It’s Not Capitalism We Have to Save…So Why Can’t We Let It Go?

DOLLARS AND SENSE--Every so often these days, I read it. I think the Economist did a cover story on it. Bloomberg, an article. The Times, an op-ed. “We have to save capitalism!” LOL — my friends, laugh gently with me. We don’t have to save capitalism.

We have to save everything else. Democracy, the planet, our healthcare, our lives, our kids, our sanity, our societies, a peaceful and stable and prosperous world. We have to save it urgently, a little desperately, now, with a kind of fierce gentleness. 

So why do so many people — especially American pundits and intellectuals and maybe even you — think we have to “save capitalism” first before everything else or that “saving capitalism” is the point of saving anything else? Isn’t there a problem with that? Let me tell you a little story — indulge me. 

My friend Jake, who I’ve written about before, cashed in his savings, quit his soul-sucking corporate job as a banker, and decided to go for his dream — he started a microbrewery. Now, we might joke with Jake about going from banker to capitalist — but the truth is that he’s not a capitalist at all. He’s not there to exploit every last penny from his partners and employees. He’s not there to maximize a profit. 

So he’s not an ideological capitalist. Nor is he a practical one — he’s working 20 hours a day, right alongside everyone else — and he wants to, until he drops dead one day. He’s not counting his money in his mega-mansion while everyone else works themselves into an early grave. 

Do you see how different the truth of “capitalism” is from the way that we think about it? American thinking went Soviet, hence we think in backwards terms about more or less everything these days. Jake isn’t living off anyone else’s labor in any sense whatsoever and kicking back on a superyacht. He’s just a dude who wants to share his love of a brew with everyone he can — and if you think that sounds hopelessly naive, I welcome you to meet Jake sometime. He’s a good dude. But what he isn’t — even though he “owns” a small business, employs people, and makes things for sale — is a capitalist. 

When we say — as Americans — “we’ve got to save capitalism!” what we really mean is “business” “commerce” “trade” “enterprise” — or even just creativity, possibility, and endeavor. But as I’ve already just shown you, capitalism isn’t any of these things — in fact, it’s their precise opposite. 

What is it? Let’s imagine Evil Jake. Evil Jake would have a very different set of goals — and attitudes and practices — than Real Jake. Evil Jake would go in to work and try to churn out the most commercial brew possible, while cutting the maximum number of corners. He’d treat his employees like dirt — and offer them no benefits. Maybe they’d end up on food stamps, like Walmart employees — good! Maybe they wouldn’t have healthcare. Great! Evil Jake would love it — more profit for him. He’d spend as much as time as possible not doing any real work whatsoever — probably just “fundraising” which mostly means attending parties and schmoozing. After he raised those “funds” that whole cycle would kick into high gear — then he’d have to exploit, hard-sell, and cut corners at light speed, to return maximum “profits” to his “partners.” 

Now, ironically, that’s everything Real Jake doesn’t want to be, do, live — he was disgusted by all that as a banker, and that’s why he quit. But it also teaches us what capitalism — versus just the art of endeavor, or creativity, or business with the aim of a square deal — really is. 

Evil Jake’s modus operandi would be to maximize profits for shareholders by exploiting everyone and everything he could while offloading the costs onto society so that he could sit back and get rich off someone else’s hard work. 

That’s capitalism, my friends. 

It’s true that many American intellectuals have taught many Americans to conflate capitalism with a square deal, with treating people well, with respecting employees, with giving back to society. But it’s not true. How could it be? America’s the greatest experiment in what capitalism really amounts to, after all, and if it’s taught us anything, it’s that capitalism is essentially a system whereby profits are maximized in the shortest timeframes possible, by exploiting as hard and much as possible, so that “owners” can grow obscenely rich, and they and their descendants for generations never have to work again. 

So the American experiment proves to us what capitalism really is, versus its idealized, romantic fictions — just like the Soviet experiment proved totalitarian socialism ended up being in the real world. The question is if our minds are open enough to accept it — or whether we’re ideologues like our intellectuals — but I digress. 

It should be obvious that nobody sensible should want to “save” this system. But let’s zoom out, so that we really understand it. 

What happens when we apply this system — maximizing profits relentlessly by exploiting everything in sight, offloading the costs to everyone else, and handing the proceeds back to a tiny number of people who “own” those “profits,” so that they and their kids and cronies and trophy mistresses never have to work again? 

Well, the first thing that happens is that the planet implodes. It’s being exploited most of all — because it’s totally free, unlike human beings, who you still have to pay. But if you “buy” a mine in a poor African country — well, you can take whatever you like, forever. 

The second thing that happens is that economies implode. People end up exploited, just like they are in America today. How else did 80% of Americans end up living paycheck to paycheck, their incomes stagnant for fifty years, broke, without decent healthcare or retirement? It couldn’t have been anything but capitalism, because all there is in America is capitalism. 

The third thing that happens is that society implodes. The middle class — which always needs strong social investment to shore it up and protect it, whether highways then or high-speed trains now, whether public libraries then or affordable education now — starts to shrink and diminish. It’s not getting richer, after all — it’s stagnating. But costs are growing, as capitalists charge more and more for everything from medicine to school. That means the structure of a modern society shatters — it goes from a bell-shaped curve made of a large, stable, growing middle class, to a skewed, ugly, strange bimodal distribution, of a tiny number of ultra-extreme rich, and a growing number of declining new poor. 

The fourth thing that happens is that democracy implodes. What happens when all the yachts and mansions and palaces in the sky are bought? Well, the ultra-rich will probably buy Senators and Congresses whole — to make sure their kids and families and trophy mistresses become something like the new nobility, barons and lords and counts, whose money has been turned into perpetual ownership of a whole country. In America, we saw this from the 1980s — with the rise of lobbying, corruption, and open bribery, more or less. But this also means that nation is not really a fully-fledged democracy anymore — it is something more like a feudal society, or a caste society, where people are born into certain strata of power and privilege, and there they remain. 

I could keep going — and you probably already understand much of the above — but I think it’s crucial to really connect the dots. When we imagine we have to “save capitalism,” we’re also more or less saying all the above — because we don’t understand what capitalism really is. We haven’t learned the lesson modern America, and its spectacular fall from grace, should have taught us. Capitalism implodes necessarily into fascism by way of mass exploitation and immiseration, through inequality and corrosion and stagnation, which destabilize societies — that is why Trumpism in America was inevitable, so rapid, so vicious — yet also so predictable. 

“Saving capitalism” will also mean, necessarily, the end of democracy, the planet, modern societies, and prosperity — and these days, everyone should understand why (except maybe American economists.) It already is in America, isn’t it? There’s a lesson there — that we have yet to learn, and it goes like this: we can either have capitalism, or a planet, democracy, prosperity, middle classes, stability, and modernity — but we can’t have both. 

That doesn’t mean, though, that business, commerce, enterprise, and trade will go anywhere. In fact, with less capitalism, new avenues open. For “corporations” whose sole purpose isn’t profit. For “jobs” whose raison d’etre isn’t pure exploitation. For “profits” which aren’t just denominations of money earned through abuse, negligence, and corruption. All those things need badly to be reimagined in a meaningful, positive, and beneficial way once again — but capitalism is the problem, not the solution. 

One of the great lessons that this age is trying to teach us — and we are not really learning yet — is that capitalism is badly obsolete. We cannot be exploiters and abusers of our worlds so easily or simply anymore. Our worlds have run out of things to exploit and abuse — from water to air to minds and bodies, from our children to our forests to ourselves. We can eke out a living the old way for a few decades more, sure — but only at the price of increasingly severe forms of backlash — climate change, fascism, fanaticism, inequality. 

When you think about it, every form of political economy had its day. Tribalism. Feudalism. Colonialism. Empire. It shouldn’t be any surprise whatsoever that the end of capitalism is finally here. We should be happy to let it go — that’s what maturity is for at this juncture in history. 

Jake was, after all. Nothing made him happier than letting go the old foolish dream he once had that he too would be a capitalist, living the high life off the work of others — that’s what he imagined when he was a banker. It was when he embraced, with wisdom, courage, and grace, the one thing that moved him — even if it was as tiny as a good beer — that his life really overflowed with meaning and purpose and belonging. I admire Jake for his decision — but more than that, I think, I’m happy for Jake, seeing his life really flourish and grow. 

The end of capitalism also means the end of crap jobs, of pointless work, of fake profits, of 9 to 5 soul-sucking pointless PowerPoints, of the fake smile and the false handshake, of the deal with the devil — for you and me, just as for Jake. Don’t you think it’s a relief to let that all go? I do. 

But we’re human. Letting go of what we’re familiar with, what we’ve grown up on, what we’ve been taught to admire and cherish — that’s the hardest thing of all. And so here we are, my friends. We should be celebrating and cheering the end of capitalism, understanding it will mean more freedom, more life, more possibility, for each and everyone one of us — instead of hoping, like frightened things, clinging to the only safety they know, to save it. 

After all — if your house was burning down, would you want cry out desperately, as the flames turned into embers, “we have to save the fire!”?


(Umair Haque posts at Medium.com.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.