In 1995, I published a book called The World After Communism. Today, I wonder whether there will be a world after capitalism.
That question is not prompted by the worst economic slump since the 1930s. Capitalism has always had crises, and will go on having them. Rather, it comes from the feeling that Western civilization is increasingly unsatisfying, saddled with a system of incentives that are essential for accumulating wealth, but that undermine our capacity to enjoy it. Capitalism may be close to exhausting its potential to create a better life – at least in the world’s rich countries.
By “better”, I mean better ethically, not materially. Material gains may continue, though evidence shows that they no longer make people happier. My discontent is with the quality of a civilization in which the production and consumption of unnecessary goods has become most people’s main occupation.
This is not to denigrate capitalism. It was, and is, a superb system for overcoming scarcity. By organising production efficiently, and directing it to the pursuit of welfare rather than power, it has lifted a large part of the world out of poverty.
Yet what happens to such a system when scarcity has been turned to plenty? Does it just go on producing more of the same, stimulating jaded appetites with new gadgets, thrills, and excitements? How much longer can this continue? Do we spend the next century wallowing in triviality?
For most of the last century, the alternative to capitalism was socialism. But socialism, in its classical form, failed – as it had to. Public production is inferior to private production for any number of reasons, not least because it destroys choice and variety. And, since the collapse of communism, there has been no coherent alternative to capitalism. Beyond capitalism, it seems, stretches a vista of…capitalism.
There have always been huge moral questions about capitalism, which could be put to one side because capitalism was so successful at generating wealth. Now, when we already have all the wealth we need, we are right to wonder whether the costs of capitalism are worth incurring.
Adam Smith, for example, recognized that the division of labor would make people dumber by robbing them of non-specialized skills. Yet he thought that this was a price – possibly compensated by education – worth paying, since the widening of the market increased the growth of wealth. This made him a fervent free trader.
Today’s apostles of free trade argue the case in much the same way as Adam Smith, ignoring the fact that wealth has expanded enormously since Smith’s day. They typically admit that free trade costs jobs, but claim that re-training programs will fit workers into new, “higher value” jobs. This amounts to saying that even though rich countries (or regions) no longer need the benefits of free trade, they must continue to suffer its costs.
Defenders of the current system reply: we leave such choices to individuals to make for themselves. If people want to step off the conveyor belt, they are free to do so. And increasing numbers do, in fact, “drop out”. Democracy, too, means the freedom to vote capitalism out of office.
This answer is powerful but naïve. People do not form their preferences in isolation. Their choices are framed by their societies’ dominant culture. Is it really supposed that constant pressure to consume has no effect on preferences? We ban pornography and restrict violence on TV, believing that they affect people negatively, yet we should believe that unrestricted advertising of consumer goods affects only the distribution of demand, but not the total?
Capitalism’s defenders sometimes argue that the spirit of acquisitiveness is so deeply ingrained in human nature that nothing can dislodge it. But human nature is a bundle of conflicting passions and possibilities. It has always been the function of culture (including religion) to encourage some and limit the expression of others.
Indeed, the “spirit of capitalism” entered human affairs rather late in history. Before then, markets for buying and selling were hedged with legal and moral restrictions. A person who devoted his life to making money was not regarded as a good role model. Greed, avarice, and envy were among the deadly sins. Usury (making money from money) was an offense against God.
It was only in the 18th century that greed became morally respectable. It was now considered healthily Promethean to turn wealth into money and put it to work to make more money, because by doing this one was benefiting humanity.
This inspired the American way of life, where money always talks. The end of capitalism means simply the end of the urge to listen to it. People would start to enjoy what they have, instead of always wanting more. One can imagine a society of private wealth holders, whose main objective is to lead good lives, not to turn their wealth into “capital”.
Financial services would shrink, because the rich would not always want to become richer. As more and more people find themselves with enough, one might expect the spirit of gain to lose its social approbation. Capitalism would have done its work, and the profit motive would resume its place in the rogues’ gallery.
The dishonoring of greed is likely only in those countries whose citizens already have more than they need. And even there, many people still have less than they need. The evidence suggests that economies would be more stable and citizens happier if wealth and income were more evenly distributed. The economic justification for large income inequalities – the need to stimulate people to be more productive – collapses when growth ceases to be so important.
Perhaps socialism was not an alternative to capitalism, but its heir. It will inherit the earth not by dispossessing the rich of their property, but by providing motives and incentives for behavior that are unconnected with the further accumulation of wealth.
I’m not too sure about the economic arguments – people always seem to want more, even the super-rich. It’s not need, maybe not even greed – what can one do with money beyond a certain point? – but, perhaps power?
But I strongly agree with encouraging the evolution of a different culture in regard to money. The gross national product as a measure of national wealth makes little sense as it includes everything that is sold – not just cheap or shoddy or unhealthy products, but also gambling, financial speculation, alcohol and drugs, costs of police and armies beryond the minimum that may be necessary, excessive, wasteful litigation, and insurance ‘products’. In regard to the latter two items, much waste could be prevented by providing good quality, free heallth care (for which some safeguards might be needed to prevent abuse of the system).
I would add the suggestion that we need a way of disseminating information about the value of the products available, as well as schemes for co-operative buying, selling, recycling, etc.
Isn’t it that wanting more at some point reaches a ceiling ? In particular if you can buy anything you want, so yes – maybe you are right – then it is power.
one of the few in the West not representing the view of Communism having “lost” – human life on this planet is more than a soccer game between two obsolete society and econmic models. While communism “lost” nearly all of those who represented communism before became extremly rich capitalists – meaning the same wrongdoers as before remained de facto in power while “only” the social aspects of communism vanished – in the end the “loss” of communism became only a loss in reality by implementing the capitalist system to the former communist countries making the social weak suffer the dark side of capitalism
I like what he says in the end: “Perhaps socialism was not an alternative to capitalism, but its heir. It will inherit the earth not by dispossessing the rich of their property, but by providing motives and incentives for behavior that are unconnected with the further accumulation of wealth.”