The Religion of Capitalism

Certain types of people – often, but far from always, libertarians – like to refer to socialism as a religion. Some academics are also into this, referring to it as having a “teleological conception of history.” This kind of thinking is right up there with “socialism is a nice idea, but it can’t work in real life because people are mean”  on the list of popular misconceptions about socialism.

Socialism is not a religion. Stalinism, sure – as with any dictatorship, you have to convince yourself of some pretty strange things in order to accept the absurdity of one person ruling over everyone, and to ignore the horrors perpetrated in the name of that person. But Stalinism is not socialism. It is the opposite thereof. And that’s not the point of this post.

Socialism is also not some kind of hippie let’s-all-be-friends utopia. Part of why the whole 60s counterculture movement was such a miserable failure when it came to politics is precisely because it did not understand this. Socialism isn’t about changing cultural norms. It’s about how we organize the economy and the power structures of society. And that’s it.

Let’s take the desert island metaphor. A bunch of people are stranded on a desert island with limited resources. How do they organize themselves? Socialism suggests that the best thing to do would be to think things through, consider the amount of resources and what needs to be done, and proceed on the basis that:

  1. Everyone is equally entitled to survive and to feel well, and that that should be the purpose of the economic and political organization of the desert island.
  2. Everyone should get a say in what is to be done, especially as it affects them personally.
  3. It is better to plan what to do with the limited resources and to use them according to principles of logic.

In terms of our real situation, socialism is a scientific analysis of our economic system, and an attempt to create a system that is more balanced and more successful at meeting the needs of the population, while giving people more control over their environment – which, after all, is the point of democracy.

But what about capitalism? What would capitalism do on a desert island? The central concept of capitalism is the profit motive. Everyone does everything to gain profit, to promote their own cause, and this causes everyone to live a better life. Or, alternatively, the worthy succeed and the unworthy perish. Depends on your denomination, I suppose.

We all know where this would lead in the desert island scenario, right? It leads to collapse. It’s just not sustainable – no matter how you turn it. The people on the desert island have to cooperate, or they’ll die. They have to think of what exactly they are going to do with their resources, or they will starve. They can’t have one or two people who rule them and get everything while everyone else fights for scraps.

I’m not telling you anything new. This is the oldest of human stories. It’s the story of human civilization.

Capitalism is the belief that you can build a system around greed, and that the Invisible Hand will make everything be OK. But, as socialists have been pointing out for decades, there is no Invisible Hand. You cannot have stability without logic and planning. Capitalism may have been a good thing once, a step forward; no-one is denying this. But that was a long, long time ago.

And now capitalism is collapsing, more or less exactly as logic suggests that it would. No matter what the governments do, nothing is working, including all the old tricks that got the system out of its recessions. The numbers are clean and undeniable. You see it every day: stocks are falling to record lows, unemployment is going up in incredible amounts, governments are collapsing, and so on. And yet, people are acting as if this was surprising. As if it was unanticipated. Even worse, they are acting as if soon everything will be OK again, because the Invisible Hand will make it so.

If there is any economic system that is based on a deluded and deluding kind of faith, it’s capitalism. Capitalism with its magical free market, its Invisible Hand, and its belief in the power of human greed. Like the worst fundamentalists, the believers of capitalism want to deny reason and logic, want to deny science, and replace it with their equivalent of Creationism. But pseudoscience does not hold a failing economy together, and flapping your arms and believing (or yelling that gravity is just a discourse, for that matter) will not make you fly.

Let’s just hope people realize that before we all hit the ground.

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