April 25, 2007

Meditations on the theme of the Moral Economy of Capitalism

This post is a beggining of a thought- not the end- I have been thinking about these themes for months and no doubt have years more to think about them and will abandon much of what I write here- but prompted by a post on this subject elsewhere (linked in the text) I thought I'd put something down on paper partly for my own elucidation.

Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality bemoaned the fact that

Society no longer offers to the eyes of the wise man anything but an assemblage of artificial men and factitious passions which are the product of these new relations [of civil captitalism] and have no true foundation in nature...savage man and civilised man differ so much in thier inmost heart and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to despair. The first breathes nothing but repose and freedom, he wants to live and remain idle.... By contrast the citizen forever active, sweats, scurries, constantly agonises in search of ever more strenuous occupations: he works to death, even rushes towards it in order to be in a position to live... the savage lives within himself: sociable man always outside himself is capable of living only in the opinion of others and so to speak derives the sentiment of his own existance solely from their judgement.


Rousseau's view of the way that capitalism is a society which engenders a new kind of self-esteem, competitive and opposed to others' self esteem, is a morbid one. He argues that capitalism is destructive of all human good. It is interesting in the light of this to think about the psychological literature around the observer perspective- the assumption by socially phobic individuals that what matters is the way that others see them and that they have an insight into that and are in effect their own spin doctors. As the Observer reported last year, cases of depression and psychological disorders have been rising within the general population. It is interesting to observe how much in earlier ages say in the films of Frank Capra, like Its a Wonderful Life the world in which we live is seen as a dystopia- the perversion not the realisation of capitalism. The influence for instance of blogs concerned with rating socialites or indeed the increasingly hysterical cult of vituperation all tend to emphasize to me some of the impact of what one might describe as the cultural consequences of capitalism.

Many of these consequences are atomistic- breaking apart social networks and people. Such trends within Capitalism have long been noticed by theorists like Rousseau himself and even in the 19th Century William Morris. The issues though are highlighted in this post which draws very well upon ideas about anarchism. The problem is that socialism over the last century in the forms that it took in Russia and China or even to a milder degree in Europe seems discredited. And yet capitalism allows for the breaking down of freedom between individuals to such a degree that they lose the self reliance that allows proper relationships to develop. Rousseau argued that capitalism transforms us into slaves of those we work for, and into competing egos with our equals. The most popular gossip sites on the internet or gossip magazines are not those that build up but those that destroy stars- like Heat in Britain with its routine photographs of the fashion failures at the top- they bring people the sense that they are better than, look better than or are more moral than those that they adulate. Capitalism in that sense effects the actual psyche of individuals. Alan Sugar recently told a contestant on the British Program the Apprentice that a moral sense was redundant in the world of business- one wonders what individuals the Sugars and Heats of this world create, ego driven competitive and dependant on others for praise.

Quentin Skinner in his Regius Lectures at Cambridge came closest I think to defining what is going on when he redefined liberty in his third lecture. He argued that liberty was not the absense of constraint from government, nor the positive acheivement of some end, but the ability for the will to will something whilst not being dependent on another whatever the decision it took. Dependance is the crux for Rousseau ultimately- our insecurities make us vicious and our insecurities are the result of our dependence. Skinner provided further examples from Milton and Harrington of intellectuals in the seventeenth century who tackled this problem and thought deeply about it. What is going on inside Skinner's thinking and inside much of the left libertarian critique of capitalism is a consideration of how capitalism reconfigures the individual- of how it leaves him or her with moral agency or makes him or her into a competing drone, whose kindnesses are weakness and whose competitive ego is the highest form of fulfilment.

I don't have answers to how we should think about freedom, nor how we should think about the state, but the reason that I and many like me find arguments made by left libertarians attractive is that they seem to begin to provide the beggining of some sort of answer to these problems- which are fundamentally problems about the encouragement of social pathology in our societies through the spectre of managed capitalism. This post is not worked out- it is full of errors- and states doubts rather than certainties- but there is something going on here which in my view demonstrates that contra Fukuyama history has not ended and capitalism is not the best formation for societies.

7 comments:

Vino S said...

A very good and complex article. Am not sure if my reply can do justice to it.

I agree with you that there are a number of 'dystopian' aspects of modern-day capitalist reality for the human psyche. Our bodies are healthier than ever before, but our psyches seem to be finding it difficult to adjust to modern, atomised capitalist society. I think that if the cash nexus gains too much prominance in society, then that makes those who don't have 'enough' cash feel angry and frustrated about it. They can then take their frustration out on others - or, as some gossip mags do, get vicarious satisfaction from seeing others belittled.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Vino- I think there is a lot in your response. Personally these are issues I'm yet to completely work out for myself- but your response is good.

T said...

Yet at the same time capatalism drives us in the opposite direction.

As our traditional bonds of community break down, we too often see this as evidence of decline brought on by the endless drive of the market. Yet whilst this strips some of identity, we have to recognise where there are losers there are also winners as well.

Here I am not talking only about those who profit from capatilism, but rather those who are liberated, and that is exactly what it is, by the break up of the traditional community bonds who for some provided an identity yes, but for others find their self-expression stifled by these very bonds.

As for the cynicism that we see in modern day society, do you not feel that large part of this is we have new forms of communication that have developed new cultural norms? - people are very happy to comment about others on the internet in a way that they would never do face to face (for whatever reason) and that this is now starting to slip back into mainstream media. It might be as simple as capitalism driving our competitive nature but equally there might be a more complex cultural phenomena taking place here, worthy of greater attention.

I guess what i'm trying to say is yes the left's critique of capatalism is interesting for the reasons you expressed but where some of us lose faith is the wholistic ideological approach at its route. Its Marx all over again, start with the theory and work backwards. And perhaps this is precisely why it is appealing because like Marx it pertains to have all the answers.

Gracchi said...

I have to say that this is the pre-Marx left we are talking about here.

Yes I agree that you are right and perhaps I should have made it clearer that this isn't just capitalism that is to blame- mass communication helps indeed and there is a myth that celebrity didn't exist in previous times.

I also agree with you in the idea that for some this is a liberation as well as a taking away of bonds- complicating the picture is neccessary thanks.

T said...

Well Marx cribbed most of Rousseau anyway so I think its a valid point still!

T said...

Well Marx cribbed most of Rousseau anyway so I think its a valid point still!

james higham said...

Sorry to come in so late to this but I have to leave the comment I left Matt Sinclair:

Ho hum. Tiberius is into "soft politics" and goodness in the world and Chris has an obsession with managerialism. Quite a debate.

Capitalism simply provides incentive for the individual to work hard and to see his hard work rewarded both for himself and his family.

It is soul destroying that the fruits of his labour care being planned to be taken away by socialists and given to the undeserving.

In fact, it's wrong.