Profit: good – too much profit: bad Ruthless Criticism

Capitalism can (not) be criticized like this:

Profit: good – too much profit: bad

There’s been a lot of discontent with capitalism ever since it began to exist. Today, for example, the “Occupy” movement and the “indignados” in Europe criticize capitalism because its “excesses” surely cry to heaven. It hasn’t escaped attention that the wealth of a few is constantly growing right next to an equally growing poverty of the others. Nor has the insecurity of existence gone unnoticed, which means many people are faced with a personal disaster from just one unlucky circumstance – a layoff, an illness, a nervous breakdown, a family drama, an unwise purchase, bad advice. And the overall social consequences of capitalism are also denounced. Hunger and other miseries are spreading across the world more and more; the destruction of the natural environment is advancing; and last but not least: there are scores of wars of the smaller or larger sort.

This doesn’t matter to capitalism, however. It grows and grows; all these disasters have not harmed it in any lasting way. Rather, it has prevailed – as admiringly said – as the “superior economy” and now busies the whole globe.

At the center of this economy is profit. All economic activity in it depends on capital being advanced; and those who do this – the capitalists, a.k.a. “the economy” – do it with the intention and the expectation that their capital will flow back to them increased, or more precisely: with a profit. If profit doesn’t beckon, they don't advance any capital. This basic principle of capitalist economics is not called into question by the critics in the wide spectrum of Occupy. Completely in harmony with the tenets of economic doctrine, they also consider profit an indispensable tool of economic management. It is taken for granted that there must be entrepreneurs who set up production, a service sector or even banks, and because they do this, they are also entitled to personally profit from it. These entrepreneurs produce the things that “we all” need, something that not just anybody can do, and in order that this can go on and more can always be produced, it is proper and sensible that the invested capital return a profit. So, since investments are also made out of profit, profit is about taking care of goods production and also for expanding goods production. Actually, so say these critics, profit has an economic function: namely, to make an ever better life possible for the human race. That’s the meaning of the Occupy slogan: “People over profit.” This means that people expect profit to be a service to themselves. It simply does not mean: “People against profit.”

Now, these critics complain about normal occurrences in capitalism which are, after all, quite the opposite of a life that keeps getting better. This has provoked doubts about profit: Is it really fulfilling the beneficial functions which are ascribed to it? These doubts surely do not go so far as wanting to abolish profit itself. Instead, the now very widespread criticism consists in accusing profit of a degenerateness. They deplore what they call “excesses” and so have decided, without any further inquiry, to see the deplorable thing as an aberration from its actually good principle. The profit makers have supposedly not observed their economic duty, but have thought only of themselves, having then distorted the actually good thing by “excesses,” “unaccountability,” “greed”; they have spoiled it, abused it, perverted its originally intended good – so that capitalism is no longer not even itself, but has turned into “turbo-capitalism.” And this, according to these critics, is the origination of all the scandalous “excesses.” It follows from this that these critics see their task as pruning profit back, so to speak, to its beneficial function, and in fact by indicting and curbing these “unaccountable” profit makers.

These are the powerful of this world, those who wreak disaster:

– the corporate bosses who always only want to merge and increase their stock market value, but who need to stop chasing the “bigness” fetish;

– the “greedy” finance capitalists who concoct “pyramid schemes” and “money bubbles,” but who must stop leering at the “money” fetish and instead bring themselves back to doing their service of making honest profit;

– the major nation states which assist these disastrous developments, if they have not actually initiated them, in their mistaken belief in the “neoliberal model.” They must disavow their “all freedom for capital” fetish.

This is a bad joke: all the decisive authorities – industrial and commercial capital, the financial sector and the states – are accused of falling prey to a collective delusion. If this is so all encompassing, it might dawn on one that this is not a delusion, but capitalist reality. There is no good profit in contrast to one that is “excessive,” “unrestrained,” “degenerate.” The creators of this reality, the capitalists who are legally authorized and supported by the states as the decisive economic actors in every way, have only one interest in profit: it must become more. If they continually expand their production and make use of profit (but credit as well) in order to do this, then it is not about pleasing humanity with more goods, but making more profit. And there is no measure for this “more,” hence no “excess” or “lack of restraint.” To put it at an abstract way:

If a capital advance should flow back increased, then two sums of money are compared, and the second must be greater than the first. How much it must be higher – there is no measure for this, it is measureless, in both senses of the word: The increase of money has its measure only in itself, and the larger the second sum of money in relation to the first, the more successful it is, and that's why the person who embraces the career of profit-maker must be excessive. If you really want to explain this like a child, you can call it “greed,” but that's just the “greed” that befits a capitalist who does his job correctly. This excess is the lynchpin of capitalist practice: a competition rules here in which each one has to hold their position and survive. There are no agreements on profit limitation here – and the state prescribes no upper limit on profit – rather each capitalist must strive so that his capital increase is higher than that of his competitors. Hence, they themselves force this measureless increase of capital on each other with their competition. Whoever falls behind risks complete elimination. This is the constraint that results from competition, and which prescribes it.

The fact that the accused “excesses” arise from profit, and how they do, can’t be proved in detail here. But one thing is clear: for anyone who wants to generate a capital surplus out of a capital advance, the whole world consists of a collection of sums of money which he compares to one another under the simple maxim: more must come out at the end than was put in at the beginning. The labor and natural conditions that enter into the capital advance are looked at solely as costs to be minimized, from which the maximum result is to be squeezed. In this way, they are harnessed for the largest possible capital surplus, which is the only thing that matters. It is hardly unreasonable to claim here that workers and nature are therefore notoriously on the losing side; this ranges from the everyday insecurity of existence and destruction of livelihoods all over the world to the everyday small and quite enormous so-called “environmental disasters.”

These modern critics don't want to deal with the economic nature of this objective constraint. Instead, they mislocate it entirely in the human side: “extreme,” “unaccountable,” “greed,” and so on are only expressions for human misconduct, whether based on a lack of character or on ignorance and blindness. This misconduct is supposed to lead to all these “excesses.” Nothing must be changed in the economy itself; rather, instead, how people deal with it. Of course, this is also a call to “all of us”: each one can “start with himself,” “take a stand against discrimination and racism,” “reduce his carbon footprint,” “show solidarity,” etc., etc. These critics are also well aware of the fact that they are only the “little people,” and for them it is clear: something can really only change if those in power change – they need to reconsider. This is the thrust of the demonstrations and actions that hurl an angry “you can't do this to us!” at the powerful – to then be disappointed and outraged when they just go ahead and do it. Or they come up with nothing but constructive suggestions for how one could make “it” better. This is the second bad joke, after the one about the collective madness of the decisive authorities of this world: the accusation made of the powerful of this world boils down to a big avowal of trust in those who have set up the whole production of profit as the foundation for the wealth their rule is based on: please change yourselves, because this is the only way the world can be changed for the better! So those who sit in the dock are those who at the same time should rid the world of the cause of the complaint. And with their complaints, the critics of capitalism from Occupy and other movements become an accompanying orchestra for the same never-ending sequence of an ever increasing capitalist wealth on one side and ever increasing poverty on the other. They know the culprits, to whom they continue – outraged and critical – to appeal.

Translated from GegenStandpunkt broadcast on Radio Lora, Munich: April 16, 2012