Werner Bonefeld on the Failures of the Institutional Left (2020)- With Umut Bozkurt, Radio Ubuntu
Umut Bozkurt: What about the strategies of the institutional left? If you were to assess the strategies of the institutional left from the 1980s onwards, what would you be able to say?
In a way, the post-1980s institutional left is not that much different from the pre-1908s institutional left in terms of its view of capitalism and in terms of what needs to be done to make capitalism work for the workers – because that is really what it is about. So, the critique of the institutional left is always that capitalism is somewhat irrational if its governed by the capitalists or capitalist interests, and the demand therefore is to rationalize its conduct, let’s regulate it for the sake of the poor and miserable. Capitalism is criticized for creating great inequality and the institutional left says:
“Let’s govern for the achievement of greater equality. Let’s fix capitalism for the workers, for the poor, for the miserable, and the left behind.”
In that, there is a great illusion, and the illusion is that it’s really just a matter of having the right technical expertise or the right sort of know-how and then capitalism can be made to work for the workers. That really is just (I think) an illusion.
Bozkurt: Can you expand a little bit in terms of the limitations of these strategies? Some people have invested a lot of hope in people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, but you are obviously critical of these kinds of efforts. So, can you tell us a little bit about why?
Their critique of money is that money should not be making money out of money. The critique therefore is for money to do something else – to employ workers, to secure the employment of the workers, and to tie workers much more strongly to the means of subsistence. This is an honorable position to hold, but what it does not conceptualize and does not see is that making money out of money is a condition of the employment of the worker – if the capitalist does not make a profit, then the worker cannot be employed. In fact, the profitability of labor is the condition of the employment of labor. So, one could say the illusion is something like this:
The profitable accumulation of money does not really count, what counts is the satisfaction of human needs. It says further that the failure to make a profit entails no threat to social reproduction – what counts is not profit, but human beings. It suggests that the life of the class tied to work does not hang by the success of turning its labor into profit, because fundamentally what counts is goodness and equality.
The Sanders left dismisses the idea that that which cannot be sold for profit is burned. They believe it should be given to the working class. But what this view doesn’t really see is that production is not for consumption – production is for the appropriation of surplus value and the needs of human beings (in this system of wealth) is really just a sideshow. So, the institutional left opposes capitalism as money-making. At the same time, it is the money making – the capacity to make money – which provides the foundation for the employment of dispossessed laborers.
Bozkurt: There was one argument made by the Conference of Socialist Economists in the 1970s, this idea of “in and against the state”. So, on the one hand, socialists are against the state, but they are also trying to fight within the state because certain issues tied to welfare policies, taxation etc make it important to carry out a struggle within the state. Do you not agree with this at least?
No, I don’t agree. I think with “in and against the state”, there is first of all the quite clear cut realization that there are no state-free spheres – it’s always within it, one cannot run away from it, one is always inside it. That is the first thing. The second thing is that in order to create a different society, the struggle has to be against the concentrated power of bourgeois society. “In and against” suggests itself for that very reason. If one wants to take the struggle into the state, assume parliamentary position, become (as it were) ready to govern for the sake of one’s ideas then one really has to govern for the profitability of the national working class. One has to govern for high-labor productivity, one has to govern for competitive labor unit costs (etc) in order to sustain whatever program of redistribution one might have through the competitiveness of national labor and the world market levels. So, by taking that strategy, one becomes a manager (by default if not by design) who is responsible for managing the world market competitiveness of domestic or national labor.
Bozkurt: One thing that we have seen as a result of this whole process of the COVID-19 crisis is that it was the different segments of the working class that were the most impacted by the pandemic because they were working on the front lines. So, the question is, does this create the potential for developing a radical politics which then has the potential to challenge neoliberalism?
I actually don't quite know what "challenging neoliberalism" means. Challenging neoliberalism for what? The term neoliberalism has replaced the term capitalism - it is something that existed in the past and has now been supplanted by the word "neoliberal". So is the challenge for a "pre-neoliberal" capitalism, where everything was better? Where money-making was not supposed to be the purpose of production? Where production was undertaken for consumption and for the satisfaction of needs? Where employment was guaranteed? I am not sure whether this is what is meant by "challenging neoliberalism" - to return to some pre-neoliberal phase of capitalism where being a worker was a piece of luck and great fortune.
What we are facing now is that from the early 1990s, capitalism as a term of critical enquiry has almost vanished. What we have in fact, is the analysis of neoliberalism and everything that is wrong with capitalism is assigned to neoliberalism. So, the ills of capitalism are attributed to neoliberalism and capitalism, it almost seems, was some sort of golden age. It almost seems as if capitalism is no longer touched by thought - it is not theorized. Everything focusses on neoliberalism, which is the sort of category of the zeitgeist. Consequently, one no longer has to concern oneself with the past. The past, which no longer comes to life in the critique of contemporary conditions, is lost and the critical conception of the contemporary world is also lost. What we have instead is a contemporary world that appears as a counter-form or as a new presence to an imagined past, an imagined civility, an imagined world that was anything other than "neoliberal". So, the critique of neoliberalism conjures up a time in which money did not yield more money, but was rather put to work for growth and jobs. So, in other words, by "challenging neoliberalism", one buys into an illusion and it is this illusion then, that dominates reality - a structure of society without memory, without a conception of the past, is, I think, quite frightening.
The term of the left is not capitalism. The term of the left is neoliberalism. By focusing its critique on neoliberalism, not only does this left put distance between itself and the past, it also puts distance between itself and the concrete utopias of anti-capitalism that are forgotten at the same time. So, by looking at neoliberalism as the term of critique, the left in fact endorses this critique - it endorses institutional left politics as the means of resolution of contemporary misery, suffering etc.