Why do some intellectuals oppose capitalism?

Thanks for the question Noah.

Well considering the “capital flight” of intellectualism among right-leaning ideologues over the past fifty years, I would first say that there are very few intellectuals who are not opposed to capitalism in one way or another. To be educated, intellectual and reflective almost always leads critical thinkers to question capitalist systems and principles. The few bright and often well-meaning advocates of capitalism are often required to shut down a lot of their brain power (and reject entire swaths of pertinent data) in order to fully embrace capitalism - especially in its current neoliberal configurations. The exchanges I’ve had on Quora on the subject reveal that most pro-capitalist folks are a) compliant with neoliberal propaganda and its reflexive and uncritical groupthink, b) mostly ignorant of contradictory or mitigating historical and current facts, or c) so encumbered with selective bias that they have distorted all of history and modern economic events in favor of their worldview. There are exceptions…but they are pretty sparse.

That said, there are a number of reasons why folks who lean intellectual are critical of the current brand of neoliberal capitalism. Here are some of the rationale:

1) Modern capitalism has arguably become the most destructive force in human history. In terms of its impacts on the environment, social stratification, concentrations of wealth and power, justification for armed conflicts, genetic homogenization (of food supply), injurious health conditions, etc. In other words, its negative externalities are compounding exponentially, and there is no indication that this will cease.

2) Modern capitalism is unsustainable. Currently about 5% of the Earth’s population uses approximately 28% of the Earth’s resources. As capitalism has globalized, the tensions around resources and how they are distributed has inexorably escalated and will continue to do so - as has the tension between the haves and have-nots. An inevitable tipping point will be either a) the exhaustion of resources as economic mobility spread further around the globe, or b) the extinction of economic mobility as scarcity increases or resources are depleted. There’s really no way out of this conundrum…only some creative ways to delay it (such as the financialization of the global economy, which has already been occurring).

3) Modern capitalism is inherently unjust. All the positive justifications for capitalism that once existed - the wisdom of the crowds, the tragedy of the commons, the theory of labor appropriation, interference with negative liberty, rational self-interest, markets solve problems most efficiently, wealth production, etc. - have all been either debunked entirely, or overridden by changes in how current capitalism functions. There is a lot to work through on this topic, but the consensus is that empirical data strongly suggest that: consumers are not rational, the commons has been managed without private ownership or central government interference, privatization is highly destructive to both public and common goods, consumers are manipulated en masse (defeating the wisdom of the crowds), Locke was just plain wrong about his property assumptions, crony capitalism and monopolies completely distort market dynamics, real wages (i.e. effective buying power) have been stagnant or declining in the U.S. an some other industrialized countries since about 1972, and property ownership actually interferes with liberty more than almost all other antagonists combined.

4) Neoliberal propaganda is preventing most people from seeing any of the above. (See Neoliberalism | L e v e l - 7)

There is a lot more to discuss along these lines, but my time today is limited. Please check out the Level-7 link above for more info and resources.

My 2 cents.

Comment by Henry Resheto:

"I think you got this wrong.

So called by you “pro-capitalist folks” do not owe anybody any explanation. Those who suggest alternatives do!

Let me start by stating that capitalism is not a theory, it is not even a “system”; it is simply what is.

The very term was invented by K. Mark in order to critique exiting state of affairs; in order to mock them, in order to prophesize the better world to come.

But really what capitalism is, it a simple “normality”. It is what people do when they are left to their own devices. Somebody called it a “spontaneous normality”. Spot on!

I am a computer programmer. Let’s say I negotiated with some company that I will sell them my time and perform some coding for them at the rate of $50/hour. They agreed – I agreed. We are both happy. K. Marx called it capitalism... whatever.

Now, if you want to get between me and that company and offer us the alternative form of arrangement you have to explain it to us. You have to sell it to us – we don’t own you anything. We surely don’t own you any explanation.

Judging by your headline “Libertarian Socialist” I suspect you would not like the very nature of our relationship as employer-employee. You probably think I should along with all other people at the company form a coop, and we should collectively run it. I don’t like the idea, and the burden of proof that it would be better for me is on you.

So far I didn’t hear good arguments. I don’t want to run this stinking company. I want to come, to write some code, to hand around water cooler during a break, to check Quora on my phone every now and then. And then after doing that for eight hours I want to leave with $400 in my pocket. Nothing more.

This is between me and that company - I don’t have to explain myself to nobody else."

I think you are illustrating the psychology that allows capitalism to function Henry - but your attitude has been shaped by modern culture. In contrast, humans have survived as a species because of our prosocial traits - research “prosocial traits” and “group selection.” People actually have to learn to be selfish, individualistic, materialistic and disengaged from social responsibility - and that’s precisely what commercialism teaches us to be. Why? So that we can be good consumers, of course…nice and dependent…and good workers…nice and compliant…and good debtors…perpetually in debt. BTW capitalism isn’t natural - at least no more than feudalism was - look up “primitive communism” for what existed for millennia prior to industrial society. Capitalism is basically an outgrowth of mercantilism and the “democratization” of wealth. As such it’s an understandable stage in human cultural development. But it’s only been around for a brief time, and has already outlasted its usefulness - mainly because it’s simply not sustainable. If you want proof…well wow…you’re in luck. It’s abundant. Read Thomas Pickety’s Capital in the 21st Century for starters. Or visit my website: Level 7 Overview

My main point was simply that you have come to believe a lot of things - like, for example, that you and your employer are both part of a “voluntary” exchange, which is almost certainly NOT the case - because you have been immersed in a commercialized, consumerist culture. Many people share these beliefs…but it does not make them accurate or true. For example, you do not get to choose what language to code if you want your work to be valued in the job market…that is dictated by current demand, which in turn is created by non-competitive practices, monopolies, fads and back room or board room deals…rather than rational agency or market dynamics. You also don’t get to choose how much you will be compensated - that is likewise formulated by rather capricious valuations, which rise and fall with the whim of corporate culture, access to cheaper labor, and the downward pressure of economic immobility and the current status of the economy. I was an IT manager and consultant for many years, and only saw exceptions to this with legacy systems that would cost more to upgrade than maintain - making increasingly rare legacy skill sets more and more valuable and thus tilting the scales to the employee’s advantage.

So although you believe you have agency in such transactions, you are really just a cog in a larger mechanism. You can easily be replaced with a cheaper warm body, because the corporate production system is designed specifically with that eventuality in mind. But perhaps you have “no problem with that” either - even though it holds the implication of violence (that is, does not value your contributions as an individual, or recognize and reward your commitment to a given community, and your compensation can change or livelihood withdrawn at any time). In other words, there is most certainly a coercive threat involved in such an arrangement. You may have become immune or inured to it over time - or because of a particularly resilient personal constitution you exhibit - but the threat exists nonetheless.

Further, I would assert that capitalism has done - and continues to do - tremendous harm. For anyone who truly believes in the NAP, embracing and perpetuating capitalism is the height of hypocrisy.


Trackback specific URI for this entry

This link is not meant to be clicked. It contains the trackback URI for this entry. You can use this URI to send ping- & trackbacks from your own blog to this entry. To copy the link, right click and select "Copy Shortcut" in Internet Explorer or "Copy Link Location" in Mozilla.

No Trackbacks


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

No comments

The author does not allow comments to this entry