Capitalism isn’t working…
… it’s getting other people to do it for you.
As global economic inequality grows, there’s a feeling Capitalism is facing an end of days. But what might replace it is less a battle of ideas than a desert of anxiety. Viable alternatives are thinner on the ground than the supermodels tent at Glastonbury.
The 18th Century “Socialism” solution has not had a great run and, you’ve got to wonder whether post-Capitalism is even possible? Could Capitalism be organic? Is it inevitable for any species that develops language and is intent on conserving energy?
Imagine you’re early man, you shake a tree and an apple falls. But shaking trees takes energy and soon becomes tedious. However, if you just guard your tree instead, you can allow others to access the tree – to shake it for you – if they agree to share the bounty. But then, guarding the tree can also be tedious and dangerous so why not get more fellow hominidae to guard the tree for you and also share in the fallout? All you’ve done is tell a story of ownership and now you’re gorging on apple pie whilst everyone else is doing all the guarding and shaking; your superior apple-rich genetic Capitalist legacy is set.
In a classic economic model, Capitalism relies on balancing a seesaw. On one side is labour: work, the value awarded to time and effort. On the other side is the “means of production”: property, materials, capital, cash, money, moolah, the way to acquire life’s essentials and eventually a naval fluff hoover. If the value of work goes up, capital depletes, if the value of work becomes less, profits rise.
The idea is that, through life, you try to tiptoe across the seesaw. As you acquire capital, through work, you do less work to acquire capital. Capitalist success, therefore, is measured by profit or, just how far you can get from ever having to do a day’s work.
It’s a paradox of the human condition: man works in order to afford not to work. Just as, in the sickest place to impart irony, it was wrought in iron on the gates of Nazi concentration camps: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work will set you free.
It’s a lie we still tell ourselves. The odds of getting across the seesaw are not much better than the lottery but the opportunity to do so underlines the western “American dream”. The truth is closer to Merle Travis’s swing classic Sixteen Tons.
Some people say a man is made out of mud.
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood;
Muscle and blood and skin and bones,
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong.
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.
Briefly, in the 1990’s, Tony Blair’s New Labour believed there could be a third way to approach work and promoted the ideas of a psychologist whose very name is hard work, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He thought all we had to do was find work so absorbing we’d enter a “flow state”, aka being “in the zone”; that feeling when you’re so absorbed in a process you don’t notice how much time has passed. Finally work could be happiness. Unfortunately, it turns out that slaughtering cattle, working in retail, wiping incontinent patients, indeed the vast majority of jobs actually require mental presence.
In reality, for Capitalism to thrive work needs to be miserable. We must hate work enough to do enough of it in order to stop having to work so hard. If you’re enjoying your work then you’re doing Capitalism wrong. Work necessarily needs to be hateful, tedious, stressful and generally soul destroying. It’s almost as if people with BO have been purposefully dispatched to make your tube commute awful, your manager is trained to be an odious twat and people above you are hired especially for being idiots. If not to escape it, how else might you be inspired to graft?
But what if we just earned sufficiently to eat, feed, house and school our families adequately, do the things we enjoy doing and live lives in which we deplete the planet as little as possible before we leave it? This an anathema to the Capitalist goal where profit is success and profit beyond any possible need is holy. Achieving a Life/Work balance limits productivity and production is the measure of all things.
Western economies measure success in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which has almost nothing to do with how much fun it is to live there. Brexiters cannot believe the EU will not do a better deal with “the world’s 5th largest economy”, but maybe there are more important things they’re trying to protect.
Last month Britain’s furthest ex-colony made a bold bid for post-Capitalism. With their latest budget New Zealand decided to stop looking to GDP as their progress indicator, but “well-being” instead. They prioritised mental health provision and other markers of population happiness.
It’s like New Zealand is trying a national Google, “workers’ fun first”, approach. Meanwhile Google itself is taking a different approach to bring on post-Capitalism: mass unemployment. When they’re not sliding between floors and catching naps in sleep pods or playing office pool, the hipster G-males (G-men make up almost 70% of Google’s staff) are coding the Artificial Intelligence Revolution (AIR). If Capitalists profit more by driving the cost of production down, like the Industrial Revolution before it, AIR aims to tip the labour/capital seesaw irretrievably towards the capital owners: replacing skilled manual and white-collar decision-making work. At some point the only work for humans will be, like the Amazon warehouse runners, obeying and servicing the machines.
But because, for centuries, Capitalist work has been necessarily awful, AI Revolutionaries believe they’re on the side of the angels; ridding the world of boring and repetitive work whilst driving down the cost of production which, in a fairer world, would make products and the cost of life cheaper.
They dream of a post-Capitalist world in which both work and the cost of life is minimal whilst leisure, and the opportunities it affords, are maximised.
The dream isn’t new. In The Soul of a Man Under Socialism, (1891) Oscar Wilde reflected on the radical new ideas being put forward by Marx, Engels and Kropotkin. In an ideal Post-Capitalist world, “With the abolition of private property,” he wrote, “then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols of things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Wilde saw we are trapped by our stuff and the shedding of it was prophetic. In our growing digital world, ownership is becoming virtual. The GDP shopping basket can no longer rely solely on physical things being produced. The apps we buy, the games we play, the boxless box-sets we watch, the music we listen to, the maps we explore, the photos we take, the spreadsheets we fill, the e-books we read, even the money we exchange are all ethereal electronic signals. Experience tells us that, if you drive the means of production into fewer and fewer hands, they’re rarely willing to share the wealth without a fight. Wilde knew the answer, channelling his inner Milton and justifying it as only he could. “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”