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U.S. | Labor & Workers

Uncovering the Fracture of the System
by Oskar Negt
Wednesday Jul 25th, 2012 6:52 AM
Uncovering the fracture and the dislocations of this system, proposing changes and actively interfering is the optimistic side. Sharpening the sense of possibility that things need not be as they are is an important service of political intellectuals. The collective repression of problems is carried out to a spectacular extent. The welfare state and democracy cannot be separated.

Interview with Oskar Negt

[This interview published in the weekly journal Kontext June 2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.kontextwochenzeitung.de/. Oskar Negt, born in 1934, social philosopher, emeritus professor of sociology and student of Adorno and Habermas is one of the leading representatives of critical theory. His thinking focuses on deconstructing the inevitable crises of capitalism, its symptoms and possibilities of action, particularly in the areas of education, schools and unions.]

I rebel against retail shops as the public welfare. Business reality has completely consumed the constructive idea of a community.

The number of your allies is open. While the term globalization is ubiquitous, the leftist term internationalism hardly occurs.

We have a tremendously torn or ruptured situation. Old institutions, norms and attitudes are no longer valid without hesitation. There are intensive cultural searches even in the current party system. The old loyalties are destroyed. Old bonds are broken but the need for human bonds has not ended. This lack of commitment produced by market laws could trigger something like a radical rightwing option.

The latest election results in Germany do not support your thesis…

Life is astonishingly good for Germans. When I speak in France or England, people ask how you can grumble about the German system. You have the most stable democracy, at least concerning procedural rationality and the judiciary. That is true. But there is growing unrest below this official plane. There are many political black market fantasies. Many people hope for a redeemer, clear offers and mastery of the complicated joint-determination procedures of democracy. There is a division of reality. In one part, everything runs somewhat normally. Underneath there is growing unrest. Harsh polarizations occur to the left and to the right. The protest against Stuttgart 21 and the Occupy movement are options for more democracy and expansion of rights of participation. They are pleas for an engagement society. The radical rightwing tendencies in Holland, France and Hungary aim at exclusion, hostility to foreigners and populist simplification of decision-making structures.

In your studies, you use the term erosion crisis. Is history repeating itself?

I quote my old friend Ernst Bloch who said history does not repeat itself. When something doesn’t become history, it repeats itself. When certain problems like the social question are not solved, this question is repeated. The institutions all exist, the family is there and the work society is there but the need for inner reform is not fulfilled. Certain expectations break down. As Cicero once said, we have a Res publica amissa, a neglected, forgotten republic. We face neglect and forgetting.

What does that mean in relation to the world of work?

The core problem is seeing the limits of market laws… The market cannot be abolished. Authoritarian systems attempted that again and again but the market obviously has a supply-side rationality that cannot be replaced. Planning refrigerators for the whole society is silly. On the other hand, carrying out education planning is very sensible. We must finally see community work as an original idea that must be publically financed. Offering education and care to all persons and not seeing them as appendages of goods production and guaranteeing them a dignified life and a dignified dying has an original importance in our society.

How can that be financed given the shriveling number of regular jobs? Fewer and fewer persons have permanent jobs that guarantee them a secure long-term income.

Suddenly the state had money to support deadbeat banks. For simple persons, it is incredible that Hartz IV (controversial German welfare reform that combined unemployment benefits and income support and drastically reduced the duration of benefits, ruled in violation of German Basic Law by the German Constitutional Court for failing to guarantee a dignified life) is raised to an absurd five Euros while the bank bailout cost trillions. Only five percent of the stocks on the exchanges and currency markets help in real production. A complete area has uncoupled from the social context of life and production. The crucial problems lie there.

Beyond intellectuals who sit without influence in the Grand Hotel Abyss, who has the power to change this?

I don’t have any illusions about intellectuals. When asked whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I always use the statement by Gramsci (Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937, Italian writer, journalist and Marxist philosopher) when asked in prison whether he was a pessimist or optimist. He said he was a pessimist on the plane of analysis and theory since an intellectual has the task of not leaving out the worst possibilities of development. But as a practical person he was an optimist. There is no completely closed, self-contained intact system. Uncovering the fracture and the dislocations of this system, proposing changes and actively intermeddling is the optimistic side. That is my attitude. Let us not always wait for the catastrophe. I see the sharpened sense of possibility that things need not be as they are as an important service of political intellectuals.

What can an individual do to escape the forms of depression that are growing rampantly like explosions? Every third early disability is caused by mental illnesses.

Breaking out of this depressive circle is hard for individuals. Everyone sees that work that doesn’t exist should be mediated in the work agencies. The rage toward the present society that denies a meaning to life accumulates when the anxiety raw material in society grows. When people have anxiety about survival, they can make completely irrational decisions. Mental illnesses have increased 100 percent since 1995 and have reached the dimension of a sickness of society. People protest against society by going inward, not by rebelling. This obviously means a loss of productive energy for society. Fighting against that is very important.

Is depression simply a healthy reaction to a broken world of work and not a sickness?

It is a kind of health statement about a system. A sickness of society exists in that the balance between individual and collective social development is disturbed. Depression develops in this neoliberal operational climate as with Margaret Thatcher. She saw only particular individuals, not society. In other words, the destruction of the idea of society is part of this sickness because possible solutions for a liberation from individual isolation shrivel`.

Isn’t this simply only a product of the health industry?

The health industry exploits this. The exploitation chances of the health industry exist when a collective problem is privatized. This is also true for the media. People stuck in hopeless roles don’t want their hopelessness confirmed in the media. They don’t want to see something worse in the evening and look forward to an operetta as “Othello.” That is a repression achievement. The collective repression of problems is carried out to a spectacular extent. Taking anxiety from people was one of the great achievements of the welfare state of the postwar era. The welfare state and democracy cannot be separated. Whoever plunders the welfare state will spend two or three times more in a decade for the security state. That is a dangerous potential.

Did you tell that to your friend Gerhard Schroeder?

Again and again. But the resistance toward problems is very marked in the political class. They are simply resistant to advice. I discussed this passionately with Gerhard Schroeder. Hartz was the wrong approach. A totally false policy was pursued with this hierarchization downwards with Hartz IV. The dilemma of political advice began with Plato. Plato was sold as a slave by his master Dionysius because he was dissatisfied with him.

On your former party SPD, have you again become a member after your suspension because of your engagement in SDS?

No. I was excluded and never re-joined. However I have good relations to social democracy – perhaps through this bitter experience that led to my independence.

Back to erosion. How is society destroyed?

The main point is the commercialization where all the production and life supplies of a society are treated as commodities. This leads to the disintegration of a society. To hold it together, we come back to the starting point. There are events like the European soccer championship. Suddenly nationals form again. This doesn’t have a belligerent character and doesn’t exclude. At the margins, wars increase the fractures. This happened in the Balkans. That the winner-and-loser syndrome has such a great significance is also fatal. This can be studied very well in the soccer games. The Dutch team withdrew with bowed heads as if an execution had taken place.

What must change?

Too much energy of the developed society is consumed through depression. People are intensely engaged in maintaining the structural problems of the social order. Therefore energy for their own development and for another world is lacking. Capitalism must be able to build its own competitors. The countries now receiving assistance must be supplied as though nothing happened. Twenty years ago Africa had eight percent of world trade. This share has shriveled to less than three percent. Africa has no chance for competitiveness. The developed countries have a model character. Europe is a great treasure worth defending. For the first time in history, we have not had a war in Europe’s center. All efforts must be undertaken to maintain this. I tried to describe this in my book “Europe as a Social Project. Plea for a Just Community.”