Capitalism and Circumstance
When examining questions of inequality and hierarchies of power dynamics, we must consider all of the variables that we have access to, especially when it comes to the acquisition of capital, and the creation of the proletariat. These variables include, but are not limited to: physical and mental ability, environment (geography, social/cultural influence, available resources), the history of a specified occupied place, and the spiritual/mythological precedence over said lifestyle. Capitalism, in particular, I do not think is the toxic organization of life in which it is spoken of. Rather, capitalism is a way in organizing the distribution of human needs, but can lead to a devaluation of human life and meaning.
Looking at human history is a good place to start, specifically through the lens of human needs and desires. If we look at the so-called origins of human civilization, specifically around the geographic location known as the fertile crescent, we can see how after careful cultivation of the land and an abundance of resources thereafter, can lead to not only an abundance of wealth, but also an abundance of power. I think it is safe to say, that we are not all ‘created’ equal in our abilities, so when early humans began the cultivation of land and domestication of animals, those potentially small inequalities shined through the opacity of human capability. Those with better observational skills over the weather, better understanding of animal behavior, and those with better leadership skills, most likely ended up producing the better crops, livestock, and surplus of resources, would invariably end up on top of their respected community. Karl Marx recognized this early process by what he called primitive accumulation. He said:
We have seen how money is changed into capital; [...] But the accumulation of capital presupposes surplus-value; surplus-value presupposes capitalistic production; capitalistic production presupposes the pre-existence of considerable masses of capital and of labour power in the hands of producers of commodities. The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn in a vicious circle, out of which we can only get by supposing a primitive accumulation preceding capitalistic accumulation; an accumulation not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point.
Marx recognizes that early acquisition of wealth is merely a means for providing the needs of humans. However, he also sees the corrupting power of high surplus-value of capital accumulation. This is where I think we should look at the reinforcement of competence hierarchies, transforming them into dominance hierarchies.
In Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, in the introduction, he famously states that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Religion is the binding factor that contributes to hierarchies of dominance; in order to hold onto the capital that one has acquired, it helps that you can provide meaning to the people in which you preside over. Because people of antiquity put myth and spirituality into the mysteries of nature and the world, it becomes an obvious route to place oneself in a place of religious significance, that allows for dominion over subjects and property; it then transforms into ownership of faith and land/resources.
Here, ownership is no longer in the realm of claims to competence and ability, but now to a divine claim. Because of the ubiquity this trend had across Eurasia, it begs the question as to why we don’t see this kind of development in the early settlers of the Americas. In the June 1818 series of petitions to Cherokee chiefs, simply titled Cherokee Women, they state that “the land was given to us by the Great Spirit above as our common right, to raise our children upon, & to make support for our rising generations, … as the Cherokee nation have been the first settlers of this land; we therefore claim the right of the soil.” Here we have a similar spiritual element to that of what occurred in the fertile crescent, but instead of pure claims over resources, it has become a conversation around the cultivation of culture, and in this instance of the Cherokee nation. The land becomes the essential factor for the development of their society, where deep meaning and spirituality can be found. Notice that ownership and a divine claim are still integral pieces of the Cherokee society. While the Cherokee almost certainly do not represent all of indigenous North American peoples, their claims to the land center around ‘collective’ ownership and their ‘divine right’ is less about the reinforcement of power over resources, but a gift from the Great Spirit to do with which they will over the land. So what, then, can we take away from either perspective? Ultimately, I think the conversation steers toward happiness, meaning, and fulfillment.
Without constructing a defense of manifest destiny or some form of population essentialism, I think it is important to examine what is meaningful for either party’s common projects, i.e. indigenous American tribes and European, Western settlers. More egalitarian cultures like that of the Cherokee nation finds fulfillment and meaning in normal, everyday life. Whether it is interaction with their society at large, or more intimate encounters with nature and wildlife, these ‘simple’ gestures of experience are something that earlier settlers and colonizers did not take seriously, and it is something that we should not necessarily embrace, but at least recognize as a viable way of life. However, something I think that is equally important, are the actual reasons as to why the West has the history that it does. Without making moral claims to one side or the other, regardless of motive or power relations, I think what gave early Western civilizations meaning was an attempt to negate suffering in some way. Whether or not this was effective, the accumulation of resources and surplus of value led to a kind of prosperity and pseudo-hedonism. An alleviation of life’s burdens can give us a tremendous amount of time to invest into all kinds of exploration into the unknown; we find fulfillment and indulgence in things we would never think otherwise. A problem arises, however, when not everyone has access to this kind of freedom, to find meaning in a universe, where none was ever previously known. This was Marx’s main critique: the workers that were responsible for contributing to the fulfillment to a growing bourgeoisie, led to the exploitation of those very workers, creating a new proletariat. Marx said in his essay Estranged Labor, the “worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.” To me, this becomes the most troubling claim thus far. Not that people are exploited, but that the largest consequence of capitalism leads to a material nihilism.
Whether or not we all admit it, capitalism has led to great prosperity across the globe. Whole populations of people have been lifted out of poverty, clean water is inexpensive and readily available to everyone, vast amounts of people are connected, simultaneously at any given moment on the internet, it has led to new forms of creativity and entrepreneurship, and most importantly has led to an enormous spread of information, which gives rise to new forms of education and acquiring of knowledge. Friedrich Nietzsche warned us about this, in his notable work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Speaking about the last man, he says that “the earth has become small, and on it hops the last man who makes everything small” (Prologue, §5, Pg. 13). Further on, “‘We have invented happiness’ - say the last men, and blink.” For Nietzsche, the last man is the most contemptible, and is antithesis to all things meaningful and creative. This is my worry, that if we do not address issues of meaning, and instead focus on happiness or the fulfillment of human desire, then we will breed a generation of mediocrity and homogeneity.