Free Markets vs Capitalism

The other day, I friend of mine tweeted something about Rage Against the Machine that tripped my political-philosophy sensors:

real talk, the Rage Against the Machine ticket pricing is unfortunate for many of their fans (esp fans in demographics their songs are about). but they’ve been on a Sony imprint since the early 90s. their per-show guarantee is easily in the six figures. they’re capitalists.

It’s that last part that bothered me. RATM are well-known advocates of socialism; are they really so hypocritical as to be capitalists?

After thinking things over for a while, I don’t believe they are. Wealthy, perhaps. Well-paid, certainly. But capitalists? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to call my friend out here. But his tweet made me realize there’s a lot of misconceptions in the US about the differences between socialism, capitalism, and free markets. And the case of RATM makes a good jumping-off point to discuss the real relationships between those three concepts.

Because wanting to make money from their music, and specifically from their performance of music, does not make RATM capitalists.

F– the G Ride, I Want the Machines That are Making’ ‘Em

First let’s clarify something: Socialism doesn’t mean the end of money, of private property, or getting compensated for work.

Socialism, strictly construed, only requires one thing: the common ownership of the means of production.

What does this mean? Let’s break it down, going from back to front.

The means of production is just a fancy way of saying how things are made. It can be a factory churning out cars, or a recording studio putting out records.

Common ownership means there’s no one person (or CEO-controlled corporation) that controls a thing. Sometimes this can mean government control — like our public schools — and sometimes this can be a co-op or community organization, like the urban gardens that have sprung up in some cities.

Putting these two together, it means in a socialist economy, no one person controls how things are made. Meaning they can’t force you to pay for access to how things are made.

In other words: Socialists can’t make money by being gatekeepers of some valuable resource, like time in the studio or the use of a 3-D printer.

But they can — and must, since it’s the only way to make money in a socialist economy — make money from their labor, and from the fruits of their labor.

Going back to RATM, when they perform, they are generating value — entertainment value — via their labor. And they own the end result of that labor (the music itself, and any recordings that are produced), which they then sell to people.

To a socialist, this is how things should be, everywhere. People work to create something, they own that thing, and then can sell that thing to others and make a living off of it.

Now I’m Rolling Down Rodeo With a Shotgun

So if charging money for their work doesn’t make RATM capitalists, what would?

Capitalists, in contrast to socialists, believe the means of production should be privately owned. This control over the means of production is what allows capitalists to exploit the labor of others. Because if you can own a factory, and claim ownership over every car produced there, then the only thing its workers can own is their labor, which they have to sell to you.

Do you see the difference? Capitalists don’t make money by creating things. They make money by owning things.

So the investor that funds construction of a new building, and then claims ownership over it, so they can start charging people rent, is a capitalist. They didn’t design it, they didn’t build it, they didn’t paint it or make any of the furniture that goes inside. But they still claim they have the sole right to make money off of it.

In Rage Against the Machine’s case, in order to become capitalists, they’d have to go from being music makers to record label execs. People that don’t make music themselves, but instead profit from the music that others create.

And more importantly, profiting because they claim ownership of the music (or at least, the recordings) that are wholly created by other people.

The Sisters are In, So Check the Front Lines

To make a more fully-fledged analogy: What would a music industry organized along socialist lines look like?

Well, the means of production would have to be held in common. So recording studios could not be owned by individuals or corporations. They could be government-run, they could be owned by a community association, or a co-op.

More likely, they’d be owned by artist collectives, who would rent space from a builder’s association that constructed a suitable building. The artists would pool their funds and procure the recording equipment, and any instruments they’d like to keep in the studio. They’d each then have access to the studio, without having to pay someone else.

Individual recordings would be owned by the artists who performed on them, and any sound engineers or producers that helped make the recording. Again, if you put your labor into something, you own a part of it.

Distribution would be handled either by the artists’ collective themselves, or by a co-op that specializes in distributing music (either online or via physical copies).

At no point would anyone that helped the album come into being be cut out of their partial ownership of said album. At no point would control over the album or the music be held by an entity that’s beholden to remote shareholders.

That’s not to say that everything would be free, or that any old album someone wanted to make would have to be recorded or distributed. Because the people behind and around the musicians — the engineers, the mixers, the producers, etc — wouldn’t want to contribute their labor (in other words, take partial ownership of) something they thought wouldn’t sell. Their ability to make a living would depend on the end product selling, after all; more sales means more for them via their cut, and fewer sales means less.

So people would be free to say no to projects, just as they’d be free to say yes. The knowledge that whatever they invest their time, their labor, their talent in, becomes theirs, makes them more responsible, not less. And that responsibility would itself become a market signal, as people flock together to make and distribute music that’s popular locally, and still work to make music that’s popular globally.

So a socialist music industry would actually be a freer market than a capitalist one. Free of the constraints of work-for-hire, of laboring on something and then seeing it enrich someone else. And free of the power wielded by single individuals at the top of corporate hierarchies.

Who Controls the Past Now, Controls the Future

By now, I’m sure you’ve guessed which side of the capitalist/socialist divide I’m on 🙂

But even if you think our capitalist system is better, my central point stands: Making money from the things you create doesn’t make you a capitalist. In fact, doing so is more compatible with socialism than the alternative.

So RATM aren’t capitalists. Just musicians looking to claim their just piece of the value they create.

Political Tribes, by Amy Chua

A frustrating and ultimately disappointing book, with some flashes of insight.

Let’s start with the good things.

Chua’s argument that US foreign policy often operates blind to ethnic tensions in other countries, which leads to horrible mistakes, is spot-on. The chapters looking back at past conflicts through that lens are informative; I never realized there was a racial element in the Vietnam war, for example (most of the wealth of the country was controlled by an ethnic-Chinese minority, before the war). And I didn’t realize how much the Taliban are an ethnic group (majority come from one tribe) rather than purely a religious movement.

She also has some good points to make about how tribalism operates in the US, with each group feeling attacked on a daily basis.

But her prescription for fixing things boils down to “talk to each other,” because she’s also missed some fundamental things in her analysis.

Over and over again, she talks about the “historically homogeneous” countries of Europe and East Asia, contrasting them with the “unique” experience of the United States as “the world’s only supergroup.”

Never mind that no country is, or has ever been, ethnically homogeneous. Never mind that ethnicity itself is, like race, an invented concept, something we pulled out of a hat and pretended was real.

And never mind that the US is not unique in being a society made up of immigrants plus an oppressed aboriginal population.

So she can’t say more than “we should talk to each other,” because she has no sense of how every “ethnic state” was created by violence and death. That Germany (!) was not ripe for post-war democracy through some accident of ethnic purity, but was purged of other groups deliberately by the country’s government and people. That even the concept of being “German” or “French” or “Chinese” is an invented thing, something hammered into people by a government that wanted them to stop being Provençal or Bavarians or Hmong.

And that the United States has never been a peaceful supergroup, but a vehicle for a group of people that call themselves “white” to ethnically cleanse and oppress all others. The “good old days” of “group blindness” she pines for in the final chapters never existed.

So she can’t see ethnicity itself as the problem, because she takes it as a given, a fixed construct. A solution where we break down the concepts of “white” and “black” into their components, or ditch them altogether to adopt identities built around our cities and states, can’t even be conceived in her framework.

Which is too bad, because her book is otherwise well-argued. We need her type of analysis, to be sure, but we also need more awareness of history, of how the divisions we take to be absolute today were invented, and can be remade.