Empire of Empiricism

I just got called a “crypto-reactionary” for laughing at a “leftist” American for tweeting this bit of intellectual frippery:

“Capitalism is empirically unsound and can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism. From a humanistic standpoint it is no less grounded in mysticism and dogma than any other reactionary ideology.”

Hard as it is to disagree with the notion that capitalism has attracted a set of intellectual apologists who indulge in “mysticism and dogma” in praise of their chosen subject, it’s even harder to see how “mysticism and dogma” are somehow unique to reactionary ideologies.

While there is little doubt that Marx used the word “science” in a way that is not precisely consonant with what most people think of when they think of physicists working on the A-bomb or chemists brewing up ever more clever plastics with which to destroy the environment, he was hardly a dogmatic mystic. This is absolutely not the case with all the varieties of “leftist” critique of capitalism-patriarchy-white supremacy that today claim to be downstream of Marx the social scientist. If there is an ideological faction out there in the world today that is not saddled with “mysticism and dogma” I would love to meet it in the flesh.

My real problem with this vaguely tautological bit of hollow virtue-signalling is the double whammy of absurd claims made in the first sentence.

“Capitalism is empirically unsound”: what can this even begin to mean? Empirically, capitalism has grown from its meager beginnings in 16th C England and Holland to a world-straddling colossus the likes of which has quite frankly never before been seen. “Empirically”, that is.

“[Capitalism] can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism.” Now what this means seems rather evident even though it also seems to be referring to life on another planet.

Empirically, if we allow that something as reliant on textual interpretation as history can be called empirical, the opposite appears to be true. The earliest incubators of capitalism were also arguably nations where the cultures were far more accepting of empiricism than most of the rest of the world. Some writers might even go so far as to suggest that one reason capitalism was born in England of the 16th century, rather than 13th century Siam or even 15th century England, was the embrace of empiricism after centuries of intellectual enslavement to dogma and mysticism.

After a little hostile back-and-forth, it emerged that our interlocutor actually meant: ” my critique is that the theoretical basis for capitalism is empirically unsound”. So now we see that it isn’t capitalism that is “unsound” as stated ever so clearly in the initial tweet, it is “the theoretical basis for capitalism” that is “empirically unsound”.

It is my impression that capitalism was a praxis well before it ever gained such a thing as a “theoretical basis”. This would seem to me to mean that “theories of capitalism” are not remotely its “basis” but merely post facto rationales or analyses of its reality. Once this is taken on board it becomes rather mundane to point out that attempts to “theorize” a reality as complex and ever-shifting as actual existing capitalism fall short “empirically”. This would be as true of Adam Smith’s formulations as of Marx’s or Hayek’s.

Unlike socialism or communism, whose theorizations have always preceded and outrun and indeed usually denied its realities, capitalism is what it is and theories run around trying to keep up with its chameleon-like disappearances into whatever social and cultural background it inserts itself.

It’s almost as if Karl Rove or whoever it actually was had put it this way:

“Capitalism’s an empire now, and when it acts, it creates its own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—it’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. It is history’s actor…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what it does.”

This is the reality that anything calling itself “left” has to confront if it is going to further the cause of a socialist future rather than impress followers on Facebook and Twitter with just how apparently intellectual we can be in our little snippets of “anti-capitalism”, regardless of how actually inane they turn out to be.

The problem of course is the virtual impossibility of contemporary westerners, especially North Americans, attaining escape velocity from the liberalism that they stretch and crimp here and there to represent themselves as leftists. When identitarian left-liberals want to let their “leftist” flags fly, they say things like what I laughed at in that tweet exchange.

Looked at closely, these “leftists” rarely manage anything remotely close to a hard-edged critique of the bourgeois society and culture they so perfectly reproduce in almost everything they think and say.

If seeing and saying so makes me a “crypto-reactionary” in their eyes, I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. It sure beats playing middle-class revolutionary while scrambling to get a better job and taking my political stances from Column A, B or C of the contemporary left of neoliberalism.