The necessary breach and Rackets and Rockets
by Tomasz Konicz
The climate movement should not be afraid of being accused of radicalism. Given the civilization-threatening dimensions of the climate crisis, it is a matter of sheer collective will to survive to solve this monstrous problem. It is obvious that global capitalism, in its boundless compulsion to grow, is incapable of reducing resource consumption and emissions.
The necessary breach
By Tomasz Konicz
[This article posted on 8/12/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.konicz.info/2022/08/12/der-notwendige-bruch/.]
ak, Aug. 12, 2022
The climate movement needs anti-capitalist guardrails for its upcoming actions
The climate movement should not be afraid of being accused of radicalism. Given the civilization-threatening dimensions of the climate crisis, it is a matter of sheer collective will to survive to solve this monstrous problem. It is obvious that global capitalism, in its boundless compulsion to grow, is incapable of reducing resource consumption and emissions. This has long been empirically proven, as in the 21st century global emissions of CO2 could only be reduced in the short term at the price of world economic crises, only to rise again all the more rapidly as a result of subsequent economic stimulus measures. The entire world is being turned into the mere fuel of this irrational exploitation cycle.
Even more: since wage labor forms the substance of capital, increases in productivity cause the hunger for resources of the capitalist profit machine to increase, since the value of the individual commodity decreases and more commodities must be produced in order to successfully complete the cycle of exploitation (this results in the tendency for many products to be produced in such a way that they break down more quickly). The climate crisis is a capitalist climate crisis. Without overcoming capital, there is no hope of averting the impending climate catastrophe.
Being radical means first and foremost saying what’s what. The fight against the capitalist climate crisis must be waged with open sights in view of the rapidly running time. It is necessary to tell people openly that sustainable climate protection, i.e. the alleviation of the climate crisis, is only possible if the capitalist compulsion to grow is overcome. The climate struggle must thus be waged as a struggle for transformation into a post-capitalist society. Overcoming capital’s exploitation compulsion run amok is the absolute minimum.
This confrontation would finally break the ideological spell that makes the discussion of system alternatives impossible. And actually most people suspect that late capitalism is heading for the abyss; the apocalypse is omnipresent in the culture industry, in film and computer games. The difficulty would rather be to convince the people, who are lapsing into resignation, that the climate collapse including the apocalypse is not inevitable. The demand for a system transformation would also put a stop to the opportunism rampant among the Greens and the Left Party, which still sees even the climate crisis as a vehicle for career dreams in crisis management.
What does anti-capitalist climate policy mean?
The vision of a climate-friendly and resource-conserving post-capitalist society, which seems so abstract, results from the concrete necessities of climate protection. The demands of an anti-capitalist climate policy must not be concerned with the irrational coercive logic of eroding and ailing late capitalism; they must be oriented to the objective, scientific necessities of climate protection, as well as to the technological possibilities of society. The productive forces that capitalism brought forth would break the fetters of capitalist production relations in this regard.
In concrete terms, this also means meeting the current fears of wage earners: The killer argument of job preservation in fossil industries, for example, would have to be countered by saying that the reproduction of people must no longer be linked to the reproduction of capital in their jobs. For this confronts wage-earners in late capitalism with the tragic choice between social survival and the threat of climate collapse. The same applies to the admonitions about the financial viability of climate protection measures, which could be countered by intensifying and expanding the debate about socialization and expropriation.
The ideological constraints that capital has erected in the neoliberal era would have to be countered by the very real constraints of climate protection. Such a transformational climate policy, linking concrete actions with demands that clearly go beyond the logic of capital, would be tantamount to a first breakout from the capitalist prison of thought.
But what actually needs to be overcome? Even the most powerful capitalists are helplessly exposed to the momentum of capital, which it forms through market mediation. The uncontrollable self-movement of money functioning as capital in its forms of commodity, money and labor power is called fetishism. This is why the capitalists cannot “save the world,” even though the impending social and ecological collapse ultimately threatens their businesses as well. For it is precisely this dynamic of exploitation, unconsciously produced by market subjects, that is devastating impotent human societies and the global ecosystem.
Marx’s seemingly cryptic remark that the overcoming of capitalism would conclude “the prehistory of human society” thus receives its clarity. All previous human history took place unconsciously, within the framework of fetishistic social systems: from the religious fetishism of early times and the Middle Ages to the secularized religion of capital.
The systemic crisis of capital is irreversible
Overcoming this state of affairs would mean simplifying social reproduction. The organization of society would then be organized directly through an egalitarian, process of understanding by the members of society. This goal would also have to appear already in the organizational structure of the transformational movement, which plans its course of action in open discourse – and at the same time practices for the post-capitalist future.
And here is the crux of the matter: the systemic crisis of capital is also an irreversible, fetishistic process, as it chokes on its increasing economic and ecological contradictions and passes into transformation. It is not a question of the subjective will of the members of society whether the collapsing system will be overcome. It is a question of survival of human civilization, ultimately of human existence, in which way the coming transformation process will proceed: as a chaotic disintegration, in the form of the establishment of a brutal crisis dictatorship, or in a progressive direction that would open up new emancipatory perspectives for mankind in spite of all the coming climate-related distortions. What is at hand is a struggle for the course of system transformation.
What is more, this transformation process is already taking place – and the increasing political, ideological and also military conflicts are precisely the expression of this upheaval that is unconsciously taking place above humanity. Civilization or barbarism – these are the extreme poles in this historical “phase of transition”. The transformation struggle for a livable post-capitalist future should form the common denominator of many seemingly disparate movements and struggles.
As the system is in upheaval and the formerly fixed social structures-from the eroding state, to the political coordinate system in disintegration, to the steadily crumbling economy-are in a sense liquefying, collective action has a far greater impact on shaping the future than in periods when capitalism seemed more stable. Thus, bourgeois politics, the actions of political subjects, also matter again; they carry weight. Not because they solve the crisis, but because they can determine the course of the crisis. Whether Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders is in the White House is quite relevant to the course of the crisis process.
Tasks for radical movements
The task for radical movements is thus to understand even seemingly reformist decisions as setting the course for the transformation process and to position themselves accordingly. Here, too, it is important to emphasize the necessity of system transformation in order to finally anchor a discourse on social alternatives in society as a whole. Even protest movements like Fridays for Future and uprisings like the “Arab Spring” are similar in that they can erupt spontaneously when social tipping points are crossed. However, these very different movements, which erupted in reaction to the same socio-ecological crisis process, are only able to take an emancipatory course if they are supported by an adequate crisis consciousness that is broadly anchored in society.
Conceiving of the crisis as a maxim of emancipatory practice thus means asking in what form late capitalist society will enter the inevitable transformation process. Should it be an authoritarian, racist, police-state administered oligarchy with absurd social abysses in which the fossil fuel industry buys its parties, or a more egalitarian, bourgeois-democratic polity in which there continues to be scope for radical critique and praxis? A progressive movement, borne of an understanding of the necessity of systemic transformation, would thus struggle to establish conditions that could steer this transformational dynamic in an emancipatory direction. The maxim of such a post-politics would consist, on the one hand, in the effort to maintain and develop the process of civilization and, on the other hand, in the struggle to overcome the destructive capitalist momentum.
There is a maxim of political practice that leftist movements, groups or even parties must follow in the 21st century if they want to act as progressive social forces in the current epoch of upheaval and crisis. Capitalism must be transformed into history as quickly as possible, the capital relation as a social totality must be consciously abolished – all practical actions, all tactics, all reform proposals, all broader strategies would have to be oriented to this categorical imperative.
This is not an expression of leftist “radicalism,” but the formulation of the reasonable, middle, moderate minimum, without whose realization the process of civilization in the 21st century would end in barbarism. Precisely because capital is collapsing, it must be overcome. Progress can only be realized beyond capital, in the transformational struggle to shape a post-capitalist society.
Rackets and Rockets
By Tomasz Konicz
[This article posted on 5/25/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.konicz.info/2022/05/25/rackets-und-rockets/.
To understand the background of the Ukraine war, it is worthwhile to analyze the Russian power apparatus, which has undergone a significant transformation under Vladimir Putin’s leadership.
The invasion of Ukraine is turning into a military fiasco for the Kremlin, but on the home front, the attack certainly seems to be having the desired effects. The population is largely behind the course of the war. While the Russian army withdrew from Kiev oblast and northern Ukraine in early April at great human and material cost, leaving behind vast amounts of military debris, mass graves and much evidence of war crimes, approval ratings for Vladimir Putin’s actions climbed to ever new highs.
According to polls, by the end of March, some 83 percent of Russian Federation citizens supported the invasion planned by a tight circle of power in the Kremlin. In February, approval ratings for Putin’s Ukraine policy were 71 percent, compared with 69 percent in January. The growing support among the population is not only due to the usual truce policy that usually emerges after the beginning of hostilities in the warring states – this was also the case, for example, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq – but is also favored by defiant reactions to the Western sanctions. Moreover, a large part of the Russian population apparently wants to see Russia’s geopolitical decline prevented, which the great power would experience if Ukraine were to move closer to NATO.
The population’s apparently widespread desire to maintain and expand Russia’s imperial power, which pseudo-left-wing Putin insiders in the West like to nostalgically glorify with regard to the Soviet Union, goes hand in hand with an easily mobilized fear of Russia’s state disintegration. When Russian politicians currently warn that the West ultimately seeks to destroy the country, they are addressing deeply rooted fears. Putin’s popularity, especially among the older generation that lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, is based on his historic achievement in bringing to an end Russia’s chaotic transformation phase, which was characterized by social disintegration and wild oligarch rule. Putin is seen by the population as the man who ‘brought order’, who as the personification of the strong Russian state stopped post-Soviet social decay, disempowered the oligarchs, curbed pauperism and halted Russia’s plunge into global political irrelevance. That Putin stabilized Russia as an imperial power pole will never be forgiven by the West, which is not shy about close cooperation with mass murderers like Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.
The structure of the current Russian regime, the notorious deep-state power vertical with the Kremlin at its head, formed in the early 21st century in confrontation with the very oligarchic forces that pursued the economic sellout and political disintegration of the bankrupt Soviet mass during the drunken Yeltsin era. (Boris Yeltsin was able to win the presidential election in the crisis year of 1996 only thanks to massive financing from the newly bankrupt oligarchs).
In the course of the disputes during Putin’s first presidency, three powerful oligarchs, some of whom still promoted Putin’s political career, have been ousted: Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gussinsky were forced into exile, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky had to spend quite a few years in Russian penal camps. The remaining oligarchs and crisis profiteers, most of whom were recruited from the Soviet functional elite of the nomenklatura and were able to amass huge fortunes in a very short time during the period of wild privatizations in the course of the implosion of the Soviet Union, received mostly informal guarantees of ownership that had to be bought with political disempowerment and unconditional allegiance to the Kremlin. Before Putin came to power, the so-called Yeltsin family – a circle of privatization profiteers who were able to acquire stakes in companies because of their family connections to the first Russian president – also received guarantees of ownership that were largely honored.
Billionaire Roman Abramovich, who paved the way for Putin and sold his company holdings to the Russian state at a good price in good time, is considered a prime example of this politically neutered ex-oligarchy from Yeltsin’s time, as is industrial magnate Oleg Deripaska, who was able to keep his empire because of a special proximity to the Kremlin. In addition, there are politically well-connected billionaires like Arkady Rotenberg, who experienced their rise in the Putin era and owe their corporate empire to close ties to the Kremlin – in this case, personal acquaintance and cooperation with the president. In some ways, this architecture of power is reminiscent of that of Putin’s cherished imperial tsarist era, since in the 18th and 19th centuries, too, the economic success of merchants or industrialists in Russia not infrequently depended on the favor of the political power center.
In the strict sense of the word, there is no longer an oligarchy in Russia today, at least not if one understands the term to mean that absurdly wealthy individuals assert their particular interests by informally taking over or instrumentalizing parts of the state apparatus. Russia’s economic functional elite, the continuing layer of the super-rich, is politically subordinate to the state-or, more precisely, to the ruling layer that has usurped the state apparatus.
Putin, however, did not single-handedly disempower the oligarchy politically, but rather with recourse to secret service silos that emerged from the KGB and groupings from the Russian ‘power ministries’ that, in the broadest sense, enforce the state’s monopoly on the use of force. This dominant layer in Russia’s state power apparatus, from which Putin himself hails and from which many of his closest confidants are still recruited, is known as the siloviki, in reference to the Russian word for force (sila). They pushed back the oligarchy’s influence in the state apparatus, enforced essential state functions-such as the collection of taxes-with some brutality, and forced the oligarchy to sell strategic corporations to the state, especially in the areas of infrastructure, resource extraction, and energy extraction. Wages and pensions were reliably paid again and massive capital outflows from Russia were halted, helping to stabilize the country politically and economically.
Putin and the siloviki see themselves as Russia’s saviors, saving the country from disintegration during open and chaotic oligarch rule. Finally, who better to run the many state-owned enterprises than Russia’s saviors? The repeated nationalization of the corporations privatized in the 1990s (such as Aeroflot and part of the oil and gas industry) was accompanied by the siloviki taking over the management of the companies. Thus, a new layer of functional elites was formed: the state oligarchy. Ultimately, Putin did break Russian oligarchy rule, but only at the price of forming oligarchic structures in the expanding state apparatus, which rose to become a central economic actor. The siloviki, of course, also became fabulously wealthy in their role as stewards of state enterprises. The new state oligarchy has provided stability, but it is also responsible for the failure to modernize the Russian economy, which propagandists of the West, which is increasingly pushing into the post-Soviet space, like to deride as a gas station armed with nuclear missiles on the economic scale of Italy.
In Soviet times, one was satisfied with a color TV and a few Western products, a former member of the old Soviet nomenklatura who has not lost touch with the siloviki recalled to the ‘Financial Times’. But now his former party comrades would ‘steal on such a scale’ not least because they saw themselves as representatives of the state and consequently it would be ‘tantamount to humiliation’ if they were poorer than a ‘bunch of businessmen’. The difference between today’s state oligarchy and the first generation of post-Soviet robber barons is primarily that Putin’s people in the state apparatus do not engage in massive capital export-and that they do not flaunt their wealth to the outside world in order to maintain the facade of oligarch tamers. Moreover, the power and turf wars between the individual factions of this state oligarchy hardly ever reach the public today.
The higher the careerists rise in the Russian power apparatus, the more exclusive the society becomes. The inner circle around Putin shows traits of a rope team held together by loyalty obligations, ultimately a mere racket that formed decades ago on the basis of personal acquaintances in St. Petersburg. Putin, who in the early days of his reign still had to act cautiously and take account of different power groups, brought ‘his’ people from St. Petersburg to Moscow, who then successively occupied many of the most important positions in the state apparatus over the past decades.
This group includes, for example, former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, former Economy Minister Herman Gref, who now chairs the board of the semi-state-owned Sberbak, and Nikolay Patrushev, a former KGB agent who now heads the Russian Security Council. Another KGB man from the former Leningrad has headed Russia’s FSB since 2008: Alexander Bortnikov. Sergei Naryshkin, who attended KGB high school with Putin and followed him to Moscow in 2004, is responsible for the FSB’s foreign department. Even oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, who is loyal to Putin, started his career with a security company and a chain of gas stations in St. Petersburg. In addition to the siloviki and the St. Petersburg clique, right-wing liberal forces initially played some role in the Kremlin, many of whom also hailed from the former Leningrad.
The influence of a faction within the Russian power apparatus is measured by its access to those in power in the Kremlin-and here, above all, to the president. This is a process characteristic of authoritarian systems that ultimately undermines their ability to function: The circle of people or the political and ideological spectrum that can still exert influence on Putin is visibly narrowing. Moreover, controversial discussions, even dissent, seem hardly possible in the Kremlin. The more Putin is able to cement his power, the less willing his advisers, who have turned into lackeys, are to contradict him even on essential issues. The situation is similar with Erdo?an’s rule in Turkey, where he can cling unchallenged to his ‘anti-interest rate’ delusion despite an inflation rate of 60 percent at times.
Which brings us to the Kremlin’s seemingly insane decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To be sure, a Russian intervention of any kind in Ukraine, with its simmering civil war in the east, was inevitable within Russian imperial logic, since Russia could not maintain its status as an imperial great power in the medium term without its sphere of influence, its geopolitical ‘front yard’ in the southwest. But the megalomaniacal Putinist maximalism of wanting to take over the entire Ukraine virtually in a coup d’état and carry out regime change in Kiev seems to be a consequence of the aforementioned power-political dysfunctionality of the entrenched authoritarian structures.
Russian opposition media reported that a few weeks after the start of Russia’s war of aggression, a number of high-ranking FSB officials in Moscow had been placed under house arrest, and that a purge was now underway in the apparatus. Clearly, in the run-up to the war, Putin was fed information by his bitterly competing lackeys in the intelligence services for access to the inner sanctum, information that met Putin’s desires for a Russian-Ukrainian community of destiny – and not necessarily of a Ukraine being rapidly upgraded by NATO, with Western Ukrainian right-wing extremists gaining increasing influence in its military and state apparatus and setting up quick-witted, fanatically anti-Russian fighting formations.
Responsibility for the military and geopolitical disaster seems to fall squarely on Putin’s FSB elite, which at the same time cannot simply be disempowered. In Naryshkin and Bortnikov, the Russian head of state has dilettantish but at the same time loyal subordinates who – as in the case of Naryshkin shortly before the outbreak of war – can be publicly humiliated, but whose reliability is indispensable, especially in times of crisis. And stability is likely to be the highest priority in domestic politics. Similar to the Russian population, the ranks in the power apparatus and within the state oligarchy are likely to close in the short term, which makes Western talk of alleged coup plans in the Kremlin appear to be mere wishful thinking. Only when the social and economic consequences of the historically unprecedented Western economic sanctions fully take hold of Russian society, only when the pending conquest of eastern Ukraine should also fail, could there be a change of mood in the population and in the Russian power apparatus.
Tomasz Konicz wrote in konkret 4/22 about the German rearmament program