Capitalism’s end game

What money wants

December 31, 2014 — March 17, 2020

hand wringing
Figure 1: A grim meathook future of y_nakajima_

Are human beings relevant for the engines of global capital? If so, is this relevance necessary or contingent? Do we need their agency? Do we need their labour? Do we need equality? Do we need democracy? Is this the Dream Time?

How should we understand the successes and failures of market-democratic governance in this unstable era?

Participatory budgeting, participatory resource management, lack thereof, Habermas, manufacturing consent, the curiously named sharing economy. Probably want to mention Piketty apropos economic inequality.

1 Social democracy

Practically speaking, it seems that most citizens would kinda like the state to invest in maintaining a society that was not a crumbling pit of poverty awash in disease and toxic waste and ruled over by corporate robber barons.

However, given that they don’t trust the state to get anything right, the same citizens seem to tend towards a fallback plan of keeping their tax money to spend on a nice home cinema to brighten the crumbling pit of poverty, awash in disease and toxic waste, ruled over by corporate robber barons.

What is going on here?


2 Actually existing capitalism

Figure 2
  • Interesting case study: Malcolm Harris reports on a Shell Climate Change conference where they discuss how corporate interests will mange the climate transition. He speculates

    According to the geoscientist, one of the ways Shell incorporates climate change into its calculations is that when it looks to develop a new fuel source, it tries to figure out how much it’ll be able to sell it off for when the company transitions out of fossil energy — when the reputational costs start to exceed the returns. Whoever buys it will almost certainly continue extracting but at a lower cost of production, maybe because it has better technology or, more likely, because it cuts corners on labor and safety. What this means: Unregulated fossil-fuel production might come to look a lot like the narcotics trade, with its brutal criminal organizations that thrive in conjunction with corrupt state elements regardless of international agreements. The problem is that once reserves are discovered, there’s no way to undiscover them. “We don’t plan to lose money,” the geoscientist turned finance analyst said, and he meant it in the most general way.

  • The rate of return on everything

    The new database covers total returns for all important assets classes—equity, housing, bonds, and bills—across 16 advanced economies from 1870 to 2015.

    Jordà-Schularick-Taylor Macrohistory Database

  • collective action problems and the just society deserve a mention.

  • Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good

    Screens used to be for the elite. Now avoiding them is a status symbol.

  • Charlie Stross, who can turn a phrase, call the modern democratic malaise the Beige dictatorship:

    Here’s a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what’s happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There’s a hidden failure mode, we’ve landed in it, and we probably won’t be able to vote ourselves out of it.

    Overall, the nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change. They have done so by converging on a common set of policies that do not serve the public interest, but minimize the risk of the parties losing the corporate funding they require in order to achieve re-election. And in so doing, they have broken the “peaceful succession when enough people get pissed off” mechanism that prevents revolutions. If we’re lucky, emergent radical parties will break the gridlock (here in the UK that would be the SNP in Scotland, possibly UKIP in England: in the USA it might be the new party that emerges if the rupture between the Republican realists like Karl Rove and the Tea Party radicals finally goes nuclear), but within a political generation (two election terms) it’ll be back to oligarchy as usual.

  • Anomalies: Jón Gnarr, Mayor of Reykyavik

  • pizza arbitrage is a small essay in the dominant business model of the moment (burn billions in shareholder capital to acquire, or at least seem to be on course to acquire, a monopoly in some middle-man market).

  • Are we ready for companies that run themselves? Charlie Stross’s near-future fiction of Accelerando comes closer to realisation:

    Malice — revenge for waking him up — sharpens Manfred’s voice. “The president of is The secretary is, and the chair is All the shares are owned by those companies in equal measure, and I can tell you that their regulations are written in Python. Have a nice day, now!” He thumps the bedside phone control and sits up, yawning, then pushes the do-not-disturb button before it can interrupt again. After a moment he stands up and stretches, then heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth, comb his hair, and figure out where the lawsuit originated and how a human being managed to get far enough through his web of robot companies to bug him.

    (via Nate Torkington)

  • Nation of Slaves is Charles Stross’s employment-obsession rhetoric:

    There are two tests I’d apply to any job when deciding whether it’s what anthropologist David Graeber terms a Bullshit Job.

    Test (a): Is it good for you (the worker)?

    Test (b): Is it good for other people? […]

    When he prescribes full employment for the population, what he’s actually asking for is that the proles get out of his hair; that one of his peers’ corporations finds a use for idle hands that would otherwise be subsisting on Jobseekers Allowance but which can now be coopted, via the miracle of workfare, into producing something for very little at all. And by using the threat of workfare, real world wages can be negotiated down and down and down, until labour is cheap enough that any taskmaster who cares to crack the whip can afford as much as they need. These aren’t jobs that past test (a); for the most part they don’t pass test (b) either. But until we come up with a better way of allocating resources so that all may eat, or until we throw off the shackles of Orwellian Crimestop and teach ourselves to think directly about the implications of wasting a third of our waking lives on occupations that harm ourselves and others, this is what we’re stuck with …

  • Collective action for a less shitty future:

    • Kickstarter for a new civilisation

    • You make a commitment to the jubilee and to the terms of the new monetary system (including a basic income).

    • You agree that, if and only if the project hits its critical mass target (say 200 million people representing $2 trillion in potential gross income) you will commit to personally absolving all debts (moral and fiscal) owed to you by anyone who has also made the commitment; to acting in peace, good faith and personal integrity with all such people; to personally refusing to pay any debts owed to those outside the community (and taking responsibility for the legal consequences thereof) and to working diligently to enact a political debt jubilee within all legal jurisdictions that you have a vote in.

    • This commitment is encrypted and sealed — and linked to your new money wallet. You are now an anonymous (but cryptographically unique) “member” of the new monetary system and entitled to receive a basic income and any other rights associated with this membership.

    • When the critical mass targets are hit all of the commitments are unlocked and the jubilee begins.

  • John Robb and his screeds, e.g. The real existential threat and his Hollow State thing.

    Globalization, financialization, and rapid technological change is not delivering the improvements it promised — at least, not to anyone but the technorati. The rest of America is being left behind.

    The left behinds are the supermajority of Americans getting creamed by the hollowing out of America.

    Americans who lose more good jobs, benefits, and status with each passing year. Americans who went deep into debt for college (in order to ascend to a slot in the technorati) but are perpetually underemployed. Americans who work all day but can only make enough to buy food with the money they earn…

    His perspectives are often interesting. His habit of putting things in blog-sized, unreferenced, repetitive and sweepingly generalized posts is irritating; possibly this is how you write to feed the Internet Content Machine, but it reduces these ideas to a kind of prepper mind-candy when I want numbers.

  • Amusing diatribe from Rick Perlstein, The Long Con. Some interesting ideas and phrases, shamelessly partisan tho’.

  • Quinn Slobodian opines us on how far we are along the path to Freedom of movement for capital, but people must die where they stand

Maybe capital has our backs if, e.g. burning down California is securities fraud. Right? Right?

Everything is securities fraud!

On November 16, 2018, an Edison shareholder filed a securities class action lawsuit in the Central District of California against both Edison and SCE, as well as certain officer and directors of both companies. … Specifically, the complaint alleges that the defendants made false and misleading statements or failed to disclose that: “(i) the Company failed to maintain electricity transmission and distribution networks in compliance with safety requirements and regulations promulgated under state law; (ii) consequently the Company was in violation of state law and regulations; (iii) the Company’s noncompliant electricity networks created a significant heightened risk of wildfires in California; and (iv) as a result, the Company’s public statements were materially false and misleading at all relevant times.”

Edison International is a holding company that owns utilities including Southern California Edison Co., and California regulators are investigating whether SCE’s equipment might have been involved in starting two of the recent California wildfires. […]

One obvious point is that if a utility’s senior management knew that their equipment was going to start huge wildfires, the thing to do with that information would be to not start the fires, not to write more accurate disclosures for shareholders.

3 Incoming

Yes, a lot of this is (social-) science fiction. Given the speculative nature of this question, I think that is an appropriate degree of certainty to pretend to.

_ Tragedy of hte commons in a violent world_(Sekeris 2012) is discussed at A Fine Theorem.

As the remaining resource pool gets smaller and smaller, then each player is willing to waste fewer resources arming themselves in a fight over that smaller pool. This means that if conflict does break out, fewer resources will be destroyed in the “low intensity” fight. Because fighting is less costly when the pool is small, as the pool is depleted through cooperative extraction, eventually the players will fight over what remains. Since players will have asymmetric access to the pool following the outcome of the fight, there are fewer ways for the “smaller” player to harm the bigger one after the fight, and hence less ability to use threats of such harm to maintain folk-theorem cooperation before the fight. Therefore, the cooperative equilibrium partially unravels and players do not fully cooperate even at the start of the game when the common pool is big.

(MacLeod 1999): Clockwork Soviet economy death machine showdown. In space.

(Charles. Stross 2006): Stross, C. (2006). Accelerando. London: Orbit. Mayhem when company articles of incorporation go Turing-complete.

(Tainter et al. 2003): All rich ant colonies are alike; each poor ant colony is poor its own way. Extrapolate to humans.

(Watts 2006): Is consciousness getting in the way of capitalism?

4 References

Bowles. 2011. “Is Liberal Society a Parasite on Tradition?” Philosophy and Public Affairs.
Bowles, and Gintis. 1998. “Efficient Redistribution: New Rules for Markets, States and Communities.” Recasting Egalitarianism: New Rules for Communities, States and Markets.
Grossman, and Oberfield. 2022. The Elusive Explanation for the Declining Labor Share.” Annual Review of Economics.
Jordà, Knoll, Kuvshinov, et al. 2019. The Rate of Return on Everything, 1870–2015.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics.
MacLeod. 1999. The Cassini division.
Moore. 1993. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World.
Pollard. 2021. The Rise of the Private Police.” The American Prospect.
Sekeris. 2012. The Tragedy of the Commons in a Violent World.” Working Paper 1213.
Stross, Charles. 2006. Accelerando.
Stross, Charles. 2014. Neptune’s brood: a space opera.
Tainter, Allen, Little, et al. 2003. Resource Transitions and Energy Gain: Contexts of Organization.” Conservation Ecology.
Watts. 2006. Blindsight.