Wertkritik is a critical theory developed first and foremost by Robert Kurz (1943-2012), which claims to capture the totality of modern societies in the tradition of Marxian thought. Marx made value the central category, the fulcrum not only of his economic critique, but of his entire social analysis, and this is what Wertkritik refers to. Turning away from the traditional Marxism of class struggle, labor movement and the post-Hegelian philosophy of history, Wertkritik emphasizes the revolutionary socio-scientific insights that Marx unfolded in his critique of political economy: the concept of modernity associated with commodity-producing society as well as the idea of the value of commodities that valorizes itself, always striving for its own increase. This is the idea of the „automatic subject“ of society, constituted by human beings by their daily actions, but at the same time subjecting them totally and making them mere functionaries of an anonymous, unconscious process that is out of their control.
Following on from Marx’s famous chapter in Capital on the „fetish character of commodities“, Wertkritik speaks of a fetishist constitution of modern society, one that does not consciously determine its relationships, needs, production of useful things etc., but has outsourced control to self-valorizing value – in this way modern society has placed itself under the rule of the automatic subject. By and large, this negatively conceptualized automatic subject is what political economy from Adam Smith to Hayek refers to as the “market” and sees as a quasi-divine „invisible hand“ or as an information processor superior to humans, which ensures that scarce resources and goods are optimally distributed and thus macroeconomic and macrosocial equilibrium prevails.
between economics and its critique by Marxian Wertkritik shows also in
respect to money: For the former, money is a mere token that facilitates
exchange. Wertkritik however sees it as a valuable commodity and as the
very embodiment of value in its self-referential quantitative expansion
movement. Money is the god of modern fetishism: the abstract, featureless thing
around which everything revolves and which steers all social relations. When economic
science claims that the economy is there to supply people with scarce goods, Wertkritik
objects: The purpose of economic activity obviously is to increase the value of
M, a given sum of money, by using various commodities (C) in the production
process to make more money (M‘). The supply of commodities is but a by-product
of this movement M – C – M‘, not its purpose.
The market and the state
critique is not much engaged by mainstream academic economics, which often seem
to adopt a rather hermetically sealed system of thought, based on assumptions
far from social reality. Sometimes, however, cracks appear in their
intellectual edifice. Hardly ever, perhaps, with respect to the concept of
economic activity itself, but rather in recurring controversies over the
relationship between state and market, usually prompted by crises, a for
instance after the stock market crash in 2008.
regards this relationship between the market and the state as a complex one,
including elements of cooperation, but also a kind of polar tension. For him,
the state is the necessary complement to the modern „bourgeois
society“ based on the pursuit of naked private interests, where
socialization primarily takes place through money relations in pursuit of individual
enrichment. The state as the embodiment of the general will is necessary
because a sustainable social order is not viable on the basis of the modern
bourgeois war of all against all. Such a sociality would have to remain
Money and the state
is the authority that in the first place has to ensure, by means of legal
regulations and other precautions, that individuals can meet each other as
owners of commodities – that is main function of law in modern society. Marx
and Wertkritik see the protection of private property, as the primary
right of bourgeois society. Undoubtedly,
the tasks of the modern state include issuing the currency and providing the
economy with the necessary means of exchange and payment. However, Wertkritik
is based on Marx’s insight that money evolves by quasi-natural necessity out of
the exchange relationships of commodities, and that the state is only a
secondary guarantor. The nowadays influential idea, put forward mainly by Modern Monetary Theory, that political-legal
implementation of token money, as a measure of value and obligatory means of
exchange, is the original basis of the modern market economy – which therefore
would ultimately be a creation by the state – fails to recognize not only the
historical development, but above all the logic of modern socialization.
points towards one of the fundamental elements of the dominant social thinking
of modern times – namely the belief in the steering competence of that central
modern authority, the state. This belief persists in spite of both the
skepticism of neo-liberalism towards the state’s regulating power and the
theoretical coolness of systems theory as represented by Gunther Teubner’s
contribution to this symposium.
The illusion of the state
point of view of Wertkritik the belief in the so-called primacy of
politics, or more generally, the belief in the sovereignty of men in the
process of their socialization, is one of the central illusions of modernity –
a kind of founding myth, deeply rooted in the thinking of the Enlightenment and
the idea of the autonomous individual subject that arises out of it. With the
establishment of the modern state and its subsequent democratization, not only
the belief that citizens determined their social affairs in free deliberation
emerged, but also the idea that all social affairs could be controlled in political
community by argumentation based on reason and in accordance with transparent
procedures secured by law and administration.
Wertkritik contradicts this state illusion. It
holds that not only unavoidable crises bear witness to the fact that the
economy does not obey any political or social rationality outside or above its
own. Even the normal functioning of the capitalist wealth machine is a process
that does not follow any social reason. Since it is about the multiplication of
money as the expression of abstract wealth, and not material wealth embodied in
beneficial goods, the use of resources (raw materials, energy, labor, etc.) for
the production of useless and even harmful commodities – for which the
corresponding needs have to be created by means of persuasion – is the rule.
This reality speaks against the enlightened liberal image of man as the
autonomous subject of his own sociality.
(anti-)politically spoken: There is no autonomy, no sovereignty and no state
capable of deliberately determining the social „subsystem“ called
„economy“. Instead, the capitalist economy is the outcome of a wealth
fetish. The state lives by material prerequisites which it cannot guarantee.
there are limits to politics and law in capitalist society: Politics cannot
question the basis of modern socialization, i.e. the rule of value, and it has
never done so in modern times, not even in the so-called “socialist” states
governed by communist parties. Additionally the state’s capacity for political
steering strongly depends on historical conditions: In times of growing
magnitude of value, as in the Golden Age after World War II, the leeway is
greater; in times of crisis it narrows. This applies all the more to the present crisis, which might turn out to be the
terminal one: The mode of production based on value has encountered its
„internal barrier“ by virtue of the elimination of labor – the only
value-producing commodity – from the production process, as a result of the
ongoing microelectronic revolution. There is no way to reverse that history.
The illusions of present times – of the everlasting market economy, producing useful goods for the needs of man, an economy that can be regulated by the state – have their origin in an unquestioning belief in the naturalness and eternity of the modern form of socialization. But modernity is a historical phenomenon with a genesis, an ascent, and an end. The current public discussion suffers from the fact that the alienated consciousness of humans seems no longer to be able to free itself from its self-built mental cage. It remains arrested in fetishism. If humanity wishes to redeem the future, it must deal with the finiteness of late modern society, with fundamental and escalating crises rooted in modern socialization as driven by the automatic subject of ever-increasing abstract wealth.
Social Critics who once again try to save capitalism from itself – e.g. by pricing and valorizing nature, by implementing alternative currencies or, as Teubner proposes (against his own insights into the self-referential nature of modern functional systems), by incrementally producing different constitutional constraints and incentives for the various systems – show that thinking in the categories of modernity leads far astray. Although the end of modernity holds enormous potential for destruction, as can be seen every day, this cannot be a motive for trying, anyhow in vain, to prolong the totalitarianism of value. Instead, the task is to disenchant the fetish. Socialization on the basis of value and its corresponding forms – commodity, labor, money, law, nation, state, politics – have not to be reformed, but abolished altogether.