Monday 27 June 2022

The Rules of Capitalism

by Allister J. Marran

The philosophical theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, ‘The fundamental virtues in the ethics of a capitalist society are economic efficiency, developed to the utmost degree of ruthless activity.’

The rules of capitalism put profit over everything else. Everything else. Nothing is sacred or taboo.

It is a complex man-made set of rules, it does not exist in nature, and requires its servants to ignore common sense and its obvious dangers and pitfalls.

It is a giant pyramid scheme of investors and producers at the top, and consumers down below, that requires the base to constantly grow, which is why we now have eight billion plus people on a planet that has very limited resources. It demands infinite growth cycles when raw materials are in short and finite supply.

To ensure its ongoing sustainability, we have constantly to create hype about new products that nobody wanted or asked for in order to make another sale, with built in obsolescence so that we can sell a new model again tomorrow.

Marketing costs for products and services often far exceed R&D and cost-of-production budgets, in order to convince you to fill your house to a large degree with, call it ‘trinkets’, ‘junk’.

The over-mining, over-fishing, over-production, and mass pollution is not sustainable. That's simply a fact.

While every scientist on earth is predicting doom and gloom for future generations, the economist disagrees, and tells us to put out heads in the sand, and ignore the signs. Keep calm and keep spending.

There is another thing. In its appetite to compete, capitalist economics has now become the science of scarcity.  In order to compete, we need to optimize—and optimize everything we possibly can. We strive for less wastage, smaller margins of error, faster turnover.

This means that we sail ever closer to the wind. Let one thing go wrong—a computer hack, a bacterial contamination, a military invasion in a faraway place—and millions of people’s livelihoods and even lives may be imperilled.

As capitalism multiplies the dangers, so it multiplies our vulnerability.

This generation, our generation, the ones who were told by the scientists and experts to just look around and heed the obvious warnings, will be known as the idiots who could have stopped it but chose greed over life, profit over common sense.

We have no water where I live, because the rains haven't come for nearly 10 years. The world is cooling where it's hot, and heating up where it's cold. Smog sits over the cities, and poison infects our water sources. Landfills are full, and growing fuller every day. Our oceans are being fished to extinction, and good farming land is being paved over and cleared for urban development and new roads and highways.

Having stuff, and being able to read and write, and exploit a man-made system, does not make a person smart. If people can't see beyond their basic, immediate, satiating needs and zoom out to see the bigger picture of an exhausted ecosystem with resources heading to zero, and the only world we will ever have struggling to cope, then perhaps we were never that smart or evolved in the first place.

We do not have a divine right to rule this planet. We are just the next animal to over-evolve and get to the top of the food chain. It's an awesome responsibility which sees us on a perilous perch which can be toppled if we do not proceed with caution and humility.

Just ask the previous mantle holders, those fearsome and magnificent dinosaurs, how tenuous that grip on the top dog spot is.

We can’t ask them, of course. They are extinct.


Keith said...

I differ from Paul Tillich’s take on capitalism, whom you quote as saying: “The fundamental virtues in the ethics of a capitalist society are economic efficiency, developed to the utmost degree of ruthless activity’. Tillich’s comment strikes me as hyperbolic, gratuitously demonizing capitalism.

For millennia, nearly everyone lived in abject poverty. To expropriate Thomas Hobbes’s famous, borderline-clichéd phrase, life was pervasively ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. The lives of people living in one century greatly resembled people’s lives in the previous century and the following century.

Then capitalism as a model of economic growth and industrialization entered the picture, increasingly supercharged by science, technology, and ultimately globalization. During that time, advances in the quality of people’s lives — improved longevity, health, properties, food security, literacy, infant mortality, shelter, buying power, and access to products and services, among other benefits — accelerated exponentially.

I see the ‘fundamental virtues in the ethics of a capitalist society’ being in aiming for equality of opportunity, rather than ‘ruthlessness’ or the ‘multiplication of dangers … and vulnerability’. Capitalism’s economic dynamism balanced by the rod of regulation and the velvet glove of welfarism, with vigilance to get the balance more and more right. I wonder if alternative economic models, on large scales, have historically gotten it significantly righter.

Andrew Porter said...

The desired 'caution and humility' you mention are the opposite of what capitalism possesses. We are in an era that cannot afford exploitation of people and resources, yet exploitation is capitalism's bread and butter. The overriding value the world faces is ecological integrity, and whatever economic system or lack of system fits and supports that is the only viable way ahead. Humankind has always been destructive, but now a new economic paradigm is essential: one that is full of caution and humility. My hope is that people will be at least open to clearly considering alternatives, such as the tenets of human ecology, before our species is completely and rightly considered a bust.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

If we do not have the divine right to rule nature, do we have the divine right to manage nature? Or are we incapable of that?

Would you distinguish between poverty and subsistence? See a poem on Pi, written by a bishop, titled ‘Improverished’.

Assuming that longevity is to be desired, is it not the result of accumulated experience? Do we need to outgrow the kind of (static) culture which lives in harmony with nature, in order to die 'full of years'? The accumulated experience of such societies, if it was not disrupted, led to long lifespans. See, for example,

I am not optimistic. I believe we have not yet recognised the central problem. The problem, in my view, is our application of closed systems in an open or global system, if one can call that a system at all. We still have too much pride in the accomplishments of closed systems, above all science.

Martin Cohen said...

My reaction was very similar to Keith's to this post. I just thought why start off with a tendentious statement? "‘The fundamental virtues in the ethics of a capitalist society are economic efficiency". The criticism of capitalism is that it is not efficient! The thing ti is efficient at, I suppose, is matching producers to demand. The converse was the old Soviet model where a wise bureaucracy decided what people needed and allocated resources. We now know that capitalism does a better job in this sense.

What Allister really seems to warning about is that capitalism has no self-control: it will turn the Earth to dust in a generation, if there is money to be made doing that. "For example" Western corporations selling nuclear reactors to developing economies…

Future generations have no buying power… Yet nor do they really have any say on public policy. It is only today's actors who have any power.

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