Is Capitalism Too Good For Us?

“Communism is all very well in theory but it just doesn’t work in practice” is a very common phrase, the idea being that there is something called human nature which is inherently selfish and will stop it from working.  And copious apparent examples can be given, such as the situations in China and the Soviet Union and the 1978 Winter of Discontent/Discotheque, and I make that connection for a reason I might go into later, to which the left wing rejoinder is that they were not real examples of socialism or communism in the first place, and so on.  Although I think there is an argument to be had here, I want to start off on a slightly different and less well-explored tack – is the same true of capitalism?  Is capitalism a system which only works in theory?

Kropotkin once said that we were not good enough to make capitalism work.  I almost started this post with that phrase but Sarada said it would put people off, so it occurs here instead.  Of course you could just read what he says about it because much of it is similar to what I say, but I have something more than that, because I’ve been self-employed and am Christian.  Before I get to why those are relevant, I’ll briefly cover his argument with contemporary examples.

Capitalism, or at least a market economic system, is often portrayed as the kind of economic system which evolves organically out of a situation where people have wants and needs on the one hand which they can’t satisfy and also have the ability to offer goods and services on the other.  For instance, the South East of peninsular Great Britain had a lot more flint for making stone tools than the rest of it, but the glaciers and tundra to the North, as obtained during the Ice Ages, had lots of furry animals who can be killed and their pelts used for making tents and clothing.  Therefore it makes sense to exchange flint tools which can be used to kill the animals for furs which can be used for clothing and shelter, but different tribes have different facilities at their disposal.  This stops working if the people don’t have complementary needs, so an exchange medium develops known as money.  Even where the government dominates, illegal markets develop, and in places where, for example, recreational substances are criminalised, markets evolve, which are however often not very free and involve  very large profit margins and poor quality control, to the extent that the people with most to lose from the decriminalisation of the drugs involved are the dealers.  It’s also questionable to project this back into the Palaeolithic, as it may partake of the idea of trying to create a mythos to support one’s current world view.  Marx’s idea of primitive communism is the same kind of thing in the opposite direction.

As I have gone on about ad infinitum nauseamque on homeedandherbs, our children were home educated.  This came about rather surprisingly from a position where I thought it should be illegal to do so less than two years previously.  I initially thought it was a bad thing because it gave families too much power over their children, and an authoritarian or neglectful parenting style would blight those children’s adult lives.  The reason I switched was that the government was making such an incredibly bad job of “educating” the children that parents could hardly be expected to do worse.  Basically, with the exception of the introduction of continuous assessment with GCSEs, every single educational policy introduced between 1979 and 2010 constituted in itself a good argument for home education.  Note, incidentally, that this stretches over both the Conservative terms and the alleged Labour government under Blair and Brown.

A similar situation exists with my attitude towards EU membership.  I was primarily against Britain being in the EU from about the time I was able to have informed political opinions right up until a couple of days before the Brexit vote, the reason being that the EU seems to be a poorly accountable body which enables environmentally unfriendly trade over a wide area and seems to facilitate the operations of global capitalism.  The reason I changed my mind was the murder of Jo Cox.  It seems that we would not be able to institute a socialist government properly in this country if we were tied into arrangements with a trading capitalist block like the European Union.  The problem was, though, that there seemed to be remarkably intolerant forces pushing the agenda of Britain getting out of the EU, and Cox’s murder indicates to me that it was substantially driven by hatred.  By that, by no means do I think that more than a tiny minority actually did have bigotry-based agenda, but that their influence and actions were way out of proportion to their numbers.  Nor does it follow that being out of the EU commits us to a neoliberal programme, and in this sense it really is about sovereignty, but what feels to me like realism strongly suggests that that’s where we’d be going.

In both of these cases, home ed and EU membership, what I’ve done can be interpreted in two ways.  One is that I’ve taken up a position more associated with the Right than the Left.  In the former case I’ve placed enough faith in families as a whole to trust that they will parent their own in a responsible manner which will end up contributing to the common good.  In the latter, I’ve opted for a somewhat pro-capitalist position of preferring to stay in the club which encourages trade over thousands of kilometres and prefers the big producers over the small, which is not specifically pro-capitalist because in theory, and there are those words again, capitalism involves a free market with plenty of entrepreneurship where competition will tend to prefer good quality providers of goods and services.  But that’s an idealised view of capitalism.  The other thing I’ve done here is to opt for the “least worst” position, in a manner similar to Churchill’s:

Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

(This is incidentally a misattribution, hence the bold text.  He did say it but he was quoting from an apparently unknown source).

Opting for the least worst position could be seen as a form of conservatism.  I see that political position to be partly about not letting the best be the enemy of the good.  Whereas one may wish to go for an idealistic plan, this may in fact turn out to be unachievable and cause more problems than it solves.  However, it doesn’t seem to lead me in a conservative direction, and those who believe that something don’t need fixing ‘cos it ain’t broke may just be the people who aren’t in a position to appreciate how broken something really is because they’re not trapped in the shattered wreckage.

We seem to be in a situation where the greedy and selfish have all the advantages, which benefits no-one in the end including themselves, except on a very superficial level.  The idea seems to be that you have to work with this because people are not perfectable, so their baser impulses need to be harnessed for the collective good.  It isn’t clear how this could work.  On the other hand, it could be that what we perceive to be “baser” impulses are in fact not base at all but perfectly okay.  This could go into Nietzschean territory at this point, and if not that into Ayn Rand’s “greed is good” philosophy of Objectivism.  But there’s another element to this as well.

Organised religion in the West has tended to posit the idea of original sin, expressed in the Calvinist phrase of “total depravity”.  That is, human beings are innately sinful, this often being interpreted as inherently selfish, as most sins portrayed in the Bible seem to be.  There are other possible views, and other Abrahamic religions have other perspectives.  Islam, for example, believes in original virtue and Judaism seems to place far less emphasis on the Garden Of Eden narrative and lacks the reiteration found in the Pauline Epistles.  Whatever the validity of the source, conservatism often seems to include the idea that we are irredeemably selfish, and combined with a certain strand of organised religion this can be seen as attempting to elicit divine help with this issue, or perhaps being resigned to the imperfection of all people and institutions, including both corporations and government.  Moreover, if it’s also combined with the idea that the current order is about to come to an end, attempting to improve things of one’s own accord could be seen as pointless and trying to elicit divine help with this would be futile as that’s not supposed to be part of God’s plan for us.

I am not that kind of Christian.  Furthermore, an atheist would probably look askance at such a view, although they might themselves still believe that humanity is essentially selfish and greedy.  But there is a sense in which right wing views work quite well with a particular kind of Christianity.  Another view is that Christ was preaching communism.  I don’t agree with that either.  I think there’s a range of political views compatible with Christianity, and that at no point did Christ advocate that those who gave alms to the poor should first hand it over to the government to do so.  Conversely, a democratic government could be seen as being set up by people to manage that kind of redistribution, depending on how well one expects that to operate and how prone to corruption it might be.  The balance of possible views of the situation means that it’s perfectly feasible to be either left or right wing, or for that matter centrist, and also Christian, and as Christians we shouldn’t judge other Christians based on their political perspectives.

In a right wing environment, there would of course be poor people, and without a state to support them they would rely on charity or generosity.  For this to operate properly there would need to be some system of moral education, unless we can rely on an essential goodness.  Some people would look for organised religion to provide that education.  The question therefore arises of whether a capitalist society can actually operate properly in the absence of religion.  It may be that a non-religious capitalist society will be dysfunctional for that reason.  On the other hand, humanist approaches to ethics are also possible, or alternatively, maybe we are instinctively generous.  A secular society, i.e. one which gives equal weight to all religious and non-religious views within certain moral parameters, might therefore be able to function and still be capitalist, but in order to do so there would have to be either some way to instill a strong sense of altruism in most of its members or for humans to be essentially good and able to trace the likely consequences of their actions positively.  It’s also unclear how psychopaths could be kept in check in such a system, and an effective way of achieving that doesn’t seem to be available in the society we in fact live in.

Now you might think that having said all that, I’m advocating for communism.  Regardless of what my opinions are in that respect, that doesn’t follow.  Simply because I believe we aren’t, for whatever reason, “good enough” for capitalism doesn’t mean I’m optimistic about communism or socialism.  It may simply be that neither system can be made to work.  If that’s so, though, there is no particular reason to prefer capitalism.  I would also argue that we don’t really live under a free market system and that it’s quite likely that such a system can’t persist without government intervention.

There’s a fairly well-known experiment involving an ant colony with various equally good food sources placed around it in a circle with the colony at the centre.  Whereas the ants initially find the sources at random and take food from them equally, there is always a drift towards a few sources being preferred even though there is no rational way to choose between them, and after a while the ants always end up going to a single food source and ignore the rest.  I think this happens within capitalism with competitors.  That is, there’s a drift towards monopolies, and we are not economically rational actors.  We are fickle and persuaded by advertisers and spurious reasoning, meaning that the monopoly which eventually comes to dominate a particular industry may well not be of better quality from the start, and once it’s become a monopoly the lack of competition removes the motivation to maintain any quality its products might previously have had.  This means that there’s a sense in which unregulated capitalism is destined to be both inefficient at providing for our needs and ends up putting us into the same situation as would have existed if all the major industries were controlled by the government in any case.  

As I’ve mentioned, however, I have been self-employed, and therefore in a very limited sense I’m a businesswoman.  What I’ve found in connection with that is that the professional body whose stated intention is to maintain high ethical standards does nothing of the sort and that the government, and beyond that the EU, isn’t on our side either.  There is a sense in which a professional body is a trade union.  They often seem to serve their own needs, to be out of touch with the needs of most of their members and to further the interests of their wealthiest members at the expense of the newer and poorer members.  It’s not possible to participate in the democratic process if you can’t afford to get to conferences, for example, which incidentally means that affordable public transport is helpful to democracy.  This means that in some kind of “ideal world”, the industry I’m in would work better if it’s self-regulating in the sense that the members themselves have the freedom to do as their values dictate.  This would of course require enough knowledge to be competent and not put people in danger.  In other words, it requires some kind of value system involving personal honour and integrity, and the question then arises of whether there was ever really a time when that kind of character was present in the world, or whether that’s a myth.  The alternative is to burden the innocent because of the possible guilt of others.

Given that situation, the fact that it’s possible for people to act in ignorance to endanger or provide poor quality service to customers combined with the possibility that acting with a high degree of integrity has never really been very widespread means that maybe in fact we do need some kind of governing system and that industries can’t regulate themselves.  At the same time, governments may act in relative ignorance to regulate them, meaning that we have a problem, particularly if policy is not based on good quality evidence.  If we really can’t be expected to practice business with high ethical standards, or if those who cut corners are more likely to succeed in business due to the strong possibility that customers are not rational economic agents, we then have a problem with capitalism as it stands.  This basically amounts to the same thing as I said before:  we are not good enough for capitalism and we need regulation.

Oddly though, this is kind of a conservative form of socialism.  The best possible capitalist system would involve equal, properly competing businesses combined with rational customers and businesspeople running their business with a high degree of moral integrity.  Oddly, this would be a kind of utopia, because in fact people don’t operate like that.  That may of course be a counsel of despair and a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If it isn’t, it may mean it’s at least equally valid for us to say “well, capitalism works very well in theory but it can’t really work in practice, because people are too selfish and imperfect”.  Two can play at that game.  The problem, of course being that if neither system works, and combination of the two doesn’t work either, we’re all doomed.

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