We Gotta Get Out of This Place
ANSELM JAPPE with Alastair Hemmens
Anselm Jappe was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1962. Now based in France, he is the author of several major works of critical theory and analysis in German, French, and Italian, with many translations of his works appearing in other languages, including English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He currently lectures at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Sassari in Sardinia. Alastair Hemmens interviewed him for Field Notes in August.
Rail (Alastair Hemmens): Let’s start by talking a bit about your intellectual development as a critical theorist. Could you say something about the historical and intellectual context in which your approach to critical theory first developed? Can you pinpoint any particular personal experiences that originally drove you towards the radical critique of capitalism?
Jappe: One of the strongest expressions of the vision of the world shared by many young people in the Seventies is Patti Smith singing “Outside of Society / That’s where I wanna be” (“Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger,” 1978). It is also one of the best summaries of the change that has occurred since then. Today, there’s lots of talk about “exclusion” from society, about “marginalization,” about the necessity of “including” all kinds of people in society. To be “outside of society” is now thought of as the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. This is not surprising, given that today the greatest threat that capitalist society poses to every one of us is that we are virtually superfluous and might easily become factually so. But in my adolescence, which took place in the latter half of the 1970s in the German city of Cologne, the echoes of the ’68 rebellion were still quite strong, even among very young people. And the very last thing that I and other unruly young people like myself wanted was to “integrate” ourselves into a society which seemed contemptible to us.
School and family, work and the state, bourgeois culture and traditional morality, everything seemed to want to “get us” and force us to “adapt.” For me, as for some others, it became the challenge of our lives to refuse to “adapt.” Naturally, that turned out to be much more difficult than we believed; but I dare say that I have tried at least to stay faithful to the spirit of my early youth, in two senses: First, in the attempt to understand and criticize capitalist society essentially through reading and discussion—let’s call it the political side of rebellion, which comes from the “head.” Secondly, in the refusal of the forms of life that the authorities imposed on us—that was the “existential” side of the rebellion, which comes from the “gut.” To me, it was a clear choice: neither sacrificial militancy, nor “love, peace and happiness” (nor “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll”, which is another version). Rather, to quote another song: “We gotta get out of this place” (Eric Burdon, 1965). So I chose Saint-Just and Bakunin for models. A little later on I started to read Marx, Marcuse, and Adorno, but I was also attracted to what was then called the “counterculture,” especially in its hippie form. I took part in a number of “collectives,” as they were called then, from opposition to authoritarian school measures to the anti-nuclear movement. When I was fifteen, a special teachers’ meeting was held to discuss whether I should be expelled from high school as punishment for my articles in the student newspaper. I wasn’t expelled, but it was a very close call.
My intellectual choices essentially served to deepen my rebellious spirit. I get the impression that this is much less common these days. Today, for certain people, a critical understanding of capitalist society goes hand in hand with a quiet university career (or the attempt at one) and does not appear to entail a rejection of bourgeois life and integration into society. On the other hand, “existential” refusal of bourgeois life today is often inarticulate and easily becomes a sort of alternative lifestyle choice, which can be recuperated into the logic of the commodity; the other possibility is that it leads to total self-ghettoization. There is a lot of discontent today but it is nearly always directed at some specific issue, from ecological disaster to racism, and very rarely at the totality of capitalist society. Postmodernism has profoundly reshaped even the antagonistic spirit.
So, I grew up with the myth of the French Revolution, and in 1974 – 75 (when I was only twelve years old) I thought that the Portuguese revolution was repeating it. You might laugh at my naïveté, but I prefer it to the attitude of those who, already in their teens, were preparing to “lose their life by earning it,” as we say in French. I was always somewhere between anarchism and heterodox Marxism, and never had any sympathy for Stalinist, Maoist, Leninist ,or any other authoritarian conception of revolution. Very early, I also became aware of the dark side of technological progress—a new theme back then—and I read authors like Ivan Illich and Régine Pernoud. But I had no ideological blinkers: I also read Nietzsche with great emotion.
Rail: In the English-speaking world, you are still best known for your work on Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI). I would even say that your Guy Debord (1993) is still, more than twenty years on, considered to be the work on the subject. How did you first discover Debord? What effect, if any, has he had on your critical thinking? And why do you think your approach to his work still resonates so strongly?
Jappe: I got to know the Situationists in the context I’ve just described. A friend of mine, who was some years older and a kind of mentor to me, was one of the very few people at that time in Germany who knew about the Situationists. But I not only found their ideas quite hard to understand, they also really shocked me: they were directed against all of the radical left militantism that I was so close to (even though I was suspicious of it, but it seemed impossible to have any other kind of collective action). On the one hand, I felt that they struck at some of my innermost convictions; on the other, I was also fascinated by something much more profound, radical and, at the same time, poetical than the leaflets that the political groups around me distributed, which normally adopted a very moralizing tone. I was also very much seduced by the call for a revolution of everyday life. But it was only some years later that I read the work of Debord and the other Situationists systematically. Because I chose the Situationists as the subject of my Master’s degree, I was able to dedicate a lot of time to reading them. By that time I had moved to Italy and I studied philosophy in Rome. I did a Master’s degree under Mario Perniola, a professor of aesthetics who had known Debord and the Situationists personally and had been close to them around 1968. Officially, however, the SI did not exist in the academic world, or in the media. (It’s not right to complain about this: their strategy of resisting institutional and spectacular recuperation had worked quite well up until that point.) When Perniola suggested that I publish a part of my doctoral dissertation as a monograph about Debord, it turned out to be the first one dedicated to him.
If this book has been translated into five or six languages, and if it is still read today, even after the “discovery” of Debord, after his death in 1994, by a broad public and the consequential stream of publications about him, this might be due to the fact that I tried to stress his importance as a radical critic of capitalist society, both in theory and in praxis, as well as somebody who had succeeded in living as he wanted to live: outside of the spectacle. Most of the publications that came afterwards have emphasized—too much, I think—the aesthetic side of his activity, or his biography, or reduced his social critique to just a form of media theory. As such, they contribute, willingly or otherwise, to the incorporation of Debord into the postmodern culture industry.
But I did not want to foster the creation of a legend, nor did I want to become a “specialist.” Indeed, I continue to refer very much to his ideas, but I am also searching for the possibility of further developing a critique of the totality of the capitalist system. So, I cannot sympathize with those who develop “psychogeographical” mobile phone apps or other things like that! Nor with academics who praise Debord as a “prophet of the media age,” which ignores the fact that he articulated a merciless critique of all “permitted” forms of life, including nearly all forms of contestation—especially art! This “bitter victory of Situationism” was probably inevitable. It is all the more remarkable that the core of Debord’s analysis of the spectacle still stands as a landmark of critical social thought and that it can still be an important source of inspiration. Equally, his life and attitude can still be inspiring—and there are not very many figures of the 20th century about whom this might be said!
Rail: A decade after Guy Debord, you published Les Aventures de la marchandise [The Adventures of the Commodity] (2003), which was an attempt to provide—for the first time to a wide public—a systematic exposition of the critical theory of capitalism developed by the German “Critique of Value” group, particularly as it was articulated by the late German critical theorist Robert Kurz. You have since become arguably the best-known proponent of the Critique of Value in France. What is the Critique of Value? How did your association with it come about and why has it come to define your work?
Jappe: I conceived of my book Guy Debord not as the contemplation of some past phenomenon, but as a contribution to the elaboration of a new understanding of late capitalism and the possibilities of overcoming it. So I was looking for other radical analyses of the sorry state of the world. Around 1993 I came across the Critique of Value and the German review Krisis. I was particularly struck by Robert Kurz’s argument that the collapse of the USSR did not mean that capitalism had finally triumphed but that it had, rather, taken another step in the direction of its final crisis. The Krisis group’s affirmation that commodity fetishism, and not class struggle, constitutes the core of capitalist society convinced me all the more as Debord’s theory had already stressed the importance of categories like alienation, fetishism, the commodity, and value (although without renouncing the class-struggle paradigm). Another aspect that links Situationist ideas to the Critique of Value is the critique of labor. Debord gave us the slogan ”Never Work!” and called for the “abolition of alienated labor.” The Critique of Value no longer considers labor to be the opposite of capital and the agent of its overcoming (as in traditional Marxism), but rather a part of the valorization of value by means of abstract labor. Abstract labor means labor without quality, labor considered as pure expenditure of human energy measured by time, without any specific content. It is therefore a destructive form of social production, since it cannot take into account its content and consequences. For Krisis, the essence of Marx’s theory is in his critical account of labor and value, commodity and money: these are not natural but historical categories that characterize only capitalist society, and they are not neutral categories that emancipatory forces could seize hold of; rather, they are in their very structure alienated forms of human activity. The production of use values exists only as a kind of appendage to value-production, which consists in the transformation of a sum of money into a bigger sum of money—and this can only be done by adding labor to labor, without any consideration of its real usefulness.
Class struggle is the form in which the historical development of the logic of value took shape. The workers’ movement, in its various currents, was mostly a struggle for a fairer redistribution of the basic categories that were no longer questioned: money and value, labor and the commodity. They were therefore essentially forms of immanent critique, linked to the ascending phase of capitalism, when there was still something to distribute. But from the very start, there was a major contradiction lurking inside the process of value-production: only living labor—labor in the act of its execution—creates value. Technology does not. However, competition between various capitals also forces every owner of capital to use technology as much as possible in order to increase the productivity of his workers. This allows him to gain more profit in the short term. However, the value contained in every single commodity also diminishes. Only a continuous increase in the total mass of commodities can compensate this decrease in the value of each commodity, but this mechanism creates the insanity of production for the sake of production, with all of the terrible ecological consequences that we now know about. This compensation mechanism cannot last forever and, from the 1970s onwards, the microelectronic revolution definitively destroyed much more labor than it created. Since that time capitalism finds itself stuck in a never-ending crisis. This crisis is no longer cyclical; rather it is caused by capitalism reaching its inner limits. Only the massive expansion of debt and of financial markets continues to mask the profound exhaustion of capitalist production. Faced with this new situation, the question is no longer how to improve workers’ conditions inside of this commodity system, but how to get out of the system of money and value, commodity and labor, altogether. This is no longer a utopian project but rather the only possible reaction to the real end of money and value, commodity and labor, which is already taking place. The only question is whether there will be an emancipatory outcome or a general barbarization.
For more than twenty years now I have contributed to the elaboration and diffusion of the Critique of Value because this approach is, in my eyes at least, the only one that gets at the very core of the capitalist system instead of limiting itself to describing individual phenomena. It particularly takes into account the fact that today, on a global level, the production of “superfluous populations” is an even bigger problem than exploitation. I am convinced that this kind of theoretical critique and its practical consequences are the only alternative to the rising tide of populism which restricts its critique to opposition to banks, speculation and the financial sphere, and which could result in a dangerous mix of left-wing and traditional right-wing opinion.
Rail: Perhaps the most radical and central argument of the Critique of Value is that work (or labor) is an entirely negative and destructive social form that is, moreover, historically specific to capitalism. How does your critique of work differ from traditional autonomist or anarchist critiques of work? How does this critique of work separate the Critique of Value from other “grand theories” of social emancipation?
Jappe: Practically the entire workers’ movement—even in its anarchist forms—was a defense of labor and the workers’ perspective. Labor was thought to be an eternal, ontological principle, identical with man’s “organic exchange” with nature. As such, workers were glorified as the incarnation of this “good” principle and the exploiters that owned the means of production were simply seen as parasites. The commodity, value, money, and abstract labor were understood to be the technical bases of every possible form of production; and the socialist, communist, or anarchist society of the future was to consist in the “rational” or “proletarian” or “democratic” management of these categories. In the best-case scenario, there was the promise that they would be abolished in some very distant future. It must be said that Marx himself was often rather ambiguous about this and sometimes questioned the supra-historical status of labor. He described the “twofold nature of labor”—concrete and abstract—and termed it his “most important discovery.” More than a hundred years later, the Critique of Value rediscovered this aspect of Marx’s theory. What we might call “traditional Marxism,” however, went in the opposite direction: labor, especially industrial labor, would forever remain the basis of any society. Although the very beginnings of the workers’ movement, in the form of the Luddites and French proto-socialists, had been characterised by a certain refusal of industrial labor, the movement was soon completely caught up in the mythology of progress and labor’s role in its realization. The goal became to free labor, not to free people from labor. This approach reached its peak in Lenin’s and Gramsci’s admiration of Henry Ford and the Taylorization of work. In the USSR, China, and elsewhere, the “workers’ revolution” essentially meant making people work more and harder than ever before, but telling them, at the same time, that they were now the owners of the means of production.
The radical left only ever condemned the stranglehold that the bureaucratic apparatus had on the socialist collectivization of property, but not the role of labor itself and how it was organized. Even anarchists tended to take part in the cult of the worker. It was only among artists, poets, and bohemians—in particular, the Surrealists—that you could find a refusal of labor. After 1968, a rejection of labor began to emerge within some sectors of the working class, particularly in Northern Italy, and among many young people who no longer identified with spending their life working. On the one hand, this turned out to be a kind of laboratory for new, more “flexible,” postmodern forms of work that claim to overcome the very distinction between work and leisure. On the other hand, in “autonomist” and “post-workerist” tendencies you can find a refusal of heteronomous labor. This refusal, however, remained subjective, without a theoretical understanding of the twofold nature of labor, and therefore led to dubious results: either praising the machines that are supposed to work in our place, which results in technophilia and an acceptance of a process whereby human beings are replaced by technology, or celebrating freelancing, in which it is believed people manage their own labor and own the means of production themselves (in the information and communication sector, for example), even though they remain completely dependent on market mechanisms. Typically, post-workerist theorists speak of “self-valorization” as a positive goal, instead of questioning the whole process whereby the usefulness of a product is subordinate to the “value” it is given by the amount of dead labor it contains.
The approach of the Critique of Value is very different because it insists on the “twofold nature” of labor in capitalist society (and only in capitalist society): the use-value of each commodity does not matter; it is only the quantity of abstract labor it “contains” (or “represents”) that counts. This means that labor, as such, is reduced to the simple expenditure of human energy. It’s the abstract side, the “value” side, in its visible form as money, which dominates the concrete. The laws of the creation and circulation of value impose themselves on the whole of society and leave no place for conscious, subjective decisions, not even for the “ruling classes:” this is what Marx calls “commodity fetishism.” It is not natural, but rather an inversion of the normal relationship between abstract and concrete. The absurd tyranny of labor in modern society is the direct consequence of the structural role of abstract labor. If we don’t take this into account, any rebellion against labor remains superficial.
Rail: With recent events in Greece still fresh in everyone’s minds, it is clear that the 2008 financial crisis was far from being a mere upset in an otherwise healthy capitalist body. In contrast to those who simply put these crises down to bad management or capitalist greed, how does the Critique of Value help us to understand what is going on structurally, behind the appearance of these near-fatal collapses of financial systems and national economies?
Jappe: Bourgeois theorists have always believed capitalism to be “everlasting” because, they claim, it is in accordance with “human nature.” For them, all crises are only cyclical and transient: they are understood to be the result of imbalances between supply and demand, or are even praised as a form of “creative destruction.” For Marxists, capitalism is transitory and doomed to be overcome one day, but its abolition was always expected to be the result of the revolutionary actions of the working class or some other organized adversary. The possibility that capitalism might have inner limits that would be reached was almost never really taken into consideration after Marx’s death. When mainstream Marxism predicted a final collapse, it always assumed that this would take the form of a political revolution that would result from the intolerable conditions created by capitalist exploitation. There is, however, a very important factor that was not considered: the shrinking of the mass of value (and profit) in the long run that I mentioned before. This problem appeared only in a limited way: the fall of the rate of profit.
After capitalism was able to successfully incorporate immanent critiques into itself, particularly during the Keynesian-Fordist boom that followed the second World War, many Marxists became definitively convinced that capitalism would never encounter another economic crisis and that only subjective discontent could bring about its overcoming. The Situationists, like the Frankfurt school, held completely to this perspective. As I mentioned before, however, this totally changed after the 1970s. The accumulation of capital reached its limits because its base, the extraction of surplus value from living labor, became smaller and smaller as the importance of living labor continuously waned. The result is that capitalism is now only able to survive through simulation; that is, by anticipating future profits—which will never arrive—through credit. The Critique of Value has been saying this since 1987. In the 1990s, empirical evidence seemed to go against this argument, but after 2008 everyone has started talking about how profound the crisis is. The reality is that 2008 was just a foreshock of the crisis of capitalism and it was in no way a real collapse. Even on the left and the radical left, however, belief in the ever-lasting life of capitalism is surprisingly strong!
It is very common to see the crisis blamed on financial markets choking the “real economy.” The truth is the complete opposite: credit alone allows the continued simulation of value-production—which means profit—once real accumulation has come to an almost complete stop. Even the massive exploitation of workers in Asia contributes very little to the global mass of profit. Replacing the critique of capitalism with the critique of financial markets is pure populism and simply means avoiding the real questions. The real drama is that everybody is still forced to work in order to live, even when labor is no longer needed in production. The problem is not the greed of specific individuals—even if this greed obviously exists—and it cannot be resolved on a moral basis. Bankers and their ilk—who, it cannot be denied, are very often clearly unpleasant figures—are only carrying out the blind laws of a fetishistic system that must be criticized as a whole.
Kurz calls this process the “desubstantialization of money.” As only living labor creates value, it forms its “substance.” This is not an imaginary process; human energy has really been expended and it exists in a certain quantity (even if it might be very difficult to measure it). Value cannot be created by decree, only by a real labor process—and it has to be “productive labor” in the capitalist sense (that means that it does not only consume capital but helps to reproduce it). Money can be created by decree—but when it does not correspond to the real amount of labor that it is supposed to “represent,” it has no “substance” and loses its value through some form of inflation (although for decades now the explosion of massive inflation has been deferred by parking large sums of fictitious capital in stock markets, real estate markets, and so on). Here the Critique of Value finds itself in sharp contrast to nearly all left-wing economists, who are generally just neo-Keynesians.
Rail: You are currently working on a new book, Les Aventures du sujet moderne [The Adventures of the Modern Subject], which will be a companion piece to your original exposition of the Critique of Value, but one that explores in more detail the “subjective” side of the capitalist social formation. You argue that the subject form, like “labor,” is historically specific to capitalism and that it too is destructive. Drawing on the work of the American social critic Christopher Lasch, you also claim that this capitalist subjectivity is a form of narcissism. Could you explain what the link is between your critique of labor and the subject form? How can “subjectivity” also be historically specific to capitalism? Why is this subject form narcissistic and what role has Lasch’s (conservative) critique of modern society played in the development of your argument?
Jappe: The critique of the notion of the “subject” became a key aspect of the Critique of Value quite early on. In traditional Marxism, as in nearly all modern philosophy from Descartes onwards, the subject is something that has always existed. It is an ontological fact. Marxists very quickly identified the subject with the working class, which mediates between man and nature and which makes history in the form of “revolutionary subjects.” In this view, “emancipation” (or “revolution”) means that the subject, which up until this point has been repressed, finally gains all of its rights. The traditional “subject philosophies” have been severely attacked since the 1950s, particular in the name of structuralism, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. There were many good reasons for this “deconstruction” of the subject. However, it did not deconstruct the subject as an historical category and instead declared that no subject had ever existed nor could ever exist and that it was just an “epistemological error. The Critique of Value, in contrast, focused on Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism: men make their own history but they do so unconsciously. Men create structures (“economic laws,” “technological imperatives,” and so on) that end up dominating them, in the same way as in religion. The only real subject in capitalist society is value, which Marx calls the “automatic subject:” value makes human society serve it in order to ensure that its accumulation never ends. Men became the servants of their own alienated powers. Yet this is part of a historical process. History, as it has unfolded up to this point, can be described as a succession of various forms of fetishism and unconscious, alienated forms of social mediation. This has nothing to do with a “human condition.” It can be overcome, at least in principle. This overcoming, however, can no longer be thought of as the triumph of a pre-existing “subject” that has survived under the ashes of capitalist alienation. We can no longer claim that the “people,” the “masses,” the “workers” are, at their core, untouched, unspoiled by the logic of the commodity (competition, greed, opportunism, etc.). This might have been the case in places where modernity was only starting to emerge, but it doesn’t apply any more. If they accept the system, it is not simply the result of “media manipulation” or something like that. This is equally the limitation of all discourses that call for “democratization.”
The modern subject was formed by internalizing the social constraints that were in preceding societies imposed on individuals from outside. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon is the paradigm of the “freedom” of the modern subject. The Enlightenment, and Immanuel Kant in particular, are generally credited with having invented the autonomy of the modern subject. However, the philosophers of the Enlightenment—Kant once again being the best example—did not identify the “subject” with the “human being” as such, but instead only with those who demonstrated that they were “responsible:” in other words, those who succeeded in controlling their spontaneous human drives and desires. The primary condition for being a subject was to put oneself to work, to conceive of oneself as a worker, and to develop all of the qualities necessary for capitalist competition: lack of emotion, denial of immediate satisfaction, hard-heartedness towards oneself and others, and so on. Women and non-European people were not given subject status. Of course, later on in history, they were able to achieve it but only after they had proven that they had the same (negative) qualities as white males, who were still, nonetheless, considered to be the only true subjects. The subject status is, therefore, largely connected to labor; and the overcoming of modern society—where people are defined primarily by their contribution to the production of abstract value through labor—will also be the overcoming of what we call the “subject;” not to replace it with blind “objective” structures, but rather with the real blossoming of the individual.
I am trying to develop the critique of the subject further by connecting it to the concept of narcissism, in particular through my reading of Lasch’s work. Narcissism can be understood as the psychological form that corresponds to postmodern capitalism, in the same way that the classical neurosis described by Freud corresponded to classical capitalism. However, narcissism does not simply mean excessive self-esteem. As Lasch showed, it means a deep regression into the mixture of feelings of helplessness and omnipotence that characterizes very early childhood. Human culture is a continuous effort to help the human individual to overcome this primitive and infantile form of distress. Late capitalism, on the contrary, stimulates a regression into these primitive structures, principally through cultivating the consumerist mentality. It is for this reason that we can meaningfully say that postmodern individuals are often extremely immature and explain why some of them easily fall prey to violent behaviour, even to the point of school shootings and similar phenomena. Today, commodity society is based not so much on the repression of desire (even if that continues to exist) but rather on creating the feeling that there are no boundaries and no limits. Psychoanalysis is rather useful for understanding the pathological character of contemporary society, which is not simply an unjust but rational way of exploiting people for the benefit of others, but is, for the most part, actually an irrational, destructive, and self-destructive race to the bottom. This has become particularly obvious with the capitalist crisis of the last decades. However, this is not simply due to the “excesses” of neoliberalism. This irrationality lies at the very core of the structure of value and its indifference to all content, to all quality, to the world. In Descartes, in 1637, we can already find the whole narcissistic structure of a subject that is completely at odds with the external world. We have to go far back in time when searching for the roots of this fetishistic and narcissistic commodity society.
Rail: In your 2011 collection of essays, Crédit à mort, you argue that the new role art has taken on since the postwar period equally signals the narcissistic turn in capitalist society. Where, in the past, it was up to art to challenge and judge its audience, to be difficult, today art seeks to pander to the experiences and judgement of its spectators. You have also, as part of this argument, claimed that we need to respond with a hierarchy of cultural values. Do you think, contrary to Debord, that art is still worth saving or that such a thing is still possible? What hierarchy of values do you think could combat this postmodern and narcissistic democratization of culture? Why should we treat the decomposition of art any differently than the decomposition of labor and the subject?
Jappe: One of the most important, and perhaps most shocking, aspects of Situationist agitation was their condemnation of art as another form of spectacle and as a form of the alienation of human powers in general. For Debord, art, like religion or politics, was one of the forms in which human capacities had developed yet done so beyond human control. It was now time to bring them back into everyday life. There was no contempt for art in this. On the contrary, the Situationist auto-dépassement, or self-overcoming, of art (in the Hegelian sense of preserving and abolishing at one and the same time) was the endpoint of the process in which art questioned its own existence, particularly in France, where it had reached a climax with the Dadaists and the Surrealists. The Situationists wanted to complete art’s self-destruction in the name of a higher “art of everyday life,” which would incorporate the positive aspects of what art had been before.
However, this project, which was originally announced in the 1950s and 1960s, still needed a social revolution in order to be realized. What happened instead after 1968 was the rise of a new form of capitalism, its “third spirit,” as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call it, which draws heavily on the artistic and bohemian tradition, incorporating “artistic critique” into new forms of labor which are now presented to the individual as forms of self-realization. This has resulted in an enormous expansion of the culture industry that completely transformed culture into a commodity and a tool to sell commodities. Indeed, this has meant that there has been a reintegration of art and culture into everyday life, but only in a perverse way. As a result, it has to be said that art could, or should, try to be what it has always been at its best: a representation of what could be, the dream of a fulfilling life, or, equally, the condemnation of an unbearable world.
The problem is that it seems really hard today to find art that has the capacity to shake us out of our mental habits, as the avant-gardes or somebody like Edward Hopper were able to do. It goes without saying that subversion and transgression have simply become selling points. Art ought to give us an existential shock and lead us to question ourselves (even with displays of beauty—“shocking” does not have to always mean “ugly”), instead of simply affirming who we already are. This means that we can judge works of art on their capacity to enter into an enriching dialogue with the spectator (or reader). If we do so, I think we will probably discover that Moby-Dick is not on the same level as a manga. And we should say so loudly, instead of hiding behind the pseudo-democratic levelling of all qualitative judgments. Value is indifferent to all quality and all content; culture should set itself against this abolition of difference.
Rail: Finally, what do you think the development and shape of a movement of human emancipation might look like in the best possible scenario? In other words, what should human beings be doing in the face of the crisis of capitalism?
Jappe: The question is no longer if we can escape capitalism but how it will happen, because this society is already collapsing all around us, even if it does so at various speeds in different sectors and regions of the world. A huge portion of humanity has already been designated as “garbage” and is condemned to survive, as best it can, often in rubbish dumps or by recycling refuse. Money, value, labor, and the commodity are being overcome but in the form of a nightmare. Not a great deal of actual work is needed in production, but we are all forced to work in order to live. The money currently in circulation is mostly “insubstantial,” based only on credit and confidence. Value-production is shrinking. The real question now is how to construct alternatives and these can only exist in a world beyond the market and the state. There are no longer any “economic” policies or systems, even if they are “fairer” or “alternative,” that can solve this problem because they are all based on the accumulation of abstract labor. The only role the state can play in all of this is to be the repressive administrator of the misery created by the crisis of capitalism. No party, no election, no “revolutionary” government, no storming of the Winter Palace can lead to anything other than the continual administration of commodity society under ever-worsening conditions. This is why all left-wing politics has completely failed in the last few decades. The left hasn’t even been able to impose Keynesian economic policies or bring back the welfare state to replace neoliberalism. It’s not a question of a lack of will power. “Economic laws” cannot be “humanized.” They can only be abolished in order to return to a society where the satisfaction of needs is not based on an “economic sphere” that relies on labor.
What we need, therefore, could be called a kind of “grassroots revolution” with a new meaning, one that is not afraid of the necessity of confronting those who defend the ruling order, particularly when it comes to appropriating basic things—housing, production facilities, resources—by bypassing the mediation of money. We have to bring together socio-economic struggles—against housing evictions, for example, or the expropriation of land by big companies—with environmental and anti-technological struggles—against mining, new airports, nuclear power, GMOs, nanotechnology, surveillance—and struggles to change people’s way of thinking—overcoming the commodity psyche. That would mean a real transformation of civilization, much more far-reaching than a mere political or economic change. The transformations I am talking about go much further than simply saying, “we are the ninety-nine percent:” that is just a form of populism that pits a tiny minority of so-called “parasites” against “us,” the honest workers and savers. We are all of us deeply entrenched in this society and we have to act together on all levels to escape it. Humanity has been completely victorious in its struggle to become the “masters of nature,” as Descartes put it, but it is also more helpless than ever in the face of the society it has created.
ALASTAIR HEMMENS is a lecturer, researcher, and translator based at Cardiff University School of Modern Languages. This interview was made possible by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship Grant to conduct research on a project entitled: “Ne Travaillez jamais: The Critique of Working in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century French Thought, from Charles Fourier to Guy Debord.”