Capricious natural forces
The earliest humans were at the mercy of nature. At any time, the harvest might be ruined, or illness or injury might strike.
If something affects you in important ways, and you can’t control it, then naturally you’re motivated to understand it. Knowledge might help you gain some control, if not complete mastery.
The earliest theoretical framework to explain the capricious forces of nature seems to be animism.
Animism is the belief that all natural phenomena — such as the weather, geography, plants, trees, animals and so on — are ultimately controlled by an autonomous, living entity with human-like agency. Early humans believed that different clusters of empirical phenomena were controlled by conscious spirits, with minds of their own.
So we find weather gods, sea gods, sun gods, moon gods, gods of illness and healing, gods of time, and on and on. These gods are the hidden actors, or ultimate cause, of events — both great and small.
Now, if you believe gods are invisible hands that affect your life, then it makes perfect sense to appeal to them — by praying; or to appease them — with gifts; or communicate with them — via magical practices. Keep the gods on your side, don’t anger them, otherwise you may suffer starvation, illness or death.
Sacrificing an animal to appease a god is, fundamentally, desperate and delusional. But if your life may be ruined at any moment, without rhyme or reason, you’ll try anything.
So the power and majesty of the ancient gods is the perverted expression of the powerlessness and misery of early humans.
The end of the gods
Now, we enjoy a great deal more control over our lives compared to our ancestors. And this, in itself, removes a material basis for animistic belief systems.
Of course, religious and magical beliefs, persist. But popular religions, such as Islam and Christianity, talk of one, all-encompassing god, who is remote and abstract, and unlike the animistic deities of old, typically doesn’t interfere in everyday phenomena.
The theory of electrostatic charge replaced Zeus’ power to throw thunderbolts. Sometime in the 18th Century, we finally discovered the right words and symbols to understand the lightning deity. Once we divined its true and proper name, we could control it.
Meteorologists build sensors that warn of lightning strikes, and they create lightning in the laboratory. We’ve learned to control the divine spark.
We can multiply such examples. Many of the true and proper names of the ancient gods and demons, have, one by one, been revealed by science. And so they lost their power. Instead of a ragbag of pagan gods, with special powers and domains, we have scientific fields with their own theories and technical terminology.
So these gods are dead.
Capricious social forces
Nonetheless, we remain subject to impersonal forces that affect our lives deeply, which we don’t fully understand, and can’t control.
Urban environments are many layers of civilisational indirection away from nature. So the uncontrollable forces have more of a social, rather than a natural, character.
Let’s list a few of obvious examples.
We are subject to the whims of the labour market. Recessions regularly throw large numbers of people out of work, through no fault of their own. Suddenly bills can’t be paid. Families are thrown onto the street, as happened in the US on a large scale during the 2008 mortgage crisis.
Workers, who can’t find a stable niche in the division of labour, must continually re-invent themselves, and adapt to new kinds of work, throughout their lifetimes. Chances are what you spend most of your day doing was never your choice.
Workers have little or no control over what their company does, because it’s a top-down dictatorship. And neither do they have a say in who becomes a manager, or who leads the company. Workers must suck it up, and accept every change to their working conditions.
On the political level, even in formally democratic nations, governments are only distantly controllable, via an infrequently-held mass vote. Yet government policies affect everyone.
The banks, extraordinarily rich and powerful institutions, have captured the political class. So when they drive themselves to bankruptcy the state bails them out. Workers get treated very differently when they can’t repay a student loan, mortgage, credit card or medical bills. In fact, many workers, globally, live in circumstances close to debt peonage.
On the geopolitical level, a handful of nation states boast powerful armies that hold the power of life-and-death over billions. War can break out at any time.
So, overall, the micro and macrocosm of present-day capitalism is rightly seen by many people as completely out of their control. We are all subject to capricious social forces.
Natural necessity or bad actors
But when we can’t control, as we’ve seen, we formulate theories. And there’s lots of modern theories to choose from.
I can’t survey the range of theoretical opinions on what drives economic, social and political change in contemporary societies. Instead, I’ll very briefly mention two examples, in order to suggest a more general point.
Consider neoclassical or mainstream economics, which circulates in the centres of power and is dominant in the academy. This framework contends that the capricious forces of economic change are the necessary outcome of allocating scarce resources among alternative ends, as mediated by the market.
Any uncontrollable social chaos, therefore, is the outcome of the iron laws of supply and demand, which always manifest when markets arise.
So we can’t blame anyone, or any thing, if we lose our job. The demand for it simply disappeared. Just as we can’t blame the law of gravity when an apple falls on our head. It’s just the way it is.
OK, let’s put mainstream economics to one side, and now consider a different cluster of theories, which are peripheral and circulate well outside the centres of power.
Many people intuitively grasp that, at the apex of society, sit the super rich, who pursue lifestyles that most of us can’t imagine. It seems natural to think that such wealthy beings must exert control over what happens.
Many left-wing people would agree with the statement that the capitalist class, the rich 1%, manage the economy in their favour, either privately or through control of the political process. They are in control.
But some theories are even more specific. Perhaps only the dominant section of the capitalist class are in control, such as the sheikhs who manipulate oil prices. Or perhaps it’s the secretive bankers, who store the world’s money, and know all the dark secrets. Or, more mysteriously, powerful secret societies, such as the Illuminati, who conspire to steer society towards a New World Order. Or it’s lizards in human skin who pull the levers of power. We are their cattle, and they poison our food, water and air.
This cluster of theories explain social change in terms of the actions of powerful people.
So we can draw a contrast between theories that explain why we are subject to social forces out of our control. Neoclassical economics says it’s a natural necessity. No-one is in control. “Powerful people” theories say it’s because other humans enjoy enormous control.
We modern people have put superstition behind us, and therefore we don’t invoke hidden deities to explain what’s going on. There’s no animism anymore. Just natural necessity, or powerful actors.
So that’s two kinds of answers to the question, “Who controls capitalism?”
Now I’d like to begin to consider a very different kind of answer.
Controllers and the controlled
We have yet to consider what it means to control. But this seems a prerequisite for trying to answer the question at all.
Scientific progress sometimes consists in organising a whole range of diverse phenomena under a single principle. The arrival of cybernetics, in the early 20th Century, was just such an event.
The core idea of cybernetics is that all kinds of systems — mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive, social — exhibit a particular causal structure, the negative feedback control loop. And negative feedback is the core mechanism that explains how parts of reality can control other parts, in a goal-directed or teleological manner.
Take the mundane example of a home heating system, controlled by a thermostat. You set the system’s goal by fiddling with the thermostat. The thermometer-component of the system measures the room’s temperature. The thermostat mechanically compares its goal to the measured temperature. If the measured temperature is lower than the goal, then the thermostat emits a signal to turn the heating on; otherwise the thermostat turns the heating off. In this way, the heating system controls the temperature of the room.
All negative feedback control loops have four main components: (i) an internal goal-state, (ii) a sensor that measures some property of the external world, (iii) a comparator that compares the sensor reading to the goal state, and (iv) an effector or action system, which changes the world to move closer to the goal state.
The temperature of our bodies is controlled by a similar kind of biological feedback loop.
In fact, all homeostatic and goal-directed systems in nature conform to this causal template. Different examples just implement the components of the control loop in different ways.
And, perhaps surprisingly, there is a very significant control loop, hiding in plain sight, which affects every aspect of modern life in the most profound ways.
The firm as a control system
We’ll expose the control loop by starting with the basic unit of production, which is the firm. To survive firms must make a profit. If they don’t, they fail and cease trading.
So the firm’s goal is to maximise profits.
Firm have many information inputs. But one major sense datum is the quantity of goods it sells in the market.
A firm will compare how much it produces with how much it sells. The firm may be over-producing, under-producing, or producing just the right amount, compared to market demand.
If demand is high relative to supply, the firm will raise prices. If demand is low the firm will lower prices to stimulate demand. These actions should help maintain or increase profits.
Another major sense datum is the firm’s profit itself, which it calculates by comparing its income to costs, after the firm owners have taken their cut. If profits are good, then the firm reinvests to increase the scale of production, with a view to making more profit. Or, if the firm is making a loss, production is reduced.
So each firm is a control system that attempts to maximise its profits by (i) measuring profit and market demand, (ii) making simple comparisons, and then (iii) acting to change how much it produces and what prices to charge.
A heating control system consists of mechanical components, electrical wires, and heating elements. In a sense, it has a very material, and solid physical status.
Control loops in social systems, are just as real, but their components are more complex. The control loop of the profit-maximising firm ultimately reduces to a heterogeneous collection of material artefacts (such as office records, inventories, stocks of money, banking arrangements), assorted belief systems (such as ideas about private property, legal ownership, corporate governance), and various social practices associated with being a worker, being a manager, being an accountant, being an executive, and so on. Social control loops are implemented upon a great deal of lower-level complexity.
Individual capitals as control systems
But standing behind every profit-maximising corporation there is a more powerful and more general control loop.
I mentioned that firm owners extract profits. The profits can be spent on luxury consumption. But if the rich spent all their profit on luxuries they would soon have nothing left.
Profit-income must be reinvested in order to make more profit. This is the prime directive for anyone who possesses a capital sum of money.
Owners of capital — that is capitalists — can’t put all their eggs in one basket. That’s too risky because firms can go under, and assets might depreciate. So capitalists own a portfolio of investments with different risk profiles, such as government bonds, shares in different companies, and more speculative bets in high-growth sectors.
Each individual capital attempts to maximise the return over its portfolio. If it fails it will diminish, and eventually cease being a capital at all.
And it’s right here that we find an absolute monster of a negative feedback control loop.
(i) The goal state of an individual capital is to maximise the average return from every dollar (or pound) invested. (ii) The “sensory inputs” are the different profit-rates earned across the portfolio. (iii) The capitalist, or the financial experts they employ, compare the different profit-rates, and (iv) the feedback loop is closed by actions that withdraw capital from poorly performing investments, and inject capital into high performing investments.
This control loop manifests as an insatiable and ceaseless search for high returns.
The control loop doesn’t care how its capital is actually used in production. It entirely abstracts from all concrete activities. The only thing it can sense, compare and use is abstract value.
So the commanding heights of the global economy consists of an enormous ensemble of individual capitals, each manically scrambling for profit, continually injecting and withdrawing capital to and from different industrial sectors and geographical regions. The entirety of the world’s material resources, including the working time of billions of people, are repeatedly marshalled and re-marshalled away from low and towards high-profit activities. In the space of months, entire industrial sectors may be raised up, relocated, or thrown down.
Bigger capitals enjoy the advantage of larger portfolios, which spreads risk. In consequence, capital tends to concentrate in few hands. Hence, we find a large number of small capitals, and a very small number of astronomically large capitals, which earn profits that dwarf the GDP of many nation states. The scale and power of some capitals is absolutely titanic.
All these autonomous control loops have the single-minded goal of extracting profit from the world’s activities. If an activity fails to satisfy this goal, then the controller withdraws its capital, and the activity stops. Capital is needed to make anything move, and without it, nothing will.
So at the apex of the economy we have a competing collection of very simple control systems — that have an almost atavistic, low level of intelligence — which inject and withdraw a social substance that appears to possess the magical power of animation, of bringing things alive, of creation.
Emergence of the beast
Of course, the sensing, thinking and acting cycle of an individual capital is quite unlike the sensing, thinking and acting cycle of an individual human being. Nonetheless, both are self-reproducing, autonomous control systems. Both pursue distinct goals, and both have the power to make things happen. One control system consists of neurons, muscles and organs; while the other consists of social practices, belief systems and the exchange of a value substance.
We speak of a capitalist possessing capital, but it is more accurate to say that capital possesses them. Capitalists are functionaries, mere human masks of an inhuman intelligence with its own logic and its own goals.
So what are we really talking about now? What is the best way to scientifically understand this social phenomenon?
What we’re saying is that a new kind of supra-individual control system emerged, quite spontaneously, from our own social intercourse, and then — in a very real sense — has taken on a life of its own, turned around, and started controlling us.
Rosa Luxemburg makes similar points in her essay, “What is economics?”. I’m going to briefly quote her:
… what are the black laws [my emphasis] which, behind man’s back, lead to such strange results of the economic activity of man today? …
In the entity which embraces oceans and continents, there is no planning, no consciousness, no regulation, only the blind clash of unknown, unrestrained forces playing a capricious game with the economic destiny of man. Of course, even today, an all-powerful ruler dominates all working men and women: capital. But the form which this sovereignty of capital takes is not despotism but anarchy. And it is precisely this anarchy which is responsible for the fact that the economy of human society produces results which are mysterious and unpredictable to the people involved. Its anarchy is what makes the economic life of mankind something unknown, alien, uncontrollable – the laws of which we must find in the same manner in which we analyse the phenomena of external nature. . . . Scientific analysis must discover ex post facto that purposefulness and those rules governing human economic life which conscious plan-fullness did not impose on it beforehand.
Luxemburg’s “black laws” are enforced by control systems that have acquired a life of their own. The laws are indeed “black” because they are demonic. Demonic in the literal sense that they are fierce, frenzied and don’t care about us.
For example, every labour-saving technical innovation takes the form of profit, which is then extracted by individual capitals, and immediately re-injected into the material world to animate new activities for further profit. This is why, despite huge advances in automation, the working day remains as long as ever.
Every single day, millions of workers around the globe have no choice but to sacrifice their time, their vitality to produce new profit for the demonic controllers.
Take another example: the logic of capital demands maximum profit extraction from firms, and that means minimising wages. The servants of capital — the knights, dukes, princes, and the legions they command — are well rewarded with an abundance of luxuries. But those without capital are reduced to mere value-creating components. Those possessed by capital live an exalted existence. But the dispossessed must feed, clothe and maintain a home with an average income of about 7 pounds a day.
Yet another example: capital deals in abstract value, and things that are not owned, which cannot be bought and sold, have no value to it at all. So the material wealth of nature — the land, the oceans, and the atmosphere — is relentlessly plundered without any regard for the consequences.
We are definitely not in control. And something else definitely is in control.
The invisible hand of the invisible deity
Modern social science doesn’t seem fully capable of capturing this state-of-affairs.
Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand hints at the truth. But modern economics tells us that the invisible hand is entirely benign: markets, when allowed to function without interference, alchemically transform individual human greed into the best of all possible worlds. Lead is turned into gold.
And economists willing to promote these ideas to the general public are well rewarded by capital. Nonetheless, it is a lie.
Marx, in his famous section on, “The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof”, gets closer to the truth. He points out that capitalism may think of itself as a thoroughly modern, sensible and secular enterprise, but if we look more closely we find fetish objects with mysterious powers, magical thinking, and everything ritualistically branded with strange numbers.
Mainstream economics worships capitalist competition. But Marxist economics has always been heretical, and like the Gnostic heresies of old, proposes that the material world is in fact controlled by a malignant demiurge. The whole of Marx’s “Capital” is devoted to its description.
Modern social science fails to fully articulate the dark reality of capitalism because doing so requires ditching the narrative that the scientific revolution successfully abolished superstitious and magical ideas, and requires instead fully admitting that modern society remains in the thrall of occult forces of our own making.
Who controls capitalism?
So, back to the question, “Who controls capitalism?”
I noted that economic theory says, “no-one”, and, as a contrast, theories based on “powerful people” say someone, or a group of someones. Natural necessity or powerful actors.
But we’ve sketched a third kind of answer, which is: capitalism is a controller. Capitalism has its own, internal logic enforced by autonomous, competing negative feedback control systems, which exist through us, but independently of us.
This is an exoteric way of speaking. But we can give the same answer but in a more esoteric register, by returning to the archaic framework of animism.
Recall that animism is the belief that forces are reducible to spirits with minds of their own. A negative feedback control loop has the basic elements of cognition: it senses, decides and acts. And we’ve seen that individual capitals are just such control loops.
So, speaking esoterically, a spirit, or deity, controls capitalism. It can shatter itself, and appear at multiple times in multiple places. And it can combine with versions of itself, to aggregate into bigger and more powerful incarnations. It can possess humans, and control them. The spirit directs social activity by giving and withdrawing its magical substance. We sacrifice ourselves to it, we appease it, and we hope it will favour us.
Adopting an animistic theory of modern capitalism would, counter-intuitively, constitute scientific progress.
Exorcising the demon
So let me briefly summarise and conclude.
I reject the idea that nobody controls capitalism, and I reject the idea that powerful humans control capitalism. Instead, I’ve proposed, unironically, that an occult spirit controls capitalism, and this spirit is the root cause of major social ills.
If this is the case, then what should we do?
We can take a tip from our ancestors, who eventually deposed the gods and threw them down from Olympus. First, we should adopt a form of animism in order to properly invoke the spirit, and see its true form. At this point we may hope to discover its proper name. Once discovered, we may command the spirit to do our bidding, and wield its titanic power as our own. At this point, we will be in control, and we will gain the magical power to consciously direct the world’s activities to meet our human needs. The Great Work must be to free ourselves from the despotic rule and insatiable appetite of an inhuman, demonic spirit.
Copyright © 2020 Ian Wright
Follow-up post: What is abstract labour, and who does the abstracting?