Saturday, June 22, 2013

Capitalism, the source of all evil?

I read a lot of pretty hardcore left leaning blogs and articles online.  While I generally believe very much in the sorts of things lefties believe in I have some real issues with some of the things they say with regards to capitalism.  Never will I deny that our current global monetary situation has big problems; it does.  That said, there simply isn't any use in ranting about capitalism being evil as a whole.  For one, it isn't going anywhere.  For two, if it did go somewhere, what next?  I was talking with Rat Lady about this and her comment summed it up for me quite nicely.  "Sure, capitalism has all kinds of problems... but what exactly are you proposing to replace it with?"

It is fun and all to rant and shout about the whole system being corrupt.  That is easy and simple because you can bring up any injustice or problem at all and claim everything is hopeless and ruined on that basis.  It is fun, but it isn't *useful*.  Our society would undoubtedly be better if we did things differently like getting the money out of politics, taxing capital gains like normal income, introducing punitive estate taxes, and increasing government controls on corporate power and excess.  These would all help reduce inequality and improve things for the majority though clearly it isn't a comprehensive list.  The thing we aren't going to do and shouldn't do is completely tear down the very system of exchanging goods and services using currency.

Occasionally people talk about what we could do instead of capitalism but they inevitably end up with either pie in the sky dreams that crumble instantly on contact with actual people or systems that work for a village of one hundred inhabitants and no more.  We have a big world and the people in it want all kinds of incredibly complex things that require enormous systems to deliver.  Your cell phone does not appear out of thin air and neither the physical object, the software that runs on it, nor the phone and satellite system that makes it all work can be created on a small scale.  To have the things we have we need a global system of exchange and such a system is only sustainable under capitalism.

So by all means let us talk about how we can make the world a better place by curbing the exploits of some particular actors in the world economy.  Let us make major efforts to fix the issues we have including but not limited to inequality, abuse of the environment, and warping of politics.  However, while we do that we should not waste our time in pointless hyperbole or uninformed ranting; there are problems and there are solutions but they are complex and do not involve flipping the table and storming off.  They involve learning, work, and grinding out small changes one at a time.


  1. The problem here is it is also easy to rant and shout about people not having workable alternatives and working towards them when there are people working on these challenges. You make a point about requiring workable alternatives, but have you actually looked into what alternative economists and activists who work in this area say? Seems there is a lot of talk about different types of economic organization both theoretical and comparative. Perhaps looking at M. Albert and E. Miller for a start, worker cooperatives, urban food economy. Problem is understanding alternative economies is a lot of work in itself. I doubt any modern economic system can work without currency. I doubt most people working in this area would say we could get rid of currency - except, perhaps in a further, speculative projection. Perhaps you are confusing capitalism with the use of money to exchange things? This needs more definition, without it you are setting up a straw man.
    No argument that many goods and services require large systems to deliver, but even these large systems are usually made of smaller parts, the complexity is how these smaller parts interact to make the large system. That large systems of exchange are only possible under capitalism is simply assumed here. Concerning the global system of market exchange, Polanyi might be an interesting (non-Marxist) read. Why does fruitful global exchange require a system of competitive markets? How did this idea come about? And if you mean to talk about workable systems, the sustainability of these large systems under capitalism is questionable. While capital still delivers the goods evidence suggests that the strains it puts on social and environmental systems are ultimately unsustainable. Capital has to be accumulated, commodities produced, labour exchanged for wages. People are now living in a non-working, unsustainable economy. Why play the game whose rules are, ultimately, fixed for failure. Isn't the real game finding workable alternatives? Seems that giving up on this is slinking away from the challenge of making a better game.

  2. Capitalism as we know it today hasn't been in place forever. Hundreds of years ago in English common law there were two kinds of ownership rights. One was the right to use the other was the right to exclude others from using. Capitalism as we use it today was forced in by a merchant class to enrich themselves, and it basically forgets about the right to use and allows only the right to exclude others from use.

    But even now in contemporary Canada we have a concept of the old right-to-use in some of our relationships with aboriginal people. There are large areas of land where the agreement is basically that aboriginal people do not have exclusive rights but they have a right to engage in traditional hunting/fishing/foraging. When someone wants to build a mine on these lands they have to consult with groups that use them to see how it will affect them.

    Of course we think of that concept of ownership as bogus, and we treat aboriginal people with those rights accordingly. But they are just a legitimate.

    Presumably we can't just overturn the entire system by which we define property rights overnight, but when there is a revolution and people start murdering politicians and bankers (it's inevitably going to happen some day) it won't hurt to have people think in advance about how we might do things differently.

    I used to hate capitalism, then I thought that in reality it was the only system that worked, and now I've come around and realized that it is outright nonsense. The only thing that free markets are good at is consolidating wealth in the hands of the few. "Market forces" is just a word for evolution, which for billions of years produced a world with universally terrible living conditions for all. Writing comes along and in less than ten thousand years we are on the moon. We aren't paying royalties to the writing guy.

  3. I agree that free markets and evolution have a lot in common. One thing they have in common is that there is no end goal and certainly no trend towards doing good. They tend to reward success with size whether that size be a larger number of individuals of a species or more money for a person. I do not venerate free markets and I very much recognize these problems with them.

    That said I don't see how a system of rights that includes the right to use is a deep change for capitalism. We have this now - I have the right to use the street but not the right to prevent others from using it. Certainly when systems of ownership came into conflict in the past it was disastrous and we are still living with that disaster today. See - Natives.

    Our system could use some big changes but although people make suggestions about small scale systems that avoid the use of currency and internal capitalism I haven't seen anything that remotely resembles a working replacement. Talking about how we could change the way we do things to improve results is a very useful exercise; I don't debate that. However, saying that capitalism has ruined everything and needs to go is absurd until we have something, anything, that could replace it. We don't have that despite many heroic attempts. Doesn't mean nobody will ever come up with something but we sure don't have it now.