Interview with Autonomie Magazin and Achim Szepanski
Achim, you published three books in 2018 alone. The Introduction to Economics “Capital and Power in the 21st Century”, a book with three essays on “Imperialism, State Fascisation and the War Machines of Capital” and, together with Karl-Heinz Dellwo and J. Paul Weiler, the anthology “Riot. Was da los in Hamburg”, which discusses the effects around the G20 summit.1 You also run the NON-Blog, the Force-Inc site and are active in the social networks. On one of your pages you once wrote that most leftists don’t know how a bank works. So, how does a bank work these days?
There is also a mistake in the left-wing field – and this also applies to the better books, such as “Das Finanzkapital” vom Gegenstandpunkt – that private banks (not the central bank) are pure financial intermediaries who borrow money from customers at a certain interest rate and lend this borrowed money at higher interest rates. This would then result in their profit. Their profit mechanism, however, is different: banks draw credit quasi autonomously, which is to be understood as a future promise of payment, thus releasing money for all kinds of economic processes of companies. What the private banks spend as credit is not based on the deposits of customers and savers, the process is different: if the private bank decides that a customer is creditworthy (he must hold securities), he is given credit and a certain amount of money is credited to his account. These deposits are known as wallet money, which is written to an account as a number at the press of a key (which is why we also speak of keystroke capitalism). The interest payments of the borrowers in the future will result in the returns of the banks. However, banks cannot repeat this process at will, as companies, states and households are limited in their capacity to borrow for a variety of reasons. Other important sources of income for the major banks today are trading in derivatives.
According to Marx, the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production is that between capital and labour. How does this express itself today, what does it mean for the capitalism of the 21st century and also for the development of class struggles?
The antagonism between capital and labor has been strongly transformed at the global level since the 1970s. It has entered a new round, so to speak. On the capital side, keywords such as financialisation, globalisation, global supply chains, logistics, etc. outline these changes. In the course of the massive capital exports of the Western industrialized countries, they themselves were deindustrialized, one thinks of the black zones like Detroit or the Ruhr area, and at the same time new industrial zones were established, especially in Asia. Moreover, because of the crisis processes in the 1970s, the deregulation of the financial markets, the free currency trade and the floatation of oil prices, capital is more strongly in the areas of circulation, be it in the financial system, logistics, services, distribution and so on. This also has spatial implications, because the goods are now produced along logistical spaces whose logic consists in the organization of complete global supply chains that include design, production, transport, storage and sale. Logically, this has also changed the composition of the global proletariat, be it technical-economic or political. The global proletariat, estimated at around 3 billion, includes the wage-earning working class, the precariat, the unemployed, and the surplus population, who are denied access to the official labor markets to exist as an accumulated corpse. Accordingly, the importance of the strike as a means of fighting the working class has declined, albeit not disappeared, and new forms of struggle have developed in the circulation scout. There are Riots, but also struggles against the increasing indebtedness of the population, struggles over how to deal with integration into the financial circuits, hacking and organization in the cybersphere, forms of resistance against the banks like Occupy or against the new surveillance capitalists of Google and Co.
Marx distinguished between whether a service is financed from capital or privately, i.e. whether a capitalist, for example, lets an artist come home to entertain him or sets up an artist enterprise. But don’t services, transport, logistics, etc. have to be largely regarded today as productive and thus
value-adding activities are also seen in the overall cycle of capital, instead of only as circulation, and that the employees there are accordingly exploited workers?
Yes, a port, for example, is not only part of the circulation, but also a production company. And there is the famous example of Marx in the theories of added value, where he writes: “Even a clown is a productive worker if he works in the service of a capitalist”. This abstraction of sensuality, formulated to the extreme, has the purpose of revealing the form of exploitation and thus the internal rationality of capital. Even a bank employee is subject to this rationality. If he now presses the button, to grant, say, a loan of 100,000 million euros, then of course a whole series of labor services are included that are integrated into a highly productive network of machine intelligence. Nevertheless, it will be difficult to explain the return solely from the added value, especially since this is related to future payment promises.
How do you judge the relationship between the nation state and international capital and what effects does this have on a contemporary theory of imperialism? How capable of action is the political class, is state power still in view of your analysis?
Since the 1970s, a form of global imperialism has developed that has changed the relationship between capital and states as well as the “real” production of the world market. The almost symbiotic relationship between capital and state, which could still be observed in Fordism and was based on a certain convergence of the interests of the state to stabilize its political power and the interests of capital to create a global world market, is weakening. The large multinational capital, which consists of financial companies, data companies and large industrial and commercial enterprises, clearly places itself as the dominant factor before the nation-states. However, there is no Empire, as Negri/Hardt assume, but rather a hierarchical network of imperialist states and their executive organs of government, financial corporations, multinationals and international organizations (such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, NATO and UN). Other important institutions are the central banks of national governments, notably the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. In this network, financial companies play a dominant role vis-à-vis states for structural reasons alone. This is expressed by the states in the transformation of tax states into debt states. In order to increase the competitiveness of their companies in a global environment in which financial capital can freely circulate, states must make their territory as attractive as possible for international financial investors. At the same time, governments and political parties have been forced to organise their re-election, which since the 1980s has contributed to the fact that states are now increasingly financing themselves by issuing government bonds instead of taxes, i.e. by firing up government debt in order not to increase the tax burden for the population too much and not to completely dismantle the welfare state. In this way, states and their governments constantly increase their dependence on the financial markets, which in turn are praised for promoting the economic discipline of the agents they credit to the satisfaction of all. In order to avoid the distrust of the bond markets, which is expressed in rising interest rates for government bonds, governments must also increase the flexibility of the labour markets, cut social programmes, reduce capital taxes and reduce any serious regulation of the financial markets.
It is worth pointing out here, as the Greek economist John Milios thankfully refers to time and again, that the place of the capitalist is doubled. On the one hand there is the money capitalist, who initiates the production process by granting credit, and on the other there is the functioning capitalist, who organises the production process. As a result, and as the GDR economist Peter Ruben pointed out, capital is not to be understood as a positive value, but as a relation in which debt is regarded as a positive condition for capitalist production. Capital or capitalization is debt production sui generis. And this can also be seen empirically today in the large industrial or data groups. Automotive companies such as BMW or data groups such as Apple reclaim a large part of their profits from their own financial sectors. The metaphor of David Harvey and Tony Norfield is quite accurate: The financial system should be understood as the “central nervous system of capital”. All companies are forced to constantly carry out financial operations. Thus, companies use private banks to obtain the currencies they need to buy imported goods, or to exchange the profits from their export transactions into the local currency. Companies borrow short-term credit from private banks to secure their cash flows, or take out longer-term loans to finance their investments. They issue bonds or shares in the financial markets to raise money from investors, and they use derivatives to hedge against adverse movements in interest rates that limit their profitability.
The social character of Wilhelmine Germany was the authoritarian personality that Adorno, Fromm and others impressively described and that was the dominant one until well into the 1960s. Neoliberal capitalism, on the other hand, produced the narcissist. If you speak in various places of the fact that the previous terms are no longer sufficient to describe the state of society, would this not also have to make itself felt socio-psychologically?
Yes, it does indeed make itself felt socio-psychologically. If people today are forced to take out loans to secure their livelihood due to stagnating real wages and the dismantling of the welfare state, this has consequences. For the financiers they are now the notorious self-responsible subjects, who have to understand their lives as a financial risk, which they have to master successfully. It is the financially risky subject that introduces a new social character from the 1990s onwards and creepingly replaces both the authoritarian character and the narcissistic type, above all by extending the latter with regard to certain characteristics. Without being cynical, one could now speak of functional psychopaths, which should not be confused with the clinical image of psychopaths, although it is precisely the representatives of the ruling class (managers, lawyers, brokers, politicians, doctors, etc.) who often come dangerously close to them. Thus the observation of the psychologists Götz Eisenberg in all its exaggeration is quite to be agreed with that today most psychopaths do not sit at all in the rubber cells of the psychatries, but walk freely on the street and can prove to all (un)luck also still special successes in their respective occupations. They usually operate very efficiently and possess characteristics such as unconditional focus, excessive egocentrism, the incessant tendency to optimisation and unscrupulousness, they mobilise the sympathy of others as a privilege that serves purely to optimise one’s own benefit and the endless pursuit of one’s own singularity. They live the insincerity, the corruption and the domineering appearance right down to the tips of their hair, and all of this happens in the intoxication of complete spontaneity, whose fleshed-out reality today is roughly the product of art Trump. In the White House perhaps not even the inner circle knows what Trump will tweet in the next moment, there is the decision as an opportunity to clownish narcissism and to insincerity, which in Trump’s case promotes his inner growth, the abundance of that self, which still understands the last fart as an albeit wicked creativity. With regard to the uniqueness one wants to portray, the higher income earners consume the offers of the lifestyle industry, which makes them “functional” psychopaths.
But don’t the staffs, ministerial bureaucracies, the “deep state” work out the political and strategic guidelines, from whose activity a figure like Trump then perfectly distracts? In this respect, what he tweets is of secondary importance, or is it that they not only advise him, but are the actual decision-makers?
Yes, there are probably also guidelines for tweeting. One would have to investigate how the radical indifference to the content that Facebook practises with its data extraction has created the basis for fake news production. In any case, this is a field in which the parties today are also cavorting when they present themselves.
By changing the economic conditions you are speaking to the Surplus population after Joshua Clover. One could almost think that this is the new revolutionary subject. Could it not also be that this totally excluded and disenfranchised mass is already satisfied with minor “improvements”, e.g. jobs, or is even responsive to reactionary mobilizations and right-wing pogroms?
It is the totally detached, the masses of unemployed, the unemployed, the unemployed, the unemployed. the Asian and African migrant workers networked under proto-industrial conditions, the post-colonial army of slaves, the old and the sick, but also the superfluous young – all in all it is the global surplus population that stands outside the official working systems. Today, the surplus population is vegetating on the fine line between survival and liquidation. And when they articulate themselves politically on the streets, they are not confronted with the agents of production, but directly with the state and the police. These struggles therefore have a proto-political dimension from the outset. But this does not make the surplus population a revolutionary subject at all, because, as Zizek notes, it is affected by a double exclusion. Excluded from wage labour and excluded from all possible forms of participation, be it economic or social reproduction. But this also means that the surplus population is not even tempted to strive for a symbiotic relationship of interest with capital, as is practiced today by parts of the skilled workforce through the trade unions in the important countries of the West.
But doesn’t their lack of rights make them vulnerable to promises of all kinds, simple reforms or even civil war, e.g. as paid gangs of the rich, in order to sharpen the situation?
As the example of South America shows, the young people in the slums are susceptible to all kinds of gang formation. The conditions under which a system of cliques, gangs and rackets can emerge need to be investigated. No one would claim that these forms of economic and social impoverishment lead directly to revolutionary organization. There is the problem of the lumpen proletariat, to which Marx takes an extremely ambivalent position.
After the G20 summit there was a strong wave of repression on the part of the state apparatus. In view of this, isn’t a binding organization of counter-power becoming increasingly important, a resistance in everyday life that develops structures that, on the one hand, create a counter-public and can also cope with and respond to the coming blows, but, on the other hand, can also integrate parts of the wage earners in order to counter the tendencies you describe in “Riot” with something masses of people at all?
First of all, it must be stated that increasingly all pores of everyday life that are not yet infected by any imperatives of capital and the state are being closed. This also includes permanent online presence. On the digital markets, not only are old products constantly being replaced by new ones, but the consumption of the new products virtually challenges the ongoing occupation with them. The digital devices appear attractive as novelties because they offer new options, a mode for generating optionality that is copied directly from the financial industry. From this point of view, the utility value lies in the efficient operation of the largely standardized devices, their functions and states – the consumer himself is thus the operation that has come to life. They are subjected to a life variability that tends to be identical with the life cycles of technical products. This kind of optionality does not lead to the consumer’s freedom, but to constant adjustments to the functional requirements of technical objects and social media, which consumers actively promote with their comments on the Internet, without in the least feeling that they themselves become an application of the 24/7 clock and its control systems. Many more, they will extract data material, Facebook and Co. with their behaviour, and then prepare it via machine intelligence in such a way that it can be sold to advertisers.
What I’m trying to say is that everyday life is not a neutral space or even one of the Commons, it doesn’t offer any resistance potential in itself. The struggles must be reinvented in it, so to speak, be it riot and strikes, actions and declarations against climate change, occupations of squares, blockades, debt strikes, struggles for the Internet, in reproduction, against racism, nationalism and xenophobia, etc.
At the G20 summit, especially at the “Welcome to Hell” demo, the black block was visible, which is often mentioned in the book “Riot”. In view of the situation of police superiority, didn’t it serve its purpose as a tactical concept? What could take its place and what could a future form of action look like that corresponds to your analysis?
In our book on the Riots, Jose Rosales rightly pointed out that the Black Block does not exist like this. It is always also a construction of the media and the state that one wants to impose on parts of the resistance. If there are riots, one should not be misled by the fact that only the problematic left-wing radical part is at work here and that there is such a thing as a “good” demonstrator as opposed to an “evil” one. It is the state that divides the masses into “good citizens” and “bad criminals”, especially since it is precisely with these so-called “bad” and “criminal” elements that the fight against the state and the police is most effective. So Rosales. On the other hand, the creation of invisibility is always part of the struggle of the subalterns. It is an important moment for what is called the Black Block. This struggle today encompasses much more than just appearing masked on the streets. Precisely because of the practices of the surveillance capitalists, which are aimed at the transparent and glassy human being, it becomes almost an obligation to think about new forms of invisibility and anonymity. A field has only just been opened. It remains to be seen whether such new ideas will be taken up by the “Black Block”.
The left is not really visible as an antagonistic force. How do you see the prospects of left-wing populism – especially economic populism – as a strategy for exposing the dominant tendencies of authoritarian neoliberalism and right-wing authoritarianism to something in terms of content? Shouldn’t the social question be taken up first and foremost from the left?
I don’t think much of the left-wing populists. They shift the class antagonism to “We down there” against “The up there”, and worse, as Wagenknecht shows, they open the door to the shift to the opposition between Germans and foreigners that the right-wing populists have long since made. What do the left-wing populists do? They do not seek structural causes for the struggles in the capitalist system, but blame the corrupt intruder who infiltrates the system toxicly (for example, the greedy financial speculator); the cause is not inscribed in the structure as such, but is an element that, within this structure, overrides its assigned role so to speak and draws parasitic profits from this behavior. If the propagandists of left-wing populism then also strive for a new politics of affect, they deliberately overlook the difference between active and reactive affects, or worse still, they deliberately mix them up. Thus, in right-wing populism, resentment is an affective substance of antagonistic politics that is not about inequality, but about the feeling that others enjoy what de jure belongs to me and that only the wrong people “up there” are in power. A policy that does not distinguish between active and reactive affects is no less toxic in the democratic factory than the anti-populist establishment that tries to deprive people of power, especially by positioning the patriotism of the popular classes against the alleged cosmopolitanism of elites. The “we” that is always imagined is a political calculus that the right-wing populists can serve much better than the left-wing populists.
Both. There are always struggles in the real, the imaginary and the symbolic to apply the keyboard of Lacan. Capital today is more concerned than ever with the reproduction of its fixed capital compared to its variable capital. On the other hand, a social body of the communis must be developed. In order to organize the cascades of asynchronous struggles, which overlap but which can also contradict each other, to overcome the segmentation of the proletarian strata, their competition with each other, an organization is needed which overlaps this segmentation and creates binding alliances between the workers, the unemployed, the precarious strata and the surplus population, for example by assuming certain responsibilities of social reproduction without wanting to renounce the state social network, and at the same time developing new forms of self-administration. The boundaries between riots, wage struggles, squatting and hacker activities must become fluid as new forms of class organization coordinate them.
The question remains, however, where this movement should come from and how it should be built when, as you say, everyday life leaves no room for it, which in turn sounds very pessimistic. What do you think of the relationship between cadres and organization versus spontaneity and mass that has always been discussed for such a movement?
I think this is really a question of communism as a movement. The revolution must, in a sense, justify why it will have been the unfounded one, precisely that which was not objectively applied in the conditions of the capitalist economy and was logical from a logic point of view. Spontaneity and Organization for such a movement?
I think this is really a question of communism as a movement. In a certain sense, the revolution must justify why it will have been the unfounded one, precisely that which was not objectively applied in the conditions of the capitalist economy and was logical from a logic point of view. Spontaneity and organization must be rethought in every historical situation.
You repeatedly take a critical stance on left-wing radical politics, writing, among other things, that the RAF was the only meaningful thing the radical left produced in the West. How do you arrive at this assessment? What sense would the RAF have in the circumstances you analyzed?
Wolfgang Pohrt writes somewhere that the real mistake of the RAF was to have lost the anti-imperialist struggle. Without a new global wave of anti-imperialist struggles, there is no need to think about a “New RAF.
There is more and more talk of prevention in state management, because at present class struggles do not have such a pronounced level that state repression could really be justified. Why does the state arm itself preventively, does it not also bring people against it and how can we adjust to it?
Prevention policy is partly invisible or cleverly staged by a series of euphemisms. More security, more convenience, more freedom. The data groups also play an important role here. If you know everything about a person, but they don’t know that you know everything about them, they will of course be delighted if, as a lover of hamburgers, they are informed via their smartphone on the street that the nearest Burger King shop is fifty metres around the corner. The surveillance capitalists also know that this person is hungry right now. This is then called creating a functioning prediction product that anticipates behavior. And the state is happy to make use of the technical means of Google’s machine intelligence, for example, as long as it is allowed to do so by the company Google, which operates in a legal vacuum. The orientation of the state-organised social police towards prevention policy began before 11 September 2011, but it accelerated increasingly after 9/11 with the “war on terror”. Precautionary Principles” were introduced precisely in the course of the fight against terror, the production of the internal and external enemy, which proceed from worst-case scenarios and imagine various threats in order to research them, project them further and finally combat them. We are dealing here with a kind of permanent policeisation and securityisation of insecurity, whereby the relevant prevention policy presupposes that constantly new threat situations, dangers and risk factors are detectable, which only enable and justify the necessity and legitimacy of preventive state action. Prevention is not just about creating, it is about preventing and preventing. Basically, prevention means working on the virtual: It aims to control becoming in its supposedly chaotic eventiness (cybernetics) in order to avoid or pre-empt all possible impending dangers. Future events that have not yet happened thus attain an undeniable presence in the present. Such a prevention policy is then also implemented and, especially in the case of state action, can extend to the liquidation of supposed class enemies or “people’s pests”. This hyperrationalism of anticipating reason is at the same time a totalitarian pragmatism.
Do you see prevention as an essential indicator for fascisation? What exactly does that mean, is the option of fascism on the table again for the ruling class or are certain apparatuses becoming independent? What is their relationship to the right-wing movement on the street like?
Yes. To connect with what has been said: Prevention policy pretends to be able to eradicate a risk as if one were destroying vermin or pulling out weeds. In order to arouse suspicion today, it is no longer necessary to have concrete symptoms of abnormality, it is simply enough to have a quality that is classified as risk factors by the experts and technocrats who are responsible for the definitions of preventive policy. The aim is not only to anticipate individual undesirable actions, but also to construct and analyse the objective conditions under which dangers arise, in order to then design new intervention strategies. The result is a laboratory of risk factors that creates a potentially infinite multiplication of possibilities for intervention. One constructs a virtual and invisible enemy. In the new Bavarian Police law expresses this when there is quite unspecifically talk of “imminent danger”. This opens the way for a constant rewriting of laws, accelerates the motor of directives, decrees and rules that are constantly rewritten depending on the situation and ultimately stand for a new form of legal arbitrariness, which for Poulantzas, for example, was an essential characteristic of state fascisation.
Do not machines and algorithms increasingly take over the activities of such experts and technocrats, and then make quite real decisions, on the basis of big data, i.e. monitoring, statistics and data correlation, and without a revision instance, so to speak?
That is the tendency. The artificial and learning machine intelligence is based on material infrastructures, or, to put it another way, on specific configurations each composed of the components hardware, software, algorithms, sensors, and connectivity that today shape all sorts of things within the machine feedback loops – cameras, chips, nanobots, televisions, drones, etc. – and that is the tendency of the machine intelligence to be artificial and learning.
You have already said something about the pitfalls of a right-wing or reactionary criticism of elites and capitalism above. If wealth production today is “fictitious”, what does that mean for exploitation and added value? Isn’t it a new feudalism if more money is created from wealth without “detour” through production?
There is often talk of a new financial feudalism. In my opinion, this is not the case at all. Rather, it is necessary to understand the laws of movement of a new speculative capital whose Reichtsum production is fictitious, insofar as it is related to the calculation and capitalization of future money flows that are already to be realized today. Precisely because of its reference to the future, fictitious capital is indeed involved, but it is by no means immaterial, but has harsh effects in reality. I have briefly hinted at this in the question of government bonds, where speculation on them can raise interest rates and thus discipline states in their policies. Government bonds, in turn, are the basis for cascades of derivatives that influence interest rates. I keep coming back to the following example: A table may be a thing for providing a meal, but if factors such as interest rates on loans from the table producing company, options and insurances on the price of wood and finally currency fluctuations are superimposed with the corresponding factors in production, and this in the context of the production of further goods and services, then a global feast of monetary capital is placed over the extremely modest table (as a physical object). This means that the financial markets do not primarily evaluate the current fundamentals of the companies, but what the companies might be worth in the future.
After all, capital does not only include production. On the conceptual level, when analysing the reproduction process of capital, it must be noted that the production process is already linked to circulation, i.e. production is to be understood as part of the total monetary circulation of capital (G-W-G`). In contrast to production, circulation is about accelerating the sale of goods, the production and acceleration of information and money capital flows and thus always also about increasing the turnover times of capital, whereby the financialization of these processes involves the production of credit, fictitious and speculative capital. We have seen that private banks make their profits through the creation of credit and the trading of derivatives. And look at another example: The new monitoring capital from Google & Co is a so-called hyperscale company that generates high returns with relatively few workers and effective use of machine intelligence and achieves an incredible market capitalization in the financial markets. The classical value-added theory gets into enormous difficulties.
Big business is internationally positioned and needs open borders for logistics, while smaller companies have to fear competition. What does this mean for the tendency towards fascisation?
That means first of all that the dangers for the emergence of an old “full” fascism are small. However, it is precisely the specifically capitalist globalization in the capitalist core countries, due to a long-lasting economic stagnation that is precisely related to globalization (parts of the productive capital were outsourced to China and enabled rapid growth there), that has ensured that the state no longer has the means of a Keyneasian demand stimulation. It can no longer provide demand stimulation, so that its function as an institution for reconciling the interests of capital and labour is limited. Instead, its function as a social police and monitoring body is being ramped up and expanded. This in turn favors fascization processes in the state itself.
In your last book you talk about new forms of governance. Can you briefly explain the term and give a current example?
The writings of Michel Foucault have given a strong boost to left-wing governance research. Generally speaking, governance refers to a decentralized and network-like form of control and government, as opposed to hierarchical, centralist, and dirigiste forms of government that are associated with the state. This transformation also implies the reorganization of the state apparatus and its activities, but also leads to a reorganization of the entire political space.
After the crisis of 2008, we experienced a gigantic redistribution program to the banks. What is the relationship between the increasing racism and the consequences of the financial crisis? Which crisis scenarios are conceivable in the future, especially since the national budgets will probably not be able to support such rescue programmes again?
The rescue of the banks after the financial crisis weighed so heavily on the budget coffers of the USA and the states in Europe that a tightened austerity policy and an exclusion policy were the logical consequence, with the governments transferring the losses of the capital and the financial system to the wage-dependent workers and employees, parts of the indebted middle class, to the unemployed and to the completely dependent. In Europe the countries were incited against each other, i.e. the crisis problem emanating from financial capital was reinterpreted as a conflict between labour-shy southern countries and hard-working northern Europeans. It was also the allegedly bloated welfare state in Germany, Italy or Greece, too high wages, too rigid labour markets or even the trade unions that were responsible for the crisis. All this strengthens right-wing movements. It is easy to see that in the US and Europe ideological set pieces composed of nationalism, racism and neoliberal waste have gained weight and momentum after the financial crisis. The right-wing populist movements only had to follow up on this kind of “discourse” in order to inspire parts of the population with their paranoia stagings and eradication fantasies, especially in the social networks, and then finally become active themselves and attack the refugees’ camp shelters with incendiary devices and steel balls.
Foto: Bernhard Weber