Capitalism and Its Discontents

We’ve been considering different themes  in Eugene McCarraher’s “Morbid Symptoms”  (Commonweal, November 2012). The last one to mention is his critique of capitalism. Coincidentally, this month’s feature story in Foreign Affairs is an evaluation of capitalism: “Capitalism and Inequality”, by Jerry Muller.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and then with the decades-long rise of China and India through their participation in the Western-dominated economic order, criticizing capitalism feels like swimming against the tide of history. Surely the way that the Cold War ended, combined with the last quarter-century of unprecedented wealth creation, prove that capitalism is above reproach?

McCarraher dowses us with a bucket of cold water. “Wake up!” he shouts in muscular prose: capitalism comes with huge costs to the material of the world, and to the spirit of humanity. How could we fail to see that an economic engine which harnesses the power of human avarice to drive it, will inevitably grind us down, diminishing and deflating our sense of what a human life means. Are we made for the Love of God, or for the market? We are socialized to live as though we are made for the market– ie, that we are commodities– and it takes an act of will to choose otherwise. Market-thinking dominates our culture; how could it not penetrate our most basic understanding of who we are, and what the purpose of life is?

Muller is less radical. He sees chronic insecurity as the inevitable result of capitalism, since the dynamism of creative destruction brings continual change. His conclusion: don’t dismantle the welfare state, but strengthen it, because too much insecurity will lead to rebellion. Enlightened self-interest would suggest some level of re-distribution of wealth, in order to increase social stability.

While Muller and McCarraher have fundamentally different points of departure, both see serious flaws in laissez-faire capitalism. The system, while ascendant, is not above reproach– and without critique and correction, it contains the seeds of its own destruction. It may be said of capitalism as an economic system, as Churchill said of democracy: “It’s the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Which is to say that capitalism, like democracy, is not the holy grail. It is not our salvation.

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