Despite everything, it’s still you.
The internet holds many things, and memes identifying themselves as “about capitalism” are part of them. The format goes something like: “old white male revolting greed, also corporate abuse, ironic expression of these and a fall-flat retort in <140 characters, please like and share.” It’s easy enough to make fun of the artless earnestness of these memes, but the problem for the people posting them is the same as the problem for the rest of us: the hapless, useless expressions define the actual problems out of existence. And when you see “problem” you should think “puzzle,” so let’s play this game to win.
The common criticism of capitalism, from left or from right, is that the wrong people are getting money. For the left it’s CEOs and other people who don’t do “real work,” and for the right it’s minorities and other people who don’t do “real work,” but I’m sure you can see that the argument is never about the system, only about redistribution. None of the political complaints we see today have anything to do with actual capitalism, only with how it should pay out: the argument isn’t about capitalism, about factories and currency and consumerism, but only about envy. Other people receive something you want, you perceive that as a funneling away of limited resources, and the response is bitter and unrelenting hatred. It’s like the stereotypical imperial Chinese harem: the wives detest one another and try to corner the market on their husband’s dick instead of considering why they can’t get a man to themselves and all the dick they could ask for. But then again, it makes sense why they wouldn’t ask, because then they’d have to look at their pretty dresses and think. “So you’re saying that Wall Street bribes us to accept the system with trinkets like credit cards and 401(k)s?” You’re not very good at pattern-matching, are you? In the analogy, the CEOs you hate aren’t the husband, they’re just high-status wives who get more dick than you. The husband is capitalism. “Like, the Koch brothers?” Jesus.
The point of this essay is not how to overthrow the husband and institute private dick for all. You can’t do that for the same reason the Chinese harem couldn’t. Nor is it how to get the maximum quantity of dick; anyone who thinks like that is mentally fucked. This is about how to get some side dick, to stay stable with capitalism but also cheat on it. To work with the beast, but not give in to it. “But isn’t cheating wrong?” Yes, it would be wrong for the haremite to cheat on the person they were cheating on their husband with. “But what about the husband?” What about the husband? It’s not a person. It’s capitalism.
Capitalism is not CEOs and factories and wage labor, although these all are part of it. Capitalism is one thing and one thing only, write it down and memorize it: “The reduction of all relations to commodity relations.” That’s it. There are reasons why it’s popular and effective now as opposed to in other points in history, and there are effects it has which are non-obvious from the definition, but at its core, this is all capitalism is.
Capitalism is the societal primacy of the ability to take one discrete thing and replace it with another discrete thing and continue functioning despite the replacement. A good metaphor is replaceable parts in machinery: if a gear breaks a tooth, you replace it with a new gear. Similarly, if you need to buy a bunch of apples to supply your grocery store, you can buy them from a variety of sources and sub out one box for another. The thing is not an incomparable individual, it is a type. It can be replaced.
Needless to say, this is incredibly powerful. If the gear breaks, replacing it will save the whole machine. Choosing your source of apples lets you control prices, and not “run out” if your usual vendor is unable to meet your needs. The sheer amount of versatility and efficiency this provides cannot be understated. The underlying process here is called “quantification,” and it’s one of the sharpest tools in the human playbook. It’s also one of the oldest: things like recipes and even grain counts and harvests rely on quantification. Answering how much grain you harvested with “this one, and this one, and this one” is not very helpful. Equally, its blindspots are easy to see: when the quantification goes wrong, when the things being made equivalent reject the assessment and their reality possesses something not captured by the abstraction. For instance, if the replacement gear is plastic instead of steel, or the apples are Granny Smith rather than McIntosh, you can find the results failing to adhere to how they were conceived. These are the powers and weaknesses of the quantifiable mindset.
Capitalism is not identical to quantification; quantification is as old as time, for time can’t be counted without numbers. It is what happens when quantification takes over society, when the relative merits of engaging with the world that way outweigh the downsides. This came about as the result of the ascension of unified currency and automation. The story goes something like: in Europe, for a variety of historical reasons, everyone was Christian and everyone used gold. This allowed for travel and commerce, which was innocent enough by itself. Words still had to be spread by the speaker, and the individual speaker mattered. Then came the printing press, and suddenly identical words could be spoken with no reference to the individual speaker, i.e. the printer. First the words shared were purely Christian, which everyone was already prepared to hear, but quickly they became everything else. The words were identical, so the speaker could be replaced: it was the second mass product, with the first being food, which nobody thought much to mention. But the printing press served to inspire by its very form; the observant noticed that clever machinery could be used to make complex tasks rote. And so they replicated the procedure, again and again and again, and came up with clever methods to harness sources of power beyond human muscle to run the tasks, but that is not what we are interested in. What’s interesting is: the labor put in is interchangeable, and the products created are interchangeable, and to make new factories with new products, all you need is money. Money, most of all, because the factory’s parts were built in factories and are all alike, and so the quantity put in is to match in uniformity the quantity taken out. All things become alike in kind, available to buy and sell at regular prices, and suddenly everything in the world has become a commodity, a quantified and regular object that is really just a stand-in for money.
To make this more recognizable: the developments of the Industrial Revolution made it reasonable and logical to conceive of things as commodities above all else. Previously mass industries were composed of “many hands,” as it were, and some of these industries remain, but they have been replaced by the INDUSTRIES OF SCALE, which are easy to rapidly scale up or down or to refit, but only if you have the money. The massive increase in output from harnessing power from running water and eventually fossil fuels is interesting and relevant, and it served to additionally make the output of even blunt and wasteful machinery far more than what human laborers could manage, which did not change the course of industrialization and capitalism but did massively accelerate it.
The indirect result here is that coordination becomes massively easier than before, with the associated effects that mean that needs can be responded to faster than ever before. Production also rises, lowering the amount of abject lack in human society significantly. Equally, unfamiliar markets become easier to buy into than ever before, granting a kind of (mostly lateral) class mobility that was previously unimaginable. The direct result here is that commodity relations dwarf other relations. The importance of how something relates to another as a commodity, as a mathematical and replaceable piece, outweighs any other way it could relate to anything else. This obviously applies to objects, but it also applies to labor, which translates to humans. Although critiques of capitalism are numerous and often incoherent, their sentiment is always born out of the varyingly distinct apprehension that humans are being treated as replaceable.
Let me be perfectly clear: this is not romanticism about how we were treated as human under the feudal system. This is a description of how economies work. Under the feudal system, there were a different set of relations which were prioritized; to be specific, they were feudal relations. Every thing only mattered insofar as it slotted into the feudal system: land could only be noble property, a knight only mattered insofar as they were a knight, and same with a peasant. This was very different from being treated as a commodity, but it didn’t mean you were treated well. Wherever you fell on the totem pole, you would have to play your part, and many of those parts were utter misery. A peasant may not have been replaceable the same way a minimum wage worker is now, but they were irreplaceably inferior. Even a king was irreplaceable in his own right, and we can see how that drove, say, Henry VIII mad.
Let me make this distinction clearer: Romeo and Juliet is a classic story not about love, but about two teenagers who haven’t figured out what the actual economic and social relations of their society are, which are tribal – family. They try to raise their individuality as humans above the relations their society stands in, and fail to realize exactly how much of their life up to that point was bound in them reaping the rewards of their existing relations within the system. This makes them ignorant and privileged, which is why they remain so obnoxious centuries later.
Their arrogant flaunting of every part of their relational power means they end up being an utter disaster for everyone around them and then promptly die. This is the only result for trying to back out of the game entirely. You can’t check out of the system, and they couldn’t check out of their families. Romeo tried, and managed to get his buddy killed. Incidentally, they could have stood a chance if they’d leaned on their privilege, taken advantage of their strong social relations, and tried to foster better relations between the houses, all of which could play along nice with the system (families want to grow). They would then have been reinforcing the system, it’s true, but at least they get to get laid. What’s more, it’s in the interest of getting laid, which seems like a far nobler purpose than expressing individuality to me.
So this is the kind of setup we have under capitalism: all existing social and economic bonds have been reduced, between family and feudal lord and guild and whoever else. They have been reduced to commodity relations. This is not unique to free-market capitalism; the exact same process happened under fascism and communism for the same exact reasons. Implementation details varied, but the overall idea stayed constant. It cannot be overthrown, it can only be rendered obsolete. Whatever replaces it, in turn, will be different and oppressive in a new way. That’s life, I’m afraid. The system is human relations on the evolutionary scale, where the large-scale events that take place are those that get selected for. The game is survival at every level, and the way that game is scored is to be>not to be. Nothing you can do will ever change that fact.
The future is likely to bear some resemblance to the past. If you want some cheap bets on economic futures, here are three:
- There will be a temporary trend of economy by fiat, where people ride on the massive overproduction of the 20th century and substitute speculation for value. Bitcoin is the prime example of this, but social games are included too. Compare and contrast other societies in history experiencing extraordinary abundance, and see what happens.
- Unskilled labor will continue petering out. Machines have gotten too good at too much of it. However, production will stay at similar levels, and so previously unskilled labor will begin to experience demand for skill, if only so that people can be paid enough. At the same time, most existing skilled labor (think engineer or doctor, but also plumber and line cook) will keep up steady demand. Some may be oversupplied, but the jobs won’t vanish.
- Boom and bust cycles will continue.
The last is the critical aspect, and if nothing else, memorize the logic here.
A boom/bust cycle always follows the same pattern. First, there is a lack of supply for something that can be produced; the expression here describes it as an existing market need, but the better way to think of it is as an opportunity. Second, people start capitalizing on the opportunity, and make a lot of money. Other people see success, and jump on board – but please note, this step is about production capacity being optimized for this purpose. That means production is going up, and equally, opportunity is shrinking. At a certain point, the production exceeds the opportunity, but (critically) production keeps going up. [You may be wondering why I don’t say supply and demand. That’s because this is not supply and demand. Supply and demand is instantaneous: how much of X is there, and who’s buying? Production and opportunity is about trends over time: how much steady buying can we expect? The two can easily get unlinked.] This can be due to speculation, but it can just as easily be because production takes time to ramp up. At every point where people decide to increase production more, it can be true that current production at that time did not exceed the opportunity available. However, once you go past the tipping point, you wind up with excess production proportionate to how much opportunity there initially was. The supply skyrockets while the demand stays constant, and you get a peculiar effect: suddenly, the excess of supply itself supplants production. That is, the market supports less production than it would without that supply: the excess supply takes the place of what would be ordinarily produced. As an end result, something close to all the production ends up getting shut down, because it simply isn’t needed. Then demand coasts off of existing supply for a while, until the supply expires and suddenly you have an opportunity again. So the cycle continues.
There is a speculative aspect, yes, and no, I’m not going to discuss it, because it’s a red herring that just wants to moralize “humans are greedy and stupid.” They are, and you shouldn’t care, fluffing yourself up over it is despicable. The important part isn’t the illogic, it’s the logic. The logic states: if you get into the fluid economics of capitalism, you will end up in boom/bust cycles of every kind. Business and money are obvious. Less obvious, unless you stop to consider it, is training and childbirth. It’s called the Baby Boom for a reason, you know. While the image of goods rotting in a warehouse can be a little funny, the idea of those goods being people makes it a little less humorous. Unless, of course, you get off on “that bozo got themselves into an awful trap,” in which case yes, they suck, but you’re worse.
Capitalism has boom/bust cycles like nothing else, which are fueled by its inimitable capacity to shift and rework production. This is its greatest strength, and why it has dominated over other economic systems. It is also its greatest weakness, as it always drives itself to waste and ruin. Capitalism is not characterized by famine; it is characterized by crops being destroyed as subsidies. Capitalism is more than what’s good for you.
Succeeding in capitalism, surviving in it, is weathering the boom/bust cycles. You can get to the top of the pack temporarily by riding up to the height of a boom, but the following bust will ruin you. Even the psychological success of the boom will weigh heavy on you, like a high school quarterback lamenting his thirtieth. Just as important as enduring success is enduring failure: success will destroy you just as surely. The goal is not to become the favorite wife in the harem at all costs, because when the husband gets bored of you you’ll get nothing and the rest of them will hate you too. The goal is to remain stable, and make steady gains over time. Capitalism is abundance incarnate; you don’t need to beat everyone else to get more than enough. Any other thought is just baseless envy speaking. Capitalism has given us what nothing else can, and exposed the weakness of our souls in the same stroke: it has meant we never need to fight for resources ever again. Everything that remains is the want.
It is not difficult to succeed in capitalism. Find a decent job, work your way up, change jobs when appropriate, start a business if you’ve got a good idea or a passion, and save save save. The money can reinvest, recompound, and you will never be in need. Capitalism produces and grows at an overall reasonable, steady rate, and this growth will permit you to prosper. Wealth will accumulate, and you will avoid ruin by the vicissitudes of fate. This is the theory. The theory, on its own, is a model enough. Memorize it, and it will serve you well, the economic relations will be in your favor. But the remaining part of capital, the social relations, the hollowness of the heart, the vicious struggle and painful lack, these must be discussed on their own.
Capitalism is the reduction of all relations to commodity relations, and we have spoken much of what that means for economies and little of what it means for societies. An economic commodity relation is just the fiscal replaceability of the thing, but the social commodity relation is the social replaceability of the thing: socially, a thing is only worth its value in the general social currency, which can be expressed as: how hip is this? In economics: how expensive? In society: how popular? The other relations evaporate, and all that remains is currency. Nothing is worth anything but what it’s worth, and worth is a single game. This is the less obvious part of capitalism, but all the more keenly felt, which drives us mad on its own.
The effect of this is singular, with two aspects: it reduces the game to one dimension, which spawns ruthless competition and destroys the ability to fight back. For the majority of history, any competition had at least a few social axes to compete on, which generally fell along the lines: culture/intellectualism, political prominence, official religion, folk virtue. If someone had the advantage of you with one, you could maintain advantage with another: this allowed for outmaneuvering unfavorable situations and exercise of strength against power. This was, for example, the traditional power of peasants against lords (folk virtue, religion against political power, culture) , which didn’t upend things but at least evened out the playing field. The same was true with regards to economic relations, meaning that money was not the end-all be-all, and in the present day all these balances have been consumed by the one model. If someone exerts power over you, you only have one avenue to fight back, and if you are overpowered there is no other resort for you. This is what the modern public feels keenly, and it is why society has become more polarized.
To explain: if someone has more economic power than you, you will always fall flat when trying to oppose them. You cannot possibly win, leveraging money against money, and you will be rendered helpless. The result is the massive disparity in power between employer and employed, where the employer gets essentially free reign to decide terms and the employee gets none, or the vast majority of consumer contracts (like the notorious EULAs). Corporations on equal footing can make some kind of bargain, but for everyone else it’s take it or leave it. This feeling of helplessness is agonizing, and people suffering it tie themselves up into knots – powerlessness itself is nothing new, but this is its latest form. The social side of things is comparable, where the person who can muster the most social clout can do basically anything they want to the person who can’t. The instance of this that has struck the most nerves recently is the concept of rape, and without touching on the legal aspect we can see that any accusation of rape, true or false, will be decided in the court of public opinion purely by social status: the person who comes across as the most honest will win favor and tar the other as wicked, regardless of the truth. Thus, women and men alike (as the typical parties in this drama) are both rightfully terrified that either someone could rape them/accuse them of rape, destroy their credibility, and leave them with utterly no recourse – based entirely on how well the person could sell the story. Like a bolt out of the blue, they could be consigned to social oblivion on the pure whims of a vicious party, leaving them the solitary option of associating with a group that believes their kind of story no matter what, the “all men are rapists, of course we believe you” or “women are lying skanks, you were innocent man” that this devolves into. And so politically, the debate becomes about inflicting infinite punishment on one potential party or the other, each demanded to assuage the rightful fear of one party but necessarily stoking the fears of the other, resulting in an ever-widening gap in trust justified by the correct assessment that others are seeking deadly power over them with no recourse, but in every case the true form of the problem being ignored, that in the game that was created there can only be one winner and that the loser has to just take it. The single axis of social relations leaves no middle ground.
This drives people insane. If one’s ingroup being weak permits any wrong to be done to it without recourse, then any attempt towards strength by another group is an existential threat and power for one’s own group must be achieved at whatever cost. This may sound familiar, and it is the primitive state of war, for violence is the ultimate contest where victory allows the winner unlimited power over the loser, as Troy and Carthage teach us from antiquity. Distributed and shared communal wellsprings of violence, from courts to the UN, have served to reduce the warlike nature of society, but there is as yet no perfect commons for capitalist relations. This lack has made capitalism in many ways the most brutish form of economy, even more than tribalism, for at least there you could arbitrate disputes through the group.
This is the hardest part of capitalism to navigate, especially as social power translates to economic through publicity and bad press gains a dollar value that can or can’t be matched, and even truth itself becomes a commodity. All human relations become commodity relations, and since commodities are unliving and unreal, the humans follow suit. I do not say this to frighten or depress; I say it so you know the game and its stakes. The system tries to conceal itself from you, so to survive it you need to see its mechanisms laid bare. This is how capitalism comes to control your life, and this is how it breaks you.
There is only one way to beat capitalism, only one way to get out ahead of the system that has counted every card, and it is to take advantage of its blind spot. Capitalism has perfect vision of quantity, and you will never beat it there. It knows where every chip is and how many there are, it sees every game and every roll of the dice and rigs them all. Counting cards will get you tiny gains, and if you get full of yourself goons will beat them right back out of you, but there is one way to beat the house: capitalism may see the chips, but it can never see what they’re worth. Capitalism, god of numbers, is eternally blind to qualia.
This is the only way you can win: to look for what the system can’t see, to look for the qualities that it blinds itself to, for they are where you may be free. Capitalism thinks all things are equal, and this is where its greatest evils come from, where it perceives two things of equal cost as having equal value and ruins them both with clumsy optimization, but it also permits value and worth to be hidden from it, put where it cannot see. These qualities which capitalism cannot see are the most valuable ones to humans: among others, beauty, wisdom, and love.
Beauty is how you overpower the economic relations of objects. Beauty cannot be measured directly, but can only be conceived of as some hidden cause of human want. For instance, one person may own a large house, another a small house, and due to the measurable criteria (square footage, etc) the first costs more than the second. But if the second is more beautiful than the first, then the second homeowner has a significant advantage on the first, for they live in beauty. Capitalism tries to disguise this by tricking us into confusing cost and beauty, “what a beautiful mansion,” but if you hold steady and train your eye and heart you may overcome this and benefit from the world’s beauty.
Wisdom is how you overcome the economic relations of labor. Whenever you take a job, or a university course, or anything remotely similar, you can expect to be fleeced. However much you are making, it is less than what the company gets out of you, and whatever credits you are receiving, they are worth far less than what you are spending on the credentials. This is inevitable. You are weaker, and so you will be taken advantage of. The only way around this is to gain something which capitalism cannot see out of the bargain, which is wisdom. Gaining understanding, not merely of things (any text tells those secrets) but of the meanings and connections behind things, the hidden details like “what good reason looks like,” “how to salvage a bad situation,” “how to gain time where there is none,” “what it means and feels like to be an expert,” means that you have abilities that capitalism cannot measure. The closest thing it knows is “when there isn’t a senior worker, things don’t get done or they get done bad,” which is why it pays out the nose for them. As a worker, you can’t force through additional fiscal compensation against your employer’s will, but you can always take as much wisdom as you want without them ever noticing. This is how you gain earnings beyond your salary: take them in wisdom, without ever asking.
Love is how you overcome the social relations of capitalism. The social currency of capitalism is single, with wealth measured against opposing extremes, and with perfect sanction given to abuse those below you as you please. This by itself eradicates calm and ease, for tender complacency can be seared away by bitter competition. If you play these games, you will find yourself more alone than you can possibly imagine. The only escape is through love. Love, attachment to the other for the sake of the other, is derided by capitalism and never understood. Capitalism demands loyalty in accordance with the discrete elements of currency: say the right things, do the right things, be punished if you say and do wrongly. Love is not blind, love requires virtue and loathes a deeper evil than capitalism can see, but in the face of individual elements of wrongness love says: I will listen or let live, for you are worth it. Love may only ever respond to wrongdoing in one way, which is forgiveness conditional on penance, while capitalism only has infinite punishment at its disposal. This is what gives love its greatest strength, its power over evil. By accepting and forgiving evil, love gains the power to rebuke, command, diminish evil, bringing it in and making it love’s own. Given that every human will sin, that evil is just as innate as good in our hearts, this is the greatest power that can be imagined. Capitalism blinds itself to evil, for it does not forgive – so evil hides, renders itself undetectable by assuming the measurements of good and casts good as evil by assigning the opposite measurements, brands, to it. Taking on love will save you from this. By accepting and forgiving evil, you will be able to accept and forgive others. By accepting others, you open the possibility that they will accept you. Through that, through the possibility of acceptance, through the forgiveness of evil, can come honesty and trust. Through trust, through being able to treat another as an extension of yourself, through letting yourself dissolve just a little into the shared self of the both of you, can you finally be less alone. It is the only way.
These are capitalism’s blind spots, the things it cannot recognize or even cognize. They will let you gain an advantage within capitalism, it is true: beauty gives you more for your money, wisdom lets you produce past your labor-value (and eventually let you demand compensation past your peers), and love will let you collaborate in ways capitalism thinks impossible. This is useful, but not something with the power to change your fate. By valuing virtue at what it can gain you, you are reducing it to market price, you are reducing your own relation to virtue to a commodity relation, you are letting the machine master the man and poisoning your soul. This process is how capitalism hollows out the world, leaving something behind which seems an utter shadow of what your vitality demands. The true power here is not in defeating others in the arena of capitalism using our most precious tools as cudgels, heedless of breaking them in the process, for that is as tasteless as using legitimate charms and virtues as mere methods to advance in the harem. Instead, the power is in defeating the harem utterly, not by abolishing it (for what would have happened to the women who tried, not merely if they failed but if they succeeded? Who bore arms? You must ask these questions), but by rendering it irrelevant, dispelling its power over you. We can’t escape capitalism, but we can build things independent of it and gain powers that capitalism knows not. This is what we must strive towards, for it is our greatest hope. Goodness is still there, and we can still make it. Fear not.
That’s my interpretation of the Gorgias, anyway.
Oh yes, the right wing criticizes capitalism, just not using those words. What do you think the hate on welfare is about? Or government-funded education? Or paying for abortions and Planned Parenthood? Don’t let the debate deceive you, these are all parts of capitalism.
Most of the really obnoxious idiots in media fall into the same bucket: insanely privileged person (economic and social relations favor them) tries to have their cake and eat it by acting outside of or against their privilege and is surprised when the things that had previously propped them up fail. For example, consider The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), where the Man, a white doctor, and his blindly arrogant son go to Morocco and blunder their way into an assassination plot. Father and son alike fail to realize over and over again that they are no longer in Indiana and that entirely different relations apply, and they subsequently get into trouble that only cinema magic extricates them from. Meanwhile, the mother has her lack of privilege in comparison to her husband demonstrated again and again, as she is constantly thwarted in agency by what I assume Hitchcock intended to be American patriarchy. But perhaps because of this, she is the only member of the family who notices how the rules are changing around them – but of course is helpless to stop any of it. Que sera sera indeed.