In my work the definition of “capitalism,” like “economics,” is assumed, with the consequence that it is defined subsequently in the context of the ensuing discussion.
But it goes without saying that it isn't the “self-interest” of atomized human beings. This concept has nothing to do with it!
I am trying to uncover the keys to what is good about capitalism and what actually makes it function.
Our problem is that we don’t understand what capitalism did: the actual accomplishments.
It created a workable, liveable society.
From economists, we never hear anything of this quality of liveableness, as if this has nothing to do with the subject matter of economics. I know it's a "hard world" and everything, but I just do not think this is the correct way to approach the subject of capitalism. The voices for peace are so few and far between, as the mobs cry for war.
Somehow, capitalism made a more liveable society. I cannot agree with the all too commonly-held radical, left idea that it is only to be characterized as exploitation, injustice and so forth. There is something else going on.
The right-wing will tell you that capitalism is based on the individual, but it's propaganda. It’s a fairy tale. A whole book – a philosophy book – could be written on this: it would be about what is called “ideology.”
In her book, “A Body of Individuals” (Ohio State University Press, 2009), academic Sue-Im Lee discusses social feeling using the word "community." This matter of what social bonds consist of is, sometimes, indeed discussed on the left, but rarely so by proponents of capitalism or (academic) economists. Now, social bonds, being natural, may be assumed rather than explicitly delineated in "narratives" or in writing. Lee talks about writers who like talking about community, and those who don't, and feel it is actually something pernicious. However in the case of a discussion of capitalism, I think we have to do it. If we try to have such a discussion while leaving this matter of human sociality out of it, our arguments fail, and so there is no alternative to discussing and seeing and indeed understanding capitalism as social. Now I think that conservative philosophy is quite acceptable as philosophy; but it is that it totally misses the mark in so far as capitalism. This is the matter of ideology---a big subject. And the matter of ideology and economics is also real, and concrete. This is because if the Republicans in Congress stick to their views about the "private" nature of economics and capitalism they are going to be completely unable to govern.
Capitalism took over from the medieval or the Renaissance – or whatever – and extended whatever social feeling or whatever bonds of community feeling existed already. Those feelings reformed themselves. This gives us for one further extended period for Western civilization. But what comes at the end of this last leg of Western civilization is up to us. The capitalist period as we know it will end. This could be followed up be some kind of fundamental overhaul, some basic structural reform. If this is done, the civilization may go on. If it is not done, the civilization will crash.
Our period is the period of capitalism. Looking back from this “relative vantage point” or “observational opportunity,” we can see that Western “civ” is not really that culturally impressive – of course there’s a lot to get excited about if you are the excitable type. Let’s not go there!
So what we see is a horrible dead/deadly/deathening (to use Chögyam Trungpa’s term) stretch of time (“history”) with only cruelty, little spots of culture only available to a very few and, Well – death (did I mention that?), followed by a weird, dialectically transfigured/transfiguring, terminally perplexing society that is called capitalism and that is also called democracy. Um, whatever those things are.
There were social bonds or social ties (I’d call it “fellow-feeling” if I was living in one of my 50’s used bookstore-paperbacks) that existed – that’s natural, right? – what happens in capitalism is that these are suddenly converted into modern terms. And this whole period of Western history is now ending as this leg or extension comes to its natural limits. Although some modification of capitalism could save the system, the present form of capitalism is terminal. This is not bad; it’s just terminal.
So, capitalism gives us an extension leg. It jacks up the sociality (not to mention that this manifests as the movement called “socialism”), perhaps – for a few persons. If the observation of this historical period is made according to the conservative method, which is to say their take on capitalism, you won’t get anywhere; you’ll miss the whole point. You will not penetrate capitalism at all.
If you want a paradigmatic word-construction here it is. “Capitalism is social.” And it’s also very ambiguous – and I’ll end on that note.