There’s an ugly secret hiding in the dark heart of capitalism… and it’s us.
“Capitalism is dead.”
You might not have noticed. I hadn’t. Last time I looked it was still doing yoga-lates in the park.
But that’s the word on the street. Capitalism is dead. Now we’re just waiting for everyone to catch on.
Personally, I’m going to miss capitalism. He was always good for a laugh. And his tireless charity work went largely un-noticed. Sure, he ate a few babies in his time, but you can’t judge the older generations by the standards of today.
But walk down Brunswick street, and there are lines of hipsters with shovels, just looking for somewhere to dig capitalism’s grave.
(Finally the whole long beard / lumberjack jacket thing makes sense. They were just itching to get into a bit of physical labour.)
And this is Naomi Klein’s thesis. Capitalism may have worked wonders, but it’s destroying the planet and creating a massive schism between the 1% and the 99%. We’ve got droughts in California, obese kids in Australia, and more mobile phones than we have places to bury them.
And so now humanity faces a choice. It’s either capitalism or the planet. The free-market, or extinction.
But hang on to your shovels young hipsters. Let’s just wait a second. Is that really the choice we’re facing?
Now I don’t want to be a suffering denialist. I’m not out there saying everything’s perfect and reports of starving children in Africa are nothing but a UN-coordinated conspiracy.
Sure. The world’s F’d up. But it always has been. And it helps me sleep at night remembering that it’s a lot less F’d up than it used to be.
But there’s a logical pirouette there that says that the world is F’d up, therefore capitalism is the problem. My old mind doesn’t have the ankles for moves like that anymore.
Because there’s a test I like to call Giaan’s Rusty Razor. The Rusty Razor goes:
“The simplest solution is often that people are idiots.”
It’s an amazingly powerful idea. Many of the problems that have baffled philosophers through the centuries, simply come down to the fact that people are idiots.
Wars, famines, pop music – many of these things can be explained by garden-variety idiocy.
And so before we going pointing the finger at the abstract notion of ‘capitalism’, we need to rule out that the world isn’t F’d up simply because people are idiots.
And to me, it’s not clear that we can. Idiocy creates a lot of problems.
And I think the mistake here is to give a “system” too much agency. We tend to personify it. Capitalism is evil. Capitalism doesn’t value the planet. Capitalism secretly desires to sell your children into slavery and make you pay for doctors visits.
I see people do it with politics all the time. We complain that we have sound-byte politicians focused on short-term political cycles. But then we only pay attention to sound-bytes and have incredibly short memories, and no patience for long-term policies.
So our ‘leaders’ aren’t the problem here. We are.
“People will get the leaders they deserve.”
And so when I hear people complaining about the “excesses of capitalism”, I really hear people complaining about other people.
Our t-shirts are made in Asian sweat-shops because we don’t care where they’re made. We only care about price. Our corporations pollute the environment because the people running those corporations are greedy idiots… just like the rest of us. And we have a world that sifts the 1% from the 99% because we value the potential to get one-up on our neighbour more than we value equality.
We are idiots. Vain, selfish, jealous idiots.
Of course we can rise above our idiocy and into more refined expressions of humanity. But that takes work.
Oh, did I mention we’re lazy?
The way I see it, this is our fundamental nature. It doesn’t limit our potential to be awesome, but we also need to be realistic about what we’re working with.
And so when people are complaining about capitalism, it really seems to me that they’re complaining that capitalism hasn’t been able to contain the worst expressions of human nature.
And that might be true. But is it the role of an economic system to do that? If we’re writing up the job description for our economic system, are we saying:
Must be able to:
- Allocate resources relatively efficiently, provide for material improvements in the standard of living, eliminate famines; and
- Stop people from being greedy and selfish idiots, and help them live virtuous and fulfilling lives, full of volunteering and bake-sales.
I just don’t think it’s a reasonable thing to ask. Question 1 is incredibly difficult as it is, and we’ve been pretty lucky to stumble onto a system that’s gotten us this far, I reckon.
And number 2 is really a question about morality. And moral codes don’t come from economists. They definitely shouldn’t come from economists.
Morality comes from religion or philosophy.
And so when I look at the F’d up stuff going on in the world, I think these idiots need some morality. I don’t think they need a better economic system.
“It’s not his fault your honour. He was raised in a modern capitalist economy.”
If anything, capitalism is too effective. It seems like a problem because it’s awfully effective at helping greedy and selfish people express their greed and selfishness.
But the problem is with the people. It’s with us. And it’s about how we refine our expressions, and draw out our generosity, our charity and our caring natures.
But this requires taking a good look at our dark hearts. And it requires a fair amount of work.
And maybe that’s why nobody’s talking about it.
Much easier to shout angry slogans at abstract concepts.
Is capitalism the problem or is there something else that is stuffed?
Is greed good or have we lost our moral compass?