‘Kapitalisierung Bd. I: Marx’ Non-Ökonomie’, ‘Kapitalisierung Bd. 2: Non-Ökonomie des gegenwärtigen Kapitalismus’ reviewed by Paul Stephan

Reviewed by Paul Stephan

About the reviewer

Paul Stephan is pursuing a PhD on the conception of authenticity in Kierkegaard, Stirner and …


Achim Szepanski’s three-volume work Kapitalisierung (Capitalisation) is an ambitious project to develop a comprehensive analysis of current capitalism. He undertakes his analysis by de- and re-constructing central traditional Marxist conceptions by using not only theoretical tools he finds (among others) in the ‘Non-Philosophy’ of François Laruelle, and the heterodox philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, but also vast empirical material. It is centred on the problems of financial capitalism and microelectronic technology. His main claim is that under the dominance of these two in neoliberal capitalism, the traditional human life-world, which is based on concepts such as subject, rationality, and ‘man’, becomes more and more obsolete, the dystopia of a post-human world becomes more and more an adequate description of our reality. This implies major consequences for any aspect of theory and practice.

The first volume of the trilogy, Marx’ Non-Ökonomie (Marx’s Non-Economics) deals mainly with a re-interpretation of Capital and the development of Szepanski’s philosophical and methodological premises. The freshness of Szepanski’s approach stems mainly from the fact that he – just like Marx himself – is not so much interested in philological nit picking but in using his theoretical references as mere tools to reach a better understanding of the current situation. And – again just like Marx – he refers to the most innovative theories of his time. Among many others, these are mainly the Marxian critique of political economy itself (seen through the eyes of 150 years of discourse around it that Szepanski brings together to an impressively large extent), the project of Non-Philosophy that Laruelle has been developing for the last few decades, and the post-structuralist heterodox philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari.

Obviously enough, the title ‘Non-Economics’ refers to Laruelle. All the ‘Laruelle-stuff’ within the book is possibly that which is the hardest to comprehend. However, the chapter on Laruelle, Das Konzept der Non-Philosophie (The Concept of Non-Philosophy), can be read on its own as an excellent introduction to Laruelle’s unusual thinking. What he essentially takes from Laruelle is an emphatic conception of ‘the Real’ which determines the world of human activities ‘in-the-last-instance’ (a term that Szepanki’s takes from Laruelle but reminds one of classical Marxism of course) without being determined itself. Thus, there is no reciprocity in the relationship between the human world and ‘the Real’, but a relationship that is purely one-sided: ‘The Real’ is that which grounds any human activity without being grounded itself. As such, it is never present itself but can only be grasped by interpreting the phenomena of the human world as its symptoms. Consequently, all attempts to interpret it are mere constructions which can make no claim towards ultimate truth. It can only proceed by consciously positing some basic axioms that are in the last instance political.

This assumptions lead Laruelle towards the development of a ‘Non-Philosophy’ that completely avoids that which it sees as the major failure of any kind of classical philosophy including classical materialism: seeking an identical subject-object which can be used as a starting point for an absolute knowledge of the world. Philosophy does this by picking one particular phenomenon of conscious experience and declaring it to be the transcendental fundament for any experience and fundamental principle of the world. Thus, any kind of traditional philosophy reduces the world to a subjective phenomenon – even traditional materialism as its ‘matter’ is still always-already ‘matter-for-a-subject’. Against this, Laruelle takes any kind of human knowledge as an equal symptom of the Real; his method is strictly realist, pluralist, and non-fundamentalist. Thus we see that Laruelle’s (and accordingly Szepanki’s) ‘non’ is not a mere negation but a ‘non’ comparable to the ‘non’ of non-Euclidean geometry: it not only negates traditional forms of knowledge but integrates them within a more flexible, more comprehensive framework in which they are conserved as a special case.

The same goes not only for philosophy but for any kind of science insofar as it seeks to seal off its realm of knowledge from other realms and to become absolute by taking mere special cases for the objective manifestation of the Real. Consequently, the goal of Szepanki’s work is to interpret our current world as a symptom of ‘the Real’ which is for him the process of capitalisation. It should be clear that this does not imply that his project is ‘economist’ in a traditional sense of the word. It is exactly ‘non-economist’ insofar as ‘the Real’ of that which is the object of standard economics is itself non-economic. Standard economics is therefore only one tool among many others in order to understand capitalist economy – it is a symptom of capitalisation itself.

Szepanski develops his conception of capitalisation under quasi-ontological premises that he takes from Deleuze and Guattari. The most important concepts in this respect are ‘the Actual’, ‘the Possible’, and ‘the Virtual’. In opposition to the Possible – which envelops only ‘possible possibilities’, possibilities that are abstract insofar as they merely could be actualised – the Virtual signifies a concrete Possible, possibilities that are already present in the Actual, actual possibilities. In this constellation, the Virtual possesses a quasi-ontological primacy: Things are not determined by what they are but by what they can be, i.e. what is within their power, especially what powers can take possession of them. Thus, capital can only be understood as a process, namely: capitalisation, which is shaped by a certain virtuality or inherent tendency. It always transcends its material, immediate manifestations (means of production, money, gold, goods, workers, etc) towards something else.

In the rest of the first volume Szepanski develops in great detail how this process could be comprehended by using Marx’s Capital. Effectively, he turns the Hegelian reading of Capital upside down: the first four chapters play little role in his interpretation. The analyses of the concrete capitalist process of production (including especially the large deliberations on modern technology), which Marx gives in volume one, and that of the totality of capitalist circulation and financial capital, which Marx gives in the second and third volume of his work, are not seen as mere manifestations of the commodity form but the commodity form is interpreted in the light of the more concrete, more comprehensive phenomena. He re-constructs Marx’s critique without referring to the ‘holy grails’ of Hegelian Marxism, the conceptions of fetishism and reification, at all, he shows the unsolvable difficulties that occur when one wants to deduct the money form from the commodity form in a purely logical way; and he even shows that human labour is not the ultimate source of surplus-value but that there is a machinal surplus-value as well that is a source of surplus-value, which has to be interpreted as the privatisation and exploitation of differences in general, not just the difference between paid and unpaid labour.

The last point is especially crucial: It contradicts any theory of capitalist crisis that supposes that automation is the worst problem, even the historical limit, of capitalism. Surplus-value can also be produced in completely dehumanised production. Thus, Szepanski shows that traditional Marxist critique is based on a humanist prejudice: It is too optimist about capitalism insofar it thinks that capitalism is, in the last instance, a humanist project. Szepanski demonstrates that capitalism does not care about humanity, even the most basic survival of the human race, at all. Not dehumanisation but, on the contrary, humanity is an obstacle of its development insofar as the human body is less effective than a robot (and a robot less effective than a mere algorithm). Capitalism is more nihilist than even Marx could have imagined in his worst nightmares.

Obviously enough, this point of Szepanski’s theory is also directed against the recent movement of Accelerationism – a thread of current Marxism that claims basically that capitalism is an obstacle to technological development and acceleration. On the contrary, the process of capitalisation (especially in its neoliberal mode of total unleashing) has to be understood as a process of radical acceleration with the speed of light as its only empirical limit, and the self-sublation of time into mere space as its (of course impossible) virtual goal.

Thus, the basic movement of capitalism is pure tautological self-increase, profit for the sake of profit, and acceleration of the process of accumulation at any cost is its ultimate goal. Consequently, Szepanski demonstrates that the process of capitalisation has to be understood ultimately as a process of financialisation, that financial capital is the ‘ideal form’ of the accumulation of capital insofar as it virtually has neither temporal nor spatial limits.

Traditional Marxist analysis already showed that any criticism of ‘finance capitalism’ as a separate phenomenon falls prey to a bad abstraction that can easily lead to reactionary forms of politics such as anti-Semitism. ‘Finance capitalism’ is no surplus-phenomenon that helps or even restrains ‘normal’ accumulation: It is an integral part of normal accumulation of capital, there will be no capitalism without credit, interest, derivatives and so on.

Szepanski goes one step further. Insofar as financial capital is the virtual force of capitalisation it is the dominating one. The sphere of financial capital is not, not even in the last instance, grounded in ‘real economy’; on the contrary, in the last instance real economy is based on the complex processes of financial capital. The ‘real economy’ is a derivative of the financial economy, not the other way round.

In the second volume of his project, Non-Ökonomie des gegenwärtigen Kapitalismus (Non-Economics of Current Capitalism), Szepanski takes the step into the analysis of current capitalism under the already described premises. It is astonishing how much empirical material and theories from different schools he uses to underlie his diagnosis. Besides the already mentioned theoreticians he uses: John Milios, Elie Ayache, Elena Esposito, Shimshon Bichler, Jonathan Nitzan, Christian Marazzi, Michel Foucault, Hans-Dieter Bahr, Günther Anders, Nick Land, Paulo Virilio, Maurizio Lazzarato, Niklas Luhmann, and Louis Althusser, to name just a few.

The already mentioned immanent dominating tendencies of capitalism have become manifest in a frightening way since the 70s. By and large, the thesis of Szepanski can be summed up in the sentence: dystopia is now. ‘Real economy’ has already been substituted by financial economy in large parts, the acceleration of this economy has already reached unimaginable measures. At the same time, microelectronic technologies have absorbed and transformed the traditional human life-world in a way that hardly anyone would have predicted and that Szepanski describes in the most drastic ways: technology is no longer a means of human subjectivity but, on the contrary, human consciousness is becoming a pure means of technological processes that control it all the way down. At the same time, individuals (and also companies, institutions, whole states, etc) are more and more integrated in the streams of financial capital by means of indebtedness. Culture, values, subjectivity, even ‘man’ itself ceases to exist in this new, entirely nihilist situation that we are confronted with.

Here lies the true significance and provocation of Szepanski’s analysis. He shows that our current material situation questions the way we are traditionally accustomed to act and think at a most fundamental level. This relevance is not only philosophical but directly practical and political: how can we act on an individual or collective scale in a more and more post-human world that challenges the very conditions of possibility of action? How can we even think in such a world in which thinking is more and more substituted by mechanical computing?

From Szepanski’s point of view, what the left in large parts does is more or less entirely obsolete and naïve: in a world that is almost entirely governed by algorithms there is not much room for meaningful cultural criticism, arts, philosophy, theory, and even politics. It should be read as a soberly articulated but nonetheless passionate appeal: forget all this hip deconstruction-/discourse-/ aesthetics-/ethics-stuff, focus on the objective reality of our current situation and question the very relevance of all these nice things. The full, unhindered acknowledgement of this situation, however dark it may be, is the only way to change it – and to change it is the obvious aim of Szepanki’s project, no matter how descriptively it presents itself.

Thus, Szepanski undertakes only the very first step of the complete re-definition of the leftist, or even the human, project that is needed today. He develops neither a normative critique, nor a political strategy, nor a utopian counter-vision. But he takes the most crucial step. This is a necessary book in a dangerous situation.

A third volume will follow in 2015 in which Szepanski will develop further his conception of technology. Possibly this volume will show some ‘alignments’ in the sense of Deleuze/Guattari.

[There is a longer version of this review on the reviewer’s blog.]

30 September 2015


  1. Can you explain how Laurelle is not simply recapitulating Kant’s Noumenal vis-a-vis “the Real”, which seems taken whole-cloth from Lacan? The follow-up of Non-Philosophy then seems to be the neo-Kantian move of rejecting thought on metaphysics, since that can only be pointless musings, and turning towards positive knowledge.

    The result seems to be that his reading of Capital, as you present it, eviscerates any notion of social form and naturalizes value, since machines can produce value, therefore value must be a property of things, not a social form that only has meaning within the social practice producing it. This naturalization is exactly what Marx is against because it ends up as an apology for capital.

  2. The second book seems far more interesting, and from what you are saying, the less he bothers with his philosophical points and the more he thinks about the concrete moment, the better he is. What concerns me is the risk of technological determinism in his work, especially having rejected any form-determinate reading of Capital.

    Still, a lot of what you describe from his attempt to grasp the present resonates with a large body of critical theory (including that which is “Hegelian”), such as Moishe Postone, journals like Exit!, Krisis, Endnotes, etc., Andre Gorz, Werner Bonefeld, the Neue-Marx Lekture milieu, and so on.

  3. An aporia:

    It is NOT clear what or who will change the situation brought about by the dominance of finance capital+micro-electronic technologies.

  4. Thanks for your comments.

    On my weblog (harpblog[dot]copyriot[dot]com/?p=445) you can find a longer version of the review that might explain some of your issues.

    To be honest: I think the questions you’ve raised are really good ones and you should ask them to the author himself!

  5. of couse is capital not a thing, but a social relation. the extraction of surplus value is a differential modus, and its sources can be besides exploiting the special difference between labour and labour power alsomachines, algorithms etc. german marxist hans-dieter bahr developed this in his analysis of capital vol2 (function time of the machines). with some variations i follow the monetary value theory (heinrich and john milios) and especially the analysis of milios theory of derivatives, risk-management and financial capital. i discuss parts of robert kurz` capital theory (gesamtkapital) and lohoff/trenkles theory of financial capital, but criticize also the crisis theory of exit/krisis. i have a part about postone and the relation between time and capital. a new book “non-marxism.finance,machine,subjekt” will be released by laika next year.

  6. I am a bit suspicious in regard of this overwhelmingly positive critique. I haven’t read the whole two volumes, have only scanned some parts and have only read in depth the part about Laruelle and recently chapter 7.3 in vol. II: “Futures und Optionen. CDS. Der Handel mit Risiken“. It is not my intention to criticize both volumes in toto. About the Laruelle part and the claim that this is about „non-economy“ I am sceptical but this has to be sorted out hopefully by someone capable of German and English/French and Marxism plus an in depth knowledge of economics with emphasis on financial markets in all their forms. Quite a task someone has to take up.

    But as I person who worked for long years in the financial industries – as a speculator, trader, portfolio manager and developer of trading systems– I am not totally unqualified to say something about certain parts of the two volumes. That is about, for example, the mentioned chapter. Unfortunately it is beyond the reach of such a comment to go into detailed critique about a German text in an English publication. This is all the more so because the German text employes quite some esoterique language which in itself would make it a difficult task to translate its true intention. So I will give only a short comment without any argumentation. The latter I have given, although also in a very rudimentary manner, onthe German blog of Stephan.

    When I speak about “treu intention” of the text this is the first point at which a person well versed in the markets will become suspicious. All too often Szepanski’s formulations are too complicated in respect to rather simple topics. To generalize this one can say, for example, that the author makes quite a fuss about “volatility”, although this is a rather simple concept which can be understood quite easily. This volatility then is introduced as the one and only thing options and futures trading is about – what in fact is a tautology because literally all trading activity, or all activity of financial capital is about risk. So the true intention here might be to hype the author’s insight that markets are about risk too – besides return. But that’s absolutely nothing new. That there is risk coupled to return is a truth as old as capitalism (at least).

    Apart from this, one is not always sure if the author really understands what he is talking about. For example, nobody understanding the basics about the relationship of return and risk can say that so called High-Net-Worth-Individuals “always” leverage their market exposure (cf. p. 125). It is quite a simple arithmetic problem to see that with a given market volatilities any leverage above, say, 2 will turn you belly up in a very short time span (with the given volatility right now this can happen in just one year if you are so lucky to hit the right timing). Such things give the impression that the author has no true grasp of the concept of volatility and that makes one rather suspicious when he goes on to talk about much more sophisticated and complicated topics like “synthetic derivatives”, the “Konzept der kontingenten Forderung” or “Deleuze und das synthetische Wertpapier”…

    Besides other simple errors and rather old school leftist prejudices in regard of financial markets there is also the lengthy treatment of the Black-and-Scholes formula for calculating options prices. One too can easily explain that this is a simple heuristic, stemming from a time when it was still assumed that market returns resemble a normal distribution (due to the fact that in the seventies the computing power to know otherwise, that distributions of returns are skewed – that they have a certain ‘unnormal’ kurtosis – was not available), and that it does not truly resemble that non-linear system we call the market – although it functions in the markets and forms them; but the author makes this rather easy thing into bombastic sounding parlance which is the opposite of a clear explanation. Market professionals know since more than 20 years that returns are not normally distributed and act accordingly… (well, one would have to say something about that… ). The point here is that the text seems more like resembling the learning curve and the research findings of the author than a good explanatory text within the frame of a new marxist thinking about economy.

    Sometimes the text looks more like a stream-of-consciousness (a bit like Penelope’s in Ulysses, although of course by far not so sexy and without the genuity of that author) and it leads into something what one must call an outright – sort of plain vanilla – conspiracy theory (p. 144-145). There we suddenly find the good old “insider” which is able to call the market and profit from his clairvoyance although this contradicts Szepanski’s own Deleuzian thinking about deterritorialization and dispersed algorithmic-biological entities which are themselves part of that non-linear system which by definition isn’t predictable.

    So let me be clear: I do only intent to speak about that chapter. I do not know what the quality of rest is. This is only about a sample. But some things makes one question how the rest might be when the sample turns out to be so bad. Is this only about Szepanski’s weak spot? Who’s going to check it out?

  7. thats a short introduction:
    In the face of the excesses of globalized socio-economies, which neo-liberalism addresses by means that are allegedly without alternative and merely serve to aggravate the abysmal situation, one is thrown back upon Marx’ writings, which call for a renewed rereading. Under the dominance of financial capitalism and after the fall of the Soviet Union, which was (loosely) predicated upon Marx’ work, a novel approach to his writings has to be relentlessly different from the practice of Marxisms up to the present.

    Achim Szepanski’s two-volume project of a non-marxological examination of Marx’ Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (A Contribution to the Critique of Political-Economy) attempts to arrive at a comprehensive description of the all-encompassing phenomenon of capitalization. This implies reducing Marx’ theories to pure material, in order to look for inherent problems, the solutions of which are capable of revealing how the texts describe and critique a capitalist reality. This means taking certain problematic elements of Marx’ work – which are connoted by terms such as value, money, surplusvalue, capital etc. – and condense them to their conceptual fabric, in order to examine them for moments of immanence and transcendence within the context of varied approaches of Marxist theory and thought. The differential “value” allows for the following: Firstly, the value updates the allocability of physical quantities. Goods are being produced and thrown into circulation, which does not simply equal their actual selling. The value which is not ascribed to the individual commodity is thus being accessed within a multitude of semio-economic transactions. The processes of pricing, in turn, update the virtual allocability of quantities in terms of money. One the one hand, it thus becomes apparent that Marx’ categories are still crucial to an understanding of the financial machines within the context of contemporary capitalism, while on the other hand, there is also a distinct need for new concepts that transcend the methods of analysis offered by the classical texts. In his search for a new tool box, Achim Szepanski en passant introduces a handful of terms from the realm of “Non-Philosophy”, borrowing from Deleuze/Guattari and Francois Laruelle. The critique of economy is transformed into Philo-Science-Fiction.

    In the second volume of his work on capitalization, Szepanski attempts to radically read the accelerative excrescences of globalized socio-economies as phenomena of monetary capitalization. Against the omnipresent calls for modernization of capitalist real-economies in times of multiple crises, he argues that synthetic finance itself, with its exotic operative instruments, plays an essential role in neo-liberal governance. In the context of the new financialization-regimes, it is not the ‘having-become’ of the present that is moved into focus, but rather that of the future. In a temporally speculative sense, money, in its self-referential quality, is calculating methodically; in other words, the speculative calculating of the monetary capital with itself implies its permanent temporalization, which brings the money-regime to the fore, yet also acts as a means of deferral. For this, capitalization makes use of the respective instruments and technologies, in order to facilitate and continue the trade with risks which, in turn, are supposed to be used to channel any future income streams towards progressive utilization; and this again has massive impact on power-relations, areas of conflict and processes of normalization within the body politic.

    Szepanski uses analyses of the financial markets as they are put forth by the likes of Elie Ayache, Bichler/Nitzan, Christian Marazzi und Elena Esposito, in order to advance his interpretation of financial capital and the essential role he ascribes to financial derivatives. In marked contrast to the Keynesian position, which, in accordance with a labor value Marxism and the Occupy-movement, deems the contemporary regime of finance an expression of ravenous greed and unproductive, anti-social practices, the neo-liberal model of financialization proves to be a very effective strategy of sustaining the hegemony of capitalism.

  8. The discussions about three kinds of volatility or the difference between concrete/abstract risk, about the discussions if derivatives are a commodity, money or a form of capital and so on can be in length studied in different text of elena esposito or john milios. if steingass has a problem with the sound of capitalization, he can himself inform there.

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