Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.
—Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 36
From a human perspective, capitalism can be seen as evil on a level which in prior history was unthinkable: evil in an objective, impersonal, and emotionless sense. Capitalism as a system seems to rise up over humanity as the shadow cast by the human mind’s ingenuity and incredible imagination. As Marx aptly saw, capitalism is a form of life which so far has empirically had for its content the most brutal and unbearable contradiction and alienation of the human body and soul at one and the same time. Capital not only has invaded our minds as persuasion and ideology, but also forcefully and materially commands our bodies to serve and sacrifice ourselves for it.
The Shadow of God Cast by Thought
For those against capitalism, there is one word the champions of capitalism on the Right and liberal Left use again and again to cut the conversation and denigrate those who want a genuinely different and better world: idealism. We are idealistic, they say, for we believe in mere ideas. They say we do not understand that what we want is unrealistic, and that we are willing to sacrifice this real world and people within it in our zeal to make the ideal actual. To be an idealist, they think, is to be a naïve dreamer unable to see that the world is not a rational place and never will be. Reality is hard and tough and mean one where the fittest alone survive. Regardless of what we want to believe, they say, humans are just Darwinian biological machines, and the world we have today is just the inevitable form of our nature as embodied blind drives seeking reproductive advantage. Capitalism, with its cut throat competition for accumulation is, for them, the natural order of things because of our so-called animal nature. Disregarding that if we were in truth as these people believe it would be the end of society if even one mere tenth of the population really acted like this, the charge of this idealism against the Left is a bit silly.
Allow me to make an argument against this conception of idealism, for abstract idealism, far from being unrealistic and impossible, is unfortunately already a reality. Yes, an ideal world is already here with us, and it is because of, not in spite of, the reality of this abstract idealism rising to absolute status that our world is a nightmare for many, yet a paradise for few. What is this idealism? It is capitalism. This may seem a strange claim, but allow me to explain.
How is capitalism a type of idealism? If there is anything peculiar about capitalism which makes it idealist in any way, it is the necessary belief in its structures, particularly all those which are required to enable the market: the ideal of value and money as its independent existence, the whole of a financial system, the splitting of the masses from means of production, the privatization of life’s necessities, and the enforcement of these beliefs in actual institutions. First, we need the ideal of the right to private property with few limits, the ideal of the authority of the state as sole enforcer and protector of right through law and the implicit threat of violence, and the ideal of the validity and social binding power of contract. These are just a few of the necessary aspects of capitalism, but this does not exhaust the possibility of where capitalist interests can exceed their necessary structures and erect new structures to enforce power which heavily favor capitalists even when it does not favor capital. A whole ideological apparatus is raised up in a holy union of education, media, and religion in order to cement the idea that capitalism is natural and good. The nature of the system is mystified through economic theories which ignore the historical and social nature of the system, focusing on individual notions of preference as the basis of prices and wages, and mystifying the source of profits.
Capital orders and reorders the world for itself through us. Our businesses flourish so long as we maintain ourselves in the good path of investing where profit rates are high and divesting where they are low; of serving every desire that has a dollar to pay and not being charitable and wasting our hard-earned money on the parasites who exist outside the system and have no money or labor we desire. We thrive when our minds align with it and serve its great purpose: unlimited expansion. When we truly believe time is money, it smiles on our industrious slaving. When we see every activity as an investment, from games to personal relations, it chills its burning heart ever on the edge of bursting into crisis. When we scorn those who do not do this, it caresses us with its cold hand and showers us with its cold coin, the reward for giving up our silly human empathy and priceless pursuits of culture to submit to its cold task of endless accumulation for its own sake.
If capital—self-expanding value—can be considered the God of modern society (and have no doubt, this God is absolute; even Yahweh and Brahman bow to it in practice though not in word), then the market is the hand of God’s providence, revealing which of God’s subjects are favored and which are condemned. It is the unconscious force that benevolently allocates resources and fulfills necessities and desires in the best possible manner, but only if it is appeased with a guarantee of freedom to do as it does without question to its benevolence, efficiency, and rationality. Money is the immediate and concrete symbol of God’s benevolence, granting its wielder the great power to command the labor of any, for money is the blood of the modern world without which society dies—it must flow, and the wielder may only relinquish it when the labor of others is desired. This blood must flow, and though we puny humans may dream of defying our God—capital—we will suffer punishment for it so long as it yet lives to command.
The punishment of God falls upon all. However, it rarely retracts the benevolence it already gave to its greatest preachers and champions, and they weather the punishment without much of a scratch so long as they have their hoards of money to command one section of the poor to slaughter the other section of the poor that suffer the great brunt of the punishment of God. These poor, who are driven to and by madness due to the deprivation of the material needs of life, are denied the worth of their human essence and are seen as beasts who have lost all reason and respect for the rule of the laws of God. They do not respect private property, they do not respect the validity of contract, and they take up arms for themselves and defy God’s state as the only valid authority capable of enforcing right in the world.
In good times, nobody notices these structures’ unnatural existence, yet when economic crashes occur it becomes plain to see the insanity of an abstraction ordering and running the human world. We do not notice that our God cares not for any single one of us until it is too late, until it has used us up without any rational direction but itself, and when it comes crashing it turns in blind anger against all. More straight to the point, real cases where this idealism is most obvious and jarring is crashes and depressions. It is in these moments where it is clear for all to see just how idealistic, unreal, irrational, and unnatural is this politico-economic system known as capitalism.
The Economic Crash as Awakening
Crashes in the economy which lead to depressions are the most obvious tell-all of idealism. Why? Anyone who has ever looked at the terrible material and human cost these events incur must ask themselves why something like the great 1929 crash in the U.S. played out the way it did. What changed in the world on that fateful day of Black Thursday in 1929? Did we have a famine overnight which killed our crops? No. Did the factories suffer physically from severe structural crippling? No. Did the workers who created the goods of the economy and consumed them disappear? No. Did houses suffer a blight that rotted their foundations? Did the skyscrapers fall in a great earthquake? No. What crashed on that fateful day? It wasn’t our material infrastructure; it wasn’t a physical destruction of our crops and geography by natural catastrophe. It was nothing that anyone needed to produce, it was not the people themselves who labored to produce or consume, and nothing materially real. What crashed on Black Thursday was a virtual map of the economy tracked by slips of paper and gold pieces, the books that kept record of these slips of paper, and a faith in the churches which sang the praises to this wonderful ideal of value. What crashed on Black Thursday was the secure belief in an idea—an ideal, existing entity which was only real in and through our willing belief in it. That was what crashed: a mere virtual ghost which imperfectly tracked and arranged our real lives and material production.
Think through that scenario—really think through it. Nothing happened in the Great Depression except that a virtual and idealized economy failed to represent the real economy and collapsed. In any sane and rational world, this would have been a sign that perhaps such a system of ordering society is not fit for our world—that we could do much better than it. Instead of shaking our heads and looking ahead to better ways to organize society, we decided to dig in our heels and basically fulfill the will of the market through our actions: if the market has failed, the world must fail with it. Lo and behold, people lost jobs and homes, food was destroyed to raise its price, entire industries collapsed and production went down the gutter, all because we as humans and society decided that the ideal economy was more real than the actual material economy and the people in it—that material reality had to be sacrificed and forced to submit to an ideal in our minds which failed to exist in reality.
Think about that and stop wondering who the real idealists are today. Next time you are accused of idealism, lay this problem before the accuser and turn it back on them.