Opinion – Continuing the discussion on conscious capitalism

By: Chris Burke

My previous post for 1837 prompted a response from Martin Pharand.  In my post, I questioned capitalism’s ability to address social and environmental issues.  Capitalism, I suggested, is the source of the problems it’s trying to fix.  To which Pharand responded:

But I suggest there is the need to pause and reconsider before launching the oft heard argument that capitalism “is the source of the problems it is trying to fix”. You will often run into the same sort of argument if you research issues regarding the environment. The two major issues with arguing either from the poverty or environment perspective is that, one; contradictory statistics can be marshalled by either side and two, both ‘sides’ appear to speak a different language causing greater misunderstanding.


Pharand is right about at least one thing, both sides do speak a different language.  Marxists will make points about the value created by labour or the oppression of the working class.  The capitalist response, to point out value that is created by groups other than labour, or to say that workers voluntarily enter into a contract shows that what Marxists mean when they use the above terms is differing from the capitalist conception.  I won’t go into detail on how they differ though I anticipate it coming up in future posts.

From here, Pharand goes on to say:

The first problem I see with critiques of capitalism, is that although the ultimate message has shards of truth I think it is based on a misconstruction of capitalism or at least, an understanding of capitalism that is markedly different to those who argue ‘for’ it.

In the previous post, capitalism is represented as an orchestrated system bent on exploitation. But to the majority of people and those who would argue ‘for’ capitalism, it is the sum of free and lawful transactions based on the principles of self-interest. And self-interest is something so innate and so evolutionarily advantageous that I find it a difficult argument to counter, and in fact the previous post does not do so.

Argument from the majority does not make a sufficient case for why capitalism is one thing and not the other.  When we look to how the system really functions then the definition provided by Pharand isn’t enough.  People do not always act in self-interest, they are not always lawful, and capitalism is not “free”.  Further, the claims to evolution are also problematic.  Consider that species find it advantageous to work together towards a mutual benefit, that a self-interested social-Darwinist world-view is one that does not properly represent evolution.  I’ll direct readers to Peter Kropotkin’s work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution for more information, which does not deny the role of self-interest, but attempts to emphasize the co-operative element of evolution.  Pharand may want to consider that the argument for self-interest is in fact a contestable one.

Finally, he concludes with:

And so now it is up to the private sector, who is holding the cash, to fund the gap in service. What this will take is a different conversation around capitalism, and a creative synthesis of the opposing views on the matter. Self- interest has made many very VERY wealthy, but now it is time to reconstruct the conversation about capitalism to come full circle, to empower those with the money to make a difference to do so in a way that they find suitable. This is the only way of moving forward, anti-systemic movements or arguments have and will fail, creative synthesis is where we need to go and where we’re already headed.

But what reason do those holding the cash actually have to fund the gap in service?  Besides feeling good about themselves, and, maybe, attracting workers to their business there’s no reason that demands the rich fill in these gaps.  Self-interest has made people very wealthy, it has also made others very poor as the wealth is concentrated in a few hands and not distributed evenly.  Is the suggestion here that we encourage the wealthy to start spreading their wealth around more?  Do we have cases in recent history that would suggest this is a possibility?  Those with money do not need empowering, they are the ones that hold the power to begin with.  I know that Pharand wants this synthesis of the opposing-views, but this cannot work because the goals of the two sides are too far apart to begin with.

Let me be clear that I am not arguing for some social democratic view in which we address issues such as poverty and social justice while in the framework of the capitalist system.  I am suggesting we move away from that system entirely.  This makes it difficult to fuse the opposing views together.  I do not want to “empower”.  That power needs to be taken from them and given to the working class.  If the rich truly are working in their self-interest, then they have no good reasons to give up this power.  No amount of appeal to their good nature or education on why it may be the right thing is going to change that.  Sure, they may engage in philanprothy but this only goes so far in correcting the massive inequalities in the system.  What the anti-capitalist movements want is something very different from what Pharand is suggesting.

Finally, I would not be so quick to suggest that creative synthesis is the only way of moving forward.  The oft-repeated argument about anti-systemic movements failing ignores the self-critical aspect of a Marxist-approach.  We are aware of the failures, so we discuss these them and look to the future for improvement.  We do not accept the idea that capitalism is a system that will continue to last.

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