Value Critique and ‘Anti-German’ Communism

Over the last ten years I’ve far too frequently found myself in the rather awkward position of trying to explain the phenomenon of ‘anti-German communism’ or the anti-Deutsch to the mystified through a series of anecdotes and only passing and fragmentary experiences. This short article from Mute by Tadzio Müller, ‘The World Turned Upside Down’, was one point of reference: http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/world-turned-upside-down, encountering small pro-Israel individuals and sometimes blocks was another. However, beyond the spectacularly stupid and minority predeliction for supporting Israel and the Gulf Wars, perhaps more difficult to explain was anti-Germanisms’ relation to a recovery of pre-1960s critical theory and a quite positive reinvestment in the understanding of value at the core of Marx’s work and a lost, misplaced, or even suppressed current in Western Marxist theory going all the way back to Isaak Rubin’s great book, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, written in 1922/1923 and banned in 1929. So, I was pleased to come across this quite succinct summary of the origin and problematics of ‘anti-German communism’ in relation to value critique in the recent ‘Dossier: Marxism and the Critique of Value’ published by Mediations Journal, Volume 27, Nos. 1-2 Fall/Spring 2013-14 and available here:

http://www.mediationsjournal.org/toc/27_1

destroy the german dream

The positive face of contemporary anti-German communism

The introduction omits to mention Isaak Rubin, which is why I’ve tried to correct that above. And I’ve yet to read the articles translated within, but from the introduction the Mediations collection seems a very useful and unprecedented introduction to value critical theory from Germany. For another excellent introduction in English see: Endnotes, ‘Communisation and Value-Form Theory’, http://endnotes.org.uk/en/endnotes-communisation-and-value-form-theory

The phenomenon of so-called “anti-German” communism requires some careful mention here. With its origins in the critical Marxist currents that rejected the Leninism and Mao-Stalinism of the fragmented cadre-organizations and groupuscules known as the K-Gruppen (so called because the first initial of most of their organizational abbreviations was K for kommunistisch) in the late 1970s and 1980s, the “anti-German” German trajectory can be credited with having played an important role in the rediscovery of a range of non-orthodox Marxist traditions, including the first generation of the Frankfurt School (Adorno in particular), the council communists, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, and Hans-Jürgen Krahl. Influenced by their rediscovery of the anti-nationalism of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (and later that of the left-communists), anti-German communists controversially turned away from the reflexive support for movements of national liberation that was near-compulsory among the West-German radical left of the 1970s.13


This anti-national orientation entailed a complex relationship to the nationalist anti-Zionism that since at least 1967 had been the default position on the Left in both East and West. This stemmed in part from critical reflection on the latent antisemitism that sometimes hides behind criticism of Israel, not the only state with a record of violent and criminal discrimination. But it also went hand in hand with a new understanding, strongly influenced by Moishe Postone’s “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism,” of eliminationist anti-semitism.14 The rethinking of the politics of antisemitism and anti-Zionism that took place in the German-speaking radical Left during the course of the 1990s was closely related to the kinds of attempts, carried on and further developed by Wertkritik in ways visible in some of the essays collected in this volume, to understand, to analyze, and above all to criticize the capital relation. In particular the “anti-German” tendency led, among other things, to the rejection of two kinds of positions that are still popular among large parts of the self-styled radical left. The first is the criticism of the role played by finance capital with respect to the so-called real economy of industrial capital. This criticism, frequently heard in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–8, both ignores the force of the Marxian insight that finance capital is itself dependent on the production of surplus value, and can at times come disturbingly close to mirroring the National Socialist objection to “parasitic” (international, Jewish, exploitive) capital in favor of “productive” (national, German, autochthonous) capital. The second is the anti-Americanism masquerading as opposition to capitalism that would later characterize large sections of the anti-globalization movement, manifesting itself in a hostility to symbols such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds.


What is clear in the case of both of these phenomena — and what Wertkritik drew from its own complex origins in the political debates and divisions of the era, and despite later criticisms voiced against the “anti-German” tendency as it began itself to take on more and more openly reactionary and even pro-U.S. imperialist positions — is that they are not, appearances notwithstanding, critiques of capitalism at all. The first explicitly appeals to industrial capitalist production (and in doing so erases all class distinctions in the industrial production process), while the second is an argument in favor of local and often smaller-scale production, an argument which is frequently imbued with anti-American ressentiment, and which neglects the capitalist compulsion to valorize value on an ever larger scale. Along these same lines, objections to the actions of the players in the game of “casino capitalism” are misdirected insofar as they see these individuals as responsible for the system within which they act rather than recognizing that the systemic consequences of the compulsion to the valorization of value constitute the sphere within which casino-agency is produced. In doing so, such objections misconstrue financial speculation and public borrowing as causes of the crisis, when in fact they are merely responses to — and more specifically, processes of deferral of — the crisis of exchange value in which capital, which can no longer attain valorization in industrial production, seeks greater returns elsewhere, by means of the inflation of speculative bubbles.15

And as a final observation here: given Wertkritk’s key contributions to crisis theory, its relative absence within Anglophone economic and political discourse has become especially crippling since the outbreak of the current severe and historically unprecedented crisis of global capitalism in 2007-8. The considerable upsurge of interest in Marx that has been one result of the current crisis — in particular in Marx’s theory of capitalism’s “tendency to self-destruct,” as favorably mentioned by Wall Street’s and the Financial Times’s most listened-to doom-mongering mainstream economist, Nouriel Roubini, in August, 2011 — has in turn given rise to a plethora of theoretical and political debates in Left-leaning, Marxism-friendly alternative media in North America concerning the nature and outcome of the Great Recession, as the global economic downturn in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–8 seems to have come to be called, at least within the U.S.16 But what has been missing in this literature has been an analysis that reaches deep into the structure of Marx’s mature critique of political economy and at the same time beyond the limitations of what Kurz refers to as the exoteric Marx: the points and aspects within his work where Marx is concerned with and oriented toward the modernization and development of capitalism, from the historical perspective of his existence in the nineteenth century.


Not surprisingly, and despite the impressive exploratory range of Wertkritik across the at times seemingly endless matrix of social relations mediated through the value abstraction, especially as the latter sinks ever more rapidly and deeply into the array of symptoms that mark what is possibly the terminal crisis of the value form itself, many problematics remain unexplored. Prominent among these, for reasons perhaps not difficult to discern when one considers that they tended to dominate the critical theory of the Frankfurt School from which Wertkritik has had, ironically, to distance itself in order to make full use of its ties to precursors such as Adorno, are the spheres of culture and the aesthetic. But the question of the emancipatory in its immanent relation to the crisis of commodity society may be what finally eludes the critique of value even as it bores its way ever further into the depths of a future as though from front to back. If the associated producers no longer appear as capitalism’s gravediggers, who takes their place? At times Wertkritik refuses to consider that its take on this question requires, at the very least, evidence that the old notion of a political subject, whatever its composition, is worse than its lack — evidence that the current moment coyly witholds. But if one is to find such an immanent ground of emancipation, even if its traces are as yet absent from them, one must start by looking hard into the new and at times uncannily dark illuminations in the mirror held up to our own contemporaneity by the essays that follow.

Footnotes

13 Kurz’s concept of recuperative nationalism finds its most extensive exposition in Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus, 206–17, in which he analyses the appeals made to German nationalism by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Gottfried Herder, and above all Friedrich List, and the persistence of these appeals both under actually existing socialism and in twentieth-century development economics. In this volume the concept is rethought and deployed in essays including Lohoff, “Violence as the Order of Things”; Lewed, “Curtains for Universalism”; and Kurz, “On the Current Global Economic Crisis” and “The Ontological Break.”

14 Moishe Postone, “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust,’” New German Critique 19 (Winter 1980) 97–115. A translation of this essay by Renate Schumacher had previously appeared in the Frankfurt am Main student journal Diskus 3-4 (1979) 425–37.

15 See Die Große Entwertung, and Trenkle’s 2008 response to the earliest unfolding of this crisis in “Tremors on the Global Market,” translated by Josh Robinson, online at http://www.krisis.org/2009/tremors-on- the-global-market

16 “I mean, Karl Marx had it right, at some point capitalism can destroy itself because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without not having excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand, and that’s what’s happening. We thought that markets work, they’re not working, and what’s individually rational: every firm wants to survive and thrive and thus slashing labor costs even more — my labor costs are somebody else’s labor income and consumption. That’s why it’s a self-destructive process. […] I think that there is a risk that this is the second leg of what happened in the Great Depression. We had a severe economic and financial crisis and then we kicked the can down the road with too much private debt, households, banks, governments, and you cannot resolve this problem with liquidity. At some point when there’s too much debt either you grow yourself out of it, but there is not going to be enough economic growth, it’s anemic, either you save yourself out of it, but if everybody spends less and saves more in the private and public sector you have the Keynesian paradox of thrift: everybody saves more, there is less demand, you go back to recession and that ratio becomes higher. Or you can inflate yourself out of the debt problem, but that has a lot of collateral damage. So if you cannot grow yourself or save yourself or inflate yourself out of an excessive debt problem, you need debt restructure and debt reduction for households, for governments, for financial institutions, for highly leveraged institutions, and we’re not doing it. We’re creating zombie households, zombie banks, and zombie governments and you could have a depression.” Nouriel Roubini, interview with Simon Constable, WSJ Live, online at http://live.wsj.com/ video/nouriel-roubini-karl-marx-was-right/68EE8F89-EC24-42F8- 9B9D-47B510E473B0.html. Meanwhile Catherine Rampell, writing in March 2009, charts the rise of the phrase “Great Recession,” dating the rapid expansion in its use to December 2008. At the same time, she also observes how “[e]very recession of the last several decades has, at some point or another, received this special designation.” “‘Great Recession’: A Brief Etymology” NYT Economix blog, March 3, 2013, online at http:// economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/great-recession-a-brief- etymology/.

 

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