How to debate capitalism with a nice person without stabbing them in the face with a fork

In response to yesterday’s post on the Sunday Independent’s treatment of capitalism, Cian writes:

‘My concern is that the above general critique of capitalism, falls into a similar line of reasoning as those who attack anyone advocating socialist alternatives by pointing to Stalinist Russia or Maoist China…I read the general gist of that part.. to be saying that perversions of capitalism cannot be called out for what they are; that anyone promoting the idea of capitalism cannot defend themselves on the basis that those examples are failures/perversions of capitalism.

I fear that if anyone genuinely (having met some nice people arguing such, I believe they do exist) advocating organising society along capitalist/free market principles cannot call out what they see as perversions/corruptions of an ideal, people like me cannot advocate communitarian alternatives without being labelled a Stalinist apologist.’

I think there is a fundamental distinction that needs to be drawn here, between thinking about capitalism as an ideal, or as a political programme, and thinking about capitalism as –in the words of Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘a historically specific social form, with its own systemic logic that distinguishes it fundamentally from other social forms’.

I’ve no doubt that there are nice people –indeed, far nicer than me- who have an earnest belief that the way things are is more or less the way things ought to be. What is more, they believe that in so far as there are things wrong with the world, it’s because the world should become more like how the benefit of their experience has informed them. They look back over the last few hundreds of years and see giant leaps in scientific and technical and human progress, and think: sure if capitalism produced this, why can’t we have more of the same, only better? They think about their own working lives and see how capitalist enterprises make useful things, and they consider their working relationships and think: I’m not so badly off, I do encounter difficulties here and there, but on the whole I think I’m better off than if I were living in North Korea.

I think such nice people, if they ever come across the likes of what I write here, think it’s the work of some sort of malcontent crank hell bent on the destruction of life as we know it. Where this kind of polemic works, I think, is with people who already have some sort of doubt about the viability of capitalism, on account of their own experience. My intent –when I decide I have one- is to water those seeds of doubt. So the kind of writing you read here won’t appeal, nor is it intended to appeal, to people who think things are more or less fine.


As I see it there are a lot of people –not all of whom are monocle-wearing capitalist pigs- who are largely immune to the idea that rising poverty, high unemployment, imperialist wars, ecological devastation, social inequality, government policies based on maintaining a ‘good business environment’, extreme economic hardships for untold millions arising from the elimination of jobs in order to satisfy the appetites of financial speculators, and an incomprehensibly large pile of other things, are effects of capitalism as such. These are just things that happen when people do capitalism wrong. To be honest, I think it’s beyond my capacity to convince any given sample of such people otherwise.

But one of the reasons why I think I’m not equipped to convince such people –leaving aside the fact that I don’t own a vast media corporation and I give off a strong sense of failure if I’m standing holding a leaflet- is that these people do not think about capitalism as a specific historical form. They just think about capitalism as the way things are at the minute, and the way they have been for a while, and the only realistic horizon for the future.

Their working definition of capitalism, so to speak, doesn’t take into account the basic conditions of possibility for capitalism. It doesn’t take into account a confrontation between two classes –the appropriators and the producers- whose interests are fundamentally antagonistic. It doesn’t take into account the separation of the economic and the political that is essential to any capitalist regime. Capitalism is simply, in their eyes, what is.

And the implications for this, when it comes to Cian’s point, is that there can be no meaningful discussion of capitalism without a) the recognition that capitalism is a specific social form that has emerged under specific historical circumstances, and without b) the recognition of its fundamental attributes.

Let’s go back to the Sunday Independent article to illustrate what I mean. The article talks about a ‘we’ who have created capitalism, and could undo it if ‘we’ wish. But this ‘we’ is simply a fiction. Yes, capitalism as a system is the result of human labour. But there is no collective political subject, encompassing all those who live under capitalism, which decided to create capitalism, or which decides to maintain it. The political institutions in our society are the political institutions of capitalism, the institutions of a material order where the political and the economic have been separated, and in which class exploitation is the norm that governs production. Such a ‘we‘ is no basis for a discussion about what to do about capitalism!


So, basically, when it comes to convivial debates with nice people who say they like capitalism about possibilities for human emancipation in the future, I don’t think such people should be stabbed in the face with a fork, but nor should they be let off the hook with the notion that capitalism is merely an ideal. Not least because this ideal –based upon the notion that capitalism is something that the entirety of humanity has freely accepted- is an effect of capitalism itself. Whether it proves worth your while engaging in such debates is up to you, though I suppose honey may work better than vinegar, if you can keep their attention for long enough.


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3 responses to “How to debate capitalism with a nice person without stabbing them in the face with a fork

  1. Many thanks Richard.

    I might add my own experience and observation in debating with nice, “politically educated” and interested, capitalist-supporting individuals about the merits of that particular political/economic theory, often reverts back to free-market capitalism’s monopolisation of human rights discourse in the post-WWII 20th century.

    Capitalism’s pervasive and false assertion that there can be no human rights without absolute economic freedom is possibly the most successful argument for capitalism among the privileged classes. It allows such people to acknowledge the obvious inequalities, unfairness and injustice of capitalism, but convince themselves that capitalism was solely responsible for the development, implementation of and ongoing cultural respect for human rights.

    Of course, this is a human rights discourse that (successfully) ignores, derides and scaremongers human rights centred on economic, social and cultural rights … you know, the human rights that feed, clothe, educate and shelter people.

  2. Flemingway61

    An interesting article as always. I’m a fan of your blog, which is always interesting. This is an issue which had stumped me once too, “how do we overcome positive and seemingly progressive capitalist rhetoric and promotion”. But I was reminded, as I now always remind my friends on the revolutionary left, that it comes down to material circumstances that individuals of the working class are faced with – these realities always overcome and contradict even the most comprehensive arguments in favour of capitalism – and fundamentally, the left’s response to those conditions. It would be abstract to most people to argue with the slogan “down with capitalism” on the streets, unless they are already sufficiently class conscious. Instead it is essential that we base a struggle that is relevant to the specific issues of the working class. At the moment, in Ireland for example, these would be water charges, austerity, women’s rights etc. These are the issues that are relevant for people, on which a consciousness can be developed. No propaganda can overcome actual material contradictions. No one will believe the most stringent political arguments in favour of a system which stops them putting bread on the table.

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