Mind Matters

Capitalism Cancels the Passions

Mind Matters is a newsletter written by Oshan Jarow, exploring post-neoliberal economic possibilities, contemplative philosophy, consciousness, & the bountiful absurdities of being alive. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:

Hello, dear humans.

I have a new essay to share: A Syringe of Economic Possibilities (Consider the Basic Income).

My recent essays focus on political economy, which isn’t exactly a subject known for evocative prose. Maybe economics isn’t a dismal science, but the literature of economics is.

Too often, it feels like writing about economics means asking the reader to tolerate stylistic dullness in exchange for information. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. As a writer, my aspiration is to write how I imagine Annie Dillard with a PhD in economics would. I haven’t figured out how to even approach that yet, but this essay is a blind grope looking for that direction.

It also features a wonderful drawing by Paula Ensign:

If you get the chance to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts (it sparked a lively discussion on Reddit, if that’s your thing).

Read Essay

Capitalism Cancelled Passion

A feeling arose during the Renaissance and solidified during the 17th century that moral philosophy and religion were no longer adequate to restrain the “destructive passions of men”. A new system had to be devised that would counteract the destructive passions, which exhibited a tendency to breed despotism and fascism.

This new system, argues economist Albert Hirschman, was capitalism. A system devised to nullify human passions by keeping us focused, instead, on our interests.

For most of human history, money-making pursuits were reviled. But, through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, this attitude changed. Money-making went from a dishonorable, immature fixation, to the governing credo of a rapidly developing civilization.

Hirschman asks:

“How did commercial, banking, and similar money-making pursuits become honorable at some point in the modern age after having stood condemned or despised as greed, love of lucre, and avarice for centuries past?”

The reason, on Hirschman’s analysis, is that our economic self-interests came to be seen as a welcomed counterbalancing force against our destructive passions.

“The passions were wild and dangerous, whereas looking after one’s material interests was innocent or, as one would say today, innocuous.”

Living passionately meant an inevitable decline towards despotism and fascism. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the symbol John Vervaeke chooses to represent humans amidst the 21st century meaning crisis is a zombie. A hollowed out, empty, passion-less corpse of a being. Without passion, what animates human life? What gives it vivacity, texture, interiority, & worth?

By Hirschman’s analysis, we’ve existed within a system intentionally designed to nullify our passions by focusing us instead on our ‘interests’ for over 200 years. Maybe it’s time to change that. Maybe it’s time to trust the value of passion once again. To, if you’ll excuse the tired phrase, break the cage (it’s no coincidence that Max Weber described modernity as an iron cage that traps us in a rationalized form of existence).

But this raises a good question: what kinds of environments (economic, social, technological) channel human passion towards conviviality, generosity, and creativity, as opposed to despotism & fascism?

The mistake made by Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and all those who believed passions inevitably evoked despotism was to naturalize the course from passion to despotism. Rather, where passions lead to despotism, it was likely within an environment with contours sloping in that direction. Like water simply following the course set by its banks.

But as history continues unfolding one damn thing after another, as civilization evolves, the contours of our environments evolve too.

So how to participate in the design of our socioeconomic environments so that our passions drive us towards the good? This is the idea I circled in my essay on UBI and decommodifying time, and more recently Against Time Inequality: the more of our time that’s forcibly enmeshed in economic logic, the more we live narrowly for our interests and subdue our passions. The more slim our scope of becoming grows.

But the less time we’re forced to exchange in order to access the resources we need to survive and participate in society, the more time & space that’s ‘opened up’ for rationalities and logics beyond the narrow confines of the economic. The more space our passions, which might not generate returns on the market, are given to unfold.

Following the recent work of Franco Berardi and Lauren Berlant: Today, when we think of the future, it no longer promises this sense of expansion. We don’t see the future as a promise of more deeply realizing our latent humanity, or giving voice to our passions and kindling a growing zest for life.

Rather, thoughts of the future are stained by anxiety, debt, and hopelessness. Berardi writes:

“The future is no longer conceived as promise, but as a threat”

Reports of American mental health since the 1980’s agree. This phenomenon is what led Alex Williams to simply write: “the future has been cancelled” (my podcast with Alex here). Our task as we redesign the economy in this early 21st century is, as Williams’ book is titled, to invent the future.

I hope we’ll do so with a more favorable estimation of the role passion can, and should, play in human life. We should be striving to live with vigor and zest and kindness. These are not rooted in our narrow economic interests, but our passions.

Evolutionary Tree

A lovely little freeze-frame from Vox’s Netflix series, Explained, on our evolutionary tree (we’re on the far right):

Forget Morality, Contemporary Capitalism Is Bad Economics

Yakov Feygin, assistant director of the Future of Capitalism project at the Berggruen Institute, tweeted that “contemporary capitalism simply isn’t good at its stated job”:

Which, I think, is one of the most devastating critiques that can be made of the variety of capitalism we’ve lived within since the 1970’s. A moral critique of neoliberalism won’t win any converts. It might be fun, or feel good, but it’s mostly just preaching to your own filter bubble.

But if it can be shown that even on capitalism’s own terms - stable growth, equitable prosperity, innovation - ‘left-wing’ alternative policies can achieve better results, what ground is left for neoliberal capitalism to stand on? It should be noted, Feygin is the coauthor of a recent proposal that I’ve covered many times in this newsletter as well as recent essays, Mutualism: A New Deal for Ownership.

Back to Hirschman, he traces the same point being made in the 17th & 18th centuries. Montesquieu wrote:

“It is useless to attack politics directly by showing how much its practices are in conflict with morality and reason. This sort of discourse convinces everybody, but changes nobody … I believe it is better to follow a roundabout road and to try to convey to the great a distaste for certain political practices by showing how little they yield that is at all useful.”

More recently, Hirschman documents how Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations “obliterated” the aforementioned debate on how to mollify the passions by squaring them against self-interest. There’s a reason that Smith is infamous for his treatise on economics, but hardly known for his prior book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Appealing to morality wasn’t nearly as effective as appealing to economics:

“If the ‘interests-versus-passions thesis’ is nevertheless quite unfamiliar, it is so partly owing to its having been superseded and obliterated by the epochal publication, in 1776, of The Wealth of Nations … Adam Smith abandoned the distinction between the interests and the passions in making his case for the unfettered pursuit of private gain; he chose to stress the economic benefits that this pursuit would bring rather than the political dangers and disasters that it would avert.”

Prior to Smith’s Wealth of Nations, people were appealing to politics and morality as a justification to erect an economic system (capitalism) that stifled people’s passions by incentivizing them to focus on their interests.

Smith went beyond an appeal to politics or morality, making the case that preoccupying everyone with the pursuit of their own self-interest would serve as the foundation for a thriving economy. This ended the debate.

Hirschman writes:

“The main impact of The Wealth of Nations was to establish a powerful economic justification for the untrammeled pursuit of individual self-interest, whereas in the earlier literature that has been surveyed here the stress was on the political effects of this pursuit.”

The sentiment is crystallized by Sir James Steuart, another 18th century economic thinker studied by Hirschman:

“[A] modern oeconomy, therefore, is the most effectual bridle ever was invented against the folly of despotism.”

This all makes me feel slightly uncomfortable in my own skin. Like a vegan discovering the faux fur coat they’re wearing is made, in fact, of actual dead rabbit. We’ve been living in a system that was conceived as a bridle to subdue our passions? Historically, there’s good rationale as to why they thought this way in the 17th and 18th centuries. But today, it’s time to reevaluate.

I want my passions back, I want our passions back, and I think a redesign of contemporary capitalism is a first order of business in the process. But to motivate this case, we don’t need to rely on a moral critique of a system designed to subdue passions. We can simply demonstrate, on economic grounds, that it’s no longer doing its job.

That’ll Do

As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts, comment on the Substack version of this post for public discussion, or reach out on Twitter. I’m here for conversation & community.

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Until next time,