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A Brief Defense of ‘Capitalism’

April 29, 2009

Language seems to poison our ability to be rational. Whenever I write on what seem to me to be the intuitive foundations of socialism (community), I am quickly commended by those who already like the word and interrogated by those who do not.

Here is a word that most people—both for it and against it—do not like: capitalism.

Now this is too convenient because, after all, capitalists didn’t decide to call themselves that in the first place. If there ever was something that conservatives (whatever that word means) could do to help their cause, it would be to coin a word of their own choosing to express what they want to preserve in what gets called ‘capitalism.’ But that is entirely beside the point.

I think that we make too much of the impossibility of there being any saving grace in what is meant by, as opposed to what we want to say “they” (the evil people) mean by, capitalism. For the most part we (by “we” I mean those of us on the left, yes I will own up to being something of a leftist, whatever that means) like to say that all capitalism, and its governing libertarian sentiment, desires is for there to be no limit at how much one can take for one’s self. It is a creed of the indulgent and the rich.

Greed, selfishness, isolationism, sterile individualism and other nasty things, are what we enjoy making capitalism out to be. And this is for good reason, after all, in practice it frequently looks like all those things and more. But, if we begin to cash-out our social, economic, and political ideas by their manifestation in the world, then, we’re all screwed, to put it lightly.

What do capitalists (for lack of a better word) really seem to mean? Why can they believe in it with such hope? I think that true, benevolent belief need not be cast aside as indoctrination, ignorance, or stupidity. What rouses the conscience of the capitalist to want to see the world in this way?

If we can cut-out the name calling, I think we can find a powerful meaning within capitalist sentiment. Namely, the much-abused, taboo,  and rejected idea of the individual, the person-singular. I think that if we take notions of private property and negative freedom (“freedom from”) inherent in capitalist sentiment, and ponder what they mean, we will find that we all value such things privately. We want to think with the tragic freedom we possess by our very nature. We want to own our self in a unique and incommunicable way, because we do. We cannot escape individualism, we are all capitalists in this way.

But we cannot stop at that. We also know that identity and personhood are not static things that stand still or exist in their own arrogance. We are constituted in relations. We are created. The truth of this sense of ourselves in solitude is not the whole story. But it is a key aspect of the story.

Here is my defense: Capitalism, as it is believed in benevolently, reminds us of our radical existence as images of God with a potency to do as we wish within the vast sea of possibility. What we need next is the ability to control ourselves with the prudence, grace, and love of our Creator in this stormy sea of freedom. But we should never be too quick to accept external-control over our bodies, minds, and hearts. We need to be free. And perfect freedom is not the raw, brute force of libertarianism, to be sure. At the same time, it also is that imposing force.

Whatever attachments we have to this or that vision of the world, cast as this or that toy word, we should never throw language aside because it somehow makes us feel like we are losing ground. The odd thing about all this is that one could say many of the same things about ‘socialism.’ The point isn’t to try and make our language sacred to the point of idolatry, it is to make it sane, reasonable, and in love.

  1. Joe Hargrave permalink
    April 29, 2009 2:32 pm

    The real problem is when people assume that capitalism is ‘timeless’, that it exists in all times and places, that it is just another word for ‘two guys doing free trade on a sunny afternoon’. If capitalism is understood this way, then of course it’s opponents can be cast as totalitarian monsters.

    If capitalism is understood as a socio-economic system that arose only a few centuries ago, through both violent/revolutionary and organic social changes, it becomes both easier to critique and easier to accept, and much easier to change and modify.

    In all cases the key is to identify specifically the thing we want to change. I’ve never had a problem with the two guys who want to do free trade, but I have always had a problem with plutocracy. Does either of those reflect the essence of ‘capitalism’? It is no longer important to me. I don’t even use the word ‘capitalism’ anymore because no one can agree on what it is.

    I call what we have an economic oligarchy or autocracy, and say that I want to move towards economic democracy, which can include almost everything that will make most libertarians and most socialists happy, but leave out a few things that will likely tick them off. Life is about compromise, so, hopefully they can get over it.

  2. April 29, 2009 2:51 pm

    I do assume that the belief in capitalism, in the everyday, is timeless. Just as timeless as socialism, distributism or what have you.

    What I mean by “timeless” (and you may not mean this at all) is that its rooted in basic human intuitions and desires, ordered by perennial things like happiness, safety and so on.

    The problem, as I see it, is that we ignore organic belief and its constitution outside of academic and political discourse. In that discourse, we do find things “becoming” this or that. But the reason for such constitutions, as I see it, is more basic and fundamental. Acknowledging those fundamental beliefs would enable those of us in academia and politics to treat each other with charity. Which would only help things get better, I think.

  3. blackadderiv permalink
    April 29, 2009 3:29 pm


    I wrote the following at your old blog, but for the benefit of others I will reproduce it here:

    It shouldn’t be surprising that “socialism” should have a better ring to it than “capitalism.” After all, both terms were created by proponents of socialism, and the name a group picks for itself is liable to be more flattering than a name picked by the group’s enemies.

    I prefer whenever possible to speak about free markets rather than about capitalism (though I’ll admit that sometimes the latter must be used simply for lack of a better alternative).

    “Capitalism” is kind of a weird term, in that it is an ‘ism’ that isn’t quite like any other ‘ism.’

    A socialist is someone who believes in socialism.

    A fascist is someone who believes in fascism.

    A monarchist is someone who believes in monarchism.

    And a capitalist is a guy who owns a bank or a factory and has a lot of money.

    To quote Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others.

    I also think that, to the extent people use “capitalism” to refer to a type of economic system or to a set of beliefs about how the economy should be run, the term is broader than what is typically implied by the phrase “free market.” One can speak without contradiction of crony capitalism, monopoly capitalism, and so forth, whereas using such adjectives before the phrase “free market” doesn’t quite sound right.

  4. Joe Hargrave permalink
    April 29, 2009 3:52 pm

    It is true that capitalism has never caught on as an ism; usually people who defend this system are libertarians, Objectivists, or what have you. Capitalism is not an official set of policies like socialism might be.

    For Marx, capitalism is ‘generalized commodity production’, with ‘commodity’ understood to mean a thing produced solely for exchange, as opposed to immediate use. Capitalism exists when most production is for exchange instead of subsistence. All of this for various reasons presupposes the separation of the workers from the instruments of production. So that is the other defining feature of capitalism.

    It might be accurate to say that for socialists, at least in the Marxian tradition, capitalism has always been understood primarily as a system of production, distinct from all those that preceded it.

    In libertarian thought that I have seen, the production side is not nearly represented enough as the exchange side: if exchange is free, there is capitalism, and to whatever extent it becomes less free, it becomes more socialistic. In this way there can be some perennial, historical ‘conflict’ between capitalism and socialism that pre-dates the 19th century.

    Historically, the Church has looked at capitalism as the employment of wage-labor by capital; it accepts that it is a ‘new’ economic form as opposed to what existed before, in feudal times or earlier.

    This is why she could simultaneously declare that capitalism was not intrinsically immoral, and that liberalism – including economic liberalism, as is made abundantly clear by Pius XI – was. The idea that individual preferences pursued in a totally free market will lead to the best social result is explicitly condemned.

    But the capitalist system of production is not condemned in itself, provided that employers respect the full list of workers rights outlined by the Church. The preference is for more workers to become owners so that all partake in the benefits of private property ownership.

  5. Liam permalink
    April 29, 2009 5:20 pm

    Well, the term “capitalism” has become equivocal. While there has arisen an ideological, prescriptive version – the Club for Growth, for example – really capitalism is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It describes how people tend to function under certain conditions of freedom to exchange. Too many people think Adam Smith was being more prescriptive than he actually was.

    Socialism, by contrast, is at heart prescriptive rather than descriptive, though it too can partake of descriptive meaning.

  6. April 29, 2009 5:59 pm

    The idea that individual preferences pursued in a totally free market will lead to the best social result is explicitly condemned.

    This is correct. However, one has to be careful about distinguishing between two different ways of understanding a normative claim. One could take it to be a normative claim, that is, that the best social result just is the result that emerges from individual preferences pursued in a totally free market. Alternatively, one could take it to be a descriptive claim, that is, that is that individual preferences pursued in a totally free market will in fact produce the best social result, as judged by objective criteria independently of the process.

    I don’t actually think either claim is right (there is a kernel of truth in both of them, but neither is true as an absolute). Nevertheless, it seems to make more sense to take the condemnations of this idea found in Catholic Social Thought to be condemning the normative as opposed to the descriptive claim.

  7. Joe Hargrave permalink
    April 29, 2009 9:23 pm

    Well, I agree BA. After all, much of what Marx wrote about capitalism was descriptive, and many (but of course not all) of those descriptions would hardly be denied by the Church insofar as they are true. The same would apply for classical liberalism.

  8. April 30, 2009 1:53 pm

    The problem is that there are really two different things grouped together when the terms “laissez-faire”, “capitalism” and “free market” are used:
    1. A sitaution where corporations are allowed to run rampant.
    2. A situation where providers and consumers can truly operate in freedom.
    Capitalism is usually marketed by Republicans as #2, but it ends up being #1.
    Distributism, and what is described in the social justice documents, is more like #2 than it is either “capitalism” or “socialism.”

    Capitalism is not a free market, because the robber barons control the market.
    Socialism is not “worker’s ownership of their work,” because it is a lie that the government serves the workers.

    Using the Joe the Plumber cliche, a proper economy would allow Joe Plumber to own his own plumbing business, but it would *not* allow him to make $200,000 a year profit, unless he needs it to support 10 kids and his elderly parents and in-laws.

  9. April 30, 2009 2:03 pm

    JC: Frankly, I don’t think any of those things naturally correspond to any of the language other than to serve the arguments of the ones who want to preserve them (the language) or dismantle them. And that fight is not very interesting to me.

  10. April 30, 2009 4:05 pm

    Capitalism by definition gives precedence to ‘capital’ and makes labor subordinate. In reality it is labor which is the driving force of the economy, without manual or intellectual labor there would be no capital.

    The current economic system is more fascist than free market, it is based on the state funneling tax revenue to corporations to make war technologies in a guaranteed market, this feeds the Keynesian multiplier effect in consumer goods and the expansion of money supply and debt, benefiting the few and enslaving the many.

  11. JTG permalink
    April 30, 2009 5:02 pm

    “And perfect freedom is not the raw, brute force of libertarianism, to be sure. At the same time, it also is that imposing force.”

    What does this even mean?

    The author pretends to be sensitive to language and words only to depict an ideology based on non-aggression as a “raw, brute force”?!!

    Certainly no “throw[ing] language aside” here…

  12. W.V. Nordberg permalink
    May 1, 2009 11:29 am

    The essence of temporal human fulfillment is Liberty — not to be confused with licentiousness, bullyism, and egocentrism which are legitimately regulated by the State. Liberty is the quality of possessing all of the inalienable rights bestowed by God, not those paid out by the State to its patrons. The most terrible threat to these inalienable rights is the power of the State and its fawning political allies who are motivated by the troika of greed, envy, and materialism. In the end it is only the State that has the absolute ability to destroy the individual which it always does in its never-ending quest to acquire ever more power. If we can agree that the power of the State should be in the hands of its citizens, and not professional politicians, then all other political arguments become academic. A BIG PART OF THE SOLUTION IS TERM LIMITS, AND NO PERKS, PENSION, OR LOBBYING AFTER LEAVING OFFICE. When the statists are required to live under the same laws as the common man then Liberty is assured!

  13. May 1, 2009 2:18 pm

    JTG: I suggest reading with a bit more creativity. Aphorism and nuance are not crazy-talk. They just require better hermeneutics. Sorry to disappoint. For the record: “Raw, brute force” refers to the notion of unrestrained freedom that brings to mind a waterfall or similar.


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