Radical Capitalism Criticism: Book Review of Robert Kurz' Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus
By Hans-Martin Lohmann
[This book review of Robert Kurz' Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus originally published in: DIE ZEIT, 31/1999 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.zeit.de/1999/51/199951_p_kurz.html.]
When Schwarzbuch Kommunismus appeared a few years ago, there were many that wanted a Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus. Now we have it. Robert Kurz emphasizes that his economic- and social-historical reconstruction of capitalism doesn't seek to make the crimes of communism disappear or relativized in the shadows of the crimes of capitalism. Kurz comes to the shocking conclusion in a central section of his book that communism was merely an elf child of capitalism, a catch-up industrialism under red disguise.
Capitalism undoubtedly stood at the beginning of modern human drudgery. Its still unfinished "modernization program" monetarizing all areas of society and subjecting them to the logic of the market made market players out of individuals, wage earners out of producers and "material" for capital's commercialization process out of persons. Whoever couldn't or wouldn't follow this program fell out of society, as literally superfluous. This is not different today 200 years later in the age of casino capitalism with its accelerated mass production of unusable "human material".
Kurz' standard for the historical assessment of capitalism is simple and obvious. He asks what this capitalism as an economic system without alternative offers today to the majority of the population in living standards, leisure time and general well-being. His conclusion is rather depressing. The fact that people in capitalism must always (including today) work more than in all social orders before capitalism is thought-provoking. This increased work pressure which paradoxically was in no way reduced by the invention of work-saving devices reflects the fact that individuals no longer produce for themselves and their needs but rather for an abstract market and for the most obvious abstraction of the modern age, money. In earlier times, one worked to live. Money was only a means to an end. In capitalism, one lives to work. Money becomes an end-in-itself.
The sources cited by Kurz show impressively that the dance around the golden calf denounced by the French historian Jules Michelet 140 years ago as a "dreadful sickness" represented a massive economic and social decline, often hunger and absolute poverty, for the majority of the population in the capitalist centers, not to mention the disastrous effects on the capitalist periphery, in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Third World of poverty, hunger, epidemics, child mortality, over-population and mass immigrations is a genuine product of modern capitalism. According to indicators, people in Africa lived better and more reasonably before the capitalist invasion than today when the continent sinks in the filth of the rich West.
One of the most repressed important discoveries offered by Robert Kurz's book is that phases when an expanding capitalism produced something like mass prosperity were always relatively brief and only in western Europe, Anglo-America and Japan.
Since the fordist boom - illustrated impressively by Kurz in the chapter on the "total mobilization" of the auto society - has heaved its last sigh. The old Erhardian promise "Prosperity for everyone" is quashed peu a peu. For a long time, there has been no talk of "full employment". Rather under- and non-employment is on the agenda and will increase in the 21st century for larger segments of the population. Naked fear spreads not only in the middle class in the US. The real incomes of the average wage earners have stagnated or fallen for years while the privileged circle of the capitalist functional elites enrich themselves ever more shamelessly. All current surveys and statistics show that the gap between poor and rich constantly grows both within the capitalist metropolises and globally in North-South relations.
With the third industrial micro-electronic revolution "releasing" and degrading whole work populations according to profitability principles into "useless eaters", capitalism increasingly reaches an historical limit. The money machine has no "material" any more, largely commercializes natural resources and irreversibly damages the global ecosystem. Capitalism can only suffer in its self-rupture. In its despair that money is jobless, capitalism allows shareholders to wander around the globe in pure self-righteousness to realize "increases in value" that are entirely fictional and abstract in the literal sense. We will all take the rap for the collapse of this overheated speculative system.
Robert Kurz' book is a truly necessary protest directed to all who are not yet entirely "dirty dogs" and haven't made the totalitarian capitalist competitive system into their interior décor. His book invokes solidarian forms of socialization beyond the destructive utopia of the total market, the deadly competition of all against all and the foolish ideology of "self-realization". A society of atomized individuals, relationless social monads in which everyone is the creator of his or her own unhappiness is not capable of surviving. We need "a new simpler and quieter civilization", as the ethnologist Hans-Peter Duerr recently wrote, that breaks with the empty aimless dynamism of capitalism by considering the humane incompatibility of people with the laws of the unregulated market. Perhaps that fate threatens us which was projected with inexorable sharpness on the screen of our future by the French writer Michel Hovellebekq in his novel "Elementarteilchen": that we die in our isolation, everyone for himself.
Robert Kurz' book is the most important publication of the last ten years in Germany. Kurz proposes a radical step, not a treatment of symptoms. We have waited long for this radicalism. Avanti populo!