2012-01-01 "The Delusional Assumptions of Capitalism" by Doug Harvey
Doug Harvey is a historian and musician teaching, writing, and
performing in the Kansas City area. He can be contacted at
One of the more delusional aspects of capitalism is the idea that if one pursues the acquisition of private wealth with abandon, that this is somehow automatically “good” for human society.
The laissez-faire advocate and novelist Ayn Rand wrote that if one does not support this notion that greed is good and pursuing “enlightened self-interest,” (as Adam Smith characterized it), is the highest virtue, then one defaults to supporting a centralized oppressive regime that allows no personal freedom and no private wealth whatsoever. One supports living in darkness and despair or, in a word, Hell. This Manichean thinking is in keeping with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition dating back to the Indus Valley divide between the Vedic traditions and the Zoroastrian belief system of ancient Persia. The notion that the world is characterized by an ongoing “war” between the forces of light and the forces of darkness is at the base of much of so-called western thought.
In The Three Metamorphoses, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that humans are saddled with a heavy burden as children. Using the metaphor of a camel, he describes how we then venture into the wilderness with this burden, whereupon we are attacked by a great dragon. The dragon is covered with hundreds of scales, each scale bearing the words “Thou Shalt.” The human is then transformed into a lion in order to do battle with the dragon. If the lion is victorious in the battle – slaying the dragon “Thou Shalt” – the metaphor then turns to that of a child. The human then becomes what he or she was born to be – “a wheel rolling out of its own center.” One of the scales on the dragon for most of us growing up in the “developed world” is that “thou shalt believe in the war between light and darkness.” And, the societal assumption is that one aspect of this war is the capitalist notion of “enlightened self-interest” versus the evil “socialist” notions of public ownership and oppressive altruism that punishes the productive and rewards the unproductive. This has become conflated with the Judeo-Christian religious structure of “good versus evil” to the point where in some quarters there is no distinction between the secular and religious versions of the myth. To complete the Nietzschean metaphor in this context, most people do not slay the dragon. The result is a societal discourse that is largely delusional and controlled by mythic thinking, catch-phrases, and unquestioned assumptions.
While this is nothing new, the consequences are becoming too great to bear as humans acquire the unprecedented ability to wield cataclysmic power. What is needed is a strong commitment to reality; i.e., a commitment to jettison ideology and religion for fact-based analysis. The process begun by the Enlightenment was, by and large, a positive development at least for Europe. But this process has been interrupted not so much by religion – the antithesis of the Enlightenment – but by a faith-based secular ideology that says the pursuit by individuals of their own private material gain is good for all.
To dissent against this faith-based secular religion is to be consigned to Purgatory and Hell by the Upholders of the Faith. When the upholders of such a system see a dissenting opposition that is so threatening it must be condemned, it is probably worth asking, “So what’s the threat?” This is what makes a study of the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other dissenters from the secular faith so fascinating. Before “Marxism” was codified into a tool of repression by state capitalists, (Soviet Union, China – regimes that used Marxist rhetoric to repress their own people), it was and still can be a useful critique of the secular religion of capitalism and very revealing in its analysis. Some have helped bring this nineteenth-century dissent up to date on the basis of a critical scientific analysis of the evolution of the capitalist system, (Paul Sweezy, Howard Parsons, David Harvey, John Bellamy Foster, et al.).
The most valuable critique is the questioning of the “enlightened self-interest as public good” assumption. This assumption is based on the false premise that humans are separate from their environment; that somehow, we are “above” the normal consequences of action in the field of the life-death continuum of Planet Earth. A brief perusal of the consequences of this false premise should be sobering to any thinking person. The pursuit of resources and markets to feed a system that MUST grow to survive has made the planet and all of its inhabitants commodities. In capitalist mythology, EVERYTHING has a monetary value, including and perhaps especially, people. The fact that humans are dependent on a healthy environment is not a central consideration – capitalists who acquire financial independence can BUY a healthy environment as one of their private acquisitions, it is assumed. Everyone else must either enter into the field of competition and buy their own “healthy environment,” or be consigned to a life that Thomas Hobbes called “nasty, brutish, and short” – a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.
Critics and dissenters such as those mentioned above interrupt this mythic narrative and point out that environmental health, sustainability, and diversity are essential for both human and non-human health. “Self-fulfillment,” and protection of a “commonwealth” are priorities for these dissenters, which is a thing different from the way Smith’s “enlightened self-interest” has become a societal myth. The original meaning of the Greek word “oeconomy” had more to do with a well-kept house – be it an individual household, a neighborhood, a city, or an entire region – than it does with private acquisition. Ultimately, our “house” is the planet – there is NO getting around this fact. For some time now we have had pictures of Planet Earth taken from space. The empirical evidence is clear: we are a very small household in a vast sea of time and space. We MUST cooperate or perish. As it now stands, our Head of the Household – Capitalism (some would prefer the word “fascism”) – is an alcoholic who runs rampant over all who have something he wants. The epitome of “self-will run riot,” he ravages entire countries in his search for another “drink” (resources and markets) and will stop at nothing, including self-destruction, to continue his blind, staggering rampage across the face of the earth.
Once “Thou Shalt” – the dragon telling us that this kind of behavior is on the side of the angels – is slain, our focus can then move to a more properly “sober” analysis of our situation, allowing long-term, solution-oriented thinking to become part of our daily existence. Pursuit of personal fulfillment for each individual in a healthy environment – as opposed to strictly material acquisition – can become a central goal of our household economy on Planet Earth. Happy, fulfilled people do not plunder, rape, maim, and kill others for resources and markets. The earth is a place of abundance, not scarcity. People CAN cooperate and live in peace. But we need to share a commitment to “reality” – the real-life playing out of our interaction with the resources of our household – things that we all need like clean air and water, a healthy diet, expressing our creative powers, loving and being loved, being “part of” something greater than ourselves (Planet Earth comes to mind). Becoming what we were born to be, a "wheel rolling out of its own center," as the eyes and ears of Planet Earth, is our proper objective. If the pursuit of individual wealth impoverishes others and the planet as a whole – which empirical evidence indicates -- consigning innocent bystanders to a life “nasty, brutish, and short,” it represents unwarranted and misplaced power. It is destructive. It is like living with a drunk who is drowning in delusion. It is time to intervene.