Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Economic Lyric

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. It can be said with more than a modicum of historical certainty that the approach to reality constellated in this thought, popularized by Marx as a navigational waypoint to a perfected society, has been in our lifetime thoroughly discredited, and, to judge solely by the suffering wrought in the course of the its experiential elaboration, justifiably so. Western capitalism stands triumphant. But whether this triumph is the result of its absolute correspondence to an immutable truth of the human psyche or merely evidence of a temporally conditioned superiority to its prime historical antagonist is as yet unclear; the judgment awaits a much longer unfolding, requires most likely the millennial scope of a history yet unlived, impossible now to write and thus secure against analysis.
Nonetheless, such security is insufficient proof against a grave doubt that now and then troubles still thought and silent observation: that capitalism ascendant has done little more than wrench the dictum of defeated Marxism inside out and set about its societal navigation according to a precept that time will prove to be equally errant, equally soul deadening: From each according to his need, to each according to his ability.
What we understand as capitalism is the effort to monetize all reality, to apotheosize metrics and to insist that only that is actual that yields to calculation. It labors to submit all existence to the rule of number, to establish the notion of metrics as the first principle of the universe, and to proceed on the basis of that effort to reorganize matter. This project of the human psyche, seemingly based on knowledge as certain as that divinely revealed, as discoverable as that inherent in the scientifically observed, is then understood, at least in the West, as essential to the architecture of society, the very fundament of reason. This is so most fervently in America, where it is held, correctly or otherwise, to be enshrined in the national foundational documents and thus definitive of the common consciousness, the very substance of the national identity. Certainly, unbiased thinking grants that material reorganization is perhaps the central force of human history, and observation confirms it as at least the most immediately perceptible. Indeed, though it disdains the qualification and asserts only the declarative, all our science shares the germ of this thought. But science does not stand alone in consideration of this project.
For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? It is not necessary to subscribe to any theology to find value in this caution; even unflinching reason, having divested itself of any consideration of the divine as actual, finds it possible, perhaps even logically necessary, to see in scripture, itself a foundational document, an elementally valid modeling of human psychological and social development. Still, though it reluctantly grant a psychological value to such scriptural modeling, reason may yet refuse to abstract from that concession a blanket proscription against profit.
Reason recognizes need as a consequence of the materiality of the world through which we move. That materiality is questionable only in the more esoteric schools of philosophy and physics, its primal importance debatable most appropriately only in those of theology and psychology. Life as we live it --- the life of the five senses, the life of the frailty of the flesh and of its mortality, the life of the tenuous coherence of solidity and thought --- demands that we recognize in matter and in need as a consequence of matter a bedrock of reality, especially so as our technology drives relentlessly toward an engulfing simulacrum of the material, a virtual unreality complete with entirely new, entirely unreal, needs.
In answering the persistent question of need, capitalism presents itself as a sort of perpetual motion device, sustained, like the universe itself,  by  limitless expansion and dogged replication. Capital, effectively assembled, begets profit, which is assembled as new capital which in turn begets new profit and so on endlessly self renewing, a  fugue of plenty. This dim mimicry of the most basic biological drive toward perpetuity ensures that the notion of "profit" occupy an enduring position in the structure of the rational mind. Again, simple observation appears to confirm not only the inherent reasonableness of that notion but also the superiority of social organization on a capitalist model as the manifestly most efficient means for the generation of profit and by virtue of such generation the satisfaction of need.
All well and good. The prevalent American notion of capitalism as a fundamentally utopian mechanism seems justified. Upon reflection, however, simple observation falters. How then account for the prevalence of discord? Having granted the reasonableness of profit and the efficacy of capitalism in its production, the question devolves to this: is there then, in a truly free society, an inherent necessity for some manner of constraint on profit and its accumulation? And from that this corollary question: can a society be judged truly free absent such constraint?
Society does not exist for the creation of profit; profit exists for the creation of society. All that we identify as the flaw in the more common understanding of capitalism and capitalist endeavor derives from the failed apprehension of this primal reality. The oft repeated notion that the highest virtue and most durable strength of American society is to be found in the putative opportunity it provides to every individual to accumulate without restriction as much wealth as talent and good fortune permit, so long as that accumulation be accomplished within the law, is suspect. Capitalism tends toward malevolence to the extent that the goal of capitalist endeavor is understood to be simply the unrestrained accumulation of wealth; it is then mere profiteering.
To deflect from capitalist thought this and similar indictments requires that both reason and the soul's innate yearning for justice be satisfied by the term of the defense, a defense that therefore requires an earnest consideration not only of the mechanics of capitalism but also of its purposes. Such consideration must endeavor to apply itself both in the aggregate and in the individual case, in the corporate as in the personal instance. As a consequence of our understanding of freedom, reason demands that we acknowledge a right to be rich; as a consequence of our understanding of justice, the soul insists that such a right be somehow tempered.
Capitalism, like any economic system, must prove itself capable first of satisfying the basic needs of the society it organizes; these basic needs are understood to be the root exigencies of material existence: food, shelter, clothing. Minimally provided with these, man can survive; limited to these minimums, he will likely go mad. Thus as capitalism succeeds as an organizing force it encounters the social and civilizing imperative to amplify its understanding of basic need and place further and accelerating emphasis on education and security. Having assured itself, whether by demonstration or delusion, of its superior fitness to satisfy these basic needs, capitalism then turns its attention to securing its perpetuity and does so by creating entirely new need...and in the process often confuses novelty with progress. It is in the creation of such new need (the peculiar genius of American capitalism), in its pre-emptive nature and narrow focus, that capitalism lays itself open to suspicion.
The impetus of American capitalism as presented in its simplest form to the soul  --- its focus, its driving force, that which when it reflects upon itself it recognizes as its root and justification --- is the production of profit. It is precisely at this point, profit having been produced, that American capitalism must be submitted to the strictures of distributive justice and is thereby subject to the authority of the State, acting upon its charge to "ensure domestic tranquility." Taxation is the compulsive fiscal mechanism whereby this authority is manifested. To the extent that its employment is for purposes beyond those constitutionally proper (for example, provision for the common defense), taxation is most effectively considered as essentially compensatory to a deficit of societal caritas and as such is a corrective necessary only to the extent that the capitalist dynamic is flawed, failed, or unresolved. It is not structurally necessary to submit capitalism to the norms of distributive justice; properly ordered capitalism is the norm of distributive justice. But that proper ordering must move capitalist thought beyond the production of profit to its deployment.
Again: society does not exist for the creation of profit; profit exists for the creation of society. It is in this sense that greed is not only an individual moral failing but social sabotage as well. It is not that so many of the rich make so much money that piques the soul and disturbs the social equilibrium, it is that so many of them spend so much of it on themselves.