Last post, we briefly noted that economies need capital to generate wealth and resources. Sometimes this amounts to a circular definition: we use money to make money. Moreover, money is infinitely flexible: we can use money profitably in a number of ways. If you have a moneymaking venture, and opportunities shift, you can easily shift your money in response. And it doesn’t have to be money; other forms of capital are also flexible and easily repurposed, like a computer, or a college degree in English.
But some kinds of capital are very specific: an aluminum-smelting furnace is designed to do one thing, smelt aluminum. You can’t use an aluminum smelter to bake bread, or dig a hole, or weave cloth. The smelter is capital, but it is a form of capital that cannot be repurposed; and if you tried to sell it, you’re likely to get back a fraction of its original cost. That changes things a great deal. If you invest in capital that is inflexible—whether because it has only a few use cases, or literally cannot be moved once it’s built—you’re committed. You will resist changes that make your capital worthless, and you will likely continue trying to pursue the original venture even after it stops making sense.
This has effects in the economy narrowly, but also in politics. Michael Hiscox argues that if the prevailing technology of capital in a society is flexible, capital can readily shift between uses and the important distinction is between people with lots of capital and those with little. As a result, you would tend to see broad political coalitions based on class: capital against labor, or haves versus have-nots. Policies favoring particular industries would be of little importance in the political system, since failing industries will simply have capital shift out of them with little drama; more important would be how to allocate the economy’s gains in general.
On the other hand, if capital is largely specific and inflexible—for example, large factories built around a single product that cannot be retooled easily, or large sources of natural resources like oil—then it will be difficult to shift between industries, and the economy will see a wide variety of industry-based interest groups. In such a setting, the workers in these industries would tend to be allies of their bosses; if the factory closes down, both groups suffer. And each industry will fight fiercely to defend its position, to push policies that favor it, to defeat policies that threaten it, and to squelch potential disruptor industries.
In the real world, economies tend to feature a mix of flexible and inflexible capital, which complicates things. (Some oligarchs’ wealth might be based on flexible capital, for example, and others’ on inflexible capital, which would potentially put them in conflict.) And it gets even more complicated once you factor in other types of resources—particularly land and labor, which we will discuss in future posts. (But we’ll be going nice and slowly, not least because I’m still figuring out the best way to present all of these factors, and build them into a workable model!).
Still, just the difference caused by flexible versus inflexible capital is already a powerful tool for story conflict. Not bad, eh?
(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)