The End of Capitalists

Do not pass Go, do not collect $200Now, I am not sure I totally agree with his reading of the politics, for reasons I’ve tried to spell out elsewhere. But JW Mason does a good job of making a point that has occasionally come up with since the economic crisis drove down interest rates, namely i. that there is no reason to think that real interest rates should be above zero, and ii. when real interests rates are very low, capitalists (qua money owners) have no real function:

Under capitalism, the elite are those who own (or control) money. Their function is, in a broad sense, to provide liquidity. To the extent that pure money-holders facilitate production, it is because money serves as a coordination mechanism, bridging gaps — over time and especially with unknown or untrusted counterparties — that would otherwise prevent cooperation from taking place. [1] In a world where liquidity is abundant, this coordination function is evidently obsolete and can no longer be a source of authority or material rewards.

Back in 2007, Cory Doctorow wrote a short story whose basic conceit was a future in which capital–liquid capital–had truly become obsolete, especially relative to the available human ingenuity, inventiveness and the capacity to make stuff (sigh: yes, yes, i.e. human capital). Low interest rates is one way to make that world happen.

Its easy for egalitarian leftists to get excited about this prospect. Real interest rates that stay consistently below (even very low) economic growth rates would mean the refutation of Piketty‘s grim prophecies. The idea of monocled, top-hatted plutocrats getting crushed under the wheels of history offers the schadenfreude of class enemies losing, with the added zest of partially confirming certain strains of Marxist historicism, in form if not in function.

The defeat of the capitalists, however, doesn’t mean permanent victory for humanity (or the working class, or the multitude, or whatever your favourite representative of eschatological emancipation happens to be). There’s no reason to believe, in a world of low returns on cash, that there won’t be political efforts to hoard the relatively scarce resources that were the source of wealth in Doctorow’s world – education, skills, networks, the preternatural ability to interact with robots. If the last 5000 years are any indication, there are likely to be intellectual movements to justify limited access to the new sources of wealth, as well.

The end of capitalists may mean the end of capitalism as we know it, but it won’t be the end of politics.