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An interview with Werner Bonefeld on the economic crisis

posted Feb 5, 2009, 1:55 PM by John Clegg
Werner Bonefeld teaches Politics at York. He recently published Subverting the Present - Imagining the Future with Autonomedia. This interview is also available here

SHIFT: This year there’s the NATO summit, the G8 in Italy, Cop-15 etc. Do you think this could be the return of the anti-globalisation movement? Could, or should, it take the same form that it did in the late 90’s and how do you think the current financial situation affects this?

WB: I don’t know. Of course the mobilisations in the late 90’s were disrupted by 9/11 and from then on took a tumble. They might come back as a consequence of the financial crisis but it very much depends how the financial crisis is going to pan out. The material effects of the crisis will be harsh. Uncertain is how people will respond to the challenges and the pressures that they face. It’s difficult to strike against money as it were. It’s much easier to strike against an employer or even against repossession of houses. It’s possible to organise there. But with banks it’s difficult to organise. Besides, the business of negation is not to render banks responsible, and make them accountable to their consumers, whatever that might mean. Such ‘responsibilisation’ belongs to the reality of bourgeois society. The business of negation, the anti in anti-globalisation, is the creation of alternative social relations by means of practical critique of existing social relations. Such creation is always creation in movement. One has to see whether we will see such a movement.

What I haven’t heard from the existing anti-globalisation movement is anything akin to what happened in Argentina with the financial crisis in 2001. I am sure there are discussions but I wonder what really has been learned from Latin America. There have been very many discussions, in Europe at least, about for example the Argentinean piquetero and the Zapatistas, and discussion as to whether we are witnessing the emergence of a new social subject and new forms of organisation. The outcome of these discussions have on the whole been rather predictable. Yet, what is the reality of these movements for us, in Europe. Suddenly, or not so suddenly, there is the long awaited and predicted crisis and the movement seems paralysed. There’s an irony there. ‘What should we do?’ The whole learning process, particularly from Latin America was an academic learning process, or a process of mythologisation. Solidarity with the YA BASTA is easy for as long as the YA BASTA stays where it is, in Argentina, and requires no other practical commitment in the here (and now). Solidarity with the YA BASTA has to be a practical one, in one’s own social relations.

The big issue now is not whether the protestors who, say, were at Heiligendamm in Germany, turn up again in great numbers. The big issue is rather whether the YA BASTA assumes practical relevance. The composition of the movement will change. In the past, it was easy to coalesce in critique of the so-called neo-liberal state. The nationalisation of banks, employment guarantees by means of government credit to ailing companies, etc., might well rupture the movement. The state suddenly does what certain voices of the anti-globalisation movement demanded – and this despite the fact that the socialisation of debt is intended to guarantee, for want of a better expression, the privatisation of profits. What is the relationship between the YA BASTA and the state?

SHIFT: In North America and Western Europe at least, there is this critique of finance capitalism, that might come back again, that was the defining feature of the anti-globalisation movement protests against the IMF and World Bank and other sort of global financial institutions. Obviously people have always pointed to the dangers of just criticising financial institutions and not, as you say, how capitalism affects us on a sort of real person level. Do you think that might be something that we are experiencing again? That the critique of finance capitalism will run the risk of stereotyping and projecting?

WB: It might; it might not. It depends, again, how it turns out. It would be good to predict the future, but the critique of finance was always misguided I think. There was always this separation between good capitalism and bad capitalism. Bad capitalism was financial capitalism and the other capitalism was seen to be the one that was suppressed by the bad capitalism. And the connection between finance and production, between production and exchange, commodity form and money form, that was never really drawn in this anti-globalisation movement. The critique of speculation has to be a critique of the social relations of production. That is, one should not divide between ‘bad finance capitalism’ and ‘good industrial capitalism’. The one depends on the other, and visa versa.

SHIFT: Especially in the current crisis here in England, what everyone’s been talking about, from the conservatives to the socialists, is greed. That the reason we have this crisis is speculation and greed by individual bankers. The work you have done and that of others has pointed out that this may have a relationship to scapegoating the Jew or anti-Semitism.

WB: Yes, well that is one of these divisions between financial capital, on the one hand, defined by greed and industrial capitalism on the other hand, not driven by greed but by concrete matter and productive activity. That spurts over into anti-Semitism - that’s quite right - and that’s where the difficulty lies, I think, for the anti-globalisation movement. How does it confront or understand the current crisis if it merely sees it as a crisis of greed, that is, as a crisis of regulation, a crisis that is resolvable by the state by means of responsible regulation. Responsible for whom? For the common good? What is the common good in a capitalistically constituted society? The purpose of capital is to make a profit. And that is, money must command labour. The demand for better regulation, and a more effective integration of production and finance, does indeed focus this purpose of money – to command labour. An anti-globalisation movement that only focuses on the issue of greed does not see the vampire that sucks labour out in the production process as the basis of that greed.

SHIFT: So, for you then, is the way to avoid this problem a return to ideas of class and class struggles? Ideas which the anti-globalisation movement quite consciously has left behind?

WB: I think what has to be left behind is the old social democratic or state socialist idea of class. That idea was based on the notion of market position, and sought to rebalance the inhumanity of exploitative production relations by means of re-distribution. That is the concept of class that I think needs to be overcome. In opposition to affirmative conceptions of class, we need to rediscover class as a critical concept, a concept that belongs to a false society. That is to say, class struggle is correctly understood the movement against the existence of social classes. Class analysis does not partake in the classification of people – its business is the critique of such classification. Class struggle is the struggle to dissolve class society, relations of class domination and exploitation, in favour of commune – this society of the free and equal, an association of the freely assembled social individuals.

So if correctly understood, class should be a critical concept, not an affirmative concept. The old class concept was an affirmative concept; it affirmed class position. It wanted to re-distribute in order to create a fairer deal, a new deal, for those on the wrong side, or the wrong end of the stick. The critical concept of class, which is to dissolve class, battles against the existence of class society.

SHIFT: So could such a movement against class, offering such a critique, be relevant in today’s society? Could the anti-globalisation movement, if it reconstitutes itself as such again next year, be an effective political player?

WB: Again, I don’t know. It very much depends how the current crisis pans out. It will affect jobs. It will affect income. It will be very bad for people heavily in debt. How will they react? What will they do? And the reaction of these people is, to a great extent, also a responsibility of the anti-globalisation movement in terms of their critical intent of enlightened democracy – the democracy of the demos that assembles in the street; a democracy of and in the street. This democracy, this practical subversion of everyday life, if the anti-globalisation movement is able to practice that then it will become something new in terms of its composition, relationship to capital and its state, organisational form, and negative purpose. If the anti-globalisation movement is not able to do that then it might well be that those who carry the brunt, financial and otherwise, of the crisis, might not be part of that movement. In the British context, the white working class, impoverished as it is, has tended in certain areas to go to the right rather than to the left. That I think is also a responsibility, not just of those people who go to the right, but also the responsibility of the anti-globalisation movement to mobilise for democratic purposes – here and now. So it depends on the mobilisation, who mobilises and where, and who is part of the mobilising coalition.

SHIFT: On a practical level it can be argued that the anti-globalisation movement needs a symbol, or a target around which to mobilise and that’s why summits are so attractive. Do you that the oversimplification and ‘personification’ of capitalism, which manifests in the targeting of summits and global elites, can be avoided while the anti-globalisation movement continues to summit hop?

WB: Well I think summit hopping is OK, who wouldn’t want to travel around the world and see different places and do so for the sake of protest. Summits render visibility to struggles, provide them with symbolism, but the struggle itself takes place in other places I think. Summits do not struggle. Struggles are always local, and their locality is the basis for their globality. That is, the everyday struggle over the production and appropriation of surplus value in every individual workplace and every local community is the basis of the class struggle on a global scale. ‘Globalisation’ has not done away with everyday struggle. Instead, it focuses it. If it really is the case that whole communities are in danger of losing their houses, if people are dispossessed, then the anti-globalisation movement will have to be a movement against repossession.

I do not know whether there will be a movement against default, practically, on the streets. A Latin American example is that people occupy their factories when the going gets tough and the machines are in danger of being taken away. Will that happen here? This is a practical question that cannot be resolved by summits. It needs to be resoled in practice. Whether the (European) anti-globalisation movement assumes class form is difficult to predict, but if one looks at the often-mythologised struggles in Latin America, this is what the struggles are, from the protection of the neighbourhood and of homes and living-conditions, to the provision of food and water, and the self-organisation of subsistence, from the factories to the land. And what comes out of it? I don’t know. Whatever the future holds will depend on the movement of the so-called anti-globalisation movement. Where will it move, what will it move, if it moves?