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Foreign Affairs Never Ceases to Amaze

Getting Capitalism and Inequality Dead Wrong

by ANDREW SMOLSKI

Recently I was at the book store with my wife and I politely asked her if she would buy me an issue of Foreign Affairs (March/April 2013). After some slight prodding she gave in and purchased me the journal. See, I was intrigued by the article “Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and Left Get Wrong” by Jerry Z. Mueller, a historian and professor. As an establishment rag, you know the Council on Foreign Affairs imperialist propagating machine, I could bet on power and oppression being left behind, a side note if at all considered. And of course there it was ad nauseam, the simplistic discourse justifying the grotesque horrors of a system as our destiny.

As I sat down to read the article I began a slow, excruciating process of regret as each page laid claims easily dismantled with a brief look at the evidence. The realization soon dawned on me that I had naively assumed an establishment publication would have anything other than a cruel dystopian calculus of TINA proportions. Reading Foreign Affairs should be considered equivalent to inhaling paint in order to reach enlightenment. I would like to utilize the text by Jerry to demonstrate a lack of understanding inherent to those who so long ago were labeled the New Mandarins.

Let us begin our stroll through the vagaries of cold ignorance to our indentured servitude in the system with this whopper:

“Contemporary capitalist polities need to accept that inequality and insecurity will continue to be the inevitable result of market operations and find ways to shield citizens from their consequences…” (italics mine, p. 31)

The first italicized word is a bother, a nuisance irritating my very being as an order-word structuring reality. It leaps off the page and strikes against my agency cutting off all alternatives as irrational in their core as the imaginings of a fool who does not understand. Destruction of agency does not end there, but continues in each italicized word. For instance, inevitable becomes the holistic signifier bringing all agents to their knees under the domination of a system I presume is run by no one. Never should we mind Jerry’s missing the fact inherent to a social system, that agents in the form of assemblages and aggregations are the system. Their decisions set it in motion. Ignore social theory! All we need is Pangloss to declare this is the best of all worlds. But since it isn’t, it is just one amongst alternatives that have existed or could exist, let us admit the citizens must be shielded from the very system which dominates them. Only a few of us though, technocrats with good subjective reason, are allowed to make that decision however. Agency chopped down before it could learn to walk as we are at the capitalist system’s mercy, mere beggars at its altar.

This doesn’t end this charade, a clown car never emptying, always sustaining the dark laughter underneath this establishment swill:

Prior to capitalism, life was governed by traditional institutions that subordinated the choices and destinies of individuals to various communal, political, and religions structures. These institutions kept change to a minimum, blocking people from making much progress but also protecting them from many of life’s vicissitudes.” (31-32)

Here we enter into a nice euro-centric historiography, with its paternalistic despair of the old and its claim to never subordinate anyone or anything, to never coerce them into being part of the capitalist machine. I like the word prior as it adds the arbitrary demarcation, because society, in the eyes of Jerry, is a perfect totality; much too Hegel for my blood. Too much teology and linear progressive thinking for me to stomach, along with its inherent epistemic racism and abstract universalistic ethno-centrism curdling my insides with each letter added. Too much ideological illusion and not enough substance, or maybe not enough balls to state the obvious, we are still subordinated to new traditional institutions (for aren’t they traditional once they become stratified into the society, when they alone dominate the political and economic rituals of our lives, overcoding everything) and formal freedom is still the rule (for I may choose, but only from the choices they have already chosen, capitalism and the liberal-bourgeois state). And once again, slightly astonishing for a historian, much of the accumulated evidence demonstrates that prior to capitalism (say, before 1500 CE which is around where Wallerstein and Braudel put capitalism’s beginnings) the world was not static, especially not if when you say ‘world’ you actually mean the world and not just ‘Western Civilization’ (whatever the hell that means). But, my personal favorite is how pain in our new system is raised to a virtue, because how it could be otherwise if prior we were protected from many vicissitudes and now we must accept our inequality. Inequality is pain for many!

The bollocks in the article continues with oversimplifications of anything Jerry deems anti-deterritorializations of semiotic codes by the capitalist machine:

“an expansion of subjective wants and a new subjective perception of needs. This ongoing expansion of wants has been chastised by critics of capitalism from Rousseau to Marcuse as imprisoning humans in a cage of unnatural desires. But it has also been praised by defenders of the market from Voltaire onward for broadening the range of human possibility. Developing and fulfilling higher wants and needs, in this view, is the essence of civilization.” (32)

Was this expansion necessary? Or is it merely just contingent? Does it matter which? Not for Jerry, all that matters is we ignore the imprisoning, for it is an action being done to others all the time as the semiotic codes reterritorialize around a market calculus siphoning off the money code and restricting all under its supply/demand dictum. It launches its war ships, economies of scale, to take control of distribution and decide what makes it to the market and what is restricted. Of course it cannot stop there, for we must at the same time love the possibility of some idealistic future of broadening wants and needs as our only hope, itself structured by the haves’ and the have-nots’ access to its world of wonders.

Jerry even has the gall to state “Capitalism and commodification have thus facilitated both humanitarianism and news of self-invention” (33) without pointing out it also led to colonialism, repression, closing of the commons, destruction of subjectivities, and an all-around grueling American hegemony. It’s because Jerry does not want to admit or refuses to say that the evidence points towards the possibility of a market not being siphoned off leaving the shit in the sewer for the rest. Jerry the historian cannot use history to show trade has existed for most of our species time on this planet, because it is really Jerry the propagandist. So, of course we cannot let the markets without capitalism message soar, and instead we must once again accept all of Jerry’s ‘it’s good for you’ as the essence, yes the very being of our civilization. Essence as high mass consumption, how delightful for us petty proletarians!

The tripe continues, as it turns to the holy grail of conservative virtual nonsense,opportunity. Let us start this magic show with a wonderful bit of semantic trickery:

“Formal or informal barriers to equality of opportunity, for example, have historically blocked various sectors of the population – such as women, minorities, and the poor – from benefitting fully from all capitalism offers. But over time, in the advanced capitalist world, those barriers have gradually been lowered or removed, so that now opportunity is more equally available than ever before.” (33)

Every time someone can’t use the words racism or sexism and instead uses a word like barriers, as if it was merely jumping hurdles, I die a little on the inside. Blocked at least is a verb expressing it was not self-inflicted, but one would think oppression or something illustrating the violence involved would be much better. But of course it could never be so, because we cannot think of systemic violence and its ravages upon our bodies in this disciplinary society. It is censored to do so, for we have sublimated it out of existence, and for many to look directly upon the violence would rip their being asunder. And the reason it is sublimated is because otherwise how would we deal with the paradox produced by the last part of the sentence, benefitting. If capitalism will be unequal, if inequality will exist, then of course many will always not fully benefit from capitalism. So, it doesn’t even matter how many barriers are lowered or removed, it will never be equal and is going to tend towards massively unequal. And this sets the stage, the light beamed at the center of his explanation for why constant inequality.

Jerry is a smart fellow; I will give him that, because he tricks himself quite well:

“The inequality that exists today, therefore, derives less from the unequal availability of opportunity than it does from the unequal ability to exploit opportunity. And that unequal ability, in turn, stems from differences in the inherent human potential that individuals begin with and in the ways that families and communities enable and encourage that human potential to flourish.” (33)

Sophists typically sound good; it is their job to make tall tales and a long series of contradictory statements. Jerry is a good sophist. He knows how to take that which was demystified “availability of opportunity” and mystify it once more as “exploit opportunity”. We are always one step away from the cure, a cure slipping away constantly, morphing its savior apparatus. Note of course the difference between availability and exploit is never explained. It is left open for the reader to guess as to the semantics. Availability equals access? Exploit represents doings? If they can’t exploit it then how is it available? These questions must be too burdensome when making sweeping generalizations attempting to control the body politic through false reason.

And Jerry’s great generalization show continues with our inherent differences (which ones?) and of course our families and communities (they aren’t up to snuff?). The ‘inherent differences’, this clever line always leading to the meritocratic lie or the ideology of the entrepreneur as hero; of course, Jerry could not resist. For if only society “organized along meritocratic lines” (44) and entrepreneurs utilize creative destruction (36) then everything would be perfect and society would organically sort us out into a hierarchy of merit. What hogwash! Especially, when getting in the way of this beautiful society for Jerry, is the failure of the poor themselves to perpetuate solid marital unions from the declining human capital of men (what the hell does human capital mean? Jerry is always lacking conceptualization) (39-40). Those damned working class men and their inability to adapt to a world that was changed against their will, as factories were shipped overseas, unions busted, wages declining, and a part of their being demoralized. And of course laud the entrance of women into the labor market, but ignore the suffering, always ignore the suffering.

Of course, it is merely the families uncultured nature, the failure of the community to pass on proper class qualities (couldn’t Jerry have said cultural capital? Bah, Jerry doesn’t like social theory) (44-45). And the blaming of the poor begins, as it always does, because those on top do no wrong, angels merely singing the gospel of Mammon. The poor are either born dumb or become dumb due to the dumbness of the community, a load of bullshit. What is new in any of this? Nothing, it is merely a sophisticated way to make the same claims that have been struck down before. There is no meritocracy, because there has been a decline in availability of opportunity, not because it is not being exploited. In order for a meritocracy to exist, everyone would need to start equal in every sense of the word, as an objective state of being (Jerry the closet authoritarian socialist?). Opportunity declines, because power has been usurped and placed in the hands of capitalist-government collusion. Power must be left aside, because to admit power is to admit oppression, and to admit oppression is to be guilty. These fools and their sycophants know no guilt, they feel no shame, and they trod along as our world’s grim reaper spreading death, destruction, and famine quite merrily.

Even when you think Jerry might say something clever, he avoids it like a mosquito avoids a canella candle. For instance, Jerry speaks of changes in modern finance as if it is a real entity and not a network of organizations made up of people enacting roles:

“Spurred in part by these new opportunities, the traditional Wall Street investment banks transformed themselves into publicly traded corporations- that is to say, they, too, began to invest not just with their own funds but also with other people’s money…” (43)

The opportunities he speaks of are new forms of capital, deregulation of course is not an opportunity; you might have to admit lobbying and corruption if it is. Forget Glass-Stegall, do not ask about the revolving door between the federal government (SEC, Treasury, etc.) and private financial firms, and do not even entertain the idea for a second about the FED doing QE all the time in order to inflate finance. So, instead Wall Street banks become caterpillars that morph into butterflies and rain down financial terror, or sorry, “the financialization of society has nevertheless had some unfortunate consequences [do you think Jerry wants to say illegal/criminal activities which affected millions of lives?]” (43). O how benign!

This contaminated hazardous waste called intellectual thought does not cease in its gargantuan paternalistic nihilism towards those affected. Even poor Max Weber becomes merely a tool perpetuating a surface level thinking on the impacts of culture on economic outcomes (45). Jerry the master rhetorician can turn everything away from oppression, racism becoming merely a meritocratic hierarchy:

“Asians (especially when disaggregated from Pacific Islanders) tend to outperform non-Hispanic whites, who in turn tend to outperform Hispanics, who in turn tend to outperform African Americans.” (46)

Nothing is stated about the centuries of long struggle by blacks and latinos, no mention of oppression, no time to speak of ethnic enclaves. It is merely a cultural ordering, and apparently some cultures are failures. As Hardt and Negri have pointed out, racism becomes cultural leaving behind its outdated biological discourse and reasons. And Jerry goes on discussing differing immigrant outcomes, leaving out core-periphery differentials, whether or not they have been attacked by the Empire or the role they have been chained to in our globalized system of domination. (46) It is postmodern racism, where we co-opt those subjectivities beneficial to the system, scorn all others, and ignore the objective systemic violence. Yes, we love your indigenous dance, but could you charge for it and put fireworks at the end of the show. If not I think we will need to get you into a vocational program.

And so we end this lesson in sham explanations of capitalism and inequality with Jerry’s challenge:

“The challenge for government policy in the advanced capitalist world is thus how to maintain a rate of economic dynamism that will provide increasing benefits for all while still managing to pay for the social welfare programs required to make citizens’ lives bearable under conditions of increasing inequality and insecurity.” (51)

Jerry quotes Marx, but I presume Jerry forgot about Marx discussing the inverted proportion between wages and profits. This is the natural tendency of capitalism, especially as the labor market now exists in a state of oversupply and no policies come down the pipeline to reduce the working week and increase wages in order to: a.) create demand for labor and b.) increase aggregate demand in the economy (Why Keynes of course!). Jerry even supports social welfare programs, but with mantra as caveat about how they need structural reform (nifty word for privatization or reduction). (50) No, instead of these ideas Jerry would rather spend time knocking down education, as Jerry is also a bully knowing the count and cannot fathom education as good in-itself, but it must be good for capitalisms expansion. (47-48)

It’s why Jerry doesn’t get it, that it is not the actions of the left fighting for equality which is futile, but attempting to maintain workers in a condition merely to work for the productivity of the system where they receive less and less of the benefits which is. (50-51) And is it not the grandest oversimplification of the left to state it merely being about taxes and increasing spending. (30) None of that workers democracy could be on the lips of the status quo manager Jerry. After a whole article where capitalism is explained merely as “a system of economic and social relations marked by private property, the exchange of goods and services by free individuals, and the use of market mechanisms to control the production and distribution of those goods and services” (31) should we expect anything less than this neutral toned neoliberal satire of the poor’s ambitions.

Andrew Smolski is a righteously angry burgeoning sociologist attempting to point out the paternalistic nihilism of the status quo intellectual who can be reached at Andrew.smolski@gmail.com.