Profit and Mechanism: Tipping the Field of Play

One of the things that makes the economic system special–of the vast array of forces and mechanisms at play in any given situation and any given location in space-time–is how universally it undergirds the social structure and individual incentives.

Commodification and the value-form, commodity fetishism, capitalist realism, and the “profit motive” broadly permeate everyday life and decision-making in all quarters, from the deeply personal, to grand organisations, states and corporations, and everything in between.

Before I dig further into the details, it is important to emphasise the myriad of other mechanisms that could influence a decision: from Thaler-style failed optimisation or the possibility, satisficing and animal spirits of Herbert Simon, J.M. Keynes and G.L.S. Shackle.

From a vast array of socialisations from perceptual differences, moral objections or power differentials inter- and intra-community, through to the mixed social-physicalities of sex, gender and ability, and even individual genius and eccentricity. (sidenote: if you want to see an example of someone using their own insane brainpower to break free of structural explanations, google Admiral Yi of the Joseon Navy).

Such forces, for a given moment in history may well, and indeed do frequently in the real world, relegate “vulgar” material incentives and economic structure to the role of “countervailing forces.” Despite this they remain ever present.

Assuming we aim to curtail the unreserved destructiveness of unmonitored capitalism, there are many options to choose from, but very few to choose from if our aim is to maintain this regulation.

This, not coincidentally, is a fundamental sticking point between liberal idealist pluralism and materialist leftism.

For whatever barriers there are to the mechanisms of capitalism operating unconstrained, the fundamental capitalist mechanisms remain ever-present.

In every market transaction. In every social movement trying to become or remain relevant and every centre of status quo resisting these changes. Not to mention individuals within all areas aiming to expand their access to the means of fulfilling human wants, be that through income, job security, corruption and cronyism whether they be academics, NGO workers, garbage collectors, top politicians, industry execs…

In all these cases what is optimised is not what is good but what is profitable. There is a market for medicine, good books and groceries, and all these can be corrupted in their own ways. More worryingly, there is a market for slavery, for rape, for guns, child porn.

There is a market for undermining free market dynamics in favour of oligopoly and oligopsony and a market for the systematic exclusion of externalities from economic consideration. There is a market for doctoring state policy. There is a market for avoiding the consequences of bad actions, a market for prisoners, a market for feel-good public speakers. There is a market for democracy and for dictators

All of which is to say, capitalism does not give a shit about what you hold dear. Those with the ability and the will to seize wealth and productive forces will do so, and use those resources both intentionally and unintentionally to support their positions materially and culturally.

The vast domain of liars, frauds, genocidal maniacs and people who think The Big Bang Theory is a good show will not be burnt away by the invisible hand, nor the visible one. Any attempt to do so is continuously undermined in every sector of society- big business, small business, the arts, academia, the media, government and public service, social movements (including most “””mainstream””” forms of communist ideology), and so on.

The logic of capitalism invades direct decision-making, culture, and individual thought processes.

Aiming to reform capitalism through countervailing mechanisms is akin to releasing a continuous stream on a steep slope and hoping for a majority of it to flow uphill, or at least to stop as it is.

If you’re lucky a some might get dammed in a root system, a little might flow over a particularly serendipitously placed rock and bounce back upwards a way. Even this analogy is too generous, for the slope remains and the water is continuously flowing, eroding the impediments to motion for as long as it is present.

Any shrubs growing to resist the downward flow will be waterlogged, wilting things clinging to rocks. Perhaps an outside force will somehow invigorate them for a time, but if that fades, there is nothing remaining to stem the flow.

This picture i have painted is grim, and there are occasional times which substantially stem the tide of the fundamental nature of capitalism (though i would hasten to add that these moments are rare, and these laurels tend to then be rested on for decades thus leaving the newly-minted institutions to be eroded). The fundamental problem is the fact that the forces of capitalism are operating continuously at all levels is society. Wherever there is a chink in the armour (and there will be chinks in the armour, often even purposefully introduced) capitalism will find and reward that behaviour which works to it’s benefit.