Concrete web-magazine

5Jan/140

The Magic of Things

A fetish (derived from the French fétiche; which comes from the Portuguese feitiço; and this in turn from Latin facticius, "artificial" and facere, "to make") is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a man-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the emic attribution of inherent value or powers to an object.

-Wikipedia

Tuning in on TV or radio, opening a newspaper or magazine or just plain taking a stroll through the city, one can not evade the omnipresent advertising of goods and products we are promised will enrich our lives, if only we purchase them. So far, so bad. The sensoric terror of consumer society can not be evaded and therefore we have adapted to often not even consciously register the advertising messages anymore.

How else to explain the seeming obliviousness to the inherent absurdity of many ads?

Many products promise plain supernatural qualities: margarine is no longer just nutritional, it's actively helping you lose weight by the power of magical ingredients whose name you can't remember, but which sounded just scientific enough to buy it. Yoghurt is no longer a tasty dessert or snack, it's a potent potion to improve your health. And deodorants don't just mask the natural stench of your armpits; those days, it's making you literally irresistable to the opposite gender.

It's easy to mock such claims and deem yourself above falling prey to ridiculous promises, but we have to note that this form of advertisement must strike a nerve. If it weren't succesful, it would have vanished from the tools of manipulation the great advertising agencies use. It didn't. To the contrary, the attribution of traits to products they, according to common sense, just can't possess, is hegemonial in the world of advertisement.

This goes beyond outright claiming certain properties, like the food industry likes to do with imaginary health benefits of their products. Often, the association is more subtle and implied. Try finding a car advertisement that is actually about objective qualities of a car and not about associating a desired lifestyle with it. You'll be hard pressed. A sports car will subconsciously promise you vitality and power, a family car will promise you a happy family.

Entire business models rest on such attributions. There are plenty of myths about organic products that just don't stand up to the actual conditions under which they're produced. Organic food and fair trade promise you to make the revolution purchaseable. You can safely continue your saturated middle-class consumer lifestyle, all that matters is that you buy the right products. This is fundamentally the same assumption that may lead others to buy a fast car to get laid - just with more pretentious, smug moralism to back up your choice.

It works the other way round, too. Certain producers have managed to acquire such a bad reputation or get their products associated with moral qualities, that buying them makes you a bad person yourself. Try, for example, to argue with a common left-winger about the question why Coca Cola is bad, but buying a competing brand is seemingly acceptable. Or take the German clothing retailer "KIK", whose customers have become synonymous with uneducated, poor and anti-social losers to most of the German public - which happily shops at stores that sell essentially the same clothers, sometimes from the very same factories in Bangladesh.

Even those who think they have "opted out" of consumer society and are not affected by advertisement and the mass produced goods it promotes will believe in this very same "magic of things", just from a different angle. Take the obsession with hand-crafted products - which are, as a matter of quality, often worse than their mass produced counterparts. The entire premise of the DIY subculture is that products you made yourself have some inherent quality that makes them morally superior to those bought in stores. No matter the real advantages or disadvantages of a certain design, they are said to have a greater "authenticity".

Human attributes are expressed through goods.

This goes to show that the problem lies deeper than manipulation through advertisement. It's not a great plot to make us buy products. Advertisers merely pick up on a way of thinking that we have already absorbed since day one of our lives as capitalist subjects, that we are nothing but the sum of our accumulated property and our value on the market. It is only consequential that individuals, which mainly interact with each other through the things they have to offer on the market, will project parts of their humanity onto material possession.

That is the essence of fetishism in capitalist society: we have become so emotionally hollow that we have to supplant our own humanity with magic objects.

27Sep/130

The Minimum is a Wage

Following the recent elections in Germany, the parliament is now made up entirely of parties which have voiced their support for the introduction of a legal minimum wage in some shape or another. The last bastion of vocal opposition to this demand that had initially been introduced to the public by the ex-communist Left Party a few years ago, the Free Democracts, have failed to win the necessary amount of votes to cross the 5% threshold barring minor parties from access to the German parliament.

But if I were asked to make a prediction, I would state with great certainty that this measure, which numerous capitalist countries seemingly have no problem with, will not be introduced to Germany. A general, legally binding minimum wage for all jobs within Germany is too much of a contradiction to German economic policy.

Within Berlins political strate, many seem to have realized throughout the last years that the campaigning for a minimum wage not only joined the Left Party and the Labor Unions together in one front - in a Republic where all parties have categorically ruled out a coalition with said party under any circumstances - but also earned them popularity with the general public.

This is not surprising, considering that Germans have suffered from an overall negative trend in terms of income. Over the last decade, Labor Unions have generally failed to negotiate wage raises that even just meet the inflation rates, leaving even those with secure jobs with de facto less money to spend. And this does not account for those who found their full-time, insurance covered jobs replaced with so called "mini-jobs", contracts that allow for a maximum income of 450 Euro per month and are not covered by social insurance - which saves employers a fair share of their profits.

The restructuring of unemployment benefits in the Federal Republic has enacted further pressure on the working classes, as unemployed Germans now find themselves in an almost surreal machinery geared towards forcing them to accept any kind of job, no matter the conditions. Germany's "Agency for Work" is quick to hand out punishments and cut payments to anyone not meeting application quotas, refusing to accept work offered to them or offend their beuraucrats in any other kind of way. Combined with a omnipresent "any kind of work is better than no work"-ideology, this has massively eroded the function of unemployment benefits as lower limit for wages. It's not an option in Germany to rather be unemployed than to work for a wage that is insufficient in covering your expenses.

A minimum wage is appealing under such circumstances. Indeed, it is an almost revolutionary idea, considering that Germany's entire export-oriented economy rests soundly on the fact that it has managed to keep its labor unions in check, maximize pressure on the unemployed a create a de facto negative trend for its wages, while the rest of the Eurozone did not. Germany is the manufacturing center of Europe, its industry geared towards exports and neglecting the domestic markets in order to achieve as positive a trade bilance as possible. This had devastating effects on the remainder of Europe once the economic crisis hit, but it has stabilized the German economy, at least for now.

But this is also the reason one should doubt the willingness of anyone outside the Left Party to really introduce a legal minimum wage, no matter their public statements. The ruling Christian Democrats are the party of the austerity-regime, the Social-Democrats and the Green were in a coalition when the groundworks for Germanys current economic modus operandi were laid, when unemployment benefits were cut and the force-to-work policies known as "Hartz 4" were enacted.

If there were any sincere intention to introduce minimum wages, we would have already seen them become reality. In fact, whenever such a measure was introduced to parliament in the recent years, minor difference about its height or its implemention were cited to turn it down. The debates are ludicrous and often just revolve about measly fifty cent differences. But these debates are also a strategy to postpone the implemention of a legal lower limit to wage cuts as long as possible, without raising the ire of the German public, as admittedly harmless as this ire usually manifests.

We may soon see the rest of Europe try to challenge Germany's low wages with cuts of their own. When that happens, Germany will probably turn the downward spiral on the labor market they started even further. Without a minimum wage, it is well prepared to do so.

24Aug/130

Permanent Crisis

Spiegel Online, Germany's most popular news website, was jubilant: "Euro-zone overcomes recession".

Reason for this headline was the reported growth of 0,3 percent in the Euro-zone during the second quarter of the year 2013. For those whose ideological outlook dictates that capitalism has always been and will always be, this naturally has to indicate an end to crisis, which is thought only as a kind of work-accident that can be repaired and after which capital-accumulation proceeds undisturbed - business as usual.

However, there are a number of problems with this assesment, some of which had ironically been stated in another article in the business-section of the same Spiegel Online. "Whoever seeks income return must increase his risk". The most notable reason for this is the presence of an inflation-rate well above the current economic growth figures: 1,6 percent.

In effect this means that all the news of economic growth in the Euro-zone are a scam, as the devaluation of the Euro proceeds at a faster pace, effectively shrinking incomes of the working classes and the corporations alike. High inflation rates are a necessary consequence of the policy of the European central bank, which is effectively handing out money for free to banks - a modern version of printing excess money. The very same policy, meanwhile, drives much of the economic growth in the Eurozone, because if loans are cheap, it reduces the risk for investors who request these loans. This has created a deplorable situation where, to stop the inflation, one would have to curb the economic growth and return to recession.

Furthermore, the growth in the Eurozone is not distributed evenly across its memberstates: Germany and France are largely responsible for the positive figures, other states are still deep in economic recession. A closer look at this situation can reveal looming problems, that may become the source of a renewed recession cycle. Especially Germany has founded its current economy on social policies that have created a continuous trend towards decreasing wages and massive pressure on unemployed stratas of its own population. Much of the Eurozone is a mere market for exports in the eyes of German business and politics. However, such a business model becomes unstable if the rest of the Eurozone remains in recession and the purchasing power of its customers is quickly vanishing into thin air.

Another, very serious aspect to consider is, that much of the positive growth in these comparetively stable European countries is purely speculative. Cheap loans have fired up renewed growth of the financial markets and, especially noticeable in Germany's largest cities, a massive speculative bubble on the housing market. In other words, it becomes increasingly evident that the establishment does not have any answers to the crisis of the last years and we are currently witnessing an attempt at returning to pre-crisis business models.

It may be prudent to actually analyze the nature of the economic crisis - a term which the dominant neoclassical school of economists has banned altogether from its works - and for this task I want to field the German theorist Robert Kurz, who has spent much of his work analyzing the inner limits of capitalist growth. To make things short, it is wrong to think that speculative growth on an unrestrained financial market is the source of the current economic crisis: to the contrary, a ballooning financial sector is by itself a sign of a capitalist market in crisis.

Kurz has termed the neoliberal policies that have become hegemonic since the 1980s "the continuation of Keynesianism by other means". To understand this we have to recall that the fordist growth cycle that has started with the end of World War 2 had entered a continued phase of stagnation by that time and the old Keynesian policies of deficit-spending that were supposed to kickstart the economy during periods of crisis were no longer working: the economy was stagnating, but inflation rates were high - a combination that had been unthinkable before.

The reason for this must be searched for in the progress of the capitalist system itself and one of its fundamental inner contradictions: it sets human labor as the source of its value, but at the same time creates massive incentives to remove human labor from the production process. As long as the product innovation (the invention of new goods for humans to consume) consumed larger amounts of labor than were made obsolete by the process innovation (the invention of technologies that replace human labor in the production of these goods) all was well in fordist capitalism. However, the microtechnological revolution of the last decades crossed a fundamental threshold. Ever since, technological progress has made more labor obsolete than are needed in the creation of the goods it introduced to human society.

Inflationary growth on the financial market was the logical consequence of the fact that the real economy was not providing sufficient rates of profit any longer. And while massive inflation rates in the real economy are considered undesirable, they do not disturb anyone on the financial markets. Quite to the contrary, there is a whole financial "industry" built upon the exploitation of these sudden inflationary spikes in the value of shares. What was new and revolutionary wasn't just the extent of this fictional growth, its massive size dwarfing past escapes of capital into the financial spheres during periods of economic crisis. The real innovation was that this fictional growth trickled back into the real economy and, while causing occasional disturbances, seemed stable enough to carry the entire economic system on its back.

That was, of course, a folly, as we know in hindsight. The massive speculation on future growth had created a snowball system, where the revenues made by speculating on future income were themselves invested in speculations on income even further in the future - until the whole absurdity of this system came crashing down. At this point, the administrators of capitalist normality, the states, their beuraucrats and politicians, had two options, which boil down to either a continued Keynesian deficit-spending policy - as we are currently observing in most states - or an austerity policy similiar to the one Germany is currently forcing upon Greece.

Neither are good options: Keynesianism can't fix the underlying problems. No matter how much free capital is pumped into the economy, it won't find profitable investments in the real economy, meaning that we will either face recurring economic bubbles that will leave the world looking worse after each crash than it did after the one before, or it will create a prolonged period of economic stagnation and high inflation rates.

The other option is even worse: it would mean a drastic programme of economic extermination of large stratas of human society which have been rendered useless by the capitalist market, leaving them stranded without any source of income and no means to survive. Imagine austerity-policy Greece on a global scale.

In other words, the crisis is far from over and we have to anticipate a capitalist world in a state of permanent unrest. There are three possible source of a renewed and intensified global recession, namely the European deficit cycle based on the German export economy and the Eurozone as its debtors; the far larger Pacific deficit cycle, with Chinas export economy and the USA as its debtor; and the inflationary bubbles created on the financial market and the housing sector by cheap loans. Imaginable is also a prolonged period of relative stability, but economic stagnation and economic inflation, leading to a "silent recession". And, of course, there is also the worst option of them all: the austerity regime, that removes all the "excess" population from social participation and cuts costs by ending the redistribution of wealth to people in need - a policy that can only be feasibly implemented by force.

A sound political strategy must adress the real reasons of the crisis, develope alternatives to the capitalist system as a whole, not dwell on Keynesian policies and daydream about a "tamed" capitalism - and it must oppose the austerity regimes by all means as the worst of all these bad. options

Filed under: Economics, Europe No Comments
11Jan/130

We’ll all be Greeks

Within months the crisis of market economy has managed to do to Greece what in past eras required brutal wars or devastating natural desasters. First hit by the sudden (but hardly unexpected) end of the speculative growth, especially on the real estate market, Greece was then amongst the countries hit hardest by the public debt crisis. By the droves investors lost faith in the Greek governments ability to repay loans given generously in the past and the refinancing with additional loans that had worked so well in the past and which had helped to keep global economy growing suddenly became unsustainable, as the decreasing faith of investors directly translated into increasing interest rates, making the tried and tested modus operandi of the last decades too costly to keep up. Greece was hardly special in any way, at least concerning their economic hardships, and that it could have hit any country within the Eurozone was patently clear wherever perception wasn't clouded by racist rhetorics about the "lazy southerners". Worse, should the Greek economy collapse, it could cause a domino effect that would send the entire Eurozone - and with it the world - into a downward spiral and deeper into global recession. After all, large parts of the public debt of Greece were loans given by other European states or their biggest banks and this debt - and especially the interest paid for it - was capital with which both operated and paid bills of their own.

It therefore wasn't out of kindness of heart that other nations of the Eurozone repeatedly handed out loans with interest rates unavailable to Greece on the free market or that they promised to service some of Greeces debt should the small mediterranean country default after all. In order to save their own money, Germany and co. had to rebuy public faith in the Greek state and its ability to pay. It is doubtful that, in case of a Greek failure to pay, the remaining Eurozone could stay true to their promises in regards to Greek debt even if they wanted to, but they don't have to prove it. The only important part is, that the market public believes in this guarantuee and starts to invest into loans to the Greek government again. At the core of this there is a "back to normality" policy that seeks to enable the Greek government to continue deficit spending like other governments. That this is deeply paradox, considering the crisis has clearly shown the limits of this attempt to import purely fictive future growth and turn it into real present economic growth, is clear, but illustrates only an inability to do politics beyond this point within the framework of capitalist economy.

However, if we can't move forward, maybe we can move backwards? The other answer to the problems of capitalist economics that doesn't touch capitalism itself, instead of a "borrow and spend" politics loosely based on Keynesian economics, is the neoclassical approach that seeks to take the state out of the equation by cutting its debts. At the core of neoclassical thinking is a deeply religious faith in a "natural order of the market" and the belief that, once interferences by state and organized labor are removed, the market will strike an equilibrium of growth on a high level. Ironically, Europe has attempted to do both: save Greece through a semi-Keynesian public investment of its memberstates into the Greek state, but at the same time force Greece - especially due to demands from Germany - to enact a historically unprecedented austerity program. This two-faced chimaire leaves its marks throughout European politics in the age of crisis. Europe's central bank pursues a policy of flooding the markets with money to promote economic growth, Europe's economists flood society with cheap metaphors about states being housewives who now need to tighten one's belt.

But states aren't housewives and their expenditures is a very important part of the economy. What austerity measures do in times of crisis can be witnessed in Greece, where saying the economy collapsed is a bit of an understatement. Starving schoolchildren, a ballooning number of homeless people, widespread poverty and unemployment. What we witness in Greece isn't just a temporary mistake, an error of capitalist history caused by faulty politics - it is the ugly face of the market baring its teeth. There is enough food to feed everyone in Greece - lavishly. All the houses where the now homeless used to live are still as good as they used to be when people still lived in them and they could easily offer shelter to them again. And isn't it ironic that, while more than one quarter of the workforce is registered as unemployed, those who still got employment are forced to work longer, both in terms of workhours and in terms of age before retirement? The market is a mad end of itself which considers a growing number of people dispensable - and proceeds to dispense them - but never dares to question its own maxims.

And don't dare to question it! As much as Greece as a image of things to come for the rest of the capitalist center in terms of economic hardships, Greece is also a textbook example of how bourgeoise society and government will deal with the social unrest in its wake. If the impoverished masses grow unruly and won't allow for themselves to be removed from the equation peacefully (i.e. starve), capitalist accumulation will be maintained with all means available. However, considering that economic crisis doesn't just decrease affordable income of the vast majority of people, but also that of the state, Greece is facing a dilemma that the capitalist world faced before after the great crisis of 1929 : how to combat a growing number of restless and poor with decreasing funds?

The answer can be summarized as "find an enemy" and "enlist deputies". Both aren't necessarily centrally orchestrated, but the state will gladly seek to take advantage of any such phenomenas where they blossom in the public. Enemies the Greek citizens have identified many, some classic (immigrants, jews), some seemingly not (bankers, the rich, Germans). However, they all share one common characteristic: to find someone to blame for the hardships, someone who willingly caused the sudden poverty sweeping the nation. Stereotypes of lazy immigrants taking advantage of the modern welfare state land themselves as a handy explanation to a growing public deficit; the idea of a jewish world conspiracy has always blossomed in times of economic crisis because of its simplicity in face of a complex situation; even the idea that the banks are responsible for the crisis due to their speculation or the rich due to their massive tax fraud or the Germans due to their government demanding strict adherence to austerity policies are all obscuring the issue at hand, despite the fact that speculation, tax fraud and German politics are very real whereas welfare-queens and jewish conspiracy are not.

When Greece is persecuting and publically shaming rich tax offenders it will endanger the survival of capitalism as little as it will, when it raids camps of illegalized immigrants and begins mass deportations. However, if it watched idly as the hungry masses take their food from the supermarkets without paying, that would be quite another story. The success of Golden Dawn can be explained as much with it servicing all the ressentiment and all the easy explanations in search of someone guilty for a problem that is in fact created by an apersonal and blind "machine" of public markets, as it can be explained with the fact that they are willing to do all the jobs the police can't. Half of the Greek police voted for the Neo-fascists of Golden Dawn, according to some estimates, and there is more than one Greek citizen saying that, when he or she asked the police for help, they were referred to Golden Dawn. When I say that the government enlists the help of the fascists to sweep the streets, do not misunderstand this as orders from the top brass, the politicians whose faces we see in the newspapers or on TV. It's those who actually have to deal with the everyday problems, the police officers and the beuraucrats, who are amongst the first to enlist the help of professional political thugs.

The anticapitalist left is facing troublesome problems in such times. Many of its positions, many of its rhetorics and many beliefs of their public speakers lend themselves handily to the neofascist rhetorics. They may not share the racism of Golden Dawn, but often times, they are as much in search of some actual group of persons to blame that they fail to criticise capitalism itself. But if they don't criticise the idea that "just the banks" are responsible for the crisis, or just Germany's self-righteous demands, they will seem like the weaker, the less radical and the less consequential answer to the issues of the people. It may only be a small step from the idea that a bunch of scrupelous bankers brought the crisis upon us to the idea that a bunch of scrupelous jews did it, but it will seem that the left does not dare to speak it out due to the shackles of political correctness. And if Greece is assaulted by German imperialism, die-hard Nationalists will seem better suited to defend it than the Anarchists, who want the Greek nation abolished. On top of this all, the idea that bankers, or German politicans, or immigrants or jews caused all the trouble has at its core the idea that capitalism was working just well for the Greek people, unless some outside force disturbed the natural order of things.

But the crisis is a consequence of capitalism itself, of its inability to grow beyond this point. Material wealth may reach historically unknown dimensions, but when less and less work is needed to produce it, a society that has put money and trade at the center of human interaction will face a dilemma: who is to buy all these goods? It's not like this simple question could cause capitalism to rethink itself. Its elites will instead administrate the poverty, the loss and the shortage - with all means available. If you ever asked yourself why  the Greek state is raiding squatted houses in Athens, arresting hundreds in the process, or engaging in massive deportation campaigns against illegalized immigrants, but at the same time not only seems oblivious to Golden Dawn, but actively supports its attempts to root itself in Greek society: this is the core of it. Golden Dawn does not threaten capitalism, but it provides much needed raw force to deal with those who do.

6Mar/120

Peak Wealth

A lot has been written about the current global economic crisis, but it seems hard to comprehend what exactly happened to cause this massive cave-in of the financial sector. This is especially difficult where comprehension is obscured by ideological preconceptions. But there is strong evidence to suggest that this is indeed not "just another crisis", that the last years mark a fundamental turning point for capitalism rather than a temporary damage that will be overcome by future growth. And most definitely, it is not the result of personal or political failures. This crisis was, sooner or later, inevitable.

To understand this we must emphasize that capitalism is a highly dynamic mode of production, the most vivid of all economic models that evolved within human societies just yet. The need to accumulate profit through the purchase of labor and the sale of products to the very same populations that produce them creates an imbalance. Profit withdraws parts of the established currency from circulation and releases it only if more profits are hoped to be generated through the investment. Capitalism, as a consequence, needs to expand constantly or it will begin to expropriate its own population as people have to continue to consume, yet are unable to consume in dimensions needed to keep all actors on the market afloat. And every bankruptcy would worsen the outlook of the economy as it comes tumbling down.

Capitalism needs to expand - and it did so with force and ingenuity. Its expansion was, for a long time, a geographic expansion. Wherever the antiquated economic classes of the past could be neither transformed nor integrated, developing capitalism removed them through force. Imperialism spanned the globe driven by the perpetual need to explore new markets, to integrate new consumers and laborers alike. Every expansion - not just by conquering territory, but by transforming the local economies into a monetary-based one integrated into the global market - added new momentum to the global market. Until there was nothing left to expand into. The economic crisis that struck the world in 1929 was no accident of history, it was the end of classical capitalism. Following the division of the world between imperialist powers, the inferno they unleashed upon the world during World War One was the result of the ideology used to justify capitalist expansion taking on a life of its own to most devastating effect. The demand created by the rebuilding after the war and the excessive spending by governments at war bought capitalism enough time to last despite the partial loss of the Russian market - though arguably, it wasn't a quite important market to begin with.

Unable to match production and consumption, industrial capital fled into digital sectors as it had always done. This was nothing new and had caused crisis before, but in the past, Capitalism had recovered by cutting losses, removing those capitalists unable to compete from the market and then move on, expanding into new markets, integrating new human labor and finding new sources of wealth. None of the crisis that came before that day needed a fundamental change in how Capitalism operated to be solved. Black Tuesday and its fallout that lasted till after World War 2 had ended, however, did simply because capitalism had explored all avenues of territorial expansion by then. It wasn't until the governments of the capitalist center adopted the teachings of British Economist Maynard Keynes that capitalism managed to cope with it, even outshine its former self. And that despite the partial removal of more countries from the capitalist sphere, only tentatively connected to the sphere of capital accumulation any longer. The Eastern Bloc wasn't fully removed from the market, but it couldn't possibly be called thoroughly integrated either.

Keynesianism struggled as early as the 80s, but the Neoliberal alternatives did not bring about as fundamental a change to capitalist administration as Keynes had done half a century before when breaking the taboo of deficit spending and inflation. It is very enlightening that the crisis of the 80s, which was at heart already a debt-crisis of selected nations, did mark the end of deficit spending at all. Public debt kept increasing, because it kept the economy afloat. It futhermore offers the individual nationstates in competition for investments in a globalized market the option of artificially improving the attractivity and motion of the domestic market for such investments by speculating on future gains. One country taking advantage of this tool can force more countries to do so as well, considering that losing the competition in the short run means losing it in the long run as well.

Capitalism was kept afloat by a renewed period of external expansion and the continued internal expansion despite crisis brought about by the instable nature of this policy. The Soviet Union fell and its markets returned to the global market in full. China tentatively opened its borders for the flow of goods and capital, growing to become the Nr.1 industrial location of the planet. It was a massive, expansive growth on the global market, but one that had to lead sooner or later to a crash of unforseen proportions. That the bubble burst was unavoidable, that is the nature of bubbles, and as far as that is concerned, no bourgeoise economist would disagree. What is really concerning is, that the bursting of this inflated growth in different regions of the world was followed by defaulting of public debt spiraling entire nations into ruin.

What we witness could be no less than the limit of capitalist growth, unable to expand its inflated economies any further without destabilizing the entire world through repeated breakdowns. The gamble had always been to make debt to incite the growth of the market to the point that future revenue would pay that debt. But the truth is: this debt has become a substantial part of the growth of markets to the point that it needs to be infused permanently to keep the accumulation of profit going and to make reinvestment of these proits attractive. Capitalism has reached its heat-barrier and its ideologues have no solution to offer.

It is revealing that the most popular options for dealing with the crisis are either a financial transaction tax - which is not so much a revolutionary change but rather a sign of a weakened state turning against the financial markets during a time of increased distribution battles. Taxes are wholly inadequate to adress the problem at hand, because they merely redistribute, but can not be a source of further capital to be accumulated. Another popular option is the utopian debate about a "capitalism without growth", popular with LOHAS and other petit-bourgeoise green voters. A nonsensical vision of people without the slightest understanding of capitalism.

The irony here is that we may indeed be headed towards a capitalism without growth, at least without total growth on a global scale. It is, however, not what neo-conservative romanticists imagine in their daydreams: a stable system that maintains a steady level of overall acceptable wealth. Because capital accumulation must continue for capital itself to survive, capitalism under such conditions will begin to cannibalize itself. Entire companies will fail in the harsher market environment, while the competition on the labor market will lead to a expropriation of large populations through wage cuts, inflation and social cuts. The state will appear as independent actor using its authority to add further fuel through cutting spending and introducing new taxes to deal with the instability created by its own debt and to come out atop in the fierce distribution battles. A pauperisation cycle that will be accompanied by a series of market crashes that occur in ever-shorter periods.

This is a grim vision of things that may come. The defaulting of entire economies, as we are anticipating in Greece right now and likely in other nations to follow once this domino gets knocked out, will not be a value-neutral downsizing. It will not be a step back in history so the wealth can be accumulated once again. The periodical defaulting of economies and resetting to a point where capitalism was still able to expand internally is impossible in an environment where competitors will always capitalize on the misfortune of other market actors to ensure their own survival and prosperity. Crisis never hits the population equally hard. There are winners and losers, if by merit of smart actions or mere dumb luck. Periodical defaulting of debts would not be a solution to the internal limitations of capitalism. It would in fact speed up the lopsided accumulation of capital without perspectives for lucrative reinvestment.

Filed under: Economics No Comments
19Feb/120

Ad ACTA

As protests against the ACTA treaty gain increasing public attention, the complete lack of a critical understanding of the matter of so called internet piracy by many of the actors of the protest becomes painfully obvious.

There can be little doubt that the protests against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement ("ACTA") are largely motivated by a diffuse fear of persecution for filesharing - perhaps the most common crime of the present day - or at least a dedication to maintaining the ability to copy music, movies, art , books and software without a valid fear of reprisals. Evidence to this is not merely subjective perception, but both public appearance of the protestors (including a youtube video protesting ACTA by depicting German special forces hunting down filesharers in a most gruesome manner - a video that was later linked on the website of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission by the web-group Anitsec) and, perhaps more importantly, the context of ACTA and its protests. It is revealing that the public statements generated by the crackdown on megaupload are almost identical to the ones expressing their fear from ACTA.

Alas, in the real world of respectable politics, few would march the streets demanding the government to respect their right to make unlicensed copies as they please. For a succesful protest that desires to be heard by the state - and the scope of these protests does not go beyond appealing to political decision makers - the demands must be articulated within the existing framework of politics. That means within the framework of private property. Instead of the free access to culture, the ACTA protestors instead challenge an idealized view on parliamentary politics, imagining their civil rights to be threatened by ACTA and phantasizing about a sinister "spirit" of the agreement. That the argumentation reaches the realm of the mythical at this point is not mere coincidence, but rather an expression of the shallow nature of their reasoning. It is, after all, a mere front to ideologically mask their fundamentally economic desire and hide the underlying, very fundamental conflict.

A fundamental conflict indeed - and one that can not be resolved within the logic of a capitalist system. The desire, no, need of the music/movie/software business to reap a profit from their economic activity conflicts with the desire of the consumer to pay as little as possible. That is, after all, the sole motivation behind a companies existence in the first place and failure to do so would mean imminent death for these economic actors, as capital would flow to profitable avenues of business. Technological progress has made the multiplication and distribution of these products - movies, music, books etc. - an almost effortless endeavour. Sure, to record a song you still need to account for the work of the musician, the time he spent writing the song, the time needed to record it, plus all the effort that went into the production of the equipment necessary to produce it. But once that has been done, the labor condensed within this music is distributed on a technically infinite amount of goods - copies of the song - with merely the effort of a mouseclick. The trade-value of a song is distributed on so many copies, that even a single cent would be a horrible ripoff. While there is still labor condensed within the product, it has split into mere trace amounts, impossible to quantify even with the approximate tools of the market - supply and demand.

What's more, the means of production in this sector have become commonly available. Once the song/movie/book is out there in the public, anyone with so much as a computer can reproduce it. There is no need for a massive capital investment to begin production of these copies, nor does quality suffer from the tools available to classes usually without ownership of means of production. It should be little surprising at this point that internet "piracy" is a mass phenomena. It's an economically sound practice from the perspective of the consumer and not only does it take less effort than going to the store to buy e.g. a CD - it is even less effort than registering on iTunes and arranging for the payment.

It is nevertheless utterly unsurprising that there is little empathy for the actions of filesharers by the challengers of market freedom. This can not be explained solely by the threat to profits of the affected companies this poses - at this point it may be worth noting how utterly ridiculous complaints about "backroom deals" and "lobbyism" in the context of ACTA are. As if there had ever been legislature in bourgeoise democracies that was not influenced by interest groups. As if this wasn't the very fundamental modus operandi of parliaments in the first place!

No, the idea that ACTA compromises an otherwise acceptable status quo is at the very least an appalling lack of critical thinking. The historical precedent to ACTA are copyright laws and patents. Let's repeat that. The historical precedent to ACTA are copyright laws and patents. They enforce a claim on an immaterial good through the authority of the state and tax anyone who utilizes the thoughts of another person for his or her own production. It is important to understand at this point that, within a capitalist environment, purely theoretical products (inventions, stories, ideas etc.) have NO VALUE. To avoid misunderstandings, I am talking value here in the sense of trade-value. Sure, the invention of the wheel (yes, it predates capitalist societies, but it is an easy example) was of great use to humanity, but once the idea was out there, anyone with at least a little bit of eyesight could easily figure out how to copy it. Maybe it took the inventor hundreds of hours of intensive thinking, of intellectual work to come up with the idea - but this effort did not translate into an income, nor did it appear in any way within the finished wheels. Those were worth as much as it took on average to produce them in terms of human labor - not how much it took to >invent< them.

Perhaps it stands to reason that those within this sphere of intellectual labor are so steadfast to defend their own monopolies. The spread of digital technology has, after all, created a situation where it is increasingly difficult to enforce the foundation upon which their entire economic existence has been built. Increased repression is one side of the coin, the other is the creation of an ideological stigma (sometimes less succesful as the infamous "you wouldn't download a car" campaign shows) for filesharers. Some of these stigmatization attempts are quite blunt, but many are more subtle, creeping and surely not introduced into the general public through a nefarious plot by the cultural industry (this article wouldn't be complete if I did not at least mention the possibility of antisemitic stereotypes associated with such an idea of a business conspiracy) but rather individual developements, sometimes in direct defiance of the cultural industry - as if to prove that they were wrong about the threat that filesharing poses to the economic survival of artists as independent actors on the market.

These tropes are little more than stalwart reinforcements of market logic. Everything must have a price, everything must be traded on the global market, everything must reap a revenue. Support the artist! Anyone can afford it! Most propagandists of this ideology are probably not even aware of the implicit harassment of those who, in fact, can't. They are perhaps not overly present in the public - and shaming them into silence is part of the reason for this - but there is an undeniably large strata even within western society who has to watch out for every little expense. And this strate is growing.

Perhaps the people protesting ACTA would be well advised to not waste their time appealing to the government - any success reached this way can only be a superficial one. The need to maintain the ability to capitalize on intellectual labor is too urgent as long as we operate in a capitalist system. Developing and providing tools for the masses to evade state attempts to repress the unhindered multiplication of cultural wealth may have a more lasting effect in the long run.