Capitalism is only coherent, not rational.

The great Ian Walsh wrote an entry discussing the difference between a system being coherent and being rational, and how capitalism is only the former and not the latter. This distinction is crucially important to any discussion of ideology. The ends of a system must be accountable to human beings and their needs.

So why have we produced to so much carbon that we’re going to kill a billion people or more?

Because capitalist rationality is internal-coherence. It does not question ends. By definition, anything which makes profits and is consensual is good. (I’m leaving out questions of perfect consensuality, like power and so on, deliberately.)

Take planned obsolescence. Goods are designed so they will wear out and break down; they make them hard to repair when they do break, so people will buy new ones.

This was a big fight in the late 19th and early 20th century, by the way. Engineers wanted to design goods which would last as long as possible, but managers didn’t: If you can sell a person whatever you make only once in their life, or twice, you make a lot less money than if it breaks down and has to be replaced every few years.

This means, of course, that you have to mine a lot more material. People have to work a lot more to make goods which would not be needed if they were designed to last as long as possible. This generate more carbon and other pollutants.

In every way this is bad: People have less free time, there is more pollution, and we use up more scarce resources. No one sane would create such a system from first principles…

This is internal-coherence rational, not means-ends rational. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to work less and have everything (or most everything) I need and want, while polluting less and using less resources. I will posit that the vast majority of human beings on Earth would agree.

Internal-coherence rationality is so close to always bad that you might as well just say that it is. Yes, one always has to ask, “Why do we want X?” when dealing with means-end rationality, but means-ends rationality has a tendency to cut out the shit. When we examine it carefully, most of us want enough stuff for the least possible work and want to be healthy, which means we don’t want a lot of pollution.

Capitalism is not means-end rational. The argument was made for a long time, “but it works.” By which it was meant, “it produces a lot of goods and money.” But it produced too many goods we didn’t need and money is only a means, for most people, to get the goods they need.

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