Reviewed by Paul Stephan
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