Capitalism: market or moral?

Last week I had a rant about Amazon and its attempts to control markets. This week I want to say a bit more about capitalism as an ideology. Capitalism is not all bad. In fact, an article in the Times (Matthew Syed, 6.12.20) argues that capitalism has civilised humanity – rather than corrupted it.

Syed admits that capitalism is becoming a dirty word: that even Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, as part of his Reith lecture, has referred to the need to move away from market norms – to ‘moral’ norms. Books with titles such as ‘Licence To Be Bad’ and ‘Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent,’ make their point well.

So what has happened? The start of capitalism signalled a move away from ‘clan and tribe’ loyalties, and enlarged the sphere of human co-operation. Capitalism as an ideology, based on fairness, trust and equitable exchange, is considered the most efficient system in the world. After all, what is the alternative? We have already seen how communism and socialism, based mainly on centralised planning and lack of individual ownership, have created their own free-loading elites and society divisions: large-scale corruption having already demonstrated humanity’s innate capacity to seek power and place ourselves first.

So what is the problem with capitalism? It is this: capitalism as first envisaged by thinkers such Adam Smith and Thomas Paine, was nothing like the ‘cut-throat’ versions of free marketing we are seeing today – as giant corporations (such as Amazon) seek to control the markets to their sole advantage. Capitalism was meant to be nice – but has emerged nasty.

Mark Carney’s first of five Reith lectures, ‘From Moral to Market Sentiment’ argues that societies have, over time, placed financial value over human value and thus created a trio of impending crises: credit, Covid and climate. It seems to me that all three are inter-dependent: resolve one and we resolve the others.

Capitalism has run away with itself: having broken free of its moral reins due to lack of any regulation. Companies surely have multiple responsibilities: to their owners, to the shareholders who invest, and to their workers. Without co-operation along the chain, where would production be? Even capitalism needs the safety of rules and values.

Can we do anything to turn around this rampant free-boarding before we are all swept away by its avalanche? Which will happen first? Will climate change force governments and capitalists to slow down and rethink? Will over-borrowing because of Covid blow up in government and tax-payers’ faces? Will it all cease to matter because Covid will finish us all off anyway – including those rampant capitalists? After all, their wealth offers no more protection from this threat that is attacking all humans equally, than the rest of us.

At least my initial rant was not such a naive outpouring and I am not alone in my thinking. Capitalism may have created civilised societies in the first place – but how sad that those same civilised societies are now destroying the human values upon which they were first built.

Sylvia Edwards

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