A Capitalist Manifesto

22 February 2011

In a foot-note to a previous entry, I mentioned that, when people use the word capitalism, I want a definition.

The word capitalism, when first introduced, meant a condition of possessing capital, and the coördinate term capitalist identified one who possesses capital.

At some point, a new definition for the former was introduced. The word capitalism was used derogatorially, for a system that favors capitalists. The reason that this definition doesn't much work except for disparagement is that, under any system that has capital, there are capitalists (possessors of capital). For example, a system that declares a present or former proletariat to be the rightful owners (collectively or otherwise) of the means of production has declared them to be the rightful capitalists, and would favor their interests.

(At some further point, capitalist acquired the additional meaning of one who favors capitalism. But, if we replace the definition of capitalist within capitalism to use this later meaning, then we just have an idiotic loop-de-loop, within which capitalism is defined as a system that favors the interests of those who favor the system, which definition wouldn't do much to exclude all sorts of systems.)

In the OED, one finds basically the original two definitions of capitalism:

The condition of possessing capital; the position of a capitalist; a system which favours the existence of capitalists.

But my copy of the New SOED (1993) instead defines the term thus:

The possession of capital or wealth; a system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.

It's a bit troublesome to find the historically second definition seemingly shoved-down a memory hole;[1] but, in any case, one now finds two new definitions, one in terms of how capital is used, the second in terms of some sort of dominance by private capitalists, and of production for profit.[2] (That definition in terms of dominance might actually be an attempt to capture the sense of the historically second definition.)

Meanwhile, though, Merriam-Webster had its own thoughts on the subject. They define capitalism as

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

Well, it's probably worth noting that free market is a bit of a redundancy, in that, to the extent that prices or quantities are bounded by law, one isn't really talking about a market. But, in any case, the main thing to note is that this definition differs markèdly from the previous definitions, as corporate as well as private[3] ownership is allowed, and as a reliance upon markets has been introduced into the definition.

My 1975 copy of the AHD gives a remarkable definition:

1. An economic system characterized by freedom of the market with increasing concentration of private and corporate ownership of production and distribution means, proportionate to increasing accumulation and reinvestment of profits. 2. A political or social system regarded as being based on this.

That's kind-of like the Merriam-Webster definition, but with a theory of increasing concentration grafted onto it; and, not only increasing concentration, but proportionate increase. Huh. So, in other words, capitalism, at least under the definition labelled 1., refers to a system that not only has never existed, but couldn't ever exist; 'cause, as I guarantee you, economic processes don't typically follow nice lineär laws (nor simple arithmetic functions more generally). And one wonders what one is supposed to call a system in which there is a market, but not increasing concentration of wealth, or at least one in which wealth is not increased proportionately. Really, of course, what's going on with this definition is some attempt to impose a theory and to advance a social prescription.

But wait! My 1993 copy of the AHD tells us something else! It defines capitalism thus:

An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.

Uhh… it's more of that proportionality stuff; another system that never has and never could exist. But, now, instead of investment increasing concentration of ownership, it's producing growth. Another attempt to grind an ideological axe, just a different axe. (I guess that versions of the AHD are kind-of like versions of Wikipedia, except that the changes are effected more slowly.)

Okay, so that's — what? three? five? — very standard sources, and how many definitions? And what is one to think when someone uses the term state capitalism, and defines it to mean an economy controlled by the state in a capitalist manner?

I once responded to an essay by asking the author what he meant by capitalism. His reply was that he'd used it with the standard definition. Well, there is no standard definition.[4] As far as I'm concerned, the word capitalism is practically useless, unless what one wants to practice is confusion, or unless one defines it before or immediately after first using it.

[1] The SOED is supposed to be complete for terms and definitions found after 1700.

[2] An unclarified notion of profit appears here; there's no point in doing anything under any system, unless it actually improves things somehow; one suspects that the author has some narrower notion in mind.

[3] Some people loosely use the term corporation to refer simply to an association of some sort, but that would be just another sort of private ownership; legal corporations, on the other hand, are creatures of the state. They can be formed by license to a single person, rather than to an association. Corporations are treated by law largely as themselves persons. And they insulate those to whom they are licensed from liability, not merely to those with whom they contract (to whom liability could anyway have been limited by overt contractual terms) but to third parties who may be injured by the actions of the corporation.

[4] I cited some of these dictionary entries to make that point to him, and reïterated my question; he lapsed into silence.

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3 Responses to A Capitalist Manifesto

  • borky says:

    This's fascinating stuff, Daniel, and incredibly important - I mean really, deadly serious, to the degree the future of civilization depends on questions like this being asked.

    It might seem to some like piddling nerdantry waffling on about differing definitions, but it's the gradual erosion of such definitions so they come to mean whatever people in positions of power want them to mean that leads to the sorts of injustice and general imbalance that unravel civilizations.

    In the UK we've got Professor Peter Gill, one of the founding fathers of genetic fingerprinting, warning that handing over criminal forensic investigation to private consortiums'll be catastrophic because our courts won't abide such consortiums refusing to explain their findings because of a need to protect their proprietorial secrets. What'd be worse, though, of course, is if they WERE allowed such concealment, and we DID have to just take their word for it!

    And of course the whole Goldman-Sachs fiasco boiled down to them claiming everyone else was too stupid to understand how their financial algorithms worked, therefore no one but them was fit to judge whether their conduct was criminal or not.

    A while back I was reading about the fuss caused by the Iraqis using a bomb detector supposedly having no basis in science, but those guys were basically risking their own lives and if they're wrong it'll be them who finds out - the hard way. Why aren't the' bad science' types pursuing stuff like that going after the people threatening the whole planet on every level by resort to 'science' that makes newspaper astrology look like hard core quantum physics?

    The problem with having to take the word of experts able to refuse to stoop to the level of having to explain themselves, especially when they have to answer to shareholders clammering for ever more profits, leads to things like the revelation that much of the foot and mouth outbreaks over here a few years back was down to penny pinching laboratories failing to follow costly protocols and thus accidentally releasing precisely the disease they were meant to be studying and eliminating.

    Keep up the good work mate!

  • […] is the result of a general confusion over the meaning of the word, Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan explained a year after I wrote the above. I will have to address his points in a future essay. One of the […]

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