The ’new spirit of capitalism‘, creative class struggle and the ghosts of the future

My question for tonight is: Is this ’new spirit of capitalism‘ the ghost of communism? And is this ghost the ghost from the Communist Manifesto or the ghost of this ghost? As Jacques Derrida reminds us, Marx himself had a very ambivalent attitude towards ghosts in general. In The German Ideology he was not haunted, but hunting the ghosts of others. In a very German tradition he made a distinction between spirit: Geist (in German: spirit, mind, psyche, wit and nous) and ghost: Gespenst (spectre). Maybe this distinction is in itself an expression of a very German ideology: The spirit gives life, as we know from the Bible, but the letter kills. And the ghost reminds us, that this distinction is not working. In this case: Jacques Derrida and his criticism of the phantasm of pure presence. „Has this thing appear’d again tonight?“ asks Horatio, the friend of a prince formerly known as Hamlet. Just a few moments later this thing does appear „in the same figure like the king that’s dead“. The guards urge him: „Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio.“ There are already two observations to make: first that the first appearance of the ghost is a re-appearance. Ghosts always re-appear. Secondly: it’s scholars who are expected to speak to it. In Germany this does not come as surprise: the most famous scholar in German culture, a figure borrowed from England, Faust is from the beginning of his drama desperartely trying to get in touch with spirits. Or: ghosts. In German the difference between these two – Geist and Gespenst – is a structuring element of the whole Geistesgeschichte, a very German concept that is only roughly translateable into „intellectual history“ or „history of ideas“. Even more peculiar for non-Germans is the concept of Geisteswissenschaft, in the English speaking world better known as sciences of the humanities or arts, here referred to as „spiritual science“. As soon as the terminological divide between the concept of Geist (spirit) and Gespenst (ghost) is becoming poriferous, we are leaving the well-lit halls of academia and enter the twilight zone. This zone would be the space in which different forms of art and sciences of art begin to interchange. To my understanding this space is the stage – at least the stage of newer and newest forms of theatre which don’t reduce themselves to task of staging literature, even if it is the tragedy of the prince of Denmark or of Faust. This interchange of different artistic practices – visual art, music, performance – does not necessarily lead to a Gesamtkunstwerk: it can be as beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissecting-table; the most important aspect is that these forms contaminate each other. Therefore theatre is always an impure form of art and thus also a preferred model for a concept of thinking beyond binary oppositions: high and low, old and new, but also here and there, before and later – just like „this thing“: „’Tis here“, „’tis here!“, „’tis gone!“ Exit ghost and re-enter.

Hamlet’s ghost is a ghost from the past, as Stephen Greenblatt has argued who identified it as a Catholic lamenting about the new religion of protestantism, especially puritanism that forbid the old practice of absolution by money (especially by money being paid by surviving family members). As we know from Max Weber, protestantism has brought about a new ethos, a sense of „inner-worldly asceticism“ (innerweltlicher Asketismus) which he called „the spirit of capitalism“. This spirit is best expressed in the advice from a father to a son – not of Polonius to Laertes, but by Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase: „Time is money.“ – which implies that time, just like money, could be saved. The double meaning of this expression – to be saved – is highly illuminating for this spirit: if you save time or money, you can be saved. This implied a complete break with ancient and medieval ethics which condemned the behaviour advocated by Franklin as sinful. Now is it possible that with the rise of a ’new spirit‘ of capitalism which is no longer based on an ascetic, but rather hedonistic ideals, the old spirit has turned into a ghost? According to Eve Chiapello & Luc Boltanski this ’new spirit of capitalism‘ is the answer of capital to the challenge of 1968: In the manuals for the so called ’new management‘ all the points of critique on alienation at the work-place have been incorporated which lead to the transformation of the work-regime into the neoliberal idea of an adventureous „entrepeneurial self“ for which artists have become role-models. Just like the protestant sects of the 16th century, the creative workers may have unintentionally and from the margins developed a new way of life, a set of morals: a new ’spirit‘ which does not simply reflect the changes of the economic base, but anticipates them. In other words words words: Hamlet’s ghost today may have become a protestant lamenting the ’new spirit‘ that has destroyed the old order, the disciplinary regime of a work-ethics of permanent employment which is expressed in the ethos of a profession, in German: „Beruf“ – in English: „the calling“. Is the call of this calling – in German the „Ruf“ in „Beruf“ – which we hear from the grave in a world that only knows temporary employments, jobs jobs jobs or projects?

A calling that is urging for reversal, for a turning back just like in Goethe’s educational novel, „Bildungsroman“, Wilhelm Meister who, like Hamet, is at the same time the name of the central character and the title of this work of literature – which in itself is a ghostly doubling – who joined a theatre-troupe and played the role of: Hamlet (of course). The moment of the appearance or initial re-appearance of the ghost is the moment of reversal: Wilhelm Meister leaves the stage – forever and returns to a civil life. Later he finds out that all of his steps were anticipated and manipulated, by a society that resides in a tower with an „invisible hand“. This ghostly hand that appears in this novel shows the complicity between the form of the novel and the idea of economy as a totality that is at the same time chaotic, full of chances, accidents and coincidences, but also governed by a principle that works or quite literally manipulates everything just like an „invisible hand“. This concept that Adam Smith transported from the realm of theology through the realm of cosmology and theories of morality into the sphere of economy is also a writer’s hand: a ghost writer’s hand, an anonymous author. This anonymous author is calling upon us just like the call from the burning bush that was heard by Moses. This allegory is used by Luis Althusser to describe the functioning of ideology. Ideology is what keeps the whole of society together and which puts each individual on his or her place. Now Wilhelm Meister’s place is obviously not the stage. But is is possible that the stage is no one’s place? Is it possible that the stage is a common ground? Is it thus possible to interpret the first scene of Hamlet with the first sentence of the Communist Manifesto in such a way that today it is the common that is haunted by the ghost of private property? Is the ghost that is haunting the world today the ghost of capitalism – as it was written by an invisible hand on a billboard on Time Square during a riot in Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis.

Maybe the inflationary use of the ghost-metaphor in recent years is due to the uncanny fact that Marx had anticipated the future of communism – the future past – by calling it a ghost instead of a spirit. Maybe this is grossly misleading: Hamlet’s ghost is the ghost of a ghost, his father’s ghost who happened to have the same name as his son: Hamlet. But Marxism, according to a very influential Marxist thinker (a teacher not only to Jacques Derrida, Jacques Ranciere and many others), Althusser, described Marxism as „a child without a father“. For him, the decisive moment in Marx thinking took place while writing The German ideology as a general critique of ideology which became one of these German compound-words: „Ideologiekritik“. Marx wrote the text together with Engels in order to clear things for themselves. Often these texts, which remain fragments, are the most producitve. That is the case with a play of Bertolt Brecht which he also wrote for himself, „zur selbstverständigung“: for his own understanding, for self-comprehension, but also -communication, -compromise, -settlement. I am referring to The Downfall of the egoist Johann Fatzer, a learning play about a group of deserters at the end of WW1. Four men, the crew of a tank, leave the battlefield, hide underground and wait for the revolution to end the war. The revolution came, but not in Germany, but in Russia (with – irony of history – the help of the German army, which smuggeled Lenin back to Russia). In his despair Johann Fatzer says to himself:

„wie früher Gespenster kamen aus Vergangenheit /so jetzt aus Zukunft ebenso“

„as ghosts used to come from the past / they now come from the future as well“

In the late seventies Brecht’s fragment was reworked by Heiner Müller and put into a form that could be staged. It was the time in which many people, including Althusser, spoke of a „crisis of Marxism“. Althusser quoted Communist workers who described the crisis as something that „broke in the history of the workers‘ movement between its past and its present. And this break put forward the question of the future.“ Now, thirty years later, the crisis has reached capitalism (while half way in between the mole of the revolution has disappeared). A crisis that started as real-estate crisis in the US, reached Europe as Euro- or state debt crisis three years later and is still with us today, another three years later, now only referred to as „the crisis“. But this crisis had its predecessors, for example the end of the internet boom in April 2000 which also manifested the end of the so-called ’new economy‘. DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis, which was published 10 years ago, reflects that crash. It’s the story of Eric Packer, a 28 year old fondsmanager and billionaire. We accompany Packer for one day, the last day of his life: from sun-set to sun-set. The whole time Packer is on his way to a hair-cut in his limousine. The downfall of the egoist Eric Packer is caused by the unexpected rise of the Yen, while Packer was speculating on its downfall. Packer keeps watching the constant climbing of the curve and ignores all warnings by his advisors. At the end of the novel he confesses to his murderer that he failed to read the Yen. It did not represent itself to him. In his recent book The ghost of capital Joseph Vogl used the example of Eric Packer to describe how capital is dreaming to break all ties to the material world and transform itself into pure light. Capital is not interested in the past or the present, but only in the future. The „ghost of capital“ is always a „ghost from the future“: the present is haunted by a future that didn’t arrive, like the expected fall of the Yen or the rise of the Euro etc. The mole of revolution, that Karl Marx had described, that keeps dis- and reappearing, is replaced by the permanent revolution of capitalism and its ‚creative destruction‘: „Destroy the past, create the future!“ (as Packer says). What broke in his story is not something between the past and the present, but between the present and the future. And this break puts forward the question of the past. What was the moment in which the value of money stopped representing itself in real references, material values, concrete riches? Since 2007 we have heard a lot about the moment in which Richard Nixon cut the relationship between the value of the US-Dollar and gold, the so-called gold-standard that was introduced with the agreement of Bretton-Woods to stabilize postwar world-economy. Vogl reminds us of what he calls the ‚Urszene‘, the primal scene of capitalism: the year 1797 in which the Bank of England reacted on the crisis of state-finances by cutting the relationship between paper-money and coins. Since then, there is no real difference anymore between money as a means for payment and credit, between paying and the mere promise to pay. At the same time revolutionary France had tried a different modell to resolve its crisis and introduce a new paper, a security bond whose value was convertable into confiscated land. In 1797 this modell was declared as failure. All it could represent was the inability of the revolutionary government to pay back its debt. Instead of turning all citizens of the French Republic in patriots and share-holders of the revolution, it had turned them into impoverished debitors. This conflict between revolutionary France and England returned in the 20th century as conflict between the Soviet Union and the West. While the SU failed in keeping up the value of its currencies, the West, namely the US just cut the reference to the real-world. The result of this operation we witness today as „crisis“. It is – of course – also a crisis of representation. But while the public is searching for someone to blame (speculators, „banksters“, human greed), we are once more reminded of Althusser who had spoken, in a very different context, about history as a „process without subject“. If we take a look at its protagonist, like Eric Packer, we might be able to turn this characteristics around and call him and his like: „subjects without process“ – in every sense of the word. What’s to be done about it?

Somewhere in the middle of his way and of his day Packer is stuck in a crowd of protesters. A bomb explodes in front of an investment bank, someone burns himself and a rat is turned into a unit of currency. He gets excited – for him protest is also the product of the market, a „form of systematic hygine“. According to his view of the world, this is useful to make markets even more efficient: „Another world is possible!“ The slogan of the anti- or alter-globalization movement is the slogan of capital, the logic of its operations. And indeed, as Vogl points out, there is a sense of idealism in political economy, a constant reference to an idealized situation in which all participants of the market have access to the same information and react rationally, that is: according to their interest on one another. Together they form a market-society in which opportunities are distributed better. The promise of such idealized political economy is an equilibrium, a state of balance. Just like a novel manages to connect different events, incidents, occurences to a meaningful totality, the market manages to successfully, that is: profitably organize all events, incidens, occurences to the best of all. The market is presented as an autonomous sphere of self-comprehension, but also -communication, -compromise and -settlement. This liberal idyll of the market is obviously shaped by theological and cosmological ideas. Thus Joseph Vogl coined it oikodizee: a justification of the world as market: not justified by what really is, but what could be; that’s the spirit, the living spirit, Lebensgeist of production. Political economy, especially neoliberal political economy is a ‚theoretical practice‘ in the sense of Althusser. And resembles in a striking way the apologies of late state-socialism. In this sense, the concept of ‚capitalist realism‘ makes a lot of sense: it’s a realism in the performative sense of the word, which brings about what it talks about, which prescribes what it pretends to only describe. It is not limiting our actions, but stimulating them. In this respect it differs from the latest use of the concept by Mark Fisher who had picked it up from visual artists like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke who came up with it exactly 50 years ago (self-organized exhibition in Düsseldorf which was opened with a demonstration: „Leben mit Pop – Demonstration für den kapitalistischen Realismus“). For them it was a reaction to the aesthetic norm of socialist realism in the East. Fisher picked it up to describe the current postdemocratic state, in which the government constantly declares that there was no alternative to their way of governing us (a concept very well known in Germany with the result that we now have a new party from the right that calls itself in reaction „Alternative für Deutschland“). The ’new spirit‘ of capitalism is the prime example for such an evocation. And even its analytical describtion by sociologists like Boltanski & Chiapello shares this quality of evocing or swearing to this spirit or ghost. But as Derrida pointed out: every evocation is at the same time an exorcism. The so-called ’new spirit‘ is in reality the old one, the central paradox of capitalist ideology which is based on the assumption that through the guidance of an ‚invisible hand‘ the asocial acts of asocial individuals constitute sociality. More than that: precisely because human beings are asocial they are enter as a factor of social order! They are reliable in their unreliability. Brecht was fascinated by this paradox and created a series of such asocial characters: Baal, Meckie Messer – and especially Fatzer, the egoist. His unreliability though, he’s inability to live up to his promise to sustain his comrades, leads to his downfall and eventually to his execution and replacement by the group. In Brecht’s theatre, the stage is turned into a test-ground for ideology, in this case the central element of capitalist ideology: the myth of private vice as public benefit. The central contradiction, in Brecht’s Fatzer-play, as in all capitalist ideologies, especially in its newest forms, is the contradiction between the propagated selfish self as entrepeneur and the social dimension of the new work-regime, the focus on capacity for team-work (the so-called team-spirit), communication skills, even – in a certain sense: solidarity. In the case of Fatzer, it is solidarity – or the lack thereof – that leads to the downfall of all. If we can learn something from this learning play, then the fact that under the wrong circumstances, all virtues – either personal strength or sense for solidarity – turn into vices. In this perspective, Brecht’s play could be read as a commentary on the current work-regime of postfordism. We are the „ghosts of the future“ that Fatzer is haunted by: incarnations of the ’new spirit‘ of capitalism. If there is a central message of Brecht’s work, it is his rule of thumb to rather tie in with the bad new, than the good-old („Lieber das schlechte Neue, als das gute Alte“). Just as Marx made fun of all the square forms of socialism at the end of the Manifesto, we should be very suspicious of any rhetoric of returning to something: to Keynesianism, the Wellfare State, whatever. The creative class struggle, that is: the class struggle of the creative class, has to work through the new conditions of labour, has to liberate the social out of its exploitation in what some people like to call „communism of capital“: the paradox of the end of wage labour on the ground of wage-labour etc. This corporate communism might as well be called market-stalinism, as Mark Fisher has suggested. If the ’new spirit of capitalism‘ is the „ghost of communism“ we might have to come to the conclusion that the „ghost of communism“ is the ghost of Stalin. Out of this perpective it is not surprising anymore that in today’s Russia, Stalin is popular again and praised publicly as a „top-manager“. If we manage to understand how neoliberalism has transformed into its opponent, we might be able to understand how both of Stalin’s most famous principles fit together:

1) „Human beings are our most valuable capital.“
2) „The cadres decide everything.“

As human capital, creative ressource, we will never reach authentic autonomy – we will always be kept under the command of the cadres of capital. But if there is something to defend in our precarious work-situation it is exactly that: our autonomy – against all critics of neoliberalism who want to lure us back into the closed environment of the institutions, the offices, the factories and the assembly-line. Too much freedom is never the problem, only too little – freedom cut in half by neoliberalism, cut off from its connection with equality and solidarity. So maybe this is the true nature of the ghost – just like in Ferdinand Freiligrath’s prerevolutionary poem Hamlet where he identified Hamlet with prerevolutionary Germany – and the ghost as the ghost of freedom:

Deutschland ist Hamlet! Ernst und stumm
In seinen Toren jede Nacht
Geht die begrabne Freiheit um,
Und winkt den Männern auf der Wacht.

Germany is Hamlet! Serious and solemn
in its doorways every night
buried freedom is haunting
and waving to the guards.

To conclude: the ’new spirit of capitalism‘ is the ghost of freedom, its uncanny double in a work-place that only knows flat hiearchies, the boss is not called boss, but by his first name and all colleagues are friends. Thus it becam obvious that today’s proletariat has more to loose than its chains: its soul (Bifo). The freedom that the ’new managers‘ are granting their most valuable capital, us, is only a negative one. The double bind of a double freedom, just as Marx described the situation of the worker who is free from serfdom, but also from the means of production. The same is true for the so-called Free Scene (Freie Szene: independently producing theatremakers) in this country (especially in this city which truely is a creative capital): free from permanent employment and free from own institutions. Just like the proletariat of the 19th century we as workers in the creative industries have to sell ourselves on the market: not only our capacity to do mechanical work, but our social skills, our imagniation, our creativity, our soul. And we have to do that for a market that always demands something new. We are denied the possibility to build up a repertoire, to develop an archive, a sense of tradition. But as Brecht, the revolutionary, said: no revolution without tradition. The slogan of the coalition of the free scene in Berlin was (curious enough): „Creative spirit is much more volatile than capital, so hold on to it!“ To conclude: The stage has to become a place where the time can be set out of joint in order for the present to become present in the conflict (a collision) of the future with the past. Every spirit is a ghost and every stage a haunted stage – but the visitation is not limited to the theatre-building, it can take place on the street, in parliament or the university. „It’s only a ghost / tried to be its host“ (Phantom/Ghost): because maybe we have to come to the conclusion that it is us, spirits of new capitalism who are in hell – if we follow the definition of Walter Benjamin of hell as the eternal return of the New. What it is all about is the impossibility not to create something new. So what’s to be done about that?


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