An Argument for Human Life and Values in Greece and Everywhere

In the wake of the 2008 international financial crisis, in a much more intense way than before, the inherent characteristics of the capitalist mode of production are clearly visible. As Karl Marx aptly stated, the more polarized are class inequalities, the easier it is for the pure form of capitalism to become apparent.

While bourgeois-liberal thinking persists in attempting to address the international economic crisis and political instability via bank recapitalization, structural readjustment programs, “stabilization” through the enthroning of unelected technocrats, and so on, it is doomed to failure because bourgeois/liberal theory is “identity thinking,” since it does not question the phenomenon of fetishism that lies hidden in the core of capitalist logic. As such, identity thinking identifies and exhausts the content of the various forms that dominate us (such as the state, the bourgeois parliamentary system, value as money that needs to multiply itself) in their current form. Thus, these forms appear as fetishes, as unavoidable natural phenomena that have always existed. Bourgeois thinking also accepts the values that underpin the existence of these fetishes. Thus, it is considered perfectly natural to be competitive with each other (people with each other, businesses with each other, state budgets with each other) in order to enlarge our bank accounts as much as possible. Thus, for the capitalist mode of production, the meaning of life is competition, accumulation of wealth, and, as a consequence, hard work.

It is very disappointing for me as a socialist philosopher to see people and politicians who have totally accepted these values then claim to be democrats or socialists, but this is precisely what happened during the Greek pre-election campaign. The parties who call themselves socialists – Pasok, [1] Democratic Left, [2] Syriza, [3] and even the Communist Party – had no hesitation in advertising their faith in competition and the accumulation of wealth – that is to say, growth. Unfortunately, this belief was also embraced by the majority of Greek voters. As in other countries, almost everyone in Greece has fetishized the rule of money. Any disagreements were and are focused and expended on how the accumulation of wealth, or growth, can be achieved in the least painful way.

Maybe the biggest ally in our effort to de-fetishize the rule of money, besides Marx of course, is the philosopher-founder of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer. For Horkheimer, traditional-bourgeois theory is shackled within a dualism of thought and being, since, “There is always, on the one hand, the conceptually formulated knowledge and, on the other, the facts to be subsumed under it.”[4]

“The whole perceptible world … as interpreted within a traditional world-view,” wrote Horkheimer, “is seen by the perceiver as a sum-total of facts; it is there and must be accepted.”[5] Rather than attempting to penetrate through the “fact,” inside the form, the traditional-liberal philosopher instead classifies it and compares it to other similar forms. He falls “victim to the illusion that property and profit no longer play a key role, an illusion carefully fostered in the social sciences.”[6] The ideas through which traditional theory explains the world are “free exchange, free competition, harmony of interests.”

By contrast, Horkheimer’s critical theory analysis reveals that form-fetishes, such as the state or value as money, are the mystified appearance of what Karl Marx called “the enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world,” [7] that is, the irrational way in which people come into contact with each other to satisfy their basic human needs, the irrationality of subordinating our existence to the logic of capital, the logic of “time is money.” He also stresses that the presence of the real historical contradictions that are presupposed in the fetishized picture of the world painted by traditional theory becomes evident in the “conflict between the emancipated individual of bourgeois society and his fate within that society.”[8] Therefore, a “tension characterizes all the concepts of the critical way of thinking”[9] since forms are the mystified way in which the contradiction is being expressed. What is this contradiction? It is the fact that, on the one hand, we have to act as “ghosts of capital” haunted by the logic of the accumulation of wealth and hard work in order to survive, but on the other hand, this subordination perpetuates the existence of the fetish forms that dominate us. So, instead of fulfilling our needs – the need for health care, for education, for being able to sustain a decent living through our work – we are being pressured to defer meeting these basic needs until an unspecified time in the future and to accept a lower standard of living in order for growth to take place.

In identity-liberal thinking, the validity of the existing forms is presupposed; human rationality is absolute, the state and bourgeois democracy are forms completely capable of fulfilling human needs, and the multiplication of money is perfectly natural. Hence, crisis and other phenomena of social decomposition are attributed not to the way that we have organized the most important social relation, the way we work, but to the incompetence of certain persons. Arguments in favor of governmental stability presuppose the unwitting acceptance of the irrationality that lies hidden in the capitalist mode of production and which appears as state, as growth, as bourgeois democracy.

The role of the politician or the political theorist should therefore not be to devise another long-term plan or a plan B in case plan A does not work, or to guarantee stability and certainty. All such plans are doomed to be in vain since we will still live under the irrationality of the capitalist mode of production, under an unstable system that inevitably creates contradictions that prove the fallacy of such plans. The role of a politician or party following non-identity, socialist thinking would be to urge people not to wait for any saviour, not to believe in any programs that presuppose the rule of money over human needs, not to trust any technocrat or the supposed vanguard general committee of any party. Unfortunately, almost no party did this in Greece.

Cracks open in capitalism when we start de-fetishizing, de-naturalizing the system. We do this when we give priority to human needs by standing up to the tremendous pressure upon us to subordinate our existence to the rule of money that must multiply itself, meaning to the rule of the accumulation and multiplication of money, the rule of producing exchange values for the sake of producing exchange values.

The fight for human dignity does not encompass a search for a healthy growth, for hard work, for easy accumulation of wealth, for competition, as the majority of the so-called “socialist” parties in Greece and elsewhere believe. Rather, the fight starts with the negative restlessness of our rejecting the rule of money, which unfolds in our power to say no. This fight cannot wait for growth or for accumulation of money to take place. Both the elite that governs Europe in practice – the European Committee, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – and the elite of the Greek parliamentary system terrorized the Greek people into believing that if they stood up to the rule of the accumulation of money and fought for a decent living, they would be thrown out of the EU, forced to return to the drachma, and consequently face total disaster in the country. When a proponent has run out of arguments in favor of his policy, the only way for him to manufacture consent is by terrorizing people through creating scenarios about what will happen if an alternative policy is followed. The Greek mass media did precisely this by continually bombarding the Greek people with a terrifying narrative of the sequence of events that would necessarily follow should Greece seek an alternative to the bourgeois-liberal prescription of austerity and remaining part of the euro zone, without any serious discussion about the advantages or disadvantages of a return to the drachma. Unfortunately, the prophets of doom won, and the irrationality of Greek people’s existence, instability and uncertainty are set to continue, no matter how stable the new coalition government is supposed to be.

[1] One of the three parties that formed a governmental coalition after the election of 17th June 2012.

[2] One of the three parties that have formed a governmental coalition after the 17th June 2012 election.

[3] The party with the second highest number of votes and thus the largest opposition party.

[4] Horkheimer, Max, (1972) ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’ in Horkheimer, M. Critical Theory. Selected Essays. New York: Herder and Herder, p, 193.

[5] Ibid., p. 199.

[6] Ibid., p. 236.

[7] Marx Karl, (1998) Capital, Volume 3, Collected works 37, International Publishers, p. 817.

[8] Horkheimer, M. (2002) ‘The Latest Attack on Metaphysics’, in Horkheimer, M. Critical Theory. Selected Essays. New York: Continuum, p. 138.

[9] Horkheimer, Max, (1972) ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’ in Horkheimer, M. Critical Theory. Selected Essays. New York: Herder and Herder, p, 208.