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Ordoliberalism and the Death of Liberal Democracy: An Interview with Werner Bonefeld

by | January 13, 2017

George Souvlis: Can you tell us a bit about your intellectual and political formation?

Werner Bonefeld: One of my most important formative experiences was factory work. Studying was easy in comparison. I studied at the Universities of Marburg, Berlin, and Edinburgh. At Marburg the Marxism on offer was very dogmatic. It did not encourage people to think for themselves. I left after two years to continue my studies at the Free University of Berlin. In Berlin a few things came together, as it were. My favorite Professor was Agnoli, who was one of the most distinguished Marxists of his generation. He allowed his students to think. He welcomed it. He was a great orator. Part of the degree programme was to do work-placement. I first worked as a removal man and then as a research assistant at the West-German teachers’ union, for which I got paid. Never before had I earned money by reading and writing (my research was into alternative schooling as opposed to public provision). I quickly understood the meaning of Marx’s insight that to be a productive labourer in not a piece of luck but a great misfortune. One might add, nor is it an ontological privilege, as a whole tradition of historical materialism saw it. I studied in Berlin at a time of great restlessness, from the peace movement to the squatter movement in the early 1980s.

I met Kosmas Psychopedis in Edinburgh during the 1980s. He visited John Holloway. Richard Gunn and John Holloway were my PhD supervisors. Kosmas was a character, and a good friend.

GS: You were one of the editors of the Open Marxist books. Could we say that the project for these books was an effort to save the Hegelian dialectic within the Marxist tradition from the Althusserian structuralist paradigm? To which extent do you believe that this tradition of Open Marxism is still relevant in the light of new studies (like this of Warren Montag) that present Althusser’s Marxism as a Marxism of the conjuncture?

WB: For me the title of the book, Open Marxism, was in homage to my teacher Johannes Agnoli who had published a book under the same title. It was in large part a discussion between Mandel and himself. Mandel’s economistic account was anything but ‘open’. The book included also a long postscript by Agnoli about the purposes of critical thought. I summarized this postscript in my first publication, ‘Open Marxism’, which was published in the first issue the Journal Common Sense, which at that time was co-edited by Richard Gunn and I. This little paper was really just an attempt on my part to understand Agnoli, transcribing what I had read what I thought I had learned into my own words. For some of us the open Marxism volumes, there are three altogether, were an attempt to save the Hegelian dialectic within the Marxist tradition from the Althusserian structuralist paradigm, as you put it. It was not really an attempt at autonomism, although it might have seemed like that. It was an attempt to stop thinking with preformed theoretical instruments about society, applying preformed ideas to social situations and institutions. Instead it was an attempt at thinking in and through society, connecting thought with experience. Althusser is a great traditional theorist. For a critical theory of society, it is important to think against the grain of society so as to understand it better. Open Marxism either thinks against the grain or it is not open to the constitutive turmoil of bourgeois society. To put this differently, the existence of class relations does NOT call for a Marxist class theory, nor does it call for an argument from the standpoint of the working class. It calls for a critique of class society and for a critique of the capitalistically organized form of labour. Class is a negative term. It belong to the wrong society. The resolution to class society is the classless society.

The Open Marxism volumes were attempts at freeing Marx from traditional theory, at reconnecting with critical Marxist currents and renewing Marxism as a negative critique of society.

GS: One year ago before the publication of Open Marxism you edited the book along with John Holloway, Post-Fordism and Social Form: Α Marxist debate on the Post-Fordist state. In the introduction of the book you make an explicit critique of Marxist theories that conceive of the state and capital not as a terrain of class struggle but as structures. Can you talk a bit more about your criticisms of the concept of “Post-Fordism”? To what extent do you believe that these criticisms are relevant considering the the gradual “hollowing out” of the state?

WB: The terms fordism and post-fordism were part of the academic Zeitgeist. The Zeitgeist had moved on from the terms affluent society and corporatism. After post-fordism it moved on to globalization, then neoliberalism, and now I hear post-neoliberalism and/or ordoliberalism is the phrase of the time. Zeitgeist thinking is commercialized scholarship. The job of the scholar is to reveal the hidden truth of the constituted social relations. The post-fordist analysis picked up on certain elements of reality and combined them into a theoretical model and it then proceeded to assess the distance between reality and this theoretical model. The analysis identified the social conflicts as means of transition from the fordist model to the post-fordist model. The social relations appeared thus as the agents of definite structural transformations – from this model of society to that model of society. The contemporary modeling of the social relations as post-neoliberal or ordoliberal works within the same analytical frame.

GS: The next study you published has the title “The Recomposition of the British state during the 1980’s”. Why do you think that the thatcherite project succeeded? In what ways did it transform the British state? Do you believe that there was a direct continuation of Thatcher’s project by the Blairite Labor governments?

WB: The book rejected the use of the terms Thatcherite and Thatcherism. It analysed the both role of the British state in the transformation of the world market conditions of price and profit, and the role of world market conditions in the transformation of the British state. The incoming Thatcher government presided over a very deep recession in the early 1980s and governed in the context of the global debtor crisis – the so-called lost decade in Latin America – and a process of crisis-ridden disassociation between money as capital and money as claim on future capital. The Thatcher governments’ restructuring of British society was part of this process. Blair’s Third Way might well be seen as a direct continuation of these processes. It is hard to find new beginnings in history; these so-called zero hours. The Blair government took over from the Major government, which had succeeded the last Thatcher government. Neither Major nor Blair started with an empty canvass.

GS: Another central topic of your work is money. In what way is the financialization of global economy that took place in the 1980s connected to the ongoing crisis? Do you find continuities between the crisis of 1973 and this of 2008?

WB: Yes. Financialisation is the term that describes the dissociation between money as capital and money as claim on future capital. Mandel discussed this dissociation in the early 1980s as an upside-down pyramid. This is quite a nice way of illustrating this dissociation. That is ‘credit-superstucture’ accumulates ever-growing claims on future surplus value. Innate to this accumulation is the transformation of the claim on future exploitation into a fiction, at which point there is a run, ostensibly into quality, that is, something real and tangible. Traditionally, financialisation, this upside-down pyramid of social wealth, is seen as specific to our times, an exception to the rule. I am not sure that this is right. I think it is innate to the dynamic of the capitalist form of wealth, of money that begets more money. Indeed, it might as well be that the post-war period was an exception brought about by destruction on massive scale.

GS: The past few decades many on the left seem to treat in only superficial terms the analysis of the state apparatus and consequently how any left party can interact with the bourgeois state. The recent ideas on the EU of Toni Negri is one example of this theoretico-political tendency. Can we change the world without taking state power? Also, and connected to this, what do you think about Negri’s recent ideas about a “social and democratic Europe” and his support for neoliberal and undemocratic parties like Syriza?

WB: I don’t know whether Syriza is neoliberal and undemocratic. It is important not to think through labels. It is important to think through society and to recognize the state as the political form of society – and this is an antagonistic society in which a class is tied to work to make ends meet. The question of human emancipation is therefore not how to govern the social antagonism. Rather, it is the question of how to end the social antagonism. What, therefore, do we need to know about our society and its state. What would it mean to change the capitalistically organized form of our social reproduction. What is the social character of wealth in a society governed solely by human purposes? What can we hope for?

GS: Your most recent study, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason is a sustained and comprehensive exposition of political economy from its incipient formulation in Marx’s work. Can you tell us a little more about this work?

WB: The critique of political economy amounts to the critique of the established relations of social reproduction. There can be nothing more fundamental to the understanding of society than the manner in which it organizes its metabolism with nature. How does our society meet our basic needs: clothing, food, shelter, warmth etc. And what is the character of wealth in our society? If wealth is money as more money, then really the satisfaction of human needs is a mere sideshow – in fact, this sideshow is what the class struggle is all about. It is struggle for the means of subsistence, the satisfaction of needs. Class struggle is not the struggle for socialism. It is a struggle for material security. The circumstance that the class tied to work has to struggle to make ends meet posits a devastating judgment about bourgeois society.

GS: The past few years have seen a rise of new rightwing parties globally. What do you see as at the root of this phenomena, and the decline of political liberalism.

Anti-austerity is not a monopoly of the left. The idea that right-wing rejection of austerity expresses a perverted anti-capitalism is ridiculous and most dangerous. The left is kidding itself. Left wing causes do not have some sort of primacy in the struggle for material security. Anti-capitalism comes in many guises. What happens if the revolution that ends capitalism is a theodicy? If by political liberalism you mean the ideas of tolerance, rule of law, citizenship, human rights etc., then political liberalism has to be defended especially when it is under attack by the rackets of the right and the ticket thinking of populist resentment. The rule of law is preferable to the lynch mob.

GS: You have described the idea of a “progressive” form of nationalism as an “entirely regressive phenomenon”. Could you elaborate more on this? Do you not think that the nationalist movements in Catalonia and Scotland contain any potential emanicipatory content?

WB: None whatsoever. Catalonia and Scotland might liberate themselves respectively from Spain and England. That does in any manner change the conditions of social reproduction, as set out earlier. It does not transform Catalonia or Scotland into classless societies. It changes the situations in which social reproduction takes takes place. A dependent labourer from Glasgow, say, has more in common with a dependent labourer from Newcastle than with the Lord of Buccleuch. The identification of individuals with some transcendent values of the nation is regressive. It stinks of soil and blood.

GS: Since 2008, their has been huge political changes – particularly an opening up of the centre ground. Do you think far-right parties, as much as the left, can gain from this?

WB: = Yes, they can. Often they do not need to because the mainstream battles for the far right voter. I understand Sarkozy proposes internment of whoever is suspected or might be suspected as a sympathizer of Islamic causes to cut off Le Pen. Syriza employs Germanophobic argument to nationalize friends and foes. Which country has been unaffected by the tide of right-wing populism? We are witnessing the political fall out from 2008, that is, the critique for humanity has trans-morphed into a critique for the nation. It takes great courage to stand up and be counted to prevent the critique for the nation from asserting itself as bestiality unbound. I am not sure about the critical meaning of empire and imperialism. What do you propose? More of this and less of that? The failure of US hegemony asserts itself most clearly in the bloodbath of the middle-East.

GS: You have said that you believe the European Union to be a post-democratic form of economic governance that has its origins in the ordoliberal tradition that analytically separates the liberal and democratic parts of the state. Could you talk a bit more about this?

WB: Ordoliberalism distinguishes between unlimited mass democracy and liberal democracy. In liberal democracy, democracy is tight to liberal principles. The EU was never constituted as a mass democracy. Its institutional principles work quite properly as for the attainment of liberal-democracy. In this manner it integrates and indeed strengthens the liberal character of the liberal-democratic state. In the case of Greece, the Greek state has become an executive state of Euro requirements. With insolvency sovereignty stops. The German elite acts most rationally. One might not like what it does but that does not mean that it acts irrationally. The idea that the governing strata of a major capitalist economy would act rationally only if they were to do the bidding of its left critics is absurd. For the left, Germany is the villain at the heart of Europe. Having found its scapegoat, no further critical enquiry into the condition of Europe is required, seemingly. The German elite do not want to antagonize or replace the US. For them US hegemony is great for their own security. It is also in-expensive.

What needs to understood is the condition of Europe, not its situation. The Zeitgeist is all too willing to find scapegoats. The Zeitgeist does not ask about the conditions of social reproduction, from the form of social wealth and the production of this wealth to the state as the political form of capitalistically organized social relations. It does not look into the eye of the storm. It looks on the bright site and puffs itself up with moral rectitude. The Zeitgeist agrees that nobody should go hungry again. Yet, it does not dare to spell out that the abolition of hunger requires a change in the mode of production. The Zeitgeist offers scapegoats and easy solutions. In this manner it mocks those who struggle to make ends meet.