Why I am not an anti-capitalist and why it shouldn’t matter

Are 'correct' belief systems really necessary or good as a framework for organising?

We live in a large scale society where the tendency to dehumanise those you cannot see and will never meet is ever-present. It is a society that tends to attach a financial and financial return value to everything, including the life of, say, a peasant farmer in Laos. And you. In polite circles this is done indirectly, but the City of London is not polite circles and there it is done pretty openly. It is part of a wider system in which those values are propagated.

“Aha,” says a reader, “You are referring, Mr ‘Contact’, if that is your real name, to capitalism, and you are presumably an anti-capitalist.” Except I’m not, and I’ll try to explain why, if only because I told a friend I’d write a post on it months ago.

The point is not that I like capitalism. I am neither pro or anti capitalism because I am not sure of the concept of ‘capitalism’ itself, so I would not want to define myself by it. I would be willing to say I am against something I feel I can point to more easily, say, unnecessary human cruelty. But that pits me against Roman gladiatorial displays and its descendant X-factor, as well as against our current economic systems. I am happy to be against feeding people to lions and X-factor, but that can hardly define my whole political position, nor would I want it to. But I do not think that a more complex and complete political position can be outlined by defining myself against a more complex concept. It does not really add the level of nuance and complexity I think is needed if we want to try to create systemic changes.

The bad things (and let’s define that as unnecessary cruelty and cruel situations, for the sake of argument) happening in the world today strike me as on the one hand very basic, and not greatly different from processes that happened under the deeply non-capitalist Genghiz Khan, and on the other hand very complex, shot through with everything from historical currents, through cultural oddities, to bodily functions. I do not feel I am in a position to say – and I do not think anyone is in a position to say – that one current of activity (whether you call it capitalisation, commodification or something else), or one conceptualisation of that activity, has a defining, let alone a totalising, role in the systems we see.

This brings me onto my problem with Marxian thought, and why I have never been a Marxist. It isn’t just that I disagree with parts of it (the poor historical method, the psuedo-scientific differing definitions of ‘value’, for instance – much of it creates an air of scientific authority around what is essentially a narrative – dialectical? – and inaccurate description of history), or that I think his failure to analyse power outside of the concept of ‘class relations’ did leave the door open to authoritarian uses of his work. It is that Marxism is the wrong type of theory for me. It is an enlightenment theory that attempts to give a ‘true’ picture of the world. Once we grasp this truth the world becomes an understandable place, and we know the right action to take.

This contrasts with my position, which is not that ‘there is no truth’ or some straw man position of absolute relativism, but that we can only catch glimpses of what we might semi-seriously call the ‘real world’. We can come closer to understanding the world than before, but it will not be through grand models or revelations of the ‘truth’ but through incremental changes in our understanding and through constructing multiple models from multiple viewpoints.

There are various ways of explaining why I hold to this model of discovery rather than the enlightenment model, but as a short-hand let’s say that we communicate our ideas about the world in language, and language does not map to the real world. All our attempts to describe the world are therefore heavily compromised from the outset, particularly when addressing social problems. Less social problems like the trajectories of sub-atomic particles can be dealt with through tight definition (albeit ultimately unfounded) but social problems cannot use this method because they must either use the fuzzily defined language of everyday life or re-define, and so separate their language from everyday life, diminishing their power to reflect everyday discourse and life. You can, for instance, define the idea of a ‘working class’ with objectively aligned interests within a model, but I think it a big mistake to believe this idea is something that actually exists in the world.

I am suspicious too of the desire to create a coherent and defining view of the world because I do not believe the world is coherent; I certainly don’t believe it is black and white. Despite Marx’s attempt to remove moral disapproval from his modelling, to many people ‘capital’ is the devil. For myself, I do not believe in the devil. I know that many people would say he’s just pulled a good trick on me, but I think there is a certain religiously-tinged paranoia, not to say egotism, in believing that ‘capital’, as a coherent set of social relations, exists. I may feel like a target sometimes, but not of anything so coherent as ‘capital’. In as far as we have a ‘system’ on this planet, I see no reason to believe it has coherence in the way many people attribute to it.

The ‘system’ contains within it, I think, many things that we have so far failed to define, some of which we will never define, mixed in with various things we try to define, some of which can be picked on as a source of evil (the commodity form, say) within a certain worldview. I think we should discuss and talk about those ideas. But we should not pretend to have an understanding we don’t have. Some systemic features that exist today were present in feudalism, or the Roman Empire, and had other names then. Some aspects we see today will exist in the future, when no-one at all can cling on to the idea that capitalism exists. While I think we can improve our knowledge, I suspect our global systems are too complex to be defined by particular features at any given moment in time.

This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to understand where I find myself or the details of the system in which I live. I just don’t think I’ll ever know it well enough to attach a name – capitalism – to a set of defined things and say “That’s what I’m against.” To call yourself ‘anti-capitalist’ you presumably have to have decided that the economic worldview Marx outlined (or some correction offered by one of his followers) is essentially correct, and that deliberately opposing this is the way forward. To me a confidence that you know the right things to be against within a system you do not fully understand is a danger sign. You begin to look something like the US Military in Iraq, convinced they knew what they are doing, walking with certainty into disaster.

What’s more, while I might learn things from a Marxian perspective, I do not think I should constantly overlay my subjective experience with some supposedly objective framework [Note: some people have said to me in response to this that Marx isn’t seeking to reveal truth, he’s being dialectical man, meaning I think that his claims are attempts to change the world, which is fine but (a) I wish most Marxists understood he was not preaching the gospel and (b) that only shifts the truth claim to the claim that you’ve found the right weapon – and I don’t think dialectics or Marx’s models are all that]. That is why I talked about the notion of being against cruelty. It is an emotional reaction to the world (one of many a person might have) and I am more likely to give weight to this reaction than to any ideological construction, even if I find that construction useful. I dislike X-factor not because it is attempting to draw me into a mass consumer experience for the sake of advertising revenue, although that is one way of viewing it. I prefer to hate it for being a cruelty-fest of the type that rears its head constantly throughout history. If any ideology failed to eliminate cruelty in its mindset, I would discard the ideology long before my dislike of cruelty.

I have had people get annoyed with me when I described their Marxian ideas as ‘an interesting point of view’. But that’s exactly how I see those ideas and how I know I will always see them, no matter how much Marx or marxian thought I read, and no matter if I see the M-C-M circulatory form, or some other marxian concept, as useful sometimes. The notion of ‘capitalism’ itself is to me a particular viewpoint, so I am unlikely to use the concept in anything more than a casual sense. It is not a ‘true’ description of the world against which I would be willing to define myself.

The question people often ask now is, in the absence of a shared ideological framework, how do we create collective action? But this is an odd question. I think most collective action happens in the absence of a shared ideological framework. People unite around particular things for wildly differing reasons, even when they are claiming to be ideologically united. I suspect that leftist organising would often be more effective if it gave up on the notion of ideological unity and instead united around campaigns to improve the conditions of people’s lives. We might regard all aspects of political organising as encounters in which we all learned about the world, rather than a chance to express our beliefs.

Now it’s true that your viewpoint on the world affects the actions you may wish to take – this was visible in the division between ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ in Occupy camps – but in the end I suspect that ‘radical’ action will only ever come out of desperation for change. The arguments we have amongst those of us who do not have that desperation are probably more important as social interactions than as deciders of the future. Moments of change will happen despite the ideologies and despite the arguments over how change should be brought about. Our ideas can influence those moments a little but will probably be relegated to the position of a mouse pushing against the tiller of a great ship.

To put it another way, even when people rallied under the banner of Marxian thought, I think it was more the wish to improve their lives that brought them together, not the ideology itself. The use of ideological rhetoric as a social glue to hold these campaigns together has a mixed record, to say the least. I do not think that polishing up the ideology a bit – making it anti-hierarchical, say – will make ideology a better uniting force. For myself, and I suspect for a lot of people inclined towards leftist ideas but not active in politics, it would be preferable to find some other way of creating the social cohesion necessary to help us act together.

Finally, the discussions about how the world works and how we should react to it are important, but if what is radical is what brings change, then we should admit we do not know what is radical yet. It may turn out that being ‘anti-capitalist’ is not the position that will force a big change in economic and social relations but something else entirely, some position or campaign we do not yet know and have not yet imagined.

 

ENDNOTE on editing post 03/11/2013: I wrote this a while ago and now feel I missed at trick in not noting that, while it is easier to unite people against something than for something, it is not necessarily the most politically productive way to proceed. I think I avoided the point because so many people have asked of anti-capitalists “But what are you FOR?” and they have always reserved the right to define themselves by what they are against, or to answer the question with ‘revolution’, or some similarly ill-defined term. I used to have a tolerance for this because it is important to begin to resist and difficult to work out where to go next, but I am less tolerant of it now because I think it ignores something really obvious in using the term ‘anti-capitalist’. To people who get their food and homes and holidays under what we might call ‘capitalism’, to be against it is to be against their quality of life – unless, that is, you offer a viable alternative. How can you hope to build a popular movement if you promise to take away people’s livelihoods without explaining how you will replace them? It takes a certain type of fervour to want to do that and I’m glad most people don’t have it.

It is not the big leaders to whom we need to offer concrete demands and plans, it is the people around us – our friends and parents and colleagues. This is who we have to organise with and it’s very difficult to engage with most of them on the basis of saying ‘this is all crap and here’s why’, dismissing those who don’t believe our framework as being not radical. It leaves so little room for discussing what alternatives WE see as feasible, for dealing with the moment we are in, so little room for developing the future with the people standing in front of us. As for theory, it’s not that we don’t need it, but I feel that we should frame the world through communication with those around us, with a bit of help from theory, rather than framing the world primarily through theory. For me the right balance is to relegate theory to a place where it does not define my position and that is why I cannot be an anti-capitalist.

Possibly this last paragraph makes all my other arguments redundant.

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11 Responses to Why I am not an anti-capitalist and why it shouldn’t matter

  1. Tim says:

    what does “absolute relativism” mean?

  2. Tim says:

    Is it OK to be against the X-factor because the music is derivative and boring?

  3. contact says:

    Yes! To the second. To the first, when people challenge the search for objective truth – often by pointing out how things appear differently relative to your position in the situation – they are often characterised as believing that ‘all truths are equal’ or that ‘there is no such thing as truth’. This would be ‘absolute relativism’, and I suspect not many people really hold to it. While I don’t think there is such a thing as objective truth, neither do I think we can’t make any truth-containing statements at all, or that all statements are equal.

  4. contact says:

    Some comments I wrote on facebook:

    You’re right that such a position (using Marx to inform your ideas rather than *believing in* him) is possible, but if people, say, dismiss people for not taking an explicitly ‘anti-capitalist’ stance – to me that would suggest they are quite attached to a particular framework to the point of considering it *necessary*.

    and

    I think it’s a bit too easy to pick on any frequently occurring event (conflict over resources between rulers and ruled for e.g.) and fit it into a grand theory that appears to give you special powers to describe the present. I didn’t quite wonder if capitalism exists. To have an argument over whether it exists or not you’d already have to have decided that you are discussing a *thing* in the world rather than a *conceptualisation*. That’s what I mean by saying it’s the wrong sort of theory for me. It asks me to accept or reject a thing (a set of processes) when I can only treat it as a conceptualisation, because although I think he describes some interesting and worthwhile things, I suspect there to be a vast amount outside of what he said that he hasn’t described, and that potentially impact on his conceptualisations.

    and

    I agree that we can and should use Marx’s ideas to inform the world. But does this mean we have to adopt them as the main component of our worldview? As an aside, the implicit claim of many who call themselves ‘radical’ is that if you don’t do this you are a ‘liberal’ – i.e. someone who takes the institutions of ‘liberal democracy’ at face value (a quick read of other posts on my blog will show that I don’t). But perhaps I feel that Marx can give me 10% or 20% of my political worldview, rather than 90%. Perhaps what I am interested in is everything that Marx left out. I’m just not confident that Marx gave as full a description of the world as many think, or that the conception of ‘capitalism’ is really solid enough for me to define myself against it. I also find it suspicious that Marx seems to give people this unshakeable conviction of being RIGHT about the world, as though being right is the point, and despite 150 years of Marxists being right not getting us far.

  5. sam says:

    I’d quite like to comment about the relativism but A. I don’t think it’s really what you’re focussed on and B. You’d probably agree with me anyway, which is very boring.

    Lots of recent negativity in your blogs, i.e what’s been wrong with certain positions and certain movements. Which is fine, and considering the current state of our country, you’re being extremely restrained with the negativity. As it all gets a bit unsettling at times (not a bad thing necessarily), I do like to try to develop some more positive ideas.
    Now you’ve just blogged about the failure of ideas as a unifying cause of change or at least radical change, which is interesting, and you’ve also pointed out that ideas can actually divide, i.e. if we focussed on the issues of our lives perhaps we could get something done a bit better rather than squabbling over our favourite brand of leftism.
    I agree to a point. The focus should be more on results than ideas and perhaps on achievement than perfectionism. The problem (I’ll ignore the one in which you exclude everything but the left thus begging the question) is that this doesn’t actually remove the need for ideas. If we want to increase opportunities for young people for instance ( http://www.comparefutures.org/ ), how are we going to do that? Let’s say we make it easy, ignore market issues, and attempt to improve and equalise educational opportunities. There are ways of doing that ( http://www.suttontrust.com/home/ for some ideas ), but actually there would be plenty of controversy amongst the left about how to do that. This might be petty squabbling, but it does also come down to the belief that certain ideas and certain methods are better than others (and we’re still only including the left), and perhaps that some of our comrades ideas might actually be harmful. Is your suggestion that for now we just head for what LCD change we can manage? Perhaps it is and perhaps it should be. I sign petitions regularly which I feel half-hearted about for these reasons, but it’s better than doing nothing, and a lot better if it actually achieves something. That said, it doesn’t feel like enough. It doesn’t feel like a good enough way to express, amplify or convert into action the sheer disgust I feel towards large parts of our socio-political system.
    Which brings me back to ideas. I’m happy to temper them, though I argue strongly for them. I change them regularly, but never without reason. I attempt to build on and improve them on a continual basis, but it does feel like a core remains.
    I understand that as a platform for change, my ideas won’t unify. I understand that for action to succeed I need to be flexible and go with the flow for the greater good. But without them, I wouldn’t know which way to go at all. Without them I wouldn’t be able to decide when an action is worth vetoing. Without them I wouldn’t even be on the left. Without them I wouldn’t even know how to use my voice. I may need to co-operate, but I want to be able to think for myself as well. I spend some of my spare time contemplating what a utopian society might look like, not because I ever expect to get there, but because it helps me know which way to go. When people see the same problems that I do or have the same goals as me I’m happy to aim there with them and when people prefer the same means that I do, I’ll be pleased to join in, but without some ideas to start with, I’d just be another Pooh-stick going with the flow.
    We all end up following ideas, and to a degree they’ll always be someone elses, but I think it’s very important first to make them our own, and then to put them in perspective.

    p.s Have you got any ideas?

  6. Tim says:

    I am quite strongly influence by the ideas of Positivism/Empiricism and its modern variations in all of this, Russell, Popper, Kuhn, etc. I suppose that there likely is objective reality, and that some aspects of it are likely discoverable through the analysis of empirical evidence (in the sense that some statements are true and some statements are false and sometimes we can tell the difference with some degree of confidence/accuracy). Marx’s work pre-dates most of these concepts, so I am unsure how his work fits in to this. Certainly I feel that what I know of it lacks the rigour that some of the highest standard modern economic literature seems to have.

  7. Mat says:

    I did try to comment earlier but the post was too large. I just think you can’t escape ideology and shouldn’t claim you can. Keynes once said that people who think they aren’t influenced by ideology are ironically in thrall to the theories of some long-dead economist. Being against cruelty or in favour improving the condition of people just begs too many questions. You can make a strong case that the Chinese govt has improved people’s conditions in the last 20 years given the vast number of people that have been lifted out of poverty. But I wouldn’t put myself ideologically in the same camp as the Chinese politbureau

  8. contact says:

    Just a couple more things, partly in response to some comments on facebook, partly in response to Sam.

    Firstly, I feel I need to point out that I didn’t say that other people should not be or call themselves anti-capitalists. I explained my position and talked about the perception of others of that position.

    Secondly I did not write a post called Things About Which Marx Was Wrong. This is a post I could write, and it would be long, but it isn’t the post I did write. Things About Which Marx Was Right would also be a long post. But that would also be part of a whole different debate. We could invent a third post called Significant Things About Which Marx Had Nothing Interesting Or Useful To Say At All. I am suggesting that this post would be much, much longer than either of the first two. This is why I cannot imagine wanting to define my political position with reference to the debate between the first two posts. And that’s quite enough imaginary posts for now.

    It leads to one of the main reasons I think it’s important to talk about this. Which is that, rather than restrict the ideas we have to work with, I want to expand the range of ideas we have to work with. If I try to knock Marx off a pedestal it is not because I want to put someone else (or myself) there, and not because I want to get rid of Marx. I just want to bring him down to the level of just another theorist, partly so that we can have more open debates about campaigns and tactics.

    As for other ideas, I’ve liked Murray Bookchin a lot in the past, I’ve recently enjoyed some Jacques Rancière recently, and I could think of others if my mind didn’t go blank every time I try to deliberately think of something. But sometimes it’s more that I feel we should be raiding psychology, sociology, anthropology and other not-explicitly-political-fields for new ideas.

  9. Tim says:

    I wonder how much bigger the imaginary web is than the real web?

  10. John says:

    This piece has given me food for thought since it was posted. Choosing to define oneself as anti-capitalist, or anti-anything for that matter, is always going to be problematic. Most of the anti-capitalists I’ve spoken to seem to see capitalism as some kind of Disney bad guy ruling over the innocent masses, and the absence of capitalism as some kind of ghostly and formless Simba, waiting to roar happiness back into the world in the space of a lunchbreak. None of them mention even the possibility of bloodshed that might occur in the overturning of such a behemoth. None of them acknowledge the kind of political might, or the monumental sea change in mainstream ideologies, that it would take to see through. But whilst I see your points about the concept of capitalism being something which resists comprehension, surely offering a full definition of anything even vaguely complex – or at least complex enough to provoke wildly differing interpretations – is going to be extremely difficult, bordering on impossible. In order to usefully grasp the character and identity of a thing, do you really need to know every inch of its genome?

    Undeniably it makes sense to be informed about a system which is going to impact upon one’s life (either with or without one’s consent), and taking time to build a considered and detailed ideological position can only be a good thing. Where I struggle in this field, though, is in trying to find something, anything, that even remotely resembles a complete political position. In fact, the more I read and consider the idea, the less I’m able to imagine such a position. Not only that, I find myself unable to imagine any significant systemic changes being made, at least intentionally. For there to be any kind of systemic change, surely we need a political system that offers a spectrum of ideas. Living in a time where the only distinguishing aspect of a major political party is the colour behind their logo leaves little room for manoeuvre, and in a society where all lives dangle in the web of the economy, there’s little more for a politician to do than find places to skim off a few quid. Labour stopped being Labour long ago, they’re just the Not-Tories, just as the Lib Dems are the Not-As-Bad-As-The-Other-Two party. The point that language doesn’t map to the world is a strong one, and one I came across a great deal during an English Lit degree, in various theories ranging from postmodernism to Lacanian psychoanalysis. But whilst I found that aspect of those theories compelling and entirely believable, I never felt it offered any potential for political change. Certainly it allows one to see how ideologies inherently form around gaps, things deliberately missed out in order for that ideology to function, how distant and untouchable is the Real and how tendrils of ideology flicker through language itself, but doesn’t change in the end require an ability to reduce the view of a system, or some thing within that system, down to simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or at least ‘better’ or ‘worse’? I see in the comments you speak about wanting to expand the range of ideas we have to work with, but beyond tinkering with the cogs of the economy and the systems already in place, what new ideas are there to find? Can’t help but feel we’ve hit a state of exhaustion in that regard, although I’m sure that’s as much, if not more due to my own lack of imagination than any overall state of affairs.

    When a symptom of some vulnerability within global capitalism, such as the current economic crisis, becomes unavoidably apparent, I find myself thinking that for all the relative comfort we enjoy within a capitalist society, perhaps this particular empty dream has, at best, run rampant, and at worst, run its course entirely. Certainly the doomsayers who populate the news on a weekly basis make me wonder if anyone at all actually knows what the hell they’re playing at. When you have a system so maddeningly complex and unwieldy governing the existence of many millions of lives, it might, in theory, be time for a change. I know that capitalism is, at its core, the idea that capital and private ownership are effective and worthwhile tools in organizing the world. And it’s not the worst system ever devised, coming from a utilitarianist perspective. Within every ideology – even the most repulsive – there’s a utopia lurking in the corner, promising answers and happiness and an end to all the terrible things of the world. Capitalism in this regard is at least a touch more honest, pitting people against one another in a fight for the most digits on their bank statement. Generally the poor in England don’t starve, have access to decent-enough medical care, can get an education even if the school system fails them in youth and therefore have access to a world of options when it comes to a career, or a way of life. For that reason I find myself generally on board with our current brand of capitalism, but the brutal materialism and commodification it brings with it seem to rinse the world of meaning. God, queen, country, community, class and duty might all be illusions, but at least they offered something, a way of seeing the world which imagined an individual’s activities had a real sense of worth. The desperate clawing for the shiniest car and biggest house, in comparison, offers something far more real, something you can touch and see, but it just feels bloodless and inhuman. I know there’s a tendency within society to romanticise the past, but it’s difficult not to yearn for a time when the poor found a way to give life meaning in their position and in their actions, to feel a rage at the very idea of poorness, rather than just hating their own individual inability to afford nicer stuff.

    Started out with the intention of touching on specific points in your post but it seems I’ve just rambled on. I think Marx did great work in bringing attention to the idea of ideology itself, and I believe his utopia was as good, and as optimistic, as any other. I just don’t believe that the majority of people will ever want a genuinely fair and genuinely equal society. I think the majority want to laugh at vulnerable people on the latest reality-television craze and numb their minds with Call Of Duty marathons. I certainly don’t think anti-capitalism offers any real opportunity for change, whether for better or worse. Saying that, I’d take the brute honesty of Genghis Khan over the limp and sinister reality of David Cameron any day of the week. Neither of those is the devil, though, and capital – either the reality or concept – most certainly is not. Simon Cowell is the devil, and the greatest trick he ever pulled is convincing people that he should exist.

  11. contact says:

    A thought I’ve had since writing this. I also think it’s important to think about the purpose of theory. I think Marx himself probably understood that theory has a social purpose, rather than having some grand goal of revealing the truth about the world. That is to say, theory itself is *primarily* a social interaction, not just secondarily, so it’s pretty important to think about the social effects of your theorising. I think Marx knew this but I’m not sure many of his followers do. I’m buggered if I know why Deleuze & Guattari wrote in such dense and often unnecessary jargon if they really understood they were primarily engaged in a social process.

    I also want to underline a point I made about what existed before ‘capitalism’. To hear people talk you would think that we have leaders today who act cruelly/greedily or otherwise unsympathetically because they are capitalists, or at the helm of a capitalist state. But I find it genuinely difficult to point to any place or period in history where the leaders of complex urban states didn’t behave cruelly and greedily etc. I therefore find it slightly odd to see people blaming, say, the destruction of the welfare state, on capitalism. The welfare state is a pool of wealth. That makes it a target for pillaging. We have leaders with the power to pillage (without an actively political population to restrain them). Those are the obvious preconditions for the theft of the welfare budget, not ‘capitalism’. They simply use complex financial arrangements to do it rather than axes but at base it is just the usual tricks. It seems to me that it is Marxist thought that often acts as mystification here, and I think it does that as often as it can clear away mystification.

    As for why people aren’t politically active or don’t understand how the political system is being used against them, I don’t think it’s necessarily some piece of magic that capitalism pulled. It could be seen as just good sound management techniques by those in charge. That is also a very old leadership skill. I don’t think attributing some of these things to the ‘relentless logic of capitalism’ actually does us any favours.

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