In "The Bonfire of the Vanities," Bacon asks what capitalism is. What forms does capital take?
Before we discuss Reverend Bacon's views on capital and capitalism, let's first define what capitalism is. Very simply, it is an economic system which preserves the rights of private owners to accumulate and dispense with property according to their own basic interests. The basic tenets of capitalism are the right to private property, the right to pursue one's own interest, the presence of competition in a market economy, limited government control over the marketplace, and freedom of choice in regard to consumption and investment. Capital such as railroads, machinery, factories, software, and patents can be used for the creation of wealth.
Now, we have a context to discuss Bacon's definition of capitalism. In Chapter 6, Edward Fiske III, Community Outreach Director of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and Moody, a lawyer, are in the Reverend Bacon's office. Fiske is in the awkward position of having to inquire about the $350,000 seed money the Episcopal Church has donated to Reverend Bacon's organization for the building of the Little Shepherd Day Care Center in Harlem. You can say that Fiske's diocese represents the modern angel investor. Angel investors are a type of venture capitalist: they may or may not require a position on the company board, but they almost always help finance projects that are beneficial to the community. Angel investors can be private individuals or non-profit organizations such as Fiske's Episcopal Diocese.
The problem at hand is that the Human Resources Administration has turned down the day care's application for a license. This is because the Reverend Bacon has apparently chosen former felons and individuals on parole to be members of the board of directors. Fiske argues that, until the board is reorganized, the Episcopalian Diocese will have to demand that the $350,000 be put into an escrow account in the interim. Bacon is indignant, claiming that the money has already been committed to contractors for the project and therefore, cannot be retrieved. He also accuses the two men of exhibiting a kind of racist colonialism which insists on discriminating against oppressed minorities who don't fit the typical profile of a respectable business partner.
Reverend Bacon tells the two men that their seed money is an investment in a new type of capitalism which will appease the oppressed masses. He calls the Episcopalian seed money an investment in 'steam capital,' intrinsically different from the types of traditional capital we have become accustomed to.'Steam' is a metaphor for the righteous anger of oppressed minorities; Bacon claims that future capitalistic investments will concentrate on tamping down the explosive anger of the long-suffering, black working classes.
Bacon explains the 'steam' factor through the analogy of boilers in a factory. Without the steam, the factory is useless; however, the steam needs to be properly controlled so that it continues to contribute to the efficient running of the factory. Bacon tells the two men that, when the boilers are in a state of dysfunction, the steam becomes a powerfully destructive force. When unleashed, this force will threaten the safety of everyone in the factory. What Reverend Bacon is doing is warning Fiske and Moody against demanding an accounting of the seed money. He proclaims the two Episcopalian representatives hypocrites who are only investing in minority jobs as a way to save their own skins.
I'm your prudent broker on Judgment Day. Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, they're gonna blow, my friend, and on that day, how grateful you will be for your prudent broker...who can control the steam...On that day, the owners of capital, how happy they will be, to give up their very birthrights, just to control that wild and hungry steam.
So, in this chapter, Reverend Bacon questions the traditional definitions of capital and capitalism. He argues that neither Fiske nor Moody have ever entertained any other definitions beyond that circumscribed by their own comfort zones. Reverend Bacon sees capitalism as a tool to redress past societal injustices as well as a tool for his own enrichment. In this seminal work, the author spares no pains in satirizing the many players of the capitalist economy; indeed, none are exempt from his scrutiny and critical analysis.