Capital and History

By Robert Kurz

Published as „Kapital und Geschichte“ in Neues Deutschland on April, 24, 2009

Translated by Parker Everett of The Chicago Political Workshop

The confidence in capitalism is apparently unshakeable; also on the Left. Out of all crises it will rise like a phoenix from ashes and will start a new recovery. In the meantime, it can no longer be denied that we have to be concerned with the contemporary historical slump. A new world economic crisis with unpredictable consequences stands on the agenda of history. But nevertheless everyone asks only: When will the crisis end? Which type of capitalism will come after the crisis? This anticipation supports itself on the understanding that capitalism is “the eternal return of the same.” The elementary mechanisms of exploitation always remain the same. There are technological revolutions, social upheavals, changes in “the balance of power” and new hegemonic powers. However, that is only an outward “history of events,” a perpetual on and off of cycles. From this point of view, the crisis is purely functional for capitalism. It leads to a “correction,” by devaluating surplus capital. Thus making the way free for new processes of accumulation.

This understanding does not take the internal dynamics of capitalism seriously. There is also another conception. Accordingly, exploitation exists actually only in the historical dynamics of an ascending development of productive forces. It is not merely technological change, but, in this way, new conditions of exploitation are established. Therefore capitalism is not the “eternal return of the same,” but an irreversible historical process, which drives toward a point of culmination. Because in the process of the internal history of capitalism, the margin [Spielraum] for the exploitation narrows itself. The impetus for this is the liberation/redundancy [Freisetzung] of labor power, which is made superfluous/redundant [überflüssig] to an always increasing extent by scientific-technological aggregates. Labor constitutes, however, the substance of the capital, since it alone produces real increases in value. Capitalism can compensate this internal contradiction only by an expansion of the credit system, thus through anticipation of a future increase in value. However, this systematic “snowballing” must press at its limits if the anticipation is stretched too far into the future. From this point of view, crises do not constitute a purely “corrective function,” but they historically strengthen and advance toward an internal barrier of exploitation.

Now the question is what status does the new world economic crisis have. The representatives of the second point of view are accused of just wanting to wait to the end of capitalism. However, the reaching of an inner barrier does not replace social emancipation, but would just plummet global society into chaos. Much more the representatives of the first point of view could be accused of believing that they themselves naively want to wait, as capitalism begins to grow again after the “correction.” A lot of the left shares this hope with the ruling elites. However, what if it does not behave this way? If no new potential for real exploitation can be specified, then the theory of “correction” remains an empty formula. A new form of labor-intensive production, however, is nowhere in sight. It could provide a rude awakening for the general expectations. The question then would be: What comes after capitalism? The mere nationalization of capitalist categories is no longer an option, but is itself already history. If this crisis should be overcome by and through civilization, then perhaps more is required than to wait for the next upturn.