Paul Mattick

Paul Mattick lehrt Philosophie an der Adelphi-Universität New York. Der Sohn des bekannten gleichnamigen Rätekommunisten (1904– 1981) veröffentlichte bei unseren Freunden vom Nautilus Verlag die lesenswerte Flugschrift »Business As Usual. Krise und Scheitern des Kapitalismus«. Wir haben mit ihm über den nahenden G20-Gipfel in Hamburg gesprochen.

The G20 aspires to solve the present-day problems of capitalism, which has been running anything but smoothly for years. The financial crisis of 2008 seems to have evolved into a crisis of legitimacy for the entire economic and political system. Where does global capitalism stand today?

Paul Mattick: The present-day problems are a new, altered version of the problems capitalism has had for over a hundred years: a tendency, produced by the mechanization of the production process for rates of profit to fall and so for the growth of capital investment to slow down. This problem can only be solved by a major depression, serious enough to allow for the destruction of huge masses of investment value, which would make possible higher profit rates and so a new prosperity. Unless the G-20 is ready to accept the consequences of this–with its mass unemployment, mass bankruptcies, and disruption of global trade, their meeting will prove fruitless.

The 2008 crisis was contained by means of financial injections for »systemically relevant banks«, bailout packages, and austerity measures. Unlike other countries, in which the consequences of the crisis manifested themselves openly, the crisis in Germany was virtually invisible. How is the situation in your country? Has the crisis been overcome?

In the USA the 2008 crisis was contained but not overcome. Unemployment remains high (the low rates are due almost entirely to the exit of workers from the labor force, because they have given up looking for work). There is little investment. Cities–even large ones–are going bankrupt or are nearing bankruptcy because the erosion of their tax base makes it impossible for them to pay their bills. The federal government remains preoccupied with seizing every cent possible for the wealthiest Americans, at the cost of the few pitiful social programs that exist.

Germany has pursued a ruthless austerity policy in Europe, while its huge export surpluses are the focus of global criticism. With that said, what is your perception of Germany‘s actions during the crisis?

They are completely rational, from the point of view of a capitalist state.

Brexit, Trump’s »America First« or Orban’s »illiberal democracy« in Hungary; how do you explain the global renaissance of right-wing and reactionary movements?

The ongoing economic stagnation has led worldwide to a dismantling of social-democratic-style social measures, along with increased unemployment and worsening working and living conditions. This has led to a general loss of faith in the the center or center-left parties that oversaw the downward slide. Those who still vote hope the right wing will do better. And anyway, people can find it easier to blame »foreigners« for their troubles than the rulers at home, who seem established in their dominant place by the laws of nature.

The term »populism« is often used in the discourse around the international reactionary rollback. To us it seems that this term is rather vague and non descript. Doesn’t all the talk of »populism« actually exceed the real political substance of these phenomena? Or does the term fit its fuzzy subject, because the old categories of left/right no longer apply?

It is not possible in this short space to really examine the history of the term »populism.« It is fuzzy and in fact misleading, because historically »populism« actually championed some interests of some of »the people,« which is not true of today’s »populists.« As you suggest, the use of the term does point to the disappearance of the illusion of a left–though the right remains alive and well.

Given the left has been overly focussed on cultural and identitarian issues and all but abandoned the material problems of wage earners and the precarious, could the left be to blame for thecurrent swing to the right?

The »left« simply refers to the more or less neo-social-democratic parties, whose old economic and social programs have become increasingly impossible thanks to the decline of the economy. They are able to distinguish their political brand by championing the causes of some oppressed social groups–especially when it costs no money, like being in favor of gay marriage; matters like raising the minimum wage, ensuring women’s reproductive care, or preserving the environment get less action.

In a recent interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, Didier Eribon remarked that the rhetoric of the Spanish left party Podemos is exactly the same as the right-wing Front National. Is it true that many people on the left regard the abandonment of universalism and the embracement of the nation as a recipe against the rise of the right? Where will this strategy lead?

It will lead to the normal dead end for »people on the left,« always the first to suffer in nationalistic times unless they give up their old ideas. This is another, good example of the near-meaninglessness of the concept »left« today.

There is a broad mobilization against the G20 summit 2017 in Hamburg. It seems as if the entire German left has lapsed into activism that is no different from other summit protests (Heiligendamm 2007, Prague 2002, Genoa and Gothenburg 2001). After the events of 2016 (Trump, Brexit, etc), doesn’t this form of protest seem outdated? Wouldn’t it be better to pause for a moment in order to self-critically reflect on the reality and possibilities of left practice?

Self-critical reflection is always a good idea. Demonstrating also plays a real role in people’s lives–allowing them to feel solidarity with like-minded people, to enjoy for a moment the idea of democratic action. Of course, the demonstrations will have no effect, as they never have in such cases. That so many people want to do it anyway is a good sign for the future. Perhaps self-critical reflection will show the way to more effective forms of action.

The planned protests in Hamburg are often met with objections. Some critics argue that in these times of increased isolation it is a good thing that government leaders and heads of state still talk to each other. Others criticise that the summit protests unnecessarily focus on a mere symbolic gathering of power, and therefore without serious effect, regardless of possible disruption to the meeting. Do you share this criticism?

The G-20 meeting is symbolic, since they actually can’t accomplish anything; so it is appropriate that the demonstrations against it are also symbolic. Until people are ready to, say, tear down the remaining coal plants in Germany, burn army barracks, and occupy workplaces, schools, and housing, symbolic protests are what there is to do.

What would the discourse be like if the G20 summit took place in your country? What kind of protests would you expect?

Probably there would be the same empty phrases as there will be in Hamburg, with more worry about the weird behavior of the American president. There probably would not be many protests. American don’t have the concept of »world capitalism« that in some way many Europeans understand.

Where does the left stand 150 years after the publication of »Capital« and 100 years after the October Revolution?

October was over by 1921; today the myth of October has mostly vanished from the earth, except for a few Old Believers. Capital remains largely unread. This doesn’t matter very much–if the billions of people who must act to change the world can’t figure out what to do on their own, they are doomed to an unpleasant future. They probably will not have time to master Marx’s value theory before the Antarctic ice sheet melts. Which is no argument against studying Marx if you have the time and the inclination!