Anselm Jappe and the end of the wertkritik school?

by Jehu

JappeI might turn out to be wrong, but based on my reading of Anselm Jappe’s “Towards a History of the Critique of Value”, I think wertkritik has encountered its limits. In the essay, Jappe shows that all you can get from wertkritik is an ever longer laundry list of dumb shit that will go when labor goes. This effort played a crucial role historically by challenging Marxism in all of its varieties, but it cannot do what we need right now — indicate a path forward.

Jappe states wertkritik has refused to come up with practical actions based on its methodology, but this is a specious argument: What he should have said is what the critics say themselves: wertkritik cannot provide a practical guide to action.

“Marxism shouldn’t be understood as an identity-giving, wholesome position, which history proved to be erroneous, but should be reduced to a theoretical core that can help us to understand society, via a negative critique, even if it does not necessarily provide us with a way out. The call for the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics.

There is no new program or a master plan for emancipation that can be developed out of the abolition of value. Rather, it can be seen as a condition of emancipation from value and the abstract system of oppression it represents. How emancipation will be achieved is a more complex story. We know what will not work: much of what the Old Left proposed as Marxist politics. A lot of that should be abandoned because, essentially, abstract domination cannot be abolished through the imposition of some other kind of direct, personal domination. If we are to critique the abstractions of the economic forms, we similarly have to target the political form itself. While Marx and Engels suggested as much by their formulation of the state eventually “withering away,” I think we need to be a lot more radical. Emancipation ultimately has to mean the abolishment of the political as well. This is contradictory in the present political situation, but we should not try to postpone this task until after the revolution. We should see the constraints and the fetishizations immanent to the political form as something we want to get rid of now.” –Elmar Flatschart, “Marx and Wertkritik

“All” wertkritik can tell us at this point is that all existing relations must be abolished — but it can get no further than this. This conclusion is, of course, light years ahead of the old Marxism, but it accomplishes little more than paralyzing its adherents.

Jappe writes:

“Although Marx’s critique of political economy remained central—at a time when even the left was “burying” Marx every day by proclaiming that history had proved him wrong—there was a definitive rupture with those Marxists who remained. While for the latter capitalism still had a long life ahead of it, at least as long as some revolutionary subject does not put an end to it (if not the classical proletariat, then one of its successors, contingent labourers, the populations of the global South, women), Kurz and his comrades claimed that capitalism will collapse because it can no longer produce enough value. However, there is no guarantee that this collapse will lead to some sort of emancipation. No social group defined according to its role in the production of value can be considered “in itself” beyond capitalist logic and therefore as necessarily fated to overcome it.”

This passage suggests that, beyond the mere collapse of capitalism, there is some as yet undiscovered secret subject contained within society that is required to achieve social emancipation. In fact, the opposite is the case: A definite mass of society has already been thrust beyond capitalist logic. This mass are those proletarians who are utterly cut off from all productive activity and all possibility to sell their labor power. They are “hidden” because they are only now beginning to appear in the advanced countries, but they have always been present in the slums of the less developed countries, where fascist state economic management was unable to disguise this unemployed mass with what Kurz calls simulated accumulation.

Capitalism cannot collapse without, at the same time, taking the wage laborer, the buying and selling of labor power, and “the job” with it. The historical mission of capital is to lock the wage slave out of the market in labor power, to deny her the possibility of selling her labor power, to render her labor power worthless as a commodity. The real historical legacy capitalism leaves to the wage slave is her unemployment; if capitalism absolutely subjugates the proletarian, this is only a preliminary step to expelling her altogether from the epoch of labor.

On the other hand, communism first makes its historical appearance as a very large mass of workers who cannot, under any circumstance, sell their labor power. This large mass of laborers, who have already been thrust outside of society, must, in turn, wrest the means to life from society. They need no justification for their actions than a will to survive and to establish their own conditions as the conditions of all humanity.