17 October 2018

Heide Gerstenberger

Interviewed by Jasper Strange

Apart from being a very productive scholar, you have also been engaged in political debates and activism, for example as part of the academic advisory council of Attac. Which experiences and events politicized you, and which role has political activism played throughout your life and career?

I do not think of myself as a political activist, but, of course, others may have a different impression. This would also hold true for my membership in the academic advisory council of Attac. This council is less active than the respective council of Attac France. The geographic and social centrality of Paris seems to help to organize joint projects. The German council has produced publications which aim at explaining economic, political and social developments to a larger public. Its members are active in the yearly summer school of Attac and we were, for example, active in the alternative summit to the G20 summit in Hamburg. At the moment we endeavour to prepare a new edition of our “ABC” of Globalization. All of this may be termed “activism”, but it is perhaps not a very active activism.

I have certainly been perceived as a political activist when I was a member of the founding council for the University of Bremen. It was active from 1968 to 1972. For this “founding Senate” of the future university, the government of Bremen engaged an equal number of professors, assistants and students. It was hoped that their equal representation in the founding process would prevent the fierce conflicts which at the time had erupted in other universities. When the professors in this council insisted that the preparation of the teaching should be worked out by professors to be engaged before the opening of the new university, the government followed the demand of students and assistants and let them go. It authorized the assistants and the students to suggest professors for the council who were willing to take part in a democratic planning process. This astonishing decision provoked uproar in the media. Once and again it was pointed out that democracy was not appropriate for some tasks, amongst them the planning of a university. (“Should a surgeon ask his assistants or students before taking out an appendix?”) Before it had even started, the university was termed a hotspot of revolutionary machinations. And when the first councils were set up for deciding the curriculums the media used every stupid argument which was raised in the course of long and serious debates to bolster their criticism. Later on, we debated if one should perhaps not open up every discussion to the general public if one did not have the means to contradict interpretations. One of the results of these very fierce public debates was the advent of students from all over the country who wanted to experience new forms of studying and discussing contents which differed from the mainstream. I was still teaching in Göttingen when the university in Bremen started. But when I got there in 1974, students told me that they were always sad when at the end of the term there were no longer any courses. Often, they organized study groups during vacation. I have referred to this founding process at length because it left me with two very important insights. The first one concerns Marxism at the university. As long as students experience the Marxian critique of political economy as a critique of mainstream analysis it can and often does provoke very fruitful theoretical reasoning and very convincing analysis. When students lack this background and Marxism becomes part of an official curriculum than it is transformed from a political project into a subject of teaching and examination among others. The second insight concerns the movement for the reform of universities. Not only in Bremen, but in Bremen more pronounced than elsewhere, the advocates of reform, wanted to make use of the state’s power to regulate education in order to achieve reforms, thereby renouncing the traditional autonomy of universities. This resulted in the fact that the state, and once again, the government in Bremen preceded this development, claimed to not only regulate general structures but each curriculum and even minor administrative aspects. At the time we analysed the traditional autonomy of universities as the institutional form which safeguarded the privileges of professors. While this was undoubtedly correct, the loss of autonomy then reduced the possibility of students influencing decisions.

I do not conceive of myself as having been a participant in the so-called movement of 1968. But, of course, this movement was present in my everyday life at the university. One of my nicest memories is a course on the first volume of Capital at the end of the 1960s. When students asked me to not only teach such a course and to also give out credits, I told them that I did not know Marx yet. They convinced me that this should not prevent the course. This resulted in somewhere around 300 students and me, all reading Volume I ofCapital for the first time. It turned out to be a memorable experience because even in this very large group we did manage to work together. Later on, I bought another copy ofCapital I because I felt embarrassed looking at the notes which I inserted at the time.


You were professor of the theory of society and the state in Bremen. In comparison to North America and England, there seem to be very few critical and leftist scholars in German universities today. Do you agree with that? During your time in academia, how do you think the role of Marxism and leftist thought has changed in Germany? And how do you think it will evolve in the future?

During the 1970s quite a few Marxists were engaged as professors in German universities. This was not only due to the movement for the reform of universities and the political movements of the time but also to the fact that the founding of a series of new universities led to the creation of additional university jobs. But, of course, leftist scholars were only engaged because student insisted on taking part in the selection processes. Two main developments have contributed to the end of this situation. The first one is due to the first economic crisis after World War II with its repercussions on labour markets, even on labour markets for academics. This induced more and more students to try to very quickly collect their credits and to concentrate on topics which would make it easier to find employment. There are, of course, still individuals and groups striving to better understand capitalism through studying Marx and there are still teachers endeavouring to assist them. But as far as I know these endeavours are often pursued outside of universities. Given my experiences with the integration of Marxism into official curriculums, I hesitate to wholeheartedly deplore this situation. But, of course, we do need academic teachers who are capable of teaching the critical analysis of capitalist societies. If some of those have, indeed, got a job at the university, there is, at the moment, hardly any fight for the enlargement of their number. And many amongst my generation of academics have contributed to this development. While in the early 1970s it was still fashionable to cite Marx and maybe even read some of his analyses, this changed when governments decided to engage decided non-Marxists. But it also changed because many of those who had become professors because students had fought for their engagement became more and more eager to be noticed by their national and international colleagues and therefore no longer concentrated on the development of forms of teaching which included students in the processes of research. In Bremen, this change was marked by the establishment of curriculums which, once again, followed the established opinion that one had to absolve processes of acquiring knowledge before one could take part in processes of research. Today, curriculums still contain “projects”, but they are very different from the interdisciplinary organizations of learning to research by doing which were practiced at the height of the students’ movement.

I hesitate to answer the second part of your question. After all, developments are not only different from university to university but often also from department to department. And since developments in universities are in some way or another always connected to the political and social climate in a certain society at a certain time, this answer would require a prognostic into which I would not want to venture.


Benno Teschke, in an interview, pointed out that in the 1980s and 1990s (one might add that this is the case even today), you were one of the very few historical sociologists in Germany, while this genre of research was alive and well in the UK and France, standing in the tradition of the Annales school or the Marxist historians like Hobsbawm and Thompson. Do you agree with the categorization of your work as historical sociology, and with the assessment that your work was in this respect unique in Germany? To better understand your trajectory in the academic context of Germany, could you talk about how you would situate your work in relation to other currents and trends in historiography and political science throughout time?

After having studied social sciences I wrote my dissertation and my habilitation in political science. But since I never conceived of myself as a political scientist and since German historians do not like it if somebody calls him- or herself a “historian” who has not studied history at the university, I usually do not specify my research in terms of academic disciplines. But, of course, “historical sociology” does fit quite nicely. Benno Teschke’s remark was made in reference to the Marxist debate about the theoretical conception of the capitalist state which has become known as derivation theory. In that context I was indeed an exception. But otherwise, I do not think that historical sociology is more or less absent amongst German colleagues. In the last decades, there have been many publications about National Socialism which I would range under that topic, and Hans Medick, Alf Lüdtke, Hans Gerhard-Haupt, or Jürgen Kocka, to name just a few, also practice historical sociology. And even if I never agreed with his theoretical concept, Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s analyses can also be termed “historical sociology”. To not position myself in the field of historical research, does not prevent me to have opinions about some of its fashions. I have, for example, never been really convinced by developments which were propagated under the heading of ‘linguistic turn’ (after all, the analysis of prevalent modes of linguistic expressions is a matter of course in historical research) On the other hand I have practiced quite a bit of micro-history when I was engaged in the research and publication of the local history of Bremen. And when Ulrich Welke and I researched the social history of German Seafaring, we worked in 18 different archives, some of them in towns which used to be in Prussia and are in Poland today. I really enjoyed this stint in archival research. To sum up my answer to your question: I refrain from positioning myself in relation to current trends.


Most anglophone readers will primarily be familiar with your monograph on the constitution of bourgeois state power. I would argue that the main thread that connects your book “Impersonal power” with your new book “Market and Violence” is the discussion of the relationship between the state and the capitalist economy. This is a topic you have written about since the 1970s, when the bourgeois state was heavily discussed among the left of West Germany. What got you engaged in this debate, what are your central positions and which theorists and historians have been influential for them?

The relation between the capitalist economy and the state, has, indeed, been a dominant focus of my research. Early forays into state analysis, however, were still very much focused on ideology. The adequate title for my habilitation would have been “The political economy of the American Dream”. At that time, I thought that was much too fancy and choose Zur politischen Ökonomie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Die historischen Bedingungen ihrer Konstitution in den USA [which would have been: The political economy of bourgeois society. Historical conditions for its constitution in the USA] I mention this early analysis (it was published in 1973) because the experience of trying to analyse the historical constitution of a certain state protected me against the functionalism in the so-called derivation debate about the state. This debate was provoked by two concepts which, though fundamentally different, tried to grasp the special character of the capitalist state at the end of the 20th century. Not only soviet mainstream conceptions of the ‘theory of monopoly capitalism’ but also leftist social democratic versions of this concept stated that the development of productive forces would produce a contradiction between these forces and existing social forms of production and hence provoke revolution against the power block which had arisen from the amalgamation of the state and monopolized capital. The theoretical concept of “late capitalism” (Spätkapitalismus), most notably put forward by Jürgen Habermas and Claus Offe, was of a different brand. A rising need for political steerage of the economy was taken to also necessitate political measures which wouldensure the loyalty of the masses. Since these could never be enough, the crisis of late capitalism was conceived as a crisis of the legitimation of state power. Both theoretical concepts not only stressed the necessity for revolution but also its possibility. In an essay, which in retrospect can be considered as having started derivation theory, Wolfgang Müller and Christel Neusüß denounced the “theory of state monopoly capitalism” as well as the “theory of late capitalism” as new brands of revisionism. While they did not object to the assumption that societies could to a certain extent be stabilized as well as changed through politics, they insisted that any materialist analysis has to define the structural limits of any such strategy, a requirement always neglected by adherents of revisionism. In their opinion the “concentration on politics” had to be rejected. Instead, state theoreticians should endeavour to explain the form of the state and the structural limits to politics which this form implies. In other words: theoretical analysis has to explain why the political form of capitalism is the separation of state from society. This was to become the leitmotiv of the derivation debate. Its participants have tried to answer Pashukanis’ question why class domination in capitalism is not exercised by an apparatus of the dominating classes but, instead, takes on the form of public power. All of them agreed that it was not sufficient to describe the relation between state and society as being inherent in state activity, because it was exactly the “separation” of the state from society which had to be seen as the expression of the social order of capitalist societies. As far as the explanation of the “separation” was concerned, different solutions were suggested and – often fiercely – defended. Looking back, it becomes clear that the most remarkable position has been formulated by theoreticians whose arguments centred on the generality of law. Bernhard Blanke, Ulrich Jürgens and Hans Kastendiek contended that the most general precondition of capitalist forms of production and reproduction is the protection of any form of private property by the state. The production of commodities makes it imperious that capital owners can freely dispose over the means of production including their use of labour power. But the exchange of commodities necessitates regulations which not only protect the owners of capital but all owners of private property. Therefore, the state has to be formally neutral in its relation towards the different forms of property. This formal neutrality is embodied in the principle of the generality of the law. And it is exactly this neutrality towards the fundamentally different forms of private property, i.e. the property of one’s own labour power on the one and the private property of capital on the other hand which makes the capitalist state an integral part of the class structure of capitalist society. It was only with this theoretical concept that the mere instrumental explanation of the class character of the capitalist state was overcome.

While participants in the derivation debate assumed that this political form is produced by the necessities of the reproduction of capital, my own research into the historical constitution of bourgeois states led to the hypothesis that there is no direct causal relationship between the constitution of bourgeois political forms and capitalism becoming dominant. Today, I would insist that the class character of the state can (!) be present in the state form, but that capitalism can also function in societies where there is no formal neutrality of the state. I have since criticized the derivation debate on the capitalist state by pointing out that the theoretical concept of an institutionally neutral political form was a product of the historical situation in which it was formulated. Derivation theory is very much a child of the decades after World War II in Germany when and where it appeared as if equality before the law was actually a necessity for the reproduction of capitalism. It was the rejection of the historical analysis of capitalist state power which allowed its logical deduction from the general structures of capitalism, thereby condemning this theoretical concept to remain useless for the explanation of political forms which contradict the political forms of capitalism which had been deduced from Marx’ analyses.


Your new book “Market and Violence” is subtitled “The Functioning of Historical Capitalism”. The subject of your book is, simplified, the role and persistence of coercive and violent labour relations and modes of accumulation in the history of capitalism. You argue that the history of these phenomena leads us to question some fundamental premises of both liberal and Marxist theories of capitalism. Can you elaborate a bit on your critique of certain Marxist and liberal theories of capitalism and what you think they get wrong? What is the basic argument of your book, and in how far is it a critique of those Marxist and liberal theories?

Having looked at the actual history of capitalism I concluded that – exceptions apart – owners of capital use every means to achieve profits that are available to them at a given time and at a given place. This includes the use of direct violence against persons. While I refuse to discuss if there is more or less violence today than hundred years ago, the history of capitalism has not confirmed the notion that capitalist forms of exploitation generally tend to overcome the violence which was present in historically earlier forms. If, in some places and during some periods, violence has indeed been reduced, this has always been achieved by political measures. And these have usually been demanded by widespread critique and opposition. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee for such political achievements to remain effective independently of the continuous presence of critique and opposition. That these findings contradict fundamental assumptions of liberal concepts goes without saying, because for liberalism the history of mankind has already reached its destination with the advent of capitalism. Marx and Marxists contradict this conviction. But they also conceive of capitalism as a progressive stage in the history of mankind, not only because it was progressive in relation to pre-capitalist forms of economy and society but also because, according to Marx, the inherent dynamics of capitalism prepare the historical possibility of socialism. If there are different strands of theoretical conceptions about the revolutionary transformation and if we can detect different conceptions in Marx’s own writings, I am quite sure that it was his concept of revolution which led to his refusal to accept that capitalism did not always and everywhere rely on the double freedom of laborers. Since he expected that laborers would organize and educate themselves in order to achieve the revolutionary transformation to socialism, he could not very well accept that slavery was a capitalist form of labour.

If we accept that slavery and various other forms of forced labour have been – and still are – made use of for capitalist production and that there have been – and still are – capitalist forms of appropriation which are pursued by practices which not only make use of market forces but also of violence, we have to specify the theoretical content of Marx’s analysis in Capital. The theoretical beauty of this analysis is the fact that Marx’s critique of the political economy of capitalism made it possible that he did not have to make capital owners responsible for all the evils inherent in capitalism. Once the capacity to labour of many men, women (and children) was transformed into a commodity, the violence inherent in the anonymous forces of the market could replace the practice of direct violence against laborers. Marx’s theory of value enabled him to explain that even if nobody cheats and everything is exchanged according to its value, the productive capacity of labour power reproduces the capital relation, i.e. the class difference. While I criticize any attempt to use value theory in order to calculate profits or even a tendency of profits to rise or to fall, I think it is at the heart of Marx’s ability to focus on capitalism as a system. This focus enabled him to explain that the reproduction of capitalism is possible without the use of direct violence against persons. Whenever this historical possibility is mistakenly conceived of as historical necessity, the analysis of capitalism is transformed into a philosophical concept of history. This transformation is present in Marx’s theory of revolution but it is also present in all those Marxist theories which define capitalism as a system of production which necessitates the double freedom of laborers.


One aspect of your new book as well as your earlier work that stands out to me is the very productive and critical discussion of Marxist theory and historiography. While you reject certain interpretations of Marxism, e.g. a conception of the modern state as an effect of the development of the productive forces, a theory of the logic of capitalist economies that suppresses violent labour relations etc., you draw on and discuss other authors from the Marxist tradition, such as Etienne Balibar, Jairus Banaji, Charles Post and others. How would you describe the relevance that Marxism had for your work and your intellectual biography?

I find it very difficult to name specific authors as sources for my own theoretical concept. Let me start out with Marx. When trying to analyse the fundamental contradiction between slavery and Jeffersonian political concepts for my habilitation, I looked at various historical analyses but not yet at Marx. When I did look at Marx later on I disagreed with his analysis of modern slavery as far as the US was concerned. This experience probably encouraged me to insist on the necessity of historical analysis of the capitalist state power as opposed to its logical derivation from Capital. After having started to describe the historical development of bourgeois states in England, France and the various Germany States and having already written 500 pages, I threw all of this in the waste paper basket and started anew. (I also decided that if an analysis of several German states could not be achieved, I should not take the usual way out by simply concentrating on Prussia.) When I try to remember what induced me to change my theoretical concept, I do not recall any Marxist authors, instead I very vividly recall the impact of writers like Frederic William Maitland or Marc Bloch. In any case, the experience of writingImpersonal Power probably ruined me for any functional theoretical concept. It also ruined me for any concept of class struggle which conceives of classes as social groups. The class character of capitalism is inherent in any labour relation, but neither does this preclude the path to socialism nor to any specific development for capitalism. During my research forImpersonal Power Friedrich Gerstenberger insisted that it is not possible to grasp the development of state power without taking into consideration the social forms of its military. Benno Teschke introduced me to the relevance of political sovereignty, a topic which has since remained one of my fields of interests, Robert Brenner helped me to understand why merchants very rarely tended to become champions of bourgeois revolutions. I could go on. Your question probably intends to detect if I see myself theoretically affiliated to any school of interpretation. I am not. Except for a very strict critique of any concept which to my opinion reproduces orthodox Marxism, I try to take into consideration many different arguments, and I stubbornly refuse to accept for example, that citing Brenner puts me into the drawer which is labelled political Marxism.

I am not sure what started me to research the continuous presence of violence in capitalism. However, the experience of researching maritime labour must have had an important impact. I sort of stumbled into maritime history in the 1990s because at that time the “Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft” did not allow to make use of their funds for dissertations. After having decided to at least for a short time collaborate with Ulrich Welke who was not only a former student of mine but also a former seafarer, I very soon noticed that research in maritime history could contribute to my understanding of state power. This research introduced me to archival research. Theoretically, our book Vom Wind zum Dampf led us to question the assumption that maritime labour was already capitalist labour in the 16th or 17th century. That sailors were paid did not make them into proletarians as long as their skills and their knowledge did still have to be taken into consideration for the running of a sailing ship. We developed a much more precise concept of industrial labour than was heretofore present in maritime history and came to the conclusion that when capitalist forms of labour were already present on ships of the navy they had not yet arrived on most ships of the merchant marine because sailors were not yet labouring under the strict command of the representative or the owner of the ship. This, of course, resulted in a critique of widely held notions about masters aboard merchant ships. In the merchant marine the unrestricted power of captains came much later than is often assumed. After having finished this book, Ulrich Welke and I decided to try to analyse present day maritime labour. This, of course, necessitated a grasp of the dynamics of globalized capitalism. It helped that both of us were teaching in the department of economics. After having obtained funding for this research we, first of all, organized many discussions with Seafarers in order clarify our research concept. We then went along on voyages of different types of ships for periods varying between ten days and almost four weeks. I count the chance to experience globalization at its social (and geographical) fringes as one of the great privileges of my academic life. This research into the actual conditions of maritime laborers has imbibed me with a thorough scepticism against the effects of political governance. Because, once the development of ‘flags of convenience’ had been accepted and even furthered by the governments of formerly leading maritime states, it was very difficult to establish international regulation, not to speak of international control. While we have never actually been on one of those ships where extreme exploitation is practiced, we heard and saw enough to realize that working and living conditions of seafarers are dictated by fierce economic strategies.


For me, one of the most impressive examples of the general thesis of the book was your discussion of slavery in the Confederate States of America, a topic heavily discussed in recent years. You identify the question whether slavery would have disappeared without the Civil War as one of the central disagreement among scholars of US slavery. As an illustration of your more general thesis: What is your position towards this question, and why?

While I point to the fact that slaves could and have been used in industrialized production and that slave owners as well as manufacturers managed to overcome the local fixation of slave labour by developing methods of renting out slaves, the most important argument against the conviction that slavery and capitalism are not compatible has been produced by the practices of former slave owners who developed all sorts of “Ersatz- slavery”. The Black Codes which were passed in the South after the end of the Civil War have been motivated by endeavours to tie blacks to agrarian production. They had to be given up. But vagrancy laws, the widespread use of peonage and the renting out of convicts more or less achieved the same goal. All of these forms bound labour to a certain employment. None of these forms hindered the development of capitalism.


You argue that around the time of the First World War, capitalism in Western Europe was “domesticated”. The most important aspect of this “domestication” was the legalisation of unions. This happened at a time when capitalism was already “normalized”, that is, institutions and the state had already managed to make working people accept their status as workers dependent on private relations of wage-labour. Could you explain what the “domestication” of capitalism entails, exactly, what its historical preconditions were, and why it was such a paradigm-shifting development in the history of capitalism?

What I have termed the domestication of capitalism has been termed the development of the social state by others. “Domestication” puts the emphasis on the acceptance of the right of trade unions to collective deliberation by capital owners. If some of those realized that – at least in the long run – deliberation could be more advantageous than the violent suppression of strikes, this never put an end to the joint actions of capital owners without prior state activities. In the USA these activities only arrived on a national level in the 1930s, in Germany, for example, they arrived at the end of World War I. I make use the term “domestication” in order to stress the fact that – just like in the domestication of wild animals – the undomesticated nature of capitalism can never be totally eliminated. One of the most striking examples is the development of National Socialism in a country where, after World War I, capitalism was already relatively domesticated. In sum: domestication is provoked and defended by social movements. We all had to learn that the domestication which was thought to have come to stay in the most advanced capitalist societies in the first decades after World War II turned out to be a rather thin political layer when capital owners started to make use of globalization in order to get rid of its encumbrances.


In your book you cite a study of the International Labour Organization, estimating that in 2013 27 million people in the world lived and worked under modern slavery. By 2016, this number has increased to about 40 million. In your book, you don’t stick to the official legal definitions of slavery and compulsory labour, but introduce the term “unbounded exploitation” to grasp both modern slavery as well as other labour relations that entail violence. What does “unbounded exploitation” mean, exactly, and what does it encompass that terms like slavery don’t? 

The choice of terminology has been made into a political statement when colonial powers decided to prohibit slavery and then argued that it actually was no longer existent in their colonies. British governments were especially inventive. Since the colonial state did not have jurisdiction over household matters in India, it was not responsible for the forms of exploitation which were practiced in households. Many colonial governments simply looked the other way. Of course, all the forms of forced labour to which natives were subjugated by colonial states in the name of civilization and progress could have been termed slavery, but members of colonial states insisted on the fact that if they often did not pay these workers, they did not buy them. When the International Labour Office was founded in 1919, its board decided to evade terminological controversy by making use of the term ‘forced labour’. Since the continued presence of outright slavery could not be overlooked, the League of Nations decided conventions against slavery. The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations prohibited slavery as well as institutions and practices which resemble slavery. Today, social scientists and activists often make use of term slavery as a moral category thereby stressing the atrocity of certain forms of exploitation.

I have chosen the term “unbounded exploitation” for two reasons. Firstly, it allows the integration of practices which ruin the health of people, be they laborers or not, as well as of practices which make body parts into commodities, of threats to the life of trade union activists, of the violence inherent in the trade in drugs or persons as well as other systematic practices of violence for the sake of appropriation. My second reason for making use of this term is more obvious in German. Because “entgrenzte Ausbeutung” refers to the fact that since the first decades of the 20th century one convention after the other defined limits of exploitation. In other words: they defined what sort of capitalist exploitation was to be internationally accepted. Unbounded exploitation transgresses these limits (bounds). Of course, these conventions, though most of them have been ratified by the respective national political bodies and have therefore been integrated into national law, have not effectively transformed reality. They can, nevertheless, be referred to as expressions of official international opinion by opponents of certain practices, thereby adding to the legitimacy of certain demands.


I think when talking about your concept of “unbounded exploitation”, it would be worthwhile to for a moment shift our attention to the second part of the word, “exploitation”. Exploitation is a concept that in recent decades has either been ignored by social scientists, or was confined to a very narrow definition applying exclusively to “productive” wage labour, mostly in the industrial sector, where it is closely related to concepts like profit and a labour theory of value. Your use of the term does not fit to either of these trends; rather, you feature it very prominently and apply it to a great variety of types of work. What were the reasons for you to choose exploitation as a category, what does it encompass, and how would you define it?


The use of the term “exploitation” seemed a matter of course. The focus of my analysis was not on the productivity of capitalism, but instead on the possibility to make capitalism productive even when men, women and children are forced to labour in extremely harsh conditions. If “exploitation” of laborers is present in any capitalist labour relation, my focus was on practices which transgress this capitalist normality by making use of force either in the labour process as such or in binding laborers to a certain place of work. Used in this sense “exploitation” is a political term. Its content depends on the notions of right and wrong in capitalism prevailing at a certain time and at a certain place. By referring myself to international conventions I also refer myself to their definition of the difference between accepted exploitation and ‘unbounded exploitation’. But in spite of this reference to institutionalized definitions I also take the liberty of using my very personal notion of what I conceive of as being insufferable and therefore intolerable.


I interpret your work as a fundamental questioning of the dichotomy of “free” wage labour and slavery. Your empirical work seems to suggest that rather than a clear distinction, there exist a myriad of hybrid-forms of labour relations that cannot be grasped by a simple dichotomy of wage labour and slavery. Trying to grapple with similar problems, theorists like Marcel van der Linden or Tithi Bhattacharya have called for an expanded conception of class, transcending its confinement to more traditional definitions of the working class. You seem to be more reluctant to use the concept of class; especially, you criticise the construct of a “global proletariat”. What is your critique of the concept of class, especially the global working class? What are the political implications of your critique for the left trying to grapple with the challenges of a globally interconnected capitalism?


For me the analytical term ‘class’ is the expression of the fundamentally contradictory interests which are present in any labour relation. If one uses ‘class’ in order to talk about positions in social hierarchies – a usage which used to be very common in England and France in the early decades of the 19th century – one can highlight differences, but loses the notion of contradiction which is at the heart of Marx’s analysis of the class relation. In this case the concept of class is made use of to describe social situations. In my opinion to talk of a global working class amalgamates description with the theory of revolution. After all, in Marx’s analysis classes were conceived of as the agents of revolution. And if, for example, John Holloway writes about the “Cry” of all the oppressed or Hardt and Negri about the ‘multitude’ than they do just that: they try to combine description with a concept of revolution. If this may be politically encouraging, its theoretical foundation is not tenable. Marcel van der Linden and Tithi Bhattacharya argue differently. But if we use the concept of class in the context of the analysis of actual social and political forms of capitalism, it is impossible to not at the same time assume that people act according to their economic position. If this assumption was always problematic it was much less so in the second half of the 19th century in the first capitalist societies. Geoff Eley and Keith Nield have very convincingly argued that class analysis arose out of the fact that at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century there were proletarian milieus which favoured the development of solidarities which then, in turn allowed the development of a socialist and communist programmatic. Even in that time and in the first industrialized societies ‘class’ was a fictive entity in so far as it was conceived as a social group which would act in a certain way. These milieus hardly exist in present day capitalist societies. If conflicts over the appropriation of the results of labour are present in any labour relation, this does not make them into parts and parcel of class struggle. In order to perceive of a global conflict between classes we would have to assume that solidarity could overcome competition on a global scale. Instead of giving in to the temptation of defining global classes we should endeavour to not only analyse the practices of exploitation but also those of competition.


Last, but certainly not least: Which specific political steps, in your opinion, are necessary to challenge the continuing existence of violent, coercive, hazardous work relations today? Where do you see the left’s responsibility here? During your research, did you encounter any noteworthy political projects that specifically challenge forms of unbounded exploitation?


I concluded that the economic rationality of non-violent forms of appropriation, most of all those of exploiting labour power, does not prevent violence to be made use of if there is no state action against these practices. It follows that governments have to be induced to act accordingly. Such critique is existentially necessary where and when the exploited can only voice their demands by endangering their economic reproduction and even their life. International conventions demand certain state activities, but they are never enough to actually set these in motion. National as well as international public critique is essential.

Trying to grasp the actual reality of capitalism, I learned about many admirable examples of either individuals or groups who opposed being robbed of their means of living. And I have also come to admire people working steadfastly in non-government organizations in order to inform the wider public about living and working conditions, thereby to influence private behaviour as well as to provoke state actions. In some cases, the information about evils is only possible if journalists, researchers and activists are willing to endanger their freedom or even their life.

If there are many projects and demands focusing on problems in the national sphere, which merit all the support we can give them, the globalization of capitalism has also globalized the realm of political responsibility. At the moment two internationally set forth demands seem to me to be of utmost importance. One concerns the demand to tax multinational enterprises as unitary firms, the other concerns the establishment of the legal liability of enterprises for the working conditions of their laborers regardless of the location of their firms.

Such demands clearly focus on the reform of capitalism. I do not know of any convincing strategic concept for the transition from capitalism to socialism nor do I know of any clear conception of the society to be built after the end of capitalism. But I do think that reform of capitalism is possible. And if such reforms will change the life of children, women and men for the better, than I think that they are worth fighting