Friday, June 17, 2011

Honor, Capitalism

Asked to provide an antonym to the word capitalism, most web dictionaries return communism. Some instead suggest socialism; they don’t mention communism, probably because their editors think that communism is now dead as the Dodo. The word’s origins go back to (where else) late Latin, capitale, meaning property, from which we get such interesting secondary meanings as chattel and cattle. That capitale goes back to Latin caput, head. Do I infer correctly that it was the head man who had property, possessions…hence the word’s extensions? Caput is good. Reminds me of the German kaputt, meaning worn out, dead, and the phrase that goes with it: Alles ist kaputt! But (too bad) that word derives from a French card game, capot, meaning a bonnet.

Now with a word having deep roots like that, the tendency is to say that capitalism goes way back. But in the sense in which we use the word, it really harks back to Marx’s Das Kapital, thus the nineteenth century—and indeed Marx’s success in seeding communism, hence the antonym. The fervent embrace of capitalism by a subset of Americans must have its roots in this modern ideological form of it, arising from the blessed Now, Today—thus signifying a kind of loss of tradition, historical sense, a lack of depth, indeed a lack of thought.

Cartoonists retain the distinctions. Capitalists are always pictured as extraordinarily fat, oppressive, and wearing tall hats. The blessed chattel-cattle are drawn as emaciated, thin, threadbare and groaning under enormous burdens.

George Orwell, to whom we owe so many things, failed us in one regard. He gave us Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace—but he failed to mention Capitalism is Honor. It was in the post-1984 period that we’ve had to invent the phrase and introduce it, and try to teach it to the chattel in popular cable talk intended to suggest that if you work for capital, subject to release at any time, you are a capitalist.

Interesting contrast there. Honor and Capitalism. I suggest it to the thoughtful as a subject of meditation on those long, boring commutes. The modern mind (my impression) feels a kind of mild but sad nostalgia when contemplating Honor—as something that harks back to childhood, the olden days, the days that (really) never actually held sway. Capitalism (my impression once again) has a not quite pleasant taste but signals power, smarts, sophistication, and a kind of realistic indifference to anything but self—but, Facebook Friend, it has a kind of scientific magic, doesn’t it? That very sophistication, that realism, that hard-nosed drive, baby, that’s what magically transmutes—doesn’t it?—into the American Dream?

The truth is (my conviction) that in a genuinely healthy society, one that must confront reality—and the time for that is now approaching—honor will turn out to be the actual antonym to capitalism. It means, at minimum, returning to comprehensive human values: cultivating character, loving our neighbors not keeping up with them, doing unto others as we would be done by, honoring our parents rather than fawning before the powerful, the celebrated, honest dealings, defense of our shores not of “interests,” firm handshakes, straight talk, aiding the weak, visiting the sick, and building foundations before raising structures—never mind Towers of Babel.


  1. Agree that a society must confront reality, but for the last 40 years we have believed that our illusion was reality.

    We must return to the human values you list. Then, we must "ignore" any ideology of reality. Be good regardless of whatever you believe to be real.
    Goodness endures; what is "real" changes with generations.

  2. Forty years, Montag, would make it 1971. That year personal per capita disposable income was $14,512. In 2008 it had just about doubled to $28,741--all this in inflation-adjusted real dollars. It wasn't bad at all in 1971, as I recall. Easy money produces illusions, I suppose...


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