At a time when the most vulnerable in society desperately need a challenge to the neoliberal, capitalist hegemony it seems that the only criticism of the system that penetrates the public consciousness is spoken in the language of capitalism. The first step to a new political dialogue might come from reframing that language.
The phrase “survival of the fittest” was coined by English social Darwinist and right-wing philosopher Herbert Spencer. Darwin, liking the phrase, chose to use it in the fifth edition of his Origin of Species as a synonym for his theory of natural selection in evolution. He later regretted it.
The conflation of Darwinian evolutionary theory with social and economic policy suited those in power in the 19th century. It acted as a justification for the enormous inequality that prevailed – ‘the rich were rich because they were superior and the poor were poor because they were inferior’ – this was the way of the world. Social Darwinism gave impetus to supremacism, encouraging eugenics and the idea of herrenvolk. In a dynamic that bears comparison with modern free-market economics it gifted to those who justify supremacy the legitimacy of (misapplied) science. This is a valuable asset to ideologues engaged in what John Kenneth Galbraith called “the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
The ghost of social Darwinism still lurks in the background of human sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, but it has now been largely discredited. The contemporary scientific study of humanity recognises a broader spectrum of human ability, with differentiated intelligences and modalities, where the scientific consensus is that the actual scale of difference in human brainpower is quite small. As the late Stephen Jay Gould put it, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
But just as the powerful have been able to manipulate discussions about debt by framing them as moral questions (David Graeber’s recent ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ exposes the fallacy of this) they have also been able to frame discussion of the economy in capitalism as a moral question. One of the most important tasks for activists seeking to expose and combat the injustice of the prevailing system will be to undermine this moral argument, and to recast it in a less delusional guise – capitalism as a power relation. The survival of the weakest depends, in large part, on the ability to do this.
The narrative at the moment continues largely uninterrupted on the path social Darwinism walked. Those who have wealth are no longer said to have it because they are biologically superior. That largely (beware The Bell Curve) won’t fly any more. Instead they possess it because they have “earned” it. More specifically, they “earned” it in some fair system. The fairness of biological superiority here has been substituted with a game – the market economy – to which everyone has equal access and whose rules apply equally to all participants. We are asked to ignore the history behind this game – the fact that this game is being played on a skewed field, with one team possessing more players. Similarly post-political neoliberalism asks us to believe Francis Fukuyama’s argument that we had reached the ‘end of history’. No tomorrow, no yesterday – just today. And today ‘we are where we are’ – neoliberal, capitalist hegemony – so suck it up.
There is little or no mention of the fact that there was no phase of wealth redistribution, no economic reset, after the great historical crimes of colonialism, imperialism or slavery. Or that the international economic disparities created by those phenomena persist, in the main, today. As David Graeber writes, “Third World debtor nations are almost exclusively countries that have at one time been attacked and conquered by European countries – often the very countries whom they now owe money”. He gives the example of France, who invaded Madagascar in 1895, before sapping the country with exorbitant taxes, forced labour and resource-stripping to pay for the cost of the occupation. The French built an infrastructural network not to “make it easier for Malagasy people to get around in their own country, but mainly to get products from the plantations to ports” for export. And then billed the Malagasy people for it. It’s a bill they are still paying today – part of the debt owed by Madagascar to France.
But this betrays the reality: capitalism is a power game. ‘Earning’ within the capitalist framework means getting what you can, as much as you can, as quickly as you can. This is how the competitive profit motive works. If it was a system based on some moral concept of earning the top 1% of the world’s population wouldn’t own more than 40% of the wealth while the bottom 50% owned 1%. Neither would the six Walton family heirs own more wealth than the bottom 100 million Americans. You get what you can and you don’t give it back – which is not to say people don’t work hard for what they get. Rather that this isn’t a moral framework for earning, and therefore shouldn’t be addressed with moral language. The strongest, least fanciful arguments for capitalism frame it in a realist context, not an idealistic one.
They would acknowledge it as a system in the historical tradition of Thucydides, where questions are answered “between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” And they would justify this with a description of ‘human nature’ which emphasises greed and individualism. (There is a well-established divergent perspective on the ‘human nature’ debate – one which is closer to Darwin’s emphasis on the importance of the environment in shaping behaviour. This too has been erased from the political narrative and needs to be re-introduced. So here’s Kropotkin, Chomsky/Foucault and Marx.)
Those of us seeking to provide an alternative to deepening inequality and suffering shouldn’t deny that ‘we are where we are’ – capitalist hegemony. But we’ve got to recast where, exactly, this is. There is widespread ackowledgement of the different set of rules for the rich and poor in society. A number of times recently I have been drawn into conversations about disparities of justice for the powerful and the rest. These conversations have descended, at a certain point, into wayward nostalgia about times when this was not the case.
This feeds into the notion that really we’ve just messed up a perfectly good system – not one that inevitably results in justice depending on your position of power. Anacharsis wrote in the 6th century BC that the law was like a spider’s web: strong enough to catch the weak but too weak to catch the strong.
Capitalism hasn’t been in existence since the 6th century BC, but it is firmly in the tradition of power-based realist politics that existed then – systems where inequalities are justified by appeals to rugged human nature. Capitalism is, essentially, just another in the succession of power-based hierarchies- with differentiated, interconnected, interacting systems of domination and subjugation – that have been the predominant social orders for humanity. (I think the best description of this is offered by the neologism ‘kyriarchy‘.)
To understand what this means it’s worth reflecting on the nature of capital. Books have been written on this subject – there are sharp divisions about what it is and how to describe it. But if we were to look at capital existing in a series of forms – cultural, financial, human, physical, political, social, etc. – it becomes clear how intertwined it is with the idea of power. In a hierarchical system of differentiated power, capital can be used to describe the power relationships that exist between groups and individuals. This is especially the case where there are power disparities: economic capital is economic power, political capital is political power, cultural capital is cultural power. Your status within the capitalist kyriarchy is determined by your “positionality in relation to capital circulation and accumulation”, where capital is the predominant quality in determining the hierarchy of power. What you “earn”, or are able to get, is in a large part determined by your ability to exercise your power, your various forms of capital.
Seeing capitalism as a power-based system has important ramifications for framing political actions therein. Those of us interested in the survival of the weakest must seek to create political discourse that allows them to speak and which accounts for power positions.
We should refuse to engage in discussions about economics or politics that are framed in ‘flat Earth’ positives – like things that are good for “the economy”- but that ignore the reality that the economy applies differently to different people, based on their positions of power.
Conversations that are, inevitably, framed by the powerful to fit their interests.
We must dismiss the belief that compelling arguments about economic growth or the need for demand will be enough to provoke a shift in policy away from austerity.
Likewise an appeal to this government to “live up to their commitments”. The seriousness with which the government treats its commitments is directly proportional to the power of those to whom they’ve made them. So, the commitment to the Troika – to devastate Irish society with an austerity programme of cuts and taxes to pay for private-sector banking debt – is more important than any promise made to voters.
An understanding of capitalism that emphasises power relationships must see the government as tending towards the interests of those with most power by definition.
The job of those without power, in the first instance, is to fight to set the boundaries of possibility for the government – to restrict them in their ability to favour the powerful at the expense of the rest. In my view the first challenge is to recast the narrative around the economic crisis to the fight – between those with power and those without, those who are ruling and those who are ruled – and away from the politics of false mutuality. The “difficult decisions” that are being taken do not apply to us all equally. As you may have noticed – while 7,000 people went to jail for not paying fines in 2011 while we’re still waiting for the first banker behind bars – we’re not all in this together.
While we’re still operating within the capitalist hegemony – where arguments based on its logic are likely to be more widely appealing – it’s worth recognising that in the realist school of political science there is an established practice in which those with little power seek to fight for their interests in the political sphere. It’s called ‘balance of power’ theory. In international relations this manifests itself as states allying themselves in the attempt to avoid dominance. For individual actors in state politics it means exactly the same thing as Gramsci advocated nearly one hundred years ago in L’Ordine Nuovo - to “organise because we’ll need all of your strength”.
Collective action is necessitated by a power-based system to harness the cumulative strength of the weak and fight against the dominance of the powerful. This is even a persuasive argument within the framework of self-interested, ‘rational choice’ actors. “Yes, we should all fight for our economic interests – and we should do it by collective action. Because that’s where our power lies.”
This recasting – to an emphasis on power, the need to come together and to fight – is crucial. It’s demonstrably the case that reasoned arguments won’t be enough. We need a resurgence of the struggle. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” African-American abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass’ wrote in his ‘Speech on West India Emancipation’.
“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted… The limits of [those in power] are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”
Until we come together, through collective action, to create a demand for justice nothing is going to change. To educate, agitate, organise – that is the task of those interested in the survival of the weakest in 2012. But it starts with a fight against the hegemony of capitalism and a narrative that legitimises the grotesque inequality and injustice which exists, and is being deepened, today. The powerful in this crisis will impose as much hardship on the powerless as they can. The fight to recast the political narrative is the fight to have this known.
Top image: ‘David and Goliath’ / ‘Davide e Golia’, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599.
Rónán Burtenshaw is Deputy Editor of The University Times.
Latest posts by Rónán Burtenshaw (see all)
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- Raceocracy: An Interview with Dr. Barnor Hesse – Part 1 - October 24, 2012
- Survival of the Weakest - January 10, 2012