiority is wreaking in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and to what insane phenomena that leads, is flashing before our eyes at the moment. But observing this insanity in Hungary, or this manhunt against Sinti and Roma in Bulgaria and Romania, that leads me to state, even if one doesn’t like to make predictions: I can’t imagine that in the near future, the states of the European community will continue to be parliamentary democracies according to our current criteria. I just can’t imagine that. Although that’s the whole ideal of the EU.
Heinrich: […] I’d also say, that capitalist development in the next few years will remain very crisis-ridden. We will be dealing with a capitalism that can only maintain its consumer promises for relatively small groups of the population. The majority can react to this in a progressive or reactionary way. Very unpleasant times await us, economically as well as politically. But the capitalist machine will continue to run.
Kurz: I haven’t said that the collapse is something that you can watch on TV, and it’s over the next day. And then we either wake up in a liberated world or in a devastated wasteland. It’s a historical process, not a one-time occurrence. […] But what about capital accumulation? It has reached a certain historical level, and it can’t drop below that level.
Heinrich: Capital accumulation occurs, but the consumer promises made by capitalism in the capitalist centers are only realizable for a minority. Both things go together. Capitalism will no longer bestow upon us what our parents still hoped for.
Kurz: But capital accumulation has long been dependent upon mass consumption. Fordism was not an exception, but rather a stage within its trajectory of development. It was necessary in order to really do away with the economic crisis. Now if another level isn’t reached on the basis of this already achieved level of Fordist capital accumulation, then accumulation itself will crash. It is not the case that capital accumulation can occur at an arbitrary level. Then one could also say, eventually capital accumulation is only occuring on the Cayman Islands, and still capitalism is in good shape.
Heinrich: But nobody says that, and that’s not the case. Today, we have more wage-laborers than ever before in the history of capitalism. You just can’t say that capitalism is limited to the Cayman Islands, not at all.
Kurz: My point was the historical level of accumulation, and that can’t fall behind that of Fordism, but rather has to go beyond it, if a new accumulation model is going to come along. And anyway, how are things looking with these enormous masses of wage-laborers? On the one hand, at a global level there has been a change in statistical methods: in all central countries, but also in the periphery, non-productive workers – for example, grocery baggers in the supermarket – are included. If one wants to count the additional masses of wage-laborers, one has to take these changes into account.
Heinrich: Things aren’t that different, since the industrial basis is also expanding, not contracting.
Kurz: But on what foundation? And here we come back to the deficit flows: on what foundation has Chinese economic growth occurred? Solely upon the basis of the Pacific deficit flow; without this, there would have been no industrialization of China. That means, it has feet of clay.
Heinrich: But that’s always the case. That is in fact the same old, same old. How were the railroads constructed in the 19th Century? On the basis of an enormous credit and stock market swindle. With your argumentation, the collapse of capitalism would have already had to have come at the end of the 19th Century, since enormous infrastructure projects only came about on the basis of deficit flows. Immense processes of redistribution occurred. Small savers lost their savings, because they bought railroad shares at the wrong time. So there were enormous losses, but ultimately capitalism was pushed along by the deficit flows of the 19th Century. It seems to me that something very similar is happening right now in China.
Thanks to Neg Pot for the English translation.