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You are not an anti-capitalist

· 6 min read

“I grudgingly forgive capitalism the misery it causes, because it’s the engine that lifts countries out of poverty. It’s a precondition for a free and prosperous society; attempts to overthrow it have so consistently led to poverty, tyranny, or genocide that we no longer believe its proponents’ earnest oaths that this time they’ve got it right. For right now, there’s no good alternative.”

— Scott Alexander

“I'm waiting for someone to, first, describe a better system than capitalism, and second, set out a realistic path for getting from here to there. When that happens, it will be worth thinking harder about the ethical flaws in capitalism. Until then, […] there is a huge amount we can all do, within the current economic system, to make the world a much better place.”

— Peter Singer

A Midjourney-generated illustration for this post

I noticed that I stumble upon “anti-capitalism” surprisingly often in day-to-day life.

I hear or read ideas against capitalism on mass media, on podcasts and on blog posts; by politicians, artists and punters. Not just criticism of, or suggestions to improve, capitalism — but outright calls to end capitalism.

Sometimes it's implicit in the message, or thinly veiled in some other way. Think all those platitudes about “creating a new system”, “putting people before profits”, “getting rid of money”, and so on.

But more often than not, it's an explicit, frontal attack on capitalism. Until 2020, one of the main organisations conforming the political party Podemos in Spain was Anticapitalistas. Also in Spain, the manifestos proclaimed by mainstream feminist organisations for the occasion of International Women's Day, year after year, paint a huge bullseye on the back of the capitalist system (“…the macabre bond between patriarchy and capitalism that wants us to be obedient, submissive and silent…”). I have acquaintances who claim to be against capitalism, puzzling as I always found that aspiration.

I was reminded of all that yesterday as I listened to Radio 3, a public radio station that I have loved and listened to obsessively since I was a teenager, but that I have come to “just” like and prefer over almost any other, in part due to their unbearable descent to the deepest chasms of political correctness. One of the wokest Radio 3 shows is El Bosque Habitado, a programme about forests and the natural world that could be great if it didn't insist on analysing everything through the lenses of “ecofeminism”, capitalistic patriarchy (or patriarchal capitalism), and other whimsical intersectional combos. Yesterday's show didn't disappoint.

To me, all those calls to abolish capitalism are astonishing.

What do those people wish we had instead of capitalism? Feudalism? Anarchy? Surely they are not advocating for the implementation of the C-word…! — or are they?

Do those people know that social democracies, of the kind we have in many European countries and that is defended in the US by Bernie Sanders, exist “within capitalism” (not without)?

Who might be so ignorant of History (or so malicious) as to defend that the worst aspects of liberal democracies today are unique features of capitalism? Was slavery before capitalism more benign than wage labour? Did capitalism introduce corruption, cronyism, war and genocide for the first time to a hitherto pristine world? Do those people honestly think that North Koreans or Venezuelans live freer and are subject to less surveillance and oppression? Do homosexuals and transgender people get a better treatment by the other bloc? How does the biggest not-entirely-capitalistic economy in the world fare in terms of environmental sustainability?

In a nutshell, “capitalism” means a system in which people are allowed to:

  1. Own stuff (ie, there exist “private property”)
  2. Enter agreements (contracts) and trade with other people (in “free markets”)
  3. Start and join enterprises (businesses).

And, as corollaries of the above:

  1. Among the types of agreements people can freely enter is the agreement to work in exchange for money (ie, “wage labour”)
  2. Since we have established that people can own things and sign contracts, and since their labour is theirs, people are allowed to keep the money they get in exchange for that labour (ie, they can save)
  3. Because people are free to join businesses, and because their money is theirs, people can pool their savings to launch or support any business they like (ie, they can invest)
  4. Since we have established that people can own things and launch and support businesses, and since their savings are theirs, people are allowed to keep benefits from their investments.
  5. Since people enter agreements freely and not under coercion, they are not entitled to compensation for losses derived from their investments.
  6. Because people are allowed to own things and to associate to launch businesses, and because those businesses aren't but an aggregation of the property and the decisions of a specific set of people, businesses and any other form of association are allowed the same things as people (ie, businesses can own stuff, enter agreements with other businesses or people, trade among them, save, invest, and get benefits)

(Everything else follows those simple premises: the accumulation of capital; specialisation; business competition; price mechanisms; the extension of wage labour to other forms of work such as services, intellectual production and licences, etc.)

Most likely, you do agree with those basic ideas.

And yet, perhaps you feel that the tax code is distorted and unfair and so it should be changed. Maybe you feel outraged by corruption and cronyism and want to push for better controls and tougher sentences. Or you are worried that certain vital sectors of the economy (like defence or energy) aren't regulated well enough. You could have great arguments for better social safety nets.

If that's the case, I have something to announce to you: you are not an anti-capitalist.

What you want is to reform and improve some aspects of capitalism.

…just like the rest of us.


Image by Midjourney & tripu (variations over cinematic realism, highly detailed, wage laborers united in praise of freedom and prosperity, industrial setting, optimistic)