‘The Art of Changing Capitalism’ – A Transformational Polemic

When the left thinks about alternatives they usually envision struggles. Already Marx and Engels understood the history of all societies up to then as ‘the history of class struggles’. Wolfgang Kessler, chief editor for more than twenty years of the Publik-Forum – a left-oriented Catholic journal – shows that these struggles also require an art.

This art of changing capitalism in an emancipatory and solidary way arises from the needs of people within a creative, open process, open also to original adaptations or new creations that imaginatively think beyond the present period. Art requires skill and at the same time arises as the result of free thinking and free praxis’.

The art of changing things fundamentally, describes an arc of tension between freedom and skill in acting and, on the other hand, the tremendous pressure to change in light of all the abysses of today’s societies that threaten to destroy themselves. Kessler therefore compares ‘the art of changing capitalism’ to the capacity ‘to operate on the open heart of the system’.

He develops the argument of why the system has to be changed out of its Janus-headed progress using the example of digital developments. Who thinks when googling, which lasts seconds, about energy consumption lasting minutes, about the costs of this access to online knowledge? Kessler forces us to think with him about such contradictions. He grapples with alleged ways out – with the ‘lubricants’ of today’s society. Even in Western societies fewer and fewer people can achieve prosperity, and, for many, neoliberalism’s promise of individual freedom has turned into fear of downward mobility. For Kessler, the biggest threat to democratic systems grows out of the logic of the struggle of all against all. He describes new forms of dictatorship as a result of the digital transformations of society, new mechanisms of domination, politically indemnified by the devalorisation of democracy. He draws a picture of a torn-apart society in which many have a sense that ‘the ground is breaking apart under their feet’. These are insecurities that can be seen socially, politically, and culturally, and which stimulate the desire for the supposedly ‘good old times’, in which everything seemed transparent and under control.

But for Kessler, all these images are only part of his diagnosis of the period, which is much more complex and, in its contradictoriness, and constantly generates new features. There are breaks that push toward alternatives. They announce themselves in the world of today. Tomorrow is already possible today and shapeable as a politics of just transitions. These transitions must be slow but consistent and solidarily enriching for all. Politics – of this Kessler is certain – ‘will only by accepted if it respects people’s individual freedom of choice, weaves the densest possible net that lets no one fall through and opens up the opportunity for all to shape their own lives anew.’ This involves transitions that are pragmatic and radical, which are connected to everyday needs and which concretely pose the question of property.

Kessler invites us to discuss five alternatives with him, and he ties them to concrete projects in the here and now: alternative 1 – a good life for all with a plea for tax reform along with basic income; alternative 2 – liberation from the dictate of profit, especially when health, care, mobility, water, and energy are involved; alternative 3 – an environmental dividend for everyone – a climate revolution for an economy of life; alternative 4 – free world trade only for ecologically fair goods as an alternative to free trade and protectionism; and alternative 5 – trust and income for people – freedom from hunger and poverty. He links these alternatives to existing projects, for example the city of Basel’s annually paid eco-bonus (environmental dividends) or the CO2 tax in British Columbia, which is at the same time tied to a decrease of income tax for low earners. In addition, he includes among the alternatives the prohibition of speculative trade in real estate, the guarantee of a right to a home, if necessary via expropriation (with compensation), the introduction of a financial-transaction tax, the custom-free import of organic wool, which uses 91% less water, and new attempts at an unconditional basic income in African countries in order to directly support those who in war- and crisis-torn regions such as Mosul in Iraq want to reconstruct their country.

In all of this what interests him are breakthroughs to things that are concretely feasible with a view to what must be changed, that is, transformational realpolitik. Kessler links this consistently to self-change. Exits and switching gears are possible – and so is mobilisation, a new communality that conceives of consumption differently, which can succeed via mobilisation, as in the popular movements for an ecological reconstruction of agriculture in Bavaria have shown: save the bees, save what belongs to a good life and discuss what this is and how we can do it. And tell other people that it’s possible! This is perhaps the book’s most important message.

Die Kunst, den Kapitalismus zu verändern. Eine Streitschrift
Publik-Forum Edition, 128 pages
Oberursel, Publik-Forum-Verlagsgesellschaft, 2019

originally published at Neues Deutschland (German)