A Humanist Capitalism?: Dissecting Andrew Yang's 2020 Presidential Platform

Charles Wofford | Politics & Government | Analysis | July 30th, 2018

One of the most delightful experiences I've had as a leftist is when I hear someone who has no apparent class consciousness express, seemingly from nowhere, a remarkably perceptive comment on class society. I recall a coworker once mentioning aloud how strange it was that we were all so frightened of the boss and what they might do to us. Entrepreneur and 2020 democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang of Venture for America has given us another example with his essay, " Humanity is more important than money - it's time for capitalism to get an upgrade ." Throughout the article, Yang advocates for a new capitalism, based on three principles: that humanity is more important than money, that the individual person ought to be the unit of the economy rather than the dollar, and that markets exist to serve "common goals and values." In the end, Yang explicitly calls for federal government intervention to "reorganize the economy."

There is little to disagree with in Yang's moral analysis and his point that capitalism does not serve the interests of the great mass of people. To be clear, I also think the government ought to reorganize the society along more egalitarian lines. But Yang also appeals to certain widely accepted economic beliefs about the "invisible hand," and self-interest and competition being the main drivers of economic prosperity. As a result, Yang's case is subject to the same critique that Marx made of the classical political economists in his 1844 economic manuscripts :

"Political economy starts with the fact of private property; it does not explain it to us. It expresses in general, abstract formulas the material process through which private property actually passes, and these formulas it then takes for laws. It does not comprehend these laws - i.e., it does not demonstrate how they arise from the very nature of private property...Precisely because political economy does not grasp the way the movement is connected, it was possible to oppose, for instance, the doctrine of competition to the doctrine of monopoly, the doctrine of craft freedom to the doctrine of the guild..."

Translation: Like the classical political economists, Yang looks at the capitalist world in which we live and simply takes it as a natural order, whose economic tendencies are unchanging laws. Because he does not understand the historical origins of the divisions of labor that make up capitalism, Yang can posit such oxymorons as "human-centered capitalism." Because he sees capitalism in the misleading and pedantic terms of supply-and-demand ("capitalism prioritizes what the world does more of") he thinks we need to merely demand a more just world and capitalism will provide it. Yang is clearly not involved in activist spaces, otherwise he would know that people have been making radically humanist and egalitarian political demands for longer than capitalism has been around, and at no time has capitalism worked toward those goals. If Yang read up on the founding of the United States (particularly Madison's Federalist Paper No. 10), he would know that the founding fathers intended this anti-egalitarianism. If Yang read up on Hamilton, he would know that many founding fathers thought the wealthy were the natural representatives of all people - a complete fabrication and a lie.

Yang argues for a conception of markets that meet human needs rather than compelling humans to meet the needs of markets. But then he talks about how we can change our behavior as economic subjects in order for the market to provide what we want. The contradiction seems lost on him: if markets are to be geared toward human need, then the question is not an economic one, but a political one. The question is not "how do we read the market?" The real question is "how do we get the power to create a human-centric society?" And this is the conceptual problem behind Universal Basic Income (UBI). Yang justifies it in terms of the productivity it may increase. But that's not a humanist concern; it is a capitalist-economic concern.

A brief history of how capitalist relations came to be is in order. Yang never defines exactly what he means by capitalism, but he suggests that it goes back over 5,000 years, conflating it with the invention of money. In reality, the notion of capitalism - private, for-profit ownership of industry with wage labor and commodity production - has its origins in 17th-century England. Over the centuries the city dwellers of the country - who were mostly merchants and exchangers by profession - had acquired so much money, and thereby power, that they were able to appropriate common-owned land in England. Up until the late 18th century, most of the land in England was commons: the people who lived there had rights to the land irrespective of whatever the "owner" may wish to do with it. Modern concepts of ownership did not exist at the time. As the merchants in the cities grew more wealthy, they bought out or often outright stole commons land in order to expand their holdings, and thereby their businesses. By the late 18th century, the merchant class (who Marx called the bourgeoisie, which literally just means "city-dweller") had bought parliament itself, and started passing parliamentary laws of enclosure to finish up the long consolidation process the bourgeoisie had begun over 100 years prior. At the end of this process, a tiny number of people concentrated in the cities owned some 98% of the land and industry in the UK. 99% of the population, formerly peasants, had to go work for them in a condition called "employment" in order to live. They were now wage laborers: the proletariat. This is the origins of what we now call capitalism. It did not come about through some peaceful transition, but through a violent process of robbery by a small class of an entire country. One of the relevant points to take from this history is that the peasants of England did not voluntarily employ themselves to the nascent bourgeoisie. They were compelled to go to work in the factories because they had been robbed of their own access to the means of existence. None of this has anything to do with freedom; it is all coercion.

The standard economic view of money is that it is a neutral means of exchange. However, if any one individual or clique acquires enough money then they may purchase and bribe politicians, control entire fields of media coverage giving them huge influence on political opinion, and they may commit horrible crimes with impunity because no one will take them to court, etc. In short, having enough money allows one to shape society to one's whims at the expense of others. The conclusion is that money is not merely a neutral means of exchange; it is a form of social power. A society focused around human need, and not markets and money, would therefore have, at the very least, strict limits on the amount of money any individual may possess. Ideally, it would abolish money altogether. But this is against the capitalist premise, which is about free exchange.

With this in mind, where does Yang propose that the government get the power to do these things that he suggests? Short of forcibly expropriating the wealth of the 1%, I do not see a way. Money is a form of social power, and the government is a prime target for that power. Yang has perhaps watched one too many episodes of the television show The West Wing, which shows some fairy-tale vision of politics as an honest journey of visionaries. Yang does not seem to understand that it's all about accumulation of wealth, exploitation of resources, the maintenance of power systems, and that capitalist society is unavoidably inhuman.

David Harvey gives a beautiful example that may help to illustrate the point. In almost every major city in the world today one can find thousands of high-rise condominiums existing in the same city as thousands of homeless people. The condos are empty except for a few weeks of the year. They were not purchased to be lived in; they were purchased to be speculated on in a housing market. This housing market grew to such proportions and has been given such reign that it caused a housing crisis which foreclosed some 4 million people of their homes. Those who lost their homes are not the same people who speculated on the housing market; those people are doing just fine. What does this show? Precisely that the market itself, if allowed to grow unchecked, may wreak havoc upon a society; a truism that seems obvious to everyone except business people and economists.

Ok, so we control the market via government regulation. But those market owners do not like that, and they lobby against regulation laws, they bribe politicians, they control the media discourse etc. Those without the money do not have any real recourse within the system to stop them, for the system has been hijacked via its own methods. So it's not as simple as "well, the government can just do this." The government has long ago been bought out by the capitalists, and politics is treated like another market now. Since the 1980s laws have been made such that it is all but impossible to reregulate the markets. The solution is that we need a completely new system, because "capitalist democracy" (so-called) has fallen past the event horizon into unworkability. This means the end of capitalism, and it means a newer, more direct, less representational form of government. It means public banking rather than private banking. It means the redistribution of wealth from those at the top who have robbed from all of humanity through a coercive system. Interestingly, this would also entail smaller government in many ways, as institutions like the FBI, the CIA, the military industrial complex, and others which exist to protect the status quo would be abolished. Just to drive the nail home, it would also mean the abolition of the Constitution and its replacing with something more progressive and centered around human values rather than defending the "minority of the opulent." (Madison)

Harvey rightly blasts the UBI idea as simply a front for Silicon Valley to get more effective demand for their products. The UBI is really a subsidy to Silicon Valley, not a method of providing for the people. That Yang is an entrepreneur from Silicon Valley is no coincidence.

In other ways, Yang's entrepreneurial training implicates him in the very values he attempts to refute. His "human-centered capitalism" is not a society that is in fact based on human need, but simply around the old fallacy of "meritocracy." A moment's reflection would tell us that a truly humane society would not be meritocratic, as the notion of "merit" is inherently politically implicated. Who defines what counts as merit? A truly humanist society would allow all people the means to develop to their fullest potential on their own terms.

Yang proposes a "parallel economy around social good." The capitalist economy would simply allow this parallel economy to get plump before taking it over. That is exactly what the capitalists are currently doing with the internet. If Yang's "parallel economy" were possible, it wouldn't be needed.

Yang writes, "Most entrepreneurs, technologists and young people I know are chomping at the bit to work on our problems." Our problems are known and have been known for at least 100 years. The problem is capitalism: private control over the means of production. The solution is socialism: worker control over the means of production. The means are popular revolution, which is above and beyond electoral politics. Unless and until you are speaking that language, your "human-centric" ideology is just a sham. Technology will not save us on its own; otherwise it would already have done so.

Lastly is Yang's line about how a humanist capitalism could "spur unprecedented levels of social activity without spending that much." This sounds like the opposite of a humanistic anything, and very capitalist. Why? Because Yang is thinking of more ways to get people to work more, produce more, engage in more activity. But we are already working ourselves to death; American worker productivity is higher than it's ever been. We don't need new ways to do more; we need new ways to do less. We need a new concept of what it means to "contribute" to society. A humanist society would not be obsessed with getting people to work, producing, exchanging, etc. but would rather leave them in relative peace while providing at least for their basic needs. But this is what the entrepreneur is trained to do: produce more, take more risks, and be more daring in the market. In this mindset, people are inherently viewed as commodities, tools to be used by the entrepreneur. We need to move beyond capitalist thinking if we are to move beyond the problems of capitalism.

In conclusion, Mr. Yang's proposed solutions are impressive to those armchair theorists and liberals who lack a deeper understanding of capitalism. They will not solve our problems. They may, in fact, empower capitalism to appropriate even more of our lives. I cannot help but suspect that Mr. Yang is just the liberal version of Donald Trump: the "successful" businessman who is "outside the system." Yang is noticing that there is a political market for progressive values and he is attempting to cash in on it.

He is, after all, an entrepreneur. But treating politics like a business is part of our problem. We've seen how capitalism can posture around the idea of "freedom." Do we not think it could do the same with ideas like "humanism?"

Charles Wofford is an activist and PhD student in historical musicology.