The Unnatural Nature of Commerce

Commerce: How Deep Does It Go?

by Gwydion M. Williams

People are born into an existing society; people could not possibly be people without this. What you find seems natural and inevitable, until you see something else.

Some things are fixed: gravity, for instance. Though we can change the way we interact with gravity, such as orbiting the earth and thereby being ‘in free fall’, so that we float. But this is another way of obeying the same law, and numerous attempts to float or fly by sheer will-power have not had a happy ending.

The rules of grammar are a little more flexible. The verb in English at the end does not go. But change this rule, we can. On the other hand, grammar changes very little within a single language across the centuries. It’s easier to get people to use a new language, than to force them to change the rules of the language they know.

We are born into a world that seems inevitable. Science and history tell us that some things may have been fixed since the beginning of the universe, while others are historic accidents. This could be seen as a set of levels at which different aspects of life exist:

Level One – pure mathematics. This may have pre-existed the observable universe and formed a basis for the ‘Origin Event’.

Level Two – Astrophysics, fixed during the time of the Primeval Inferno that we observe in the ‘Big Bang’ radiation. Before that there may have been a Big Bang, or a ‘Big Splat’ in some higher universe, or our universe may have ‘budded off’ from another universe when it formed a Black Hole, with our own universe producing new ‘buds’ in turn as massive stars collapsed. There are many ideas about the ‘Origin Event’, but astronomers have seen the echoes of the Primeval Inferno and know quite a lot about it.

Level Three – physiochemical laws, as expressed on the planets that began to form round the various stars. You could imagine a universe in which astrophysics worked, but the physiochemical laws were different enough to prevent planets forming. Of course such a universe would have no inhabitants able to note the lack.

 Until recently, we had little idea whether our planet was a rare accident or something very normal. The last few years has brought many discoveries of planets round other suns. So far nothing has been found that resembles the Earth. Most of the known solar systems are very unlike the one we inhabit.

[Since 2004, some planets more like Earth have been found. But it has been confirmed that solar system similar to our own are rather rare.]

Level Four – terrestrial conditions, as expressed through the lifetime of the planet. Physiochemical laws have expressed themselves very differently on Mars and Venus, planets that may once have been more Earth-like.

Level Five – terrestrial history, the development of the planet and its life-forms. Modern thinking connects them: the atmosphere has been shaped by life and so has some geology, chalk is the remains of living organisms.

Level Six – biological history. Life as a whole has shaped the planet, but many categories of animal could be missing without changing very much. And this includes the vertebrates, animals with bones, a rather minor group in the oceans of the Cambrian 500 million years ago.

Likewise there were proto-mammals existing at the start of the Jurassic. Mammals as a distinct group emerged before birds, which are first seen at the end of the Jurassic. Our own mouse-like ancestors are thought to have separated from the equally mouse-like ancestors of the rat, some 80 million years ago.

 The recent sequencing of the rat genome indicates much more natural selection and ‘struggle for existence’ applying to their gene-line than to ours—but without making them anything more than rats.

Level Seven – human biology. For unknown reasons we diverged from other apes, several million years back. It may have begun with the simple matter of walking upright, possibly because our ancestors were spending a lot of time wading in the waters of ancient lakes. What we observe after that is a growth in the brain’s size and the hand’s handiness or skill. Engels was quite right when he said that it was work that made the hand more than a simple grasping paw.

Anything you’ve heard about humans as ‘killer apes’ is wrong. Proto-humans found among the bones of game-animals were not mighty hunters, but part of the prey collected by a leopard, eagle or similar. Only quite late in our development did we become true hunters.

We are ‘ape-lite’, with small jaws and weak limbs compared to apes, much less robust than extinct small-brained hominids. Though there is no obvious reason why we could not have kept chunky bodies while growing large brains, this was not what actually happened.

We also acquired voices, vocal chords that are much more versatile than other land mammals (though inferior to birds, and no better than whales and dolphins). We are the only land mammal that can sing, and song is an integral part of every human culture: I think the Taliban were unique in trying to ban song as such, rather than seeking to control the content.

Engels did note the role of voices, but saw it as related to work. There is some truth in this, but song also plays a major role in building up trust and community spirit. It may also have helped wandering bands of proto-humans to recognise which bands of strangers had reached a human grade and which had not.

Another human singularity—not mentioned by Engels and not much emphasised by biologists until recent years—is our hugely extended period of childhood. For mammals, there is a typical pattern of childhood and adult life, based on body-size. We are a grand exception: compare a four-year-old human to a four-year-old horse.

An extra factor that mostly gets overlooked is the development of the human face, which consists of a far greater number of muscles than any ape, allowing a much subtler range of expressions. Many of these muscles are not under our conscious control, and they are pretty constant for all human cultures—whereas specific gestures like nodding the head are culturally defined.

The emergence of modern humans must have favoured a mechanism that makes it relatively easy to notice other people’s feelings, including those that they are trying to conceal. The fact that a few people can still get away with cheating should not outweigh the fact that most people cannot. We could not have become human without a basis for trust: a knowledge of people’s intent rather than some naïve notion of ‘mutual self-interest’.

Level Eight is human culture, shaping the raw material of human biology into various forms. Humans cannot be functional without help and guidance from other humans. And most people take most of their idea of self-worth and success from the judgement of other humans, mostly other humans of their own culture.

The ‘rational agents’ of the Adam Smith view could have managed with just a big brain, a versatile hand and a basic voice, with no need for beauty or melody. If any proto-humans went off in that direction, they failed to survive. Of course a band of proto-humans who didn’t like or trust each other would waste time with fights and conspiracies and lose out to a more cooperative breed.

Level Nine is human technology. This has been developing strongly over the past 5 centuries in Western Europe and its offshoots. But it depended on the convergence of Chinese technology (gunpowder, block printing, paper, the compass) with Hindu numerals and the Muslim invention of algebra and algorithms.

It was also helped by Europe’s Wars of Religion, which rather discredited traditional beliefs and helped the acceptance of new ideas.

Level Ten is human state structures, which define and redefine human laws and economic rules. What gets called ‘capitalism’ is a niche created by particular state powers at particular times, allowing an unpredictable and open-ended developments, that have always been destructive of the state structure that allowed it.

Splitting observed reality into ten levels is arbitrary, of course. Dozens of other schemas might be drawn up. The importance of these definitions is that they show the very wide gap between different things that get called ‘laws’.

Economic rules get treated as if they were astrophysical rules, fixed since the beginning of the universe. Our existing understanding of astrophysics has emerged thanks to a rigorous testing of hypothesizes and theories against hard data. In science, there’s a common saying about beautiful theories slain by a single ugly fact. Economics, however, tends to cite the beautiful theory to refute any number of ugly or unwanted facts. They have written up their prejudices in the language of mathematics, and assume that this makes them irrefutably true.

A game with rules can of course be analysed mathematically: sports statistics are a major interest. But do not mean that the sport in question is rooted in Level One, the domain of pure maths. Obviously there are thousands of ball-games that could be played and enjoyed, in addition to the few dozen that have a substantial following, with soccer being vastly the most popular. It’s the same with card-games: the standard West-European deck of cards permits a vast variety of interactions, and there are also other decks that exist or could exist.

Events in an economic game or power-structure can be analysed mathematically and will obey rules, up to a point. But economic ‘laws’ belongs at Level Ten, things that states can successfully switch on or off, if the culture and technology allow.

Eighteenth-century Britain had an economy that was closed to most foreign manufactures, and in which various industries had been intentionally fostered by state action. Pin-making, Adam Smith’s example of ‘raw commerce’, was actually one of these, a point which he must have been aware of. The entire cloth industry, a major element in the industrial revolution, existed because the English state had intentionally promoted it at the expense of efficient overseas industries which used English wool as a raw material.

Eighteenth-century Britain was not capitalist, nor did it become so in the 19th century. Strictly speaking, capitalism does not exist, and nor do capitalist economies. They never did exist in any society in the past, and are very unlikely as future developments.

The Thatcher / Reagan development should be called ‘plutophile’ rather than capitalist. The ideology of anarcho-capitalism was useful to sell it to the public, and to cover a ruthless grab by the New Rich for the modest wealth of the Working Poor. Thatcherism’s target was Keynesianism, the system that existing in the West from the 1940s to mid-1980s. This was generally called capitalism, even though it contained much less capitalist economics that the system which had self-destructed in the years 1914 to 1939. The ambiguity of what was or was not capitalist allowed Thatcher to cite capitalism as the source of post-war success, and also to destroy a successful system because of its deviation from capitalist ideals.

‘Keynesianism’ is a familiar label, but has an old-fashioned air. I’ve been calling the system ‘Democratic Corporatism’, freely acknowledging the link with the Dictatorial Corporatism begun by Mussolini in Italy, and copied in many other places. If we imagine an alternate history in which Hitler and Chamberlain had not blundered into a war by arguing over the re-division of Eastern Europe, ‘Democratic Corporatism’ is probably the name we would all be using.

Up until 1940, the various Fascist or Corporatist regimes had not been hugely violent or destructive. The Nazis had been accused by their enemies of thousands of killings, which was probably true, but nothing special and with no indication that there was worse to come. President Clinton with his bombing and blockade of Iraq in the 1990s caused more deaths than Adolph Hitler had caused up until 1940. The two Bushes have done even worse.

The system from the mid-1980s is still Corporatism, something that could be called Commercial-Populist Corporatism. No one is seeking to set up a dictatorship, but politics is made as ineffective as possible. Democracy is given so many checks and balances that real power moves to small unelected business cliques.

What we have is not a return to the past, however. Thatcher intended it to be so, but on this she failed completely. The system she created is deeply populist, persuading an impossibly large fraction of the population that they are part of the elite. Dictatorial Corporatism extended the rule of traditional elites, with a growing ‘meritocratic’ element of people who took on the mannerisms and most of the viewpoint of the traditional elites. (CF the late Alistair Cooke, born Albert Cooke and from a much more modest background than his accent indicated.) Thatcherism was mostly run by jumped-up lower-middle-class characters who never had understood the system and could not preserve it. Thatcher lacked competent successors, and the system currently makes do with lapsed leftists whose political education was heavily Marxist. Those educated in Anarcho-Capitalism are utterly incoherent and are most interesting as writers of science fiction.

Business people are mostly not believers in Anarcho-Capitalism. They make use of it as a pro-business creed. The actual assumptions on which they run their business are quite different. Likewise they were fairly happy within the structures of Democratic Corporatism.

The nearest Thatcherite connection to productive industry was Michael Heseltine. He made his fortune by realising that there was a vacant niche for well-produced magazines targeted specifically at managers. If he could get them to read it, he would acquire advertising space that would be immensely valuable, since they are a prime market. Heseltine was at least close enough to real-world business to realise it was nothing like the Anarcho-Capitalism of the New Right vision.

Another key point is sinistrality; by which I mean the tendency of capitalist economics to destroy the society that created it. This is correctly recognised by Marx in The Communist Manifesto: I think it was Marx and not Engels who made the conceptual breakthrough.

What was overlooked was the possibility of a wholly new type of society taking shape out of the fragments of the old. The flourishing British middle class of Marx’s day assembled themselves out of the wreckage of the gentry-dominated society that had permitted early industrialisation. This middle-class in turn managed to stabilise their own society at a level that suited them, but had destabilised the world and forced it to industrialise.

The idea of sinistrality needs to be rescued from the false idea of inevitable progress to some sort of proletarian revolution. Proletarian revolution has proved elusive, and has generally been carried through by the methods now denounced as ‘Stalinism’. Stalinism is simply Applied Leninism, and can be justified by the way the world was reshaped from the 1920s to the 1970s, if indeed it was justified. (Unless one believes in the SF notion of ‘alternate realities’, there is no way to tell what the world would be like if Stalin hadn’t made a power-political success of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Whatever about that, the world has moved on. Revolutionary crisises are likely to go on occurring, but no positive outcome can be expected without an extended political operation to reshape the society. The central error of Marxism was to think that there was an inevitable link between bourgeois culture and commerce. It was also wrong to see commerce as built around an abstracted system of capitalist economics.

This flawed vision was good enough to take the Bolsheviks from being a fringe party to being a superpower. Flawed enough to take them all them all the way back down again, with Khrushchev totally failing to understand that system that had produced him. Khrushchev’s world-view would have been built on a materialist concept of history that failed to ask why we have expressive faces or singing voices. I believe that a wider and wiser materialism can explain such things—and would also point to the huge merits of trust and continuity, the things that Khrushchev destroyed when he denounced Stalin. By accident or design, Deng avoided this and kept continuity with Mao when he transformed China. Deng’s system is mixed-economy or corporatist rather than capitalist. It has successfully built on Mao’s achievements, whereas Khrushchev and his successors wasted Stalin’s legacy.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the bulk of the left resisted any workable socialist advance based on existing forces. The magic of ‘proletarian revolution’ was supposed to solve everything. And when this led nowhere, some of them switched to the New Right. Doing rather more damage to the existing order than they ever managed as left-wing rebels. Lots of people have noted this and wondered what these characters might really be doing. Myself, I have pondered it and decided that they are just what they seem: a bunch of fools who never really understood the likely long-term effects of their own actions.

Continued destructiveness is guaranteed by the economy. A useful revolution or reform depends on large numbers of people acting sensibly at key moments. The ‘new order’ of the 1980s is now showing its age and is ripe for a break in some new direction, not necessarily a good direction.

‘Free trade’ is another misleading term. In Adam Smith’s day, it indicated a freedom from tariffs. As an idea, it is distinct from capitalism. And as a policy, it is a fatal inhibitor for any state trying to industrialise.

Britain in the mid-19th century dropped the policies that had made them strong over the previous century or two. The British Empire as it then existed could have been rounded off as a complete structure, that very possibly would still be around. Instead of this, ‘Free Trade’ discouraged the growing of crops in Britain, and made it essential that foreigners sell food and buy manufacturers. When Germany after Bismarck’s unification went in a similar direction, it became inevitable that these two main branches of the Germanic peoples should get into a deadly war. A war in which German submarines tried to starve Britain, while Britain’s surface fleet actually did starve Germany and most of the rest of Europe.

Colbert said “Trade is a war for money.” The British view was never much different, but they were clever enough to label it ‘Freedom’.

Freedom to wage war for money is not the sort of freedom that leaves you free to do anything else. GATT rules replace the Galting Gun as a means of imposing Western values on the world, and Anglo values on the West.

‘Free Trade’ is where goods may not be produced if they break Western rules on intellectual property. And having cleared that hurdle, they may not call it what they want, nor sell it at the price that suits them.

Further, actual subsidy and protection inhibit a lot of sales. If we were actually forming the world’s nations and states into a Universal Republic, it would make sense for poorer countries to go in for agriculture and manufacturing. But this is no longer the intention. Western agriculture and industry will be protected, in as far as it suits the dominant groups.

The actual application of ‘Free Trade’ by the World Bank and IMF would be better called an ‘Open Legs‘ policy. People should start using the term, as a sound-bite to set against the seductive notion of ‘Free Trade’.

We must distinguish between ‘Open Legs’ policy and a negotiated trade reduction—which means a deal between two ruling elites to dump the interests of some of their fellow-citizens. In capitalist terms, this can benefit a national economy. But no one in control of the process ever lets it get out of hand. They only dump some of their own citizens in the hope that this will benefit others. We drop our plastics industry, say, and get a better deal for our dairy industry and manufacturing industry.

GATT has stalled because the USA and European Community cannot dump their own farmers or low-skill manufacturers. Meantime most of the real growth among the poorer nations comes from China and India: two powerful states that have gone in for negotiated trade reductions of the sort that Western countries have with each other.

Capitalist economics is a real phenomenon. But its association with industrialisation is weak. Britain in the key era 1760 to 1830 had sophisticated capitalism in London, working hand-in-glove with a global military machine that was extending the British Empire all round the world. London was mostly a centre of consumptions, not production. In as far as it was productive, it was small family-based trades.

British industrialisation occurred well away from London, and was run by local people with a highly local interests.

The idea of capitalism is a generalisation too far. It lets a system of power appear to be a set of neutral rules,

From one viewpoint, the average person is a beige-coloured hermaphrodite. But very few people actually are, or wish to be. If you were organising a coach trip, say, you might find it convenient to do most of your sums in ‘units of person’, as if they were all interchangeable. Throwing away very large amounts of data is a useful organisational technique. But in most cases, it is not any sort of ‘deeper truth’.

The chemical elements are one of the exceptions, cases where you can throw away very large amounts of data and get a deeper truth. A gigantic range of physical object chemical compounds are made up of a limited number of chemical elements. (Just 83, including the ‘Noble Gases’ that have very little chemistry, but an interesting presence in neon lights etc. Science books that ought to know better will speak of ’92 elements’, based on Uranium being Element 92 and ignoring radioactive elements lighter than Uranium. Notably the ‘Bismuth Gap’, six radioactive elements including radium and radon before you come to Thorium, which is stable enough to have been part of the Earth since the Earth formed out of a primeval cloud of gas and dust.)

Chemicals exist regardless of human views of them, and have remained the same for as far back as we can assess them. (Spectroscopic analysis of distant quasars shows everything still the same, back probably to the enigmatic ‘Origin Event’ that created the existing universe.) That’s why I put them at levels one and two of my schema. Other rules are of human creation, and yet objectively true for as long as people live a social existence. All languages have a grammar, no two of them quite the same, yet each entrenched beyond the power of governments to change very much.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2004.

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