So you don’t like capitalism? Alright, what is capitalism then? No, no, really please, off the hip, what’s your razor sharp definition of capitalism? … It’s kind of tricky when you think about, isn’t it? Okay, let’s cut it down to its most basic component: capital. What is capital then? And no, you are not allowed to say money. Not sure then? Okay, what if we look at what capital does? No, not just a lot of evil stuff, what is the most basic mechanism of capital?
Mind if I have a go at it? Alright, here’s my take on capital, it is:
Something that creates a positive feedback loop,
which changes social relations,
so that power is accumulated,
for the person or organization to which the feedback loop is linked.
So anything that makes you more powerful vis-à-vis others, and that can grow and expand itself by proper management, is capital. The positive feedback loop means that you tend to get more of it once you have a certain amount; it creates an advantage from which you can get more of the same or more of something similar.
It’s possible to add another dimension: Capital must have some kind of psychological lure or desirability. There must be something we can fetishize, something we can crave, possess, call our own, and/or be possessed by. Otherwise it won’t do anything and thus it cannot be capital.
That means this isn’t the only form of capital:
Money is a kind of capital yes, but not the definition of capital in itself.
Another form of capital is this:
Sexual attractiveness and even good health is a form of capital. Remember, capital has the quality that one form of it can be exchanged for another. Being fit and beautiful can potentially give you a movie career and the social capital gained from that can sometimes even be exchanged for political capital – and, not least, a lot of money capital as well. It can also get you laid; in fact, pretty much all kinds of capital can get you laid. And erotic capital itself can likewise be exchanged for almost all other kinds of capital.
That means even this is a form of capital:
Having good friends and loving family relations is also a form of capital, so called social capital. The number of friends and contacts, and the quality of those relations, can give you many advantages; in fact, it’s almost impossible to accumulate other forms of capital without it. With social capital you can ask someone favors you otherwise would have paid for, for example make a good friend help you move; and if you have many friends and contacts other people are more inclined to want to know you simply because you know “everyone”. It also makes it more likely for you to get a good job; in fact, if you’re not capable of establishing that initial social capital at the job interview you probably won’t get it.
So just like having lots of money helps you get even more money (that’s the positive feedback loop), so does having a lot of friends help you get even more, and, these things can be exchanged for each other. Can’t buy friend you say? Well, why do rich people usually have a lot of people they call their friends, while bums on the street tend to be all alone? Capital attracts other capital, and if you have a lot of one kind it’s easier to get the other kinds you need.
So what other kinds are there? Historically, this has been the most important form of capital:
Organized violence, to be specific. Prior to the modern era the ones who controlled an army were usually also the ones who controlled the economy. By having a big army rulers and warlords could simply accumulate all other forms of capital by the sheer use of force, and often by the mere threat of it. Controlling a piece of land with an army could grant one additional land by conquest and thus further increase the size of one’s army by gaining even more soldiers and resources and so on (until they met someone else with an army to counter their force). This is the positive feedback loop. Organized violence could be exchanged for other forms of capital such as food, money, social status etc. – and who doesn’t want to be friends with the warrior chief himself!
History is not shy of telling us that organized violence has been the most fundamental form of capital throughout history – and with a modern phrasing, one with a very favorable exchange rate. So that’s what the past has looked like, before money capital ruled the world (as it does today). But, in the future, this form of capital will be king:
These people might look cute and harmless, but they are increasingly a force to be reckoned with. This is because they have large amounts of cultural capital. In the future this form of capital, not money capital, will be at the center of the economy. The ones who have large amount of cultural capital are able to exchange it at ever more favorable exchange rates; that means getting other forms of capital in large quantities for a smaller quantity of their precious cultural capital. But not only are such people getting well paid for their services; in virtue of their larger amounts of cultural capital they are better at getting and keeping the precious attention of others, more likely to be listened to. And their ability to gain the attention of others will make them increasingly more powerful in the future, to an extent that they will finally dominate the economy. But more on that later. This leads us to the next question.
“Our time and attention is more fundamental than money and work.”
What is Economy?
What is “economy”? Not just the economy. What does the term “economy” actually mean? And no, economy is not just about flows of money and material goods. What is economy essentially about? What is its most fundamental mechanism?
Work! you might reply, is what economy is all about. Well, it’s also about work, but since our present definition of the word tends to only cover those services exchanged for money it doesn’t quite cut it. For instance, just think about “house work”, put forth by many feminist scholars. This activity usually doesn’t involve the exchange of money and is mostly not considered economically relevant, but the domestic duties performed by women throughout history have been absolutely crucial for the functioning of society. Taking care of your children is usually not considered work, but if someone does it for money it suddenly becomes “real” work. However, it’s still the same activity; still the same economic task being performed.
Or think about sex. Not considered work right? Unless you prostitute yourself! Although the activity, per se, is still the same, but the exchange of money suddenly turns it into work. Is it work if I clean your house for free? Just because I like you? Or fuck you? Economically the same task has still been performed whether you pay me or not. The real output is the same, but it doesn’t get measured in monetary value and thus usually isn’t seen as an economical matter. You won’t find the work I put into helping my friend move in the GNP, but still a valuable task has been performed.
So if “economy” can’t merely be boiled down to money or work, what is it then?
Let’s look at the root of the word itself:
Borrowed from Latin oeconomia, from ancient Greek οἰκονομία meaning:
“management of a household, administration”
(οἶκος (oîkos, “house”) + νόμος (nómos, “law”) (surface analysis eco– + –nomy).
In the Scandinavian languages there is actually a common word that roughly translates into “management of a household” or “to economize”: “hushålla”/”husholde”, literally “to hold house”. It’s a verb, meaning that it’s something you do. But what is it, most fundamentally, that you do, when you are “holding house” or “economizing”?
Yes, it includes the management of limited assets, manufactured goods and natural resources and the work included in producing and distributing these things. But you’re managing something more fundamental than that, something that goes beyond the concrete work tasks and physical resources: namely, our most limited resource – time and attention.
Economy is about the management of our time and attention. Money and work are just abstractions and surface phenomena of these two much more fundamental aspects. Money is merely a crude measure of evaluating the worth of someone’s actions in relation to someone else, and what we see as “actual” work is merely a social construct, a convention and definition of what is considered to be actions creating economic value for others – in our day and age usually the kind of actions by which a monetary exchange takes place.
Our time and attention is more fundamental than money and work. It’s what is at the very core of the economy. For example, you reading this text and giving me your attention is an economic action. You could have done something else, but you chose to, you economized, those scarce resource (that is, your valuable time and attention) to read. In that regard all our actions are economic priorities. All of them. Taking a hike in the forest, talking to your neighbor or doing activism are all economic actions. You could have done something else.
Hence “economy”, or to “economize”, is all about behaviors and relations. It’s about the behaviors we spend our time doing and towards which relations we direct our attention.
So, this ain’t it:
You won’t find the essence of economy from studying the wizardry of stock exchange brokers, bankers and other financial occupations that we’re so accustomed to. The economy runs much deeper than the numerical values presented by statistics on monetary exchanges.
A Crash Course in Economic History
With this short introduction I welcome you to a crash course in economic history: A tale of how different forms of capital have shaped our behaviors and how technological advances have turned the dynamics and mechanisms of the economy upside down.
If you already feel familiar with the history of the world, you can skip past it and go straight to the final point “What to do with Capitalism?” [Link]
The Agrarian Revolution
Let’s begin with the emergence of the “agrarian regime” which can be divided into two overarching steps of development.
Step one, the agricultural revolution per se: This initial step revolves around the management, investment and timing of the surplus energy of the natural world.
The novel invention of the agricultural revolution was the way in which humans began to deliberately extract, manage and alter naturally occurring resources by investing surplus resources in expectation of a greater yield the coming harvest. And people developed methods to time those measures so as to maximize its output or, with another word, to profit. In short, by refraining from consuming resources immediately and determining the optimal conduct for future yields, humans had developed a new way of production. Sounds familiar? Just wait.
But then a new problem arose. The denser societies and closer proximity to other, often competing, societies meant that conflicts became inevitable. Anthropological as well as archaeological investigations show that war seems to be endemic among horticultural (early agrarian) societies. Security, rather than mere survival, thus became the most critical concern. This circumstance paved the way for the next step of development.
Step two, the emergence of state-like structures or “civilizations”: Economically the second step revolves around the exploitation of a new energy source: that of human bodies.
The way in which human bodies can be seen as an exploitable energy source is obviously not that this measure of production had not been available prior to this turn in history (of course people had used their bodies to extract resources from the environment before). But because of the new circumstances that arose in large sedentary farming communities with steep social hierarchies other humans suddenly became “exploitable” for other purposes than their own – however, this was true only for particular agents who had the appropriate means to do so. That “means” was organized violence. And as the large agrarian societies managed to produce sufficient surplus resources to support full-time warriors, rulers secured their grip on power and acquired the measures to make people do what they wanted.
Slaves and other dependents were treated as human stores of energy, “living batteries” so to speak. And because humans are more efficient converters of food into energy than many animals (and can perform many tasks that the animals can’t) they were often more valuable. Human beings as an effective source of energy explains why slavery was so universally prevailing in the pre-modern world, just as the use of fossil fuels is in the modern; which further explains why fossil fuels eventually made slavery unfashionable.
Aided by organized violence, and since agriculture generated a considerable amount of surplus labor not preoccupied with food-production, rulers could use their authority to allocate the energy of other human beings to tasks that had been difficult, if not outright impossible, in the “foraging regime” – such as erecting large monumental buildings and the mass production of crafted goods. This surplus also made possible the growth of administrative, intellectual and religious endeavors. All these activities accumulated to an extent never seen before. In short, agriculture and organized violence fostered what has been termed “civilization”.
Then everything changed again.
“The logic of the capitalistic regime is one that is born from the abundant amount of organized violence”
The “Capitalist” Revolution
Whereas organized violence was the primary capital to organize society in the agrarian regime, modernity has money capital as its primary means to manage the collective actions of humans. With the what we usually call the “capitalist” revolution, controlling a big army was no longer the most crucial measure of power. When the descendants of the medieval merchants started to control huge amounts of money they could muster larger armies and weapons than the old landed elite – not least by entering alliances with the kings. The logic of organized violence became subordinated to the logic of money capital. The masters of the world were no longer the aristocratic knights in shining armor, but the accountants and savvy merchants in humble suits. By managing the surplus energy of human labor and carefully investing and re-investing human labor for productive uses, they could accumulate larger amounts of resources and power than any warrior by means of plunder alone. And when this was coupled with newly discovered methods to exploit the energy of millions of years of stored sun power in the form of underground fossil fuels: Boom! A new age dawned, and we saw the beginnings of the society we have today. With modernity the hard logic of one regime was finally supplemented by another.
The “agrarian regime” had supplemented the “foraging regime”. Now the agrarian regime was supplemented by the capitalist-industrial regime. And Britannia ruled the waves, as the first truly emerging capitalist power. Those who commanded the greatest capital also commanded the greatest military power. Eventually, nations began to compete less by means of warfare and more by means of economic growth.
So let’s return to the initial question. What is capitalism?
Well, capitalism is simply the management of human surplus by means of money capital.
(Note that the terms used here: what we usually think of as “capital” is money capital and that has, by tradition, given us the name conventional name for “capitalism” – which is when money capital govern our lives. But our everyday lives can be governed by other forces as well, by “other capitals”, and under such circumstances, we wouldn’t call it “capitalism”.)
Like the agrarian regime, the modern (money) capitalist industrial one also developed in two steps.
Step one, the emergence of capitalism: This initial step revolves around the management, investment and timing of the surplus energy of the human world.
Investing the surplus of human labor in new productive measures is basically the core of capitalism; and that goes whether it is the state or a private entrepreneur who does it. (This means that Soviet communism wasn’t less “capitalist” than its counterpart in the West, hence it has often been termed “state capitalism”.)
We need to note that this was something entirely new. The agrarian regime did not manage to invest the surplus of human labor in productive measures, but merely exploited what was currently available through plunder or taxation (which is often more or less the same). If anyone (usually kings) had money they did not use (that is, essentially, surplus labor), it got locked away in treasure chests. And when it got used, it usually was not invested in new productive measures, but spent on luxury items or to build big castles or pyramids; it basically went to waste – according to the capitalist logic. But when the Dutch during the 17th century managed to pool their resources, and the risk, into companies (the first of their kind), they created social machines with delicate mechanisms to generate increased economic growth by careful management and investment of surplus capital into productive measures. Money in a mattress doesn’t do anything, but money in a company does tremendous things.
So what made this development possible?
Well, because organized violence became so abundant, so total through the early modern state’s monopoly on violence, focus shifted from violence to money – from one hard logic to another (somewhat less hard) logic. Because when you have enough security (to a certain extent), and the state’s monopoly on violence secures one’s property, the game changes completely and the exchange of property by means of money moves to the center of the economy (which used to be more or less moneyless).
Remember that, before the modern state, rulers could just confiscate your property, and there were no police to defend you from robbers either. If you did not have a warrior to protect you it was “game over” – and warriors are usually not very concerned with respecting other people’s property. That makes security the main concern, and organized violence the primary capital to acquire it. But when violence is abundant, exactly because there is so much of it – or to be more exact the amount of organized violence is so total – then it ceases to be an issue to the people living under the state’s monopoly on violence, and then property becomes the main concern instead of security (which is obtained through that monopoly). And the means to get property, is money.
So to sum up: The dominant logic in the agrarian age was a quest for security where the effective management of organized violence was the crucial ingredient. The logic of the capitalistic regime is one that is born from the abundant amount of organized violence, the state’s monopoly on violence, which reshapes the main quest into one of property instead. And the effective management of money capital thus becomes the crucial ingredient in this endeavor.
The Rulers who merely invested their surplus into great building projects, such as pyramids and cathedrals, with no apparent utility (according to a capitalist logic) – or spend it on bling-bling – would eventually lose out to the capitalists. But those rulers who most efficiently allied themselves with the champions of capital became the most powerful persons in the world, in effect out-competing those who failed to do so.
Money capital began to dominate the earlier “capital” of organized violence.
And then, a new discovery made further developments possible.
Step two, the industrial revolution: The second step largely revolves around the exploitation of a new energy source, that of fossil fuels.
While following a similar development of first finding new ways of managing surplus energy, and then discovering a new energy source, modernity reversed the two-step developmental sequence of the agrarian regime by addressing human aspects first and natural ones second. The agrarian age revolutionized, as mentioned, productive measures by: 1) the management, investment and timing of the natural world and its surplus energy; and 2) by exploiting a new energy source, that of human bodies. Modernity, however, revolutionized the economy by: 1) managing the surplus energy of the human world, and 2) by exploiting a new natural energy source, that of fossil fuels.
Capitalism and industrialism generated progress and material growth to an extent never seen before. Prior to this turn growth was too slow and sluggish for people to even notice it, but now it became obvious that things were changing rapidly during one’s own lifetime. This made thinkers speculate about the notion of development, further fueling the idea that the future could be very different from the past, perhaps even better. The idea of progress was a mental and cultural revolution. Pre-modern peoples are usually not aware of the possibility of technological and scientific progress, and only barely of economic growth for that matter. This constitutes a huge difference between the modern and the pre-modern mind, and one to widen the gap between those still stuck in the old mindset and those who embraced the brave new world of modernity.
This way of thinking also had great political consequences. If the economic and technological base of society could change, maybe even society itself could be different; and not only in the distant future, but soon, and not only in the next life, but this one. And off went the king’s head.
Just like the agricultural revolution was not just about putting seeds in the ground and breeding livestock, the industrial revolution was not just about steam engines and fossil fuels, but about the way in which the whole thing was organized; how the entirety of society was to be reorganized around these new modes of production and how power relations accordingly were to be changed. As the capitalists seized the economic power they also demanded political power, and if the people were to work in factories and learn how to read and write they likewise demanded representation to secure their interests.
Let’s take a brief look at the two, two-step models again:
THE AGRARIAN REGIME
- Step one: Management of the natural world and its surplus energy, investment and timing of it (Agrarian revolution).
- Step two: Exploitation of a new energy source, human bodies (The emergence of civilization).
THE INDUSTRIAL CAPITALIST REGIME
- Step one: Management of the human world, investment, coordination and timing of its surplus energy (The emergence of capitalism).
- Step two: Exploitation of a new energy source, fossil fuels (Industrial revolution).
We see that the structure and sequential logic of these two developmental models resemble each other and are rather symmetrical. First humans learn to manage the surplus energy of an existing resource, then they discover how to exploit a new energy source. Yet, there is also a qualitative progression: In the agrarian regime the main concern is security and the primary “capital” to achieve that is organized violence, but when the early modern state finally acquires a firm monopoly on violence, the main concern moves towards property and the primary capital to acquire that becomes money.
However, that’s not all. Capitalism relies on delicate measures of handling information. And with the invention of the printing press information got much cheaper and abundant. With widely available printed accounts of trading opportunities, commodity prices and exotic tales from faraway lands, merchants could more effectively estimate the profitability of their activities and thus increase the economic growth in their home countries. The printing press also gave rise to the scientific revolution, and with time thus even further economic growth – but that’s a whole other story.
The industrial economy also created an entirely new class structure. The managers of money capital, the so called capitalists, moved to the top of the new social hierarchy, pushing the old landed elite aside, and at the bottom a new class of industrial workers emerged, the proletariat, those without property. A bourgeois middle class also emerged, striving towards becoming capitalists themselves while fervently avoiding to become proletarians. Even though the initial emergence of capitalism caused slavery to increase, industrialism eventually abolished this practice. Slaves were no longer needed as it turned out people on the brink of starvation made less loyal workers (remember, you need to feed your slaves), and the possibility of becoming a capitalist yourself made the growing petty bourgeoisie industrious and loyal to the new regime.
Let’s compare the two in a bit more detail.
Note that I have called the era preceding modernity the “faustian” era, or metameme; derived from the story of Goethe’s Faust who exchanged his soul for power – which was exactly what humanity did at the advent of civilization. You can read more about this in my books.
But something is missing. The transition between the two was not a sudden event, but a more gradual with long transition periods.
“The economic engine of society still relied upon agriculture and the only way to govern an agrarian society was with a firm monopoly on violence in the hands of a small privileged elite.”
The Axial Age
Before the emergence of capitalism the agrarian regime was profoundly changed by the intellectual developments that began in the so called “Axial Age” c. 500 BCE, which introduced ethics and spiritual traditions – all conveyed through literary masterpieces. The philosophy of the Greeks, Confucius’ writings in China, Buddhism and the Judaic tradition, which later evolved into Christianity and Islam, changed how we thought about the world, life and how we should organize society. And it all became possible with the invention of a new information technology, something more than just writing, namely literature.
Combined with the state’s ever firmer monopoly on violence, growing wealth and increased literacy in a wider proportion of the populace, new dangerous ideas started to emerge as both political and intellectual challengers from the periphery began to erode the existing base of power – rebels like Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha emerged. The old myths and the political legitimacy of the established political order were scrutinized from a more critical point of view, while novel ways were sought to address the dire needs of all the forgotten souls of the empire and the hardships of life in agrarian civilization. The old myths didn’t satisfy the emotional and spiritual needs of people any more, the divine sun king didn’t appear as morally legitimate any longer and new radical solutions were needed to meet the growing social unrest and discontentment with the political elite’s oppression and mistreatment of people. For all the progress we had made life shouldn’t be this hard and unjust, but what could be the remedy? Sounds familiar? Just wait.
But, what started as a revolt against the establishment was eventually adopted by the empires themselves to provide them with the necessary moral legitimacy, and the rebels themselves gradually became part of the new established order (seen that before). A new bargain was made, replacing the “faustian” one, as rulers ultimately agreed to subject themselves to a new moral order in exchange of staying in charge. They relinquished their claim to divine exclusiveness and accepted the role of merely being the divine’s mediators and foremost representatives on Earth (Evident in for example the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven.) With the invention of divine law rulers had to govern in accordance with higher moral principles not even they stood above, and they only upheld their political legitimacy as long as they did so. And with the invention of the idea of “the soul” not only the elites were considered to have heavenly qualities; now everybody had a piece of inviolable divinity within them. An agreement was reached that rulers retained their higher status within the realms of the earthly mundane, but in heaven everybody was on a more equal footing.
This development also created a new class structure. The clergy became a political force to be reckoned with, unlike the simple scribes and ceremonial leaders (who were often the rulers themselves), of the previous era. And since rulers couldn’t rule without the blessings of God (or other divine principles), they had to act like noble Kings and uphold certain principles. Being a tyrant or despot wasn’t good enough anymore. Likewise, artisans and merchants, growing in numbers, became a group with distinct interests and ideas of their own. And to some extent even slavery was dismantled – but only to the extent that you couldn’t enslave people of your own faith (and later, among Europeans, your own skin color, but that’s another story).
But demands for social justice and the moral legitimacy of those in power were not the only issues; the way in which people were to treat one another was a great concern too. The brutish and nasty ways in which people often treated each other in agrarian society needed to change. The cruelty had to stop. Moral teachings of pro-social behavior were developed and preachers encouraged people to let go of their immediate self-interest in furtherance of the greater good, often with the promise of eternal bliss in the afterlife if they complied.
However, as we know, the critics of the faustian agrarian regime only partly succeeded in creating a fair society. They rarely – or never – achieved the divine state they preached about. But many brutal customs were abandoned and behaviors that previously had been commonly accepted as part of everyday life were now frowned upon. Pious attitudes and behaviors were rewarded and rulers could not behave as arbitrarily as before. Society became a little bit more humane, and many people acquired higher things to believe in and higher principles to strive towards.
But the productive “engine” of society wasn’t replaced by these social and moral developments. The economic engine of society still relied upon agriculture and the only way to govern an agrarian society was with a firm monopoly on violence in the hands of a small privileged elite. So even if the new spiritual and ethical traditions tried to change the prevailing power relations, they only managed to a limited extent. So on one hand society was equipped with a new cultural and moral superstructure on top of its agrarian engine – permeating more or less every aspect of society. But on the other hand, given the still relatively brutal and oppressive circumstances of the agrarian era, its ethical properties may appear as nothing but a superficial veneer. It does sound familiar, doesn’t it? Well here goes:
“…postmodernity does not really have any means to replace the logic of capitalism – nothing to replace the regime of hard, cold cash, that is.”
Now, let’s move to the postmodern era. That is today! Mass media and a literate public have changed modern, capitalist society just like literature changed agrarian society. It has increased awareness and critical thinking, new ideologies to have “faith” in have appeared, but it hasn’t replaced the productive engine of capitalism.
Postmodernity is a cultural, transitional, phase – just like the one that began with the Axial Age that I have given the name “postfaustian” (with the addition of the “post”-prefix it has been my intention to stress the similarity). Such phases tend to revolve around new standards of ethics and notions of equality to counter the elitist and exploitive tendencies of the established regime. And in that regard postfaustianism did succeed, to some extent, by providing marginalized groups certain rights and powers they did not have within the faustian regime. The great project of these “post-”stages can be said to be one of equalizing power relations and redistributing authority in accordance with new moral guidelines. They also tend to make societies a little “smarter” by emphasizing intellectual developments, and socially more efficient and robust by cultivating more benign social relations and encouraging spiritual growth.
Postmodernity emerged, just like its postfaustian predecessor, from the ethical shortcomings of the established regime. As soon as modern capitalist society matured into its early industrial form, the critics followed. At first, these were a few individuals – intellectuals, artists and even mystics. But in time, the many springs gathered and grew into a flood: the young Marx’s romantic death sentence to capitalism, major philosophical schools – like existentialism and phenomenology – that sought to emphasize the spiritual and existential sides of life, and finally full-blown student revolts in Paris and on US campuses in 1968. And lately, mainstream culture has itself become critical of modern society, not least thanks to electronic mass media.
Postmodernity is a reaction against the perceived superficial and soulless rationality of modernity and the many injustices modern capitalism entails despite its promises. Initially the modern worldview was criticized, by the movement known as Romanticism, for not sufficiently capturing the manifold beauties of human life and for not providing meaningful spiritual experiences. With time the criticism advanced to a point where modernity’s pursuit of knowledge and progress was claimed to be illusory and shallow, and the prevalence of illegitimate totalitarian principles embedded in its ideas of “progress” and “rationality”. The postmodern thinkers and intellectuals labor to expose these hidden power structures and to challenge them. According to these critics the modern approach had been one-dimensional and failed in its task of enlightenment and emancipation. And as an alternative a wide range of new equally valid perspectives have been offered along new approaches to science, art and philosophy.
So as with its postfaustian predecessor, postmodernity also has its righteous rebels and affiliated “churches” such as queer-feminism, post-colonialism and environmental protectionism. These rebels can be said to constitute a new “priesthood”, also known as the inherently postmodern invention of the “intellectual”, who’s mission it is to discipline and correct those unfortunate enough to subscribe to the dated ethics of the past. Despite being a minority, “pomos”, in virtue of often higher levels of education, but also since their arguments conceptually beat modern (and traditional postfaustian) arguments at their own game, have managed to change public discourse in favor of postmodern values to a considerable degree.
The result of this is that modernists and postfaustians often pretend to conform to the postmodern ideology. Postmodern arguments on ethics are conceptually simply superior, and most people at least want to pretend that they subscribe to it. No one wants to be a racist, or a sexist, and who can argue against the fact that the environment is important. But in reality, many in late modern society are merely paying lip service to the ethical code of postmodernity. This phenomenon does deserve comparison with the pious pretentiousness associated with the traditional, postfaustian religions.
But despite the priestly characteristics of its disciples postmodernity is actually more secular than modernity. Jean-François Lyotard wrote in 1979 that “[s]implifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives”, by which he meant all teleological narratives that guide or structure explanations of social reality. This has had the effect that many of our beliefs have been brought into question, critically deconstructed as nothing but beliefs, “mythologies” relying on faith, including all of the grand ideologies such as liberalism, communism and socialism. Democracy and capitalism have likewise been critically examined and deemed to be little more than naive beliefs. Even an idea such as scientific objectivity has been proclaimed to be just another myth, and our notions about gender as a biological constant have been exposed to be culturally and socially derived conventions. In light of the rampant ecological destruction and the unequal distribution of its spoils, the modern idea of progress has also been harshly criticized and exposed as a harmful myth. But the foremost mythologies to have been brought to the slaughter are perhaps those from which power and authority are derived. Postmodernity is inherently hostile towards all authorities and social hierarchies and has as its central objective to reveal all the injustice and oppression and the arbitrary narratives on which it all relies.
The above mentioned postmodern philosopher Lyotard also once wrote that postmodernism is “…the consequence of capital and informational flows that have moved beyond political or instrumental control.” Citizens of late modern societies are often wealthy enough, have the sufficient educational level and adequate access to information technologies, so as to defy the center of political and economic control. Again we see the equalizing tendency of a transitional stage of development in action. And just like the societal developments in late faustian societies allowed for challengers to arise from the peripheries of the center of power, so does the technological complexity and level of wealth in late modern society generate opponents from the margins to counter the accumulation of power and wealth by the elites today. And just like their postfaustian predecessors, these pomos likewise seek to redistribute wealth and power in accordance with new moral standards. By criticizing modern capitalism their goal is to alter the rules by which power relations play out.
But just like postfaustianism, postmodernity does not have any groundbreaking suggestions for how the logic of the productive regime can be fundamentally changed. Although this is a contested claim, I would argue that postmodernity does not really have any means to replace the logic of capitalism – nothing to replace the regime of hard, cold cash, that is.
So even if postmodern thinkers have suggestions to democratize power over capital, it is still money, and as such still the engine of money capitalism that runs society and the economy as a whole. And as long as money is the logic by which the economy runs (paying people to work and so on), it is, by definition, still capitalism – and as such, a logic inherently alien to the many social and emotional aspects postmodernity seeks to address.
Postmodernity wants to change the principles on which money and property are distributed in society, but still runs on the very same logic of – you guessed it – money and property. A hard logic is still lacking for generating a new engine of production. And as this fact has become increasingly more obvious since the end of the Cold War and the fall of socialism, postmodernity has consequently become more prone to sarcasm and cynicism, merely mocking its modern opponents and using its cultural and ethical superiority to position itself favorably within the current system. It appears as if postmodernity, now in its mature form, has moved to a point which equals its postfaustian predecessors at the later stage following the initial revolutionary era of the Axial Age: a condition where worldly matters are largely left to the ruling structures of the productive regime while settling for influence over the moral and cultural sphere.
Postmodernism is currently – and rapidly – constructing an entirely new cultural superstructure on top of the modern, capitalistic engine of production. Still, this superstructure is one that can be said to be merely a veneer around the capitalist engine, just like that of its postfaustian predecessor.
Postmodernity has made life a little more humane. Tolerance of ethnic and sexual minorities has improved, gender relations are not as rigid and oppressive as before and measures have been taken to save the environment. And where modernity – inhibited by the logic of its national ethnocentrism – failed in creating a larger circle of solidarity encompassing all people, in all nations, postmodernity is currently succeeding in producing “world-citizens” with multiculturalist values and global perspectives. So just like the postfaustian traditions managed to create great civilizational world-religions, incorporating people of many different creeds and cultures within the same mythological imagined community, postmodernity is currently narrating the tale of one world and one humanity.
Here is a presentation including the transition eras.
As you see, we are right in the middle of a transition period. The engine of our economy is still industrial capitalism, and the main concern of society, which pretty much all of our institutions are designed for, revolves around property – which is acquired with the means of money capital.
However, some elements are different from the capitalist society described by Marx in the 19th century, most notably the class structure. Instead of the traditional division into proletarians and bourgeoisie (which I have divided into capitalists and middle class), the new class structure in late modern or postmodern society has been accompanied by the precariat and the creative class. The precariat is currently a growing demographic, consisting of people in a variety of “precarious” situations – who find it difficult to gain a foothold on the labor market. The precariat should not be confused with the working class and they don’t identify with the traditional organized working class, with its ties to the unions and labor parties. Often they have very different interests than the working class, not only because they don’t have the same ties to the labor market, but also because they often don’t have the same values and aspirations in life.
The creative class, the ones preoccupied with the manufacturing of new symbols and information, not merely the reproduction hereof, is also a growing group of people. Despite their sometimes relatively high incomes and on the surface white-collar occupation, they don’t fall into the same category as the traditional, bourgeois middle class because their values are usually much more progressive. They tend to be exceedingly post-material and their interests are more aligned with emotional needs such as self-realization than with the typical property rights of the bourgeoisie.
So what do I want to say with all of this?
Well, the capitalist society we live in today is very different from the one described by Marx in the 19th century. It still runs on the productive engine of industrial capitalism – but there are differences. Postmodern philosophies, inherently hostile towards the capitalist regime, have succeeded in changing public discourse and they have empowered oppositional groups. Electronic mass media have expanded and saturated our lives to a degree where they have come to play the defining role in how we perceive the world, also making way for marginalized and previously invisible groups to make their voices heard. Information technologies, AI and robotics have progressed to a level where more and more jobs are getting automated. Symbols, not manufactured goods, have moved to the center of the economy; whereby the growing emphasis on innovation and new signs and symbols has given rise to an emerging creative class and made those who master the symbols most competently the new masters of the world. And globalization has pushed the production of industrial goods to the margins of the world economy, leaving a growing precariat behind in the old industrial heartlands of the West. All of this has led to a version of modernity, a postmodern kind, where physical reality has become increasingly subordinated to the logic of the symbolic.
However, for all these changes, despite the huge differences between a modern and a postmodern society, and even if the economy on the surface level has moved far beyond its old industrial form of the steel and coal era, it’s still capitalism. The postmodern society, of which we have only seen the beginning, is going to change the way in which we think about reality, how we relate to others and even our level ethical conduct. It will change our culture in its image. But it won’t fundamentally change how capitalism works. It will never abolish capitalism despite the many passionate attempts. It would like to, but it simply cannot because it lacks the analytical means to do so. It can only develop a cultural, or ethical, superstructure on top of the existing capitalistic engine of production. This is what qualifies postmodernity as a transitional phase.
Luckily, postmodernity is not the end of history. In what almost appears as a “law” of history, every cultural and intellectual transition phase, such as postfaustianism and postmodernism is followed by a new productive logic (which couldn’t be provided by the “post-” paradigm due to its core ideology), that has the capacity to outcompete the productive logic of the preceding regime, which then renders the transitional paradigm largely irrelevant, only to be challenged by a new emergent transitional phase, and so on – until, who knows, the logic breaks down and gets replaced by a new law yet to be discovered.
“In the end, money capital outcompeted violence as the most effective means of coordinating people’s productive actions.”
What to do with Capitalism?
Postmodernism can’t abolish or replace capitalism because it doesn’t provide any means to compete with the logic of money capital. Even if we find ways to democratize power over capital, even if the use of capital is heavily regulated and even if we distribute capital more evenly, yes, even if we abolish the free market altogether and implement fixed prices and planned economics; it is still a form of capitalism since money remains the primary means of exchange and property (the question about who gets what); money is still the all-embracing issue the whole shebang revolves around.
It is a telling sign that all non-authoritarian socialists and anarchists have been intellectuals without political power. Their ideas have simply not been realizable. And this is also why all communist societies were state capitalist. As long as money remains the primary and dominant means of economic exchange and organization and as long as it is the one measure to which the value of most products and services are measured, l money be the logic by which the economy runs and we’ll continue to be subjects of capitalism. Unless you have another logic that beats money capital at its own game you cannot go beyond it.
So how can we abolish capitalism then? …you might ask. But that’s the pomo talking! The simple answer is that you can’t. You cannot remove capitalism altogether, just like you cannot remove the state’s monopoly on violence (without getting into trouble – and then you’ll return to status quo). Remember the history lesson above. The postfaustians tried to abolish all the wicked evil-doings of violent men, they tried to build a peaceful kingdom on Earth in the image of God by moralizing and turning the other cheek, and they all utterly failed! They didn’t have a competitive logic to replace the dominant capital of organized violence. But money capitalism never made way with the state’s organized violence, it didn’t even try. It did something else. In fact, it used the state’s monopoly on organized violence, abundant violence, to finally create a situation where security became such a minor issue that the quest for property with the means of money capital, rather than violence, came to dominate the economy. In the end, money capital outcompeted violence as the most effective means of coordinating people’s productive actions. It beat it at its own game by subordinating it to the logic of money.
Now, money is the logic and means by which people that don’t have personal relations of a loving kind exchange products and services – and that’s going to be with us for a long time. We’re not going to see a real communist society where everyone shares everything with each other as in a family any time soon. But, the exchange of product and services doesn’t need to be the most fundamental aspect of the economy. The acquisition of property doesn’t need to be the primary concern in people’s lives. In fact, for some lucky individuals it isn’t. And for many of us, a great deal of our everyday activities is not concerned with property.
This brings us to the next question.
“Only if you can reliably organize and coordinate the behaviors of millions of people by another logic than money, then will you have created a relation between humans that is non-capitalist.”
How Can we Outcompete Capitalism?
So, how can we do that? Think about it! Are there things out there we could do to outcompete capitalism? What about these things, for example?
- Local grass root movements?
- Protest marches?
- Off grid communities?
- Community kitchens?
Hmm, you sure about this? I mean, these are all good things indeed, but they don’t exactly go beyond capitalism. Some of these things (like NGOs) even depend on the capitalist engine of production to provide them with the necessary resources to function. But it’s not just the dependency on money that is a problem. The main issue is that none of the above is capable of supplementing the logic of money with a higher, more competitive logic; hence they are all, ultimately, subordinated to the iron law of capital in the end. A crucial ingredient is missing.
Capitalism out-competed the old agrarian regime because it managed to make money capital more effective than violence capital, and in effect subordinated organized violence to the logic of hard, cold cash. So, what could be the means to outcompete the logic of money capital? Only if you can reliably organize and coordinate the behaviors of millions of people by another logic than money, then will you have created a relation between humans that is non-capitalist. But for that you’ll actually need another form of capital, and remember, there are many forms of capital out there so what could it be?
Now, it’s not so simple that some forms of capital are just superior to others. You can’t just pick the highest card in the stack and run with. It all depends on the context, and current situation. Remember, for money capital to become the dominant mechanism for managing people’s behaviors and relations, society first had to evolve to a very high level of development. So we need to look into the current developments and try to foresee the future.
“It is the ones who control, manage and create new symbols, the lords of information – not of property – who will become the most powerful ones in the future”
The Attention Economy
Postmodernity still runs on money and property, but the emergence of mass media has changed the game to some extent. People are better informed than ever and information has become extremely cheap. But recently a new media phenomenon appeared you might have heard of, the internet. Now, the internet is not just a further development of the electronic mass media of the 20th century, it is to the postmodern phenomenon of mass media what the printing press was to literature. I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but yes, it has revolutionized everything. But if you think it has truly changed our society now you haven’t seen anything yet. We’re just at the beginning.
The internet has substantially increased the amount of information, made it available to virtually everyone and lowered the price to almost zero. Together with AI, robotics and 3D printing it will soon dramatically reduce the price of material goods as well.
Now, before we move on I just need to add that just like agricultural products are just as crucial today as during the agrarian era (we all need to eat), manufactured products will remain just as important in the future. Without food, housing and all the products we surround us with our way of living obviously wouldn’t be possible. However, just like farmers lost their key economic role with the emergence of industrialism, so will industrial manufacturers lose their primacy in the future – and to some extent they already have. It is the ones who control, manage and create new symbols, the lords of information – not of property – who will become the most powerful ones in the future, simply because industrial goods will become so abundant and easy to manufacture and new symbols, information and ideas so much harder to produce and manage.
Will this mean a classless society where everybody can have their material needs met? Yes and no. Material gains will be much cheaper to acquire, and in such an economy political measures will more likely than not be sought to provide people with most of the things they need. We will see a political alliance between the growing creative class and the equally rapid growing precariat to make sure that happens. These groups are also characterized by their predominant “post materialist values”, not meaning that they are non-materialists, but that they strive towards something more than just material gains. For example, emotional needs such as self-esteem, peace of mind and self-realization become central – in short a meaningful, and happy, life beyond material acquisitions.
It will lead to a society where the old property-based upper-class will lose out to the creative class, first economically and later politically, and the old Left won’t be able to rely on the working class which will decrease in size on behalf of a precariat – a group whose interests are not equal to those of the working class.
However. The end result will not be a classless society. One class structure will just replace another. At the top of this new social hierarchy we’ll find the so called “netocrats” (a notion put forth by the philosopher Alexander Bard), the masters of the symbols and information, and at the bottom a class of people who merely consume what the netocrats produce, the consumtariat. Those who direct attention – and those who are left in the audience.
In this new economy the concern with physical property will decrease because of the abundance, and the means to acquire it, money, will thus decrease in importance, especially among the ruling netocrat elite more preoccupied with all the things money can’t buy. Money will thus lose some its power over people; it won’t motivate them as much since other concerns than property are perceived more desirable, and money capital won’t be able to manage people behaviors to the same extent as before, that is, make them do what money used to make them do.
When people’s material needs are met it’s not more money they are after, but emotional needs such as good relations, self-esteem and self-realization. And for that you need attention, you want people’s recognition – and when working with information or symbols, as more people are doing, one’s work is essentially worthless without other people paying attention to you.
This will be a fierce battle with proud winners and sore losers. Since symbols can be reproduced infinitely, only the best will have an audience.
And remember, by creating the symbols everyone desires, you can exchange that for money – if that’s what you want after all. One form of dominant capital can always be exchanged for another, subordinated, form of capital at a very favorable exchange rate.
“…emotional energy is essentially what we have been seeking the entire time.”
So what is the main concern in the attention economy? What is the prime quest, the stuff everybody is after in an economy where property has become of secondary importance?
Emotional energy! It’s the stuff everyone basically wants, all the time. Positive feelings, right? And, of course, avoiding negative ones.
Both violence and money produce emotional responses; in fact, that’s actually the most fundamental feature of these measures: point a gun at someone’s face and you produce an emotional response that alters that person’s behavior. The mechanism of the stick. The same goes for money, wave a stack of money bills in front of someone and you might produce an emotional response that make that person do what you want. The mechanism of the carrot that beats the power of the stick.
But emotional energy is essentially what we have been seeking the entire time. Not the money or the gun itself. With the proper use of symbols one can actually make someone do what you want them to do with a will and desire that guns and money can’t compete with. People might alter their behaviors because they are scared of your gun, or because they need money to pay their bills, but getting them excited and wanting to do the best they can requires more delicate measures. And if they aren’t scared or have enough money to pay their bills, being able to master such symbols is much more powerful. And who cares about someone offering you a carrot if you just ate.
You think I’m kidding? Well, just look at the feverish eager of young activists who decide on joining some cause or the other instead of earning more money. Or people paying good money to stand and scream at someone performing a music piece. The church has actually known about this mechanism for a while, but has recently lost some of its competitive edge in generating high level of emotional energy. And by the way, why are you still reading this piece, it’s pretty long, and you are not getting paid? Some exciting symbols made you keep reading this text because it causes some amount of emotional energy.
But wait, if emotional energy is the main concern in the attention economy, what would then be the new dominant means of capital to acquire it? The form of capital destined to outcompete money capital?
“when property becomes so abundant that it ceases to be the main concern, emotional energy moves to the center of the stage and the means to acquire it, and to create it, thus becomes cultural capital.”
Cultural capital is the stuff that’s going to outcompete money capital. So what is it then? Well, it’s the form of capital that makes me capable of writing – and reading – this post; it’s the capacity to create a song everyone wants to listen to; the game everyone wants to play; it’s knowing the stuff everyone wants to know; and it’s the capacity to come up with the new facebook or twitter, inventing a flying car and all the ideas in the heads of scientists that make them capable of doing their jobs. Cultural capital is basically the mastery of symbols. And if you have high enough cultural capital you might even create new high-value symbols.
In the new emerging economy that makes the ones with high cultural capital increasingly powerful over the ones who only have money capital because the exchange rate of money will decrease while that of cultural capital goes up. And in the era of the internet the ones with high cultural capital don’t really need anything else but a cheap laptop with an internet connection to do their work. They don’t need a lot of money to get started, buying land or building a factory. And what you do with that laptop if you have high cultural capital can be exchanged for money capital, often at a generous exchange rate – if that’s what you desire.
And just as importantly, cultural capital can also be exchanged for political, social and other kinds of capital. And it can get you laid. By having access to large amounts of cultural capital you can win against those who only have only have money, and eventually someday become even richer than them.
To sum up: In the agrarian regime the main concern was security and the most effective form of capital to achieve that was organized violence. But as the amount of organized violence became so abundant with the early modern state’s monopoly on violence, the main concern instead moved towards property and the capital to acquire it thus became money. Now, when property becomes so abundant that it ceases to be the main concern, emotional energy moves to the center of the stage and the means to acquire it, and to create it, thus becomes cultural capital.
But what’s not abundant in the new economy is attention. Emotional energy is difficult to quantify, but attention is actually a more quantifiable asset that can be economized if we think about it: the time and intensity with which direct our attention can be measured. As all scarce resources in the past, attention is actually likely to hit the political agenda in the future. Some might even talk about creating a more “listening society”, for instance (wink, wink).
Attention is often needed to generate emotional energy; people need to be seen, they want to be heard, they want someone to care about them. But in order to get attention beyond a smaller circle, one needs to have some amount of cultural capital, you need something of interest to other people, a reason for them to listen to you – otherwise they don’t get any emotional energy from you, it’ll be uneconomical to pay attention to you.
Material wealth is actually not the greatest concern in the most developed nations today. It seems as though, as pointed out by the philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, that in late modern society, the main concern is actually lack of “motivation” – that is, of emotional energy. To make people do all the good things we want and need them to do, if money doesn’t motivate them, we need something else to foster the needed emotional energy. In this situation the ones who’ll be able to create that emotional energy will be the next rulers, they’ll acquire the political as well as the economic power.
Here is the final table with all of the above developments included:
“The only thing that can replace capitalism is something that beats it at its own game”
What the Hell are You Talking About?
…you might think. I know. You might say that “it’s not very concrete, is it? After all, money makes the world go round, and the material economic hard facts of life are essentially what counts in the end.” Well, the capitalistic economy with money was actually a very subtle and delicate matter in the minds of most people 250 years ago. Back then you might have replied that “it’s not very concrete what the accountants and merchants are doing, is it? No way these abstract numbers and arbitrary values far from concrete reality could become the dominant forces of society. What really matters is the concrete sword of the king, yes? After all, security counts more than anything else, and a good sword makes that more likely to happen than a stack of papers in your hand. Right? How could these wimpy figures who wouldn’t last one day in battle become the new kings?”
Well they did.
Simply because they were better at affecting the behaviors and relations of human beings. And in a future society where material gains, property, is so abundant that it ceases being the main concern, the ones who most effectively generate emotional energy by managing the cultural capital that make the new world go round, they, will be the new kings. God have mercy on their souls.
This won’t create a utopian society, one without struggle and competition. There will still be winners and losers. But it will be qualitatively different from a capitalist society, and it will be able to mend some of its greatest maladies. After all, being consumtariat and lacking the cherished positive attention of others is not fun – but it is a better place to start for creating a fair society, than is material poverty and being tied to wage labor.
In the internet age, the revolution of cultural capital can topple money capitalism and create a more free, fair and equal society – more than any of the socialist ideas ever could. But the promised utopia is still only a relative utopia. I say it’s still worth going for; because it will dramatically improve people’s lives. It will still be more fair and equal than what our friends the socialists have managed to offer.
The only thing that can replace capitalism is something that beats it at its own game, given the specific economic and technological circumstances. We cannot moralize it away or purify it away with the piety of our critical minds and the goodness of our hearts. That will only ever be veneer on the slick capitalist engine, still running society.
The way to outcompete capitalism is to politically strengthen the currents that draw us beyond it – towards a world ruled by cultural capital. And then we take it from there. We must the opportunities that these new forms of non-capitalist human life can offer to create a free and equal society.
Because these developments are underway whether we like it or not, we are wiser to shape them in the direction of equality and fairness than to play along with the regime of money capitalism. The risks are great – but so are, undeniably, the possibilities for radical social change.
Let’s not waste the opportunity.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.