screen cap from one of Sabine’s recent videos
One of the mailing lists I’m part of (thanks to Paul Heft) has been debating physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s controversial recent video in defence of capitalism. I’m a huge fan of Sabine’s scientific work, and I think her use of scientific methods and principles to “do one’s own research” is well-founded, even when it’s outside one’s area of expertise.
But I would argue that her video, entitled “Capitalism is Good”, should have been more modestly titled “The Ideas of Money and Capital are Good, in Theory”. She sees the problems with capitalism as stemming from poor governance and lack of proper regulation, rather than from the theory itself. But that assumes that systems of proper governance and regulation are possible in a massively complex world. My study of complex systems, and human systems in particular, suggest they are not.
This is how I replied to the mailing list group, in response to their heated debate over the video:
I think one has to consider that Sabine, who is a world class theoretical physicist, is an expert in exactly that — theory.
She is absolutely correct in that the invention of money and ‘capital’ was (and is) essential to large scale industrial production, without which many of the inventions and products we enjoy today (and many of the resultant problems) would never have occurred. They are great ideas in theory. So is Marxism, in theory.
The real problem is that we live in a society in which everything we do is part of a massively complex system, and such systems are essentially unregulatable. We think we can introduce a system that is governed by a theory or set of principles and then control and regulate its application. We cannot.
That is why all of our theories and -isms ultimately get us into trouble. Not because they aren’t good theories, but because we cannot control their application.
Capitalism is a great theory that is also one of the major causes for almost all aspects of the polycrisis. If we had 8 billion humans living under an economic system based upon some other great theory, like Marxism, or the Gift Economy, or even feudalism (which in theory is not as bad as we’re taught), it is almost certain that we would be facing a different but equally intractable polycrisis, and be in roughly the same stage of collapse that we are facing now.
My article last month on “moving beyond ideologies” was focused on political systems, but it applies equally to economic systems. As Tyson Yunkaporta said: “All you can do is foster the conditions for emergence and allow it to emerge and just behave with integrity, and, you know, maybe others will do the same. But the minute you have an idea and you think this is an important idea, everybody should know about this, everybody should be doing this — as soon as you do that you’ve made an ideology and you’re [fucked].”
Human beings, beyond the level of tribe, small community and autonomous confederation (in the indigenous sense of the term), seem to be simply politically and economically ungovernable. Despite all attempts to make us into homogenous robots, that is not who we are.
It’s a shame, because our brains are great at inventing theories and ideologies. You know, things that work brilliantly, in theory.
I will probably write more about this in future, because it’s critically important, but I think that’s enough for now.