Notes on Capitalism 10-22

10. The ideological pervasiveness of capitalism is so complete that a New York Times columnist can unreservedly claim that “Over the past generation, global capitalism has produced the greatest reduction in human poverty in history. Over the past 10 years, American capitalism has produced 20 million new jobs. The productive dynamism of capitalism is truly a wonder to behold.”

11. That the ever increasing role of private capital in various economies coincides with improvements across a range of social metrics is, to put it simply, not indicative of a causal relationship. The notion that Capitalism is the chief driver of the general increases in human well-being over the last 50 years – and measured on a global scale – is simply not empirically or theoretically borne out to any satisfactory or substantial degree. Thus to insist, without qualification, that it is, is simply to rehearse a myth (or ideology).

12. Could we even say that (big-C) Capitalism doesn’t exist? And not just as an ontological point about defining the referent of complex phenomena, or an issue of nominalism surrounding general concepts like “the average person.”

13. What should we call the prevailing economic systems, practices, credos, and philosophies of the last 40 years? The go-to shorthand is “neoliberalism,” but I prefer a much more unwieldy term: hyper-liquid financialized speculative global capitalism.

14. Certainly, the generation of wealth has something to do with the amelioration of people’s lives. But even this is a sticking point. That Capitalism-as-ideology (e.g. maximum deregulation, the mythical free-market, taxes are inherently evil, shareholders are sacrosanct) has played a major role in generating new wealth is not at all clear.

15. There is a real possibility that “growth” under “neoliberal” capitalism is an epiphenomenon of the real major kind of capitalist activity: wealth redistribution.

16. The point here is that not all wealth is created equal (even though modern commodified economic systems try to make it seem like it is). Some wealth creation is tied to new and better labour conditions, some to technological innovations and scientific breakthroughs, some to increased capacities of material production, some to more efficient resource use, and so on with a list of things that we might hold to be genuinely productive.

17. A lot of wealth creation, on the other hand, is tied to increasingly Byzantine financial systems, whose chief output is ever more esoteric “financial products” and knowledge economies. Much of this economic activity is merely illusory – lots of people are certainly very active, and many new infrastructures and systems are devised to manage the activity – but very little productive wealth is being generated, but rather redistributed to those owning most of the capital, and the middle men and managers who facilitate this redistribution comprise a vast financial sector of very busy looking and smart sounding people who get relatively rich (and thus appear economically productive) from being allowed a small cut of the total amount of wealth being moved around.

18. I think a fair analogy here would be to mercantilism. Not that modern capitalism is fundamentally neo-mercantilist, but that the mercantile system was certainly responsible for all kinds of economic activity, but the underlying motivation was a fallacy. It was not the bullion that created wealth, it was all the subsidiary activity that went to increasing one’s reserves of precious metals.

19. On the other hand, as Adam Smith observed, mercantilism could be understood as form of rent-seeking. Contemporarily, this rentier capitalism is another form of epiphenomenal wealth creation. Rentierism is mildly productive, enlisting various productive industries like construction or computers, but the real wealth is generated simply by owning ever more expansive kinds of capital and exploiting labourers to use it, thus capturing their productive work.

20. The unwieldy set of different kinds of wealth creation has allegedly been produced by the implementation of a simple set of economic principles, which can be summed up with perhaps the most consecrated tenet (or symbol) of this myth: the “free market.” The zealous pursuit of the free market is guided by a central commandment: deregulation, which amounts to a fundamentalist rejection of any type of legislation, structure, or system, even hypothetically, that would hinder the unbridled pursuit of capital accumulation by the world’s most wealthy people. According to dogma, deregulation is the source of all the increased prosperity that humans have enjoyed over the last three and a half decades.

21. The empirical and theoretical work establishing this causal relationship is non-existent. First, recalcitrant and confounding evidence is ample. Most the economic growth of the 20th century, including periods where growth was greater than in the past 35 years, happened under conditions that were significantly more regulated than now.

22. Deregulation is so overgeneralised as to be almost conceptually useless. Artificial price ceilings and Pigouvian taxes (and taxation in general) are fundamentally different kinds of things.

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