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A Review of Anselm Jappe’s The Writing on the Wall

by Andy Battle

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Rembrandt, Belshazzar's Feast, 1635. Oil on canvas, 66 × 82.4 inches. National Gallery, London.

Source: Brooklynrail

In the years since the 2008 economic crisis, renewed interest in Marx and Marxism has begotten interest in heterogeneous varieties that in one way or another violate the framework of the “traditional,” “official,” or “orthodox” Marxism that underpinned the workers’ movement in Europe and state socialism in the countries of the Eastern bloc. One of these, which has gained some purchase among English-speaking Marxists in recent years, is the Wertkritik or “critique of value” school, whose foremost representatives began publishing in the German journal Marxistische Kritik—later renamed Krisis—beginning in the 1980s.

The value-critique writers, the best-known of whom is probably the late Robert Kurz, mounted an uncompromising critique of both capitalism and the one-sided reading of Marx that underpinned the limitation of the workers’ movement to an essentially redistributionist struggle that in no way threatened the basic premises of the capitalist system. Since the 1970s, they believe, that that system has been grinding up against its absolute historical limits—limits given internally by the logic of its basic social categories, including money, the commodity, abstract labor, and especially “value.” In response, the value-critique writers extended the project, initiated by scattered Marxists throughout the twentieth century, to unearth an “esoteric” Marx, whose critique of these basic categories, concentrated in the first three chapters of Capital, Volume I, both embodies and posits a much more radical break with capitalist socialization than the “exoteric” Marx taken up by various revolutionary movements calling themselves Marxist over the course of the twentieth century. By accepting the place of these categories in any conceivable modern society, these movements took as given the basic principles of commodity society and imagined the proletariat as simply a more effective agent of capitalist modernization. In this way, these movements were unable to address what the Wertkritik theorists believe are the more profound crises that are emerging with the quickening deterioration of a society whose overriding tendency is to organize all social relationships on the principles of commodity exchange—the increasing inability of value as measured in abstract labor time to regulate and encompass the growth of the productive forces, the finite ability of the natural world to accommodate the proclivity for abuse inherent in capitalism’s ruthless drive for accumulation, and the psychic devastation wrought by an economic system that pits its subjects mercilessly against one another, robbing them of direct relationships with other human beings and condemning their lives to what value-critique adherent Anselm Jappe calls the “nothingness that underlies a system whose only direct goal is the accumulation of capital.”

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