Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Crash Course

Finally, some English-language analyses with a value-critical approach to the current crisis are emerging. A translation of the Gruppe Krisis' "pamphlet on the financial crisis" titled "Crash Course" outlines the true nature of the impending collapse. The Krisis Group is, along with Robert Kurz et al. (now associated with Exit! magazine), at the forefront of the Wertkritik (value critique) tendency in Marxist theory. Their work deserves to be considered, now more than ever. Unfortunately, much of it remains untranslated and unknown outside of Germany. When these theorists and their ideas crop up in Anglo-American Marxist debates, they are generally pooh-poohed by the likes of Louis Proyect as "crisis mongers" whose work is, at best, a curiosity. In point of fact, they are more aware than most that the crisis is not cause for celebration, and they are among the only theorists whose work can contribute to the unlikely possibility of a better society emerging from the rubble of capitalism.

Monday, November 10, 2008

For Kurz, Hemlock; for the Crisis Administrators, the Guillotine

Obama's victory has provoked contrary sentiments. On one hand, his partisans feel buoyed by a wave of optimism and hope. Finally, change has come. On the other, his opponents are deeply suspicious of his rock-star status. This suspicion is rather odd, considering that it forms part of the subterranean wave of negative populism that the McCain campaign tried to exploit. One person's populist is another's demagogue, I suppose. In the midst of all the optimism, tears, and cries of "We made history!", there are a few dissenting voices. Popular sentiment would like to ignore these naysayers and, if that becomes impossible, to force them to drink their cup of hemlock for daring to speak what no one wanted to hear. As Obama takes power and the crisis deepens, the pessimist in me expects his most ardent supporters to become the vociferous leaders in calling for his head.

My very unprofessional translation of Robert Kurz's recent article in A Folha de São Paulo, is reproduced below.


The Last Messiah

[Original German title: “Das Charisma der Krise” ‘The Charisma of Crisis’]

Why Obamania is condemned to failure

Robert Kurz

There is an old debate about the role of personality in History. Structural theorists point to objective social processes; the only possible conclusion is that great figures are the expression of these processes. Action theorists contradict this: in the beginning there was the Deed. Faith and Will can move mountains. Both are only partially correct. Social developments don’t happen on their own; they require interventionary action. On the other hand, action is related to pre-existing structural conditions as long as a blind dynamic underlies society, as is the case in capitalism. Because of this, great crises are precisely what creates the need for charismatic personalities that can generate a stimulating atmosphere of wakefulness. The religious moment of this mechanism is unmistakable. Hopes, desires, and fears are linked to a political messiah when a rupture shakes society. The question is whether charisma will be capable of upholding the new, or whether it will just give a new form of development to the catastrophe of the old.

Barack Obama, the “Black Kennedy,” doesn’t represent the overcoming of global capitalism but, rather, it’s renewal. His charisma didn’t arise in the context of a social movement with emancipatory goals, but instead as a mask in the context of media activities and dominant politics. If Obama became the receptacle of the entire planet’s good will and brings the people of the USA to tears, this was because he represents the belief in the State’s return to a substantial and prudent growth, that creates good job opportunities and saves the environment. This is the simultaneous belief in the overcoming of old conceptions about enemies, the balance of power, and the participation of the races that make up the majority of humanity. The gravitational force of these hopes is produced by the global middle class that, having glimpsed the crisis, wants to change everything so that, fundamentally, everything can stay the same. But this faith won’t move mountains. The rupture of 1989 brought about the transformation of old State capitalism into global, financial capitalism. Unlike 1989, the rupture of 2008 signals the internal limits of the world system itself. Obama will become the most powerful man in a world that, in all probability, will no longer be able to transform itself on its own grounds.

The power that the 44th President of the USA has to configure social relations is limited, if we just consider the State’s destitute budget. This is not, however, merely the consequence of the Bush administration’s misguided policies, like many wish to believe. It is the result of deep structural crisis in world capital. Obama can’t turn the rudder sharply; he can only administer the uncontrollable dynamic of the crisis. Instead of creating new jobs, the foreseeable global depression will destroy the precarious job opportunities created by “financially induced” growth. Among those affected will be precisely those African-Americans who ascended socially in the USA and the new middle class in Asia. And, if the climate is to be spared, it won’t be due to political agreements becoming finally effective, but because the deficit conjunture will extinguish itself. Apropos, it will be something like the failure of State capitalist industry in the Eastern Bloc during the 1990s, that temporarily diminished the global emission of greenhouse gases.

The balance of political powers also runs the risk of arriving at an impasse. The end of the wars for the world order in Afghanistan and Iraq isn’t heralded by peace treaties, but by the forseeable failure of the capacity to finance the military. The withdrawal of the American military machine could therefore result in a chaotic series of events. In the same way, the political understanding among petroleum and gas-producing countries like Russian and Venezuela would be useless in the face of local regime collapses since, with the drop in energy prices, the basis of their negotiations is undermined. Even more likely, a new balance of power in relation to China would require that the unilateral exportation corridor in the Pacific remain open. In reality, however, this reciprocal dependency will disintegrate as soon as the (very probable) inflation of the dollar devalues the astronomical monetary reserves of the Asian exporters. A smooth realignment of power relations will probably be illusive, as State finances and the currencies of a growing number of countries become unsustainable. After Iceland, now Hungary, Ukraine, and again Argentina are candidates for State bankruptcy. More countries will follow in sequence.

Obama has the job of global fire chief, but the fires cropping up are innumerable, and the water with which to extinguish them is drying up. Faith and love, hope and determination are nice things when they find a “condition of possibility.” The global system of finance capital offers them no foundation. The global enthusiasm of Obamania threatens to fall flat on its face with great disappointment. A personality whose charisma rests on false assumptions should not be made responsible for this, however. The crisis of the world system isn’t a novel whose happy ending can be staged by the media. Just as the USA is the last capitalist world power, maybe Obama will be the last political messiah. Humanity must again learn the lesson propagated by the “International” in another historical constellation: “No higher being can save us, no Kaiser, nor tribune; Saving ourselves from misery, we ourselves alone must do.” The extinct pathos of this affirmation is different than the pathos of Obamania.

Published in Portuguese in Jornal Folha de S. Paulo

Published in German at <>

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Picture is Worth 150 Words

Courtesy of MRZine, a word cloud of the 150 most common words in Capital, vol. 1. It's funny, I don't see "class struggle" or "dictatorship of the proletariat" in there anywhere. I guess I'll keep looking. Nothing about "distribution," either. What the hell? Labour, value, production, capital. Hmm.