Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Capitalism is Not a System

A great irony of our modern era is that at exactly the same time that the Cartesian-Newtonian world-view was emerging the anti-systemic capitalist culture was emerging as well.

On the one hand you had the billiard ball determinism of Newtonian mechanics.  On the other hand you had the infinite complexity of the market process.

So why do we talk about the free-market "system", the price "system", the credit "system" when they aren't systems at all.  System is mechanical, system is an equal and opposite contest of rational Newtonian forces.  But the free market, prices and credit are the realization of human cooperation and competition between adaptable flexible people.  They are not systems at all.

Socialism and communism, on the other hand, are attempts to reduce human interaction to rigid systems.  They are attempts to universalize the taxing bureaucracies of the absolute monarchs and the articulated military machines those monarchs developed out of the undifferentiated feudal host.

When you wanted to fight an early modern battle, the undifferentiated feudal host didn't do the job.  You needed to articulate it into a uniform hierarchical system with interchangeable parts.  That's why the generals of the absolute monarchs developed the regiment, the battalion, the division, and why Napoleon developed the Army Corps.  The army commander needed a way to communicate his will down to the smallest subordinate unit and the individual soldier.  It takes a system to force everyone to obey the supreme commander.

After a century or two the Germans started to take a critical view of all this.  Chaps like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in The Dialectic of Enlightenment concluded that applying reason to society resulted in system and domination, for what men want from reason is to dominate nature and other men, so domination is encoded in the very meaning of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  System is domination, I like to say.  And the reverse is true: domination implies a system to keep everyone in place.

Then we get to J├╝rgen Habermas and his effort in the Theory of Communicative Action to divide the world into two parts, the world of system and domination on the one hand and the world of communicative action on the other.  So Habermas sets up an opposition of System and Lifeworld (Lebenswelt).  Notice that the book's title in German, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, suggests that "Action" is a limiting translation that does not communicate the full meaning of Habermas' project.  "Handeln" in German means "action" but it also means to trade, deal, negotiate or haggle.  Itinerant Jewish peddlers are associated in German with "Handeln."

So the real meaning of Habermas title is "Theory of Communicative Negotiation."  And actually, that's what the book is all about.  How do we negotiate truth values and understanding and agreement about what the world looks like and what to do about it?

Now it is clear that the market, the process of buying and selling and pricing and borrowing and lending, is implied in the full meaning of "kommunikativen Handelns."  Every capitalist act is a communicative trade, deal, negotiation or haggling.  Every human act is a communicative trade, deal, or negotiation.

But government administration is a process of rule setting and enforcement, of system building and adjustment, of intimidation and coercion.

No doubt that's why Habermas picked up the word Lifeworld from Edmund Husserl.  It is a useful way of opposing the mechanical assumptions of "system" and foregrounding the idea that all human action in the world is connected with "life".

So perhaps we should talk about  the "price lifeworld," instead of price system, the "credit lifeworld" instead of credit system,  and maybe the "civil lifeworld" instead of civil society, because we want to emphasize the two-way communication, the essential "intersubjectivity" of human action in the world.

Alternatively, given the replacement of Newtonian physics by Einsteinian and quantum physics, perhaps we should pick up the language of the physicists.  The basic physics of sub-atomic "particles" is quantum field theory, and the basic mathematical formulation is called the probability function.

One of the basic methods of analysis in this new physics is through analysis of conserved qualities.  Mass, for example, is not conserved; that's what E = mc2 is all about. But energy is conserved, angular momentum is conserved (so-called "spin"), electric charge is conserved, and so on.

It is clear that the interactions between humans could use the notions of "field" or "probability function" that were developed for the new physics.  Any particle exists in a probability function until it actually participates in an event.  Just as prices are just methods of communication until an actual exchange act at an agreed price takes place.

I don't know where all this should end up.  I just think we should lose the old Newtonian, Enlightenment words like "system."  Because they are not communicating the right message.

We humans live and work in a lifeworld, not a system or a matrix.

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