Musing on the freedom to act in society, and on the nature of capitalism and its pernicious effects upon us, it might do to consider that we are free to change and we are not free to change. Capitalism at once exists and acts and feels like a cage while at the same time does not exist and is also only a product of our own imaginations and our social relationships that we have chosen to engage in. This matters because real lives are affected by the decisions that others in positions of power take, and they take these decisions as if capitalism is immutable, all pervading, inevitable…as a fact of life. This then justifies the use of batons, tear gas and surveillance drones in civil society and in putting down protest, and it justifies fixing the legal, financial and political framework so that big money fulfills big money’s needs.
In response to a recent email exchange I engaged in, a suggestion was made to me that there is a tendency to ‘objectify’ capitalism in many discussions – to make it seem indeed like a cage – a thing that has its own almost material existence and ‘essence’. This means that we may talk about capitalism as if it has objective existence and also a fixed nature. Capitalism is, in Emile Durkheim’s phrase, ‘sui generis’ – ‘of its own kind’. This derives from thinking that capitalist society over time replaces individuals with others, yet the ‘essence’ of society will not necessarily change. Over the course of a few decades, many individuals die and are replaced, however, the society retains its distinctive character. It is a thing of itself existing independently of individuals. An entire society that is built in this manner has its own ‘essence’. It has this ‘essence’ before any individual currently living in it is born, and is therefore “independent of any individual” existing almost as an ‘objective fact.’ We acknowledge this objective existence when we use such phrases as “Society today is worse/better than it was back in the day when…”
Some commentators might use different labels for capitalism. For example ‘casino capitalism‘ or ‘responsible capitalism‘ which reflects thier differing understandings of what capitalist society might be like. This tendency to label and to treat it as an objective fact, however, may overlook the fact that capitalism, like any ism, is dynamic and on the move. Historically that has been true: we have seen mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism, post industrial or financial capitalism. Nonetheless and however it has been labelled, we must remember that capitalism is not an ‘objective fact’, although it can certainly feel that way especially to those who feel the full force of economic decisions made in far away board rooms.
Capitalism is a dynamic ever changing social system which finds expression and manifestation in human social relationships. The ‘objectivity’ of capitalism is a chimera; we may reify it and miss the essential nature of human decision making and social relationships that underpins it. Susan Strange argued “economists simply do not understand how the global economy works” due to a poor understanding of power and an over-reliance on abstract economic models. In other words, economist are apt to treat capitalism and the working of markets based on a false premise: that there is a objective system that can be understood theoretically using mathematics and a theory of self interested utility maximising rational actors, the ‘homo economicus’ of JS Mill and Adam Smith. To be fair to Smith he tempered this view in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.
What economists often miss is that what we are talking about here is a set of human relationships characterised by an imbalance of power.
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx). What have ‘we’ been given and transmitted from the past? Anti capitalist sentiment such as some of us in the sustainability or others in the Transition Towns movements express, are confronting Big Oil, and a cluster of high carbon social systems (John Urry) which are based on certain capitalist relations of production. ‘We’ ignore capitalist class relations at our peril. ‘We’ may confront power elites who have made, and are trying to continue to make, history in their own image: how that history will pan out depends on our collective and individual responses to Power, e.g. the Military-Industrial-Security complex, the World Bank, IMF, OECD, G8, Davos, Bilderberg (?), EU and other Regional blocs, the Trioka, the Corporate Class Executive and the Political Power Elite. We, e.g. ‘anti-capitalists’ or the Transition Towns or Environmentalists, are trying to remake history; history as we please, but within a certain socio-political context and power play not of our choosing. We do not have ‘self selected circumstances’ and that is what makes capitalism feel like a cage. Ask yourself: who has the guns?
For an example of circumstances being shaped by the powerful, note how successful the right wing press has been in sowing the seeds of doubt in the population about climate change, and also for blaming the poor for their position while supporting austerity in the midst of one the greatest transfers of wealth from poor to uber rich (the 0.01%) we have seen, and the movement of private bank debt to sovereign public debt. There is ample evidence that the neoliberal agenda, which unites many of groups mentioned above, are antithetical to a ‘no growth economy’ and to social democracy. In the West, there is only one game in town: growth based on neoliberal economics.
There are countervailing voices, e.g. Paul Hawken’s ‘Blessed Unrest’, but some are increasingly despairing, Will Hutton articulates this well.
The post financial crash shifts of 2008 are playing out, but we don’t know in 10 years what this will look like. So far however, report after report shows the wealthy elite entrenching their power and wealth* while the occupy ‘movement’, the indignados, the precariat, come under increasing demonisation, e.g. skivers v strivers, surveillance and crack downs, using para militiary type tactics. The monolith of Capitalism stands while we crash against it.
Capitalist social relationships are backed by ideology and often force. Some argue it is the best of a bad lot, and that like democracy it is the worse system we have except for all the others, that it is the only game in town. Marx himself marvelled at its ability to produce abundance. However, is this really the best we can do? Is this really the best world in the best of all possible worlds? Growth capitalism, and there is no other sort, is leading us towards ecological disaster, while the social determinants of health result in inequalities in health whereby millions die prematurely and needlessly because of our socio-political arrangements. Many of us bluster and blog and rage and rant and protest, some of us quietly get on with living differently, remaking our social relationships as best we can.
We are free but everywhere we are in chains.
*the richest 1,000 persons, just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare.