Three Measures to unblind capitalism (1)
The share price of liberal freedom is frankly falling. If it falls any further, we will all be flat on our faces. I think we all know by now that the problem is capitalism as we by now know it all. It is stumbling ahead, winning victory over victory mostly without putting up a hard fight. This is one of the harsh qualities it has acquired over a long time by taking the moral high ground of liberal freedom and human rights. I will not be far off the mark when I say most people have grown used to holding liberal freedom and capitalism as synonymous.
This pamphlet tries to do two things. It separates freedom and capitalism by exposing the collapse of humanity in the heartland of the free world. Evidence for this collapse is the unhappiness of free people as expressed in them voting for tyrannical cultural pessimism. People unhinged by the insecurity that is essential to capitalism are always too easily exploited by nut cases of various brands, specifically those graduating from the Harvard of sociopathy. The pamphlet further proposes three measures for a capitalist society to move on. I say move on because moving back is not only not an option, it is simply backward. As a cultural optimist I am convinced we can only move on by building on what makes us strong, not by reversing history toward a time of melancholy that never was.
The cul-de-sac of blind capitalism
Liberals promoting capitalism don’t promote freedom. The reason is simple: their view of mankind is that it needs more and more money. On this view progress is a necessary by-product of society accumulating capital in a market that, itself, is free. This is defended religiously. It’s a religious point after all. Its central tenet is that man’s original sin is laziness. In the capitalist case we can only “work it off”. If we work hard enough it will redeem generations to come. Every American Dream is just a story of redemption where an individual shows us how to atone for the evil void inside all of us.
It isn’t at all the case that we have replaced the worship for God by the worship for money. That is not the flaw. We don’t have to go back to pre-capitalist times when people died in droves. God is, in the capitalist West, really deemed to be dead in all shapes and forms. We now worship his son: the perfectibility of man. Every success story of all these influential, independent and strong(-minded) men is a myth of resurrection. Capital is merely the yardstick with which to measure man’s perfection (and in this it can’t be perfected). This is also where capitalism will inevitably install itself in the heart of every secular system that doesn’t shed its belief in our supposedly original imperfection. Capitalism is superior in its passive aggressive evangelizing of individual duty before collective right.
Marx was right: accumulation is the Achilles’ heel of capitalism because there can be no end to it except by periodic acclosion. He was wrong though in seeing this as a flaw specific to a capitalist economy. It is first and foremost a moral flaw of any system believing man is failed and, therefore, has an individual duty. All those systems turn capitalist over time. Once we have bitten off the Apple (or entered the cave of Alibaba) the rest becomes history as history has it over and over again. Still, the idea that in all of this we don’t have a choice is fantastically flawed. The choice is definitely ours to make and we should not be ashamed we need the capitalist economy before we can actually make the choice to leave that moral flaw behind. Critical thinking is too important to just, stupidly, accept the primacy of the economy. Adam Smith started out with a discussion of morality and he did not do it just for show or, worse, merely to appease his conscience.
This brings us to the Enlightenment so aggressively touted as the perfect justification of the current Western system, specifically by our atheist elite (I am by the way atheist and part of this elite but you can hate something you are a part of without fear nor duty of self-loathing). That the words Enlightenment and tradition are becoming perfect twins really is insulting. There’s nothing so obviously anti-Enlightenment than uncritical acceptance of tradition. Kant’s Critiques are creative destruction. Enlightenment is critical thinking and, hence, taking a stand for emancipation of man to be master of her own life. It should not surprise that a neo-Kantian like Rawls made a proposal to restrict accumulation of capital in order to preserve a just society for free individuals on moral grounds. Whereas current liberal capitalists base their belief on selective, economic and scientific, readings of 18th & 19th century philosophers, actual 20th century philosophy has made progress, specifically in clarifying the limits of perfectibility – whether in language, history or life.
This digression shows that our current public discourse has come to an utter stand-still; that both the left and the right agree on duty before right and emotion after calculation. In other words: that the right always wins. Critical thinking is confined to the exact sciences and economy is their hostage ‘rescued’ from the politically correct human sciences which are suspect because they don’t work. As Deleuze points out – a point truly beyond Marxism – our minds are de facto enslaved by accumulation thinking. ‘Too big to fail’ doesn’t just apply to our companies perverting what we know can never be a free market. It also holds of our personality, destroying the very real freedom we have to be fallible. We don’t admit failure except as a learning point to success and redemption. It is why we have become so uncharitably harsh towards others. Their failures are their fault. They’ll just have to earn their way back into society. Like We Did. Except we didn’t. Not a single one of us. We can dedicate money and time to charity, but none of that will fill the hole in our hearts that is the consequence of not sympathizing with others. When philosophers of such different traditions as Levinas and Davidson agree that the principle of charity in trying to come to understand the other is basic, it really should make us think again.
Lucky bastards are called lucky for a reason: being born in this day and age, in the right place, of the right parents and with the right friends. Eliminating the element of luck in our achievements is like eliminating uncertainty from the natural world. It makes us stone dead and deaf like mules. At this rate our minds will freeze over before our climate boils our bodies. As liberal capitalists won’t admit to mere luck they invented merit, measured in money, as the new redemption. Meritocracy is not a monopoly of capitalism, capitalism just is the perfect system for it. The West can give lip service to the global electorate whilst effectively restricting their vote to the most minute selection of lucky bastards. This de facto selectorate believes their status is due to merit without critical reflection on the fact that they’re just the statistical outcome of, yes, a rigged process. The law of large numbers will invariably lead to those people coming out on top who are adapted to coming out on top and have the luck not to perish in the process. It is just a matter of time before the refugee crisis leads to new success stories confirming (as it did in the original far West) the beauty of a system that systematically ignores the misery it creates. Capitalism is social Darwinism, and as such is wrong on the double. First, people are not reducible to genes and neurons whatever some stupid exact scientists may inexactly claim. Second, our social environment is not something given by an invisible hand that we have to merely adapt to. We’re making our environment – it is called culture – and can make it such that everybody can partake in it – that is called learning.
In summary: we are conditioned to disregard our (bad) luck based on previous social and cultural advances to put it down to our individual merit, which we measure by money. That is what allows capitalism to erode our social security and progressively avoid progressive taxation. The blame is not with stupid populists or anonymous economic structures. The blame lies with us for stopping the only thing that ever made for real progress: thinking critically together. Instead we fret neurotically over how we can make it and how we’re going to give our children a head start. The problem isn’t capitalism as it beats any pre-capitalist system as safely as it beats all supposedly post-capitalist communist economies that share the same moral flaw. The problem is that we are giving up on cultural optimism that emancipates individuals to think and exchange free thought. We have democracy but as Habermas has shown we have forgotten the essence of it. I’m not talking of civil society as a counterweight to the official state power. I’m talking about all of us finally thinking for ourselves and not being ashamed to enter into an open discussion.
Capitalizing on capitalism
Capitalism heats up our climate. It also makes our minds go cold. At this rate we will be zombies before we burn up. It is not a question of unbridled capitalism as capitalism’s core virtue precisely is to be as unbridled as human progress is. We shouldn’t deny the obvious: capitalism isn’t just economically superior, it also did and does liberate people. Just look at the progress, however slow and patchy, in ethical matters: they really are the exclusivity of capitalist states. Capitalism may be blind, it is at least also blind to how we live our lives … as long as we are productive.
Precisely this “as long as we are productive” is the crux of the matter. It is where the matter lacks a heart. A long time ago, Lafargue wrote a pamphlet on the right to be lazy. It was dismissed and, largely, forgotten. Whether left or right, the agreement was – and is – that the limit of individual freedom is that we all have to “contribute our share” and, without adequate incentives, can’t be trusted to do so. The blindness of capitalism freezes our sympathy for others so it can most effectively penalize any laziness threatening over-all productivity. Only by accumulation can we individually and collectively buy leisure time and the myth of merit is our gate to accumulation. Capitalism is succeeding in convincing people to reverse the progress toward more and more leisure time, for instance by making idle (intellectual) activity suspect.
Capitalism is blind. It does not care how we live our lives … as long as we’re productive. That also means it profoundly does not care that we lead miserable lives if that’s what it takes to keep its crises at bay (for they can’t be kept away). This is where the omnipresent “politically correct” comes in. It is the right wing way of reversing moral advances by making them suspect from a point of view of productivity. The profound capitalist “don’t care” on individual freedom allows the populists to put tradition before freedom if that is what works. Cultural pessimists take advantage of our uncritical discomfort to re-install pre-capitalist structures of despotism, making e.g. “America Great Again”. Capitalism will have their back so it survives its periodic crises, as the right wing has capitalism’s back because it rewards their self-declared merit.
The human enslavement to productivity – knowing all cultural advances were made by those who were non-productive – will make us go back and forth in eternal alternation of advance and crisis. The response cannot be something labeled post-capitalism because this implies the solution is – like communism pretended to be – an economic alternative to capitalism. There is no such alternative, specifically not as far as individual freedom is concerned. Any alternative economic system cannot be as productive as capitalism unless they turn reactionary, curtailing individual freedom in the name of “social realism” i.e. in order to gain productivity. Even then their appeal will be temporary, until they cave in via a popular uprising or cave in like China, adopting capitalism to keep their despotic control over individuals. A post-capitalist utopia cannot but end in a pre-capitalist dystopia since it does not escape the productivity paradigm. It by the way only takes one capitalist state to erode – by show of its superior freedom – the appeal of an entire non-capitalist world.
The only escape is to take the right to be lazy seriously – to enshrine it as a human right that does not have to be earned. Here the original democracy of Athens is an example. If we interpret it in a charitable way – try to converse with it in the way Gadamer proposes – we see they took the idea of free time very seriously. The word school etymologically refers to leisure time and, clearly, over the millennia setting time aside for learning and culture has proven to be a winning strategy. Now, it is easy to say that we have to learn because it makes us more productive – this is the popular line of the ICT revolution – but this was not the mind-set the Athenians had. Their ‘paideia’ was about making a better citizen without ulterior motives. Learning and culture were not means to achieve an end but they were the ends in themselves. This is how it should be and no longer is, because capitalism is driving people to schooling based on the merit – and therefore money – they may derive from it. In essence the Athenians were cultural optimists; they believed doing the good was good enough to automatically become a better society, incrementally and without a fixed end state.
The way out of the capitalist trap is to keep the capitalist economy but re-establish the primacy of the moral (of culture, of emancipation, of education for education’s sake). The one way to bridle capitalism is to keep economy and productivity – where capitalism rules – in their proper secondary place. This is possible as the post WWII history, not only but specifically in continental Europe, shows. So possible, my dear friends. The fact is we do not need to despair at the current erosion of social security, and instead take heart at how resilient it proves to be! The neoliberal race to the bottom started by Reagan and by Thatcher in the ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon capitalist states is real and painful but their fight has been a long one and only very partly successful. The reason is that it’s deeply unpopular and can only be won by advanced demagoguery. Still, if we do not put the moral bridle on the productive heart of capital, resistance will be futile, and we will be assimilated by the rawest mixture of capitalism and nationalism imaginable. The half-hearted, defensive and piecemeal “third way” solutions won’t do. We have to convince the public opinion, one democracy at a time, to choose consciously for freedom and give up the competition for productivity. Such effective resistance will be infectious. This is why capitalists abhor it and make pacts with the nationalist devils. Cultural optimism can prevail if and only if we put key moral principles ahead of economic interests.
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