This is a response to a response, elsewhere online, to my definition of capitalism post.
Their argument is that the features I determined to be part of capitalism, are not part of capitalism, not found in any dictionary definition of capitalism and are found elsewhere. They argue that wealthy people are not sociopaths but quite nice, and this is backed by research…. They also say that with no profit, there is no sustainability.
I will suggest that:
- My definition is useful and does not delete important features of capitalism as system.
- While I am dubious that the capitalist elite are specially virtuous, I did not argue that wealthy people have to be sociopaths for them to be a problem, they just have to team up to support what they see as their own interests, and this teaming up seems obvious and ‘natural’.
- It is useful to remember that sometimes capitalist organisations do commit crimes, and override the liberty of other people.
- You cannot separate capitalism, capitalist government and capitalist economics. Economic action is political action and vice versa.
I agree that all the factors I have described as being part of capitalism are possibly found elsewhere. That is not the point. The point is that they are nearly all part of any actually existing capitalisms. I don’t think you can discuss the functioning of capitalism by ignoring those factors or pretending they are irrelevant. As far as I can see, no form of capitalism has ever existed without most of these factors. Certainly modern capitalism appears to hold them all, and the fact that it does hold to most of these features, means that it cannot support liberty (collective or individual), for anyone other than some of the wealth elites. Capitalism needs to be considered as a system of power as much as a system of trade. Capitalism requires a State and will take over that State, to expand its power and security.
This is why I cannot support a definition of capitalism that pretends capitalism is (for instance) just a form of private property and trade. Trade happens everywhere (even in communist States), and is no inherent sign of capitalism. There are many forms of trade which are not capitalist. Likewise, if we are going to talk about ‘private’ property as being central to capitalism (which it is), we have to talk about the different forms of property, the history of property, the history of property accumulation, the destruction of other forms of property by capitalism, and look at how private property gets selected out from general production. To understand capitalism you probably have to understand non-capitalist and stateless societies, otherwise capitalism might just seem ‘natural’ to people who have lived with it alone. It is not ‘natural’ in any sense other than it can exist.
These kinds of overly simple definitions are like saying communism occurs when the workers own and control the means of production in common and live happily ever after. It is true in ideology, but we have to ignore a lot of history, organisation, practice and failings to make it an accurate description of large scale Communism.
Capitalism is a set of variations on a form of social organisation that seems to require, and enforce, hierarchies, inequalities and destruction. Any form of analysis of, or support for, capitalism that decides these unpleasant factors are unimportant, or accidental, seems inaccurate, and is probably dangerous or ‘ideological’ because it is set on being unconscious, and is refusing to deal with the realities of actually existing capitalism.
The pretense of perfection is part of the problem
Nearly all hierarchies and tyrannical systems, I am aware of, pretend that their cruelties, obstructions, miseries, failures, inability to meet their ideals, and so on, are aberrations, or nothing to do with the ‘real’ system. The Islamic world would be in perfect peace and harmony if people were truly just obeying God’s obvious and wise laws and there were no infidels stirring up trouble – the system itself is not a problem. Communists would not require a State or a secret police if they had completely succeeded in the revolution, and these temporary necessities, will fade away when they have succeeded. They are not essential parts of communism – the system itself is not a problem. We would have a healthy, happy and peaceful Germany without the Jews, and other people who keep fighting against the true wisdom of the Führer, and who wish to hold us back – the system itself is not a problem… etc etc.
Same with capitalism, all this undesirable stuff is just an accident of history or the fault of government; it has nothing to do with ‘real’ capitalism – the system itself is not a problem. This move supports a fantasy of a capitalism which has never existed, and substitutes that fantasy for the more checkered reality.
I’m also not alleging that all monetary profit is bad (although there are other forms of profit, social, intellectual, spiritual, ecological etc, which are probably as important). I am alleging that making monetary profit the only value is quite probably harmful, as it appears to suppress other all the other values, and shuts down, or restricts, our perception of reality to what makes profit. It also makes wealth the major marker of virtue, and thus allows people to sell (or buy) anything, as their only principle is wealth accumulation, and wealth is the most all-encompassing power, as it can buy any other power. More importantly, the drive for perpetually increasing profit, is almost undoubtedly harmful and counters any sustainability criteria such as the survival of other people, or ‘nature’. It is an example of the case in which a drive might be useful at an individual level, but is harmful if everyone does it. It also becomes almost impossible to survive by not doing it, if everyone else does it – you are likely to get bought out, and either asset stripped, or converted into an increasing profit organisation.
If a system nearly always displays recurrent features or failings (no matter how unpleasant or apparently unrequired), then those features are part of the system. And if you want to describe or improve the system, you have to understand how the system really works in its total mess, recognising that everything effects everything else, and nothing in the system is isolated from the system. Accidents pass, but recurrent features are likely to be significant features.
I call this realisation ‘disorder theory’. The statement that social modes of ordering tend to produce the disordering and unintended consequences, that they consider threatening, is not popular. People will try and separate out the order which they declare ‘good’, from the disorder they ignore, declare ‘bad’ or irrelevant, or someone else’s fault – but they all occur together as part of the order.
The idea, pretty obviously, stems from depth psychology, in which it is asserted that we repress parts of our nature, inclinations and understandings (our psychological and biological systems) so as to fit in with our familial and social situation, and that this repression bites back in the forms of symptoms which disrupt our ability to fit in, or to live in any kind of satisfying sense. However, we are encouraged to pretend that these symptoms are unreal, or personal, rather than generated by the social system of order itself. No matter how common, they are said to not be essential parts of our faulty adaptation to social reality.
The Virtuous Billionaire
The connection between wealth, morals and social organisation seems complex. See these popular references with a mixture of arguments – some of which tells of the same research from different perspectives , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . There are a growing number of ethnographies of corporations and financial services organisations, which could add to our understandings of how customs and conventions can increase harmful behaviour.
However, it seems obvious that ‘dominating hierarchies’ will tend claim that their ruling elites are superior in some way, either because god has chosen them, because their rulership is natural, or perhaps because they are particularly virtuous or particularly talented. The dominant class nearly always claims to exemplify a special set of virtues.
In aristocracies, the dominant groups are said to be noble, learned, valiant, different beings to peasants, placed in power by God, and so forth.
In theocracies the dominant groups are said to be holy, knowledgeable of scripture, wise, keep to the laws rigorously, touched by god, in direct communication with god, etc.
In bureaucracies the elite have unquestionable loyalty to the state, are thorough, knowledgeable, honest, familiar with regulations, good hearted, neutral, refined etc.
In capitalism, the elites are rich, hard working, noble, trustworthy, uniquely talented, self-sacrificing for their vision and so on.
This claim can be true of some. I assume some high-up people in the Catholic Church are religious, and do live relatively holy lives. But it may not be correct about all of them. One Marcus Aurelius does not make up for loads of Commoduses, or people selected to the throne because the guard thought they could control them, or who were crazy enough to kill everyone else first. Same with capitalists. Not all billionaires have earned their wealth. Some inherited it. Some were massively lucky. Some likely destroyed or copied the work of others. Some appear massively incompetent, completely untrustworthy and are well known for ripping people off or vindictive revenge. Some might once have been reasonable people, but lost it as power and wealth corrupted them. Donald Trump should end the argument about the inherent virtue and good will of all billionaires, even if you think that Warren Buffett and George Soros may be good people. Trump’s corruption was well known to everyone who read the US business pages before his election, although this was largely ignored by the entrepreneur worshipping US corporately-owned media.
If the society is literate, there may be a whole literature teaching you how to cultivate the virtues the elite are supposed to have. This not only gives readers hope of social mobility, but it sanctifies the elite – who do this naturally, or perhaps after a sinful youth. There are hagiographic books telling you how smart, or holy, or whatever these people are; some of these get quickly forgotten when it becomes obvious their heroes were not smart or consistently good at what they do (Al Dunlap?). There are even books glorifying Donald Trump as the most talented man who ever lived and which claim to teach you the secret of rising from nothing like he supposedly did. Some books point out how he has been blessed by God, to bring righteousness to business and America. Such books should be recognised as what they are, propaganda tools, which is not to say they cannot ever be useful. Stoicism is as valid for Emperors as for the poor. And books of exposure, may attract law suits, or other forms of revenge, like Trump Nation did, so the elites are protected.
Why then do people co-operate with ‘bad’ but powerful and wealthy people? Sometimes, people may not read the business press and learn, for example, that working for Trump is only rarely a good deal. However, we can assume that more often people work for business people for the same reason they work for dictators (why did people not kill Stalin in advance?), because they hope the money and power will flow down, because the person only occasionally goes off the edge, because it seems safer to be an associate than an enemy, because you don’t recognise you are expendable, because you like being close to power and wealth, because you think you are smarter than them, because you think their selfishness will help you manipulate them, because you have seen what happens to businesses that challenge them, because they are good liars and promisers, because they are exciting, because you hope they will look kindly on you and leave you alone, and sometimes because they are well-intentioned and kind people, who kill thousands with the best intentions. Perhaps corrupt people work for corrupt people, so it becomes a self-reinforcing circle. Most people who work for them, do so because if they don’t work for them, or somebody like them, then they will starve.
In other words powerful capitalists get people to work with them or for them, just like other powerful elites get people to work for them. Politicians who lie, should lose trust, and people should abandon them, but Donald Trump again demonstrates that supporters won’t necessarily move away no matter what; they may deny obvious lies, declare the lies are unimportant, or decide the lies are true, they may argue that the person’s failures only occur because of a monstrous conspiracy. Indeed because politicians depend upon good moral standing, good interpersonal skills, being obsessively focused and productive, with an ability to deal with incredibly complex situations and balance all kinds of competing interests, that to pull political success off they must be honourable, or they will not succeed. People in the opposing parties (and their supporters) are already against them to begin with, some of their own party want to replace them with themselves, and some people are generally against successful people in any case. They have to be good. The logic is sound, but of course it is inadequate to describe reality, just as it is inadequate to describe the reality of corporate power. People get to occupy positions of power and wealth for all kinds of reasons, not least inheritance.
Sociopathy and Wealth
I’m not actually alledging anything about wealth and sociopathy, other than:
- Some people allege capitalist (and other) managerial structures could select for sociopathy or even create it by creating distance between people, and power over ‘less worthy people’… This is not inherently implausible.
- I can’t see any reason why sociopaths would not be attracted to making money, or why they would not be good at it, or again why making heaps of money would not encourage social separation, feelings of dominance, and hence what we can call ‘sociopathy’.
Now this does not mean that all the wealthy are sociopaths or psychopaths, or whatever label you want to use. I am not arguing that billionaires have to be ‘bad people,’ just that, like most humans, they will team up to bend policy and politics to favour what they perceive as their common interests. This should not surprise anyone. In a capitalist society, money talks loudly and persuasively.
To repeat, a person does not have to be a sociopath to team up with others to support what they consider to be their joint interests, dominance, security or place in ‘The Market’. It would be incredibly surprising if wealth elites did not act this way with the aim of pushing their interests in the State, and they have the money to do it successfully, especially if they team up. And this is pretty much what we observe in modern politics.
The fact that libertarians, Austrian economic theorists and so on, do not recognise this as an issue, while being fully capable of recognising that other people (workers, politicians) can team up to interfere with ‘The Market’, is interesting.
And it seems logical that people who could buy their way out of the penalties of law, or consider fines as costs, would not fear the consequences of illegal acts; consequences are for lesser people.
I just read that a family who profited from opiate addiction and death, have managed to escape prosecution through bankruptcy and largely keep their fortunes. They apparently show no remorse or feel there is any need to compensate families. Defending their wealth might come first? Sociopathy?
Likewise where I live people are being thrown out of their homes, doctors’ advice about pollution is being ignored, limits to liability are much smaller than the evidence suggests they should be, contracts being signed before Environmental inquiries held etc… all to make money for a toll road company. Let’s be clear. People will die because of this, houses have and will fall down, and there is nothing anyone could do to stop it. Protests and political campaigns were ignored. This is a bought State in action, defending profit maximisation at all costs. Sociopathy, or normality?
Most of the damage to the Earth’s ecology is owned by a very small percentage of the Earth’s population. But they get away with it, even when there is now no real excuse to pretend such damage is not a problem. Indeed we know that fossil fuel companies have been fighting against recognition of climate science for years, deliberately creating the conditions for mass loss of property and life, to keep making profits. Instead they had rather blame population growth. Sociopathy? Maybe. Capitalism, yes.
I should not need to mention:
- Tobacco companies, and the trade in death they did quite well out of, and are still doing well out of, and still searching for new customers to kill.
- Slave traders arguing they were civilising and rescuing savages while delivering them to kindly masters who had an interest in looking after them
- Finance companies shifting costs on to those they ripped off, or the general behaviour of finance companies in the lead up to the crash of 2007-8, and its aftermath
- Arms manufacturers who want to sell to terrorists
- I’ve previously mentioned the East India Company’s plunder of India. But to add to it, they cut off the thumbs of hundreds of weavers in Bengal to maintain their profit on imported cloth, but this was more or less normal for companies
- Other capitalists have had workers working in dangerous and unhealthy conditions, because workers may not have any alternatives. The mid to late 19th Century free market generated many quite unsettling stories and reports about this, and workers had to join together and fight hard for their safety.
To understand capitalism, you have to understand real, existing, forms of capitalism, not ideal forms which do not exist and have never existed, and which only exist as ideas to justify the actually existing forms of capitalism and pretend they are other than what they are.
To be able to prevent tyranny you have to be able to stop it from occurring, and that includes tyranny of the State, tyranny of wealth, tyranny of religion, tyranny of violence, tyranny of landholding, tyranny of control of communication and information, tyranny of control of energy, and tyranny of enforcing valued social categories.
If you want to stop the tyranny of the State, then you need to dismantle or inhibit the State. If you want to stop the tyranny of religion, then you have to diffuse the power of the Church, or the organisation of religions and introduce more religions…. If you want to stop the tyranny of wealth, you need to opposed the way the wealth is organised and passed on to the next generation. If you don’t then the tyranny will become established….
This sets up a paradox, that for some people to have liberty, the power of other people to deprive them of liberty must be curtailed. This can either be done by an independent power, which is likely to become arbitrary, or by attempting to set up a more participatory system of governance, by allowing such customs such as demand giving, or distribution of wealth and property at death, to non-family members, or simply destruction of that wealth.
If you cannot stop accumulation of power occurring then you have surrendered and there is no liberty. Libertarians do not acknowledge the power of wealth, or the power of organisation by the wealthy, or consider it an accident, and not part of the social functioning of wealth. They do not seem to promote limits to the authority of wealth.
Of course ‘liberty’ may not be the only social virtue to begin with.
Finally, we are in a situation in which the US political party of corporate domination, is:
1) Ignoring major problems with capitalism and ecology because it affects corporate sponsorship,
2) Pretending that the wealthy and the poor have the equal liberty to avoid a pandemic and get good treatment,
3) Preventing businesses from protecting their staff and customers from the pandemic,
4) Trying to prohibit teachers from talking about the history of race in America,
5) Lying about an election result with no evidence that will hold up in court,
6) Attempting to restrict votes that will go to their opponents, and
7) Attempting to restrict investigations into an apparent attempted coup.
Like the corporate and aristocratic backers of nazism, the right seem to be trying to hold capitalism and its hierarchy stable by cultivating an authoritarian, non-democratic State. This may be the standard capitalist response to crisis. It may not be the only such response. Again it needs thinking about.