Earlier I suggested that Michael Moore was right when he declared Capitalism “evil,” and I said it wasn’t a controversial conclusion. I discussed four book-length authorities devoted to the subject. My concern was that if we were unable to identify, or unwilling to denounce, Capitalism’s intrinsic evils, we would have a difficult time setting things right. If we don’t understand the problem, we can’t find a solution.
Nearly half of the polled Kossacks thought Capitalism might not be evil.
I promised in the comments to the DailyKos cross-post to take on the opposing arguments in conscientious detail. With this diary I fulfill that promise. If you think Capitalism might be OK, follow me below the fold…
Just to summarize the arguments, in case you do not want to go back to the beginning, the four commentators asserted roughly as follows:
Michael Albert: Capitalism’s methods and outcomes are intrinsically destructive of people and institutions.
Joel Kovel: Capitalism inevitably will result in the destruction of our environment, nature generally, and eventually much of the life on the planet.
Bowles & Gintis: Capitalism undermines Democracy and makes people incapable of governing themselves.
Michael Moore: Capitalism exacts an intolerable and unnecessary toll on people’s lives, and is inconsistent with our most basic values.
Those unwilling to denounce Capitalism made these arguments (which I paraphrase for brevity):
1. Calling Things Evil is ITSELF Evil.
2. Systems Can’t Be Evil; Only People Can Be Evil.
3. Without Capitalism we wouldn’t have the Internet, so stop complaining.
4. Michael Moore got rich off his movie, so how can he complain about Capitalism?
5. Capitalism Can’t Be “Evil” If All the Alternatives Are Worse.
6. Rejecting Capitalism Means Embracing Tyranny.
7. Arguments for Alternative Systems Have Been Debunked.
8. Why Should We Discuss This Without Knowing What the Alternatives Are?
9. You Haven’t Defined “Capitalism” or “Evil” So How Can We Say?
This is a lot to discuss, so I would encourage you to skim down to whichever challenges you think might hit their mark.
1. Calling Things Evil is ITSELF Evil. The Bush administration misused and overused the word “evil,” draining the word of both meaning and force. Although we should reserve the most harsh moral epithet for people and institutions that intentionally, knowingly, willfully cause harm that is severe and unnecessary, make no mistake that this does occur in the real world, and we need to call it what it is when it happens, so that we may summon all our strength in the case of torture, genocide, and other monstrosities. Let’s argue about whether Capitalism meets the definition, but let’s not be moral relativists and stand idly in the face of unspeakable horrors, unwilling even to judge.
2. Systems Can’t Be Evil; Only People Can Be Evil. At a superficial level, this argument is wrong for the same reasons that we deride the NRA’s lame defense, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Totalitarianism and Apartheid are examples of systems that cannot be justly administered, even by people of good will. But at a deeper level, the great insight in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “The Banality of Evil,” which considered Eichmann’s Nuremberg defense that he was “just following orders,” was that we do not properly think of “evil” as occurring only when it is effected by a nefarious villain. Instead, we should understand the more complex sociology of people and their roles in organizations. The holocaust was executed not by fanatics, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state, and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. If Capitalism drives or arranges for people to do evil, then let Capitalism share the blame.
3. Without Capitalism we wouldn’t have the Internet, so stop complaining. Capitalism’s publicists claim that Capitalism is the greatest driver of innovation. The evidence is otherwise. The fact that the Soviet Union launched the first satellite could just end that discussion. But deeper still, if you look at the great innovations of Western Civilization, you’ll see an explosion of extraordinary developments in ancient Greece and Rome without any help from Capitalism, and within the United States, Capitalism gets a breathtaking amount of help from government research and government-funded research (including the development of the Internet, ironically), as well as from inventors in large corporations and universities who do not get to keep the profits. So whatever mixed motives great inventors have — paychecks, glory, or just to solve an interesting or important problem — in most cases, it is not Capitalism that is in fact driving most innovation, and it certainly does not HAVE to be capitalism. Similar funding for R&D could be achieved through communist, socialist, public, or non-profit structures.
4. Michael Moore got rich off his movie, so how can he complain about Capitalism? This is fundamentally an ad hominem argument — whether Michael Moore is a hypocrite does not answer his argument. But Michael Moore is not a hypocrite. Participants in a system are often best situated to provide a convincing critique. When a corporate executive (like me) says that Capitalism is evil, that might actually carry more weight than when uttered by a dirty fucking hippie, because I am fully versed in how it’s supposed to work, and how it does in fact work. But most of all, Michael Moore is IN a capitalist system, and we all have to eat. He has every right to use Capitalism to spread a message that we would all be better off — including Michael Moore himself — with a different system. If we require require our great thinkers to impoverish themselves and leave the United States in order to speak out for a better system, we will be worse off, and we’ll be less likely to ever realize that better system.
5. Capitalism Can’t Be “Evil” If All the Alternatives Are Worse. There are two parts to this challenge — first, an assumption that all the alternatives are worse, and second, an illogical suggestion that if all your options are evil, then the least-evil choice is not evil. The assumption that there are no alternatives bears some attention. It came up repeatedly in the comments in a misquote or “paraphrase” of Winston Churchill. What Churchill said was, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the other forms that have been tried.” Even Churchill in this quote conceded the possibility of alternatives. However, the much deeper flaw is that Churchill wasn’t talking about Capitalism. The implicit error — that Capitalism and Democracy are synonymous, or that Capitalism is an expression of Democracy in the economic realm, or that at least Capitalism and Democracy are mutually reinforcing in some respect — is one of the most dangerous in this entire discussion. In fact, I argue that Capitalism does not express democracy, but is directly opposed to democracy in the economic sphere, and undermines democracy in the political sphere. In sum, it is a fair question to ask what the alternatives are, but whether Capitalism is evil does not hang on the answer, and the assumption that there are no viable or superior alternatives warrants close examination. At the very least, we cannot glibly commit ourselves to administering a system that might be evil by misquoting Winston Churchill.
6. Rejecting Capitalism Means Embracing Tyranny. In grade school I was taught that there were three forms of government — Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism, corresponding directly to government involvement in the economy: low, medium, and high. In reality, economic and political systems are much more complex than this one-dimensional formulation suggests. Modern corporations, for example, are essentially hierarchically structured centrally controlled bureaucracies — mini-authoritarian regimes. A contrasting structure — the worker-owned cooperative can compete within the same economy. Thus, declaring a system “Capitalist” or “Socialist” does not answer the question of Tyranny either way. Similarly, a Socialist economy might accommodate democratic political or economic structures — or not. And a Capitalist economy might support tyrannical fascist political structures. In sum, it is simply not true that rejecting capitalism means embracing tyranny, nor that embracing capitalism means rejecting tyranny. Instead, we need to evaluate each proposed structure for the amount of political freedom and economic liberty provided, and whether the system provides enough internal controls on concentrations of power to ensure that it does not eventually become dominated by non-democratic forces.
7. Arguments for Alternative Systems Have Been Debunked. The failure of any particular instance of economic democracy does not disprove the possibility of a successful implementation. But I think this criticism ignores the thriving ecosystem of collectives and cooperatives, as well as government and non-profit organizations that achieve important missions effectively and efficiently, around the world. Also, it is worth noting that Capitalism doesn’t much care for successful alternatives, and frequently takes steps to crush or purchase emerging structures, or even entire countries, that might demonstrate an attractive alternative. In other words, the failure of other options to flourish might prove that nothing else is viable, but might just as easily evidence additional evil effects of Capitalism. But the best critique would be to consider whether there is anything intrinsic to human nature that prevents us from coming together into stable, mutually beneficial associations without the profit motive. The many demonstrations of this fact now and through history, and around the world, as well as the fact that most laborers today are not Capitalists, and do good work for a fair wage and occasional glory, and not for profit, show that Capitalism is not the only way to successfully motivate people or organize production.
8. Why Should We Discuss This Without Knowing What the Alternatives Are? I do think it is important to consider the alternatives to Capitalism, or else the expose would be purely academic, not to mention depressing. I think that properly understanding Capitalism will inspire a serious search for and consideration of alternatives. It might be equally true that people would be more willing to consider face-on the evils of Capitalism if they first saw the viability of a better system. But it is a logical error to require that either inquiry be prior to the other.
9. You Haven’t Defined “Capitalism” or “Evil” So How Can We Say? This criticism was lodged in a thoughtful comment over at Pfuggee Camp. The general thrust, I take it, is that not all negative side-effects should be characterized as evil, and some elements of capitalism might be legitimate, even if some implementations of capitalism result in evil. A specific example proposed was small-scale entrepreneurship, such as at Farmers’ Markets.
Because I am challenging Capitalism with a very broad brush, my conclusion does not hinge on any fine distinctions in the words. I assert that Capitalism is Evil for any standard definition of Capitalism, and any standard definition of Evil. In fact, I would challenge any commenter to propose a definition of “evil” that Capitalism does not satisfy, given the arguments I summarized in the original essay.
However, I am not trying to dodge the question, so I will repeat here my own definitions of “Evil” and “Capitalism,” the first of which I also included in the comments to the original essay. I think that “Evil” is “intentionally, knowingly, and unnecessarily causing grievious harm to others, repeatedly, for personal benefit, or no net benefit at all.” Capitalism does that. As for what IS Capitalism, I would describe it as “an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned, and the profits from economic enterprise are distributed to the owners.”
The nexus between these two definitions is that if a propertied group gets to determine the economic conditions of an unpropertied group for the benefit of the propertied group, the stated harm to others will inevitably occur — does, in fact, always occur. It is not just an empirical fact — the whole point of vesting power in one group over another group is to create unaccountable social power. Because “production” in this example means the economic livelihood of people and communities, it is by definition social decision-making without social accountability, and that is the essence of Capitalism. To allow communities to determine their own economic arrangements would be economic democracy (community determines investment), which is the opposite of capitalism (private propertied owners determine investment).
Farmers’ Markets are good, but they don’t prove the efficacy of Capitalism; they prove the efficacy of local markets. Farming exists in all kinds of economic systems, and markets do, too. The tendency to confuse and interchange concepts like Capitalism, Banking, Markets, Democracy, and Freedom is a big problem. We are basically taught in a very fuzzy way that these are synonymous, when in fact they may be mutually reinforcing or mutually exclusive. In subsequent essays we will examine each component of the political economy of the United States to to more clearly understand whether Capitalism creates Markets or undermines them, and whether Banking creates Freedom, or is more dangerous than a standing army, as Thomas Jefferson suggested.
If we correctly understand that Capitalism is Evil, then we will have both a yardstick to measure the incremental improvements achieved by alternate systems, and a fierce determination to effect real change.