Capital Seductions: theoretical, narrative, and autobiographical approaches to everyday capitalism
Two to Tango: the seductions of capitalism
(Presented at Skidmore College, April 3, 2017)
Musical setting: Stephan Braun and Valerie Inertie
Archive and Inheritance
In 1988 I was a freshly minted PhD with a tenure-track job at a Research One institute, namely Syracuse University. I recall a meeting with the chair of my department, Stu Thorson, in which I shared with him the following:
- I understand why I teach,
- I understand why I read and research, and
- I understand why I write.
But I cannot figure out why we publish.
“We publish to build an archive,” he said.
I accepted his response, but in retrospect, I could always sense his answer was partial.
After the recent election, two of my Facebook friends, both professors, Charmaine Chua and Shampa Biswas, each posted a version of the following:
- They could not accept that Trump was president.
- They found themselves paralyzed.
- They wondered if others could teach, read, and write when all they wanted to do was participate in protests.
- They wondered how others could go on with their routines and their jobs.
I had no such troubles.
In part, because my repressive skills have been finely honed since the election of Ronald Reagan, who I thought was a buffoon and clearly the worst president that would ever be elected.
I was 24 at the time. What did I know?
I passed on making a FB comment under that election post, worried that doing so would derail me from my routines.
My friend Robbie Shilliam, another professor, did respond by saying that while protest was, of course, important, nevertheless we all needed to reserve some and perhaps most of our energy for building an intellectual inheritance.
Archive and inheritance, I thought to myself. What a pair of concepts.
I understood finally why Thorson’s claim was incomplete. Building an archive has never been enough for me to publish. But I am happy to think that publishing builds an inheritance.
My friend Sam Opondo, a professor at Vassar, chided me when I presented this idea at a recent conference. He said, “That is the talk of an old man.”
And so it is.
Hope: Uncrushed and Crushed
Our hope betrays us. Our hope makes us blink in the face of truth. It lulls us towards a nostalgia for innocence. Uncrushed hope is the betrayer, the liar, the thorn in the paw of our courage. Hope uncrushed, runs on borrowed time, it forces us to keep an eye on the fuel gauge.
Crushed hope, on the other hand, is a viable resource. I can say it more strongly: crushed hope is the only viable resource. Crushed hope is what allows us to turn an archive into an inheritance.
This revelation has a by-product. The relationship between crushed and uncrushed hope allows me to understand how I read. When I see the appearance of uncrushed hope in a text, I seek to crush it, to decapitate the flower and its bloom. I evaluate texts by asking, “what is the ratio of crushed to uncrushed hope?” The greater the amount of hope that is crushed, the better the exposition of details.
The Original Affluent Society
My work owes much to the writing of Economic anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. His Culture and Practical Reason (1976) and his seminal Stone Age Economics (1972) have been pivotal. Chapter 1 of Stone Age Economics, is titled “The Original Affluent Society.” This chapter allowed me to glimpse the hidden ground upon which I stand and it thereby opened new questions for me.
Allow me to give you a little tour of his presentation.
All modern social theory, we might say, is based on two assumptions:
- A1: Human needs are infinite;
- A2: Resources are finite.
Humans always want more than what Nature can provide. Life therefore is tragic.
Life has always been a tragedy and will always be a tragedy.
We know from Marx, as well as from others, that these assumptions are merely capitalism’s projections.
What Sahlins does is, first, to invert these two claims.
- A1: Human needs are finite;
- A2: Resources are infinite.
Suddenly we have not tragedy but a …what? Comedy? A possibility? An opportunity? I have not yet settled on the word.
Sahlins does not perform this inversion by theoretical fiat. He does it by surveying all the existing literature of hunting and gathering societies – not just dead societies but ones that continue to live side by side with capitalism.
His survey reveals some astonishing findings. Here are a few:
Hunter and Gatherers:
- work 15-20 hours a week to meet their needs (a little less than three hours a day);
- their food supplies are abundant;
- they have nothing that resembles poverty; and
- they have a trusting relationship with Nature.
In sum, they are affluent because their needs are few and their means are plenty.
Sahlins refers to this as the Zen road to affluence.
The reason these claims astonish me – as perhaps you can/will glean from my slides of my mother’s village [The talk is simultaneous with a slide show.]– is that I had always assumed, without knowing it, that scarcity and poverty were original conditions.
But Sahlins argues that both scarcity and poverty are market induced.
Later in my work, I learned that Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, like Adam Smith, as well as Hegel and Marx had already tied scarcity and poverty to capitalism.
The question that Sahlins opens for us is:
Given that we were already affluent, what reason did we have to move out of the Zen Economy?
Given that we were already affluent, what reasons do we have to move out of the Zen Economy?
Sahlins hints at answers to this question since, as a dialectician, he could not rest with a mere inversion.
The strength and weakness of Hunters and Gatherers, he says, is their relationship to nature. That relationship requires mobility. They hunt and gather in one location. When they deplete the available resources, they move to a new location.
Their need for mobility requires that they leave behind what they cannot carry. So:
- no permanent homes,
- no stores of surplus.
- But also infanticide in the case of twins, and
- senilicide as a response to old age.
For Hegel, their passive relationship to Nature means that they are not fully human. Full humanity for both Hegel and Marx requires that humans re-create nature so that it responds to their needs. The Hunters and Gatherers were closer to animals than to real humans because they did not deliberately change or challenge nature.
Such an equation permitted Hegel to argue for genocide and for colonialism. For Marx, it meant grudging support for capitalism’s destruction of all pre-modern cultures.
Sahlins, the anthropologist, instead stresses the virtues of Hunters and Gatherers’, as we have seen. Nevertheless, he admits to two problems they faced:
- First, their dependence on the whims of Nature. For example, they could easily be wiped out by disease, draught, floods, and other acts of Nature.
- Second, their boredom. Well not boredom exactly. Rather, their limited means to entertain themselves; their limited means to become fully artistic beings. Their inability to create the Cello Ring Dance you saw on the screen as you entered. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4eBw4wxzzA]
Security and Individuation
My mentor in graduate school, David P. Levine, builds on Sahlins. His question is: given the virtues and weaknesses of the original affluent society, what reason might we have to leave that condition and enter wealthy society?
In his Wealth and Freedom (1995) Levine provides two answers to this question (Three actually, but I won’t likely talk about the third – quantitative assessments of self-worth --unless it comes up later).
Answer 1: we might want to leave the original affluent society because we experience Nature’s indifference to our needs as cruelty. Wealth helps us secure ourselves against Nature’s indifference by providing a pool of resources that can get us through drought, floods, disease, and other natural catastrophes.
Answer 2: We might want to leave the original affluent society because we want to individuate ourselves. We might want to become cello players, dancers, astronauts, and writers. For that we need cellos, music lessons, music schools, dance instructors, dance studios, telescopes, cosmology professors, pens, paper, computers, writing schools, book publishers, and book distributers.
We need wealth because it provides security and individuation. This seduction might be enough for us to overlook market-produced insecurity and market produced scarcity.
Having answered the question of why we might want to leave the Zen Economy for the anti-Zen economy, Levine arrives at two more questions:
First, is the transition worth it?
He thinks it is. But he is bothered, as are Adam Smith, Hegel, and Marx by the capitalism’s retention of hierarchy and poverty.
He asks, second: can we achieve our ideal – security against Nature, and individuation – without hierarchy and poverty?
That is, can we get to a wealthy society beyond capitalism?
Historically capitalism has been the means to wealth. But is capitalism the only path to wealth? Or, having danced with it so far, can we can change partners and leave it behind?
Before we turn to these questions, let’s explore capitalism a bit. What is it?
Capitalism as culture; as ethics
Capitalism is a culture. Like any other culture, it has rules and mores. Like any culture, it is built on ethical principles. The easiest and most dangerous way to underestimate capitalism is to regard it as unethical or amoral. (This is what most of my students and even more of colleagues do.)
Capitalism does not simply seduce humans with material comforts. It also provides values. Values that, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....”
The remarkable television show The Wire develops an extraordinary character, Omar Little. Omar robs drug dealers as a living. In one episode, Omar expresses the idea that no matter how far away from the law, he, and those he robs, seem to be. Nevertheless, everyone “gotta have a code”.
Capitalism too has a code. It is not for nothing that Ayn Rand’s novels are a phenomenon – especially among 16 year olds.
The foundational ethic of capitalism is the belief that self-interest can be turned into the public good.Adam Smith and his Scottish Enlightenment colleagues – John Millar, James Steuart, Adam Ferguson and David Hume – all agreed that greed and envy are sins.The revolution they produced was the idea that if greed, envy, vanity, and self-interest were placed in the right institutional context, they would generate the public good.That institutional context is, of course, market society.In a word, capitalism.
In all cultures that I have ever studied greed, envy, vanity and self-interest are repressed. You can feel this fear in, for example, Aristotle’s Politics. All theorists – except perhaps those trained at the University of Chicago – have worried about how greed, envy, and self-interest might tear at a society’s fabric and wreck its foundation.
Hence nearly universal repression.
But, following Freud, we might say that this repression of greed, envy, vanity and self-interests has its costs. And, following Adam Smith, we might say that the release of greed, envy, and self-interest has its benefits.
Certainly, it has generated awesome wealth and exported the culture of capitalism throughout the globe.
I am willing to confess to you that not all results from the liberation of capitalism have been terrible. [Don’t hate me. Or at least wait till you have compiled the full list of my trespasses.]
The culture of capitalism DOES destroy those parts of other cultures that refuse its logic of self-interest, individual property rights, exchange through contracts, the untrammeled pursuit of profits, and competition to the death. Capitalism will tolerate other cultures only to the degree they allow these elements.
But please recognize, as I mostly did not until late in my life, that this destruction of other cultures occurs in the name of progress, modernization, and civilization. Like Kipling’s white man’s burden, it is ethically grounded. Capitalists never tire of saying,
- “yes, of course, we benefit; but you benefit too.
- We do it for ourselves; but we do it for you as well.
- Our culture is self-interested AND it is altruistic.
- Both. Win-win. Rising tide lifts all boats.”
We have all heard it a hundred times. Perhaps we have also said it a few times.
If we see these justifications as mere rationalizations uttered in bad faith we lose sight of capitalism’s sharpest cutting edge, its idealism. Its idealism.
Capitalists are believers. Capitalists are fundamentalists – as Moshin Hamid points out in his superb short novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. That novel is less about a Pakistani professor turned terrorist and more about his narrator’s seduction by the fundamentals of capitalism while at Princeton University.
My point is that the ethics of capitalism as a culture cannot be easily dismissed. Or, rather, that, refusing to see capitalism as a culture, as an ethical system is a naively hopeful gesture.
A hope waiting to be crushed.
Consider the possibility that the release of greed, the drive for profit, and the accumulation of capital, do, in fact, produce something good.
- creates and enhances material infrastructure,
- allows for the multiplication of human needs, and
- provides the means through which humans can individuate themselves first as consumers and then as producing artists.
Once we think it through, it is not difficult to concede that wealth generation can be good.
What is difficult to accept is that we also hold dear non-material values that capitalism promotes. Which are these? Let me name three.
Karl Marx (Uncle Karl) spent an extraordinary amount of energy arguing that capitalism is founded on these values and that it promotes and enhances them. Of course, he also mocked those who saw only goodness and light in capitalism while ignoring its crushing exploitative dimensions.
He is the world’s best critic of capitalism because he so carefully studied its achievements. I have read Friedman (Uncle Milty) and Hayek (Uncle Freddy). I can tell you that their endorsement of capitalism pales in comparison to Marx’s rich analysis. If you want arguments in support of capitalism, there is no better source than Uncle Karl.
If you want to read more about this aspect of Marx’s heritage, you can turn to the work of Bill Warren, and especially chapter 2 in his, Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism.
- The Problem: Poverty amidst Wealth
The problem with capitalism is that it produces its goods for only a few. The central question of our time is whether the divide between those who enjoy these goods and those that do not is incidental to capitalism, or essential to it.
Allow me to rephrase this question: is poverty something that capitalism is trying to solve or is it something that it creates?
Under capitalism competition is ubiquitous. Competition between capitalists as well as competition between capitalists and laborers is acceptable. At the extreme winners take all and losers die social and biological deaths.
Capitalism creates, multiplies, and provisions human needs at a scale and rate unprecedented in human history. But only those needs that are deemed profitable. It ignores unprofitable needs.
- affordable food,
- affordable housing,
- affordable health care, and
- affordable education.
In sum, capitalism provides wealth for the few at the cost of poverty for the many.
How should we think of this problem?
We could take the position that what capitalist culture provides – wealth, material infrastructure, individuation, equality, and freedom -- are values that are, on balance, worth it.
The social and biological death that poverty produces – is just the cost of capitalist culture. Trump’s wall, but also gated suburbs, and Manhattan’s high rise condos are merely expressions of this conviction.
Such an unflinching perhaps masculinist posture is something most of us will find hard to endorse -- even as we benefit from its operation.
Alternatively, we could rail against capitalism, demanding that its values and goods must be made available to all humans. Here we move towards what I like to call a Cuban conception of economic rights:
- the right to food,
- the right to housing,
- the right to education,
- the right to health care, and
- the right to income.
Now let us imagine instituting these rights for all humans of this planet. This should give is an idea of how much more wealth must still be generated. And perhaps how much more work capitalism must do.
But if wealth creation is tied to capitalism and capitalism necessarily produces poverty for some perhaps even for most, then how can we rely on capitalism to ground economic rights?
Does not capitalism require income differentials as an incentive to produce wealth?
Here is the paradox: We need more wealth to sustain global economic rights but creating wealth – at least with capitalism -- seems to require hierarchy and poverty.
Is there a way to get out of this cul-de-sac?
Hayek and Freidman say, “No, there is not.”
But there is a part of Marx’s work that suggests that capitalism and socialism are not just mere opposites. They can co-exist in the same time and space. Karl Polanyi is the master thinker of this theme.
Recall, our motivation, well, my motivation: I am trying to build an archive that is also an inheritance.
And here we return to Levine’s hunch. He asks:
Can we separate capital from capitalism?
Can we separate capital from capitalism?
Capitalism has two dynamic forces:
- competition (to the death), and
- an explosive increase in inventions due to the internalization of innovation to its own circuits.
These two create massive changes in technology, in consumption, in patterns of life, and in our relationship to Nature. At the center of capitalism’s historical mission is (Schumpeter's idea of) “creative destruction.”
Are the two are separable? Can have innovation and creative destruction without staging competitions to the death?
Let’s play with this idea a bit.
Perhaps there is a difference between capital and capitalism. Capitalism is the historical and accidental means by which we come to realize the importance of wealth creation.
Wealth creation -- termed simply “capital” -- is foundational for human emancipation from Nature’s indifference and for the full flowering of human as aesthetic beings.
Capitalism takes us to capital; and capital takes us to global economic rights and beyond.
This is not an unfamiliar idea. I can ground it in popular culture.
In the science fiction show Star Trek, the “replicator” is shorthand for the arrival of capital beyond capitalism.
[explain the replicator:
- Earl Grey warm;
- Thai dinner for 10;
- jet pack for one;
- you can go to the holodeck and create the studio for the cello and ring dance
- then there is the tera-forming for the creation of habitable planets…]
There are still hierarchies in the chain of command but no capitalists and no laborers.
In a Star Trek spin-off called Deep Space Nine, the absence of a profit motive is what the Farengi,– with their “Rules of Acquisition” – find so odd about humans.]
Star Trek presents capital without Capitalism.
Fiction, of which science fiction is a part, is really about what the present can become. So, let me return to the question: Can we have capital without capitalism?
The short answer is “yes.”
How? With two conditions: a 100% capital gains tax; and, with the implementation of economic democracy.
[Joke: a physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on the proverbial desert island with cans of food but no tools to open them. The physicist recommends heating the cans until they begin to swell. The chemist agrees and starts looking for phosphorus and sulfur to make a crude match to start a fire. The economist steps forward with his contribution: “assume a can-opener…”]
Assume capitalism as it currently operates but with two changes:
First, everyone can pursue profits – thereby we do not repress greed and self-interest. This would make Freud happy – not in itself a small achievement. The catch is that all profits would be taxed at 100%. This tax would become the social pool of society’s wealth; it would be our commons. A global commons.
Of course, you will rightly counter that such a tax removes incentives for capitalists to pursue profits. But I am not so sure this is true. We can talk about it if you like.
Second, decisions about what to do with this social capital, instead of depending on the whims of capitalists, would instead be part of public decision making. Economic democracy makes a public responsibility of all decisions about how profits are accumulated and spent. It makes these decisions contestable.
Of course, you will rightly counter that even an economic democracy will still likely be dominated by those who run our current plutocracy. We will always have rule by the rich. That too we can talk about.
If at this point you cannot resist the urge to laugh at the utter impracticality of my two propositions, please be my guest. I might laugh with you.
After our joint laughter has subsided, I might also have three responses:
First, maybe the point is merely to ask the right questions. As Einstein is supposed to have said: answers are inevitable once we find the hidden questions.
I want to think that Levine’s “can we separate capital form capitalism?” is the right question.
Second, I remind you again why I think I am doing this. Not because I believe we will live to see the changes we envision but because we are building an inheritance.
Third, capitalism, besides being an economy, and a political economy, is also a cultural political economy. This means that, like any culture, it deploys ideological tricks that deflect us from good questions.
Capitalism's most powerful ideological deflection is its utilization of meritocracy.
Is there a link between Meritocracy and Capitalism?
I want to suggest to you that meritocracy has little to do with capitalism’s actual ethics. Under capitalism, merit and reward are uncorrelated. One gets and receives not according to effort or merit but according to one’s ability to meet the demands of others. When we supply what others need, we receive what others value about our supply. Our virtue, our hard work, our grit, our determination, our pulling ourselves up by invisible bootstraps – all that has nothing to do with what we receive.
This is a recent discovery of mine and I cannot believe that not more has been made of it.
Let me substantiate my assertion with a few words from that great apologist for capitalism, Fredrich Hayek, Uncle Freddy:
Hayek assumes that most people will accept factual inequality as normal and natural in capitalist society. Nevertheless, he worries. He thinks that most people cannot accept inequality if is disconnected to merit. This disconnection violates the common but powerful myth that a free and just society produces a direct and positive relationship between merit and reward (Hayek, 1978). As Robert Nozick (1974: 151, 158), a libertarian committed to formal equality alone, points out that ‘People want their society to be and look just.’
Hayek (1978: 94) devotes great effort to counteract this popular sentiment. He finds indefensible that the desire for proportionality between merit and reward. And he finds it a great danger to a free society. Here is the reason: If people believe that merit and reward ought to be related, and then realize how actual life fails to match this ideal, they will be tempted to violate liberty by taking the property of some and giving it to others.
Hayek would deem my 100% capital gains tax and Cuban socialism as examples of theft. He concludes that capitalism sustains no clear connection between merit and reward. However, it does provide something more important to Hayek (1978, 94): it allows people to “enjoy advantages in proportion to the benefits which their fellows derive from their activities.” Market processes, not some ‘higher power,’ assess merit.
We hope, we pray, until we believe.
We hope, we pray, until we believe that our station will result from our effort and from our merit.
And when we fail, we blame ourselves. We didn’t try hard enough; we aren’t skilled enough. We internalize as blame what is in fact a structural condition of capitalism, namely, that in competition, there will be losers. And that capitalism is utterly indifferent to their social and biological death.
This faith in the magic of competitive effort and merit is a remnant of uncrushed hope.
Crushed hope would unblinkingly face what Hayek insists upon: there is no connection between effort and reward; between merit and reward.
My problem with Uncle Freddy is that he overlooks this courage, turning instead to the noble lie. He does not believe popular sentiment can tolerate this disconnection. He fears that if we learn the truth we will rebel and that chaos will ensue.
But a different path is possible, is it not? We can face the truth and find a different response.
Social theory and social practice have always been about converting the randomness and brute factualness of Nature into meaning. If merit and reward are unrelated, can we not convert this knowledge into something besides the chaos Hayek fears?
Perhaps the disconnection between effort and reward provides an opportunity; the opportunity to institute economic rights. [more here?]
I won’t impose my dream on you. I am certain you would crush my hopes. Instead, I wish for only two things:
For all of us to admit that secretly we harbor affection for capitalism; that we are not immune to its seductions, that our dance with it is a Rumba. Or a Tango – as in “it takes two to Tango.”
And, I would like for us to debate the values and worth of capitalism. As we debate I would like us to acknowledge our complicity. I would like us to dance without flinching, even when in the middle of our tango brutal truths are whispered in our ears.