Nazism as Misconceived Anti-Capitalism

I have already highlighted an article on Nazism and anti-Semitism by Moishe Postone that Voyou has linked to. Postone first came to my attention due to the extensive passages in Living in the End Times in which Zizek engages with his work, and this article convinces me that I definitely need to take a closer look. In it, Postone argues that we need to view Nazism as a kind of misconceived rebellion against capitalism, in which anti-Semitic ideology plays a determinate functional role. The whole piece is definitely worth reading, but I want to highlight one portion that particularly struck me.

The form of materialized social relations specific to capitalism appears on this level of the analysis as the opposition between money, as abstract, and “thingly” nature. One aspect of the fetish, then, is that capitalist social relations do not appear as such and, moreover, present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete. Because, additionally, both sides of the antinomy are objectified, each appears to be quasi-natural. The abstract dimension appears in the form of abstract, universal, “objective,” natural laws; the concrete dimension appears as pure “thingly” nature.

The structure of alienated social relations that characterize capitalism has the form of a quasi-natural antinomy in which the social and historical do not appear. *This antinomy is recapitulated as the opposition between positivist and romantic forms of thought.* Most critical analyses of fetishized thought have concentrated on that strand of the antinomy that hypostatizes the abstract as transhistorical—so-called positive bourgeois thought—and thereby disguises the social and historical character of existing relations. In this essay, the other strand will be emphasized—that of forms of romanticism and revolt which, in terms of their own self-understandings, are antibourgeois, but which in fact hypostatize the concrete and thereby remain bound within the antinomy of capitalist social relations.

Forms of anticapitalist thought that remain bound within the immediacy of this antinomy tend to perceive capitalism, and that which is specific to that social formation, only in terms of the manifestations of the abstract dimension of the antinomy; so, for instance, money is considered the “root of all evil.” The existent concrete dimension is then positively opposed to it as the “natural” or ontologically human, which presumably stands outside the specificity of capitalist society. Thus, as with Proudhon, for example, concrete labor is understood as the noncapitalist moment opposed to the abstractness of money. That concrete labor itself incorporates and is materially formed by capitalist social relations is not understood.

While reading this passage, I thought of the quote from Frank Sobotka of The Wire: “We used to make things in this country — now we’ve just got our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” This is a common sentiment, particularly in places with a strong history of unionism (like my home state of Michigan). What it fails to perceive, however, is that “making things” is precisely a way of putting your hand in the next guy’s pocket. Specifically, the stevedores have no great passion for unloading freight as such — indeed, Sobotka views an automated and much more effective system of unloading freight as a “nightmare” — but instead as a way of providing more paid labor. The very way that they refer to their work, “getting days,” shows that their labor is in its own way as abstract as money.

Why should we privilege the concrete over the universal like this? What is so self-evidently better about manufacturing rather than, for instance, providing forms of social insurance (which is a finance operation)? Will Americans make better and more relevant tchotchkes and novelty t-shirts than the Chinese, for instance? Indeed, one could argue that once the level of production has reached the point necessary to provide basic necessities and comfort to everyone, focusing on purely “financial” operations like social insurance or redistribution of wealth is the best way to advance a society’s quality of life. There is nothing inherently evil or destructive about abstraction as such — nor is there anything inherently wonderful about concreteness and thinghood.

It is at this point that I’d like to reopen old debates here and suggest that this article’s logic provides support for my extremely unpopular position that localism occupies a fundamentally right-wing political space.

45 thoughts on “Nazism as Misconceived Anti-Capitalism

  1. Wow, this fits right in with some of the stuff I’ve been considering recently with regards to Blue Labour. Thanks for this. His other work looks awesome too.

  2. He appears to expand on these notions about labour in Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, judging by the blurb.

  3. “localism occupies a fundamentally right-wing political space.”

    So Greece has to sell its ports (although thinking Piraeus “belongs” to Greece is localism and anti-semitism?) because the big banks are so enmeshed in credit default swaps that restructuring the debt significantly would cause a financial collapse, and I should support International Banking against the retired Greek grandmother who had her pension cut 40% (link on request) because I don’t want to be a Nazi?

    I will read and re-read the linked material, but is the current Greek resistance anti-semitic and proto-fascist? It would help me if you applied your own abstractions to concrete situations.

  4. Or MERS and MBS, the banks were slicing and dicing mortgages and reselling them multiple times in tranches without recording the property sales at that old vestige of localism, the county courthouse. Is this another abstraction I should love as a leftist cosmopolitan?

    Holbo visited critiques (actual, not theoretical) of finance as resurgent anti-semitism. It really just seems like a very pernicious complication.

  5. If you don’t know the context — for instance, you apparently don’t know what “localism” even means — maybe you shouldn’t draw radically crazy conclusions.

  6. Bob, a critique of localism does not preclude a critique of finance’s pernicious effects on a locality. Our repeated attack on localism is focused on its ideological positioning that it provides the solution. I.e. if all localities would just focus inward sufficiently and en masse, then we’d achieve the Pure Land. That this does not happen in equal or sufficient measure opens localism to its own pernicious effects: namely, in the attempt to simplify a locality’s place in the greater, interconnected scheme of things, localism is itself an abstraction that claims for itself the virtue of objective reality.

  7. At the risk of again the AUFS crew rounding on someone, that comment doesn’t make any sense to me either. You seem to be saying that both the Greeks and the US mortgage market need to embrace localism against the abstractions of capital. But the point of the piece is this only attacks one side of what capitalism is, and you are falling into precisely the trap it describes – believing you can resist capitalism by resisting only the abstraction, not the fact that it is also concretion. To put it differently and in an autonomist sort of way: it is important not merely to resist finance capital, but also to struggle against work to approach a point where it is abolished.


    Weirdly, localism isn’t local enough. If you think about the sort of things that, say, Phillip Blond says, the weird thing for a localist is the diagnosis and the prescription is exactly the same. This analysis applies to the UK, to America and, now, supposedly to Australia.

  8. Localism doesn’t have anything to do with State ownership. Localists often have a problem with State ownership, so the question is kind of confused. Reading that piece and looking up the wider “Anti-German” movement made me somewhat suspicious though, since it appears that the intellectual milieu Postone appears to be a part of (if Wikipedia is to be believed) is pro-Israel and suggests that this is the only way to avoid antisemitism. This makes a particularity out of the experience of antisemitism that I don’t agree with. Anyone know if Postone holds to these views?

  9. Zizek doesn’t mention anything like that, and he cites a ton of Postone. It seems like that would be the kind of thing Zizek would really make a beeline for if it were true, right?

  10. The anti-Germans definitely draw on Postone, but I don’t think Postone identifies himself with the current. As I understand it, “anti-German” covers a fairly wide spectrum, from a general opposition to national liberation movements (including in Palestine), to a positive endorsement of the Israeli right, the war in Iraq, and anti-Muslim politics within Germany. Postone is probably close to the former, but not the latter. See eg this interview with him from the (fairly pro-Zionist) Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

  11. Funny how Alliance for Worker’s Liberty interviewed him when his reading of Marx is basically very close (incredibly so) to the autonomist reading of Marx they always like to tiresomely and endless critique – wonder why they didn’t end the interview by claiming there should no revolt against value as such.

  12. I took three courses with Postone when I was at the University of Chicago last year, for his course covering all three volumes of Marx’s Capital. The man is brilliant, and I have nothing but respect for him, even if I am somewhat critical of his apoliticism. I am a member of a group of students that were deeply influenced by Postone and formed an organization on that basis, the Platypus Affiliated Society. His interpretation of anti-semitism as a form of misperceived capitalism is extremely strong: the global character of capitalism seems to be embodied in the “cosmopolitan” character of the Jew, the abstract nature of capitalism is supposedly linked with the Jew’s allegedly “abstract” mode of thinking, the association of Jews only dealing in abstract, speculative finance capital while the “honest, hardworking” German worker who produces concretely.

    For the record, I also agree that “localism” is part of the Right. I wrote a broad Postonian Marxist critique of the “Green” environmental movement in which I critique the localist/organicist constituency of recent ecology.

  13. i don’t know that concrete and universal are opposed. i think the case is quite the contrary.

    further, we can imagine ways to provide “social insurance” that do not involve the financial sector. surely, socially secure populations have existed prior to global capital.

    localism is definitely a Right meme (though they might not always know it). although, i don’t think that means there are not valuable components to it.

    i think a more nuanced argument needs to be made to make your point more convincing.

    I mean we definitely can’t eat derivatives or turn them into health care or shelter. and redistribution of wealth is precisely NOT abstract–it is very real and very concrete which is why the rich will never let it happen. so, i think the main critique here is what looks like a willful attitude toward financial speculation, when from reading your work, i don’t think is what you mean at all. but that doesn’t come across.

    I think one can be for localism and local modes of being while realizing they are less than perfect and will never deal with the core problem of capitalism itself. i mean, it certainly can’t be any better to buy your groceries from a giant supermarket chain that ships its food from 6000 miles away. And i totally agree that at the heart of localism lies a *kind* of fascism or at least the potential for it.

  14. Voyou,

    You’re right that Postone doesn’t identify himself with the anti-Germans. Platypus is also heavily influenced by Postone, but he is too uncomfortable with our identification with the theories of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky to endorse our outlook entirely. We published a pretty good interview with him a few years back, early in our periodical’s history.

    A good example of (one of the many) anti-German outlooks can be found in a translation of a 2002 text titled “Communism and Israel.” It is a very controversial and pro-Zionist piece. Platypus publishes a variety of different voices on the Left, however, and views pro-Zionist anti-Germanism and anti-Zionist anti-Americanism to be symptoms of the same underlying problem: nationalism. There is a lengthy debate over this on my blog, but it is almost too tedious for me to want to submit you guys to that.

    Also, Voyou, you never got back to me on my critique of the posts on OOO and commodity fetishism that you and Levi Bryant made. Honestly it was more critical of Bryant than of you, but I still think it’s an important addition to the conversation.

  15. i think a more nuanced argument needs to be made to make your point more convincing. — These kinds of remarks always really bother me. More detail and less hand-waving will make you comment more convincing.

    so, i think the main critique here is what looks like a willful attitude toward financial speculation, when from reading your work, i don’t think is what you mean at all. but that doesn’t come across. — What does this mean?

    More broadly, no, you don’t need the financial sector to do social insurance. Obviously we have Social Security, which is totally a government program. But Social Security is a kind of “finance” operation — what we call the “financial sector” is generally taken to include finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE in the industry nomenclature). That is to say, it is structurally similar to the redistribution of economic rents, insofar as the government is not actually engaged in economic production to fund Social Security.

    And the redistribution of wealth generally proceeds by means of money, correct? It’s not like they’re raiding rich people’s fridge and giving the caviar to the poor. No, it consists of abstract tax rates that then creates a pool of money that is distributed according to abstract formulae.

    I think you’re misunderstanding what is meant by concrete and abstract in this context. Indeed, I suspect you didn’t actually read the article I’m responding to, nor did Bob McManus.

  16. “These kinds of remarks always really bother me. More detail and less hand-waving will make you comment more convincing.” i think that is fair. perhaps i should be more specific. but i take it that the specificity on the point that localism is from the right…etc, is what is lacking, and if i knew with certainty or at least believed with certainty that there was this stark diversion btwn abstract (universal?) and local (particular-tending toward fascism) that you (seem to) claim is immanent (or maybe you don’t claim that, or don’t yet know) then i suppose there would not be an argument or a difference of opinion on the matter (and thus no reason for a blog post about it). so in other words, i can see how that is an annoying thing to say (my comment), but isn’t it also a little bit true. i mean yes, it reminds me of when people complain about a particular argument being too *general* and this fear of generalizations, which i think is a blatant dismissal/phobia of universals of any kind which is absurd–and indicative of a Right claim. but i suspect you lack confidence in the argument as well which is why everyone is discussing it here. so yes, i should be more specific but i guess i am just trying to think about it , you know to work it out. i, in fact, did read the article. i am not as familiar with Marx as other thinkers, and having a hard time with the Anti-German element, etc. I don’t think this disqualifies me from thinking about/having some kind of opinion about localism/universalism, etc. Perhaps, I have misunderstood the context…but i don’t think so. I think the issue at hand is really this privileging of thingness (concrete) over abstract (universal). and i agree, we should be very, very suspicious of this sentiment which is prevalent in our society and sort of composes popular opinion (see popular views re: the value of higher ed.). i think, if i understand you right, you are using the example of (abstract) financial sectors as potential actors to redistribute wealth. i think we must give up on this system. we know there can be an alternative to this financial sector generated market. we can redistribute wealth in a way that does not tie labor to wages, shelter, and social benefits. that is my main point.

    i think you are right about your hypothesis re: localism being a part of the Right. I just think the thought is incomplete and if it were more well formed i think this would be critical in convincing others who believe the *think globally, act locally* mantra is golden–to perhaps alter their thinking and thus their actions.

  17. Maybe I’m not being clear, but the way you’re responding isn’t giving me a lot of motivation to explain myself further. For instance, you still seem to think I’m advocating a finance-led economy such as we have now. Yet my primary example is Social Security, which is totally government-run and is a product of the New Deal. Please read more carefully before responding — I know it sounds patronizing, but it will help avoid frustration on both our parts.

  18. I haven’t yet read “Living in the End Times,” mostly because it sounded like another terrible “remix,” and Zizek’s comments certainly did not contribute much to a desire to read it either, but now I’m curious because of Zizek’s engagement with Postone’s work (I think I recall recommending his excellent “Time, Labor, and Social Domination” on the site some time ago), so maybe I will read it after all. I do have one broad question though: does Zizek deal mostly with Postone’s writing on anti-semitism, or does it relate more to his re-interpretation of Marx’s work?

  19. Rooseveltian government measures like the New Deal, conceived at the outset of the new Fordist constellation of capitalism in the 1930s, have always been part of the Right. Such Keynesian measures do not set out to overcome capital, but rather to save capitalism from itself. They are predicated on the belief that crisis, which is perpetually at the core of capital’s constitution, is not an essential but an accidental feature of capitalism, which can be “controlled,” “corrected,” or “mitigated” by more government oversight, regulations, and broad social programs like universal healthcare or social security or unemployment benefits.

    In the 1930s, there were two main currents which presented themselves as an “alternative” to the dichotomy of socialism or capitalism (or “socialism or barbarism,” as Luxemburg more colorfully put it): fascism in Europe, and Roosevelt’s New Deal in America. Of course, in neither of these cases was capitalism ever eliminated. Fascism was defeated after the war, except in Spain, while the Fordist trinity of “big business, big government, and big labor” founded under Roosevelt’s administration continued on with relative stability and prosperity up until the 1973 -74 Oil Crisis, which finally began to put an end to what Adorno and Marcuse called “the administered society” (i.e., Fordism).

    In the era of neoliberalism (or “flexible accumulation,” as Jameson and some others have termed it), what we have witnessed, as Postone and Harvey frequently point out, is the systematic deregulation and undoing of big government social programs by every president regardless of party affiliation. And the soft left today is so miserable and devoid of new ideas that all it can feebly hope for is a return to those bygone days of the New Deal or Johnson’s “Great Society.”

  20. Adam: In that case it seems like it would be worth the time to read, since I can see that being a more interesting dialogue than the anti-semitism theory, where I imagine they would basically just agree more or less.

    Ross: No offense, but I think that could do without the italics/stress marks, since usually that connotes some sort of dialectical reversal of common sense, whereas instead you are just repeating historical cliches in the guise of profundity.

  21. Without going too far down the Deleuzian path of “accelerationism,” I don’t mind the more volatile and indeed predatory nature of neoliberal capitalism. First, because I think that it’s objectively necessitated at both an economic and ideological level, and see its current predominance over global intercourse as somewhat inevitable. Secondly, because it’s already helped set into motion the ever-more-violent and spasmodic cycles of crisis and depression that characterized the period leading up from the 1840s to the 1920s (and which thereby cultivated such a broad and vibrant anti-capitalist consciousness, both organizationally and politically). The period of 1930-1973, and especially after the war, was so successful in preventing crisis and perpetuating prosperity that many felt that the internal contradictions of capitalism had been overcome. Of course they hadn’t, and remained seething beneath the surface, but large swaths of the population did believe this to be so. So while Fordism may seem in retrospect a more humane and just system than our present one, its foundational principles will always be traceable to the Right, and represents at best a sort of Bernsteinian or Kautskian “social-democracy lite.” At least with the series of economic upheavals that we’ve seen in recent years some are beginning to finally question the underlying basis of the capitalist social formation.

  22. And I agree with Bryan that it would be more interesting to see Zizek engage with Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination, not because his theories of anti-semitism aren’t profoundly interesting (they are), but because Postone’s most important and radical contributions to Marxist thought are contained in that text. The recent collection of Postone’s essays on History and Heteronomy is also excellent.

  23. “At least with the series of economic upheavals that we’ve seen in recent years some are beginning to finally question the underlying basis of the capitalist social formation.”

    When I was an undergraduate, one of my favorite professors (a German, which makes some difference I suppose) would make this very memorable facial expression when Marxism or Marxists were brought up–like if you were to see a puppy at a rescue shelter. At the time I thought the mix of cynicism and arrogant pity was misplaced–this was, after all, at the height of the great financial crisis, where all of our false consciousness was unravelling at a bewildering pace!–as well as slightly off-putting, so we avoided ever really talking about politics except in a very broad sense. But then I read things like this and think she was, much to my regret, probably right.

  24. Bryan,

    Well if you’d prefer endless, meaningless cosmetic changes at the level of government reforms aimed at limiting capital’s deleterious effects, then Bernsteinian reformism is your path, and Marxism certainly is not for you. In which case, the mix of cynicism and arrogant pity would be my own, directed at you.

  25. I think we desperately need to find some common ground here, guys — surely we can agree that we’re all completely powerless, right? And that no matter what we type into a comment box, we probably can’t significantly impact any large-scale historical forces?

  26. Ross, I don’t think you can draw the inference that I would “prefer endless, meaningless cosmetic changes at the level of government reforms” from what I’ve written, though I admit the one-two punch of snarky comments was largely unwarranted. In either case, I find your “zero-sum” account of reform vs. revolution to be kind of simplistic and not very convincing, for reasons that shouldn’t require a lot of explanation. Nor do I see any evidence that exacerbated periods of crisis lead to a progressive awakening and radicalization of the population, despite the optimistic and slightly perverse historical narrative you’ve presented. Basically, to put things simply, I find Marx very convincing on pretty much all accounts, etc., but there are probably a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the present and (at the very least, near) future, and taking solace in “history repeating itself” seems like a mistake to me.

  27. I don’t mean that to be as snarky as it sounds. Bryan, you are truly a master of this, and as something of a trolling connoisseur myself, I enjoy watching you work.

  28. Please delete the previous comment comment. I messed up the html.

    Adam Kotsko,

    The old question of structure vs. agency is a difficult one to resolve, but to invoke one of Moishe’s favorite lines regarding this subject: “[The critical Marxian position] does not regard heteronomous history as a narrative, which can simply be dispelled discursively, but as a structure of domination that must be overcome. From this point of view, any attempt to rescue human agency by focusing on contingency in ways that bracket the existence of such historically specific structures of domination is — ironically — profoundly disempowering.” In other words, there are indeed junctures of historical possibility that present themselves as opportunities for social agency, but the attempt to deny structures of domination in the name of agency (when those structures do in fact exist) actually reduces our ability to do anything about it.


    My position on the whole problem of “reform or revolution” is identical to Luxemburg’s. Nevertheless, I believe that you have mistaken my position for one of optimism. Though I did make some slight gesture towards that by saying something like “at least the convulsive crises of neoliberalism might allow for the formation of a renewed anti-capitalist consciousness in society,” my general outlook on our present situation is profoundly pessimistic. The Left (qua an international, organized anti-capitalist movement) has suffered from nearly a century of ideological and organizational regression in the most advanced capitalist countries. Those few deluded paleo-Marxists who cling to the old slogans and anachronistic theories of agitprop, who remain in one of the degenerate Maoist (and thereby Stalinist) parties, like the RCP or FRSO, or who belong to one of the countless Trotskyite splinter sects, have largely displaced their revolutionary hope to the periphery of capitalism, in a show of solidarity that amounts to little more than developmentalist Third-Worldism. They typically end up holding up one of these backwater authoritarian hellholes as some shining example of the virtues of Marxism. This is the swamp in which the Left currently finds itself.

    So my position is certainly not one of naive optimism. If anything, it’s closer to Adornian melancholia. But Nietzsche once asked, “Is possible that there could ever be a pessimism of the strong?” To which I must answer: “yes.” Antonio Gramsci famously stated somewhere, aphoristically: “Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.” History is not repeating itself, per se, but there once existed a world with a vibrant international Left and a broadly anti-capitalist workers’ movement. It is not beyond the realm of historical possibility that such a state of affairs might again come to pass, and I feel personally that it is incumbent upon us to seek to reconstitute this Left if there is to be any hope of a society beyond capitalism.

  29. Adam,

    Yes, I thank you for your charity in this matter. I just misread the scope of your intended audience for that post. An understandable mistake, but my mistake nonetheless.

  30. So back to substantive matters: yes, there are absolutely parallels between now and the heroic era of the worker’s movement.

    The one big non-parallel that stands out to me, however, is that we have the historical memory of the near-total failure of the two large-scale attempts at socialism — the Soviet Union simply collapsed, and the Chinese Communist Party has become some kind of weird hybrid of a mafia organization and capitalist cartel.

    It seems to me that that changes things significantly. Even in really major, important uprisings like the recent ones in the Middle East, the demands generally centered on a desire for “normal” liberal democracy, and in Europe, the mass protests are broadly focused on preserving the welfare state.

  31. Adam,

    The one big non-parallel that stands out to me, however, is that we have the historical memory of the near-total failure of the two large-scale attempts at socialism — the Soviet Union simply collapsed, and the Chinese Communist Party has become some kind of weird hybrid of a mafia organization and capitalist cartel.

    Yes, I completely agree here. The Left has to face up to its somewhat inglorious past. Not only the failure of the Soviet project, its perverse degeneration into a bureaucratic police-state under Stalinism, the further miseries of Maoism in China and its move toward “disaster capitalism” in the ’80s. But it goes even further. I believe that the theoretico-practical developments of the New Left in the 1960s-1970s, and its subsequent deterioration and institutional enshrinement within the academy as the so-called “post-political” Left in the 1980s-1990s, mark an even further regression from the international Left as it existed prior to the outbreak of the First World War. The poverty of identity politics, the largely apolitical but sometimes even reactionary character of the “Green” environmental movement, the relegation of “revolutionary” possibility solely to the periphery of capitalism, in the underdeveloped Third World — all these mark a general decline of the Left over the last hundred years.

    So while the objective elements of society (the means of production — technologies and methods of social organization) are more advanced and conducive to radical social transformation, the consciousness of society in general and the working class in particular has so ossified in its acceptance of modern capitalism that any subjectivity it might have had has been reduced to a quasi-objective reification of the status quo. Present social conditions acquire that “phantom objectivity” of “second nature” that Lukacs described so long ago. A generally anti-capitalist consciousness in society must be reawakened, and a vanguard international Left must be reconstituted before any sort of revolutionary opportunity can manifest itself. The Left must work through the history of its own failures and ideological shortcomings that continue to haunt it from its past, for Adorno said, that which “has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.”

  32. I was hoping that Bryan would provide his opinion on some of my criticisms of the existing Left and speculations about the possibilities of its rebirth, now that I’ve clarified my position. I can understand why he initially took me for an optimist, however.

  33. Ross, I just want to acknowledge that I’ve read your responses, unfortunately I chose an extremely inconvenient time to begin an “Internet Debate”. But suffice to say I will respond soon, once I’m finished with a pressing academic task.

Comments are closed.