When we call our current anti-capitalist casino of neoliberalism capitalist, we evoke a train of thought, which seeks remedies for the wrong sickness. Capitalism was dreamed by Adam Smith as a counter-measure to the emerging illnesses of rentier profiteering, currency manipulation, usury and the use of bonds and shares – not as a means to finance and so capitalise a venture, but as chips in a trading casino, which is careless of that venture and of the complex mutuality of social systems.
Today, the effects of rent, usury and stock and share casinos have laid waste essential commons of soil, biomass, biodiversity and water and have even upset the balance of Earth’s atmosphere. Properly-applied capitalism would have remedied those ills.
Capitalism will not function without inherited and bequeathed commons. Actually, capitalism is confined to the pages of a few evidently-forgotten, or at any rate, misapplied books. The probity of the skilled was essential to Adam Smith’s thoughts on both the exchange and maintenance of capital. Probity lives on the common and is passed from ancestors to descendants by codes of apprenticeship and of the goings on of life – gossip, storytelling – by what binds a culture.
Capitalism and monopoly are fundamentally opposed.
Capital and common are fundamentally conjoined.
That is why we cannot rail at the ills of capitalism, because it has never existed. It remains ethereal – a lost idea seeking the physics of application.
We can however, rail at what Adam Smith identified as ills. These things are parasitic to the wealth of nations – the casino of bonds and shares; of usury; of rent; of currency manipulation. Adam wrote for the readers of his time and in some respects, is time-bound. Deeper truths are universal, but shallower fashions have greater physical effects. That’s a difficulty – we wring our hands to address ephemeral, yet physically-powerful fashions, which are deaf to deeper reason. We speak to contemporary perversities, which often lead us perversely off-course. Deep truth is timeless, but unheard – unwanted in the politics of power.
As the casino expands, capital assets are stripped. Nevertheless, as spending slows, like a bloke on a bike, the casino meanders. When growth in spending stops, the bloke falls off. (Image from David Fleming) Because collapsing casinos cause economic chaos, governing officials seize on the virtue of increased casino-flow. When casinos fall, businesses collapse, unemployment soars and tax revenues wither. Societies find insufficient revenue for unemployment relief, healthcare and maintenance of essential infrastructures. Who, in authority wants such a legacy as her memorial? Such doubt is regularly defeated by an adopted religious (actually cult) fervour.
Meanwhile, the cult (the applied minds of governments and corporate employees) continues to strip casino restraints and so also to strip real capital and common assets. Some, fear being the one who says, enough and so must deal with the real economic consequences, while others are happy believers, because rentier effects and careless trade in currency, bonds and shares have made them personally very rich.
Growth in spending (GDP) is not a measure of increased assets, or of economic growth. In many respects, it measures shrunken assets. Everywhere, in developed economies, capital is shrinking as both natural commons (biodiversity, biomass…) and institutional commons (healthcare, roads, harbours, bridges…) also shrink. Casinos expand. (land rent, intellectual property rent, rent for status, money rent) Wages shrink as rents increase. The rich become richer and the poor, poorer. Such decadence would crumble any civilisation, but the new ingredient of fossil fuel has extended ours far beyond its proper span.
All this is so simple, that once upon a time, a little child would have noticed that the casino had no clothes. It is certain that many little children, have many times, done so, but simple truth is not for political discourse.
My green friends continue to blame a non-existent capitalism for environmental degradation and climate change. We temper non-existent capitalism with carbon trading schemes, which are immediately and gleefully snapped up as gamblers’ chips in the casino. We introduce eco-system services and true-cost accounting – which are swallowed as value-added commodity. To value an eco-system service, we first enclose it. We enclose what capitalism would have left untouched on the common – because the purpose of a common is to maintain a source of capital through generations.
All capital has limits. It has particular shape, size, mass, scent, sound, energy… so it has specific form – a form we can love, share, study, nurture, preserve, bequeath – about which we can sing. Cultural assets ripple through the delights and worries of gossip, good housekeeping and storytelling. Remove any one of those activities, or sensitivities and the economy will weaken. Yes. Music, elegance of architectural design, the re-telling of stories, a hand shake, a good joke, erotic intimacies, a walk to the hilltop… are things for which we pay no money and yet by which economies are cemented.
Instead of promoting true cost accounting of eco-system services, why not promote capitalism?
It is where shape, size, mass and so, on exist and are accounted. They can be accounted by weight and measure, but they can be accounted spiritually. And that is the ground where the convivial and lean economies coexist together with the winding caravans of transition town, permaculture, agroecology/organic, new economics, alternative currency, renewable energy, conservation… movements.
Capital is an enclosed common. But the act of enclosure must be by common rules of behaviour. The behaviour carries reciprocal obligation to maintain the source of that capital – that is natural commons of good air, good water, good soil, vivacious biomass and thriving biodiversity.
Capital and common are one binary system – each exists, because of the other.
However, perhaps we should separate natural commons from social commons. Humans are one species, utterly dependent on the vivacity of the rest – many of which, though ultimately connected, will evolve and interact beyond the ripples of human contact. What’s more, natural commons can and should, in some respects, escape definition of commons, because they have no connection with capital and thus no need for a binary common. The common is that place inside an economy (human house-keeping), which restricts economic behaviour to that which is sustainable. So, we could define much of a natural system as beyond commons – beyond the justified hand of human activity.
Anyway, natural commons, such as soil and water, which appear as capital inside an economy in the form of cabbages and tomatoes, remain very different from the tax, or tithe-derived commons of roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, market halls, harbours, churches, cathedrals, standing armies, nuclear submarines and parliament buildings.
Perhaps we do need new terms to separate the two.
However, in all cases, those commons regulate temporal behaviour, so that descendants receive the same quantity and quality of a common economic resource. Such an understanding of commons is also a capitalist understanding of the maintenance of capital.
Of course, much of the capital held by an oil-powered economy is tied to oil. As oil departs, that capital must depart. Internal combustion and jet engines are sources of major parts of our ways of life. They will vanish and with them – air travel, the family car, suburbia… That very much shrunken economy is one where people can more easily find each other’s qualities and also more easily find a cultural symbiosis with the living Earth.
Beyond climatic suicide, the vast energy resources needed to power current ways of living do not exist. It’s a good start, to look about, to value what capital we can have. If we – and we’ve evolved to do so – care for our children, then we must make sure that the means to such capital are replenished. Every ounce of capital is attached to ancestral directives to maintain the common ounce which supplied it.
The common requires human energy and human ingenuity to engage with it. That engagement provokes much more than this simple sum – common wealth minus enclosed capital equals zero. It provokes ingenuity, dexterity, curiosity, delight, fulfilment, humility and a need for each other. That is, it provokes a more fulsome, diverse and so resilient culture.
One day, quite soon, the dams of the casino will collapse, releasing torrents of tumbling economic assets and swirling human emotions. If we are previously engaged in large enough numbers with casino-divested ways of life, then with a lot of luck we can look, one to the other, to turn the wheels of a lean and convivial economy as islands in the flood. As we’ve just explored, much of the capital in that economy is human capital for which we pay no rent.
We’ve no choice but to begin as soon as we can to devise the liberty to behave well . We are restrained by wage, mortgage and so on? Yes. It will take some devising. Statistical analysis suggests that it would be more honest to live with despair? With regards to both climate change and cascading casinos – Yes. Often, we will. Nevertheless, a self, or anthropological analysis suggests a greater truth in hope – it is an inherited imperative. Doing the right thing makes happiness. Should we choose the displeasure of doing wrong to confirm an addition of statistical likelihood? Failure? It is perennial to everyone, and to all history. It is unproductive (and this fool thinks foolish) not to hope that we can stand on solid enough ground after the Fall – to emerge with some capital – both weighed and measured and immeasurable – that is spiritual.
Think of this – the sanctity of the bedtime story – How would you begin? Where’s the greatest good? Perhaps here, we can unearth the deeper integrity. You are the adult. What do you tell the child? – Once upon a time…
Once upon a time, a child of consumerism grew up, and looking down, saw the faces of her children looking up, to her and to her alone…