Ever a man of my word, here are some more opinions.
I wonder just how many devotees of the religion of capitalism realize just who came up with the name? If you ask most, including the traditional media’s pet economists, they’ll probably give you some meandering answer about Adam Smith, someone loads of us have heard of, but almost certainly never read, and no; it wasn’t him.
As an aside, and bear with me a little here, I’ve never read Adam Smith either, but if you think about it a minute, isn’t what he said a bit silly? Let Governments stay out of economics, and somehow the divine market will regulate and control itself, according to immutable laws of balance which may very well have been laid down by God. That’s it, pretty much. The principle which drives the ideology underpinning our entire economy has its roots in a kind of pre-Victorian mysticism, and no one seems to have a problem with this, except of course, those who don’t get a vote, like the millions of Irish peasants who starved to death in the 19th Century because the British Government refused to sin against the sacred market.
Isn’t this exactly like believing in creationism? But no: to invert Orwell, four legs are good and two are always bad. Better to be a starving, stressed out capitalist than a well fed, content Commie etc.
The term ‘capitalism’ was actually invented by its supposed mortal enemy, Karl Marx, and if you think about that for a bit, it’s even weirder. The bulk of humanity worships at an economic church which was named by its enemy. It’s as if billions of us are devil worshippers and we don’t even know it.
Marx coined the term to describe the dominant economic system in the West in his (and our) time. He described it as highly dynamic, resulting in both higher levels of innovation and higher levels of inequality than ever before. A lot of the guesses Marx made were actually spot on. He is seen to have erred, however, in one key prediction.
To old Karl, the logic flowed as easily as the locks on his impressive beard. Never mind Adam Smith and all that mystical market stuff, capitalism was so unequal, so much about a tiny minority cannibalizing everyone else, that it simply had to fall apart one day. As the insanity at the core of human nature asserted itself, fewer and fewer robber baron scumbags would appropriate more and more ridiculous quantities of wealth out of the mouths of the starving, so that inevitably the masses – who would be far more numerous, after all – would rise up, throw the barons into the sea, and institute a new and far more just age.
As today’s capitalists and neoliberals glory in pointing out, Marx turned out to be wrong, so far. He was wrong because of one thing he couldn’t possibly have predicted, and another which he doesn’t appear to have thought about.
First, although Marx wrote about the dynamism and innovation inherent in capitalism, he couldn’t possibly have foreseen just how far and quickly that dynamism would propel the human species. When Marx lived, there were no aeroplanes, hardly any cars, no telephones, no radios, no TVs, dodgy sanitation, no central heating, hardly any electricity etc.
Just as no one who lived in the 1990s could have foreseen the smartphone and all of its implications, Marx could not possibly have imagined the changes these things would bring to the lives of billions, or how future ‘opiates of the masses,’ such as TV and Internet porn, would go on to alter the nature of reality itself.
Likewise, in common with every other serious thinker in the 19th Century, Marx took it as inevitable that we’d simply run out of food some day, that a time would come when there just wouldn’t be enough to go around. Quantum advances in things like grain production in the 1940s were utterly beyond the imagination of anyone back then. Bottom line: we haven’t run out, not yet.
Second, Marx didn’t grasp how 20th Century capitalist countries would seek to counter the so called ‘red menace’ by, on the surface at least, altering their own make up. The notion that Britain, for example, would turn around in 1945 and invent the NHS was something he could not have predicted (yes, Britain! The same country which a century earlier considered it preferable to let millions starve to death rather than tamper with those precious mystical markets) and there’s no doubt that innovations such as this, coupled with increasingly sophisticated systems of social welfare, staved off the kind of change Marx had predicted for at least a century.
But that was then, and this is … what? The hyper-rich never went away, and indeed they’ve stepped out of the shadows to flaunt it baby. After all, what’s the point of all that hyper-wealth if you can’t let everyone know just how fabulous you are?
In Marx’s day, it would have been tricky to put faces and names on his ‘owners,’ the so called captains of industry. Now, as the annual love letter to money that is the ‘Sunday Times’ rich list reminds us, they’re all too out there! They are Yeats’ apocalyptic beasts, slouching, not towards Bethlehem, but towards some newer, ever more exclusive paradise where they can be photographed and envied.
Perhaps their ultimate destination is some self-propelled city in the sky, a la Elysium or Star Trek, but we know when they get there that it won’t be enough. It’ll have to be about somewhere else.
That’s the mystical part Adam Smith overlooked. There’s nothing mystical about his markets: they’re just dumb and greedy and hysterical and careless like all the worst parts of human nature. The real mystical bit is that empty place wherein was thought to dwell something that used to be called a soul, but which was really like one of those spots on medieval maps where cartographers wrote “here be dragons.”
But meanwhile, down the other end of the great consumerist tract, there’s a problem, something both Marx and Adam Smith seem to have missed; it’s called ‘trust.’
This might sound insane, particularly given all the stories about corporate rape and cannibalism and psychopathic banking that we’ve been hearing every day for the last ten years, but capitalism is actually incapable of functioning without some kind of trust.
To return to my boring old conceptual grocery (happily without any internet avatars offering to sell me sex, milk or gambling See: ‘What if Life Was Like The Internet’) for the moment, every time you commit a capitalist act, you are engaging in a process of trust.
You’re trusting that the pint of milk the shopkeeper is selling you doesn’t contain anthrax or glass. You’re trusting that the raw meat has been subjected to all sorts of reliable processes to strip it of ecoli or any of the other inconceivably horrible things that can live in meat. You’re trusting that the tub of yoghurt contains actual yoghurt and not, I don’t know, cat puke or something.
Unless you’re a master biochemist who happens to carry all sorts of portable tools around, you have no way of verifying any of this on your own, you have to take it on trust. And if you for some reason cease to trust the shopkeeper, or rather the processes which underpin his claims, then it all comes crashing down, including the cities in the sky.
Capitalism as we thought we knew it actually died on the day the most right wing US President for eighty years, George W Bush, carried out the biggest nationalization in the history of the world, of the mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But all that really died was the notion that capitalism contains any sweets for you or me. We were exposed, for a few moments, to the great global pyramid scheme, the game which everyone must play until there’s the merest danger of the hyper-rich losing part of their shirts, at which point – in what has been very accurately described as ‘socialism for the rich’ – Governments will step in and take the toys away.
There’s a brilliant film called ‘Margin Call,’ starring Kevin Spacey and a host of others, which attempts to capture that pivotal moment in history, a single night, when it all started to go south. A gifted analyst at a hypothetical Wall Street firm accidentally discovers that the mathematical algorithms they’ve been using to quantify risk (ah, our Holy algorithms) are useless, and that the firm itself will go pop the instant this fact becomes widely known.
That same night, the wizened high colossus of the firm (played impressively by Jeremy Irons) decrees that in order to save itself, the firm will offload all its useless stock to unsuspecting investors the very next morning. It will spend decades of trust in just a few hours, knowing as it does so that this will set off a chain reaction, the consequences of which the non-wealthy are still living with today, and will be (it seems) for many years to come.
Don MacLean used to sing (and presumably still does, whenever he gets a chance) about ‘the day the music died.’ This was the day the trust died, and we haven’t seen all its consequences fully unfold yet, but there is just a chance that by the time they have, old Marx might turn out to have been right after all.