Monday, 15 February 2016

There’s Something About Capitalism

What is capitalism? At one level it is no more than a system wherein some can accumulate wealth to purchase natural, human, and man-made resources so that these will produce whatever returns their owners can extract from them. The owners may get rental income from properties they let, payment from machines and plants they lease out, interests from money they lend, or revenue from the work of people they have hired. Without the accumulation by a few and the incentive to make more money out of the accumulation, it is argued, there just would not be sufficient concentration of wealth or motivation to fund the endless variety of useful – as well as useless – things we seek out.

But the problem with allowing a few to amass concentrated wealth and power long predates capitalism. History has shown that for thousands of years human societies that succumb to a few having vastly more wealth than others will end up being exploited by the dominant few. It’s the nature of power dynamics. The few who can practically call all the shots will make the rest bow down to them. Money can buy one-sided bargaining, intimidation, threats of hunger (and withholding of healthcare), and rewriting of the laws where necessary. Against this backdrop, the Communist attempts to overthrow capitalism clearly miss the point completely. An unchallengeable party taking control of virtually all capital is obviously no better, but far worse, than hundreds of rich business owners sharing that control, for the simple reason that the greater the concentration of wealth and power, the more unaccountable and oppressive will become those who wield that concentrated power.

Ironically the failure of totalitarian communism has taught naïve champions of ‘capitalism’ nothing. After the fall of Berlin Wall, neoliberals pretend that the collapse of the Soviet regime confirms that capitalism is unassailable. The real lesson is that the relentless concentration of power in an unaccountable few is dangerous and unsustainable. Sooner or later, the oppression will reach boiling point and something will have to give.

Of course there is no guarantee what it will give way to. At present, a few anti-neoliberal commentators are adding the declining yield of capital from decreasing purchasing and mounting debt, to the emergence of the low marginal-cost sharing economy, and ending up with hyper-utopian predictions about a “post-capitalist” future that will bring justice, abundance, and happiness for all.

I have no doubt that when capitalism continues to degenerate into a form where a few sit on vast concentrations of wealth, while others keep getting paid less in real terms and weighed down by borrowing (because they are not paid enough to buy the things they help to produce), serious problems will erupt. Unfortunately, unless democracy reawakens and wrestles government institutions from the plutocrats, the problems will be ‘solved’ by sacrificing those on middling and low income.

As for the dreams of a landscape filled with universally accessible machines that are ready made to generate or replicate anything people want – energy, food, transport, homes, entertainment, medicine, etc – at no marginal cost, while the raw materials needed are themselves recycled also at no cost, they are not only far fetched, but they divert vital attention from the need to recapture state power, to a fantasy that a new utopian world is coming soon and all will be well.

This is not to say that new technology for recycling, renewable energy, digital sharing, low cost manufacturing, coupled with cooperative working, commons ownership of certain resources, cannot deliver better quality of life for some people. But it will only happen on a large scale, and benefit more than a minority of the population, if new ways of working where power-sharing is at the heart of all operations become the norm.

And for that to happen, there has to be a substantial shift of power from the elite atop organisations and society to others. This is not about equalising wealth, but about sharing out power to consider how production can be better managed and more resources generated for the many, not just the few. Worker cooperatives do not reject pay differentials. They discuss amongst themselves and experiment in reaching the most productive differentials so some are paid more than others, but only in so far as that is really helpful to maximise the positive impact of their enterprise. As writers and advocates, we can help to make the case. But ultimately, if those with concentrated power are not willing to change, only a sovereign government can bring in new rules and practices – not necessarily to put an end to capitalism, certainly not to bring in communism, but to facilitate the extensive development of cooperativism. We are not talking about an impossible utopia, but the dawn of synetopia.

1 comment:

Woodman59 said...

I'm surprised there are not more comments made to this blog. I can't see anyone else spelling out these essentials!

We've lost any real mechanism for challenging the distribution of power. The Church used to do this to a significant extent - as shown by the TV programme..."When Bankers Were Good". But as Western society has become largely ireligious we need something else in place to provide the moral challenges that we all need.