skepticBy this point in the 2016 presidential campaign, it has become something of a cliché to compare the candidacies of both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and all the turmoil, often violent, surrounding the former’s campaign rallies, to the spawning of the monster in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Progressives and people to the left side of the political spectrum sometimes joke that such comparisons actually insult Frankenstein’s monster. But by concentrating exclusively on Trump and Cruz and the perennial freak show of the lunatic right, the comparison misses the larger point that the real Frankenstein monster – the monster that ultimately gestated Trump, Cruz, the Great Recession, and their attendant pathologies– is contemporary capitalism itself. I emphasize contemporary capitalism deliberately, because the adjective “contemporary” is absolutely critical: the capitalism to which we have all-too-rapidly become accustomed is not capitalism as it existed in the few Administrations immediately following the Second World War. That capitalism – roughly speaking, the capitalism of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years – was, comparatively speaking, a “kinder, gentler capitalism” than the system fortuitously denoted by the “c-word” today. To paraphrase an advertising slogan: This is not your parents’ capitalism.


Now, before we go any farther and commit the criminal offense of misdemeanor sociology by over-idealizing what those years were like, I should back up a step or two and acknowledge that, no, the largesse of those supposed halcyon days by no means included everyone. Yes, the middle class was growing … but mostly the white, male, heterosexual middle class. Yes, home ownership was burgeoning … but mostly only for white, heterosexual families (and also in large measure because of the GI Bill to assist veterans, a measure a hard-right GOP Congress might well refuse to fund today, for fear of nurturing a “culture of dependency”). (The term “homosexual family” would have been considered as oxymoronic as “two-sided triangle”.) Yes, Dinah Shore sang her theme song – which I am old enough to remember – “See … the … U … SA in your Chev … ro-let … “ But you had to be able to afford a Chevy, which many people in that ostensible golden age of the American economy could not. This was also the time of the germinating civil rights movement; the schoolchild “duck-and-cover” time when we believed that the Nation could be annihilated in a half-hour – and when, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it nearly was; when schools were segregated … as Gov. Orval Faubus vowed they always would be in Arkansas; when registering black people to vote could be, in some cases was, worth your life, etc., etc., etc. But, that said, the fact remains that for some Americans – by no means all, but for a number unprecedented in world history – the middle class was, not just growing, but thriving … so much so that, in our optimism, we even coined a phrase for the coming of Camelot and the Kennedy era: “the Soaring Sixties”. Remember that?

So what happened? I like to think of it in terms of an analogy with biological evolution. A Reader’s Digest-condensed version of biological evolution, basically the skeleton of Darwin’s original theory, the first edition of which was published in 1859, says that as changes occur in an organism’s phenotype via random mutations in its genotype, the environment acts on the resulting mutated organism to determine whether the organism lives or dies. (Darwin had only the crudest conception — something called “pangenesis,” long since discredited — of how mutations originate.) It’s like a vast, jaw-droppingly complex, planet-spanning figure-skating competition: organisms “skate” their “program”, mutations included, and the environment acts as the panel of judges, determining which organisms survive and which do not … survival being defined as the ability to survive long enough to reproduce and thus pass on the adaptation to their descendants. But as the environment changes over time, the “judging criteria” that determine the fate of each species likewise change: mutations that were once advantageous or neutral may become disadvantageous – the technical term is “maladaptive” – under the new environmental regime. Perhaps the classical example of this process is the meteor strike on the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, that resulted in basically a “nuclear winter” due to the debris thrown up by the impact reflecting sunlight back into space and thus cooling the planet. Dinosaurs, being huge lizards which had no ability to regulate their body temperature, and which had been around for over 150 million years, suddenly found themselves in the midst of a catastrophe. Because the earth became colder – and there were other changes because of the meteor – the evolutionary niche once occupied by cold-blooded dinosaurs came to be occupied by mammals, which do have the ability to regulate their body temperature independently of the environment. Result: the dinosaurs died off; mammals – including humans about 64 million-plus years later – survived.

Charles Darwin

OK … now back to capitalism … Societies – in particular, societies’ economies and the underlying technological infrastructure – evolve, too. And the process is intriguingly similar to biological evolution in response to a changing environment. The “figure skating competition” here, however, is between forms of socio-economic organization – what Marx called “the mode of production” – and the overall technological environment in which production takes place – what Marx called “the means of production”, with the “mode” playing the part of the skater and the “means” playing the part of the judges. (Again, the same caution: this is a Reader’s Digest-condensed synopsis.) Conservatives spill ‘way, ‘way too much ink pooh-pooh-ing Marx’s theory of the materialist dialectic of history – by which, Marx says at one point, he “stood Hegel on his [Hegel’s] head” – and ‘way, ‘way too little ink acknowledging the keen insights that, despite the undisputed oversimplifications of Marxist theory, lie at the heart of Marx’s basic paradigm. An example might clarify matters. In the Middle Ages, the production of goods was carried on according to what we today would call a “cottage industry” paradigm. A wainwright – a carriage-maker – would typically start with raw materials, fabricate the various parts of the carriage, put those parts together into higher- and higher-level assemblies, and finally put those assemblies together into a finished carriage – and, in the process, maintain exclusive control over the entire manufacturing process from start to finish, “touching” the entire carriage at each stage as it was being built. Working with the wainwright would be some young men – always men – who would serve apprenticeships as “wainwrights-in-training”. Furthermore, a master craftsman usually developed a close personal relationship with his apprentices, journeymen, etc., and the group often even lived together. As the “junior wainwrights” were trained, the supervising craftsman and the local wainwright guild would observe their progress and together determine what stage each trainee / “intern” was at: apprentice, journeyman, etc., all the way up to master craftsman – at which point the once-apprentice could become an independent craftsman in his own right, authorized to hire his own apprentices and teach them, whereupon the cycle would repeat.

Karl Marx

Then came the factory movement from the middle 1700s on, the reasons of which are too complex to even synopsize here. Suffice to say that the factory movement eventuated from advances in technology that enabled the manufacturing process to be broken down into rather naturally occurring, small, easily identifiable, discrete stages, each of which could be physically isolated from the other inside an immense building – called a “manufactory,” later abbreviated to just “factory” – where a given worker, or more likely a cadre of several dozen workers, performed the same discrete sub-task, and passed the results on to other cadres of workers who would perform subsequent sub-tasks. In Marxist language, the “means” of production underwent a tectonic change. Now, instead of working on an entire product, each worker in the factory dealt with only a small, discrete task, and often had no idea how that one discrete task fit into the manufacture of the end-product. Furthermore, the idea of craftsmanship became quaint … then ceased to have any meaning altogether: there is no sense of craftsmanship in the fabrication of a mere “sub-widget”. Over time, and a rather historically brief time, at that, workers became mere fungible ciphers: if worker A and worker B fabricate the same type of widget X, then they are interchangeable; and given the simplicity of the discrete tasks, either can be trained to fabricate widget Y. The workers became strangers to the end-product, and, unlike a century before, strangers to one another. In Marxist language, the “mode” of production underwent a tectonic change. Our hypothetical wainwright building a carriage from start to finish with the help of his apprentices and journeymen became as obsolete as the post-meteor dinosaurs – and for essentially the same reason: the craftsman, like the dinosaur, was adapted to an obsolete environment. In the brave new world of the factory environment, mere physical dexterity – the ability to rapidly build sub-widgets – will win out over craftsmanship every time.

But the crowning humiliation came when the factory movement, leveraging advancing technology, gradually substituted machines for human workers altogether. In some meaningful sense, human beings became quite literally worthless in many contexts. What supplanted the value of workers was the value of capital, i.e., the money necessary to buy land and equipment, build factories, buy raw materials, and in general “jump start” the entire manufacturing enterprise. The cost associated with the workers themselves was relatively minimal: defined as the minimum wage necessary to enable a worker to subsist and to reproduce, so as to engender other workers to feed into the system. (The factory movement routinely employed children whose age was expressed in single digits.) Because workers could not afford the costs of transportation to and from their jobs, this also meant that workers had to move from the countryside, where most of the “cottage industry” work had been done prior to the factory movement, into great cities where they could be close to their jobs, usually congregating into vast, vast slums whose appalling misery has been so well documented in the novels of Charles Dickens, giving rise to scenes of human degradation that bear comparison only to conurbations of nightmare like today’s Mogadishu. It is this “para-Hegelian” dialectic between “means” and “mode” that drove the evolution of history, argued Marx. No wonder Romantic poets of the late 1700s and early 1800s like William Blake wrote of “the dark, satanic mills of Wolverhampton” and of the hellish filth-scapes of Whitechapel and the East End. No wonder the Luddite sect, with its hostility to any and all forms of technology, became increasingly popular. No wonder French workers, for fear of being displaced by machines, threw their wooden shoes (sabot, in French) into the cogs and gears of the machines … thus coining the word “sabotage”. As it is in biology, so also it is in socio-economics: evolution does not forgive.


So in many ways, the London of Charles Dickens is the tangible embodiment and vindication of Karl Marx: the means of production – factories leveraging technology so as to use human workers, if at all, only as flesh-and-blood machines – and the mode of production – wage-slavery intensified to a lyrical pitch through the massive urbanization of labor. All in the service of Capital. Now multiply the single example of London by all the great cities of Europe – their name is “Legion,” for they are many – and the sense of moral crisis becomes almost tangible. Two questions end up being begged: (1) how the hell did matters come to such a pass back then? and (2) why is the present so much like the past to such an unsettling extent? I would suggest that at least the outlines of an answer begin to emerge if we consider two factors we usually do not associate with each other: biological evolution and the European Enlightenment.

It’s important to remember a critical fact about the evolution of our species:  it’s about survival. Or, to be strictly precise, evolution is about surviving long enough to reproduce. Furthermore, given the short life-spans (on geologically and cosmically significant time-scales) of our species, homo sapiens sapiens, the type of survival toward which evolution is biased is short-term survival. Evolution — evolution alone and unaided by human intentions — is “concerned” with the long-fanged beast hiding behind that rock over there, not the long-fanged beast hiding behind other rocks elsewhere farther away. Evolution certainly has long-term consequences, but these are worked out in billions upon billions of particular, discrete, short-term instances. In an odd kind of way, evolution is like that verse in II Corinthians 6:2:  “Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation”.  For evolution, now — or perhaps 5 minutes or perhaps an hour from now — is all that counts.  An organism that dies right now never reproduces, and thus falls out of the evolutionary stream.


As paradoxical as it may sound, given the time-scales involved, evolution is actually the ultimate in short-term thinking.  So we should not be surprised that humans are biased, down to the deepest sub-basement of our neuroanatomy, toward similar short-term thinking. We are evolutionarily predisposed to think in terms of the next 5 minutes or 5 hours. That is the consequence of the way the human brain evolved. Evolution tends to be very parsimonious:  it throws almost nothing away. (Most of the DNA in the human genome is so-called “junk” DNA:  perhaps functional, even vital, at one time, it has since been superseded and no longer “does anything” — but was never discarded.) So as the brain evolved from reptiles to mammals to primates, the earlier parts of the brain were, not discarded, but built upon, rather like a medieval castle or manor house. “Evolution” and “efficiency” both start with the letter “e”, but the similarity ends there. (The conservative parsimony of biological evolution, by the way, poses a sticky problem for advocates of intelligent design:  whatever Designer exists must have a severe hoarding fetish if S/He preserves so much “junk”.) Those archaic parts of the brain — less accurately but more descriptively called the “reptile brain” — are collectively called the “limbic system”, and include structures like the amygdala that do primitive, “fight or flight” processing of the emotions that demand instantaneous, reflexive, very-short-term responses, i.e. responses, like dropping a match when it burns your finger-tips, that do not require conscious thinking. Comparatively primitive structures like the amygdala reflect evolution’s “assessment” that stopping to think can sometimes be fatal — and therefore maladaptive

What does all this have to do with capitalism, both old and new? Well, if you stop to reflect on the fact that, at least in capitalist economies, the economic system is an arrestingly faithful analog of a biosphere, complete with “nature red in tooth and claw” survival for competition, the answer should be obvious. Because of the emphasis on competition and survival in the marketplace, the evolution that occurs in capitalist economies is no more predisposed to long-term thinking than the evolution that occurs in biospheres. The natural and “naive” tendency of all capitalist economies is to concentrate on today’s profit and tomorrow’s or next quarter’s bottom line, and if that means the growth of slums, the pollution of the natural environment, and social pathologies that can only be restrained and contained by the application of brute force, then … well …the Devil take the hindmost.


But the limbic system was not the only part of the brain to evolve.  Human beings also developed a cerebral cortex — the part of the brain that, loosely and qualitatively speaking, deals with abstract thought and therefore, most importantly, with long-term planning. With only an amygdala and its associated structures, human beings would still be capable of pursuing their self-interest. But only with a cerebral cortex are we capable of pursuing our enlightened self-interest. But like any powerful instrument — a car, a computer, a nuclear reactor, etc. — there is the issue of learning how to use it.  Much of human history could be written in terms of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back process of humans learning how to use the cerebral cortex. And we are still very much in the process of learning how to use it. One of the most critical, make-or-break steps in Westerners’ learning how to use this awesomely powerful instrument was the European Enlightenment that began in the middle 1600s and that continues today. Much of human history between the fall of Rome and the end of the 30 Years War in 1648 consisted of religious zealotry placed at the service of the amygdala and the limbic system.  But because of the rediscovery of the classical world, the efflorescence of science, and in consequence a renewed confidence in the powers of the autonomous human intellect and rationality, Europeans gradually — it was a very near thing — discovered how to agree to disagree and live with their differences instead of slaughtering one another over them.

It would be literally impossible to overestimate the importance of this discovery. The fact that Europe, with all its faults, is not a late-Bronze-Age wasteland today is because, over time, the principles of the Enlightenment — tolerance of differences, the concept of inalienable human rights, the unique value of human beings, the idea that governments and economies should work for human beings instead of the other way around, that it is legitimate to circumscribe the behavior of the few for the good of the many, etc., etc., etc. — came to dominate the culture in terms of its rhetoric … and gradually in terms of its behavior.  Anyone who watches the news or even reads a newsmagazine occasionally or peeks at internet blogs now and again will be convinced that there is still an enormous amount of work to do to put these principles into practice.  But even a casual acquaintance with history will reveal that we have come a long way. As Dr. King once said, quoting an old slave hymn, “We ain’t what we ought to be, and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what was”.


So what conservatives miss in their critique of government “meddling” in the economy, e.g., their oft-avowed (though never fulfilled) pledge to abolish the EPA and like agencies, etc., is that the whole sweep of human civilization since humans descended from the trees and emigrated from east-central Africa has been to escape from, to transcend, Nature, and to temper and moderate Nature’s brutality, not to slavishly replicate it in our social and economic relations. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is fine if you are the “apex predator” who benefits from such an arrangement, so it is no accident that the farther up the affluence scale you go, the more intense becomes the hostility to government regulation:  if the game is already rigged in your favor, you will naturally be reluctant to change the rules of the game. But one of the benefits of the Enlightenment was a renewed confidence in humans’ ability to critique such arrangements and to perform tasks of autonomous moral reasoning, and thus establish a rational basis for altruism, for care for the weak, for the support of the disadvantaged — and thus to hedge about the otherwise-unrestrained cut-throat competition in the capitalist jungle with limits that ensure human life, human survival, and human dignity — values of which pure and unadulterated Nature is ignorant. Hence the abolitionist movement in 1850s England. Hence efforts to alleviate the suffering of the workers in the slums of London.  Hence the abolition of poor houses and debtors’ prisons. All were examples of “big government meddling,” and yet all were rooted in the Enlightenment-backed consensus that, while human beings emerged and originated from Nature, we are not bound to take up permanent residence there.

Capitalism can be and has been — and very often still is — a good and healthy and liberating thing. But capitalism is morally defensible only as long as, and to the extent that, human beings are in charge of capital for the good of the entire human community … never vice versa.

– James R. Cowles

© 2016, All rights reserved

Image credits:

“Rationality”:  public domain
“Capitalism is crisis” graffito: Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0
“Frankenstein” head: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
“Evolution” image: public domain
Karl Marx: public domain
Darwin photo: public domain
“Industrial mill”: COPYRIGHT © OLGA HARMSEN
“The School of Athens”: public domain


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