The Critique of Value at Belshazzar’s Feast:
A Review of Anselm Jappe’s The Writing on the Wall
In the years since the 2008 economic crisis, renewed interest in Marx and Marxism has begotten interest in heterogeneous varieties that in one way or another violate the framework of the “traditional,” “official,” or “orthodox” Marxism that underpinned the workers' movement in Europe and state socialism in the countries of the Eastern bloc. One of these, which has gained some purchase among English-speaking Marxists in recent years, is the Wertkritik or “critique of value” school, whose foremost representatives began publishing in the German journal Marxistische Kritik—later renamed Krisis—beginning in the 1980s.
The value-critique writers, the best-known of whom is probably the late Robert Kurz, mounted an uncompromising critique of both capitalism and the one-sided reading of Marx that underpinned the limitation of the workers' movement to an essentially redistributionist struggle that in no way threatened the basic premises of the capitalist system. Since the 1970s, they believe, that that system has been grinding up against its absolute historical limits—limits given internally by the logic of its basic social categories, including money, the commodity, abstract labor, and especially “value.” In response, the value-critique writers extended the project, initiated by scattered Marxists throughout the twentieth century, to unearth an “esoteric” Marx, whose critique of these basic categories, concentrated in the first three chapters of Capital, Volume I, both embodies and posits a much more radical break with capitalist socialization than the “exoteric” Marx taken up by various revolutionary movements calling themselves Marxist over the course of the twentieth century. By accepting the place of these categories in any conceivable modern society, these movements took as given the basic principles of commodity society and imagined the proletariat as simply a more effective agent of capitalist modernization. In this way, these movements were unable to address what the Wertkritik theorists believe are the more profound crises that are emerging with the quickening deterioration of a society whose overriding tendency is to organize all social relationships on the principles of commodity exchange—the increasing inability of value as measured in abstract labor time to regulate and encompass the growth of the productive forces, the finite ability of the natural world to accommodate the proclivity for abuse inherent in capitalism’s ruthless drive for accumulation, and the psychic devastation wrought by an economic system that pits its subjects mercilessly against one another, robbing them of direct relationships with other human beings and condemning their lives to what value-critique adherent Anselm Jappe calls the “nothingness that underlies a system whose only direct goal is the accumulation of capital.”
Until quite recently, much of the work of the value-critique theorists has been unavailable in English—if translated at all, it was more likely to appear in French, Spanish, or Portuguese, the latter a result of the large following Kurz attracted in Brazil, where he penned a regular column in Folha de São Paulo, one of the country’s major dailies. This lack was remedied somewhat with the publication in 2014 of Marxism and the Critique of Value, the first major English-language collection of the Wertkritik writers.1 Now we have an English translation of essays by Anselm Jappe, the German-born, Italian-resident philosopher whose critical biography of Guy Debord was translated in 19992 and whose briefer pieces have surfaced sporadically in English on the web and in various journals. The Writing on the Wall is his first book-length collection in English.3
In a previous book, Les Aventures de la marchandise: Pour une nouvelle critique de la valeur [The Adventures of the Commodity: For a New Critique of Value], Jappe set out to explain the basic tenets of the critique of value for the French-speaking public.4 In the essays published here, he addresses both specific aspects of the contemporary crisis of capitalism and a variety of efforts, mostly in the context of contemporary French politics, to resist, avert, or derail it. The Writing on the Wall—the phrase is derived from a story in the book of Daniel, in which a disembodied hand rudely interrupts the feast of a Babylonian king to deliver a cryptic prophecy announcing his imminent fall—is thus conceived as a test of the ability of the value-critique approach to explain important features of the contemporary world. In addition, by scrutinizing “what passes today for a critique of capitalism,” it means to suggest, despite Jappe's caveats about the “necessary autonomy of theory,” a plausible path to emancipation (his preferred word) from the “death drive” built into the very DNA of capitalism.
What are the basic tenets of the critique of value? As noted, it is predicated on an expansive re-reading of the central categories of Marx's critique of political economy. It also puts the emphasis squarely on “critique,” holding that Marx sought neither to advance nor correct classical political economy, nor simply to reverse its conventional hierarchies by putting the working class, the creators of value, at the center of commodity society and its reproduction. His goal was more radical—to explode the very foundations of bourgeois society and its intellectual justification in the science of political economy. Marx's followers, the value-critique theorists believe, have in the main retreated from this effort, clinging to the “exoteric” Marx—the Marx of the class struggle, the “theorist of modernization” who "sought to perfect industrial society under the leadership of the proletariat," as Jappe puts it. On the Wertkritik reading, Marx himself vacillated between these two poles. On the one hand, Marx the revolutionary, acting in his role as a guide to the workers' struggle, mainly advocated the redistributionist approach, thereby remaining within the logic of the commodity society. On the other, Marx the analyst—the esoteric Marx, the Marx of the first three chapters of Capital—demonstrated how "the suffering resulting from capitalism," in the words of Roswitha Scholz, another member of the Wertkritik school, “emerges from” that logic itself, which precedes any struggle over distribution. Value critique theorists like Jappe regard their project as a “resumption of the critique of political economy,” recovering its radical potential by focusing it not on mere exploitation but, as Scholz puts it, on the “social character of the commodity-producing system” itself.5
At its best, the critique of value is bracing, dramatic, and uncomplacent. It is ecumenical and does not insist on shoehorning Marx into a spotless doctrinal consistency—a how-to manual for emancipation—preferring instead to take as a guiding principle what Jappe describes as the clear “break with the basic categories of capitalist socialisation” that Marx was the first to identify. Its relentless focus on fundamentals promises a holistic critique liberated from the immediatism of particular struggles. It accepts teleologies of a sort—capitalism contains its own internal limits, which are presently being reached—only to reject the notion that we can draw comfort from this recognition by assuming that the collapse of capitalism by itself ordains a better, fairer, or less catastrophe-prone society. The project of The Writing on the Wall is to test whether the critique of value can point to any legitimate or meaningful political practice in the face of its imposing discoveries. But given that commodity society inscribes its suffocating logic in the very marrow of our subjectivity, and given the failure of anything calling itself “the left” either to check its poisonous diffusion or even to ask the right questions, the question for anyone who hasn’t curled up under a blanket yet becomes: If socialism remains the alternative to barbarism, what does it look like, and where do we begin?
As Jappe and his value-critique compatriots see it, effective opposition to the commodity society is a big reach. The scale of the task is evident in the scope of the critique, which sees in what Marx called “commodity fetishism”—the domination of human activity by the market relations between commodities—not just a mistake of economic theory but the principles determining “the entire social context in a fundamental way,” as Norbert Trenkle, one of the school’s leading theorists, put it.6 At this late date, when capitalism has had time to “extirpate all the other forms of social life … which might have provided a basis for building a post-capitalist society,” virtually no one escapes this debilitating prostration before the god of value—the inhuman “automatic subject,” as Marx put it—that drives worker and capitalist alike. The Wertkritik theorists believe, following the German philosopher Alfred Sohn-Rethel, that “the commodity-form is also a “thought-form”—a “subject-form,” Jappe calls it—and that the airtight colonization of human intuition by the logic of the commodity society not only explains (in Jappe’s words) “the incredible capacity of this system for self-perpetuation,” but means the subjects who inhabit it “cannot be mobilised in their current form against capitalism.” Revolutions achieved by people who have not broken with this subject-form won’t be revolutions at all.
This is, to put it mildly, a distressing conclusion, and for Jappe to remain faithful to the task he sets himself, he must reconcile the staggering implications of the critique with his belief that “not all is lost”—that there is still a chance for human beings to disrupt the automatic subject, to recover modes of thinking and political practice that won’t destroy civilization, and ultimately to redirect the slide into barbarism that is the present symptom of capitalism’s galloping disintegration. If typical “left” approaches to the crisis are irrelevant or worse, where does one begin the “the leap into the unknown” Jappe believes is required?7 If the opposite of barbarism is, in his words, “humanisation,” where do we find the human in a world so thoroughly suffused with the self-undermining logic of exchange?
For Jappe, the resumption of the critique of political economy finds an answer to this question in moral reform, a concern with “a personal effort to effect a partial escape from the system” to which many Marxists—schooled in fealty to mass and class-based movements as well as the notion that erecting a new economic basis for society will tend to solve its social, political, and emotional problems—may find themselves allergic. This orientation explains Jappe’s sympathy with non-Marxists, such as Jean-Claude Michéa (and Michéa’s inspiration, the American cultural critic Christopher Lasch), who “may well turn out to be closer to Marx’s heritage than the bulk of what is now termed ‘Marxism.’” Indeed, Jappe’s current work-in-progress Les Aventures du sujet moderne [The Adventures of the Modern Subject], follows Lasch in identifying narcissism, a syndrome in which the individual never escapes the infantile conviction that the world is not real except as an extension of him or herself, as the contemporary manifestation of the logic of commodity society in the individual psyche. This is because the logic of the competitive market is, in every possible way, short-sighted. Like the crisis of the capitalist economy, which finds its Achilles’ heel in the anarchy of competition, the crisis at the level of the individual subject derives from the contest among producers to realize surplus value in the market. Driven by this compulsion, the producers of commodities—and every social good, including art, is increasingly structured as a commodity—have every incentive to cater to where buyers are at right now, robbing them of the opportunity to be challenged by the world and to grow in response.
What should a concerned if colonized subject do to break this logjam? Like other attempts to sketch a program for political action consistent with the findings of value critique, Jappe confronts a chicken-and-egg problem—the commodity society breeds eternal children, yet it will take people who are in every sense of the word adults to redirect its collapse with any seriousness. Moreover, the expansive scope and considerable abstraction that give the value critique its intellectual power at the same time furnish it with few concrete handles or identifiable points of attack. Class struggle is out—“it is not a matter of us against them,” Jappe insists. “What needs combating is the ‘automatic subject’ of capital, which also inhabits each and every one of us.” In accordance with his assertion that “thought and feeling precede action,” Jappe at times endorses a kind of countercultural approach—kill the cop inside your head, or, as the Detroit-based American philosopher George Clinton put it, “free your mind and your ass will follow.” At other moments he counsels sabotage, “what the authorities fear above all”—mass, generalized, unspectacular disobedience prefigured by nighttime raids against genetically-modified crops, stealth campaigns to disable surveillance equipment, or blockades of high-speed rail construction in the Alps. At the same time, he doesn’t eschew defensive struggles that won’t explode the commodity form but will “prevent capitalist development from destroying the basis of survival for large sectors of the population,” including resistance to the casualization of work or the further erosion of the welfare state.
In making these recommendations, which are scattered throughout the book, Jappe recommends a little bit of everything and therefore nothing with great confidence or conviction. This is partly a function of the overriding pessimism of value critique, in which political horizons get trimmed, in Jappe’s words, to efforts to “prepare for ways to emerge intact” from the crisis, to preserve “at the very least the possibility of future emancipation.” Like fellow Wertkritik thinker Ernst Lohoff, who in a 2009 essay similarly sought to sketch a “counter-positioning” to chisel at a sputtering yet still powerful commodity society, Jappe confronts both a problem of scale and one of transition.8 The scale problem is evident in the fact that capital has historically been able to tolerate groups of people who embrace use-value, treasure the concrete, and reject within their own limited circles the principle of the “exchange of equivalents” that denies the fruits of the world to those without money. As long as these groups remain isolated or opt for mere private secession, they risk conceding or even welcoming the advance of barbarism, shedding their identity as communists for something more akin to preppers—a critique Jappe himself levels at those who admire the writings of the French collective The Invisible Committee. Who or what, then, can coordinate the activities of such groups on a scale adequate to the marvelous coercive powers of the commodity society, outlined so devastatingly by Jappe?
The problem of transition is that of intermediate steps toward the “break, on every level, with the dictatorship of the economy” that Jappe advises. To their credit, the value critique theorists tend not to glibly dismiss struggles over access to basic means of survival in the here and now, thereby avoiding a position whose popularity, unsurprisingly, tends to be concentrated among the young and healthy, or at least among those whose access to the means of survival is not yet severely contested. But as long as those struggles are conducted on the terrain of the commodity and its universal equivalent—money—they don’t approach the conceptual bar established by the critique of value, whose criterion of effectiveness demands that political struggles violate this framework in some meaningful way.
Jappe’s book is riven by the gap between the monumental implications of Wertkritik theory and the ability to identify modes of political practice that could conceivably address them.9 For all the salutary ruthlessness of the critique, we are left uncertain as to what we might credibly do. Moishe Postone, whose work is a touchstone for the Wertkritik and other varieties of value-aware criticism, has given voice to this unease in a series of lectures delivered over the course of this year. Postone’s rigorous reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory in light of the crisis that has gripped the capitalist economies since the 1970s has led him to conclude, as do Jappe and others of the Wertkritik school, that we are confronted with a basic contradiction—“value increasingly becomes anachronistic and yet remains central to the system.”10 This immanent tendency of commodity society, first identified by Marx, generates the present “dual crisis”—on the one hand, runaway growth that threatens to inflict irreparable damage on the natural environment, and on the other, the increasing superfluity of labor that, instead of liberating its subjects, cuts them off viciously from the means of survival. The problem, for Postone, is that the left has not come up with an answer to this question, whereas the right has—a dynamic that is beginning to manifest itself in the rise of right-wing parties and exclusionary policies across the industrialized world. Unlike earlier generations of leftists, who found in a rational and equitable distribution of labor a reasonable image of how the future might look, “we no longer have an imaginary of what a post-work society would look like,” laments Postone. “Unless we can think of a different kind of social organization—for me, it's a challenge, I don't feel that I'm anywhere near an answer to that—but unless we can begin to start thinking about how to address this challenge, instead of just putting up defensive walls, I think we're lost,” he told an audience in Vienna this September.11 Postone would likely sympathize with Jappe’s injunction that “our only chance lies in jettisoning industrial capitalism and its foundations.” If we accept the Wertkritik account of those foundations, we are still looking for a place to start.