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Understanding the anti-capitalists

June 3, 2014

I think that “capitalism” is such a contested, misunderstood, misused, and vague concept that it is best to avoid when discussing political philosophy. But whether I like it or not… the word is often used.  So what do people mean when they complain about “capitalism”? Sometimes the word means “corporatism” and sometimes it means “voluntary trade” and sometimes it means “the status quo”.

But there is another way that some people use the word…

The world is not utopia, and (unless you’re religious) then it wasn’t created for us, which means that there is no inherent guarantee that everybody is going to have everything they want. There is scarcity in the world… not just a limited number of cars or caves or cats, but perhaps more importantly a limited amount of time. Some people react badly to finding out that scarcity exists, and that they aren’t a special snowflake who can insist on getting everything they want.

When humans evolved a perception of agency, we started to see the world as being controlled. Once we see that out actions have consequences we start to observe “cause & effect” all around us, which gave us a distinct evolutionary advantage.

But one of the side-effects was that we felt the need to attribute a “cause” to all the “effects” we saw, even if we didn’t understand them. That is why we invented gods, who could control tides and give us seasons and hide the sun. As a specie, we aren’t very good at saying the words “I don’t know”… which is perhaps our greatest advantage (thirst for knowledge) but is also a weakness (insistence on non-existent causes).

The people angry at scarcity have an acute version of this problem. They see bad outcomes… but unable to emotionally understand that the world has scarcity and that good outcomes require hard work, good institutions, and a healthy amount of luck… they decide that their sadness has been caused by some strong outside power.

If they are religious, they might decide that there is a spirit or devil that is attacking them. If they are less religious, then they need to look for an enemy among people… and throughout history we have seen a strong instinct to blame bad outcomes on groups such as Jews, immigrants, bankers, foreigners, traders, gypsies, capitalists, and many other target groups.

People are particularly easy to blame if the angry person has no real understanding of their target group. Once you get to know some immigrants they often become less scary. When you (or friends) get involved in trading, then it becomes obvious that of course trading doesn’t cause scarcity. But of course… time is scarce, and many people don’t get the opportunity to understand other groups, which makes it easier to continue blaming them.

With “capitalists” as a target group… angry and confused people have created an enemy so vague as to be almost invisible, which makes it hard to ever meet them or understand them. They are able to project everything they don’t like in the world onto this nebulous concept that is “out there” (much like a devil) and so they can justify their instinctive feeling that they are a persecuted victim of a large (almost spiritual) power.

If actually pursuing truth, you should keep clear of undefined buzz words such as “capitalism”, as they only serve to hide whatever is being discussed.

But for some angry and sad people, turning their enemy into a vague ghost is exactly what they want to do. If they were to say that “people who build a second house on their land near Brisbane and rent it out are causing hunger in Sudan, homophobia in Russia, and slavery in Saudi Arabia” then their delusion would be too transparent and they would struggle with the cognitive dissonance. When they make direct claims, those can be tested. When you have a vague enemy, it is easier to build fear and avoid real evidence.

People who intentionally use “capitalism” as a vague buzz word to camouflage their enemy are in almost every way the same as religious fundamentalists. They have an abstract devil, and they encourage fear of this devil to encourage others to join their group. They promote a nirvana concept that is equally vague… which services the dual purpose of luring in the sad and insecure, and also showing that bad outcomes must be caused by the “devil” because otherwise the nirvana would already exist.

They encourage emotional arguments and hate, used both for motivation and also to discourage sincere discourse. They will avoid difficult topics, repeatedly use vague words, change the meaning of words, create a warped version of history, and keep repeating what they want to be true, regardless of evidence.

For these people, “capitalism” is not meant to describe a system that can be tested and compared with alternatives. Debates about capitalism can sometimes get caught on misunderstanding, where one person defines capitalism to mean corporatist manipulation of markets to help their business interests while another person defines capitalism as voluntary trade between consenting adults. It is easy to see how those two people might actually have a “Wittgenstein moment” and end up talking straight past each other, which could potentially be fixed by avoiding vague words and having clear definitions. But for the emotional anti-capitalist… the definitions don’t matter since “capitalism” is basically a devil created to justify their emotional discomfort. Unless and until these people come to terms with their emotional issues, honest political debate is not possible.

I should be clear that these comments are not aimed at all socialists and religious people. There are many people who believe in socialism and/or a religion for other reasons, and these people will often have good arguments to back up their beliefs. This article is only talking about a particular sub-set of people — those who have never managed to emotionally adjust to the fact that scarcity exists and that they are not at the centre of the universe, and respond by creating an invisible devil (capitalism) to blame for their inadequacies.

Of course, people should be allowed to pursue whatever religion or philosophy they want. Humans evolved with a preference for thinking we know things, and making people face up to the uncertain and ambiguous nature of reality can sometimes be cruel. If somebody cannot emotionally deal with the nature of life, then perhaps it is best if they have an emotional crutch to help them. Blindly sticking to a belief of capitalist-devils and socialist-nirvana might make them happier, and it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people.

We should let the religious be religious, so long as they don’t want to use violence or fraud to impose it on other people.

And while people who build their philosophy on the hatred of an enemy group (whether they are Jews, bankers, immigrants, capitalists, etc) can easily be classified as bigots, we should defend their right to be a bigot. If you want to help such people, then the best approach is to introduce them to the enemy group so that they can learn to understand them and hopefully move past their hate. By all means continue to talk logic and expose them to evidence… but at the end of the day we must accept that some emotional anti-capitalists (and religious fundamentalists) will never deviate from their faith.

To each their own. 🙂

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