Capitalists wanted (dead or alive)

I’ve been re-reading a classic essay by Fred Block, from 1977 ( with great interest. He talks about a lot of stuff that’s been on my mind for a long time. Very likely he even suggested some of it back in the day. Some scattered thoughts, which are probably not at all original, but I never know what I think until I see what I write:

One of the things that bedevils us in these discussions is the word “capitalist” and its plural, “capitalists”.

We switch a lot among:

  1. “Capitalist”, used either as a noun (some person who is a capitalist) or an adjective (the capitalist class);
  2. “Capitalism” (which might be an ideology or a state of affairs);
  3. “Capital” — which BTW was the title of Dr Marx’s big book, a fact which seems suggestive to me.

Marx switches around among these terms himself, and it’s not always obvious what distinctions he’s making, so we have a good example for our inconsistency, to be sure.

One problem that arises from the use of “capitalist” is the (usually unstated) assumption that “capitalists” is a set of individuals, the way evens is a set of integers. An integer is either even or not; a person is a capitalist or not. Or maybe he has a Capitalist Quotient on a scale of 1 to 10. Either way, it posits “capitalism” as an attribute of individuals. Is so-and-so a capitalist, or a state functionary, or a PMC, or a petty-bourgeois, or a proletarian? Damn, where did I put that Sorting Hat? Block himself, though he’s very clear-headed, sometimes seems to speak in this way.

Now I think that “capitalists” is not a set, and it’s not the case that an individual is a capitalist or not. “Capitalist” is an abstraction, though a useful one, like “momentum” or “impedance”. In a non-trivial sense, every suburban householder who expects to sell his house for more than he paid is a small-time capitalist (of the rentier or speculator variety, to be sure). But I’m arguing here that the focus on individuals is misplaced.

I mentioned that Dr Marx called his book “Capital” – not “Capitalists” or “Capitalism”. I think this points us the way to a better understanding.

Capital, I suggest, is an emergent phenomenon, or even emergent entity, of human history – an alienated power of mankind, insensate yet curiously purposeful and active, self-determining, self-reproducing and self-aggrandizing. Think of something like a hurricane, which starts as a little updraft somewhere in the Caribbean and grows upon itself and becomes a distinct, visible, palpable thing, distinct from other things, with a name and a projected trajectory and incalculable destructive power.

And of course you want to get out of its way if you can. You can do this, in principle, with a hurricane, but you can’t really do it with Capital. It’s a global hurricane. Unlimited in terrestrial space, but (let’s hope) not unlimited in human time. It had a beginning, and it will have an end. Which it will bring on, dialectically, by virtue of its own activity.

But meanwhile, Capital is a power in its own right. And individual “capitalists” are not its masters; they are its servants, as surely as proletaries are. Capital “knows”, so to speak, how to find the right twisted personalities to serve its ends – dumb psychopaths, as a friend of mine recently said. Or perhaps the right kind of twisted personalities find their way to serve Capital. It comes to the same thing.

Block is good on the absence of class consciousness among “capitalists”. Anybody who’s ever met any really rich people will surely have noticed that they totally believe their own bullshit and don’t have any real insight, apart from a kind of narrow, instrumental, tactical cunning, into how the world works, or what it’s really like, or what its fundamental laws of motion are. They know how to buy politicians and hire propagandists, and the politicians and propagandists too, in their own sphere, know how to do the work they’re hired and bought for. Nobody is consciously asking “what’s good for Capital”, or even “what’s good for capitalists”. The organizing principle, rather, is what you might call the gravitational field of Capital, which has pulled into closer orbit precisely those people best suited to advance Capital’s life-process.

This is not to say that concepts like “PMC” or “petty-bourgeois” are useless. They’re abstractions, but they represent social types we all know – a “type” being a social template, centered on a certain kind of relation to Capital, to which individuals adhere more or less closely. But the collection of individuals doesn’t constitute the type; other way round; the collection coalesces around the type.

Individual “capitalists” can be very good at advancing their own particular projects of exploitation and aggrandizement, even without a theory or with a ridiculous theory. Sometimes one of these projects will conflict with another, or random blocs of such individuals who happen to share the capture and custody of a particular nation-state apparatus may conflict with each other (and then you get a war).

I was always rather puzzled by how to reconcile the hegemony of Capital with the fact of conflict among capitalists; it seemed to suggest that Capital’s hegemony was somehow incomplete.

But this is to misconceive the nature of that hegemony. Like evolution, Capital doesn’t optimize or integrate or manage or strive for order; it doesn’t need to; a constant pullulation of conflict among its servants is perfectly consistent with its absolute dominance and vigorous good health overall. I don’t mean to say here that such conflict is necessary for Capital – it’s not Capital pulling the strings that produces wars for its own reasons; I merely assert that such conflict is compatible with it.

Block asks what constrains state managers (nice phrase, BTW) from pursuing policies inimical to Capital. To put the question this way presupposes that there’s some mechanism of control and constraint emanating from Capital to the state managers and preventing them from following their own impulses or their own reasoning. I’d turn it around: the reason why state managers (hereafter, SMs) pursue Capital-friendly policies is that there’s nobody to make them do otherwise. (To create that somebody is of course the task of Bolshevism.) On the one hand, they encounter the projects and instruments of influence possessed by individual capitalists or blocs of them, and on the other hand they find… a void. Now these individual or factional capitalist projects may incorporate a lot of conflict and competition, but you can be pretty sure that they will net out in favor of Capital as such. Policy, therefore, is precisely the sound of one hand clapping.

To say that the state apparatus is not self-determined is not necessarily to fall into what Block calls “instrumentalism” – the cartoonish idea that the capitalists get together (in their top hats, of course) and issue the State its marching orders.

Theorizing the State is a big job, especially in the Marxist context, but it seems, historically speaking, that once societies get organized on a scale much bigger than the tribal band, some kind of state apparatus arises. The State, as such, precedes the birth of Capital, so it’s reasonable to say that the State is a thing in its own right, distinguishable from the social relations of the society, and not merely an emanation from them. There are perfectly benign State functions that would be needed in some form regardless of social relations – collecting the trash, for example.

But of course the specific form that the State assumes in any given setting will be greatly affected by those actual social relations. And though the State is a thing in its own right, it’s not an autonomous power, with ambitions of its own (though bureaucrats always like to increase the scope of their authority, so perhaps that’s an immanent tendency). Nor do State functionaries have any better theory than the “capitalists” themselves. The State is essentially reactive and conservative, not proactive and militant. So its activity will naturally respond to whatever influences are brought to bear on it. Where the influences all run more or less in the same direction, the outcome is predictable.

Block’s essay appeared in 1977. One of his themes is the role of the State in “rationalizing capitalism”. He makes a case that this too is an immanent tendency, which seems to assume that Capital somehow wants rationalizing, a proposition I find dubious. But he was writing at the end of what Hobsbawm calls the postwar Golden Age, roughly 1945-1975, when such rationalization seemed to be happening. For a while.

I’m old enough to remember when the corner was turned from the Golden Age into the epoch of neoliberalism, in which we continue to dwell. The turn seemed glaringly obvious at the time, and Block also alludes to it. Since then, the relation between State and Capital has run in the other direction, in North America and Western Europe at least. The State has been sedulously de-rationalizing Capital; dismantling social democracy; embracing full-bore market cultism, surely the most Mad Hatter ideology that anybody ever cooked up.

Block rightly stresses the element of class struggle in determining “capitalist”, and hence, State behaviour. To paint with a very broad brush, it seems that when there’s enough social upheaval that a lot of individual “capitalists” start to eye with a certain chill apprehension the lamppost under the Park Avenue penthouse, a rough consensus arises that concessions must be made, and the State becomes the concessionary agent. Of course, once the crisis is over, there’s a steady tropism back to business as usual.

And that’s the actual world we live in now.

2 thoughts on “Capitalists wanted (dead or alive)

  1. America runs on TBI!

    aren’t you celebrating the new casinos being built near you, along with the “introduction,” i.e., the official introduction via legalization, of gambling to college sports? don’t you feel your economic life improving? or at least feel a big morale boost?

    they’ve got people gambling at the $1 end of the economy and at the billion dollar end of the economy. getting concussions in the NFL is acceptable risk. i’ll spare you the clips, because i’m sure you’ve seen them, but the greatest american hero ever is Rocky Balboa. cuz he takes a punch.

    ah, take me back to the good ol’ days, Cassius Clay getting his deserved smack down (did that really need two movies?) while my dear ol’ dad celebrated Tom Landry and added his oar and voice to the football gods in the home, though society did not really need his help, cuz school, small town USA, etc.

    gods are irrational, ain’t they? not playing football = being a fag, e.g.
    “dept of imagination”, “where dreams begin,” and such like are logos for the state lotto here. the lotto being a funding source for schools, where football is played, and a way to make “economic development” happen among the lazy natives (so much of that around here, along w/all the “we love our Indians” official speak, as the salmon die off. the state just set up a new “natives missing persons” hotline. where did the millions go? so we have president credit card, after president tribal casinos. what a shock.)

    anyway, the real gamblers aren’t gambling at all. what’s Elon lose if Twitter crashes and burns? what’s Bezos lose if WaPo “fails”? if necessary, as with Amazon, the CIA will fill in the blanks.

    here we are: gambling w/covid, gambling w/the climate, doing the dance of Ares all over the place, speaking of “gods”…

    anyway, i’m rambling. the image of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel has been on my mind lately. the clay, conjoined with the iron. the Achilles’ heel, as it were. the metals don’t maintain that pyrite glow all by themselves. there’s a big cosmetics/sanitation/pseudo-medical racket polishing and scrubbing the image day and night. what is and isn’t TRASH? people sure love their cars.

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