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What is Capitalism?

“Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking
I stand weeping at the train station
‘Cause I can see your faces
I love people’s faces”

—Kate Tempest, People’s Faces

The question ‘what is capitalism’ is a sincere one. Critiques of our present situation very often say the problem is capitalism. This is usually done without defining the term. Nonetheless, people seem to know what it means better than I do. Right-wingers, often without concern for the health of society, are triggered. Left-wingers, often with a concern for the health of society, cheer. Such is a bad sign for capitalism, but what exactly are we talking about?

The following piece will attempt to define capitalism as purely an alienating force, and therefore neither good nor bad. Furthermore, I would like to assert that the moral argument itself is overplayed and it only mirrors the limitations of past hierarchies. Rather we must reason ourselves into everything, even into morality itself. The best argument for morality is that the ego is a construct formed by our limited perception and that love is a desirable replacement because we all are physical beings who exist, who suffer, who die and therefore the difference between us is only a subjective one.

There is nothing moral about this argument, so it is not divisive. It also may not be specific enough, but neither is the general critique of capitalism, which I think is merely a critique of self-interest. Self-interest certainly causes many problems and this is why I do like to use the word communism. It is a violent triggering word that makes all those who strive for a miserable self-actualization shake in their boots.

However are we in anything more than a hierarchal religious setting if we continue to moralize rather than embrace a structural critique? Morality is never ultimately motivated by shame, only hierarchy is. Morality is motivated by a calling to a higher purpose. This is the purpose the left has found, and it is what motivates the left every day. The convictions of the left go far beyond shame, they strike deep in the heart. However the left is not immune to the present stage of alienation. To be moral is to love and to love is to be insane. Those who love aren’t ashamed, they stand naked, but not humiliated. It is beautiful.

This is why we must start asking what capitalism is, to see if we can get to the true nature of the problem we have today. Generally when capitalism is described we note correctly that making money at the expense of others is immoral or even inefficient or destructive. However who wouldn’t agree with that? I think the problem obviously is that many people don’t do this. However this isn’t really ideology at all. It is a moral argument, and a worthwhile one. However what would it mean to substitute capitalism?

It is here where I don’t want to be overly critical because the word ‘capitalism’ obviously says more than it implies but it implies almost nothing, no? Take for example that most of the critiques of capitalism won’t embrace communism explicitly but rather call for some return to Marx. Returning to Marx only reflects the powerlessness of this position because Marx himself sat comfortably in his armchair much like the anti-capitalist theorists do today. This is not so much of a critique of his class condition which is once again a moralizing thing that lacks maturity.

It is to simply say that a return to a theoretical grounding is a return to nothing at all because theory simply can’t govern. So I think if we were to advocate a return to anything it would have to be to one of these political representations of Marxism, these failed attempts, and all life is is a failed attempt so this is not a criticism but I only mean that the critics of capitalism won’t go to a failure and this is the ideological purity that absolves them.

Why criticize the left at all? Nothing else is interesting. A dialogue with anyone else goes nowhere. Please don’t be offended, not yet.

I bring this all up because today people seem to be taking the pandemic as an opportunity to assert that capitalism has failed. These are always backed up by extraordinary obvious points. Too boring to even review.

Instead I would like to argue that production itself is not the problem, not the means of production. That, if anything, is my thesis. Here we don’t have to even touch the Eurocentrism of the “everything in decline” narrative.

There is the argument that if we had some nationalized health care system or if we just taxed the rich, etc. etc. we would have some stronger state that would be less interested in profit and we could stop the virus. Obviously austerity in its isolation has been devastating as has privatization of industries. Yet there is a distinction drawn here that is blurry at best between the state and the market.

Because I don’t think the modern left has any trust in the state. There is a vague call for socialism or whatever but when it comes to actual state power the left is extremely critical.

I am still a communist for no reason other than this: the alternative is an impossibility. My grandfather remarked in his old age that this was better than the alternative (of death, implied of course). And the alternative is always implied as the abstract vague monster I’m talking about that is haphazardly labeled capitalism or corruption or even oligarchy. Likewise I see religion as a possibility for this assertion. I believe in God precisely because I don’t believe in atheism, etc.

The reversal says nothing: I don’t believe in capitalism because I have no beliefs takes me nowhere. Let’s Go There was the name of our political campaign and I think we have to be materialist here. Where are we going? Therefore I believe in communism because I don’t believe in capitalism. I don’t think we have to make the claim that we aren’t absurd here.

One of the real problems I am having is this faith in elites. Socialism did arise out of capitalism which arose out of imperialism. Take this basic formulation which I think more or less explains our predicament. Capitalism is the alienation of everything but especially the alienation of violence.

Let’s first address the alienation. Why must the right-wing embrace alienation? If capitalism and alienation are exactly the same we can make the claim the right embraces alienation. The right is always in denial so it is always alienated. It comes down to truth.

This is not to say that everyone who embraces socialism embraces imperialism. Once again I simply don’t care what anyone believes politically. I just think we need to ground ourselves.

What is the solution then? I think it is quite simply to do less and think more. Everything about this fetishization of the working class by the Marxist left disgusts me! I love Marxists of course, please take this in good fun.

The coronavirus has lessons to teach us. The farther we go, the farther we fall. We have overproduced our way into extinction. We live longer just to work harder. We disavow our mother just to marry her. Leisure is born from slavery. Universal community from the exploitation of those outside of it. All growth only constructs our own ceiling. The coronavirus gives us the opportunity to do less with more. Leave behind our freedom of excess.

We must avoid romanticizing the natural world but I think we can borrow the lack of ideology from the animal kingdom. Rather than strive for a holy civilization built on the backs of the marginalized let us instead seek to do no harm. The bravest war is pacifism itself. Only by embracing our naked selves who are incapable of violence or sin precisely because we wear its mark do we find that we desire nothing but to be as a tree is. Standing but not moving.

It is here where let’s have all the fun at once and say let’s reject the twin material evils of Marxism and capitalism. Forgive me, my materialist vices are on hold, let me vice by poking the bear of ideological conquest over material resources. As the virus upends all political formations let’s not make the mistake of being anyone’s king and instead engage in fate. Faith is a belief, fate is a known quantity.

What are we but alienated beasts who now quiver in the face of the virus not because we may die but because our life, before, after and during the virus, are ones of extreme violence? God may not exist but collective karma, by natural law, surely does. Why else would meat packing plants be the hotspot for the virus? Planet earth takes the most vulnerable among us lacking humans in order to make the most privileged suffer in this wretched state even longer, becoming more and more confused and learning less and less until one day it mercifully ends.

Therefore let us go forth in peace. With the relief as Mr. Zizek says, that there will always be new problems. Perversely let’s admit all progress has been awful and indeed all progress is violence. All progress props up the few on the backs of the many.

But I am not the typical leftist here, proclaiming we can’t have technocratic elites or state power to solve the problems. If they do the job, how privileged would I be to oppose them on some ideal of the working class who is effectively a subaltern for Marxist intellectualism? No let us simply say that the solution does not come by some opposition to power, for who cares about power or about some acquisition of things because who cares about things or by some acknowledge of rights because who says we deserve any rights.

Rather let’s be non-violent. Become the furthest away that we can be from hurting others without necessity. The law of nature is still the only one that applies. We have come so far only to realize we can’t be saved by what we’ve built because even in a crisis we have to continue building it. This is a profit question but not only. I think it too is a question about why it has to be built at all, if it is only to fall.

Still part of me wonders if this human condition is avoidable or even if we should try to avoid it. This though can become our worthwhile project. Attempting to avoid excess, becoming wonderfully Puritan and simple. Failing, feeling guilt and finally getting redemption through confession, propelling the human race into honest and productive guilt rather than violent and suppressed guilt. Fail we will, but we will hate ourselves so much we won’t mind failing! We will then all be happy, the world will be free. There will be no slaves, of beast or woman, and we will find that without the desires of civilization we no longer want to escape and die and instead we will live long healthy and happy lives in harmony with our habitat. This only underestimates our possibilities. Coronavirus is the perfect time for confession and calling.

Specifically everyone must strike immediately until the billionaire class throws up its hands and admits its insecurities. Jeff Bezos will cry and cry and this will be sad but it will only cure him more than his money ever could. He then will be free and he then will know love and he then will rejoice and he finally will know what it means to be alive. Let’s not waste a moment longer! It is time to give up all material grounding and follow our spirits!

Capitalism is the substitution for overt natural violence. Just as capital substitutes for a good or service it substitutes for violence. Imperialism is the explicit violence, socialism is the distribution of the acquisition of resources of said violence and capitalism is the consolidation of said resources within the state. Marx had it backward. Capitalism follows socialism which is why, from the seat of the Empire at least, things seem to be getting worse.

Take a gendered view of capitalism. Marx himself said capitalism got rid of patriarchal relations and put them into the market which only means that the pure gender is now alienated which is actually a good thing because of course it was originally an alienation and at least through mediation we can revert to coercion rather than pure violence. However, this is where the myths of capitalist progress fall flat because while this idea of world poverty lessening is an intriguing argument it is negated by world inequality growing therefore further creating the chance for violence via coercion (forced labor, destruction, sex, even murder through the proxy of the market).

To be clear this is why Marx is at least halfway there. Socialism is leagues ahead of capitalism, obviously. However to think we can be saved, or even slightly relieved by anything less than ecological transformation is strictly dishonest. This means we must stop seeking to expand our definition of responsibilities and instead collapse them. We aren’t just citizens, we’re animals too. We don’t have to be alienated from our peaceful cooperative nature. We can forget all we’ve learned and surpass materialist ideology into the realm of materialism itself.

Ultimately humans are beautiful and we waste our lives because of capital. We are dying because of capital. We are ending life as we know it because of capital. The tragedy is profound. It takes your breath away. But looking into the eyes of other people there is something left to salvage. The human condition is not a losing game, even if the end game seems to always be the same.

The time is now to save lives. We must decide now that it’s all worth it. To try is to succeed. The beauty of our species is overpowering. The moment we exit alienation we have no choice but to fight for us. The corporate propaganda machine leaves us with glaring distractions. The sooner we forget what they are telling us the sooner we become truly human—that species who lives the miracle of not just pain, but suffering. Not just pleasure, but joy. Not just with the animal desire but the human spirit. This has the power to make us vain and greedy, but for the slumbering masses this has and always has given us the ability to feel for what is lost. It’s not all lost yet.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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