Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Our current socioeconomic system (I)

A couple weeks ago I wondered to what extent it was possible to be a morally good person in an essentially corrupt (and corrupting) system, trying to address the ages old choice between accepting the "rules of the game" spelled out by the kind of society we inhabit (selling out) or devoting all of one's energies to overthrow the system (the known Eco's dichotomy between "apocaliptics" and "integrateds"). To begin to answer such life defining question I think it is important to identify the defining features of our socioeconomic system, so we can determine which of those features are inherently evil, and require to be entirely abolished, and which ones are just imperfect and could be evolved to frame a more humane commonwealth. Once the analysis is complete, it should be clearer how best to proceed. For lack of a better term, I'll use the denomination "Digital Capitalism" to refer to the world system that took shape after the IT revolution that blossomed in the last decade of the XXth Century, and that now pervades the globe as unopposed and undiscussed way of organizing human groups, independently of their previous cultural or historical background.

The first and foremost feature we can notice is that it is still a form of Capitalism, which in itself requires some clarifications:

  • As in any Capitalism deserving of the name,  the main goal socially transmitted to any and all of its individual members is the accumulation of capital. ¿What is capital? any material good that can be appropriated, defended against others (protected by private property rights) and transmitted in a market in exchange for other goods, or for the promise of other goods (credit), and that is acquired and/ or kept with the explicit purpose of increasing itself 
  • Thus capital requires both clear and stable private property laws (a minimal uncertainty about the future possession of any good immediately marks it as unfit for being kept for the purpose of increasing its owner's capital) and a market economy where goods can be exchanged at a profit
  • Money (a social technology for keeping track of who owes what to whom) is a form of capital, not to be confused with the commodities or services that can be acquired with it (a serious error that invalidates most of Marxist thought from the beginning)
  • By the same token, commodities are capital only insofar as they are kept for the purpose of being exchanged for other commodities in the pursuit of gains. The house you live in, the clothes you wear and the expensive wine you keep in your cellar (as long as you intend to drink it some day) are not capital, but what you eventually use capital for (or rather, what you spend money on, as the money you spend is not strictly capital, either... in Marxist terms, you extract use-value from a commodity by extracting it from the sphere of circulation, thus destroying it), although they can become capital (if you decide to use them for the purpose of obtaining additional capital, in whatever form, from their sale)
  • Labour-power is neither capital nor a commodity (as it is not a material good), nor the only source of value in commodities (another Marxian error, and the origin of most of what went wrong with his thought afterwards), although it IS a source of value, and a very complex one to quantify and to homogenize at that. Trying to measure units of labour power (labour time) is both futile and in the end circular (very clear in the first volume of "Capital": the value of a labour day is calculated adding the amount of goods needed to sustain the labourer for the day, but the values of those goods have first to be expressed by the amount of "social time" needed to produce them, "social time" being an unmeasurable construct trying to reflect not only the times devoted to their production of differently skilled workers, but also the "accumulated labor" used to build the means of production themselves -machinery, engineering- and achieve the land productivity required by the socioeconomic unit in which the measurement takes place)
To clarify so far, Capitalism as a social order appears in Europe around the second half of the XVI Century. Before that we had already seen the accumulation of Wealth as a socially ordered goal, but not of capital. The difference being that wealth (and its social twin, power) were pursued "for its own sake", for the enjoyment they brought, not with the explicit and clear goal of increasing their own quantity. ¿Why in that place and that time? A number of reasons, both ideological (birth of a certain type of "trascendent individualism" precipitated by the protestant schism), technological (birth of what we still now as the "Scientific Method" which allowed humans to harness energies until then unknown, deployed in the Industrial Revolution shortly thereafter) and specially political (Europe was from the beginning the theater of endless wars of dominance, not much different from China in the warring states period, albeit in Europe it had been going on for a much longer span). In short, at that time it was realized that huge capital accumulation won wars (as only "pure" capital, not appropriated for the consumption of any particular elite, could raise and equip the massive armies that ever costlier continental and naval warfare demanded), so the societies that prospered were the ones which more successfully inculcated into their citizens the importance of capital accumulation (cloaking as public virtues thrift, renunciation, a certain level of egoism and disregard for other people's well-being, and all the gamut encompassed by Weber's "Protestant ethic").

So even after defining capitalism in a precise enough way (so it can be clearly differentiated from aevery other form of organization tried on Earth in the last 30,000 years) we can look at how it has evolved, and today's variation is different in turn from all its previous incarnations. ¿What does it mean that the current capitalism is "digital"?

  • First, a certain level of technological development is required, that allows at least for a) massive customized production of consumer goods, with minimal human involvement (automation); b) cheap (meaning, independently of price level, available to everybody and practically ubiquitous) communications and c) reliable (and again, easily available everywhere for everybody) energy production
  • That level of technology enables an increase in the complexity of multinational corporations, an increase in commercial and technological flows between country and an increase in awareness of how "the other half" lives (AKA globalization, but also a weakening of traditional culturally bounded narratives and thus postmodernism)  
  • But that same level of technology allows in turn for the recording, storage and dissemination of "information", initially a digital representation of the "material" world (be it music, still images, animated inmages -movies-, books, and what have you). Although society still tries to treat information as a commodity (subject to a price, exchangeable in a market), some of its features make this treatment problematic: it can be copied, transported and reproduced at virtually no cost, and such copying and transporting and reproducing do not alter its original form, and can be done without the original owner noticing... 
There is an inherent tension between the capitalistic features of today's society (oriented towards capital accumulation) and its increasingly digital nature (oriented to the use and eventually modification of information which is by its very nature very difficult to monetize, and can not easily participate in the project of perpetual capital increase, although it has made some of its poster child -from social media moguls to digitally savvy media stars- fabulously rich), which we will explore in a separate post

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