When criticisms of capitalism are cast in lay circles, defenders of the system tend to rely on an argument from history, pointing out that prior alternatives to capitalism led to horrendous suffering, inequality, or disaster, while capitalism, relatively, has avoided these pains. Of course, every one of these arguments orbits around an alternative that is known to have failed–the door of the possible is closed by history, before it may even open.
Apologists tend to ignore empirical evidence that capitalism, like it’s historical counterpoints, breeds significant amounts of suffering, inequality, and disaster. When critiquing antiquated “alternatives”, its advocates like to take an historiographic-empirical1 stance, citing horror after horror that plagued other political economies. When defending capitalism, they suddenly take a theoretical bent, tossing all empirical evidence of inequality aside and citing the theoretical soundness (often promises of regulation of behavior and power through the mechanism of capital; realities for which no theory, only praxis, can adequately account) of capital and “inherent safety mechanisms” capitalism affords to insure us against inequity.
Human reason has a Kantian duty to keep the door of the possible open. The faith of reason, its dialectical underside and guarantor, believes that history has not exhausted the possible–if it had, Nietzsche’s recurrence would acquire a new, literal sense and the proper response of reason would be to fall into quietude. The same philosopher reminded us that the proper use of history motivates a yearning for the future2 not an attachment to the present, nor a repetition of the past–we should seek the alternatives that haven’t been tried, not take the ones that have as signals to retreat and silence critique.
Anticipation remains one of reason’s motivating elements, and we must think beyond the present, think beyond capitalism, and resist the intellectual laziness and moral ignorance entailed in falling back on history, shrugging our shoulders, and giving up.
Historical evidence is not empirical evidence, which may only be gathered in the present, but citations of historical evidence will often be selectively considered as being equivalent in force to empirical evidence. It’s also worth noting that while the historical atrocities of other economic systems gain the spotlight, the atrocities of capitalism, historical or otherwise, sweatshops, child labor, slavery, environmental destruction, and so forth, are conspicuously absent from any supporter’s ruminations, and seem not to factor into the commonplace that capitalism’s ill-effects are relatively desirable compared to the ill-effects of alternatives. ↩
“These historical men believe that ever more light is shed on the meaning of existence in the course of its process, and they look back to consider that process only to understand the present better and desire the future more vehemently.” (emphasis mine) Friedrich Nietzsche - On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980) ↩