[Proper introduction needed: perhaps a few vignettes of life in capitalism, including bourgeois professional, factory worker in China; core and periphery… I need to think more about this.]
Capitalism as an Ethical Problem: both parts of that title need to be explained.
Capitalism, like socialism or fascism, is a contested term. James Fulcher defines it as ‘essentially the investment of money in the expectation of making a profit’. The Encyclopedia Britannica, as an ‘economic system, dominant in the Western world since the breakup of feudalism, in which most of the means of production are privately owned and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets’. Deirdre McCloskey, as ‘private property and free labour without central planning, regulated by the rule of law and by an ethical consensus’. There’s no interesting argument to be had about which is the ‘real meaning’ of the term: words have uses, not real meanings.
I shall use capitalism as the name of a form of life: our current global form, which deeply shapes the development, experiences, and possibilities of all living humans. It’s the result of a revolutionary change which happened over the last few hundred years. That ‘great transformation’ was perhaps the largest change in human life since the shift from hunting, gathering and gardening to agriculture and cities.
This recent revolution was the takeover of more and more of human life by markets: by individual ownership, exchange in pursuit of profit, and their supporting social and political institutions. The takeover began in the seventeenth century, and increased rapidly from around 1800. Industrial capitalism developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, and our global finance capitalism in the second half of the twentieth.
A critic interrupts: Capitalism isn’t a recent transformation, capitalism is natural. Humans always rationally pursue profit or self-interest, and have an innate tendency to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ for advantage. The rise of modern capitalism was the freeing of that nature from the chains of feudal church, state, and culture—from sumptuary laws, the prohibition of usury, and the valorisation of holy poverty—leading to increased trade, accumulation, investment, and innovation. It was growth, not revolution. (This critical voice will continue to interrupt, in italics, throughout.)
That’s a widely held view, and not a stupid one, but it’s mistaken. One running theme of this book will be the historical particularity of capitalism and the range of humanly possible alternatives to it. For now, I’ll point out three major qualitative changes involved in the move to capitalism. I’m not claiming that self-interest and trade are not natural. They may well be, and capitalism must somehow connect with our natures or it wouldn’t be possible for us. But my argument here is that self-interest and trade don’t by themselves add up to our current capitalist form of life.
The first change is in how the relation of self to society is understood: the transition to capitalism is a move from understanding the basic social tie as blood to understanding it as bargain. In non-capitalist forms of life, people relate to one another and organise their shared lives in a variety of ways, but centrally by natural and artificial kinship: mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters; clans and marriages; shared ancestors. In capitalism, people understand and direct many of their relations as voluntary agreements between formal equals. Social roles aren’t assigned to the fitting person with a particular blood relationship, but are ‘careers open to talent’. In theory at least, capacity not descent is what matters.
Thomas Hobbes helped to define this understanding of social relations by recasting what a monarch is. For many seventeenth-century royalists, Charles II was the unique bearer of a sacred property—he was the king because of who he in particular was, the heir of the previous king. For Hobbes, Charles Stuart is no-one special unless we—individuals with our own powers and rights to use them to pursue our desires—make him so. Each of us offers the others a self-interested bargain: I’ll obey the king if you do too. This bargain is worth making because everyone’s obedience is better for me than everyone’s freedom (every else’s obedience and my freedom would be even better, but no-one’s going to agree to that). Hobbes’s starting place is what’s important here: society is a bargain between presocial individuals, and forward-looking agreement rather than history is what’s important in its organisation.
So, in capitalism, the roles available to us are temporary contracts which might be filled by any particular person, rather than identities which belong to us because of who and what we in particular are—manager, employee, or customer, rather than King Charles II, the knight Sir Francis Godolphin, or the serfs Mary and John.
Of course, kinship hasn’t disappeared as an organising principle, but its powers are changed and constrained by the market in contracted roles. James Murdoch’s role has something to do with being the son of Rupert Murdoch, but he can be fired and replaced.
The second change is in property, that is rights over things, and especially over things needed for survival. In non-capitalist forms of life, non-human nature is occupied and managed by groups who make decisions by some combination of tradition, hierarchy, and democracy. In capitalism, land is owned by an individual (often a legal individual, a corporation, not a single human being). The shift to capitalism involves both the concentration of rights which had been distributed, and the creation of a new right. Feudal serfs had a customary or common law right to derive a livelihood from the fields and forests they occupied; feudal lords had a right to a share of their crops. Neither had a right to transfer those rights, nor to change how the fields and forests were used and lived in. Capitalist land-owners have formal legal rights not only to do all of these things, but also to sell. The shift to capitalism recasts nature as land, that is as a commodity as well as a place and resource: it puts nature into a market.
The history of enclosure in England is one example of this shift. In the hundred years from the mid-eighteenth century, common land was frequently transferred into private ownership by acts of parliament. This was a move from shared local rights to collect firewood, cut turf, graze livestock, mow hay, and other particular activities, to individual ownership rights to use, derive profit, transform, and especially to sell. Enclosure involved considerable violence, and it made many new landowners, who were often the old aristocrats, rich. More importantly, it helped to create an urban working class. Many who could no longer make a living as farmers, foragers and gardeners went to the city to try to make a living by selling all they had left: themselves, the activity of their bodies and minds, also now become a commodity as labour.
In non-capitalist forms of life, there is no individual ownership of the strong kind we have in capitalism. I’m not making the obviously false claim that outside capitalism, no individual or group holds onto particular objects, occupies particular spaces, or excludes others from them. I am saying that the individual owner in whom all the rights of property including the right to sell are fixed, and who can own land and labour amongst other commodities, is a product of capitalism.
Nor am I saying that individual ownership is the only way in which people in capitalism have rights over things. Other forms of use and occupation survive, just as non-bargain forms of social relation do, and often in the same place: families use and occupy intimate spaces without needing always to make ownership claims against one another, even though they may make strong claims to monopolise the use of particular objects (my armchair) and territory (my bedroom). I am saying that the creation and expansion of individual ownership is a revolutionary change in how humans live.
The third change is in the production and distribution of goods, in three ways. First, why are goods made? In non-capitalist forms of life, goods are made for a variety of reasons: need, pleasure, ritual, status, gift-giving. In capitalism, goods are made in the hope of profitable exchange. The exchange is expected to be profitable because of all those other reasons why people might want or need goods, but goods are made for exchange and not directly for those other reasons. That shapes what is made, how it’s made, and who gets it.
Second, how are goods made? Groups normally make goods in both the capitalist and the non-capitalist case, but they’re different kinds of group. In non-capitalist forms of life, goods are made by groups including families, villages, and guilds, using organising strategies including the demands of friendship and care, reciprocity, the threat of mockery and social disapproval, the threat of violence, and gender-based divisions of labour. In capitalism, the preeminent group form is the bureaucratic corporation or firm: a formal, rule-governed hierarchy with horizontal and vertical division of labour (horizontal in that each person does only some small part of the group task; vertical in that the head-work of management is divided from the hand-work of labour). This firm exists in a market for which it produces, and in which it makes exchanges in pursuit of profit.
Third, how are goods distributed? In non-capitalist forms of life, the answer is again various: who gets what is a matter of traditional portions, or need, or centralised redistribution, or giving and returning favours, or expression of social approval and disapproval, or violent appropriation. In capitalism, access to goods is decided by ability to pay. Paying or bartering for goods in markets is an option available in many non-capitalist forms of life, but in capitalism, markets are compulsory, not optional. There’s no other way to get much of what I need or want than to buy it.
[Need an example here: competitive feasting as a form of distribution? potlatch?]
The capitalist revolution is incomplete, and perhaps can’t be complete. The creatures on the other side of the great transformation were still humans, and human universals like kinship continue across the boundary, though in changed forms and context. But the three major changes I’ve sketched are enough to reject the claim that capitalism is natural: our capitalist form of life is recent, revolutionary, and only one of the ways humans have lived and might live again.
1.2 …as an Ethical Problem
This book is about capitalism as an ethical problem. Any form of life raises the question, is this the best way to live?, because it shapes us. What we can do and be, individually and collectively, depends on the form of life we find ourselves in, which we didn’t create, but which is not merely a fact of nature we have to deal with. We make our current form of life together, in the face of and with the collaboration of human and non-human nature, we have made other forms of life in the past, and we could make another form in the future. We have alternatives, so as reasonable people we can and should think about capitalism in the context of those alternatives.
But how are we to think about them? If we’re so shaped by our form of life, we can’t get to an objective position outside it to judge it.
We’ll attempt a particular kind of thinking, which philosophers and others have taken up at least since Socrates. We’ll address current human predicaments by working from the particular and local towards the fundamental and general. We’ll go from particular experiences of lack of freedoms to the nature and value of freedom. We’ll use contrasts between capitalist and other kinds of work to make judgements about the value of work. The answer to my critic is that we won’t try to step up to the position of the outside judge. Our project is critical from multiple human perspectives, not from an imaginary godlike perspective.
Our topics are some ethically problematic and philosophically interesting features of capitalism as a form of life: freedom, ownership, individuals, opulence, making a living [and justice?]. We’ll also consider utopianism as one way of responding to these features. These topics are different angles on one thing, not independent, but we need to abstract if we’re to get clear about the complex whole.