Interview with Michael Heinrich on Capitalism and the G8

“There Simply Aren’t Any Easy Solutions to Which One Can Adhere”
by . . . ums Ganze!

Michael Heinrich is a political scientist and mathematician in Berlin and a member of the editorial board of Prokla — journal for critical social science. Below is an interview with the “…ums Ganze!” […the whole] coalition.

“…ums Ganze!”: The federal government has staked out a position for the G8 summit with the keynote of “growth and responsibility.” In official circles, it is proclaimed that the G8 summit has the goal of consulting over solutions for the urgent problems of humanity. Among the themes are energy supplies and climate change, as well as human rights and democracy, to name a few buzzwords.

From the ranks of the globalization-critical movement, on the other hand, one hears that the eight heads of state are the “switchboard” of global capitalism, that they are like “spiders in a web,” and, typically, of how “eight governments decide the fate of 6,000,000,000 people.” From a materialist perspective, what role do the G8 play in global capitalism?

Michael Heinrich: If one views the eight heads of state as a “switchboard” for global capitalism, one assumes two relationships between politics and economy: on the one hand, that eight governments decide over global politics, which would presuppose that these eight governments are both unified, as well as in possession of the means to enforce their goals; on the other hand, that there exists a particular correlation between politics and capitalist economy: that governments implement what capital desires. Both assumptions are insufficient and in this respect share commonalities with classical theories of imperialism, as well as with some theories which apparently stand in a critical relation to such theories. Whether it’s Lenin’s “lords of monopoly” who impose their will upon society, or as is rather likely to be maintained today, multinational corporations, in each instance the impersonal domination of the law of value analyzed by Marx — a form of socialization which consummates itself “behind the backs” of participants and which sets the framework for their conscious activity — is substituted by a new form of personal or consciously managed institutional domination. On the basis of these assumptions, state policies then appear to be the conscious implementation of the clearly defined interests of capital.

Now, for structural reasons, the State is compelled to promote the accumulation of its national capital, because only in the case of a successful production of profit are jobs created (which minimizes the need for social expenditures) and taxes paid (which makes the agency of state apparatuses possible). But the question of the best way to execute the promotion of this accumulation over the short or long term, how the interests of various fractions of capital can be balanced out, and the best way to legitimize these policies vis-à-vis the population (the “voters”) is in no way clear. Different options are possible, which can be brought into connection with various ideological options to constitute the specific logic of the political sphere. State policies are structurally dependent upon a successful accumulation of capital, but cannot simply be “derived” from individual interests of capital.

If we consider things at the international level, things become more complicated. On the one hand, different national capitals are entangled with one another in various ways, there are relationships of cooperation and competition across national borders. On the other hand, state actors compete with one another over power and influence, without there being a comprehensive global state. Instead, an array of international institutions has emerged, such as the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, the UN and its sub-organizations, the OECD, and the G8. In all of these organizations competition is carried out on the one hand, while on the other hand possibilities for cooperation in the case of common interests are pursued. At the same time, it should be kept in mind that, in the case of the G8, no formal treaties are concluded — the point is rather the coordination and alignment of interests and the introduction of initiatives which become operative at another level. And in the G8, with the USA, Russia, Germany, and Japan, some of the economically and militarily strongest states are represented, but precisely the aspiring capitalist threshold countries are missing, such as China (whose “communist” party has led the development of a state-driven capitalism), India, Brazil, and South Africa, which not only constitute more than a third of the global population, but which exhibit a considerable capitalist dynamic of development. The G8 therefore has only a limited scope, and will probably have to expand itself in the course of the next decade in order to assert its influence, or maybe dissolve itself into another institution. It’s therefore not a question of a unified “switchboard” of global capitalism, but rather a mere nodal point within a developing network of international political institutions, which in their totality constitute the terrain in which both cooperation to secure domination and differentially embedded conflicts are carried out, so that the same state actors cooperate with each other on one level, whereas they simultaneously carry out a hard conflict at another level.

“…ums Ganze!”: Marx polemicized in his day against the anarchists and their “eternal principles,” which demonized the (reformist) struggles of the working class, such as that for the 8-hour workday or against child labor, as a form of recognizing the system. When unemployed initiatives today address their demands for a higher level of primary care to the state, they represent their interest in an amelioration of their immediate poverty and for a share of social wealth. How should one consider the relationship between a radical critique of capitalism and existing social struggles? Is the difference between reform and revolution obsolete?

Michael Heinrich: The difference hasn’t become obsolete. How could it be? Reform is about change within the system, revolution is about transcending the system itself. But a revolutionary perspective does not exclude the struggle for reforms today any more than it did previously. In order for people to struggle against capitalism, they have to be able to secure their survival, they need certain free spaces, both material and political, in order to agree upon and organize their resistance. That ranges from halfway tolerable conditions of work and life to the fixation of certain political and personal “rights.” Whoever fundamentally denounces the struggle to improve the conditions of life or the struggle to broaden and secure such rights is deluding himself. The ability to even articulate such a critique is only possible because others have led such struggles in the past and continue these struggles in the present. That doesn’t mean, however, that every “reform” that leads to a few improvements, or every “struggle,” should be supported. In many cases, such reforms tend to have an integrative, system-stabilizing component, even if they’re initially implemented as the result of a long struggle. There are substantial differences between certain “reforms,” but it’s not possible to discuss them on a merely abstract level.

“…ums Ganze!”: Parts of the radical left have formulated demands with which they hope to use the G8 summit as a means of intervening in social processes. Among these for example are “the right of freedom of movement across borders” or “global social rights which guarantee the uninhibited access to nutrition, housing, health care, education, and participation in social life for every human being.”

It is unclear whether this is an instance of a “Trotskyist” strategy to secure connections with a Social Democratic mainstream, or whether in fact a conception of “rights” is being developed which attempts to somehow shake up the dispositive ideological forms of the capital relationship. How problematic do you consider such demands?

Michael Heinrich: There usually isn’t much to be gained by discussing individual demands in isolation. One has to consider them in context, in the context of the political conflicts in which one intervenes in discussions about such demands at all and of the conceptions against which such demands are addressed, as well as the context of the political argumentation of those who pose them.

But in so doing there’s a fundamental problem that we can’t get around: if one struggles for “rights,” then that is on the one hand an affirmation of the state, because the state should guarantee such rights and implement them with its means of force; so one remains immanent within the pre-existing political forms. On the other hand, a legally stipulated “right” is the form which a fixed, sustainable achievement assumes within the bourgeois state, and which we cannot do without, as long as we’re forced to deal with the state.

So it always depends upon the context. Do these demands have as their aim the broadening of possibilities for action and the restraint of state control, or are they intended to merely bring about an improved statism, which integrates people more effectively in the system and makes them useful for capitalist valorization? And not only is the phrasing of such demands important, but also the strategy employed for their implementation: is it about mobilization, about the initiation of educational processes, in the last instance about a process which has as its goal revealing the impositions of capitalism and calling them into question, or is it merely about a form of leftist lobbying, in which one allows one’s self to be instrumentalized by a political party, from which one expects some form of support?

“…ums Ganze!”: Debates around the question of a “new imperialism” have also developed recently. And thereby it’s not merely a matter of military conflict, direct violence, and absolute immiseration in global capitalism, but also of phenomena such as product piracy and biological patents. Is this a case of a new (post-bourgeois) capitalism, which can no longer be adequately understood with the concepts of the critique of political economy?

Michael Heinrich: Theories which are actually no longer adequate are normally simply forgotten. That Marxian theory constantly has to be declared dead appears to me to be a rather strong indicator of its viability. Marx did not analyze the capitalism of a particular country or a particular period, his claim in Capital was rather the depiction of the capitalist mode of production “at its ideal average.” He wanted to examine what makes capitalism what it is. Insofar as he was able to do this, and I think that at least in terms of its fundamental characteristics he was able to, his analysis is still contemporary. At the same time it’s also clear that with this analysis the historically changing manifestations of capitalism are not yet comprehended; these have to be continually researched. Bourgeois, but also leftist, critics of Marx, such as Negri/Hardt use the changes of the historical manifestation as an argument against the analysis of the basic structures. Because industrial operational flows have changed, because the working class no longer looks like it did in the 19th century, or because capital has tapped into new spheres of valorization, it is asserted that Marx’s analysis of the capitalist process of valorization is invalid. On the contrary. For example, the new book by Sabine Nuss (Copyright & Copyriot) shows how the meaning of free software, the Internet, and the conflict over new property rights can be extraordinarily well analyzed by the categories of the critique of political economy, when these are wrested away from traditional Marxism.

“…ums Ganze!”: Even when it appears as if capitalism rolls unstoppably through history, it remains characterized by an internally contradictory nature. One leftist demand is to “intensify the contradictions to a crisis.” In parts of the world these contradictions seem rather to express themselves in a turn towards islamistic, anti-semitic, or chauvinistic ideologies. What validity remains today for Brecht’s dictum: “The contradictions are our hope”?

Michael Heinrich: Clearly, the contradictions are our hope, and not a contradiction-free, functioning capitalism. However, one should also add that “hopes can also be disappointed.” For that reason, one should also be careful as to which contradictions one wishes to intensify and how one does so. In any case, one should be on guard against the conception that “everything should become much worse before it can get better.” Just as parochial is also the notion that the enemy of my enemy must somehow also be my friend; not infrequently, he’s also my enemy, just in another regard. Even if it’s difficult for some people to bear — there simply aren’t any simple solutions to which one can adhere.

“…ums Ganze!”: Thank you very much for the conversation!

Find out more about Michael Heinrich at his website