Capitalism as living system

From: Dace (
Date: Fri 16 Jul 2004 - 21:26:48 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "testing 1,2,3.."

    In what sense is capitalism (or any social system) alive?

    For an answer, we might look to Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory, which combines the study of cybernetic systems, social systems, and organisms into a single discipline. (For a brief discussion of von Bertalanffy, see

    Computers are systems in the sense that they self-regulate via feedback loops. Many such mechanical systems have been built over the centuries. Prior to the computer the most famous self-regulating machine was James Watts' steam engine, with its "governor," a very simple device that automatically slowed down the engine when it was threatened with overheating and sped it up again when it was underperforming. This is the essence of cybernetics, which simply means "pilot." If you're drifting to left, you correct rightwards which, unfortunately, often necessitates a leftward correction, and so on. The system knows which way to correct becuase it has feedback loops that provide it with information on its direction.

    In the US, the pilot of the capitalist system is the Chairmen of the Federal Reserve, who raises interest rates when the economy is overheating, as indicated by inflation, and lowers interest rates when the economy is underperforming. But cybernetic systems are not alive in any sense. They are rigidly structured machines that must be manufactured according to a pre-determined plan. In contrast, capitalism, like many social systems, was not built according to a plan but spontaneously evolved into being. Rather than having a rigidly determined structure, capitalism has a great deal of leeway in its operations, which is what enables it to continue evolving in the face of changing social and environmental conditions.

    Von Bertalanffy doesn't define exactly where life leaves off and mechanism begins. Social systems seem to occupy a sort of twilight zone between living organisms, on the one hand, and mechanical systems on the the other hand.

    But there's more to capitalism than just corporations, banks, money, and infrastructure. There are also people, who fall into the overlapping categories of capitalist, worker, and consumer. With people come ideas. The central idea of capitalism is that there's a natural division between making and owning. Thus you can work in the creation of a product without actually owning that product. As a "worker," you produce goods for other people, the "owners," who then sell the product of your labor and pay you a wage in compensation for your efforts. The wage, of course, is always less than the actual value of the product, the difference being the "profit" that goes to the owners. This profit can be reinvested in the company in order to expand it or invested in other companies via a "stock exchange." Thus the system is dependent on an idea as much as raw materials and factories, etc. Without this controlling idea-- that there's a natural split between working and owning-- capitalism cannot exist. Yet clearly the split between working and owning is artificial. If we recognize the natural right of individuals to own the products of their labor, then "working for" a company and "owning" a company become the same thing. Instead of just buying a
    "share" in the ownership of a corporation, you literally share in the labor that makes it work. Since it now takes sweat rather than dollars to buy into the ownership of a company, there's no longer a stock exchange and therefore no outlet for investing profits so as to create greater profits down the line. One simple change, and the whole capitalist edifice collapses.

    But socializing the economy is easier said than done. The idea of splitting labor and ownership is deeply ingrained in our thinking. A culturally shared habit of thought, it's a meme, an idea with a life of its own. Capitalism is a bundle of memes, habits of mind that cause us to feel that the world as it is today is somehow natural. The emergence of memes signifies a shift in agency from humans to ideas. We don't individually determine the sort of society we live in because our thinking is deeply ingrained, and we simply follow the grooves. Of course, this is true of all social systems, not just a pathological system such as capitalism. If we had to figure out how to live from scratch every generation, human societies could never evolve beyond the simplest levels.

    Human cultures are essentially organisms in that all life proceeds according to collective habit. The great theorist C. H. Waddington coined the term
    "chreodes" to explain development from an egg to an adult. A chreode is a developmental pathway. Picture yourself standing on a hilltop with many grooves running down the hill. You drop a ball down the hill and watch it get channeled into one groove or another. Depending on which groove the ball falls into, it can land at widely differing locations at the bottom of the hill. Thus slight differences in where you direct the ball when you toss it can result in huge differences as to where it finally lands. The same is true of a fertilized egg. Slight differences in genes will send the egg into radically different developmental pathways. The difference between human and chimp DNA, for instance, is minuscule compared to the phenotypic differences that come about after development. Waddington assumed that chreodes are in some way reducible to genes, but it's much more plausible that genes merely provide that initial difference in direction, and the chreodes, independent of genes, take over from there. If so, then the correct analogy (homology) is between memes and chreodes rather than memes and genes. Memes are the grooves themselves rather than the initial direction that sets development on one path or another.

    Just as social systems are shaped by memetic pathways, organisms are shaped by evelopmental pathways. In this sense, capitalism is as alive as any organism.

    Ted Dace

    > From: Gene Doty <>
    > Subject: Re: Obesity epidemic
    > Chris Taylor wrote:
    > snip
    > >
    > > Capitalism _is_ alive in the Lovelockian/Gaian sense (work with me here
    > > a bit) in that it alters its environment to further its own aims (in a
    > > completely unconcious way -- good old anthropomorphisisation shorthand).
    > > It is composed of lots of selfish memes in the Dawkinsian sense (I'm
    > > just Mr Neology today...) that have ended up 'cooperating' (i.e. not
    > > screwing each other up) in a thoroughly unconcious way. That's not to
    > > say people don't have lots of grubby little conspiracies etc. but they
    > > are like the cleaner wrasses / pick-a-parasite of the economic world.
    > > Nature red in tooth and claw -- capitalism is just another pattern
    > > replicating because it can, composed of lots of little ones replicating
    > > still, because they did before.
    > >
    > snip
    > > Cheers, Chris.
    > >
    > Chris,
    > Your assertion of the "living" quality of capitalism reminds me of a
    > book I read some years ago. It was written by a Dutch theologian, whose
    > last name, I believe, was Berkhof, somewhere in the mid-20th c. I found
    > out about it through the writings of the Mennonite scholar, John Yoder.
    > Anyway, Berkhof argues that the "demons" that the New Testament talks
    > about--the "powers-that-be"--are actually social structures like racism,
    > classism, and so on. Your comment about capitalism suggests that these
    > "demons" could be easily seen as memes. The memetic approach has several
    > advantages, of course, not having any aura of supernaturalism or link to
    > religious beliefs. I suspect that Yoder, at least, would have been
    > receptive to the idea. If anyone is interested I can try to identify the
    > Berkhof book and provide some info on Yoder.
    > I was reading them back in the days when I was a left-wing evangelical
    > Christian--a la Sojourners or _The_Other_Side_ magazine. That memeplex
    > is dormant right now ;-)
    > Gene
    > - --
    > Gene Doty

    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri 16 Jul 2004 - 22:27:58 GMT