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Rail: A decade after Guy Debord, you published Les Aventures de la marchandise [

The Adventures of the Commodity] (2003), which was an attempt to provide for the f
irst time to a wide public a systematic exposition of the critical theory of capit
alism developed by the German Critique of Value group, particularly as it was arti
culated by the late German critical theorist Robert Kurz. You have since become
arguably the best-known proponent of the Critique of Value in France. What is th
e Critique of Value? How did your association with it come about and why has it
come to define your work?
Jappe: I conceived of my book Guy Debord not as the contemplation of some past p
henomenon, but as a contribution to the elaboration of a new understanding of la
te capitalism and the possibilities of overcoming it. So I was looking for other
radical analyses of the sorry state of the world. Around 1993 I came across the
Critique of Value and the German review Krisis. I was particularly struck by Ro
bert Kurz s argument that the collapse of the USSR did not mean that capitalism ha
d finally triumphed but that it had, rather, taken another step in the direction
of its final crisis. The Krisis group s affirmation that commodity fetishism, and
not class struggle, constitutes the core of capitalist society convinced me all
the more as Debord s theory had already stressed the importance of categories lik
e alienation, fetishism, the commodity, and value (although without renouncing t
he class-struggle paradigm). Another aspect that links Situationist ideas to the
Critique of Value is the critique of labor. Debord gave us the slogan Never Work
! and called for the abolition of alienated labor. The Critique of Value no longer
considers labor to be the opposite of capital and the agent of its overcoming (a
s in traditional Marxism), but rather a part of the valorization of value by mea
ns of abstract labor. Abstract labor means labor without quality, labor consider
ed as pure expenditure of human energy measured by time, without any specific co
ntent. It is therefore a destructive form of social production, since it cannot
take into account its content and consequences. For Krisis, the essence of Marx s
theory is in his critical account of labor and value, commodity and money: these
are not natural but historical categories that characterize only capitalist soc
iety, and they are not neutral categories that emancipatory forces could seize h
old of; rather, they are in their very structure alienated forms of human activi
ty. The production of use values exists only as a kind of appendage to value-pro
duction, which consists in the transformation of a sum of money into a bigger su
m of money and this can only be done by adding labor to labor, without any conside
ration of its real usefulness.
Class struggle is the form in which the historical development of the logic of v
alue took shape. The workers movement, in its various currents, was mostly a stru
ggle for a fairer redistribution of the basic categories that were no longer que
stioned: money and value, labor and the commodity. They were therefore essential
ly forms of immanent critique, linked to the ascending phase of capitalism, when
there was still something to distribute. But from the very start, there was a m
ajor contradiction lurking inside the process of value-production: only living l
abor labor in the act of its execution creates value. Technology does not. However,
competition between various capitals also forces every owner of capital to use t
echnology as much as possible in order to increase the productivity of his worke
rs. This allows him to gain more profit in the short term. However, the value co
ntained in every single commodity also diminishes. Only a continuous increase in
the total mass of commodities can compensate this decrease in the value of each
commodity, but this mechanism creates the insanity of production for the sake o
f production, with all of the terrible ecological consequences that we now know
about. This compensation mechanism cannot last forever and, from the 1970s onwar
ds, the microelectronic revolution definitively destroyed much more labor than i
t created. Since that time capitalism finds itself stuck in a never-ending crisi
s. This crisis is no longer cyclical; rather it is caused by capitalism reaching
its inner limits. Only the massive expansion of debt and of financial markets c
ontinues to mask the profound exhaustion of capitalist production. Faced with th
is new situation, the question is no longer how to improve workers conditions ins

ide of this commodity system, but how to get out of the system of money and valu
e, commodity and labor, altogether. This is no longer a utopian project but rath
er the only possible reaction to the real end of money and value, commodity and
labor, which is already taking place. The only question is whether there will be
an emancipatory outcome or a general barbarization.
For more than twenty years now I have contributed to the elaboration and diffusi
on of the Critique of Value because this approach is, in my eyes at least, the o
nly one that gets at the very core of the capitalist system instead of limiting
itself to describing individual phenomena. It particularly takes into account th
e fact that today, on a global level, the production of superfluous populations is
an even bigger problem than exploitation. I am convinced that this kind of theo
retical critique and its practical consequences are the only alternative to the
rising tide of populism which restricts its critique to opposition to banks, spe
culation and the financial sphere, and which could result in a dangerous mix of
left-wing and traditional right-wing opinion.
Rail: Perhaps the most radical and central argument of the Critique of Value is
that work (or labor) is an entirely negative and destructive social form that is
, moreover, historically specific to capitalism. How does your critique of work
differ from traditional autonomist or anarchist critiques of work? How does this
critique of work separate the Critique of Value from other grand theories of soci
al emancipation?
Jappe: Practically the entire workers movement even in its anarchist forms was a defe
nse of labor and the workers perspective. Labor was thought to be an eternal, ont
ological principle, identical with man s organic exchange with nature. As such, work
ers were glorified as the incarnation of this good principle and the exploiters th
at owned the means of production were simply seen as parasites. The commodity, v
alue, money, and abstract labor were understood to be the technical bases of eve
ry possible form of production; and the socialist, communist, or anarchist socie
ty of the future was to consist in the rational or proletarian or democratic managemen
t of these categories. In the best-case scenario, there was the promise that the
y would be abolished in some very distant future. It must be said that Marx hims
elf was often rather ambiguous about this and sometimes questioned the supra-his
torical status of labor. He described the twofold nature of labor concrete and abstr
act and termed it his most important discovery. More than a hundred years later, the
Critique of Value rediscovered this aspect of Marx s theory. What we might call tr
aditional Marxism, however, went in the opposite direction: labor, especially ind
ustrial labor, would forever remain the basis of any society. Although the very
beginnings of the workers movement, in the form of the Luddites and French protosocialists, had been characterised by a certain refusal of industrial labor, the
movement was soon completely caught up in the mythology of progress and labor s r
ole in its realization. The goal became to free labor, not to free people from l
abor. This approach reached its peak in Lenin s and Gramsci s admiration of Henry Fo
rd and the Taylorization of work. In the USSR, China, and elsewhere, the workers r
evolution essentially meant making people work more and harder than ever before,
but telling them, at the same time, that they were now the owners of the means o
f production.
The radical left only ever condemned the stranglehold that the bureaucratic appa
ratus had on the socialist collectivization of property, but not the role of lab
or itself and how it was organized. Even anarchists tended to take part in the c
ult of the worker. It was only among artists, poets, and bohemians in particular,
the Surrealists that you could find a refusal of labor. After 1968, a rejection of
labor began to emerge within some sectors of the working class, particularly in
Northern Italy, and among many young people who no longer identified with spend
ing their life working. On the one hand, this turned out to be a kind of laborat
ory for new, more flexible, postmodern forms of work that claim to overcome the ve
ry distinction between work and leisure. On the other hand, in autonomist and post-

workerist tendencies you can find a refusal of heteronomous labor. This refusal,
however, remained subjective, without a theoretical understanding of the twofold
nature of labor, and therefore led to dubious results: either praising the mach
ines that are supposed to work in our place, which results in technophilia and a
n acceptance of a process whereby human beings are replaced by technology, or ce
lebrating freelancing, in which it is believed people manage their own labor and
own the means of production themselves (in the information and communication se
ctor, for example), even though they remain completely dependent on market mecha
nisms. Typically, post-workerist theorists speak of self-valorization as a positiv
e goal, instead of questioning the whole process whereby the usefulness of a pro
duct is subordinate to the value it is given by the amount of dead labor it contai
ns.
The approach of the Critique of Value is very different because it insists on th
e twofold nature of labor in capitalist society (and only in capitalist society):
the use-value of each commodity does not matter; it is only the quantity of abst
ract labor it contains (or represents ) that counts. This means that labor, as such,
is reduced to the simple expenditure of human energy. It s the abstract side, the v
alue side, in its visible form as money, which dominates the concrete. The laws o
f the creation and circulation of value impose themselves on the whole of societ
y and leave no place for conscious, subjective decisions, not even for the ruling
classes: this is what Marx calls commodity fetishism. It is not natural, but rathe
r an inversion of the normal relationship between abstract and concrete. The abs
urd tyranny of labor in modern society is the direct consequence of the structur
al role of abstract labor. If we don t take this into account, any rebellion again
st labor remains superficial.
Rail: With recent events in Greece still fresh in everyone s minds, it is clear th
at the 2008 financial crisis was far from being a mere upset in an otherwise hea
lthy capitalist body. In contrast to those who simply put these crises down to b
ad management or capitalist greed, how does the Critique of Value help us to und
erstand what is going on structurally, behind the appearance of these near-fatal
collapses of financial systems and national economies?
Jappe: Bourgeois theorists have always believed capitalism to be everlasting becau
se, they claim, it is in accordance with human nature. For them, all crises are on
ly cyclical and transient: they are understood to be the result of imbalances be
tween supply and demand, or are even praised as a form of creative destruction. Fo
r Marxists, capitalism is transitory and doomed to be overcome one day, but its
abolition was always expected to be the result of the revolutionary actions of t
he working class or some other organized adversary. The possibility that capital
ism might have inner limits that would be reached was almost never really taken
into consideration after Marx s death. When mainstream Marxism predicted a final c
ollapse, it always assumed that this would take the form of a political revoluti
on that would result from the intolerable conditions created by capitalist explo
itation. There is, however, a very important factor that was not considered: the
shrinking of the mass of value (and profit) in the long run that I mentioned be
fore. This problem appeared only in a limited way: the fall of the rate of profi
t.
After capitalism was able to successfully incorporate immanent critiques into it
self, particularly during the Keynesian-Fordist boom that followed the second Wo
rld War, many Marxists became definitively convinced that capitalism would never
encounter another economic crisis and that only subjective discontent could bri
ng about its overcoming. The Situationists, like the Frankfurt school, held comp
letely to this perspective. As I mentioned before, however, this totally changed
after the 1970s. The accumulation of capital reached its limits because its bas
e, the extraction of surplus value from living labor, became smaller and smaller
as the importance of living labor continuously waned. The result is that capita
lism is now only able to survive through simulation; that is, by anticipating fu

ture profits which will never arrive through credit. The Critique of Value has been
saying this since 1987. In the 1990s, empirical evidence seemed to go against th
is argument, but after 2008 everyone has started talking about how profound the
crisis is. The reality is that 2008 was just a foreshock of the crisis of capita
lism and it was in no way a real collapse. Even on the left and the radical left
, however, belief in the ever-lasting life of capitalism is surprisingly strong!
It is very common to see the crisis blamed on financial markets choking the real
economy. The truth is the complete opposite: credit alone allows the continued si
mulation of value-production which means profit once real accumulation has come to a
n almost complete stop. Even the massive exploitation of workers in Asia contrib
utes very little to the global mass of profit. Replacing the critique of capital
ism with the critique of financial markets is pure populism and simply means avo
iding the real questions. The real drama is that everybody is still forced to wo
rk in order to live, even when labor is no longer needed in production. The prob
lem is not the greed of specific individuals even if this greed obviously exists and
it cannot be resolved on a moral basis. Bankers and their ilk who, it cannot be d
enied, are very often clearly unpleasant figures are only carrying out the blind l
aws of a fetishistic system that must be criticized as a whole.
Kurz calls this process the desubstantialization of money. As only living labor cr
eates value, it forms its substance. This is not an imaginary process; human energ
y has really been expended and it exists in a certain quantity (even if it might
be very difficult to measure it). Value cannot be created by decree, only by a
real labor process and it has to be productive labor in the capitalist sense (that m
eans that it does not only consume capital but helps to reproduce it). Money can
be created by decree but when it does not correspond to the real amount of labor
that it is supposed to represent, it has no substance and loses its value through so
me form of inflation (although for decades now the explosion of massive inflatio
n has been deferred by parking large sums of fictitious capital in stock markets
, real estate markets, and so on). Here the Critique of Value finds itself in sh
arp contrast to nearly all left-wing economists, who are generally just neo-Keyn
esians.
Rail: You are currently working on a new book, Les Aventures du sujetmoderne [Th
e Adventures of the Modern Subject], which will be a companion piece to your ori
ginal exposition of the Critique of Value, but one that explores in more detail
the subjective side of the capitalist social formation. You argue that the subject
form, like labor, is historically specific to capitalism and that it too is destr
uctive. Drawing on the work of the American social critic Christopher Lasch, you
also claim that this capitalist subjectivity is a form of narcissism. Could you
explain what the link is between your critique of labor and the subject form? H
ow can subjectivity also be historically specific to capitalism? Why is this subje
ct form narcissistic and what role has Lasch s (conservative) critique of modern s
ociety played in the development of your argument?
Jappe: The critique of the notion of the subject became a key aspect of the Critiq
ue of Value quite early on. In traditional Marxism, as in nearly all modern phil
osophy from Descartes onwards, the subject is something that has always existed.
It is an ontological fact. Marxists very quickly identified the subject with th
e working class, which mediates between man and nature and which makes history i
n the form of revolutionary subjects. In this view, emancipation (or revolution ) means
that the subject, which up until this point has been repressed, finally gains a
ll of its rights. The traditional subject philosophies have been severely attacked
since the 1950s, particular in the name of structuralism, linguistics, and psyc
hoanalysis. There were many good reasons for this deconstruction of the subject. H
owever, it did not deconstruct the subject as an historical category and instead
declared that no subject had ever existed nor could ever exist and that it was
just an epistemological error. The Critique of Value, in contrast, focused on Mar
x s concept of commodity fetishism: men make their own history but they do so unco

nsciously. Men create structures ( economic laws, technological imperatives, and so o


n) that end up dominating them, in the same way as in religion. The only real su
bject in capitalist society is value, which Marx calls the automatic subject: valu
e makes human society serve it in order to ensure that its accumulation never en
ds. Men became the servants of their own alienated powers. Yet this is part of a
historical process. History, as it has unfolded up to this point, can be descri
bed as a succession of various forms of fetishism and unconscious, alienated for
ms of social mediation. This has nothing to do with a human condition. It can be o
vercome, at least in principle. This overcoming, however, can no longer be thoug
ht of as the triumph of a pre-existing subject that has survived under the ashes o
f capitalist alienation. We can no longer claim that the people, the masses, the work
ers are, at their core, untouched, unspoiled by the logic of the commodity (compe
tition, greed, opportunism, etc.). This might have been the case in places where
modernity was only starting to emerge, but it doesn t apply any more. If they acc
ept the system, it is not simply the result of media manipulation or something lik
e that. This is equally the limitation of all discourses that call for democratiz
ation.
The modern subject was formed by internalizing the social constraints that were
in preceding societies imposed on individuals from outside. Jeremy Bentham s Panop
ticon is the paradigm of the freedom of the modern subject. The Enlightenment, and
Immanuel Kant in particular, are generally credited with having invented the au
tonomy of the modern subject. However, the philosophers of the Enlightenment Kant
once again being the best example did not identify the subject with the human being as
such, but instead only with those who demonstrated that they were responsible: in
other words, those who succeeded in controlling their spontaneous human drives
and desires. The primary condition for being a subject was to put oneself to wor
k, to conceive of oneself as a worker, and to develop all of the qualities neces
sary for capitalist competition: lack of emotion, denial of immediate satisfacti
on, hard-heartedness towards oneself and others, and so on. Women and non-Europe
an people were not given subject status. Of course, later on in history, they we
re able to achieve it but only after they had proven that they had the same (neg
ative) qualities as white males, who were still, nonetheless, considered to be t
he only true subjects. The subject status is, therefore, largely connected to la
bor; and the overcoming of modern society where people are defined primarily by th
eir contribution to the production of abstract value through labor will also be th
e overcoming of what we call the subject; not to replace it with blind objective str
uctures, but rather with the real blossoming of the individual.
I am trying to develop the critique of the subject further by connecting it to t
he concept of narcissism, in particular through my reading of Lasch s work. Narcis
sism can be understood as the psychological form that corresponds to postmodern
capitalism, in the same way that the classical neurosis described by Freud corre
sponded to classical capitalism. However, narcissism does not simply mean excess
ive self-esteem. As Lasch showed, it means a deep regression into the mixture of
feelings of helplessness and omnipotence that characterizes very early childhoo
d. Human culture is a continuous effort to help the human individual to overcome
this primitive and infantile form of distress. Late capitalism, on the contrary
, stimulates a regression into these primitive structures, principally through c
ultivating the consumerist mentality. It is for this reason that we can meaningf
ully say that postmodern individuals are often extremely immature and explain wh
y some of them easily fall prey to violent behaviour, even to the point of schoo
l shootings and similar phenomena. Today, commodity society is based not so much
on the repression of desire (even if that continues to exist) but rather on cre
ating the feeling that there are no boundaries and no limits. Psychoanalysis is
rather useful for understanding the pathological character of contemporary socie
ty, which is not simply an unjust but rational way of exploiting people for the
benefit of others, but is, for the most part, actually an irrational, destructiv
e, and self-destructive race to the bottom. This has become particularly obvious
with the capitalist crisis of the last decades. However, this is not simply due

to the excesses of neoliberalism. This irrationality lies at the very core of the
structure of value and its indifference to all content, to all quality, to the
world. In Descartes, in 1637, we can already find the whole narcissistic structu
re of a subject that is completely at odds with the external world. We have to g
o far back in time when searching for the roots of this fetishistic and narcissi
stic commodity society.
Rail: In your 2011 collection of essays, Crdit mort, you argue that the new role
art has taken on since the postwar period equally signals the narcissistic turn
in capitalist society. Where, in the past, it was up to art to challenge and jud
ge its audience, to be difficult, today art seeks to pander to the experiences a
nd judgement of its spectators. You have also, as part of this argument, claimed
that we need to respond with a hierarchy of cultural values. Do you think, cont
rary to Debord, that art is still worth saving or that such a thing is still pos
sible? What hierarchy of values do you think could combat this postmodern and na
rcissistic democratization of culture? Why should we treat the decomposition of
art any differently than the decomposition of labor and the subject?
Jappe: One of the most important, and perhaps most shocking, aspects of Situatio
nist agitation was their condemnation of art as another form of spectacle and as
a form of the alienation of human powers in general. For Debord, art, like reli
gion or politics, was one of the forms in which human capacities had developed y
et done so beyond human control. It was now time to bring them back into everyda
y life. There was no contempt for art in this. On the contrary, the Situationist
auto-dpassement, or self-overcoming, of art (in the Hegelian sense of preserving
and abolishing at one and the same time) was the endpoint of the process in whi
ch art questioned its own existence, particularly in France, where it had reache
d a climax with the Dadaists and the Surrealists. The Situationists wanted to co
mplete art s self-destruction in the name of a higher art of everyday life, which wo
uld incorporate the positive aspects of what art had been before.
However, this project, which was originally announced in the 1950s and 1960s, st
ill needed a social revolution in order to be realized. What happened instead af
ter 1968 was the rise of a new form of capitalism, its third spirit, as Luc Boltan
ski and Eve Chiapello call it, which draws heavily on the artistic and bohemian
tradition, incorporating artistic critique into new forms of labor which are now p
resented to the individual as forms of self-realization. This has resulted in an
enormous expansion of the culture industry that completely transformed culture
into a commodity and a tool to sell commodities. Indeed, this has meant that the
re has been a reintegration of art and culture into everyday life, but only in a
perverse way. As a result, it has to be said that art could, or should, try to
be what it has always been at its best: a representation of what could be, the d
ream of a fulfilling life, or, equally, the condemnation of an unbearable world.
The problem is that it seems really hard today to find art that has the capacity
to shake us out of our mental habits, as the avant-gardes or somebody like Edwa
rd Hopper were able to do. It goes without saying that subversion and transgress
ion have simply become selling points. Art ought to give us an existential shock
and lead us to question ourselves (even with displays of beauty shocking does not h
ave to always mean ugly ), instead of simply affirming who we already are. This mea
ns that we can judge works of art on their capacity to enter into an enriching d
ialogue with the spectator (or reader). If we do so, I think we will probably di
scover that Moby-Dick is not on the same level as a manga. And we should say so
loudly, instead of hiding behind the pseudo-democratic levelling of all qualitat
ive judgments. Value is indifferent to all quality and all content; culture shou
ld set itself against this abolition of difference.
Rail: Finally, what do you think the development and shape of a movement of huma
n emancipation might look like in the best possible scenario? In other words, wh
at should human beings be doing in the face of the crisis of capitalism?

Jappe: The question is no longer if we can escape capitalism but how it will hap
pen, because this society is already collapsing all around us, even if it does s
o at various speeds in different sectors and regions of the world. A huge portio
n of humanity has already been designated as garbage and is condemned to survive,
as best it can, often in rubbish dumps or by recycling refuse. Money, value, lab
or, and the commodity are being overcome but in the form of a nightmare. Not a g
reat deal of actual work is needed in production, but we are all forced to work
in order to live. The money currently in circulation is mostly insubstantial, base
d only on credit and confidence. Value-production is shrinking. The real questio
n now is how to construct alternatives and these can only exist in a world beyon
d the market and the state. There are no longer any economic policies or systems,
even if they are fairer or alternative, that can solve this problem because they are
all based on the accumulation of abstract labor. The only role the state can pl
ay in all of this is to be the repressive administrator of the misery created by
the crisis of capitalism. No party, no election, no revolutionary government, no
storming of the Winter Palace can lead to anything other than the continual admi
nistration of commodity society under ever-worsening conditions. This is why all
left-wing politics has completely failed in the last few decades. The left hasn t
even been able to impose Keynesian economic policies or bring back the welfare
state to replace neoliberalism. It s not a question of a lack of will power. Econom
ic laws cannot be humanized. They can only be abolished in order to return to a soc
iety where the satisfaction of needs is not based on an economic sphere that relie
s on labor.
What we need, therefore, could be called a kind of grassroots revolution with a ne
w meaning, one that is not afraid of the necessity of confronting those who defe
nd the ruling order, particularly when it comes to appropriating basic things hous
ing, production facilities, resources by bypassing the mediation of money. We have
to bring together socio-economic struggles against housing evictions, for example
, or the expropriation of land by big companies with environmental and anti-techno
logical struggles against mining, new airports, nuclear power, GMOs, nanotechnolog
y, surveillance and struggles to change people s way of thinking overcoming the commod
ity psyche. That would mean a real transformation of civilization, much more far
-reaching than a mere political or economic change. The transformations I am tal
king about go much further than simply saying, we are the ninety-nine percent: tha
t is just a form of populism that pits a tiny minority of so-called parasites agai
nst us, the honest workers and savers. We are all of us deeply entrenched in this
society and we have to act together on all levels to escape it. Humanity has bee
n completely victorious in its struggle to become the masters of nature, as Descar
tes put it, but it is also more helpless than ever in the face of the society it
has created.
CONTRIBUTOR
Alastair Hemmens
ALASTAIR HEMMENS is a lecturer, researcher, and translator based at Cardiff Univ
ersity School of Modern Languages. This interview was made possible by a Leverhu
lme Trust Early Career Fellowship Grant to conduct research on a project entitle
d: Ne Travaillez jamais: The Critique of Working in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Cen
tury French Thought, from Charles Fourier to Guy Debord.