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Capitalism Is Experiencing an Existential Crisis

Capitalism Is Experiencing an Existential Crisis


Marianne2, with France Culture, has presented a series of interviews by Antoine Mercier with various intellectuals on the subject of the economic crisis. To close the series, economist and epistemologist Christian Arnsperger evokes the existential crisis of capitalism.

Antoine Mercier: You are an economist and an epistemologist, a researcher at the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique de Belgique [Belgium’s National Fund for Scientific Research]. You assert that we are witnessing an “existential crisis of capitalism …” What do you mean by that?

Christian Arnsperger: When I talk about an existential crisis, I mean that, in fact, the roots of this crisis are existential and found in each one of us. So we could talk about an anthropological crisis. Often people contrast the financial crisis with the economic crisis in the real economy. I don’t believe it’s a valid distinction because finance is but the most abstract counterpart of our drives towards possession and accumulation. The money that circulates in finance symbolizes not only “my power to own,” but also my power to command someone else’s labor for my own ends. Why does each one of us aspire to that power? Why do we all want to possess and accumulate? It’s because we have needs and we also have cravings. The brilliant and diabolical logic of capitalism plays on the confusion between “needs” and “cravings.” That’s why we run after consumption and accumulation. Consequently, it’s a system that creates repetitive compulsions for most of us – in any case, for those who have the means to treat themselves to certain things – and that simultaneously creates structural inequalities. On top of that, it introduces a necessity for growth since this entire machine is based essentially on credit and debt. We are therefore in a kind of infernal machine where these three elements run in a continuous loop.

Mercier: Can a person do without this “infernal machine?”

Arnsperger:One cannot do without the economy, but one can and one will have to do without capitalism. This existential crisis of the economy is a truly essential crisis of capitalism, the symptom of a profound malaise. The existential crisis of the economy we are participating in today rests primarily on a crisis of confidence. People consume less, have a tendency to slow down accumulation and investment. But what stands out from my research work in philosophy of the economy is that capitalist consumption, investment and accumulation are themselves a symptom of the lack of fundamental confidence in life and in the future.

Mercier: From what point in time has this infernal machine been in place?

Arnsperger:In fact, capitalism has very old religious roots. It’s a material religion. If I talk about an existential crisis, it’s because we cannot, as human beings, do without a response to our profound lack, to the existential anguish that our humanity assigns us. The Western capitalist experience was an attempt to satisfy this anguish of being by supplying it with having. It provided benefits for a long time and it’s now beginning to show its limits.

Mercier: Who are the theorists of this endeavor? Adam Smith?

Arnsperger: Adam Smith believed in Divine Providence. He certainly contributed to this system, but he did not literally claim that the invisible hand of the market was God. Anthropologists and philosophers were subsequently able to construct this idea, were able to develop it.

Mercier: One doesn’t spontaneously realize that one is located in such a field of belief …

Arnsperger: And yet, it is inevitable that there should be a field of belief. We need a response to our existential anguish. When our decision makers say that it’s all about a crisis of confidence in capitalism, they’re right. It’s true that at the superficial level of the system’s operation, pessimistic expectations appear that are self-fulfilling because no believes it’s going to work … there are no more interbank loans; there are no more investment loans to businesses; employment is falling; consumption is falling, etc. … Therefore, in the short run, superficially, it’s true that one has the impression that the problem comes from people’s lack of confidence in the future. And people try to restore confidence by having us consume and invest again. However, I maintain the opposite view: it’s because people have no confidence in life and in the future that we consume, that we overconsume, and that we ceaselessly hurl ourselves into a competitive race. Ivan Illich would have said that we manufacture heteronomous prostheses, that is, prostheses that complete us, instead of working on our own autonomy. Autonomy is stolen from us by the system, although it promises to deliver it to us.

That means that for centuries we have constructed a culture based on the material and also symbolic fulfillment of a profound existential vacuum that makes us progressively take material goods, but also images and ideas for what I would call spiritual goods. And, in consequence, we act as though we have confidence in life by accumulating, by consuming, while, in fact, this accumulation and this consumption are radical acts of lack of confidence in the future and in life itself.

Mercier: How long can this crisis last?

Arnsperger: I think we cannot know the answer to that question, since capitalism has become so complex in the scientific sense of that term that it’s extremely difficult, even impossible, to predict. Can it all start up again as before? I fear so, since our political and economic decision makers – who have a very short-term vision – have thrown themselves into recovery measures … Will they be adequate? That’s one question … but in any case, they could work and then I think we would have, in fact, missed an opportunity! It’s a little bit sad to say, but often crises in the existence of a human being are opportunities to simultaneously suffer and to fundamentally change things …

Mercier: Is it conceivable that everything should start up again without the symptoms of this “existential” crisis reappearing for a more or less long term?

Arnsperger: They will reappear. In truth, we have a choice between two remedies. A shock cure that consists of administering the economic machine an antibiotic such that the endemic virus will be eradicated, but then we leave capitalism … Or, on the other hand, a remedy – the one that has been chosen – which consists of putting the patient on a drip. The virus will be able to continue to act from inside the organism and will lead to constant and permanent relapses, but that remedy will be reused each time under the pretext of a new recovery … However, it is also possible in principle that we could witness a scenario in which no one wants American Treasury bills any more – or French ones – which would truly pitch governments into major budgetary catastrophes. The Greek affair is but a micro example of what could happen on a far larger scale.

Mercier: What can be done to get out of this situation?

Arnsperger: There are essentially two things to be done: on the one hand, promote a new vision of morality through education and the media, and, on the other hand, it is very important to encourage a burst of self-criticism from the citizens we are because we are all active participants in this system. We must not believe that there are villains and good guys. We are all, in our roles as consumers, investors, coupon clippers, active participants in this system of anguish.

I propose the implementation of three kinds of ethos. First, an ethics of willful simplicity, a return towards a much more frugal conviviality … The second ethos: a radical democratization of our institutions, including our economic institutions, proceeding to the democratization of companies … And third: an ethos of profound equalitarianism, going so far as “a universal allocation,” that is, an unconditional base income paid to all citizens …

Mercier: Do you believe politicians could be influenced by this discourse?

Christian Arnsperger: Obviously this type of thing doesn’t go over so well politically. But it’s more about creating a movement. At the moment, I don’t much believe in a transition through traditional politics. My aim consists of affecting the citizen movements that are much more capable of taking charge of our collective destiny. Politicians are in the short term because that’s how democracy operates. They’re not capable of envisaging the great reforms that have always come from democracy itself, from citizens’ movements that have assumed control of the philosophical ideas constructed by certain intellectuals in the service of the people. Criticism of capitalism frequently occurs through immediately political ideas: we must change the rules of the system; we must … very well, but the rules of the system will not be endorsed by people if there’s no change in mentality. I think it requires a truly radical change of vision, in understanding what makes us participate in this system.

Mercier: If we stop consuming – if we no longer can consume – what will we do with our anguish?

Arnsperger: Throughout time, all the great spiritual – I’m not saying necessarily religious in the strict sense of the term – traditions have proposed answers to that. Read Gandhi, read the Gospels; read whatever you like on that subject. Moreover – believe me – the bookstores are full of responses. In the paths to inner change, one tries to recreate an authentic capacity for oneself to live an autonomous life.

Mercier: What do you mean by “autonomous life?”

Arnsperger: It goes without saying that I am not advocating individualism, isolation or self-sufficiency at all. I refer to the very great Ivan Illich, who, by the way, should urgently be reintroduced for the present times. The general idea is that we must recreate a critical conviviality. Each person must personally conquer his autonomy; each person must do the work of de-conditioning himself; perform a self-critique of his own complicity with the system. That occurs through an anchoring in the locality and in power-sharing, in an ethos that I call neither communist nor communitarian, but rather a “communalist” ethos that leads to willful simplicity and radical democratization that result in a relocalization of the economy. It’s not about becoming protectionist or self-sufficient. The human being, whether we like it or not, is an anchored being. Simone Weil said “a rooted being.” Now, rootedness gets lost in globalized capitalism. We must recover it through a labor of personal research with the support of a commune, as they called it in the Nineteenth Century.

Mercier: Doesn’t that risk being appropriated in a politically restrictive mode?

Arnsperger: Anything may be appropriated. I completely agree that this is an issue about which one must be vigilant at all times. The new militants must be free beings. There’s an anarchist aspect, an aspect of emergence from the base. It’s not about giving this sort of program as fodder for a political party. It’s not a political project in the traditional sense; it’s a citizen project. Nor is it a restrictive project that would directly call for legislation, for laws. Some people talk of measures such as the Maximum Authorized Income, the RMA. However, I think that that sort of thing establishes itself of itself. Some intellectuals on the left are going to tell me: “Yes, but you are completely idealistic; that will never work; people will never do it.” Well, if people don’t ever do it, we must, perhaps, resolve that capitalism is the least bad system. For myself, I truly believe in citizen emergence and not in traditional political constraint.

Mercier: Are there pioneers in the matter?

Arnsperger: Absolutely … Groups are now developing called “groups of willful simplicity.” They are groups of people of all ages, of all views, more and less wealthy, who come together without constraint to share their experiences of attempts to simplify their existence, against a background of reflection on the meaning of the system. And that is happening absolutely spontaneously …

Mercier: As an example, what comes up most often in this reflection on the simplification of peoples’ existence?

Arnsperger: Simply the question of encumberment. Each person poses the psycho-spiritual question of “alienation” to herself. How is it possible that I should be so encumbered, that I should have to make so many of what Ivan Illich called “so many counterproductive detours” in my life? How is it that I lose my life in the attempt to better it, while, in fact, the net improvement is virtually zero, even sometimes negative? In consequence, people ask themselves a pile of questions about how to disencumber their lives, also the way to no longer collaborate with the ambient logic: “Must I invest my money elsewhere, must I no longer invest my money, but then what must I do with it; must I earn less; no longer spend at all?” There are a pile of questions that may seem a little naive at the outset, but which are, in fact, extremely poignant.

Mercier: What social milieu is principally involved?

Arnsperger: All milieus, that’s what’s surprising. In the ’60s and ’70s, hippie milieus tended to be young, well-off circles; which explains, by the way, how the hippie movement gave way to the consumerism of the 1980’s! Today, this movement affects grandparents, youth, teachers, people truly from all backgrounds, even wealthy people. We observe that the social – the sociological – spectrum is truly surprisingly broad … And the movement is on the rise.

Mercier: And all that is not going to make for a boring world?

Arnsperger: Not at all … that will make for a finally convivial world, rid of the compulsions we are presently tangled up in …

Translation: Truthout French Language EditorLeslie Thatcher.

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