Monday, September 22, 2014

A Question of Semantics: “Capital” v. “Capital-ism”

Every so often someone expresses concern over CESJ’s use of the word “capital.”  Isn’t this a bad word?  Wouldn’t it be better to use a friendlier term like “productive” or “creative” wealth?  After all, we don’t want to alienate potential supporters who are rightfully outraged at the abuses we see in the capitalist system.

These are good points.  Perhaps the place to start in responding to this issue is to quote the ever-quotable G.K. Chesterton.  As he said, “If the use of capital is capitalism, then everything is capitalism.”  His point was that, if you’re discussing economic life, you can’t avoid using the word capital, at least, not if you want to be understood, unless, of course, your goal is to return to a way of life in which you use no technology of any kind, including a rock to throw at animals when hunting.  Chesterton’s issue was with capital-ism, and (even more) with social-ism, not with capital or society.

We think that using the term “productive” or “creative” wealth might be more problematical than the term capital.  “Wealth” is to many people today a dirty word, almost as dirty as the word “power.”  The words are almost inevitably linked in a pejorative manner, e.g., “the wealth and power of the Rothschilds,” “the wealth and power of the ‘banksters’,” “the wealth and power of Wall Street, the corporations, anybody on this week’s list,” and so on.

Thus, we don’t think that the problem is the word capital, but the reality of capital-ism.  Similarly, the problem is not with consumption, but with consumer-ism; consumption is, after all, the only legitimate reason to produce in the first place.  It’s pretty much the same with any other “ism.”

Both capital and labor are important because ownership links us to the means of production.  The problem comes when the link is broken or attenuated, whether to human labor (assuming we’re not slaves, we own our labor), or to capital.

Socialism, for example, breaks the link entirely.  Socialism and certain forms of “ethical capitalism” break the link between labor and capital, and the human person, by asserting that all rights come immediately from the State or the collective, and can be revoked as expedient in response to the demands of the State or collective.  (“Christian socialism” makes the same mistake in a slightly different way that we won’t get into here.)

Capitalism attenuates the link between labor and capital, and the human person, by maintaining the absolute character of natural rights — but effectively restrict the exercise of rights, especially property in capital, to an elite.  The more extreme forms of capitalism even assert that the necessarily limited exercise of property is itself absolute — for the elite who own capital, not for non-owners.

The upshot is that socialism takes away rights themselves and turns other workers into enemies who compete for your job (envy), while capitalism takes away “only” the exercise of rights and your job as well (greed).  This is why, while some moral authorities “only” harshly criticize capitalism (as they should), they condemn socialism outright.

Both capitalism and socialism are inherently divisive.  The former pits owners against non-owners, while the latter pits non-owners against each other.

The whole point of the Just Third Way, however, is to unify, not divide.  That is why we list “Participative Justice” first among the principles of economic justice.  Because a just return on our productive efforts once we’re participating is equally important, we list “Distributive Justice” second, but only because you can’t produce anything and get a just distribution until you’re participating.  Third is “Social Justice,” because if there are barriers preventing people from participating or receiving a just distribution commensurate with their inputs, or there are systemic or institutional flaws that prevent the system from operating justly for the benefit of all, people need to organize to remove these barriers or fix the system so that it operates properly.

The three principles of economic justice, however, Participative Justice, Distributive Justice, and Social Justice, have even more baggage than the word “capital,” especially the latter two — but we cannot get away from them; they’re essential to describing and understanding the Just Third Way.  We do, however, have to make certain that we define our terms as clearly and precisely as possible before we enter into meaningful dialog with anyone.

In our opinion, therefore, we think we should stick with the word “capital” to describe the non-human factor of production, even if the first time we say it we add a parenthetical, such as “i.e., the non-human factor of production, or productive or creative wealth.”  If someone has a problem after that, either he or she wasn’t paying attention and probably missed the whole point anyway, or has other issues that are not being articulated, and on which a more focused, one-on-one approach is needed.


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