Capitalism isn’t going anywhere, but what if it just declines in status?

Anti-capitalism_color—_RestoredBack in 2018 we talked about “late capitalism” on these pages but I don’t think we dug quite deeply enough into the definition of “capitalism” in the first place. So what’s capitalism? Why do we care? And what would it mean practically if capitalism were actually on the precipice of declining utility and status in the 21st century?

While UrbanDictionary formally defines capitalism most astutely amongst the variously available online resourcesi (go figure!), the essence of capitalism as a categorical distinction is the opportunity of individual persons to own private property.

Of course this essence still begs a few follow-up questions, including i) what does “own” mean, ii) what qualifies as “private property,” and iii) what makes us think that a human society might possibly exist without the presence of such a social construct that we might even distinguish its presence from its absence and thus rightly grant it its “-ism”? Let’s see!

i) To “own,” in the strictest sense, means that an individualii has the singular ability to use and/or destroy an object at their leisure and on their terms. By this definition at least, what we can see is that those of us in the Western World at present actually own very little,iii such is the extent of surveillance, regulation, and state-sponsored intrusion upon our lives and personal affairs. As a mediating force, these intrusions are arguably essential, because just as two heads are better than one and no man is an island, we find that a single “owner” of “property” is practically speaking unfit and unqualified to bear the burden of responsibility required to understand all of the implications of their actions (especially when they went to public school), so some set of constraints are therefore imposed upon them via peer pressure, tradition, law, etc. Indeed, libertarianism isn’t all its cracked up to be.

ii) As to “private property,” this refers to any object “owned” by means of social contract. “Wait Pete, how can private ownership rely on the consensus or at least the acquiescence of the group? Isn’t their stuff just theirs and mine, mine?” Well Timmy, not really. Private property is only distinguished in relation to public property. Of course public property is never truly public either, but that perhaps only serves to demonstrate the inadequacies of all of these somewhat arbitrary definitions in the first place. Regardless, for our purposes today, we’ll define private property as any property regulated by one individual’s singular agency.iv

iii) What’s clear to any armchair anthropologist is that there never has been – and probably never could be – the existence of a culture without the existence of ownership and private property, which is to say without the existence of capitalism. A two-year-old child has a sense of “mine” with little environmental stimulus in this direction. As such, while capital in the form of “means of production” may presently include machines and factories, they’re even more historically likely to include women and slaves, all of which are more than capable of serving as “private property,” which is to say capital, for all intents and purposes. From this lens, it makes essentially zero sense to think of the possibility of a human society without capital anymore than it makes sense to think about chickens that don’t lay eggs; neither would last for very many generations without such essential attributes. Therefore granting any group of economic or historical constructs with this “-ism” that is “capitalism” seems uniquely bizarre at best and potentially malicious at worst.

But let’s not strawman those thieves in the night who would call themselves “anti-capitalists” whilst they redistribute our hard-earned rewards, let’s do them the dignity they would never do us and steelman their arguments, granting that modern industrial capitalism (and its bedfellow consumerist culture) does indeed differ from what we might call more “primitive” forms of capitalism and is therefore worthy of different sociopolitical treatment. Now what does modern industrial capitalism really provide the world other than a distinct lack of existential meaning and way too much environmental pollution?

CapitalismTo start with, an outlet! Capitalism is incredibly legiblev and, by historical standards at least, relatively peaceful in its modus operandi. It channels the aggressions of would-be empire-builders that in previous times would’ve gladly marauded across the plains like so many (surprisingly sensitive) Mongol hordes,vi killing 11% of the world’s population at a stretch.vii Instead we have the cream-of-the-ambitious-crop making online bookstores and mediocre horseless carriages while the rest of society tries to find enough “life hacks” to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress the people we don’t like. And as fucked up and “useless” as this all sounds, it’s still the most popular organisational operating system currently running anywhere in the world. Why? Because it’s the blingiest and most obvious! Not that the results of modern industrial capitalism are entirely the most compelling – at least not according to the flora and fauna that we share this pale blue dot with – it’s that they look the most compelling to the other monkeys, making it the best status game going in large part because it’s the simplest to grok. Even remedial mathtards can figure out that a billion bananas is cooler than a million bananas, which is cooler than a thousand bananas, and so on and so forth.

But there’s an argument to be made that modern industrial capitalism’s success across such a large portion of the globe may yet prove its very undoing. Per Girard, the Sino-American conflict is just getting started,viii and the geopolitical ascent of China (and Russia, Iran, UAE etc.) on the world’s stage, and therefore the relative diminution of the increasingly pants’d States of America as the preeminent hegemon, is both necessary and sufficient for anti-capitalistic forces to rise in prominence in the world of the future. And not even instigated by the Woke! But rather from those who see modern industrial capitalism as being inadequate to satisfy their geopolitical ambitions, particularly ambitions relating to status.

To this end, Putin has demonstrated in 2022 that his resolve to expand empire and place himself amongst the Greats in History comes no matter the economic cost to his export-driven industries, just as Biden has demonstrated in his latest semiconductor sucker punchix that the only status in the world is RELATIVE status. After all, in quantum physics as in all other domains, it’s the relationships define the space, not the other way around, which is why we’d all prefer to make $10k/yr in a world where our neighbours make $5k rather than making $100k in a world where our neighbours make $95k.x

Of course the declinexi of capitalism will very likely mean the corresponding ascent of the scapegoat mechanism that in most other times and places served as the essential release valve for human societies.xii All that pent-up sexualxiii energy previously directed towards making a bourgeoisie out of every Tom, Dick, and Harry, still has to be channeled somewhere, and if not towards business, sports, or the academy, then into the bloody streets it will flow. So it seems that we can either choose to destroy the planet with capitalism or destroy our fellow man with scapegoating.xiv

Ye seems to be ready for the latter future. Maybe the rest of us should be getting ready too.

  1. Per Honest Abe at UD:

    An economic system based on private ownership of the means of production, in which personal bling can be acquired through investment of capital and employment of peeps. Capitalism is grounded in the concept of fo’ real enterprise, which argues that the man’s intervention in the economy should be restricted and that a free market, based on supply and demand, will ultimately maximize consumer dough. […] Capitalism stresses freedom of individual economic enterprise; however, government action has been and is required to curb its playa-hating, which have ranged from slavery (particularly in Britain and the United States), haxors (In Diablo and CS servers), and apartheid (in South Africa) to monopoly cartels and financial fraud. Capitalism does not presuppose a specific form of social or political organization-type shit: the democratic socialism of the Scandinavian states, the consensus politics of Japan, and the state-sponsored rapid industrial growth of South Korea while under military pwnage all coexist with capitalism. Yet despite the capitalist ideal of “hands-off” government, significant government 1337ness has existed in most capitalist nations at least since the Great Depression in the 1930s. In the United States, it exists in the form of subsidies, tax credits, incentives, free hours of AOL, and other types of exemptions. Though private production plays a major role in the economies of Germany and Japan, both nations have centrally planned industrial policies in which bankers, industrialists, playas, pimps, hos and labor unions meet and seek to agree to wage policies and interest rates; these countries reject the idea of letting the bling wholly determine the economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its fugly states in Eastern Europe (1989-91) left those countries with a heavy burden, much shit, and an uncertain future, representing a substantial retreat in the power of capitalism’s traditional economic opponent, socialism. Also uncertain is the future course of China’s economy, in which small-scale capitalism is increasingly allowed within a strictly Communist political deal.

    Like, how good is that??

  2. It’s not at all obvious to me that a group can “own” anything. The rubber has to hit the road somewhere; one finger has to push the button or pull the trigger, so to speak.
  3. And we’re happy??! WEF certainly thinks so.
  4. In this sense, I don’t “own” what is typically considered to be my “private property,” such as my car, because I can’t drive as fast as I want, I can’t drive anywhere I want, nor can I set it aflame on my driveway just because Canada lost to Belgium in the first game of the World Cup in Qatar. Same is true for my house. So it turns out that I might own the shoes on my feet or the sticks of celery in my fridge, but that we still use the term “ownership” for other objects, just with increasingly diluted meaning. A word is a word! Except when it isn’t, of course.
  5. From the forum:

    ZB: I am anything but a Luddite or alarmist but I find it funny how when compared to crypto we’re just blasting forward with AI with moral high ground as though the early centralized applications of the tech haven’t created many societal issues far worse than losing money.

    PD: Because we too often only value things we can count on a spreadsheet – like money – not intangibles like meaning, purpose, trust, competency/mastery, honour, etc.

  6. Quoth the late great Douglas Adams in The Private Life of Genghis Khan:

    “What sort of day have sort of day have you, had…, dear?” she asked querulously.

    Khan looked up briefly, wearily.

    “Oh, same as usual,” he said, “violent.”

    He gazed back at the fire again.

    “Right,” said the soldier to the woman, “go on.”

    She relaxed very slightly. She seemed to have passed some kind of test. Perhaps it would be straightforward from now on and she could at least get it over with. She moved nervously forward and started to caress the Khan again.

    The soldier hurled her savagely across the room, kicked her and yanked her screaming to her feet again.

    “I said stop that!,” he bellowed. He pulled her face close to his and breathed a lungful of cheap wine and week old rancid goat fat fumes at her, which failed to cheer her up because it reminded her sharply of her late lamented husband who used to do the same thing to her every night. She sobbed.

    “Be nice to him!” the Mongol snarled and spat one of his unwanted teeth at her, “ask him how his work’s going!”

    She gawped at him. The nightmare was continuing. A stinging blow landed on her cheek.

    “Just say to him,” the soldier snarled again, “‘How’s the work going, dear?” He shoved her forward.

    “How…how’s the work going… dear?” she yelped miserably.

    The soldier shook her. “Put some affection into it!” he roared.

    She sobbed again. “How…how’s the work going… dear?” she yelped miserably again, but this time with a kind of pathetic pout at the end.

    The mighty Khan sighed.

    “Oh, not too bad I suppose,” he said in a world weary tone. “We swept through Manchuria a bit and spilt quite a lot of blood there. That was in the morning, then this afternoon was mainly pillaging, though there was a bit of bloodshed around half four. What sort of day have you had?”

  7. Since it’s American Thanksgiving this weekend, shouldn’t we add this to the list of things to be thankful for? Dynomight thinks so:

    That after the Mongols conquered half of Eurasia and killed 11% of the world’s population, they happened to have a drinking culture adapted to seasonal availability of low-alcohol beverages, and after they had subjugated everyone and had plentiful access to high-alcohol beverages that culture produced astonishing spectacles of alcoholism in most leaders, meaning short lifespans, disorganized leadership, frequent successions, and political fragmentation, which plausibly spared much of the world from further destruction.


  8. I’ve been binging Johnathan Bi ever since his interview with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. But for Bi’s too-frequent interruptions, I’d sooner recommend the following overview lecture as a better place to start with Bi vis-a-vis Rene Girard’s theories:

    If you haven’t even heard of Rene Girard (1923-2015) yet, he was brought into SV consciousness by Peter Thiel in the last decade and has been growing in prominence as an intellectual fountain ever since.
  9. You can read the full US Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security filing entitled “Implementation of Additional Export Controls: Certain Advanced Computing and Semiconductor Manufacturing Items; Supercomputer and Semiconductor End Use; Entity List Modification” but basically anyone holding a US green card or US citizenship can no longer help China make advanced chips, which is very much cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, but no one said war was positive-sum! Or that anyone game a shit about game theory nearly as much as relative status.
  10. This is relatedly why it’s so satisfying to live in a mid-sized city when you’re a bigger fish. Your status dollar stretches sooooo much further when you’re outside Singapore, London, HK, LA, NYC, etc! Of course some bigger fish are still hell-bent on proving themselves in as large a pond as possible, but the ruthless machines that are those mega-cities mostly chew up and spit up such hubris.
  11. I hesitate strongly to claim that the “end” of capitalism is nigh because, well, there’s no end to anything. Communist Russia had currency and private ownership of goods (if not of production), just as Capitalist America has labour unions manufacturing cars. So it’s all on a spectrum, dear reader, there’s no system of human organisation that could possibly be free of some socialism and some capitalism, any more than it could be free of some corruption. As such, we can more accurately think of phases of history as being higher or lower in capitalism, socialism, etc. but without each ever wresting total socioeconomic control.
  12. This future could end up looking quite a bit more Japanese! Y’know, at least in another 5-7`000 years… but we’ll have clean ass stadiums to look forward to. We just need to be a bit patient in getting there:

  13. The primary motive force for human behaviour is still the procreative force, no matter how we dress it up.
  14. Okay fine I’ll admit that the world isn’t so black or white and there’s indeed a third option: the caste system. But what are the chances that our “inequality is bad” “we’re all equal” “eat the rich” “you can be anything you want to be” paradigm transitioning to that?

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