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After Capitalism

No more delusions of progressivism

In a May 30 column for Project Syndicate titled “After Neoliberalism” eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz propounds a view of reforming the established political order in an effort to address its failures. The alternative is touted as “progressive capitalism”. It hinges on the basic idea that the state shall have a one-way relationship with the market, manipulating it without ever succumbing to its pressures.

While I appreciate Mr. Stiglitz’s observations about the state of affairs, I find the essence of “progressive capitalism” fundamentally flawed. It does not deviate from the core tenet of conventional statecraft: gigantism.

Progressives delude themselves into thinking that the problems in the current order rest with ideology or just the wrong people being in power. Their thinking is that, ceteris paribus, tweaks in mindset and a change in faces is all that is needed to nudge the juggernaut into doing the right thing. Thus they remain oblivious to the inherent tendency of hierarchies to persist and proliferate.

It is a mistake to believe that the concentration of wealth and concomitant power is a function of ideology, in this case neoliberalism. The problem is germane to the political organisation itself. The modern state is a monolith that seeks to bring everything under its control. And, as we can see in Europe, there is a growing propensity to insist on the aggrandisement of state structures, with the EU seeking to gain ever-more competences.

A large state apparatus can only ever give rise to an oligarchy. This is a systemic phenomenon. The further away the state is from the citizen, the less representative and more concentrative it necessarily becomes. Ideology is secondary to the mechanics of power distribution. It is why the symbiosis of political and economic elites is not peculiar to the neoliberal world order. It was made manifest in the USSR as well as empires of yore. It is readily apparent in China, Russia, and across all presumably non-neoliberal countries.

The gigantist state creates the economic elite out of sheer necessity to extend its control. Think of how a state may approach tax collection, for instance:

  • One way is to allow everyone to use whatever fiduciary medium the free market allows and process payments in whichever manner the individuals decide.
  • The other is to impose a state-sanctioned currency, controlled by a central authority, and to force everyone to run their transactions through a controlled environment that can be regulated with greater ease.

The latter is the model we have. State fiat gives us money and the banking system, with which we are to conduct out business. In turn, the state gets to monitor all activity and impose taxation at will. In this scenario, the bankers qua enablers emerge out of the desire of the authorities to make their tax-collecting mechanism more efficient. In turn, the economic establishment needs an omnipotent state to shield it from competition. The economic elite turns into the class of platformarchs thanks to the support of the authorities. It is a mutualist existence.

Those who genuinely believe that capitalism is the same as the free market are naive. Capitalism is the tandem of economic and political interests which produces the two-tier economic system we are familiar with: that of platformarchs and platformzens. There is no such thing as an even playing field. One set of rules applies to the economic elite—rules that allow them to be the elite—and another to the rest of us. They are the enablers, we are just renting out our life. Security for them, precarity for us. Just consider the oodles of free money that have been pumped into the financial sector under the euphemism of “quantitative easing”. The banksters are subsidised, while the rest of us are forced to brutishly survive on the precipice.

In a similar fashion, the gigantist state controls the people who will ever be allowed in power. It is sheer folly to believe that what we have today is democracy in its proper sense. Either because of electoral laws and vote counting (minimum threshold, district representation, etc.), the control of the media by a select few, the uneven distribution of sponsorship, those who are heard the most are the ones who are favoured to do so. Small parties are not given the same resources and time “on air” as the incumbent ones.

This is how the hierarchy expresses its survival instinct. It chooses the people who will perpetuate it. And because gigantism must control every aspect of life to be most effective, the hierarchies have a built-in drive to grow larger, more homogeneous, and self-aware.

Lord Acton’s observation that “all power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” contains both a truth and a potential misunderstanding. Power begets power. Though this is not “corruption” in the ordinary sense of moral degradation—that implies the falsehood that some incorruptible leader can set things right (per the “progressive capitalist” rhetoric, for example). “Corruption” in this sense is the normal operation of concentrated power striving for its continuity.

To this end, neoliberalism is but an epiphenomenon: an ideology that masks the underlying propensities of the gigantist establishment. It is not the defining feature of our times, but its rationalisation.

What every progressive economist in the mould of Mr. Stiglitz fails to understand is that the emphasis on efficiency and growth, which translates into economies of scale, is the path to gigantism. To illustrate my point: I am a real bread baker. I prepare my own sourdough loaf at home and share it with my community. Actions such as this, once standardised, make the community more autarkic and resilient. We do not consume the junk peddled by the industry. And we are healthier as a result, meaning that we do not need the other kind of rubbish sold by big pharma. If my concern was solely about efficiency, then locally baked bread would be a bad idea: industrial loaf would be the way to go.

The same reasoning applies in agriculture. Doing things locally allows us to engage in what I call “ecosystemic agriculture”, which rests on the principles of polyculture, biodiversity, respect of the natural constraints, and appreciation of humans’ role as yet another part in the greater system (this is the contextualised human in contrast to the fantasies of the decontextualised human held by individualism and anthropocentrism).

Think about it: if we all work in our small piece of land and do not target maximum output of a single good in the name of “efficiency” (polyculture instead of monoculture), we remove the dependency on chemicals: the ecosystem delivers crops without pampers—effectively a form of “doping”—that have disastrous consequences. By eliminating that dependency, we have not only contributed to the sustainable rebalancing of the ecosystem, but have also taken power away from incumbent economic interests. In the process we have also denied the state apparatus its control over our farming. Bureaucrats think they know best—such hubris! Their solution always involves some sort of gigantism, with the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy being a case in point.

The gist is that “progressive capitalism” can only be yet another incarnation of the status quo. Our goal should not be the preservation or mere beautification of this political order, but its utter annihilation. We will make real progress when we no longer entertain notions of gigantism, switching instead to communitarianism and localism. We must go small, to the organic unit of society: the local community.

Communities already have everything a progressive ostensibly wants to impose from the top as an enlightened despot. They share strong bonds between them. They exhibit genuine solidarity among their members and impress upon them a sense of belonging. They distribute knowledge and resources. Communities are what makes people stronger.

Gigantism does not want organic social groups. It keeps us in precarious living conditions and promotes individualism. Together these are what turn us against each other. We fall back to our base instinct for survival, treating everyone out there as a potential threat and enemy. All due to our precarious predicament and the misguided commitment to archetypes of the individualist sort.

It is no surprise that the alternative to gigantism is gigantism of another kind. Mr. Stiglitz and others like him are, perhaps unbeknownst to them, are given exposure because they pose no threat to the system. Their solution is yet another calamity waiting to happen.