Many may think that capitalism is complicated, that the now global interplay of finance, goods and services, resources and people is knowable only to the very best and brightest. For the few actual capitalists out there this perceived complexity, this belief, is a distinct advantage enabling them to prosper in a surely dynamic world.
But capitalism is actually very simple, so simple in fact that its essence lies hidden among the growing heap of models and data, policies and politics, laws and regulations, and endless news stories about jobs, the economy and life in all its true complexity.
Capitalism is the separation of Capital from Labor. That's all.
Capitalism is immensely powerful. All would agree that it has shaped our world from our cultures and institutions to our environment, globally. When capital comes to a field, the field changes; when capital comes to a neighborhood, the neighborhood changes—likewise when capital leaves... Wherever capital goes change follows—its telos is always felt.
We have to stand in awe of its power.
Capital is amoral—not immoral--though what it does may often be so construed, it doesn’t have any sense of itself whatsoever. It is innocent, as one might be of a crime by reason of insanity. But we have given it the right to exist in the world—it has become embedded in our culture and in our language. And we cotton to it by giving it inalienable rights and privileges. It is said when capital is free we are free. We even write books about it proclaiming how essential its existence is to our existence. Capitalism and Freedom, argues Milton Friedman, is best thought of as an eternal bond. So our world is richer for our creation; we have plants and animals, rivers, mountains, oceans and insects…humans and capital. Of all these capital is the most powerful.
It stands next to God as a pure being.
Whoever can lay hands on capital wields a measure of its power—and those who best fully grasp and identify with its essence find immense power. Many have thought that we can fertilize and grow the common good with its telos—in fact harnessing the power of money is the liberal political agenda. But as we have seen, such agendas have been crushed in recent history—thirty years for starters—though we can trace a timeline going back much farther. Capital is too wily a beast—its single property too powerfully simple. Even Good Samaritans who have agreed to capital’s liberation find their work Sisyphean. Whether they work towards charitable or environmental ends, every time they get the rock up the hill it rolls back down on them.
War, poverty, inequality and environmental destruction carry on as before.
By splitting the labor/capital atom we have put in place an increasingly furious chain reaction, only now becoming fully visible. It is an unleashing of power which only a few can control and it should not be surprising that it is those few who reap the rewards.
Who then among us would claim filial affinity to this ravenous simplicity? Who would claim their sole mission in life, their teleology, is to multiply without rest and without end?
Whoever holds kinship holds power.
We have to ask, and then observe, who best among us grasps the teleology of capital? Here think of an athlete: the aggressive sprinter possessed of solid thigh muscles, the marathon runner patient, sinewy and lean. We know them and their attributes, both mental and physical enable their excellence in their chosen sport. What then can we say of capitalists? To the extent they are driven to unfettered reproduction they are close kin to capital—they share its single and simple attribute. The very best are unencumbered by strings of morality and social convention—ideally they would have no strings at all. Again, it’s not that capitalist athletes are immoral, but rather amoral, naturally exhibiting the properties of their profession. We wouldn’t expect a sprinter to be distracted by a mishap in the stands and nor should we expect a capitalist to be distracted by the amount of carbon in the atmosphere or the destruction of the middle class, let alone the suffering poor.
Thus we must observe that the capitalist sees the world as capital sees the world: as a reductionist in pursuit of reproduction. Simple. His tool is a common denominator which compares all things and enables the deconstruction and reassembly of any and all things to maximize its own reproduction. Nothing can be denied access to its productive capability and anything can be created in its service. Mountains moved, rivers reversed, technologies produced, ideas, cultures and peoples created and destroyed;
all in the service of its teleology.
That common denominator is of course money—price, within which economists tell us, is all the information we need to know. Telling! It is the tool of the Grand Simplifiers who parse and parcel according to price to enable themselves the most profitable reproductive reassembly. Theirs is the creative power of God. Since the process is the same the results look the same, the world over. And so within our complex world we see a spreading homogeneity, begun as development, and then heralded as progress, now a torrent of blacktopped banality whose purpose reflects the purpose of its creator. Globally. Capital cannot abide diversity.
The power of the Grand Simplifier has surpassed that of the Grand Inquisitor for he is able to put to death and eliminate anything that can’t be made productive. His power is not limited to saviors and sinners but includes all entities from flora and fauna to social relations and geographies and ideas. And more: He is a creator of the world. It is no wonder then that ardent capitalists exhibit infallible confidence. Just as the Grand Inquisitor offers his flock a circumscribed world of imaginary freedom, so too does the Grand Simplifier circumscribe the world. Increasing productivity and growth sit at the right and left hand of this father and these are solemnly good, apriori. He keeps all within the orbit of His arms, within the flow of markets, which encompass all that needs to be known about the world. His teleology becomes culture: the endless production and consumption of goods and services--the word "goods" well chosen for it is an adjective masquerading as a noun, thus any material possession is good--a tempting tautology. The use value of goods and services are by their nature limited--how much of anything can a person use?--and so something had to be done to overcome this contradiction of His essence. Through His own transubstantiation use value becomes comparatively meaningless, replaced by symbolic values thus permitting endless exchange and perpetual creation and destruction, in true manifestation of His essence. Ideally the flock ceases to exist as persons; infatuated with symbols they become consumers whose servitude and debt in pursuit of symbols are reincarnated as virtuous work and honorable obligation.
Production is the master; consumption the servant.
There are no other possible worlds. It is, after all, science. Capital exists. We have no choice but to acquiesce.
And indeed we find all the churches of the world complicit in this comparatively new creed, hostage to its power, knowing their flocks are dependent on this secular religion and so they too are dependant. And more: their past history of questioning science has not worked out well, so they remain quiet minding their own business: to the best of their ability they preach, how to live now, for the carting over to another world in which it is not clear whether capital exists or not. Perhaps they should ask. Still, periodic objections swell defiantly and sometimes with great hope in the face of the amoral tide. Stop! There must be some limits. Such entreaties come from many and varied quarters but all objections become subsumed, however well plotted or passionate they may be. Even major reforms leave in place the ontological entity, that then begins to attract its human kin--the pleonexic—who again begin their quest for eternal reproduction and growth.
Capital is immortal
So I ask again: Are you a capitalist? And my hope is that you are not. My hope is that your essence is not the essence of cancer cells and that your complexity dazzles me even if some of your attributes unsettle me. We can exchange goods and services. And we might even use a proxy for value—though we don’t have to. But there is no reason to grant that proxy corporeal existence; there is no reason to name it into existence and set it loose on the world. It can be mine, and it can be yours. But capital can’t live outside of us, disembodied, lest it attract those least like us, and we all suffer from the tyranny of simplicity and the contagion of banality. Capital is amoral, distracting us with symbols and trapping us in servitude while proffering a life crushing homogeneity. Capital threatens our planet and us.
I’m betting you can sit there in all your glory, if you’re quite comfortable, with your friends and your family, at peace. It is my fondest wish that be so.