Notes on the Future of Capitalism

British philosopher Robert Rowland Smith reflects on the future of capitalism and suggests it will look strangely similar to its past.

What a claim. To write about the future of capitalism, as if either of the principal terms, future and capitalism, were given, understood or self-evident; as if the future already existed to be written about, rather than being, at best, an extrapolation of the present within a continuous and homogeneous dimension, or, at worst, a mere projective fantasy; as if capitalism weren’t in its mobility, in its capacity to morph around opportunities, precisely a phenomenon that eludes the grasp of the intellectual, in favour of the businessman, by refusing to belong safely to the category of a concept.

At a defining level, capitalism won’t be written about. It’s ahead of the game, preoccupied with its own future, annoyed and/or amused at being detained by these conceptual essays that clutch at it as it flashes past. Capitalism is haste, impatience, a butting against the next, leaving little time for the thinkers footing slow behind in its wake. If nothing else, capitalism remains an agenda, an agenda combined with the resources to make it happen. To the degree that capitalism connotes consumption, what it consumes is not only the future, in the sense of resources that will have been exhausted, but the past, in the sense that the past gets ingested and forgotten. Forgetting is the ground of capital: that’s where it derives so much of its energy. It never wants to be bound, which is why regulation must plant its scaffold around it, to tax it, break up its monopolies, force it to be transparent. Capitalism hates its bindings, the free market never free enough, never irresponsible enough, never forgetful enough of the concerns that went before. Capitalism self-exceeds, that’s how it grows, like yeast, like interest, like a return on an investment: what was there, the initial deposit of capital, was already bigger than itself, its culture lives with growth, with bounty. Not just replication but multiplication, capital is the miracle of the multiplication sign, X. To exceed itself, capitalism is that which timeses itself, the part larger than the whole from the very start.

This is why, for all its urgency, for all the rapid processing in digital trading, capitalism is pure slowness, and should be distinguished from the fast money with which the Left often associates it. Capital isn’t cash. Capital qua capital doesn’t deposit itself overnight. As the ‘deposit’ metaphor suggests, the production of capital depends on the build-up of sediments of wealth, and these can take years, decades, generations to accumulate. Capital is no windfall, it’s the result of patience, just like Max Weber said. The true capitalist, the man of virtue, exhibits patience, works hard, saves his pennies, invests. What capital needs, therefore, to go with its money, is time. Without time, money won’t grow, its inner life can’t dehisce from itself, can’t compound out into the extra that was breathing within. No multiplication in a vacuum of time.

It’s in this foundational sense that the ‘future’ of capitalism becomes newly legible. Capital without time has no future; it’s just cash, pocket money, exchange value, net present value and probably depreciating. Time makes the medium for multiplication, for money to become capital, rather than consuming itself in the instant of exchange. When money includes the future within, the possibility—no, the necessity—of its growth, then it becomes capital. Don’t ask about the future of capital, as though ‘future’ were just one predicate among others: no capital without future, without its growth, say even its necessary unfolding, over time.

Time, but not eternity. Capital wants to see growth within a defined period, the shorter the better; the most growth in the least time, like a force-fed animal. Capital needs time but doesn’t want it, because as much as time provides the incubating atmosphere for growth, it also enjoins delay upon the capitalist, the very enemy of his hasty instincts. A return that takes a lifetime to mature, that tests his patience, tests the limits of capital. The kind of time required by capital is timed time, time with a deadline, a wad of notes with a watch wrapped around them, ticking, the alarm set. Which makes the future of capital play both a general role, that of the incubating environment, and a special role, the future referring to a specific date, so many months or years ahead; both the space between bookends and the bookend on the right hand side.

Towards that space between bookends, the space of its unfolding future, capital holds the attitude of nature towards a vacuum: abhorring, it must fill it. ‘Growth’ may sound like a mere metaphor, a didactic phrase, but the yeastiness of capital comes very close to impregnating it with the qualities of life. Capital is money that lives because it grows; grows because it lives. Between the animate and the inanimate, capital helps the animate, the human being, to survive, to be resourced over time, to last.

The animal, capital. Poised on its haunches to leap forward, into its future; the past simply what it consumed in order to grow, to live bigger, almost like ‘will’ in Schopenhauer. Capital as the will to grow, for life to express itself through expansion and multiplication. As opposed to state control, where ‘state control’ marks a tautology: the state maintains the state, a state of control, order, balance, audit. Capital hates the state because the state holds: the state holds as the abstract justice, frozen into a system that regulates, distributes evenly across those who constitute it. It freezes into an icon or image, the state, that which presides and prevails; meanwhile capital pulls away from it, life tugging at the state monument, pulling at its tether until some of the stonework of the state starts to crumble; the state can’t control capital, the state can’t state capital, because to state it is to fix it in an eternal present, to deny the futurity that is capital. Onwards, growth, life-force, opportunism.

In this sense, capitalism doesn’t even oppose state-based socio-political systems. To oppose is to occupy a fixed point in a stated construct, to become an opposite and so maintain the state of opposition. But capital won’t tarry with opposing, with occupying the opposite pole: that would be to mistake it for the ideology that it continually sloughs off. Capitalism is no ideology, it’s the resistance to ideology per se, beyond opposition. Refusing to be stated as the opposite to the state, it’s always excepting itself, making new rules for itself that aren’t rules, pleading special treatment, exemption, exiting from the state system altogether in order to assume the freedom that is its movement of expansion, freedom to grow, invent, discover, innovate.

Nevertheless, this freedom to invent obeys a set of principles, and is thus thoroughly predictable, even if the application of the principles might change. The future of capitalism, therefore, must always resemble the past of capitalism. It principles are as follows:

  1. Risk. You have to speculate to accumulate. Money doesn’t grow on trees; the capitalist is a person of action, but the action takes the form of risk, i.e. speculation. The capitalist has to embrace blindness, the lack of certainty about what will happen to the money, whether it will grow or wither. The capitalist knows that risk is his shadow, and spends much of his time trying to run away from it, transferring risk onto others, especially the state, whenever he can.
  2. Monopoly. Where capitalism succeeds, and the money does indeed grow—if capitalism is a set of bets on the future, some of those bets will necessarily pay off—it will grow in a compound fashion, thanks to the laws of interest. This means that the impetus towards the creation of monopolies is built into it.
  3. Complicity. The state, whose essence it is to temper the excesses of capitalism by legislating against monopolisation in the name of the free market that allowed the monopolies to develop in the first place, will never be pure in discharging this essence. States will always collude with the generation of capital because of the various benefits it affords, not to mention the state’s inability to generate money by itself. The only real question in politics is how far the state will go in this collusion.
  4. Elites. The effect of powerful monopolies and the complicity of the state is the generation of an elite in which they support each other, and which welcomes in only those who are either similarly wealthy or in a political or social position to help secure that wealth.
  5. Secrecy. Because capitalism depends on making more money than others are making, it is interested in withholding the sources of its wealth generation from those who might cash in on it and so threaten to dilute its share. The capitalist strives to withhold the sources of capital, and this leads in turn to a complexity and multiplicity of investments that serve to keep them out of sight as much as possible. The current dogma on transparency will never have a complete view of the movements of capital.
  6. Conscience. The capitalist’s apparent luck in being so wealthy will tax his conscience. Whether he alleviates his conscience through giving to charity, to a religious foundation or engaging in other acts of philanthropy, the capitalist pays a moral tax on his wealth, and even having paid it, the conscience never quite sleeps. At the heart is the fear that the capitalist has lost the right to belong among his fellow humans. When scandals come to light, like LIBOR, cartels, tax avoidance, and so on, he knows these are no aberration but part of capitalism’s essence: capital capitalises on capital, doing everything to maximise itself even in the face of the law.
  7. Legacy. Capitalism may be a life-principle, but capitalists are mortal. They die, and they can’t take their money to the grave. Capital lives on after the capitalist—that was a big motive—so one of the capitalist’s chief concerns is what happens to it when no longer in his control. The monument is built into capital, the desire to found something, even to mimic the state. The capital must serve future generations, but future generations must also serve it by never allowing it to become depleted.

All the energy of capitalism, its self-exceeding dynamism, will never escape the frame of these principles. They are the pact it signs. Its combusting future, that destructive-creative force by which it is animated, roars like a lion inside the cage of these principles that let it be what it is. Are there other animals in other cages? Perhaps, but they’re not ones that the capitalist can figure.

Further Reading

Jacques Derrida, L’autre cap, Minuit, 1991.

Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas, Verso, 2007.

Max Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Createspace, 2010.

Geoff Mulgan, The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future, Princeton University Press, 2013.

Capitalism must be dealt with. Not as in ‘killed’ but as in ‘taken into account.’ Often when it comes up in our pages, it is a thing to be pushed forward, redesigned or overcome entirely. Understandable when progressive concepts (‘open,’ ‘informal,’ etc.) are contrasted to terms like ‘complicity,’ ‘monopoly,’ ‘elites’ and ‘secrecy.’ Regardless of whether the goals of going beyond the current capitalism are possible or not, the fact remains that like the environment, it is a presence to be accounted for, and better tackled when well understood — AR

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