Monday, May 22, 2017

Capitalism and Human Nature

I dislike the tendency to blame "capitalism" for all the woes of the world because it seems to me that "capitalism", like "heteronormativity", "hierarchy", "patriarchy", "nationalism", and "elitism", is simply a word used to describe human nature, and that trying to change human nature is always a bad idea-- indeed, usually a wicked idea.

Now, I'm not particularly a cheerleader for capitalism. I'm not a partisan of the completely free market or laissez-faire. In fact, if we're going to respect the idea of human nature, then it makes more sense (to me) to accept that there has never been a free market and governments have always "interfered" in the economy. Anarcho-capitalism seems as utopian to me as communism.

I'm all for key industries being nationalised, and quite generous social welfare, and quite heavy regulation of commerce, and so forth. At least, I'm certainly not opposed to such things on principle. I think they have to be argued on a case-by-case basis.

But the idea that the system which exists in every developed country is somehow unnatural, and twisting human nature out of shape, just seems bizarre to me. If capitalism is so unnatural, why does it manifest itself again again, in Singapore and Japan as much as in America and the UK? Indeed, why are most "communist" countries increasingly capitalist? On the other hand, if we're going to play with language so that highly socialised economies like those of Scandinavia are no longer capitalism, then we've departed from the ordinary understanding of the term.

If the desired alternative to capitalism is the Distributist ideal of small farms, small business, etc., then this seems like a pipe dream to me. Indeed, Chesterton hailed Ireland as a successful example of a peasant economy, but this ceased to be the case quite a long time ago, and Ireland relied on emigration to keep this system working for a long time before that.

The Mondragorn Corporation in the Basque country is sometimes hailed as proof that worker-controlled industry can thrive. Well, I'm very pleased by the success of Mondragorn, but it's one corporation, and it exists in a capitalist economy--as Noam Chomsky whinges on its Wikipedia page.

Assuming the abolition of capitalism as the preliminary to achieving your social goals seems to me irresponsible, silly. It's like saying: "That's what I'll do when I win the lottery". Capitalism isn't going to be abolished. Give it up.

I wouldn't like to be misunderstood. I'm all in favour of dreamers and utopians. The world would be poorer without them. I think it adds to the pageantry of life to have tiny microparties who meet in a pub and plot the downfall of world capitalism. But it stops being funny when so many serious intellectuals and writers and film-makers and others participate in such talk.

Also, I'm not saying that economic reforms are impossible. I think economic reforms are inevitable. We'll always have capitalism, but I would like to see a more family-friendly and nation-friendly brand of capitalism. I would make the argument that the social teachings of the Church are aimed at this, rather than some "third way" between capitalism and socialism.

If you have a vision for society (as I think everybody should), I think the great test of it is: can you pursue it now, either by yourself or with a group of others, in the way you live your life? If the only progress you can make towards it is by agitating, by seeking to gain political power, then it's both utopian and probably dangerous.


  1. I definitely get what you are trying to say, and indeed I agree with much of it. Capitalism is not something that I would seek to abolish but rather restrain or control. I think that much of the present instability in the West is down to the fact that economic and political decisions have been made to favour the top 1% on the grounds that if they can keep their money, they can use this to create more jobs. But this is not happening in practice and we can now clearly see the results of this.

    1. Well, that is all I am saying. It bothers me how often people refer to how such-and-such a social institution (masculinity, for instance, or results-driven education) is down to "capitalism". Restraining or controlling capitalism seems very reasonable to me-- financial speculation especially.