I’ve been in Chile for a few days, preparing to lead some sessions over the next week or so at a startup bootcamp put together by Exosphere. Naturally, my mind has been wandering to other matters Chilean.
Chile, as an acquaintance remarked recently, has an economy based on two things: copper and astronomy. It’s also an economy that is to economists what Southwest Airlines is to management consultants: a very significant case study. It was the site of neoliberal experimentation by the Chicago School in the 1980s. More recently, it has been the site of the hilariously adolescent Ayn-Randian-Libertarian experiment that was Galt’s Gulch.
I was pondering these matters as I was shopping for, among other things, an interesting local beer to fuel my time here. After some fumbling with my near-non-existent Spanish (with some help from my Italian host who fumbles less), I ended up with a sixpack of something called Baltica Dry.
It is apparently the pretty-decent-and-cheap local Löbrau. It does not really appear to be “local” in any sense other than the brand name. As best as I have been able to discover, it appears to be brewed and canned for the Chilean market by Anheuser-Busch in the US (the particular sixpack I bought appears to have been canned in Uruguay though). So now, I basically have no clue about the provenance of my beer.
Baltica Dry is an example of what I call a capitalist’s zombie.
It struck me, as I pondered the fact that I had bought a simulacrum of a “local” beer, that I actually did not care. I am not a beer connoisseur, and for the most part the nuances of microbrews, nanobrews and such are lost on me. As far as I was concerned, I was in a new country and I was drinking a beer that was “local” enough to satisfy my minimal curiosity about local beer-life. And I didn’t even have to drink it ironically to be satisfied.
If I hadn’t bothered to idly google the beer, I’d never have figured it out.
To understand what a capitalist’s zombie is, you have to understand the nature of critiques of capitalism and how they apply to things like Baltica Dry.
Critiques of capitalism tend to be of two sorts. One kind of criticism lends itself to empirically based debates. For example, the critique that capitalism creates compounding patterns of oppression and hidden environmental damage. The debates in this bucket are well-posed and data-rich. We can argue, for instance, whether capitalism operating within liberal democracies creates more or less oppression and environmental damage than (say) a comparable theocracy or communist state. We can argue about whether guard labor stabilizes capitalist systems in crony-capitalist corners of the space of possible market-economic orders.
There are difficulties of course. For example, liberal-democratic capitalism tends to catalyze organic technological innovation, which makes comparisons with competing, non-innovative economic systems rather tricky. Tricky, but not impossible. Ultimately you can slowly sort this stuff out through careful debate about empirical truths and clearly articulated competing values. This sort of stuff is best left to Ultimate Wonky Macreconomic Wrestling Federation. It’s a spectator sport for those of us without a seat at the interest-rates-and-minimum-wage-levels table.
If you’re like me, you conclude on the basis of watching such debates, that capitalism is the worst possible system of economic organization except for all the others. If you’re not like me, you conclude that capitalism is impossibly evil and embark on a quixotic quest to come up with a non-communist, non-fascist, non-theocratic alternative that all can agree on and won’t produce revolutions, bubbles and busts. Best of luck with that.
But there is a second kind of more interesting critique of capitalism that does not lend itself to well-posed empirical debates and is therefore out of scope for the wonk-lords of the UWMWF.
This is the claim that capitalism destroys an ineffable and priceless kind of essence that permeates human cultural life in non-capitalist economic systems. The idea of this essence, I am convinced, is at the heart of all humanist value systems. It is this essence that humanists are referring to when they talk about “real” versus “fake” versions of things which, to non-humanists, might appear to be just two different things with some kinship (usually the parent-child kinship of derivation, which means older is better to most humanists). It is this essence that they are talking about when they go on and on (and on and on) about “authenticity”.
In case it isn’t obvious, I am not a humanist. Except sometimes, ironically.
Humanism is often confused with pluralism but it isn’t that, really. But on the other hand, it is somewhat unfair to label humanism a single, totalizing, universalist value system, as I have sometimes done in my more strident online exchanges with card-carrying members of the humanist meta-tribe.
To steelman humanism a bit: it is a sort of restricted pluralism that stops short of full cultural relativism. Both radical Islamic terrorists and super-liberal UI designers are typically humanist, but hardly of the same variety. Fascists and communists of the last century were also humanists but practically slaughtered each other en masse in WW II. What they all share, and what marks them as humanists, is belief in the priceless essence that makes the human human. They only differ in their beliefs about how it is distributed. Fascists believe that some races have more of the essence than others. Authentic UI designers believe Macs have more of the essence than PCs. Islamists believe that medieval technology and men contain more of the essence than modern technology or women. My buddy here on ribbonfarm, Sarah, believes charming traditional towns have more cultural ether than tiled suburbs.
But all believe in the essence.
Belief in this essence is what stops humanists from taking relativism to the extremes that non-humanists often do. Belief in this essence is what creates a systematic bias in favor of the old over the new.
Let’s call this hypothesized substance cultural ether. You can use the term to restate very complex critiques of capitalism in forms like “indie coffee shops have more cultural ether than a Starbucks store” or “Baltica Dry has more cultural ether than Bud Light, but not as much as my favorite local microbrew.”
Belief in cultural ether leads to a weak sort of values absolutism: things with more cultural ether are absolutely more valuable than things with less, and market mechanisms are absolutely incapable of pricing them. Humans and living things are more valuable than non-living things (though flags and idols are notable exceptions). Gifts have more value than things exchanged for money. Atoms have more value than bits. And older things, as I noted before, have more value than newer things.
Does cultural ether exist? The capitalist’s zombie is one way to explore the question.
If I hadn’t googled to figure out that Baltica Dry was a globalized AB brand, would my experience of “local” beer still have been fake and inauthentic?
Economics as Cultural Simulation
Here’s a question: how can you tell whether a given charming little cafe with attractive hipster baristas, distressed furniture, and chalkboard menus is the real thing or a very carefully crafted fiction created by a giant corporation with a talented marketing staff?
If it gets increasingly hard to tell over time, does that mean the fiction is obscuring cultural “reality” better or actually converging towards an indistinguishable simulation of what was never “real” in any absolute sense at all?
If you can’t tell the difference, does the “real thing” still have more cultural ether than the simulacrum? If you can tell the difference, but enjoy the “fake” ironically, does that make it real in a different way, imbuing it with cultural ether from a different source (whatever allows you to recode its significance?)
A tentative definition: In the pure case, a capitalist’s zombie is an economically significant entity based on capitalist market mechanisms that is indistinguishable from a competing entity that does not rely on market mechanisms to exist but embodies a quantity of cultural ether where the zombie embodies none.
The capitalist’s zombie is similar to the philosophical zombie. The question of whether or not cultural ether exists is exactly analogous to the hard problem of consciousness, but for groups of people enacting culture in some way or objects with cultural significance. In the former case, to believe in cultural ether is to believe there is something it is like to be a “family” or “tribe” or “religious event” for instance. In the latter case, we get various subtle forms of animism and idolatry, both modern forms involving Macbooks and Apple Watches and ancient forms involving idols and totem poles.
In case it isn’t obvious, I don’t think cultural ether exists.
I am a culture-ether atheist. Any evidence of its existence can always be reduced completely to individual subjective experience. The sum is not greater than the parts. Anything that still seems mysterious simply hasn’t been sufficiently well-simulated by economic mechanisms yet. To simulate something with economic mechanisms is in a sense to progressively demystify it. And replace a quantity of collectively valued “cultural ether” with individual understanding. Economic evolution is the process of slowly shrinking and ultimately killing one minor metaphoric cultural god after another.
I do believe consciousness exists in the sense of the hard problem (so that’s a good test of individualism: if you believe there is such a thing as consciousness, but not such a thing as group consciousness or cultural-object consciousness, you’re an individualist).
The capitalist’s zombie is also similar to the experience machine thought experiment, except that it is much looser, and takes a broader view of what counts as “simulation” (to me the difference between Baltic Dry “local” beer and a brain-in-a-vat system is a question of degree and fidelity levels rather than kind).
The question of whether cultural ether exists applies to any kind of ostensibly non-capitalist (or partially-capitalist) organization, object or communitarian form, whether structural, functional or behavioral (such as a family gathering, a festival or a parade).
The central critical question about humanism, for non-humanists taking steelmanned humanism seriously, is this: how can a participant in any of those forms tell a sufficiently well-designed simulation from a “real” and “authentic” form that is claimed to have more cultural ether?
To take an American example, at what point does the commercialization of Christmas turn The Real Authentic Christmas into the Capitalist’s Zombie Christmas. Or to take another American example, when does a tacky wedding put on by a greedy Bridezilla, complete with a gift registry designed to turn friends-and-family into a kickstarter for her new life, lose all the cultural ether associated with a “real” wedding ceremony?
And in both cases, if increasingly sophisticated economic mechanisms and incentives appear and “restore” the appearance of authenticity with increasing fidelity, does the cultural ether return? Or is it a case of once you go zombie, you never go back?
Let’s take the strongest possible such case: a young child being adopted into a foster home whose adults are being paid for their services by the government. Not the kinds of foster care we have today, but a possible evolved future form based on advanced market mechanisms in an extreme capitalist state, perhaps invented by burned and chastened veterans of experiments like Galt’s Gulch.
In other words, a system of market-based foster care in which it might be possible for a thoughtful adult caretaker, armed with the right kind of knowledge, to both make a living from raising a child or two, and provide the child with an experience of growing up that is indistinguishable from being raised by a caring biological family.
If the child grows up in this capitalist-zombie family into a strong adult with a healthy and positive memory of her childhood, how different is this family from a traditional family chock-full of humanist cultural ether (presumably contained in genetic bonds)?
When you consider that the bar is actually much lower and very easy to beat — many poor families treat children like free, exploitable labor or, in high-poverty developing countries, even commodities for sale — the idea that such zombie families created by sufficiently thoughtful economic mechanisms and incentives might be indistinguishable from real ones doesn’t seem too outlandish.
There is a key assumption buried in the critical question about humanism and the examples I used to illustrate it. The assumption is that the market economy is not a static set of mechanisms, but an evolving set of mechanisms. One that can over time do more things, and do them better. As it learns to price more things, accommodate more social costs and externalities, leverage more technology, and embody more scientific knowledge about everything from child-rearing to pleasant coffee-shop experiences, it becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the pre-market-economy social forms it replaces through simulation.
This evolutionary character of markets is what is missed by critics who treat the simulation-fidelity gap as an absolute, and symptomatic of a permanent loss. This is the reason why parodies like the Libertarian Police Department, while hilarious, miss the essential nature of markets.
This is my personal steelman form of the efficient-market-hypothesis. In its naive form, the EMH is full of holes both mathematical and conceptual. But as a directionally correct approximation of idea that simulation fidelity increases over time, with capitalist’s zombies becoming increasingly indistinguishable from non-market competitors putatively full of cultural ether, it is very useful.
If this is indeed what is happening, then we have a very important prediction: the empirical matters debated by the UWMWF will become increasingly less important over time, and the matter of capitalist’s zombies will become increasingly important.
My larger point with the thought experiment is to argue that there is no way to reconcile the beliefs of humanists and non-humanists. Cultural ether is by definition an unfalsifiable idea. But the capitalist’s zombie also makes the existence of cultural ether, like the question of existence of god, a question that does not need to be answered at all. It is possible to keep moving forward without answering it, by making it less and less relevant and something fewer and fewer people care about.
Those who believe there is something to the idea will focus on areas where the simulation (or proposed simulation) is so bad that it insults the idea of the original. Ironically, their criticisms will have the effect of improving the simulation rather than creating their hoped for regressive drive towards the “real” thing. The satire that is the Libertarian Police Department essay will actually lead to future experiments in market-based policing becoming more like non-market based policing, rather than having (what I presume is) the intended effect of dismissing the very idea of market-based policing through ridicule.
Or to take a more real example, all the criticism of how ebooks have less cultural ether than paper books and how blogs have less cultural ether than newspapers simply had the effect of gradually improving ebooks and blogs gradually so fewer and fewer people cared enough to resist. Ironically, because even believers in cultural ether tend to defect, the simulation actually acquires cultural ether by their very act of defection, making it more attractive to stronger believers in cultural ether. All it takes is one diehard print journalist to embrace blogs and the rest have less of a case.
As the simulation fidelity improves, more and more people will drop out of the activist humanist camp around any particular cause, with a “real enough for me” resignation letter.
Just like I did with my acceptance of Baltica Dry as a local Chilean beer.
Those who don’t buy the idea of cultural ether at all (and I am in that group) can simply disengage from capitalist’s zombie debates and buy market-based simulations of culture with the level of fidelity they care enough to pay for.
My hypothesis here is that capitalism is an evolving computing system that gradually grows in sophistication to simulate more and more of the forms of culture and society, with increasing fidelity. If you’ll allow me out on a highly speculative limb for a bit, the size of the Keynesian deficit in an economy is a good measure of the simulation debt in a society: the amount of lost cultural ether we want to recover through sustainable economic simulation (and stimulation).
This evolutionary hypothesis applies to capitalism itself, which after all is just another element of culture. It is quite possible that developments in cryptocurrencies, trust mechanisms and automated contracting will make the entire visible scaffolding of economic life disappear entirely from view, creating a perfect simulation of pre-monetary human life.
In other words, to make up yet another snowclone from Clarke’s Third Law, a sufficiently advanced market economy is indistinguishable from the culture it simulates.