We have a hugely inflated sense of our own self-importance in our part of the world, but people everywhere probably suffer from the same ailment to some degree. It may derive from the Christian notion that ‘man’ is made in the image of god. Now that’s pretty impressive. So, as God-like beings, we have reason to be smug, I suppose. It’s not a moral failing on our part, or poor cognition or the inability to make the right choices that account for us being so self-centered and unable to play nicely in the sandbox with others. It’s rather the need for us, as individuals in a capitalist society, to enter into contracts of all kinds as free and equal agents engaged in markets of all kinds. But it’s a massive illusion. It’s a con, actually. We are not independent and free agents just waiting to enter into contracts designed to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain. There is no more telling an analysis of this than Thorstein Veblen’s The Limitations of Marginal Utility. (www.elegant-technology.com/resource/MARG_UT.PDF) Veblen wrote this article in 1909, but he was spot on, in my estimation and still relevant a hundred years later. He identifies the ‘hedonistic calculus’ as being the core assumption of classical economics. This is simply the idea that as humans we are “homogenous globules of desire” always trying to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Our decision-making is always based on this ahistorical, non-contextual cognitive platform. That’s why classical economics can never be an evolutionary science. Its basic assumptions are just plain wrong and limited just as anatomy and physiology are inadequate in biology, but they do serve the ideological needs of capital accumulation. Still, it’s reasonable to ask the question: if we have been ‘fooled’ for centuries into thinking that the way life in ‘capitalist’ society is natural, then will it ever be possible to align the reality of capital accumulation and the eventual reduction of the labour component of production with how we think about our lives as we live them in daily life? Will we ever understand the real role we play in history?
After all, it seems as though we are completely and unequivocally active and individual agents and responsible (as adults) for our actions. We are told that every day of our lives in every way possible. But, like I said, it’s a con. We are led to believe that our lives are based on our citizenship in a free country, that we are free, willing, and even required to make our own decisions as rational, thinking beings. They are anything but that. The shape, nature, scale, extent, import and value of our decisions are pre-ordained, decided for us by capital accumulation and it’s army of ideologues and marketing persuaders and political mercenaries and flack-catchers (Tom Wolfe’s term). Free will is a joke. We are free, alright. Free to buy products and services that are aimed not at our wellbeing but at generating as much corporate profit as possible. Wouldn’t General Motors be happy if after all the wonderful cars that are produced in their wonderful factories all over the world were driven out of the factory, taken to dealers, bought by a bunch of drunks and promptly driven into the nearest power pole? Oh yes, they would be. And that would be good for the GDP too. Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me, but it’s true.
Furthermore, we are led to believe that our political ‘leaders’ are really in charge of things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as soon as Ferdinand and Isabel got into bed with Christopher Columbus the jig has been up. The politicians are not in charge. They are hired guns, mercenaries, paid for by their invisible corporate powers, and they are kept on a short leash. A commercial fisherman I once knew who, after I challenged him to explain to me what he would do when the last fish in the ocean had been captured, said: “I want to be the guy to catch that last fish! Then I’ll do something else,” is a model for the current corporate ethic. That attitude, underpinning all corporate decision-making will take us on a final ride for our lives. After making the world unlivable by their insatiable drive for profit at all costs, we will be as one… after what the Christians call the apocalypse. But it won’t be the Christian version. It will be the ‘secular’ version. Those people who remain after the end of the capitalist mode of production will have to rebuild the world from scratch. Who knows what that might look like. Who in ancient Rome would have predicted the rise of the internet? But mark my words, we’re on a ride to the end of this madness. Marx believed it would end with us all unemployed (not out of work, just not at work for a salary or wages), equal on that basis, supported in large part by automated production. But more on that later.