ATTAC, the Critique of Globalization, and “Structural Antisemitism”

By Gerhard Hanloser

(Translator’s note: this article originally appeared in German in the Spring 2005 issue of the journal Grundrisse.)

At the end of the 1990s, there emerged a new movement that aimed its crosshairs at “capitalist globalization” and sought out and blockaded the meeting places of the world’s powerful (G7, World Economic Forum, WTO, etc.). This movement was colorful, diverse, and difficult to tie down to a political program. From Christian associations to ecologists to traditional Communist parties to militant anarchist groups, the most diverse opponents of capitalist globalization came together. The group ATTAC, founded in France, was the most organized and high-profile formation and attempted to give the movement a program: contemporary capitalism was understood as the unleashed dictatorship of the financial markets, which had to be tamed by means of taxes upon financial transactions. In the German-speaking countries, this critique of finance capital was swiftly attested a proximity to Antisemitism by critics from the “value-critique” spectrum (for example, the journal Krisis), from the rather broad and influential media spectrum of the “Anti-Germans”, and by Neo-liberals. The Nazis, so the allegation went, also raised the program of breaking the rule of “interest slavery”, and Antisemitism supposedly expressed a “truncated anti-capitalism” focused upon finance capital, money, and the “intangible”. Every critique of financial capital thus amounted to a “Structural Antisemitism”, and there was supposedly a “structural similarity between truncated critiques of capitalism and Antisemitism.” (Schmidinger, 2001)

Back to Postone

At the beginning of the notion of “Structural Antisemitism” there stood a real revolution in the explanation of Antisemitism. Moishe Postone assumed the task of deriving Antisemitism from its intrinsic connection with the structures of perception in capitalism (Postone 1988). The New Left theoretician relied upon the category of the fetish, which had its foundation in the real inversion of society. As a result of the singular nature of labor in capitalist society, the products of labor take on a life of their own, natural qualities appear to adhere to them; they constitute social necessities and compulsions. Fetishism is the dance around these things that causes their status as products of human labor to be forgotten.

For Adorno and Horkheimer, the centuries-long confinement of Jews to the sphere of circulation was a decisive reason for Antisemitism, but they also took into account that social-psychological explanations were also needed to understand Antisemitism. Postone takes leave of the sphere of circulation and psychological processes and directs his attention to the commodity. According to Postone, the social interrelation is hidden in the fetish character of the commodity itself, since it presents itself in a reified form as a contradiction between the concrete and the abstract. Fetishistic perception splits the capital relation into a material nature of labor and production on the one hand, and money and interest, perceived as abstract, on the other hand. Fetishistic “truncated anti-capitalism” thinks it can fight and transcend capitalism in a one-sided attack on the abstract (reason, law, money, interest).

But Postone himself argues here in a truncated, ahistorical, and structuralist way. He wants to go beyond the analysis of Antisemitism by critical theory, which sees the foundations of Antisemitism in the centuries-long confinement of Jews to the sphere of circulation, the “concealment of domination in production”, and in false projections. But Postone too hastily discards a historical-genetic explanation of Antisemitism in favor of a structural commodity-critique Marxism. On the other hand, Postone extricates himself on multiple occasions from his own structuralist logic of derivation: he writes succinctly of the biologization of the abstract through its identification with “the Jew”. Although Postone claims to derive Antisemitism purely by reference to the fetish character of the commodity – the general determination of all capitalist societies – in fact he constantly resorts to explanations such as biologization, racism, and the concept of the “citizen”, in order to meaningfully explain National Socialist Antisemitism.

Precisely the examination of attacks upon groups connected to or associated with the sphere of circulation reveals a structural similarity to classical Antisemitism. Over and over again in history there were examples of groups being attacked because they held a position in society similar to that of Jews, for example Chinese immigrants in Indonesia, who migrated to Indonesia centuries ago and whole filled a middleman merchant position between colonial large capital and domestic producers and consumers. Attacks on these groups – such as recently during the Asian financial crisis – exhibit certain similarities to European Antisemitism, however, it makes absolutely no sense to describe the attacked Chinese as victims of a “Structural Antisemitism”. One would have to examine as the decisive moment the personalization of an isolated aspect of the capital relation in “the Jew”, through which the possibility of Antisemitism turns into actual Antisemitism.

Especially irritating is the fact that Postone attests to antisemites a seriously intended revolt against capitalism. Here, Postone’s text offers some points of contact with the jargon of the “Anti-Germans”, who in the meantime have come to accuse every revolt occurring within fetishistic channels of Antisemitism, by means of the equation of “structural Antisemitism”. But in doing so, the procedural character of fetishization and de-fetishization is essentially denied. The retreat to the “elementary form of the commodity” proves in Postone’s hands to be a simplified derivation theory, purified of every social conflict. There are multiple constitutive conditions of Antisemitism: the collaboration with domination, the affirmation of one’s own existence as labor-power, the splitting-off and condemnation of merely one isolated phenomenon of capitalist totality. The labeling of National Socialist Antisemitism as a “truncated anticapitalism” or as a “revolt”, as Postone does, already points in the wrong direction: rather than a “revolution” or a “revolt”, what was expressed in the Antisemitism of many Germans was their willingness to collaborate in counter-revolution. (See Enderwitz, 1991)

The Disappearance of Exploitation

Beyond that, Postone’s theory has decisive gaps: he engages in a critique of the ideology of the fetishistic forms of capitalism, but exactly what social relationships are fetishized remains rather underdeveloped. According to Marx, the point is to see through capitalism to the effect that the appropriation of alienated labor occurs within the forms of freedom and equality and by means of a “just” payment of a wage for the commodity labor-power, which characterizes the specific character of capitalist exploitation. This essence of capitalist society is not self-evident, but requires rather a scientific/ideology-critical effort, in order to destroy the “real appearance” of these relations which is manifest in all kinds of fetishistic notions about society. But in “National Socialism and Antisemitism”, rather different fetish forms – the commodity fetish and the capital fetish – get all mixed up with one another. In Marx’s work, these fetish forms appear at different levels of his presentation, only the analysis of the capital fetish in Volume III of Capital has incorporated all forms and determinations of the capital relation. Here we no longer encounter the single subject, that of the “commodity owner” in capitalism – as it appears at the level of competition and the circulation sphere: rather, subjects are assigned to class positions, even if fetishism still dominates as a “real appearance” and individuals still have ideological notions about society. The capital fetish is the direct inversion of Subject and Object, Capital is imagined to be the agent of production. In M-M‘, interest-bearing capital, there exists the most fetishistic form of the capital-relation, in which Subject and Object are not only inverted, but also the Subject – labor – appears to have disappeared completely.

Precisely the emergence of interest must, according to Marx, be explained in terms of the surplus-value gained from living labor. The antisemite who condemns money and “interest slavery”, like the vulgar economist, does not see this connection (Hanloser 2003). In order to enlighten this false consciousness, it is imperative according to Marx to criticize the notion of the autonomous power of social relationships: one’s own power appears as an alien, exploitative power. However, for Postone the concepts of surplus-value and exploitation – as he admits in his magnum opus Time, Labor, and Social Domination – are merely derivative categories. Such an interpretation is even outdone by the representatives of so-called “value critique” in Germany (the journals Krisis and Exit), who do not even wish to allow surplus-value and exploitation the status of analytical categories, and who instead seek to reprimand them as “moralistic”. For Marx, however, these concepts are critical-analytical; in order to gain an unobstructed view of the specific appropriation of alienated labor in capitalism. The Krisis group, building upon Postone, obstructs this possibility. It no longer wants to hear anything about the specific mediation of the capitalist social relation, even though Marx emphatically maintained the decisive importance of surplus-value, for example in “The Results of the Direct Production Process”.

The German “value-critique” school prefers to speak of the character of capital as an “end in itself” and of surplus-value and classes as “merely derivative forms”, as if surplus-value, profit, and classes were not – to use the jargon of Krisis – decisive “fundamental categories” for Marx, but rather obsolete Marxist-Leninist concepts. Robert Kurz, for example, writes: “As Marxism understood ‘surplus-value’ merely as ‘unpaid labor’, which (such is the implicit or explicit conclusion) by rights must be paid, it remains just as much as Proudhon or Gessellians trapped within the notion of a mere distributive justice, and leaves untouched the fundamental fetish forms of the modern commodity-producing system, which are actually the ‘condition of possibility’ that reproduction can actually take the form of money income.” (Kurz 1995) But the point of Marx’s concept of surplus-value is not to stake a claim for the compensation of unpaid labor, but rather to show that the specific use-value of the commodity labor-power is that it creates more value than necessary for its own reproduction – and it does so while being compensated justly and in full. What would be truly critical would be an examination of the veiled forms of squeezing out surplus-value, the depiction of the connection between M-M’, and the exploitation of the specific commodity labor-power.

On this point, it becomes apparent how both representatives and critics of “truncated anti-capitalism” resemble one another. It is no longer possible for “value critique” (in its Anti-German and non-Anti-German variants) to gain a view of capitalism in its form as a production process, as “an instrument for acquiring the labour of others” (Marx). The case is similar for critics of money capital and financial institutions as apparently independent powers: all of them – from Andre Gorz to Michael Chossudovsky to ATTAC – ignore the fact that productive and speculative capital cannot be neatly separated from one another. Both ways of reasoning about capitalism are consequentially not “truncated” but rather – if one follows Marx – incorrect critiques of capitalism.

Years ago, Robert Kurz had already diagnosed a “Political Economy of Antisemitism”. Large swathes of this text are an illustration of the insights yielded by Postone concerning modern Antisemitism and its condemnation of speculative capital. But Kurz places the cart before the horse: for him, the political economy of Antisemitism is the antecedent, and not a specific aggressive form, of vulgar-economic reasoning. Whereas Marx criticizes two forms of ideology – vulgar economy and classical political economy – whereby it is primarily the first that offers attachment points for Antisemitism (not further analyzed by Marx) – for Kurz, the immediately existing, primary form of ideology is anti-Semitic. Here as well, the important moment of anti-Semitic personalization is suspended.

Where Kurz wishes to take to task an ominous “subjectivization and sociologization of the fetish relation”, and therefore has to address the not unimportant question of the relationship between abstract domination and individual subjects, suddenly classical Marxism itself is suspected of Antisemitism. Marxism supposedly “merely” took the political economy of Antisemitism’s “demonization of the interest-taking money capitalist” and “extended” it to include the figure of the “productive capitalist”, Kurz writes. (Kurz 1995) One could dismiss this as merely being anti-communism and anti-totalitarianism on the part of value-critique, but behind it is a momentous confusion. The capitalist is namely the personification of profit, and according to Marx, profit is a form of surplus-value which “to some extent recalls its origins”, but which nonetheless conceals the true connections. In truth, the workers movement, with its notion of a “just wage”, of “self-management”, and the “expropriation of the capitalists”, was indeed taken in by a fixation on surplus-value. But – in contrast to the Antisemitic movement – still recalled the origins of domination, exploitation, and suffering, if incorrectly.

The value critique fraction around Krisis and its successor projects, in their hasty attempts to distance themselves from „workers movement Marxism“, conduct a critique of form and fetish without wanting to, or being able to, address content. But what’s the use of a fetish-critique that can no longer specify what exactly is being fetishized? Marx’s entire critique of the fetish character of capital aims to unveil the exploitative core of capitalism and to criticize the inversion of Subject and Object. In fetishistic perceptions, according to Marx, non-producers who appropriate surplus-value appear as producers. Capital appears to create labor; it appears that labor does not create capital. Adorno and Horkheimer build entirely correctly upon Marx’s fetish-critique in their text „Elements of Anti-Semitism.“ Adorno and Horkheimer speak of the capitalist, as the manufacturer, as „the real shylock“. In contrast to the merchant and banker “he seized all he could, not only on the market but at the very source: as a representative of his class he made sure that his workers did not sell him short with their labor. The workers had to supply the maximum amount of goods. Like Shylock, the bosses demanded their pound of flesh. They owned the machines and materials and therefore compelled others to produce for them. They called themselves producers, but secretly everyone knew the truth”, and for that reason the capitalists had to create a distraction from their exploitative activity. “The Jews” are “the scapegoats not only for individual maneuvers and machinations but in a broader sense, inasmuch as the economic injustice of the whole class is attributed to them. (Horkheimer/Adorno, 1969)

Now, one might stumble over the formulation “injustice”, but at least here the connection is made clear between exploitation, oppression, and Antisemitism as an unprecedented act of displacement by means of which “The Jews” are offered to those “mutilated by domination” as a quid pro quo of the suspended class struggle. But according to Kurz’s definition, Adorno and Horkheimer would have merely “extended” the political economy of Antisemitism – a conclusion that would be sheer nonsense. Adorno and Horkheimer still knew that “capitalists” actually exist, the period of subject-less Marxism-Luhmannism a la Stefan Breuer had not yet arrived, and ultimately it’s obvious that a social relationship also needs flesh-and-blood bearers. But Adorno and Horkheimer knew, like Marx, that “capitalists” aren’t the main problem, but rather social relationships which have petrified into a “second nature” that people – whether capitalist or worker – do not self-consciously master. Rather, people are themselves ensnared in the “real appearance” produced by these relations. Adorno and Horkheimer – rightly so – would’ve never had the crazy idea of raising the allegation of anti-Semitism against every criticism of the bearers of surplus-value.

A Politics of Suspicion

The critique of “structural Antisemitism” and “truncated anticapitalism”, which has congealed into jargon, lays a protective hand over the “character masks” of capitalism and its institutions – although this favor hasn’t even been requested. It trivializes Antisemitism by claiming to see it in every fetishistic expression of discontent with capitalism. Its representatives themselves have so internalized Antisemitic connotations, that they sometimes project them on the object: condemnation of the a-national, criticism of financial capital, moralizing criticism of money – all of that is essentially reactionary and has nothing to do with communism, but whoever thinks that it automatically implies Antisemitism and that “the Jews” are the intended target is playing a dangerous game: “If followed to its logical conclusions, every critique of Antisemitism which dwells upon proving that a truncated, ‘fetishistic’ concept of capital is evidence of structural Antisemitism must face the accusation of de-scandalizing the personalization of the unknown, which means nothing other than recognizing as ‘true’ the characteristics that are attributed to Jews.” (Schatz 2004) This theory opens the door to a politics of suspicion and accusation, a Stalinist tradition of politics is revived among those who tinker with the assertion of an “objective Antisemite”. Whoever is subject to such an accusation first has to see how to get rid of it again. Thus the citizens’ movement ATTAC, which began in France and also emerged as an organized part of the critique of globalization in Germany and Austria, was soon faced with the accusation of Antisemitism from various sides. On the one hand, voices were raised by those who considered themselves “radical leftists” and – following Anti-German political correctness – not only criticized the obvious reformism of the organization, expressed in its attempts at re-regulation via a Tobin-tax, but also attempted to morally discredit the new movement with the accusation of Antisemitism. On the other hand, interestingly enough, ideologues of capitalist globalization with their own interests, such as the authors of the German right-wing liberal journal Merkur, had been arguing similarly for some years.

ATTAC and Critique

In the last year, the scholarly advisory committee of ATTAC Germany issued a brochure addressing the accusations and making public the discussions about Antisemitism within ATTAC (ATTAC 2004). Peter Wahl declares that ATTAC sees itself committed to an “education after Auschwitz” in the tradition of Adorno. The individual contributions in the brochure deal with the accusations against ATTAC, and make the critics look rather silly. The hastily written reply from Norbert Trenkle of Krisis (Trenkle 2004) remains superficial, where he once again attempts to substantiate the thesis of “structural Antisemitism” by redundantly writing of a “collective unconscious” (the term itself is not further explained by Trenkle) that expresses itself through ATTAC’s critique of financial markets.

Contributions in the brochure plausibly point out what fallacies, syllogisms, and projections the critics are consumed by, or respectively how the prejudiced demagogical structure of the accusation is arranged: “Whoever makes use of the conceptual wildcard ‘structural Antisemitism’ behaves like the master of a suspicion that requires no evidence” (Wolfgang Fritz Haug, in ATTAC 2004). After reading the brochure, one notices how similar and compatible with one another Anti-German and Neoliberal arguments have become.

But of some importance are also the observations that go beyond the accusation of Antisemitism, that plead for a shift in terrain in the Antisemitism debate and that attempt to distill the correct aspects of the critique. Often, ATTAC is accused of a nostalgic recourse to Keynesianism. Critics of a regressive critique of capitalism emphasize – with reference to Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto – the historically progressive role of capitalism and praise capital’s shattering of boundaries. The communist position is thus defined as progressive and advanced, and not as romantic and anti-progressive. Wolfgang Fritz Haug of all people attempts to confront the rampant ignorance in ATTAC with such positions and calls attention to the fact that “amidst its (capitalism’s) barbarous traits, its ‘civilizing influence’ has nonetheless not been exhausted’. If one loses sight of this, there emerges an open flank for all kinds of reactionary treatments. Haug refers to the Marx of the Grundrisse, who writes of an increased intellectualization of labor and of a “surplus” of freely disposable time as a result of technologization. But this position can also be confronted with the fact that rural movements in the Tricont are defending themselves against “new enclosures”, a never ending process of “primitive accumulation”, and concomitant land expropriation. Marx himself concerned himself at the end of his life with populist-social revolutionary arguments in Russia, according to which one did not have to pass through the yoke of capitalism in order to construct a communist community (see Rubel, 1972). To describe such a position as “reactionary” would amount to a similar ban on discussion as that called for by the Anti-Germans.

But despite all the exactness and incisiveness of content of the ATTAC brochure, there remain some reservations. The rather hierarchical form of politics of ATTAC, above all the rampant culture of specialism, which every libertarian communist movement opposes, is extended by an outsourcing of a substantive problem to a scholarly advisory committee. Not only does this attempt to confront moralistic accusations by means of scholarly authority; a classic outsourcing of problems – typical for traditional politics – occurs, the sole purpose of which is to allow the organization to continue functioning as usual. The brochure itself and the considerations made within also do not appear to have emerged from an internal discussion process among the anti- or alter-globalistas. When Thomas Sablowski, in one of the most worthy contributions, correctly points out the class character of capitalist society and points out the connection between surplus-value and interest, then the question raises itself as to how far this insight has managed to gain a foothold in ATTAC. While Sablowski accuses the Anti-German and “value-critical” critics of taking a position from outside the movement, one fears that his own Marxian determinations similarly reside outside of the consciousness of the movement. The capitalist division between intellectual and manual labor – in praxis groups and theoretical producers – is maintained in the form of this brochure.

All in all, after reading the brochure, ATTAC seems more Marxist than the citizens’ movement it actually is; one finds at the level of ATTAC’s forms of action positions and everyday ideologies that Marx would have scolded as pre-critical and adhering to “true socialism”. The moralistic left-Christian legacy in ATTAC, which is expressed in the “dance around the golden calf” and similar symbolic politics, should have been examined for its open flank to Antisemitism. The enthusiasm of prominent ATTAC spokespeople for authoritarian Keynesian policies – for example in Malaysia – was criticized early on (see Hanloser 2001). The brochure also makes things too easy with its interpretation of the Israel-Palestine conflict. A quotation like the following cannot simply be dismissed by pointing out who says it and for what reason, but rather should be an incitement to thought: The altermondialistas, according to Alain Finkelkraut, “accept a form of Antisemitism which thinks it defends the wretched of the earth.” The movement should have dealt with “the Anti-Imperialism of fools” (Isaac Deutscher), with the liberation nationalism that one encounters at all the large events of the anti-globalization movement, and which fall far behind the libertarian theories of globalization and capitalism of Negri/Hardt and Holloway.

Particularly irritating is the occasional attempt to instrumentalize the confrontation with Antisemitism in order to justify one’s own politics.

If some leftist critics of ATTAC wanted to criticize reformism in a particularly caustic way by reaching for the accusation of Antisemitism, some authors of the brochure attempt to pass the buck: not their own reformist policies, but rather the radical leftists are Antisemitic. For the lawyer Heinz Düx, the entire New Left after 1967, above all else the militant left, succumbed to “secondary Antisemitism” and historical amnesia. Because radical leftists did not leave the prosecution of Nazis to the West German state and neglected the significance of the legal system, through a “defensive posture within the framework of secondary Antisemitism they ensnared themselves in eliminatory Antisemitism”. Furthermore, Düx makes the unproven accusation that the anti-authoritarian squatters’ movement originally followed an Antisemitic motivation (Düx, in ATTAC 2004). Such slanderous remarks without basis could not have been better formulated by the Anti-Germans themselves. But while the Anti-Germans wish to preserve their merely commentarial approach to the world as “critical critics” (Marx), those from the ATTAC advisory committee either aspire in an elaborated way to a politics of reform and hegemony (as Sablowski proposes), or simply speak out in favor of “appropriate economic policy measures at a national and global level” (as Altvater formulates it). How good that in following this concern, they can settle accounts with both the radical left as well as the blatant stupidity of the Anti-Germans.


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