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Three economic roles

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Posted

A while back I wrote a post about the problem I had with the idea of economic and social classes. I noted that I had an issue with the identification of the capitalist class with the owners of the means of production, in that it doesn't seem to meet the requirements of what we would call a class. A "class", in this sense, doesn't seem to be like a set in mathematics. Different sets can still share members, and overlap; but classes seems that they have to be distinct. If you're a member of one class you can, by no means, be a member of any other class.

That said, I have done my thinking of what, to my mind, is analytically essential to Marx's notion. I'd prefer Marx's notion of economic classes, where the economic class is defined by it's functional role in the economy, than the notion of social classes, where the classes are defined by what seems to be nothing more than statistical similarities between the members. Of course, it is nothing more than a prejudice when sociologists look for social classes rather than social sets in society--they are looking for rigid distinctions in society, rather than what, in many cases, are commonalities and differences at once.

But I've long been interested in this concept of "means of production". At first, the concept does seem to allow for what could be called exploitation. If someone controls the means of production, then you couldn't produce unless through that person. If the capitalist is defined as that someone who controls the means of production, then that person certainly does seem to have a great deal of control over this production. And if there is an entire class of capitalists, and all production relies on them; and they all conspire together in a sort of coalition, because they have the same strategic interests; and if you call this capitalism, then the critique of capitalism hardly needs to be stated.

The question I had asked myself for some time now, though, was what was the meaning of capital. I guess you could identify it with "the means of production" which, it seems to me, means nothing other than "the means by which production can be held hostage." It is what I call a rude abstraction. The concept is surely an abstraction, and is abstracted from something concrete. But the way this concept is defined, to me, would be like if a bibiographer was to write about someone's life, but didn't write the whole story about that person's life, but only certain parts of it. The bibliographer, through a painstaking process, finds every moment of discomposure, frustration, and irritation, and especially those moments when that person gives in to these feelings, and vents out, attacks someone unfairly in word or deed. What would be the result of this bibliography would be a rude abstraction of that person's life.

So I've had to spend some time trying to compare the abstract with the concrete, and my conclusion is that capital is nothing but what is necessary for labor to result in production. To me, it is the solution to a Zeno-like pseudo-paradox. Lets say you wanted to produce something, like a bird house, but to do so you first need the materials like wood boards, nails, and paint, and also some tools. In order to produce the wood boards, you first need tools to cut the board, and part of a tree. To produce the tree, you need seeds to plant the tree, water, land, and wait 20 years or so for the tree to grow big enough. And so on and so forth.

So, through this sophism, it seems as if it isn't possible to produce anything whatsoever. Early economists, of which Marx was only a late proponent, believed in the labor theory of value, and that capital is nothing but embodied labor power. The key to the above sophism is that labor can be invested, and stored up, to be appropriated later. It seems to me that in every case, in the large or in the small, it's impossible for labor to result immediately in production. Capital is nothing but mediate labor. The idea of investment, of building up capital over time, is essential to the idea of capital.

In this sense, it is true that capital is "the means of production", but it isn't just any means. It is essential to all production. Of course, there is nothing essential to the idea of capital that it be proprietary, that it can be bought, and controlled, by an individual or a collection of shareholders. The proprietization of capital is one plausible definition of capitalism, but I'm curious on whether this proprietization must be this legal thing, that depends on the state to exist, or whether other sorts of proprietization could also yield capitalism. The philosopher and sociologist Bourdieu seems to have some interesting ideas about, for example, the concept of social capital. If you can define social production and social labor adequately, I don't see why social capital shouldn't also be a concept, and this might expand our idea of capitalism. It seems to me that there is a great deal of ground to cover in generalizing economics until virtually everything that can be imagined can submit to it's purview, from politics to physics to cosmology.

Every kind of society and government that requires production, which is all of them, requires capital, this is my conclusion. Whether your ideas are capitalist, socialist, libertarian, or anarchist, you won't have much of a society left if the issue of capital is not attended to. There are all sorts of variations that differentiate different political views, and I'm not here to argue for or against any of them, other than to outline a logic which I think all of them must succumb to.

There are three different economic sets: consumers, laborers, and capitalists; that these three sets may overlap, and must overlap, should be clear from the above commentary.

Consumers: Economics of the First Intention

The first cause of economics is that there are desires that need to be satisfied. Of course, individuals of society have many different desires and they come and go, and this is the first difficulty. If we followed only our desires, we would be incompetent at satisfying any of them, because we would only pursue our desires while we desired them, and stop pursuing that desire until it occurs again. Consumers qua consumers are inherently irrational. Of course, no one is a pure consumer, and we have all engaged in enough labor on ourselves, and our environment, to not be so helpless. The concept of desire must be distinguish from the concept of interest. Just because you desire a thing doesn't mean that it is in your interest to pursue that thing, and vice-versa.

Laborers: Economics of the Second Intention

Laborers qua laborers exist to satisfy the desires of consumers. There is labor involved in both buying and selling--going to grocery store to bring home and stock in your refrigerator is considered labor by this definition. In labor is the beginning of rationality, we realize that by behaving strategically, we can satisfy our desires more often and with greater satisfaction. The desire to satisfy the desires of the first intention is called interest.

Capitalists: Economics of the Third Intention

Capitalists qua capitalists exist to satisfy the interests of the laborers. Because laborers are rational, unlike consumers, capitalists can satisfy interests in a way that laborers can't satisfy desires, by banking on their rationality. The desires of consumers are unpredictable, but the interests of laborers, on the other hand, can be predicted, and can thus be "built up". The interest to satisfy the interests of the second intention is called capital.

Notice, in these three intentions, that I've basically divided up individuals. There is no individual who is a pure consumer, a pure laborer, or a pure capitalist; each individual is some combination of the three. The three intentions, of course, is built on the idea that the second intention is an application of the first intention on itself, and the third intention is an application of the second intention on itself; as the desire to satisfy desires, and the desire to satisfy the desires of the desires to satisfy other desires, respectively.

This corresponds, though in a much more abstract way, how the broader economy seems to me. By "laborers", I don't understand only employees, but businesses in general, who must depend for their income on the whims of consumers. Even the owners of many of these businesses, especially small businesses, seem very much like laborers to me, as they strive to pander to consumers. Then the "capitalists" here represent, to a large degree, the financial industry. They are characterized by engaging in an incredible amount of analysis and computing, in order to try to make predictions, and choose which of the laborers they are going to invest in. But the only reason why they can gain by analysis and computing is because of the rationality of the laborers. Being a laborer is inherently risky, but they allow for the existence of capitalists by filtering out most of this risk.

But that is only "our society". I think the concepts involved can be employed universally, to any society, perhaps even to all things.

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Posted

A couple of ideas struck me as intriguing, namely:

Laborers qua laborers exist to satisfy the desires of consumers.

Capitalists qua capitalists exist to satisfy the interests of the laborers.

If you're about and the desire so takes you, is it possible to highlight what you understand by these notions?

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