Michael Brie: Twofold Transformation

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Twofold Transformation in the 21st Century


Michael Brie

All of us, whether we are we are politically on the left or the right, act more than 225 years later still in the light cast by the Great French Revolution of 1789. It was Hegel who found the decisive words: ‘Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around it had it been perceived that man’s existence centers in his head, that is, in thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality.’ (1) This thought was the idea of human rights.

Transformation as a particular type of social change
In the language of the social sciences, one can say that transformation is ‘a deliberate process by which structures, institutions […] and models are shaped and reshaped’ (2) – a process that unleashes tremendous momentum when it is implemented. Change can be defined as transformation when both of the following two conditions are fulfilled: (a) the dynamic of social change is shaped by the goal-oriented and means-conscious interventions of actors; (b) the activities of these actors are aimed at changing the basic structures of society (sectorally, territorially, or in terms of society as a whole). This means that such actors are also capable of having a certain impact; it is not merely a matter of intentions and good-will. Decisive action can assume an intellectual, political, social, economic, and, last but not least, violent form. Such a transformation-oriented intervention seriously modifies the internal dynamic of complex societies.

Twofold transformation: Within capitalism and beyond
Capitalism turns the basic goods associated with the production of life and exchange – labor, nature, money, and culture – into commodities and subordinates economy and society to capital accumulation. Viewed from this Marxian/Polanyian perspective, capitalism is irreconcilable with emancipation and democratic self-determination. The common foundations of a life in freedom are privatised, and the imperatives of a capitalist market society directly contradict social and ecological democracy. Capitalism and democracy are essentially incompatible. This incompatibility gives rise to the authoritarian, imperialist, and fascist tendencies associated with capitalist societies,(3) as well as the lethal, cannibalistic character such societies display towards their weakest members. The flip side of this transformation of the basic goods of life consists in the possibility of combining the conditions of production and reproduction in ever new ways, permanently revolutionising society, and setting in motion an endless process of innovation. Paraphrasing Joseph Schumpeter, one could speak of destructive creation.

It is out of this ambivalent nature of capitalism that the task of twofold transformation arises. There are two senses in which such a transformation is twofold. Firstly, it is the task of overcoming the exploitative, oppressive, and destructive character of today’s capitalist society while simultaneously creating forms that absorb/transcend (4) the developmental capacity of modern societies in a solidary, democratic, and ecological form. Secondly, the transformation is twofold in that, given the actually existing possibilities, it occurs within capitalism, but also points beyond it. It is about combining the ‘transformation towards a socially and ecologically regulated capitalism with the beginning of a second Great Transformation that takes us beyond capitalism’.(5)

Three forms of transformation
Since the beginnings, there have always been three approaches to overcoming capitalism. The first current began with Babeuf and Chartism. Political power was to be seized through insurrection (Babeuf, Blanqui) or elections (Chartism), in order then to initiate a reconfiguration of property relations, and eventually of society as a whole. A second current, which became influential thanks to Robert Owen and the British cooperative movement, but also thanks to the followers of Fourier and Cabet, placed its faith in the power of examples: settlements organised on socialist/communist principles, producer and consumer cooperatives, worker banks, forms of cooperative housing, and cultural and educational institutions were to serve as the germ cells of a new society. Concrete changes to one’s own life circumstances, self-transformation, practical solidarity, and democracy were to show that there are alternatives to capitalism, demonstrating how these alternatives work and proving that they are far superior to capitalism. The third current placed its faith in fundamental reforms, to be struggled and fought for (its protagonists include Lassalle and Bernstein). This current began with the struggle first for the ten- and then for the eight-hour day (a demand first formulated by Owen, who also strongly influenced the British parliament’s restriction of child labour); later it addressed social rights, education, health, and the environment. In discussing these three currents, the Marxist transformation scholar Erik Olin Wright speaks of ruptural, interstitial, and symbiotic strategies.(6)

In my view, a socio-ecological transformation will only succeed in bringing about the downfall of financial-market capitalism if it proves capable of pursuing all three strategies, operating by means of broad alliances and approaches that are mutually reinforcing rather than in opposition to each other; when it becomes clear that reforms demand a rupture, that ‘germ cells’ cannot spread unless reforms and ruptures create the requisite conditions; when concrete experiences radiate outward and give people the strength to struggle for reforms and ruptures with utmost determination. This is the only way through which a sufficiently broad alliance can be created and the subjective and objective preconditions for a truly far-reaching transformation develop.

Four paths
Within this organic crisis of financial-market capitalism, five possible scenarios are emerging.(7) These scenarios determine the spatial and temporal parameters and character of the epoch with which the left has to work.

First, there is the scenario of a neoliberal-driven ‘business as usual’ with strong authoritarian tendencies, with very different elements and approaches for dealing with the associated contradictions being experimented with at the levels of the EU and its member states. This is currently the predominant elite consensus. Great Britain, with the importance London assumes as a financial centre within the whole economy, and Germany, with its strongly export-oriented economy, would be the main beneficiaries of such a development.

Second, we might see a systematic reinforcement of the authoritarian, repressive, and exclusionary tendencies of capitalism. The result would be a Fortress Europe with various bastions dissociating themselves from each other and competing with one another. The predominance of finance-market-driven accumulation would need to be curbed significantly. There are already clear tendencies towards such a development in some European countries. The rise of right-wing populist, nationalist, and fascist forces indicates that an alliance between sections of the national elite and major segments of the population is possible.

Third, possibilities for further accumulation may be opened up precisely in the field of renewable energies and through an increase in the ecological efficiency of the mode of production, transport, and life. This becomes all the more likely if steps are taken in Asia that lead to more demand for sustainable technologies – a development Germany is hoping for. Security-policy considerations may also stimulate a turn to this kind of ‘green capitalism’.

Fourth, there are various conceptions that envision tackling the ecological and the new social issues at one and the same time, by carrying out a socio-libertarian Green New Deal. This would profoundly alter the mode of accumulation and the regulatory regime. It would have to start from major redistribution, and it would initiate a publicly funded and publicly supervised structural break across the whole economy. One part of this approach would be a call for a global ‘Marshall Plan’. Steps towards such a change of course are being developed by, among others, trade union representatives.

A fifth scenario would be the combination of a Green New Deal with what Massimo De Angelis calls “plan C&D – commons and democracy pointing beyond the capitalist horizon.(8) Democratically governed commons are the “commonist” foundation of freedom and equality, the conditions under which human rights can become much more than mere demands.(9)


Translation from German by Max Henninger and Helen Veitch for lingua·trans·fair.
(1) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History (Kitchener, 2001), pp.466f.
(2) Rolf Reißig, Gesellschafts-Transformation im 21. Jahrhundert: Ein neues Konzept sozialen Wandels (Wiesbaden, 2009), p. 59.
(3) Nicos Poulantzas, Faschismus und Diktatur: Die Kommunistische Internationale und der Faschismus (Munich, 1973).
(4) Editor’s Note: ‚aufheben‘ in German.
(5) Dieter Klein, Das Morgen tanzt im Heute: Transformation im Kapitalismus und über ihn hinaus (Hamburg, 2013), p. 15.
(6) Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London/New York, 2010), pp. 273ff.
(7) Institut for Critical Social Analysis, Organische Krise des Finanzmarktkapitalismus: Thesen. Paper der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (Berlin, 2011) and Mario Candeias, ‘Szenarien grüner Transformation’, Michael Brie/Mario Candeias (eds), Transformation im Kapitalismus und darüber hinaus: Beiträge zur Ersten Transformationskonferenz des Instituts für Gesellschaftsanalyse der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (Berlin, 2012), pp. 135–150.
(8) De Angelis, Massimo. “Crisis and the Commons Today.” In: Communism in the 21st Century. Volume 3: The Future of Communism: Social Movements, Economic Crises, and the Re-Imagination of Communism, edited by Shannon Brincat, 1–26. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2014.
(9) Brie, Michael. “Making the Common Good of Humanity Concrete – For a Life in Solidarity.” In: A Post-Capitalist Paradigm: The Common Good of Humanity, edited by Birgit Daiber and Francois Houtart, 133–58. Brüssel: Büro der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2012. rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/sonst_publikationen/common-goood.pdf.



Michael Brie - PortraitProf. Dr. Michael Brie, a philosopher and political scientist, is senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin. He received his doctorate in social philosophy at the Humboldt University Berlin. Areas of research interest are the history and theory of socialism and state socialism, problems of socio-ecological transformation of modern societies in the age of the organic crisis of financial-market capitalism and the perspectives of a solidarity society. He was member of the managing board of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and head of its international and research departments. Among his empirical research interests are projects of free public transport. He is editor-in-chief of the series Contribution to Critical Transformation Research (the fourth volume was published in 2015).


Banner Image: Gardens are paradises of the good life. (The word “paradise” derives from Persian, where it meant “garden”.) Photo by Michael Brie 2015.



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