The Character of Capitalism

Ludwig Von Mises was the person who convinced me that a society with a minimal state could actually work. Therefore, I am ashamed to admit that it has taken me a rather long time to finally read his most political book.

Liberalism’ affirmed many things that I already believe. Yet, there were some sections of that treatise that I found peculiar. Throughout Liberalism Mises rejects the notion that capitalism makes brainless automatons of once free and proud workers.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this alleged cold-hearted mechanisation appears to be amongst the primary criticisms that capitalism’s opponents heap upon it.

One of Karl Marx’s most renowned bugbears about capitalism was that it ‘alienated’ workers from the finished product of their labour.  The theory of alienization was an essential part of the Marxist mantra for around a century after ‘The Moor’ first floated this idea in the 1840s.

If we fast forward slightly, a slew of stinging critiques on brainless mechanisation were put forward. William Morris decried the ubiquity of industrial society in Victorian Britain. Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) bashed capitalism for sapping the US elite of authentic taste. Resulting in a vacuous game of status seeking nonsense. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) entertained readers with grisly (and almost totally false) stories of how the meat packing industry treats once living creatures with a cold callousness. Similar revulsion was initially piled on Henry Ford and his assembly line factories. Before the method was adopted enthusiastically the USSR.

It was these critiques that Mises was addressing. But somewhere towards the end of the twentieth century, the line of attack against capitalism changed.

Today’s detractors of free enterprise take a very different line. They do not argue that capitalism is lifeless, on the contrary; they argue that it is an institution comprised of raw feral emotion.

Capitalism’s enemies today regard it as a bestial force. They claim that it rapes the earth, crushes the disadvantaged and tears communities apart. Put simply- the supposed character of capitalism has changed. It is no longer a bureaucratic automaton but a selfish insatiable animal.

The story that explains why this change happened is perhaps best left for another day. But acknowledging the transition is important.

As somebody who was born in the late twentieth century. It always puzzled me that older Marxists railed against the dehumanising impact of capitalism. Whereas today, it gets associated with peoples untamed wild instincts.

So what do we do with this information?

The architects of liberalism set their views down on paper long before the last decades of the twentieth century. Mises, Hayek and Milton Friedman were important and insightful academics in their time. But the debate has moved on slightly since then.

This does not mean we should dispense with those that made free-market ideas what they are today. Through their works, those who call themselves libertarians can already see that capitalism is not a rapacious monster. In fact, it would lead to a society that promotes the greater well-being of its inhabitants.

The notion that capitalism would create robots of us all has dramatically failed to materialise. The new challenge for liberal minded folk should be to make it explicit why more freedom equals kinder, positive and moral society.

There is a gap in the market here waiting to be filled.

  3 comments for “The Character of Capitalism

  1. Paul Marks
    Sep 8, 2017 at 8:00 pm

    The idea of alienation indeed goes back a long way – indeed it goes back to the 1700s in German thought, and there is some truth in it. Yes Paul does not always argue with German thinkers.

    A craftsman who makes a whole product (say a smith on “Forged in Fire”) can feel real pride in his work. Someone who just pulls a leaver a thousand times a day, or puts tickets into a slot (as I did all all summer) can feel no pride in his work at all – he is “alienated” because he (or she) sees no productive result from the work – it appears pointless, other than the money, And money is NOT enough on its own – work should be object of pride.

    This is a problem with the division of labour into tiny functions (such as Adam Smith’s example, taken from a French pin factory, where no one actually makes the whole product – they just do X mindless task thousands of times a day).

    “Automation Paul” – actually that often makes the problem worse, for example I used to take the money from people on the way into the park and give them a ticket (there were no machines) now I nurse an automated system (that has not worked correctly in over several years) everything is slower and more frustrating. But say automation works – what happens to the men (normally it is men) they do not go off and become professional poets.

    Ludwig Von Mises is indeed addressing real problems (real arguments from our opponents) – and the problems are more important than ever.

    “But now the socialists say that capitalism is a savage beast that rapes Mother Earth and turns us into savages”.

    Yes good point Jordan Lee – and that is such an absurd argument from the left that, you are correct, I am not sure how to respond to it.

    It is as if a man walked up to me and screamed “bark, bark, bark” a few inches from my face – I do am not sure what the rational response to that is.

    • Sep 9, 2017 at 4:55 pm

      The ‘savagery of capitalism’ argument is indeed a ridiculous one. The worrying thing is that it makes sense to a significant amount of people. Perhaps this is the reason that many liberal minded folks have not taken the time to address it fully?

      Part of me wishes that the old school left (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P Thompson, George Orwell, maybe even Lenin himself etc.) would rise from the grave and slap some sense into the Guardianista mob.

      Even a veteran Marxist like Slavoj Zizek is getting called out for his lack of commitment to fuzzy feel-good intersectionality.

      Alienation is a big problem, but it is not unique to capitalism. I imagine that spending a long time making something, only to have it be ‘procured’ by the state is just as alienating as pressing a button all day.

      Surely seeing the fruits of one’s labour in cash is much better than some ill-defined sense of satisfaction. Unfortunately, you cannot feed your family on a diet of pride and a thumbs up from your local communist party representative.

      As history has shown in old USSR- people would much rather have the money!

      • Paul Marks
        Sep 12, 2017 at 10:57 am

        Agreed Jordan Lee.

        And historically the way people dealt with having jobs they felt little pride in was to throw themselves into their hobbies – ordinary people really did have really detailed knowledge of (and interest in) in various things, and rising wages allowed them to pursue those interests.

        So, yes, the money matters. As does the time.

        The decline of such things as Working Men’s Institutes (their collapse into drinking clubs over recent decades) is indeed cultural decline. But it is not the fault of Capitalism – indeed it has occurred over a period of the rise of the modern mega-state that seeks to strangle Civil Society and replace it with its self.

        Ordinary people used to belong to groups and societies (secular ones – not just religious ones) outside of work – now that has been horribly undermined.

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