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.
Legendary ‘Wall Street Wide Boy turned Silicon Valley Savant’ and ‘Don’ of the PayPal Mafia, Thiel believes – as outlined early on in his much lauded book ‘Zero to One’ – that the rapid and profound innovation that came about in finance and technology in the late 20th and early 21st Century was brought about because these industries were ones where the government didn’t understand and therefore couldn’t regulate. He puts his money where his beliefs lie too, donating to a smorgasbord of out there causes that underline his extreme brand of individualism – life extension, Seasteading, the Singulairty – as well as a range of ultra-libertarian Republican candidates in the US. He also owns a doomsday ranch in New Zealand, just in case…
At least Peter Thiel doesn’t claim to be above ideology, which is more than can be said about many of the rest of the West’s greatest Tech evangelists. Whether forcing cities across the US to play beggar-my-neighbour to win vast tax breaks in return for pricing locals out of their homes with a new corporate HQ (Amazon), steamrollering over local employment laws and industry standards in the name of ‘disruption’ (Uber), or mocking local tax rules via complex and magical financial arbitrage (Apple, Google, Facebook, etc etc etc), Big Tech holds government in contempt – if they would just get out of the way the world will be a better place. Yet few would admit to what they are – Neoliberal Utopian Fantasists. Most instead claim to be above ideology, that what these companies are bringing about is, at its core, an unambiguous, value-neutral, vision of progress; ‘A just machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellas with compassion and vision’. The problem that this is itself an ideological choice.
Of course this belief has been tested, shaken even recently. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been used (as they are designed to be) to manipulate elections. This was not a glitch, this is exactly how they are designed to be – to serve you what you want to hear and sell you attention to the highest bidder. That time and again they have ducked the responsibility to admit that they are an accountable published reflects how they continue to have your cake and eat it. But just watch Zuckerberg in front of the House, struggling to suppress a smirk (“We sell ads, sir”), or how the reaction from the rest of the tech faithful praised his barely-veiled contempt and we see that the true zealot will never be swayed from the cause. Any changes made from the inside – voluntary tax payments, roundtables with regulators, hiring more content moderators are designed to cement the substructure by sugaring the superstructure.
Their greatest defence is that this is a golden era for democracy in its broadest sense. A world now open to all, a collapsing of vertical structures in favour of new lateral networks that allow everyone access to everything. Cat videos! Child porn! Earthquakes and disasters! Famine! Kardashians! Earthquake and disaster memes! Rape! Furries! Cat videos! What Joerg Kock, editor of the German independent magazine turned fashion brand 032c, calls ‘The Big Flat Now’. But the issue is that it is only so flat. There is a hierarchy still. An unaccountable one that sidelines government and places us all as equals, sitting below the industry leaders who constellate our firmament. At this point, I would like to add that I love technology. I am writing this using cloud-based word processing on computer that has more power than I know what to do with. I have worked in and for numerous technology firms, and I plan to again, if this doesn’t outrage them, but the naivety that sees what they create as neutral-positive progress is naive. Technology is a tool. It is highly adaptable, and like any other tool that went before in can be used in many ways. A hammer only becomes a murder weapon when applied to the skull, but all tools have implicit ‘best uses’ in their design. Its why some are more regulated than others; automatic weapons, gene editing, Morphine. And when it comes to Big Tech, we are faced not just with invention, but innovation – the commercial application of technology in the name of profit. To sideline government in order to give unregulated access to these new, highly profitable tools to the general population is not Democratic. It is techno-authoritarian move that fundamentally ignores, or perhaps does not believe in, the moral limitations of markets and the value of societal transactions that cant simply be priced. As I said, naive at best; wilfully maleficent at worst. And either way, a definitively idealogical stance against the un-privatised polis.
The worst part is that even Thiel is wrong. Technology companies may spend on innovation, but they do little invention. A lot of D, but not so much R. The Ur-technologies – the internet itself, microprocessors, GPS, telecoms networks – were all brought about if not by the state, then by heavy involvement. The foundational science comes from public institutions and government funding; ‘investment’ that is only fixated with furthering human knowledge. What the secondary innovation from Wall Street and the Valley have in common is not that they are highly profound so much as highly profitable…