Column: What lasts? Part Two
[To review Part One, click this link]
Economy and capital
The meaning of capital in economics is a subject with a vast literature and I am certainly not qualified to analyse it as well as experts in the field. So I will recommend three authors and leave it at that. Charles Eisenstein has written a philosophical work on economics, titled Sacred Economics. His writing is visionary and focuses on individual persons and how each has a part in the economy of capital and money. His concern is more with human being than our doings.
The late Robert Heilbroner wrote a slim volume which for me is the best simple introduction to the meaning of capitalism, titled The Nature and Logic of Capitalism; I cannot recommend it enough for its clarity and explanatory power, written in lucid prose any layperson will appreciate. His focus is economic, and his reputation among economists is high. [If you are curious about him, this is a good place to start research on his writing about capitalism: https://capitalismstudies.org/about/heilbroner-capitalism/]
And last, admitting that conservative proponents of capital deserve to be heard, I name Niall Ferguson as a writer with a coherent defence of capitalism in recent books on finance and empire. He is a respected historian and he admires capitalism and the Western civilization that invented and globalized this system. [Check out Ferguson’s impressive CV at this site: https://harvardmagazine.com/2007/05/the-global-empire-of-nia.html
And, for an unfriendly view of his writing, see: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v33/n21/pankaj-mishra/watch-this-man]
Of course, if one wants to read strong attacks on capitalism, read any adherent of Marxian economics: start with Marx himself. For praise, read Ayn Rand. Karl Popper, and Freidrich Hayek.
Politics and Capital
Heilbroner makes two significant remarks about capital: its purpose and its political nature. First, it has one over-riding purpose without reference to morality and ethics, to human quality of life or philosophic abstraction – it accumulates, it amasses, it concentrates capital in a few hands, and over time it tends to increase the imbalance between the few who have and the multitude who do not possess it. Secondly, capital and capitalists are quite unlike earlier ruling classes in that they are relatively independent of politics, operating in a more-autonomous economic sphere that the ruling class in pre-capitalist societies.
The combination of these two facts means, capitalism is quite adaptive to any formation of political government that humans can imagine; it happily pursues its purpose under liberal electoral democracy as is normal in the G7 nations, or less liberal authoritarian democracy as seen in Russia, East Europe, South Asia or Latin America, or military junta, one-party state as in China, or Islam monarchies as Saudi Arabia or republics as Iran. Capital thrives in all these places and regimes.
The capitalist class is the ruling class, and however it relates to the State in any social hierarchy, it is guaranteed the State will preserve capitalists in their status as a small minority of extremely wealthy individuals whose wealth will be mobilized when needed to defend the State against rivals. But capitalists as a ruling class are not disposed to war with rivals, since destruction of capital hurts all of them.
And under the capitalist ruling class, in society ruled by the State which is its political apparatus to govern the masses, the gradations of social classes might be simple or complex. But, for certain, there will be many non-ruling-class individuals who are absolutely integrated harmoniously with capitalism, and many who dream of overthrowing and transforming it into an imagined superior system — be it the fantasy of Socialism or Eisenstein’s “more beautiful world of sacred economics of the gift,” to name two examples of blueprints for a non-capitalist world.
Two quick observations of how capital has mightily improved its position as the unchallenged foundation of our social order, with no meaningful counterbalance from either government or civil society. One, the Robber Barons’ era of too-powerful monopolies in the USA and other Western nations, in the period 1880 to 1910, was the one time government policy actually controlled capitalist corporate power for the public good, and broke up the monopolies under Progressive president Teddy Roosevelt. But a brief glance at today’s situation of men with unimaginably vast fortunes, the 0.01% including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Charles Koch, surely proves that the earlier era of government power used against capital concentration was the exception, not the rule. Two, unions were powerful in the decades following WWI, and seemed a certain counterbalance against capital in that short period when socialism and the USSR seemed to be realistic rivals to the USA and Europe. But once again, a look at the deterioration and unravelling of organized labour in its unions, demonstrates another signal victory for Capital and capitalists over any possible force that might balance the scales against the super-rich for the labouring masses lower down the pyramid. Capital won all its contests in the 20th century.
I will return to observing social hierarchies in another section, briefly.
Science and Capital
Science and its applied technological instruments have raised capitalism to a height of power over humanity not seen before the 20th century. Scientific material and research belongs to the capitalists. Their power is founded in their ownership of it.
Capital applied to scientific research has made our physical sciences astounding in their power to explain and exploit the material world, to control the world, and to degrade the natural ecologies humans lived within in pre-capitalist millennia.
Charles Eisenstein, in his first book, The Ascent of Humanity, lays out his critique of how the human notion of control over nature and separation of self from world has led to our present dystopic moment of planetary crisis. Many people disagree. The more usual story is Progress. Progress is the process by which the world got to this moment. No one can claim to know the future and whether the stupendous power of science driven by capitalism, and vice versa, is going in a progressive direction.
Will science and capital own the future as they have owned the last two centuries? This is an existential question for humanity. Ruination of our planet, and plagues and wars that annihilate our species into near-extinction, or an astounding new scientific discovery, which saves us and launches our species into space as the intelligence of the cosmos… Each of us carry some hopes and fears about this.
Social stratification and Capital
There will be some readers who simply do not accept the notion of a ruling class that is the ultimate engineer of the State and government, and for them my comments about power in our democratic form of politics are unacceptable. But for those who can grasp the idea that capital and capitalists are the bedrock of what government is for, that government cannot transform the very ground upon which it rises, I hope my comments here make sense.
Capital rules, whatever the form of government and politics found in all the major societies of earth today. It has penetrated all quarters of the globe, and is thrusting its power into the solar system in the quest to put humanity on other bodies in the solar system, beginning with the moon and Mars.
Beneath the ruling class, all of us are making our way in life. Capitalism is brilliant in extruding from the ruling peak of the social hierarchy a complex and bewildering variety of levels and fractions of class and tribal communities and identity-groupings which can live on the pyramid within many layerings, finding seams and cracks in which individual humans construct meaningful lives. For many people in rich Western nations like Canada, their sense of what is real ignores capitalist rule.
Simplifying for the sake of quick understanding, I will posit that the middle of society in rich nations is affluent, cultured, independent-minded, and creative. This vast mediating middle is still small compared to the less-prosperous, less-educated, labouring masses under them; the middle layer is where one finds both the makers of culture, that aids and abets and lubricates the power of capitalists to rule and to amass private wealth, and the rebellious spirits who fervently wish to see capitalism terminated for the sake of humanity and the planet’s other species.
Let me call this large middle layer “the cultural-creative mediaries.”
Who supports capitalism, in this middle where the creatives dwell? Anyone who is not a practical obstacle to capitalists. Most of us are mediaries, I think, among the middle layer. We are good people, we have finely-evolved ethical and moral sensibilities and we evidence this in our creative production.
But we are objectively no danger to the system. We have found ways to live in peace under a system that we condemn for its effects on people and planet, but we know no way to replace it and allow ourselves to continue in the comfortable life of a Canadian middleclass citizen. At least, this is how my perspective on my peers interprets our livelihoods.
There seem to creative mediaries’ eyes to be plenty of people who pursue fulfilling lives as producers and creators of culture, and I, as a definitely middle class person, have lived my life among them and tried, as a journalist and teacher, to be one of them. Culture is a human need, as I said early in this essay, and the ruling class has no objection to the creative classes in the middle. The only troublesome individuals in that class are those whose desire is the overthrow of capital’s rule. Every other artist, musician, filmmaker, dancer etc. etc. is “free” — free to pursue their dream and follow their bliss, as I hear and see propagated everywhere as a popular ideology.
Ideas and ideology are freely generated. But the ruling class knows which to spread and which to suffocate, and capitalism does this very effectively.
Ideas and Capital
I must include a section on ideas, because they are as real to us as materials and motivate us as much as physical fact. But I have no summary way to explain the way capital can nourish and promote all the various ideas that are of no threat to it in the least, and suppress the ones that are a danger to capital and might weaken it.
The internet, the cellphone, the personal computer and the world wide web appear to some to liberate all ideas. I am not of that camp. Capital rules the cybersphere too. Government will regulate it but capital will not lose its power over this technology. China offers a model of how to leash it, Russia also, but even without the draconian methods of one-party states and authoritarian fuhrers, there is nothing in the West that suggests to me that this network of super-swift communication of ideas is fundamentally antagonistic to capitalism.
Ideas are the lifeblood of the cultural-creative mediaries, and all that I said in the previous section about their work, applies to the realm of ideas.
Ideas are a part of culture that the ruling class can readily engineer for success and propagation, or for oblivion and irrelevance. Fortunes are made by corporations whose purpose is cultural production. The capital they accumulate cannot not be other than a pillar of capitalism. Every rockstar rebel ranting about smashing capitalism and the Establishment, in revolutionary lyrics and in stylistic poses of insurrection, is an instrument of capital once they have capital themselves and intend to keep it.
End of Part Two
(Next and last: Part Three, coming soon)