Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Hamster Wheel(s) of Capitalism

Is there a difference between "selfish" and "unselfish" capitalism? Is materialism making us Crazy In The Head? This BBC article looks at Oliver James' new book, "The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza.

Whether the book is any good and/or useful or not is a question I'm not going to go into, but it's good to see the argument being raised. (And depressing, at the same time, that it's not thought of as Obvious Knowledge.) But there are some interesting points made in the article. The main point, namely, that we have a form of capitalism in the UK which is different that to on the continent, and which brings us more mental illness, such as depression.

There are three threads to this, which are somewhat picked out in the article...

1. Capitalism and the Individual: That is, Capitalism taps into an "inherent" desire by the individual - a desire for "Stuff". Stuff helps us do things, helps us to live, distracts us from other things. For instance, I like my teddy bear - it gives me emotional satisfaction even if "rationally" it is nothing but Stuffed Stuff. This is the individualistic level of capitalism, and is possibly why "retail therapy" is addictive, in the same way that drugs and drink are addictive. ("Some people say alcohol is a drug. It's not, it's a drink.")

2. Capitalism as an Indicator of Position: Power can be compared to a tree falling in the forest. An individual cannot have power in isolation - there must be a subject that this power extends over.

This picks apart the argument between capitalism as a "non-zero-sum" game - in which individuals are better off, even if others have more - and as a "zero-sum" game - in which people effectively have less when others have more, even if their own value has stayed the same. (For a lot more discussion on this, see here.) Retail Therapy and the individualism in point 1 can be considered an effect of a non-zero-sum game. But Power artefacts can be considered a zero-sum game effect. For me, the existence of inflation is a simple pointer to the latter as being more significant though: the more money someone else has, the less mine is worth. We are tied together through the value of our cash, and so it is not enough to simply have "more money". The crux of the matter is that it's important to have "more money than others".

And this is why money is power, is status. And why consumption, and Stuff, is important - because Stuff is a signal for how much money, and hence how much "power" we have over others. For example, if I can afford to buy expensive brand clothing, I can afford to eat more, and live longer.

The conssequences of this are explored below, in point 3. For now, just consider what this means for rising inequality in Britain.

3. Capitalism as a Norm: This is actually a combination, an "evolution" if you like, of themes 1 and 2. The article picks this up quite well. As Simon Wessely says:
"more human experiences" are seen as illnesses nowadays. In my trade, for example, states of sadness are now seen as 'depression', shyness has become 'social phobia', and all sorts of variations in childhood temperament, personality, emotions and behaviour have become characterised as diseases that need treatment
Indeed, maybe this is the bond that ties together the first 2 points - a re-definition of "normality" through a subtle yet significant - ubiquitous - usurping of Old values with New Ones. New Ones that posit twin snakes of "happiness" and "equality" as their foundation. If Capitalism had a motto, it would be "All Can Smile."

But it's this idealist posturing that forces us into a vicious circle. The trap is this: by placing utopia within "reachable grasp", it leaves us in a modern state of distopia at all other times. Throw in the idea of "progress" - technical mainly (moral progress is generally left alone for its sin of being unmeasurable) - and this distopia extends to a dark and continuous eternity. To state this distopia in 2 simple sentences:

1. If you have less Stuff than any other One Person, then you are unhappy.
2. Technological progress creates new Stuff.

Thus, not content with trying to keep up with the single Hamster Wheel of Inequality, we force ourselves to straddle another Wheel, that of progress. If one doesn't get you, the other surely will.

Enough of this for now. Hopefully the next post will look at the effects of networked capitalism on the subject.

6 comments:

phil jones said...

+1 for the point that capitalism as method of *producing stuff* may not be zero-sum, but capitalism as a way of allocating power, certainly is.

The issue with power is not really the appearance of power via status, it really *is* power. Imagine the idealized model of the market as a set of little auctions. And auctions are votes about how the world should be. When you have more money you win more auctions, hence your preferences count for more.

Imagine we both live in the same town. I'm rich and love golf, you're poor and love wildlife.
In such circumstances it's *more* likely that some fields at the end of the street will become a golf-course than a wildlife sanctuary *even* if I don't actively choose to make that happen. Speculators, investors, people making calculations based on demographics, will *see* there's a potentially higher ROI from a golf-course than from a wildlife sanctuary.

This is the very practical, physical issue that arises. When you are a) poor, and b) in a society where more decisions are made via the market, you are incredibly disempowered.

If you're poor but a lot of the decisions in your society are still made by other means (tradition, family responsibility, church, or government) being poor is far less a cause of powerlessness (although you may have other reasons for being powerless)

One problem with the market then is that it competes with and tries to to take over from all other principles of power distribution - which leads to a limited choice for getting power. It's a kind of monoculture of power-allocation.

Of course, dictatorships are just as bad, though traditionally something like a western-style monarchy often tended to be a balance of power allocation between church-and-state and king-and-aristocracy. What people are looking at with the rise of the market-state (a state which no longer sees itself in competition with the market) is finally a single principle of power-allocation from which there's no escape ... (except peer-production, attention economy and netocracy, of course ... TCP/IP vs. the dollar is what comes next)

Richard Veryard said...

I have to say I am always cautious about labelling systems as "zero-sum" because it depends where you put the boundaries of the system (game).

You could think about capitalism as a game involving all the present members of the human race. But economic power isn't just about exploiting other people in the present, it is about developing or denying resources to future generations, mastering other species (categorizing some of them as food or vermin), and protecting or damaging the environment.

In any case, power isn't about stuff, it is about the rate of change of stuff. Affluenza doesn't mean having decent furniture, it means replacing perfectly good furniture with slightly better or more fashionable furniture. Dante described the modern retail store perfectly - the third circle of hell in which people lose all sense of discrimination and queue mindlessly for Swedish ornaments.

Scribe said...

Thanks Phil and Richard. The multi-faceted nature of this menas there are probably more points here than I can reply to, but it's a great place to start unpicking this. The consumer-producer relationship is something I hope to delve into a lot more this year.

Power Levels

With regards to power, I think there again are a number of levels going on. Yes, there's "actual" power - power to change things, to feed back into the market. Buying stuff is a power, about the only power we seem to have less. ("Don't like it, go someplace else.") This is economic power, as defined in a self-fulfilling cycle by an econommic system.

The *effect* of this, however, is to generate a simulation of power, such that objects bought become representative of underlying power. Some items "represent" or simulate more power than others, for various reasons. (Organic food is a great example in the UK right now - the "natural" lines in supermarkets are worth more, encouraging the view that only the wealthy can afford to be "natural".)

At this point, speculation becomes blurry. Should you base your potential market on who has money, or on who claims to have money? Snakes on a Plane did very badly, despite a lot of hype. The current bubble has come about due to people spending money they didn't have, on things that projected an image of wealth.

I think Richard's right though - which "kind" of power you're talking about depends on which people, and what scope, you're looking at.

Competing Power Systems

I think you're right on this Phil. In many ways the "individual" is disempowered because the state (in the UK has been disempowered/shifted to a market. (This is a whole 'nother post...) In a way, it seems like the Cold War has gone Civil, with the individual caught between 2 "reckless" systems - market (capitalist) and state (communist).

The problem is that both of these are at such a level that they're only in it for themselves, leaving the individual to be disempowered whichever system they're under. Realistically speaking, I am powerless when I go shopping, and I am powerless when new legislation comes in. It's a win-win situation, unless you're at the bottom of the pile. (Even TCP/IP, in its "web 2.0" form, has been hijacked by the Powers That Be.)

I'll post this over at De-scribed, but this article by Samuel Brittan is highly relevant to where we go from here. He asks, "what happens if we sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labour?" and the answer really isn't necessarily all that gloomy.

Scribe said...

One further link. Based on these ideas of "progress" and "power", what are the implications for calls to make citizens more geeky? (Note that all one really needs is an understanding of the "public deficit" approach to science... ;)

What does John Denham mean, in power terms when he says...

"If the public do not have the capacity to understand scientific evidence and risk, they face being unable to make the best decisions for themselves and their families or, in a democracy, put the most appropriate pressure on politicians.

"'Science and society' used to be an area which was seen as a niche part of science communication. Today, we have no choice but to see it as a necessary condition for British and global success."

phil jones said...

Samuel Brittan raises a bit of a straw-man. Who does "confuse a straightforward economic slowdown with the saturation of wants"?

An economic slowdown is just a natural emergent phenomenon of the market system.

I'm not so taken by Beaudrilliard that I'm comfortable with the term "simulation" - it smells of hinting that something is a false appearance rather than reality.

But do you (and he) mean that?

I'd say the power of the market is *real*, even in the case that I create a false belief in you that I am rich (with some fake bling).

After all, guns also bring real power, and that isn't altered by the fact that I may scare you with a replica.

If by "simulation of" you don't mean "misleading but false appearance of" but merely "codified representation of" then I might buy it, but otherwise I'm gonna argue.


... more soon but have to leave now

Richard Veryard said...

There are some further curiosities about the algebra of power. A businessman or politician may appear powerful to others, but he himself feels he is almost completely constrained by other people. Politicians feel trapped by the press or the civil service; businessmen feel trapped by the stock market or red tape; reformers are frustrated by the Establishment. The discourse of power slips from the Real into the realm of the Imaginary or the Symbolic.