It can even happen in Denmark…

Intro to Contemporary Crisis Theory

Liberty_MaerskJust-in-time production and distribution puts us all in the same boat...

theoretical basis of the project

visual notes of the session

The financial crash and the subsequent transformations of the lived economy appear as existential threats. These threats cut across a broad range of social classes. Any deep recession provoking high unemployment affects working people, especially those on temporary contracts. When the recession is prolonged and tax revenues plunge, the state slashes social benefits, hurting parents, children, retirees, the sick and disabled. General welfare programs – notably concerning the environment – are dismantled in the name of a return to profitability. These are the most familiar features of the average business-cycle downswing.

The new thing is that from the outset, this depression has afflicted the so-called middle classes, hitting them in the very areas that define their status, with the loss of assets (devalued homes and stocks), the decline of professional rank (automation, outsourcing, crowdsourcing of intellectual/creative functions) and finally, the shrinking access to social property (curtailment of high-end entitlements, notably education and culture). Even more intensely, youth seeking to gain or confirm their middle-class status find themselves burdened with unpayable educational debt and stalked by impoverishment and proletarianization: the central figure of the Occupy movement was the “graduate without a future.” The professional-managerial class is shrinking to its technocratic core. How did this happen? Why is it so violent? Who or what is to be blamed? The banks, of course. But what are the banks? Where does their money come from? What do they do with it? How are they connected to the giant corporations? Why does the government support them? What makes the whole system so resistant to change?

Answers to these questions are not ready to hand, not for the so-called “average person.” The financial crisis of 2008 and its ongoing economic consequences translate into a new and practically immediate use-value of social theory. The citizen flush with credit in a well-lighted and well-policed city needs no conceptual map to find his or her way to the bar, the beach, the entertainment arcade and the workplace. The citizen faced with an ambuscade lurking in every bit of fine print, with consequences like unemployment, foreclosure, the refusal of medical care or the evaporation of retirement funds, suddenly wants to know what’s going on. Conspiracy theories (the Federal Reserve, the Bilderberg, the 500 families) offer the first shreds of insight. But society is more complex, corruption is deeply seated, injustice is systemic. What suddenly becomes recognizable is the public character of social theory, which addresses the whole as a human creation with collective consequences, unlike academic social science focusing microscopically on separate parts conceived as functions of natural laws. In a globalized society, social theory is the  threshold opening up to a possible democratic practice.

Why not seize this opportunity to launch radical investigative projects? The economic system is opaque because it operates with a global division of labor; because it uses high-tech automation and communications systems; because the development of finance has vested so much power in abstract symbolic logic processed by computers; and because large sectors of national and even local and municipal government have split off from their obligations to the population, effectively transnationalizing their operations in the service of finance, multinationals, and the military-academic-industrial complex. Creating a readable map of these transformations responds to an existential urgency. That’s the basic idea behind the ongoing project “Three Crisis: 30’s – 70’s – Today.”

The organizational format involves multiple research collaborations, open public presentations with a balance of content and participation, extensive accessible documentation, incursions into universities and cultural institutions, and other means yet to be invented. The method places Marxist philosophy and economic theory into tension with fresh scientific data and the post-68 philosophies of multiplicity. The range extends beyond economics, technics, geopolitics and governance to embrace daily life, social movements, artistic works and processes as well as ecological thinking and practice. The aim is to understand the stresses of social class formation in the present, in order to transform and overcome them.


This work takes time. The biggest difficulty is, first, realizing the extent to which the social-democratic projects of the mid-twentieth century have shaped all of us – expectations, personalities, habits, drives – even into the present. And second, realizing that those social-democratic projects, far from representing a desirable “golden age,” actually culminated in the trap where we find ourselves today. In particular, the introduction of the televisual dream-machine into the home, and the Keynesian-Fordist treatment of consumer desire as the key input to industrial production, have produced one of the most powerful ideological systems in human history, easily comparable to religion in its capacity to orient human values and to justify organized violence and warfare. Networked technologies have intensified and complexified this consumer-credit ideology, even while offering tools that can help to overthrow it. The planetary extension of the postwar American consumer dream is the nightmare from which those expropriated at the very core of the capitalist project are finally struggling to awaken.

A theoretical introduction, offering detailed examinations of specific concepts that can be used to trace the historical phases of one’s own self-formation under capitalism, can be found in the pdf file linked at the top of this entry. The visual notes give another look at the theoretical frame, then begin tracing the relationship between the just-in-time production system and the financial apparatus of management and valuation. Does any of this strike a chord? Make you angry? Inspire you to work toward an entirely different future? If so, let’s find a way to collaborate.


12 Responses to “It can even happen in Denmark…”

  1. Karsten Kolliker Says:

    Just as confirmation from a native, it does in fact happen in Denmark. Recently I wrote a piece called ”The great, political swindle” on how our political system and public institutions have become captives of other interests than ordinary peoples and how localism may be the only way to scale down the corruption. The source of inspiration was actually the implementation of Food Sovereignty Laws spreading across USA. Wont be of much avail linking it here, though, since it’s written in danish..

  2. Rick Deckard Says:


    Thanks for your eloquent and provocative announcement of this continuing project. From my perspective, I wonder if you are in a sense reframing questions from the past that are no longer properly speaking contemporary? If the insurrection against factory discipline was in an important sense a conscious effort on the part of certain segments of the left to overcome the unfreedom of their society, a struggle that could be seen as continuing on those terms through the succeeding decades, is it not also true that this effort’s failure must be recognized in deindustrialization and the so-called cultural turn that seemed to position the “working class” against the educated “middle class?”

    The world that we inhabit seems to me to be the inheritor of the memory of that struggle and simultaneously of its defeat. Rather than accepting the terms under which it was fought, I believe that we should reassess them. The basic problems we encounter perhaps haven’t changed so much since struggles against capitalism began to understand themselves as such. The same forces that seem to promise our liberation also foreclose on it. Or to see the mirror image of this statement, the current devaluation of work–and workers themselves–through mechanization and the steady polarization of society into the controllers of wealth and the exploited must be contrasted with the ever increasing means for producing a surplus large enough to satisfy the needs of all and the technologies to coordinate the production and distribution of this surplus on truly global terms. Therefore, shouldn’t we consider that Marx’s characterization of captial in the Grundrisse as “ the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth,” is still a valid way–and perhaps the only truly adequate way–of understanding social contradictions?

    At the same time, I take very seriously the need to understand the transformations of society, and your work in this regard is excellent. I particularly enjoyed and benefited from the recordings of your Three Crises workshop series. But I would further insist that we face the question of how we understand the nature of social transformation itself. If it is true, as I would argue, that changes in the organization of society’s self-reproduction stem from the fundamental dynamic of capital’s self valorization, then this makes it all the more essential to understand the vicissitudes of that organization in order to formulate a strategy to transcend the capitalist form of society. What else are the categories through which we grasp the (political) economy if not the operations of commodity fetish itself, a concept that we doubtlessly need to continue to elucidate as the process of the self-reproduction of society seems ever less plausible–at least insofar as we grasp it through the lens of the seemingly more and more divergent operations of the remote and rareified sphere of finance, or Wall Street, and that of the “real” economy of Main Street. The trick, I believe, is to understand that as much as this separation of the valorization process in finance from the labor process of “real” work is an illusion that veils the actual terms of the production of value itself, it is also the necessary form in which that production appears. A truly viable political approach would have to take these fetish forms on their own terms and overcome them through their contradictions.

    In essence, Philip K Dick was right in proclaiming that “the empire never ended,” as long as we understand the empire as the self moving contradiction of capital itself, and the historical task of revolutionaries not as a theodicy, but the overcoming of capital’s mobile contradiction. This is a task that we are attempting to address through our writings on Permanent Crisis as well as through more practical political efforts. I believe that this task demands that we strive to make sense of the seeming incoherence of the incredibly diverse and seemingly disparate functionings of global capitalism. But at the same time, we need to take practical political steps on the basis of what constitutes the shared lot of humans as workers, the steady turning of the gears that demand more labor from us as wage labor itself becomes more and more an artifact of long dead past. This is a demand that cannot be finally answered just like the thirst of a vampire that could not be quenched with a sea of blood. It’s up to us to pose a new basis on which to constitute society, a society in which “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be the sine qua non of its philosophy. Whatever differences may exist in our approaches, it is a task that I hope we can collaborate in.

    Thanks for your work on this blog, it’s been a source of great interest, and more importantly, new, frustrating questions for me.

    • Brian Holmes Says:

      Fantastic comments and questions, I am really interested.

      –I wonder if you are in a sense reframing questions from the past that are no longer properly speaking contemporary?

      I can understand how it seems so. After working in the autonomist vein for many years (with the Multitudes journal in France) I thought the crisis had proven some of our ideas to be wrong, and others to be overstated. It appeared necessary to rework many things. In the theoretical text linked above, I start from some historical Marxist concepts; but I seriously mean to transform them by moving through the successive crises up to the present. In the above blog post I am trying to start from very common, simple ideas about the crisis: again it is just a starting point, to offer people a way in. Tto continue with your following question, yeah, there is a need to reassess the stories we tell ourselves about what the sixties and seventies revolts were all about, and what their consequences were. The capitalist strategies of outsourcing and automation have been all too successful in reducing labor time to the barest minimum, while retaining labor time as the sole measure of a worker’s value. For themselves, they have different measures…

      –If it is true, as I would argue, that changes in the organization of society’s self-reproduction stem from the fundamental dynamic of capital’s self valorization, then this makes it all the more essential to understand the vicissitudes of that organization in order to formulate a strategy to transcend the capitalist form of society.

      Well, I totally agree. One must understand how social reproduction is normed and governed, and how people revolt against it. I try to do that by moving from periods of stabilization to periods of revolt and back again, to the new normal. One of the ways social power seems to work is that people are asked to interpret their current experience of exploitation in the terms of their parents’ and grandparents’ responses to the former organization of exploitation. It takes a lot of time to work through this generational experience, and the views offered on this blog are pretty spotty: but the point is to come to the contemporary forms of society’s self-reproduction, with a deeper understanding of how we got here and a higher ability to clear away past cobwebs. What most of the Marxist tradition glosses over is the constant evolution of social relations, notably after the emergence of the social state in the 30s. Proletarianization remains as a structural trend of capitalism, constantly threatening us with complete expropriation and domination; but the “us” who are threatened changes over time. I talk in this blog post about the “middle classes,” that’s the term people use. But when you dig into history, you find continuously changing processes of class formation, involving both antagonism to and cooperation with the owners of capital. Those processes are ongoing and they provide the unique terms of struggle today.

      I have already tried to write about very current forms of society in Escape the Overcode and I’m working to make all the Three Crises material into a coherent book. It’s slow, but yes, let’s see if we can cooperate and find ways to go further faster.

      In terms of the current forms of society, there is a text on this blog you might like, since it is called “Do containers dream of electric people?” (In homage to you-know-who). When I return to the States I want to take this description of the current form of production/distribution and correlate it with a description of financial derivative as a form of governance. What is more, in my reading derivatives function as a form of commodity money, replacing the stability of gold with an algorithmical flux that tries to stabilize values by capturing every form of movement so that all of them can be played off against each other. I believe derivatives act as meta-commodities: their fascinating appearance (the appearance of the whole financial sector) veils their actual operation, which is the privatization of collective control over the conditions of commodity production and distribution. What the metacommodity veils is the privatization of government. I have developed this reading in the text called “Is It Written In the Stars?” where the question is, in effect, about this capitalist control over collective destinies.

      I will read your writing soon! Thanks for the remarks.

      • Rick Deckard Says:

        Thanks, Brian. I really enjoyed the “Do containers dream…” essay and that was what emboldened me to quote the PKD line. I’m looking forward to reading “Is It Written In the Stars.” By the way, it’s really inspiring that you’re working in different languages and with an international group of collaborators. I really enjoyed your descriptions of the murals in Mexico City (as I recall) from your introduction to the 3 Crises workshops. I think that this kind of internationalist perspective is something that would be so enriching for the left these days, and is all too rare.

      • Brian Holmes Says:

        Cool, so we’re in sync. I want to do more with the supply chain stuff and contribute to, which will hopefully fulfill its considerable promise. As for the internationalism, yeah, well, the neoliberal state is reeally transnational, ya know? For instance, the Fed made secret loans to European banks for 2 years after the mid-2007 crisis began. If positive changes come, I don’t think it will be because of policy wonks in Washington. Instead, people around the world have to find a new collective response to the conditions of outright domination we’re living under!

        By the way everyone, check out:, it’s a great project.

      • Rick Deckard Says:

        By the way, one issue that seems hugely important to me and in keeping with the general theme of your writings is the emphemeralization of commodities. The sharing of information has become so efficient and decentralized, that for many consumers, products like mp3s are no longer commodities at all, but have returned to the state of something like ‘the commons.’ The huge difference, of course, is that this is a commons that depends on a vast communications infrastructure in deterritorialized space.

        The music industry has been rocked by this loss of value and is very much still in a process of attempting to come to grips with it. As 3D printers become more accessible by consumers, many more industries will become vulnerable to this phenomenon. This will certainly have large repercussions for intellectual property and copyright laws, though I’m too ignorant of these areas to say much more than that.

        I am most inclined to view this as one of the ways in which the globalized free market is destroying or superseding itself. The tools that were designed to make the market more efficient and more ‘pure’ have had the effect of reducing the friction of producing and circulating commodities so much that the form of the market itself can be seen as inadequate. Along with the distribution of commodities in digital form, I’m thinking of Amazon’s almost perfect modeling of consumer demand in real time, which has made it almost impossible to compete with and allowed it to operate on a razor thin profit margin that is unthinkable for other businesses.

        I wonder if these kinds of changes could add up to a qualitative transformation in the global structure of the economy. Perhaps they won’t, but if they do, it’s a process that’s already happening all around us, one that we need to be very aware of.

      • Brian Holmes Says:

        Yesz, these processes have driven down profit rates considerably. On the one hand, the Internet of immaterial services has barely been realized: people do buy some songs and movies but for cheap, and they pirate a lot too. Many more services are outsourced and partially automated. Distribution (of products largely made in Asia) is being taken over by giant low cost firms. All this adds to the long unemployment crisis of the working class a new unemployment crisis for the middle classes. Some US, European or other developed-economy firms are still making tremendous profits, but it now appears impossible to spread those out over the whole economy. For almost three decades, credit masked this difficulty. During that time, large amounts of fixed capital were depreciated and new investments were made in Asia. Now the question is whether the populations of the overdeveloped countries simply accept a downsizing, with lower wages, decayed living conditions etc. Or do we instead seek a renationalization of capital? Or do we instead seek basic changes in the system that would open up non-capitalist spaces of social reproduction? Or will the overaccumulated capital be destroyed in wars that permit an authoritarian re-establishment of the post WWII conditions of growth? Those, it seems to me, are the big questions of the current crisis, which has not been resolved.

      • Rick Deckard Says:

        I wonder if to some extent these problems couldn’t be resolved–and also transformed–through the establishment of collective consumption structures. For example, the most efficient way of selling music would be through one global online network, that would allow you to stream or download everything ‘for free.’ Because it’s ‘free,’ there would be no need to pirate the music. That would allow nearly totally accurate usage statistics to be gathered, and workers responsible for the music (musicians, engineers, etc.) could be paid through some kind of an entertainment tax.

        Obviously there are a lot of details that would have to be worked out, but in principle, this idea would be attractive because it would return a large and growing portion of lost value to producers. The need for such a solution doe not currently seem pressing, but it may in the future, especially as 3D printing becomes widespread.

        This wouldn’t exactly be a non-capitalist form of social reproduction, but it might suggest a progressive direction. At this point, this is merely a thought experiment, but I wonder if it could be connected to the very real political projects that are emerging in new forms of worker organization.

      • Brian Holmes Says:

        These kinds of ideas have been proposed for almost ten years now, and whaddaya know, just today the French govt released a report recommending the quasi-repeal of an extremely punitive file-sharing law (“la loi Hadopi”) and in its place, a small tax on the sale of networkable hardware, to be used for state-supported cultural programs. It’s an interesting but insufficient step. I think you’re right: 3-D printing plus structural employment asks not just for a reconsideration of how culture is distributed and paid for, but much more, a proposal of collective infrastructure provision for a prosumer culture. What we need, in order to stop the relentless race to the bottom of export-oriented economies, is not a new attempt at the closure of national frontiers and the institution of a new bureaucratic Fordist welfare state, but instead, the creation of a society where people can take the problem of surviving and thriving into their own hands, with collective backup and support but without state-bureaucratic-police control. This would require a vast change from the present situation, where populations are sorted according to the “lifetime value” that each segment or individual holds for corporations, then targeted with attempts to make them conform to the profit agenda of those corporations, while the police are sent out to mop up anyone who doesn’t fit into the picture. Society needs to support peer-to-peer production, based on cooperation not profit. I am glad to have already proposed myself this kind of social change, effectively about ten years back when only activists cared. Now things are getting more serious and these things need to be proposed again, in better, more universal, more convincing forms. Check it out anyway and move ahead from there:

        You can also try a brilliant two-part piece by Michel Bauwens, who has been putting together thoughts on these issues for many years:

        Without a world of our own production, we are just the tragic replicants of a corporate empire. I say no.

        Warmly, Brian

      • Rick Deckard Says:

        Thanks Brian, I look forward to checking out these links.

  3. edmundberger Says:

    Reblogged this on Deterritorial Investigations Unit and commented:
    Just read this piece over at the always-thought provoking “Continental Drift” blog by Brian Holmes. So much of the current discourses happening are marked by a distinctive and completely understandable pessimism – neoliberal capitalism is here to stay, despotic states are here to stay, democracy, whatever the hell that is, is a pie-in-the-sky dream – but Holmes manages to eek out a little optimism in the midst of crisis. And perhaps this is exactly what we need! An optimism, albeit a cautious one… he calls for the creation of new “radical investigative projects.” We’re in a unique position for just such a thing, writing about and against the current power formations from within them. We have boundless access to information, be it through books, individual and collective experience, or the very base contours of the control society, the internet.
    So many of us have talked about the problems that arise from the division of academic disciplines into separate, competing and politically-aligned spheres, as well as the negative bifurcation of access to knowledge through the corporatization of learning. Through conjoined efforts we have bypass these problems, blend disciplines and history and theory and practice into a whole and just maybe uncover potentials for exits, for lines of flight, from a world sinking not only in one but a multiplicity of overlapping crises. And the work produced does not have to be one, nor should it be; it can be as multiplicitous as our oppositions.

  4. digger666 Says:

    Reblogged this on digger666.

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