Capitalism and the problem of collective action

by Gavin Kitching

The central argument of this article[1] is that humankind is now creating collective action[2] problems of such enormous complexity and scale that it is very difficult for individual people, on the basis of their ordinary everyday experience alone, to even grasp them as problems, let alone see how to solve them.

Such problems include: chronic global economic instability, anthropogenic global warming and climate change, increasingly ineffective governments, traffic jams, and rising health care costs. All of these problems are ‘mass’ or ‘collective’ outcomes of individual actions, actions motivated by intentions quite different from those outcomes. In other words they are all  unintended consequences of mass-scale collective action. They are produced by people doing what they think is in their individual interest (and which may genuinely be so) but which – quite unintentionally, as the result of the complex ‘interaction’ of all their doings –  ‘turns out’ not to be in their ‘general’ or ‘collective’ interest. Some of these problems have both a complex causality and very uncertain (and therefore deniable) consequence. And even those that do not — even those that have a clearer causality and undeniable consequences — still have a variety of possible solutions, the relative merits and costs of which are very difficult for the average person to assess.

Social Being and Social Consciousness

Another way of conceiving of such problems is as one expression of the gap between ‘social being’ and ‘social consciousness’.[3] Karl Marx first identified this ‘gap’ in writing about the nineteenth century industrial working class. The working class was supposed to close the gap between its social consciousness and its social being by becoming subjectively conscious of the class oppression which, in Marx’s view, formed its everyday life experience (its ‘social being’). Becoming conscious of its oppression – seeing it as a problem which it needed to solve – would lead that class to become a revolutionary class ‘for itself’[4]. Moreover Marx was optimistic that this would soon happen — that the ‘social consciousness’ of the workers would soon ‘catch up’ with their ‘social being’. He thought the forms of poverty, deprivation and humiliation which ‘the proletariat’ suffered every day, were so experientially blatant and obvious that its members surely could not fail to respond to a socialist political movement which explained those ‘obvious’ experiences in revolutionary terms.

However, Marx’s confidence turned out to be misplaced. The dreadful social conditions that so many nineteenth century workers experienced did not convince them that they had problems only revolutionary action could solve. They came to believe that those conditions were problems, and problems that could and should be solved. But this belief did not turn them into revolutionaries. Rather it led them to form trade unions, and to make demands for gradual social reforms from the existing, non-revolutionary, governments.  Some workers did become political revolutionaries. But they were always a small minority, and they became revolutionaries out of intellectual conviction, not out of their suffering alone.

Following Marx then, this article is about some large contemporary gaps between social being and social consciousness.  But these gaps exist now for huge numbers of people of all nationalities, classes and social groupings, and they exist in relation to problems that are so massive in their social and geographical range, and so complex in their causality, that  individual day-to-day experience (individual ‘social being’) provides no basis for anyone to understand them. Indeed in the most difficult cases – anthropogenic climate change and derivatives trading in global financial markets for example – everyday experience provides no evidence, or certainly no unequivocal evidence, that they are problems at all.  But even in the case of rather less complex and ‘remote’ problems – increasingly ineffectual national governments, or traffic jams, or rising health care costs — day-to-day human experience may provide some evidence of their problematic nature, but it does nothing to tell people which of the many solutions on offer might be best.

In short, these are problems whose very recognition (let alone solution) requires careful study and in-depth understanding.  And unlike Marx and Engels, I am under no illusion that, in regard to these problems, ordinary ‘day-to-day’ experience can be even a partial substitute for that study and understanding.

Capitalism and Nationalism: Globalised Being, Localised Consciousness

In a very well known and oft-quoted section of the Communist Manifesto, Marx imagined, with extraordinary historical prescience, the creation of a genuinely global capitalist economy. He also, in the same section, sketched the way in which the expansion and economic unification of states facilitated the development of markets and trade. Indeed, in a well known paragraph of the section Marx describes the expansion of capitalism and the rise of the modern nation-state as unproblematic complementary processes, the one continually facilitating the other[5].

But now we know better. One of the most profound and intractable problems confronting humanity now is the coexistence of a genuinely global capitalist system with national or (at best) regional forms of politics and policy-making. This coexistence means that while human beings face historically unprecedented collective action problems of genuinely global magnitude — anthropogenic climate change, huge trade and balance of payments imbalances, ‘unregulated’ global capital and financial flows – problems which have major implications for the material well-being of virtually every individual human being and  all the nation-states in which they live, they currently lack any global political institutions adequate to such problems.

But that contradiction is itself only an expression of a still deeper one. Because while, objectively-speaking human beings are globally ‘interdependent’ in ever more complex and ‘deep’ ways, (a) they are only very dimly aware of this, or certainly of its extent and depth and (b) they are, almost without exception, subjectively inured in, and loyal to, ‘their’ particular (national) states, ‘their’ particular (national) societies and cultures.[6]

And this radical and deep contradiction between objective economic (and environmental) reality and human subjective awareness not only makes it extremely difficult to create global or trans-national institutions for the political regulation of global capitalism, it also results in that capitalism being ever more crisis-prone economically and ever more threatening environmentally.

So, we live in a world where effective policies to combat climate change run up against a popular consciousness that sees no unambiguous ‘day-to-day’ evidence that the problem is real. And we also live in a world in which pursuing trans-national forms of economic regulation runs up against a popular nationalist consciousness that tends to see the global economy as a ‘zero-sum’ game in which the prosperity of ‘our’ state and society is all that matters. Hence, if policies to regulate global capitalism impose readily perceptible short term costs on any nation-state (raised taxes or prices, some loss of jobs, rising interest rates) while the benefits of such regulation are not readily perceptible, intellectually complex to grasp and longer term in their effects, trans-national economic rationality is almost certain to founder on national or regional loyalties.

The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object? 

In short then, we are entering (indeed we have already entered) a world where certain policies are necessary – are essential – if ever more pressing environmental, economic and social problems are to be solved. But at the same time there is no reason, in everyday perceptions of the world, for anyone to believe this. In some cases this is because there is no ‘day-to-day’ experiential evidence the problems are problems at all. (Climate change is the most spectacular case of this, but others include the ‘remote’ complexities of derivatives trading.) In other cases everyday perceptions while adequate to identify the collective action problem involved (traffic jams, rising energy prices, rising food prices etc) provide no basis to endorse one policy solution rather than another.

When thinking about this matter I have occasionally been attracted by the old analogy of the irresistible force and the immovable object. On the one hand certain things must happen if certain problems now faced by human beings are to be solved or mitigated. On the other hand, however, they cannot happen. And they cannot happen, at least in part, because there are no obvious reasons why people should believe that they must!

Irresistible forces meeting immovable objects is a popular pseudo-scientific image, but serious physicists have no truck with it. There are no ‘immovable’ objects in the physical universe because all objects are in motion, and all have forces acting upon them. And in the social universe this image is even less applicable (except as a loose kind of metaphor) because in that universe it is human activity which both creates problems and the principal barriers to solving them. In human society in fact there are no ‘forces’ meeting ‘objects’, ‘immovable’ or otherwise. Rather, human beings are both the irresistible force and the immovable object. But that is just a metaphorical way of saying that only human activity has the ontologically unique capacity to be self-defeating. The reason why, despite continuous social ‘science’ attempts to do so, we cannot analogise human activity to any force of nature, is that human beings, unlike natural forces, act intentionally. When we say that some human activity has been ‘self-defeating’ we mean that it has had consequences other than those intended, and consequences which, in some way or other, have compromised or negated the original intention. And this most commonly happens because individual actions have ‘interacted’ together en masse and produced unintended consequences.

Conclusion: Politics, Self-Education and the Occupy Movement

But through this same unique intentionality human beings can find a way of preventing their individual actions being collectively self-defeating. They can do so by engaging in another activity whose purpose is precisely to make them individually conscious, individually aware, of those unintended collective outcomes. This activity is called ‘politics’. One of the main reasons human beings engage in politics is to ‘close the gap’ between intentions and consequences. By becoming aware that their collective actions have unintended consequences, and by coming to understand precisely how and why this happens, citizens can act to eliminate or reduce those consequences.

This is just to say that one of the most important functions of politics is educational, and educational not in the hierarchical sense of one group of people instructing another, but in the more egalitarian sense of people learning from each other, through engaging in a policy conversation or debate. Hannah Arendt is perhaps the most famous and eloquent advocate of this view of politics as an educative public conversation. But she is also the most well known sceptic about the capacity of modern democracies to be educative, in the way that (at least on her controversially idealistic account) the democracies of ancient Greece and Rome were.

In the half century since she wrote The Human Condition[7], two developments have occurred in modern democracies which, had she witnessed them, would probably have deepened Arendt’s scepticism and pessimism. On the one hand citizens of those democracies have become markedly less willing to leave policy debate to political elites. They have made ever more strident demands that their voice be heard, and rejected the role (accorded them in some ‘elitist’ theories of democracy) of simply voting for pre-constituted ‘packages’ of policies at periodic elections. On the other hand, however, most of those same citizens are no more willing than they ever were to educate themselves about the policy issues involved. As a result public policy debate in most democracies more resembles a cacophonous exchange of superficial, and emotively-loaded platitudes than a calm, probing, mutually educative, conversation about complex and difficult issues. In a word, or rather in a couple of words, in the last half century democratic politics has become in one respect more democratic, but it has done so at the cost of being ever more superficially populist and positively anti-educative.

However, unlike Hannah Arendt, I am inclined to think of this as, at most, an exacerbation of how things have always been, even in the ancient democracies of which she was so enamoured. But the point is that, given the complexities of the world in which we live now, we (and I mean ‘we’ here, in the most inclusive ‘species’ sense) can no longer afford to conduct politics in this facile, anti-educative, way. And this is true, even if up to now it is the way it has ‘always’ been conducted. Some people (small minorities) in all societies have always wanted – with a hopeless sigh as it were — an educative politics. But now it is not a question of what a small minority wants. It is a question of what everybody needs. We need an educative politics. We need our politics to have a powerful, popular educational role. Such a politics has become essential if we are to solve the truly threatening collective action problems that we now confront. It is essential if we are to stop being the ignorant immovable object, getting in the way of the (far from irresistible?) force of our species, and planetary, needs.

And in that context the international Occupy movement represents a rare shaft of light and hope. For that movement was the first to insist that ‘national’ problems and crises now have international causes, and cannot be adequately tackled except on an international basis. It is of course one thing to acknowledge this, quite another to suggest how it might be done, and the real difficulties here immediately led the movement’s enemies to allege that it had no ‘solutions’ to the problems it identified. But in my view that allegation, even if it had some substance, misses the point. For the political importance of Occupy lies not in identifying solutions, but in its framing of ‘the problem’ in ways other than those found in the previously dominant public policy discourse. It lies in fact in seeing that massive and growing national inequalities have global causes and can only have global solutions. And for that reason the book from which this article is drawn is both dedicated to Occupy and tries to provide some of the ‘solutions’ that its critics apparently, (and dishonestly), claimed to want.


[1] This article is a rewritten version of an introduction to a forthcoming book of mine, The Philosophy of Now: Capitalism, Democracy and Humanity. The book obviously has a far wider scope. In it I analyse ‘the problem of collective action’ in the contemporary world in far greater theoretical and philosophical depth than found here. I also offer some suggestions for solving, or at least attenuating it.

[2] As used here this phrase is not to be confused with ‘the collective action problem’ or ‘the problem of collective action’ as they appear in the public choice literature. In other words, as used here this phrase and others (like ‘collective action problems’ and ‘collective action problem’) do not refer to the problem of how groups of human beings can act together in an intentionally ‘collective’ way to achieve some goal or other. Rather they refer, as noted, to problems produced by masses of people acting  individually in ways which unintentionally produce ‘collective’ outcomes none of them wanted. Given the volume and ubiquity of the public choice literature I have pondered long and hard whether to court misunderstanding by using one of its most well known terms in this ‘meaning inverted’ way. For clearly there are a lot of alternatives phrases I could use — ‘mass action problem’, ‘macro-outcomes problem’ – to pre-empt any possible confusion. But in the end I have deliberately opted, for polemical — indeed political — reasons to retain the public choice phrase while changing its meaning radically. For it seems to me typical of contemporary economics as a discipline that it devotes such analytical energy and attention to a problem which, in the contemporary world, is of much less practical and policy importance than the kind of ‘collective action problems’ considered here. Indeed if, in the future, far less attention were given to ‘the problem of collective action’ (with its logical concomitants like ‘free riding’, ‘network creation’ etc) and for more to the mass ‘collective action problems’ anatomised here I should be delighted.

[3] Karl Marx, ‘Preface to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859) in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1970, pp.181-2

[4] Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, New York,: International Publishers, 1963   p.173

[5] I refer of course to the famous section of Part 1 of the Manifesto beginning at “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part” and ending at “what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?” The particular paragraph referred to is the one in which “political centralisation” (“independent, or but loosely connected provinces…” [becoming] … “lumped together into one nation with one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier and one customs tariff”) is said to be “the necessary consequence” of the centralisation of the means of production, agglomeration of population and concentration of property “in a few hands” brought about by “the bourgeoisie.”

[6] It is an interesting question in fact as to how a global capitalist economy could even have been created by human beings, given their insistently localised and parochial concerns and identities. And the answer, once again, is that its creation was the entirely unintended ‘side effect’ of individuals and capitalist firms pursuing immediate, short term goals of profit and income maximisation. Moreover,  since the 1980s its continually recurring crises have themselves been ‘side effects’ of the same immediate and short term imperatives being pursued by firms, banks and other financial institutions, and the individuals who trade and invest on their behalf, in blithe disregard of the ‘macro’ effects of their actions.

[7] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958

[Thank you Gavin for this contribution]

The writer is Emeritus Professor of Politics, School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. He is Fellow of the Australian Academies of Social Sciences and of Arts and Humanities and the author of numerous books and articles. His most recent book is The Trouble with Theory: The Educational Costs of Postmodernism (Allen&Unwin, 2008). He also writes novels and plays and has lived and worked in Africa, Latin America and Russia.