Before Supporting Capitalism, Be Sure If You’re An Actual Capitalist

I am, for the most part, a socialist. I do not believe the principles of rationality, equality, and liberty should be limited to national governments. Once employers get large– say, more than $25 million in profit plus salaries– they are effectively utilities and ought to be treated as such. If they do not serve the public and their employees well, they ought to be shut down or nationalized.

Being a “job creator”, as rich people love to call themselves, does not give one the right to act with impunity. The ultimate “job creators” of the 20th century are Mao, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. They are not remembered well. When the very-rich threaten to move their money overseas, I say we should let them. The value in this country is in the skills, working capacity, and market of this country; if they want to move their wealth overseas to avoid paying taxes, that’s fine– they won’t have access to anything this country offers. When the super-wealthy, self-titled “job creators” threaten a capital strike, I laugh. It would be like a third-world dictator, when his powers and salary are reduced, threatening to quit dictatoring and make hotel art instead.

That said, I don’t have a moral or ideological problem with capitalism. In fact, I think every society needs some element of capitalism within it. It’s going to emerge anyway. People trade, they gamble, and they like to buy and sell things. The left-authoritarian nightmares of the 20th century taught us what not to do when it comes to socialism. Knowing that market activity is both inevitable and often desirable, it’s always better to have it legal and well-regulated than to have a black market for goods as prosaic as light bulbs.

If socialist means “one who believes that Enlightenment-era principles of rational government ought also apply to employers and the economy,” then I’m a socialist. But I do not think it wise or desirable to eradicate all elements of capitalism. Command economies do not work; we ought to fix the market economy rather than get rid of it. However, most of today’s socialists would agree with me on that principle. We don’t want a dramatic overhaul of our government or economy; we simply want to free ourselves from the perverse private government– the corporate system– that serves only the well-connected, absurdly rich social climbers who call themselves “executives”.

I’m a software engineer. What amazes me is how many programmers are dumb enough to think that their being “highly paid” (relative to the more-fucked rest of the working class) entitles their bosses to subject them to daily status reports, arbitrary emotional deadlines, absurdly long hours, and humiliating micromanagement. They tolerate this because they think their bosses see them as capitalists-in-training, rather than permanent subordinates. Once they’re old and smart enough to realize they were wrong, they’re replaced due to ageism.

The corporate system is, I note, not especially capitalistic. Executives are not compensated based on market rates for executive “talent” (ha!) but rather on what a closed social elite thinks it can get away with. It is not a meritocracy. On the contrary, it exists to ratify hereditary aristocracy by allocating to the children of the rich certain tokens that are theoretically available, but extremely difficult to get, within the middle class. Every time a middle-class kid from Idaho or Chinatown gets rejected from the Ivies despite her 4.0 GPA and 1600 SATs, the upper-class legacy admits with 3.2/1200 look brilliant. The system is far more social than it is economic; market capitalism is just another language it has learned how to speak (in the same way that it has subsumed, humiliated, and made into an easy-to-hate effigy, the superficially left-leaning academic, cultural, and media elites).

The truth is that if you don’t have generational training, the ease of presence that comes from wealth, and most importantly familial connections, you are very unlikely to get a capitalist-in-training job. You are more likely to be labor forever. If you’re an adult, as opposed to some quixotic kid waiting to be “discovered” by a venture capitalist at The Creamery, you’ll align with your own interests accordingly.

Indeed, one of the things that embitters a person with age is to watch mediocre people continually get bought out of the mistakes of youth, and to be offered opportunities they didn’t really earn, while those of us in the 99 percent have to pay multiply for every mistake we make. I don’t give a shit that they have more money or live in bigger apartments– if they want to buy $30,000 bottles of champagne with gold flakes, so they can literally do what Tywin Lannister did not, I am fine with that– but it pisses me the fuck off not only to live in a system that pretends that they highborn mediocrities are better than us, but to have pretend to go along with it. If society decides it doesn’t need real talent in important roles, then I disagree, but I shall accept its choice of mediocrity. I draw the line at smiling while I watch it burn.

Here’s why I can’t respect so many software engineers: their macho subordinacy is an embarrassment; they take abuse with a smile.

If you get to pick your projects and you move into an R&D role where you get paid to do whatever you want, good for you. If you’ve decided you want to climb a managerial ladder, and you know the executives are going give you a glass elevator, then great– I’m glad it worked out for you. I understand why you would like corporate capitalism. If you’re working hard and still get the standard-issue crappy treatment– if you’re in your late 20s or 30s and still have to work on Jira tickets and interview for your own job every morning– then you are an idiot to believe in meritocracy (unless you contend that you have no merit, in which case your views are consistent and you may be right).

Is capitalism good or bad? That’s a complicated question. Capitalism worked quite well in the 1940s–70s. If you had a car and a college education, you could drive into a new city without connections on Wednesday, make calls from the hotel room on Thursday afternoon, have a lunchtime “interview” with an executive on Friday where you talked about Roman history or your literary/artistic aspirations, and start in your new job on Monday. If you were 30, you’d get a management job if you wanted one; at 35, an executive position was on offer. If you actually worked an honest day, sober, you were considered a go-getter and would get rapid promotions. That’s the country the Boomers inherited– and took away from us.

It is reasonable to believe in capitalism if and only if you think we stand a good chance of (a) getting that system back, and (b) making it more broadly available than it was, since the high era of capitalism was not kind to all groups. If you believe that market systems can be part of a program that restores such a society (and, honestly, I do) then you can support capitalism and not be stupid or immoral.

I’m not against capitalism. I don’t consider business inherently immoral. It’s not. However, it galls me when people support the existing (clearly failing, whatever it is) system because they are thoroughly unable to recognize that, barring radical changes– sweeping social and economic changes that their bosses, at least, would decry as “socialism”– they stand no real chance of becoming capitalists.

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28 thoughts on “Before Supporting Capitalism, Be Sure If You’re An Actual Capitalist

  1. I posit that a system built on the principles of true liberty will always be superior to a controlled system according to its receptivity to disruption at critical historical junctures like the blockchain enabled on we are witnessing now with its potential to foster dynamic and novel group organization mechanisms.

    There was a Chinese Ph.D. student whose thesis sought to determine why America was responsible for the lion’s share of global innovation during the last century. The answer he came up with was it was the first time in modern history where both freedoms of religion (a foundation of trust on which to build business relationships) and property rights were given to the people. Here’s an idea: Why not extend these ideas to the internet? The internet is broken. It’s made up of cartels which control our data and by extension, us.

    I agree with the sentiment behind your ideas, but not your conclusions. We live in a crony capitalistic system. Fix the crony part, not the capital part. Capital is simply a way to bottle up your work and use it later. The world and universe at large is the result of reasonable tradeoffs between sad extremes.

    The system we have is responsible for the greatest increase in the quality of life for the world population than anything yet tried. Instead of replacing it with systems that are proven failures, why not embrace the best parts of it and extend them to our new reality? Freedom must only be curtailed by natural law, i.e. your right to drive on both sides of the road is pre-empted by my right to live. Game theory dictates that we continue to share knowledge and raise all boats with the rising tide.

    The idea that you can raise that tide faster by throttling the growth of companies with a nearly omniscient bureaucracy sounds like a dangerous experiment, with far too much faith in 3rd party fairness. If the government is broken, why empower it further with more powers? Did you know the original wording of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was “Life, liberty and the pursuit of property”? Respectfully yours.

    • “If the government is broken, why empower it further with more powers?”

      If the corporations are broken, why does the government continuously empower them? Oh yeah, because the corporations run the government.

      • Voting still works. The corporatists do a lot to limit its effectiveness, but until they go from corporate fascism-lite to actual fascism, they’re not preventing people from moving to the polls.

        What will fix this country in a heartbeat would be to stop the conveyor belt that moves so many smart people into a few huge cities, giving us an arrangement where the less-educated are disproportionately represented. The Great Recession, although a nightmare in general, seems to be turning that process off (slowly).

        By 2025, intelligent, liberal-minded, anti-corporate people will be a substantial majority in this country. It just won’t do a damn thing for us if they all live in 5 major cities– where (to make it worse) because they can’t afford real estate, they have no sense of local investment and will probably only vote in the presidential election.

  2. Given how terrible corporate culture is, especially for software engineers, what technical career path(s) do you think are worth pursuing? Even parts of academia do Scrum now: I interviewed at a research lab at a top university, and they were doing daily standups.

    • Daily standups are just a dumb ritual. They don’t necessarily mean that a job is bad. Likewise, open-plan offices exist as much because of misguided good intentions as bad ones.

      It’s not necessarily bad to be technical– just know that you’ll have to identify as an “X Who Programs” rather than “Just A Programmer” by age 35 (which, ha, is now my precise age). Your X could be: manager, small business owner, researcher, etc.. You can still *program* after 35– there’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, if you’re good at it, it’s like having a magic power. You just can’t be a regular programmer doing Jira tickets and “sprints”.

      • Had one company where daily status was helpful. Our boss really seemed to be on our side.

        For most, it becomes “What did you do yesterday?”. Give answer. “What else did you do?”

        God help you if you get stuck on something for three or four days. You probably won’t get fired but you feel like it’s time to just hand in your badge and laptop to the security desk and go home.

        • “God help you if you get stuck on something for three or four days.”

          When you have good days, flood the channel and people will tune you out. That’s how people seem to win at corporate: they intentionally over-communicate, they flood channels so people stop listening and hear what they want to hear.

  3. I am 54, I run a 15-minute daily interview every day for my team. I detest Jira with a passion. I will be labouring until I can labour no more. I was born in the Scottish working class and have made it to the British and now New Zealand middle class. I know I will get no further.

    • Jira is absolutely horrible.

      I’m American. Back when we had a country– back before the global elite took it form us– CCing someone’s boss on a request was just cause for a fistfight.

      Jira is a tool for CCing the whole company. It should be burned.

      • Cc’ing someone’s boss in and of itself isn’t necessarily a hostile act and if it was perceived as such in the past, then the fact that that changed is IMHO a good thing. Cc’ing the entire company is wasteful of everyone’s time and should never be done. But if I cc someone’s boss on maybe 10% of my requests to them, my intent is not hostile and should not be read as such. It is a way of communicating that those 10% of requests are more urgent and I am not only asking the person to do it, but also asking their boss to be flexible enough to allow them to make the time available to me. Seems reasonable to me if done sparingly. If done too much, it is disrespectful both of the person who one is then not trusting to do their job, and of the boss who has to read these extraneously. But like most things when done sparingly it makes sense. People should exercise good judgment about when to cc additional people on emails, and the real difficulty is that people are trusted less and less to exercise good judgment in their jobs.

        Where there is a big problem is when every email seems to need to include everyone up to three levels up the management chain from the real person who needs to do the task.

        • ” It is a way of communicating that those 10% of requests are more urgent and I am not only asking the person to do it, but also asking their boss to be flexible enough to allow them to make the time available to me.”

          You should ask them for permission to CC their boss before doing so (you can use Slack for this). If they think your request is important, or owe you a favor, or want you to owe them one, they’ll grant it. That may have the effect you want; they know their bosses better than you do.

          • Your message underscores why, while socialism has it place in many areas of life, in the for profit private sector, the capitalist mindset will always prevail. Let’s say we have two companies, company A and company B. At company A, things are much as you describe. Routine work gets done, if, and only if, the right people owe the right other people favors or want to be owed favors. The politics of who knows whom better, rather than the actual business need, determines what is deemed important. At company B, people check their egos at the door and simply do their jobs. In the competitive private sector, company B will always have an edge over company A. If I find myself working for company A, and company B makes me an offer, I will gladly jump ship.

            Note that there are certainly times when people do genuinely grant favors, and it is nice to return those whenever possible. But a genuine favor isn’t when you just do your job. It is when you do something a bit beyond your usual job duties to help someone. An example might be if you make an introduction for someone that you didn’t have to make–or support someone for a promotion when you didn’t have to do so–or support someone who is in danger of being fired to prevent their being fired–or help someone get an interview even when there is no financial reward for doing so. Those are genuine favors. But an attitude that you are doing someone a favor simply for doing your job is not a healthy attitude to have in the capitalist sector. That attitude–taken to its extreme–will lead to the situation one often sees in third world countries where it seems that to get anything done requires the payment of a bribe.

            Just to give an example of a situation from just the last week where your approach wouldn’t have worked: I had a request in to someone in an office of my company in another country that wasn’t getting acted upon. Since this person and their boss were in another country I couldn’t just swing by their desks. It eventually turned out that this person had had to leave the office urgently for the rest of their week due to a family emergency, and in her haste to leave hadn’t turned on the auto-reply on her email. Her boss knew all this but no one else did. If I had waited for her to reply to either my initial request or a request to include the boss, there would have been on reply at all and an important customer deadline. By including the boss, I got a clear understanding of what was going on, and while the boss couldn’t fill in and complete the request, I could at least let the customer know what was going on and keep them happy.

            • You have no idea how the corporate world actually works.

              The chumps see it as a machine running on duties and cause-and-effect relationships, a meritocracy, a finely-tuned process where if everyone “just does their job”, to use your lingo, and knows their place, everything will go fine.

              The people who actually run the place see it as a collection of resources (here, meaning “things people want”, including money, prestige, connections, and career tokens like job titles) and a cloud of human attention and effort surrounding those wanted things. To get the maximal share with minimal sacrifice, they prioritize certain requests and favors over others. They will constantly choose to do what is best for them, not “the company”. If you think this game is dirty, then fine– don’t play it– but you will end up working for people who have no qualms about it.

              I’m not saying that this is how it should be. It’s probably not that way in mission-driven organizations. When there are real ethical stakes– lives on the line– people will make sacrifices because it’s the right thing to do. When the corporate mission is “make money for better-off people, who don’t give a fuck about the workers”, there’s no reason not to prioritize one’s own growth, and to punish people who seem at cross-purposes with it.

              “Ask not what your country can do for you” worked when there was a national attitude of investing in one’s people and the common wealth. People died for this country because they knew (or, at least, believed) it would repay, if not them, their family and friends. It’s silliness to take that attitude toward a for-profit corporation that will fire and replace you at any time, for any reason, even if that reason is no more than “someone cheaper became available”.

              I believe in reciprocity. I’m not going to sacrifice a damn thing for someone who wouldn’t do the same for me.

              • “I believe in reciprocity. I’m not going to sacrifice a damn thing for someone who wouldn’t do the same for me.” Exactly. My co-workers wouldn’t hesitate about cc’ing my boss on a request if it is the most efficient way to get something done. They can and do cc my boss on requests to me all the time. Why should I hold myself do a different ethical standard?

                As I mentioned in my other post, I actually don’t have a problem with the corporate world being extremely cutthroat. I’m not offended by people in the corporate world being out only for themselves subject to the sole constraint that they abide by the laws of the larger society. I just think that that corporate mindset belongs only in the corporate world and the biggest problem is when that attitude spills over into other sectors of society.

                • Fair enough. It would be fine if it were contained and opt-out. It’s the spillage of corporate thinking into academia, government, the arts, and education that has ruined everything.

                  We’re always going to have some kind of inequality. It may be that some people get to have Level 101 characters in a video game while others max out at 100, but it won’t go away entirely. We just shouldn’t be forcing 100% of people into a cutthroat game that only ~3 percent are cut out for. Not everyone wants to be a hedge fund trader– or, worse yet, to have the work environment of a hedge fund trader (i.e., open-plan office and daily performance evaluations) but not the comp.

  4. True intelligence is formless.

    Don’t paint yourself as a socialist if you want true breakthroughs. Socialism is only a map. Map is not territory. A scientific theory is a map. It is not territory. A scientist stuck in theories cannot make true breakthroughs. Don’t just believe in black hole if you want true breakthroughs in physics.

    • I absolutely agree. Socialism is just another tool that works sometimes and fails other times– much like capitalism. It’s neither evil nor good; there are things to learn from it, is all.

      Capitalism worked very well in the 1940s–70s. But, it worked because of aggressive government intervention to keep the system honest. For example, a high individual income taxes, strict regulations imposed on monopolies, and a strong federal R&D job market for the top scientific minds meant that companies would invest their profits into shoring up prosperity for the next generation rather than individual executives stripping copper off the pipes. Hence, it led to 4–6% annual GDP growth. We’re lucky to get 2% today.

  5. I’m a software developer and originally from Canada. Canada generally has (or in the past had) a reputation for being a bit more socialist than the USA. My views on capitalism are probably similar to a lot of Canadians at least at the time I lived there: I believe capitalism has its place. But the scope of capitalism should be a fairly narrow range of human activity: private sector for profit business activity, and only when people are actively engaged in that mindset.

    The main problem I have with the capitalist mindset is that it has come to dominate many different areas of life where it has no place, and different values–not the for profit business mindset–should prevail. It has its place, but in the last 30 years has grown far beyond its place. Where I see this is when I see a claim by a non-business entity that they want to run “like a business”. Government should not be run like a business because it is NOT A BUSINESS. The military should not be run like a business because it is NOT A BUSINESS. A non profit should not be run like a business because it is NOT A BUSINESS. A church should not be run like a business because it is NOT A BUSINESS. A university should not be run like a business because it is NOT A BUSINESS. And absolutely people’s personal lives should not be run like a business.

    I hope my point is clear–I have no problem with the structures that have been deemed optimal to help for profit businesses turn a maximum profit being used in for profit businesses. But there are many, many areas of life where different values should prevail, and the corporate mindset has no proper place. 30-40 years ago people understood this but they seem to have lost sight of this. When I see the corporate mindset creeping into more and more areas of life where it has no place, that raises a red flag to my more socialist side.

    But my capitalist side has no problem with capitalism in its proper place. I don’t think a for profit business becomes essentially a quasi-governmental entity at $25 million in size. There may be a threshold at which this kicks in, but it is orders of magnitudes higher than $25 million. Below that size, I would let businesses be businesses. They are subject to laws, but they shouldn’t need to apologize for optimizing profit in ways consistent with the law. If doing daily standups maximizes profits for software companies in the private sector, then so be it. But academia shouldn’t blindly adopt the same approach without first thinking about whether it suits the very different values that should separate the academic world from the corporate world.

  6. “Agile” is a misguided attempt to adapt the ideas of John Boyd to business. Boyd subverted the military mind-set by using an infinite loop– “the only goal is victory, authority must be absolute, absolute authority leads to defeat, the only goal is victory…” etc. By subverting the “authority” construct he opened the door to innovation. This worked so well for the military it was tried by civilians.

    But this doesn’t work in the civilian world because growing a business is very different from defeating an enemy in war. If you replace “victory” with “growth (i.e. profit, return on investment, etc.) then it’s impossible to subvert authority and thereby nurture innovation because authority, when there is no external threat, is free to mimic growth by drawing wealth out of suppliers and employees and customers and finally the government by, well, “bullying” them. Growth and authority merge into a phony kind of “prestige.” “Size matters.” “Too big to fail” etc. After all, with enough “authority” you can “fake” growth by cooking the books, exploiting everyone at every opportunity, and turning the company into a cult. Instead of growing through production the company grows via parasitism. In a war, that would get you killed. In business, it can actually pay off for the crooked cabal of insiders.

    Without the help and guidance of a well-armed enemy eager to spill your blood, Agile becomes a recipe for disaster because there is no automatic feedback loop to tell you when an idea works and when it’s just providing ego strokes for the boss. In a war, a boss who seeks ego strokes gets dragged through the streets by enemy troops. In peacetime, it’s just more ego-strokes all around. It make take years for the hosts (all of them) of the parasite corporation to grow so weak that they die and it dies with them.

  7. Sent someone a question. He responded with a long CC list including tech lead. It sure felt like he was trying to get me in trouble.

  8. One thing you constantly focus on is how the startup world seems to value rich kids more than it values tech people. This, I have observed, is true.

    But it’s true for a very mundane reason.

    A rich kid is a valued commodity because they don’t come off as desperate or needy in front of investors or clients. An earnest middle-class founder is going to think, “I made a terrific product, I hope these people see that, but what if they don’t???” Also, rich kids have hidden connections to other sources of funding and clients if the startup’s revenues take a downturn in the open market. So a rich kid is an insurance policy. A VC can understand this, even if they can’t understand anything else.

    The market is entirely unpredictable. Business plans which seem perfectly thought out crumble in the face of user behavior. So a product, on its own, is nothing but a Hail Mary. But having a rich kid on board is going to ensure that that product gets the best hearing it can get.

    It’s a sad world we live in, but that’s the way it is.

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