Capitalism Cannot Turn Into Anything But Autocracy
The history of capitalism has an arc of its own. It has a beginning, a high point, and yes, an end — with or without revolutions, climate change or ecological destruction. Capitalism follows a trajectory of natural evolution culminating in a Orwellian dystopia, right before its quick demise. Join me in this short review on the origins of capitalism to understand why every attempt made at dismantling it has failed — and will continue to do so — until the authoritarian technologies making it possible disappear in the not so distant future.
According to Investopedia “Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private ownership of the means of production, with labor solely paid wages. Capitalism depends on the enforcement of private property rights, which provide incentives for investment in and productive use of capital.” What is sorely missing from this definition — as always when it comes to economics — is the role of technology and energy. Both factors have played a crucial role in the conception of this idea, let alone its growth into the hydra it has become. Contrary to common wisdom, I argue, neither of these critical inputs — energy and technology — were brought about by capitalism itself, it was completely the other way around. It was the use of technology and an ever growing availability of energy which has made capitalism possible, and thus the loss of these will be the cause which will eventually bring it to its knees.
Capitalism can never hoped to be dismantled without abandoning technology.
I know that is a harsh statement, perhaps prompting some of my readers to point out how anti-technology I am, and how a socialist revolution / green technologies / Bitcoin / gold / or fill in the blank could turn things around overnight. Well, all I ask is this: bear with me for a few more minutes.
Let’s start things off with colonization, the Petri dish in which the conception of Capitalism took place. According to how it’s taught in schools around the West (or at least where I live) colonization was purely a result of political factors and conscious decisions. The discovery of the Americas (which was thought to be West India back then) was quickly followed by the genocide of indigenous populations and a forceful takeover of their wealth and land. Slave trade provided settlers with an abundant flow of laborers, who were often forced to work under extremely harsh conditions. The flow of gold and other commodities from the newly established colonies in turn have rapidly transformed European societies and gave birth to capitalism.
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What is woefully missing from this story is the technology which has enabled all this: sailboats. Without large and sturdy enough ships, developed and perfected for centuries, or navigation systems like the compass, hourglass, astrolabe and quadrant it would have been impossible for Columbus to get to the Caribbean and back alive. Note how these technologies were already there ready to be used, well before this whole story began. It was not colonization which has brought sailboats and navigation about, but the other way around: it was these technologies which have enabled European nations to conquer much of the world.
What is perhaps even more important to note here, that these technologies were — as the late sociologist Lewis Mumford would say — autocratic in nature. Said differently: ships could not have been developed and built without a hierarchical system and without the use of force and aggression. It is perhaps a lesser known fact of European history, but even after the conception of Western kingdoms the continent was full of indigenous tribes inhabiting many of its woodlands, and living alongside the various states of Europe. Thus before the actual colonization of Americas could took place, large European powers were already busy exterminating these tribes together with their rich culture, eager to grab their resources: in this case wood suitable for building large ships.
Building — let alone manning — a large sailboat also required a strict hierarchy and a kingdom able to accumulate enough surplus food for both the woodworkers and sailors. None of this was a voluntarily act: men were often forcefully recruited to join ship crews, and food was confiscated from peasants through the well established means of a feudal system. As we can see, the very technology — ships — have already carried the seeds of colonization well before Columbus set sail in 1492. In other words: colonization — and later capitalism — happened because it could, not because someone had an idea to make it happen.
Compare that to what took place in more egalitarian societies, like the Polynesian. They never evolved into despotic civilizations controlling global trade as they used more democratic technologies, like small catamarans. These vessels could have been built and manned by a handful of humans, and most importantly without the need for large hierarchical societies, confiscation of land, food and other resources. The very fact, that anyone could’ve built such ships (or their own weapons and tools for that matter), made these technologies widely available to every member of the society. When everyone has the same bow and arrows or the same means to sustain their family, who needs a king for anything other than ceremonial roles? This natural democratization of technologies demanded a much more egalitarian structure where everyone had a say, as opposed to autocratic states which used oppression and large scale warfare to sustain their technological base.
It was in this context of authoritarian technologies used by authoritarian states where capitalism first appeared. Abstractions like property rights (beyond personal property) gave birth to privately owned corporations raising funds for their journeys through selling and offering dividends on their stocks. The immense flow of wealth and raw materials into Europe started to change hands on exchange markets. People made investments in the hope of profits. New businesses popped up everywhere, financed by bank loans.
None of this were possible, however, without stripping the massive flow of goods and wealth of their blood stained history. Commodities were named commodities not only to make their price more comparable, and thus easier to trade with, but also to strip them from the context in which they were made. The blood staining Aztec jewelry was purposefully washed away as these intricate pieces of precious metals were melted and shaped into uniform gold coins and ingots. The sweat and tears of slaves working on plantations were erased from memory as soon as the sugar and cotton they produced was poured into uniform sacks. Everything was turned into neat little units of goods without any prior history.
The same process of de-contextualization unfolded on the plantations as well. Plant species, like sugarcane, were uprooted from their original habitats — together with slaves of African origin — and were placed into a sterilized environment stripped from their original inhabitants. There they had no choice but to perform their task: grow profits at low to minimal investment costs. This complete disregard for original habitats and the needs of all (not just human) species, has yielded a process easy to replicate all across the globe. Kill, destroy, replace, reap. Rinse and repeat.
Without any interest in context on both ends of the process it was easy to forget that all this was a one time boom. You can exterminate and rob a rich culture only once. You can cut down an ancient forest and sell it’s prized wood only once in a lifetime. You can establish only so many slave farms before running out of suitable land.
You can only discover and colonize a second hemisphere only once. After that, there is no planet B.
As one would expect, such a “successful” recipe couldn’t result in anything but exponential growth — at least until limits were reached. Those who warned that this could not go on forever based on a finite set of resources were called names and cast aside. It was just way too profitable to continue plundering the planet — one finite resource after the other. Land. Coal. Oil. Copper. Lithium. The same process was repeated time after time: exploration, killing the inhabitants of the land, extracting a finite reserve, then moving on to the next great opportunity. Limits be damned.
Looking at the essence of “renewable” technologies nothing has changed. In fact, things only got worse. Rare earth metals, copper, silver, nickel, cadmium, high purity sand, steel are all needed in higher quantities due to the extremely low energy density and intermittency of “renewables”. Wind and solar sites must be overbuilt by as much as 4-7 times to reach the same level of output as a coal or gas fired power plant. Mining and the destruction of Nature thus also has to accelerate at a similar rate — or even more if you consider the rapid decline in ore grades. All powered by fossil fuels, of course.
There is nothing renewable about “renewables”. They depend on the same autocratic technologies as the very fossil fuels they aim to replace.
Finally, if you consider that colonizing nations and their allies are responsible for 92% of the world’s excess carbon dioxide emissions and 74% of excess material use, it’s clear that the current ecological crisis is the responsibility of industrialised economies in general and the corporations running them in particular. In this sense the green revolution is but a last ditch attempt to maintain this unhealthy imbalance in power and ultimately the rule of corporate interests, the true winners of colonization.
Capitalism has come about as a natural response to technology use and a temporary abundance of raw materials. It was simply the most effective way of plundering the planet, and thus won hands down every time it was contested. Even its much ballyhooed challengers were built upon its core principles. They way how returns are distributed or who makes owns the productive assets, of course, can be greatly different, resulting in a lower or higher inequality in society. Irrespective of wealth distribution and questions of ownership, however, the essence of every large scale industrial system remained inherently autocratic. As long as the resources for building technological devices (be it sailboats, steam engines, solar panels or Bitcoin) must be expropriated and extracted to exhaustion, the system will remain the same.
Since the economy, no matter how we name it, is only interested in making a net return on investment, not in the health or well being of humans and the more than human world, it will eventually turn on its own population as its resource base wanes. As long as everything, from raw material to labor, could have been extracted far away from the “bastions of democracy”, people at home were allowed to be free, but only as far as not to hurt business interests. This gave the illusion of progress, or a better life through technology, together with better health, care for the young and elderly or rights for minorities.
As resources grew thinner and thinner, yielding less and less profits though, the system has started to show its real face: autocracy. Modern democracies across the planet have started to turn into a local variant of a soft or inverted totalitarianism. A political arrangement in which corporations exert a subtle but substantial power over a system that superficially seems democratic. Think: corporate donors writing laws, often against the interests of the voters. A complete take-over of the media and the civic discourse. Shutting down dissent and labeling everything but the mainstream narrative dangerous misinformation. Freedom and democracy proved to be nothing but a brief anomaly in this inherently inhumane system arching back to the emergence of the first empires.
Soon, as the debt based everything bubble bursts, governments around the world will have no other choice than to take complete control over the money system, even if it means banning every other form of exchange (bitcoin, gold, or something as simple as cash). By controlling what money can be spent on (and for how long by giving it an expiry date) central governments will have a chance at managing the economic descent downstream from a steady decline in energy production.
Repossessing homes of people unable to pay their debts and turning them into tenants, for example, seems to be another way how the financial superorganism might try to hold on to profitability. You will own less (and less) and be… “happy”. A modest, low energy, low consumption life will be marketed as “green and sustainable” to somehow take the edge of the situation and make acceptance easier. Make no mistake, I do think that lowering consumption is the only way out, but only if everybody does it in a concerted manner. As John Kenneth Galbraith astutely observed, however:
“People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged also feel that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right.”
The ruling class is thus not at all interested in creating a more sustainable system. They have a different motive: staying on top, no matter what. Thus they will take every opportunity during this long emergency to concentrate power, to squeeze out political opponents while trying to maintain the flow of profits to an ever smaller round of donors. Again, a system entirely dependent on autocratic technologies cannot evolve into anything else than an Orwellian dystopia. As soon as energy inputs — maintaining the underlying technology base — fall below a bare minimum level, though, the system will collapse under its own weight.
Moving towards an ever more digitalized (digital ID, digital currency, digital shopping) world is thus an incredibly short sighted way to maintain power. As the electric grid starts to fail in many places (due to a lack of fossil fuel inputs), these autocratic systems will be harder and harder to maintain. As blackouts become more frequent and longer it will be harder and harder to pay at the store or log into digital government services — let alone performing the many BS jobs requiring a computer and a stable internet connection.
At this point the current centralized capitalist system will vanish sooner than one could imagine. Political power will fall back to the lowest level possible (municipalities) and real world skills will once again become respectful means of earning an income. The world will become ever more localized, and people will be forced to rely on manual labor to survive. On the other hand, lacking six continent supply chains, they will be also forced to use improvised low-tech — and thus more democratic — technologies setting the scene for a new, more egalitarian world to be built. How many of us will live to see that, what technologies will remain viable, or how long will this take is anyone’s guess... One thing seems to be sure: we have quite interesting times ahead of us.
Until next time,
For the record: China has also developed ocean faring explorer ships during the 14th and 15th centuries — but much bigger and more sophisticated ones than their European counterparts, expanding trade relations into East Africa and throughout the Indian ocean. Following a change in power though more focus has shifted inwards, on protecting China from the Mongols with the construction and expansion of the Great Wall. The famous explorer Zheng He embarked on his last voyage in 1431 (six decades earlier than Columbus first set sail) and died on his way home. After his demise explorations were no longer financed, the ships were left to rot or burned in their docks. When China returned to the scene more than a hundred years later, the world has been already transformed by colonialism.
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