‘Capitalism’ comes in many shapes and sizes

I’ve noticed that a large contingent of the left have become increasingly (ostensibly) anti-capitalist as of late, more than just a fringe segment as it may have been a decade or so ago. Modern left wing discourse, when not focusing on social justice issues, has a tendency to frame anything bad that happens economically as part of some set of fundamental unresolvable flaws in capitalism, rather than a flaw with the current more specific economic policies pursued by governments today.

I don’t quite understand this tendency or urge to want deeply radical or revolutionary change to a system, including abolishing private ownership of capital, especially if you don’t have some well scrutinized and empirically validated plan as to how exactly society will be organized after the revolution. Of course I’m not sure that many on the left are really ready to jump into the abyss – but rather, they’ll choose to talk as if they do, responding to current economic issues by lamenting internal contradictions in capitalism and advocating vague kinds of class warfare, without seeing the need to propose any specific practical policies that could remedy the issues.

To put it another way, the situation is often presented as a binary choice, either you have the current system – with all the existing inequality, environmental destruction and poverty that currently exists – or we abolish capitalism.

To which I say, not so fast! There are surely near infinitely many ways you can configure society that can still be reasonably called ‘capitalist’. I highly doubt anyone has exhaustively considered every possible configuration and concluded they all are terrible.

If we reasonably define capitalism as a system where capital (or the ‘means to production’) is typically (though not always) owned privately, and where private citizens and businesses can trade goods and services with each other, then it’s easy to come up with a huge list of measures that can be considered before you even think about abolishing capitalism completely. The left should be reminded that the following policies are all compatible with this definition of capitalism, and these are all measures the left can still push for or support:

  • Higher and more progressive taxation, incl higher inheritance tax
  • More benefits for the vulnerable
  • Higher minimum wage or living wage
  • More laws in support of unions and against monopolies
  • More environmental regulations
  • Emissions caps
  • National healthcare
  • Stricter regulations
  • Bans on lobbying and large campaign donations
  • More labour protection laws
  • Basic income
  • Nationalisation
  • Publicly owned investment banks
  • Formation of more cooperatives and non profits
  • Breaking up of large corporations and better anti-trust law
  • Protectionism
  • Public works programs
  • Job Guarantee
  • Wealth tax

My plea to the left is simply this: why not focus on pushing for these kinds of policies first, and if, after all of these policies have been implemented, the system is still unbearable for you, then you can talk of class warfare, abolishing capitalism and jumping straight into communism/anarchism/full socialism etc… ? Why continue to frame contemporary debate as the binary choice of ‘status quo’ or abolish capitalism, when there are all these policies in between that we can still try? Why not reject binary political economy and embrace capital fluidity?

  1. Typically anti-capitalists support progressive reforms, but we also believe two things (a) capitalism itself tends to produce forces that resist those reforms and (b) those reforms are not enough. For example, if you view wage labour as fundamentally exploitative and authoritarian, it’s not enough that wages are a bit higher or (say) sexual harassment of female employees is outlawed. Those things are great, sure, but ultimately workers do not have control over their own destinies. What’s more, as capitalism changes bosses will always find new ways to abuse workers which legislation cannot keep up with – just look at the ‘sharing economy’ as a recent example.

    To be fair, if you could persuade me that some form of sustained eco-Nordic social democracy was possible in every country, I might reconsider my anti-capitalist credentials. But it’s my view (and it’s a common one) that without the presence of the USSR, capitalism is going to slide back to something resembling the 19th century more than the 2nd half of the 20th. Under capitalism, political and economic power resides with those who own the capital, so reforms are hard fought and, few and far between, and ultimately reversible. I think the erosion of the social democratic gains of the 20th century has started and will continue into the foreseeable future.

    • “if you view wage labour as fundamentally exploitative and authoritarian, it’s not enough that…”

      Well sure. But I’m assuming the majority of the hard left aren’t *that* extreme, such that they’d be entirely against any wage labour.

      My point is that a lot of the more mainstream left present a false dichotomy where you either have capitalism, which includes low wages and extreme inequality, or you abolish capitalism and those problems are solved (allegedly). While refusing to acknowledge that there are in-between cases, of higher wages and lower inequality – and we already have many very high HDI successful countries that approximately achieve this. Obviously, if even higher wages, strong welfare/bargaining power is still fundamentally unacceptable to some people, that’s fine, but the choice isn’t honestly presented as ‘wage labour or abolish capitalism’ but the disingenuous false dichotomy I presented earlier. I think only a tiny minority if people, including a minority of the left, actually find the concept of working for a wage unacceptable no matter what.

      • If you define hard left as socialist, then yes all socialists are opposed to wage labour!

  2. Yes, I haven’t updated this blog in more than 2 years.

    That seems to happen rather too often! I found your blog a year or so back, if I remember, when Scott Sumner wrote a post in response to comments by Britonomist.

    Rather than “a huge list of measures that can be considered” I’d like to see an analysis that identifies the imbalances that create our economic problems, and solutions designed to address those imbalances. But I don’t mean to be critical; I like your stuff.

    • What if the flaws are inherent to human nature, and can only be adapted to rather than solved?

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