“Toward understanding: metaphysics of capitalism,” the previous post on this blog, was originally a set of notes for a follow-up to a previous entry, which I had abandoned as being too strong a condemnation of the capitalist way of life. After all, we all live under the system of capitalism, and so must all operate according to its ordering of experience to a greater or lesser degree. Indeed, it is this matter of degree that I wish to discuss today. But I do want to talk about why that set of notes got published and where some of the problems I was trying to note really come from and where they might go.
First of all, my understanding of capitalism is that it is the exchange of wealth in an abstract sense. Money is an abstract signifier; that is why the cash we have in pocket is simply otherwise worthless paper; and also why today the wealthiest among us maintain that wealth as numbers in financial institution records, and no any cash at all. Some right-wingers complain about the government printing up more money in times of economic stress, but this printing is mere ritual to substantiate the seemingly empirical validity of the numbers in financial institution accounts. The numbers themselves constitute the real wealth.
This profound abstraction originates in what I described as the metaphysics of capitalism, which could be realized even in cultures that existed prior to the invention of money. It begins when everything – and everybody – is perceived as pure object, the function of which is to provide some value to the perceiver. The thing is thus denied inherent value; its value is imposed abstractly, to make it available for exchange for further value. Sometimes this exchange ends in empirical closure: The chicken is killed, the corpse sold, then cooked and eaten; no more chicken, not even its corpse. But more frequently, the wealth exchange continues in circulation, usually exchanged to develop even greater wealth; the meat company invests some of its profits in more efficient chicken-killing machines, to sell more chickens and increase its profits, etc.
All right, well so much is obvious. Again it is the system of capitalism, and we all live with it to a greater or lesser degree. But what is the nature of the degree by which we live with it?
As some might guess, the motivation for posting my notes “Toward understanding” (despite an obvious unrefined incompleteness) was as emotional response to the American elections of November 4. America finally established itself as a primarily conservative culture (as we understand the term) by 1900; but through-out the 20th Century, there were times when public dissent appeared to move it, however slightly, to the left. However, beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan, both the government and much of the culture has marched steadily rightward; and the recent elections indicate that America will be stuck in ‘right-gear,’ so to speak, for some time to come (at least for the rest of my life-time). Under the regime of global capitalism, what this means for the world’s wealthiest, most powerful capitalist empire, is that the play of what I’ve called capitalist metaphysics – with its implicit epistemology, ontology, psychology, and ethics – will proceed unfettered, limited only locally by precarious claims for individual and community interests – for instance, in communities that outlaw fracking to protect their local ecology; or in the case of thoughtful individuals more concerned with clarifying their own ethical behavior rather than surrendering to the ideological demands of the economics they must engage in, in order to survive.
In “Toward understanding,” I had (perhaps mistakenly) presumed that when I used the term “capitalist,” that this would be recognized as not a reference to any empirical individual. The “capitalist” of that post is abstraction for the kind of subjectivity that the metaphysics implied. Positing it as an abstraction, I felt free to extend its epistemological reach as far as it would go. Once subjectivity is reduced to a ‘self’ to whom all things are ‘other;’ and once all things other are perceived by that self as entities for abstraction into exchange for wealth; all the consequences I described in my post become possible – to some degree, and in particular instances, inevitable.
But of course, we living humans are not these abstract ‘capitalist selves;’ the vast majority of us simply live with the regime of capitalism in order to survive. Generally most of us maintain ideas, philosophies, even ideologies, that are alternative to the purely capitalistic, and we share these in our communities as explanation, and as ground of communication. And this is true even for most businessmen, government officials, even billionaires. Indeed, for instance, there are still millions who enter careers, professions, businesses, convinced that they do so to provide services to their community, that, yes, they are making a living, but are also helping others. The abstract “capitalist” subjectivity I posited in my last post is only fully realized in sociopaths and psychotics.
Unfortunately, there are far more sociopaths – in government and commerce, and perhaps even at our jobs and in our communities – than many of us would like to admit. We get awful glimpses of this when some crackpot televangelist blames a natural catastrophe (like Hurricane Katrina) on the presence of homosexuals, and then asks for dollar contributions on the promise of prayers to protect the communities of the faithful; or when some stockbroker is arrested for violating the already overly generous rules of the investment game (why bother breaking these ‘rules,’ since following them requires almost no ethical practice?).
But the more bothersome aspect of living in an exclusively capitalist way of life, is that the abstractions of the metaphysics of capitalism creep into our thinking and practices in ways of which we are unaware. Much of the objectification of women in this society is not only grounded in sexism, but in capitalism – such objectification means exactly that the objectifying males deem the woman as mere thing-of-use – source of entertainment, an entity to be exchanged for a different, perhaps greater wealth. Rape becomes the final, brute mastery of the object, the wealth gained not simply sexual satisfaction but a greater sense of power – enhanced subjectivity.
Fortunately, most men never descend to this level of barbarism. But the objectification itself is certainly widespread, and sanctioned economically (which is as much to say, in a capitalist culture, ideologically), through the development of sexual-objectification based entertainments – not just in crude forms, such as pornography, but in ‘glamorous’ presentations like beauty pageants and fashion shows.
But consider such objectification that applies to all of us. For instance, most workers in this country are under the impression that they are selling their time and labor to their employers; this is how American capitalism is ‘supposed’ to work, any way.
But reading textbooks for business courses – especially those written in the earlier part of the 20th century, when businessmen felt they could be more open on the matter – reveals that a ‘human resource’ is just that – a thing. Workers don’t sell their time and labor, they effectively sell their own objectification piece-meal, on a day to day basis, which absolves the employer of any claim of slavery – but also of any responsibility to the worker. When the worker loses value, he or she is simply let go, regardless of how catastrophic that might be for the worker’s life. And one reason why businessmen are overwhelmingly conservative is because it’s important to them to keep the value of the worker as low as possible. (Maintaining a reliably low expense base is one means of guarantying increasing profits.)
Of course, it is not only in such large arenas such as the workplace or public entertainments that the tendency toward capitalist metaphysics finds its influence. When we go out on dates, who pays the bill? Why one restaurant rather than another – is it solely a matter of taste, or doesn’t there need to be some show of wealth-expenditure, as marketing leverage among acquaintances? Why acquaint one’s self with these others, anyway?
It is important here to remember that demonstrations of wealth themselves have market value. They define the social strata we aspire to, the cultural investments we are prepared to make. (Some people won’t buy used books, used cars, used clothing, etc. While there are risks involved in buying used machines, like automobiles, it’s hard to determine the risk involved in reading a second-hand copy of a Stephen King novel.)
Some corporations are now spending millions on old paintings and locking them away in vaults, waiting for their value to increase. But they aren’t the only such collectors; I’ve had friends who compulsively bought comic books, often without reading them, just so they would accumulate value over time as ‘collector’s items.’
One could go on with anecdotal evidence and personal queries like this forever. Professional sociologists once worried themselves publicly over the theoretical implications of statistics concerning such objectifications and valuations, but the only place such worrying itself found value was in a certain political marketplace that itself no longer seems to have value. So, sociological evidence for the influence of capitalism in our daily lives is no longer collected much that I’m aware; such studies are now largely undertaken to determine which components of capitalist ideology are more successful than others – i.e., e.g., which move consumers in the purchase of which commodities.
My post, “Toward understanding,” was largely about the dangers involved in such a way of life, taken as a grounding metaphysics, and realizable in terrible extremes. For instance, most married people do not view their spouses as mere sperm-contributors, baby-makers, or momentary sexual entertainment. But there are undoubtedly some who do, and much in the culture around us frequently suggests they should.
And most of us would rather our government not wage wars for economic purposes, but many are happy with the excuses it gives us when it does.
“Toward understanding” ended on a sour note. One hope of the modern era was that, with the fall of Catholic-dominated Christendom, and the revolutionary overthrow of the old aristocracy, a civilized education could refine our ethics, expand our social horizons, increase our compassion, develop our tastes, to the point whereby we could overcome and even ignore, some of the implicit potential for barbarism in our economics.
But that hasn’t proven to be the case. Indeed, our economics has become our culture – it determines the values of our tastes, defines the limits of our compassion, draws the boundaries to our social horizons, and presents new challenges to our ethics on a daily basis.
Worse yet, we are now entering a phase of our history when education itself seems impossible for the majority (who no longer seem to want it, anyway), and when the book-culture education really depends on seems in the process of decomposing into some quasi-literacy or simple illiteracy.
The thoughtful individual is now presented with difficult questions and choices. I need (today, literally, after writing this) to go to my place of employment to ‘earn’ wealth enough to be exchanged for necessities. I need to accept objectification. In the process, I need to objectify clients and customers and trades-people I deal with. I need, in other words, to adopt the subjectivity of capitalist metaphysics, while submitting myself to the capitalist subjectivity of my employer. I need to do this, that is, if I want to survive. And I do – so, there we are.
Can I maintain an ethical life-style and continue an ethical thinking beyond this? Hopefully; I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I thought the challenge unanswerable.
But I am aware that I must be ever-vigilant against the encroachments of capitalist thinking on my own behaviors and attitudes. And that’s not a very comfortable place to be.