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There's Something About Capitalism

Ursula Le GuinIn November 2014, at the 65th National Book Awards in New York, the late Ursula Le Guin (who died in January this year), gave an impassioned speech criticising the actions of book publishers who were profiteering from the work of writers and gearing the production of books specifically to sales rather than honouring the craft upon which the industry had been built. Near the conclusion of the speech, she made this remark:

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

After her death, this quote appeared in a number of places, but always omitting that first sentence. This edit has a significance because Le Guin’s speech was about an industry whose values were becoming geared solely to making money, and it was to this industry that her remarks were addressed. Removing the first sentence makes it seem as if she was making a call for rebellion against what might be called ‘the capitalist system’; including the opening sentence makes it clear that it was a specific battleground that was her interest in making these claims. I want to argue that this difference might be one that makes all the difference in our understanding of ‘the struggle against capitalism’ – whether you view yourself participating in that struggle, or mocking it from the outside.

The essential problem with understanding our world as structured by capitalism (regardless of whether you are in support, opposition, or don’t care) is that coming at this problem with this concept already constructs a specific understanding of what we are dealing with. Although Marx did not coin the term ‘capitalism’, it is his critique of capital that leads to our contemporary usage of the word. In other words, we come to think about ‘capitalism’ because of Marx’s opposition to the philosophy of Adam Smith and his successors who associated liberty with free trade (as opposed to a mercantile system of restrictions and laws, like that that dominated in the late Middle Ages). It is worth remarking that Marx’s critique of capital is in no way diminished or affected by what might be called ‘the failure of communism’, by which is meant the political collapse of Soviet Russia. In point of fact, if we wanted to make an assessment of communism, we’d be forced to address not Russia but China, which remains communist, and is the world’s second largest economy. Wherever we come to discuss ‘capitalism’, I’m afraid, things are never quite what they seem.

One of the reasons that philosophy matters is that the work of those who have explored this domain of thought continues to structure the way we ourselves think, and the main reason we tend not to notice is that it is the work of philosophers from centuries ago that tend to be most deeply embedded into our patterns of thought. Thus on the topic of capitalism, the issue is structured by arguments discussed by thinkers from the 18th century, like Adam Smith, or the 19th century, like Marx. But even recognising this lasting influence, it would be a mistake to think that philosophers themselves were in any way in control of how their thoughts would come to be applied. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, once you set action in motion, it rapidly exceeds any capacity to predict or control:

The uncertainty of human action, in the sense that we never quite know what we are doing when we begin to act into the web of interrelationships and mutual dependencies that constitute the field of action, was considered by ancient philosophy to be the one supreme argument against the seriousness of human affairs. Later, this uncertainty gave rise to the well-known proverbial statements that acting men move in a network of errors and unavoidable guilt.

Thus Adam Smith failed to predict the industrial revolution, and his remarkable economic insights led to the strange manufacturing of needs that proliferates today that he could not have anticipated. Similarly, Marx would have been appalled that his attempt at the emancipation of the working class could lead to a totalitarian regime which hoarded capital in the name of communism. The structuring of our thought about economics – especially in terms of this assumed match up between capitalism and communism – descends from Smith and Marx, without either being responsible for our contemporary situation, which has involved a network of connections, both historical and material, far beyond individual control.

One of the reasons that those who would seek to overthrow capitalism are fighting a losing battle is that they tend to be attempting to fight against capitalism and not towards some alternative understanding. When Le Guin mentions the divine right of kings as a symbol of a previous power relation that was overturned, it is important to recognise that the absolute rule of the monarchy was not ended by opposition to kings and queens. In fact, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant who argued persuasively for human equality had to ensure that their work would not offend the nobility of his time. It was the 18th century philosophers of the Enlightenment like Kant who successfully shifted power away from divine right, but by arguing in favour of human equality (the same values of equality that would inspire Marx’s project, in fact, and this is not a coincidence).

While the mythic histories we encounter in TV and films love to tell stories of competing perspectives overthrowing another in direct conflict – there’s no shortage of rather misleading ‘evolution overthrew religion’ tales kicking around right now, for instance – the actual historical circumstances are always more complex and interrelated than the simplistic conflict stories present. This is especially the case when capitalism and communism are thought of as the competing forces, since this obscures the immense commonalities between these two mythic ideologies. Communism is typically taken as the ownership of the means of production by ‘the people’, rather than private ownership for profit: when ‘the people’ is taken as the State, the result is simply a kind of capitalism where a monolithic government takes the place of an oligarchy of corporations. Furthermore, this is precisely how communism has tended to operate on the international stage.

The entire situation appears radically different if we look at it in terms of scale instead of ideological systems. One of the things that makes the early twenty first century different to the twentieth century, and that made the twentieth century different from the nineteenth, is the scale of money that has accumulated within singular networks of influence – both by private individuals (billionaires) and organisations (multinational corporations). This is a trend that has carried on from feudal times, where the accumulation of capital (to use Marx’s term) was conducted by royalty in order to either fund wars, build grand architecture, or simply to relish it as ‘treasure’. Marx, indeed, recognised this continuity, and called this earlier period the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’. Free trade, spurred on by Adam Smith – and indeed Kant, who maintained that trade was the best solution to the wars between nations that dogged his own time – pushed this process further, the industrial revolution further still, and now with the internet and the gigantic networks that it supports, we have reached what might be the apex of this process.

Yet there is a difference between the situation now and that facing Marx. The quality of life facing workers in the 19th century was abysmal, leading Marx to discuss two opposing poles: that of the rich and their accumulation of capital who enjoyed immense indulgence, and that of the poor whose suffering Marx identified as the shadow of that opposing pole of wealth. This was not Adam Smith’s perspective: he thought that the rich could only take what they needed to live, as in the famous quote concerning the ‘invisible hand’:

They [i.e. the rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

Both industrialisation, and the ever-growing size of the population mean that Smith’s claims here are now laughably untrue, and it is only necessary to look at healthcare in the US to see a clear example of the benefits (and greater consumption) provided by wealth. But, quite against Marx, the wealthier nations now successfully avoid the abject misery of the nineteenth century, either through the abundance of distractions, or (and particularly in European nations) through a combination of socialised services and distractions. More honestly, we might say that the industrialised nations like to push their poverty abroad where it becomes even easier to ignore. The reduction of the apparent tension between extremes of wealth lessens the possibility of a ‘revolution’ of the kind that Marx initiated. If it were not for the Occupy movements, there would be no sign at all that there was any spirit remaining for resisting the vast over-accumulation of wealth.

‘Capitalism’ is not something that we can oppose because it is only, to paraphrase Marx, a spectre… the name we put to the game of money, the financial network behind it, the property law that sustains it, and a finger we point in our discontent at those whose wealth is so vast as to disrupt democratic ideals and perpetuate a grotesque shadow of the feudal system. Yet Le Guin’s comments remain absolutely correct, and are worth reading again in full:

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

The inescapable power is that of money, of large accumulations of it, which Marx terms ‘capital’, and all that ‘capitalism’ can be is this coupled with the greed necessary to stockpile it. Le Guin’s solution is twofold: to recognise that artworks – not only books, but films, paintings, sculpture, games, dance and more besides – cannot exist solely to make money, and that when they do something vital in the human experience is lost. To value artworks as artworks, a virtue for which we lack a name, is to resist their reduction to commodities, and this is the first step on Le Guin’s path. The other is to make our own art a tool for change and not merely a means for profit. The vast merit of this plan is that it rests not on battling an ephemeral ‘capitalism’, but upon changing the one thing we truly have the power to change: ourselves.

For Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018, and evermore.


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