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Domesticating Capitalism

Opinion | March 2, 2015

Just 20 years ago, neoconservatives convinced much of the world that history was ending. Noted political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued this in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, saying that western liberal society had arrived at the end of its political evolution. He said this was demonstrated by the presence of the free market, civil society, representative democracy, and more. This, at the time, was an argument that was hard to refute. The world was brimming with hope for neoconservatives. Why shouldn’t it have been? With the Soviets defeated, there was no longer any real competing political ideology. Nations that were not liberalizing and democratizing were integrating into the global economy—a step toward becoming a free society. All signs pointed toward free market economics and liberal politics as the ideology to end all ideologies. Even if liberal society were not perfect, to quote Churchill, it was at least the least of all evils. Therefore, they argued that the duties of liberal society now were to share, maintain, and enjoy this post-political planet.

However, fast-forward two decades and you will find that Fukuyama is no longer a Fukuyamaist. It is no longer realistic to believe that we have arrived at the end of history. Data from the Freedom House, an organization that surveys and collects data about nations with regard to their levels of freedom, shows that the spread of free politics has stagnated since the nineties. By taking into account various factors, such as civil liberties and political rights, Freedom House assigns a value from one to seven and categorizes the countries as free, partly free, or not free. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the number of free countries rose from 61 to an impressive 88 in a mere decade, but the number then tapered off, fluctuating from 85 to 90. Even this figure may be generous. The Freedom House has been known to include “free” countries like Peru, infamous at the time for its corrupt elections.

Income inequality and structural systems of oppression have become ever more pronounced in society. Pollution and global warming are destroying the environment and threatening humankind’s existence. This reality is slowly coming into public consciousness, and people are acting to create social change. Examples of recent social movements include the Occupy movements, anti-globalization movements, and the #blacklivesmatter movement. Direct actions and student organizing at Tufts reflect this desire for change. Students are active on and off campus, voicing their discontent and opposition to issues like racial injustice, climate and environmental injustice, and more.

So where has democratic capitalism failed us? In the later part of the last century, the neoconservatives seemed to assert that free market capitalism had advanced alongside, or even laid the foundations for, liberal democratic values. There were multiple economic miracles: periods of rapid economic development and growth. Free market proponents like Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman frequently cited the Korean economic miracle on the Han River, the Spanish economic miracle, and the Chilean economic miracle as examples to illustrate the effectiveness of globalized capitalist economy in bringing about free society. Yet, in retrospect, this chain of causation breaks down into correlation. China offers a prime counterexample. The Chinese GDP has grown at an average rate of 9.8 percent per year in the last three decades. But despite rapid economic growth, capitalism has failed to foster liberal democratic values in China. We saw this with the Tiananmen Massacre and the relative lack of political progress since. This is also true, to varying extents, in Singapore, Nigeria, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries.

A look at the world will show that though the spread of liberal democratic values has slowed, the spread of capitalism has not. As far as capital is concerned, we still live in a golden age of “miracles” and “booms.” Evidently, GDP doesn’t indicate how socially free you are. Capitalistic values march onward. To take it a step further, left-wing analysts such as Chomsky suggest that free markets undermine free politics because of an inherent conflict of interest between the two.

Thus, this brings into question whether the hegemony economists were so confident in was liberal society after all. Perhaps liberalism and democracy were but beautiful slogans for the propagation of global capitalism. The brilliant film Network (1976) makes this point with a fat, old, melodramatically lit white man who shouts at the audience, “You are an old man who think in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples…there are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and inhuman, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.”

The problem with the neoconservative promise was not in the vision itself, but in how they intended to actualize it. It was driven by the belief that free politics and free economics complement one another under all circumstances. The advocated-for attitude was, “Whatever the issue, worry not, the Market will provide the steam for the engine of progress!” This is the contentious Washington Consensus Model of development—a crusade of deregulation, privatization, and globalization.

Herein lies the problem. This market fundamentalism, this belief that the free market will solve all economic and social problems, is ridiculous and wishful thinking. It ignores a wealth of sociological, ethical, and economic concerns; yet this current of thought serves as the dominant ideology in the world today. Independently, capitalism is not beneficial for human beings because capital’s concern is not providing people with necessities, material comforts, capabilities or the like, but rather the generation of more capital—an endless and insatiable cycle of consumerism generating capital generating consumerism.

To quote Aristotle, “Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” In the same way, capitalism has to be a means to an end. Capitalism is not inherently bad, but market fundamentalism is. Beyond a certain point, capital and goods no longer contribute to people’s happiness, well-being, and capability, but only to people’s insatiable desire for capital and goods themselves. Our relationship with capital has managed to delude us into thinking that it is serving us, while, in reality, we are serving it.

A useful way to think about capital is as a domesticated crop that has become harmful to the farmer’s and consumer’s health. Consider a hypothetical strain of wheat, popularized and cultivated around the world for its nutritious and delicious qualities. In this state of mutualism, people benefited wheat as much as the wheat benefited people. The wheat propagated its genes more rapidly and across greater distances than it could alone, and the people, by nourishing themselves on the wheat, too, are more successful. Then, suppose a mutation is introduced, making the wheat highly addictive and harmful to human health. If there is an absence of other forces that restrain the spread of the mutation and the cultivation of the crop, soon the benefits to the wheat will greatly outweigh those of the people, turning the relationship to one of parasitism.

The mutation, in our world, is market fundamentalism. This isn’t to say capitalism must be abolished and some Marxist utopia erected. The wheat is not bad. The mutation is. I am simply arguing that we should not be serving capital. Capital should be serving us. Humanism, not capitalism, should be our ideology. This should require little defense; the value and potential of all human life should be self-evident to any sentient human being with any appreciation at all for their own life. Capitalism has a place in this cause. It can be a highly effective mechanism in attaining certain goals of humanism. However, capitalism should always be utilized as a means of expanding human capability in a way that values human life and respects human dignity.

Global capitalism, in its current form, is unsustainable for humankind, but this is not a necessary reality. Capital does not have to be a parasite. Even if the mutualistic relationship between man and capital was never naturally so, that does not mean it could never be so. Thus, what is necessary is a sort of domestication of capital—to isolate and treat its mutated structural ineptitudes that will otherwise continue to fester, mutate, and ultimately kill its host.