As previously argued, the system of capitalism has captured (or is it co-opted) the democratic system of governance. If capitalism was inherently aligned with democratic principles then this may not be such a bad thing. However capitalism is not only antithetical to democratic governance, the former rests on ‘it being all for me’ and the latter ‘We the people’ but it is destructive to life it self as evidenced by global warming its most far-reaching effect. Unavoidably there will be hell to pay but not by everyone, at least in the short term.
However, Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, said in The Wealth of Nations, “in order to bring up a family the labour of the husband and wife together must even in the lowest species of common labour, be able to earn something more than what is precisely necessary for their own maintenance” and correspondingly spoke against the rentier class whose income he cast as unearned. According to Michael Hudson (author of Killing the Host) the original meaning of ‘free market’ was that of being free from exploitation (particularly by the rentier class), and not as the term is applied today by corporatist to mean free of regulation to do as one desires. So is it the system or the person?
Change in the system
The impression one is left with is that the system Smith brought forth is all good and that it is just that the capitalist system is misused by people with less than honorable intentions; so we just need to fix the system by making it harder for such people to do not-so-good things.
With the system’s dictate of maximizing material self-interest toward the intent of unlimited growth and wealth accumulation, the system requires each person to be an industrious independent individual entity, a component of the wealth-producing machine. Essentially, each is to be an object for exploitation, a commodity, whose value is defined solely in terms of (economic) exchange value (i.e. material value). Effectually, each individual is to act in his/her own material self-interest in service to the economic system. Yes, we are to serve the system, it is not intended to serve humankind!
Accordingly, it requires people to structure their life according to its dictates and its material definition of success—keeping each forever running on the worker-consumer treadmill—in perpetual pursuit of getting and spending. As the U.S. President post-911 told the citizenry, go shopping! In so doing, we’ve been complicit in developing a society addicted to material gain—each individual ‘me’ seeking to get what he/she can in whatever way he/she can. It is not the means but the results that count.
Unavoidably, with success defined in terms of how much one has gained materially, capitalist society fosters admiration and respect of the wealthy and disdain and ridicule of the penniless. The system’s very continued existence rests upon people being intelligent animals in their individual material pursuits but remaining less of a human being—it’s all about me getting mine, a hunger game societal existence.
Many have offered fixes to growing inequality and the corresponding hell people are experiencing. However these fixes seem to ignore or gloss over the fact that capitalism unavoidably destroys human life because it is a system that is at base incompatible with humankind. This is not to argue that Adam Smith was wrong—in fact many of his arguments were right—it is that he wasn’t completely right. What he left out of his system was the existence of and concern for ‘We’—thus it is a system absent of morality. More to the point, the intent of the system he put forth is off the human-compatibility mark and thus injurious to humankind.
Capitalism is incompatible with humankind simply because it disregards the fact we are not independent individuals seeking to maximize our self-interest nor are we masters over Nature and we don’t inhabit a planet of unlimited material resources. Rather, Nature is in humankind and each individual is inherently deeply connected to every other individual—we are the stewards of Nature. As a result, we as a species require a healthy (to all life) environment be maintained and as individuals we each need ‘We’ to continue to be. Accordingly, capitalism is a system that inhibits each from being and becoming more of what we potentially are—developing more of our humanness in the process of our life.
The longer we adhere to the dictates of capitalism the less viable as a species we become. No amount of policy or legislation can or will make capitalism work for humankind.
Change of the system
A system supporting humankind—one that is humanly productive not merely materially productive—cannot emerge from a materialistic mechanistic worldview, as did Smith’s capitalism: A change in the system won’t do it! For example, those guided by this worldview and its economic system of capitalism, argue against what scientist tell us needs to be done to stem the effects of climate change saying “it will kill jobs” and “it will diminish growth.” In effect what they are saying is it will hurt the economy. If there is any doubt that the economy in capitalist society, with its associated addiction to material gain, is more important than your life, then these arguments—if not the outright denial of anthropogenic climate change—should be proof enough.
Though climate change and its effects on the sustainability of a life-supporting environment is most telling regarding capitalism’s destruction of the environment and deterioration of the viability of life, many of its exploitative business practices (e.g. fear-based management methods leveraging basic human deficit needs) have become so common place and thus normalized that people don’t even realize that the very development of their humanness is disallowed/denied.
It seems that we’ve been captured. What we’ve been conditioned to care about is being a performer and most of all avoiding being thought of as a non-performer. Here Adam Smith was correct with his notion of social passion, or fellow feeling, being an individual’s desire to gain the approval of others.
But in this capitalist society we are not fellow human beings, rather we are labor, employees and customers—we are commoditized. In short, we are nothing more than a source of, a means to another’s material gain. It is one thing to feel useful, yet another to be used! What we are doing to each other in structuring life within this system is just awful!
Given that we are to become more of what we potentially are in the process of living life—not merely compete against one another to get more stuff—this is cruel if not a crime against humanity. It keeps us from realizing the all-important ‘We’ that each of us needs, the very thing that is anathema to the adherents of capitalism.
A change of the system is what is (urgently) needed. The change we need requires foundational change to a living systems worldview that can inform an altogether different system with a radically different intent, one that supports the development humankind and correspondingly the sustainability of the environment. We can no longer live within a system that commoditizes and exploits people and Nature. Inevitably, all winners will be losers in its’ hunger games.
Gregory, thank you for writing these posts about our twisted political economy.
I don’t see how avoiding a “materialistic mechanistic” understanding of the world helps anything. The alternative to that is metaphysics, is it not? Sure, let’s avoid older simplistic ideas, but the “living systems” view you refer to in your older post is just a refinement of understanding the material mechanisms of life. The core problem is the rampant egoism, which is independent of that.