Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Capitalism Alone (1)

I have just read a book by Branko Milanovic (2019) called Capitalism Alone. I found most of the book rather uninteresting, but towards the end of the book was a chapter that really shifted my thinking. It contains some ideas about what is happening in our modern society that should be disturbing followers of Jesus. These changes are not good, but they are real, and most of us are part of them. If we do not understand what is happening and develop serious alternatives, we could be in serious trouble.

According to Milanovic, the whole of life is being commercialised. There are two sides to the commercialisation of our economy and society: Atomization and Commodification. I will give explanations of these two big words in the next couple of posts.

Milanovic defines atomisation in the following way. It is a situation where individuals become the most important component of society, at the expense of other groupings.

Atomization refers to the fact that families have largely lost their economic advantage as an increasing number of goods and services that used to be produced at home, outside the market and not subject to pecuniary exchange, can now be purchased or rented on the market. Activities like preparing food, cleaning, gardening, and taking care of babies and sick and elderly people were provided “free” at home in traditional societies and, until very recently, in modern societies (unless one was very rich). It was certainly one of the main reasons marriage existed at all. But with increasing wealth, we can purchase almost all of these services externally, and we have less and less of a need to share our lives with others. It is not an accident the richest societies today tend toward a family size of one (p. 185).

It is not necessarily because people in poorer countries love being together, but because they cannot afford to live alone. Living together “internalizes” these activities (cooking, cleaning, and so on) and also provides economies of scale in everything from cooking oil to electricity (that is, utilities and cooking expenses are lower for two people living together than for each of them living alone multiplied by two) But in rich societies, all of these activities can now be outsourced. Taken to a dystopian conclusion, the world would consist of individuals living and often working alone (other than for the period when they are taking care of children), who would have no permanent links or to other people and whose needs would all be supplied by markets, in the same way that most people today do not make their own shoes but buy them in a store. There is similarly no reason why anyone (except the very poorest) would have to wash their own dishes or prepare their own food.

Atomization (which, taken to the extreme, implies the end of the family).

Milanovic explains that this atomization has increased the legal intrusions into family life. Some of these are good and some are bad.
The reason why the family has been the unit that takes care of the old and the young, and exchanges goods and services among its members regardless of who is a net “winner” or “loser,” is because the rules existing within families are different from those holding outside (p.188).

Todays commercialized model lies at the other extreme. The external – world is allowed to break inside not only in the form of the delivery of dinners and cleaning services but also in the form of legal intrusion. These intrusions—such as prenuptial agreements, and the ability of the courts take away children and to control the behavior of spouses toward each other—while in many cases desirable developments (e.g., in preventing spousal abuse), further hollow out the internal tacit compact that held families together. This legal intrusion of society into family life is just another instance of outsourcing. The internal family “legal code” is simply outsourced to society at large, the same way that cooking a meal is outsourced the nearby restaurant. Both types of outsourcing cannot but raise the ultimate question: What is the advantage of family or of cohabitation in a rich, commercialized world where every service can be purchased?

If we are honest, we will realise that we have all participated in this process of atomisation. If we are going to resist the trend, then we need an alternative model for society that is based on loving one another and serving each other.

This atomisation of an economy has three stages. It ends with everything that takes place in the home being commercialised.

One can identify three historical types of interactions between the private and public (economic) spheres. The first is the precapitalist one, where production is carried out within the household. This “household mode of production” was long characteristic of China, all the way into the nineteenth century, when western Europe had already moved to the much more prevalent use of wage labor that defines the second historical type. This second type involves the use of wage labor outside the home (that is, not the putting-out system in which people do piece labor for others inside their own home). It is part of a typical capitalist mode of production with a sharp distinction between the production and family spheres—a distinction that Weber thought was absolutely fundamental for capitalism. Finally, the new hypercommercialized again unifies production and family but does so by folding the household into the capitalist mode of production. We can see this as a logical outcome in the development of capitalism, as capitalism moves to “conquer” new spheres and to commodify new goods and services. This stage also implies substantial improvements in the productivity of labor because only sufficiently wealthy societies can afford to fully commodify all of the personal relations that have traditionally been left out of the market.
As I read this, I couldn’t help wondering if working from home, which has become popular during the lockdown, is part of the third stage that he describes.

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