On capitalism

A report by Grenalien

A cartoon drawing of a yellow alien with one big eye, in a square frame.
Grenalien is an exo-anthropologist at Loop 1 Bubble University in the Milky Way galaxy. Their research focuses on the societies of three-dimensional sentient beings, and in particular on the humans of Earth, a planet in the Orion Arm which recently entered the radio transmission phase of technological development.

Capitalism is a political and economic philosophy which is currently very popular among the humans of Earth, a planet found in the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. The capitalist philosophy focuses on answering the question: ‘How should a society manage, allocate, and control its resources?’

Property, owners, and the state

In a capitalist society every resource of any value must be controlled by one person alone. It doesn’t matter what the resource is; it could be a personal-use item like clothing, it could be food or water, it could be a building or a vehicle, it could be a geographical feature such as a farm, a river, or a woodland, it could be a service that one person performs for another, it could be a song or a poem, or even a promise.

Whatever the nature of the resource, it must not be held in common by a group of people, or managed through informal group consensus, or according to tradition and custom. Systems of resource management that are based on sharing or on group decision-making are viewed as ineffective and wasteful. When each resource is controlled by one person alone, people don’t have to spend time talking to each-other about resource management. Decisions are made unilaterally, which (so the capitalist philosophy has it) is far more efficient.

The person who controls a resource is called an owner, and the resource they control is called property. A capitalist society is run by a state, with a government which makes laws and a system of police, law courts and prisons to enforce them. Part of the role of the state is to ensure that owners maintain absolute control over their property. If someone takes or uses a resource without the owner’s permission, the police will use violence to restore control of the resource to its owner, and the other person may be imprisoned.

Markets, rational actors, and money

In the capitalist philosophy markets are considered to be the most efficient of all possible methods of allocating resources. Markets are places where owners of property gather in order to exchange one piece of property for another. Markets may be physical places, or they may take the form of virtual gathering sites that can be accessed over a computer network. Markets can also have a more abstract meaning, for example a human who wishes to exchange their house for a different one might announce publicly that the house is available and invite interested parties to contact them to negotiate an exchange; in this case the house is said to be “on the market”.

Ideally the people who go to the market to carry out exchanges are rational actors. A rational actor is a person who wishes to fulfill their own narrowly defined material desires, but who does not think about the material desires of others, or about the overall wellbeing of their community or society.

In the capitalist philosophy all objects, services, and resources are considered to be interchangeable with one another, and the value of any particular resource is considered to be equal to the value of any other resource which it can be exchanged for in the market. Value is measured using an abstract quantity called money. For convenience, people who wish to exchange one item of property for another usually do it in a two-stage process: first the unwanted item is exchanged for money, and then the money is exchanged in turn for the desired item.

Capitalists

In a capitalist society everyone is a rational actor but relatively few people are capitalists. Capitalists have only one motivation; they want to get as much of the abstract quantity, money, as possible. Capitalists control a large proportion of the resources available to society, but they don’t care about the resources they control for their own sake. Whether a capitalist owns a factory or a farm, a hydro-electric dam or a housing complex, a cargo ship or the blueprints for a rocket engine, they are only interested in how much money they can get in exchange for the raw materials, manufactured objects, services, or other resources that their property allows them to provide. It’s a bit like a video game where the players compete to get the highest score, even though the score itself is meaningless. The property owned by capitalists which allows them to increase their money score is called capital.

Capitalists in society

As strange as it may seem to us, capitalists are not viewed with resentment for their
unfairly large degree of control over the resources available to society or for their indifference to the wellbeing of others; on the contrary, these qualities are believed to be essential for the smooth running of society. It is thought that capitalists’ insatiable desire for money drives them to provide goods and services which lead to a better life for everyone, while their disproportionate control of resources means that they can achieve economies of scale and carry out research leading to the development of new and beneficial technologies. Furthermore, competition between capitalists ensures that the greatest possible effort is made to produce things that satisfy people’s desires.

On capitalism in practice

Having learned about the philosophy of capitalism we naturally want to ask: ‘How does capitalism actually work in practice?’ Here we run into difficulties because despite all the research that has been done there is still much we don’t know about Earth civilisation. It seems that all of the ingredients of capitalism – government, police, money, markets, and capitalists – do indeed exist on Earth, and yet they do not always behave according to the rules set out for them. It is becoming clear that human society is far more complex, multi-layered, and even contradictory, than their simple and elegant philosophy of capitalism might lead us to expect. More fieldwork is urgently needed so that we may continue to deepen our understanding of this strange and fascinating culture.

Advertisements