Capitalism 101, Part 1

Ron Cobb, Consume

Capitalism 101

By and large, the critical term ‘capitalism’ has never been much in vogue in mainstream academic and media discourse or among working people. Euphemisms like ‘free market societies’, ‘mixed economies’, ‘developed industrial societies’, ‘consumer societies’, ‘democratic societies’, ‘the West’ are preferred. This of course suits the system itself and its beneficiaries.

However, where there is no language to name them, certain things cannot even be perceived, much less changed. Language control is mind control. Even as it globalises and totalises itself in reality, a whole system and its means of social domination can thus be made to ‘disappear’ in minds and public discourse.

Let’s try and take a few small steps towards redressing this ‘disappearance’ by addressing the question of capitalism in four different ways.

A. First, let’s ask eight basic questions.

1. What is capitalism?

Capitalism is primarily a system of economic domination in which Capital, money that has to grow, rules over everything else. Another way of saying this is: the economy, markets, money, profits (that is, things) rule the world. It is a seemingly impersonal system of class domination and control over people and planet from which a very small global class massively benefits. In contrast to earlier societies, in capitalism the economy is not there to mainly fulfil the material needs of humans and the planet but in order to make profits and accumulate money for the owners, managers and speculators of Capital.

2. Why is economic growth the key driver of capitalism?

Because Capital is, by definition, money that is invested in order to grow and create more capital. No capitalist invests or speculates where there is no or little prospect of growth. Without growth Capital itself would cease to exist and revert to being just money. Now that the planet is increasingly indicating the ecological limits of growth, we have overshot planetary carrying capacity and are reaching ‘Peak Everything’ (oil, soil, water, climate stability etc) , capitalism is thus in severe crisis.

3. Is capitalism just an economic system?

No. It is also a complex social and cultural system that has developed over five or more centuries and has now spread to the whole world. It now also encompasses the corporate state, corporate media and marketing, transnational institutions and hyper-urban cultures of nuclear families and possessive individualism. It has become a whole way of life, of thinking and feeling characterised by frenetic speed, time poverty, aggressive competitiveness, anxiety and depression, narcissism, isolation and meaninglessness.

4. What is a capitalist?

A class of person who has enough capital to own some significant means of production (land, machinery, factory, bank, store, knowledge) and employ wage labourers to work them in order to produce commodities which are sold in order to make a profit and increase his or her capital, wealth and power.

5. What role do democracy and the state play in capitalism?

Mainly an enabling one. Capitalism could not exist without it. The state provides the infrastructure (power, roads, communications) and trains the ‘human capital’ for work within capitalism. It picks up the pieces when this ‘human capital’ breaks down under the stress (welfare and health systems). It provides protection for private property and basic social exchanges and incarceration for the impoverished, dysfunctional and underclasses (police and justice system). It provides the cannon fodder when necessary to secure economic and geostrategic interests within a competitive global economy (‘defence’). It also provides many indirect and direct subsidies to Capital itself. Many previously regulatory roles once performed by nation states have been sidelined or eliminated by the now global powers of transnational Capital and Finance. Capitalism’s form of centralised representative democracy and party systems ensure maximum corporate influence, capitalist business-as-usual and minimum popular influence.

6. Has capitalism any good features?

It could not exist if it didn’t. Despite its horrors and injustices, it has, as a result of much popular resistance and struggle, immensely increased humanity’s material wealth and improved the living conditions of millions, albeit at the price of increasing inequality and ecological destruction and wars. It has helped abolish feudal slavery, parochial immobility, religious domination and patriarchal oppression, at least to a large extent in many modernised countries. Its connection with science and the Enlightenment has helped spread critical thinking, the notion of human rights and the rule of law, free public education and liberal anti-authoritarianism, forces that can also become its own gravediggers, even if usually severely restricted by the dumbing down of corporate mass media, the privatising and running down of public education and the marginalisation of systemic dissent. Despite its horrendous ecological destructiveness, it has also created some sciences and technologies that can be used for human liberation from toil and drudgery, international communication and ecological sustainability.

7. What is the problem with capitalism? Why change the system?

The capitalist system needs to be changed for a better one

– because it is undemocratic: the wealth and power of a very few dictate the lives and destinies of the very many without any say on the part of the latter

– because it is suicidal: capital’s limitless growth and ecological destruction is impossible on a finite planet, one or the other must give way

– it is toxic: unregulated technologies and products developed by Capital have polluted almost every organism and ecosystem on the planet with serious ecological and health ramifications

– because it is aggressive and imperial: capitalism constantly seeks to expand markets and secure trade routes and resources and thus militarily intervenes and fights wars via its corporate state

– because it is unjust and unethical: 400 US individuals own more wealth and power than the bottom 50% combined; the system makes 80% of the world’s resources flow to just 20% of the world’s people; millions are starved or maimed in their human development because of unjust wealth and power distribution

– because it is humanly unsatisfying: very few can fulfil their creative potentials within capitalism’s alienated work, unemployment, poverty, fragmented communities, commodification of life

8. Isn’t ‘socialism’ worse?

Yes, if ‘socialism’ means the state capitalist systems of totalitarian oppression run by Marxist-Leninists and various nationalists in several countries.

No, if ‘socialism’ means an as yet untried (albeit sketched) system of decentralised self-management, freedom and mutual aid in which key investment and political decisions are made democratically at the grass roots within ecological constraints and opportunities.

B. If this seems a little too abstract, let’s try and list just some of the negative effects capitalism has on society and daily life in advanced industrial societies.

Some Negative Social Effects of Capitalism

• Extreme hyper-mobility leading to fragmentation and loss of community

• Culturally pervasive sense of extreme competitiveness, consumerism and meaninglessness, reduction of human wholeness to production and consumption of commodities

• Devaluation of all non-waged, usually female, work (domestic, care giving, voluntary)

• Child-unfriendly societies due to work patterns, car-dominated cities

• Rising incidence of mental illnesses and suicides, especially among young

• Rising incidence of physical ‘diseases of civilisation’ (diabetes, obesity, asthma, cancer, heart disease, mesothelioma, immune dysfunctions etc)

• Intensification of work, speeding up of life rhythms, time poverty, decline of family time and relations

• Reduced life chances, health and life spans for working classes

• Decline of industrial work and marginalisation of increasing numbers of people (the ‘precariat’, the ‘working poor’, the ‘one third society’)

• Old people considered redundant to society since ‘unproductive

• Economic overshooting of planetary carrying capacity and resultant global ecological collapse (e.g. climate chaos, sixth great species extinction)

• Total chemical/nano/gmo/radioactive pollution of the planet via unregulated production

• Poverty, famine and structural underdevelopment in majority world countries

• Imperial wars, resource wars, millions of civilians killed (‘collateral damage’)

• Increasing tendencies to post-liberal, repressive and authoritarian police states

[Part 2 shall follow in the next post]

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 12, 2012.

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