Monday, 15 February 2016

There’s Something About Capitalism

What is capitalism? At one level it is no more than a system wherein some can accumulate wealth to purchase natural, human, and man-made resources so that these will produce whatever returns their owners can extract from them. The owners may get rental income from properties they let, payment from machines and plants they lease out, interests from money they lend, or revenue from the work of people they have hired. Without the accumulation by a few and the incentive to make more money out of the accumulation, it is argued, there just would not be sufficient concentration of wealth or motivation to fund the endless variety of useful – as well as useless – things we seek out.

But the problem with allowing a few to amass concentrated wealth and power long predates capitalism. History has shown that for thousands of years human societies that succumb to a few having vastly more wealth than others will end up being exploited by the dominant few. It’s the nature of power dynamics. The few who can practically call all the shots will make the rest bow down to them. Money can buy one-sided bargaining, intimidation, threats of hunger (and withholding of healthcare), and rewriting of the laws where necessary. Against this backdrop, the Communist attempts to overthrow capitalism clearly miss the point completely. An unchallengeable party taking control of virtually all capital is obviously no better, but far worse, than hundreds of rich business owners sharing that control, for the simple reason that the greater the concentration of wealth and power, the more unaccountable and oppressive will become those who wield that concentrated power.

Ironically the failure of totalitarian communism has taught naïve champions of ‘capitalism’ nothing. After the fall of Berlin Wall, neoliberals pretend that the collapse of the Soviet regime confirms that capitalism is unassailable. The real lesson is that the relentless concentration of power in an unaccountable few is dangerous and unsustainable. Sooner or later, the oppression will reach boiling point and something will have to give.

Of course there is no guarantee what it will give way to. At present, a few anti-neoliberal commentators are adding the declining yield of capital from decreasing purchasing and mounting debt, to the emergence of the low marginal-cost sharing economy, and ending up with hyper-utopian predictions about a “post-capitalist” future that will bring justice, abundance, and happiness for all.

I have no doubt that when capitalism continues to degenerate into a form where a few sit on vast concentrations of wealth, while others keep getting paid less in real terms and weighed down by borrowing (because they are not paid enough to buy the things they help to produce), serious problems will erupt. Unfortunately, unless democracy reawakens and wrestles government institutions from the plutocrats, the problems will be ‘solved’ by sacrificing those on middling and low income.

As for the dreams of a landscape filled with universally accessible machines that are ready made to generate or replicate anything people want – energy, food, transport, homes, entertainment, medicine, etc – at no marginal cost, while the raw materials needed are themselves recycled also at no cost, they are not only far fetched, but they divert vital attention from the need to recapture state power, to a fantasy that a new utopian world is coming soon and all will be well.

This is not to say that new technology for recycling, renewable energy, digital sharing, low cost manufacturing, coupled with cooperative working, commons ownership of certain resources, cannot deliver better quality of life for some people. But it will only happen on a large scale, and benefit more than a minority of the population, if new ways of working where power-sharing is at the heart of all operations become the norm.

And for that to happen, there has to be a substantial shift of power from the elite atop organisations and society to others. This is not about equalising wealth, but about sharing out power to consider how production can be better managed and more resources generated for the many, not just the few. Worker cooperatives do not reject pay differentials. They discuss amongst themselves and experiment in reaching the most productive differentials so some are paid more than others, but only in so far as that is really helpful to maximise the positive impact of their enterprise. As writers and advocates, we can help to make the case. But ultimately, if those with concentrated power are not willing to change, only a sovereign government can bring in new rules and practices – not necessarily to put an end to capitalism, certainly not to bring in communism, but to facilitate the extensive development of cooperativism. We are not talking about an impossible utopia, but the dawn of synetopia.

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Politics of Anti-Rationality

As a philosopher, John Stuart Mill produced highly influential works that explain how arbitrary beliefs should be displaced by systematic, experimental reasoning. As an elected Member of Parliament, he turned his attention to politicians who deliberately exploited foolishness and prejudice as a means to win support for their self-centred agenda which was actually detrimental to the public. When asked if he was maligning the Conservative Party as dim-witted, he explained thus:

“What I stated was, that the Conservative party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party. ... Now, I do not retract this assertion; but I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. ... And I do not see why honourable Gentlemen should feel that position at all offensive to them; for it ensures their always being an extremely powerful party. ... There is a dense solid force in sheer stupidity – such, that a few able men, with that force pressing behind them, are assured of victory in many a struggle; and many a
victory the Conservative party have owed to that force.”

It may be argued that rationality is a matter of degree, and everybody has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to what we know (or not). But as Socrates pointed out, while we are all ignorant about various matters, those who know about what they lack knowledge of are wise, but those who think they know when they are in fact quite ignorant of the subject in question are fools. And what makes Mill object to his political antagonists is that they build their platform on the exploitation of irrationality. Far from trying to help people reason and understand, they encourage them to despise the pursuit of knowledge, they endorse the display of blind hate and twisted prejudice, and they deride those who seek deeper understanding as feeble.

These tendencies can be seen from ancient emperors and monarchs pretending that they speak for the gods, while encouraging superstitions amongst the masses so that it was all the easier to trick them into accepting raw deals in this life. They can be seen in religious charlatans through the ages as they prey upon the minds of dupes and would-be fanatics. And they are all too visible amongst contemporary neo-conservative politicians who extol the god-like virtues of the corporate elite, dismiss criticisms of oppressive business practices as mere jibes made by ‘know all’s, and champion every vicious prejudice as a great traditional value.

Like the philosophers of the Enlightenment who came before him, Mill hoped that education would enable more and more people to reason, discuss and explore what would be better ways to shape their lives and organise society. But like many progressive politicians who came after him, he was concerned that the power of education might not always be a match for the deceit and propaganda deployed by those who would glorify prejudices for the sake of turning the gullible into legions of diehard supporters for exploitative regimes (see, ‘Convert or Con Victim’).

The enemies of mutual respect and rational cooperation will always have the edge in any process for allocating political power if there is nothing in place to expose their lies and misdirection. Some have concluded from this that the devil cannot be beaten and henceforth they too would try to win votes by pandering to people’s prejudices – whether these take the form of anti-immigrants, anti-internationalism, anti-science, anti-welfare, anti-equality in any sphere, or anti-diversity in every context.

But there is a different conclusion that can be drawn from this conundrum – and that is, we must be resolute in exposing lies and misdirection. We must use every means at our disposal, and develop new tools and networks to question those in power, challenge prejudices, and help those with unreasonable views to reflect on the implications of their beliefs and rethink what they may have hitherto held to be indubitable. It is commonplace these days to maintain that there is no guaranteed march of reason and progress. Indeed, irrationality not only resurfaces, but goaded by unscrupulous politicians, can even spread alarmingly. But history has shown that where the citadels of dogmas and bigotry are relentlessly and imaginatively challenged, truth and understanding can prevail (see the short history, Against Power Inequalities)