Capitalism. We keep saying that word. We don’t think it means what everyone else thinks it means. Whatever the word “capitalism” used to mean, it’s now been mutated into thought-preventing newspeak. Nobody can have a real discussion if we insist on using it.
“Capitalism” is one of those words where the dictionary definition has very little to do with how people actually use it in conversation. The word means many things depending on whom you ask, what the context of the discussion is, and something random like the current alignment of the planets or whatever. It can mean:
- Something good about the status quo: The ability to start your own business. The free market (when it works). Competition leading to better ideas. Consumer choice. Choice of which job you want. All of the above, or just some of the above.
- Something bad about the status quo: The private ownership of the means of production. Exploitation of workers. The free market (when it doesn’t work). Competition stifling good ideas. Plutocracy. Monopolies. Short-term profiteering at the expense of the environment. All or some of the above.
- Something that isn’t the status quo: The free market. Smaller, decentralized businesses instead of giant corporations. Lack of plutocracy. Lack of monopolies. Distributed ownership of the means of production. A healthy labor market where you can choose a decent wage. All or some of the above.
It also helps to note the various things that “anti-capitalism” means:
- No freedom
- Lack of democracy
- Having your home taken away from you
- Not being in danger of having your home taken away from you
- Being forced to work a pointless job that you hate
- Not being forced to work a pointless job that you hate
- Authoritarian centralized planning
- Libertarian decentralized planning
- Inherently statist, therefore not anarchy
- Economically stagnant dystopia
- Post-scarcity utopia
- Living in the woods and eating bark and wearing fur
- Explosive technological and scientific advancement freed from the demands of capital
- Star Trek
- Mad Max
- The free market (yes, really)
Unless you stay within a social circle where everyone agrees on the meaning of “capitalism” (which you probably won’t), asking the question “are you pro- or anti-capitalism?” makes about as much sense as “are you pro- or anti-histamine?” Except “anti-histamine” actually has a definition.
So, I beg of you, people of the world. If you’re pro-capitalist (whatever that means), please stop trying to convince people that the problem is “corporatism, not capitalism.” If you’re anti-capitalist (whatever that means), please stop trying to convince people that “capitalism is exploitation.” As soon as the word “capitalism” starts getting thrown around, everyone’s preconceived notion of what that word means takes over, and constructive debate becomes impossible. Psychologically, it’s as if either side is screaming at each other in completely different languages.
Obviously, I’m not going to force anyone to change the words they use. Only a capitalist and/or anti-capitalist would try to do something like that. But seriously. It’d be great if we could stop saying this word, and say what we mean instead.
This article is also available in other languages: Italian.