It’s easy to think of capitalism as being an ever-present cultural artifact since most of us have grown up in countries where capitalism is the leading political and economic template. But capitalism as an ideology, and as a cultural manifestation, is a relatively recent phenomenon whose origins were violent and turbulent.
We are a trading species and haggling and opportunity seeking is part of the definition of being human. Almost every society has engaged in this form of activity from time immemorial. But in the late 17th century, and especially in England, something occurred which resulted in a departure from the norms that had prevailed for governing society for close to four thousand years.
Previously, religion provided the roadmap for morality, and hard work was promoted as the pathway to virtue. Royalty ruled over countries and provided order to their territories, which were constantly under threat. So remaining in power also meant engaging in war.
When taxes failed to meet the costs of war, King James the First, being the largest landowner in England, decided to increase his revenue by giving exclusive licenses for the production of a product, a trade or even a government service. This led to the construction of monopolies and in 17th century England, there were monopolies for almost everything from coal, bricks, food, and even belts and buttons.
But what King James, and monarchs after him, had not bothered to consider was the effect this was going to have on the culture of their society. As an increasing number of people tried to compete for these monopolies, the competition began to challenge submission. A growing number of new landlords, members of trading companies and cloth manufacturers began to gain a voice in the way the country was being run.
Juxtaposed with this transition was the English Civil War. Following the execution of King Charles the First, the monarchy was replaced by the Commonwealth. In a short span of 30 years, merchants and manufacturers went from being subjects to public personages with political power. Economic grievances thus became political issues and competition was seen as the sister of innovation. Gradually, the established hierarchy started to crack as new entrepreneurs began to emerge making society more fluid in the process.
The result was a departure from the old ways of thinking which ignited commentary, debate and explanations. As the traditional order was overturned, people began to change their ideas about fundamental values. Previously, change to the order was regarded as blasphemy. But the growing prosperity offered by capitalism encouraged individuals to take risks, question the status quo, challenge authority, and be less fearful of innovation and novelty.
Today, this might seem almost like common sense. But this mode of thinking was the result of the birth of capitalism. It was a renegade mode of thought that gave an attitude to the way men and women thought, and challenged the values, habits and modes of reasoning of the past. It was fraught with opposition, was the bedrock of revolutions in almost every developed country, including the Industrial revolution, and has defeated Socialism, Marxism, Communism or any other kind of ideological ‘ism’ till date.
As the centuries rolled on, capitalism spread like a prosperity juggernaut and in doing so, changed our mindsets and ingrained the concept of free markets and profit maximization as natural law. We believed the economists who preached it from their podiums and policy makers who used it as a yardstick for policy construction.
But just as King James, blind sighted by short-term gain, failed to see the cultural ramifications of capitalism, we too as a society have been oblivious to the cultural impacts of capitalism as we pursued our hedonistic objectives – both as individuals and societies, especially in the past few decades.
Capitalism’s Waltz With Debt
Following the second world war, advanced economies in the West installed a ‘state-administered’ version of capitalism where economic growth coexisted with social and political stability. For almost three decades, this version of capitalism became the gold standard of government and remains the nostalgic fodder for politicians’ campaigns.
But by the end of 1970’s, this formula for success began to crumble with the outbreak of the oil embargo and the Iraq-Iran war. As oil prices began to soar, industries began to suffer and the newly elected governments in the US and the UK realized that they needed to find radical new ways to create economic growth to stay in power.
One of the ways they responded to this crisis was by privatizing industries, a move that is now referred to as Reagan-Thatcherism. The strategy was simple – If companies and households could not earn their revenue as they did before, they could lend their way to it. As public services were privatized, economic decision making was taken from government and handed to Wall Street.
As time went on, this process was amplified. When globalization began to take manufacturing jobs, high-paid skilled jobs were replaced by low-wage jobs in the service industries. Wages stagnated and people began to earn less than they did before.
In the process of finding a solution, governments once again turned to the commercial banks and relaxed lending restrictions. Even if wages were static, people could borrow money and maintain a certain lifestyle. As a result, the ability to manage society and economics slid gently from the control of the state to the commercial banks and financial markets.
The cultural ramifications were that debt-based capitalism became a norm and an increasing amount of importance was given to growth and consumerism. We went from being ‘citizens’ to ‘consumers’. Free market policies and regulations that would aid in providing more debt (see the repeal of the Glass-Stegall Act) were one of the main tenets of macroeconomic policy.
The result is something we all know too well and which we are still recovering from – In 2008, our debt-based capitalistic system collapsed under the weight of unsustainable loans, as our hedonistic pursuits become collectively unsustainable.
How did we get into this mess? How did we go from using capitalism as a way of escaping dictatorial doctrines to a society that was wasteful, indifferent and voracious? How did we not see this cultural change in which having more and consuming became paramount to anything else? The more money, freedom, leisure and luxury we got, the more we wanted.
One of the main reasons for this was the overall acceptance of contemporary free market capitalistic theories and the policies and models that were based on these theories. Free market economic models (and the policies that are based on it) are based on two main theories – the Rational Expectations Theory (RET) and the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH).
These two theories work in conjunction. The RET states that the expectations of players in a market are formed on the basis of the information that they have and their past experiences. According to this theory, stock prices reflect all the information regarding a stock. Thus, by using the stock price as a proxy, we have access to all the information regarding a stock on the market, and can make rational decisions based on our expectations.
If someone makes a bad decision, then it is offset by someone who makes a good decision. The market is thus in a constant state of efficiency where the price of a share intrinsically incorporates all the relevant information. As a consequence, markets are in a state of equilibrium (EMH). We might have a shock now and then but the market always goes back to its natural state, which is that of equilibrium.
Our faith in these theories has resulted in accepting that the bad actions of one economic agent would be offset by the good actions of another. As more debt was offered to us, we accepted it as it was now the norm. In the process of handing over responsibility to the ‘other’, we believed in the banks, bought their complex debt-based financial instruments (CDOs, CDSs, etc.) and listened to the bastions of the system as they preached about its benefits from their pulpits.
“These increasingly complex financial instruments have contributed to the development of a far more flexible, efficient, and hence resilient financial system than the one that existed just a quarter-century ago. After the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2000, unlike previous periods following large financial shocks, no major financial institution defaulted, and the economy held up far better than many had anticipated” – Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, (2005).
Those who challenged the status quo were ostracized from academia and markets, while the players in the economy were happy to go on taking debt and serendipitously advance towards a false sense of prosperity, leaving the hard business of understanding the macroeconomics of the system to people who were elected to do so.
But following the crisis, we need to take a step back and question this reality and the abilities of these economic bastions. We need to ask ourselves if the entire structure of analysis and the level of understanding of the experts needs to be questioned. This statement was best summarized by the Queen of England when she visited the LSE in 2007 and asked the economists in the room a very simple question,
“Why did no one see this coming?”
Thus, conducting a review of economic dogmas necessitates a review of the very basics, i.e., RET & EMH. More importantly, it requires a change in mindset and asking the right questions. Consider this – If our economy is supposed to be based on patterns of equilibrium, how does it explain a capitalistic system’s obsession with constant growth? Think about it – If you work in a company or are creating one, then the primary objective is to grow. Every company is constantly trying to expand, or buy out or merge with another company. It seems that it is never happy where it is and even if a company wishes to remain constant, its competitors will force it to move.
So if this state of entropy is the natural state of affairs, then why do we use equilibrium-based economic models to witness economics and pass public policies (monetary and fiscal)? We can extend that line of questioning and even challenge the RET – If all decisions are rational, then why do people engage in philanthropy? From a personal objective perspective, it would seem to be the most irrational thing to do.
In spite of these abhorrent divergences from reality, we continue to pass policies and enact measures based on analyses done using DSGE (Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium) models. It’s like the equivalent of bringing a turtle to a rabbit race.
Not questioning these fundamentals has been one of the primary causes of our addiction to debt and our laissez-faire attitude that has allowed banks to get bigger and more entrenched in every aspect of policy making. Therefore, what is required is a revisit to the very fundamentals on which we base our understanding of the economy.
We need to move from equilibrium-based models to entropy-based ones. Equilibrium can exist in an economy, but it is a temporary state. The natural state of an economy is entropic due to the constant exchanges and decisions being made by agents and actors in the economy. In short, we need to move towards complexity economics.
Complexity economics was devised based on this understanding of entropy and is a field that is gaining increasing prominence today. In a recent speech, Andy Haldane, the Chief Economist of Bank of England stated it is necessary for the bank to base its models on complexity science as it allows us to integrate complex, adaptive networks. Using these kinds of models, economic policy would be based on dynamic complex network analysis and behavioral modeling, thus giving us a template that is more suited to modeling reality.
The blockchain’s role in all of this
In the past few years, commercial and central banks have been toying with the blockchain owing to its operational efficiencies. In a recent report, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) stated that G20 countries should create a central bank blockchain consortium, a la R3CEV.
The blockchain is many things to many people. But at its heart, it is an engine of transparency. While it is irrational to think of the blockchain as some kind of panacea that will be the solution to our current economic malaises, it is nevertheless a useful tool that can be used with other financial technologies to offer us more clarity of our capitalistic system. And this clarity is required today if we are to use capitalism to escape from a coterie of rulers, as we did in the 17th century.
This issue needs to be discussed today as enter an era where banks, academics and public institutions push us towards a cashless economy. Becoming a digital economy comes with benefits, but also comes with increased risk, owing to the speed, size and interconnectedness of the financial system. And one of the ways we can ignite this conversation is by leveraging the transparency that is provided by new financial technologies, especially the blockchain.
Transparency is a lop-sided issue in today’s financial markets, for as we transition to a cashless economy transparency seems to be a one-way street. As customers and citizens become digital avatars, banks and government institutions now have greater amounts of highly granular data with stark levels of detail.
But peculiarly, consumers, on the other hand, are not privy to the same amounts of transparency when it comes to the financial operations of banks and public governing bodies. A review of some of the scandals that have unfolded in the past three months highlights the need for two-way transparency:
It is, therefore, urgent that we ascertain what kind of an economic reality we are headed towards before any infrastructural changes are put in place. Or else, the spread of a crisis in a hyper-connected digital economy will be faster and more violent than before.
The blockchain’s transparency is however only part of the equation. Transparency can be illuminating, but to transform transparency to clarity still requires effort. While the blockchain allows us to see what is going on, it would make no sense to use this information as an input to models based on equilibrium. If we are to truly leverage the potential of the blockchain and use it to define macroeconomic policies that are more representative of reality, it has to work in conjunction with complexity economics:
(Blockchain’s Transparency) + (Economic models based on Comp. Economics) = Clarity of Capitalistic system.
As we move into a more digital world with faster technological evolution providing strong headwinds of change, it is important to realize that adapting to this change will not simply be a case of investing in the new tool or updating one’s skillset. Capitalism has always been a renegade, whose greatest impacts have been born out of conflict and change. At every turn, this has required that tough questions be asked, and our notions and conceptions be rewritten.
If we are to continue growing with hedonistic sustainability, we need to better understand capitalism. The unison of complexity economics and the blockchain is a step in that direction and will entail the creation of new cultural forms, institutions and a new vocabulary for education. But with a better understanding of capitalism, people in democracies can play a much more positive and vigorous role in shaping their economic institutions.
There would be no capitalism without a culture of capitalism and there would be no culture if the existing ideologies were not challenged and overcome. At a time when information is so abundant that we can get the answer to any question, the real responsibility becomes asking the right question. If we fail to ask these questions and leverage the power of decentralization and transparency, we risk starting a conversation with the next generation by beginning with an apology.
Disclaimer: This article contains extracts from the author’s new book, ‘The Blockchain Alternative‘ (2017)
Kary Bheemaiah is the author of ‘The Blockchain Alternative: Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy and Economic Theory’ (2017).
- Complexity and the Economy, W. Brain Arthur (2014)
- Rethinking Economics Using Complexity Theory, Kirman, D. H. (2014)
- Reconstructing economics: Agent-based models and complexity. Kirman, M. G. (2013).
- Complexity Modelling in Economics: the State of the Art. Economic Thought, Vol 5, Number 2, 29-43. Bruno et al. (2016).
- Why Information Grows, Hidalgo, C. A. (2015).