The Two Sides of Capitalism

In the past few days, I have seen two articles which directly talk about capitalism itself. They perfectly capture the respective strengths and weaknesses of each side of the argument. It’s enlightening to exams the logic here.

The first article is “The Sunny Side of Greed” by Frank Bruni in the July 1st edition of the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/01/opinion/frank-bruni-the-good-among-the-greed.html?_r=0

The other is from The Guardian, “Fracketeering: how capitalism is power-hosing the last drops of of value out of all of us” by Ian Martin for the June 30th edition. http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/jun/30/fracketeering-capitalism-power-hosing-estate-agents-cakeage

Bruni makes a fairly standard pro-capitalism, pro-Big Business argument, updated with recent events. “Some say the world is run by corporations…fine with me”, runs Bruni’s basic sentiment.

The reasoning goes like this: money is money, and profit is profit; businesses therefore often take the lead on social issues. He cites the fact that corporations where crucial to defeating “religious freedom” laws – you know the kind – in places like Indiana recently. Or, he points out that South Carolina’s governor can confidently take down the Confederate flag because the big employers in that state support the removal of the confederate flag.

Bruni compares these companies and their executives favourably to politicians and the political process. He acknowledges the role that corporations play in environmental destruction, and exploitation of workers in some cases, but concludes that “Sometimes the bottom line matches the common good, and they’re the agents of what’s practical, wise and even right”.

Ian Martin’s article is of the flavour reference at the start of Bruni’s: “…the dire prophecies of science-fiction writers and the fevered warnings of left-wing activists, big corporations will soon rule the earth – or already do.”

The core of Martin’s article revolves around the extreme, absurd lengths that capitalism – encapsulated by the absence, apocalyptic act of fracking – has destroyed our planet, society, and ultimately ourselves as human individuals, all in search of ever-greater profits. It’s the exact opposite view of Bruni’s, both in content, conception and execution. Martin’s point is that capitalism must monetise everything – literally everything – to keep going. Everything has become about profit. He speaks of London real estate agents who now charge people “…for agreeing to sell them something. Arbitrarily monetising something that customers are obliged to do anyway.”

Ironically, Martin again refers to science fiction: “We are already living in a capitalist sci-fi horror story, where masters of the universe are trading stuff that doesn’t even exist yet. Future grain harvests in Canada, milk yields in Wisconsin, next year’s batch of Japanese whisky. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has a wide variety of “weather derivatives” available for trade if you’re interested including “temperature ranges, snowfall amounts and frost”. If fracketeers can think it, they can monetise it. There are no moral boundaries. The only limit to fracketeering is imagination.”

Behind these two arguments are two very different world views, as well as two very different ways of thinking about economics. Bruni very much sees economics in the classic sense, that is, about how Adam Smith would have understood economics. You know – where the Invisible Hand guides people to improve themselves and their communities. That’s basically what his article is about: the Invisible Hand and how it’s just great.

For Martin, who has a much more social and personal understanding of capitalism, the Blade Runner/ Total Recall-esque reality of capitalism is – and has been here – for a while. I can easily understand how the fanciful description of the capitalist, dystopian future would come across as “fevered” to the Brunis of the world. Martin has a less grounded argument. He has few, if any facts to point too. But he is making observations that you can’t really deny; it’s closer to common sense then anything else. By this, I mean that Martin is talking about our daily lives and how we do things; how capitalism has invaded this to the point of absurdity. Capitalism may be a success in terms of GDP, but it is a failure in everything else. Increasingly, profit is sought in ever-more invasive operations. Take Facebook and the big oil companies; the meagre pay of those trapped in the service industry.

Bruni ignores the massive, cataclysmic changes that Big Business has had in our societies. He ignores the complexity of the system which is fundamentally exploitative. The ongoing failures of trickle-down/neoliberal/laissez-faire economics are lost on Bruni. He fails to notice how Big Business already runs our lives and our politics. Most of all, he fails to face up and realize that taking down a flag  or supporting gay marriage is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the massive destruction of the environment, the displacement of peoples and individuals. Social change is nice, but it’s not real change. Real change would be a 100% tax on gasoline and the oil companies, instead of effectively subsidising them and the price of gas with the tax payer’s money.

Given Jeb Bush’s statement on how Americans need to work more (we are the second hardest working people in the world behind the Japanese), and the scientific consensus on Climate Change, it seems to me that Bruni’s argument fundamentally flawed to the point of delusion. For me, it’s the word “wise”. How can systematic, relentless, institutionalized greed be wise? Adam Smith never anticipated the world like it is now.

How can it be anything else other then fundamentally insane, anti-social and downright apocalyptic?

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