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Achim Szepanski: Kapitalisierung Bd. I & II

Review on:

Kapitalisierung Bd. 1: Marx’ Non-Ökonomie

Kapitalisierung Bd. 2: Non-Ökonomie des gegenwärtigen Kapitalismus

Achim Szepanski

Hamburg: Laika, 2014 1)This article is a longer version of a review I wrote for Marx & Philosophy. Link: http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2015/2050

 

I. Beyond Marxology: Coming Out of the German Box

Achim Szepanki’s trilogy Kapitalisierung (Capitalisation) may be the most important publication on Marxist economy in the German-speaking world since Robert Kurz’ Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus) (The Black Book of Capitalism) (1999). To understand this claim one has to know that for the last decades German-speaking Marxist discourse has been more or less completely dominated by the ‘Neue Marx-Lektüre’ (New Marx-Reading), a school of Marxology that has been founded by Hans-Georg Backhaus, Helmut Reichelt, Michael Heinrich, Robert Kurz, and others. 2)As the founding text of ‘Neue Marx-Lektüre’ one can count Reichelt’s dissertation Zur logischen Struktur des Kapitalbegriffs bei Karl Marx (On the Logical Structure of the Concept of Capital in Karl Marx) (2001) from 1968, first published in 1970. It has become the standard reading of Marx within leftist German-speaking academia since the late 90s, important protagonists being the group around the mentioned Robert Kurz and his journal Krisis and Michael Heinrich, whose introduction into the Capital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Eine Einführung (Critique of Political Economy. An Introduction) (2005), first published in 2004, became the standard introduction to Marx’ Capital within few years. Under this label they have established a reading of Marx’ Capital which is strongly focused on the book’s first four chapters in which Marx is said to have developed a structural critique of the form of capitalist socialisation with the logically connected forms of value, money, commodity, and the fetishism of these forms as its structural core. The whole rest of the book is understood as a mere development of this fundamental structure, which many even see as a superfluous and nowadays irrelevant appendix. One is justified in suspecting that the ‘Neue Marx-Lektüre’ is, in its essence, more or less a renewal of the classical Western Marxist reading of Marx as introduced by György Lukács and developed further by the Frankfurt School.

This ‘Neue Marx-Lektüre’ marked a clear progress. It helped to immunise against personalising views on Capitalist societies that can easily lead to forms of anti-Semitism, and views that focus on class struggle while ignoring the economical laws that shape it. Moreover, Robert Kurz, Roswitha Scholz, Ernst Lohoff, Norbert Trenkle, and other members of the journals Krisis 3)Cf. http://www.krisis.org/ (and, subsequently, EXIT! 4)Exit is a new journal founded mainly by Robert Kurz and Roswitha Scholz as a spin-off from Krisis in 2004 after internal disputes. Cf. http://www.exit-online.org ) have developed since the late 80s under the premises of ‘Neue Marx-Lektüre’ an important analysis of current capitalism. They see it as having reached its final structural crisis as the substance of value (and, thus, profit), human labour, becomes more and more obsolete with the ‘third technological revolution’, i.e. the massive introduction of microelectronic technologies since the 70s.

At the same time, it lead to an unproductive stagnation of Marxist German-speaking discourse. It became more or less cut off from international debates while having little influence on these debates itself. Marxist’ debates have become merely philological and self-referential. The rich analysis that Marx offers in the Capital has been reduced to a Neo-Hegelian cultural criticism, a purely negative critique that also lead to a political stagnation in large parts of the German-speaking radical Left. The probably most awkward manifestation of this is the ‘Antideutsche Bewegung’ (‘anti-German movement’) that abolished classical Communist policy at all in favour of aggressive Pro-Israel- and Anti-Islam-lobbying that corresponds well, all-too-well with the neoliberal economic policy (and its correlating cultural policy of diversity management and political correctness on the one hand, the ideological formation of a Western identity that defines itself against ‘terrorist’ or ‘fundamentalist’ forces on the other hand) of Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel. Leftist debates and politics have altogether become more or less completely culturalised and politicised and focused on issues such as queer feminism, anti-Fascism, anti-Racism, and anti-Islamism in the last two decades – a paradoxical, even absurd development if one bears in mind that at the same time the worst economic crisis in decades took place.

Achim Szepanski is – besides for example authors like Frank Engster (2014) and Harald Strauß (2013) – one of the few German-speaking authors who, frustrated by this dissatisfactory situation, have had the courage to come out of the German-speaking box in order to develop a (within a German context) completely new and even revolutionary reading of Marx and may in the long run lead to a re-economisation and re-radicalisation of German leftist politics. Possibly, the German radical left may be, after a long time of decline, a factor to be reckoned with again.

Moreover, the significance of Szepanki’s book does not exhaust itself within a mere German-speaking context. His book is of great importance for an international audience as well. Especially the politicisation and culturalisation under the influence of neoliberalism, i.e. the postmodernisation of the Left seem to be massive problem on a global scale.

II. Marx, Laruelle, Deleuze

The first volume of the trilogy, Marx’ Non-Ökonomie (Marx’ Non-Economics) deals mainly with a re-interpretation of Capital and the development of Szepanski’s philosophical and methodological premises. The freshness of Szepanki’s approach stems mainly from the fact that he – just like Marx himself – is not so much interested in philological nit-picking but uses his theoretical references as mere tool-boxes in order to reach a better understanding of the current situation. And – again just like Marx – he refers to the most innovative theories of his time. Among many others, these are mainly the Marxian critique of political economy itself (seen through the eyes of 150 years of discourse around it that Szepanski receives to an impressively large extent), the project of Non-Philosophy that François Laruelle has been developing for the last few decades, and the post-structuralist heterodox philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

II. 1 The Conception of Non-Economics

Obviously enough, the title ‘Non-Economics’ refers to Laruelle. The parts of the book on Laruelle are possibly the hardest to comprehend. However, the chapter on Laruelle, Das Konzept der Non-Philosophie (The Conception of Non-Philosophy), can be read on its own as an excellent introduction to Laruelle’s unusual thinking. 5)It has to be noted here that the same goes for every chapter of the books: They can all be read separately with great benefit. Just like Szepanski does not interpret Capital as a deductive book, he himself does not write in a deductive way. He shows himself being a good disciple of Deleuze and Guattari insofar as his books are not organised like a tree with a clear, single root but more like a meadow grounded with a network of multiple, interconnected roots, a ‘rhizome’. Any chapter can be taken as its centre. Moreover, he uses in a very Deleuzian way constant repetitions of certain conceptions and arguments as a means of development something new by little variations. While one can criticise this way of writing from a formalist point of view as being redundant, it is felicitous insofar as it reflects the content of the book and allows the reader to find his or her own way through the labyrinth despite of confronting it with one single, inflexible structure the reader has to adapt him-/herself. It is truly written like a tool-box. Szepanski is presumably the first German-speaking author who refers to Laruelle in great detail at all. What he essentially takes from Laruelle is an emphatic conception of ‘the Real’ which determines the world of human activities ‘in-the-last-instance’ (a term that Szepanki’s takes from Laruelle but which also reminds of classical Marxism) without being determined itself. Thus, there is no reciprocity in the relationship between human world and ‘the Real’, but a relationship that is purely one-sided: ‘The Real’ is that which grounds any human activity without being grounded itself. As such, it is never present itself but can only be grasped by interpreting the phenomena of the human world as its symptoms. Consequently, all attempts to interpret it are mere constructions which can make no claim towards ultimate truth. It can only proceed by consciously setting some basic axioms that are in the last instance political.

This assumption leads Laruelle towards the development of a ‘Non-Philosophy’ that completely avoids that which he sees as the major failure of any kind of classical philosophy including classical materialism: seeking an identical subject-object which can be used as a starting point for an absolute knowledge of the world. Philosophy does this by picking one particular phenomenon of conscious experience and declaring it to be the transcendental fundament for any experience and the fundamental principle of the world. Thus, any kind of traditional philosophy reduces the world to a subjective phenomenon – even traditional materialism as its ‘matter’ is still always-already ‘matter-for-a-subject’. Against this, Laruelle takes any kind of human knowledge as an equal symptom of the Real; his method is strictly realist, pluralist, and non-fundamentalist. Thus we see that Laruelle’s (and accordingly Szepanki’s) ‘non’ is not a mere negation but a ‘non’ comparable to the ‘non’ of non-Euclidean geometry: It does not only negate traditional forms of knowledge but integrates it within a more flexible, more comprehensive framework in which it is conserved as a special case.

The same goes not just for philosophy but for any kind of science insofar as any science seeks to seal off its realm of knowledge from other realms and to become absolute by taking mere special cases for the objective manifestation of the Real. Consequently, the goal of Szepanki’s work is to interpret our current world as a symptom of ‘the Real’. His basic axiom is that the Real of our current world is the process of capitalisation. It should be clear that this does not imply that his project is ‘economist’ in a traditional sense of the word. It is exactly ‘non-economist’ insofar as ‘the Real’ of that which is the object of standard economics is itself non-economic. Standard economics are therefore only one tool among many others in order to understand capitalist economy – they are a symptom of capitalisation itself.

II. 2 Capitalisation as a Process

Szepanski develops his conception of capitalisation under quasi-ontological premises that he takes from Deleuze and Guattari. The most important concepts in this respect are ‘the Actual’, ‘the Possible’, and ‘the Virtual’. In opposition to the Possible – which envelops only ‘possible possibilities’, possibilities that are abstract insofar as they merely could be actualised – the Virtual signifies a concrete Possible, possibilities that are already present in the Actual, actual possibilities. In this constellation, the Virtual possesses a quasi-ontological primacy: Things are not determined by what they are but by what they can be, i.e. what is within their power resp. what powers can take possession of them. Thus capital can only be understood as a process, namely: capitalisation, which is shaped by a certain virtuality or inherent tendency. It always transcends its material, immediate manifestations (means of production, money, gold, goods, workers …) towards something else.

II. 3 Capitalisation as Acceleration

In the rest of the first volume Szepanski develops in great detail how this process could be comprehended by using Marx’ Capital. Effectively, he turns the Hegelian reading of the Capital upside down: The first four chapters play little part in his interpretation. The analyses of the concrete capitalist process of production (including especially the large deliberations on modern technology), which Marx gives in the first, and that of the totality of capitalist circulation and financial capital, which Marx gives in the second and third volume of his work, are not seen as mere manifestations of the commodity form but the commodity form is interpreted in the light of the more concrete, more comprehensive phenomena. This casts a completely different light on it: While using it as a material and starting point of his own analysis, Szepanski deconstructs nearly every dogma of the ‘Neue Marx-Lektüre’. He re-constructs Marx’ critique without referring to its ‘holy grails’, the Hegelian conceptions of fetishism and reification, at all, he shows the insolvable difficulties that occur when one wants to deduct the money form from the commodity form in a purely logical way, and he even shows that human labour is not the ultimate source of surplus-value but that there is a machinal surplus-value as well, and that the source of surplus-value has to be interpreted as the privatisation and exploitation of differences in general, not just the difference between paid and unpaid labour.

Especially the last point is crucial: It contradicts any theory of capitalist crisis (such as Robert Kurz’ that has been mentioned above) that supposes that automatisation is the worst problem, even the historical limit, of capitalism. Surplus-value can also be produced in a completely de-humanised production. Thus, Szepanski shows that traditional Marxist critique is based on a humanist prejudice: It is too optimist about capitalism insofar it thinks that capitalism is, in the last instance, a humanist project. Szepanski demonstrates that capitalism does not care about humanity, even the most basic survival of the human race, at all. Not de-humanisation, but on the contrary: humanity, is an obstacle to its development insofar as the human body is less effective than a robot (and a robot less effective than a mere algorithm). Capitalism is more nihilist than even Marx could have imagined in his worst nightmares.

Obviously enough, this point of Szepanski’s theory is also directed against the recent movement of Accelerationism – a thread of current Marxism that claims basically that Capitalism is an obstacle towards technological development and acceleration. 6)Cf. for example the Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/ On the contrary, the process of capitalisation (especially in its neoliberal mode of total unleashing) has to be understood as a process of radical acceleration with the speed of light as its only empirical borderline, and the self-sublation of time into mere space as its (of course impossible) virtual goal.

II. 4 Capitalisation as Financialisation

Thus, the basic movement of capitalism is pure tautological self-increase, profit for the sake of profit, acceleration of the process of accumulation at any cost its ultimate goal. Consequently, Szepanski demonstrates that the process of capitalisation has to be ultimately understood as a process of financialisation, that financial capital is the ‘ideal form’ of the accumulation of capital insofar it virtually has neither temporal nor spatial limits.

Traditional Marxist analysis already showed that any criticism of ‘financial capitalism’ as a separate phenomenon falls prey to a bad abstraction that can easily lead to reactionary forms of politics such as anti-Semitism. 7)This main claim of ‘Neue Marx Lektüre’ has been developed especially by Moishe Postone whose 1986 article Anti-Semitism and National Socialism has become a classic in German leftist circles. ‘Financial capitalism’ is no surplus-phenomenon that helps or even restrains ‘normal’ accumulation: It is an integral part of normal accumulation of capital, there will be no capitalism without credit, interest, derivatives and so on.

Szepanski goes one step further: Insofar as financial capital is the virtual force of capitalisation it is the dominating one. The sphere of financial capital is not, not even in the last instance, grounded in ‘real economy’; on the contrary, in the last instance real economy is based on the complex processes of financial capital. ‘Real economy’ is a derivative of financial economy, not the other way round.

III. Dystopia as Reality: Nihilism and Death of Man

In the second volume of his project, Non-Ökonomie des gegenwärtigen Kapitalismus (Non-Economics of Current Capitalism), Szepanki takes the step into the analysis of current capitalism under the mentioned premises. It is astonishing how much empirical material and theories from different schools he uses to underlie his diagnosis. Besides the already mentioned theoreticians he uses, to name just a few, Michel Foucault, Hans-Dieter Bahr, Günther Anders, Nick Land, Paulo Virilio, Maurizio Lazzarato, Niklas Luhmann, and Louis Althusser.

The already mentioned immanent dominating tendencies of capitalism have become manifest in a frightening way since the 70s. By and large, the thesis of Szepanski can be summed up in the sentence: Dystopia is now. ‘Real economy’ has already been substituted by financial economy in large parts, the acceleration of this economy has already reached unimaginable measures. At the same time, microelectronic technologies have absorbed and transformed traditional human life-world in a way that hardly anyone would have predicted and that Szepanski describes in the most drastic ways: Technology is by no means a means of human subjectivity any more but, on the contrary, human consciousness is becoming a pure means of technological processes that control it all the way down. At the same time, individuals (and also: companies, institutions, whole states …) are more and more integrated in the streams of financial capital by means of indebtedness. Culture, values, subjectivity, even ‘man’ itself ceases to exist in this new, entirely nihilist situation we are confronted with.

Here lies the true significance and provocation of Szepanski’s analysis. He shows that our current material situation puts into question the way we are traditionally accustomed to act and think on a most fundamental level. This relevance is not only philosophical but directly practical and political: How can we act on an individual or collective scale in a more and more post-human world that challenges the very conditions of possibility of action? How can we even think in such a world in which thinking is more and more substituted by machine computing?

From Szepanski’s point of view, what the Left in large parts does is more or less entirely obsolete and naïve: In a world that is almost entirely reigned by algorithms there is not much room for meaningful cultural criticism, arts, philosophy, theory, and even politics at all. It should be read as a soberly articulated but nonetheless passionate appeal: Forget all this hip deconstruction-/discourse-/aesthetics-/ethics-stuff, focus on the objective reality of our current situation and question the very relevance of all these nice things. The full, unhindered acknowledgement of this situation, how dark it may be, is the only way to change it – and to change it is the obvious aim of Szepanki’s project, however descriptive it presents itself.

Thus, Szepanski undertakes only the very first step of the complete re-definition of the leftist, or even: the human, project that is needed today. He develops neither a normative critique nor a political strategy nor a utopian counter-vision. But it is the most crucial step. It is a necessary book in a dangerous situation.

A third volume will follow in 2015 in which Szepanski will develop further his conception of technology. Possibly (and: hopefully) this volume will show some internal contradictions or breaks within current Capitalism, maybe ‘alignments’ in the sense of Deleuze/Guattari. 8)I thank Bart Zantvoort for his corrections not just on a linguistic level.

 

References

 

Engster, Frank 2014, Das Geld als Maß, Mittel und Methode: Das Rechnen mit der Identität der Zeit, Berlin: Neofelis.

Heinrich, Michael 2005, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Eine Einführung, Stuttgart: Schmetterling.

Kurz, Robert 1999, Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus: Ein Abgesang auf die Marktwirtschaft, Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn.

Postone, Moishe 1986, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, in A. Rabinbach and J. Zipes (eds.), Germans and Jews Since the Holocaust, New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986.

Reichelt, Helmut 2001, Zur logischen Struktur des Kapitalbegriffs bei Karl Marx, Freiburg im Breisgau: Ça Ira.

Strauß, Harald 2013, Signifikationen der Arbeit. Die Geltung des Differenzianten ‚Wert‘, Berlin: Parodos.

Fußnoten

Fußnoten
1 This article is a longer version of a review I wrote for Marx & Philosophy. Link: http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2015/2050
2 As the founding text of ‘Neue Marx-Lektüre’ one can count Reichelt’s dissertation Zur logischen Struktur des Kapitalbegriffs bei Karl Marx (On the Logical Structure of the Concept of Capital in Karl Marx) (2001) from 1968, first published in 1970. It has become the standard reading of Marx within leftist German-speaking academia since the late 90s, important protagonists being the group around the mentioned Robert Kurz and his journal Krisis and Michael Heinrich, whose introduction into the Capital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Eine Einführung (Critique of Political Economy. An Introduction) (2005), first published in 2004, became the standard introduction to Marx’ Capital within few years.
3 Cf. http://www.krisis.org/
4 Exit is a new journal founded mainly by Robert Kurz and Roswitha Scholz as a spin-off from Krisis in 2004 after internal disputes. Cf. http://www.exit-online.org
5 It has to be noted here that the same goes for every chapter of the books: They can all be read separately with great benefit. Just like Szepanski does not interpret Capital as a deductive book, he himself does not write in a deductive way. He shows himself being a good disciple of Deleuze and Guattari insofar as his books are not organised like a tree with a clear, single root but more like a meadow grounded with a network of multiple, interconnected roots, a ‘rhizome’. Any chapter can be taken as its centre. Moreover, he uses in a very Deleuzian way constant repetitions of certain conceptions and arguments as a means of development something new by little variations. While one can criticise this way of writing from a formalist point of view as being redundant, it is felicitous insofar as it reflects the content of the book and allows the reader to find his or her own way through the labyrinth despite of confronting it with one single, inflexible structure the reader has to adapt him-/herself. It is truly written like a tool-box.
6 Cf. for example the Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/
7 This main claim of ‘Neue Marx Lektüre’ has been developed especially by Moishe Postone whose 1986 article Anti-Semitism and National Socialism has become a classic in German leftist circles.
8 I thank Bart Zantvoort for his corrections not just on a linguistic level.

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