Thomas Seibert, Norbert Trenkle, Daniel Loick, and Janine Wissler
Platypus Review 55 | April 2013
Last summer, the Frankfurt chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted the latest iteration of “The 3Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance,” a series of events for which speakers were invited to reflect on the contemporary state of anti-capitalist politics. Similar events were previously hosted in New York in 2007 and Thessaloniki in 2012. Panelists included Thomas Seibert of Interventionistische Linke, Janine Wissler of Die LINKE/Marx 21, Norbert Trenkle of Krisis, and Daniel Loick from Goethe University Frankfurt; Jerzy Sobotta moderated. What follows is an edited and translated transcript of their conversation, which was held on June 25, 2012, at Goethe University Frankfurt.
Thomas Seibert: I don’t believe that the Left is at a historical low point today. The Left reached a nadir in the nineties, which was a depressing time, when many former leftists abandoned the Left. This has been reversed today, especially since 2011, since the return of a protest form that was thought to have become historically obsolete, i.e. of insurrections based on people rallying in public squares. Then they stay there and demand the overthrow of the government.
Let me begin, however, with a definition: resistance is rebelliousness and revolt. I see resistance as located in everyday life, in small matters such as sabotage at the workplace, skipping work, or located on an even smaller scale. You can also detect resistance where the political unconscious comes into play: people get sick by the thousands, for example, and mental illnesses have increased by 40 percent in Greece in the past months. The most determined form of resistance in its classical form occurred in Tottenham, England, in 2011. These sorts of riots are a central pillar of collective resistance, that is, rebelliousness and revolt.
Many people who see resistance as their approach to politics do so because they have turned away from such concepts as reform and revolution. And they do so to avoid posing the difficult questions that arise from the issue of reform and revolution: Are we confronted with a totality? Do we arrest this totality? How do we overcome this totality? There is a tradition on the Left that simply evades such questions that have supposedly become historically obsolete; these vexations are instead replaced by a notion of resistance, which is limited to specific aims, rather than at the social totality. This idea is evident since the 60s, in the work of Michel Foucault, and has appeared again and again since the 80s-90s. Such approaches no longer pose the question whether the whole, which is to say capitalism, can be abolished. This is seen as too complicated, unattainable, or simply theoretically wrong-headed. This is where this micro-political resistance comes in.
Yet, such politics are misguided, I believe, and for a very logical reason: If this is your conception of politics, you reaffirm your position as reactive to the problem of oppression, which will always go on.
About reform and resistance I would just say: No specific strategy and no specific form of protest have definitely failed historically. It is naïve to say that this or that has definitely failed, and if someone says something has failed, I would like to know what, specifically. Let’s take parliamentary politics: Some say the reformist approach has definitely failed, as has the attempt to seize power and thus change society, and so too have spontaneous revolts and guerrilla tactics. All of these strategies have failed, that is true, but I would still say that how these different strategies address the question of social transformation—the abolishment of present forms of domination and exploitation and of present forms of subjectivization—remains central. I aim at the simple formula: “by any means necessary.” Although, of course, I would say that some things have been tried and should no longer be applied.
The question of a revolutionary rupture needs to be posed in a differentiated manner. We know that we are faced with various forms of domination and exploitation, and some of these will certainly not be overcome by means of a swift revolutionary rupture, such as in the case of overcoming patriarchy. Still, the abolishment of capitalism will entail the suspension of the logic of capital, however long you take that period of transition to be. Thus, I don’t believe we can do without a conception of a revolutionary rupture.
Let’s pose the matter of reform, revolution, and resistance more concretely by acknowledging that everything begins with resistance. The Left has to have a positive relation with emerging revolts, without saying, of course, that it approves of them in principle.
Norbert Trenkle: I would like to stress the need to overcome the conception of resistance as micropolitics, and instead refocus on the totality. The terms “reform” and “revolution” have become deeply infected by the logic of capital. In fact, they are a reflex of the consolidation of capitalism, and for that reason no longer useful for the supersession of capitalism. Their meanings have changed too: Reform today means the cutback of social rights, of the rights of workers, or in other words, a thorough economization of society. And revolution implies nothing more than the overthrow of some authoritarian regimes to make way for free markets or, at best, an attempt to introduce democratic rights.
By this, I don’t mean to say that these terms have simply become suffused by neoliberal dogma, although they are rather closely connected with the social process of bourgeois society, in that they are subjected to the historical trajectory of the continued expansion and permanently revolutionizing means of production. However, this basic process has become a metaphysically bloated conception of philosophy of history, particularly in its classical formulation, with its emphasis on progress. Marxism, on the other hand, already regards bourgeois society as a transitory phase, directed toward a higher social formation. “Reform” and “revolution” stand in the tradition of this conception of progress and refer to it. Despite the fact that those two terms are antagonistic, they both share similar points of reference and are closely related, since they both imagine that the historical process is pushing them forward. We need to liberate ourselves from this metaphysical conception of social transformation as it is infected with the real metaphysics of bourgeois society.
By real metaphysics I mean that our actions are already anticipated by unconscious processes, or in other words, what Marx calls the “fetish,” a reification of social relations which rules over people. Liberation or emancipation can thus only mean a liberation in terms of the unconsciously presupposed that rules over people although they are their own social relations. This also implies that emancipation cannot be formulated with metaphysical or historico-philosophical categories.
Bourgeois-capitalist society has reached its limits. This, however, is not a historico-teleological interpretation but the result of the immanent contradictions of capitalism. This process does not point into some beyond, but rather to the fact that the limits have been reached. We are at a point at which we are forced to confront the question of what will follow next, since we are in a situation in which the whole of capitalist society has been formed through these contradications, and not only in its objective structures but also in its structures of consciousness. This means that there are no prerequisites for emancipation that we can relate to—these prerequisites have to be created first. Likewise, there is no presupposed “us,” no prior subject, but this “us” has to be created first through our reified consciousness.
The question of tactics and forms of protest poses itself anew once we become aware of the limits to our own consciousness. The same is true for the problem of immanence and transcendence, or, in other words, what kinds of immanent demands can be raised while at the same time pointing to the transcendence of this society. Neither the tactic nor the form of protest is the problem but rather the question what our cause is all about. First, there needs to be a negative identification of the liberation from this reified process, and secondly an appropriation of material wealth. The crisis of bourgeois society has emanated from the paradoxical fact that this society is too rich. Therefore, the answer to the question of what our cause is all about is access to material wealth and an emancipation from this form of value, for only then can forms of actions and tactics be determined anew.
Daniel Loick: I am afraid that I am a representative of exactly these Foucauldian micropolitics of the post-68 generation, with its insistent stress on everyday concerns, to which Thomas and Norbert are so fundamentally opposed. Frankfurt is where Helke Sander, at the delegate conference of the SDS, helped establish a new phase of the feminist movement. We can still learn from the speech she delivered and from the feminist politics of the generation of ’68. The feminists pointed to the fact that a change in economic relations does not necessarily result in a change of gender relations. Rather than merely relieving women in private life, for example by organizing education in a solidary or collective manner, it meant the opening up of a new area of political struggle. Previously private matters were now understood as political. What resulted from this new conception of politics was the fact that social transformation was no longer thought of within the same confines of reform versus revolution.
Let me therefore put these 7 theses up for debate:
1. Let’s put an end to economism: There is no primary or secondary contradiction, no base-superstructure relation, or real subsumption, or social totality, no deduction from the economy, or reducibility, no determination, and certainly not “in the last instance.” Capitalism, sexism, racism, neo-colonialism, anti-semitism, and many other processes of marginalization, exploitation, and oppression all compose an ensemble of forms of domination. They are interrelated, of course, at times promoting each other, at other times opposing each other. However one can never deduce the temporal or logical priority of one of these elements.
2. No division into “political politics” and “everyday politics”: Reproductive and nurturing labor needs to be made visible and distributed fairly. Our daily lives are a terrain for political struggle. The private sphere is neither subordinated nor of secondary importance to political struggle. Demands for a just organization of housework and child-rearing, and for solidary care are not merely meant to present women or other excluded persons with equal access to the sphere of “real” politics; it’s rather the other way round so that men and other privileged people are forced back into the sphere of “real” politics.
3. No fear of your own success: Progress in the fight against a relation of domination is not invalidated by the fact that it does not come about at the same time with success in the struggle against all forms of domination. The feminist revolution of 1968 is not less revolutionary because capitalism was not abolished at the same time. That is not to say that our own success cannot be integrated and domesticated or that individual forms of liberation in the end cannot have an ambivalent or ironic outcome. Those who claim, however, that post-68 forms of liberation have not really changed anything, or, even worse, have been the harbingers of post-Fordist or post-modern labor relations, merely continue the privileging and prioritizing of transformations of a so-called “base.” Those purporting the priority of some totality are really always only concerned with some part, namely the economy, and only a certain part of the economy.
4. No “tabula rasa” and no catharsis: Since we face a multitude of relatively autonomous forms of domination that are not congruent with one another, it follows that the idea that one simple “rupture” will radically alter reality is unrealistic and misleading. There are always several fronts at which we need to fight, several alliances or enmities. The term “revolution” either needs to be given up upon entirely or reformulated in such a way that it can include the heterogeneous temporalities of emancipatory movements.
5. There are no longer any barricades: We must not conceive of all forms of domination in the same way that we conceive of capitalism. Some forms of domination constitute antagonistic oppositions; some are intimate and run through our own bodies (such as gender dualism). There are militants within bourgeois institutions and enemies in my bed. Some demands can be put into rights, others require changes of attitude; some struggles aim at changing a material regime, others at a cultural or symbolic one. Relations between parents and children are a relations of domination. But these relations cannot be solved by the guillotine or through tax incentives that reduce them to problems of economics. Such issues can only be adequately resolved through the recognition of specific needs of the subaltern.
6. Put an end to aniconism: We need to develop and establish new relationships in the here and now. These forms of how we want to live need to be tried, reflected upon, revised, and published. There is no reason why we need to wait for the day after the revolution. We can begin now.
7. Occupy your life: What is truly exciting and encouraging in global protest movements that we are currently witnessing is precisely that they take seriously the specific aesthetics of existence which rest in activism. It seems that, from the beginning of the Occupy movement, discussions about the organization of our everyday lives have played a major role; from the beginning the activists have not pushed aside the cultural dimension of protest, but rather affirmed it. In almost all documents from Occupy, the experience of living together collectively is emphasized, the experience of sleeping in tents, of debating, gathering, and the emotions and affects related to it. Occupy rejects the interpellation of a personified addressee or the fiction of a grand social subject. And as a side effect, Occupy showed that activism need not be ascetic or sad, but that there is a lot to win even today, once we set up together a new and defiant life.
Janine Wissler: Far from having reached a historical nadir, the contradictions today loom so large that, on the contrary, the Left and anti-capitalist politics should be able to relate much better to the social consciousness than was the case during Fordism. That is, in times of huge growth rates, when many parts of society could, in one way or another, get something out of the growth, when there was an actual improvement of the quality of life, the contradictions in the system are less obvious. It seems obvious to many people that our current social and economic problems will never be solved if the prevailing power and property relations remain intact. The Occupy and Blockupy protests, the latter with about 25,000 participants, are great developments. However, I also argue that, especially in Germany, social movements have had great difficulties gaining a foothold.
I would follow Thomas’s definition of the term “resistance.” There are different forms of resistance, which can be concerned with single issues, can be long-lasting, can be very individualized, or can take place on a mass scale in the shape of social movements. It is the task of the Left therefore to endorse these kinds of resistance and to lead them in a way from the concrete to the universal. It should be made obvious that it doesn’t make sense in the end to just fight the symptoms of a sick system. How can you put an entire system into question though? It doesn’t work to merely win reforms and improvements step by step and then hope to arrive at a better society. Reforms can be taken back; indeed, the last few years in particular showed that advancements once gained can be taken back, so that the universal does have its limitations.
In the last few years and decades struggles for positive reforms have not had priority, rather we have only witnessed defensive struggles, which were meant to impede political setbacks. There were no mass protests that raised demands which pointed beyond the status quo. We can see this in struggles within higher learning or at workplaces. It seems that the fight for positive reforms has retreated into the defensive and the term “reform” has been perverted completely. If you think of reforms today, you think of deterioration, and not of anything positive.
If we do talk of reform and revolution, however, reformist parties should be criticized for never raising the issue of what stands in the way of social movements and for never properly addressing what keeps people from fighting for their interests together. The reason for this oversight is that the dominant principle within reformism is that you make policies for people, as their proxies. The idea seems totally lost that you can fight for self-emancipation, i.e. that people can engage in politics by fighting for their rights themselves, by making policies on their own.
I concur with the critique of economism. Nevertheless, it is actually important to discuss how exploitative and oppressive regimes are interrelated, and how they condition one another. I also agree with the sentiment that the fights against racism and against the oppression of women are independent struggles. It would, of course, be wrong to deduce everything out of the class struggle. We do need to consider where we can find correlations. I, for example, cannot imagine how women are supposed to be free in an unfree society and vice versa. That is why Daniel’s arguments seem absolute. There are seemingly naturally objective reasons why it makes sense socially that women are not equal to men, but if you get rid of the economic reason, you erase the objective foundation of inequality. We need to reflect on how we can link the struggle for the equality of women with the fight for a better society. History has shown that it was precisely during times of revolutionary upheavals that women were able to gain the most rights. Think only of 1918 when women gained the vote. Those were times when you had progressive developments and revolutionary situations all across society. Thus, we need to discuss those issues alongside one another without regressing back to the old debate around secondary contradictions, as such debates are harmful to the Left.
TS: I feel thrown back into the old debates of the 70s. Back then, I always used to say the same things that Daniel said just now, and they were always the vantage point of my politics. But we are in the year 2012 now; we have accumulated a lot of experience since the 70s.
There was a time when politics was defined as what the party does against the state and capital, always under the leadership of men, and everything else remained part of the private sphere, at best a secondary contradiction, to be dealt with after the revolution. To counter this, the dualism of micro- and macro-politics was introduced, which defined the entire micropolitical field as an area of resistance. All the old questions remain, though, and you’re not an economist if you stress that. There are different forms of domination, and they all follow their own logic. Of course, capitalism is not the only system of domination. But it is an essential one (but certainly not the only one) that runs through all the other ones. If you deny this fact, only the left-liberal position remains, which at best aims at taming the anarchy of capitalism.
Let me introduce the old, “evil” Leninist dualism of trade unionism versus politics. Trade unionism includes everything we accumulate spontaneously in our everyday lives, which is then articulated, e.g. in union demands. This was to be done away with and replaced by what the party dictated. Looked at from today’s point of view, this is of course a flawed position. However, there is a moment contained in it in which we can rediscover our experiences of the last 30 years: The division into trade unionism versus politics also meant the division of those who could not see beyond their own interests, who could only focus on their specific grievances, and were unable to offer more resistance. Lenin coined the term economism for the labor movement of his time, but you can also speak of a trade unionism of women, the youth, the sick, and of ecologists—it is a real problem that needs to be transcended. You need to move beyond this and constitute yourself as a political subject. I believe that those who set out to oppose the SDS have themselves been corrupted and gotten stuck in a specific trade unionism of their own. That doesn’t diminish their activities. Still, we need to ask how an entire generation could become saturated with questions of better child daycare and changed gender relations, which have all changed so dramatically. And, once again, we need to re-pose the question of the political subject who arises to fight in the name of all.
NT: Naturally I reject the accusation of economism. Driving this sort of attack is a truncated understanding of capitalism and its underlying features. It makes a difference whether I speak of a capitalist society whose basic process is the logic of the value form, or whether I say, “Everything is determined economically.” Those are entirely different things. There is a historically specific character to this society which is comprised in this way of being constantly “driven,” of this compulsion to constant acceleration, this necessity of always overthrowing everything, including the means of production, and penetrating all of society with capitalist relations. In no way is this merely an economic relationship, but relates to the most intimate human relationships, in other words, to the way in which people interact with one another. When we speak of subjects who understand themselves to be in constant competition and who have to act accordingly, then we’re speaking of human beings who are forced to objectify the world and themselves. We can observe this at its most obvious in the fact that I need to sell myself day after day as the commodity labor power. But things reach even farther: the need to objectify yourself and face the world as an objective process, i.e. facing something that is objectively alien to you—that’s something specific to capitalism, and which penetrates all forms of domination that persist in it. In other words, it’s not just about some sort of “economic process,” but rather about something that preconditions all social relations, and is thus also not easily grasped as it operates prior to everyday relations and actions. That’s reflected in the way people think about society. For example, the construction of a collective subject such as “the nation” is a form of metaphysics, i.e. when I identify with a meta-subject and I consequently submit myself to it. In this close way of looking at things we realize that it naturally does not have anything to do with economism but with the way I behave toward this society.
The “perverseness” of the term “reform” that Janine talked about expresses itself in the fact that the historical process which expedited reforms and allowed greater latitude within bourgeois-capitalist society has exhausted itself. The shift of the dynamic of capitalist accumulation to the financial markets has taken place because it saw in this move a strategy to avoid this underlying crisis of capitalism for a few decades. Not only has the latitude been narrowed, but the balance of power has also shifted in a way such that what once was meant by reform, i.e. gaining social rights and leeway in labor relations, does not work anymore. That’s what is meant when we talk of the “perverseness” of the term “reform.”
DL: I’ll grant you this: I, too, support the abolition of capitalism. What I find problematic, however, is the deduction of some kind of priority of the economic sphere before all other forms of domination, be they of a temporal or of a logical nature. The autonomy of struggles means that there are various autonomous, overlapping spheres that mutually influence one another, but there is just no prioritization. The belittlement of micropolitics overlooks the seriousness of those forms of domination and how difficult it is to change things on a small scale. Have you ever tried changing yourself? This is the toughest thing of all!
Foucault did not refuse to face the totality. He simply answered this challenge differently, by opposing the brand of Marxist thought that was dominant in the Communist Party of France, which took as its basic premise the category of the social totality. It was this that Foucault countered with the belief that micropolitics were heterogeneous and constituted local power relations which you have to resist locally as well as globally.
There are two dangers for the Left: corruption and conformity. The institutionalization of the Left can cause it to lose and betray its own ideals. That is what it needs to look out for and develop mechanisms to counter. The second danger is that of conformity or Stalinism. This is what Foucault opposed. When Thomas says, even after all the experience of avant-garde politics, that we should strive to achieve socialism “by any means necessary,” my alarm rings! The concept of the political needs to be reflected on critically; the experiences of Stalinism as a temptation for the Left demands reflection. We do definitely exclude some “means!”
JW: I believe that even struggles for the most minor improvements, such as better child daycare, are absolutely legitimate and necessary. The question is rather whether we stop at those.
In her essay “Reform or Revolution,” Rosa Luxemburg makes clear that she does not confront those matters as contradictions. On the contrary, in the fight for reforms we sow the seeds of a new society and the consciousness that this other society is possible, even though, to be sure, Luxemburg also explains how it does not suffice to only fight for reforms. Contemporary power relations as well as property relations are intertwined and the Left cannot lead struggles based on a conception of capitalism that detaches one from the other.
Q & A
What role do you ascribe to the political as a way to engage history, as a means to learn to understand things in a new way, such that the object of critique is itself changed and thus also our own understanding of this object of critique?
TS: The political does have a dynamic of its own. You would be mistaken, though, to assume that the political process can put everything into a new direction without being embedded in the restraints demanded by politics. I think that the political process contains the unpredictable, the non-deducible, the unexpected and surprising, sudden openings that no one is expecting. The political considerations of the comrades in Cairo only a few months or even a few weeks before the events in Tahrir Square took place within an entirely different horizon than after fall of the Mubarak. Everyone thought the Mubarak regime would last forever, that they would have to essentially adapt to this world dominated by Mubarak, and this was especially true for the left in Egypt. When the events in Tahrir Square unfolded, the Left, which until then still had been marginalized, was suddenly agitating in an entirely different context—this is the momentum of the political and it goes beyond mere “resistance.” At the level of the relationship between the micro- and the macro-political, the question arises, “What kind of rupture within your life exists once you decide to remain the political subject after having certain experiences?” If I take a historical look back at my own life I can definitely say that a giant part of my generation has been corrupted.
NT: The Greens, like Die Linke or any other party that tries to change anything by engaging in the political process, face structural constraints. When you take the case of Die Linke joining in on austerity measures when they were in a coalition government in Berlin a few years ago it had to accept the budgetary logic of sustaining only that infrastructure which can also be paid for. This is what happens once you enter into politics. That way, I am already wrapped in all the constraints that define capitalist logic, and all of this is the case in a time in which I have less leeway politically because capital accumulation is faltering. Soon we are left with the so-called “pragmatists” who accept systemic constraints and execute them. That is how a political class emerges which is nothing more than an operative of this logic, which is to say, of the logic of financial feasibility and the fact that this money necessarily is taken from capitalist accumulation.
JW: Nevertheless, you do need to look at the social configuration of the Greens. They neglected the social question from the beginning. I agree that the Greens in a way are the expression of the demise of a movement, and that they conformed in face of institutional constraints to coalitions, parliaments, and governments by really believing they could change the system. The Greens were able to achieve much more and impact consciousness far more by means of extra-parliamentary activities than what they were able to accomplish during the years they were actually governing. Once the Greens entered into parliament, they accepted constraints, budget consolidations, and the rollback of the welfare state, while appearing politically helpless.
However, there are also important reasons why Die Linke exists as a parliamentary force, since in its absence, the Right would be able to gain all the more at the polls. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if SYRIZA had become the strongest party in Greece. You cannot explain SYRIZA’s success at the polls without taking into consideration the mass movements of the last two years in which there have been 17 general strikes in Greece. It does make a difference whether you can count on mass movements as a government to get through reforms, or whether you can’t, and in Greece, SYRIZA could have gone the road of accommodation in a coalition with PASOK. However, they could have also begun to fundamentally question things and dispossess the Greek ruling class, and this could have initiated an entirely new conversation in Europe on the fiscal compact and the so-called “rescue measures.”
TS: It was good that SYRIZA did not win the elections! They would likely have not survived a victory because they would have been faced with constraints early on. All leftist forms of politics—the new social movements and the old ones, social democracy, Marxism-Leninism, anarchism—are responsible for some parts of the historical failures of the Left; yet they also have elements that I wouldn’t want to forgo. And then there is the possibility that projects such as SYRIZA, which is something else entirely, can emerge. SYRIZA is a new constellation and its platform is of a leftist social democratic nature, in which post-Maoists, post-Trotskyites, anarchists, and upright left social-democrats can participate. This has never existed historically, and it’s extraordinary, which is cause for optimistim.
Shouldn’t we ask, “What is to be done?” rather than argue over whether the Left was dead? Would this not be a way to address such issues more productively? Isn’t the end of latitude within capitalism a chance to develop politics independent of it?
NT: Indeed, I think that the term “reform” cannot be applied, for instance, to the governments in Latin America. Chavez’s regime does not achieve the political goals it sets for itself, and it is also, as is commonly known, pretty corrupt. What is much more interesting is the space it has opened up for social movements. On the political and institutional level, questions over how to finance things will always come up. Such questions never arise on the level of grassroots politics. There you can say: We don’t care how things will be financed. Instead, we just take the houses, the land, the resources and use it according to our needs. And we organize. I wonder what different sorts of latitude are opened up here. Can you still speak of politics in this case? At any rate, you definitely can’t talk of reformist politics here—it is something totally new.
JW: Look at the movements in the Arab world, the mass movements in southern Europe, and then look at what’s happening in Germany with regard to the crisis. We are immediately faced with the problem that the economically strongest country in the Eurozone has a level of class struggle that is incredibly low. This naturally has something to do with the fact that the strategy to counter the crisis in Germany was entirely different than in southern Europe. Germany did the opposite of what is expected in the south. Here, we went the way of social partnership, which is part of the problem too: In Germany we have the fewest strike days, whereas our unions are the most powerful ones in Europe, and still wages are decreasing. But it should be Germany where protests and resistance against enforced austerity measures and cutbacks are staged. What we are seeing now reminds me of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s that occurred in the Third World, which, in the end, entirely disempower people.
What’s supposed to have changed so substantially such that there is no more leeway in capitalism, as Norbert claimed? And how have reforms become impossible? Isn’t the logic of capital he talks of as old as capitalism is?
NT: If we measure the growth of productivity in material goods, we have seen a four- to six-fold increase in the last 30 years, but under capitalist conditions people have become dispensable en masse. Due to this enormous increase in productivity the dynamic of accumulation, which pushes capitalism forward, has been undermined. That is why we have seen this shift to the financial markets. Capitalism today can only sustain itself by the accumulation of fictitious capital. That is the reason they say, “There is no alternative.” Central banks have to pump money into the markets and states jump to the rescue when banks are threatened to collapse because this dynamic of fictitious capital needs to be sustained. And this is what is so dramatic about the changes that have been wrought since the 1960s and ’70s.
This dynamic of fictitious capital cannot be sustained forever. Yet every time the Left debates wealth, this debate takes place in the category of money, which is a key point and needs to be debated. Those so-called mandatory spending cuts result solely out of the necessity to sustain the accumulation of (fictitious) capital. However, capitalism increasingly uses up future value in the present to sustain production, and this is precisely what has reached its limits. This is what presents itself symptomatically as the necessity to cut spending. Now is the historical moment in which we need to broach the issue of the kind of wealth we want.
TS: Whether reformism is possible now or not cannot be derived out of any analysis of the momentum of capital, no matter how refined it is, since the fact that reformism was possible in the 20th century was essentially the result of the October Revolution. Capital always resisted concessions, but the October Revolution terrified the bourgeoisie so much that they were suddenly willing to make concessions after all.
What I would expect from a reformist project in the 21st century is that it would have to brace itself for the permanence of an autonomous contradiction from society and accept it as such. This would be a reinvention; it would be a project that tries to acknowledge the autonomy of the street and the autonomous self-organization of people even in moments of conflict. For that you need a solidary communication of people from both camps—the moderate and the radical left. Never before was the dialogue between these camps led in such an open, multifaceted and solidary manner, and on such a long-term scale, as is the case today. There are radically left organizations, such as the Interventionistische Linke, who still work on the problem of how to establish the autonomy of all, and if we succeed in establishing dialogue on a long-term basis, then we have a model for such a reformist project.
What this can achieve, however, will depend on whether people will revolt, just as the October Revolution was such a revolt, and opened up the possibility to spread—as it did, as a matter of fact—despite repeatedly failing. The October Revolution inspired anticolonial movements that ultimately led to the collapse of colonialism. This was the essential reason why we had reforms in Central Europe. This presents an option for us to pursue. Otherwise I’d suggest we just retire for a while and think—for example, by reading Adorno.
How important is Adorno’s critique of the ’68 generation’s understanding of resistance and of their actionism? Is it perhaps more topical today than it was in 1968?
DL: This conflict took place in a situation in which all were partly wrong. On the one side you had students protesting at lectures and erring fundamentally in their assessment of Adorno and of the actions they took against the Institute for Social Research. It sucked just as much, though, that Adorno called the police. We can learn something of the relationship between intellectuals and social movements: Both need to be part of a social transformation. For that you need space and time to think, and this is what Adorno was doing in the face of the pressures of the street. But of course he was wrong in his assessment of this movement.
However, I do think the accusation of pseudo-activity is wrong. What’s the prefix “pseudo-” supposed to mean? You can explain it by a conception of society as a dominating totality, so that nothing short of its complete abolition can be counted as “real” activism. Such a conception is wrong, and this is where Adorno erred. You have to give him credit, though, in that he himself never complied with this verdict. Adorno did involve himself in politics. Not only did he give lectures and write texts, but he also intervened just as much in practical politics, such as in his stances on pedagogy. This is a specific kind of politics, namely a reformist one. This is what Adorno pursued, while opposing an activist kind of politics. He did so for various reasons we can debate. We could ask whether he assessed the situation adequately; he said the time for this sort of activist politics was over and that we needed a different kind of politics. Here, too, I disagree with him. Nevertheless, Adorno had some important criticisms that I think are still valid. But the term “pseudo-activity” is unwarranted, and it’s not helpful for today’s struggles.
TS: Although I appreciate Adorno, I thought his criticism of the student movement was mistaken then, and still is. He was incapable of accepting what was happening in front of his own eyes. On the subject of pseudo-activism: This aspect is the most important one when you evaluate the question of how to become a political subject! If things are the way they are, you need to take the right to hold off, instead of getting lost in pseudo-activism. My background is in the non-dogmatic, post-Leninist, half-Maoist left of the 1970s, and from a certain point onward I was surrounded by Greens and Autonomists. I allowed myself to withdraw from those discussions and to think, because I thought that which was being offered did not resonate with me for various reasons. However, when, in the early 1990s, neo-Nazis set fires to several buildings that housed asylum seekers, it became clear to me that I had spent enough time thinking and I needed to be active again. Thus, there are times of pseudo-activism, and it’s part of being seriously political that one avoids simply becoming entangled in activism. Yet, if you back out completely, you stop being a political subject.
JW: What’s important is not whether we have arguments on the Left, but whether a concerted effort or praxis emanates out of such an argument, for it makes little sense to argue unproductively over things if we cannot reunite in the end. This is where we need to ask, “What is it that we can actually agree on now, and what is the task for the Left today?” |P
Transcribed by Gregor Baszak, Markus Niedobitek, Nicolas Schliessler, Jerzy Sobotta. Translated by Gregor Baszak.
1. See Platypus Review 4 (April 2008) at <http://platypus1917.org/2008/04/01/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-“resistance”-the-problematic-forms-of-“anticapitalism”-today/> and Platypus Review 53 (February 2013) at <http://platypus1917.org/2013/02/01/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-resistance-the-problematic-forms-of-anti-capitalism-today/>.↑