What is capitalism? The corner shop baker selling his bread is capitalism. The rock singer uploading music to Spotify is capitalism. The taxi driver with his own car taking fares is capitalism.
I write books. A book that sells for £10 costs £2 to print; the publisher takes £3 and the bookshop £4. That leaves £1 for me. I am a capitalist.
Our prehistoric forebears traded shells, animals hides and spearheads. Someone invented money around 3,000 BC in Mesopotamia and called it the shekel, the name of the Israeli currency today. In the Middle Ages, feudal landgrabbers carved out estates (their progeny still sit in the House of Lords) where bonded peasants worked for the pleasure of being able to eat and fornicate.
Capitalism took over from feudalism in the middle of the 17th century and became the religion that would replace religion during the industrial revolution.
This was the time when manufacturers started to invest their profits to increase production and make ever greater profits, rather than donate the excess to the monarch to build castles and cathedrals. The industrial capitalists became so rich, the king gave them titles and they sent their sons to special schools where only the sons of kings and people like them went to school. Eton College was founded by Henry VI in 1440.
Industrialists branched out into publishing and started newspapers that told the peasants now called workers how lucky they were to live in the ‘best country in the world’ with kings and queens that were the ‘envy of the world.’
Why the people believed this nonsense remains a mystery.
What is Capitalism Today?
Capitalism as an ideology was defined in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations by Scottish economist Adam Smith. He proposed that all economic decisions be left to self-regulating market forces with few rules or restrictions. His ideas gained a firm grip through the 19th century with policies of free trade and minimum levels of poor relief. When Margaret Thatcher went to bed at night beside Denis she dreamed of Adam Smith.
The factory system born from these policies created a labouring underclass whose inhuman working and living conditions inspired the revolutionary philosophy of Karl Marx. He believed class war was inevitable without considering the power of tabloid propaganda and photographs of the king’s pretty children that working people with dull miserable lives cut out to glue in their family albums.
Marx was wrong about most things but was right when he said capitalism would destroy itself. Continual growth in profits, share values and obscene wages for those at the top of the pyramid require denial of creeping deserts, melting ice caps and global warming. The planet with its growing population and finite resources can only withstand so much rape and plunder before the seas turn to sludge and the land to dust.
Why the very rich with their nicely spoken children allow this to continue is another mystery that makes the question what is capitalism even more complex and labyrinthine.
After the devastation of World War Two, western countries created health services, pensions and varieties of the welfare state that protected the weakest members of society. They built social housing and youth clubs, established rent control, paid holidays, the forty-hour working week, and planted the conditions for home buying, foreign holidays, free university education and opportunity.
Old time capitalism where people with money would reward themselves with titles and the power to make more money by cutting wages and factory closures was brought to an end by the checks and balances put in place by post-war politicians. Capitalism was not destroyed. Manufacturing and business concerns were encouraged to prosper. Entrepreneurs were backed with loans and grants, while government rules were in place to protect the working people who created that prosperity.
Capitalists stood at their castle gates looking on in horror as the world became humanised, decent, more equitable with fair taxes and chances for all. They tossed and turned in their beds at night and were unable to rest until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher marched on Downing Street.
With her key advisers Nicholas Ridley, Eton, son of a Viscount; Keith Joseph, social market economist, and bully boy press adviser Bernard Ingham, Thatcher set about crushing the miners, beating workers with police batons, obliterating unions and selling off state utilities whose workers had since the war built into world class concerns.
They sold the assets off cheap and removed regulations in such a way – to provide one example – water companies privatised but without competition could pay vast dividends to shareholders while negligently pumping raw sewage into the rivers and sea rather than replace and repair the infrastructure.
The trains don’t work and are the most expensive in Europe. Power is so costly people unscrew their lightbulbs so the kids have to sit in the dark. The health service didn’t expire on its own accord. Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary for five years had his knee on the throat of the NHS as he sold off more and more to private health suppliers.
While the entire infrastructure in the United Kingdom was destroyed by Tory ideologues – hastened by Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss – governments across Europe looked on and decided not to follow Britain’s suicidal plunge into the abyss. On the contrary, they bought our assets and took the profits home for their own pension pots.
When Rishi Sunak – unelected – moved into Downing Street he announced that he is the new Margaret Thatcher and in this he is telling the truth. Little else that comes out of his mouth has any veracity except by his own blinkered definition. When he says he believes in levelling up, the NHS and good schools, what he is saying is he wants people of their own accord to level up, get private health insurance and send their children to good private schools of the type he attended.
The attitude is this: ‘If your son breaks his arm, you pay the doctor. It’s not my responsibility. I am not asking you to pay for my son.’ It is a mental block. A different vision. Rishi Sunak believes in helping his financial class who can in turn help him. It is an ideology, a belief system carefully concealed by those in power from those who misguidedly cast the ballots that keep them in power.
The Conservative Party is not a political organisation. It is a criminal conspiracy in league with a corrupt dishonest press that will turn workers into day labourers without rights and the land into feudal estates owned by oligarchs with armed private security guards and Chinese cameras hidden among the barbed wire.
What is capitalism? It is the manipulation of truth by the rich and powerful to convince the poor and downtrodden that that the people they have elected have their best interests at heart when the very opposite is true.