Robert Kurz and the collapse of modernity – an introduction

July 20th, 2012

This article by Rasmus Fleischer was first published in the Swedish magazine Subaltern in late 2011.

Quarter of a century ago, the Nürnberg school of Wertkritik (value-critical theory) emerged as a project to develop a third critical theory, pertinent to the third industrial revolution. This essay aims to outline some recurrent figures of thought within this particular school, especially in the work of its most prominent representative, Robert Kurz. First of all, something should be said about the relation between critique and crisis.

When the growth of capital (or, more precisely, the Wertvergesellschaftung) begins to stall, if so only for a brief period of time, this does not only equal an “economic” crisis, but also a nascent decomposition of the whole “pseudo-nature” which is historically constituted around the value form and its form-immanent expansion. The crisis also involves labour, politics, nation, art, reason and other categories of realized metaphysics. If growth reaches its absolute limits, this means that all these mentioned categories are doomed and, in the long term, beyond any saving. Most important of all, they cannot give any orientation for the acute search for an exit.

The crisis is opening a gap between fetish and experience. The theory of the fetish-character of commodities was developed by Marx in the first band of Capital, showing how the commodity-form is mediating human relations as relations between things. Fetishism should not be misunderstood as an obsessions with commodities in themselves. It means that we experience the categories of the modernity – that is, societies of commodity-production – as naturally given, rather than as something we take part in shaping in our interaction with our environment. Everyday reason may rest safely within the fetishized categories, which everyone must internalize within their own consciousness to have any chance to take the role of a subject on the commodity-market, which is a role necessary to take in order to survive in a world based on wage labour. The manifestation of crisis means that the fetishes are no longer fit to explain everyday situations. Thinking may recognize crisis in two was: as ideology or as critique, both to be understood as a response to the experience of suffering, of a “damaged life”.

Ideology means affirmation; a thinking with an affirmative relation to one or several fetishized categories. Usually these are played out against each other: politics against economy, labour against capital, art against industry, or something similar. Ideology comes as an abundance of positive visions for the future; nevertheless, every ideology is essentially an ideology of crisis. Ideology itself is a symptom specific for the situation of a crisis within a society built on growth, that is, self-valorizing value.

The alternative to ideology is called critique. The precondition for critical thinking is to realize the impossibility to remain a subject envisioning community with others without recourse to fetishized categories. Critique can only begin from what Adorno called the non-identical, that which is not absorbed in fetishism. It cannot be reduced either to the form of pure theory or pure practice. Even when critique appears as theory, this can only be in attempt to sustain its negativity, a negativity which must also confront the very category of “theory”.

Any taking part in the competition of the marketplace of “theory” will imply a capitulation of theory before ideology. On the other hand, trying to immediately “get practical”, so that theory is made into an justification of a certain practice, will ultimately mean exactly the same kind of capitulation.

Critique demands both distance and closeness to the object of critique. Distance can only be kept by radically historicizing. Thus, radical critique is primarily to be understood as critique of fetishism, while the critique of ideology is secondary but indispensable. There is hardly any room for a genuine critique of “injustice”, as such jargon necessarily implies a positive notion of justice, which can only be formulated by recourse to fetishized categories and thus transform itself to ideology.

The Nürnberg school of Wertkritik are not defining themselves as representatives as a “third” critical theory. They do, however, address a tradition in which the two great forerunners are called Karl Marx and Theodor W. Adorno. Schematically, these could be thought as formulating a “first” and a “second” critical theory, corresponding to the first and the second industrial revolution, respectively. During these two epochs the critical theorists confronted an expansive modernity. Capital generally did work as self-valorizing value, even if sometimes hit by periods of crisis, which Marx as well as Adorno could experience on a personal level. After a while, however, every crisis was followed by new cycles of growth, which indeed made capitalism appear to be about the eternal recurrence of the same, also for those critics who strove to surpass it.

Neither the first critical theory, nor the second, had any chance to relate to the reality which has materialized in the third industrial revolution, based on microelectronics and digitalization. During the 1980s, Marxists like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey began to describe this reality as “postmodernity”. The Nürnberg school of Wertkritik preferred to understand it as “the collapse of modernization”.

Wertkritik, in this sense, is a rather marginal current, due to the fact that it takes place outside academia and inside the German-speaking country. There are, however, some parallels to the more academic “value-form analysis” represented by theorists like Christopher J. Arthur. The similarities are stronger than the differences between Wertkritik and Michael Heinrich, who has written an accessible, well-read and yet untranslated book on Marx’ Capital, in which a few sections are dedicated to polemic against Robert Kurz on the topic of crisis theory.

Most of all, Wertkritik does have strong affinities with the writings of Moishe Postone. As long as these are approaches to reading Marx, a common part of departure consists in the pathbreaking re-readings known as Neue Marx-Lektüre, made during a few years around 1970 by some students of Adorno’s (most importantly Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt). Another influence comes from the rediscovery of I.I. Rubin (1886–1937), who already in the 1920s had emphasized the critique of fetishism as the central point in Marx, which was indeed an idea far from existing Marxism.

While all the mentioned writers tend towards a theoretical strictness, the writers associated with Wertkritik are often oscillating wildly between abstraction and concretion. This critique does not allow for itself any calm contemplation of the laws of movement of capital. On the contrary, it constantly returns to the question about how all theory is specific for a historical moment. One example of this turn is Robert Kurz’ essay “The end of theory”, translated to Swedish in this issue of Subaltern.

Robert Kurz was born in 1943 in Nürnberg. Around 1968 he got engaged in Germany’s maoist movement and during the 1970′s he was a member of KABD (Kommunistischen Arbeiterbundes Deutschland), which was one of innumerable “K-groups” in the sectarian left of West Germany. After his farewell to marxist-leninism he oriented himself towards a splinter group of ex-maoists around the magazine Neue Strömung. Already at this time Robert Kurz gained some notoriety for the polemic style which he himself likes to describe as “sharp-edged” (zugespitzt). There is undoubtedly something sectarian in saving one’s juiciest epithets for former comrades. So far, a certain heritage of Maoism is alive in Robert Kurz. The polemical style is not only a matter of personal temperament, but is grounded in an explicit aversion against the conventions of academic theory. Kurz has repeatedly expressed his contempt for what he terms the “bookbinder synthesis”, materialized in anthologies of academic theory as in vaguely leftist magazines which want radical critique as content without letting it question the editorial line. The refusal to take part in many such contexts is keeping Wertkritik at a distance from academic leftism. Instead, it has mainly proceeded in the form of long essays in thick magazines edited by a few people in Nürnberg.

The beginning of Wertkritik can be traced to 1986, with the very first issue of Marxistische Kritik, a magazine which a few years later would change its name into Krisis. This first issue contained a programmatic essay by Robert Kurz, raising the claim that capitalism is entering its end crisis. The simple reason given for this was that the third industrial revolution has raised the productivity in commodity-production to such a degree that the generation of relative surplus value no longer can rise but must be beginning to fall. Capitalism makes itself impossible or is digging its own grave by emancipating itself from labour. The flight of capital from real accumulation to financial speculation is just a symptom of a stalled generation of surplus value. (It might be noted that 1986 marked not only the beginning of Wertkritik, but also the year in which the world’s financial markets were connected to one single system, an event which has been termed “the Big Bang” and which is given some attention by David Harvey in his recent work on crisis theory, The Enigma of Capital (2010).

Here is not the place to discuss details of the value-critical theory of crisis, which has been disputed a lot in Germany and is sometimes described by opponents as a kind of “catastrofism”. Around ten years ago, there was a major debate between some value-critical thinkers and Michael Heinrich, with the latter denying any inner logical limit in capital to infinite growth. Heinrich wrote: “The theory of collapse has historically played the role as a relief for the left. No matter how miserable the real defeats have been, one has been able to assert oneself that one’s opponent is about to lose it.”

This objection indicates that Michael Heinrich is underestimating the ambitions of the Nürnberg school. To the latter, the collapse of capitalism can hardly be thought as the defeat of an opponent, for to the extent that everyone living in capitalist society is caught within its fetishized forms, this will mean that the collapse of capitalism is also a collapse of their own conditions for living. There is an infinitely destructive potential in the crisis of capital. Indeed, Robert Kurz has returned a number of times to the idea of an death-drive immanent in the value-form as an absurd end in itself. The absolute end of self-valorizing value can, according to him, only be the “gnostic” annihilation of the world.

Only if people are consciously trying to transcend capitalism, and to resolutely negate the value-form, can there be a possibility to create a post-capitalist society. This is stressed also by Claus Peter Ortlieb, author of an important explication of the theory of collapse which in Germany has come to define Wertkritik.

Already before the fall of the Eastern bloc, Wertkritik was regarding Soviet and other “socialist” states not as failed alternatives to capitalism, but as belated and resolute attempts by states to achieve a stronger position on the capitalist competition on the world market. In the West as well as in the East, “socialism” essentially remained an adjective which could be put before all kinds of fetishized categories in order to legitimate their continued existence: “socialist politics”, “socialist economy”, “socialist culture”, “socialist state”, “socialist growth”, “socialist labour”…

An definite break between Wertkritik and existing Marxism occurred in 1989, as Robert Kurz published an article titled “Der Klassenkampf-Fetisch“. There is indeed an antagonism between labour and capital, he argued, but this is an antagonism of the commodity-market, which is as essential for capital as is the antagonism between competing capitalists. Class struggle is just a manifestation of the universal competition within capitalism and is therefore not able to lead the way out of it. Wertkritik was rather seeking an exit from the society built on of abstract labour, and during the 1990s this became a central theme for the group associated with the magazine Krisis. They got a certain fame in 1999 as they published their “Manifesto against labour” which sold surprisingly many copies in Germany and was also translated to a number of other languages.

The critique of labour was also broadened towards a critique of the fetishized forms of anti-capitalism which are affirming decent labour against indecent capital. This included not only a critique of traditional Marxism, but also of various ideas about an “alternative economy”, be it based on the abolition of interest or on the abolition of copyright. In this context Robert Kurz has, in a similar manner to Moishe Postone, discuss the relation of antisemitic ideologies to the value-form.

Wertkritik is characterized by a strictly anti-political stance, in opposition to all those leftist tendencies seeking to rescue “the political”. Common for all political parties and all political activist are a short-circuiting of critique. Political reason means to define objectives and to represent interests, but these objectives and interests can only be expressed within categories immanent to the real metaphysics of value. In the end, politics can have no other objective than the totalization of the commodity form and the transformation of all human relations into relations between legal subjects.

After formulating the fundamental critique of labour and politics, Robert Kurz tried to further radicalize Wertkritik in terms of a fundamental critique of subjectivity, reason and enlightenment. He abandoned certain remnants of Hegelian thinking (like the concept of Aufhebung) and, in the name of negativity, rejected the idea of a “dialectic of enlightenment”.

Just as the first critical theory did degenerate into ideology as its representatives where playing out state against capital, the second critical theory met a dead end as it approached enlightenment by playing out its ideal against its reality.

Just like the critique of labour knows two Marx, there are also two Adorno: one who affirms subjectivity and one who is staying true to negative critique. Subjectivity is, according to Robert Kurz, the form into which human individuals are forced by the fetishism of commodities. To the extent that people are acting as subjects, they are prisoners within a dialectic of subject and object which can only be destroyed by an “organized individuality”, which may be able to intensify critique to the point of an “ontological rupture” putting an end to modernity in its entirety. Beyond this point, critical theory will not be able to give directions. The destruction of the value-form does not liberate any fettered substance, neither “labour” nor “life”.

Nevertheless, Robert Kurz has a few times indicated how he is imagining a process pointing beyond capitalism. Crucial is that liberation can never build on prohibition, because the prohibition of a fetish would itself be a degeneration into fetishism. The destruction of the existing can only happen by practical confutation, and the process is not about destroying everything old that exists. Robert Kurz is rather describing liberation as a process of laborious selection, based on criteria which can not be defined in advanced but may only arise in the process of abolishing capitalism. Organized individuality has to sort out and judge the whole existing history of productive powers and cultural techniques. These might be appropriated or rejected, re-grouped or re-directed. In a curious way, Robert Kurz is here arriving close to some ideas of Bruno Latour, or even of the recent turn to ontology within British philosophy, when suggesting the need to give proper judgement to every singular thing in the world, if only after a process of intensified critique which is yet to be realized.

The historical origin of anything – a work of art, a technological innovation, a figure of thought – cannot be the basis of its judgement. At the point of transformation, all things must be judged by the same emergent standards, regardless if they have arisen from any phase of capitalist development or if they are inherited from pre-capitalist formations. This transformation will probably involve the resurrection of some of the potentials in agrarian society which was annulled by capitalism.

Around the turn of the century, Wertkritik was becoming a fundamental critique of existing civilization. At this point, some editorial members of Krisis began to think that Robert Kurz had gone too far. Conflicts within the group were intensifying and in 2004 the split became a fact, as the group around Kurz left Krisis in order to found a new magazine, Exit.

On the theoretical level, this conflict was mainly played out as a dispute about the status of feminism. According the group around Exit, it is now necessary to get beyond a simple Wertkritik in order to develop a critical meta-theory called Wert-Abspaltungskritik (roughly translatable as “critique of value-secession”).

While the value-form is in itself totalizing, it can never become total. In order to exist and to expand, value must have the support of its own shadow, consisting of that which is systematically excluded from exchangeability. The precondition for human life under capitalism is that some activities – those associated with love, care and sensuousness – are given a special kind of reservation. This reservation happens to be largely synonymous with what is regarded as “female”. Even if this theory operates on a high level of abstraction, it does indeed give a reason for the continued dominance of a dualism of sexes in the contemporary ordering of gender.

The theory of Wert-Abspaltung is indeed a meta-theory, stressing that value and its “secession” must be understood at exactly the same level of abstraction. Consequently, this is not another theory about how capitalism is behind patriarchy. Rather it is a development of the critique of Marxist feminism that has been formulated by Roswitha Scholz, a writer in Krisis and now in Exit. Later on, Robert Kurz has made a couple of loose attempts to also understand how “artistic” activity is “seceded” from capital.

Through this theoretic upgrade, Exit has succeeded in remaining an always experimenting and radically unfinished project. The remaining group of value-critical writers, around magazines like Krisis and Streifzüge, are far more prone to let their theories be used to legitimate practice, for example the practice of free software. In response to this, Robert Kurz tends to turn into a schismatic on the level of Guy Debord. The polemic against former comrades here tends to involve more coarseness as well as more brilliance. It is also contributing to make Kurz impossible in the radical milieus of art, activism and academia which are otherwise fond of idolizing symbols of “communism” like Antonio Negri, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.

Robert Kurz does not really show any interest in connecting his thoughts with contemporary leftist theorists. In his writings it may seem like the history of philosophy ended around 1970 (after Adorno and Arendt); the only exception from this is Agamben. Otherwise, Kurz is only referring to contemporary philosophy when he wants to demonstrate its general degeneration. He is rather drawing his influences from contemporary historical research, in which he seems well orientated.

Robert Kurz is, as an economy journalist specialized in crisis theory, a regular contributor to German as well as Brazilian newspapers with a monthly column in Neues Deutschland. He does not, however, really come to his right in that short format.

Over the years, hundreds of his articles have been translated from German into Portuguese. Almost nothing has been translated into English. There are exceptions online, but these are in many cases translated in two stages, via Portuguese, which means that these text are not very readable. The central texts of Wertkritik and Wertabspaltungskritik – the books and the longer articles from Krisis and Exit – have never found a substantial readership outside Germany, which is unfortunate. There are however rumours about a forthcoming English translation of Robert Kurz historical work, Schwarzbuch Capitalismus (1999), which found quite a large readership in Germany. It is yet to see if and how the critical theory from Nürnberg, at a time where capitalist modernity is showing signs of collapse, may be received outside Germany.

Rasmus Fleischer

One Response to “Robert Kurz and the collapse of modernity – an introduction”

  1. O.F. Says:

    translations to english, of Wertkritik,Krisis and Exit,probably the most important political and intellectual task for the beggining of the 21 century

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