Property is an Institution—Not a Right

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For many of capitalism’s critics, it is the political dimension of the capitalist system that is it’s most salient. In a socialist’s mind, there is no categorical distinction made between, for instance, a corporate merger that results in mass layoffs, and the police repression of the laid-off workers and activists who are demonstrating against the merger—both would be viewed as functions of a capitalist system. In both cases (the merger and the police repression) power is being used in the interests of a privileged minority against a majority, for the express purpose of consolidating capital. Importantly, this purpose is not viewed by socialists as simply an expression of the self-interests of wealthy individuals; rather, the self-interests of the wealthy are understood as particular expressions of the structure of the capitalist system. As such, their behavior is not simply economic, but is also political, in that it has a class-consciousness, an interest in shaping or influencing the structure of the society around them.

For the defenders of capitalism and market economies, this political dimension seems to be invisible, or is of ancillary importance, or is not characteristic of “real” capitalism. This perspective is consistent with the rhetoric of capitalism, which chiefly operates in economic terms. It is taken for granted that the structure of capitalism is not planned but emergent—that is, derivative of individual choices and transactions—and that the foundation of this system is simply the default mode of human behavior. So while the millions who died of famine in the USSR are (perhaps justly) included in the Black Book of Communism, there is no such accounting to be done for mortality rates under capitalism. Ostensibly, there are no deaths under capitalism; the worst that can be said about such a system is that it cannot prevent certain kinds of deaths from happening, whether it be in the case of the near 300,000 Haitians buried alive while making handbags for Westerners, or the tens of thousands who faced unspeakable brutality under Pinochet’s “free-market” reforms in Chile. In Western, liberal societies, the division of labor between state and private entities seems to render both fairly durable against criticism or accountability. Even today, Pinochet’s dictatorship is praised in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist on the grounds that it grew Chile’s GDP; the thousands tortured, killed, or disappeared under that regime are not included in the calculus.

Clearly, it’s important to understand the attitudes that inform our rhetoric if we want to have a useful conversation about what is wrong with the world. It seems that for many of the defenders of free trade, a certain kind of social order is taken for granted, to the degree that anything not in compliance with it is viewed as a provocation to aggression. For the great classical liberal John Locke, the expropriation of American Indian lands is justified because the natives weren’t productive enough homesteaders; for the ordoliberals running Germany today, the economic destruction of Greece is a justified means of punishing the Greeks and frightening the rest of Europe into accepting austerity. If we are to understand capitalism as, in essence, a system of individual freedoms that is based on the absence of aggression, we’re doing it wrong.

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