I stumbled across this fantastic book chapter by D. T. Cochrane.

academics experience similar difficulties when speaking of ‘capital.’ Economists, political scientists, even literary theorists, freely employ the concept, yet few can say what the word ‘capital’ truly signifies. Either unaware of or unconcerned by the serious problems with both the Marxist labor theory of value (LToV) and the neoclassical utility theory of value, they continue to discuss ‘capital’ as if it were conceptually unproblematic…academics may have an intuitive grasp of capital that they are unable to articulate adequately: they know it when they ‘see’ it. However, while we may live perfectly well with fuzzy conceptions of our emotions and the emotions of others, theoretical concepts cannot rest upon intuition; they must be clear and distinct. Otherwise, they risk becoming a catch-all, ascribed to almost anything, explaining almost nothing. If capital is one of the most important institutions of our current political economic system, then it demands as precise a meaning as we can give it. If concepts are meant to help us understand the institutions that order our lives, then we must constantly work to make our theoretical significations resemble, as closely as possible, the real world counterparts to which they refer.

Capitalism means absolutely nothing. It’s like listening to old fogeys grow lyrical about cyberspace(aka the internet), and you’ve grown up with it, you’re just trying to make the best of a world in which the internet is a ubiquitous fact. At least the internet has an agreed definition, unlike this thing the paranoids call capitalism. As if, we could get to the root of all evil, once and for all, excise it, then, POW…utopia Adventure Time world The book chapter continues:

“The prevailing, and largely unacknowledged, uncertainty around capital puts a question mark behind many proclamations regarding the ideology, theory, and praxis of the capitalist system. The ‘I know it when I see it’-approach results in a confusing hodgepodge of material and social entities being described as ‘capital’: money is capital, investment is capital, machinery is capital, workers are capital, political largesse is capital … Eventually, capital is everything and everywhere, and the concept is rendered meaningless. A clearer understanding of ‘what we talk about when we talk about capital’ is a priority if we wish to distinguish useful theoretical positions from misguided pretenders. Such an understanding aims at a working definition that encapsulates the actual political-economic conditions of business and the on-going efforts of accumulation.Currently, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler are among the few contemporary theorists calling attention to the hollowness of the dominant theories of capital and the only theorists offering a radically new realist perspective”

Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View argument on the limit of us understanding ourselves, humans, as rational beings is a similar argument to why I think capitalism is not a useful explanatory concept. I am told that Bruno Bosteels raises a similar question albeit about communism in his The Actuality of Communism. Just as Kant invokes the improbable but not impossible existence of rational aliens, which would be a necessary comparative referent for defining what a species endowed with reason is, we lack a referent for a global, fair and sustainable alternative economic system, beyond minor historical experiments, which don’t scale up and never had to deal with the global problems or technology of the present. Capitalism thus is everything and nothing, and is as problematic as any generalised statements on human nature. Power, exploitation, violence, environmental destruction, wage slavery, oligarchy: these are things to denounce, but capitalism is NOT a good explanatory concept for these nasty human tendencies. What is non-capitalism then? Do we even know? Does dispensing with capitalism as a concept make the struggle for a better world any less worthwhile a fight? Not at all, it just highlights the open-ended contingency of the future as the only ontological necessity, and resists any theological sense of historical finality. We don’t know what a fair world would look like, and we don’t know if in a fair world we would still need to fight against the undesirable tendencies of unchecked power, as we don’t know how collective human behaviour would change in this possible future. Humans minus ‘capitalism’ ≠ paradise. The question of capitalism is tied to the problem of an adequate theory of value, the power theory of value is certainly a useful way of understanding political economy, but it’s not sufficient on on its own.

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