If the Point of Capitalism is to Escape Capitalism, Then What’s the Point of Capitalism?

By umair haque

There’s a question that keeps recurring to me these days. It goes like this: if the point of capitalism is to escape capitalism, then what’s the point of capitalism? I know, it’s a circular and funny query. So let me explain.

Here we are, all trapped in and by this grand, global system called capitalism — which reaches into every nook and cranny of our lives, orders our wants and desires, plans our days and nights, and structures our time and energy. You can even talk to capitalism like it was a person now — “Hey, Alexa…” A system by which we mean something like “profit maximizing corporations, owned by shareholders, run for that one sole end, no matter what the cost is to anyone or anything else.” But what’s the organizing principle of life that this system, which is so pervasive and permeating, produces? What are we really trying to accomplish through it?

The worker is trying to become a manager. The manager is trying to become a capitalist. I’ve put that in modern terms — let me put it in Marxist ones, just for contrast’s sake. The prole is trying to become a petite bourgeois. The bourgeois is trying to become a haute bourgeois. The worker, a shop owner, the shop owner, the owner of a chain. Even, maybe, in the small way of “owning” a home — which is to say, paying back its debt all his life — or buying a stock or a bond, and so on: the point is to amass capital. So capitalism is something like a pyramid, which we’re all climbing, worker to manager, prole to bourgeois, and at the apex is the capitalist.

But what is the capitalist trying to become?

The capitalist, ironically enough, is trying to earn his freedom from capitalism — just like everyone else. The only difference is that he’s a step closer. Let me prove it, with a simple and extreme example, that of a plantation, and slave, owner — the truest capitalist of all, not so long ago. What is he really after? He’s trying to earn is freedom from labour — not having to do work, hence the slaves. He’s also trying to win freedom from exploitation — he holds the whip, but is above the moral law. And from control, punishment, hierarchy — he has no boss to answer to. Perhaps he devotes his life to more “gentlemanly” pursuits — art, literature, discovery, exploration: but what’s the point of these? These, too, are a freedom from capitalism — from its bruising stress, pressure, anxiety, competition — now he is free to really be himself.

Do you see my point? How funny and strange it is? Even the capitalist is really just trying win back his freedom from capitalism. Buy it back, properly speaking. But so is the prole. So is the bourgeois. So is the wage-slave. Whatever terms we choose, depending on our politics, the point remains the same. So, my friends, are we all — the point of capitalism is to escape capitalism.

(Some systems are self-perpetuating. Like a forest. Like a river. Like an ocean. But some systems are self-annihilating. Like a fire. Like a storm. Like an epidemic. They burn themselves out. We tend think of capitalism as the former — but we are wrong. It is the latter — a self-destroying, not a self-sustaining, system. If we’re all really just trying to escape it — then what else could it be? After all, that means there will probably come a day when we do make our escape — and on that day, poof! — capitalism, at least in the sense above, winks out, like a storm, or a fire. So if we see for a moment through the great lens of human history — first there was tribalism, and we escaped it, then feudalism, and we escaped that — today now there’s capitalism, which we’re currently trying to escape, all over again. But while kings and knights might have not been so keen on escaping feudalism, what’s striking about capitalism is that we’re all trying to escape it — even most of the capitalists — because it makes us so miserable, mean, and foolish.

No, that doesn’t mean there aren’t bad eggs, whose only goal in life is amassing more money, and using it to abuse people. Sure there are. Still, just the idea that even capitalists might be trying to escape capitalism too will probably upset both those on the American left and right, because I’m going beyond Marx, and suggesting “class war” is just as limiting as “capitalism is the sole end of human life!” I think, though, that this is an idea often taken for granted by now in Europe, thanks to Adorno, Adler, Freud, Fromm, and many others.)

You can see it in stark, comic terms. What are Bezos and Musk doing? Trying to flee to Mars. What’s Gates doing? Recommending you books to read, and trying to save the world with charity. LOL — how ironic. These are different forms of freedom from capitalism. Maybe on Mars, we can build a better world. Maybe through ideas and philanthropy, we can solve the problems that corporations can’t. All the capitalists I see are trying to win freedom from capitalism, in one way or another. Aren’t they?

There are many people who, having amassed fortunes, seem under the grip of a kind of compulsion. They must turn ten million into a hundred, a hundred into a billion, and so on. This is what Marx called “fetishization.” Later thinkers, like Adorno and Fromm, would have said that such a person is still trying to escape capitalism — only they don’t know how, the poor things. They are trying to buy love, affection, belonging, meaning, and purpose, they are trying to win the very same self-discovery and self-realization our genteel bourgeois is after, devoting his life to literature or art once he has made his money, with a bigger yacht, mansion, and bank account. But you cannot really buy those things — in this world, or the next. So it’s true to say that mega-capitalists aren’t exactly monks — but I don’t think that means they’re not also trying to escape capitalism, too. They’re just trying to buy their way out.

Then there are many people who are the mirror image. They are not trying to become Bezos and Musk and Gates. They are just there, doing their jobs, earning their wages, and going home. It’s true — many of us try to escape capitalism by making our peace with it. Surrendering to it, in a way. If I do this much work, I might never get rich — but at least I’ll be left in peace this many hours a day. At least I’ll have my hobbies, my interests, my passions. It’s a calculated bargain, apathy, which is always a kind of capitulation, in the end. And it only proves the point — we are all trying to win our freedom from capitalism, rich or poor, prole or bourgeois.

Now. Let me distill the things we are trying the freedom for, from capitalism. Freedom from exploitation. Freedom from control and domination. Freedom to find, develop, and realize ourselves. The freedom to live lives which really sear us with meaning, purpose, and fulfillment — instead of being crushed with anxiety, bruised by competitiveness, and suffused with fear.

So here is the real question. If these are things we are really after — why don’t we just give them to one another? Perhaps that sounds trivial to you, but I want to put in perspective. This is probably the first juncture in human history where we are really capable of giving these things to one another.

We’ve never had the physical capability before. Until this point in human history, we needed armies of labourers, doing the work of providing sustenance to nations — farming, accounting, driving, and so on. But now, finally, technology is automating away repetitive, formulaic labour — not just in the way factories did before: churning out canned consumer goods. But in a real one — replacing their inputs, tilling the cornfields and balancing the books and directing the deliveries and so on.

Nor have we had the financial means. If we wanted to give people all the above, how would we have done it? We had no way to give everyone the means of what today is starting to be called a basic income. Would everyone line up at the central bank? Today, everyone can open an account online at the central bank, and poof — money. If we really wanted to, we could make freedom from capitalism a financial reality almost overnight.

Then there is social technology — social institutions, public goods, and public investment. Only in the last century or so, really, have human beings really become capable of operating things like healthcare, transportation, retirement elderly care, childcare, and so on at a social scale. That is because these things require post-capitalist management, too, which we’re still learning how to do. Who “owns” the NHS, for example? It’s held in trusts by communities. What does it maximize? Neither profit nor planning, but healthcare outcomes, which are measured carefully. Not Marxist-Leninism, nor American capitalism — but a kind of 21st century post-capitalism at work: one made of public goods and public investment.

These three things, technology, finance, and public goods, have finally matured and developed to a degree that freedom from capitalism isn’t just possible. It’s becoming inevitable. What’s really happening as these three forces intersect? Society’s surplus is being reinvested back in precisely the very things we are really after — instead of being skimmed off by predatory elites. Freedom from exploitation, freedom from control, freedom to find, realize, and develop ourselves. We haven’t had the means, mechanisms, or tools, in the long history of humankind, to ever really achieve those on a mass scale yet. But we have them now.

And that is an eminently good thing. It tells me that the obsolescence of capitalism is as inevitable as that of feudalism before it. That doesn’t mean that trade and enterprise and creativity will go away. Quite the opposite. It means that they will be genuinely more beneficial — we can devote them to better things, at last, than money, status, power, and egotism — which is what capitalism limits us to. And through that limitation, by perpetually draining away our empathy, wisdom, courage, wisdom, truth, and happiness, causes us to desperately wish to escape it, all our lives long. No matter if we are rich, poor, or somewhere in between.

September 2018