The Invisible Foot of Capitalism

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In a session with the House Republican Conference many years ago, Milton Friedman coined the term, “the invisible foot of government.” The term is a perversion of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” which, describes how a person’s self-interested actions could actually benefit society as a whole. The way this functions can be thought of as, “being without a planned direction.” Forces unknown to us guide the market a certain way and it isn’t necessarily due to an overarching plan or scheme. Friedman uses the “invisible foot” to discuss how state policies and regulations usually have the opposite effect of what is intended. In the wake of the war on drugs, drug use and sales increased; after the war on poverty, poverty was higher; the list could go on.

But, I am not here to defend Friedman’s point, which he is mostly correct about, but to say the real invisible foot, the one we need to worry about, is the invisible foot of capitalism. The left is in a state of…hysteria, I think is a good term, quick to condemn the other side as “evil” or fascist or racist and so on; undoubtedly, some are but I don’t think this moralizing gets us anywhere even though I agree with the sentiment. There is certainly a rise in far right populist and fascist, or at least proto-fascist politics and it should be taken seriously but, on the other hand, I am of the opinion that liberalism and the center left, who claim to support the lower classes, are more of a threat to a truly liberatory vision than a Trump or Richard Spencer. The left is focusing so much on the right they are forgetting about some of their greatest enemies, in the words of Marx,“the petit-bourgeois democrats”.

Capitalism is not evil, not in some biblical or absolute sense anyways. It is not malicious and it doesn’t seek to oppress people and keep them from reaching their potential. The capitalist is not necessarily evil or a bad person. Being a capitalist does not automatically make you a scumbag that needs to be sent to a gulag or guillotined. Most are decent people, they try to help their communities, they give money to charity and they genuinely believe that the business they own makes the world a better place. They believe there is nothing oppressive or exploitative about labor under capitalism and without them there would be no work. In, “The Communist Manifesto”, Marx himself spoke of the good things capitalism had accomplished; the end of feudalism, the discovery of new lands, and the industrialization of agrarian societies. Capitalism offers at least a possibility, though limited, especially combined with social factors like racism or sexism, of upward social mobility. These are products of the invisible hand. Unfortunately, the invisible foot is always behind to kick you in the ass.

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The invisible foot of capitalism is the oppression and exploitation, both of humans and of the Earth. The invisible foot is the nebulous force that occurs because of the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the values of the system and those within it. When reading or listening to any media about business it isn’t uncommon to hear something about how CEO’s are beholden to shareholders or something about the financial sectors primary concern should be profit. This leads us to the problem of having profit as the primary driving force of the economy and society.

What is wrong with profit? In capitalism profit is the goal; you always want to make more than you spend. This is one of the main contradictions within capital: an infinite hunger for profit and expansion in a world of finite resources. In capitalism profit can never fall, or even stay the same, if a company doesn’t increase profits year after year it is perceived as failing. This need for continued expansion obviously runs into issues. Oil companies will never say they have enough money and stop drilling for oil. Banks will never have enough money and schemes like that of which that led to the 2008 crisis will keep happening. Amazon will never have enough money and will continue it’s global expansion and continue to justify bad pay and bad working conditions. All of this is done for a pursuit of profit and they will never stop, the logic of capitalism necessitates it. There will never be too much pollution or too many depressed and alienated people, the machine will keep grinding forward; excuses and justifications will continue to be made.

We can also examine the relationship between worker and capitalist. What is profit, really? Where does it come from. Simply put, profit is the surplus value created in the production process. Every single good and/or service only has value because of the labor that is put into it. An apple has to be picked before it can be eaten. Coal has to be extracted before it can be burned. Coffee, grown before it is drank. This only happens through the labor of the worker. The worker is never compensated for the full value they create.

Another major problem within capitalist market systems is what is called the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This was noticed by one of the great liberal philosophers, John Stuart Mill, and was later expanded upon by Marx and became a part of his Crisis Theory. As any economy becomes more efficient at producing products it naturally follows that the value of the product will drop. If a machine is introduced that cuts labor time in half, twice as much of the product can be created in the same amount of time which causes a drop in the value of the product and thus a fall in profit. This is a major reason why capitalist systems have exported so much labor. This is why new markets always have to be created and innovation is so necessary and if innovation becomes stagnant why old ideas are resold; think of the film reboots, video game remasters, and vaporwave.

The last thing to examine is the crises that are inherent to capitalism. In the film, “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”, we pan across a plane graveyard in the Mojave Desert, Slavoj Zizek tells us, “capitalism is all the time in crisis; this is precisely why it appears almost indestructible.” Zizek continues, “Crisis is not it’s obstacle. It is what pushes it forwards towards permanent self-revolutionizing; permanent self-reproduction.”

Simply put, chaos is inherent to capitalism. It is through these crises that market functions work. The boom and bust cycles inherent to capitalism, or it’s endless cycle of rebirth and destruction, determine everything from price to the most basic economic principles of supply and demand. It ensures that new commodities are created and capitalism continues to push forward.

The exploitation of peripheries across the world, massive populations of homeless people, depression and anxiety and the alienation from ones labor and the loss of a sense of meaning and purpose: this is the invisible foot of capitalism. Capitalism is like a disease or, better yet, a parasite. It subsists off of a host of the peripheries of the world. It uses the labor of workers across the world and siphons all the extra value we create to the capitalist and we are compensated with fractions of the actual value we created. As with many parasites, often times they go unnoticed and can even be symbiotic to a degree, but left to grow and fester can cause serious issues. A parasite is not evil, just as a cancer is not evil. It does not intend malice it is simply doing what it needs to survive and reproduce itself, unfortunately sickness and death is a byproduct of this. This is exactly why capitalism can not be reformed and must be abolished.

The true problems we face as a society, as humans and as a planet are not caused by bad actors. We can’t just change our leaders, we can’t regulate companies or drugs or anything and expect a permanent fix; indeed, these problems are caused by the structure of capitalism itself and the inherent contradictions and antagonisms that it literally depends on for it’s reproduction as a system. Universal healthcare, universal basic income, free schooling and so on, though providing some relief to the poor of the world, will not fix the endless drive for expansion that destroys the planet, it will not fix the fundamentally exploitative relationship between worker and capitalist and it can’t solve the problem of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. These are problems that can never be reformed and that will continue to wreak havoc across the globe.

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