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Concrete Dystopia
by Alex Demirovic
Thursday Jan 16th, 2020 6:28 AM
Capitalist conditions are characterized by the fact that there is no rationality in society as a whole that coordinates the interests of the many and the overall development of social development... Strong economic, political, scientific and media interest groups change the natural history of the species and block changes in collective habits.
The Concrete Dystopia
Alex Demirovic - Dec 2019 - Luxemburg

[This article published in December 2019 in the journal Luxemburg is translated from the German on the Internet,]

This system binds us to the rule of the past and subjects our living labor capacity to (in)dead capital - high time to break out.

If we think about socialism as an alternative to capitalism and advocate a transformation from one form of society to another, it is because there are concrete reasons for this. One of them is to avoid or eliminate all those conditions that involve or generate so many human sacrifices. There is the sexist degradation and violence in families, there is the harassment in companies and in everyday working life. People are exposed to the risks of the labor market; for many, the low income from a job is not enough to support a family. There are the millions of people who are injured or killed in traffic accidents, who fall ill due to pesticides in food, chemicals in clothing, who die prematurely due to work or particulate matter pollution. We also think of the many who are killed in wars, of all those who are victims of genocide, or of all those who are harassed, tortured, imprisoned by gangs of gangsters, by state police or secret services - also in the name of a better, fairer world, also in the name of socialism. The mining of coal, gold or rare earths exposes people and whole societies to disease and death. Every day people die when they migrate or flee, they are subjected to violence, slavery, forced labor, they lose years of their lives in camps or prisons. These are disturbing contrasts: here the party-goers*, there the homeless lying on the street next to us; here the cruise and sailing ships, there the refugee boats and sea rescue initiatives. The gap between the wealth, legal security or health care, the department stores filled with an unmanageable number of goods, the knowledge of every school of tuna or every square meter of rain forest, the normality of daily school attendance on the one hand and poverty, the nakedness and precariousness of life, the inability to act according to knowledge and to stop the misguided developments on the other hand, is grotesque.

We are stuck in a contradiction. That which kills some allows others to live and live well: the working conditions in the many factories of the world, the CO2 emissions of cars or container ships, the import of fodder from the global soy-growing areas, the nitrate inputs in the soil caused by intensive livestock farming, the transport of lorries through the Alpine valleys, the export of arms or milk. That this contradiction has something to do with capitalism is denied. Firstly, it is admitted that the phenomena described exist, but it is deeply philosophically suspected that they are the result of the human constitution as such: People are selfish and think of themselves first. Secondly, those phenomena could not be attributed to capitalism, because capitalism as such does not exist, but only social market economies with a multitude of free actors. Thirdly, the market is the moment of a process of social differentiation, which shows success in many dimensions: technical and scientific progress, legal security, democracy, economic efficiency, growth, the eradication of poverty, the extension of life expectancy, health care and education. These successes are the result of an undirected modernization that follows systemic demands and cannot be attributed to the moral decisions of the individual. Fourthly, it is suggested that, although there are still many shortcomings, the ideal of perfection is doubtful and things are improving slowly but steadily. The expectation that the next round of modernization will solve the problems is reassuring. The self-protection and self-correction mechanisms were working.

But such an argument is short-sighted and ignores the fact that this is how things have been going back and forth for centuries: sometimes things get better, then they get worse. How often has it been claimed that in capitalist societies there are no economic crises and no poverty, but only full employment? Formally, there is no slavery and yet many people work under conditions of forced labor and debt bondage. The statement that wage labor leads to despair and death can be confirmed by workers in Bangladesh or Ethiopia just as their colleagues did 200 years ago before the Commission of the British Parliament. The questions of minimum wages, the working day, the physical, mental and psychological exhaustion of individuals, the destruction of their everyday ways of life, poor housing, low education, freedom of the press, the right of association, the prevention of democratic self-determination have been repeated since the 18th century. The environmental question appears in ever new forms: Hygiene, air pollution, lack of ventilation in urban areas, destruction of forests and biodiversity, soil degradation, desertification, climate change. None of this is surprising. Again and again, for a brief moment, the problems seem to be solved, the ideology of progress suggests this - until they reappear on a broader scale.

Part of the bourgeoisie sees the problems. It creates countless initiatives and civil society organisations; it has responded with numerous measures for centuries: Peace conferences, human rights, the International Criminal Court, the conventions against torture, the outlawing of weapons, the regulation of the working day, the legal guarantee of trade unions, freedom of the press and science, gender equality, the demand for more sustainability, which is reflected in international agreements, UN programs or global monitoring; also with foundations, development agencies, NGOs, civil society initiatives (International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, WWF, Amnesty International, Transparency International, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Open Society Foundations) Numerous declarations of intent are announced and voluntary or legally binding regulations are adopted. But nothing helps - reality does not follow them.

Another part of the bourgeoisie denies the tendencies of destructiveness, it does not want to perceive reality - climate change does not exist or, if it does, it is God's will; it is not the weapons that kill. Efforts to contain the negative developments are rejected as folly, their failure is pursued. Yet another part of the bourgeoisie and its leaders are well aware of the problems or some of their aspects. There is talk of the need for a major transformation, of redesigning globalization, of creating resilient structures. Prosperity should be distributed more fairly, capitalism should become fairer, as the finance ministers of the G7 countries recently demanded. But despite some insight and a corresponding orientation for action, the bourgeoisie is proving to be faltering, inconsistent or even helpless. This is reflected in their attitude towards the decisions of the World Environment Conference, the Kyoto Protocol, the objectives for sustainable development.

Viewed soberly, this insight does not help them; they do not have the perspective, competence or strength to propose such strategies that could lead to a solution. For capitalist conditions are characterized precisely by the fact that there is no rationality in society as a whole that coordinates the interests of the many and the overall direction of social development. Rather, social development, or rather non-development, results from a multitude of decisions of more or less powerful actors competing with each other. Global or regional companies, political forces, state-organized actors, civil society organizations and movements, the mute practices of the many work with and against each other in planning, ignorance and knowledge exclusion, decisions and non-decisions with different temporal, spatial, social scope, in the definition of the objects and the depth of the measures. This concerns all areas of life. In questions of meat consumption, mobility and settlement, alternative battery-supported e-mobility or to fuel cells, the production of energy, the further development of human genetics and computer science, which could consequently abolish the human species as such, the conflicts over the decision alternatives are obvious. So far, there are no constellations in which the development paths are put to choice; the decisions are still not made on the basis of free insight, the highest level of knowledge and the participation of the many, but strong economic, political, scientific and media interest groups change the natural history of the species and the planet in a possessive way and block changes in collective habits.

There are already numerous approaches with which people in this or that area are already constituting themselves as global collective subjects. The practices are uneven, hesitant and particularistic, and the resistance is therefore strong. Moreover, it is obvious that transformational measures alone will not be sufficient in individual fields, since the processes interlock in many ways. In order to address the problems and to coordinate the ecological, technical, economic, cultural and democratic processes to some extent, and thus to achieve a regulated development aiming at simultaneity, it is necessary to create suitable conditions for action. This means nothing other than that the species must constitute itself as humanity and take its fate into its own hands. It must change over to dealing with the damage, combating its causes, and finding solutions to shape the future.


But the bourgeoisie, which devotes so much to modernization, to development, to progress, is surprisingly unable to do so. This has already surprised a radical democrat like Thomas Paine in the 18th century. He observed that the bourgeoisie was prepared to historicize the idea of the social contract: Yes, it is then acknowledged that the commonwealth was once founded by a contract of all with all. But this act of foundation was unique and the heirs and descendants were thus bound until the end of time. Yet, according to Paine, no gender of men, no class and no parliament has the right or the power to bind the descendants in this way. "Each age, each sex must have just such freedom to act for itself in all cases as the ages and sexes before it. The vanity and presumption of wanting to rule even beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrants. Man possesses no property in man; neither does any generation in future generations possess property". (Paine 1792, 49) Marx also advocated this radical openness to the future in the wake of Paine, not from the past and memory, but from the future, comprehensive social emancipation should gain its self-understanding, not the dead but the living should determine (cf. Marx 1852, 117).

This demand of Marx is unredeemed. With it he turns against the peculiar culture of the bourgeoisie, which puts its freedom newly won by political revolution into the arguments, the clothes and the architecture of the past of the Roman Empire. According to Marx, the fact that the modern political and social decision-making processes are carried out through ties to the past in such a way that the bourgeoisie is constantly being caught up in its past, in the traumas of its violence, promising remembrance and improvement, and yet is unable to put an end to the violence in the present, is itself no coincidence, but corresponds to the foundations on which the modern bourgeoisie organizes its life and self-preservation. This connection has been emphasized repeatedly since John Locke: it is property and its protection. Property is supposed to bind the following generations. But how does it happen? And above all, why does it happen? Because an everyday wisdom says that nobody takes anything with them when they are dead. So why is there the desire to determine the social dynamics, beyond one's own day, the future? Why, in the name of property titles acquired or to be defended, that is, in the name of something past and dead, are the living disadvantaged, injured or even killed?

Marx refers to this contrast as that between dead and living labor. It is a wrong, crazy relationship, since now the past rules the present, the means of production are used by the workers, not the workers the means of production, not they determine the production processes in free physical and mental freedom, but are incorporated into the dead mechanism of the machines as living appendages (cf. Marx 1890, 445). This dislocation results from the capital relation. Capital is money that exchanges itself with living labor and utilizes it in this way, that is, it returns from circulation to a greater extent than it entered it. Money and capital, for their part, are already dead objects, the result of earlier living labor that the capitalist has appropriated. He uses them to buy means of production to which the wage earners in the production process add their living labor.

"By transforming money into goods that serve as the material formers of a new product or as factors of the work process, by incorporating living labor into their dead objectivity, the capitalist transforms value, decaying, objectified, dead labor into capital, self-utilizing value, a soulful monster that begins to 'work' as if it had love in its body. (Marx 1890, 209) The talk of the dead objectivity that absorbs living labor force is to be taken quite literally. For it is about the preservation of once acquired property titles. The rights of disposal of the acquired working capital assume legal and political conditions. In order to preserve them, the physical integrity and lives of many people are risked, their death is accepted in order to maintain the right to further exploitation of the capital. No one could renounce this right without fear of becoming a victim themselves.

In his study "Rejected Life" Zygmunt Bauman makes it clear that the death zone has expanded and encompasses more than just the area of production. He lists the many consumer goods, the waste generated by mistaken purchases and over-consumption stimulated by the means of advertising, by rapid moral deterioration, by fashion or by built-in obsolescence. What is more, many people no longer even become part of the industrial reserve army, they count as superfluous, as waste. Finally, thirdly, the problems of human waste characterize the whole of social life and generate a waste sui generis: "stillborn, unsuitable, invalid and unrealizable human relationships that bear the stamp of impending disappearance from the outset" (Bauman 2005, 15).

It should not be misunderstood: The stewards of the dead want to rule the living. From their perspective, the utilization of their capital, they take the future into account. But the future is strongly sidelined and pledged to the past. Because the future is fixed on the fact to redeem profit expectations. In interest-bearing capital, according to Marx, the idea of the fetish of capital is complete, that the accumulated, dead work product generates added value due to a secret quality. "One knows, on the other hand, that the preservation, and to this extent also the reproduction of the value of the products of past labor is in fact only the result of their contact with living labor; and secondly, that the command of the products of past labor over living overtime lasts only as long as the capital relationship lasts, the certain social relationship in which past labor independently and overpoweringly confronts living labor. (Marx 1894, 412)

In view of all the challenges that result from the fact that the present and the future are bound to the past, a change in the conditions under which people take the opportunity to shape it themselves is necessary. Past work - as well as the power derived from it and the living conditions connected with it - should not further determine the future. But this should not be misunderstood as a single historical incision from which a certain new relationship immediately emerges, which could then be regarded as ultima ratio and solve all problems. Rather, it is a matter of establishing conditions at the level of the challenges, so that on the basis of the historically acquired experience and the attainable knowledge, with the participation of the many, the objective and social world can be knowledgeably transformed in such a way that everyone can live cooperatively, reconciled with one another and emancipated. This means to avoid carelessness, to take care of the neglected and damaged and to create the new according to the needs. It was a technical misunderstanding to understand the development of productive forces always only as technical progress for the production of larger quantities of goods. The most important productive force is the cooperation of people in a rational relationship with nature. In this sense, the development of productive forces also involves making joint decisions about the means of production, the work products and processes according to aspects of rational metabolism.


For historical reasons, the expectation of solving some of the great problems of social life is linked to socialism. Journalists (cf. SZ, 21.9.2019; NZZ, 20.7.2019) explicitly declare that they want to oppose the popularity of socialism among the population. One argument is that it has proved inefficient and has failed in an authoritarian way. When arguments are made in this way, there is often a sense of malice.

. Not a word is said about the fact that bourgeois forces have contributed significantly to the failure of alternatives. Especially in Germany, after all the crimes committed to prevent alternatives in Eastern Europe since 1917, this is infamous enough. But more than that, it also means that central aims of the Enlightenment are failing: namely the rational shaping of the conditions under which people live. This is precisely what capitalism is unable to do: it has developed productive forces in competition - but it is precisely competition that makes it inefficient, violent and tends to be apocalyptic, because the many are unable to show off their common and cooperative practices.

What matters today is a change in the conditions that block the civilizing, rational development of the productive forces. Historically, market and state have been experimented with to the detriment of the people. The genuine project, which consists of the joint administration of things and the free development of individuals for the self-determined shaping of conditions, has not yet been tried out. It is about time.

Bauman, Zygmunt, 2005: Rejected life. The Excluded of Modernity, Hamburg
Marx, Karl, 1852: The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in: MEW 8, Berlin
Ders., 1890: The capital. Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, in: MEW 23, Berlin
Ders., 1894: The capital. Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3, in: MEW 25, Berlin
Paine, Thomas, 1792: The Rights of Man, Frankfurt am Main, 1973
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