Capitalism is a fundamentally flawed system and thus the effects from practice can’t help but be harmful to people. The flaw lies primarily with its intention in relation to humanity and Nature, if not life, itself. An article by Lynn Parramore offers a summary of Christian theology’s influence on eighteenth century economic thought highlights such notions as the import of individualism and competition, self-interest behavior making for greater economic good, private property ownership and the underlying notion that money-making is the pathway to heaven and accordingly, to sin is failing to maximize one’s personal gain.
So it makes sense where the self-reliant type of assertions about the poor likely come from such as, they need to pull themselves up by their own boot straps, or it is the result of their laziness, or the poor are unworthy. And about the rich, well they are rich because of hard work.
Adam Smith was influenced by those he closely associated with (e.g. theologians and philosophers of his time) as well as his religious upbringing. Thus, we can understand the origin of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ in his economic system. Smith assumes a foundational premise that individuals seeking to maximize material self-interest serves the greater good (almost magically as an unintended consequence). This is also related to the seemingly all-powerful role of ‘the market’ as the one thing that will make the needed adjustments.
In a system wherein what’s-in-it-for-me is the guide, concern for the common good, the We, is given no place in capitalism: Essentially, it is Me against We— this cannot foster morality or ethical behavior. So, in the context of human society in Nature, wherein interdependence is a foundational characteristic, how could acting in our material self-interest as if we are independent of each other and Nature not lead to harm for all?
The system of capitalism is not broken! It is working as intended and thus causing us to do precisely what it requires!
Economy as a Machine
Further, the development path in the field of political economy from its beginning in (theological) philosophy likely was influenced by Newton’s discovery. That is, the findings and laws of physics arising from Newton’s work on the movement of planets was likely thought to be the holy grail for economist to do the same for economics. Consequently, the economic thought influenced by Christian theological understandings was developed as a mechanistic quantitative science wherein laws regarding the aims of self-interest and wealth accumulation were sought, hypothesized and advanced through models as if they were inherent or immutable laws of human nature. Necessarily, capitalist society is structured with people cast as primarily, if not solely, as self-interest seeking beings—the cogs in society’s wealth producing machine wherein capital employs labor. Yet, to date, few if any economic models prove all that predictive of the greater good being realized.
So what is “our interest” as persons? Apart from what I assume is the shared interest of continuing to exist/live, we each have interests that emerge from the context/culture within which we develop as persons—a culturally manufactured interest, what society requires. On this latter point, capitalistic society requires us to believe that our interest is material self-interest; thus ensuring people believe themselves to be independent individuals competing for their very own self-benefit. Likely in an effort to be accepted in capitalist society, we conform and unknowingly cooperate in making our world a dog-eat-dog world.
If we fully grasp the notion that behavior is context-based, then we could understand that our choices of how to live as persons in a society are greatly influenced by what the values and norms that society tacitly advocates and enables. That is to say, people are far less likely to come to understand their humanness and the commonality in their shared humanity when living in a society/culture with a mechanistic materialistic self-interest-based system of orientation such as capitalism—individualism predominates.
The fact that we live in such a context and behave in self-interested ways is not confirming evidence of the validity of this premise but rather evidence of our adaptation to the societal requirements in which we live (or is it operant conditioning, where our very human need to be accepted, to fit in is leveraged?). Accordingly we are tacitly taught that if we work hard—providing our labor—we will realize capitalism’s promise of wealth. Of course capitalism does create wealth, but only for a few. It is like a loaded die or a slot machine, where the chance of winning is stacked against us.
The pursuit of wealth accumulation has led us to become a profit seeking society and, inevitably a life destroying society. With profit as the basis and measure of rightness of decisions, the vast majority of decisions by those in authority—captains of business/industry and elected officials–who impact the lives of so many people are so guide. Accordingly, inner-value as persons do not matter, but rather people’s service to things of outer-value/material value is all that matters! Essentially casting people as instruments for use to this end. It is a system requiring subservience of labor/people to capital/things. That is to say, what happens to people is of less importance than what happens to profit.
How many among the business-minded advance ideas for tweaking or fixing the system and how many are challenging the very aim of the capitalist system? Doing the latter essentially acknowledges events emerge from the system requiring a change of the system and not merely a change in the system. We desperately need the latter, not the former!
Changing the Intent Changes the System
A system is determined by its intent. Capitalism’s intent is (private) profit and wealth accumulation. Given the escalated commitment—a.k.a. addiction—to profit and its maximization, we likely can’t expect those in authority currently benefiting from this system to change it. This would take moral strength, courage, and a deep realization/understanding of our shared humanity—a rarity!
Consider this: If I don’t know about the ill-effects of an action then what happens as a result of taking that action can be cast as a mistake or an unintentional accident. However, if I know the ill-effects of my decision to act and I choose to act (anyway) then what happens is no longer an unintentional accident but willfully harmful behavior. By extension, what may have been a mistake in the actions taken in the 18th (or even the 19th) century, is today willfully harmful behavior. Think: Tobacco industry and lung cancer; Oil industry and climate change; Agribusiness industry (not farmers) and destruction of healthy environment/biodiversity; Health Insurance industry with health services restricted or denied. It sure seems as though capitalism opposes life in advocating for the primacy of profit. If you doubt this, just from the above short list (to which more can be added) there was/is an unwillingness, if not resistance, for what is unmistakably needed life-saving action by the captains of these industries! Today the captains of industry don’t/won’t acknowledge the willfully harmful actions—which is tantamount to saying, look how much profit has been made, it can’t be wrong!
As we, especially those in authority, continue to adhere to the requirements of capitalism in structuring life in society, we become complicit in its life destructive ways. Destructive to the environment we are so inextricably dependent upon and destructive to the human spirit we share—this complicity is tantamount to suicide.
To change the way the business is conducted requires unlearning and learning followed by a re-thinking of the intent of the business. Doing so would be a conscious choice and one of moral strength and courage—you could call it authentic leadership. Not doing so would be submitting to habits of thought and allowing the past to overtake the future, in light of what is now known about our dynamic interdependencies in life on this planet.
Let’s just give this a little critical thought: Given what we know today about our dynamic interdependence with each other and Nature on this finite planet, with its very specific habitable requirements, what is the likelihood that the capitalist system would be conceptualized and embraced by people as the organizing system for a viable and joyful life in society on this planet?
As human beings we share the very same fundamental needs/interests–that of the will to live and to realize our human potential, which involves learning how to cooperate and co-exist with all that is alive? Isn’t this needed learning fundamental to us toward being and becoming more of what we are, rather than to accumulate and have more—be more, not have more? That is, to continue in our existence as persons and to become more of what we potentially are as persons—to fully manifest our better qualities for the benefit of all—and not simply to acquire more stuff! Shouldn’t this be the aim of a system of economics in service to a society of people, rather than wealth accumulation which can be realized only by a few? Shouldn’t there be inner-value realized through our work? Shouldn’t we be enabled to develop and derive joy from our work and not just get a paycheck?