There are many interesting and valid observations of this oft scorned and at times celebrated thing called capitalism.
Of course what capitalism means to someone living in Venezuela; a country still in the grips of hyperinflation, is probably very different to that of a person living in Singapore; the country that boasts the world’s freest economy according to the Heritage 2020 Index of Economic Freedom.
Capitalism’s proponents are quick to point out such quality of life upgrades like how the median household income in the United States by 2017 had risen 50.1 percent from the 1967–1970 average.
Its opponents might then retort that despite this incredible growth we still inhabit a world where nearly a third of all American households have less than $1000 in savings, or wag an indignant finger at the ever increasing gap between the richest 1% (that own nearly half of the entire planet’s wealth) and the rest of us, pointing out that these little tidbits are not exactly indicators of a fair and just society:
The point of this back and forth is not to tout one side over the other but rather to phrase this conversation from a more humanitarian perspective, because back in the real world how an individual feels towards or about capitalism probably has more to do with whether or not they can afford to put food on the table (or go on holiday) rather than the technical and foundational economic principles capitalism is built upon.
Debating one side over the other is something we get to do from a place of privilege, not necessity, and we would all do well to remember that.
At the end of the day we want to be healthy and we want our kids to feel safe and be healthy too, everything else — especially during these uncertain times — is at best a welcome distraction and at worst unbearable background noise.
So rather than toe some binary line of argumentation that falls neatly into either a pro or anti capitalism category I will instead dive head first into a somewhat greyer zone — one that many a contemporary philosopher (early Wittgenstein especially) would likely chastise me for — since I will here present some moral claims and argue, preposterously, that it even makes sense to talk about them.
I only hope that you find this to be a welcome distraction and not unbearable philosophical claptrap.
One of the strongest, most persistent moral ideas underpinning our attitude towards consumption in any nation that divides wealth between individuals unevenly — that is, any nation that characterizes certain jobs and roles as more or less worthy of more or less income — is that being able to afford something is the same as having a right to it.
This is the fundamental flaw of capitalism: the idea that because you can afford to do something, you therefore have a right to do it. Whether it’s jumping out of a plane or flying in one you privately own, doing something questionable (albeit legal) is often justified by the deceptively simple premise that the person doing the thing can afford it — ultimately, it is their choice, with money being the deciding factor.
That justification is thus undeniably both economical and moral in nature: what does being able to afford something even mean? And how and in what ways does being able to afford something give us reason to act?
This attitude is particularly visible through certain crisis behaviors that come about in response to something like the corona virus, where us Aussies (and many people from all over the world) are dealing with a toilet paper famine entirely of our own making.
Telling someone that they shouldn’t hoard toilet paper and sanitary goods because it creates an artificial shortage that could disrupt supplies going to, say, overworked nurses and doctors, or indeed essential service personnel like the truck drivers bringing us our food, falls flat in the face of the diligent capitalist’s agenda:
You can’t tell me not to buy toilet paper, I have a right to buy as much as I can afford, and it’s not my fault if you were too slow.
As striking as that statement may sound to some of us it does in fact go to the heart of capitalism for it reflects two of the four essential principles on which capitalism is founded: the economic and the moral — at least according to Aristotle and Adam Smith’s nefarious love child; staunch defender of capitalism Ayn Rand.
The guiding economic principle of capitalism is the protection and promotion of a free market and/or free enterprise. It is the idea that it is the market that should determine prices, products, and services rather than the government and as such people and businesses should operate and go about their day-to-day consumption with minimal government intervention (more on this later).
The guiding moral principle is one of rational self interest: a normative view of egoism in which an action “…is rational if and only if it maximizes one’s self-interest” that we have Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith to thank for.
Smith is perhaps the most influential figure in terms of modern economic theory and is sometimes referred to as the Father of Capitalism or Father of Economics (never-mind his 14th century predecessor Ibn Khaldun).
But I digress. The above statement reflects the economic principle of free enterprise in that the “I have a right to buy as much as I can afford” part relies on this agent being totally free and unrestricted in their purchasing of a thing (in this case toilet paper).
The moral part is implied for it is in this person’s interest to have a large supply of toilet paper and buy as much as possible. In a broader economic sense Smith argues that this sort of competitive behavior between people and businesses promotes the overall wealth of a nation, an idea presented in his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations.
Whether we like it or not: anyone hoarding toilet paper and acting in their own self interest is abiding by the attitudinal norms borne out of capitalism. It is this very attitude and belief that we have a right to goods and services we can afford that, among other things, is contributing to the destruction of our planet: why catch a train from one European city to another if you can afford to fly?
After all, who in their right mind would try and limit your mobility and freedom to travel, especially when free enterprise is supposed to be guaranteed in part by minimal government intervention?
And therein lies the rub: by having a near unlimited, uncapped market as a guiding principle of society we end up creating and holding onto values that can have disastrous knock-on effects for the world and for humanity, especially in times when we need to act in the interest of our community, and not just ourselves.
While not every given member of a society assumes and accepts all the values that underpin said society — it would be both offensive and discriminatory for me to argue in support of such a sweeping generalization — there are a great many of us out there that behave and act this way.
The tragic part is not that these people are acting against or outside of societal norms, but in support of them.
Although capitalism aims at creating a fair and robust nation based on competition, it’s high time we recognized the importance regulating how and what sort of goods are available for purchase (and indeed how much of a thing can be purchased) in order to protect our planet and the people on it.
We need to let go of this fantasy that forms part of the mythology of what us Aussies call having a fair go and what many Americans refer to as the American Dream: a self flagellating and perpetually indiscriminate notion that money and working hard are somehow proportionally related to each other despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary.
The belief that being able to afford more or less of a thing is somehow indicative of moral character (“he worked harder, so it’s his right to have more”) is precisely what has normalized such severe individualism in the first place.
When we pit ourselves against each other like this it’s too easy to forget all that binds and bonds us: a longing and hope for a better, brighter future. The desire to love and be loved. A willingness and burning passion to see justice done. A dream of a world without famine and war.
But all is not lost.
One of the positive outcomes of this recession and pandemic is that we are seeing how adaptable people are to changing situations and circumstance.
We are witnessing beautiful acts of kindness tweeted out from all over the world as people try to stay positive and connected while still assuming social distancing measures.
While most of us are hopefully heeding the advice of the World Health Organization and staying indoors in order to combat the spread of Covid-19, those hit hardest in areas struggling to contain the outbreak, like Italy, are seeing some unlikely side effects from the cliff-edge tourism drop.
In the canals of La Serenissima the Guardian’s John Brunton reports that Nature is taking back Venice, with the normally murky, muddy waters exposing “…not just a clear view of the sandy bed, but shoals of tiny fish, scuttling crabs and multicoloured plant-life”.
Dolphins were spotted in a near unused port in Sardinia — a notion that before the outbreak was previously unthinkable in a city that in 2017 ranked third on the European podium of cities worst affected by over-tourism.
In a few short weeks since the outbreak, for the first time in decades, the waters of Venice are clear as day — a side effect of not having commercial boats constantly kicking up the seabed .
The fundamental flaw of capitalism has perhaps finally been exposed for what it always has been: an ugly justification of affluence and it’s many perks no matter how great the cost is to the planet or to the bonds we should have in our communities.
Perhaps now we can finally accept that regulating how often people can travel, or how much wealth a single person is allowed to accumulate, or indeed how much toilet paper a single person or family can buy in the face of a crisis, trumps any notion of normative egoism.
It’s time we started acting in the interests of our community and our planet instead of rationalizing and justifying acting in the interest of ourselves and our oh-so-destructive egos.