Looking at various published economics materials and confining ourselves to the period 1960 -1999: we see attempts to stipulate a definition for capitalism. They all seem to agree. Their answers are different versions of the same thing. What is capitalism? The available literature always gives the same answer: The answer fits into a mold. In capitalism, you see, the means of production is privately controlled. Although we accept that this may be an attempt to stipulate something about capitalism, it falls short. There are problems, and, if we understand the nature of these problems, the assertions about capitalism’s nature fail. Let’s go deeper into it: Note that aside from the phrase “means of production,” also found in the writing of Karl Marx, these answers or attempts to encompass the scope of capitalism have in common that they emphasize something about capitalism as regards to its “private” nature. That which is so private is the “means of production.” That, you see, is “private.” One may try to discern how it all works. But you cannot get very far. It is really hard to put meat on the bones of all this stuff. And, why? Because this rhetoric does not really say all that much — little there outside a few words about “the means of production,” and that it is “privately owned.” Why do I not see much aside from a few default terms or words: “mode of production” and “private”? I really don’t know. When I read this literature, within “Economics,” it seems like I am just supposed to take their word on this. True? Well, I have to conclude, yes, this is how it is.
I guess so. What is also curious (to me) is that you won’t see the word “social.” That word you’ll never see (in orthodox economics, 1960–1999). Maybe it is a bad word. It is pretty much missing, in this whole field. Never that particular word — and no further words. Just this queer reverence for the formula, “the means of production is private.” I already mentioned that “the means of production” sounds to me like Marx. They had to borrow a socialist term? And, if we try to remain on the other side of all the socialism, everyone already knows what the word “private” means, don’t they? Oh, sure. We do. So we could not possibly need an explanation of that. We all presumably know what “private” means — but is that true? Perhaps this really requires some scrutiny. Let us examine. We shall try to do that here.
As one looks at these answers, perhaps suspicions should be raised. I have spoken to number of economists — by this I mean paid faculty members at universities — and they are parrots repeating the things they have heard. The results from all the parroting is that when the average person conceptualizes capitalism, he or she makes the assumption, or just naturally assumes, that that is the economic system in which a main feature is the whole private ownership thing. So, there are results stemming from this. We are talking about major discourse practices within American culture. Something like that has a consequence not confined to a university, so it is not confined to only a university, it is about who we are. And what we think about. If we are basing ourselves on the economic literature of the indicated period one’s mind, if formed by the collective past, thinks in only in certain ways, when it is about economics. This is a collective inherited kind of cultural “economics.”
To challenge the emphasis on “private ownership” takes us onto fresh ground. Let us do that here, but before we challenge everything we know, let’s also see that there are certain things about which it is alright to agree. For example, the fact that people owns things. Some persons own things. True. Whether or not there should be some limits, I don’t know. I know that objects are often, or mainly, owned privately. The White House would be an exception. That is owned by America, so: No, it is not true of everything! Only most things. Alright, no big deal. That is clear just from our experience of life — that there are these properties everyone has. We know how we live.
In some sense and of course in ‘common sense’ capitalism is a huge private business affair, an ownership system. The argument is of course that, to acquire an object, or get ownership of it, we have to “pay,” whatever that means. So here we “pay” the owner to get her to relinquish. All that is well and good: upon payment the person relinquishes ownership —now what we walk away with is ours but was formerly her’s. The thing here is this: if one applies this to something called an economic system ( — right! not buying something through the classifieds, see?) one quickly (okay maybe not immediately but eventually) begins to distrust the standard narrative. We are going to get there. To do so, we need to talk about “this huge private ownership system” that we seem to be seeing, that seems obvious — but that is due to the conditioning that we have all experienced. Now, if you look at it carefully, and in detail, you may get a glimpse of something remarkable — it no longer seems to be private. We can get there. It’s kind of major really. But first, let me make one more preliminary observation: It might be good to mention that most things held privately are, like, totally NOT for sale. I cannot ring your bell, for example, and ask to buy the things in your kitchen. (That is a pretty interesting thought experiment right there! But let us move along).
Privately held things are not always for sale. In the case of a manufacturer who makes items specifically for purchase by others, is it really safe to say these items, waiting to be sold, are, at that time, “private”? I know you want to say that. It is because of the pervasive conditioning we have all been exposed to. Allow me to suggest: No, you cannot. Allow me to suggest that these items waiting to be sold are not private. Notice that they are not sold only to a few friends. That is another point. Thus, our conclusions now. We conclude that the items of commerce exist solely to be offered to a public and that they are intended to be owned by others from the moment they are made — or even planned. So it is possible to upend one’s pervasive conditioning, and suggest that the “actual” owner doesn’t own them.
It is owned by the purchasing public from the moment it is conceived of, and also from the moment it is planned, or from the moment it is capitalized. We now have a strong argument that these commercial items of sale are public, rather than solely private, or that they are at least as public as they are private.
Without other people? Without others no one would be making the things.
This land is your land / This land is my land
Let’s make it concrete. Let’s go to details. Say Boeing aircraft makes an aircraft capable of transporting 98 persons. Why does that need to be considered the private property of the board of directors of the Boeing Corp? I am specifying the “directors” because the detail seems to help my argument. And if (now wiser) we revert to this myth of “private ownership,” there have to be people, and they would be the top people supposedly owning the products their company manufactures. It keeps the argument interesting. The myth of “private” ownership has kept people interested for a long time. Still, now we have been introduced to a fresh idea: That this “Boeing Corporation” arguably does not really own it’s own airplanes. Rather, the buyers do — even future buyers whom we can not identify. But isn’t it always like that, with communal property? We do not see the buyers yet. The buyers are simply people — the public.
So, it all comes from society, which is a situation not owned by Boeing, nor does Boeing — whether in the form of the directors or the shareholders (that is another theory they throw our way) — have complete control. Who has control? But everyone does. Boeing has a degree of control. This is a kind of executive, or customary, control. They may set the company culture, determine what the advertising looks like, but nothing would happen (for any business including the one that buys the airplanes) without customers.
And who are customers? We are. Thus, it is we who own capitalism. Capitalism does not have to become social, if it already is social. Capitalism has its history. It exists based on that history. It has a valid function, too. The function is the support for human life. If it does not support human beings, there is no capitalism, it does not exist. Then it won’t be capitalism at all anymore; it would be something else. If it stops supporting human life it perishes. And no one would survive. To such an extent capitalism is fragile.
Yet in this situation we continue to say: “capitalism is privately owned.” What a myth. I have just demonstrated how, with a few short stages of reasoning, we may alter the “private ownership” idea or myth.
But — you may know the quote — until we change our reasoning, we’ll be slaves of some defunct philosopher. Indeed that is all we are; So the stakes are very high and in fact I think that if we do not get capitalism right then right there is our collective suicide. So, please, whatever you do, do not listen to people like the Koch brothers. What we have to do is understand capitalism.
It is not privately owned.
It produces a society.
And, that society has a claim of ownership