Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Capitalism is an economic system structured upon the accumulation of capital in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit...

of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior

The question that has been occupying my feeble brain of late is quite simple: Is capitalism fundamentally immoral? If the answer is no, is it, then, moral? Perhaps it is amoral, existing outside of a universe that does not even recognize questions of morality? The answer to this question is not easy and would seem to depend upon what you believe human life and existence should be.

In a capitalistic society not only the means of production are privately owned but land also is privately owned. This means that only some members of any given population, those who have somehow acquired capital, have control over land and labor. But land is just another word for the environment, and labor is just another word for human behavior. Thus those with capital effectively control the environment, the means of production, and the behavior of others (labor). Is this private control, placing power over the environment and the behavior of individuals in the hands of merely a few wealthy capitalists moral? Is it, that is, “right” or “wrong,” and if so, how and why?

This is hardly the proper venue for a serious discussion of such a basic philosophical issue, but the beauty of a blog is that you can bring up any issue you wish. I would argue, at least for the sake of the argument, that capitalism is intrinsically immoral. Take first of all the contention that all men (and women) are created equal. This obviously cannot mean that everyone is absolutely equal to everyone else, some people are larger than others, some are much smarter than others, some are more highly motivated than others, some work harder than others, and so on. What saying all people are equal in a democracy means is simply they are (supposedly) politically equal, one person one vote. But clearly in a capitalistic society all people are not equal, not even remotely equal. If you have lots of money you have far more political clout than if you are poor. And now that the Supreme(ly) political Court has decided that corporations are really persons and can donate as much money as they wish the idea of political equality is absolute rubbish.

Take the argument that all people are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In a capitalistic society this is simply not the case. If health care, for example, is in the control of private insurance companies, and if not everyone can afford it, one is not realistically entitled to life, unless you can afford it. Similarly, if you are compelled to work as a wage slave, or even a white collar worker, and this requires roughly a third of your time (life), you are not, strictly speaking, at liberty. Nor can one argue very convincingly that you are entitled to the pursuit of happiness, depending upon your idea of happiness. Some workers may well be relatively happy but many “wage slaves” are not, and indeed, have little time for the pursuit of happiness. Then there is also the question of independence. How much independence does one have when constrained by the rulers of private property and the means of production?

In earlier and more pre-industrial human societies there was little or no concept of private property or private control of the means of production. Everyone was basically equal. Land (territory) was held by a clan or tribe, not by individuals. Individual clan or tribal members were free to use portions of the territory for their gardens as needed but these portions were not owned, nor could they be sold (a condition that did and even now still creates a great deal of trouble when these societies are confronted by Europeans who believe in private property). If there were chiefs or leaders these officials had no power to actually command the behavior of others. All people were basically capable of doing all the tasks that needed to be done, there was little specialization, and certainly no wage labor or profit involved. If there were ostentatious displays of produce during ritual occasions those who organized them gained prominence, became “men with a name,” or “house posts,” or “Big men,” but did not personally profit materially from their activities.

How different the world we currently live in, where wealthy people and corporations control the behavior of millions and also control the use of land, water, health care, labor (behavior), and the control of the political system. How we evolved into this current situation is fairly well known from the historical record and we need not consider it here. But the basic fact is, or at least seems to me, that capitalism is fundamentally (and ironically) in direct opposition to those values we claim to hold so dear, equality, freedom, independence, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

You could, of course, have a quasi-capitalistic situation in which all the participants share equitably in the proceeds from their labor. Notice that I said equitably, not equally. Take the case, for example, of a supermarket owned by the employees, where everyone who works is entitled to a share in the profits. Those with the greatest responsibility, and the greatest managerial or other vital skills benefit somewhat more than others, but not in the ratio of, say, 250 to one, or even more outrageous. Such businesses do exist, the employee/owners are much happier and secure, but, alas, such businesses are unusual and no doubt would be considered by true capitalists as rotten, filthy, disgusting examples of (horrors) socialism.

Capitalism, as we currently experience it here in the U.S., makes profits solely from the (usually shameless) exploitation of workers or the exploitation of the environment, or both. It cannibalizes the behavior of others and tends to destroy the environment, if not the planet itself, and is, I believe, not only intrinsically immoral but also contrary to our own stated values. I realize there are others who have said this far more eloquently than I have, but who is listening?

No comments: