Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, January 08, 2016

Look, Ma, I'm A Capitalist!

I do believe people in free societies should have the liberty to indulge in extreme sports and competitive profit-seeking and other sorts of unhealthy behavior, so long as it is confined by law to the margins of society where they harm only themselves.

I also believe that everyday intercourse should be consensual and that commercial contracts can be exemplary of the consensual -- so long as their terms are not compromised by fraud, misinformation, or incomplete information or by the threat of violence or deprivation. In order to ensure that contracts are truly voluntary they must be supported by material and ritual artifice -- as of course every moral and legal regime, however fair or unfair, always has been -- in this case, by a legible scene of consent, maintained by means of normative and infrastructural affordances. In a democratic society, defined as one in which people have a say in the public decisions that affect them (including a say in the determination of just what such a say is and just who are the people affected) shaped by the democratic values of equity-in-diversity and nonviolence, these affordances of the legible scene of consent should include the provision of universal lifelong free -- and hence freeing -- public healthcare, education, and welfare, providing equitable access to wholesome food and shelter, relevant and reliable information for making decisions, recourse to law to provide nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes (including disputes over what constitutes violence), civil rights to protect minorities from powerful majorities and majorities from powerful minorities, to office-holding and the franchise to ensure that authoritative institutions are accountable to those over whom they exercise their authority, and to peaceable assembly, creative and critical expression in support of public ends and as the substance of the end in itself of public happiness, and toward progress defined in a democratic spirit as the collective, collaborative, and contested determination and solution of shared problems in which the costs, risks, and benefits of change are equitably distributed to the diversity of its stakeholders by their own lights.

The legible scene of consent and the social affordances through which it is maintained is a public good. The provision of legal alternatives for the adjudication of disputes is a public good. The security of our persons, our communities, and our enterprises from violence, abuse, and neglect is a public good. The suite of civil rights that protect minorities and majorities from arbitrary and unaccountable authority is a public good. The sustainable maintenance of environmental commons like the atmosphere, the oceans, freshwater, soil, and a range of temperature and species diversity to support both life on earth in general and the flourishing of human populations in particular is a public good. The ongoing investment in and administration of public good must be in the long-term public interest, must be equitable to its diversity and fully accountable to its membership. Parochial, short-term, inequitable, unaccountable ownership, administration, or disposition of public goods does not just inevitably threaten violence and abuse but already constitutes violence and abuse and should be antithetical to democratic societies that value both nonviolence (and hence consent) and equity-in-diversity.

To snide remarks about "who pays?" for the costs of all these public goods one can only reply by remembering "who saves?" the opportunity costs and catastrophic clean-up expenses of ignorance, insecurity, disorder, mistrust, mismanagement, and systemic failure of neglecting to pay: "Who pays?" and "who saves?" are precisely the same -- that is to say, all of us. This is just to say that these are public investments with public pay-offs not private gifts to private Takers of private thefts from private Makers, as the self-appointed, self-satisfied, self-interested incumbent elites would always have it. Within the constraints determined by the demands of a sustainable, equitable, and accountable investment in and administration of public goods I do also believe, by the way, that ownership of private goods is desirable enough to a sufficient majority (among whose number I count myself) to be treated as necessary as other civil rights are to individual dignity, security, and happiness that its personal possession or renunciation should be protected as a public good. And there you have it.

I usually describe myself politically as some variation of a democratic eco-socialist feminist queer aesthete, depending on my sense of who I am talking to and how they understand such fraught terms. I do want to point out, however, that my political ideals include or at any rate explicitly accommodate the defense of individual rights, voluntary contracts, competitive profit-seeking, private property, and the rule of law. It seems to me that very few self-described capitalist ideologues fully understand or consistently defend the material and ritual affordances of these forms of public welfare as fragile artificial accomplishments to be maintained through ongoing collective effort, even as they loudly insist that their devotion to this very regime of individual rights, voluntary contracts, competition, private property, and rule of law defines their viewpoint. On the day and to the extent that capitalists truly do manage such an understanding and then defend its actual terms with consistent effort I will be quite happy to accept their designation of me as a fellow capitalist rather than my own hitherto preferred socialist designation if they like, in the interest of democratic reconciliation, shared progress, and the common good.

If you are interested in this political perspective or in the rhetoric through which I am defending it, you may also appreciate related posts:

Left and Right, Back to Basics
Ten Propositions on Taxes and Democracy
The "Mixed Economy" Isn't Mixed, It Is "Ideal" Capitalism and Socialism That Are Mixed Up


Ian Alan Paul said...

Why "competitive property-seeking" as an ideal?

Dale Carrico said...

Self-expression is the ideal, I should think. I analogized competitive profit-seeking to extreme sports as an unhealthy and idiosyncratic activity in the very first sentence, for heaven's sake! But constrained (and as it happens enabled) by the prior commitment to the support of the host of public goods I delineated here as well, I can't see any justification for prohibiting that sort of thing, though it is hardly my cup of tea. Hell, let a bazillion flowers (including what I personally consider stink flowers) bloom.

Ian Alan Paul said...

Well I suppose limiting these things to the "margins of society where they harm only themselves" already throws you far enough off the capitalist bandwagon to not worry me. It seems competition necessarily implies losers in some fashion or another, which is why it gets messy, and we could go further into why people find the need/desire to compete with one another, but that's for another blog post I'm sure.

Dale Carrico said...

Sufficiently regulated (which is at once a constraining and an enabling), competition can be closer to the playing of a game in which playing the game constitutes a win that trumps even a loss in the game.

The benefit of a post like this one, if I may say so, is that it presumably reveals and clarifies the actual contingent terms on which the institutions and norms of capitalism depend in ways that undermine dangerous errors, deceptions, and hypocrisies (eg, the pretense that plutocracy is a meritocracy, the pretense what passes for a market at present is a natural or spontaneous order), while opening up a space in which desirable but presumably unpopular democratic socialist views can be defended in presumably more popular or at any rate more prevalent capitalist, individualist, liberal (even conservative) terms. It is useful to proliferate the rhetorical strategies available for the facilitation, promotion, and defense of democratic socialism. Change the nature or the direction of a bad bandwagon enough and it might not matter so much if you're on it.

Elias Altvall said...

I really do not know what to think of this article (Of course you have not written it for me) on the one hand I agree with most of the things you said I could quibble a bit here and there but at the same time I feel like you treading dangerous waters and it is a little bit funny that you of all people should do this.

The reason why I think your close to it has to do with the exact the same reason you seem to think Anarcho-capitalists are anarchists and the simularities you have always criticised between the rhetorical words games of them and "left"anarchists. Of course you do not embrace the anarcho-capitalists ideas, that is also very clear in your article and some of the comments but if you would be prepared to accept the label capitalist by making the word capitalist meaningless as well as socialist then it much like how some americans still insist to say that Sweden is a socialist nation.

Dale Carrico said...

It's true, my views are remarkably consistent. My argument that anarcho-capitalists really are anarchists in ways that clarify my disagreements with all anarchists are indeed compatible with my argument here that actual rights, including property rights, voluntary contracts, and rule of law many self-identified capitalists claim to care about depend on public investment in and accountable administration of their material and performative affordances in the context of sustainable commonwealth in ways that mostly socialists talk about.

That words change meanings in ways that can be both clarifying and misleading is a simple fact, whether it is dangerous or not. As someone trained in rhetoric I am too keenly aware of this truism to ignore or forget it, even when its consequences are uncomfortable.

Elias Altvall said...

I do not know if in my opinion most capitalists actually practise what they preach as in my discussions with Libertarians and other capitalists shows none or few have ever read socialists text nor have they actually philosophically examined what is their own ideals. They rely mostly on "common sense" positions that run counter to evidence and analysis. But It might just be my own experiance off discussing things with swedish social democrats and Moderater (Moderates is the translation but that means nothing to you so quick explanation, they are like most liberals in america I think though their party leadership is now bordering on straight forward conservatism and neoliberalism)

Dale Carrico said...

That self-described capitalist ideologues are mostly uncritical hypocritical self-serving ignoramuses is kinda sorta the premise of this whole piece, so of course I agree with you.

Elias Altvall said...

My point was less aimed towards capitalist ideologues and more toward the every day person and even very committed progressives tend to rely on this but the ideologues are of course worse but then i live in a country with royalty and a still existing aristocracy (though diminished).

Dale Carrico said...

To reveal the socialist supports of and at one and the same time to reframe in socialist terms the broadly disseminated undercritical capitalist assumptions and aspirations of everyday people in extractive-industrial-consumer-indebted societies is, one hopes, another virtue of the sort of rhetorical exercise clumsily attempted in this post.