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The true costs of capitalist wealth
by Norbert Trenkle
Monday Dec 20th, 2021 5:03 AM
What drives the capitalist mode of production is the endless compulsion to increase abstract wealth, or, put more simply, the compulsion to turn money into more money... Society is richer than it knows, because it does not take all kinds of wealth factors into account in GDP.
The true costs of capitalist wealth
by Norbert Trenkle
[This article published on 5/31/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Excerpt from the text: Displaced Costs. The Externalization Logic of Capitalist Wealth Production and its Repeal. In: Ernst Lohoff/ Norbert Trenkle (eds.): Shutdown. Climate, Corona and the Necessary Exit from Capitalism. Münster 2020.

The measure of wealth
One of the eternal myths about capitalism tells us that it is superior to all other forms of society because of its incredible efficiency and productivity. But this myth not only denies the tremendous violence with which the capitalist mode of production has been historically imposed, it also suppresses the fact that its alleged efficiency is primarily based on externalizing all negative effects in various ways and thus systematically hiding the real costs for nature and society. This is not an external feature that could be remedied by any technical or political measures; rather, the logic of externalization is part of the innermost essence of the capitalist mode of production and life. If it is now increasingly perceived and made the object of critique (Brand/Wissen 2017; Lessenich 2018), it is primarily because it is reaching its limits with the global enforcement of capitalism. There is no longer a supposed "outside" onto which the costs could still be shifted. On the contrary, what has been repressed is returning with all its might and, even in the winning regions of the world market, is calling into question not only the foundations of the capitalist mode of production and life, but with it the human foundations of life as a whole.

In order to understand what constitutes this logic of externalization and the destructive violence inherent in it, we must first consider what the capitalist form of wealth production is in its essence. How is it that, on the one hand, it can set itself absolute and extend itself over the entire world, while at the same time producing an "outside" of itself at whose expense it litigates? In the ecological and growth-critical discourse since the 1970s, reference is repeatedly made to an aspect that can shed light on this connection: The capitalist concept of wealth is extremely narrow and exclusive. In capitalist society, wealth is only that which can be expressed in commodity and monetary units. Paradigmatic of this is the central economic measure, gross domestic product (GDP), which reflects the monetary value of all domestically produced goods and services minus intermediate inputs (Lepenies 2013, p. 15). Criticism of this measure of wealth is initially aimed quite fundamentally at the fact that it excludes by definition all non-monetary activities and aspects. This is particularly true for all non-monetized activities in the private sphere, such as housework and all care activities, which are predominantly assigned to women according to the prevailing gender division of labor. Also excluded from the definition of wealth, however, are all so-called voluntary and honorary activities in associations, cultural, social and political organizations, as well as any kind of neighborly or friendly help.

Furthermore, it is argued that the GDP measure does not take into account all qualitative and non-quantifiable aspects of social wealth, although these play a central role in social life and individual well-being. For example, he said, GDP provides no information about the quality of life offered by a country's cities and landscapes, whether people live together peacefully and have satisfying social relationships, what kind of pressure they are under to perform, and so on. Accordingly, Robert Kennedy, who was later assassinated, joked as early as 1968: "GDP measures everything except what makes life worth living. "1 In addition, there is the particularly absurd effect that when wealth is measured in monetary terms, even the causing of damage and human suffering is statistically expressed as an increase in social wealth. A car accident in which people are injured appears as an increase in GDP because the damaged cars must either be repaired or replaced and the treatment of the injured provides additional income to the hospital and pharmaceutical companies; a chemical accident that contaminates the soil or a river also expresses itself as a statistical plus because firms and workers are paid to clean up the damage and thus earn income that would not otherwise have accrued.

This criticism of GDP as the measure of societal wealth is resolved in most cases by calling for a new, expanded indicator. For example, as early as 1989, the economists Herman Daly and John Cobb developed the Regional/Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare/Well-Being (ISEW), which also takes social and ecological aspects into account and converts them into monetary values (Exner/Lauck/Kulterer 2008, p. 99 ff.; Jackson 2012). On this basis, 20 years later a working group around Hans Diefenbacher developed the so-called National Welfare Index (NWI) on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency (Diefenbacher/Zieschank 2011), which follows a similar system and understands welfare "as the totality of the material and the immaterial components of 'prosperity' and 'well-being' obtained from a country's available wealth of economic capital, natural capital and social capital." (cited in Raith 2016). In addition, however, there are many other approaches, among which the best known is probably "gross national happiness," which was introduced in 2010 as the official measure of social wealth in the Kingdom of Bhutan. And even the OECD, at the suggestion of an international commission, has introduced a so-called Better Life Index2 to provide a better measure of wealth.3

The form of capitalist wealth production
The basic problem with all of these approaches, however, is that they start at precisely the wrong end. Implicitly or explicitly, they assume that the narrowing of society's wealth to money incomes is essentially due to a false statistical yardstick by which politics and society are oriented. On the one hand, society is richer than it knows, because it does not take all kinds of wealth factors into account in GDP, and on the other hand, it is poorer than it imagines, because it ignores the various damages and negative effects of the modern mode of production. A new indicator that adequately takes all these elements into account is then supposed to provide the orientation mark for a policy that follows an expanded conception of societal prosperity. This critique of GDP, however, is upside down. If, since the advent of the capitalist mode of production, what counts as social wealth is only what can be expressed in monetary terms, this is not due to a false notion of wealth expressed in a narrowed statistical indicator to which policy would be oriented, but to the underlying historically specific form of wealth production. GDP is quite adequate as a measure of this form in that it reflects to some extent (albeit distorted) the reductionist nature of this form of wealth production. Criticizing this yardstick is like holding the bearer of bad news responsible for its content. What is required is not a new yardstick for social wealth, but an abolition of the form of wealth which produced this yardstick and which is expressed in it. In order to substantiate this thesis, it will first be examined in more detail what constitutes the essence of this form of wealth.

If wealth in capitalist society is measured in monetary units, then this initially only refers to the fact that it is always produced here in the form of commodities. The commodity, however, as Marx states at the very beginning of his main work, Das Kapital, is a very strange thing (MEW 23, p. 87). It is produced privately, but not for private use, but as a social product, as a thing for an anonymous social context; its sociality is thus paradoxically produced in the form of privateness. This contradiction is expressed in the fact that it breaks down into two sides: use value and exchange value. Use-value denotes the concrete utility of a commodity, such as the fact that I can get around on a bicycle or that I can put on a pair of pants; exchange-value, on the other hand, abstracts from this concrete utility and brings all commodities to a common denominator, which is expressed in money. The respective producer (whether we are talking about a person, a small company or a large corporation) is not interested in use value, or at least only to the extent that a commodity must have some use for someone in order to be sold. Why the buyer ultimately wants the commodity and what use he or she ascribes to it need not interest the producer. Like production, it falls into the realm of the private; in this case, it is private interests and needs that are entirely at the discretion of the buyer; whether she rides the bicycle around every day or hangs it decoratively in her living room, whether he puts on his pants when gardening or when going to the theater, that can be indifferent to the producer of the commodity. What interests him solely is the exchange value, or more precisely, the value of the commodity represented in the exchange value.4 Once he has received the purchase price, the matter is closed for him. With money he now holds the general representative of social wealth in his hand, for with money he can buy everything.5

This generality character of exchange-value or value rests quite obviously precisely on its indifference to any particular content, that is, on the fact that it abstracts from all concrete, qualitative properties of commodities and reduces them all to being expressions of a certain abstract quantity. It is, in other words, a very specific form of wealth: abstract wealth. But this form of wealth forms the center around which the entire capitalist mode of production revolves. For just as value is the only reason why producers produce commodities in a private-social way, it is also the motor that keeps the entire circuit of social commodity production going. What drives the capitalist mode of production is the endless compulsion to increase abstract wealth, or, put more simply, the compulsion to turn money into more money. In this sense, abstract wealth is a self-referential form of wealth, a wealth whose purpose lies within itself (Postone 2003, pp. 280-286), and which therefore degrades the entire world into the external material of its self-purpose movement. I will come back to this, but first I would like to go into more detail about the fundamental contradiction that lies in the fact that sociality is produced in a private way.

For the most part, this contradiction appears to the common thinking as completely unproblematic, it does not even strike it. For it is one of the basic convictions of the bourgeois everyday mind that man is by his very nature an isolated individual, who is polarized to pursue his own private interests and only does something for others if he derives a personal advantage from it.6 Consequently, this view of man also includes the idea that "man" is always socially active only through exchange. According to this view, society began when the hunter began to hunt game beyond his own needs in order to exchange it for a pair of shoes, for example, and when all other members of society specialized in a few products in order to bring them to the market. According to this view, complex societies based on the division of labor cannot be organized in any other way than in the form of general commodity production, whereby the coordination of activities must "naturally" take place via the market mechanism.

Although the homo economicus view of human beings has been the subject of much criticism in recent decades,7 this criticism generally falls short of the mark. It is rightly pointed out that, even under capitalist conditions, human beings do not only follow an economic-rational calculation of benefits, but that their actions are determined by a variety of emotional, sensual and social needs and motivations. But all this often overlooks the fact that the figure of homo economicus does indeed have a kernel of truth, insofar as it refers to a fundamental structural element of capitalist society. Of course, it is a ridiculous fairy tale, often refuted by historical and cultural studies, that the fundamental cultural achievement consists in the invention of exchange and money. It has long been known that people in all pre-capitalist communities produced primarily communally and in a natural-economic way. Material production was always embedded in the community in many ways and was regulated by all kinds of cultural and religious rules, by traditions and personal relationships of domination. A separate, carved-out sphere of the economy only emerged with the imposition of the capitalist mode of production (Polanyi 1995; Bierwirth 2013, pp. 12-14). However, this is synonymous with the detachment of people from traditional communities, or more precisely: with the destruction of these communities and the release of people as isolated individuals who henceforth are primarily responsible only for their own well-being and advancement. It is not by chance that the figure of homo oeconomicus was invented in the first place during this phase of historical upheaval;8 it reflects this process of isolation in an ideological way by declaring it to be the "nature of man".

Marx analyzed this process in Capital above all with regard to the formation of the "doubly free wage laborer". What is meant is the human being who, on the one hand, is the free owner of his labor assets (in contrast to the slave or serf) and who, on the other hand, is forced to sell precisely these labor assets to capital because he is "free" of means of production, i.e., has no possibility of producing his means of subsistence - i.e., what he needs to live - himself (MEW 23, p. 181 ff.). This is undoubtedly true, but the disengagement of people from the traditional commons has even broader implications. The splitting of society into noisy isolated individuals, all of whom pursue their particular interests against each other and in this paradoxical and contradictory way constitute their social context in the first place, constitutes the fundamental matrix of bourgeois society (Trenkle 2019; Bierwirth 2019). Or, as Marx puts it, "The mutual and all-round dependence of individuals indifferent to one another constitutes their social context" (MEW 42, p. 92). In this, however, not only commodity production as a form of wealth production is inherent, but also the necessity of the state as the outsourced apparatus of violence that somehow keeps the diverging dynamics of particular interests in check and prevents them from exploding the social context. In other words, the splitting of the social context into isolated individuals is the logical and historical starting point from which the entire structure of capitalist society and its historically specific form of wealth production can be inferred. This form, however, represents a tremendous narrowing of what is recognized as social wealth; and this has considerable consequences for society and the social relation to nature.

The splitting off of non-commodity activities
When it was said above that individuals relate to each other through commodities, this means, first of all, nothing else than that they do not relate to each other directly, but through the detour of things. These things, however, are their private products of labor. If we now look at this from the side of individual action, then it becomes apparent that the isolated individuals establish their social relationship by working, or more precisely, by performing private work in social form. Thus, they mediate among themselves through work and in this way establish their social relation (Postone 2003, p. 229 ff.). This fact appears to bourgeois thinking as completely self-evident, because according to it, man has always established his belonging to society through work. But this is merely a backward projection of bourgeois relations into the past. In fact, it is only radical isolation that forces individuals to establish their sociality by relating their private labor products (commodities) to each other, that is, by mediating themselves through labor. In earlier polities, productive activities were embedded in the presupposed relations of domination and cultural references; they were part of the overall socio-cultural context and were assigned according to the hierarchies and traditions prevailing therein. In bourgeois society, on the other hand, individuals have to produce their social belonging anew every day by working9, i.e. by producing commodities or by selling their labor power, i.e. by transforming a part of themselves into a commodity thing. Only insofar as they do this, they are socially fully recognized and have access to the social wealth.

But with this, already on a very fundamental level, a splitting up and hierarchization of the social relations of action and activity is carried out. All activities that do not produce commodities are socially secondary at best, because they do not establish the social mediation between the isolated individuals that is specific to this society. In addition to the entire spectrum of charitable, volunteer, and other voluntary activities, this applies primarily to household and caretaking activities, which are split off and structurally assigned to women (Scholz 1992). While these activities are undoubtedly indispensable for the maintenance of life and for the functioning of the social context, and thus also necessary preconditions for the production of abstract wealth, they do not enter directly into it precisely because they do not take commodity form, but remain in the sphere of segregated privacy. As such, however, they represent, as it were, a free addition, which is taken for granted and incorporated.

In particular, this applies to the reproduction of labor power, which is often discussed in Marxist-feminist literature, and which is by no means guaranteed only by wages, as traditional Marxist theory usually assumes. It is true that the wage compensates the value of the commodity labor power insofar as it covers (or at least should cover) the costs of the consumer goods that the worker needs to secure his or her existence. But this refers only to commodities, i.e. to things from the world of abstract wealth. However, it is always tacitly assumed that in addition, in the "background", a multitude of activities are carried out which do not take on the character of commodities but are at least equally necessary for life. It is not only about the practical things in the household like cooking and cleaning as well as the whole spectrum of care activities, but also about the living out of emotional and sensual needs, which have no room in the instrumental, functionalistic and competition-driven sphere of work and are therefore to a certain extent outsourced to the sphere of privacy (mostly nuclear family or couple relationship) (Scholz 1992; Trenkle 2007; Habermann 2008).

Capitalist production of wealth is thus always already constitutively based on the externalization of a whole spectrum of vital activities that do not take commodity form but can be appropriated for free precisely for this reason. Even the struggles of the women's movement have been able to change little about this fundamental form of externalization; for it is true that women have fought their way into most professions and fields of work against the often fierce resistance of men, and at the same time have shaken up the classic bourgeois gender identities. But on the one hand, these identities are proving to be surprisingly stable, as is particularly evident under crisis conditions; for example, during the Corona pandemic, women again had to bear much of the burden, not only because they are heavily represented in the caregiving professions, but also because they are still largely held responsible for household and caregiving activities and, on top of that, were exposed to increased domestic violence by men. On the other hand, even a change in the domestic division of labor and an increase in women's occupational activity by no means means means that the fundamental division of the social sphere of activity would be abolished. Even if all men took on an equal share of domestic and care work, this would not change the fact that these activities enter into the production of abstract wealth free of charge. For the division of the social space of activity is a structural principle of capitalist production of wealth, which can only be abolished together with it. As long as this is not the case, externalization only ever takes other forms. For example, the tendential dissolution of the binary gender model in the capitalist core countries often takes place at the expense of female workers from poorer countries who, for mostly low pay and under poor conditions, take on domestic and care work in the households of the upper middle and upper classes. They can only do this, however, because at the same time other female family members at home take care of the household, the children and relatives in need of help. The exploitation of unpaid, non-commodified activities in the service of abstract wealth is thus only shifted here in terms of space and personnel. In this context, Christa Wichterich speaks very aptly of a model of global care extractivism (Wichterich 2013 and 2016).

Nature without value
As already explained, the logic of externalization is based on the detachment of capitalist wealth production from its social context. Thus, when externalization is mentioned here, it does not mean the outsourcing of "costs" to a pre-existent "outside"; rather, this outside is created in the first place by the consequent narrowing of the category of social wealth. It therefore exists only because of the historically specific narrowness and narrow-mindedness of abstract wealth production, which sets itself absolute and thus at the same time degrades all other forms of social activity, in order to then at the same time blindly assimilate them.

This narrow-mindedness of the abstract form of wealth also explains its destructive relationship to the natural foundations of life. Social production is always based on natural conditions which it finds and which it changes at the same time. This is of course also true for the capitalist form of production. Natural matter enters into every commodity, whether in the form of raw materials, energy and other resources, or simply insofar as every production site stands on a piece of land and the preliminary products, like the commodities, must somehow be transported over the surface of the earth. But this concerns only the material-concrete side of the commodity, i.e. its use value; in contrast, the abstract-social side, i.e. the value represented in the exchange value, remains completely unaffected. This may be surprising at first, but it can be explained if we look again more closely at what underlies this strange abstraction "value," that is, what constitutes its content.

Above it was only said that exchange value disregards all material-concrete properties of commodities, thus behaves indifferently to the different use-values, and in this sense represents an abstraction. But this is still underdetermined. What exactly constitutes the common content of all these qualitatively different commodities that allows them to be reduced to a common denominator? The answer emerges when we recall that the commodity is the product of isolated private labor. As such, it is not only the "elementary form of social wealth" in capitalist society (MEW 23, p. 49)10 but, as already explained, it also fulfills the function of social mediation. The isolated individuals are forced to establish their social coherence through the fact that they work, or more precisely, by relating their private works, represented in the products of labor, to one another. The common, general content of all commodities is therefore the historically specific form of social relation they represent, namely labor in its function as a social mediating activity. Only because there is this common content can commodities be reduced to a common, abstract denominator. The value of commodities, abstract wealth, is thus nothing other than the reified representation of the form of social relation fundamental to capitalism; it is the representation of "abstract labor," of labor indifferent to any particular concrete-sensible content because it is reduced to its function as a social mediating activity.

All this sounds crazy, and basically it is. But the craziness lies in the social relations themselves, because in capitalist society things are upside down. People do not consciously dispose of their social relations, but are dominated by these relations. In value, the work of isolated private producers takes on a life of its own vis-à-vis these and gains a tremendous momentum of its own, imposing its rhythm and logic on society. The purpose of production is quite directly value itself. Production takes place in order to make even more value out of a certain sum of value, or, in other words, in order to accumulate abstract wealth. In this way abstract wealth sets itself absolutely and becomes the all-dominating power in society. This is what Marx calls the fetishism of commodity production (MEW 23, p. 85.ff.).

We had already seen above that this reduction of social wealth to the expenditure of commodity-producing labor constitutes the structural reason for the invisibility and devaluation of care activities, which have been structurally assigned to women and are therefore inscribed "female." They are considered "worthless" precisely because they do not represent "value" in the sense of abstract wealth. Against this background, however, it is also explained why natural resources do not represent any value and thus no abstract wealth, although they are at the same time the indispensable precondition and basis of any commodity production. As natural heritage, they form an important part of the material wealth available to mankind, but they fall outside the world of abstract wealth because, although they are transformed by labor, they are not themselves the product of labor. This statement is to be understood historically-specifically. It applies exclusively to capitalist society. For this is, as explained, the only society in which the production of wealth falls apart into a material and an abstract side and in which only that is valid as social wealth which represents itself in value as abstract labor.

Thus, I am not concerned with asserting that natural resources in principle and always fall out of the determination of social wealth; rather, I want to show that this is the case only under the conditions of the capitalist mode of production. And this falling out is not a question of wrong social or political decisions or wrong statistical indicators and a fortiori not a question of personal attitude, but is fundamentally inherent in the historically specific form of wealth production. This is the deeper reason why natural resources are so ruthlessly exploited and worn out under the conditions of capitalist wealth production. Since they do not belong to the world of value, but are considered its "outside", they appear as a free addition to the social production of wealth, which is used as long as it is available. The fact that in the long run not only the preconditions of commodity production are undermined, but also the foundations of human life as such, cannot be depicted in the universe of abstract wealth production and is therefore not taken into account.

Brand, Ulrich/ Wissen, Markus (2017): Imperiale Lebensweise. On the exploitation of humans and nature in global capitalism. Munich: Oekom Verlag

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Bierwirth, Julian (2019): The birth of the ego. Aspects of identity and individuality. Krisis 1/2019. Available online at:

Diefenbacher, Hans/ Zieschank, Roland (2011): Woran sich Wohlstand wirklich messen lässt. Alternatives to gross domestic product. Munich: oekom verlag

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Wichterich, Christa (2013): Household economies in crisis. In: Widerspruch. Beiträge zu sozialistischer Politik (Zurich), no. 62, pp. 66-73. Available online at:

Wichterich, Christa (2016): Feminist international political economy and care extractivism, in Brand, U./ Schwenken, H./ Wullweber, J. (eds.): Analyzing, criticizing and changing globalization. The Critical Science Project. (Year missing) Hamburg, pp. 54-71.



3 For a concise overview of the various approaches, see Diefenbacher/Zieschank 2011, pp. 39 -6.

4 I will come back to the difference between exchange value and value suggested here below. It cannot be explained at this point without interrupting the course of the argument.

5 The individual, as Karl Marx commented on this connection, carries "his social power, like his connection with society, in his pocket." (MEW 42, P. 90). On the meaning and position of money in capitalist society, see also Lohoff 2018.

6 This transfer of a specifically commodity-social characteristic to "human nature" is already found in Immanuel Kant, who characterized this condition as that of an "unsociable sociability. By this he understands the "inclination" of people "to enter into society, which is nevertheless connected with a continuous resistance, which constantly threatens to separate this society" (Kant 1784, p. 20) Cf. also Trenkle 2019.

7 See, for example, Habermann 2008 or Haller 2012, as well as the discussions in the Plural Economics Network:

8 The term itself emerges only at the end of the 19th century, but in substance it is already contained in the thought leaders of political economy. On the concept of homo economicus, see Habermann 2008, pp. 13-16.

9 In a strict conceptual sense, we can only speak of labor in bourgeois society, because it is only here that the most diverse activities are brought to a common abstract denominator by being related via commodities.

10 Cf. on the character of the commodity as a product of isolated private labor also Lohoff 2017, point 7.

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