The relationship between economy and social order has been turned upside down: economy is no longer a function of an overarching culture, but conversely, “human society has sunk to being an accessory of the economic system” (Karl Polanyi). Robert Kurz, the founder of Exit and Krisis journals, on scapegoating, moral panics and conspiracy theory culture.
Robert Kurz is also available at
The confusion of bourgeois sentiment and the hunt for scapegoats
by Robert Kurz
[This 2001 article is translated from the German on the Internet, EXIT! Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft].
The most popular parlor game is the hunt for scapegoats. If something went wrong on a large scale, most often it is an imperative not to call into question the matter as such but to look for certain individuals to take the blame. It is not opportune or even possible to hold responsible hybrid objectives, destructive social relationship, or contradictory structures, rather it has to be attributed to individuals who lack in resolution or competence or even distinguish themselves malicious. It is much easier to keep heads rolling but to overthrow matters as they stand and restructure social dynamic.
The spontaneous tendency of the non-reflective consciousness to iron out troubles by shifting the blame on individuals complies with the liberal ideology: Liberalism in principle has individualized the causes of social problems. The prevailing order of the social system was raised to the nobility of a dogma to the effect that it became a law of nature, thereby unreachable and untouchable for any critical assessment. Hence, the causality of negative experience has to be located in the individuals as they are situated in their actual frame of existence. Personal hardship or failure is the fault of the particular individual concerned, individually guilty culprits or gangs of accomplices do generate social crisis and disaster. Never ever the system as such can be faulty, rather some individual has done wrong or even committed a crime.
This kind of reflection is deeply irrational but a relief for consciousness because one has not to take pains in ascertaining and being critical of the conditions of one’s own very existence. Essentially impersonal problems of the social structure and development are identified with particular individuals, social groupings etc. or shifted on them symbolically. In the Old Testament this mechanism is depicted as the making of a “scapegoat” onto whom the society symbolically shifts its sins and drives it to the desert afterwards. This technique of a superficial personalization of problems and disaster can adopt two methods.
The first one is to cast the blame on the individuals, groups or institutions concerned. Either rank and files will denounce leaders or leading bodies as incapable duds, or, if the culprits can make it to turn the table, they in return will accuse rank and files of inefficiency, or not having the guts to pull themselves together etc. In modern politics such mechanism of apportionment of blame is in fact the concept of its mode of operation. The crowd abuses politicians and the politicians abuse the crowd. As everybody knows any opposition party will never attribute social problems to the system of politics and its underlying structure of social (re-)production but will claim that it is due to their competitors who are currently at the helms and their “wrong” policy.
The second method is even more irrational and hazardous. In general, any social problem is projected onto a single or some certain groups, which are identified as the “absolute evil” thereby serving as a concept of the universal public enemy. Any ideology – according to Marx ideology as such is always a misperception, a distorted picture of the world – puts into operation in one way or another such personalizing concept of a public enemy. Even if Liberalism as the modern core-ideology is comparatively pragmatic in its search for culprits and does not hesitate to replace one “wicked” trait by another according to the circumstances (e.g. “unreasonable desires” and the laziness of the poor, “bad upbringing” and the criminals etc.), one has to face that its progeny is in fact committed to one-dimensional concepts of an universal enemy. The most vicious and momentous idée fixe hatched out in the society’s lap is anti-Semitism that culminated in the mass-murder of Jews in Nazi-Germany.
The opposite of an irrational search for culprits would be an emancipatory social criticism not aiming at particular groups of individuals but ready to transform the prevailing forms of social reproduction and social relations. And undoubtedly it is still the Marxian theory that has the largest potential to take effect in this respect. It is true that the ideas of the workers’ movement – which reached its own limitations meanwhile – in their essence were personalizing as well in so far as social contradictions were rather attributed to some sort of “will for exploitation” ascribed to “the owners of the means of production” than to the blind laws and forces of the modern commodity producing system. And ironically it is just this reduced theoretical approach that can be traced back to the liberal heritage of the workers’ movement Marxism, namely the idea that whatsoever problem occurs must be due to mere intentions. However, the Marxian theory provides for a by far more sweeping approach to a “critique of the system” that really deserves to be called like that and does not confuse the structural crises with “ill-minded” individuals or social groups. Still, after the collapse of “actual existing socialism” and the triumphant advance of the neo-liberal ideology, social critique was not further elaborated along such line of thought but silenced all together. The social system and its structure became a taboo, more strictly obscured than ever before. As soon as the prevailing forms of social relations can not longer be subjected to criticism though social problems aggravate, conspiracy theories forge ahead. No wonder that over the last 20 years along with the decline of Marxism, once more racism and anti-Semitism are on the way trying to explain the misery by means of various personifications of the Evil. Even in democratic societies, politicians of the center are searching for scapegoats quite unabashed. In Germany a book with the title “Nieten in Nadelstreifen” (duds clad in pinstripe suits), written by the business journalist Günter Ogger, became a best-seller, branding managers to be failures and declaring them, due to their collective incompetence, to be the source of the growing socio-economic disaster. However, today’s redeemers and heroes are the losers and accused of tomorrow. Some media even publish charts of “winners and losers of the week” as to politics, business, sports and showbiz. The merry-go-round for executives and leading politicians is turning faster and faster: Crisis, breakdowns and bankruptcies beat the time for “individually responsible individuals” to resign just to get replaced by others who can’t do better. Sacrificing pawns or queens can’t soothe the gloomy feeling of some universal menace; in seeking some kind of expression the sentiment gives birth to specters. The Western societies, not longer able to reflect themselves critically, deliver anonymous mythical apparitions symbolizing the elusive Evil of their very own structure.
One of these mythical apparitions of the negative is the terrorist. The more mysterious and arbitrary the bomb attacks of the confused or frustrated, of various crusaders, of warriors of god, or of Mafia-gangs seem to be, the more they resemble the blind and impersonal “terror of the economy”. Long since the lines between terror-groups, state administration, and intelligence services got blurred. The democratic society catches the image of the terrorist whenever looking at the mirror. It is exactly that what qualifies the shady and dubious figure of the terrorist to externalize the resident Evil within the “society of decent Bourgeois” as an abstract foe. The mechanism of projection works mirror-inverted: As the ideologically orientated terrorist catches sight of the Evil in capitalism in gazing at the functional elite incarnate, the democratic politician conversely will explain the social insecurity as the result of a “threat by those terrorists”. Both sides, terrorists and security agencies, use the method of “hunting down” individuals to proudly present the bodies like trophies to the public, staging the “terror of virtue” (Robespierre). Meanwhile the existence of terrorists, whether real or just a phantasmorgia, became the legitimizing precondition for the market-economy democracies all over the world.
Quite similar is the case in respect of the myth of the speculator, beginning to blossom in the 90ties simultaneously to the blowing up of the global bubble economy. As well known, the clumsy agitation against speculative gains is quite close to anti-Semitism because the latter identifies Jews with the negative aspects of money. With George Soros the myth was given the complexion of an individual, but at the same time he is epitomizing an anonymous threat: The capitalist labor society has got a hunch that it is on the verge of obsolescence and projects the problem onto a personalized Evil, which allegedly is getting ready to ruin “respectable labor”. The more obvious it becomes that the labor system is self-destructive with the era of speculation as a result, the direr becomes the need for a mythical subject that is ostensibly responsible. That this irrational explanation is spawned by the perception of people who bet their bottom dollar in the stock market is in fact the precondition for the incarnation of the projection. After the crash of the technology markets, media are eager to declare the “duped private investor” a victim of sinister financial powers pulling the strings backstage.
Over the last few years while the crisis was culminating another projection is gaining ground alongside with the terrorist and the speculator: the child-abuser is the most recent incarnation of the Evil. No magical invocation of the devil can do without a sexual component. Parallel to the alleged “abuse of social welfare” by (preferably foreign) spongers, sexual abuse became a popular subject. One can hardly find a therapist who will not talk his clients into believing that they were subject to “sexual abuse” during childhood. Until now the classification of “bad uncles” is still vague, but it is impossible to miss its closeness to anti-Semitism: The Nazis made the assertion that it was Jews who made humans a commodity, at the same time depicting them as lecherous fiends chasing the innocent girls and children of the major social layer. Once again the official society has to externalize and personify one of its structural aspects as a symbol of the Evil. Most of sexual abuse cases have always taken place in the “cozy” atmosphere of sweet home. One should not forget that the Belgian child murderer Dutroux brought his victims to the most prominent circles to satisfy their lust. Capitalist society is hostile to children anyway. At the same time this form of society is hostile to lust to the core. The slogan of “sexual liberation” used by the student movements of the 60ties, whose protagonists were not able to overcome the prevailing social forms, has only led to a sexualization of the media and advertising, while the actual sex life of the commodity-consuming individual is more miserable than ever before.
The manifestation of sexual crimes as an irrational symbolization of social contradictions thereby becomes even more venomous and malicious. Any diversity of the actual appearance is leveled out in order to conjure up the demons of persecution. In the critical debates of the 70th, sexual thrill as described in literature by authors like Vladimir Nabokov in his novel “Lolita” or Thomas Mann in “Tod in Venedig” was approved as a variant in the spectrum of sexual behavior to be found in many civilizations – on the condition that it happened within the frame of loving care and without violence. Nowadays the staging of the “populace healthy sentiment and common sense” in the media equates this side of eroticism with child prostitution, child rape, or homicide of little children by sex offenders.
The legitimate motive to denounce and fight masculine violence against women and children, a problem exacerbating in a crisis-ridden world, turns into its opposite and transforms into a tool to demonize the phenomenon instead of criticizing it, hereby barring the way to get to the root of the matter. The projective mania even stamps children as child abusers: In the USA an 18 years old youngster who ran away with his 14 years old girl friend was brought before the committing magistrate handcuffed. The same happened to an 11 years old boy being watched by a strait-laced neighbor when playing harmless doctor games with his 5 years old half sister.
The mythical apparitions of the Evil are necessary to discharge the negative energy of the social crisis in an irrational and anti-emancipatory way.
The terrorist, the speculator, and the child-abuser do have in common that they strike from the dark – so do the anonymous forces of competition. It could be everybody or nobody. Fritz Lang’s film “M – the metropolitan hunt for a murderer”, set in Berlin against the background of the worldwide economic crisis, has illustrated in an oppressive way how the hunt for an unidentified sex criminal melts into a mass-psychological syndrome, entailing an atmosphere of suspicion, denunciation and raving violence. The society shows up an ugly mug not in the least less terrifying than the kisser of the murderer.
Today the very same syndrome makes itself felt on a by far larger scale due to the spread of electronic means of communication. Politicians and the media pursue a course of hysterical populism touching off lynch law. When tabloids in England published the names and addresses of alleged child-abusers, a raging mob drove some of them to committing suicide and rampaged the practice of a paediatrician because of its inability to distinguish “paedophilia” from “paediatrics” (a broad hint on the quality of the British education system).
Such “events” only illustrate how far we already got with social paranoia. A society that is not interested any longer in getting on to its own secret is doomed to stage witch-hunting.
The appetite of the Leviathan
Privatization and “lean state”: an illusion
Anti-economics and anti-politics
by Robert Kurz
[This 2002 article is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.exit-online.org/textanz1.php?tabelle=schwerpunkte&index=0&posnr=14&backtext1=text1.php.]
Two souls wrestle in the breast of modern man: the soul of money and the soul of the state. The “homo economicus” is always simultaneously a “homo politicus.” The institutional polarity of market and state corresponds to this structural division of the individual. In pre-modern societies, however they may be judged, this division did not exist. Rather, there was a cultural unity, a “cosmos” to which the various social activities were subordinated. The modern commodity-producing system destroyed the “cosmos” of the old cultures without being able to establish a new culturally based order. Instead, the relationship between economy and social order has been turned upside down: economy is no longer a function of an overarching culture, but conversely, “human society has sunk to being an accessory of the economic system” (Karl Polanyi).
This means that people by themselves in this system have no social and cultural context beyond economic activity. They have become “abstract individuals” or “isolated individuals” who look desperately like the “windowless monads” of the philosopher Leibniz. Their social connection is only negatively established by economic competition. Money has taken the place of the culturally mediated “cosmos,” so that the commonality of society appears not as human but as material. Every wolf pack is more socially organized than the free-market people.
Even in the early days of this absurd system, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) logically portrayed man as a fundamentally selfish being who is by nature more solitary than an animal. Society in the “state of nature” was therefore nothing but the “war of all against all”. Hobbes forgot, however, that he was by no means describing the “nature” of human society per se, but the historical result of a process in which the first thrusts of the modern market economy had begun to dissolve the old polities. The new freedom of individuals chained to the market was only the freedom to submit to the coercive laws of competition. To prevent individuals from completely tearing each other apart in this murderous competition, Hobbes constructed the state as a necessary coercive power that must stand above selfish individuals, and to which he gave the name of the biblical monster “Leviathan.” The small monsters of free-market individualism are to be tamed by the great monster of the state “Leviathan.” A fine kind of the society which leaves nothing to be desired at malice!
The “Leviathan” is just as little as the free wilderness of the market an institution of cultural and social commonality. For the state does not abolish the total competition; it is only a repressive force external to the “windowless” individuals, an apparatus that establishes a makeshift common framework for the raving subjects of the market: comparable perhaps to the referee of a rugby match. This has not changed since Hobbes. Today, more than ever, free individuals are assumed to be beings who have been rendered socially insane by the market and must therefore be put into legal and bureaucratic straitjackets by the monsters of the state apparatus.
In this “best of all worlds” there is, unfortunately, a small logical flaw. For like all monsters, Mr. “Leviathan” is quite voracious; and the question arises as to how he is to be fed. The insanity of the competing individuals consists, after all, precisely in the fact that they do not care about their own social and natural conditions of existence. This is the problem of state economy. For the state is by no means an “extra-economic factor,” as is often assumed; namely, in that it must be financed (and because money is undoubtedly a thoroughly “economic factor”), it forms, in a sense, a secondary economy, the economy of the common conditions of existence of individuals competing in a market economy. By definition, subjects in the “state of nature” of competition do not give a penny voluntarily for it. The state monster must collect its own costs (which are nothing other than the social “business costs” of the market economy) just as violently as it must prevent free individuals from eating each other alive.
To be sure, it should not be difficult for the big monster to prevail against the little monsters. But unfortunately, the “cost of doing business” in the market economy has grown larger and larger over time. The more people became individual subjects of competition, the greater became the need for legal and police regulation of their relations, and the more the apparatuses of justice and administration had to be bloated. Not even the Byzantine Empire can compete with the bureaucratic juggernaut that modern Western democracies have produced. But that is by no means all. The more competition led to the scientification of production and the use of large technical aggregates, the more it concentrated large masses of people in urban agglomerations, the greater the need for social logistics and infrastructure, the more the state had to provide the material, technical and organizational framework for the lively market economy: from schools and universities to the construction of roads and airports to sewage systems and garbage collection. And finally, the consequential costs became ever higher: the more people were socially uprooted by the market economy, the more the state’s social transaction costs rose; and the more the natural environment was burdened and destroyed by narrow-minded business rationality, the higher the state’s costs for makeshift ecological repairs rose.
Ignorant economic liberalism, which emerged in the late 18th century, wanted no part of all these costly problems. The brilliant cynic Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733) claimed in his “Bee Fable” that the sum of the ruthless private pursuit of profit would virtually automatically ensure the welfare of the commonwealth. This idea has remained the most important argument to justify economic liberalism to this day. Adam Smith (1723-1790), the classic of political economy, is also known to have adopted this argument; according to his theory, the “invisible hand” of the market can regulate the entire reproduction of society much better than the state. Nevertheless, this economic liberalism did not fundamentally contradict Hobbes’ philosophy of the state: the “Leviathan” was supposed to abstain from any social and economic activity, but at the same time it was certainly supposed to fulfill its function as a repressive monster, i.e. in the form of justice, police and military force the victims of competition to conform to the “laws of the market economy”. Political dictatorship and economic liberalism have therefore always been able to go hand in hand in principle, as Pinochet did not have to prove.
In the first half of the 19th century, the political execution of liberal dogmas led to social catastrophes. There were more and more social uprisings, mass crime exploded, and epidemics broke out in the industrial centers. During the great Irish famine of 1846 to 1849, the British government let 1.5 million people starve to death in the name of free trade and forced 2.5 million to emigrate to America. Doctrinaire liberalism threatened to completely dissolve human society. At the same time, many entrepreneurs themselves began to call for infrastructural state economy, realizing that schooling, roads, information networks, etc. were necessary for further accumulation of capital.
Thus, a great paradigm shift gradually occurred. More and more theorists professed the necessity of an extended state economy. In 1867, the German financial economist Adolph Wagner (1835-1917) established the so-called “law of ever-growing state activity.” Rarely has an economic forecast been confirmed in historical reality as much as this one. This is shown by a look at the statistics in three significant Western countries:
Proportion of government spending to gross domestic product (in percent)
Year1870 1960 1994
Germany 10 32 50
Sweden 6 31 69
USA 4 27 32
(Source: IMF/Economy Week)
It is thus clear that, despite all the relative differences, the government spending ratio has historically grown strongly everywhere. In the USA, it rose by 0.3 percent even under President Reagan. For a long time, as is well known, this high government ratio can only be maintained by a dangerously growing national debt. That is why economic liberalism has also experienced a new springtime, even though its doctrine actually failed back in the 19th century. Neoliberals repeat the age-old ideas of Mandeville and Smith. They claim that Wagner’s forecast does not represent an economic law, but has only been verified by political arbitrariness. Therefore, they believe that a historical trend reversal is possible. The “Leviathan” that has become fat is to be put on a diet and its functions are to be “privatized” for the most part. Almost 130 years after Wagner’s forecast, the two IMF economists Vito Tanzi and Ludger Schuknecht recently made a counter-forecast: from now on, in an opposite historical process, the state quota will fall again, to below 30 percent.
In order to clarify the problem, we have to ask the question about the character of the economic functions of the state. Like all representatives of economic liberalism, Tanzi and Schuknecht confuse the private production of goods for the market with the overall social conditions of existence of the market itself. Liberalism imagines that most of the tasks of the state are as much to be performed by private, profit-oriented enterprises as the production of cars or hamburgers. The first thing to be done, of course, is to “privatize” the social risks of capitalism, i.e. the state is to withdraw from the social responsibility that has grown up over the last 100 years back to its functions as a repressive monster. However, history has already proven that most people cannot individually bear the social risk due to lack of sufficient income and are driven into hopeless situations. Liberalism is known to love the cost of prisons and death squads more than the cost of social aid to the poor, even if the cost of repression is greater in the long run, fattening the “leviathan” even more. Thus the liberal doctrine proves its vicious irrationalism and carries its own criteria ad absurdum.
The absurdity of “privatization” becomes even clearer in the case of other functions of the state. For example, it is impossible to organize ecological measures for the protection of the environment as a market transaction between private parties, because the consumption of the improved environment cannot be isolated to a solvent demand. It is impossible to stabilize the air and climate only for the neighborhoods of the rich. The environment is either improved for the whole society or ruined for the whole society, regardless of the purchasing power of individuals. Therefore, the protection of the environment can only ever appear as demand and consumption by the state. Sewerage, garbage collection, or water supply are also difficult to isolate for private demand. And even health care and schools cannot be “privatized” without negative repercussions on society, which in turn leads to new social costs.
So even if the functions of the state are performed by private companies, it is an illusion to try to dissolve these functions into the market. For even then, these functions appear as state costs, because they have to be demanded and consumed by the state for the most part. When, for example, a new “sun road” for long-distance traffic in Mexico was not only to be built by private investors, but also operated privately according to profit criteria, there was a major fiasco: the large transport companies and private motorists were unable to pay the expensive tolls, and traffic continued to roll along the hopelessly overloaded, but toll-free state roads. No matter how you look at it, the preconditions, conditions and consequences of the market economy are something qualitatively different from the market economy itself. They are problems of society as a whole that cannot be solved privately. In a society of competing individuals, only the state “leviathan” can take on these tasks. Incidentally, this also applies to state subsidies, the drastic reduction of which would just as drastically aggravate the global crisis, because large parts of industry and agriculture in almost all countries would be ruined without these subsidies.
The relationship between market and state in the process of modernization can be reduced to the formula of a general law: The more market, the more state. The relationship of the blindly competing “windowless monads” and the monster “Leviathan” is that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That is why the doctrine of economic liberalism is as wrong as the prognosis of the IMF economists Tanzi and Schuknecht. The bloated market and the bloated state can only live or die together.
The end of economic policy
Keynesianism is no longer of any use against the crisis. Even if some leftists still nostalgically hope for it.
Anti-economics and anti-politics
by Robert Kurz
[This 2001 article is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.exit-online.org/textanz1.php?tabelle=schwerpunkte&index=0&posnr=52&backtext1=text1.php.]
At least, the first window panes shattered: in the FDP headquarters in Bonn and on the large construction sites for the pyramids of the “Berlin Republic”. But it is not emancipatory anger that is being expressed. “We want work,” is the slogan of people who like nothing better than building pyramids. The construction workers want German work for German pyramids, and the miners want to continue receiving national economic subsidies. The desire for livelihood security is deeply justified, but in the form of wage labor, justice today leads itself ad absurdum.
The fact that all conceivable measures only lead to ever new paradoxes points to the paralysis of any economic policy at all. Assuming the modern market system, this is the hour of liberalism. For its economic policy is to have none. Apart from securing the formal framework conditions, the “invisible hand” of blind market forces should be allowed to strike freely. The promise that this will lead to “general prosperity” has always been without guarantee. Since the 18th century, liberalism has insisted that the social mechanics of markets represent, for good or ill, an unalterable law of nature. From the liberal point of view, when masses can no longer be integrated socially, this does not mean that the market system becomes obsolete, but that the people concerned become obsolete. This corresponds to the “population law” of Thomas R. Malthus [British national economist in the 19th century; A.d.R.]: “Nature itself,” according to its consequence, commands the “superfluous” to troll off the earth.
Since liberalism threatened to lead European market societies to the brink of civil war already in the 19th century, elements of a paternalistic state economic and social policy emerged under conservative and social democratic aegis. Of course, even the most radical socialists always presupposed a “labor society” for the internalized end in itself of money utilization: The socially disenfranchised masses were to be sufficiently “employed” to keep the machine of the (free or planned) market running. Under the impact of the Great Depression, Keynes overturned the liberal dogma even in official economics: macroeconomic management and government deficit spending were supposed to avert the crisis.
In fact, in a precarious way, both liberalism and Keynesianism are right. A system as hybrid and inherently unstable as a total market economy can exist only as long as the euphemistically termed “self-healing power” succeeds in opening up more and more new fields for the sausage-making of labor, while at the same time being supported by massive state intervention. The “economic miracle” was only possible through a combination of new labor-intensive industries (cars, household and consumer electronics) and permanent government deficit spending.
Since the early 1980s, both elements of a viable market system have been exhausted. The microelectronic revolution is eroding not only industrial reproduction, but the “labor society” in general. The profitable use of labor power is being extinguished worldwide under the pressure of rationalization faster than new fields of exploitation are being opened up, while deficit spending is failing against the absolute limits of government debt. The collapse of entire national economies on the capitalist periphery, especially the end of the state-socialist variants of “catch-up modernization,” was completely misinterpreted as a warning signal, namely declared to be the “victory” of the already languishing Western core system: in 1989, suddenly everyone was openly or secretly liberal, even deep into the left.
Predictably, the deregulation and privatization frenzy of triumphant neoliberalism could only accelerate the global crisis. The avalanche of debts of states, companies and private individuals was not slowed down, but intensified; and the economic globalization of capital forces the states to engage in a self-destructive race of social, ecological and tax dumping. At the same time, the capital that can no longer be profitably invested in real assets is flowing into the speculative financial markets: In a complementary movement, the fictitiously increased stock values are taking off, and global structural mass unemployment is swelling from cycle to cycle.
Now the renewal of utopian energies would be required to bring the modernization robot to a halt and to rededicate the microelectronic productive forces for an autonomous reproduction beyond market and state, to emancipatorially appropriate the resources lying fallow in the market economy and to counter capitalist globalization by a transnational networking of social counter-movement. But a left that has allowed itself to be gassed on free-market “realism” prefers to disgrace itself with a Keynesian nostalgia that is as desperate as it is groundless. It may be well-intentioned when Pierre Bourdieu calls for new social ideas in France, but his proposal of a “rescue of Keynesian civilization,” like Joschka Fischer’s invocation of “Rhenish capitalism,” is neither new nor an idea.
The hope for a new economic policy in conformity with the market is realistic only as an option of repressive emergency administration and selective social exclusion. Already, some of the Keynesian nostalgia is openly social-nationalist. If Bonn makes Keynesian concessions to the relevantly revolting construction workers and miners, this will posthaste result in liberal social restriction elsewhere. On the ground of the disintegrating system of market and state, any government can only accentuate the course of de-solidarization. So much for “socio-ecological restructuring”. Those were fair-weather fantasies. All those who took a step toward liberalism in 1989 must take the next step toward Malthusianism today.
Who is totalitarian?
The abysses of an ideological all-purpose term
Anti-economics and anti-politics
by Robert Kurz
[This 2001 article is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.exit-online.org/textanz1.php?tabelle=schwerpunkte&index=0&posnr=123&backtext1=text1.php.]
The word “totalitarianism” has become a kind of child’s terror for Western political philosophy. What is always considered totalitarian is what the market economy and democracy are not: the exclusive claim of one party to political rule; a centralized bureaucratic apparatus; the suppression of all opposition; an unlimited system of power that equalizes all areas of life and even permeates intimacy. Democracy, on the other hand, it is said, lets everyone be happy according to his own wishes: it virtually craves opposition; the pluralism of ideas and life plans is respected; the space of the private sphere remains taboo for social power and people are allowed to be different in peace. In this way, the history of the 20th century can be understood as a fundamental conflict between liberal democracy and totalitarian dictatorship. At least, that is how it is written in Western textbooks. From this point of view, in the past the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin were totalitarian; and today it is perhaps the “God states” of Islamic fundamentalism. In any case, totalitarianism is seen as an alien and hostile concept to Western freedom, whose dark existence can be invoked at any time as an imminent danger.
It is striking that in this “theory of totalitarianism” of the two polar spheres of modern society only the state-political one is named, while the economic one remains completely hidden. In this sense, there can only be a totalitarian state, but apparently no totalitarian economy, no totalitarian mode of production, no totalitarian market. The axiom of this highly one-sided view is that actually only the state and politics fall into the realm of the social, while the economy – as already postulated in the 18th century by the Physiocrats and Adam Smith – supposedly belongs to “nature” and insofar falls out of social theory in the strict sense. “Natural laws,” however, cannot be totalitarian or a threat to freedom, but must be accepted like the weather. With this clumsy trick liberalism has tried from the beginning to make the economic center of modernity completely inaccessible to critical reflection. At the same time, the fact that the totalitarian dictatorships of the interwar period had at least one thing in common with democracy – namely, the economic forms of the modern commodity-producing system – can remain mute in this way.
The concept of totality originates in 19th century philosophy. Particularly in Hegel, it is associated with the claim to subsume the world under a “total concept”, i.e. to comprehend it completely. It is not difficult to recognize the social background of this thinking in the fact that man and nature are to be subjected “totally” to the capitalist social machine, in order to transform ideally every atom, every thought and every feeling into the material of the exploitation process. So it is actually the economic logic of capitalism that makes the totalitarian claim; and by ideologically transforming this claim into a “law of nature,” liberalism is only trying to make its own dictatorial core invisible. Just as Henry Ford said that buyers could purchase his standardized “Model T” in any color they wanted if only it was black, so liberal pluralism allows all objects and ideas to be valid if only they can be made saleable.
By the middle of the 20th century, this economic totalitarianism was far from complete. There were still elements of an older agrarian, domestic, and even cooperative mode of production; and there were cultural spheres of life that resisted the abstract space-time of capitalism. In order to turn individuals completely into the human material of the capitalist machine, a political mobilization of the masses was needed first: the political sphere acquired a “surplus” moment in this epoch, it was charged up, as it were, to serve as a kind of flow heater for the completion of economic totalitarianism.
The continuation of mass politics through military mobilization acted as the strongest driving force. It was in the trenches of World War I that the democratic prototype was created. In his famous wartime novel “Nothing New in the West,” the German writer Erich Maria Remarque wrote: “The differences that education and upbringing created are almost blurred and hardly recognizable…It is as if we had once been coins of different countries; they have been melted down, and all now have the same stamp.” Democratic equality before money, insufficiently enforced until then, could not be prepared otherwise than in the form of equality of death and mutilation in the “blood mills” of the World War. This primal form of democracy in the 20th century finally gave individuals the equality of – singularity.
In certain historical conditions, as in Russia and Germany, the continuation of this social process took the form of the totalitarian mass movement and dictatorship; but also in the United States the mobilization of the “New Deal” was accompanied by mass marches, torchlight processions and effects of political propaganda shows. The aim was to “totally” grasp society and “get it going,” far beyond the immediate political and military goals. The German writer Ernst Jünger coined the term “total mobilization” for this purpose in 1934. He assigned merely “partial mobilization” to the “essence of monarchy,” which, he said, “exceeds its measure in the same proportion in which it is forced to involve in armament the abstract forms of the spirit, of money, of the >people<, in short, the powers of the maturing democracy." Jünger therefore saw in Western democracy above all a higher degree of exhaustion of all social reserves: "Thus mobilization in the United States, a country of very democratic constitution, could begin with measures of a severity that would not have been possible in the military state of Prussia...Already in this war it depended not on the degree to which a state was or was not a military state, but on the degree to which it was capable of total mobilization." That this was a process that went far beyond the military was also clear to the German World War General Ernst Ludendorff, who wrote in a 1935 treatise on "total war": "Total war, which is not only a matter for the armed forces but also directly affects the life and soul (!) of each individual member of the belligerent peoples, was born. Since then the total war has deepened with the improvement and multiplication of airplanes, which drop bombs of all kinds, but also leaflets and other propaganda material on the population, and with the improvement and multiplication of radio installations, which spread propaganda to the enemy, and other things". But if the secret purpose of this "total mobilization" was ultimately to enforce the totalitarian claim of the capitalist economy, then the political-military "movement" in the first half of the 20th century can easily be deciphered as a precursor and transformation to the unleashing of the "total market" since 1950. Ludendorff's "bombs of all kinds, leaflets and other propaganda material" have become, in the commercial post-war democracies, the non-stop drum-fire of advertising and media sprinkling, which, as a visual onslaught and acoustic bell, covers the entire public space and has a terrorist character insofar as no one can escape this endless drivel and its impertinent intrusiveness. What is being "enemy-spread" here (and the "enemy" is everyone in the permanent war for clientele, jobs, careers, prestige, etc. in a fully capitalized world) surpasses in every respect the military beginnings in the "total war" between 1914 and 1945. The concept of totalitarianism can thus be brushed against the grain of Western ideology of legitimacy. This is particularly striking in the case of a classic of "totalitarianism theory," the 1951 book by the U.S. philosopher Hannah Arendt on "Elements and Origins of Total Rule. She writes there, "Nothing is more characteristic of totalitarian movements in general, and of the quality of the fame of their leaders in particular, than the startling rapidity with which they forget, and the amazing ease with which they can be replaced...This permanence certainly has something to do.... with the addiction to movement of totalitarian movements, which can hold on at all only as long as they keep moving and set everything around them in motion...precisely this extraordinary ability to change over and lack of continuity, if there is such a thing as a totalitarian character or mentality at all, is undoubtedly an outstanding characteristic..." Hannah Arendt has in mind here only the state-political side of totalitarianism, that is, the dictatorships of the interwar period. But only seemingly does the faceless mass of the first half of the century, politically-militarily mobilized by the dictatorships or transitional democratic forms, contrast with the commercial cult of the equally faceless individual as "consumer" in the postwar democracies. Rather, the one, the mass mobilized in the marches, can be understood as the rehearsal of the other, the isolated consumer individual. The "free" postwar democratic individual is nothing other than the "specimen" originally standardized and pressed by the politico-military machine, let loose only to be available for the further commercial course of the world capitalist machine. In her (1951 understandable) fixation on the state-totalitarian dictatorships, Hannah Arendt completely overlooks how much her formulations about the nature of totalitarianism precisely hit the character of the market becoming totalitarian and thus of Western democracy itself. For the "amazing rapidity of forgetting" - to what would this description apply better than to the capitalist conjunctures, which are no longer human development, but only the passage of indifferent contents through the movement of money? The "ease of substitution" - what would be more precisely named by this than the personality of universally interchangeable people reduced to an object? And what could be more "addicted to movement" than capitalism itself, which, as an economic snowball system, can indeed "only keep itself going as long as it keeps moving and sets everything around it in motion"? Where would "extraordinary adaptability" be a greater virtue than in the democratic world market economy, as we are being preached again today by the whippers of permanent "adaptation" to a blind "structural change"? And finally, what could represent a more radical "lack of continuity" than the history-less universal market, which carries out its ever-same movement in a kind of timeless nirvana? This correspondence becomes even clearer when Hannah Arendt seeks to grasp the "law of motion" of totalitarianism more precisely: "Behind the claim to world domination which all totalitarian movements make, there always lies the claim to produce a human race which, actively acting, embodies laws which it would otherwise suffer only passively, full of resistance, and never completely...The graveyard peace which, according to classical theory, tyranny lays over the land...remains as denied to the totalitarian-ruled country as rest in general. True, its inhabitants are deprived of all action...arising in free spontaneity; nevertheless they are kept in perpetual motion as exponents of the gigantic superhuman process of nature or history which races through them...Terror in this sense is, as it were, the >law< which can no longer be transgressed...". But what is denounced here as the essence of totalitarianism is nothing other than the essence of liberalism itself. For it was, after all, none other than the cream of bourgeois political economy and Enlightenment philosophy which from the very beginning had claimed for itself to execute "the laws of nature and history" on man. And it is capitalism, which has become total, that "deprives the inhabitants of the social space in which it rules of all action arising in free spontaneity"; for all activity in this space is axiomatically formatted by the economic imperative. Even more mercilessly than by the state-totalitarian dictatorships, the economized individuals are kept by the free world market "in constant motion as exponents of the gigantic superhuman process" of structural ruptures of a blind growth dynamic that "races through them" and is passed off by the neoliberal ideologues as an objective "process of nature and history". In truth, we are definitely dealing with a continuity of capitalist history in which the state-totalitarian dictatorships and the "total mobilization" of the world wars did not represent a fundamental counter-model, but a certain historical aggregate state and an enforcement form of "market economy and democracy" itself: Society as a whole was set into accelerated motion at all levels and in all areas in order to be able to carry the accelerated and condensed accumulation of capital. At the end of the 20th century, the transformation of capitalist totalitarianism from total state to total market led to an unprecedented "terror of economics" - the "law" that we are derisively told "can no longer be transgressed." And the reality control of the capitalist media can only talk non-stop about freedom because we have "1984" long behind us. https://marcbatko.academia.edu