Saturday, June 06, 2020

Capitalism Alone (4) Economic Calculators

In his book called Capitalism Alone, Branko Milanovic says that we have all become economic calculating machines.

The ultimate success of capitalism is to have transformed human nature such that everyone has become an excellent calculator of pain and pleasure, gain and loss—so much so that even if capitalist factory production were to disappear today we would still be selling each other services for money; eventually we shall become companies ourselves. Imagine an economy (similar externally to a very primitive one) where all production was conducted at home or within the extended family. This would seem to be a perfect nonmarket economy. But if we had such an economy today, it would be fully capitalistic because we would be selling all these goods and services to each other: a neighbor will not keep an eye on your children for free, no one will share food with you without payment, you will make your spouse pay for sex, and so forth. This is the world we are moving toward, and the field of capitalistic operations is thus likely to become unlimited because it will include each of us and our mostly mundane daily activities.
He claims that commodification was not imposed on us by companies that want to find new sources of profits. He suggests that we have chosen this change for the perceived benefits.
The truth is that we are willingly, even eagerly, participating in commodification because, through long socialization in capitalism, people have become capitalistic calculating machines. We have each become a small center of capitalist production, assigning implicit prices to our time, our emotions, and our family relations (p.194).

Commodification “all the way down” is a commodification process in which individuals participate freely, and, moreover, it is something that they often find liberating and meaningful. Some may see this as shallow (Does the ability to drive your own car for profit or to deliver pizza at any hour that suits you give meaning to your life?), but it dovetails perfectly with the system of values that sustains hypercommercialized capitalism and that individuals have internalized. This system, as I mentioned before, places the acquisition of money on a pedestal. The ability to trade one’s own personal space and time for profit is thus seen both as a form of empowerment and as a step toward the ultimate objective of acquiring wealth. It therefore represents the triumph of capitalism.

Commodification of the private sphere is the apogee of hypercommercialised capitalism. It does not presage a crisis of capitalism. A crisis would result only if the commodification of the private sphere were seen as intruding into areas that individuals wanted to protect from commercialization, and as putting pressure on them to engage in activities in which they did not want to participate. But most people perceive it as the opposite: a step toward enrichment and freedom.

We can make the following conclusions. First, on a purely factual side, there is no serious argument disputing that as societies grow richer, the sphere of commodification expands.

Second, while greater commodification has made our lives better in many cases and responds to a definite choice by people, it has also often weakened personal ties and sometimes made us more callous, because our knowledge that any pesky little problem can be solved by throwing money at it has made us less concerned about our neighbors and family.

Therefore, as we live in an increasingly commodified environment where interactions are transitory and discrete, the space where we can exercise “nice” cooperative behavior shrinks. When we get to the point where we have all become just agents in one-off deals, there will no longer be any place for freely given niceness. That end point would be both a Utopia of wealth and a dystopia of personal relations.

Capitalism has successfully transformed humans into calculating machines endowed with limitless needs.

To live in capitalism, we do not need the capitalist mode of production in factories if we have all become capitalistic centers ourselves (p. 196).

In my book Government of God, I describe how the structure of society can be transformed by the gospel and Jesus' command that we love one another.

No comments: