Theater of Cruelty

A furious ride on capitalism

Economist Houellebecq
Bernard Maris' reading of Michel Houellebecq's work is an essential and well-founded critique of capitalism.


It was during one of the very bleak Danish summers. The house, built of wood by my wife's grandfather in the 1950s, was and is our permanent refuge during the few hot weeks. The coast is close by. There is always salt in the air. Reading over the past 20 years has been one of our primary activities in that house. So also the summer when both my wife and I made our first acquaintance with the French author Michel Houellebecq. Bogen Platform joined the stack of cottage lessons. We read it alternately. I recall a staggering and arousing read. In turn, I was struck by resentment and frustration at the deeply sexualized but also cynical depictions of human relationships at a resort in Thailand.

I had – as far as I remember – not read the work with a view to the financial, but in retrospect I can see that it is obvious to interpret the many transactions between sex and cash as the observation of a marketplace where the south comes with the gender, while the north has the necessary cash. In the well-publicized 150-page essay The Economist Houellebecq exposes journalist and economist Bernard Maris Houellebecq's works to an economic reading, or in other words, he tries to distill his critique of economics and capitalism. And it doesn't get too bad if one were to stay in almost sexualized terms now. Maris' writing is still a thunderstorm against the money machine. An emergency cry before it all crashes. A rattle against capitalism.

The scary science. The essay is structured in five largely coherent parts as well as the prologue and epilogue. In the prologue, Maris argues almost economically for economic optics. On the other hand, he is certainly not underplayed in his view of the economy's attempt to play science. Here Mary's flag flies and quotes, among many, the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) to call the economy "the dismal science"Ie" the scary science ". According to Maris, economics is fraught with fog talk, (self) contradictions, boredom, backstory explanations and sleepy equations.

And why then take advantage of Houellebecq's work to engage in this criticism of capitalism? Yes, because Houellebecq's novels are still based in an economic universe. The characters talk about economics and many of their actions are spurred by economic thinking and by the ideology of competition. How this then takes place is particularly evident in the essay's five subchapters, which interpret the oeuvre from different perspectives such as «the individual» and «the company» as well as using different economic thinking, ranging from Alfred Marshall to John Keynes. The quotes are queued. Both from Houellebecq's works but also from a wealth of other sources.

Maris' book is a thunderbolt against the money machinery. An emergency call before it all crashes.

The eternal dissatisfaction. It is a fabulous literary critique that Maris conducts. And he does it well and insistently. Maybe in places it will be plentiful right word-sound when it sounds, for example, «the company is the kingdom of the voluntary slave». Often, however, the reasoning is compelling and insightful. When we as employees become part of a company, we also enter a battle zone. We adhere to a particular logic, and this logic will gradually affect more parts of our lives. The logic is primarily driven by the market's basic conditions, which are the struggle for survival. The company's hierarchical structure ensures the fighting logic and is strengthened by the notion of equilibrium, ie that at some point we achieve a total uniformity between supply and demand, and where both company and consumers are satisfied. The downside is that this equilibrium and satisfaction never occurs, and this becomes the company's monotome driving force, whose imprint could be called the innovation. Just think of a new boss who must always seek to make his mark on the company. "The lifeline of capitalism is the eternal dissatisfaction," writes Maris, and it is this very dissatisfaction that is the raison d'être of the chief job. With each new boss, new initiatives, new innovation, new procedures must be launched. It must be the primary driving force of any boss to look at the numbers and see what we can change, for change, we must. If we do not change, we will not lead. Maris paraphrases the growth theorist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) and calls it «the creative destruction», and under Scandinavian skies this destruction has been expressed in the form of increasing jjøfication, whose foremost task is to measure and weigh any procedure and work routine to optimize but also to maintain lasting dissatisfaction.

Parasitic work. The anger continues. Maris thus exposes how capitalism and the camps of annihilation similarly use anxiety and insecurity as the foundation for being able to govern without risking a showdown. How the modern world is a toy world, where the insatiable consumer culture has become the defining element in the fight against time, illness and death. And not least how the world is full of parasitic work, which nothing useful produces but simply manages, communicates, consults and thereby maintains their empty business. Maris' slightly romantic view of the work of the hand becomes a little nauseous here, but fortunately he retains the scratchiness.

Houellebecq is in attendance a full-fledged cliche one of the most important authors of our time. His lyrics speak with a distinctive voice directly into our time. Therefore, it is applauding that the small publishing house Bobo has secured us a solid translation of Maris' well-formulated and important essay. Unfortunately, Maris is a voice we have already lost. He perished during the attack on Charlie Hebdo and thus this work also becomes a reminder of the absence of thoughts and written words that could have been in the world. It is almost paradoxical that what the terrorists, among other things, think they are rebelling against is precisely what Maris is criticizing; the loose capitalism and the soulless consumer culture. Whether or not the terrorists are genuinely interested in capitalism criticism or simply use it as a distinctive cover-up for cowardly attacks is another matter. At least Maris' words sound serious and emphatic.

Steffen Moestrup
Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.

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