What exactly is capitalism? That might appear a strange question to ask, fifty-plus posts into a blog about, erm, capitalism. But if you’ll forgive the tardiness, this is an inquiry that needs to be pressed.
While capitalism is a noun that attracts adjectives in abundance (crony capitalism, free-market capitalism, and now the oxymoronic humane capitalism), the noun itself remains largely uninterrogated, an unexamined presence. Everyone is supposed to understand what capitalism is – it’s all around them after all – but it’s remarkable that something so taken for granted is seldom defined. I’m convinced that many people who define themselves as anti-capitalist have only an intuitive sense of what they are against.
Perhaps you can be too close up to something to fully grasp it. Maybe you don’t really know the people you’re closest to.
David Schweickart is an American mathematician and philosopher who published a book in 2002 called After Capitalism. Aside from elucidating an alternative to capitalism, he attempted to define it and describe its consequences. After Capitalism isn’t a howl of outrage against “the system” but a rational effort to go beyond TINA (‘there is no alternative’)
Reviewing Schweickart’s book is therefore a good way to look at capitalism in the cold light of day: To examine what it is (which may be very different from how it is commonly perceived) to look at its faults, to say what’s good about it and what the alternatives to it are. There is, I believe, an unconscious and very prevalent fear, that interfering too deeply in the workings of the mysterious capitalist machine will lead either to the government controlling everything, with lethal consequences for freedom, or, alternatively, plunge us into a technological dark age and anarchistic chaos. Refusing to be awed or intimidated by what is, after all, an economic system that humanity has rejected for the vast majority of its history is a path to confronting those fears. The review will be in three parts.
Here is Schweickart speaking (with others):
Here is Schweickart speaking (with others):
Say cheese! The C-word in focus
Schweickart gives a three part definition of capitalism. Firstly, he says, the bulk of the means of production (offices, factories that produce goods and services) must be privately owned, either by corporations or individuals. This was traditionally called by the Left ‘private property’ which is unfortunate, Schweickart says, because it implies that homes, cars and toothbrushes will all be confiscated and “communalised” in any revolutionary change (think of John Lennon’s Imagine). These things were, to someone like Karl Marx, not ‘private property’ but ‘personal property’ and would not be seized by anyone.
Secondly, products are exchanged in a market. “Individual enterprises compete with one another in providing goods and services to consumers, each enterprise trying to make a profit,” says Schweickart. “This competition is the primary determinant of prices.” The state owning all enterprises and deciding that to produce by means of a plan, as in the old Soviet Union, is not capitalism. Neither is it capitalism when the local community owns most of the economy, as with social ecology.
But, says Schweickart, it is an “ideological distortion” to use “market economy” as a synonym for capitalism. They are not the same thing. Enterprises within a market economy can be organised differently. They can be controlled by their workforce. This is significant because, when it comes to imagining a “post-capitalist economy”, Schweickart says it will be populated by worker-controlled firms operating in a “decentralized market economy,” a system he calls “economic democracy”. This is contentious on several levels and I will critically examine Schweickart’s proposals in Part Three.
Lastly, he says, capitalism, to be capitalism, has to be based on wage labour. This means that most people, of working age, have to rent themselves out to others, who own the “means of production”, in order to gain the resources to survive and consume. “It is a crucial characteristic of the institution of wage labour that the goods or services produced do not belong to the workers who produce them,” says Schweickart, “but to those who supply the workers with the means of production.”
It is this reliance on wage labour, says Schweickart, that gives capitalism its susceptibility to crisis, its downturns and booms. Economic health, under capitalism, is based on what Keynes called “effective demand”: the purchasing power of the millions of wage labourers. But this demand is formed from wages or salaries, the consequence of what is negotiated from employers for whom wages are just another cost. If that happens, private investors can lose confidence and companies do not spend the profits they have amassed.
This, says Schweikart, is one of the “central contradictions” of capitalism. An in-built conflict, you might say. “Wages are both a cost of production and an essential source of effective demand,” says. “Capitalist firms are always interested in cutting costs, expanding markets and developing new products. But to the extent that the first of these goals, namely cost cutting, grows in importance relative to the other two, effective consumer demand will tend to be depressed – and hence also those “animal spirits” of investors. This can mean a stagnating economy and rising unemployment, perhaps on a global scale.”
So, if most assets are privately owned, economic exchange takes place in a market, and most people are wage labourers, a society is capitalist.
But, within these parameters there are different kinds of capitalism. The twentieth century had quite a varied palette of capitalisms. Post-war Japan and later, South Korea, were examples of one version where the state directed investment to certain favoured parts of the economy and had a bias towards exports (a type of capitalism the economist Ha-Joon Chang is enamoured by). After the Second World War, Western Europe and the US had for many years a form of managed capitalism, based on collective bargaining and the state ownership of some parts of the economy. West Germany went in less for state ownership and instead practiced ‘co-determination’ – workers were elected to company boards. After 1980, this changed, especially in the US and Britain, in that trade unions were “zapped” and much of what the state did was privatised.
This has morphed into a strange economic constellation where the rich and corporations are subsidised by the taxpayer while the rest of the population is subject to the discipline of free enterprise.
Perhaps this is just an extreme manifestation of a state of affairs that was there all along. “I watched with incredulity as businessmen ran to the government in every crisis, whining for handouts or protection from the very competition that has made this system productive,” wrote one William Sutton, Treasury secretary under US President Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
The point is that real-world capitalism can, and invariably does, radically depart from the textbook “free market” model, but it’s still capitalism.
Love me, I’m a wealth creator
We can see from this definition there is one conspicuous absentee – the “entrepreneur”. In conventional justifications of capitalism, the entrepreneur looms very large indeed, especially during economically tough times. In fact, in conventional explanations, the entrepreneur is capitalism. In the UK, Conservative business minister, Michael Fallon, says we should salute entrepreneurs as “Olympic Champions” who deserve adulation for creating wealth and jobs.
But conservatives are not alone in celebrating the entrepreneur. The left-wing economist Stewart Lansley, author of The Cost of Inequality, differentiates between the deserving and undeserving rich. One of his favourite examples is the industrial designer, James Dyson, who merits his wealth, says Lansley, in contrast to someone like Philip Green who makes money from taking over existing businesses. Dyson creates wealth, says Lansley, but Green merely transfers it to himself.
But Schweickart says both these understandings are ideological distortions. He does not deny that entrepreneurs exist or they merit a reward for their contribution, although frequently they merely copy what has gone before (new coffee shop anyone?) Any society needs people who invent new products or technologies. But what Schweickart does deny is that entrepreneurs are capitalists.
From Marx, Schweickart gets the insight that all wealth derives from labour. “As any economist will confirm,” he says, “unless labour costs are less than the value added by labour, there will be no profit.” So entrepreneurs create something and ethically are entitled to a reward. Workers literally produce goods and services. Managers supervise production. They all contribute something.
But what do capitalists do? The answer, says Schweickart, is very little. They have an entirely passive role. They watch their wealth compound by virtue of the fact that they have quite a lot in the first place. “In a capitalist society, enormous sums are paid to people who do not engage in any entrepreneurial activity or take any significant risk with their capital,” he writes.
As an example consider the National Express Group, which operates buses and trains in the UK. The major shareholders in, and therefore owners of, National Express are the Cosmen family, a Spanish family who “first entered the transport industry, in a horse-and-carriage operation, in 1728”, a hedge fund called Elliot Partners who very persistently pursue very high returns for the immensely rich people who invest in the hedge fund and an investment company called M&G. None of these investors are entrepreneurs.
We are now in the ideological belly of the beast. An entire economic system is justified by virtue of its vital role in creating wealth when it is primarily about the receiving of wealth by a small minority that other people create.
To be a capitalist, says Schweickart, you must own enough productive assets to be able to live comfortably on the income they generate. In the US, he says, and he wrote this in 2002, this comprises about one per cent of the population. Sound familiar?
The investment game
So why does putting money in the capitalist investment game, in normal times, yield results? Why do stock markets, bond markets, investment banks and currency markets produce positive returns? Most pensions are invested on the stock market and charitable foundations derive their income for grants from endowments in shares. “One gets something for nothing because someone else gets nothing for something,” explains Schweickart. “Investment income, the reward to those who have “risked” their money by channeling into financial institutions … is possible only because those who produce the goods and services of society are paid less than their productive contribution. If capitalist distribution were really in accord with the principle of contribution (as is often claimed), the investor would get nothing.”
Two things follow from this. One is that share dividends are, in Schweickart’s words, “a tax on enterprise” and should be abolished and replaced with a capital assets tax. The second is that the real problem is not the stupendous consumption of the very rich but what they do with the money they don’t consume, the money they invest. Control of investment should pass from the capitalist class to society as a whole. He calls it “social control of investment”. I will look at this in detail in part 3.
In the next part, I will examine Schweickart’s take on how far the problems of society, such as environmental degradation, a hollow democracy and poverty, can be laid at capitalism’s door. But I also want to look at the appeal of capitalism and why people are so scared of moving beyond it.
“Most workers, especially those in rich countries, have far more to lose now than just their chains.”