Outside the Asylum
A couple of weeks ago, I began an analysis of capitalism's catechism. Here's the next entry in the series.
Capitalism lies. It lies a lot. Most systems which organize human power lie a lot, but capitalism takes the mendacious cake. A system like feudalism or monarchism has a few central lies, fictions or fallacies which it uses as ideological load-bearing walls to keep the political house from falling down. The divine right of kings was one such load-bearing concept. Late-stage capitalism requires myriad lies, told non-stop, 24 hours a day. Perhaps that’s because the story of capitalism is so unbelievable now that, by contrast, the divine right of kings looks refreshingly innocent. After all, how do I know what the divine, if it exists, really wants? On the other hand, I do know an aristocracy when I see one. Capitalism needs to tell a lot of lies in order to convince me that I’m not currently seeing an aristocracy wielding destructive power over this country.
Of recent years, the stories capitalism tells about itself have come dangerously close to losing all credibility. The old narratives strain to hold the breadth of human evil they purportedly explain (away), which has gotten too large, too destructive, and too evident for people to be insulated from its effects. This lack of insulation means increased attention on both the evil being done and the distance between capitalism’s precepts and its lived reality. It’s difficult to sell the notion that capitalism means freedom when the world’s largest capitalist superpower creates the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centers. It’s difficult to sell a majority of the people on the idea of lazy “welfare queens” when a majority of the people are a few paychecks away from being on the street themselves. And it’s difficult to sell the idea of a bootstrapping meritocracy when the world’s richest bankers beg on international tv for a government handout of astronomical proportions.
In this series, I am debunking the myths of capitalism one by one. Today I’d like to talk about efficiency.
In the same way that democracy has come to mean little more than “not socialism” (with a secondary meaning of “not feudalism” for the historically minded) efficiency, at least in its mainstream political usage, now means “not profligacy.” Profligacy is a fancy word for spending too much. The current mainstream definition of efficiency is avoiding spending too much.
But who determines what’s too much? How do you determine what’s too much? Like pragmatism, another favorite capitalist buzzword, efficiency cannot exist in a vacuum—not if you intend to use the concept rationally. One can only measure whether something is pragmatic by relating it to a goal. One can only measure whether something is efficient by doing the exact same thing. Efficiency means achieving a goal with the least possible waste. The central concern of efficiency is not avoiding spending. The central concern of efficiency is achieving the goal. Sometimes spending a great deal of money is the most efficient thing one can do. The retrofitting of the United States’ building stock to be more energy-efficient is a case in point. So, actually, is Medicare for All. Will it cost a lot to implement MFA? Absolutely. Is it inefficient to spend that money? Absolutely not. What we’re doing right now is inefficient.
It’s worth wondering what the Apollo Project would have been like if we’d used the current mainstream definition of efficiency.
Almost every activity costs money in a capitalist system. The idea that the way to efficiently pursue a goal is NOT to spend makes no sense in the context of capitalism, unless what you’re actually trying to do is to limit the number of people who can effectively pursue their goals. The idea that the way to efficiently pursue a goal is to spend very little makes no sense in the context of capitalism either, unless what you’re actually trying to do is to limit the number of people who can effectively pursue large goals.
In effect, the reduction of the word “efficiency” to mean “spending very little, or not at all” hides an ugly power dynamic that denies choice and agency to people who don’t have large amounts of money—their own or other people’s—to spend. Throwing the word around without question also obfuscates the fact that somebody, somewhere, has to make the decision of what is too much. Put simply, this is about monopolizing the ability to impact our world, to build and achieve—and about training the lower 90% to abandon the expectation that they will ever be able to have such an impact.
I hope everybody can see the corruption involved in thus identifying “spending” with waste, excess, or profligacy. It’s tantamount to assuming the moral turpitude of the spender. That’s why protected activities done by protected people never get accused of being “government spending,” or “spending” at all. You’ll notice that we can spend 720 billion dollars a year on the military without that ever being described as “government spending.” In the public sector, only left-wing social projects ever get called inefficient or wasteful. In the private sector, only ordinary individuals without much money ever get called inefficient or wasteful. Rich people and well-connected people can spend whatever they like, and it’s rarely even called “spending.” Corporations can spend all they want on securing favorable conditions for themselves in countries around the world, up to and including financing assassinations and coups, without being accused of being wasteful or excessive. In fact, most corporations pursue profit as their ultimate goal. Isn’t profit itself inefficient? Doesn’t it require the production of excess? How can the money we would spend on Medicare for All be waste while the money we currently spend to create corporate profits is not?
How much spending did it take to build that server system in Utah which houses all the data gathered daily on ordinary American citizens leading their ordinary lives? Isn’t that wasteful? Isn’t that inefficient?
Well, it depends on your goal, doesn’t it?