Why capitalism’s time is up By Paul Richard Harris

Dandelion Salad

By Paul Richard Harris
Friday, Dec 11, 2009

In its basic concept, capitalism should be about people making things for other people, and making a decent wage for doing so. Then the people for whom the goods are made sell them for more than it cost to make them. Some of those sales will be to the people who made the stuff, and some will be to third parties unrelated to the manufacturing process.

Now, if I’m the guy who owns the company that makes the stuff, I’ve probably invested my own money; or I’m at least responsible for repaying funds loaned to me by someone else. That means I’ve taken some personal risk, and the reward I can achieve for assuming that risk is called profit.

So far, so good.

But it has never quite worked that way, for one reason and only one reason – greed. Economists have thousands of fancy charts and graphs to deflect us from this reality, and a litany of arcane explanations; but the simple reason is greed.

The main problem for us, though, is that capitalism is the only choice we have. How do I know that? Because a world of experts tells me so – nearly every day. Typically, those experts are among the group most likely to benefit from having me believe this. They are the business class, along with their functionaries and apologists, who infest the universities, mainstream media, and politics. Capitalism is not a choice, they inform us; it is the proper natural condition of the world. And we are reassured that those who argue against capitalism are, well, bewildered, or confused, or maybe just plain crazy.

Capitalism is what we’re told we have; corporatism is what we really have. It’s predatory, it’s vicious, it’s driven by the overbearing impulse to manufacture crap we don’t need, to build obsolescence and short life into most of the stuff we buy. It’s driven not by those people who were willing to put their own hearts and souls into a business for which they accept the personal risks and rewards; instead, it’s in the thrall of soulless and morally insufficient corporations. The people who run those corporations are shielded from any personal risk, personal responsibility, or moral imperative. Their sole goals are to line the pockets of shareholders, and themselves.

And capitalism as we live it and practice it today is failing. So if this is the best we have, can the end for us all be very far behind?

Capitalism (even when wearing a corporatist hat) is incredibly productive. It produces a flood of goods, although no one questions whether that’s a good thing. But it is also a system that is fundamentally anti-democratic, unsustainable, and inhuman. What capitalism gives those of us in the arrogantly-named First World is lots of stuff, in exchange for any hope of progressive government, the possibility of a livable future for our children, and our very souls.

So how is capitalism anti-democratic? Well, we have to remember that democracy’s promise is that it gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than a mere subsidiary role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful. But capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system, and common sense tells us that when you concentrate wealth, you concentrate power. And we all understand that the wealthy and powerful dictate public policy to politicians.

Clearly, then, capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive. Average Betty may have the same number of votes as Bill Gates, but no one seriously believes she has as much influence on public and social policy as Bill.

The unsustainability of capitalism should be obvious to anyone with more than half a brain. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is the only planet we have. And all the stuff that’s on it, and in it, will eventually run out. Despite wild-eyed dreams to the contrary, this is the only place we are ever going to live, and there is nothing much we can do about the limited resources. Oh sure, some technology improvements might squeeze a little more out of what we have; but eventually it’ll all be gone. It is completely delusional not to accept this reality.

Now, capitalism may not be the only unsustainable system that humans have developed, but it’s the most obviously unsustainable and it appears to be what we’re stuck with – because there is no other way, right? Because it’s natural, and inevitable, like the air, right?

The inhumanity of capitalism is a little harder to prove, but it is rather obvious. The theory of contemporary capitalism is that we are greedy, self-interested creatures – homo economicus. Well, are we greedy? Of course we are – all of us, to some degree. But we are also capable of selflessness, of compassion. We can engage in aggressive and passionate competition, but we also have a capacity for cooperation and solidarity. So if our own acts and actions are so widely varied, why must we have the choice only of an economic system that deliberately strengthens our most inhumane traits and undermines the most decent aspects of our nature?

No matter where you look, you’ll find greed and the pursuit of self-interest. Which leads us to accept the proposition that the greedy, self-interested aspects of our nature are dominant. But that’s because we’re forced into a system that rewards greed and self-interested behaviour. It’s a circular argument – if greed and self-interest aren’t rewarded, they don’t tend to rise to the surface; where they are rewarded, it’s like leading pigs to a trough.

We appear to have lost sight of the fact that an economic system doesn’t just produce goods and services. It also produces people, because we are all shaped by our work experiences and the goods we consume. If we spend all our time and money consuming cheap crap in a desperate effort to dull the pain of unfulfilling work, where are we going to end up?

The first step in our rehabilitation is calling the capitalist system what it is: anti-democratic, unsustainable, inhuman. Once we’ve accepted that reality, it’ll make it easier to begin a move to a system that is less predatory.

It cannot be true that the only way to run this world is with a system in which the slime rises to the top while half the world lives in abject poverty. Fighting against capitalism is not crazy; struggling for a sustainable future and democratic societies is not crazy. And it is certainly not crazy to work toward holding on to our humanity.

Read his bio and more articles by
Paul Richard Harris, Editor, Axis of Logic

© Copyright 2009 by AxisofLogic.com


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from the archives:

The Story of Stuff By Robert Weissman (+ video)