Capitalism doesn’t work. There, I said it.
But according to Slavoj Zizek in 2019’s Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Human Capitalism, “the dissonance of an ideology is its ultimate stability: only in a specific situation — a change in ideological sensitivity — does the realization that our ideological edifice is dissonant lead to its disintegration.”
In other words, me saying it is not going to change anything, even if you agree with me. It will take a sea change in people’s thinking at large to make that happen.
Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, is a non-ideological Marxist, meaning that he believes what Marx describes would be a more equitable society, but that imposing this vision on the world by force, as Stalin did for example, is a contradiction. I am not a Marxist — I think there are many forms of oppression besides class, and they keep shifting; redressing the oppression of class would probably introduce other kinds of oppression. So I’m a pragmatist. We can’t hope to replace a world order with an ideal; our only choice is to make what we have as equitable as possible.
But I agree with Zizek that the big thing that stands in the way of making even small, pragmatic changes right now is ideology. The prevailing ideology of our world is global Capitalism, and as a writer I see it as my job to point out the dissonance — the inconsistencies that reveal it to be not truth but a shield for power — and hope that eventually as a group we chip away at the thing that’s holding us back.
So, what do I mean, Capitalism doesn’t work? The Libertarian argument, whatever the failure, is that there is still far too much government regulation, taxation, and interference in the free market. On the other hand, a successful upper middle class parent with a good job, who would never describe themselves as Libertarian, might say Capitalism does work, because it’s providing them with so much.
But to understand its dysfunction, we must look at what it claims to do. It purports to be an economic system that facilitates the exchange of goods and services in such a scientific manner that everyone gets what they need by virtue of the system itself. It’s billed as the most efficient and effective system, in practice, and even if it is sometimes counter-intuitive, we shouldn’t let a few twinges to our consciences keep us from embracing the odd formula “Greed is good.” By comparison, Communism, while it had all kinds of benefits to the conscience like communal ownership of everything, in practice people suffered from constant shortages, brutality, and boredom.
It doesn’t claim to provide for our spiritual needs, but it would never try to outlaw religion. It doesn’t claim to solve our psychological or relationship problems, but any number of products have come to market to aid in those. It doesn’t claim to provide for our aesthetic needs, but access to the arts extends to everyone now through mass media. It’s a materialist system which only claims to meet our material needs in this life. Supposedly, it’s not an ideology at all.
So let us examine this modest claim.
Everyone gets what they need by virtue of the system itself.
Supposedly workers are paid for their labor and they can take that money and purchase the goods they need, because money represents a commensurate amount of labor. Money represents labor, abstracted. And yet, the system has always depended on unpaid labor. The most obvious example is slavery. But look at all the examples from right now. Farming cannot survive without the nearly free labor of immigrants and migrants — people from outside the system motivated to get inside the system, because of poor prospects at home. Without them an industry would collapse, and not just any industry, the industry we need to literally eat.
We need quality journalism, but more and more newspapers are asking for donations, because they can’t pay their employees with their free-market revenue. We need art. But most artists in every discipline work for decades without being paid for what they’re doing. Check out this chart of the life cycle of a non-profit; this is basically the model of a storefront theater. They produce their best work in their early, inspired years when the founders are putting in 70 hours a week of unpaid labor. When the theater finally becomes a success and is ready to be turned over to a board to make it self-sustaining, its best work often has already been made. Some continue to make great work, but it doesn’t change the fact that 50% of theater you consume is being done for free.
All of the wonderful products of Silicon Valley have depended on the labor of startups who are not being paid for the product they are producing, but on the prospect that someday they will be. You could even argue that the minute they switch to the paid model, after the big IPO, or when the founder cashes in and sells his baby, the product begins to go downhill. It’s a pattern — back when Facebook was making no money and depending on the infusion of venture capital, no one had to worry about it selling their data, they simply enjoyed the inherent benefits of a product that brings people together in wonderful ways. The minute Facebook found ways to monetize itself, the drawbacks began to appear.
And what about Capitalism’s dependence on government investment in research and development? The space traveling ventures of Bill Gates and Elon Musk would not be possible if all of NASA hadn’t been supported entirely by tax dollars. The digital revolution wouldn’t have happened without government investment in building the first computers. Listen to this episode of Freakonomics about how Cold War federal investment in the R&D for farm automation laid the ground work for the profitability of food giants like Campbell’s. Last I checked, the government is an entity external to the Capitalist system — judging from how often Capitalists cast it as the villain.
Homeless shelters are run by non-profits, volunteer labor, and philanthropy. The company that owns the affordable housing building in which I live is able to offer formerly homeless, intellectually disabled people a place to live because of large grants from the State of Illinois. Where is the spontaneous market solution to homelessness? Oh, that’s right — enter another thing that props up Capitalism from the outside, privilege biases. If people with homes started believing homeless people are sometimes that way through no fault of their own, they’d have to start including them in the “everyone” who gets what they need from the system. If affluent white suburbanites who defend the system as rewarding hard work were to admit being Black in any way can limit someone’s economic potential (as opposed to simple laziness and stupidity, the only acceptable limiters under Capitalist ideology), they’d have to ask why this finely-tuned machine called Capitalism hasn’t fixed racism yet. The same is true for sexism: how much economic potential has been lost to men like Harvey Weinstein who tie it to sex? If people stopped blaming immigrants for Capitalism’s failures, and realized they are one of the crutches it needs to succeed, they’d have to start asking why immigrants’ labor is worth so much less than everyone else’s.
It’s the most efficient and effective system, in practice.
Tell that to the parents of children with cancer. On October 14 the New York Times reported on a shortage of the childhood cancer drug vincristine. The cause? Some government regulation gone wrong? A terrorist attack? Heartless workers going on strike? No, the natural functioning of a free market. One of two manufacturers of the drug, Teva, had “made a business decision to discontinue the drug.” It was an older generic drug that didn’t command very high prices, and was difficult to manufacture. It was a money loser.
I’m sure someone would claim government regulation is to blame because if a drug is so important a company should be allowed to keep its patent. Or, the government could just tax billionaires and pay Teva to keep on producing it because it’s needed, why not that?
The point is, since Capitalism is a materialist system, it doesn’t make sense to hope for some time in the future when it will work. If you are a parent of a child with cancer and your child died because of a shortage of drugs, Capitalism is a failure in the ultimate sense of the word. Will you be reunited with your child in some future Capitalist heaven? Is that Capitalism’s promise to you? No, Capitalism’s only promise is to provide for your material needs now, in this life, and if it can’t do that it’s failing by its own definition.
If we can critique Communism in practice, then we can certainly critique Capitalism in practice, which doesn’t even claim to have a pure idea. A Capitalism ideology is a contradiction in terms, but here we are.
It’s not an ideology at all.
There’s nothing wrong with all of this in terms of an economic system. An economic system is just a tool for organizing the satisfaction of our material needs, among other tools for other things, and if it’s not doing a very good job we need to adjust how we’re using it. But what I’ve just been critiquing are not features of the tool, but moments where the actual functioning contradicts the ideology that’s been built around it to protect the interests of those who are benefiting from keeping the system as it is now, no matter how poorly it’s serving other people. It shouldn’t be an ideology, but it is.
The slick argument of the ideologues is this: Capitalism is a fantastic system, not an ideology, and as such, we must not critique it or interfere with its magical functioning, especially not in the form of government regulation. The likes of Paul Ryan and Rand Paul hand down this quasi-scientific doublespeak with such an air of expertise and conviction most people do not know what hit them. They must be right, they are so technical and analytic in their analysis. They then proceed to mythologize things like the housing market crash as if that was all for the good, just a price we pay.
Don’t be fooled. As an ideology, Capitalism doesn’t work. And as an economic system it needs all the normal kinds of help any tool would need from the outside, like human beings deciding how and where to use it to serve us. Otherwise, the tool is using us.
Otherwise, it is like starting up the car, putting it in drive, and expecting it to take you were you want to go without even getting in. No, it’s like starting up the car, putting it in drive, not getting in, and having to run for your life as it barrels up onto the sidewalk — and then wondering why it didn’t take you where you wanted to go.