Quora Answer : Is capitalism oppressive?

Sep 28, 2017

"Capitalism" means different things to different people.

When I say "capitalism" I mean the modern economic system we have today. Not some system with markets hundreds or thousands of years ago.

So, one of the features of the system we have today, that I call "capitalism", is that pretty much ALL of the wilderness and "common" ground, particularly in Europe and North America, has been bundled up into someone's private property.

That means that you as an individual can't go out and forage there for food, or "homestead" it. Nor can you drill for oil or exploit other minerals.

Other people's existing property rights have fenced you out, and you have no access to go there to try thriving by your own effort.

You are obliged to live within, play by the rules of, and respect the already existing property rights of, the modern capitalist market. And if you don't have property, all you can do to get food is to sell your time and energy in the labour market. There is no opt-out.

In this sense, capitalism is, indeed, "oppressive". It's a system which has restricted your freedom.

On the left we have a term for it. "The pauperisation of the working class". It's a historical process that we still remember in Europe. That time when "inclosure acts" by government bundled up most of previously common land and handed it over to rich aristocrats and farmers. The peasants and rural poor were forcibly displaced, unable to build their own homesteads or exploit land to graze their animals. Without alternative options, they were obliged to move into cities and sell their labour to factories.

In Europe it's particularly obvious that this was a forced move that few of the rural poor could avoid. In the US, the picture is slightly more complicated. The land was force-ably taken from the Native Americans, but all classes of European descendants (not just aristocrats) had an option to try enclosing common land and homesteading the frontier. That's why Americans tend to be more sympathetic to capitalism and feel less oppressed by it. There's still a folk-memory of the time when there really was an alternative. (Unless you are black, in which case your ancestors were too busy being slaves at the time that there were still homesteading opportunities)

Quora Answer : If capitalism is an ideology, what type of ideology is it?

Oct 9, 2019

Capitalism isn't an "ideology".

It's a "mode of production". In other words, a particular economic system that organizes production and consumption in a particular way, according to a set of norms and rules.

When people talk about capitalism as ideology what they usually mean is that capitalism also promotes a set of beliefs about the world which are presented as absolute, incontrovertible facts, but are really just there to support itself.

A good example is "people are selfish".

Apparently alternatives to capitalism "fail", because they all rely on people being unselfishly generous. Whereas capitalism is the only economic system that speaks to humans' innate and incorrigible selfishness.

The fact that, empirically, you can observe humans, every-day, expressing generosity and unselfishness is ignored. The fact that it's patently in the self-interest of, and perfectly "selfish" of, workers to demand the higher wages that capitalist employers deny them (and that whenever workers do have the power to get higher wages through union action and socialism they DO demand and get them) is ignored. The BIG TRUTHS are that "HUMANS ARE SELFISH" and "CAPITALISM IS THE ONLY POLITICAL SYSTEM THAT RESPECTS AND IS BUILT ON SELFISHNESS" and everything else can be swept under the carpet.

But it's not the truth. It's just a convenient truth for capitalism to clothe itself with.

Compare the way that often the apologists for the rich will call criticism of wealth inequality "the politics of envy".

Well humans are envious too. You see that every day as well. And you've felt envy yourself. It's absolutely true that humans are envious animals. But you never hear the pundits say "CAPITALISM CAN'T WORK BECAUSE HUMANS ARE ENVIOUS"

You'll sometimes hear capitalist defenders say that democracy can't work because people are envious. In this case, "human nature" must be denied, and the institutions must be adjusted so that human nature can't be allowed to interfere with capital. But when it comes to something that capital "likes" or at least can make use of in its propaganda, like "selfishness", then human nature is everything.

So if you want to know what "kind of" ideology capitalism "is", then it's that. It's all those hundreds of thousands of "truisms" that somehow "everybody just knows" which, when you drill down and analyse them, you see always magically tilt one way or the other in just such a way that they support deferring to the capitalist. Support letting the capitalists keep their wealth. And support ensuring that the other institutions in society are also fine-tuned to benefit the capitalist extracting more wealth and redistributing less.

Everybody just knows that "HUMANS ARE SELFISH". That "GOVERNMENT SERVICES ARE INEFFICIENT". That "RED TAPE IS A DRAG ON THE ECONOMY AND MAKES US ALL WORSE OFF". That "THE POOR AND UNEMPLOYED ARE VICTIMS OF THEIR OWN INDOLENCE AND INADEQUACY". That "RISK TAKING ENTREPRENEURS CREATE WEALTH" and that "HIGH TAXES DISINCENTIVATE THIS ACTIVITY".

I encourage you to drill down, ask the hard questions, actually observe the counter-examples to these truisms. Look at real research in psychology and sociology. And genuine good economics. You'll find that humans are also generous. That government services can be better run than some private services. That red tape can be a cheap way of making everyone safer. That the poor are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that unemployment is the result of lack of jobs paying an acceptable wage. That it's actually the hard-working employees that "create" the wealth, and risk taking ass-holes who "destroy" it as often as not. And that real creative entrepreneurs are often driven by intrinsic motivations : an urge to invent cool new stuff, not to make a stack of money carefully calibrated to the tax rate.

All those "truisms" are, at best, simplifications that ignore huge numbers of counter-examples. Some are just ways of seeing the world which can't even be tested, and for which there are perfectly good alternative narratives. And some are outright lies, contradicted by even mainstream economic research.

Once you have a feel for how these simplifying stories "work". Then you'll know how capitalist ideology works. And therefore what it is.