What Happens When People Find Out Capitalism Was a Lie?
October 31, 2018
Umair Haque / Eduaimonia
Commentary: "It's hardly just America. In Canada, two provinces have fallen to extremism. In Britain, there is the spectacular folly of Brexit. In Germany, neo-Nazis are on the rise. Poland, Hungary, Italy, Turkey -- the list is endless. The world is destabilizing, fracturing, unravelling, coming undone. Why? And what does the future hold? The truth, my friends, may be grimmer -- and yet a little more hopeful, in a strange and funny way -- than you might think. Let me start at the beginning."
Why the World is Unraveling
What Happens When People Find Out Capitalism Was a Lie?
Umair Haque / Eduaimonia
(October 4, 2018) -- It's hardly just America. In Canada, two provinces have fallen to extremism. In Britain, there is the spectacular folly of Brexit. In Germany, neo-Nazis are on the rise. Poland, Hungary, Italy, Turkey -- the list is endless. The world is destabilizing, fracturing, unravelling, coming undone. Why? And what does the future hold?
The truth, my friends, may be grimmer -- and yet a little more hopeful, in a strange and funny way -- than you might think. Let me start at the beginning.
For the last few decades, the world has been held together with a lie. The lie that held the world together was capitalism. Like all lies, it was a tenuous thing, made of duct tape and string, dreams and prayers.
The lie, which emerged after the great war, allowed liberals and conservatives to reach an uneasy peace -- a temporary truce in the battles that they have been fighting for centuries, now, and imagine that it would it last forever.
Liberals pretended to believe that capitalism would make everyone better off -- everyone, everywhere, always, period. They still do -- even while life expectancy falls in the two most capitalist countries of all, the US and UK -- capitalism is a theology now, an an article of faith, not a principle subject to reason. So for liberals, capitalism came to replace all aspects, more or less, of previous thought -- thinking about progress.
What was the answer to the great question of freedom? Capitalism. What about the one of justice? Capitalism! And what about equality? Why, capitalism.
It was a lobotomy, of a kind -- but it was also the alpha and omega, the totem and the shrine. All this came to be called neoliberalism, of course, which in a way hides the point: capitalism as the answer to every single concern of human existence, from moral to political to social to of course economic, was how liberals of an age reconciled with conservatives.
Conservatives, on the other hand, pretended to believe that capitalism would create something like a hierarchy of virtue. They have always been primarily interested in power and control, superiority and inferiority, in some people being masters, and others being slaves -- and so their end of the compromise was imagining that capitalism would allow hierarchy to operate.
Only this hierarchy would be one of the truly virtuous -- the most resolute, the most honest, the most courageous, the wisest: all these would be the winners of capitalism.
Of course, such people were what were once called "noble", too -- and so conservatism's compromise was that capitalism would preserve yesterday's tribal hierarchies -- men over women, white over black, strong over weak, moneyed over poor -- only by another name. We'd call them corporations or hedge funds or law firms -- but their function and purpose would be just the same as it ever was.
Now, this strange, weird compromise -- how could it ever really come to be true? How could people have better lives -- but still be bound by the same old stifling hierarchies, which exploited and abused them? How could life improve for all -- but only the virtuous and noble win?
Why would capitalism bother to enrich anyone but capitalists, let alone give people a sense of meaning, purpose, belonging, and truth -- when none of those things matter to it whatsoever? You have to go through severe contortions of thought -- which would later be called American economics -- to pretend all of that can be true. Touch it, and it falls apart.
This calculated, self-interested bargain between liberals and conservatives, which came to be called capitalism, could never realize itself as true. It was always a lie -- and perhaps for that reason, it seems, no one thought very hard about the truth of it much at all.
Don't believe me? OK. Fast forward a few decades. Did capitalism make good on this bargain -- of improving everyone's life, while creating a hierarchy of the just and noble? LOL -- of course not. It has done precisely the opposite.
Let us take America as the canonical example. The average American lives paycheck to paycheck, unable to muster $1000 for an emergency, perched right at the edge of perpetual ruin. One lost job, one unpaid bill, one step away from disaster -- falling into homelessness, impoverishment, and disgrace, which can easily last a lifetime.
And he lives that way until his dying day -- because he will never retire.Is that because he is not virtuous and noble? Because he is sinful and lazy, indolent and slothful? Of course not. He works longer and harder hours than his parents and grandparents -- and yet in real terms, he earns less, saves less, and is more indebted.
But to whom is he indebted? To the virtuous and noble, who are the winners of capitalism? Of course not. He is indebted to the winners of capitalism, that much is true -- but they are vicious predators. They are the ones who raise the prices of life-savings drugs by thousands to profiteer upon his grief, who make him crowd fund insulin, who sell his kids bulletproof backpacks, who deny him the basics of a decent life, whether retirement, a pension, healthcare, or dignity.
Capitalism exploits and uses him like he is an animal -- he is not a human thing to it at all. It is no great surprise, then, that he has given up on capitalism -- but what is he turning to instead? Fascism, authoritarianism, and extremism.
The lie that was capitalism, in truth, produced just the opposite of what it promised people. The prole never became a capitalist. The capitalist never became a civilized and democratic person. Everyone did not have a better life. Worst of all, the winners were not the noble and just. They were, and are, the indecent and obscene, the disgraceful and the predatory -- the Trumps of the world.
Hence, quite naturally, there are fewer and fewer people who believe in the foolish and childish lie of capitalism anymore. Now, once upon a time, before the great war, that would have been cause for rejoicing. "The glorious socialist revolution is here, now that capitalism is falling!!" cried the Marxist-Leninists. But they were wrong.
The last time capitalism fell, it produced fascism, genocide, ruin, and world war, before it produced social democracy. And that is what is happening all over again, now too. Those who are falling, but expected to rise, are taking what they were told was rightfully theirs by force, because they cannot have it through consent.
Hence, as capitalism is revealed to be a lie, the temporary truce between liberals and conservatives is shattering with implosive force -- and the same old war between them is breaking out.
Because capitalism was the lie which was the common ground between them -- liberals imagining a meritocratic utopia, conservatives imagining an aristocracy of the wise and true, both sides lost in their delusions -- and now the lie has been revealed to be just that, how are these two sides to compromise now? The ground between them has fallen into the sea, and there they stand, on opposite continents, raising their fists at one another, in just the same old ways that they ever have.
So now that capitalism is dying -- and it is a good thing it is dying -- the problem is that the world is breaking down with it. Liberals and conservatives cannot agree anymore on the basic definitions of the fundamental things of society and political economy -- without the now obviously false principles of capitalism (exploitation is wonderful, the rich are kind and wise, everyone must only ever rely on themselves, and so on) to give them a false common ground.
What is freedom to a conservative? It is the right to dominate others, to stand above them, to abuse them, to punish them. What is freedom to people who reject such extremism? It is something more like the chance to realize one's self. What is fairness to a conservative? It is being entitled to the superiority that comes with belonging to the dominant tribe. What is fairness to a person who rejects such tribalism? It is a society in which tribalism is not dominant.
Do you see how the basic definitions of the fundamental elements of political economy are now irreconcilable between conservatives and liberals? How one complete excludes and negates the other? But therefore, compromise between liberals and conservatives isn't possible either -- but that is exactly why both sides have been at war for centuries, because that is what has historically been the case -- only recently did they agree on the truce of capitalism. And yet in a world where capitalism has been found out to be a lie -- but the lie what just barely held the world together -- the problem is then the world must come undone, too.
We are in a time when the following things are true. When the definition of freedom to a conservative is the privilege to abuse and prey on the less powerful with impunity, but the definition of freedom to a liberal is the end of just such privileges and such impunities.
When the definition of fairness to a conservative is the right to deny others personhood, but the definition of fairness to a liberal is to expand it. When the meaning of equality to a conservative is my inherent superiority over you, but the meaning of equality to a liberal is inherent worth in all. When the idea of justice to a conservative is the rule of the strong over the weak, but the idea of justice to a liberal is shielding the vulnerable from just such a rule.
But these things have always been true -- it was only the lie of capitalism which let us pretend there was a compromise, a reconciliation between them. Without the lie of capitalism to reconcile us together with happy illusions, we are reverting to a time when the fundamental, basic, naked, stark -- and age-old -- divisions between left and right are re-emerging and resurfacing. But now they are irreconcilable, too -- because there is no lie left to pretend they can be glued together.
And so we are entering an age of disintegration. Because there is nothing gluing them together anymore, no lie left to pretend left and right can happily, peacefully live together, we are probably going into a time when societies simply break apart and shatter.
If liberals (and I don't mean neoliberal, I mean anyone from the center to the left) and conservatives can't compromise anymore -- if the fundamental, basic, elemental differences between them are irreconcilable all over again, as they always were -- then they can't live together, either. We already see the glimmerings of such a thing in many, many places.
The EU threatened on all sides, which began with Brexit, which, ironically, will break up the UK. America exists at this point as a nation held together by the illusion of democracy. Quebec's new nationalists -- not democrats, like the old ones, but something more like tribalists. Fracture is rising, my friends.
So by age of disintegration, I mean a time of separationism, secessionism, breakup, fracture. Such an era will bring with it all kinds of upheaval, of course. Everything from peaceful departure to violent civil war. You can judge for yourself which one is likely in your society. I want to make the general point a little clearer.
We cannot seem to live together anymore now -- the two sorts of people we are. Those who wish to be truly free, equal, and civilized -- and those wish to be compete and strive in hierarchies of abuse and predation for status, power, and control. And the plain truth is this. We never could at all. Capitalism was an uncomfortable and clumsy lie -- one that, in the end, brought us no closer together than we ever were.
Some of us remain tribalists, fascists, authoritarians -- bigots, flunkies, bullies, abusers, climbing ladders of predation. Some of us wish to be free of just such people -- to have nothing whatsoever to do with them, because they are beneath contempt.
But the problem we have found out today is that no matter how those of who wish to be free of such people have tried to teach them any better, they have not grown or matured one inch. They are just the same as they always were.
Democracies, in other words, have failed to civilize the predatory among them -- no matter how hard they have tried. The ratio of these two sorts of people has not wavered one iota, it appears. What possibility then, is there, for coexistence between them?
Democracy, after all, is premised on a kind of myth: that we can educate everyone into being a democrat, into desiring equality over superiority, into cherishing liberation over predation, into prizing the public good over self interest. But can we? We have failed at just that. The lie of capitalism hid all this from us, for a few decades. But here we are -- back at history's ugliest truth.
What this age has really taught us then, is this: the two kinds of people we are cannot live together. Democracy is a failed experiment -- because there are those of us who will reject it and refuse it, no matter how much or hard or by what means they are taught, educated, instructed, trained, nurtured to want, cherish, prize, and desire it. Therefore, democracy can only be preserved by rejecting and refusing such people. But that means societies as we know them are also coming to a swift and sudden end.
This war, between those who wish to live in tribes of predators, and those who wish to be truly free, equal, and sovereign, has always been fought -- it is the oldest one of all. Perhaps though, in coming decades, we will see it finally resolved. Why should people with such different attitudes want to live together at all -- if this age has finally revealed the futility of such an idea? Humanity is learning, perhaps, to let this foolish idea go.
Capitalism is the lie that broke the world. And yet the promise of this age, then, if you ask me, is a better kind of freedom. It is wiser for societies to break up, and jettison, at last the strange illusion, conjured by capitalism, that civilized people can coexist with people who do not want to coexist at all.
Democracy can only be preserved among the democratic. And therefore by them, too. So let the abusers and tribalists and predators have their tribes -- and let those of who wish to genuinely free, equal, and true have our democracies. History has already taught us which side will triumph, hasn't it?
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