Is the capitalist’s quest for endless profit and wealth actually a competition to control the universe, when taken to it’s logical conclusion?
Recently I read an excellent piece from the great writers over at Common Dreams titled Fascists Compete to Own America. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, and agreed with all the points made, I can’t help feeling that there is a similar but deeper story beneath this, and in fact beneath our entire capitalist society, which needs to be told. That is why I have written this article with a similar title, which encapsulates the points I’m about to make.
In this article, I’ll go beyond capitalism’s contemporary manifestations and problems, and get down to its philosophical essence. We’ll re-examine the fundamental concepts of ownership, capital, profit, and the market, and then put it all together to glimpse what they really mean in terms of our larger perspective on the universe and how we relate to it. I’ll also touch upon how this connects to the very real neoliberal conspiracy to remove democracy and socialism from the planet.
You may find some of your fundamental assumptions about politics, economics, and rights coming into question, so buckle up, and get ready for a paradigmatically bumpy ride.
Re-Examining the Fundamentals
In order to re-examine capitalism in it’s essence, it’s necessary to re-examine all of it’s major key components in their respective essences.
Ownership and Property
We all think we know what ownership is, right? When I own things, they’re mine, that means other people can’t take them unless I give or lend them, right? However, few of us ever think deeply about what ownership actually is, at an essential level.
A quick perusal of the encyclopedia will inform you that ownership is all about control. The defining characteristic of someone owning something is that they have an exclusive “right” to control that thing. Historically, this right has been granted by different authorities, currently it is granted by our social contract with the democratic state, and sometimes the state intervenes to settle disputes and decide who owns things.
Property is whatever is controlled (owned) by someone, and the types of property that can be owned are physical objects, land (physical spaces, still objects in a sense), legal contracts, and ideas (mental objects, intellectual property). There is an underlying philosophical basis behind the ideas of ownership and property that is worth examining briefly.
Subjects, Objects, and Control of the Universe
From a pragmatic perspective, we are all subjects with minds within a world of objects, comprising the entire universe, known and unknown. Every person is a subject, they exist within the universe, each part of which is some kind of object, and each subject is able to control those objects, to some degree; that’s our starting point. We perceive the world, process or think about the world in our minds, and are able to act upon the world.
As multiple subjects in a world of objects, each with our own differing internal thoughts about that world, it naturally arises that two or more subjects will inevitably want to act upon a single object in a way that is incompatible with one another. We see this very clearly with children, to whom we have to teach the concept of ownership and sharing. As a general phenomena, we can call this dispute, and it is what gave rise to the concept of property. Property law is an agreement with some authority to settle disputes, and establish rules of ownership.
Needless to say, throughout history, which subjects controlled which objects, and how all those subjects understood, justified, or exchanged their control over those objects as they became increasingly rational beings, is a long and complicated story. It’s pretty much the story of history, of empires, economies, trade, politics, religion, and war. It all boils down to the dynamics of which subjects controlled which objects, and why.
For the purposes of this article, it’s enough for us to understand that currently, we have a collective agreement with the state that certain subjects (people) have exclusive rights to control (own) certain objects (property). The sum total of objects controlled by any one person is commonly called their estate, but I like to refer to it as their domain of control, as it highlights the true meaning.
Capitalism and Profit
Again, historically, people disputed, exchanged, and expanded the domain of objects they controlled in a variety of ways, often involving violence, but how do they do it now? While violence is still used covertly or indirectly, such as by starting wars on false pretenses to gain access to resources, for the most part, this exchange and expansion takes place through trade, or economic exchange, the market. And the primary system of trade that has risen to dominance is, as we all know, capitalism.
Before we move on to the larger picture of capitalism, what is capital? When we normally think of objects controlled by subjects, or property, we typically think of things like cars, houses, land, and of course, money, the liquid asset that facilitates all trade.
Among the things that a person/subject can own/control are not only physical objects and money, but also legal entities which are a conglomeration of all categories of property: physical objects, ideas, often land, money, and legal contracts. These legal entities are called businesses, and under capitalism, they, too, are the property of individual subjects, or owners, regardless of how many people are employed by the business.
The individual subjects who own businesses are called capitalists, and if ownership is split among many, they may be called shareholders. They are called this because businesses are the most prevalent example of a category of property called Capital: property that acquires more property. Controlled objects which acquire more controlled objects.
When these entities called businesses participate in the market, they exchange goods, services, and money, or in other words, property. Every business is a constant flow of property. Property goes in, is transformed by the business into more valuable property, and then goes out, somewhat like a living organism, eating and expelling property. A paperclip producing business, for instance, “eats” raw metal, hours of it’s employees’ lives, machinery, the building and land necessary to produce, etc., and “expels” paperclips, in exchange for money.
The Beast of Burden
However, unlike an organism, this entity we call a business has another purpose. Although we may think it’s purpose is simply to live and exist by exchanging property and creating value, much like an organism in it’s environment, in the eyes of the capitalists, the primary purpose is actually to earn a profit, for them. That’s what makes it capital, rather than just property. It’s property, or controlled objects, that acquires more controlled objects.
While some of the money it “eats” goes to compensating its employees, purchasing new equipment, paying for legal and other services, etc., which are called “costs,” according to the capitalist, it must always consume a surplus of money beyond what it needs simply to thrive, which is called net profit, or sometimes income.
So, out of the total profit, or property it “eats,” according to the capitalists, there needs to always be a surplus which they can take, and their goal is always to squeeze as much surplus “net profit” out of the total profits, which means “eating” more profit in the first place, but reducing the costs as much as possible, including what employees are paid, how much is spent to ensure their industry doesn’t impact the environment, etc.
When a new business is born, if it doesn’t earn enough net profit for the owners eventually, then they consider it useless, and either sell it, or dissolve it, even if it’s still thriving and providing value to the market, and providing gainful employment to people. As far as the owner is concerned, it’s only purpose is to produce surplus money, net profit, which they can then keep and use for their own purposes. This is similar to the attitude we have towards farm animals. If a cow was able to munch grass and live happily, perhaps even to produce enough milk for the farmer’s family, but never produced enough milk to be sold, the farmer would have no use for it.
Capital As Control Expansion Machine
Now, recall that property is simply objects that are controlled by a subject, and a business is property of the owner, under capitalism. That means that the business, and all of the property/profit it takes in, are part of the domain of objects controlled by the owner. That includes the employees during their hours of employment; the owner controls them, within the limits of the democratically ensured workers’ rights which the owner must comply with, thanks to hard fought workers’ rights movements, enforced by democratic government.
So, the business is a set of controlled objects the capitalist subject controls, and is special because it acquires more controlled objects for the capitalist. This means that profit, the surplus property the capitalist requires, the defining goal and motive of capitalism, is simply an expansion of the capitalist subject’s control domain, something also known as capital accumulation. So…
Under capitalism, a for-profit business is first and foremost a method of increasing the objects in the universe which are within an owner’s domain of control. Whatever other purposes it may serve to it’s employees, it’s customers, and the market are considered merely a means to that end.
The Great Divide
Now, let’s step back for a moment, and consider the capitalists’ view of the universe, with a mind for it’s essential components and their true meanings, as just discussed.
Even before capitalism, viewing the universe through the lens of individual property rights, as described earlier, unavoidably divides the universe of objects around us into three fundamental categories:
- My Property — Objects which are controlled by me
- Others’ Property —Objects which are controlled by other subjects
- Potential Property — Objects which are not yet controlled by any subject
That’s it, those three categories encompass everything in the capitalist’s entire universe. Think about that for a moment. This mental framework divides everything according to by whom it is controlled. Is there anything inherently wrong with this? Well, you might say, it’s not wrong per se, it’s just a particular lens, one of many possible ways of categorizing the entire universe. That’s true, on the surface.
However, the result of viewing the world this way, when paired with human psychology, is less benign. Capitalism isn’t just individual property rights, it is the effort to endlessly expand one’s property, or the owner’s domain of control, within the 3-fold framework of individual property rights. To expand “objects I control,” which of course must mean gaining control over objects from the other two categories, “object controlled by others, or uncontrolled.” Why?
Well, it begins with the simple and universal desire to live comfortably and experience pleasure, which is natural. Capitalists use capital to achieve this, by creating passive income; a well-oiled capital machine hums along creating money for the capitalist, so they can live in luxury with relatively little effort. For some, however, this natural desire for luxury develops into a compulsion to hoard wealth that could be considered mental illness.
This is something that has been with us since long before capitalism per se; you could say that every empire of history was the same thing, because they all had someone at the top attempting to expand their domain of control, some king, emperor, tzar, etc. They used to do it by conquering other people, other empires, or claiming new lands in colonialism, but ultimately it was the same fundamental pattern, control domain expansion.
For this tiny minority of people (perhaps, say, 1%?) whose hunger for property, which is to say, hunger for control over as many objects in the universe as possible, also known as profit motive, goes far beyond that of any normal and perhaps any sane human being, the entire focus of their lives becomes the property acquisition game. These are the billionaires, the investor class, the Jeff Bezos, Kochs, banksters, and Donald Trumps of the world, and their entire lives revolve around expanding their domain of control, and of course relishing in the luxury it provides them.
The Real Game of Thrones
Now, it doesn’t take any great mental leap to realize that the world of objects we inhabit is finite, at least in terms of the planet. There’s only so many objects to go around, ultimately. At this point, all objects on this planet are claimed by someone, most being claimed by legal entities known as states. This is a good thing when said states are democratic, because it means that control over that domain of objects is distributed to the people as a whole. For more on that, check out my piece on the underlying mechanisms of democracy and capitalism.
However, from the capitalist’s perspective, that is not good at all. Firstly, given the finite resources of the planet, expanding one’s domain of control ultimately amounts to a zero-sum game, meaning there’s only so much Earth-pie to be sliced up one way or another, and the logical conclusion of endless capitalist expansion is of course to eventually have the whole pie, at least ideally. The fact that everything in the Earth game is already claimed means that the nature of the game is no longer acquiring what is unclaimed, which is relatively easy, but acquiring what others have claimed, including what is claimed by democratic states.
If the overarching drive and vector of existence as a capitalist is to continually acquire more objects to control (property), and all objects that are within range of control (Earth) are controlled by either “me, other owners, or some state,” then that means that…
The capitalist game on planet Earth is a zero-sum competition to rule the world, to control every object within reach, by either buying it, stealing it, or wrenching it from the cold dead hands of another owner, or a state.
This is the only logical conclusion of the capitalist worldview, unless we begin to venture off-world and start claiming space, asteroids, and other planets as property. However, that prospect is not any less grim; we need only watch Avatar or the Alien series to be reminded of what the dystopian reality of cosmic capitalism would look like. It’s not any prettier among the stars than it is here. Anyway, the same logic that applies to Earth applies to space. Might some future cosmic capitalist attempt to own the galaxy? The entire universe?
Is There Any Alternative?
Capitalism’s big claim to fame is that it “works.” In other words, the neoliberal argument for capitalism’s benefit to society is essentially…
If we allow individuals to compete to control the universe, then due to the fact that they need us as their controlled subjects in order to achieve their conquest, and must compensate us for our time and cooperation, we can all have a chance to acquire enough of the property they’re willing to spare as a “cost” to their conquest, to live in some degree of comfort.
To some extent, that is true; it’s also astonishingly similar to arguments in favor of monarchy, feudalism, and despotism in general, by the way. When stated plainly, it sounds a bit like something we might hear from one of the minions of some super-villain like Thanos, from the Avengers series.
However, as I’ve written before, capitalism’s benefits to society are only realized when it is moderated by socialism and democracy, the power of the people to fight for their share of the pie. Every single “capitalist” country only enjoys the high standard of living they usually do because of the democratic government imposing socialist control over the capitalist private sector, to ensure fair wages, paid time off, minimal pollution, protection of nature, contribution to society in the form of taxes, etc. Before that happened, we had the days of things like robber barons, child labor, poverty-stricken factory cities, illnesses from massive pollution, and company scrip. Those were not good days, which is why our ancestors fought tooth and nail for their economic rights.
Today, however, living fat on the benefits of socialist-moderated capitalism, a good portion of the people have forgotten the critical role that socialism and democracy have played in their standard of living. All credit is given to capitalism, a message which is reinforced and propagated by, surprise surprise, the media-owning capitalists themselves, to the point that it saturates our culture. This has made a significant portion of people, perhaps even a majority in America, extremely amenable to serving as collaborators in the neoliberal plot to remove democracy and socialism from the planet. The logical conclusion of which is, of course, a transition from neoliberalism to fascism, it’s more honest cousin.
Can’t the Universe Be Shared?
Starting with the democratic revolutions of the enlightenment, right up through the unionization and socialist movements of the industrial revolution and 20th century, We the People have continually fought for and won many civil and economic rights from the aristocratic capitalist class. We did so by protesting, by organizing, forming unions, voting to regulate the private sector, and by applying (often) non-violent pressure to the capitalists, who otherwise would never have given an inch, if it meant losing some of their precious profit, and the luxuries it affords them.
Today, supporters of democracy and socialism are once again on the defensive, as the avenging neoliberal aristocratic overlords have managed to convince mass numbers of class-unconscious peasants that it is actually in their own self-interest to liberate the capitalist dominators from the horrific, profit-draining burdens imposed by democratic “big government” of having to pay taxes, not pollute, respect the environment, combat global warming, and treat workers fairly.
Will we end up in a dystopian neo-feudal future where the craftiest capitalists have a final showdown to own what’s left of the world after climate catastrophe? Or will we turn the tide and make the aristocrats kneel once again to the democratic power of the people?
Only time will tell.