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Capitalism on edge – a plea for emancipation.

The publication in Romanian of Albena Azmanova’s “Capitalism on Edge”, for which we have to thank Maria Cernat and Alexandru Ionașcu, is extremely important for the Romanian cultural space in which discussions and critical approaches to capitalism are, unfortunately, quite reduced both in number and in scope and impact. This is precisely why Albena Azmanova’s work can be a starting point for a series of future debates on this topic and I am very happy to participate, together with the author and the translators of the work, in the launch of this volume.  

A simple perusal of the book or its table of contents is enough to understand that this work offers many topics for discussion. For its size, it is a fairly concentrated book that draws its roots from several traditions of thought. But beyond that, it seems to me to be an extremely provocative and radical book in a sense that we are not used to, more precisely in the etymological sense: in the sense of going to the root of things. Radicalism often remains somewhat on the surface, it is consumed as a gesture of rebellion, of rejection, and that is why it is also quite ineffective. But this book is extremely provocative because it questions the very terms in which we talk about capitalism, it questions the very terms in which we talk about the crisis. As I think has already been mentioned, my predecessors have touched on this. What I think is one of the author’s strongest theses is that we don’t need a crisis to overcome capitalism. This is a very interesting thesis and, at the same time, it is a thesis that gives us hope, because, as we know very well, the death of capitalism has already been announced – to joke a little – since the end of the Renaissance. Especially in recent years, those following the financial-banking crisis that began in 2008, the death of capitalism has been announced again and again. Every year, three or four volumes appear that warn, in one form or another, of the imminent death of capitalism; but, as the author rightly notes, the crisis seems to nourish rather than endanger it. In fact, the author notes very well that the crisis is precisely the reproductive mechanism of capitalism, a thesis that Marx has already formulated quite clearly. Capitalism feeds on crises, it is always – to borrow the phrase from the title – ‘on edge’. There is no point in “rejoicing” that, since we have almost exhausted the otherwise finite natural resources, since we see everywhere the undermining of the institutions of liberal democracy, and since we are experiencing, perhaps now more than ever, a crisis of legitimacy of the capitalist system, the end of capitalism must be imminent. Despite all the economic and social discrepancies and inequalities it produces, despite the fact that we are increasingly faced, even in Western countries, with the marginalization and impoverishment of large sections of society, including the intellectual impoverishment mentioned earlier (N. Chomsky, at one point, describing the USA, talks about a phenomenon he calls ‘third worldization’, i.e. bringing parts of society down to the level of third world countries) capitalism continues its domination, taking increasingly violent forms. We are all waiting like Beckett’s famous characters, we are all waiting for capitalism to turn the corner. But capitalism feeds on these crises, and here the author introduces the idea of the crisis of capitalism to explain precisely the fact that, in a sense, the crisis has been internalized by capitalism, the crisis is the mechanism by which the capitalist system reproduces itself and, moreover, immunizes itself. 

The author takes this concept of the crisis of the crisis of capitalism from Derrida, who takes it in turn, most probably, from M. Heidegger, who speaks of Not der Notlosigkeit, the crisis of the lack of crisis, in a rough translation. Because when we speak of the crisis of the crisis of capitalism, we do no more than observe that the crisis of capitalism itself is in crisis. The crisis of capitalism cannot take us any further, it cannot bring about a resolution of the situation, an overcoming of the current system. Rather, we are dealing with a crisis lock-in of capitalism, and the worst thing is that this discourse is basically anesthetizing us. We all hope for a crisis as if this were the only possible solution, as if there were nothing else left for us to do or think about. That’s why I think this idea is important, that if we are to overcome capitalism, then we must abandon this vocabulary and this hope that a great crisis will come along and help us find an alternative to capitalism. This is why I was saying that the author is proposing a redefinition of the terms in which we understand and pose this problem. In this sense she is also explaining the success of capitalism. With capitalism, the crisis itself has become a kind of status quo. Which is very dangerous, as the author rightly observes. 

I once wrote a text about the Glovo generation and said that Bucharest is full of cyclists who grumble between restaurants and often those who wait for their meals at work for absolutely derisory amounts. Everybody is familiar, I think, with the Bucharest congestion and knows very well the risk that one runs when using a bicycle or scooter in Bucharest every day. Of course, it sounds very good to campaign for an increase in pay for these people who deliver meals to people who work in corporations and have only half an hour lunch break. Only this is a way of contributing to and maintaining this status quo of contributing to the resilience of capitalism. We pride ourselves on coping with the crisis and we do nothing but cope with the crisis and I think that’s one of the ideas that the author is most critical of. We pride ourselves on coping with the imbalances created by the market, and because we have got used to the crisis, there are no serious protests any more. One of the things that the author notes very well and discusses at length in the book is that there are not and have not been massive protests in Western societies since the 2008 crisis. And this is also related to the fact that in a sense we have come to demand very little, we have come to settle for a minimal improvement in living standards, to demand a slightly more decent wage, and this is precisely what we are doing. And here I think we all agree with the conclusions the author reaches – we are doing nothing but contributing, without wanting to, to the perpetuation of the system. 

The diabolical nature of capitalism – if I may use this phrase, which is also worth understanding etymologically – is that it also turns us, even when we protest against it, into its supporters. And I think the author succeeds in showing this very well by giving the Occupy movement as an example. There’s a whole discussion here that I don’t think I can get into right now. But it’s important to see – to give a trivial example – that we’ve been talking about resilience ever since this energy crisis began, a term that has become part of the vernacular with which we’re being told the hardest things that we’re going to have to accept this winter. And this kind of language only contributes to the acceptance and perpetuation of a situation that is, in fact, unacceptable. 

It is precisely in order to somehow come up with an answer to this problem that the author observes very well and paints it in a very convincing way, calling on the whole tradition of critical theory, with which the Romanian public is certainly not extremely familiar – someone remarked earlier, with a regret that I share, that translations from this area are lacking. So in her attempt to offer a response to this crisis of the crisis of capitalism, which makes us understand why it is useless to hope for a decisive crisis, a crisis through which we can overcome it, the author makes an extremely important distinction between emancipation and justice and proposes that we talk less about justice and try to talk more about emancipation. One of the interesting questions she starts from – and here she invokes the Occupy protests – is: “Why is it that we are more bothered by excessive wealth than by endemic poverty? Why do we react viscerally to the wealth of the 1% but are not as attentive to the poverty of the 99%?” The author rightly insists that we need to rethink the whole issue in terms of empowerment, not justice. Why? Because, the author tells us (and I will try to summarize a little, since the starting point of the analysis is linked to Adorno’s considerations on this issue, which speaks a lot about the importance and the need for immanent critique), that emancipation is not only about eliminating practices that produce inequality, imbalances and poverty, but – and this is even more important – about eliminating the very structural sources of these forms of violence. And this is extremely important, precisely because it is from this direction that a non-violent overcoming of the capitalist system can be produced.

In conclusion, under the pressure of time, I believe that the present work, which is a critique of the capitalism of poverty, seen somehow as the latest form, the latest metamorphosis of neoliberal capitalism, is an extremely ambitious work that could open up new avenues for discussion and new ways of reflecting on the most relevant aspects of capitalism and on how we should think about overcoming or liberating ourselves from the logic of “competitive profit production” – to use Albena Azmanova’s definition of capitalism.

This text was originally published in Romanian here.

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