UWP: Thanks for sparing a few moments to discuss your new book COMMUNICATION AND CAPITALISM for the UWP blog. I think the first thing that might strike a few of your readers is the unambiguous commitment to Marxist Humanism. A few decades ago a dominant strand in Marxism was anti-Humanist in tone. It is clear here that you are defending and advocating humanism and Marxism within the book and criticising various anti humanist strands of thought such as posthumanism to actor network theory. Is 2020 a moment when this feels especially necessary? Has it been difficult until recently to make the argument that these two traditions are compatible, could indeed be one?
Christian Fuchs: Anti-humanism is a tendency that is immanent in capitalism itself. There are new forms of fascism, racism, nationalism that deny groups of humans such as refugees and migrant workers their humanity and implicitly or explicitly make the false claim that there are more and less important groups of humans. But there is just one humanity. There are also many tech-utopias and tech-dystopias that assume that digital technologies and automation will completely replace the human being by robots. They claim that this either will create a paradise or hell. They disregard that technology can never be completely independent of humans. A better society in which technology makes the lives of humans easier and is not a means of capital accumulation and domination has to be obtained through praxis, through humans’ social struggles. Visions of all of us becoming robots, cyborgs, posthumans, etc. are not just techno-deterministic and naïve, but also overlook that fostering the cyborgization of humans might result in new forms of fascism, eugenics, social Darwinism, etc.
Humanist socialism is a political counter-perspective and alternative vision to the anti-humanist potentials of contemporary capitalism. Marxist humanism is a theoretical approach that stresses human practices, the dialectic, the commonalities of humans, the critique of alienation, ideology critique, social struggles for democratic socialism, and the importance of the entire body of Marx’s works. Starting with [Louis] Althusser, postmodernism and poststructuralism has fetishized structures. In its later versions, it has forgotten that there is an economy and that there is capitalism and class. It is not helpful when various versions of postmodernism claim that there is the death of the human subject and advance a hatred of the human being. Anthropocene theory is one of the latest developments in anti-humanist thought. It often blames the human being and not capitalism for contemporary crises. Postmodernism contributed to the decline of Marxist theory in an age when class contradictions have been exploding. But today postmodernism is itself in decline. And today Marx is as important as ever or even more important. Marxist humanism is a counter-narrative, counter-theory, and counter-politics to practical and theoretical anti-humanism. The book Communication and Capitalism tries to renew Marxist humanism and situates the notion of communication in society and capitalism based on Marxist humanist theory.
UWP: Picking up from that, the book reflects a growing concern over the ways in which invasive and exploitative digital technology is being applied and made to serve the purposes of a very familiar set of capitalist imperatives. Have you in recent years become more techno-sceptic in your writings or is it just the stakes are higher and that alternative means of deploying technology are urgently required for example commons media or a public service internet?
CF: I have never been either a techno-optimist or a techno-pessimist, but have always stressed and continue to stress the dialectical character of technology, including digital technologies, in capitalism and society. In Communication and Capitalism I both analyse the class and dominative character of communication and communication technology in capitalism as well as transcendental aspects having to do with class struggles for alternatives, including alternative media, commons-based culture and communications, public service media/Internet, etc.
UWP: In early chapters of the book significant attention is paid to Aristotle, matter and the dialectic? How much would you say that the foundations of the thinking in the book look over Marx’s shoulders to first Hegel and then Greek philosophy?
CF: Marxist humanism is strongly grounded in Hegelian Marxism, it stresses the importance of dialectical philosophy for the analysis of society. Aristotle has had huge influence on Marx’s thinking, but this is often rather implicit and has not been clearly enough stressed in lots of analyses of Marx’s. I am – in this book and in general – interested to explore the connections between Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx. In Communication and Capitalism I for example do this by interpreting work and production as what Georg Lukács in his overlooked and forgotten second opus magnum Die Ontologie des gesellschaftlichen Seins (The Ontology of Societal Being) † as ‘teleological positing’. Aristotle’s notion of telos plays an important role here and has both influenced Marx’s and Lukács’ concepts of work and the economy. Work is the model of action in society, including communicative action. Communication has a purpose. In capitalism, it is a form of instrumental action, it serves the logic of capital and domination. So communication is being instrumentalised. The task is to strengthen the logic of the commons and cooperation where all benefit. That’s what humanist Marxism is all about. What I try to add to Marxist humanist theory, based on thinkers such as Marx, Lukács and others, is that I situation the notion of communication as a dialectical and materialist feature of humanity and society.
UWP: Another striking feature of the book’s contents is a chapter on ‘Death and Love: The Metaphysics of Communication’. It feels strangely unfamiliar but somehow refreshing to read a Marxist thinker talk so openly and directly about love in particular. Are these emotional topics areas the post-Marx Marxist tradition has somewhat ignored? And are you considering working further on these larger existential matters in the future?
CF: I agree that the chapter on ‘Death and Love: The Metaphysics of Communication’ is a particular feature of this book that is worth reading. In a sense, it is maybe unconventional for a critical theory book because topics such as ethics and religion are mostly missing from most such books. I wrote this chapter in the weeks after the death of my father in 2018, which made me think a lot about existential questions of humanity.
In general, lots of Marxist theory deals with the nuts and bolts of the capitalist economy and considers culture, communication, emotions, love, ethics, morality, etc. as unimportant ‘superstructures’. My point is based on Raymond Williams and others that all of these phenomena are material features of humanity and society. Love and communication are part of the nuts and bolts of humanity and society.
Death and fears of death are very existential facets of life that we all are confronted with. The coronavirus crisis for example has broken into humanity suddenly and reminds us all that life is the most existential, the most material if you will, feature of us all and of society. Much of Marxism has not been good at dealing with such existential questions. But to be fair, there are interesting works on Marxism, love and death, for example in the study of Marxism and religion. Erich Fromm’s works are an important example. Reading Fromm has influenced Communication and Capitalism, which is quite evident in the book. The traditional Marxist critique of religion is that it is the ideological opium of the people. Distraction and fetishism are two features of all ideology, including the ideologies that celebrate capital, the market, money, etc. In a way, ideologies such as neoliberalism and consumer capitalism have become the religions of the 21st century.
Fromm stresses that there are socialist and humanist elements in certain religions that deal with existential questions that humanity faces. So religion is not just and not always and not exclusively ideological, which Marx himself stressed in the famous Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
I am also interested in the dialectic of love and death in capitalism. In the last instance, humanist socialism is the generalisation of the principle of love to society. This principle exists as the counterpower to instrumental reason in our everyday life. But it does not exist as society’s principle.
I continue to be interested and to work on metaphysical aspects of humanity and society. For example, I am interested in certain humanist versions of religious socialism, such as the works of Paul Tillich and Emil Fuchs. I have recently published an essay on Aristotelian-Marxist ethics and the digital commons. I also have recently worked on Sartre’s existentialism. I am not really interested in the idealist Sartre of Being and Nothingness, but in the Marxist-humanist Sartre of Critique of Dialectical Reason. Most people claim it is an unreadable book. My experience was that it is worth reading it and I am interpreting Sartre as another contributor to Marxist humanist approaches to communication. The issue of how love and death are communicated on social media and what roles the commodification of love and death via social media plays, where corporations make profit from it, is also important.
UWP: Every chapter tackles a big topic, in some course structures almost a module. Can the book be usefully read at all (to use a musical analogy) on a track-by-track basis or would you see the book’s careful structure (dialectical perhaps?) as vital to appreciating what is more to you a totality, a ‘concept album’ for the critical mind?
CF: The book forms a dialectical totality in itself so it is worth reading it as a whole in order to get the big picture. But I wrote it in such a manner that each chapter forms a moment of a larger whole. And you can also read each chapter independent from the others if you are interested in a particular theme. It is quite evident from each chapter’s title what exactly the focus is. The chapters are also suited for use in the classroom. But the book is not a textbook that outlines a variety of approaches. It is my own critical theory of communication approach that I present in it. I make use and further develop thought that I find helpful. As a starting point, I am especially interested in forgotten, neglected, hidden works in or elements of Marxist theory that focus on communication. These are mostly not full-fledged communication theories, but elements of Marxist theory that can inform a Marxist-humanist theory of communication and capitalism. I take such elements and further develop them.
UWP: The book’s account of accounts of types of communications theory I imagine will be helpful to students as well as researchers. At one level it feels that empirical and material changes have been so rapid since the turn of the century that scholars have struggled to keep pace, adjust models for which new data or information might surface on a daily basis. Are there fields in critical communication theory that are ripe for some fresh philosophy or theoretical perspectives?
CF: The most well-known and most influential critical theory of communication is Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action. On the one hand, I find Habermas an inspiration because he is a universalist, a humanist and a public intellectual who has made important interventions into many public debates. In late 2019, the year Habermas celebrated his 90th birthday, he published another opus magnum titled Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie (Also a History of Philosophy). It’s a two-volume book, in which Habermas over 1,700 pages comments on the history of Western philosophy.
One aim of Communication and Capitalism is to transcend some of the inadequacies of Habermas’ theory of communicative action. Habermas is a Kantian humanist. His theory of communication is not dialectical enough, which results in a dualistic concept of communication. Habermas furthermore tends to ignore the rich history of Marxist theory and engages with all sorts of approaches from outside this tradition. What I try to do is to work out the dialectics of communication. And in doing so, I do not, like Habermas, take the likes of Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, George Herbert Mead, John Searle, etc. as the starting point. Rather, I start with and based on the tradition of Marxist humanism and see myself as contributing to the development of this strand of Marxian theory.
So Habermas is both an influence and my negative starting point in developing a critical theory of communication. We need to go beyond Habermas and at the same time preserve and transform some aspects of his theory such as his concept of the public sphere. Communication and Capitalism operates at a meta-level, the level of society and capitalism in general. It does not discuss and analyse the newest trends in capitalist communications, such as big data, influencers on social media platforms, platform labour such as Uber and Deliveroo drivers, industry 4.0, etc. It rather operates at a level that is more general and operates above specific expressions of digital and communicative capital. I use specific examples and data, but these are intended to outline more aspect of general critical theory. I outline more concrete analyses of specific technologies, platforms, working conditions, etc. on other books such as Social Media: A Critical Introduction, whose third edition I just finished writing and that is now in production.
Given that the world of digital capitalism changes rapidly at the phenomenological and empirical level of appearances, there is a rush of analysts to keep up and always engage with who outline the latest trends. Often such trend-following, reactive research lacks engagement with more fundamental questions such as: What is capitalism? What is the role of communication and technology in capitalism? What’s wrong about capitalism? How can communication and technology strengthen the public sphere? What is alienation in general and in the context of communicative capitalism? What is a good communication society and how can it be achieved? etc. Positivism is the result of the neglect of more fundamental questions. The outcome of neglecting such questions is positivism.
I do not oppose conducting concrete empirical analyses. I conduct such analyses myself. But I make a plea for engaging with both fundamental questions about society and using them as foundation for the analysis of concrete phenomena of everyday life. So one of the aims of Communication and Capitalism is to inspire the engagement with Marxist theory when studying communication and society.
UWP: The book was finished and edited before the onset of COVID-19 so it is unfair to ask but I imagine readers would be interested to know what kind of capitalist crisis this particular moment looks like becoming to you? The phrase the ’new normal’ mentioned ubiquitously in the media suggests a declared imperative to move towards a yet further deepening of existing capitalist logics: surveillance, big tech, widening inequalities, covert authoritarian control. Do you see on the other hand fresh opportunities in the crisis for alternatives and a society of the commons?
CF: The coronavirus crisis is a crisis of humanity.It includes an economic crisis as its consequence. The crisis shows that those countries that have the purest forms of capitalism, such as the UK and the USA, have the highest death rates because they lack investments into public services, including health care. It is no accident that neoliberalism had one of its practical-political starting points in these two countries in the form of Thatcherism and Reagonomics.
The coronavirus crisis is a critical point, a so-called bifurcation point, where more fundamental change is likely to occur. But how the future will look like is uncertain in such situations and depends on human practice. It has become obvious that neoliberal capitalism and capitalism in general don’t work. So post-capitalism is one alternative in such a crisis. Or some new form of Keynesian capitalism might emerge that gives more weight to state intervention into the economy and the welfare state. Or the situation could escalate, for example if Donald Trump stays in power and starts a war with China. Nuclear annihilation or a Third World War might be the consequence. Right-wing authoritarianism has already (before this crisis) been strengthened in lots of countries. The two ends of the continuum of possibilities are, to quote Rosa Luxemburg, also today socialism or barbarism. The logic of public services and the commons could be strengthened if there are practical movements that strengthen their importance in society. But it could also very well happen that we will face more nationalism, violence, war, and death. The antagonism between instrumental reason and the logic of the commons and cooperation polarises in foundational crises of society.
What I find particularly striking in this crisis is that there are those who as quickly as possible want to open up society because they want to safeguard profits, not taking into account that COVID-19 means a deep public health crisis. The anti-humanists who put profit before human lives are in this crisis constantly talking about consequences for the economy, that we need to open up businesses and schools, etc. They do not care if tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands more will die. In this crisis, it becomes evident who is a humanist and who is an anti-humanist. We need measures such as the introduction of a universal basic income instead of letting workers lose their jobs, starve, etc. In the realm of higher education, it has become evident that a system funded by student debt does not work. It collapses in a crisis such as the COVID-19 crisis. It is silly and short-sighted to now argue that students should pay lower fees or that universities have to make cuts, etc. The only solution is to demand that universities are publicly funded, as is the case in many countries, and not by a student market and the accumulation of debt that destroys young people’s lives. I heard a debate about exactly this issue last night on LBC, where this perspective of transitioning to a system of public funding was simply missing from public discourse. The larger implication is that a crisis such as the COVID-19 crisis reminds us of the importance of public services.
I am interested in how the coronavirus has changed everyday life and everyday communication. As all of us know, the importance of communication technologies such as video chat, e-learning systems, online collaboration systems, etc. has because of the nature of the virus massively increased. I wrote an article titled ‘Everyday Life and Everyday Communication in Coronavirus Capitalism’ about this issue. It applies, so to speak, the analysis of Communication and Capitalism to the COVID-19 crisis.
UWP: As this is not a zoom recorded interview we can’t see your bookshelves but would you like to highlight 2-3 publications that have really interested you recently and supported in interesting ways some of the conclusions and theories of some of the work in the book?
CF: A recent book I highly recommend reading is the collection For Humanism: Explorations in Theory and Politics, edited by David Alderson and Robert Spencer. It outlines the foundations of Marxist humanism and why a renewal of this approach is need today. The four books that have most influenced the thinking of Communication and Capitalism are Hegel’s Encyclopaedia Logic, Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Georg Lukács’ Ontologie des gesellschaftlichen Seins (The Ontology of Societal Being; in English excerpts are available in the form of three short volumes titled Ontology of Social Being: Volume 1: Hegel, Volume 2: Marx, Volume 3: Labour). These books are always worth reading, so I recommend them.
UWP: Lastly most authors have a chapter they might have liked to include in addition to the final line-up of a book. If as I expect there may be a second edition one day, what might you like to consider including in several years’ time, if anything?
CF: For me, a book is an open-ended concept and process. I always find it silly that the majority of book reviews discusses not what is in a book but what is not in a book, as if a book is a closed universe and not part of a larger oeuvre that is open, complex, evolving, etc. I am sure you’ll sometime in the future find one or another book review of Commmunication and Capitalism discussing what the book is not about. Writing such book reviews is a waste of time and indicative of a mechanical and closed understanding of the book.
Capitalism and society change dynamically. As long as there is a class society, there is a need for critical theory. Society evolves. Thought evolves. Critical thought evolves. In my own work, one book often leads to or is the starting point for the next book. So I am not so much thinking about revising books but more about what is important to focus on next.
At the moment, I am interested in the concept of everyday life and how to make use of Henri Lefebvre’s thought to critically theorise the critique of everyday life in digital capitalism. It has become evident to me that Lefebvre is the French Georg Lukács. There is much in his thought that is relevant today, including for a critical theory of communication.
French theory has been so much dominated by anti-humanism and postmodernism, which is a shame. Althusser was one of the root causes of this tragedy called postmodern thought. I am interested in thinkers such as Lefebvre, Lucien Goldmann, Sartre’s late phase in which he wrote Critique of Dialectical Reason Volume 1 and 2. These approaches are counter-narratives to French structuralism and poststructuralism. They focus on Marxist humanism, alienation, praxis, dialectical reason, etc.
UWP: Thank you.
† Discussed in Chapter 2 ‘Georg Lukács as a Communications Scholar: Cultural and Digital Labour in the Context of Lukács’ Ontology of Social Being‘ in the author’s Critical Theory of Communication: New Readings of Lukács, Adorno, Marcuse, Honneth and Habermas in the Age of the Internet.