The four fallacies of anti-capitalism

Many years ago, I encountered some soul-searching commentary by a former Norwegian Maoist (they were somewhat influential in Norway in the 1970s). He was asking in effect “did we really want Norway to be like China under Mao”? The Maoists’ public statements indicated that they did want that, or something basically similar, but the question seems obviously relevant. Did they really want to abandon a relatively comfortable existence in a social democratic welfare state for a brutal dictatorship? They may have believed that everything they were told by the Western media about conditions in China was propaganda, and yet it is still surreal to me.

Similarly, current anti-capitalist sentiment of various kinds seems glib to me. How heartfelt is it really? Would everyone who speaks of the alleged horrors of capitalism really prefer something else? Or are they just virtue-signaling by attacking something that’s easy to attack because of its obvious flaws?

I don’t know, but I do think they are making things easy for themselves by never really considering what they want as a replacement for capitalism. Above all, it’s a matter of vagueness: most anti-capitalism is not even wrong.

It’s not even wrong

Anti-capitalism is typically a conceptual framework in which the most important concepts remains undefined, and therefore wild flights of fancy may be passed off as relevant to the real world, because there is no way to confront them with reality.

Specifically, the word “capitalism” — when used as a springboard for criticism — tends to mean variously a set of attitudes or values, a relative lack of government control of the economy, the behavior of multinational corporations, or maybe just money or greed. These are not simply different things, they are different kinds of things, requiring radically different approaches if you want to change them.

We also need to have an idea of what the alternative might be. Not to say that capitalism is great because Communism (or whatever) is worse, but to draw a boundary so we have some idea what we are talking about. If it’s impossible to say what is not capitalism, then capitalism is anything and the object of the discussion is non-existent.

The lack of a well-defined meaning of the word allows anti-capitalists to always be right, no matter what happens. As Roger Scruton writes in his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left:

‘Capitalism’ is in most of its uses a term of Newspeak. It suggests a comprehensive theory to explain our society, and a strategy to replace it. But there is no such theory, and no such strategy. We know this from a very simple observation, namely that, after all social transformations, however fundamental, after all adaptations, achieved with whatever effort and at whatever cost, the term ‘capitalism’ still surfaces as a description of the result. This is even true of the state that resulted from the communist revolution in Russia, described as ‘state capitalism’ by thinkers of the Frankfurt school.

One obvious fix is to use a dictionary definition:

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

The problem for anti-capitalists is that the alternative implied by this is a command economy as we’ve seen in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. The awfulness of this alternative is so obvious that few anti-capitalists promote it nowadays.

I am not saying that there could never possibly be a better alternative to capitalism, but to even begin to be worth discussing, it would have to be at least somewhat clear what capitalism and thus the phrase “alternative to capitalism” means.

Anyway, the lack of a definition of the target has not prevented anti-capitalists from shooting at it. Nowadays, the environment may be the biggest of the anti-capitalist grievances.

Pushing fictional stories of environmental degradation

Environmental destruction is used by anti-capitalists as proof that capitalism is an unredeemable disaster that will wipe us out by “destroying the ecosystem we all depend on for survival”.

But contrary to what media reports often indicate, the environment is not going down the drain. Environmental regulation and conservation efforts have been largely successful. The whales have been saved. We have cleaner air and water. (Even in Beijing.) There is no “sixth mass extinction” underway; species extinctions peaked some time around the year 1900.

Furthermore, as I have explained previously, there is no indication, even from worst-case scenarios, that climate change will be a disaster that will exceed our ability to handle it.

The use of materials and energy has basically stopped growing in affluent countries and the rest of the world is expected to follow suit. The reason for that is that capitalism does not have a “prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital”—in other words, to use as many resources as possible. On the contrary, market incentives favor using as few resources as possible to deliver a given product or service. Resources cost money, and even small savings can bring a competitive advantage. An example cited by Andrew McAfee in his book More from Less is aluminum beer cans. They started out at 85 grams. By 2011 they were down to less than one-sixth the size, 12.75 grams.

Many remaining environmental challenges have less to do with capitalist activities than is commonly assumed. Destruction of the Amazon rainforest is driven mostly by the survival needs of poor farmers, not by greedy corporations. Plastic in the ocean comes chiefly from low or middle income countries with poor waste handling. It’s a manageable problem, though not by banning plastic straws.

The idea seems to be that capitalism causes greed which causes people to ruthlessly exploit the environment. But capitalism does not cause greed. Unless you believe in the Blank Slate, greed is innate.

Relying on the Blank Slate

The Blank Slate is (according to Steven Pinker’s eponymous book) “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.” If there is no evil inherent in us, then evil must come from society somehow, and capitalism is an easy scapegoat both because of its vagueness, its current ubiquity and since it seems to embody some of our worst tendencies such as greed and aggression.

But the Blank Slate is wrong. Greed and aggression are innate, and we need to deal with them and soften their impacts in rational ways. Blaming capitalism is not likely to help.

There are a few ways this appears in anti-capitalist rhetoric. One is “the profit motive”, which allegedly leads to all sorts of excesses, atrocities and environmental devastation. (Overlooking the fact that most companies manage to make a profit without wrecking anything). In one discussion, the profit motive was blamed for the “genocide of the Caribbean Indians”. That’s instructive, because that happened long before capitalism as it’s usually defined, which only came into being with the industrial revolution. What “profit motive”, then? Not in the capitalist sense of selling products for profit, but the same “profit motive” as in any armed robbery: wanting what someone else has, also known as greed.

The companion idea to the Blank Slate is the Noble Savage. Caitlin Johnstone has an interesting take on it:

…in societies that aren’t dominated by money, goodwill is the prevailing currency, and sociopaths tend to wind up dead. From Scientific American:

In a 1976 study anthropologist Jane M. Murphy, then at Harvard University, found that an isolated group of Yupik-speaking Inuits near the Bering Strait had a term (kunlangeta) they used to describe “a man who … repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and … takes sexual advantage of many women—someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment.” When Murphy asked an Inuit what the group would typically do with a kunlangeta, he replied, “Somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”

But think about it for a minute. If someone could push him off the ice when nobody else was looking, what’s to prevent him from pushing someone off the ice? It’s remarkably naïve to simply assume that this system works like a well-oiled happiness machine, and hard to see how it could, unless there is a magical, invisible source of goodness embedded i the culture.

The facts indicate otherwise. In the real world, native tribes do not conform to the romantic stereotype of peaceful harmony. Murder is common, and war with competing tribes is a major cause of death among males, and as Pinker recounts:

…native peoples are dead serious when they carry out warfare. Many of them make weapons as damaging as their technology permits, exterminate their enemies when they can get away with it, and enhance the experience by torturing captives, cutting off trophies, and feasting on enemy flesh.

And is the aforementioned inuit culture’s way of dealing with sociopaths really better than ours? We, too, have words for such people. In fact, “sociopath” is one of them along with more colloquial terms such as “asshole”. And we do punish them—if they break the law. The fact that they often do well in modern societies is due to the fact that they use hierarchies to seek power. Whether the rewards of power are in the form of money or something else is basically irrelevant.

And all societies have hierarchies, including—as with the elders mentioned above—those Yupik-speaking Inuits. I doubt that Johnstone has thought this through: does she really want her survival to depend on goodwill? And would she be ready to be reprimanded and punished by the elders? Personally, I prefer to know beforehand the criteria for who gets pushed off the ice—literally or metaphorically.

The alleged naturalness and goodness of tribal societies is seen as a contrast to the seeming machine-like harshness of capitalism. And if it’s a machine, why can’t we just scrap it and replace it with a new, softer one?

Treating capitalism as if it were designed and planned

If capitalism were the result of deliberate design, then it would be reasonable to ask how else we could design it, opening the door to alternatives. But it was never designed. It grew all by itself from the actions of millions of individuals. It has been regulated to various degrees and in various ways, but that’s not the reason it exists. Regulation is more like pruning a tree than building a house.

And yet, it is often spoken of as if it were set up according to some fixed rules (such as the “prime directive” mentioned above) that must be followed, and that the rules can simply be swapped for different ones, like buying a new pair of shoes.

Economic growth, for instance, is often portrayed as if it were forced upon the economy, whereas it is actually a natural result of technological innovation and people’s desire for more and better goods and services. Kids want more toys, and not because they’ve been brainwashed by capitalist ideology. This does not prove that it’s a good thing, but the idea that growth is something that has artificially been imposed by politics or ideology, rather than a process that has evolved, is a false one. Just as meteorologists don’t control the weather, growth was not invented by economists; they’ve devised ways to measure it, that’s all.

At some time in the future, the world may evolve to a state where the dictionary definition of capitalism is no longer useful as a guideline. And there are other versions of anti-capitalist arguments that may be more sophisticated. The ones I’ve described here are simply the ones I’ve observed often.

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