In today’s episode of the Telos Press podcast, David Pan talks with David A. Westbrook about his article “Social capitalism: a descriptive sketch”, of Telos 194 (spring 2021). An excerpt from the article appears below, and we are offering free and open access to the full article on the Telos Online website. To find out how your university can subscribe to Telos, visit our library recommendation page. Print copies of Telos 194 are available for purchase in our online store.


Of Telos 194 (spring 2021):

Social capitalism: a descriptive sketch

David A. Westbrook

I want to discuss political economy in a rather idiosyncratic way. For those of you who have jobs in finance or related fields (in which I teach), do not take anything that is said here too seriously, as it would be professionally irresponsible. It was kind of a joke. As a society, there are fundamental ways of thinking about and professionally certifying participation in our economy. Normative political thought, and therefore education, proceeds on a generally implicit presumption that the field (topoi) is fairly well mapped, the topic is understood, especially by the teacher, and the questions relate to what needs to be done and how our goals, whether for potential practitioners or for society at large, are to be accomplished by well-meaning people. mandarins.

Like all orthodoxy, such understandings of political economy involve a series of imaginations about our world. Many people are happy with the world as they see it, for whatever reason, and justify it conventionally. Most, but not all, of this happiness is nowadays called conservative or politically “righteous.” Many other people are not so happy with this state of affairs. Whatever their real reasons – which, again, shouldn’t concern us here – these people, dominant in certain areas of the university, tend to express their displeasure, also in a colloquial way known as “left.”[1] So much of the political discourse proceeds from a politely assumed description of economics, which we learned in high school, read in the Economist, whatever. A large part of our political differences can be explained by our beliefs, our allegiances, our identities – our feelings.

Suppose, a la Jonathan Swift, our description of our own economy is a well-bred joke, or at least would it be funny to an alien visitor?[2] Suppose we think everything is wrong, and therefore what we are saying is more or less absurd? Imagery of the ‘left’ and ‘right’, used today as obvious and transcendent conceptual categories in arguments, is an artefact of the French Revolution, now nearly a quarter of a millennium old. .[3] Most of the thought that we now recognize as “left” or “right” is 19th or early 20th century thinking, which used more or less refined descriptions of a different world to make very different arguments. None of this is to say that historical thinking is not important – good thinking is always important – but it does mean that you have to be careful. If the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has learned anything, after “the collapse of the whole edifice” it should have taught that a lot of the “wisdom” received is just plain stupid, that even highly educated people don’t. often have no real sense of what they are talking about and I just don’t know how much colloquial language relates to our strange world as it is, somewhere “out there” beyond the media intake in the morning.[4] Learning is difficult and memories are short, however, faith in mainstream science has made a comeback over the past decade, and the mediaphere is a cacophony of misconceptions. Things now expressed confidently to both “right” and “left” are not so much false or illogical as they are inappropriate and clumsy, like rumors of conflict in another country. These are things that we know how to say, however, and things that others know how to hear, and so the discussion can move quickly. Indeed, the moralistic argument and thus the presentation of oneself in the face of alienation may be the subject, as suggested by the recent elections in the United States and elsewhere, and the pious outpourings of the intermediary press.

If contestation is the goal (reason is the slave of passions, with vengeance), then it would be foolishly intellectual to ask: what could a better imagination look like for contemporary political economy? Fools rush in, so this essay presents and roughly sums up my thinking on these issues for many years now, mostly from the GFC. While a full description and defense of these ideas would require a long book, I hope that the following four interrelated terms will be enough to suggest a better map of our economy, and therefore put us in a better position for simple understanding and understanding. maybe even dreaming – a more reasonable if not classically enlightened political discussion.

The four terms are:

  • social capitalism (a sociological description)
  • abstract economies (an operational description)
  • from contract to status (resulting class structure and identity)
  • custody regulations (political standards)

I. Social capitalism

In “modern” political thought since at least Hobbes, society has generally been imagined in terms of related opposites: the king and the people; the state and the individual; the law, with its power to tax and spend on defense and other aspects of social protection, vis-à-vis the market, which produces goods and services.[5] Sticking to the English, we see this opposition institutionally expressed by the King, who borrows, and the City, goldsmiths, bankers, and later the Bank of England, who lend him.[6]

In the 19th century, Marx sought to dissolve this opposition – the means of production, until then largely private, would belong to the state in the name of the proletariat, and in the sweet past the state itself would wither. . But even Marx started from the traditional political hypothesis of an opposition between those who own and rule (the bourgeoisie, sometimes expressed as a state, sometimes not) and those who work and are ruled, the people write in large.[7] The Marxist dream was to dissolve this antinomy, and the Soviet Union, China and other countries tried to make this dream come true, or at least claimed it. At the end of the last century, the dream was abandoned even in name, and the countries which had married Marx became openly capitalist, albeit in various ways. In the West, this was widely seen as a triumph of the “market” over bureaucratic planning, and it was.

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Remarks

1. I have been told that this essay reminds some readers of the late Martin Sklar, the very influential but relatively obscure historian and political thinker of the United States. Until then, I was largely unaware of Sklar’s work, I certainly did not study it, but an underground influence might be possible. Having since examined the question, I see affinities between what I am attempting and various arguments put forward by Sklar, in particular his notion of the “disaccumulation of capital”, that is to say that at some point in a society. technological, growth is no longer logically linked to labor or capital inputs and can occur without more substantial investment. There are of course also differences. Sklar was much more attached to the conceptual grammar, and especially the vocabulary, of the traditional left than I was. More deeply, Sklar strikes me as an ideological thinker, in the literal sense of starting with ideas (for example, “the left” or “capitalism”) and researching the ways in which these ideas are expressed in social practices at such and such. time and place. I tend to work the other way around, perhaps “critically”, looking at social practices, usually contemporary, and asking myself what ideas are implicitly involved. Sklar’s death has elicited a number of rave reviews, including “Symposium on Martin J. Sklar”, Telos 186 (Spring 2019): 97-185.

2. See Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s travels, flight. 36 on The Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), pp. 1–184. Any section would do.

3. Simon Schama, Citizens: a chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Random House / Vintage Books, 1989), p. 479.

4. See David A. Westbrook, Getting out of the crisis: rethinking our financial markets (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers / Routledge, 2009).

5. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2017).

6. For an entertaining account of king-city relations in early modern England, see Moshe Arye Milevsky, The day the king defaulted: lessons from the 1672 treasury shutdown (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

7. Any number of places, but very clearly: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” [1888 ed.], in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., Ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton & Co., 1978), pp. 469-500.