As I stated in my piece on left-libertarianism, I don’t think libertarians generally grasp the essence of the problem with capitalism. The problem with capitalism is that our society has come to be shaped and structured around the concerns and conveniences of economic power. The success of humanity becomes measured not by overall well-being, but how much the market has “grown”, how well the world has been integrated into the industrial economic organism, and hinges on the volatile balance of stock markets in a kind of game of economic roulette. Our lives have become hostage to the games of economic powers outside our control.
It behooves us to recognize that the following things grant a form of power:
The ownership of land or public space – affects the right of others to existence in a given space, to have shelter, to travel, grants regulatory authority and power of exclusion to the owner(s).
The ownership of or access to large sums of money – affects the ability of individuals to obtain the needs of survival, opens avenues of political power, presents the opportunity for corruption.
The positions of authority within a business hierarchy – affects the ability of people to act as autonomous individuals and to speak freely, grants control over production and opens avenues of narcissism and bullying.
An important aspect of capitalism is that the average person, to one degree or another, must sacrifice some of their autonomy to the ownership class and business hierarchy in order to function in society and obtain the means of survival. This is a power dynamic unto itself born out of the play of economic forces – and the modern state partly developed out of the growing demands of those economic forces. The state did not intervene to force business to coalesce and become corrupt – it mainly did on its own. Rather, the state patterned itself around the reality of modern economic organizations and formed something of a symbiotic relationship with them. All the same, the economy has become such a big and complex organism that it is impossible to particularly control.
When you are born into the society, you are entering a complex social and economic framework of conditions that constrain your decision-making and even shape your psychology. You are “free to choose” and have earned the right to live – if you have the money. You are “free to get the money” and have earned the right to live in relative contentment – if you play by the rules and sign away a portion of your rights. In other words, you must rent and buy the privilege to not live as a criminal or brute, or a total dependent, from those who have monopolized resources. And your privileges come with the stipulation that you obey and play your role in the economic system, don’t complain, and maybe become a bit corrupt in the process.
You are also bombarded with media and marketing, always being “free to indulge” by handing over your money and being granted a “free press” within the confines of what is allowed by the business interests who mostly own the media. The continued development of consumable and dispensable products both helps keep contentment in society as a kind of pacifying force and allows business interests to continually make more money. The forging of personal identity and human relations becomes partly based on choices of consumption, and this especially impacts the forging of the psychology of young people in an atmosphere of media. Aside from the economic organism depending on you being a docile worker, it also encourages you to be a docile consumer.
Capitalism is also an ideological matter – it involves the crafting of “common sense” ideology that takes its necessity for granted. The narrative that the market is just the spontaneous result of free exchanges (as if it’s just a bazaar blown up to the global scale), obscures the larger structural reality and social dynamics of the situation; that your choices in the economy are largely determined and influenced by organizations and structures of power outside your control. Much like the illusion of political democracy being about public choice when it is represented by an oligarchy, “economic democracy” is not the reality of market interaction. And the narrative of the work ethic and social mobility, once internalized, traps people into supporting their own oppression. That’s capitalist ideology at play.
As long as the individual worker, consumer, and general economic agent does not particularly question the social norms that are taken for granted in capitalism, the economic system is their panopticon. A prison that they don’t even know they are in, with an extensive profile on their consumption habits and work history, a debt cloud hanging over their head, and a large bill for them to pay for the excesses and mistakes of their corporate masters. Even people in relative positions of economic power can be, in a way, imprisoned by the needs of the economic system, beholden to economic interest over anything resembling justice. They have a role to play too. Organizational ties bind us into doing what is best for the organization, whether we are casual wage workers or people in the business hierarchy.
Libertarians need a broader social theory if they really want to support human freedom and well-being. Support for “free markets” doesn’t cut it when the market is a behemoth of power of its own. Whatever extent one wishes to pin the cause of that power on the state (and of course I think the state has less of a role than libertarians claim), we have to cope with the realities of economic power as they currently are, and we can’t just call for the abolition of the state and expect economic power to automatically work out its own problems. We must realize that economic power enables social control and entraps us into participating in our own exploitation as a society. Smash the economic panopticon!