Is Capitalism being Falsely Accused?

During the protest against the G8 in Belfast, protesters appear to have blamed capitalism and demanded socialism as the solution. Is capitalism being falsely accused by protesters with a simplistic interpretation? Are socialism and communism simply old placards that do not offer a realistic chance of leading us away from irresponsible government policy and financial outrages?

This article highlights some of the difficulties in answering the above questions, without delving into a tiresome amount of economic theory. I believe it is justifiable to accuse capitalism of being the source of the world’s current economic throes, but as sloganeers we need to select the appropriate definition of “capitalism” and then scrap the word “capitalism” from political discourse itself, because of the Twentieth Century baggage that this word carries when used rhetorically. Socialist groups and trade unions should isolate the specific abuses of the governments, corporations and banks that need to be addressed, and create innovative slogans against these as the #Occupy (“We are the 99%”) movement has done.

Some insightful challengers to traditional anti-capitalist sentiment in Europe and elsewhere will say that the traditional critique of capitalism is dated and irrelevant to our situation, and also that our current system is not really the same capitalism that was critiqued in the Nineteenth Century. Past capitalism and concerns of the workers can be contrasted with the modern brutal policies of governments and the impunity with which the bankers can apparently swindle everyone and never face any punishment. In addition, corporations have also become quite invulnerable and emboldened by their ability to buy governments, which has become the norm in US politics despite being repulsively undemocratic. By now, we can say it is not the worker but the endlessly defrauded consumer/voter who is the victim in the present system in Western countries. We could concede that the horrors of the system now are not really summed up as “capitalism” anyway, given that the neoliberal regime in place in the West now is hardly the one that supposedly made Soviet citizens envious in the Cold War years. Maybe the problem cannot be called “capitalism” because it is actually worse, a form of pillaging more comparable with feudal days. If this is so, then the reasoning that leads protesters to simply demand “socialism” and “communism” on red banners rather than making more specific demands is quite poor. Radical commentator Max Keiser expressed exactly such a point when discussing the G8 protests in Belfast recently on his show at RT.

A lot of commentators seem to differ in their understanding of what is meant by “capitalism”. I have frequently encountered detractors contesting my points made about what I have called capitalism. They intercede to say capitalism is a lack of government intervention in a national economy. I say capitalism can, in fact, depend on high government intervention and autocratic ideology, if such things are being used to pursue goals that are “capitalist”.

Capitalism has meant different things to different theorists, as a number of different theories of so-called capitalism exist. This fact is overlooked by a lot of politicians and commentators, who skip to their own interpretations of the system and its discontents, although it is obvious to academics. For Marx in the Nineteenth Century, capitalism was a system of production in which workers are alienated from the product they are making, and are exploited by idle property owners who often simply inherited their property rather than earning or building it. For Marx, the only demand of protesters ought to be to abolish private property, and this is basically the main defining demand of communists in The Communist Manifesto that I recognise. To its defenders, the capitalism faulted by traditional Marxists is justifiable because it can be explained as a system that rewards the entrepreneurs and innovators on whom we depend to generate all things worth having.

To most commentators today, capitalism simply describes having a weak state that keeps its hands out of matters of economy and lets businesses do as they wish. Having a free market is the essence of capitalism according to such a conception. This causes the capitalism-socialism debate to simply be a Marxian-worded repeat of the small government-big government debate. However, we know the socialists criticize government economic policy; e.g., austerity measures, even though this is an example of the kind of big government required for (in common talk) “socialism”. Socialist protesters at the G8, a detractor can say, are calling for the very thing that has caused their problems – big government.

Are the socialists a bunch of naïve youths who do not realize they are asking for the same thing they are protesting against? No, that is a patronizing way of looking at them. Saying the debate is between big government and small government is just too reductive and, frankly, silly. Socialism isn’t simply having a government that organizes your life for you while capitalism is about throwing people in the wilderness with no government. Those simply aren’t the definitions that the informed socialist would be agreeing to abide by. If some people have only adopted those definitions, it is only because pundits have chosen to adopt them first, but they have little relation to the theories behind what are really socialism and capitalism.

In actual fact, the strong state is essential to capitalism, while a free market is essential to socialism. Without strong states, capitalism cannot exist. No, this statement is not too bizarre to be published. This is the theory of capitalism given by Immanuel Wallerstein, whose essays state that socialism is a democratic order and therefore requires a maximally free market – banks and borders get in the way of that freedom, because they interfere in the practice of a truly free market. “Free trade agreements”, “free trade laws” and so forth are getting in the way of having the maximally free market, because by definition they exist to curb freedom by creating parameters for freedom, making them an oxymoron. Similarly, capitalism must create a powerhouse of elites to endlessly accumulate capital, and rests on the existence of a massive division between people who make the wealth and people who aim merely to control it. That is impossible without there being a nest of strong bully state machines (primarily the G8, but also others and middle-man states too) dominating the world of victims. Capitalism, originating with a departure from feudalism in the Sixteenth Century, according to Wallerstein’s analysis of history, is the restraining force on the world which is controlling us, creating the brutal war machines and autocratic states that curb our freedom. Wallersteinian socialism, the alternative, isn’t the state autocracy that is commonly understood when “socialism” is mentioned. It is, rather, a democratic civilization that has managed to overcome controls and barriers that limit our potential.

Is “socialism” the answer? Yes, although it doesn’t do any good to keep making this point in the streets or in a public forum with no political home. The kind of socialist regime that would be the answer is a truly democratic and borderless one. Such an incarnation of socialism does not involve a powerful national government at any point, and rejects any attempt to rally people around a nation-state. In fact, the anarchistic slogan “no borders, no banks” approximates the solution to the injustices addressed under what can justifiably be called the capitalist system. That anarchistic slogan is clearly not a call for big government; it is a call to move beyond the bully states as we know them.

Sloganeering can easily be the victim of misinterpretation, and protests attract a variety of differing groups. The socialist left is too prone to engage in stereotypical anti-capitalist rhetoric when, truthfully, the world’s economic problems aren’t viewed by the vast portion of people as being caused by what they think of as capitalism. In fact, government is typically blamed for all the economic problems and indeed it bears the primary responsibility. The other entities involved in violations against us – banks and corporations – are villains only because they enjoy the security offered by a bully state.

The exploitation targeted by workers’ movements in the past is not really in effect anymore. Addressing capitalism and waving red flags encumbers left-wing protests with baggage, and such protests would do better if they targeted the legitimacy of states altogether and directly called for the ejection of corporate and banking influence from government as the #Occupy movement does. Cheap mentions of “capitalism” in the street are not helpful. “Capitalism” belongs in the discussions of theorists and historians rather than activists and speakers. Humble, piecemeal demands that can actually be rewarded in the path towards an ultimate borderless and democratic world should be presented instead.

Harry J. Bentham is a British futurist blogger who has been a contributor at a number of think tanks including the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies since 2013. His work at Press TV and the multi-faith Beliefnet website has gained increasing attention and praise, including in the international media. Commentaries on political and ethical controversies by Bentham have been published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, H+ Magazine, Dissident Voice and numerous other publications. He edits The Blog. Read other articles by Harry.