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Jan 09

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Only Marxists See the Water

Capitalism - Marxists See the WaterI was talking to a friend yesterday. He’s a smart guy. We almost never talk about politics, however; but the subject came up. And he mentioned that he was a centrist. He made what is, in some contexts, a valid point: that extremism in political ideology leads to catastrophe. But he mentioned Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians. (He was most critical of the last.) But that’s a shockingly small Overton window. What about communists and fascists? What about the only political group I know of that takes our economic system seriously: Marxists.

From a more practical standpoint, did the Democratic Party having complete control of Washington really lead to catastrophe? The country barely changed. Was that extremism?!

I see the situation totally different. The libertarians are irrelevant — except that they give intellectual credibility to the others. The Democrats are a center, even center-right, party in a global perspective. And the Republicans are proto-fascists. A centrist should love Barack Obama, and actually, I believe my friend does. It isn’t my intention to indict him. Indeed, he is in favor of Universal Basic Income.

What’s Water

But his extremely limited notion of the political landscape is what pretty much everyone shares in America. Let me illustrate with a story that David Foster Wallace famously told in his commencement speech, “This Is Water.” (I’m sure most people have heard the story at one point or another in their lives):

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys! How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

To me, capitalism is the water that we swim in. And I find it really frustrating that most people can’t see it.

Oh sure: they know the word. They think it is shorthand for freedom and democracy. The slightly more sophisticated think that it is about economic markets and the profit motive. Capitalism is none of these things. And the way that capitalism normally operates, it is the enemy of these things.

Marxists Understand Capitalism

When I was a libertarian, I was struck by the fact that it was only when I talked to Marxists that I found people who seemed to understand capitalism. Of course, I thought they were wrong in their analysis, but they understood what it was. I thought that I was very knowledgeable, of course; I thought I understood capitalism too. But the truth is that I didn’t. Because, while they saw the water, I didn’t. My study of intro economics in college, if anything, made it harder to see the water.

Capitalism is a system where ownership entitles you to profit. And I’m not talking hammers here. It’s not a question of using capital to build things. It is rather more like the fallow land across the street from me. Someone could be farming it, but instead, it is just being held by someone who inherited it, waiting until the city expands to the point where they can sell it to someone else who will build condos.

See the Water

Now, I understand the arguments in favor capitalism. And I’m not completely against it. But unlike the average American who thinks they are centrists because they don’t see the economic waters they swim in, I side with the Marxists. They see the water. And that means they are able to see beyond the water.

Each year, roughly a third of our income comes not from creating things but from owning things. A third! That’s capitalism. That’s water.

You don’t have to agree with my beliefs about capitalism. But things will only get worse as long as you don’t see that capitalism is a choice that is mandated by the government. There’s nothing natural about it. Rape, theft, and murder are natural. Getting thrown in jail for trespass is not.

Be like the Marxists to the extent that you see the water. Then we all might be able to make some progress.

Permanent link to this article: http://franklycurious.com/wp/2017/01/09/marxists-see-water/

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3 comments

  1. Dave Nichols

    Marxists are usually right about capitalism – they just don’t always agree on how best to replace it.

  2. Dave L

    Is this related to Creator’s Rights and work-for-hire?

    In commercial arts such as movies and comics books the guy who created the beloved character and wrote the exploits of the beloved character does not necessarily make the lion’s share of the profits from the character.

    In comic strips syndicates own the comic strips. You can come up w/ a concept, write and draw it for years, and get fired and replaced as easily as a fast-food cashier.

    Compensation for creation has been a contention in comic books almost from the beginning. Wikipedia:Superman ownership disputes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman_ownership_disputes) discusses just one famous example. Things ARE much better now, but it has been a long uphill fight.

    We see something similar in the recording industry where a band makes millions for its recording company, and pocket change for the band members. “Courtney Love does the math” (http://www.salon.com/2000/06/14/love_7/), June 14, 2000, discusses this in detail. One quote:

    Toni Braxton also declared bankruptcy in 1998. She sold $188 million worth of CDs, but she was broke because of a terrible recording contract that paid her less than 35 cents per album.

    See also The Problem With Music by Steve Albini (http://www.negativland.com/news/?page_id=17).

  3. paintedjaguar

    Creator’s Rights and intellectual property in general are wholly a creation of government. There is no “natural” or “fair” reason why someone classified as a creator should continue to receive compensation over time for labor done in the past, as opposed to other laborers who work for an hourly or salaried wage. Note that this says nothing about the desirability of implementing some form of intellectual property law and also that it is only our current law and not some natural order that enables rentiers like music companies to collect most of the benefit.

    And yes, this relates to the subject at hand — it is the various artificial constructs of ownership that enable the collection of rental (rentier) income which is at the heart of capitalism.

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