Why use the plural: capitalisms?
We limit our grasp of capitalism by imagining a singular stable type. As a U.S. citizen, I do focus on the particularly virulent form of capitalism reigning today under the Trump regime: burgeoning inequality, deregulation, tax relief for the rich, preferences for capital over labor, reactionary nativism, crony capitalism, Dark Money, threats to the social safety net, etc. I do not regard these attributes as fixed, not do I advocate a conceptual determinism. I recognize that other types of capitalism exist and have existed.
Different types of capitalism exist simultaneously.
Capitalism in northern Europe and other portions of the capitalist industrialized world do not exhibit such a pure form, identified with laissez faire. Indeed, social and environmental indicators generally exceed the outcomes in the USA, except for GDP/capita — with such exceptions as Switzerland. However, just as Adam Smith and Karl Marx used the purest form of capitalism at their respective times, England, I do the same with the USA. I recognize, however, that others institute less stringent types of capitalism (Gray).
Capitalism is adaptive, dynamic, and resilient: no type stands still.
More than typology, however, capitalism of any type does not remain the same, harkening to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “You can’t step into the same river twice.” To its credit, capitalism adapts with an impressive dynamism, possesses a vibrant resilience, and endures as conditions change — within limits.
Historical development must be studied
Study history to understand anything, especially such an impressive complex activity as capitalism: mercantilist Antwerp , trading city-state Venice, the Industrial Revolution in England, or one of my favorites: Genoa. All leading types of this hierarchal network will be eventually superceded, just as China surpasses the USA as I write.
I have fortunately studied economic history and the history of economic thought, even harbor a passion for the history of capitalism. I heartily recommend the seminal work of Fernand Braudel, Joseph Schumpeter, and Karl Polanyi. (I am not a devotee of Karl Marx.)
Loosen the grip of capitalism on our minds.
My spell-checker rejects the plural form: capitalisms. Too bad, since this fact alone supports my point.
Not only do we tend to identify capitalism as the economy, we self-defeat if we succumb to the conviction that its intimidating edifice does not change. We must not let capitalism dominate our thoughts or action, a hindrance to a liberating praxis that unites thought and action.
Further, since capitalists enjoys boundless resources, capitalism can define its particular brand around its self-promoting ideology perpetrated by its supported media outlets, patronized would-be think-tanks, and legal manifestations representing its corrupting influence on the legislative process. Ironically, a striking example of the totalitarianism of this ideology has been promoted by its staunchest proponent, Milton Friedman under the banner of Capitalism and Freedom.
Watch for how economic activity is embedded in history, society, culture, and nature.
Following Karl Polanyi, David Gordon, and Fernand Braudel — all of whom have deeply influenced my approach to this project — I specifically distinguish between:
- The formal abstract depiction of the capitalist economy as found in textbook micro-economics and macro-economics;
- The concrete substantive economy embedded in history, society, culture, and nature, as put forward by Karl Polanyi and so well illustrated by Fernand Braudel.
To promote this essential distinction, I will refer to the re-framing of a devolutionary economy as livelihood, gathering within it the specific notion of a living economy, not only dynamic (as are all brands of capitalisms) but hidden from view without specific reference to its historical, social, cultural, and natural context.
Fortunately, livelihood, as I will explain, enjoys a rich, vibrant, distinguished body of accessible thought and practice that will provide plenty to think about and to put into practice.
Without such linguistic distinctions, we cannot have a conversation, since we have already reached an unspoken, passive agreement. Without such differences, all forms of trade, talk, and interactions would not occur. So, join the conversation!
Profect to Profit
In the late 14th century, profect took on the modern meaning of financial profit. Profect, the antecedent of profit, more generally meant a good to be produced (sort of a virtue), a benefit, something of value, not monetized, yet.
Profit has come to have a more specialized but narrow meaning as monetized financial increase from buying and selling: sell dear and buy cheap, the dictum of capitalism. This phenomenon was not lost on Aristotle, who provided insight on what he deemed pejoratively chrematistics.
The premise that egoistic, materialistic, monetized actions primarily directs human action strikes me as a convenient assumption inherent in all of formal economics (as opposed to substantive economics) has always struck me as an unverified foundation, a simplifying condition, and a muddled reductionism — where soul expands and elevates human nature.