Thursday, January 6, 2011

The "C" Word

The "C" Word

by Puck T. Smith on Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 11:26pm

When capitalism is outlawed, only outlaws will be capitalists. ~J Neil Schulman

Libertarianism is of course compatible with capitalism; and we should not equivocate with over-semanticizing. ~Stephan Kinsella

Stephan, is there really such a word as "semanticizing"? Certainly there should be -- in fact, there is now. By decree. ~Michael Morrison

Not withstanding J Neil Schulman's characterization of "the few involved in internal ideological debates at the Center for a Stateless Society,"(1) Gary Chartier has given three definitions of capitalism(2) which can be very useful in those discussion where the term arises:


an economic system that features property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services.


an economic system that features a symbiotic relationship between big business and government.


rule — of workplaces, society, and (if there is one) the state — by capitalists (that is, by a relatively small number of people who control investable wealth and the means of production)

I call these definitions useful, not because they give a clear meaning to the term--the contradictions among them as stated give lie to that notion--but because they are representative of how the term is used by various people. As a lover and student of words and language from my early childhood I have long known that many disagreements stem not from fundamental conflicts in positions or principles, but from imprecise language no realization of the danger of this imprecision.

C.S. Lewis, another lover of words and language who, despite his ideological emphasis and however one may disagree with his religious views, is widely regarded by many, including me, as one of the masters of linguistics and literature of the 20th century, presented an eloquent and concise exploration of this theme in his masterpiece of Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity:(3)

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not "a gentleman" you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said - so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully - "Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?" They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man "a gentleman" in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is "a gentleman" becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

Capitalism has undergone the type of "spiritualization" Lewis described. Originating from the proto-Indo-European root "caput, meaning 'head'—also the origin of chattel and cattle in the sense of movable property"(4) Its use in the modern sense is often attributed to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, however capitalist as a value-free, descriptive technical term preceded Marx and Engels by twenty-five years and capitalism in the same technical sense preceded them by seventeen years.(5)

I consider Marx and Engels to represent the point wherecapitalist and capitalism crossed the threshold. Previously the terms were analogous to gentleman in the original denotative sense. Since Marx and Engels they have acquired connotations which indicate more the opinion of the speaker with respect to that spoken of instead of the object's objective characteristics. Depending upon who is using these terms they have been reduced to little more that compliments or insults, shorthand for unspoken diatribe and polemic.

Nevertheless, the words refuse to die however that may be desired and however lacking they have become as conveyors of meaning. It is for this reason I regard Chartier's definitions as useful. For those of us engaged in the war of ideas it can be fatal to make enemies of those who are not our enemies and to think we have friends among those who are not our friends. Consequently, whenever the termscapitalist or capitalism arise in discussion it is critical to clarify the terms.

For many these terms mean little more than exploiter andexploitation. For others it is a code word for freedom. If I argue the goodness of capitalism while understanding it in the sense of Chartier's first definition, a system comprising property rights and free exchange, while another decries the evil of capitalism from the belief it is represented by Chartier's second and third definitions, I could be seen as praising exploitation while to me the other is condemning freedom. We have become enemies, when in reality we share a common love of freedom and an equally common loathing for exploitation.

Conversely, there are certainly those who regard the second or third definitions as positive. In a discussion of capitalism, where the term is not clearly defined, I may sense an ally in one actually favors plutocracy and statism while my advocacy of uncoerced voluntary exchange would represent to them lawlessness and chaos. The lack of clarity may find me standing side-by-side with the enemy of all I hold dear.

Consider, then, the value of clarity and precision in the use of words. The language of our ideas can be a bright flare blazing above the battlefield dispelling the fog of war.

1) J Neil Schulman.

2) Gary Chartier.

Advocates of Freed Markets Should Embrace “Anti-Capitalism”

3) C.S. Lewis.

Quoted by Glenn Slaven. C.S. Lewis on the abuse of the English language

4) Wikipedia.Capitalism

5) ibid.

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