The Degradation of Culture

Robert Kurz

To most people, a fundamental critique of the modern economy seems to be as insane as an attempt to go through the wall instead of the door. Indeed, if viewed from a distance, this economy seems to have all the characteristics of insanity, but since the criteria of the capitalist machine have been generally internalized, they are accepted as normal. For when the insane are
a majority, then insanity becomes a citizen's duty. Under this pressure, the critique of society retreats from the field of economics and searches for an alternative. Especially the left does not like it, when someone drills into the nerve of the ruling economic conditions: It hurts, when one is reminded of one's own unconditional surrender. That is why the theoretically disarmed left prefers to denounce any serous critique of the market, of money, and of the fetishism of commodities as an old-fashioned and unfruitful "economism" that one personally has long since left behind.

And with what does a critique of society occupy itself with, when it really is no longer what it is? In the past, the major field of evasion was politics. There was even the claim of regulating the common affairs (and also even the economy) of the commodity-producing system with a "discourse of reason" by the members of society within the political institutions. Of that, there remains almost nothing. Politics has long since been degraded to a dependent, secondary functional sphere of the totalitarian economy. Today the capitalist end in itself has eaten away the earlier assumed "relative independence" of politics. Because of this, the critique of society in the postmodern era flees from politics into culture, just as it previously fled from economics into politics. The postmodern left has become "culturalistic" in every respect and in all seriousness believes that it can somehow act "subversively" in the area of art, mass culture, the media, and the theory of media, whereas it has practically given up the critique of capitalist economy and only listlessly mentions it.

But no matter in what area of society the now-silent-about-critical-economics left flees, the capitalist economy is always there and scornfully grins at it. It is indeed correct, "that this economy has divorced itself from society," as the French social critic Viviane Forrester has written in her book about "the terror of the economy." However, capitalism has only forgotten society in a social sense, but without having released it from its clutches. On the contrary, the totalitarian economy jealously keeps watch so that nothing on earth occurs which does not directly serve the profit-maximizing end in itself. And at the present, that also applies to culture.

The modern economy accordingly developed to the same extent as the capitalist sphere of industrial production split off from the rest of the areas of life. Culture in its broadest sense seemed to be an "outer-economic" activity which was banned as mere refuse of life into the so-called "leisure time." That was the first degradation of culture in the modern era: To a certain extent, it transformed itself into a nonserious activity and a mere "residual time." But as soon as capitalism completely ruled the material reproduction of society, its insatiable appetite expanded to the immaterial elements of life and it began to collect the split-off areas piece by piece and subjugate them under its inherent business administrative rationality as much as possible. That was the second degradation of culture: it was industrialized itself.

What Marx said about the transformation of material production was thereby repeated, for culture also experienced the transition from the "formal" to the "real" subsumption under capital: At first, the cultural assets were included only formally, then afterwards as real objects of buying and selling by the logic of money. So in the course of the 20th century their creation increasingly became based a priori on capitalist criteria. Capital did now no longer just want to be the agent for the circulation of cultural assets, instead it wanted to control the total process of reproduction. Art and mass culture, science and sports, religion and erotica were increasingly produced like automobiles, refrigerators, or washing powder. With that, the producers of culture lost their "relative independence." The production of songs and novels, scientific discoveries and theoretical reflections, movies, pictures and symphonies, and sports and spiritual events could likewise take place only as a production of capital (surplus-value). That was the third degradation of culture.

At any rate, in the era of prosperity after the Second World War there existed a social buffer, which partially protected culture in many countries from the total grip of the economy. That was the mechanism of Keynesian redistribution. "Deficit spending" did not only feed military armaments and the welfare state, but also certain areas of culture. Of course, the state subsidization placed strong limits on the independence of culture. However, the control by the state was open to discussion by the public and not complete: One can talk to officials and politicians in the event of a conflict, but not with the non-subjective "laws of the market." With the mediation of "culture Keynesianism", a part of cultural production was only indirectly dependent on the logic of money. As long as radio and television, universities and galleries, artistic and theoretical projects were state managed or subsidized, they did not directly have to subjugate themselves under business administrative criteria and there existed certain margins for critical reflection, experiments, and minor "unprofitable arts," without the threats of immediate material sanctions.

This situation has completely changed since the beginning of the new world crisis and the therefore concurrent neo-liberal campaign. The end of socialism and Keynesianism had to hit culture the hardest, for of course the funds were first cut here. The states have not disarmed militarily, but culturally. For a small part of the cultural spectrum, private sponsoring has taken the place of government support. There are no longer any social and cultural civil rights, but only the charitable capriciousness of the capitalist winners. The producers of culture are subjected to the personal moods of the moguls of capital and mandarins of management, for whose bored wives they serve as hobbies and pastimes. Like the court-jesters and servants of the Middle Ages, they have to wear the logos and emblems of their masters in order to be useful for marketing.

For the vast majority of the arts, sciences, and cultural activities of all sorts, not even the humiliating and arbitrary sponsoring is no longer possible. They are presently subjected directly and unfiltered to the mechanisms of the market to such an extent as never before. Scientific institutes and sports clubs must go to the stock market, universities and theaters must make profits, and literature and philosophy must bear the criteria of mass production. Only that, which is useful as an offer for the recreational activities of helots of the market, reaches the large channels of distribution. Accordingly grotesque distortions occur in the gratuities for cultural achievements: While soccer and tennis players receive earnings in the millions, the producers of critique, reflection, portrayal and interpretation of the world sink down to the status of toilet cleaners. By means of capitalist rationalization of the media, low wages, "outsourcing," and business administrative slave driving are applied to the cultural sphere.

The result can only be the destruction of the qualitative contents of culture. Poorly paid, socially degraded and hounded culture and media workers logically produce miserable products; that applies to this area as well as any other. In addition, the brutal reduction towards the shortened time horizon and the mass distribution of the market reliably eliminates anything that wants to be more that a one-way product. Soon we will find in bookstores only pitiful soft pornos, cookbooks, and esoteric works for the depraved middle class. The unleashed logic of money also leaves behind a trail of destruction in the sciences. Because they can in their nature not be market conform, the human and social sciences are being rooted out of the academic services like weeds. Above all, the institutes of history are subjected to the "mobbing" and withholding of means because the ahistoric market no longer needs a past. Total natural science takes the place of philosophy and social theory once and for all; but also within the natural sciences, pure research is being devalued and strangulated in favor of the commissioned research of capital.

These tendencies also necessarily lead to the collapse of cultural subjectivity in the bourgeois society, just as they have already devalued political and religious subjectivity without having put anything new in its place. Today, not even a conservative "is" conservative any longer; he or she is just somebody that sells conservatism like others sell tomato paste or shoestrings. Particularly the current orthodox pope turns out to be a marketing specialist for religious events; soon the churches and sects will go to the stock market and market religions according to the principles of shareholder value. Artists and scientists are now experiencing the same desecration of their personality. If they hurry ahead in obedience by thinking and producing a priori in the categories of saleableness, then they have already lost their cause and can only ratify their self-abandonment, like the successful artist Baselitz did in a moment of truth when he turned his paintings toward the wall.

The "economism" is not a faulty and one-sided thinking of incorrigible Marxists; it is instead the real tendency of the ruling order of society toward economic totalitarianism, which is perhaps having its largest and last thrust. However, capitalism cannot exist on its own footing. Just as the pharmaceutical industry loses its last source of knowledge and material when the rain forests are finally destroyed, so must the culture industry desiccate when it cannot tap any more creative subcultures because the commercial independence of the masses has finally died out. A society, which only consists of panting, obtrusive salespersons and cannot reflect upon itself, has also become socially and economically intolerable.

For the producers of culture, art, and reflexive thinking, there is no more reason to place themselves at the disposal of the miserably paying and high-handed capitalism and to fish for compliments in the postmodern desert of the market. If they still possess a remainder of self-respect, they have to emigrate inwardly and at least secretly declare their irreconcilable hostility to the criteria of the market. This intention must not be passive; it must become active. Perhaps the cultural producers should form themselves into anticapitalistic groups, cooperatives, guilds, clubs, and associations that do not want to sell anything, but instead save cultural resources from the barbarism of the market. By uniting with the injured and insulted, and giving social misery a cultural expression instead of chiming in with the happy positivism of the postmodern optimists, this intention will especially distinguish itself from culture conservatism, which is always conform to power.

Translation by R.T.