C Scott Jordan and Tahir Abbas
Capital is a tough word to pin down. It is a word readily used, effortlessly admired, yet if pressed to define it is difficult to express concisely. The List that concludes this issue looks at the variety of definitions for capital found just in the dictionary. And each of those leave one wanting for further elaboration, even a bit disheartened with the woeful inadequacy of the dictionary – a phenomenon of increasing frequency in our postnormal times. Capital, at times, takes the form of a noun. At others, it is an adjective. Capital can even be an exclamation! If we try to focus in and set the parameters of our scope to just capital in the economic sense, the word remains elusively hard to define in simple terms. In a sense, capital is a bit like the Dao of Chinese philosophy – something by its definition that is undefinable due to its limitlessness. While Dao literally translates as ‘way’, it is, but also, is not, much to Schrödinger’s delight. Where Daoism aims, in a very simplified manner, for balance, it must do both give and take, leading to a ride of contradictions. Left unanalysed and without reflection, it becomes an excuse. As the Mandalorian says in his self-titled Disney series, ‘it is the way’. Do not question it. Capital is indeed the way for many. It is too often accepted as inherently good, now move along. Some adore and glorify it as though it were divine or at least a path to a divine status for those who can hold the most of it. Adding to this, it is a word that accepts no modifiers. You would never brag about having a ‘little’ capital and it could never be enough to have a ‘hefty amount’ of capital. It is all or none. That is the name of the game. So, it is a game? Perhaps a lifestyle? Though it seems more so to resemble a virus, that lifeless organism that imitates life.
But this does not sound right. At the very least, it is uncomfortable. Something is indeed rotten in the State of Denmark if we have allowed capital to get itself into such a position. To ground ourselves, let us begin with the notion that capital is an assumed given. Modernity has us believing that capital and, by way, capitalism are the norm, the standard, even required. Robin Yassin-Kassab, in his article, and in much of his recent existence, challenges this assumption. Can we not live, in 2023, without capital? For several years, Yassin-Kassab has lived in the Scottish countryside, seeking a self-sufficient and more frugal life. His article explores examples, from east to west, of how the desperation of modernity and capitalism have driven people to become creative and even seek out a new way of getting on. Often this is when a community comes together to form its own subsistence, but can also be taken on by one or a few from a simple modification of one’s consumption to seeking out the already available institutions that promote a less capitalist lifestyle, such as libraries and charity shops.
An interesting takeaway from Yassin-Kassab is his insightful observations around transformations. Capitalist society itself transformed Britain as well as the modern world. Now, as it collapses in on itself in the form of rising prices and bubble bursts, people must act to make sure they do not go down with the ship. There is a power available to those who seek it out. Yassin-Kassab calls for us to ‘demand that government invests in public housing, and demand the kind of land reform that will allow willing young people to set up smallholdings. Demand, for that matter, an entirely new approach to borders. Encourage a consciousness which understands that our human fates are linked.’ Postnormal times shows that the nature of change is changing, but we do not merely have to be spectators to these happenings. Yassin-Kassab suggests that small changes in our lives can lead to big transformations in the condition of our planet, allowing us to survive as a human species into the future. A refreshing take for all of those who have been awake or are slowly waking up to how imbecilic Brexit actually was for the British people.
This calls to mind the opening lines of the late Merryl Wyn Davies’s Knowing One Another: ‘the predominant characteristic of the modern world is interdependence. No nation can think of itself in isolation. What happens in one corner of the world affects the entire world.’ On the far side of a Trump Presidency, a drudging slog of a Brexit, and the global pandemic, as we continue to watch the forever war between Ukraine and Russia, the interdependence of the planet has never been more apparent. To some this stokes a great anxiety, but need not be the root of discontent and, in some cases, despair. Our connection to one another presents us with great opportunities if only we have the courage to bring our fears out into the light and learn the lessons offered by past failures. It is not the connections but the governing logic we submit to that is the problem. For it is a logic that, in spite of our symbiosis, says be an individual, stand out amongst the rest, and win – utterly disregarding what one is to win at or that the prise of such a victory seems only to be a figment of our ironically collective imagination.
The logic, or lack thereof, of the War on Terror that has permeated and solidified our present, fragile global world order is an extension of this madness, as is pointed out by Richard McNeil-Willson. When the bipolar world of the Cold War collapsed in the early 1990s, a new framework was demanded, particularly one that could keep cycles of militarisation and hegemony at the status quo that was grown comfortable with following World War II. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, the War on Terror rhetoric was just what the doctor ordered. This rhetoric gained power in more than just setting the lingua franca for international affairs in the new millennium. It gave an updated context to the legislation and actions of governments as well as to where economic activity would be focussed, both of which are thoroughly xenophobic and particularly Islamophobic in subtextual and not uncommonly overt manners. McNeil-Willson sees no near end in sight to the War on Terror, even if the phrase is not invoked as regularly as it was a decade ago, as its flawed logic and framework continues to reign unimpeded.
The only way to get away from it will come about through a radical rethinking of our economic and social norms. Capitalism which flourishes in times of war where the war effort gives a pseudo-boom to economic activity. This is a pseudo-boom as it depends on our falling into a trap of endless war to continue perpetual military supply chains, yet as morale chips away and the military economy takes from the normal economy, a burnout looms. The norms of boom-and-bust cycles are the only way to keep the pseudo-boom experienced in ‘times of war’ capable of keeping the economic surges provoked from the war effort having any positive long-term effect. But who would want to live in a society that went between war and peace times that resemble the television schedule of a series, running between new episodes and reruns. In America, and growingly the rest of the West, this analogy is not far off from its real foreign policy, yet it is also not that easy to spot. Capitalism as it stands today is a much cleverer devil than we may think we know. The targets of policies change with time. Where the War on Terror once targeted Muslims directly, using whatever rhetorical gymnastics helped the masses sleep at night, today they may not do that directly, or may even be militarily disengaged, but the stereotyping and othering done by these policies remains unavoidable without a serious overhaul. McNeil-Willson sums it up nicely: ‘as the War on Terror is not a conventional war, it requires an unconventional ending’.
Unconventional thinking is where our intellectual efforts need to be refocused. The capitalism we subscribe to today is, after all, quite unconventional itself. When we say ‘capitalism’, we are more times than not referring to neoliberal capitalism. Almost as readily as capitalism is accepted as a good – if the liberals could only let the markets be they would see this – the other side of the aisle will instantaneously label neoliberal capitalism as inherently bad, or evil. Yet such fast-cash labels do little to nothing for critical analysis. Consider the economic reforms ushered by the former US President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. How did approximately a decade of economic policy in two countries deliver us to an unprecedented system on which the sun never sets, which has lasted for over a quarter of a century and shows no signs of letting up? Is neoliberalism liberation? Or is it a surrender?
What is interesting about these simple analyses is whichever of the two words feels more right to you, the other is almost irreconcilable. Fear not, neoliberalism has no shortage of contradictions, both big and small – upper case and lower case, if you will. Neoliberalism is called a reform. Which leads to a great deal of chin scratching over what are the purpose of reforms, leaving us to realise they are indeed not a neutral entity. Although reforms are often seen as ‘good’, to be a reformist could also be something ‘bad’ and even quite ‘ugly’. Yet, it sounds good and is a tool by which populist movements have made neoliberalism so popular. The path to hell may be paved with good intensions, but it would be of no surprise to find that the mortar between those good intention bricks was clever phrases. The ultimate goal of neoliberal economic ‘reforms’ is to eliminate pricing controls and trade barriers and to have a fully unregulated market-based economy. The only role the state should play is in increasing privatisation and austerity, which is less a role for the government than a surrender of the government’s control over the economy. Acolytes of neoliberalism call this freedom. Freedom for the markets, for business, and for the Capitalist perhaps, yet something quite the opposite for the poor, the marginalised, and the various cogs that keep the machine going from day to day. In the last decade, the contemporary French economist Thomas Picketty has ignited a new discourse on how neoliberalism, in its build up, has driven gross inequality. This discourse, when meshed with recent political and social events, begs us to rethink the goods of neoliberalism and seek a new, or at least an unproperly unconsidered model if we ever hope to see global prosperity.
Keeping in mind the numerous crimes they should still answer for, to blame the woes of neoliberalism solely on Reagan and Thatcher is a bit disingenuous. It was a process that, while coming to fruition, more or less, in the 1980s, was over two centuries in the making. As this year marks the 300th birthday of the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, we might be tempted to trace its roots back to him. Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, challenges us to err on the side of caution in such pursuits. In the Last Word, Anwar recalls his own erasure from Malaysia’s recent history over the last two decades as he reflects on what has been made of Smith’s name in the past couple of centuries. He reminds us that Smith penned not one, but two books we would be wise to take together as a complete philosophical statement. The Wealth of Nations we all know, but lesser known and even lesser considered is his Theory of Moral Sentiments. This lesser-known work was his first major work, and it lays out the ethical groundwork Smith’s philosophy operates under. Thus, Anwar argues, Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which lays out the human urge to sympathise with one another, must be read into The Wealth of Nations. Over the last couple centuries, a great disservice has been done to Smith through making modern economics a cold science, devoid of moral judgements. Anwar goes on to almost disassociate Smith entirely from his most ardent, modern-day apostles. Smith was not an extremist but wanted to chart out the middle way. He was also an internationalist, at least as much as one could have been in eighteenth century Scotland. He even raged against the misdeeds of the East India Company during its time in South Asia.
So, the fork in the road that led modern capitalism down the path of wrongdoing was the loss of its moral backbone? But this is only part of the story. Economics could never live in a vacuum. Sadly, many economists trained around the world hold the opposite to be true. The fundamental misunderstanding of this most dismal of all sciences is about its place in the world. Even Smith understood that economics must always be social, thus it has a power over greater society. As our world grew increasingly complex, economics sunk its claws into more and more, becoming influential in language and politics most obviously, but even going so far as to influence religion, culture, and the most basic human to human interactions, not least of which are love and family. And the more economics became entrenched, the more it was excused as a neutral entity. Later economists would lean into the ‘voluntary’ nature of modern capitalism and how, despite it not always being seen in practice, the pure theory of economics holds all persons as equals, capable of engaging in contracts. Yet too often contracts disregard the infinite complexity that goes into determining the full extent of disbalances occurring between two parties. It is a mantra bordering on manifesto that any man or woman, if they do the work, can build whatever they desire. The bloody American dream. Yet what of gender pay gaps, ethnic inequalities in opportunity, the state of wealth concentration across the whole damn world? The utterers of that absurdity disregard the definition of capital that puts it as the initial money or resources one needs to build such a world; and in history as we know it has never been equal. Hassan Mahamdallie puts all this on trial by asking a simple question. How is it, that the wealthy nations that suddenly appeared at the advent of modern capitalism got so much wealth?
There is a belief that capitalism arose, perhaps on high, to deliver an Industrial Revolution that would allow humanity to build a civilisation fitting the full capabilities of the species. But we do not celebrate Capital Day, a public holiday where we remember the day capitalism arrived, equalising all of humankind, and setting us off on the prosperous future we find ourselves in today. We celebrate Labour Day. We celebrate Women’s Equality Day. We celebrate Juneteenth, the day in which Americans remember the enacting of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all enslaved African Americans free. All this because capitalism was just the next chapter in an ongoing struggle. And how was wealth, capital, accumulated prior to modern capitalism? As Mahamdallie notes, on the hard, back-breaking work of slave labour. Mahamdallie challenges the notions that capitalism was some great emancipator. Many of the noted capitalists of the late eighteenth century gained their wealth, and thus their social status on the gains made through vast plantations and even the exchange not of coins or stones, but of human beings. In fact, for the chattel slavery of the transatlantic slave trade to become acceptable, the Other, in this case, the African, had to be stripped of their human identity, thought of as something subhuman, as low as or even lower than most animals in some ladder of beings. The linguistic leaps of logic necessary did not just end in exploiting the slave labour of others for the wealth accumulation of a few, but also justified a brutal, domineering, and disgusting norm of human-to-human interaction. And slave owners did not just roll over after emancipation was achieved. They held too much power. And while a war was fought in the US, it would be the ultimate soft power move that allowed for the wealth owners of the slave era to maintain their status in the capitalist era. In Britain, reparations were paid, but not to whom you would expect. The slaveowners were compensated for their recently lost assets for extraction. Mahamdallie traces the transition well saying: ‘racism, an ideology invented to justify treating men and women as animals of the field, did not evaporate with abolition – it twisted and mutated to fit the next phase of capitalism – the subjugation of people and continents.’ The struggle continues and those in power were not going to just surrender. They would twist their already malleable logic to fit what was acceptable in this new normal.
Capitalism did not become that great equaliser. Instead, it was a new flag post upon which racist and xenophobic sentiments could continue to fly high, even if under different terms and with the use of alternative phrases. Mahamdallie puts it eloquently: ‘racism in relation to capitalism seems, particularly in these turbulent times, to have the qualities of energy in the universe – transferable but indestructible’. In fact, it can be argued that capitalism’s ability to set everything in terms of values, measured in one currency or another, ushers in a more sophisticated racism. Now Others could be assigned value in relation to the white, male, Westerner.
Liam Mayo helps us to wrap our heads around the power we are dealing with in terms of contemporary capitalism. A carpark debacle highlights for Mayo the broken logic consumer capitalism has wrought. Mayo takes us back to Marx whose observations tug at the lose threads of capitalism as it cranks through the Industrial Revolution. What Marx observes is that capitalism does something wicked to the liberalist tradition in which it was born. Liberalism focussed on the freedom inherent to the creatures known as human beings. That freedom was transferred into the environment via work which gave man the right to claim ownership over labour. Then comes the government to protect these freedoms from those who might infringe upon another’s property. Capitalism then arrives as a wolf in sheep’s wool. The idea is a free and fair contract, where a labourer exchanges their work to a Capitalist in exchange for something that leaves them fulfilled. It seems fair, but what is actually happening, according to Marx, is the labourer is alienated from his labour or work (which I am using interchangeably here for the sake of simplicity). If the labourer is alienated from his work, then his freedom is not transferred into private property. The enterprise of liberalism unravels before our eyes. That feeling of being a drone in an endless maze of cubicles belonging to a soulless corporation makes a lot more sense.
Mayo goes further, tracing the alienation towards a growing anxiety that brings us into postnormal times, where the contradictions of consumer, neoliberal capitalism are laid bare. Capitalism by this point should have imploded on itself, yet it resists its own self destruction. This is achieved, observes Mayo, through its abstraction and transformative powers. Technology, the internet of things, and social media mediate our consumptive behaviours. Many have argued that a more social capitalism can deliver us from the evil of neoliberalism, but there is a darker side of the moon. Technology has allowed us to be decentralised in our consumption; and, as some would argue, made us more democratic. But those who wish to keep hold of the economic power of capitalism utilise the data we turn ourselves into through technology. In this abstraction, we ourselves become a parallel commodity to the real economy of demanded products, dehumanised, for wholesale manipulation. Mayo brilliantly takes the thesis of Shosana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism to a whole new level that we ought to be very afraid of. The 1970 Pogo comic with its famous line ‘I have seen the enemy and he is us’ takes on an entirely different meaning. And worst: we do it voluntarily, with each scroll, every like or dislike, and with every click.
Capitalism today is truly a beast that consumes all. Anyone or anything can be easily abstracted into data which can be fed upon to provoke the next harvest of data over and over again as value in the form of currency aggregates in but a few bottomless pots. So, what is to be done? How can we stand against the monster of our own making and daily feeding?
Islam has been invoked both as a fix and as an alternative to the global mess capitalism has become. It has been suggested by some – most notably by the Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson in his Islam and Capitalism – that Islam and capitalism grew up together. Two old schoolyard mates. This is only partially correct. The reality is that just as schoolyard mates can become totally different people later in life, the ‘capitalism’ of the Prophet’s Day bore little in common with the system that today compels crisis after crisis, a perpetual motion device of booms and busts. To call the economics system in place at the time of the Prophet mercantilism is also not quite correct. Mercantilism is a nationalist project and there weren’t really nations in the modern sense in the seventh century. But other key tenets of mercantilism were at play, and they differ greatly from capitalism. Many believe mercantilism gave way to capitalism, which could very well be true, but for that leap to happen, some critical values needed to be sacrificed in the process. Mercantilism by most definitions is all about building the wealth of the nation, or a people, be that a tribe or community. It has an inherent collectivist framing to it. Capitalism is an innately individualistic framework. It is all about enriching the individual. As a system, capitalism has little concern for maintaining the environment around it in its base notions. It takes without limit. Mercantilism must regard the environment around it. Some argue that the Silk Road was the first capitalist project, but a supply chain of that nature cannot be maintained for over a thousand years on individualistic accumulation. They try to differentiate it by calling it ‘merchant capitalism’ which is just the limitless free trade of neoliberalism being cherry picked and applied to a system that worked by an entirely different logic. The Silk Road was not a neoliberal paradise. It functioned off of an extremely delicate and intricate trust built up across traders and nations. At times it ran into hiccups, but generally it flowed because the people keeping this network alive understood that first, no man or community is an island; and second, if any piece of this road is extracted to the point of desolation, then the whole thing falls apart. This is the collectivist piece that was excised in the lead up to modern capitalism. Islam came into a collectivist economics norm, mercantilist for the sake of argument, and it would deliver principles that engaged its followers and the world around them in maintaining the environment and building a collective communal wealth. Giving back to the community, good business practice and sense, and doing things that built up trust between individuals and nations, were essential to Islam.
The question today is can an application of these values fix capitalism or give us an alternative model? Mohamed Aslam Haneef and Ambreen Sultan tell the tale of a few pioneers who dared to stand against the woes of capitalism as such.
In the wake of the end of the age of empires, in the mid-twentieth century, a series of postcolonial thinkers throughout the newly emancipated Muslim societies of the time knew all too well that the growing global capitalism could easily be the continuation of colonial domination in all but name. Haneef and Sultan set out to trace the creation of a new field, Islamic economics, that would reframe capitalism in terms of the ethics and wisdom put forth in the Qur’an as well as the hadith and sunnah of the Prophet. While good intention saw the project out into the 1990s, the crowning, problematic accomplishment appeared to be rewriting neoliberalism in terms of the shariah. Even calling it Islamic economics, linguistically characterises it under capital ‘e’ Economics which as it stands is the global, consumer, neoliberal economics we are entangled within today. The debt-based shareholder model prevalent around the world had infiltrated the practices of Islamic banking and financial institutions, leading them far and astray. And similar to how Smith was dissociated from his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Islamic economics has been distanced from the maqasid al-shariah – the higher objectives of Islamic law – and no longer seeks the wellbeing of humanity and the planet or a higher justice therein. Even the standard principles of Islamic economics, such as zakat, waqf, and infaq have become memes, limiting the power and transformative ability Islamic economics can have. At the mercy of the fragile state of global economics, and as inequalities proliferate between each boom and bust, from one crisis to the next, the project as it stands appears to be an abject failure. But Haneef and Sultan appeal to the wisdom of British author J.R.R. Tolkien when he said ‘not all who wander are lost’. Where in practice, Islamic banking and finance have gone down a regrettable road, the higher ideals of Islamic economics still spell hope. This hope can be cultivated through broad reaching educational reforms in the field as well as bringing in greater banking and finance decision-making expertise to balance the overly fiq-based models which deliver simplistic judgements in a field of vast and growing complexities.
Nuzha Allassad Alhuzail observes this hope for an Islamic approach to the dominant economics of our times in the Bedouin people of Israel. Too often, the Bedouin are cast in an orientalist image à la David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Alhuzail notes to the contrary that in fact the Bedouins who reside within the State of Israel live in a transitory state, adapting well into the constraints they find themselves within. As a minority in an increasingly aggressive state, they have suffered through the history of the last seven and a half decades. Where political power was deemed a nonstarter for this community to flourish, they found a way through the Islamic paths available to them. As modernity greatly inhibited their abilities to continue a traditional approach to halal life, halal industries arose to maintain the way of life desired at a greater scale than the individual household could provide. The houses of today are not readily equipped for the slaughter necessary to make meat halal. As halal and kosher standards fall in line with each other, a halal food industry amongst the Bedouins opened their economic access outside of their communities into the greater Israeli community. To account and distribute the calls to charity in Islam, Bedouin financial institutions emerged to fulfil this need and give power to the Bedouin communities who might easily be drowned out by the institutions of the Israeli state. The Bedouin pursuits in the realm of the economic has given rise to a stronger middle class that has carried forward their religious traditions and identity despite the oppressive and hostile conditions of living within the State of Israel.
Whether it is the unusual letter that begins a sentence or the initial value on which a business or personal wealth is accumulated, capital is a beginning. What that beginning is to be is left for us to determine. While the way we stretch capital and economics quickly becomes ridiculous and borders on parody, it also emphasises an importance we bestow on certain tenets of society. From social capital to human capital to religious or spiritual capital it sounds like a commodification of these ideas, but to turn our perspective towards Islam in an effort to make sure those ideas survive in whatever capitalist future awaits. Humane economics, donut economics, gig economics, platform economics, sharing economics, and whatever other economies lay in wait of emergence, there is an urge to use the power within capital to challenge it to be better. Against enough of a challenge the centre will not hold. But we must be ready with a new system to replace the death of an old. Otherwise, we leave our fate to the mercy of postnormal times which can result in both positive and negative futures, but will most assuredly spell a painful and potentially long transition. We must push our creativity to the limits in order to prepare for what comes after capitalism, otherwise we will slowly watch ourselves peter out as we keep trying to save capitalism in slightly altered forms until inbreeding takes its course.
Capital is a force. But it need not be seen as a force or power unto itself. It is one that many have tried to harness, but often for a selfish, individualistic aims. These pursuits often seek to manipulate it in its market form and only utilise its indirect power by convenience. It has been allowed to justify the hatred and destruction of others and has played a leading role in the reckless consumption of our planet and poisoning of our environment. And while it may find its own death in natural causes, we should not assume it will not take us with it. Capitalism’s ultimate power is the power to define. But that also gives us, the speakers and creators of language, a power over it. We can shape the accepted economic system so that it builds trust amongst peoples, so that it allows us to live symbiotically with a healthy planet, and so that it can lift all up and keep people from poverty – we can use it to build a just world. Instead of allowing it to define what is, we can use its power to define what ought to be: a just and better world. And then actively take a role in creating the change we desire.