A Terrifying Thought Experiment
Pointless Reactionary Politics In Action

What Do We Mean When We Say "Capitalism"

"The fact that there is a game about collecting children, by a known pedophile, and that that we can still play it in an arcade says something really profound about ourselves, our culture and capitalism." Heather Anne Campbell on the How Did This Get Played podcast discussing Michael Jackson's Moonwalker game.

The fringes of both parties now welcome anti-capitalist arguments for the first time in my life. In this political framework, the question is not whether the government should run-up crazy deficits, or whether the administrative state should continue to grow, but rather where these resources should be allocated. The optimistic conservative version of this story is, look the government can be effective at addressing some problems, and we fail our voters by abandoning the public service game altogether. The cynical version represents a more political calculus: although public welfare isn't effective, and government efforts usually don't produce positive results, government spending is nevertheless interpreted as 'care' by voters. In other words, it doesn't matter if affirmative action succeeds in creating a black middle class, whether it does or doesn't, some percentage of the white working class will view the policy with jealousy and resentment. To keep said voters, you will have to offer them their own place at the public trough.

Whatever I think of these policies, I understand and approve of the turn against elites even as I think the elite policy consensus is often accurate. Accuracy doesn't matter. Democracy is about consensus-building and inclusion. Monetary policy that is alienating and grows the GDP by shipping manufacturing overseas is an economic success and a political and social failure.  Even while I am happy that the more extreme wings of both parties are more upset with capitalism than at any other point in my lifetime, I think we need to be specific about what the word "capitalism" means. 

First, I will offer a simpler linguistic example and then compare it to the case of "capitalism." I was taught as a lad that the term "Zionism" meant the belief that Jews should have a national homeland to provide safety from the various other humans that consistently wanted them dead since time immemorial. I subscribe to this belief. However, it has become clear to me that to refer to oneself as a "Zionist" has far reaching implications beyond the simple definition I laid out above. Depending on who you're talking to, "Zionist" may be interpreted variously as an endorsement of the Netanyahu government,  as an endorsement of settlements and or an endorsement of a maximalist one state solution in which Palestinians are permanent second-class citizens. I don't endorse any of those things, and although I don't think any one of those concepts should be inferred from the moniker "Zionist," I have nevertheless been cowed and won't use the word anymore. 

Similarly, 'capitalism' seems to have become a catch-all for anything about our culture we don't like. I'm not sure those who criticize capitalism understand that the thrust of their argument, to critique an aspect of American culture and then lazily say capitalism is the cause, implies that capitalism has deterministic cultural effects. In other words, our culture is exactly as greedy as it is  capitalist, and you can not change the former except via the latter. 

Let's refer to the quotation above as an example of the phenomenon (Heather Anne Campbell is great btw and I don't mean to pick on her it was just an interesting example of usage.) Campbell is basically saying that because of a combination of celebrity worship and indifference to immorality , we are willing to tolerate a game that celebrates a pedophile even as the game itself appears to contain evidence of Michael Jackson's crimes. In this view, we are incapable of responding with appropriate moral horror because...free markets? 

To steel-man Campbell's argument, let's consider the case for capitalism as a deterministic force in creating shallow culture. Capitalism has a certain logic and set of incentives, those incentives promote the development of both tolerance for greed and celebrity-fetish culture. These two cultural traits then combine to create an environment where someone like MJ or Weinstein can abuse in plane sight as long as they are profitable and represent success within a capitalist paradigm.

What then accounts for the sudden zeal with which we are toppling such men? Did we become markedly less capitalist in the months before #MeToo took flight, or was it a rare confluence of events that allowed non-capitalist actors to temporarily subvert the system? It seems to me there were major capitalist incentives to expose these people, i.e. selling advertising on news sites. Furthermore, the networks of elites that protected these men were not always obviously doing so to protect a cash cow. Sometimes it was just because of long friendship and association with the scumbag. No one can argue against the proposition that powerful people use money to their advantage, but does capitalism make this pernicious advantage stronger? Does it make the powerful more powerful?

I don't think so. It is power itself that corrupts , not money, and non-capitalist societies tend to invest power in fewer hands than capitalist ones (thus creating a more powerful and corrupt set of elites). In weird ways, the left should embrace capitalism on anti-authoritarian grounds. A rich guy being friends with a politician is preferable to the rich guy and the politician BEING ONE PERSON.  That is the alternative offered by history.  In America, different rich people buy different politicians, and we hope that the little guys are occasionally well-organized enough to contend. The socialist solution is simply to invest ultimate social and political power in the hands of the cop or the bureaucrat, archetypes that are still loathed in America but de-fanged by their modest position in society. In other words, Soviet Russia probably had pedophile celebrities that we don't even know about because they were good at promoting the party line, and the social network that protected them had more of a monopoly on power than its capitalist equivalent. 

For each ill attributed to capitalism we can find non-capitalist examples. Some have said, capitalism makes us fat, and yet in the re-distributive, state-run oil economy of Saudi Arabia, citizens are expanding rapidly using their state provided funds at state constructed shopping centers. Some say  capitalism makes us shallow, and yet the far more social democracies of Greece and Brazil have more elective plastic surgery per capita than the US. Capitalism makes us sexist and racist, and yet the North Koreans seem pretty into the supposed superiority of their gene pool, the virtually economy-less Afghans nevertheless resource their robust war on women.

Some anti-capitalists might look at the examples above and insist that each is either an indirect outcome of global capitalism, a lasting effect of colonialism (itself an aspect of capitalism they would say) or a sign of transitioning into capitalism. I could offer some counter-statistics here, but do I really need to establish that human frailty predates the Austrian school? 

I would really prefer if people would criticize more specific aspects of our culture as opposed to the "capitalism" catch-all. Having to have the newest Iphone is an specific aspect of our consumer culture, not an inevitable outcome of free markets. Obsession with social status and physical beauty are problems as old as human beings, and amplified by new technologies but also not an inevitable outcome of free markets. The tolerance of immoral people who succeed in the economy would simply wear different clothes under a different system. You don't think there are pedophiles in the Chinese government, protected by the zeal and fervor with which they tout the party line? Profit is one of many motivations a person could use to justify selfish behavior, but maybe not the primary one. In America, drug companies conspire to get drugs to market early to start making money. In the Soviet Union, the same pressure to innovate was communicated via the stated desires of the party. If anything, the motivations in the Soviet Union were stronger, as failure could mean a bullet in the head, not just poverty. Even with these lethal stakes, the American version, for all its faults, created better medicine and no dead doctors. 

The problem is not capitalism. The problem is us. Unless we start grappling with the degradation of our spiritual and social lives, we will remain materially greedy and emotionally impoverished. Electing a socialist won't turn us from assholes into good people, it will just imperil the value of our 401ks.


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