Stop Saying “What Capitalism Does”

Or, Winning Slowly Season 5 redux.

March 09, 2018Filed under blog#ethics#technologyMarkdown source

“What capitalism does,” or “what liberalism does,” or “what postmodernism does,” or “what fundamentalism does”: the phrase should die an unmourned death. It does us all a great disservice, not for what it says but for what it leaves unsaid and the ways it misleads us.

I most recently ran into the capitalism variant of the phrase in the influential 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology,” by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron. The text is littered with the phrase; if you took the essay at face value you would conclude that at least in the minds of Barbrook and Cameron capitalism had transformed from a system and structure into a demon, possessing and directing the culture they dislike.

I am not opposed to such readings of the world in principle; I think they may even get certain important things right that we too often overlook in our “disenchanted” modernity. If people want to talk of Capitalism and Marxism and Media and Liberalism and Technologism and The Beltway and The Kremlin and so on as capital-P Powers—if people want to think about the ways in which there may be real spiritual realities at work behind some of the things we take for granted—well, as the millennials say, I am so here for that.1

But that is not how Barbrook and Cameron meant it. Nor is it how most people mean the phrase when they toss it around.

What they mean, instead, is something like this: People act differently in different systems and structures; the system and structure of capitalism [or liberalism or fundamentalism or…] leads people to act in [this way that I think is bad]. It is, in other words, shorthand for an idea most of us can get behind.

That idea is important, too: people do act differently in different systems and structures. What’s more, when a given structure is pervasive, it can be difficult to resist or reject, or even to consider that it should be resisted or rejected. This idea is so important that Stephen Carradini and I dedicated all of Winning Slowly Season 5: Structure and Agency to the ins and outs of systems and structures, good and bad alike; the limits of individual action in the face of systemic pressure; and the ways we ought to leverage good systems and dismantle bad systems.

But. As much as this shorthand captures something important, it also obscures something important: it is people who act differently under those different structures, and people who set up systems in the first place and maintain them afterward. This is not to dismiss the tendency of systems to perpetuate themselves, or to ignore the reality of systems which harm everyone in them and go on existing anyway. (Self interest is complicated.) Rather, it is to remind us how systems come to be (people created them because they seemed in some way good to them), what they are made of (people continuing to do what seems in some way good to them), and why they are hard to dismantle (because many people’s self-interest is aligned with maintaining existing institutions).

It is possible to think and act as if individual agency is all that matters, and this is fallacious. People do act differently in different systems and structures, for good and for ill. Capitalism, as a system and structure, serves as an environment in which enormous gains in productivity have been possible; but it also serves an environment where people reduce others (and themselves) to their productivity. “Liberalism,” as a system and structure, serves as an environment where many important gains in human liberties have grown up; but it also serves as an environment where the good of liberty has at times grown cancerous and indeed metastasized until the will of the individual is dangerously (and nonsensically) totalized. Contrast how people live and think and act in capitalist or liberal contexts with feudal or tribal contexts (to pick just two of the many contrasts we could) and you will see very, very different things. Systems matter; we cannot erase their impact on the individual.

But it is also possible to talk and act as if the structure, the system, is all. This is the mistake the shorthand “what capitalism does” leads us to. Flip the emphasis in the previous paragraph: the environments of capitalism and liberalism matter, but people continue to act in those environments. More than that, people continue to transform the structures and systems they inhabit, often in startling ways. Half a century ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that the most profitable corporation in the world would also be among those most assiduously pursuing environmental responsibility and stewardship. People’s continuous pressure, as well as the ascent to not only economic but also cultural leadership of people who care about this has changed capitalism in a good way. Social pressure on businesses has plenty of downsides, too, in our internet-rage-storm era; and there is much to critique about the ways that business leaders have come to dominate culture.

The point, though, is that systems and structures are more malleable than the shorthand credits them, and so we would do well to remember the limitations of the shorthand and indeed largely to abandon it unless we are often in the habit of qualifying it. It is too sloppy. Throw it out!

Or if not that (shorthands are useful after all) then clarify often. Talk instead about structures, and systems, and people’s ability to change them—indeed to throw them out. Speak less often of “what capitalism does” and more often of what capitalism makes easy and what it makes hard, what avenues living in liberalism opens up and what it blinds us to, what virtues and what vices fundamentalism might inculcate.

(And if you want to have a conversation about Powers, have at it.)


  1. Yes, I am a millennial by age cohort. I mock these generational divides and characterizations because I think them mostly meaningless blather.