Down With (The Word) "Capitalism"

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:

  • Tyranny
  • Freedom
  • No freedom
  • Democracy
  • 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
  • Anarchy
  • 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
  • Stalin
  • Gandhi
  • 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.


  1. TTime

    I stopped using the word Capitalism years ago. I felt that i didn’t understand the word, and whenever it was thrown into a discussion it seemed to bring out the fanatic in people. This blog post was really helpful. Thanks!

  2. Marko

    Insightful and very funny. Thanks.

  3. Lori

    Still running a poll on competing definitions of capitalism.

  4. Buglord

    it’s a shame people are utterly unable to use words for what the words mean.. because that’s what I try to do. which means nobody ever understands what I am trying to say.

  5. Ian Farquhar

    That’s a good point.

    Capitalism is both an approbatory and a pejorative. It joins other terms like communism, fascism and socialism where the dictionary, political and historical definitions bear little or no relation to their general usage.

  6. Ninja

    It’s interesting, it’s the same with many other words that lost their meanings and yet people still use them. I’m thinking now the left/right “dichotomy” in politics (and I’m using it very loosely). Both bean essentially nothing anymore politically speaking and yet people throw them around trying to force the world to fit in their own black and white definitions while in reality the world is much more nuanced (I refuse to use ‘shades of gray’ and open this comment to a whole world of fun) or start throwing them around as if they are some sort of insult.

    What is clear to me is that the current system (one that we call Capitalism) is utterly broken. Just for saying that a whole lot of alienated morons (and I mean a huge chunk of the world) will start foaming and throwing such “insulting” words at me without even giving it some thought or listening to my ideas. I don’t believe Socialism works out of the book either. Nor anarchy would work at all for social beings (humans did organize in “Governments” since very early). What will work will be a new model that mixes a whole lot of concepts and add in new ones and humanity is trying to develop this model right now as Capitalism is slowly crumbling from the top of its unsustainability.

    We are seeing it all around us. Anonymous, Occupy, Bitcoins, Whistleblowing etc etc etc. And we are seeing the current powers running around scared, unable to understand or give the rings in order not to lose the fingers. I don’t know how things will end but I’m betting on collectivity over the previous egocentric approach. With blood on the path towards that end as we are already seeing it happening. We are in a second set of Dark Ages (Middle Ages).

    The sad part is that this new system will also be corrupted. Hopefully that new system is resilient enough to last more time with stability and allow a new cycle with less resistance.

    1. Swena

      I’ve been developing a legislative system based on open source development, if you’d like to take a look. The whole thing diverges dramatically from the norm ~ not for the sake of diverging of course; it just happens to do so. :p
      There’s still a lot of work to be done on it, but we think we’re on the right path. 🙂

    2. Sven Slootweg

      Anarchy is the absence of enforced government, not the enforced absence of government. Saying that humans organize in “governments” does not somehow imply that therefore anarchy “wouldn’t work” – they are not mutually exclusive.

  7. vince

    What else can we say instead of “capitalism”? I know a dude who says “voluntary exchange”, as in “I would like to live in a voluntary exchange society.” Are there some better alternatives?

  8. Anonymous

    I think that the same applies to socialism.

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  10. pop


    I call it socialism. More just to irritate capitalists/anti-capitalists really. I actually agree with anon. They’re all stupid labels.

    I also like Graeber’s line about capitalism being the worst possible means of organising communism.

  11. 4ndy

    This is an elementary problem of General Semantics with an extremely simple solution: If you’re going to discuss abstract concepts such as societal models with people, define your f*cking terms before misunderstandings start flying all over the place.

    Discussions where two (or more) people are arguing about a propositional function, with each of them holding it as an entirely different proposition in their own minds due to using different (and undisclosed) definitions of some term(s) used, account for probably more than 95% of human arguments.
    People can have all kinds of opinions about a function like “x + y = 5” or “communism is more economically efficient than capitalism”; they are not objectively correct or incorrect, but meaningless until given definitions.

    1. donjoe

      Except the terms are already defined in the dictionary and I don’t consider myself under any obligation to provide special definitions when my intended use of a word doesn’t deviate significantly from the dictionary definition. It should be enough to say that everyone is simply expected to first learn the language they’re going to use to communicate. Then words will mean pretty much what the dictionary says they mean, every time a special definition is not put forth.

      1. Strypey

        Sure, except where do dictionaries get their definitions from? Common usages, which evolve over time. Dictionary definitions can be politically or historically biased too. Pedantically insisting people accept the “official” definition of a word is the fallacy of ‘linguistic prescription’:

        What it comes down to is that words cannot have fixed meanings (particularly words for abstract concepts like political/economic systems), because meanings themselves are not fixed. This becomes obvious when one learns a second language, and sees that where a grab bag of concepts is covered by a particular word in language #1, the same concepts are often broken up and distributed into a number of different grab bags in language #2, each with its own word.

  12. kabunin

    Capitalism only means that the means of production is in the hands of private owners. But i guess this private ownership has expanded to include owning judges, politicians, scientists, economists and journalists as well.

    Market economy would be more democratic with worker owned companies instead of individual private monopolists and hierarchical undemocratic global corporations.

  13. shawn grover

    capitalism is just un-elected centralism
    socialism is elected centralism

    when i explain it in simple terms -people get it

    keep it simple and pure

  14. marketsnotcapitalism

    The book Markets Not Capitalism was a great resource that helped me come to a similar conclusion, though it could equally be applied to “socialism” and other vaguely defined, hyper-politicized “isms.” There’s a free PDF and audio book that you can easily find online, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history and future of liberty.

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  17. frank87

    A capitalist, is a term created by socialists to describe someone that lives from his capital, and doesn’t work.
    Capitalism is a communist term to describe the evil non-communist countries.
    It alway has been doublespeak. Using the term is chosing side in the cold war.

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