I see a lot of criticism of capitalism. Much of this criticism I agree with. Capitalism promotes the pursuit of profit above all else, with no flexibility for goodness. Capitalism concentrates power in the hands of very few, selected for their ability to pursue profit and exploit the system. Capitalism condemns many to decades of drudgery and toil. Capitalism grinds the unfortunate under foot.
Yet this criticism does not sit right with me, for two reasons. First, I think the criticism is too narrow. For instance, essentially the same complaints can be levied at many instances of state communism, with “pursuit of profit” replaced by “party loyalty”. Second, I think that there are cases when capitalism does things worth celebrating. Ideally, capitalism gives individuals choice, of what purpose they want to direct their skills towards. Ideally, capitalism distributes power, in the form of income, to individuals. That ideal case doesn’t happen as much as it should. But we should separate these two narratives of capitalism, and point at the exact problem.
To more precisely label the problem, I coin the name “Pulverarchy”. Rule by the crusher. Rule by the grind.
The pulverarchy is the system that says “I am authority. I am power. I will crush you into shape. Destroy your individuality. Extract from you whatever I desire. Leave you as a broken husk.”
I see the pulverarchy in corporations that reduce employees to a cog, caught in the endless grind of the machine. I see it in militaries that stamp out endless soldiers all alike and send them to die. I see it in state communism, which dictates every person’s ability and every person’s need, even as reality falls short and famine rages. I see it in orthodox religions, which declare in the voice of God: “This is what I expect of you. I know you better than you can ever know yourself. Do as I command, forever. Disobey me and burn for eternity.”
The pulverarchy is the rejection of the value of a person, the rejection of the possibility that authority is wrong. It sees nothing in a person but something to be hammered into conformity, a resource to be exploited.
The pulverarchy is the antithesis of humanism, of love, of good works, of mitzvot. It is drudgery, monotony, crushing repetition, forced paths, and hopelessness, for all but those lucky few who embrace it tightest.
The pulverarchy is among our greatest foes in creating a better future.
More examples of the pulverarchy:
“Human value lies solely in becoming a productive member of society”. Places a person’s value in what they produce, even or especially when they themself do not benefit.
The Nazi concentration camp slogan: Arbeit macht frei. Work sets you free. Quite possibly the most horrific sentiment ever espoused.
Slavery, for profit. Ancient conquest slavery, as well as more recent capitalistic slavery.
Prison labor, regardless of whether the person in prison did the thing they are accused of.
Narratives of escape from pulverarchy:
Ideal capitalism: Everyone will have valuable things to contribute to society, and the market will reward them accordingly, and there’ll be lots of small businesses and everyone will be well-off.
Ideal socialism: Entities like democratic goverments and unions will ensure that individuals/the working class have the power to shape society, which will ensure that everyone’s needs are taken care of.
Ideal libertarianism: Everything would be great if everyone was free. Let’s just have the least amount of societal structure to protect freedom, and then everyone will be able to do whatever they want, freely, and everything will be great.
All of these narratives share common themes of personal choice and distributed control.
Why do systems fall into pulverarchy?
Those in power use that power to accumulate more power. This consists of two steps:
Powerful people typically have the ability to accumulate more power. Laws and other structures might slow down that accumulation, but they’re not that reliable.
Powerful people typically want to accumulate more power. If not, they probably wouldn’t have been powerful to start with. There are counterexamples (George Washington’s retirement), but they’re the exception.
The long-term effect of power begetting power is extractive power: The powerful few dictate the actions of almost everyone, in whatever direction maintains and enhances that power. In doing so, people’s individual humanity and choice is crushed. Thus, pulverarchy.
What can be done?
Individual/centralized power is not the only kind of power. Disseminated power and group power are two alternatives.
Disseminated power is power that each individual has, in their own right. Education, as in learning fundamental skills like math, reading, writing, and critical reasoning, are disseminated power. The individuals then have that power, to use as they will.
Group power is power held by a group of people, that cannot be claimed by any individual. A union, with much of its power coming from strikes that require broad assent, is a good example.
Free information often aids disseminated power. Discussing workplace salaries, for instance. Investigation, evidence that people can verify, these are all valuable.
Group power is often buildable. Identify with your equals and with those less-well-off than you, not with your boss/company/party leader/religious authority. Form organizations that drive group power from a coalition of equals. Consumer collectives, unions, even just groups that regularly meet to discuss and provide institutional knowledge and advice and solidarity.
Leaders are valuable, but dangerous. To be effective, leadership is often necessary. However, that concentration of power can lead to all the problems discussed above. Leaders should be thought of a useful, but replaceable. Term limits are valuable, as are mechanisms to ensure a leader is responsible to the wishes of the group.
People within the structures of power (e.g. workers) and people without (e.g. activists) can build more group/decentralized power by working together. People within the structure have more ability to accrue power. People without are more insulated from the corrupting forces of the system’s incentive system. Both attributes are valuable, or even necessary, for success.
These are just some initial thoughts, much more is needed.
Down with the pulverarchy! Choice to the individual! Change is possible, but change is hard. Systems of power will twist against us, again and again and again. No leader can be trusted, till the day they relinguish power.