Capitalism Does Not Exist (a hypothesis)
Capitalism does not exist. It exists in our minds of course, perhaps as a monstrous force or perhaps as a benevolent one. It exists in our minds as a reason, as an excuse, but it does not exist in the real world. Capitalism is a myth, a chupacabra or Santa Claus for adults, a story we tell ourselves about how the world works that saves us from the dirty details.
This is a hypothesis of course, without proof it is not fact, but it also might be a necessary assumption that we must make if we want to understand what is going on in the world today. A necessary assumption if we want to build the political economy of the now. So this is where we start, capitalism does not exist.
One of the huge problems with capitalism as a concept is that it means too many things to too many people for it to be a useful term. Its proponents will defend it as a wonderful thing, while its critics see the same mechanisms as being disastrous or acutely evil. One word with a wild array of meanings. To parse it out we can start with one acute split in meaning, the difference between capitalized, “big C”, Capitalism and lowercase, “small c”, capitalism.
Whether the writer/speaker actually capitalizes it or not, it is “big C” Capitalism that is far more used in the world today. The capitalization stems from two very different ideas, one popular on the right, one on the left, the idea of the invisible hand, and the idea of cultural hegemony.
The invisible hand comes from Adam Smith and does not address Capitalism directly, but instead the tightly coupled concept of “free” markets. Smith proposed these markets would somehow create an ideal distribution of goods via an invisible hand. Capitalism then emerges from the selfish actions of capitalists operating in this “free” market. But whose invisible hand is it? He does not say, but as an 18th century Christian one has to assume he speaks of God. (Whether this coupling of markets and capitalism is accurate is a whole other topic…)
Cultural hegemony comes later, from Antonio Gramsci, the early 20th century Italian Marxist theorist, and stands a major grounding point for contemporary cultural studies. Hegemony in this sense is the idea that Capitalism has the power to co-opt and control culture itself. When placed in a dynamic context this evolves into a continuous subsuming of art and cultural movements, Capitalism as an omnipresent monster devouring acts of resistance and transforming them to its needs.
What both theories lack is a mechanical completion, whether it’s an invisible hand or an omnipresent capacity to evolve and subsume, crucial chunks are taken for granted, the mechanisms of their operation unknown. Huge efforts are made to study the mechanics within these assumptions, but in both cases the object of study sits on imaginary foundations. Capitalism under either theory, for all the complexity given to it, reduces down to a relationship of worship or fear. If Capitalism is good it is a god, operating with an invisible hand to distribute goods across the globe. (Rather unevenly we might add, but the proponents seem to have no issue with this.) If Capitalism is bad it is a demon beast, devouring all cultural resistance that gets in its way. But without any understanding of the mechanisms of how these sorts of forces operate it is impossible to see either perspective as anything except religious, these are not descriptions of capitalism as systems in action, they are pictures of imaginary beasts given a proper name, Capitalism. And there is no evidence they exist.
Capitalism decapitalized, aka lower case capitalism is more straightforward. The dictionary defines it as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”
There is no question many of the economic systems of the world today are populated by private and corporate entities that control large amounts of capital and act mainly on their own accord or “private decision”. But there is also no question that there are other large actors in every single system where these private forces are present. The government stays active in every economic system and other actors are often present as well. That quite simply means there is no true capitalist system in operation in the world, just a whole slew of economic systems where capital is powerful but exists in conjunction with other economic forms. Similarly the concept of a “free” market is equally tricky, there are no free markets in the world, most sit deeply within systems of political regulation and all sit even deeper inside systems of cultural regulation. If one wants to study capitalism one must first parse it out from everything it is intertwined with, and the question that leaves is why?
The beauty of ignoring capitalism, of assuming it does not exist, is that it allows us to study *capital itself* with new eyes. Capital most definitely exists and it is powerful. More than that it can be mapped, traced and sometimes captured. By looking at the actions around capital it becomes possible to graph them out and identify *networks of capital*. By starting from the ground up, one can ensure that unlike capitalism these networks are definitely real. They can be observed, studied and perhaps even influenced, in real time, now, as the affects occur.
By looking at *networks of capital* we replace capitalism with something that is somewhat smaller, and perhaps fragmented, but eminently more addressable. Perhaps we will even begin to be able to distinguish between different forms of capital, and different network formations. We can also begin to parse out and understand other networks, structures and forces that had previously all been bundled under the label of “capitalism”. Two in particular have radical potential once seen outside the stifling perspective of capitalism, markets and corporations.
Then there is the relationship between *networks of capital* and the many other networks and structures of power that they operate with. There is of course the structures of government, which in many versions of capitalism is capital’s chief antagonist. There are also networks of political power that operate with, between and around the structures of government. But there are many other networks beside the governmental ones. New digital ones literally built on social networks tying together activists and supporters. Older ones build atop religious structures that still command far more power than many political economic thinkers would prefer to admit. Deeper still are the complex networks that generate and maintain cultural norms and traditions. Networks of culture that generate anything from aesthetic tastes to racism, sexism and xenophobia.
There is little question that capital plays a privileged roll in the political economy of now. But to parse it out and begin to create *useful analysis*, that is to say analysis that enables concrete actions in positive directions, it is essential that we reach a better understanding of the actual functioning of economic systems in the real world. The first step is to discard the demons and gods of yesteryear, the theories that have failed us for so long. Capitalism does not exist, but we live in a world where capital thrives and commands. We start with a simple hypothesis, that by studying the networks of capital we can begin to understand our world better and perhaps influence it in a healthy direction too.Published on September 4, 2017