Myths of the Crisis and Enemy Images in the Media
by Tomasz Konicz and Sabine Schiffer
Friday Jun 24th, 2022 7:48 AM
The Ukrainian ambassador was quoted in the FAZ as saying: “All Russians are now our enemies”. One may understand him personally, but this rhetoric is classic enemy image cultivation. After all, there are also Russians who reject Putin’s war of aggression or are brave enough to protest against it. This homogenization is pre-Enlightenment and always wrong.
The Myths of the Crisis
by Tomasz Konicz
[This article published on 6/9/2017 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://oxiblog.de/die-mythen-der-krise/.]
A car is produced by robots in a factory. The less labor that goes into a good, the lower its value. So this Range Rover might have a value problem.
When the going gets tough, the simple explanations sound tempting. The simpler the better, because then there is hope of getting back on one’s feet quickly. Financial crisis, rapacious bankers, ecological turnaround – Tomasz Konicz explains why it’s all bunk.
Myth I: These are the culprits
Since the financial market crisis of 2007/08, blame has been distributed by and among the public, and scapegoats have been sought. Greedy bankers, corrupt southerners, illegal migrants, rivets in pinstripes or lazy unemployed people: Someone’s misconduct, laziness, greed or corruption must have triggered the socioeconomic upheavals of recent years. Populist movements in the U.S. and Europe continue to fuel this personification of the causes of the crisis.
However, no one is to blame for the crisis. It exists because market subjects do exactly what the system demands of them more and more efficiently: rampant capital accumulation, i.e. its accumulation and reinvestment. The more effectively wage labor is exploited for this purpose, the greater the pressure, the tighter the noose around the neck of all market subjects.
This is only apparently absurd. The central contradiction of the capital relation consists in the fact that it strives to rationalize commodity production, i.e. to organize it more and more efficiently – thus it gets rid of its own substance, i.e. wage labor. All market subjects strive to gain competitive advantages with new production processes and techniques. On the level of society as a whole, this leads to job losses in established branches of industry. Thus, this inner contradiction of capital appears externally as a crisis of capitalist labor society. Unless it succeeds in creating jobs in new industries to compensate for the cutbacks in old industries. This industrial structural change failed in the 1980s with the digital revolution.
But even if no one is “to blame” for the systemic crisis, whose dynamics unfold quasi “behind the backs of the producers” (Marx), this does not mean that no one would become guilty under capitalism. Because the system functions – the market-mediated oppression, exploitation and ideology production – all the individuals who consciously execute the system constraints as “character masks” (Marx) in their respective capitalist roles are guilty. Even more: In interaction with the crisis dynamics, exploitation, oppression and lie production of the system are increased to absurdity.
Myth II: We are dealing with a financial crisis
The crisis process was first expressed in the financial sphere when the real estate bubbles in the U.S. and Western Europe began to burst in 2007. As a result, the erroneous view became entrenched among the public that this was a financial crisis, which was dragging the so-called real, i.e. goods-producing economy into the abyss with speculative excesses.
In reality, the opposite is true. The bloated financial sector keeps the crisis-ridden real economy alive in the first place. It does so with the most important commodity produced in the financial sphere: credit. The world system, characterized by rampant mountains of debt, runs on credit: The financial sector creates the credit-financed demand that enables an extremely productive real economy to sell its mountains of goods at all. The absurdity of the systemic crisis becomes fully apparent: Industry produces more and more goods with less and less labor in less and less time and can only sell them because the financial sector produces abnormally high debts.
That is why, in late capitalism, the debt of private individuals and states – despite all political promises of austerity – is rising much faster than economic output. At the end of 2014, the global government debt mountain was equivalent to around 286 percent of global economic output, compared with “only” 269 percent in 2007 and only 246 percent in 2000.
Myth III: The crisis broke out with the financial crash of 2007
The current systemic crisis is not a one-off, short-term event, but a long-term, historical process that is eating its way in batches from the periphery to the centers of the capitalist world system.
The breakthrough of financial market-driven neoliberalism in the 1980s was a reaction of the system to the crisis of commodity production; this was already clearly emerging in the 1970s, when the postwar boom, i.e., the economic miracle period, was coming to an end. It was only the economic crisis of the 1970s, accompanied by frequent recessions, runaway inflation and mass unemployment, that enabled the neoliberal ideology to take hold from the 1980s onward.
Put simply, the crisis exists because industrial structural change has failed. The postwar boom ran out of steam, but no new equivalent accumulation regime emerged to utilize the freed-up labor force to the same extent in commodity production. Therefore, starting in the late 1970s, mass unemployment returned to the core capitalist countries. The financial sector rose, creating the demand and investment opportunities that were increasingly lost to the real economy. A rise, however, accompanied by ever larger speculative bubbles (dotcom bubble, real estate bubble, current liquidity bubble).
In the process, the weakest links of the world system broke and continue to break first in the crisis. With the Third World debt crisis in the 1980s and the socio-economic collapses in the 1990s, the crisis has already unfolded to its barbaric end product in large parts of the periphery. The periphery, characterized by failed states, lunatic suicide cults and brutal dictatorships, thus already allows the centers a glimpse of the future: namely, the further unfolding of the crisis, which is likely to take place somewhere between “Mad Max” and “1984.”
Myth IV: Politics has long since mastered the crisis
Since the crisis surge of 2007/08, which also hit many centers of the world system in full force, a constant battle has raged in the public arena over the right crisis policy. Roughly speaking, there are two opposing camps: The neoliberal advocates of strict budget discipline want to overcome the crisis with draconian austerity programs in order to reduce global debt mountains. Their Keynesian counterparts, on the other hand, advocate a loose monetary policy and comprehensive economic stimulus programs. The Keynesians accuse the neoliberals of using monetarism and austerity dictates to drive many crisis countries into socioeconomic collapse, while the neoliberals warn that credit-financed stimulus policies only ignite an economic flash in the pan and increase the debt burden of the state.
The problem is that both sides are quite right in their diagnoses of the capitalist sickbed – but their therapies are both logically bound to fail. Economic stimulus programs fizzle out after a short time, while rabid austerity programs lead to devastating economic collapses. See Greece: German Finance Minister Schäuble’s austerity policies have literally driven the battered Mediterranean country to the brink of economic collapse, while its debt to dwindling gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is higher than before the acute onset of the crisis.
There is no escape from this trap in which capitalist politics finds itself, since the crisis cannot be overcome inherently in the system. It can only be solved beyond the present form of capital utilization. Inherent in the system, only a policy that maintains the debt dynamics (private as well as state) is possible in order to prevent economic and social collapses and to postpone the agony of late capitalism.
Myth V: Europe will be healed by German exports
In the eroding Eurozone, national state interests additionally override the dispute over crisis policy. With its policy of rigid austerity, wage cuts and deflation, Germany has succeeded in placing the burden of the crisis unilaterally on the crisis-ridden southern periphery. German crisis ideology sees the export economy as the key to overcoming the crisis. The eurozone is to be made internationally competitive in the German image in order to return to the path of prosperity and growth with a strong focus on exports.
This overlooks the fact that the trade surpluses of an export-fixated economy logically correspond to the deficits of the importing countries. Globally, it is a zero-sum game. If all global surpluses and deficits are offset against each other, the result is always zero euros. Trade surpluses therefore represent debt exports. Thus, Germany’s export-fixated economic model is also based on debt, only this is exported by means of trade surpluses (now nine percent of GDP); which makes the Germany-wide outrage about the debts of others completely absurd.
Myth VI: It’s all a question of distribution
The absurdly high inequality of income and wealth that began with the neoliberal turn gives the impression that the current crisis is purely a question of distribution. The rich would only have to be made to pay more, mass demand would have to be properly increased, in order to lead capitalism back into a period of prosperity similar to that of the postwar boom.
This crisis policy, often propagated by left-wing Keynesians, ignores the inner drive of the capitalist “national economy,” which is precisely not about the satisfaction of needs, but about the achievement of the highest possible profits, i.e., about the exploitation of value as an irrational end in itself, pursued by rational means.
Moreover, the fantasy trillions floating around in the financial sector are for the most part fictitious capital, generated not by the exploitation of wage labor, but solely by the mere multiplication of securities in the financial sphere. This became abundantly clear when the real estate bubbles burst in 2007: With real mortgages, the financial industry had ignited a boom of new “innovative financial products” such as mortgage insurance, which were traded on the explosively expanding financial markets – and which now weigh down the balance sheets of central banks as financial market junk. Tapping into this “wealth” would simply amount to a devaluation surge – a wave of inflation.
Myth VII: Ecology and economy are incompatible in the crisis
As the crisis intensifies, a crude, backward-looking industrialism takes hold, preaching reindustrialization and either outright denying or downplaying the ecological crisis. Yet the rampant climate crisis and the obvious systemic distortions in the economy are only two sides of the same coin. Ecology and economy are intertwined by the crisis process. Since wage labor forms the substance of capital, economic rationalization leads to devastating ecological damage.
For in general, the higher the productivity of the global late capitalist exploitation machine, the greater its hunger for resources. In capitalism, goods are not primarily produced for the satisfaction of needs, but as a means to the end of boundless capital accumulation, which in turn is only possible by means of the utilization of wage labor. The further competition-mediated increases in productivity are driven, the lower is the quantity of labor reified in a commodity and the lower is its value. Thus, if productivity in car production increases by, say, ten percent, car output must be increased by ten percent in order to utilize the same mass of capital and avoid mass layoffs. The increasing tendencies toward planned obsolescence (deliberate reduction of the lifespan of products) in commodity production have their roots in this absurd crisis dynamic.
Myth VIII: An ecological turnaround can help overcome the crisis
In turn, the idea that a comprehensive ecological renewal of capitalism can lead out of the crisis has taken root in the environment of the ecological movement. Based on the correct diagnosis that capitalism lacks a new accumulation regime, a massive promotion of ecological industries and the corresponding infrastructure is supposed to spark a new, green economic miracle – similar to the automobile miracle in the 1950s.
Here, too, the absurd inner contradiction of the capital relation takes hold, since the late capitalist economic machine is simply too productive for a necessary radical ecological turnaround. Wind turbines and solar modules are not produced today in the same way as cars were once produced, when hundreds of workers assembled a vehicle in individual steps. That is why the mass of utilized wage labor – from whose tax revenue the ecological infrastructure would have to be financed by the state – is very low in the ecological sector, while the costs for the infrastructural ecological transformation are astronomical. And that is why everyone is talking about the costs of the ecological turnaround – and not about its opportunities.
Myth IX: The little guy knows best what he wants
No, he doesn’t. The basic assumption of all populist politics, according to which “the people” can recognize their situation and articulate their interests accordingly, shatters because of the dominance of the mass media and the late-capitalist culture industry, which has long since won the battle for minds. The population usually remains largely caught up in the capitalist forms of thought burned into it by the mass media, which at worst fuels an extremism of the center in times of crisis and at best leads to the formulation of left-wing social demands that can hardly be realized in terms of the system.
With this false immediacy of crisis politics, the left thus also ultimately remains in the capitalist prison of thought. In reaction to the capitalist systemic crisis, the institutions, levels of mediation and forms of socialization of capitalism are to be maintained by hook or by crook. Wage labor, the market and the state are in crisis, but they are not questioned by this ultimately conservative policy; on the contrary, they are increasingly affirmed.
Instead of clinging to outdated forms of socialization, it would be necessary for the left to bring a radical crisis consciousness to the population that is adequate to the crisis process. The first step is therefore to communicate the unvarnished truth to the people in a way that is as comprehensible as possible. To tell them what is going on, to explain that the crisis cannot be overcome, that it will get worse, that they will have to give up their accustomed lives, that capital in its agony threatens to destroy human civilization. In short: that nothing will remain as it is. Whether we want it or not.
In his texts, the author refers to value critique, as it was significantly elaborated by Robert Kurz, as well as Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory. Value critique takes over from Marx the critique of the commodity fetishism of commodity, value and money, but criticizes his class theory and philosophy of history. Value critique sees the working class as part of the capitalist system and therefore denies it the role of revolutionary subject. World systems theory, formulated by the historian and economic sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein beginning in 1974, focuses on transnational economic interaction and global economic systems.
The article appeared in the June 2017 issue of OXI.
Media educator Sabine Schiffer: Ukraine coverage is cultivating enemy images
War coverage: “The discourse is currently totally narrowed”
Media educator Sabine Schiffer is shocked when journalists’ associations show blue and yellow flags
[This interview published on 6/18/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/medienpaedagogin-sabine-fischer-ukraine-berichterstattung-ist-feindbildpflege.]
“The first question is: Are the pictures real?”
In the narratives disseminated about the fighting in Ukraine, partisanship and objectivity collide in Russia as in the West. Rarely before have the media allowed themselves to be instrumentalized to such an extent that differentiated and verified information is the absolute exception.
der Freitag: Ms. Schiffer, you have also been running the Institute for Media Responsibility (IMV) in Berlin since 2005. Why is there a need for such an institution?
Sabine Schiffer: There are still many myths and insinuations about the media today, because many people don’t know how they actually work. The idea was to create an interface between science and the public, i.e., to allow findings from communication, journalism or social research to flow into the media. At the production, content and user level. With media, through media and for media, we said at the time.
Why the term media accountability?
It was actually a fallback term because the original name – Institute for Media Education – sounded too much like a university institution for the review board. In retrospect, it was a stroke of luck, because it subsumes a lot of what constitutes media analysis: from the standardization tendencies by the agencies to subjective reporting through spins, wordings and framings to the user, who draws conclusions from small scraps of prepared information.
What does this mean at the moment for dealing with the war in Ukraine?
I have to backtrack a bit and go back to 2014, when we published the book Ukraine im Visier (Ukraine in Focus) at Selbrund-Verlag, a collection of essays by journalists who criticized the fact that the conflict over Crimea was not reported in a balanced way from the very beginning. Russian interests were presented, but those of the West were neglected. The ARD Program Advisory Board – later then – reflected the most important points of our criticism in its meeting minutes of June 2014: The content had in part “given the impression of bias” and had “tended to be directed against Russia and Russian positions,” it said. Among the key aspects neglected at the time, in the view of the Program Advisory Board, were “NATO’s political and strategic intentions” in eastward enlargement, nuanced reports on the EU association agreement with Ukraine, the legitimacy of the so-called Maidan Council, and the “role of radical nationalist forces, especially Svoboda,” as well as their activities in the failure of “the February 21 agreement to settle the crisis in Ukraine.”
But when you see the heinous bloodshed in Ukraine now, do you wonder if you took the wrong side then?
I have never taken sides. There should be no such thing in journalism.
Doesn’t that inevitably happen? “If you’re not for us, you’re for the terrorists,” George W. Bush once said.
That is the psycho-trick par excellence. Our media today also seem to operate in this dualism. I am shocked when journalists’ associations adorn themselves with yellow-blue flags. Not because solidarity with those suffering in Ukraine is not appropriate – I myself offered to take people in right after the war began. But journalists are not NGOs, they are people who have to illuminate everything without being biased. There is no such thing as a morally sound army, and ours is not either. Think about the Afghanistan papers. We also raped women, in war you have to expect that kind of thing. The discourse right now is totally narrow. If it’s like that in politics, I can still understand it as part of strategic communication – even if I don’t like being lied to – but our media must not be part of it.
To what extent are media involved in strategic communication?
As the fourth estate, the media are committed to enlightenment and neutrality. Even if they can never achieve these ideals, because everything is just a slice of reality. In my field, however, I also deal with the so-called fifth estate, which runs counter to this claim to neutrality. And that is the influence of interest groups on the media. This is also referred to as “gray PR.”
Can you give an example?
In the aftermath of the Euromaidan, we at IMV commissioned research to clarify whether such interest groups had also influenced reporting on the Ukraine conflict. This research revealed that, at least in the EU since 2015, there are structures that we believe have contributed significantly to the media situation today. One of the most important is the East StratCom Task Force of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Stratcom stands for strategic communications. This task force does things like briefings with journalists and educates them about Russian disinformation. And there, a fact that is out of the ordinary or not recognized as such is quickly a conspiracy theory. The question is, of course, what political interests such an organization represents.
To the person
Sabine Schiffer (55) has been a professor at the University of Media, Communication and Business in Frankfurt/M. since 2018. Her discipline is media and discourse analysis. She deals with the relationship between media and war such as media representations of minorities.
The declared mission of the East StratCom Task Force is to advance the political goals of the EU in the Eastern countries. The EEAS Strategic Communications Unit works closely with NATO to combat disinformation, including the EUvsDisinfo propaganda monitoring project. The Stratcom unit is also involved in the work of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. So in the end, a military alliance briefs journalists on Russian disinformation – without disclosing methods for analyzing it.
Nevertheless, Russia has launched a war of aggression. Isn’t relativizing it in that case trivializing it?
Thomas Fischer, ex-president of the Federal Supreme Court, speaks in a Spiegel column about relativization as a thought crime. After the initial shock, I have to say that he gets to the point: It’s about classifying, not relativizing. Relativization is a fighting term.
What does “classifying” mean to them?
In my article Blueprints for Ukraine on Telepolis, I write that Russia’s “peace mission” has violated Western copyright on wars of aggression. I am involuntarily reminded of the Kosovo and Iraq wars. NATO’s 1999 doctrine established three justifications for wartime operations that have not yet justified war. Humanitarian intervention, as Putin now claims, resource security, and strong migration movements, Frontex being one example. Nevertheless, my article begins with a clear condemnation of Russia’s breach of international law. The standard remains the law, there is nothing to discuss, war is not justified by anything. And that Ukraine is the victim is perfectly clear. But that’s why I can’t stop asking questions. The most important one is: why now? Putin and Lavrov have dealt with the tense situation in a relatively sovereign way all these years, why did they decide to escalate now?
After all, Putin claims to want to “denazify” Ukraine. Pretty clumsy war propaganda?
Absolutely. In war, you have to do it this way so that people are willing to kill other people. The Russian population might have been hard to motivate for an attack on their so-called brother nation. So you unpack Nazi comparisons. This is crude propaganda – even if there are Nazi battalions in Ukraine.
Where do you get the right to be more critical in your analyses than the people on the ground?
Because we learned from Yugoslavia that reporting on the ground can also be influenced. Many journalists were “too close”, back then in Yugoslavia, to keep an overview: Balanced reporting is only possible in interaction “with those on the outside” who contextualize what is happening and help to get an overview of the overall situation. Otherwise, journalists risk being made a party to the war.
On the other hand, there are documents that speak a clear language like the pictures from Butscha.
Of course, only you have to be very careful with such documents and verify quite meticulously. The first question is: Are these pictures real? In the case of the so-called Ra?ak massacre in Kosovo, the media hastily disseminated images whose authenticity was later doubted. In the case of Butscha, however, we can answer the question of authenticity with a resounding yes. These are real pictures, real dead bodies. One can even narrow down the time of the crime. But this is only the first level, the surface. To get more information, pathologists would have to determine the cause and time of death, and criminalists would have to talk to the people who were questioned about the incident. Where did they come from? Where would it be necessary to ask? Is there evidence of groups? You have to check – and cross-check – the information for consistency rather than collecting anecdotal evidence.
Doesn’t everything suggest that it was the Russians?
There is a lot to be said for it. But if it was, there are still other scenarios that can’t be ruled out to begin with: Did the killing happen on orders or out of frustration and hatred? How were the people shot? Of course, one must also ask the uncomfortable question of whether it was other troops who wanted to stage these images, of course there are many intelligence agencies on the way. That Ukraine is the victim in this war is perfectly clear. But that should not be the premise above an independent investigation. And in the end, of course, there is also a PR machine running, on a grand scale.
What does “on a grand scale” mean?
On March 14, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry registered itself in the so-called FARA registry. FARA stands for Foreign Agents Registration Act. If PR is bought from abroad or PR is done in the USA, I have to register there. And that is now quite official. The resources available for such campaigns are considerable. And the campaigns as a result are much more professional than the propaganda of the Russians.
How does war reporting shape human interaction beyond the front lines?
Unfortunately, we are now seeing again how quickly it can be to submit to enemy images. The Ukrainian ambassador was quoted in the FAZ as saying: “All Russians are now our enemies”. One may understand him personally, but this rhetoric is classic enemy image cultivation. After all, there are also Russians who reject Putin’s war of aggression or are brave enough to protest against it. This homogenization is so pre-Enlightenment, so not at all European – and always wrong.