G. B. Taylor is a former student and long-time supporter of the ISE, currently living in Berlin. Comments and discussion are appreciated:
7 Left Myths about Capitalism
Occupy Wall Street has renewed hope for a left political renaissance by challenging economic inequality and the neoliberal discourse that legitimated it, and reintroducing the word capitalism to political debate. The “greed” of the “1%,” counterpoised to the hardworking, rule-abiding 99%, has emerged as the dominant political frame of OWS. Rhetorically powerful, the slogan’s elegant simplicity conceals as much as it reveals. The language of “corruption,” the betrayal of Main Street by parasitic Wall Street bankers, and nationalist appeals to “take America back” all express a deep confusion as to the nature of the current crisis. This often results in a highly personalized moral critique of capitalism rather than a systemic one.
The crisis wracking capitalism today cannot be understood as simply the evil actions of greedy bankers and the 1%. In fact, as Max Weber pointed out, unlike the ostentatious opulence of earlier economic forms like feudalism, capitalism actually has tendencies which check greed – for example how intra-capitalist competition forces firms to save and reinvest. Thus the logic of states wielding coercive external power in human form as armies and police is quite different from that of capitalism, wherein power is more difficult to pinpoint or assign personal agency to. Conflating these two modes of power leads to very different political demands and outcomes. Capitalist power acts not only or even primarily on us from outside, but through us, as worker and capitalist alike are caught up in an impersonal competitive imperative that would quickly bankrupt any turncoat bankers or CEOs who might suddenly take Occupy’s message to heart.
With this in mind, I would like to examine seven myths about capitalism commonly found on the left that offer an incomplete critique of capitalism that points in the direction of insufficient reform or towards reactionary rather than emancipatory forms of anti-capitalism.
Why is decrying greed problematic? Because focusing on greed personalizes what is a structural problem, making it individual rather than systemic in nature. Although there are certainly greedy people, this is not a moral failing or “human nature,’ but people acting quite rationally within the structures of capitalism. Our present age of mergers and megacorporations is no accident; they are the winners within a capitalism driven by a grow-or-die imperative fueled by never ending competition. Within capitalism there is little space to act “ethically,” as institutionalized competition forces everyone – from owners looking to cut costs, workers seeking to maximize gain, and consumers hunting for the best price – to act immorally. By subjecting them to economic calculation, capitalism makes a mockery of our deepest ethical values. An analysis emphasizing greed points towards changing morality, when what is really needed is to get rid of the institutions that incentivize such behavior.
Another familiar charge in the current crisis is corruption, that greed drove bankers to corruption, breaking their own rules and wrecking the economy in the process. But capitalism obeys only one fundamental rule: generate ever more profit or perish. The language of corruption implies exception, a situation wherein something has gone wrong; but the problem is rather the rule: the ordinary workings of capitalism. Although there are always scandals where outright deception, bribery, or insider trading occur, the reality is that very few laws were broken in creating the current crisis. Calls for getting money out of politics only get us to the point of nations with strict election finance laws, like England, where politicians still govern according to the needs of capital. Corruption is not the problem.
Strong nationalist currents have also surfaced in Occupy Wall Street. Whether it’s purple armbands that signify the mixing of the red white and blue of the flag, or the language of “Take America Back,” there’s a strong desire for a return to normalcy, defined as a middle class standard of living. But the idea that the state, like “the economy,” is a neutral and unified entity that works for the good of all is a falsehood: the nation-state never protected anyone from capitalism, but rather provides for its smooth functioning. Likewise, there was no “Golden Era” when capitalism somehow respected national borders in its search for new exploitable resources, labor, markets, and profit. At best it struck a compromise with a small percentage of mostly white workers in the West for a short time post WWII. America’s post-war economic dominance has faded; international competition has brought the austerity it once imposed on the third world home. In addition to reinforcing the state, such economic nationalism displays a callous disregard for people in other nations, as well as immigrants; a poignant reminder why rightwing libertarian elements were prominent in the early days of Occupy. But we don’t want to go back to an American Dream that was built largely on the backs of people of color both in the US and abroad. Capitalism has never worked for “the people,” American or otherwise, and never will.
Another line of argument identifies finance as the culprit, contrasting the speculative greed of Wall Street to an honest and hardworking Main Street which produces tangible goods and services. It is claimed that Wall Street is a casino economy that doesn’t produce anything useful, has no loyalty to American workers, and is run by amoral CEOs who make astounding salaries. But this distinction between a real and unreal economy is a fiction, Main Street operates according to the same logic as Wall Street on a smaller scale, and may even finance parts of it. But more fundamentally, to single out banking misses the point: all capitalist enterprise exists to produce profit, not meet human needs.
Finance as a sector has certainly grown in size and importance, but this must be contextualized within a larger trajectory of capitalist development – the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) economy became central to the neoliberal project because, aided by technological development, it was a convenient and low-cost strategy for dealing with the crisis of capital accumulation in the 1970s – finding new ways to extract profit in the face of international competition, automation, and the gains of workers’ movements. But Wall Street is no more or less parasitic than any other sector of the economy. This populist analysis blames opulence, money, and abstract exchange while ignoring the equally problematic nature of good old fashioned exploitative wage labor, or how the two are mutually intertwined. Furthermore, both lines of argument must also cope with a present reality wherein to even be exploited as waged labor is increasingly the luxurious privilege of a dwindling few. The irony is that workers today appear to need capitalism more than it needs them.
The American left has often substituted a critique of corporations in place of a critique of capitalism. And it’s easy to beat up corporate giants like WalMart, Coca Cola, Bank of America, whose global operations obviously do much harm. However, the problem is not a quantitative one of size or scale, but rather qualitative. Capitalism is a social logic which impels small companies to act the same way, and sometimes even worse. Large corporations, because of their size, reach, visibility, and superior resources, are often in a better position to be unionized or otherwise pressured to pay better and offer benefits smaller businesses simply can’t offer.
In a conversation during the early days of OWS, activist “preacher” Reverend Billy expressed exactly this critique, stating that Brooklyn bodegas (corner stores) posed an alternative to “the 1%” economy because they build community – you might know the person behind the counter or be able to momentarily leave your kid there while running an errand. Yet these same bodegas are often family businesses employing family members who are un- or underpaid, work long hours and lack vacations or health care. OWS has suggested moving money out of big banks like Bank of America and Chase and into smaller credit unions. Unfortunately, it turns out many credit unions are engaged in the same practices as larger banks, only at a local level.
Focusing on large corporations also has the tendency to reduce politics to aesthetics: absent a critique of the common logic behind large and small firms, politics becomes a search for authenticity too easily channeled into consumption and individualism. Size is not the problem; the only real difference between WalMart and Etsy is taste and market share.
These various partial critiques easily combine to produce conspiratorial views of capitalism. In this view the problem is the result of a secret, hidden cabal of evildoers – we just need to rip off the façade and – voilà! – liberation. This narrative of redemptive revelation is seductive, but it ignores the systemic nature of capitalism. Marx stated that capitalism operates “behind our backs,” appearing natural and rendering exploitation invisible so that when problems are identified, conspiratorial perspectives become attractive. But the problem is not the secret machinations of the Federal Reserve, bankers, Jews, or the trilateral commission but the fundamentally irrational logic of capitalism.
Alternatives and the Myth of Autonomy
Faced with the ugliness of capitalism, understandably people often look to alternatives such as cooperative enterprises, community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, local currencies and barter networks. These projects often provide important and desirable things like higher quality products, a sense of community, or increased self-management. However, their limitations are too often overlooked or simply wished away. Embedded in the same capitalist logic and subjected to the same market pressures as traditional firms, they can easily become indistinguishable from entrepreneurship with noble intentions. But you can’t small business your way out of capitalism. The workers’ cooperative of Mondragon in Spain is an instructive example. Forced to compete with traditional firms, their avowed political aims like higher wages, longer vacations, or environmental considerations become a competitive disadvantage in relation to firms lacking such moral scruples. The result is that Mondragon increasingly resembles a typical capitalist enterprise, compelled to make similar decisions only with fewer bosses to blame.
Such projects are often oblivious to the long history of attempts to economically move away from capitalism, or to restrain it politically. In France, 1981 Francois Mitterand tried to implement a moderate socialist program and was rewarded with massive capital flight, he quickly changed course. In Greece, it was socialists who presided over post-crisis austerity. The “market” also recently punished France for its insolence in electing a socialist president. If even powerful nation-states are powerless to control capital, how can small enterprises expect to fare any better?
In their zeal to transcend the many horrors of capitalism, many of these strategies seek to jump outside of it. But “autonomy” from capitalism is even more impossible than autonomy from the state it has captured. Limited by the competitive pressures of a market economy and private ownership, every social gain won by alternative economic projects or reform-minded politicians constitutes a competitive disadvantage against capitalist firms, or nations, lacking such scruples. The result is typically liquidation or a more self-managed form of capitalism not so distant from the quintessential entrepreneurial dream of “being your own boss.” However, acknowledging Adorno’s insight “There is no right life in the wrong one” is not to admit defeat but instead to demand a politics which squarely confronts the structural limitations – and opportunities – posed by the totality of capitalism.
Why Does Our Analysis of Capitalism Matter?
Having an accurate understanding of capitalism is not simply a nitpicky or academic concern; it is important because different analyses of capitalism lead in very different political directions, not all of which are emancipatory. Unfortunately, some of the critiques put forth by Occupy today unwittingly echo slogans from National Socialism – to “take back” the economy from a disloyal and parasitic class, make the economy work for the “right” national group, etc… The left has no monopoly on critiques of capitalism, and given its present historical weakness there is great danger in the rise of reactionary forms of anticapitalism. Around the world today right wing movements and parties tap into economic discontent and channel it into nationalism, blaming foreigners, welfare recipients, and “disloyal” corporations. One common nationalist demand is to make capitalism work “once again” for the native-born citizens of their respective countries. But such nationalist and fascist critiques of capitalism are false solutions in that they misunderstand the nature of capitalism and pose authoritarian solutions that destroy freedom.
The documentary film “Inside Job” provides a good example of this constellation of false critiques, and the problematic political solutions they imply. It portrays the economic crisis as a classic case of a few “bad apples” whose greed and bad morals, established through their use of cocaine and prostitutes, also happen to ruin the economy. The film even goes so far as to biologize the problem, showing brain scans that allegedly show how excited bankers get when handling money! Its final panoramic shot of the Statue of Liberty suggests a patriotic return to economic nationalism, naively utopian in the face of a globalized capitalist economy that has long since rendered even such mythical notions quaint.
Many historical factors sustain today’s fuzzy thinking about capitalism. One is the legacy of the Cold War: the collapse of “actually existing socialism” and resulting “End of History” consensus only strengthened a hysterical anticommunism that made talking about capitalism, let alone socialism or communism, almost impossible in the United States. Systematic repression from McCarthyism to COINTELPRO also contributed to the rise of a left which largely neglected political economy for 40 years, while more robust critiques and history of capitalism languished in ever-dwindling sectarian Marxist circles. American traditions of pluralism, pragmatism, and anti-intellectualism also work against a deeper theoretical understanding of capitalism. This also sheds light on the current popularity of prefigurative politics. While the desire to model the world we want in the here and now is an admirable one, it also holds out the seductive fiction that we don’t need politics, analysis, or organization – we can lead by example, until so many people join that the world changes. Thus prefigurative politics fills the vacuum of left ideas, allowing populists and anarchists to converge in practical matters while carefully avoiding addressing questions or demands which will inevitably entail fragmenting the perceived unity of the 99% based on how they understand the nature of the problem and preferred solution.
The Need for Radical Thinking
After years of neglect, Left prescriptions on economy have become vague, opportunistic, lacking vision. Many simply nod along to recycled Keynesian solutions of those like Paul Krugman, which fail to explain why social democracy was steamrolled by neoliberalism in the first place. The economic crisis of 2008 revealed that capitalism is only in “crisis” when it hurts capital. But if the fundamental issue is to make the economy serve human need rather than the other way around, then why stop halfway? Capitalism certainly hasn’t – the most “successful” revolution in terms of transforming the globe in the last 40 years has been the market utopianism of neoliberalism. We must also think big: we don’t just want a bigger slice, but the whole damn bakery!
In this regard, we should learn from the capitalists, who ironically have adopted traditional left demands more ably than the left itself has. Automation has made fewer jobs necessary, and everyone knows work sucks anyway, so why should the left valorize toil and beg for useless busywork jobs? Instead of chastising the 1% for their lives of idle luxury, we should be demanding it for all. And sadly it has been the capitalists, not workers, who have shown they have no nation. We can follow suit with a militantly cosmopolitan internationalism that has no more use for borders than transnational corporations does. The “crisis” has revealed that what used to be deemed impossible is in fact a matter of political will, as the state has bailed out banks and nationalized the auto industry while leaving people to fend for themselves. The result is a perverse socialism in reverse: socializing all the risk while privatizing all the wealth. Our task is simple: the current crisis has shown that a society organized around production for the accumulation of profit doesn’t work – even according to its own standards. It’s up to us to reverse this communism for capital, making our vast productive capacity serve humans, not the other way around.
 Ross Wolff, “Concerning Greed and Romantic Anticapitalist nostalgia.” http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/concerning-greed-and-romantic-anti-capitalist-nostalgia-for-a-kinder-gentler-capitalism-past/. The Charnel House.
 David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005
 Doug Henwood. “Small is Not Beautiful.” National Post (Canada), September 23, 2003. http://lbo-news.com/2011/11/26/from-the-archives-the-small-business-myth/
 Henwood, Doug. “Moving Money (revisited).” Left Business Observer. November 8th, 2011. http://lbo-news.com/2011/11/08/moving-money-revisited/
 Spencer Sunshine. “Occupied with Conspiracies? The Occupy Movement, Populist Anti-Elitism, and the Conspiracy Theorists.” Shift Magazine, November 2011. http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=512
18 Replies to “Seven Left Myths about Capitalism”
“This often results in a highly personalized moral critique of capitalism rather than a systemic one.”
While I’d agree that a merely moralistic critical stance is bootless, the “system” is not autonomous and doesn’t somehow operate itself independent from its constituent agents, (which purely “structuralist” view reproduces capitalist illusions willy-nilly in its own way). Instead you need an overall interpretive framework that emphasizes the cross-dependency of agency and social structure and is capable of analyzing distinct, differentiated institutional and organizational forms, while potentially linking points of intersection between situate practical projects and more specialized theories.
” Our present age of mergers and megacorporations is no accident; they are the winners within a capitalism driven by a grow-or-die imperative fueled by never ending competition. Within capitalism there is little space to act “ethically,” as institutionalized competition forces everyone – from owners looking to cut costs, workers seeking to maximize gain, and consumers hunting for the best price – to act immorally.”
Again, while I agree that a purely normative criticism, in abstraction from the functional “grid” from which actual social relations arise and hence to which prevailing norms, for or against, arise in response, misses the forest for the trees. But I think it’s important to hoist prevailing capitalism on its own petard, precisely in terms of how dysfunctional and counterproductive it has actually and increasingly become. In that respect it’s doubtful that prevailing forms of capitalism are really driven by market competition, whatever its ideology might proclaim, but rather has increasingly succumbed to anti-competitive strategies of oligopolist consolidation, which are a much different form of “competition”, heavily intricated with tendencies toward globalization and financialization. That’s important for understanding the relentless drive toward expansion that characterizes capitalism, among which the meaningless trading of companies back and forth is a key symptom.
“Another familiar charge in the current crisis is corruption, that greed drove bankers to corruption, breaking their own rules and wrecking the economy in the process. But capitalism obeys only one fundamental rule: generate ever more profit or perish. The language of corruption implies exception, a situation wherein something has gone wrong; but the problem is rather the rule: the ordinary workings of capitalism. Although there are always scandals where outright deception, bribery, or insider trading occur, the reality is that very few laws were broken in creating the current crisis.”
I’m sorry, but this is almost entirely wrong. Leaving aside any notion of corruption as a theological universal, corruption is a matter of decaying norms and institutional rules. And as a plain matter of fact, there was massive fraud, illegality and regulatory evasion behind the GFC, even if with the complicity, if not outright encouragement of the regulatory “authorities” themselves. You should look up Akerlof and Romer (1993) on bankruptcy for profit or corporate looting, which is just a little toy model and no doubt massively underestimates the potential scope of the problem. Executive and managers of financial corporations did in fact massive loot not just there own companies, but a forteriori the broader economy. Just because there has been no will to officially investigate and prosecute the myriad forms of malfeasance, it doesn’t follow that it hasn’t occurred or is merely par for the course, but rather indicates the full extent of the institutional corruption and decay. Which is something that ordinary, a-theoretical people, if adequately informed, understand quite readily.
“Strong nationalist currents” -Well, the lack of any adequate accounts of the state and the political is very much the Achilles’ heel of Marx’ work, (and though several different accounts of the state and politics might be extracted from Marx’ work, by far the worst, most economically reductive one is the simple inversion of the liberal night-watchman’s state, whereby the state is simply the executive committee of the ruling capitalist class). The fact of the matter is that forms of association and solidarity in political community, both on local and national levels, are well-nigh inevitable, as part of the human need for identity formation and mutual recognition, as well as, the locus for organizing sovereign power. It’s less a matter of some sort of “pure” abstract internationalism, (which after all, just repeats in its own way the globalization of capitalism and the increasing extra-territorialization of its elites), than of whether those forms of community are porous and open to alternative identities or whether they are exclusionary and repressively “solid”. In the final analysis, I end up being a kind of reluctant, ambivalent neo-Hegelian statist and, on a very abstract level, a republican, since not only is the organization of sovereign power, as a source of law and contested legitimacy, not readily replaceable, but a strong quasi-independent regulatory state is just about the only thing powerful enough to put into check and transform the dis-integrative forces of global capitalism, however far removed that is from our actual polity, and however much political activity shouldn’t be exclusively focused on contesting control of state power, but just as much directed toward sub- or para-statal organization in civil society and the public sphere, (which form the basis of republican legitimacy and serves to answer Juvenal’s question about who will guard the guardians).
“But this distinction between a real and unreal economy is a fiction, Main Street operates according to the same logic as Wall Street on a smaller scale, and may even finance parts of it. But more fundamentally, to single out banking misses the point: all capitalist enterprise exists to produce profit, not meet human needs.”
There is no such thing as capitalism in the abstract, as if it were a single all-encompassing and amorphous blob, but rather there are distinct “regimes of accumulation”, geographically and historically, that require specific analysis. And, yes, the neo-liberal regime of international production platforming and globalized financialization , which has now undergone a structural break-down with the GFC, is quite distinctive, dependent on a re-structuring of oligopoly rents through FX arbitrage. There has always been a tension or “contradiction” in the functioning of capitalism between its productive and its extractive aspects, and it’s well worth pointing out how the increasingly financialized form of globalized capitalism depends on ever larger accumulations of fictitous capital to replace declining returns to real productive investment and thus has become evermore extractive and counterproductive. But that requires an account of the driving functional “imperative” of capitalism not just simplistically in terms of making profits, but rather in terms of maintaining the “value” of invested capital stocks through the rate-of-profit, (whereby it is the re-investment of future profits qua capital accumulation rather than just current realizations of profit that make all the difference). And here I think the analysis of economic rents is key: Ricardan land or natural resource rents, the productive quasi-rents of large-scale capital-intensive, market-dominant oligopolies, and financialized rent extractions. And there, once again, it is a matter of how the globalized MNC/Wall St. complex has come to depend increasingly on financialized rent-extractions from extant capital stocks via control over access between markets rather than on profits from real productive investment and technical innovation, thereby becoming ever more counter-productive and self-undermining, through growing inequality and declining demand. Since profits-from-production, after all, have, as one of their prime functional roles, the rough measurement of productive surpluses, however distorted such a measure tends to become, and we have to think seriously about the functionally equivalent alternatives that can be devised to better perform that role.
Further, I won’t really do to contrast production for the sake of profit to production for the sake of human need, no just because of the afore-mentioned functional point, but both because “human need” is not invariantly definable outside of specific socio-cultural forms-of-life and because the world is not reducible to human need, but, non-theologically, exceeds the merely human. Rather, one should recur to the quasi-Aristotelian substrate in Marx’ thinking, with one of his recurrent thematic complaints, that capitalism inverts the relation between means and ends and amounts to the incessant accumulation of means without regard to ends. The emphasis should be placed on the eclipse of human and natural ends under the relentless intrumentalization of human and natural relations that capitalist commodification imposes, since that brings out the (again Aristotelian) emphasis on the realization of human capacities, as well as, the human responsibility to care for the world beyond any narrowly and excessively humanistic (and egoistic) pathos, which reduces the world to limitless human “needs”, (echoing the capitalist “imperative” of over-consumption for the sake of over-production.
“Size/Anti-Corporatism”- This is a vexed issue, especially here in VT. Some things might proceed better at large-scale, due to productive efficiencies, but other things, (including deliberative processes), work better at smaller scales (or in between). An open examination of technical and organizational specifics is required. But assimilating small businesses to corporate oligopolies, simply because they are both “private” and profit-seeking seems short-sighted to me and confuses the main thrust of the issue.
“Conspiracy” -The appeal to conspiracies derives from an over-inflation of human intentionality, as if it were the center of the world, as a kind of inverted voluntarism. Still, in a much more decentered way, human intentions, however partial, conditioned, constitutively constrained and distorted, riddle the human world. And failure to hold powerful human agents or agencies accountable in the name of blind systemic functionings, for which they are mere place-holders, seems equally mistaken.
“Myth of Autonomy”- The ideal of autonomy, both as a definition of human freedom and as hallmark of the status of theoretical understanding, (as opposed to the recognition of existential separateness and cognitive differentiation), is deeply rooted in Western metaphysical tradition. Rooting it out and transforming those sorts of unquestioned embedded understandings is a difficult task, because they are so pervasive in our discourses. But that’s not the issue here. Alternative forms of organization, based on “experimental” openness, need to be engaged with, since the alternatives that might make for a significantly post-capitalist world,- (I care little for what one should call it anymore),- are not given a priori or by some master-plan or historical inevitability. Catastrophic ruin amid wide-spread misery is at least as likely an outcome of the current course-of-affairs and trends as anything else. And to avert such outcomes, a pluralistic openness to the viewpoints of others, however mistaken one might find them, is at least as important as any systematic critique, based on dogmatic and premature “totalization”.
this guy is a genius!
Beautiful piece. Thank you for this.
John, holy shit. If there’s anyway you could help me break this down in organizing terms… 🙂
I feel inept to comment on this post, but it’s a great article that has stirred some much needed conversation in more circles than are being commented on within this blog. Thanks G.B.
Hi John, thanks for your thorough and thoughtful response to the text. I’ll try to answer your concerns in order, italicizing which of your points I’m responding to.
“While I’d agree that a merely moralistic critical stance is bootless, the “system” is not autonomous and doesn’t somehow operate itself independent from its constituent agents, (which purely “structuralist” view reproduces capitalist illusions willy-nilly in its own way).”
I understand your concerns about structural determinism – of course capitalism is mutable and requires political agents to abolish it. But taking a systemic view of capitalism doesn’t have to reproduce capitalist illusions “willy-nilly.” It is the liberal individualism and deep moralism of our society that makes personalized critiques so pervasive, the “radical” variant being that, just as – if we really want it – we can become president when we grow up, that actors within capitalism can somehow act apart from its most basic drives. So I would argue that while all social institutions are comprised of people, there is a systemic logic which preciself operate “independent from their constituent agents.” This is what makes them institutions, a continuity beyond the individuals involved. Some desires for change can be met within those parameters, others cannot and require some kind of basic rupture. And capitalism is both much more flexible than most institutions, and more “autonomous” in that it isn’t feudal lords, cops, and politicians enforcing its daily operation, but unseen market forces, competition, and the ubiquity of the impersonal cash register. Its also proven exceptionally able to absorb its critics – Boltanksi and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism is an excellent example which looks at how the New Left critique of hierarchical/bureaucratic/soulless forms capitalism (Fordism) was transformed into the flexible, networked, “self-managed” logic of neoliberalism. Agency is there, as are the multiple institutional forms/sectors, but all are subordinated to the overall logic of capitalism.
“But I think it’s important to hoist prevailing capitalism on its own petard, precisely in terms of how dysfunctional and counterproductive it has actually and increasingly become.”
Not sure we disagre so much here, it’s true that capitalist love of competition is usually halfhearted and honored in the breach, but nonetheless there is a reason why single firms like Microsoft become dominant in a field – they’ve outcompeted the rest. They’ve „outcompeted“ the rest, even if that meant bullying and monopolistic behavior – the point of competition is to win. Even if their product is inferior, there’s a rationality to everyone using the same basic tools. Even more so in the ubiquity of cheap distribution points like Walmart or Amazon, their market hegemony and economies of scale simply make it easier and cheaper to go to one place to meet your material needs. There is a progressive aspect in such monopolization – once the field is clear, it shows that how irrational competition is in many regards, and makes it easier to concentrate our efforts on reversing the subordination of need to „economy“ rather than. Imagine a communist society where WalMarts were simply one stop free stores, where „radical“ identity wasn’t bound up in purchasing decisions – the farmers market, bike coop, independent record store, etc… The danger is that many radicals then see breaking up such monopolies as the answer, as if turning the clock back to smaller or „authentic“ firms competing is any better. Can’t „Etsy“ our way out of capitalism.
“I’m sorry, but this is almost entirely wrong. Leaving aside any notion of corruption as a theological universal, corruption is a matter of decaying norms and institutional rules.”
Your argument implies that „uncorrputed“ capitalism is ok then. This narrative gives so much ground to capitalist ideology, but I’ll focus on 2: what gets called crisis, and the „bad apples“ critique. First, the notion of what constitutes a crisis – capitalism is always a crisis for (un)working people, but it only gets labeled one when it jeopardizes the smooth funtioning of the system at large. The pre-2008 crisis for the millions who have no job, or a crappy one, living at the level of subsitence is not a crisis, but the „creative destruction“ of the losers – both firms and people – which uncorrupted capitalism relies on. Second, although I said that there are always those who break the rules, focusing on this then lets the „good responsible“ capitalists can call the others bad apples in order to point out the system itself is just fine. While some always overreach in their competitve endeavors, it doesn’t. The „decaying norms“ bit is very idealistic (in the Marxist sense) – capitalism requires ruthless competitition as rational behavior, its silly to expect people to not act in a self-interested way. This moralism sets up a false dichotomy of „realists“ who see the world as it really is, and an ascetic quasi-religious denial/suppression of this basic fact. As to greed being universal, theological or otherwise, ask any anthropologist – most of human history was marked by societies where the need for social cohesion/cooperative elevated forms of generosity and gift-giving to the pinnacle of social esteem – ie Potlatch ceremonies which „competed“ to give away their wealth. Greed is produced by social institutions, and in social arrangements where it isn’t rational to asocially accumulate wealth, its typically rejected and/or among the strongest taboos.
“The fact of the matter is that forms of association and solidarity in political community, both on local and national levels, are well-nigh inevitable, as part of the human need for identity formation and mutual recognition, as well as, the locus for organizing sovereign power. It’s less a matter of some sort of “pure” abstract internationalism, (which after all, just repeats in its own way the globalization of capitalism and the increasing extra-territorialization of its elites),
…but a strong quasi-independent regulatory state is just about the only thing powerful enough to put into check and transform the dis-integrative forces of global capitalism…”
„Sovereign power“ has already been replaced, and your „strong quasi-independent regulatory state“ has been absolutely powerless to stop it (not that states actually want to control capital). In fact it has been social democrats that have presided over its decline in most instances, from socialist Mitterand in 80 to Greek socialists today. Whenever capital is actually threatened politically, we see capital flight, massive media attacks, attempted coups. I want to stress that not everything „capitalist“ is necessarily problematic – what is wrong with (non-neoliberal) globalization? Is parochialism a virtue? Internationalism isn’t abstract in the least – it’s a practical necessity. As capital always has been international, workers’ movements understood they must be too (even in the 19th century) precisely because they understood that nations were not their saviors but the organizers and enforcers of international capitalist competition. The modern Republican nation-state rose in tandem with the rise of capitalism; these „teams“ competing for capital have led to horrific wars, nasty nationalism, and useful ideological fictions in whose name we are told to suffer. Forms of association and identity may be inevitable, but we certainly don’t want them in the form of nation-states, which are in fact a very recent phenomenon. I would recommend reading Murray Bookchin’s work, The Communalist Project for example, on confederated popular assemblies as alternatives to the tradtional nation state.
“There is no such thing as capitalism in the abstract, as if it were a single all-encompassing and amorphous blob, but rather there are distinct “regimes of accumulation”, geographically and historically, that require specific analysis.”
Of course capitalism has changed over time, but as you point out, what gives it continuity is an underlying logic of capital accumulation. I also agreed with much of what you wrote – I stated that finance has indeed become the driving motor of contemporary capitalism, in part due to the factors you identify, not least of all the utility of preferring financialized rent-extractions from extant capital stocks via control over access between markets rather than on profits from real productive investment and technical innovation. But this neither constitutes a real break with past forms of capitalism nor does it totally eclipse the other sectors you mention earlier comprise the non-monolithic totality of capitalism. You veer towards stating that finance is in fact monolithic; while creating more value from money is ideal, it still also directs money to real production – houses, dams, Iphones, etc… The basic point is that is insufficient to solely critique finance because it is where the logic of capitalism – accumulation of abstract value – is most obvious, it permeates all aspects of society, so focusing only on that will not do, just as going back to the Fordist full-employment statist capitalism of the 50s and 60s won’t do. A good text on this subject: http://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/finance-capital-why-financial-capitalism-is-no-more-fictitious-than-any-other-kind/.
As an aside, I want to add that I found all the name-dropping and academic/economic jargon in this segment a bit exlusionary and mostly unnecessary. I think we can keep this coversation as open and accessible as possible without succumbing to anti-intellectualism.
“the world is not reducible to human need”
I certinaly don’t want to reduce our horizon to „human need“ narrowly construed; we want bread and roses. And care for the ecological matrix which sustains us is an important concern. But unfortunately there is no innate human responsibility to care for the world beyond our own self-interest. As Bookchin points out, we’re the only species capable of consciously taking into consideration other species well-being, which we might do for a variety of reasons – self-interest, aesthetic, moral, etc… But the class makeup of contemporary environmental and animal welfare movements reveal that humans typically must meet their own needs before making the fairly radical leap of considering those of other species.
“… assimilating small businesses to corporate oligopolies, simply because they are both “private” and profit-seeking seems short-sighted to me and confuses the main thrust of the issue.”
I think rather the defense of small business as a political strategy or economic alternative is what confuses the main issue, as it obscures that folksy farmers in straw hats aside, there is a common logic underlying both. It valorizes the devil we know/can see over the big bad „other.“ Small firms everywhere are being assimilated/destroyed by capitalist competition. But the left must resist Manichean responses like „big business/globalization bad, therefore small busincess/local good.“ Political deliberation may work better in small groups, but twe shouldn’t conflate politics with economics. And of course control of ones workplace is always better, but both cooperatives and entrepreneurs must ultimately abide by external economic forces.
“Still, in a much more decentered way, human intentions, however partial, conditioned, constitutively constrained and distorted, riddle the human world. And failure to hold powerful human agents or agencies accountable in the name of blind systemic functionings, for which they are mere place-holders, seems equally mistaken.”
I’m not arguing against human agency, but pointing out the constraints you yourself acknowledge, and the dangers of an ahistorical liberal individualist approach that says the main problem lies with „bad people,“ easily enough resolved within the present order. Sure, hold them accountable – but what happens when they go to jail and are replaced by people who are in turn also „corrupted“ by institutional pressure to make the same decisions? It’s easy to act „intentionally“ according to the logic of social structure – greedily, acquisitive – but much harder to act against them, and has material consequences. And which of these two – structure or agency – do you think is overemphasized in social movements today, in particular OWS discourse? We hang the bankers, more will take their place. Jail the Geithners, Summers, and Madoffs of the world and there will be more to replace them.
“Alternative forms of organization, based on “experimental” openness, need to be engaged with… Catastrophic ruin amid wide-spread misery is at least as likely an outcome of the current course-of-affairs and trends as anything else. And to avert such outcomes, a pluralistic openness to the viewpoints of others, however mistaken one might find them, is at least as important as any systematic critique, based on dogmatic and premature “totalization”.”
Show me the (lack of) money. This isn’t a philosophical point: autonomy from capitalism is impossible in very concrete ways – from the constant pressure of market forces, to rent, taxes, taking care of workers within a still-capitalist world, buying materials for the alternative enterprise, etc… And we should experiment with self-management and other attempts to expand the floor of the cage. Your latter point about catastrophic ruin is sadly correct, all the more reason why we need to accurately understand capitalism and how to overcome it – time is short, and running small businesses is nothing if not demanding. Emphasizing economic alternatives severely limited by the constraints of capitalism seems a Quixotic attempt to beat them at their own game. It also pushes us in the wrong direction: putting production under conscious human control requires abolishing it as a distinct and autonomous realm of human activity, entering the crucial realm of politics. How we get there I’m rather undogmatic about.
I sort of like these discussions. They get one thinking about the larger structure of the capitalist system and how it functions. That is good. But I get lost in the details because I cannot assess their relative significance of the various arguments based on my experience or, on those few sources, resources, I have or I have time to pay attention to.
So, for this type of discussion to be useful to me, it has to lead to a discussion of strategy that when followed disrupts capitalism at its roots and opens peoples eyes to how the current distributions of power that oppress them, and how mass action can lead to change. The strategy does not have to even be a total success. It just has to create motion toward social justice, social revolution, and an alternative vision of society.
An the alternative vision is?
How to do that from all those words by Taylor and Halasz?
This was great until the very end. I would have thought that any social ecologist Bookchin-ite would have had more of an issue with this:”Automation has made fewer jobs necessary, and everyone knows work sucks anyway, so why should the left valorize toil and beg for useless busywork jobs? Instead of chastising the 1% for their lives of idle luxury, we should be demanding it for all.” This argument is the same old techno-utopianism that Marxists spouted off in the 19th century, and ever since then really. It completely lacks a critique of the social and ecological effects of the mass industrialization and technics that make this obscene rate/ease of production possible. It also ignores that this entire system of overproduction is rooted in an ecological debt that is growing faster than any trade deficit, and on which we are finally entering bankruptcy. This, mind you, goes even beyond the peaking energy surpluses of fossil fuel economics (and the fact that no cocktail of renewables could ever make up for it). The global scale of economics relies on constant violence that is necessary in maintaining its limitless imperial hinterland. Without this violence, good luck finding enough rare earth metals to build the computers that make a work-free society possible. In essence, add to this a healthy dose of luddism and a peak oil critique and you’ve got it straight.
Thans for responding Laurel. I, like Bookchin, would contend it is neither industrialization nor technology that is the root of the problem, but specifically capitalist social relations. Bookchin was a firm anti-Luddite, the core thrust of social ecology is that the ecoloical crisis is a social crisis, meaning one brought about by the qualitative logic of social relations rather than technology (with some exceptions, technology is not neutral). Technology might speed such processes up, but they might also slow them down. Bookchin’s post-scarcity anarchism was predicated on a world of plenty allowed in part by automation. And why assume machines have to be ecologically destructive anyway?
The problem with the Luddite response is that it attacks the surface symptom rather than the root. They broke machines that were replacing them because they could produce their goods faster and cheaper to be sold on the market, putting them out of work. This, I might add, was rather local in scale, but no less violent. But this is the fault of capitalism, not the machines. In a rational society, this destruction of tedious toil by technics would mean more leisure time. Secondarily, but related, overproduction is not caused by “greedy” consumers (many of whom in fact are not consuming enough), but a byproduct of a capitalist society organized on exchange that requires constant production to accumulate value, rather than meeting human needs.
Basic needs which, its worth emphasizing again, are not being met for the majority. Ignoring this fact makes environmental critiques of overconsumption into the “liberal” variant of austerity – make do with less, but for a “noble” cause. I think radical ecologists must firmly reject this assumption, deeply imbedded in climate change discourse, that our top priority must be to stop the looming ecological catastrophe, putting puny human matters aside. Bookchin’s fundamental point is that we cannot do this without confronting the irrationally expansive, grow-or-die logic of capitalism. Reducing ecology to mere survivalism not only won’t save the planet, but will lead to a world not worth living in.
By the way, I just ran across an excellent article on Globalization/Capitalism that addresses many of the same topics within this thread, against the context of the alterglobalization movement. Taken from issue 8 (1999)of the British journal Do or Die:
Two points on the issue of technical development, work reduction and environmental limits.
1) In the old jargon, the “forces of production”, which include both the work “force” and the accumulated technical means-of-production with which they work, and the “relations of production”, i.e. the organization and management of production processes and how surpluses are extracted, distributed and re-circulated,-(which distinction is analytic and “dialectical”, not substantive, i.e. the two terms are not discrete, separate items, but only “exist” in relation to and interaction with each other),- arise together with the latter initially promoting, but then increasingly coming to encumber the further development of the former. The current point to be extracted from that is the issue of the selection of technical means to be developed (with the follow on effects for social development in general). This does not simply derive from the current state development of scientific knowledge, but rather scientific knowledge, which is not reducible to technology or the cognitive-instrumentalist attitude, potentiates a wide array of technical possibilities. And the question is: are the collective choices as to technical development of the means-of-production to be still determined by the “imperative” to reproduce capitalist surplus-value and hence so restricted in their potential, or can other institutional arrangements be developed to make such collective technical choices and the productive investments they require much more in accordance with the broad majority of the population and their common interests and the deliberative construction of the human and natural ends which such technical possibilities should subserve, not least of which should be environmental preservation and sustainability. That’s not a simple matter, but clearly such a fundamental change in the mode of collective technical selections would entail the destruction of the “value” of much currently invested capital stocks and business organizations, which is a large impediment to realizing such a prospect, which doesn’t necessarily imply a diminution of our “standards-of-living” or quality of life, but rather might well mean their substantial improvement from without the “imperatives” of capitalist re-production. But that’s a tall order and a complicated nexus of inter-connected issues, and its outcome can’t simply be assumed and projected in advance.
2) One shouldn’t simply assume the prevailing price-structure as determining the requirements of the “good life”, not just because so much of the quality-of-life, in terms of human relations and the conditions of fruitful activity are excluded or given short shrift in those terms, but because much of the prevailing “cost-of-living” includes substantial rent-extractions, and much of current (over-)production is predicated on the artificial production of “scarcity” through the artificial production of “needs”, in compensation for the alienated conditions of labor and its denial of satisfaction from the exercise of human capacities and choices, all, of course, for the sake of maintaining the “value” of capital. The de-commodification of labor and with it the reduction of work hours and the de-commodification of whole other ranges of human activities and choices and human and natural relations might well be conducive to much lower cost-structures and lower levels of material and resource consumption. All emergences and prospects are riddled with contingencies and there is no prior “necessity” either way, but technical and organizational development, improvement in the easy and quality of life, and environmental and ecological limits are not “logically” irreconcilable.
Laurel seems unfortunately to be drawing precipitate conclusions and indulging in a form of eco-nihilism without engaging in the labor of thinking through complicated issues. “Peak oil” should be welcomed, (if only it were true), “rare earth” compounds are not actually that rare, just very dirty to mine and refine, (which is why China has been accorded a virtually monopoly, for cost and regulatory reasons), and, though Ned Ludd is worth remembering, Richard Awkwright’s patent thefts are perhaps the more relevant contemporary reference.
Assuming for the sake of argument that everything GB writes here about capitalism is true, does GB really believe that anyone is ever motivated to revolt by coming to understand the “structural limitations of capitalism”? (…“to demand a politics which squarely confronts the structural limiations – and opportunities – posed by the totality of capitalism.”)
Mitchel, certainly not – people are motivated to revolt by their experience of the misery/banality of capitalism. But I suppose anyone checking out lefty blogs is already fairly motivated, so my purpose was to try to hone our critique so that it can’t be easily recuperated into the logic of capital and the nation state, as so much OWS discourse can be. But look at Greece and Spain today – very heartening!
“Does GB really believe that anyone is ever motivated to revolt by coming to understand the “structural limitations of capitalism”?
It’s not a question of being motivated to revolt, it’s a question of whether this revolt will succeed and, if it does, if it will really change anything permanently. Without a revolutionary theory, there is no revolution. This might seem counter-intuitive to people who take ‘revolution’ to simply mean some kind of regime change, but we are talking about overthrowing not only a regime, but an entire mode of production and all its social relations.
The liberal often scoffs at this and, tacitly accepting the indoctrination of capitalist society, asserts that this goal is too grandiose while reforms are ‘realistic.’ But where have these ‘realistic’ goals gotten the working class? Wherever it even achieved reforms, they were taken away. In the foreseeable future it is doubtful that workers will ever see those New Deal style concessions again. After all, in those days leaders of capitalist nations the world over realized that if they did not deal, they could be overthrown like the capitalists of Russia.
Thank you for a profound article that tackles the myths head on and thoughtfully!
I was wondering if you lived locally in NYC? by any chance? Anyway I was wondering how I could contact you to consider being apart of a discussion panel?
Darini Nicholas, Social Ecology MA graduate from 2000, now a phd candidate at the NSSR and Adjunct at Pratt Institute. Please do contact me via email as I’d really like to speak with you.
For an ecological society,
Just saw that you lived in Berlin. Any plans to be in NYC in the next few months, i.e. January?