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People have always chosen among different co-existing economic theories to understand the world and to act within it. Who chooses which theory, consciously or not, shapes world history. Disagreements over Brexit emerged partly from different ways of understanding the British economy and its relation to Europe. Donald Trump’s support grows partly out of economic theories different from those used by supporters of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The last century’s global politics swirled around quite different theories of the difference between capitalism and socialism. Political struggles often reflect clashing economic theories and political strategies often include making one theory dominant and marginalizing or silencing others.
To appreciate the economic theory choices confronting the capitalist world and global politics today, it helps to see how parallel choices shaped pre-capitalist economies. For example, wherever the chattel-slave economic system has existed (alone or together with other systems), people constructed theories about why the slave system existed, how it worked, etc. The same is true for all other economic systems (feudal, capitalist, etc.). Every system always included those who loved and evaluated it highly and those who hated and opposed it, as well people positioned in between. Individuals’ evaluations were typically consistent with their explanations. People chose among theories that either extolled the system’s virtues or criticized its flaws and faults, or positioned itself somewhere in between. In short, the line between evaluation and theory has always been — and is today — fuzzy and porous. Those who insist that their evaluations and theories do not shape one another usually blur that line the most.
Highly placed economic theorists usually evaluate the system prevailing in their societies very positively and construct celebratory theories about it. Those theorists are the high priests of each system: royalty, clerics, academics, politicians and/or media spokespersons, depending on each system’s particular institutions. They usually insist that their theory is “God’s truth” or “scientifically verified” or meets some other absolute truth criterion. When such high priests even deign to acknowledge alternative economic theories, they usually dismiss them as simplistic, unschooled and/or proofs of evil ulterior motives.
Slavery’s high priests effectively defined their economic system as the production and distribution of goods and services by means of “collaboration” between slaves and masters. The high priests believed they observed slaves who brought energy, brawn and physical effort to the work process, but who were “incapable” of conceiving or organizing the complexities of production. In those key functions, the high priests observed masters as “intrinsically superior” persons who contributed the “mastery” that “provided jobs” for slaves. From such observations, high priests concluded that the distribution of outputs should favor the masters. Their outsized income sustained those lifestyles that reproduced the masters’ “mastery”: their capacity to organize and run slave production and slave society generally. The far lesser, “subordinate” contribution of slaves to production needed and justified correspondingly lesser portions of output.
In both slavery and feudalism, successive generations of high priests included those who reasoned in the reverse direction.
In fact, generations of excluding slaves from almost all the design, initiation, directorial and management functions of production (or even basic literacy) reinforced the high priests’ observations. The fact of long-term exclusion was overlooked in favor of the convenient inference from observations that masters alone possess the mastery required to perform those functions. Many slaves made similar observations and drew similar conclusions, while others kept their dissent silent or revolted against the system. The high priests reinforced a system that in turn reinforced their observations, their chosen economic theory and their evaluation of that system.
Similarly in feudalism, lords believed, and their high priests observed and taught, that the lords’ contributions to production — lordship — were huge, unique and important while that of the mass of serfs was lowly. The feudal system distributed wealth and poverty, power and access to education and culture accordingly.
In both slavery and feudalism, successive generations of high priests also included those who reasoned in the reverse direction. They observed the consistently high incomes and accumulated wealth of masters and lords and conveniently inferred those persons’ greater importance for, and productive contribution to, slave and feudal outputs respectively. As slaves’ and serfs’ incomes were observed to be so far inferior to those of masters and lords, high priests inferred corresponding contributions to outputs. Reasoning in either direction, the high priests repeated endlessly that differing, inherent productive contributions explained and justified the inequalities of output distribution.
Mainstream economics professors have mostly replicated the efforts of the earlier high priests of slavery and feudalism.
The capitalist revolutions and interventions that overthrew slave and feudal systems usually attacked those systems’ unequal distributions of wealth and power. They sought to “emancipate” people from those inequalities. Examples include Lincoln’s proclamation ending slavery, the French Revolution’s slogan of “liberté, egalité, fraternité,” and contemporary capitalism’s constant invocation of “democracy” as its goal, purpose and deepest commitment. Yet wherever capitalism has come to prevail, it has soon become clear that income, wealth and power inequality are features capitalism shares with slavery and feudalism. Capitalism also mimics their high priesthoods.
Capitalism’s high priests have been generally more secular than their predecessors. Instead of churches and religions, colleges and universities comprise their institutional framework. Capitalism’s high priests are likely professors, including especially the “mainstream economists.” They justify and rationalize capitalism’s very unequal distributions of wealth and income (and also of power and access to culture). Mainstream economics professors have mostly replicated the efforts of the earlier high priests of slavery and feudalism. Thus the “mastery” of the slave-master and the “lordship” of the feudal lord reappear as the “entrepreneurship” that mainstream economists believe they observe as a contribution to production made exclusively by capitalists. The exclusion of workers from almost all design, initiation, directorial and management functions within capitalist production (and from learning or becoming credentialed in them) keeps fostering such observations.
The professors use entrepreneurship to explain and justify the capitalists’ great wealth and incomes relative to that of their employees. Entrepreneurship is “more productive” than the mere labor of employees. Over time, mainstream economists and the journalists, politicians and general public they reach have also reasoned in the reverse direction. That is, they infer entrepreneurship and its productivity from their observations of the huge shares capitalists take from outputs. Either way, mainstream economists reaffirm the desired link: capitalists’ incomes and wealth are determined by their particular, unique and superior contributions to production. In mainstream economic theory, capitalists are not just ripping off their employees.
In and for the surplus-focused economic theory, slavery, feudalism and capitalism are profoundly alike in a basic social division.
Or are they? Dissenting theorists in slavery, feudalism and capitalism — those usually excluded from the high priesthood — have often observed production and distribution very differently. The particular economic theories they construct reflect negative evaluations of all three systems. A key, often shared focal point, formulated most clearly and explicitly by Karl Marx for capitalism, is the idea of a surplus. In each system, its dissenters argue, the mass of workers produces more total output than is 1.) returned to them for their consumption and reproduction and 2.) used to replace used-up means of production. The difference between the total output and the sum of 1 plus 2 is defined as the surplus. People other than the workers, namely masters, lords and capitalists, get that surplus. They take it as their own.
Particular laws, government force, culture and ideology (including economic theories) serve in each system to secure that surplus: its production by a majority and its appropriation by a minority. To secure the reproduction of capitalist systems, it is important to not theorize capitalists as appropriators of a surplus produced by others. It is important to theorize capitalists rather as contributors of a properly rewarded entrepreneurship. Working to the same end is the theory that capitalists’ rewards flow from their having “contributed” capital. Critics have responded sharply that such capital is just surplus taken by capitalists at some earlier time. Critics can likewise deride “entrepreneurship” as a suspiciously convenient invention, the third great mystery of economic theory (alongside “mastery” and “lordship”) that has disguised and justified the dominating minorities’ appropriation of surpluses in, respectively: capitalism, slavery and feudalism.
In and for the surplus-focused economic theory, slavery, feudalism and capitalism are profoundly alike in a basic social division. One class produces the surplus and another appropriates and distributes it (especially to itself).
As global capitalism generates ever-greater inequalities, instabilities and problems, it and its high priests face rising opposition
So what is capitalism “really”? Each response to this question depends on the theory(ies) informing the individual or group responding. High priests and dissenters observe and theorize in different ways reflecting their very different positions in, experiences with and evaluations of each system. There is no single answer to the question of what any system is; there never was only one answer.
All systems shape multiple, conflicting theories that emerge out of each system’s contradictions and effects. When high priests in any economic system present their chosen theory as an absolute truth, it is just another effort to silence proponents of alternative theories. Such efforts rightly raise tough questions and deep suspicions about the truth they claim to serve.
In large parts of the world today, capitalism’s high priests of economic theory work systematically to exclude alternative theorists from positions of influence in academia, the mass media and politics. Lip service to abstract values of open debate among alternative perspectives, to a free marketplace of ideas, etc., is belied by the social marginalization of surplus theory and surplus theorists. The high priests silence the alternative theorists as part of their traditional service to the dominant economic system.
As global capitalism generates ever-greater inequalities, instabilities and problems, it and its high priests face rising opposition and suspicion alongside rising interest in and demands for economic theories critical of capitalism. Haunting the high priests of capitalism is the fate that history eventually imposed on slavery, feudalism and their high priests.