Is Anti-Capitalism Always Leftist?

Occupy protest. New York, December 2011.

In the 1990s, the now global triumph of the market economy was proclaimed – to the point that some of its apologists no longer even thought it necessary to use euphemisms defying the word “capitalism”. But after a decade, with the bursting of speculative bubbles and the beginning of the alter-globalist movement, the wind began to change direction.

Since the crisis of 2008, the criticism of “capitalism” has taken over minds and, sometimes, streets. The Indignados and Occupy Wall Street have been emulated around the world. In many countries, especially in the United States and Spain, they have been the most important social movements for decades.

On the radical left, some people already seen in the Arab Spring signs of the next world revolution. But beyond the organised protests, even in the official media and in cafes we find ourselves constantly asking whether we should “limit” capitalism. At the very least, one can call this a crisis of legitimacy.

The New Anti-Capitalist Spirit

But what is the criticism of capitalism? As everyone knows, this new “anti-capitalist spirit” has two main targets: the financialization of the economy and the capacity of an economic and political “elite” totally disconnected from the vast majority of the population.

On a more general level, the ever-increasing income inequalities and the deterioration of working conditions are also mentioned – but attributing them, like other social evils, to finance and corruption.

One can easily object that this is not a criticism of capitalism, but only of its most extreme form: neoliberalism.

Indeed, the current anti-capitalism (in the broadest sense) calls first of all the reinforcement of the state, and the adoption of Keynesian economic policies (a program of revival instead of rescues of the banks).

Traditional Marxists would call this a critique of the “sphere of circulation”. They point out that finance and trade, as well as government interventions, do not produce value, but merely distribute and circulate it.

Categorical Criticism

It is necessary to attack, they say, the sphere of production, where profit arises from the exploitation of the workers, which is made possible by the private property of the means of production.

However, the Indignados and Occupy rarely consider it. But even if they did, it would still be insufficient: Marx demonstrated – even if the Marxists have quickly forgotten – that the private property of the means of production is itself the consequence of the fact that in capitalism – and only in capitalism – social activity takes the form of merchandise and value, money and abstract work.

A real overcoming of capitalism can not be conceived without freeing oneself from these categories.

The social movements we are discussing here do not like theoretical discussions. In their eyes, these undermine the unity and harmony so often sought after.

In assemblies, for the sake of democracy, nobody has the right to speak for more than two minutes.

A movement like Occupy Wall Street, with the support or “understanding” of Barack Obama and Iranian “guide” Khamenei, Brazilian President Dilma Roussef, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, not to mention bankers like George Soros, various Nobel Prize winners and politicians of the Republican Party, cannot be lost in dogmatic quibbles.

And the theorists of the left come running to prove them right:

Populist Anti-Capitalism

Is every critique of capitalism necessarily left-wing and pronounced in the name of social emancipation? Is there not also a populist and right-wing anticapitalism?

We are mistaken in identifying the “right” exclusively with the liberal right, which champions the market and frenzied individualism.

Since the right and the left exist, that is to say since the French Revolution, there have always been representatives of the right to denounce certain aspects of capitalist society.

But this has always been done in a partial way, and especially with the aim of channelling the rage of the victims of capitalism against certain individuals and certain social groups to whom the blame for misery is attributed.

Thus, these right-wing men deflect any challenge to the system and its foundations.

It was with anti-capitalist slogans that Hitler came to power in the midst of the most serious crisis of 20th-century capitalism. It is often forgotten that the acronym NSDAP meant “National Socialist Party of German Workers” and that fascists liked to make loud statements against “Western plutocracy,” “high finance” and “Wall Street”.

The explanations offered by the extreme right attract some of the victims of the crisis because they seem obvious to the latter. They almost always focus on the role of money.

Yesterday was the hunt for “usurers”, today “speculators”. “Breaking the slavery of the interest rate”: that could be a slogan of the Occupy movement.

In truth, it was one of the main programmatic points of the early Nazi Party.

Sanctified Work

Marx has shown that money is representative of the “abstract” and quantitative side of work, that money is a commodity and that it is normal in capitalism that one pays, as for any commodity, a price for money – its use (interest).

However, in right-wing anti-capitalist rhetoric (always hypocritical and never put into practice when the right is in power), work and workers are sanctified.

The right also counts among the workers “creative capitalists”,  those who invest their capital in real production “in the service of the community” and create jobs.

Monetary capital, on the other hand, would be the domain of the selfish “parasites” who exploit the honest workers and honest capitalists by lending them money – the Nazis called it “rapacious capital”.

This identification of all the ills of capitalism with money and banks has a long history and almost inevitably led to anti-Semitism. And even today, speculators’ descriptions implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, call for anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The hatred of “corrupt politicians” does not lack a foundation – but when it is absolutised, we take the symptom for the cause and we attribute to the subjective ill will of certain actors what is due to systemic constraints that remain totally ignored.

The Struggle Against Fascism Begins with the Fight Against the Patriotic Left

In the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, this confusion between left and right content would have been unimaginable.

Indeed, the left has great difficulty in standing out from the right as regards the criticism of finance. It misunderstood Marx when he showed that finance is a simple consequence of market logic and abstract work.

By following instead, often without admitting it, Proudhon’s criticism of money, the left chose, like Lenin, “financial capital” as the easy object of attack, instead of criticizing the work itself.

If today we just attack banks and financial markets, we risk not making a “first step”

The number of far-right groups claiming to be anti-capitalist is still small in France. But Greece has shown that in times of crisis, such groups can increase their membership in their program by twenty, and in no time.

The risk is high that their arguments begin to spread among the demonstrators who have, of course, the best intentions in the world, but who seem unable to see how far confusing criticism of finance and criticism of capitalism can lead.

– Anselme Jappe

Published in the French newspaper “La vie est à nous! / The Sarkophage”, n ° 35, 16 March-18 May 2013 (the article was written in 2012)

Adapted from Is Anti-Capitalism Always Left? Translated from the French. Photograph courtesy of Michael Fleshman. Published under a Creative Commons license.