In the English-speaking world at least, philosophers are rarely given much airtime to demonstrate their relevance to the modern world. Perhaps the only exception in the UK is the new clown prince philosopher, communist relic Slavoj Žižek, who is occasionally granted five minutes at the end of Newsnight to explain his funny theories about how the film Kung Fu Panda demonstrates the triumph of capitalist ideology. The nearest Žižek has come to having any serious impact on our collective consciousness has been through his popularisation of the idea that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Perhaps we don’t need these clown philosophers. Do they really tell us anything significant that we don’t already know? After all, while others have developed Žižek’s ideas (such as Mark Fisher who has taken up the idea of a systemic framework, prevailing ideology or pervasive atmosphere that precludes the possibility of alternatives with his work on Capitalist Realism), it was Margaret Thatcher back in the Eighties who first introduced us to TINA—There Is No Alternative.
Since the financial crisis, something has changed. In the last five years, the establishment and the guardians of our ideology have begun to seriously question our economic system. The church, the state and the crown are together on this one: The Archbishop of Canterbury describes the “unreal and insane world that our financial systems... encourage us to inhabit;” Andy Haldane at the Bank of England said, “It is time to rethink some of the basic building blocks of economics;” and Prince Charles said ,“A new approach has to be, I would have thought, a fundamental transformation of global capitalism.”
Of course rarely, if ever, do these voices ever question the idea of capitalism itself. Instead, it is proposed, we should tweak capitalism towards a more ‘Progressive Capitalism’ or an ‘Inclusive Capitalism’, ‘Responsible Capitalism’, ‘Ethical Capitalism, ‘Connected Capitalism’ or ‘Breakthrough Capitalism’, to name but a few suggestions. So while there may be variations, the capitalist TINA still reigns. Beyond the Occupy movement and other minority ‘alternative’ schools of thought, it is still unacceptable to be anti-capitalist, at least in the corridors of power.
So we have come to admit that something is wrong with the world but it can’t possibly be the idea of capitalism. How can this be reconciled? Perhaps our funny friends Baudrillard and Žižek do have something to offer us here after all? Baudrillard’s point was to emphasise the dislocation between what we tell ourselves and the underlying reality. Žižek’s point is that we have been captured by an ideology. Taken together, they might be urging us to look behind this ideology of capitalism and see what’s really going on.
This echoes Karl Marx—the grandfather of trying to make philosophy relevant to the real world—whose approach was to look at both ideology and the material conditions of life. In his words, “The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” There may indeed be no credible alternatives to the ideology of capitalism within polite society but—hold on a minute—what does the actual material economy look like? As Kevin Carson points out, there are two ways of talking about capitalism: free market principles and ‘actually existing capitalism’—which may be two very different things.
What does the economy actually look like? Is it capitalist?
A capitalist economy would be one in which the means of production and distribution and exchange are largely based on private or corporate ownership of capital. Let’s take the UK as an example and a GDP expenditure approach for consistency. A good place to start is the 2014 Budget that reports public spending accounted for around 43% of GDP in 2013/14. Over time, the public sector has made up between 42% and 47% since the financial crisis.
This implies that the private sector share of the economy sits between 53% and 58%. However, and critically, that which is not public is not necessarily private. Rather, it may be social, common, or co-operatively owned, managed and run. NCVO figures, for instance, suggest that the voluntary sector’s expenditure is equivalent to around £38 billion or 2 to 3% of UK GDP (although NCVO put the sector’s contribution or GVA at nearer 1.5%).
Meanwhile, the co-operative sector expenditure accounts for around £34 billion or another 2 to 3% of GDP. In addition, a number of other social enterprises, such as community interest companies, may not be considered under either the voluntary sector or co-operative figures. Taken as a whole, this suggests that the share of the economy under private control has been somewhere between 46% and 54% since the financial crisis. So far, so inconclusive. Perhaps this is Schrodinger’s Capitalism?