Notes Towards the Definition of Capitalist Culture

Capitalism, adopted as part of a consistent program to institutionalize private property, is not a “value-free” social arrangement. Adoption of such a program would immediately signify the elimination of public goods, which alone would create a culture radically unlike anything that has ever come before it. What will this new culture be like? Before its adoption, proponents of this new society are obligated to describe what’s in store.

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Culture is irreducibly defined as “shared values.” Using this definition, we can speak with validity about “cowboy culture,” about “the culture of Periclean Athens,” or about any other culture.

The first case is properly nebulous, in that it can signify anything from someone who earns his living as a cowboy, to someone ranching in Argentina, to someone steeped in the novels of Louis L’Amour, to someone who enjoys two-stepping at a honky-tonk, to name a few possibilities. If all of them had some shared set of values, probably it would be the set defined by the idea of the frontier. For each person claiming this culture in some sense, the values represented by the idea of the frontier would represent a wider or a smaller circle of influence upon his other values. The circle would be very wide for a practicing cowboy who is well-read in the idea of the frontier, with a family history of those who “savvy the cow”; the circle would be very small for the urban cowboy who dresses up for the honky-tonk on occasional weekends. These circles would variously overlap among those who shared the values – wide and nearly coterminous circles for some (say, Wyoming ranchers); wide and partially overlapping for others (say, between an American cowboy and the Argentinian gaucho); narrow and nearly coterminous (say, for friends who went honky-tonking on a regular schedule); etc. In this case, the radius varies from the self-conscious carrier of the culture who can define its underlying ideas (wide), to the dilettante who has a recreational interest in the culture and no interest at all in the ideas it may imply (narrow); and inclusion in the culture is in all events provisional and voluntary.

Current Prices on popular forms of Silver Bullion

Plutarch relates a tale from the life of Pericles in which an old man in the agora in Athens followed the ruler around, “pelting him all the way with abuse and foul language.” Persisting in this even to the ruler’s doorstep that evening, Pericles calmly ordered a servant to take a lamp and see the old man home so that he didn’t fall and hurt himself. In what sense did the old man and Pericles share an Athenian culture? Despite their difference in wealth and manly qualities, surely they did. Both spoke Greek, both considered non-Greeks to be barbarians – βάρβαροι – both were free and not slaves, both held a fellow Greek to be valuable in himself and worthy of a respect greater than simple equality before the law. All of these qualities define a very wide circle of values with a great amount of shared overlap. In this case Athenian culture was widely shared in spite of the fact that, between these two, only Pericles could define its underlying ideas – as he did in the funeral oration; and inclusion in the culture was total and involuntary, although, because it was rooted in the language and ethnicity of a homogenous people, benignly so.

For democratic culture, born with the modern state in the values of the French Revolution, their sharing takes place in a sense entirely different from the two cited above. Most definitively, the modern state’s very legitimacy rests upon a set of shared values. This was not a defining characteristic of pre-modern states. For example, Persian satraps, Islamic caliphates, and the Roman provinces allowed the various ethnicities under their rule to more or less govern themselves, so long as respect and taxes were paid to the capital city: Obedience and not deference to a set of values was sufficient for rule. For the modern state, however, obedience is not enough. As La Boétie and others have pointed out, the subjects of these states are now numerous enough and mutually informed enough to sweep the ruling elite into oblivion at any moment, regardless of its manifold armies and police. The anxiety of this elite is exacerbated by the fact that its legitimacy rests on a ceaseless democratic exaltation of the power of this mass. The enforcement of control by this elite rests not with the armed legions of the past, but with new, hitherto unheard-of legions, who are nevertheless just as ruthless and obedient: The intellectuals.

The intellectual’s stock in trade is the grant of legitimacy, for which he receives a piddling income and the trinket of respect from academia. His short-term labor is to cobble together some marketable phrase, some jingle, that will stick in the ear of this exalted, self-confident, yet inarticulate mass, so as to convince them that those in power toil exclusively on their behalf. Thus Republican intellectuals sing of “the party of small government,” while the Democratic intellectuals rhapsodize on “the party that looks out for the little guy.” His long-term labor is to vilify every would-be contender to those in power, and not primarily through the obvious political tool of denying media coverage or other access to the public forum, but through blocking every institution that promotes subsidiarity. Thus the ascent of great personalities and of great families lacking political connections is blocked through promotion of the meretricious, through vilification of those holding power outside the state, through vilification of heritage groups, and through vilification of the family itself, which he views as a mere political construct; his attack on religion is unrelenting; and education, the vehicle meant for the family to assure its values for the future, becomes the monopoly of the state. Through this monopoly, the intellectual mounts his assault on that ultimate threat to state power, the individual himself, especially upon the root of his identity, his gender, during the school years when it is most malleable. For young males, the future leaders of the family, any symbol of aggressiveness is forbidden, and the learning of purposeful aggressiveness that is the essence of masculinity is a political offense.

This problem of legitimacy constitutes one essential characteristic of the nature of culture in the modern state. Its inescapable solution through the use of intellectuals explains why all modern states are revolutionary in nature. The state must create an ever-growing class of victims in Minogue’s “suffering situations” that can importune the state to rescue them from the thralls of oppression, of tradition, of sexism, of racism, of ever-more neurasthenic forms of “microaggression.” To fulfill this noble duty, the state demands ever more power, which the victims gladly concede. The self-educated individual – confident in his gender, his heritage, his religion, and the traditional culture that he seeks to project into the future – stands as a threat to the very existence of the state: He does not need its ministrations.

The other essential characteristic of the nature of culture in the modern state is its “ownership” of public goods, without which it cannot exist. Of course, this must be so, since if the goods were truly private property, the state could not dispose of them. The growth of state power demanded by the fulfillment of its noble duties must mean the expansion of public goods and the reduction of private property.

These two characteristics – its incessant need to legitimize itself to its subjects, and its monopoly of public goods – distinguish the culture of the modern state from the previous illustrations: Although proclaimed as diverse and democratic, its fundamental culture, in fact, must be total, and it must be involuntary.

We are now almost ready to present a description of what capitalist culture must look like in its essentials.

But before we cast our eyes on this never-before-seen vista, we must digress to consider the case made by philosopher Roderick T. Long for public goods not synonymous with the property of the state. Professor Long’s concise and cogent article “A Plea for Public Property,” argues for the existence of public property apart from the state, using several standard libertarian justifications for private property.

Professor Long cites John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government to assert that, like individuals, groups of people can legitimately claim what he calls the “Respect Principle” that they must not be subject to the ends of others without their consent; and that, like individuals, they can acquire property by “mixing their labor” with external objects and by the receipt of gifts. However, it is hard to see how the respect accorded the group can be other than the respect owing to them individually: Their membership in the group confers no additional respect. The two ways by which property may be acquired also fail when applied to group ownership of “public” property. Professor Long provides the illustration of a group clearing a path for public access to a lake for fishing. He says, “The cleared path is the product of labor – not any individual’s labor, but all of them together.” But this claim fails cursory examination. For members of the group will surely be offended by the idler who spent only 15 minutes leaning on his shovel, who now claims joint ownership. And the one who spent three 12-hour days helping to clear the path will be rightly offended if someone else makes any preemptive or superior claims on using that path. In short, the “public property” in this case is crippled by the defect of all public property: Without an exclusive owner, even one bearing the name of “the state” asserting that it works on behalf of all, public property exacerbates social tensions instead of reducing them. As for the public acquisition of property through gift, this fails because, once given, the benefactor loses all claims to direct the use of the property in a “public” way. Once received, the beneficiaries either claim proportional ownership of the gift or the state claims exclusive ownership on behalf of all.

Professor Long further cites in support of non-state public property the principle of autonomy – that every person is entitled to a “place to stand” as a minimal material instrument to realize his other rights. Those bereft of such a place would “exist by the sufferance of the ‘Lords of the Earth’ (in Herbert Spencer’s memorable phrase).” But how would these propertyless ones benefit by standing on the contentious public property? And aren’t the millions of typical homeowners who hold scarcely an eighth of an acre very close to this dire condition themselves? No, in the absence of public property it seems unlikely that men would shed their common humanity and suddenly become wolves intent on grinding the faces of the poor.

Finally, Professor Long claims that non-state public property might exist for non-rivalrous goods. The list of such goods is unsurprisingly short, but he provides two: The Internet and the public fair, which he contends are examples of the principle of “the more the merrier.” But he himself must hedge in the first case, since it is “largely nonrivalrous because the Internet does have a physical basis” that somebody must pay to maintain. And the public fair seems an exceptional case and hardly ground for the general principle. Granted, all is more the merrier for the very short term, but the merry-making will stop when someone is enlisted for cleanup or for payment to keep the party going.

If a logical case can be made for non-state public goods, everything that follows is invalid. Until then we must assume that public goods are the lifeblood of the state, synonymous and inseparable with its functioning, and ever in contention with private property. “Public goods” is synonymous with “the property of the state,” and the very measure of the death of the state will be the degree to which this public property is stripped from it and returned to private owners.

The complete absence of public goods will be the irreducible defining characteristic of the capitalist culture. The implications of this single characteristic open to us a breathtaking vista. The absence of public goods necessarily implies a) no national policy, b) no legislature, c) no politics, and d) no intellectuals. – For starters.

A capitalist society will have no “national policy,” not just because of the obvious reason that there is no nation, but also because the geographical scope and general agreement for this or that common endeavor will shift according to the proposal at hand. There will be no “monopoly on the use of force for a defined geographic area.”

A capitalist “legislature” will needless to say be financed by the voluntary commitment of property instead of “taxation.” Placing these terms in quotes is necessary: Their use in this new context is a radical – and until adopted, idiosyncratic – divergence from current usage. For example, the “legislators” of any supposed capitalist legislature will hardly resemble anything like those of the present day. Under a program of radical capitalism, a voluntary contribution of X dollars cannot be made with the direction of the representative to “spend it as you think best” because that spending must not encroach on any of the private property rights of any member of this new society. Any notion of assigning power of disposal to a so-called representative the of legislature must run afoul of the principle that the property owner never concedes ownership without a personal contractual concession. The representative’s role is purely advisory and any of his decisions are subject to revocation – say “veto” if you need a modern cognate – by the ultimate owner of the property, and just as conclusively, by owners of other property affected by its use, after the representative’s public suggestion of how the property might be used.

What might be workable is that a gathering, possibly electronic or virtual, of property owners assemble with a laundry list of suggested common endeavors, with money tentatively pledged, primarily to indicate the endeavor’s worth to each participant. The common features of these many lists might be tabulated and presented to all those who have voluntarily joined the gathering. According to the advice of experts of each owner’s choosing, these many endeavors then might be assigned a certain percentage chance of success based on the amount of money tentatively pledged. It would then be up to the participating property owners to consider these odds of success and draw up contracts among one another to honor some of their pledges. Only with these personal contracts, and not through any parliamentary “vote” or bloviated appeal to a fictional “will of the American people,” would their property be committed. Such a gathering would have no resemblance to a modern “legislature”; it might be like a giant town hall meeting, or possibly like a meeting of one of Jefferson’s Hundreds.

A capitalist society will have no politics. Politics is the formation of factions (i.e., special interests) for the disposal of public goods. In the absence of public goods, there is no politics. Certainly, there will be lively public discussions of common endeavors, but the discussions will of necessity be based on reasoning to elicit the voluntary participation and contributions of the populace. Any appeal to force, any threat to cut off federal funding, any threat to divert public funds away from recalcitrant groups, will be nonsensical in the absence of the state apparatus of force and confiscation, in the absence of public goods that might be withheld or dispensed.

Most blessedly of all, the capitalist society will have no intellectuals. This ceaselessly yammering throat of politics, this half-educated know-it-all in the disposal of other people’s property, this “second-hand dealer in ideas,” this mewling sycophant to state power, will at last be shut up and his 24-hour-a-day broadcast of buncombe cease.

Make no mistake: There will be experts in the new society, indispensable to informed decision-making. There will be scholars, of authoritative knowledge indispensable to the understanding of the past and of what lies unseen in the future. Neither of these is properly designated by the term “intellectual.” There will be many people in the new society with a broad but not expert knowledge in many things – people whose society is a joy. Likely they will be well-versed in many of the proposed common endeavors before this voluntary capitalist society. But, sharing nothing with the current arrogant hirelings for the legitimacy of the state, they will not be called “intellectuals” unless the term comes to have a meaning opposed to current usage.

Needless to say, this vision of capitalist society rests on a capitalist culture – a set of shared values that are total yet voluntarily held. I say “total” without reservation, for a capitalist culture cannot succeed where any permanent member is not committed to the absolute fundamental values of the rights and sanctity of the individual, and absolutely convinced of the threat of the state to those values. Those values are already widely and voluntarily shared among libertarians and radical capitalists.

What will the capitalist culture be like in general? The community of fellow human beings will lose its current dark band of marauders who seek to pillage others under the fiction of “society.” The revolutionary culture born with the modern state in France in the 1790s, that constant invention of victims in need of state protection, that quintessential culture of the state, will cease to exist. Common law and traditional usage will supplant the poison of revolutionary positive law. The ceaseless, anxious hectoring of the electorate by the state’s legion intellectuals will fall silent, and a public forum of reason will no longer face the trump card of state power in the discussion of common endeavors. The revolutionary fever will be broken, to be replaced by a natural conservatism, for example, in the sense that any half-baked scheme to take over the health care industry will find no footing, in the sense that any “necessary war” or “moral equivalent of war” will find its advocates leading the charge by themselves. Here too, “conservativism” must be marked as something with no resemblance with current usage. With the primary institution of coercion removed, with instead the appeal to reason as the authority to move social cooperation, the new capitalist society can only be more peaceful than that of the leviathan state.

The humane activity formerly designated as “culture” has been emasculated with the advent of the modern state. The general recognition of what is valuable in art has been supplanted by the state’s obedient legion of arbiters with money to shower on art “vital to the emerging and neglected role of …” – you fill in the state’s current victim of the political season. In the new society, art will thrive or die according to its acceptance in a public forum where forced patronage is removed. The ascent of men conspicuous in courage, in practical wisdom in common affairs, and in character has been blocked by political appointees, and their rise from local recognition to a position benefitting the broader society made subservient to the needs of the state. In a capitalist society, the natural sifting process of talent from local to broader communities will flourish without state debilitation. Religion will likely have a greater influence in pointing out and promoting such personalities.

In the absence of the very expensive “safety net” offered by the state – expensive to their freedom, to their dignity, and to their duty to face the reality of life with courage and grit – the members of this new society will become more responsible and self-reliant. Those in unfortunate circumstances “where, but for the grace of God, go I,” will find responsible charity from the local community that can see their true need. Again, religion will likely have a greater role, here in the dispensation of charitable help.

Where then to begin the creation of capitalist culture?

The destruction of the moral pretenses of the state is the irreducible first step toward the realization of a capitalist culture. The comic and the satirist will find that the state is a provider of lifelong material support in a way that it did not intend. The next step, already in progress, is to legitimize the peaceful secessionist movement. Then, for this culture to gain wider acceptance, a seceded territory would first need to serve as a laboratory to the world that it can succeed. There should be no thought of reforming the state, which by its nature must be ever more revolutionary, ever more expansionist, ever more total in its demands.

Three approaches might have been considered in this sketch toward defining a capitalist culture: A consideration of the essentials that must of necessity define a capitalist culture; a consideration of many possibilities without regard for essentials – a kind of brainstorming session, admitting everything from “participatory communes” to confederations thereof; or, finally, a refusal to consider anything, abdicating to faith that somehow voluntary cooperation will solve every problem, falsely assuming that the duty to think is an exercise in central planning. I have chosen primarily the first, illustrated with probabilities. I have shunned the third, for sloth is a mortal sin.