We Gotta Get Out of This Place
ANSELM JAPPE with Alastair Hemmens
Interview first published at The Brooklyn Rail
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.