The American Bear


Capitalism and Insanity | Jacobin

One person in every hundred is a psychopath. With a global population approaching 7 billion, this puts the global total of psychos at roughly seventy million.

Seventy million psychopaths! Think of it: roughly twice the population of Canada. That’s a lot of psychos to deal with. And, as we all know from American Psycho, the problem with the upper echelons of business and finance is that fucking loons can so easily rise to the top.

This is, essentially, the claim of an article run earlier this summer on Truthout. In “How Will the 99% Deal With 70 Million Psychopaths?,” Joe Brewer asks that we consider the pernicious effects of a business culture in which avarice and ruthlessness are encouraged and thereby provide a stomping ground for psychopaths to flourish.

But this gloss overlooks much more serious problems posed by the structural composition of capitalism. Indeed, it reiterates a species of argument endemic to the liberal-left: that “unfettered” capitalism is the problem of the modern world. The solution, of course, is that it just needs some fettering—or perhaps mass expulsions of psychopaths.

And here’s where the left-liberal critique of capitalism falls apart.

Capitalism relies on endless competitive accumulation. This process is as relentless as it is remorseless. Human flourishing is not its aim.

Capital accumulated is used to accumulate more capital. Its expansion is exponential; it does not slow down when psychopaths at the helm are censured. Indeed, it is fair to say that, despite the ostensible widespread presence of psychopaths in positions of policy control, there must be many times more non-psychopaths than psychopaths acting as willing functionaries of the oligarchic class.

Brewer claims that there is a preponderance of psychopathic captains of industry and office bearers resulting from their ability to insinuate themselves “into positions of power as stock traders, corporate executives, and corruptible politicians.” I’m no mathematician, but if only one person in every hundred is psychopathic, what happens to the other 99? In spite of the alleged psychopath prevalence, there is surely a shit ton of non-psychopaths in corridors of power.

And if the narrative being flogged here is the frightening prospect of having a bunch of psychos inflicting noxious social and economic policies on the rest of us, isn’t the collusion of countless “sane” accomplices far more chilling?

[…] Think of it in these terms: The commission of any genocide is likely aided and abetted by the cooperation and/or initial mobilization of psychopaths. However, there are no studies that I know of that enumerate the number of psychopaths engaged in any given genocide. I don’t think anyone has bothered to attempt such a feat for the good reason that it wouldn’t really matter.

I don’t believe that a case can be made that psychopathy is ever the motive force for genocide or ethnic cleansing. Indeed, the horror with which we consider such incidents in our history stems from precisely the fact that the number of participants puts the lie to explanations that rely on psychopathology for monocausal elucidation.

A genocide is not simply orchestrated by a top-down cabal of lunatics. Rather, it is conditions on the ground and the active participation of countless non-psychopaths which ensure the execution of such dreadful activities. To put it simply: Genocides, like the “externalities” of capitalism, are in and of themselves instantiations of “psychopathy,” regardless of the number of psychopathic agents engineering their implementation. The problem is systemic, not a result of “bad apples.” A system which rewards avarice is problematic because it is a system which rewards avarice, not because it allows canny crazies to ride slipstream.

The recent panic of “psychos” at the helm reflects a need to assign blame to knowing agents behaving in a deliberate fashion. But it becomes a strange carriage-before-the-horse/chicken-and-egg scenario: Capitalism foments the rise of a “psychopathic class.” And a “psychopathic class” foments the grim successes of capitalism.

Moreover, it denudes class politics of class politics, leaving an intoxicating Manichaean social divide in its wake: Psychopathic Class vs. the class of Everyone Else. Toss out the psychos, and capitalism would be a-okay!

It reads like the bare-bones plot of a bad sci fi movie: In the egalitarian world of Tomorrow, harried and stubbled Blade Runners will hunt down and administer retina scans and Voight-Kampff tests to potential psychos, dismantling the remnants of their terrible cabal.

It’s pure liberal utopianism. Capitalism will thereby be fettered: the cancer cut from its bosom and its further headway bolstered by its naturally occurring salubrious juices.

When Marx described all of history as the history of class struggle, he gave us the idea of emancipation as a continuous struggle, a project with a deep past and an extended future. In this way, he countered the notion – central to the liberal tradition – that we are already free, or that we live in “free societies.” Further, Marx is the only thinker who has provided a clear and lucid theory of capitalism, a social system organized through the division of capital and labor. Why America Needs the Left

Anti-capitalism 101

Capitalism is presented as a ‘natural’ system, formed a bit like mountains or land masses by forces beyond human control, that it is an economic system ultimately resulting from human nature. However it was not established by ‘natural forces’ but by intense and massive violence across the globe. First in the ‘advanced’ countries, enclosures drove self-sufficient peasants from communal land into the cities to work in factories. Any resistance was crushed. People who resisted the imposition of wage labour were subjected to vagabond laws and imprisonment, torture, deportation or execution. In England under the reign of Henry VIII alone 72,000 people were executed for vagabondage.

Later capitalism was spread by invasion and conquest by Western imperialist powers around the globe. Whole civilisations were brutally destroyed with communities driven from their land into waged work. The only countries that avoided conquest were those—like Japan— which adopted capitalism on their own in order to compete with the other imperial powers. Everywhere capitalism developed, peasants and early workers resisted, but were eventually overcome by mass terror and violence.

Capitalism did not arise by a set of natural laws which stem from human nature: it was spread by the organised violence of the elite. The concept of private property of land and means of production might seem now like the natural state of things, however we should remember it is a man-made concept enforced by conquest. Similarly, the existence of a class of people with nothing to sell but their labour power is not something which has always been the case - common land shared by all was seized by force, and the dispossessed forced to work for a wage under the threat of starvation or even execution. As capital expanded, it created a global working class consisting of the majority of the world’s population whom it exploits but also depends on.

Those accumulating capital do so better when they can shift costs onto others. If companies can cut costs by not protecting the environment, or by paying sweatshop wages, they will. So catastrophic climate change and widespread poverty are signs of the normal functioning of the system. Furthermore, for money to make more money, more and more things have to be exchangeable for money. Thus the tendency is for everything from everyday items to DNA sequences to carbon dioxide emissions —and, crucially, our ability to work—to become commodified. Anti-capitalism 101

Marx at 193 | John Lanchester (3)

There are many hundreds of pages on this subject in Marx, and many tens of thousands in commentaries and analyses of his work, so my summary of his views is of necessity cartoonishly compressed and simple. Marx’s model works like this: competition pressures will always force down the cost of labour, so that workers are employed for the minimum price, always paid just enough to keep themselves going, and no more. The employer then sells the commodity not for what it cost to make, but for the best price he can get: a price which in turn is subject to competition pressures, and therefore will always tend over time to go down. In the meantime, however, there is a gap between what the labourer sells his labour for, and the price the employer gets for the commodity, and that difference is the money which accumulates to the employer and which Marx called surplus value. In Marx’s judgment surplus value is the entire basis of capitalism: all value in capitalism is the surplus value created by labour. That’s what makes up the cost of the thing; as Marx put it, ‘price is the money-name of the labour objectified in a commodity.’ And in examining that question he creates a model which allows us to see deeply into the structure of the world, and see the labour hidden in the things all around us. He makes labour legible in objects and relationships.

The theory of surplus value also explains, for Marx, why capitalism has an inherent tendency towards crisis. The employer, just like the employee, has competition pressures, and the price of the things he’s selling will always tend to be forced down by new entrants to the market. His way of getting round this will usually be to employ machines to make the workers more productive. He’ll try to get more out of them by employing fewer of them to make more stuff. But in trying to increase the efficiency of production, he might well destroy value, often by making too many goods at not enough profit, which leads to a surplus of competing goods which leads to a crash in the market which leads to massive destruction of capital which leads to the start of another cycle. It’s an elegant aspect of Marx’s thinking that the surplus theory of value leads directly and explicitly to the prediction that capitalism will always have cycles of crisis, of boom and bust.

Marx at 193 | John Lanchester (2)

Marx saw the two fundamental poles of economic, and social and political, life as labour and nature. He didn’t see these two things as static; he used the metaphor of a metabolism to describe the way our labour shapes the world and we in turn are shaped by the world we have made. So the two poles of labour and nature don’t stay fixed. But what Marx doesn’t allow for is the fact that nature’s resources are finite. He knows that there is no such thing as nature unshaped by our assumptions, but he doesn’t share our contemporary awareness that nature can run out. This is the kind of thing which is sometimes called ironic, but is closer to tragedy, and at its heart is the fact that the productive, expansionist, resource-consuming power of capitalism is so great that it is not sustainable at a planetary level. The whole world wants to have a First World bourgeois lifestyle, and the whole world can see what that looks like by glancing at a television set, but the world can’t have it, because we will burn through its resources before we get there. Capitalism’s greatest crisis is upon us, and it is predicated on the unavoidable fact that nature is finite.

Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty | NLP Interview with Dan Hind

In our day, the governing orthodoxy has crashed around the ears of the people who were benefiting from it and building their careers within it. Yet they’re carrying on regardless. You will still have, for example, three neoliberals for every one critic on a TV panel debate, whereas a discussion that vaguely reflected the current state of knowledge would have three serious critics of neoliberalism and one neoliberal holdout.

The broad generality of people, however, should savour the sense that the kinds of formal and informal prohibitions and inhibitions that we once felt about political and economic discussion are out the window. There’s a piece by Roland Barthes where he talks about Voltaire as the “last happy writer” in that he had a worthy enemy in the ancien regime, but one that was finished, and his genius could find full expression in opposition to a monster that was on its last legs. In a way, we’re the first happy people in that we’ve seen where unbridled capitalism leads. We know that the delight and excitement and intellectual challenge is in opposition to it and not within it. The sense that we can be intellectually lucky and happy in a way that wasn’t possible for centuries is very exciting.


theamericanbear replied to your post: Libertarianism is just boring

pardon my incessant replies today…libertarianism is sorely lacking in that it is bounded by the solutions of currently existing institutions. It is an extremely reactionary response to capital collapse. “We just need *better* capitalism”.

I’m digging all your replies.

and I agree completely.

And just because I want people to read this I’m going to quote Voices of earth

In simplified terms, a truly free market, in time, necessitates planned organizational (governmental) intervention to prevent the development of trusts and cartels, which would undermine the “voluntary” association implied by the term “free market” through their inevitable manipulation of the market for their own benefit. This is further supported by the fact that an “invisible hand of the market,” driven by the voluntary “dollar votes” of the consumer, ultimately results in a dictatorship of the wealthy, who by laborious merit or market manipulation have accumulated more capital, and thus more votes, than the majority of other consumers. The average capitalist may well see this as proper, as they assume that those with the most wealth have “earned” the most merit, and therefore “deserve” the most input (and by contrast, those without wealth/property must have no merit, as any true amount of merit should reward them with wealth, and they are therefore parasites). However, even with this being the case, the guidance of market forces is no longer unregulated. Surely the educated libertarian would agree that any market regulation undermines their values, whether that regulation is legislatively enforced or privately appropriated. If trusts and cartels can manipulate the direction of market forces independent of the voluntary interaction of the average consumer, the individual matters little and a “collectivist” rule (plutocracy) is established.

Yet this situation was a natural progression from an unfettered free market, although it could hardly be called free at this point, so any attempt to intervene and undermine the “collectivists” in the name of the “individual,” and to restore that previous state of balance and equality of “dollar vote” value (mind you, equity of weight, not wealth redistribution), whether by an ad hoc voluntary public organization or a self-interested individual, would still constitute as an interruption of the natural order of the market. You see, the market for the libertarian must be free but also natural, and therefore not enforced (the non-aggression principle). As history has repeatedly shown, and this is demonstrably the case even before extensive government regulation was implemented in the early 20th century, market manipulation and monopolization is a natural extension of the accumulation of capital. To insist otherwise, and thus to insist that in the ideal situation whosoever acquires large amounts of capital and property, and therefore market influence (through the capitalist economic principle of “dollar votes”) will refuse to act on that power for the sake of preserving the sanctity of the free market, is a blatant contradiction of the libertarian principle that self-interest and an unfettered competitive drive in fact benefit the market, and thus benefit society as a whole. This would be self-regulation, a denial of what Randian libertarians allege to be the virtue of selfishness, an extension of what they assume to be human nature.

In addition, to insist that, absent government interaction, and thus absent “crony capitalism,” the private accumulation of capital and property will not inevitably result in the blatant influence of market forces through the private manipulation of acquired price/labor/distribution/production controls, is to disregard historical reality. Also, to argue that the enforcement of oligarchy is only achievable through legal precedent and legislative support of government funded police and militaries is to ignore privately funded forces like Pinkertons and Blackwater, which if defined simply as mercenaries, have been protecting property and capital as long as property and capital has existed. In other words, suggesting that monopoly and market manipulation hasn’t occurred in history as a natural product of capitalism itself, and then to argue that where it appears to have happened (with Big Oil, Steel, and Rail in the 19th century, for example), it was only because of some unnatural interference with the forces of capitalism, is ultimately committing the “any true Scotsman” fallacy.

Thus, within an indeterminate amount of time, any free market will inevitably result in the accumulation of capital by a small sector of society, whom the capitalists assert to be the most productive and deserving participants, and these wealthy few will continue to act on their own “virtue” by using their “earned” market influence to accumulate more capital and property, ad infinitum. If private regulation through this natural development of Big Business, and the response of public regulation for the sake of balance and anti-corruption through the unnatural intervention of Big (or even small) Government, each infringe on the “free”-ness of the market, that market is by definition unsustainable. Even if this ideal of equality through the non-aggression of individuals in voluntary associations were achieved (or achievable to begin with), it is ultimately an ideal that is doomed to failure, and is thus an ideal not worth seeking.

This analysis is of course ignoring the ideas argued at length above about the labor theory of value, the appropriation of capital and products away from workers by the owners of the means of production, and the violation of the non-aggression principle through the enforcement of private property and ownership, because these ideas have been argued to infinite lengths before by hundreds of people smarter than I on both sides of the issue. I’ve merely chosen to analyze the issue on their terms alone. My (partisan) conclusion - Randian, Paulian, libertarian, anarcho-capitalist, and free-marketist ideologies, all of which are variations of the same principles, are inherently doomed to failure even in the unlikely event that they were achievable. The unfettered free market invariably fetters itself by its own means. Both historical evidence, and the understanding reached by following libertarian principles to their logical conclusions, suggest that the free market is unsustainable. Its one of those revolutions that eats its own children.

tl;dr libertarianism falls on its head because it either creates strong corporate entities which regulate the market, or requires state ‘intervention’ in the economy, again regulating it.

God forbid the market is regulated.

And either way, the power is with the wealthy elite and not the laborers.

(Source: anticapitalist)

François Hollande and the conservative critique of capitalism | thecurrentmoment

The problem with [Hollande’s] moralizing approach to capitalism was put succinctly in a comment to The Current Moment: an ethical critique of capitalism leaves the system itself untouched and in fact only goes to legitimize the status quo further. It does this by attacking the present for being dominated by a materialistic, vulgar and anti-egalitarian culture, encapsulated in the figure of the bankster and the celebrity lifestyle of its political class. In its place, it proposes a deeply conservative alternative: austere, responsible, more egalitarian and less showy in its attitude to wealth and consumption. This is exactly François Hollande’s argument: he justified his new tax measure not on the grounds of how much money it can raise but in terms of morality and national patriotism. France’s rich elite, by paying more into the national coffers, will be doing its patriotic duty.

Instead of being asked to choose between different economic programmes, what Hollande is proposing is a different style of rule. In place of the crass materialism of Sarkozy, with his rich friends and rich wife, we are presented with François Hollande, a more ordinary and serious individual, with tastes that are less extravagant than those of Sarkozy. Here we can see very strong echoes between the campaign in France and developments in Italy. What Monti brings to Italian politics is more than anything a change of style: far removed from the glamour and glitz of Berlusconi, Monti represents the austere alternative, suited to times of generalized national austerity. When asked about the cost of his end-of-year celebrations, Monti replied by publishing a detailed list of his end of 2011 dinner party at the Chigi palace: 10 guests, all family members, a traditional New Year’s Eve menu, and a list of where Elsa Monti went shopping and how much it all cost.

This is in fact the key: this cultural shift proposed by Hollande and others such as Monti is what is required to legitimize the present age of austerity. Hollande’s moralizing critique of capitalism thus preserves the system in two ways: by proposing a set of conservative values, such as patriotism, duty and national responsibility: and by providing a closer fit between the downturn in France’s economy and the values and conduct of its political class. So far this is working for Italy, as Italians welcome an end to the Berlusconian orgy. Hollande’s bet is that it will work for him in the forthcoming elections. It may do, especially if the wealthy in France catch-on that Hollande isn’t out to get them, he is their saviour.

Is Unemployment a Structural Problem in Capitalism? | Matthew Bruenig

On the necessity and purpose of the ‘bootstraps’ attack on the poor and unemployed:

Sometimes I forget that people do not realize what unemployment in a modern capitalist economy actually is. There are of course different types of unemployment, but even in good times, around 4-6% of people actively seeking work will never be able to find it. That is because the central bank intentionally creates unemployment — usually by increasing interest rates — to keep inflation under control. When unemployment dips below those levels, the bargaining power of workers increases substantially, giving them the ability to bargain up their wages, which can generate inflation. At least, that is what mainstream macroeconomics claims.

When people blame the unemployed, they do so under a misunderstanding of the nature of the modern capitalist economy. It would not matter if everyone worked as hard as possible and became as educated as possible. At least 4-6% of people at any given time will not be able to find employment. If those 4-6% find employment, it will necessarily be at the expense of 4-6% of those currently employed. The inflation stabilization policies of central banks ensure it.

This then creates a very serious contradiction in the normative and political-administrative spheres of society. The moralizing tendencies to berate the unemployed make absolutely no sense: it is not their fault. At the same time, if we do not blame the unemployed and make them feel bad about being jobless, then the whole point of intentionally creating unemployment will fail. If unemployed people are not made to feel absolutely terrible, they may be less likely to desperately seek out work, which means they will not bargain down wages, which means inflation will not be kept under control.

So the contradiction is apparent. To keep inflation under control, we have to simultaneously force 4-6% of the population to be unemployed, and then we have to falsely make them feel like they are to blame for the unemployment. This is totally abusive. It’s like punching some random person in the face, and then making them feel terrible and self-conscious about having a black eye.

Capitalism, the infernal machine | Fredric Jameson

In a footnote in Grundrisse [the notebooks that preceded Volume One of Capital] Marx says it is not until we reach the confines of the world market that a world revolution, a socialist revolution, becomes foreseeable. By that he means that when gradually around the world all of these other forms of labour will have been replaced by wage labour and thus the profits they produce will have been replaced by capital (from surplus value).

What happens when capital reaches a contradiction or a crisis? There is a breakdown movement. In the book I write that capitalism is “a peculiar machine whose evolution is at one with its breakdown, its expansion at one with its malfunction, its growth with its collapse.” The breakdown of the system is given in the expansion of the system. You’ve used up your peasantry and made them into farmers, then they become unemployed, the system moves along trying to get cheaper and cheaper labour, finally it reaches a point where there isn’t any cheap labour any more, but at the same time there isn’t anyone to buy all these products.

I think we’re in a position now to see that much better than they were in the 20th century. Once you touch the boundaries of the world market then capitalism can’t really expand any further. Now we are not at that point. Yet, better than in Marx’s own time we can see the limits of the situation approaching. That is the moment when the system becomes intolerable and it becomes clear that the system either has to break down or be replaced with something else. [read whole]

What We Owe to Each Other (Interview with David Graeber) | Boston Review

What we’ve seen over the last 30 years is a war on the human imagination. That’s the other starting point for this book—that in 2008 we had this crash, and all these assumptions we’ve been told we’ve had to accept for 30 years came crashing to the ground along with the market. One of them is the assumption that markets are actually self-sustaining. Obviously not true. Another one was that the people running them are competent. For years we were told that they aren’t very nice people—they’re greedy bastards, actually—but they know what they’re doing. All other systems just don’t work. These guys are incredibly bright, they’re incredibly competent. No, it turns out actually that they don’t even understand the working of their own financial instruments, or as far as they do, they’re engaged in scams. They trashed the entire system.

Assumption number three is that all debts ought to be repaid. Actually, no, debts don’t really need to be repaid, because AIG, who owes money, can wave a variety of different magic wands and debts can be made to disappear. Once you understand that the narrative we’ve been handed has been false, you’d think this would be the moment when you start thinking about larger questions: Why do we have an economy? What is debt? What is money? How could these things be organized differently? What do we need to keep and what do we change? You would think this would be the moment for international discussion about the basic assumptions that we’ve been making, and it seemed for about two weeks that it was going to happen.

Self-interest, without morals, leads to capitalism’s self-destruction | Jeffrey Sachs

Capitalism earns its keep through Adam Smith’s famous paradox of the invisible hand: self-interest, operating through markets, leads to the common good. Yet the paradox of self-interest breaks down when stretched too far. This is our global predicament today.

Self-interest promotes competition, the division of labor, and innovation, but fails to support the common good in four ways.

First, it fails when market competition breaks down, whether because of natural monopolies (in infrastructure), externalities (often related to the environment), public goods (such as basic scientific knowledge), or asymmetric information (in financial fraud, for example).

Second, it can easily turn into unacceptable inequality. The reasons are legion: luck; aptitude; inheritance; winner-takes-all-markets; fraud; and perhaps most insidiously, the conversion of wealth into power, in order to gain even greater wealth.

Third, self-interest leaves future generations at the mercy of today’s generation. Environmental unsustainability is a gross inequality of wellbeing across generations rather than across social classes.

Fourth, self-interest leaves our fragile mental apparatus, evolved for the African savannah, at the mercy of Madison Avenue. To put it more bluntly, our sense of self-interest, unless part of a large value system, is easily transmuted into a hopelessly addictive form of consumerism.

Unless we regain our moral bearings our scope for collective action will be lost. The day may soon arrive when money fully owns our politics, markets have utterly devastated the environment, and gluttony relentlessly commands our personal choices. Then we will have arrived at the ultimate paradox: the self-destruction of prosperity at the very moment when technological knowhow enables sustainable prosperity for all. Jeffrey Sachs