Economics

My Anti-Heroes Have Always Been Capitalists! Or, Why Everyone Hated Bill Gates Before He Started Giving Away His $$$

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Anthropologist, blogger, and way-too-occasional Reason contributor Grant McCracken is absolutely one of the most interesting characters around and I heartily recommend checking out his blog, "which sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics," and latest book, Chief Culture Officer. Here's McCracken musing on why pro-capitalism stories are so few and far apart in a society that depends on the system for its wealth and comfort:

Capitalism doesn't have heroes. It doesn't have people called to higher motives. It doesn't have noble sacrifices for the good of others. It doesn't, usually, have daring action on a public stage.

No, capitalism is just has some guy who owns a handful of dry cleaning outfits in a small town in New Hampshire. He works hard, supplies a service, pays off his loans, coaches Little League, goes to church, gets his kids through college, and spends his very few disposable hours on the golf course.

Script! Casting! Some one call the studio! This is appalling. It doesn't matter that out of these mundane activities in lots of towns big and small, played out by millions of people across the US, something remarkable will come. This just isn't a story anyone wants to listen to. So no one much wants to tell it. Not Hollywood. Not our mythmakers. Not our story tellers.

The economist has spoken. It is a little clearer why we do not tell the story of capitalism. It just doesn't tell very well. But if the anthropologist may join in here. Can we at least acknowledge that there is something fabulously odd about a culture that depends on capitalism but that will not ever acknowledge it in the stories it tells itself about itself.

More here.

An interesting companion piece to this is David Levy's awesome book How The Dismal Science Got Its Name, which charts the anti-capitalist mentality in 19th-century England. Both in that book and more recent work with Sandra Peart, Levy underscores that it is precisely capitalism's lack of an epic narrative that works against its widespread valorization, as fetishizers of greatness, sacrifice, and what have you from Napoleon Bonaparte to Thomas Carlyle diminish what they take to be the feminization of martial virtue and the undercutting of a rigidly ordered, hierarchical society.

Those same attacks on capitalism and what Joseph Schumpeter identified as "creative destruction" followed through into the 20th century, where aristocrats and socialists (whether nationalist or internationalist) heaped scorn on capitalism for its alchemical ability to create and destroy exchange value, social distinctions, and "natural order." As Schumpeter put it, the main achievement of a capitalist society was not in creating more silk stockings for queens, but in making those goods available to the people who produced them for diminishing amounts of labor.

Here's another great work on the anti-capitalist mentality: Klaus Theweleit's magisterial Male Fantasies, a path-breaking cultural studies analysis of the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-capitalist mentality of the Freikorps in pre-Nazi Germany. These proto-Nazis obsessions with unpredictable flows (both menstrual and capital!) and the supposedly feminine nature of commercial society helps to explain why left-wing and right-wing Romantics dislike capitalism and its seemingly mysterious ability to create something out of nothing. Which helps explain the absolute intertwining of anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism: The "Jew" and the capitalist, typically figured as identical, are similar in that they possess secret knowledge of transmuting lead to gold and base goods to profit.