The “Big Bang” of Modernity

Introduction to Kurz: War and Wertkritik

Frederick Harry Pitts

Robert Kurz (1943-2012) was a German Marxian thinker and critical theorist who, writing for a range of public and activist audiences, produced numerous books, articles and shorter media pieces providing a trenchant critique of capitalist political economy, the contemporary left and, frequently, the politically and intellectually moribund world of academic Marxism. Of his books, only the Substance of Capital has been translated into English. Kurz is best-known as the leading light of Wertkritik, or ‘value critique’, a strand of critical Marxian thought emerging from Germany in the late twentieth century. As well as Kurz, its key thinkers include Ernst Lohoff, Anselm Jappe, Roswitha Scholz and Norbert Trenkle. Traditional Marxism has tended to see the problem with capitalism consisting in its relations of distribution and circulation, leaving the sphere of production untouched. Wertkritik, in common with the likeminded critical theorist Moishe Postone, understands labour instead as a real abstraction and site of social domination that itself expresses and mediates the rule of value. This means that labour and production are themselves problems to be addressed and challenged by critical theory.

As demonstrated in outlets and groups like Exit! and Krisis, the website Palim Psao, and an excellent English-language edited collection released by the journal Mediations, other key themes include a fierce critique of left antisemitism, the analysis of the state as an inseparable part of capitalist society, and a theory of capitalist breakdown focused on the ever-present capacity for overproduction created by runaway technological development. Another aspect of Wertkritik somewhat less well-documented in its Anglophone reception, meanwhile, is its focus on war. Below, we reproduce, with the kind permission of Palim Psao, a translation (the original version is available here) of Robert Kurz’s important essay on the origins of abstract labour in the ‘political economy of firearms’ that developed from the ‘military revolution’ decisive to the rise of capitalism. This introduction contextualises Kurz’s contribution within the wider body of work applying Wertkritik to the understanding of the history, present and future of the relationship between war, labour and capitalist society.

For Wertkritik, as for Heraclitus, war really is ‘the father of all things’. In this respect, as Lohoff demonstrates, Wertkritik harks back to thinkers like Hobbes and Hegel. At base, human subjectivity is related to the ability to objectify others, a process that in various times and places takes a more or less violent guise. In this way, the forms of recognition, right and freedom consolidated in the modern state relate back to a common human capacity for violence and a willingness to risk one’s life in combat. Whilst the capacity to kill or be killed must be continually renewed as a condition of human self-consciousness, the modern state represents its suspension and sublimation, life-and-death struggle displaced onto other kinds of social activity – namely, labour. But the striking of such a social peace ultimately only mediates in another form the underlying content of violence and destruction – a process that can easily go into reverse where decadence and deregulation run riot.

The likes of Lohoff also take inspiration from classic military thinkers like Clausewitz, who famously saw war as ‘the continuation of politics by other means’. The ‘primacy of politics’ does not mean that politics poses a solution to conflict, and nor does the placing of the means of violence in the hands of the state mark its rationalisation. Politics is not a form of reason imposed upon war and violence, but wields its own irrationality that rather than extinguishing conflict acts as its spark and accelerant. Being driven by non-material ideological and emotional factors, politics lacks limits, creating a tendency for the wars it creates to attain the ‘absolute’ character Clausewitz feared.

By charting these inescapable connections with war, Wertkritik runs against the grain of the classic bourgeois thought of the likes of Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine. In particular it challenges the idea that capitalist society emerged from, or is synonymous with, peaceful barter, entrepreneurial industriousness or a ‘Protestant ethic’. For Wertkritik, the idea that war, violence and the free market are incompatible, and that the extension of trade and commerce guarantee a world at peace, is an illusion generated by the fact that capitalism was initially associated with the confinement of violence and war as matters of state. But the latter’s guarantees of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality ultimately rest on what is only a temporary and partial suspension and sublimation of violence, carried over in the marketisation of violence and its regimentation in state hands.

Alongside such liberal homilies, Wertkritik’s other primary target is Marxism. Whilst Marx, in his masterwork Capital, emphasised the violent roots of capitalism, Marxism failed to consider the connection. As Kurz argues below, the ambiguous and uncertain character of social and economic development prior to the rise of capitalism meant that many Marxists simply fell in line behind a fundamentally bourgeois account of history. Marxism has traditionally advocated a historical materialism that emphasises the role of the productive forces – technology, management techniques and so on – in driving history forwards from agrarian to industrial society. The reason Marxists have found it difficult to deal with origins of capitalism that have ‘blood and dirt coming out of every pore’, as Marx put it, is because it does not sit well with a view of historical development passing seamlessly through successive and necessary stages towards human emancipation – a perspective taken over wholesale from liberal notions of progress.

Still beguiling radical criticisms of capitalist society today, such a view does not fully explain where these developmental forces arose from in the first place. For instance, it is insufficient simply to point to the advent of steam power as the catalyst of the Industrial Revolution. Just as Marx progressively unfolds layers of historical determination in Capital, we must excavate the political, social and economic imperatives that drove the development of these forces in the first place. To do this, Kurz suggests in another piece, we must focus not on the forces of production at the inception of capitalist modernity, but the forces of destruction, namely, in the invention of firearms. As Kurz shows us below, history unfolds, and the capitalist labour process arises, through the progressive imposition of the new political economy of firearms upon the old.


The political economy of firearms

“Behind the ubiquitous modern compulsion to earn money stands the logic of thundering cannons.” Kurz, ‘The Big Bang of Modernity’

Precapitalist wars were limited, ritualistic and sportsmanlike affairs, being largely for the edification or advancement of aristocratic classes. In the Middle Ages, everyday life would be largely unaffected by whether one’s social superiors were at war or not. But in the late 1400s and 1500s all this changed with more sophisticated military machines brought into service to fight Clausewitzian ‘absolute wars’ waged as the extension of political disputes. This sparked an explosion in military expenditure, earlier economies of plunder and booty replaced by that of taxation funding standing armies and firepower production. As Kurz explains below, the ‘state-building wars’ of the early modern period, which, through the production of ocean-going navies, saw states engage in colonialist expansion, institutionalised lasting power structures that brought into being politics as a specific and relatively autonomous sphere of activity that represented the administrative complement of an increasingly dynamic economy.

What Kurz elsewhere calls the ‘political economy of firearms’ was decisive in this military revolution. Firearms neutralised the power of feudal cavalries and thus reshaped society in the image of new and more enterprising class powers. The production needs of cannons and muskets demanded a shift from small workshops to greater economies of scale in a nascent weapons industry. The greater destructive power they represented required new infrastructure like fortresses. Competition between companies and between states propelled technological innovation in the means of destruction, driven by arms race and the pursuit of market share. As Kurz argues below, the ‘best social possibilities’ were increasingly ‘sacrificed’ to the military machine in the form of personnel and knowledge.

Despite advances in military hardware, wars fought by absolutist states in the eighteenth century were limited in their capacity to seek total destruction of enemies by the mercenary and thus expensive and unreliable character of the armies at their disposal. But, increasingly, the growing size and complexity of arms meant that soldiers were no longer self-sufficient in their provision and instead became reliant on supply from centralised stores in the control of nascent state powers. Kurz describes how a separate military sphere distinct from civilian life and civil society developed, with a more or less professionalised standing army. The rise of the conscript citizen soldier, compelled not by mercenary interest but by a fanatical devotion to the nation-state, enabled the likes of Napoleon to break the mould of military command up to that point by defeating enemies in decisive battles

These standing armies, Kurz suggests, were the first part of society to move from direct, personal relations between people to indirect, impersonal relations mediated by the market, money and the modern state. The universalisation of the uniformed citizen incorporated formerly excluded groups as equal subjects in the eyes of the law. In prior societies where the means of violence were distributed only among social masters, Lohoff argues, their power commanded a society of ‘loyalty and dependence’. It took the concentration of the means of violence in the hands of the state to clear the way for a society of universal right and equality between formally free individuals. The monopoly on violence possessed by the state is thus the precondition of the ‘political domination adequate to commodity society’, an abstract equality imposed within the borders of the nation as ‘an abstract geographical space’.

These conditions produced professionalized soldiers who became, in effect, the first wage labourers dependent for their reproduction not on the household but on money and commodity consumption. Their labour prefigured the abstract, emptied-out labour of industrial capitalism insofar as fighting no longer concerned an intrinsic motivation tied to ideals or kinship so much as the command of the state to kill in general. Kurz contends that the status of emergent citizen-soldiers as the first wage workers came with the consequences attached to abstract labour through time: immiseration of soldiers and degradation of their work; their separation from independent means of producing and acquiring the conditions of living; and the ever-present possibility of unemployment in its modern guise. The first subjects in history to be ‘unemployed’ in this formal fashion, when peace broke out between wars soldiers found themselves on the fringes, policed as a social problem and surplus population.

As their charges became the archetype for the working-class, meanwhile, military commanders became the archetype for the capitalist class, seizing the spoils of war and seeking to invest and accumulate from them, and their captains the archetypes of managers. As such, for Kurz, it was war that incubated the new forms of class subjectivity characteristic of capitalist society, and the management techniques and employment relations through which they are expressed.

The scale and spread of the production necessary to arm and sustain standing armies demanded provisioning by a ‘permanent war economy’ that eclipsed the agrarian ways of life of the old society. The rise of finance, which filled gaps in state coffers by financing wars in exchange payments, Kurz attributes to the military revolution. War financiers were not sufficient in and of themselves to fund the ‘political economy of firearms’, however. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, there was a steep rise in taxes to make ends meet. Previously taxes were levied, in a somewhat relaxed fashion, on natural factors like agricultural yield. But the taxes that sustained the political economy of firearms were gathered by force by rising absolutist states, and subject to a thoroughly abstract and mediated relationship with the production of wealth.

The wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thus saw control concentrated in the hands of a sovereign state commanding a specialised apparatus of violence overseas supported by the taxes of non-combatants at home. Taxes were the price of non-participation and the preservation of stability in the domestic national sphere, but also increasingly linked the fortunes of commodity production at home to the fortunes of armies abroad. States financed wars through systems of taxation that compelled their citizens and companies to make money in order to pay what was owed, accumulating vast administrative and bureaucratic power in order to make collections. In this way, Kurz suggests, the state’s need to raise taxes to fund military expenditure liberated from existing constraints not only the modern state, but an economy based on the production and monetary exchange of commodities in pursuit of expanded value.

As Kurz outlines, agrarian society had provided a poor basis for money to realise its role as ‘as the anonymous ruling power’. Advances in productivity generated a surplus but the logic of productive investment and accumulation did not govern how this surplus was enjoyed or spent. But the consequence of the military revolution and the ‘political economy of firearms’ was to ‘disembed’ from society a separate ‘functional space for business’, – an ‘autonomous subject’, albeit one with its manufacturing and industrial capacities often coordinated by the state. The ‘abstraction’ of this apparatus from the simple ‘material needs’ of society burnished the power of money as the mediating thread of subsistence and social existence.


The warfare state

“If there is something like an ur-experience for the homo fordisticus, it is the experience of the World War I battlefronts.” Lohoff, ‘Violence as the Order of Things

Modern warfare was characterised by the intensified dependence upon these mediated social relations. Their mediated and impersonal character may have reduced direct aggression and violence in everyday life, but they were guaranteed by, and supported, a more comprehensive capacity for extermination and total destruction concentrated in the hands of the state and its armies. As these social and political conditions developed, the logical conclusion of the earlier absolute wars, based on the total vanquishing and overthrow of an enemy, lay in the ‘total war’ of the twentieth century. With the productive capacity of society set in full mobilization in support of the war effort, civilian and civilian infrastructure became a military target from the twentieth century onwards.

This produced a permanent defensive and offensive war economy. The modernisation that unfolded from the nineteenth into the twentieth century represented a series of ways of managing this underpinning war economy, whether in the guise of new deal liberalism, social democracy, communism or the kinds of planning characteristic of the so-called ‘developmental state’. These all rested on the massification of production in line with the underlying requirements of the war economy, which extended the abstraction of labour once experienced by standing armies to society as a whole. In this context, Kurz contends in The Substance of Capital, the ‘total national labour’ attained a new status as a central part of the war effort and the forms of ‘recuperative modernization’ and social reform that followed.

Decisive to this greater abstraction of labour, Kurz suggests in an early piece, were scientific and technical advances compelled by conflict and competition between states. The labour process was reshaped and rendered more productive by new technologies, scientific management and state support for research and development in dual-use civilian-military technologies like electronics – its result being the assembly line. In the state-directed large-scale production necessitated by the two world wars, together these innovations took the subjective, individualised, arbitrary and immediate cooperation present in production during earlier stages of industrial development and subjected it to an objective, deindividualized, systematic and mediated framework that actively transformed the concrete experience of working life. Following the two world wars, Kurz contends, the development of productivity in the workplace remained contained within the ‘logic of political-military competition’ in the shape of the Cold War.

Whilst there was no return to the sheer scale of violence witnessed in the first half of the twentieth century, Lohoff suggests the Cold War saw an increase in the powers of destruction invested in the state with the promise of mutually assured destruction and the development of an ever-greater capacity for killing in West and East. Thus, where the war years had incubated the ‘productive forces of the second industrial revolution’ in the form of forces of destruction, the Cold War unleashed them. The Fordist organisation of the labour process having been perfected by the warfare state, the rapid productivity increases it generated in peacetime threatened to overproduce commodities relative to demand, devaluing goods and creating the conditions for economic crisis. But the innovations of the war years resulted in new branches of production that met the new needs unlocked in an age of mass consumption – cars and household appliances, for instance. Hence, just as the war economy represented the scientific application of civilian labour in service of destruction, the subsequent development of mass commodity production and consumption represented the civilian ‘continuation of destruction by other means’.

The stability of capitalism in the context of this rapid productivity drive was superintended by the strong role of the state in the Cold War period. This ‘organised capitalism’, underwritten by the political command wielded by the state, seemed, to some, to have suspended the law of value itself. Hungry for taxes and the creation of military means, Lohoff argues [LVOT], the war economy effectively subordinated production to apparently ‘unproductive’ state consumption. Rather than market forces, the third industrial revolution resulted from vast state expenditure on research and development in the name of military needs. Having ‘dissolved’ everything into ‘politics’ in the name of great-power struggle, the Cold War state was taken to have defied economics and removed any ‘objective inner limit’ to capitalist production, as Kurz puts it in The Substance of Capital.

Characteristic of Kurz’s work and wider Wertkritik, however, is a focus on precisely those iner limits, and the crisis tendencies they generate. As it transpired, the opening of the Western economy to the competitive pressures and manufacturing capacity generated by modernization tendencies elsewhere in the world eventually weakened the economic position of the West in terms of ‘commodity and capital flows’. The ensuing long downturn, however, did little to stymy the expansion of the so-called ‘military-industrial complex’ that had prospered in the ‘permanent war economy’ after 1945.  With the ‘third industrial revolution’, microelectronics revolutionised and computerised high-tech weapons systems. Under Reagan, the US decisively won the arms race against its Soviet rival through a kind of ‘weaponised Keynesianism’ that racked up public debt entirely against the grain of the Republican assault on Keynesian social spending in other parts of the economy.

The Cold War, Lohoff argues, represented the peak of the warfare state. The arms race exceeded all existing forms of destructiveness and its scientific and economic implications completely overhauled the terrain of capitalist competition within and between nation states. Up to a point, the Soviet Union remained competitive scientifically and technologically, but a range of factors exhausted this state of affairs: the rise of information technologies; a more globalized economy in the West affording access to labour-intensive production to stave off crisis; and the ‘privileged access of the United States to transnational capital’, which enabled greater military expenditure. The victory these factors made possible established a historically unprecedented unipolar world order in which any notion of the balance of power was abolished.


The post-statist age

“In the wars of world order of the West, for the first time in military history the missiles are more expensive than the targets.” Lohoff, ‘Violence as the Order of Things

From 1648 to 1989, states of war and peace were temporally clear, distinct and limited. But, in the ‘post-statist’ age that followed, they blurred. With US supremacy established at the end of the Cold War, there came the emergence of post-statist ‘low intensity’ wars where any number of actors could engage on the military terrain whilst stopping safely short of the threat of total destruction on which the statist age and its technologies rested. Whereas the warfare state saw vast expenditure on the arms race in order to ensure the capacity to destroy enemy combatants, in the post-statist age, so-called ‘new wars’ were fought on the cheap, with low budgets and modest means.

In the space this post-statist age opened up, a war economy based on the reproduction of the productive potential of society as a whole became in many unstable parts of the world a ‘looting economy’ based on the reproduction of specific ‘military players’, as Lohoff puts it. Rather than the destruction of combatants, this frequently took the form of intervention in the lives of noncombatants, whether by intervening in the circulation of goods or everyday life more broadly. Whereas infrastructure and supply lines were always targeted in the age of statified war as a corollary of seeking the destruction of enemy armies, attacks on civilian life and institutions gradually became central to the new post-statist paradigm.

In the capitalist core, meanwhile, the process of neoliberalisation, whilst transforming the role of the state with reference to other areas of economy and society, did not eliminate the state monopoly on violence and military means. Indeed, for the US and its allies, the end of the Cold War consolidated it not only domestically but across the whole world. This called into question the Westphalian distinction between ‘inner-statist’ and international violence, as the West increasingly wielded the kind of ‘police power’ that expressed the monopoly on violence usually wielded internally within states, projected outward to the world as a capacity to apprehend and prosecute enforced on the global stage instead.

The post-Cold War world still saw the vast majority of research spending in the US and elsewhere channelled into military or military-related projects and institutions. This produced technological substitutes for the immediate destructive labour performed by conventional expeditionary forces, striking the final blow to the citizen solder in the same way that new technologies eroded the jobs and conditions of workers over the same period. Ever-more abstract and automated forms of violence marked the culmination of the process by which long-range weapons, from the long-bow to the B-52 bomber, rendered, via successive stages of mechanisation, hand-to-hand combat a thing of the past. The arms-length form of warfare these innovations afforded saw enemies, as kind of passive ‘biomass’, annihilated by equally passive ‘destruction workers’. As with elsewhere in the emergent digitalised workplace, the abstraction of labour associated with the ‘political economy of firearms’ continued apace.


World Civil War

“The total rationalization and full economization of social relations creates a greenhouse in which their immanent opposite, irrationality, always already charged with violence, thrives.” Lohoff, ‘Violence as the Order of Things

The 2008 crisis, Kurz argues in a later article, threw into relief some of the stabilising and destabilising elements of the so-called ‘post-statist’ age. As a common concern of Wertkritik, this centred on the expectation that technological development will lead capitalism to overproduce commodities, which therefore decrease in value. Many left commentators saw financialisation as the outcome of overaccumulated capital seeking a return short of other productive routes for investment in an economy characterised by a swollen service sector and manufacturing overcapacity caused by export-led rising powers. But, for Kurz, the idea that the crisis had been caused by a battle of imperialist blocs – posing China against the USA’s fading hegemony – seemed stuck in a mindset better suited to history prior to the ‘epochal break’ of 1989. Whilst during the Cold War years the world really was divided into competing political blocs and their proxy wars, the US hegemony definitively established in 1989 did not represent the imperial dominion of a specifically national kind of capital. Rather, US capital mediated global value chains as a whole, and thus defined the common character of contemporary capitalism the world over, China included. This meant that the crisis also needed to be located at the level of the ‘interdependence of world capital’, instead of within competitive dynamics between vying powers.

Up to 2008, Kurz contends, the military-industrial complex in the US had underpinned its hegemonic role, guaranteeing domestic growth and jobs and projecting American ‘police’ power overseas by acting and intervening anywhere in the world in the name of stability. This was epitomised in the ‘wars of world order’ the West waged against religious terrorism and rogue states in the nineties and noughties in pursuit of a kind of ‘precarious, planetary crisis management’. This power helped mint what Kurz calls an ‘arms dollar’, distributed in bonds, which meant the world’s excess wealth flowed into US coffers in order to reward the military-industrial complex with renewed investment. The centrality of the arms dollar meant that Wall Street saw the eye of the storm in 2008. But, with government support, it also enabled US private and business consumption to stave off an even worse crisis by absorbing some if not all, of the output of global overproduction in the wake of the expansion of manufacturing capacity that followed the rise of globalisation and the third industrial revolution.

Identifying finance as the culprit for the crisis, as much of the left did post-2008, levels criticism only at the distribution and circulation of value in capitalist society, whilst excusing the conditions under it is produced. This, for Kurz, expressed ‘the desperate desire to flee back to the times of Fordist prosperity and Keynesian regulation’ represented by the Cold War economy. In the absence of a European ‘arms euro’ capable of absorbing global overproduction, Kurz argues, elements of the post-crisis left placed their hopes in a similarly Cold War-era coalition for ‘world reform’ bringing together Putin’s Russia, authoritarian China, the ‘oil-caudillismo’ of Venezuela and the ‘antisemitic Islamist regime’ of Iran. This representing an undesirable and implausible alternative, Kurz foresees instead a world civil war stemming from the ‘ripening world crisis’ of overproduction caused by the third industrial revolution. This war, he suggests, will be fought not between ‘national-imperial power blocs for the redistribution of the world’, as in the twentieth century, but within the interstices of the fraying order itself.

As Kurz’s work, and that of other Wertkritik writers and thinkers, continues to be translated bit by bit into English, his unique engagements with the connection between war and capitalism, together with those of Lohoff and others, contain important conceptual and historical materials we can reconstruct to understand the way the world has developed since his passing. In this special section of Futures of Work dedicated to the topic of ‘Workplace Geopolitics’, we present to you below a vital contribution illuminating how war and work have intertwined in the past – and will, potentially, today.


The “Big Bang” of Modernity

Innovation through Firearms, Expansion through War: A Look back to the Origins of Abstract Labor

Robert Kurz


The Enlightenment myth that the modern commodity-producing system sprang forth from a “Civilizing Process” (Norbert Elias) as the product of peaceful trade and development, bourgeois industry, scientific curiosity, inventions that raised the standard of living, and daring discoveries in opposition to the brutal culture of the so-called Middle Ages has proven tenacious. As the bearer of all these beautiful things is named the modern “autonomous subject,” which supposedly freed itself from feudal-agrarian bonds in favor of the “freedom of the individual.” What a shame then that the form of production that arose from this mass of pure virtues and progress is characterized by mass poverty, global pauperization, world wars, crises and destruction.

The truly destructive and murderous results of modernization point to a different origin than that of the official ideological fairytale. Since Max Weber pointed out the ideological connection between Protestantism and capitalism the history of modernity’s origins has only been crudely, and in no way critically, classified.

With a certain degree of “bourgeois shrewdness” the motives and developments that brought forth the modern world have been largely obscured, so that the rosy dawn of bourgeois freedom and the unleashing of the system of commodity production shine in false immaculateness.

There is an opposing approach to the official historical narrative, however, one that reveals that the origins of capitalism in the early Modern period were in no way due to the peaceful expansion of markets, but rather were essentially military-economic in nature. It is true that from as early as antiquity there were money and commodity relations, trade routes and markets of greater or lesser scale, but all without the possibility that a totalitarian monetary/market system like the modern one would ever arise. These were always, as Marx had recognized, economic “niches,” positioned on the edge of agrarian economies. The idea that the origins of a system, in which money as an “automatic subject” (Marx) is fed back to itself, is not to be found in the Protestant revolution alone, but also in the innovation of firearms in early-modern militaries, appears even in Max Weber’s research.

But Weber, as a notorious ideologue of the old German imperialism, obviously had no interest in pursuing and systematizing these thoughts. The social and economic historian Werner Sombart had already explicitly drawn attention to the military-economic roots of modernity in his work “War and Capitalism” in 1913. But he, too, pursued this avenue no further, as a short time later he joined the ranks of the leading warmongers and was eventually led by his anti-semitism to join the Nazis. More than half a century passed before the connection between capitalist genesis and the “political economy of firearms” was taken up again, by the economist Karl Georg Zinn (“Canons and Plague,” 1989) in Germany and the modern historian Geoffrey Parker (“The Military Revolution,” 1990) in the anglophonic world. Although these studies contain damning evidence, they are not free of apologetic elements. The rosy view of modernization passed down from the Enlightenment has been allowed to continue clouding our vision.


The failings of historical materialism

One might think that the radical social critic of the Marxist milieu would be destined to pick up the matter where bourgeois theory left off and develop it further. It was Marx, after all, who analyzed not only the destructive functional logic of the “automatic subject” and the encompassed social form of “abstract labor” which is detached from needs, but also portrayed the anything but civilized history of capitalism in unvarnished terms, such as in the chapter on “so-called primitive accumulation.” It must be admitted that even in this depiction the military-economic origin of the logic of capital remains underemphasized. Marxism following Marx’s death also failed to take up this point again: the history of the pre-industrial development of the system of commodity production was troubling because, in terms of Marxist doctrine, it was peculiarly ambiguous.

There is, in fact, a reason in the theory of Marx why this connection, which was so uncomfortable for  bourgeois apologists, had to be suppressed even by Marxists themselves. A central component of historical materialism is the depiction of history as a series of “necessary” stages of development in which capitalism also has a place and to which is even ascribed a “civilizing mission” (Marx). A fully anti-civilizing foundational history in which capital-in Marx’s words-is born “with blood and dirt coming out of every pore” poorly suits this construction, which has been passed on to us by Enlightenment philosophy and Hegel, and has only been applied materialistically and renewed through socialism.

If the logic of exploitation and abstract labor were not born “from the womb” of the pre-modern agrarian society through the development of increased productive power, but was instead a sheer “development of destructive power,” one which imposed itself upon and smothered the natural economy from outside as a foreign principle instead of developing it beyond its narrow bounds, this would seriously contradict the premise of historical materialism.

In order to preserve the metatheoretical, historical and philosophical paradigm, the Marxists also left out the early developmental history of capitalism or classified it counterfactually. Clearly the chief motivation was the fear of abetting reactionary thinking, but this is a false alternative, one that arises constantly out of the contradictions of bourgeois ideology. An Enlightenment-era mythology of progress on one hand, reactionary cultural pessimism and agrarian romanticism on the other are merely two sides of the same coin. A longing for a positive ontology forms the basis of both mindsets.

If the negative impulse prevails to “overthrow all relations in which man is a debased being,” however, no ontological construct is necessary. One could conclude from this that the essentials of historical materialism apply only to one social form, namely the capitalist one. Aside from that, the question   arises exactly how the capitalist system of production evolved from the “political economy of firearms.”


Unchivalrous weapons

At some point in the 14th century, somewhere in southwestern Germany, there must have been a powerful explosion; a carelessly-assembled mix of saltpeter, sulphur and other chemicals blew up. The  inquisitive monk who carried out this experiment was named Berthold Schwarz. More precise information about him is unavailable, but that explosion was likely the big bang of modernity. It should be noted that the Chinese had been familiar with gunpowder far longer and also utilized it not only for splendid fireworks but also occasionally in war. But they didn’t think of using it to launch projectiles over distances, an application that had far-reaching effects, in the truest sense of the word. This application was reserved for the pious Christians of Europe. The earliest recorded use of a cannon dates from 1334, when Bishop Nicholas I of Constance defended the city of Meersburg with one.

With that the “firearm” was born, to present day the most common murder weapon. This fundamental innovation of modernity brought about first a “military revolution” (Parker), which marked the historical rise of the west. In the Middle Ages the consequences of effective distance weapons for the traditional social order had already been recognized. Ideological fears of this sort were realized around the year 1000, when the newfangled crossbow was imported from the orient. The second Lateran Council forbade the use of this instrument of war in 1129 as an “unchivalrous weapon.” It was not for nothing that the crossbow became the primary weapon of thieves, outlaws and rebels.

Firearms made the proud, heavily armoured knightly class fully ridiculous, militarily speaking. Grimmelshausen [17th century German author- translator’s note], writing during the Thirty Years’ War about the career from backwoods farmboy to military officer, had this to say in his Simplicissimus: “What has made me into so great a man is the fact that the lowliest stableboy can shoot dead the most courageous of world’s heroes; had gunpowder never been discovered, however, I would have been forced to mind my p’s and q’s.”

The “firetubes” were certainly no longer to found in the hands of outsiders. For as soon as the possibilities of the new technology were demonstrated there was no holding it back. Fearing that they would fall behind lords great and small scrambled around the explosive weapons. No council would help now; the know-how of the new weapons of annihilation spread like wildfire. In the Renaissance cities of northern Italy, with their relatively advanced craftsmanship, the technology of firearms progressed especially quickly. All achievements and discoveries during this birth period were adapted from the art of building and using cannons.

The north-italian theorist Antonio Cornazano described the decisive role of firearms at the beginning of the 16th century, practically singing the praises of cannons and designating them quite affectionately as “Madama la bombarda, whose son is the rifle. This diabolical art has superseded all others and opens fortified cities to their enemies, making whole armies tremble with their roar.” (Cited in Zur Lippe, 1988, pp. 37)

Ever better rifles were built and above all ever larger cannons, which could fire ever farther. The largest field artillery even earned their own individual names. In response new fortifying techniques were developed. Thus the first push for modernization was at the same time an arms race and this process has repeated itself periodically until the present days, making it something of a trademark of modernity. The larger and more technologically developed cannons and bullwarks became, the more pronounced the society-altering character of the “military revolution” became.


The military machine isolated

It quickly became clear that the effects of the innovation of firearms would not be limited to a simple change in military technology. The resulting transformation in the organization and logistics of war cut much deeper into social relations. Until this point the civil and military forms of organizations in agrarian societies had been largely identical. As a rule every free, fully-fledged citizen was also a member of the military, inasmuch as they had military obligations to fulfill. An army was gathered only when the highest power responsible, whether in the form of emperor, king, duke or consul, made a “call to arms” and led them to war. Between these events there generally existed no military apparatus worth mentioning. Although some larger empires like the Chinese or late Roman Empires had more or less powerful standing armies, these left no more than a superficial mark on the methods of production or way of life of a society, no matter how costly or elaborate they were.

The decisive difference lies in the problem of equipment. Pre-modern warriors brought their weapons with them and wore them on their person daily, or kept them at home. Helmets, shields and swords could be produced by most any village blacksmith, and every shepherdboy knew how to use a bow and arrow or a sling. The entire logistics of war could be organized in a decentralized fashion. This corresponded entirely to the decentralized relations of a highly-developed agrarian society. The central authority, even a despotic one, had limits to its influence and its reach barely extended into daily life.

With modern military innovation, however, that was all a thing of the past. Muskets and especially cannons could not be produced in just any village and then stored at home, or even carried on one’s person. The instruments of death had suddenly reached a higher order and broke the boundaries of human relations. In some respects we find the archetype for modernity in the cannon: it is namely a tool that begins to control its maker. A new industry of armament and death arose, which was a protoype for later industrialization and whose stench of corpses modern society, including the global market-democracies, have never been able to wash away.

The military apparatus began to tear itself free from the civil organization of society. The handiwork of war became a specialized occupational field and armies became permanent institutions that began to dominate the rest of society, as Geoffrey Parker shows in his research: “Associated with this development were a marked growth in army size right across Europe (with the armed forces of several states increasing tenfold between 1500 an 1700), and the adoption of more ambitious and complex strategies designed to bring these larger armies into action. (…) finally, [the] military revolution dramatically accentuated the impact of war on society: the greater costs incurred, the greater damage inflicted, and the greater administrative challenges posed by the augmented armies.” (Parker 1988, 2)

In this way social resources were redirected to military purposes to an unheard of degree. On occasion there had been a sort of squandering militarism, but never for this long or involving such a large portion of social production. The new armament and military complex rapidly developed into an insatiable Moloch that swallowed up monstrous amounts of material and to which the best social possibilities were sacrificed. Despite, or perhaps because of their many heroic songs and war-like demeanor the pre-modern cultures consumed relatively little in terms of armaments; their wars could almost seem like harmless brawls.

As regards this point, Karl Georg Zinn makes a comparison that is an even less flattering for modernity: “Measured by the development of weapons technology in the 14th century, the Middle Ages (…) had only a relatively weak military force at its disposal. War and armament burdened Medieval society far less than in the modern period. The proportion of agricultural surplus used for the purpose of destruction remained relatively slight during the Middle Ages; otherwise there would not have been enough to invest in necessary agricultural advancement, nor would there have been so many cathedrals, new cities or fortresses erected. The most pronounced difference between the Middle Ages and the modern period lies in the fundamentally different quality of technical progress: agricultural advances in the Middle Ages, urban armament and luxury technology with neglect of agriculture in Modernity.” (Zinn 1989, 58)

“Madama la bombarda” devoured not only a disproportionate part of social production, but also gave the monetized economy a decisive boost, which had been rather limited until that point. By dint of the rising agricultural and cottage-industrial productivity alone the breakthrough of money as the anonymous ruling power would never have been possible. Over the millenia there had always been technical advances, but people generally preferred to apply the profits of increased productivity for greater leisure or sensual enjoyment rather than the accumulation of monetary capital. Such a mad form of productive development could only be imposed from outside, and the socially detached armament and military complex offered the best prospects for achieving it.

Because the production of firearms could no longer be carried out decentrally within the bounds of agrarian natural and household production, it had to be concentrated. The same applied for the standing armies and military apparatuses, whose members were now professional killers and could not sustain themselves from household production. The only medium of reproduction for the unhinged military machine was money. The abstraction of the firearms-based military apparatus from the material needs of society corresponded to the money-form as an adequate medium. The permanent arms-economy of the canon and the structurally independent armies of scale translated, socially speaking, into a similar expansion of social mediation by money. It may have sustained itself from various sources, but all sprang forth as consequences of the “military revolution.”


War financiers, Condottieri and Lansquenets

The early modern mercenary captains (Condottieri) and the musketeers and canoniers under their command were the first subjects to be fully freed from agrarian reproduction and without social attachment. Thus their existence was the prototype of the subject form itself, which starting in the modern period was to evolve into a general social principle as the abstraction of labor from needs.

In the analyses of the cultural historian Rudolf zur Lippe it becomes clear how the new, bloody “craftsmen of death” transformed into the template of modern wage labor and its management: “The planning of military actions … had to submit to the primacy of profit calculation. Chivalric notions of honor and fearlessness befitting one’s rank was no longer in demand. (…)The unfunctionalized remains of feudal bearing, that is to say, the direct relations to the people and things for which one fights, gradually disappeared with one generation of “last knights” after another. (…) Indeed, the great mass of warriors had transformed into soldiers, recipients of guerdon or pay, and their leaders were paid out of the treasuries of states and offices. The first technological discovery of decisive practical importance was introduced to a field where things like abstract labor and replaceable wage workers had long been in existence: cannons were commensurate to the goal of wars in which the aim was something as abstract as the accumulation prospects of mercantile capital. (…) Since the number of lansquenets in an armed force represented nothing more than the number of people that the contractor could pay, the abstract composition of martial strength in cannons as machines of destruction was the logical consequence.” (zur Lippe 1988, 37)

The old mercantile capital was not the logical causa prima for this relationship between abstract labor and the innovation of firearms, as it was claimed here in the sense of an ontology of historical materialism. It wasn’t the abstract killing machine, the cannon, that answered to mercantile capital with an already abstract interest in accumulation, but the reverse; the genesis of this interest-form itself was due to the “military revolution” and its social consequences.

At this point historical materialism would have to go a little crazy, as its assumption of an “economic basis,” in this case early modern mercantile capital, doesn’t conform with a dialectic of “productive power and productive relations” that in truth was itself a late-coming result of the capitalist mode of production. What productive powers called the abstract accumulative interest of early modern merchant capital into being? The compass or the discovery of eye glasses? The alleged causal nexus doesn’t exist.

In truth the abstract interest of accumulation and the free entrepreneurs of modern monetized economy couldn’t have arisen immediately out of the medieval urban merchants and craftsmen. These groups, positioned in the niches of agrarian society, remained bound by guilds and trade associations to a narrow-minded system of mutual obligations and traditions. Their markets were not characterized by free competition and even less by the abstract logic of accumulation. Not until clans of merchants-such as the infamous Fuggers-rose to become war financiers under the regime of firearms did interest shift to sheer monetary accumulation. As the guarantors of princes these financiers had a stake in obtaining the most exorbitant monetizable plunder possible. This profit calculation, free of all social bonds, was reflected in the mercenary captains. The abstract rationale of modern business management sprang from the muzzles of rifles and canons in the hands of professional murderers and arsonits, not an interest in the general welfare.

The use of muskets and canons was to a certain degree an early form of “abstract labor.” Even today most people stop short when faced with this term, although it’s not difficult to understand what is meant by it. “Abstract labor” is any activity carried out for money where the money is the deciding factor, that is to say, the content of the work is relatively unimportant. Modern monetary subjectivity in its original form carried this indifference to the point of obliteration, even risking one’s own. The objectification of the world for the purpose of indifferent profiteering included self-objectification through mortal risk. Entrepreneurs and workers of death were prototypically in equal parts the identical subject-object of history, the mercenary captain a.k.a manager just as much as the soldiers a.k.a wage workers. It doesn’t matter against who or for what one fights, in what branch of production money is invested, what sort of work one does; so long as the price is right it doesn’t matter how many worlds burn to the ground.

The nihilism of money disguised itself at first with images of farming life. “Hay” was the first slang expression for money, and one sought “to make money like hay” [used in German for “to make pots of money”-translator’s note], regardless of all else, as one lansquenet song reveals:

We care not
for the Roman Empire,
If it dies today or tomorrow
it’s all the same to us,
And if it goes in pieces
as long as the hay suffices
we’ll sew it together.

Wir haben keine Sorgen
Wohl um das röm’sche Reich
Es sterb heut oder morgen,
Das gilt uns alles gleich.
Und ging es auch in Stücke,
Wenn nur das Heu gerät,
Draus drehen wir ein Stricke,
Der es zusammen näht.

The simple soldiers in the developing military apparatuses brutalized and were socially denigrated at the same time for their lack of productive means. They were also the first people to be able experience unemployment. When there was no money left in the treasuries of warlords the jobs in the armies melted away. Many musketeers and cannoneers fell victim to massive layoffs; they found themselves, without any safety net, literally thrown out on the street and were feared as wandering beggars, thieves and occasional murderers. The image of the rootless and often unemployed soldier was a mass phenomenon.


The monetization of society

War booty and borrowing from war financiers was not enough to keep the military machine running, however. The whole of social reproduction was exhausted for the purpose of feeding this machine and at the same time it was subjected to the monetary form. At first this meant monetizing the material levies. While the natural-economic taxes had been tied to real agricultural yields, monetary taxes abstracted these fully from natural conditions and carried forward the logic of the military apparatus into the realm of daily life.

The unsatiable hunger for money under the firearms-regime came to dominate social life. According to recent calculations the tax burden rose by no less that 2,200% between the 15th and 18th centuries. That forcing the monetary form upon the people caused demoralization is attested to in numerous sources.

Even Rousseau tells in his autobiographical Confessions of how he learned of the sufferings of the weakened rural population during the vagabondage of his youth: “After several hours…I called at a peasant’s home, weary and almost dying of hunger and thirst. I bid the farmer provide me with a midday meal for payment. He offered me skimmed milk and rough barley bread and told me it was all he had. … The farmer, who had questioned me thoroughly, concluded from my appetite that my story was true. After he explained that he could see that I was a good, honest young man and not come to swindle him, he opened a small trapdoor next to his kitchen, climbed in and came back a moment later with a fairly thick pancake. … When it came to payment he was gripped again by agitation and fear; he wanted no money, but refused it with extraordinary embarrassment…and I could not think of what he feared. Finally, trembling, he brought forth the terrible words: ‘Commissar’ and ‘Cellar Rats.’ He informed me that he hid his wine on account of the officials and his bread on account of the tax, and that he would be lost if suspicions arose that he was not dying of hunger. …I left his house equal parts outraged and touched, and lamented the lot of such beautiful areas on whom nature had wasted her blessings to make them into plunder for tax agents.”

These tax agents represented, alongside war financiers and condottieri, another prototype of free marketeers in that they purchased in one lump-sum from the state the right to collect taxes. And if necessary those who couldn’t pay would have their last cow or their tools confiscated by the bailiff, so that money might be squeezed out of it.

But the conversion of nature’s fruits into tax money and its exorbitant rise was also unable to satisfy the money-hunger of the war machines. The military despots of modernization moved on to founding their own productive enterprises outside of the guilds and trade associations; the aim of these enterprises was no longer fulfilling needs but solely the acquisition of money. These state manufactories and plantations produced for the first time for a large, anonymous market, which was to finally become the precondition for free competition. And because no one volunteered themselves as cheap wage laborers, convicts, mentally-ill prisoners and on the periphery slaves were used. Special crimes were even invented so that forced labor could be obtained en masse. The directors of the new penitentiaries and workhouses for the free market, which developed during the forced monetization of society, completed the illustrious collection of free enterprise prototypes.


War for state-building

The condottieri, who sold themselves and their private armies to the highest-bidding city or ruler, were a transitional occurrence. Soon the princely administrations, who had at first appeared only as clients, took the matter into their own hands. What would later become a law of development for modern economics asserted itself first on the plane of the great powers that waged war with firearms: the big fish devoured the small ones.

Once set into motion by the self-perpetuating dynamic of the “military revolution,” the newly-minted early-modern state entities clashed with each other in a wave of expansion. In bloodbaths that at the time were without parallel they tested their strengths, which for the first time were grounded in large-scale technology, in order to battle for supremacy in Europe. The liberal-conservative Swiss historian Jacob Burckhard hit the mark when he spoke of the “State-building war” of the early modern period, for it was then that the foundations of today’s still-existing power structures were laid and when what we term politics, the flip-side of monetized production, came into being.

This dynamic was accelerated by the discovery of the Americas. In the same manner that the development of modern military technology was set into motion, colonial expansion in both parts of the Americas (unthinkable without firearms) developed out of the military machines’ hunger for money. As is well known, adventurers like Pizarro slaughtered entire Indian nations with a few canons and a handful of musketeers. The arms economy and colonialism pushed each other to new heights. The continuous traffic across the Atlantic demanded huge fleet-building programmes, which once again could only be carried out with an abstract monetary economy. The “State-building War” took on transcontinental dimensions. Behind the logic of cannons lurked the hubris of world domination. Thus the Seven-Years’-War (known as the “French and Indian War” in the United States) from 1756 to 1763 between Prussia and England on one side and Austria, Russia and France on the other was the first world war, because it took place simultaneously in Europe and the colonies of the New World.

History now comprised an ever-accelerating sequence of military conflicts. According to Geoffrey Parker modernity has been the least peaceful period in the whole of human history, both in terms of the frequency as well as the length and scale of wars. This concentration of warfare and the militarization of the economy accompanied a necessary centralization of society. The big fish ate the little fish not only outward among states, but also inwardly domination was formed anew in the cannon-defined states. Until the 16th century there had been no organized administration stretching from above to below. The common people had to pay taxes in the form of natural produce or labor corvees, but were otherwise left to their own devices. Most affairs were managed by institutions that were both autonomous and limited in their authority. There were even large regions with free farmers and craftsmen that were armed and knew no feudalism; the repressive character of structures here arose from the narrowness of affairs predicated upon blood-relation.

Modernization meant at first nothing other than the destruction of these forms of “narrow-minded autonomy” from above and outside so that the people could be subjected to the “political economy of firearms” in the form of monetary taxation and finally be turned into into money-producing units of abstract labor. From the peasant wars of the 15th and 16th centuries to the “Luddites” of the 19th century, independent producers defended themselves in desperate rebellion against their being hammered into fodder for the war machine and its abstract monetary economy. This resistance was bloodily suppressed. The absolutist state apparatus, built on the foundation of firearms-innovations, implemented its imperatives by force.


The economy isolated

Behind the ubiquitous modern compulsion to earn money stands the logic of thundering cannons. These triggered a dynamic of social transformations that began to turn on their creators in the 18th century. The “political economy” of an arms and military apparatus, detached from society and only sustainable via abstract labor, became independent of its original purpose. From the early-modern military despots’ hunger for money rose the principle of the “valorization of value,” which operated under the name of capitalism from the early 19th century. The rigid shell of military-statism was cast aside only to allow the the now-independent money machine to progress as a pure end in itself within an “economy isolated” (Karl Polanyi) from all social and cultural shackles, and to give free reign to anonymous competition.

This form of total competition bears the mark of Cain that bespeaks its origins in total war, even down to its terminology. It is no coincidence that Thomas Hobbes, founder of modern liberal state theory, declared the “war of all against all” as the natural human state. It was the proponents of the so-called Enlightenment who translated the imperatives of the “isolated economy” into an abstract philosophical ontology of the “autonomous subject” in the 18th century, which had nevertheless been predefined by the totalitarian value form. Socialism, on the other hand, merely laid claim to the state as a transcendental subject as the opposing pole of the same bourgeois ontology and thereby inherited the war-economic origins of the modern world. The Marxism of the workers’ movement had a reason for unselfconsciously adopting the phrase “Armies of Labor.”

For the global-market democracies of the present the “detached” end-in-itself of valorization of value and abstract labor has long since been internalized and is accepted as natural. They have carried both the monetization of all areas of life as well as the attendant bureaucratic human administration to extremes. All rights and freedoms, all supposed self-determination and responsibility, all politics and all party programmes are always subject to this mute apriori.

A radical critique of capitalism will be blocked so long as it shares the ontological fundament of bourgeois subjectivity. Most leftist critics of bourgeois ontologists are themselves proponents of bourgeois ontology. Implicitly or explicitly they wish to reassure themselves with the ontological constructs of bourgeois enlightenment and adopt an agnostic stance towards the real origins of modernity by asserting counterfactually that capitalism emerged directly out of agrarian society.

An opposed and emancipated anti-modernity will not foster a backwards-looking ideology, but rather proceed seriously with the “negative dialectic” beyond Adorno and historical materialism; in short, it will break with the enlightenment subject-ontology once and for all. That includes a new evaluation of history, one that will no longer ignore the origin of modernity in the “political economy of firearms.”

Translated from German by John Carroll.

This translated version of an article by the late Robert Kurz has been republished with the kind permission of Palim Psao, the original being available here.



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Image credit: Everett Collection