Inequality, one of capitalism’s chief products, has become in recent years the elephant in the room. But capitalism is the room itself and tends to be invisible. Largely thanks to Bernie Sanders and the undemonizing of “democratic socialism,” that may be changing.
Capitalism reminds me of Charles Lamb’s apocryphal story about the discovery of roast pig. How, having first tasted a pig accidentally cooked when his house burned down, a Chinese farmer kept on burning down houses to produce that wonderful result. His neighbors followed suit. Setting fire to your house became the standard recipe for roast pork.
Yes, capitalism provides a way of life, gets things done, has in fact produced marvels: from the railroads that won the West, to all our wonderful cars and airplanes and computers, to the drugs that ease our life. It has produced unprecedented wealth, however unequally distributed.
But think of the unintended (but predictable) consequences: the “robber barons” we associate with those continent-spanning railroads, the misery of endemic, periodic economic depressions, all the jobsite injuries and deaths, worker exploitation. Inequality.
The perversity of “planned obsolescence”. The undermining of democracy through the buying of election. Our punishingly overpriced healthcare system. A government a lot of whose size (railed against by some) exists only to keep capitalism under control.
Capitalism, left to its own devices, burns the house down, at least the part of the house in which most of us live. And, oh yes, it produces some mighty tasty roast pig (for those who can afford it).
One of capitalism’s pernicious side effects is to convince us that creativity is a function of capitalism—that the only reason to come up with a better mousetrap (or a cure for cancer) is to make a lot of money, as opposed to the fun and meaning of doing something clever and useful.
One widely held argument for capitalism is that it best expresses “human nature,” which is assumed to be greedy and viciously competitive. But the holes in that argument are well known: such oases in the capitalist desert as family life, friendship, schools, social workers and psychotherapy. Inventors. The national park system. The arts. (Only a tiny percentage of the “art world” is those who, themselves unable or uninterested in making art, become obscenely wealthy marketing it.)
It is part of capitalism’s wastefulness that its proper work is to make money, as much as possible, in any way possible. The poster boy at the moment for this is the hedge fund manager (or other Wall St. wheeler-dealer) made infamous in many movies over the years, and TV series (such as “Billions.”) So if you really don’t fancy doing the work of hedge fund managing –and my guess is that most of us don’t– if you’d really rather produce music or build a house or grow tomatoes or flowers or help other people or do something else actually creative, you’re at a disadvantage. In fact you are likely to be among the victims of hedge fund managers.
If you don’t even like what capitalism’s version of winning looks like, if ostentatious trophy houses, trophy spouses, grossly oversized yachts, and million dollar dog collars seem silly, if not immoral—you really have a problem. You’re not even motivated to try to win the only game in town.
I mean, what does it say about a system that rewards the likes of Donald Trump? In his own language, he’s the winner and the great majority (the 99% as we’ve come to refer to us) are the losers—including the physical therapist who worked with your body in its hour of need, or the musicians who gave great pleasure the other day rocking out at the local venue.
In the Charles Lamb story, eventually people learned that you could cook that tasty roast pork without burning down the house.