Saving Capitalism from Itself

I used to think I was an anti-capitalist. From the Rage Against the Machine posters on my bedroom wall, the Che Guevara tattoo I almost bought myself for my 21st birthday, to my continued dislike of speculative finance and its exotic instruments; the notion that our lives should be in service of the market sat uneasily with me. But I also like nice things, and have for a decade and a half have made a career out of playing games with value and culture in the marketing services industry; so I have always wrestled with dissonance.

But it’s this dissonance that is at the heart of what makes us human, and what has made humans so successful. We possess both the urge to compete and to co-opt. Both of them were – are – vital to our success. It’s why despite the obvious bloody brutality and aching banality of warfare, there is still a certain glamour that comes with the whiff of cordite and cold steel. It’s why we still venerate and decorate our war heroes. It’s also why self-sacrifice is as often praised as victory. Its almost certainly why the most lucrative sports; those most watched, most written about, most fervently followed are team sports that combine both belonging and rivalry. Despite respectable audiences, its why there will never be any golf riots or tennis ‘Ultras’. It’s why the Olympics is the one time when individual sports are most likely to spark the collective imagination; when they are in the context of an ‘us’. Cooperation within competition.

In its most elemental form, capitalism is simply ‘the market’. The market is both competition and co-operation. As soon as humanity moved beyond basic subsistence, it was this mechanism of exchange that allowed fair co-operation and fair competition when it came to things; assets, resources, time. This meant division of labour, exchangeable surpluses, efforts that could be re-deployed elsewhere; in language, in literature, in philosophy and religion and the stories that allowed us to progress along our zig-zagging but ultimately upward trajectory.

But markets have never been without rules, because they were always defined by and designed for, specific socio-political goals. There are countless examples. The guilds of the mercantile age aiming to keep limits on certain professions, medieval zoning keeping theatres and brothels out of the City of London, tariffs to tilt the tables for key industries at countless points in the history of trade; consumer protection, regulations and child labour laws; they have all been part of the ongoing negotiation of the ‘moral limits of markets’. And these have always shifted, based on our times. I mean, we used to trade humans – including I would presume some of my forebears – until we decided that was ‘not cool’. The proscribed footprint of the market and its rules of engagement have constantly evolved to meet the needs of societies that they served.

This is why ‘Capitalism’ – with a capital C – is so problematic in the 21st Century. In its purest, Marxist, sense it is incredibly useful to understand the industrial capitalism of the 19th Century; Marx was always a better historian and analyst than theorist; As a framework for understanding a period of time when the mass populace was seen primarily as a labour force it is invaluable, but does it work if we project it backwards into pre-industrial mercantile capitalism of the 16th, or forward into the 20th Century’s consumption-driven society, where we the people were primarily seen as drivers of demand? The Market – capitalism – evolves according to the society which it serves.

The problem I had – have – is with the Neoliberal Capitalism that I grew up under, the only capitalism I have personally know; the one where we are all incentivised to be mini ‘Capitalists’, privileging competition over co-operation, in order to serve the market itself. The reason why the market, why capitalism, has become so unappealing for so many now is because this neoliberal market lacks any idealogical prefix. For better or for worse – and in the big scheme of things it has ultimately been for better – the market had always been a means serving a society’s ends, but now the market is now the ends and our socio-political lives are the means.

Without understanding the fundamental role that the market, in its most elemental sense serves; to mediate between our urge to compete and our need to co-operate, it has been allowed to run amok. Neoliberal Capitalism is placing brick on the accelerator and then jumping out of the car. The market is a tool and we are responsible as a society, as a polity for how it is used. There is no such thing as a ‘Capitalist Society’.

No wonder we are rebelling in all directions. In the face of increasing wealth and decreasing worth, empty economic growth and chasmic inequality we turn wherever we can see an alternative. Nationalism, nativism, economic Luddism. Orban, Corbyn, Bolsanaro. They all diagnose the problem. And more frighteningly, for those of us of the left, all of us who could loosely be termed progressives the Right may be closer to getting it right when it comes to providing a direction and a solution. Illiberal Capitalism at least begins to provide a purpose for the market, a direction. It makes the market once again the means to an ends. It’s just that this ends leads towards the border wall and the purge, the lynching, the internment camp, perhaps war. But it may succeed because is is a vision for shaping the market, not simply the desire to burn it down.

The issue with anti-capitalism in the 21st century is that it is fighting the previous war. The classic Marxist rhetoric is designed for overthrowing industrial capitalist world that no longer exists. The sentiment is admirable, but times have changed.

But there are similarities. Much like industrial capitalism was for the few, neoliberal capitalism has been for even fewer. Current upheavals may well represent its death spasm. It can’t come soon enough. We are in a time of flux, but we must not mistake the gross unfairness of this version of capitalism with a fundamental flaw with the market itself. This is the time to radically reimagine what the purpose of the market itself is. What are the rules of engagement? What are the behaviours we want to incentivise? Changing the world to be as we would wish it is Judo, not boxing; we must work with natural momentum not against it, we must work with the seemingly contradictory angels of our nature. And this does not mean I believe there is not a role for the state. But where we allow competition and where we do not should be decided with an eye firmly fixed on the future. Many experiments in privatisation have not worked because the incentives have been wrong. Railways and utilities should probably be renationalised, so they can be greened and subsidised with road charging nationwide; we subsidise the internal combustion engine by building highways, yet we privatise clean mass transit. A carbon tax on every item bought that reflects its true cost to the planet. Monetary policy that targets the Gini coefficient rather than GDP growth. I am not a policymaker, but these are the places I would start.

The path to this Damascene moment has been a long one for me.
I am not against Capitalism.
I am against this Capitalism.

Future Imperfect – Tomorrow, Today

Looking out from the 31st floor balcony, it doesn’t seem high until you look down. Shenzhen stretches 80 kilometres east to west, but is only 10 deep, North-South. The city snakes laterally, littorally, between the hills of the Hong Kong border, along  Shenzhen Bay to the Pearl River delta, like a badly kept concrete lawn, with clumps of seventy and eighty story towers sprouting like steel weeds. The 115 story Ping An Tower, the worlds 4th largest, the town’s own tall poppy. When night falls, the entire town lights up like a circuit board, streaming with steel and light. The immaculately kept, perpetually swept, cycle path along the Dasha river is filled with office workers on dockless rental bikes, hired by the half hour, headed to one of the city’s many tech clusters, downstream, deeper into Nanshan district. They’ve phased out almost all the old taxis, replaced with a fully electric fleet. The same for the buses. Pretty much every transaction, from street-corner noodles to legal fees are carried out with QR codes and digital wallets. Cashless, silent, sleek.

This is not ‘The Future’, but it is ‘A Future’. Two days a week I commute from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. The journey takes around an hour and a half, but the time travelled is greater than the distance covered. After getting stamped out of Mainland China and into Hong Kong at the vast Shenzhen Bay checkpoint, coaches and cars spiral up onto the five-and-a-half-kilometre bay bridge to cross over to the New Territories. As we roll up the overpass onto the bridge, the plaiting of concrete weaves carriageways from right-to-left and left-to-right. The first sign that they do things differently here. At least for now.

Hong Kong, like Tokyo, represents a certain obsolete near-future in the collective imagination. Having had its image and form repeatedly appropriated by Hollywood as a stand-in for numerous dystopias, the familiarity can make it seem almost underwhelming. Hong Kong looks exactly like ‘Hong Kong’ – a trait it shares with New York. It also feels like yesterday’s vision of tomorrow. The stuttering neon signs and diesel-streaked streets, PoMo towers and marble-lined lobbies are a particularly sharp contrast with Shenzhen’s unironic modernity. From its peak in 1993, Hong Kong has declined from twenty-seven to less than three percent of China’s GDP. But beyond the numbers, it feels like a city in decline. Slowly, megaprojects such as the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai bridge and the China High-speed Rail Link are stitching the territory together with the mainland, bringing Hong Kong’s greatest fear ever-closer, becoming just another mid-sized Chinese city. With the perceived erosion of its Rule of law, the Special Administrative Region has become a contested space. The acute confrontation over the ‘two systems’ principle, is also representative of a bigger conflict between two ideas. Two visions of what the future could be.

Words can be problematic; they are both the obstacle to articulating a thought and the best way to try. This clash of ideas, in which Hong Kong is just one front, isn’t easily reduced to opposing pairs as the Cold War once was. Capitalism’s ‘victory’ over Communism was always an artificial, lexigraphic binary that pitted an economic system against a total political, social and economic order. ‘Capitalism’ is synecdochic, an easy shorthand for ‘democratic capitalism’ and the free and limited, markets, open societies and shared small-L liberal consensus regarding the primacy of the individual. Democratic Capitalism is Limited Capitalism. And it was ‘Limited Capitalism’ that ‘won’. The front line crossed by the arcing span of the Shenzhen Bay Bridge is not the battle between capitalism and communism. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is Capitalism unencumbered by Democracy. It is the front  line between Total and Limited Capitalism.

Limited Capitalism was never an outright winner, but in its rhetoric, it strived to achieve the illusion of permanence. The rights of the individual – the societal sidekick to the economic superhero – has never been inevitable and maybe not even natural. Increasingly this relic of our post-Enlightenment experiments feels like a humanistic blip. In the face of Brexit and Trump, Bolsanaro and Orban, I have found myself increasingly having to defend the ‘pragmatism of the primacy of the individual’ to friends not just in Singapore and Shanghai, but Boston and Berlin. Yes, it is the freedom to screw up, but it is also the freedom not to be screwed with.

When measured in terms of human development Limited Capitalism has been a great success. But ‘Capitalist Democracy’ is a productive tension, not a synonymic pair. Capitalism privileges results, Democracy, the process. One is fast, the other is slow. The market is majoritarian, while the democratic enshrines the individual, not merely responsible to a simple majority. This makes elections, perversely, the least important aspect of a democracy. Limited Capitalism is an uneasy hybrid. You are free to consume, you are free to participate, but the between the two there is no equivalence. The human flourishing this has propagated cannot be measured by statistics alone. It is this tension that universalised the franchise, enshrined judicial independent and – aspirationally -declared Universal Human Rights. Less tangibly and more significantly it gives each of us a hope of genuine human dignity and all of us some faith in a societal-level trust. Maybe it was easier to win hearts and minds in the late 20th century with Right to Buy than the Rights of Man, but failing to promote the civil alongside the economic conflates consumption with participation, creating the opportunity for Total Capitalism.


Shenzhen’s subway tunnels are lined with motion-synced LED screens that animate adverts outside the carriage windows selling pizza and pet food station to station. My connected TV won’t switch on without first showing me a short film promoting the latest toilet paper or plastic surgery procedure. Pop-up ads and promotions are a pervasive part of every single product or service, physical or virtual that I use. Upsell, cross-sell, resell. The imperative to consume is everywhere, the Chinese Dream constantly reinforced as the route to individualisation and self-actualisation. Judged by the old Communist clichés of a “decadent West,” focussed on temerarious consumption, contemporary China is the most “western” place I have ever lived or been. One where I am no more and no less than the sum of my purchases. I buy therefore I am.

At the same time deep integration of seamless technology has evolved a new species of human as consumer, Homo Emptus. The local branch of KFC lets me buy a Family Bucket with nothing more than my face, using cameras linked directly to my virtual wallet which holds my credit cards and fictive cash. Recently I was walking through the precinct by my block, when a young woman ran up to me, apologising. Her cleaner’s phone had stopped receiving transfers and she didn’t have the cash to pay. Did I have any? Pulling a handful of 100 yuan notes out of my pocket, she pulled out her phone, scanned my wallet and transferred me the 300 kuai which I had in cash. In less than a minute I had become a human ATM. It was demeaning and thrilling at the same time, I imagine not dissimilar to the excitement felt by the freshly humiliated submissive.

Sometimes living here can feel like magic. But if you only immerse in the wonder, you miss the cost. Recently, a group of cyclists in Shanghai rode past a police officer, stopped by the side of the road, deep in an animated discussion with the driver they had just pulled over. The group, aware the policeman was otherwise occupied, slowly rolled through the red signal ahead, traffic light on a quiet Saturday morning. Fifteen minutes later by the time they had reached their café stop and pulled out their phones to pay, they had all been fined. Facial recognition cameras mounted on top of the police car had ID-ed them and then allowed the officer digitally ensure justice was done. When we are defined only by our consumption, this make complete sense, our economic life is simply ‘life’, giving the state unprecedented control in return for our convenience. Seamlessness may be fast, but to protect Limited Capitalism, we need seams.

The reality is though that our willingness to conflate commercial choice with civil freedoms has makes it easy for us to walk backwards into Total Capitalism. Using ‘Capitalism’ as a shorthand for so long has meant a lack of focus on the social and political dimensions that has allowing the market to perform as a poor stand-in for the whole. This has led to declining trust in the very institutions that underpin both our societal freedom and our consumer choice. The recent World Values Survey shows a minority in both Europe and the US of people born after 1970 believe it is ‘essential to live in a democracy.’ If this is the case then we have collectively failed to remind ourselves what ‘democracy’ really entails. It has also led to the bizarre inversion for many on the neoliberal right who see any democratic limit placed on the market as ‘undemocratic’

The rising indifference to the democratic can be seen in part as a consequence of Limited Capitalism’s success. Just as a fish does not know that it is wet, we take for granted the protections afforded the individual. We have collectively and systemically failed to remind ourselves of the importance of the water we all swim in. Political leaders and populist demagogues who owe their very existence to the small L liberalism that underpins Limited Capitalism have failed to give credit, choosing instead to pee in the pond for short term gain. Taking our collective socio-political foundations for granted has led to their erosion. Ignoring them has also reduced the success of a state to its economy alone. Whilst freedom of speech won’t feed my children, GDP won’t make them happier or more morally rich. This tyranny of the economic means that states which favour the fast and the outcome will be judged the best performing, outshining those that optimise for the slow, the process, the individual. By judging a state by its economy rather than their humanity, we set up a framework in which the Total Capitalism is not only increasingly easy to admire, but objectively ‘better’, with no way to quantify its glaring qualitative flaws. The fallacy that our economic lives are an adequate stand-in for our civic ones provides the ideological misdirection to pull the trick off. Only what is counted is valued.

Total Capitalism, by succeeding on these terms, promotes a worrying model of growth and unfreedom, chipping away at the old liberal consensus. As pervasive technologies allow ever-greater accumulation of information, we are reaching an inflection point, two divergent versions of how this data is used and its implications for how we live. Progress marches an there is a decision to be made, inaction is not possible. A battle that is waged by only one side, even one of ideas, is not without bloodshed; it is a massacre.

Unencumbered by the limits that the state apparatus of Limited Capitalism places on it, technology can quickly become dystopian. The Limited Capitalist model is not just a check on economic entities – as the EU has proved with its fines on Google and Microsoft – but also on governments. And it adds an implicit societal dimension to the economic role. When Apple refused to provide a back door to iPhone for the FBI, it was asserting its social responsibility, not just its economic function. It helped that these two impulses were congruent here, but the difference between that and the case of the Shanghai cyclists is stark. Tencent, makers of the ubiquitous WeChat Wallet in question, were doing nothing wrong by allowing the state to pick pockets; they were fulfilling their duty, legally obliged to do so in the People’s Republic. The FBI’s response to Apple’s refusal was that American lives might be lost, but people died enshrining the rights Apple was upholding. Do we still believe the defence of the individual is worth dying for?

It would be worth asking that question to the millions of minority Muslims constantly surveilled, or interred in camps in Xinjiang. Advanced monitoring technologies, sharpened to scalpel-like precision, have created an unprecedented digital panopticon. The whole region is monitored at a level of detail that previously would have taken vast armies of watchers and handlers. Now instead, the state has the ability to micromanage human life at a macroscale;  facial recognition, device tracking and digital monitoring turn an entire country-sized region into a prison colony. Xinjiang is not just a tragedy though; it is a testbed. China has rolled the same systems across the entirety of its domestic train network as well as at every airport, port and major public area. More disturbingly, it is a showroom for the implementation of its own particular strain of Total Capitalism. A sinister demonstration of how to unshackle the market from democracy, providing economic liberation whilst maintaining total control. For parts of the world that were previously faced with the choice between an all-inclusive version of modernity, open society and all, China offers an alluring alternative, a cake-and-eat-it model powered by pervasive technologies and financed by Belt and Road loans. And it is one that has succeeded by our own ‘Capitalist’ yardstick.

Total Capitalism is by no means inevitable, and its vision of the future not the only one. Technology is neutral and can be used co-opted for community as well as commerciality. The liberal limits within Liberal, Democratic, Limited Capitalism have allowed it to do both. But our willingness to collapse the social, political and economic into one big flat now have left us at a critical juncture. Hong Kong’s fight is an imperfect allegory for the decision that we need to make about what we should measure and what really matters, particularly in the developed world. We cannot take for granted what we already have. An era is only named after it has long passed. It is up to us to decide if we are to witness the end of this one.

What the hell should we sell now?

This thought may need re-visiting. I feel like it is ¾ of an idea that I haven’t puzzled out fully, but keen to get some input, to try and talk this out (and I am lacking an effective foil in the office…)

Some time back, I attempted an analysis of what it is exactly I do, working in advertising, and more specifically, as a planner. My very bad Marxist analysis essentially saw my function as the cholesterol-clogged, hardened artery-ed heart of the late capitalist industrial system, creating desires that means that people continue to buy things, keeping money circulating in the system.

Now I expect to be picked up on this by my economist friends, but despite financial hacks and politicians obsessing about growth or ‘economic output’, the rate of circulation is equally important. MV=PY indicates that amount of cash(M) times how fast it moves (V) is equal to economic output (Y) multiplied by price index (P). I also expect that glibly flitting over this rather fundamental equation may leave me open to further attacks, so maybe we may just take the above as an acknowledgment that I know what an ‘economy’ is and leave it at that. As far as this is relevant to my point, if the money moves faster, people feel richer, people need the money to be moving so that it can come to them, so that they can spend it. Belief that more money will come their way ( and yes… I know I am trying to draw analogous lines between the micro and the macro) means that they will spend more- consumer confidence- a crucial ingredient for the ‘confidence trick’ that is the market.

Society also has a hand in this, making us feel that we need to buy to self actualise- ‘keeping up with the Jones,’ the very idea of ‘status symbols’. So we exploit that, we leverage that toehold- people feel rich so they spend themselves poor to look rich. Products collaborate with business ( they, after all designed them), televisions break after 2 years with alarming alacrity, and the media are complicit to make sure that the next ‘new’ is always being dangled in front of us. What was wrong with the iPhone 3 anyway, what functionality does the 4 have that is going to seriously improve my quality of life, was it really what I had been missing? And for that matter, when is the 5 coming out!

This was something to think about as we spent our time still convincing people to enter into the same Faustian pact, it is after all their own rapaciousness that is giving them the ability to be so rapacious. But this is no longer in any way a sustainable model. Now we are aware of the resources that we were blinding squandering, we must be more careful. The repurchase cycle that sees us buy a new something on a rolling 1- or 2- or 3- year cycle for high ticket items is one that seems to be accelerating the Earths decline. We can produce items that last a lifetime, but that is economic suicide for the current system, and like all robust economic beasts, its self-preservation instinct is what has made it so pervasively successful. Even closed -loop recycling is energy intensive, and very little of our energy is currently clean. ‘Upcycling’ is nice for a pair of shoes made out of car tyres, but what do you do with the car’s in-built CPU- it isn’t going to become the beating heart of the next gen Playstation 4…

So this is the planner railing against buying things? Not really, just how we buy. This century’s successful and enduring brands will be the ones that seek to separate the reasons we buy products from the products themselves. The old mantra that if it ‘floats, flies or f*cks- rent it’ (sorry to be crude) will extend to more and more. I am not quite sure what this means for the widescreen TV (rolling upgrades to the same unit? designing products that can be optimised through software upgrade? purchase a contract for hardware uprating with the set itself?) , but for the car, we can see it in ZipCars; for the DVD, in Netflix- brands which establish an ongoing repurchase cycle without there ever having to be a purchase on the first place. We ‘have’ (buy things) in order to ‘do’ (be), we need to think about how we can supply that desire to ‘do’ without encouraging our outmoded and unsustainable 20th century acquisitiveness.