Saunders’ celebration of capitalism – some critical comments

17 01 2008

Capitalism at its worst - MacRonin47 (flickr)

This century will be marked by a dramatic shift in world view for many citizens of industrialised nations. Slowly, we have begun to struggle with the change from a suicidal “growth = progress” mentality to a holistic, ecological view of humanity’s place within Earth’s living systems. But like all paradigm shifts, this one will not be a smooth transition. Deeply embedded ideas and outllooks will be turned on their head. Long embraced ideas that clearly fail to make sense must be burnt at the stake. It can be, however, hard to let go. By way of example, Peter Saunders from the free marketeers at CIS has explained to us how ever increasing consumption is a marvellous thing. I feel that this deserves some comment.

Forget auld lang syne; let’s sing capitalism’s praises

Peter Saunders December 20, 2007

Every year, as we mill around the shops buying presents, commentators warn that the “true meaning” of Christmas is being eroded. Queuing at the bottle shop, we hear how Christmas has become “too commercial”; gorging on seafood and turkey, we chide ourselves for our gluttony. We tell each other how Christmases in the past were simpler, that children nowadays are spoiled and that we have all become too materialistic. This sense that we have lost sight of the more important things in life is not new. The Marxist critic, Raymond Williams, believed every generation expresses a nostalgic yearning for a more “authentic” past that it thinks has just been lost. He thought this feeling of emptiness was caused by capitalism. Excessive materialism leaves us feeling that something important is missing in our lives, and we project this missing humanity onto a romanticised ideal of the past.
The guru of the 1960s student movement, Herbert Marcuse, argued something similar. By the ’60s, Marx’s prediction that capitalism would be unable to provide the masses with an adequate standard of living had been disproved, so Marcuse turned the argument on its head. The problem with capitalism, he said, was not that it gives us too little, but that it gives us too much. The result is an alienated society of “one-dimensional men”. Forty years later, this critique of excessive consumerism has become commonplace. In Australia, we find it in Clive Hamilton’s books that attack our preoccupation with the pursuit of wealth and our materialistic lifestyles. We would be happier and more fulfilled, Hamilton says, if we sacrificed money for a more fulfilling lifestyle.
But is it true that capitalism creates empty and meaningless lives? Capitalism has certainly performed better than any alternative system. In 1820, 85 per cent of the world’s population lived on less than a dollar a day. Today it is 20 per cent. This dramatic reduction in human misery owes nothing to socialist engineering, nor even to ageing rock stars demanding we make poverty history. It is due to the spread of global capitalism.

Wo, wo, wo hang on. Peter’s being sneaky here. Firstly, he’s failed to explain that a dollar a day in 1820 was not the same as a dollar a day in 2007, but the greater failing is to equate earnings with levels of misery or whatever we use as its opposite – perhaps happiness or fulfilment. My wife earned less than a dollar a day after our first child was born – for perhaps nine months or so – but wasn’t exactly miserable.

Capitalism has also extended human life. In 1900 the average life expectancy in the “less developed” countries was just 30 years. Today it is 65 years. Much of humanity has also been released from the crushing burden of physical labour. One hour of work today delivers 25 times more value than it did in 1850. This has freed huge chunks of our time for leisure, art, sport, learning and family pursuits.

This is of course nonsense. The great victories of longevity came from public health measures – sanitation, vaccination programs and the like. Such measures were not unique to the particular form of global capitalism we tolerate today. To congratulate capitalism for the extension of human longevity is mischevious indeed. True, many of us have been released from the “crushing burden” of physical labour, only to face the crushing burden of burgeoning wastelines.

The critics point out that happiness levels have not risen recently, despite economic growth. But this does not mean our lives have not improved. Happiness scores show little change because we factor in improvements as they occur. If we were catapulted back to 1980, happiness scores would plummet. By the same token, happiness scores will be no higher in 30 years than they are now, but this does not mean our children will want to return to today’s living standards.

Asking not to receive Christmas presents next Christmas is not the same as having to give back last year’s. Nor can we equate trading away future material gains with travelling back in time (were it possible). At any rate, just as happiness only receives a short-lived boost after we buy stuff, so too it would probably only receive a temporary knock after we forfeit stuff. Perhaps the question is not whether our children will want to return to today, but rather whether we will wish we could reclaim some of the values, culture, stability and rich natural world that we remember from the society of our youth.

Consider what would have been lost if we had abandoned the pursuit of economic growth 30 years ago. There would be no internet, satellite navigation, mobile phones or cheap intercontinental telephone calls. No PCs, or digital music and pictures. No hybrid cars and very little solar or wind-powered electricity generation. No human genome map with its potential cures for Alzheimer’s and heart disease. No AIDS treatments or MRI scans. True, we could live without them. But it defies logic to suggest our lives would be more fulfilled without them.

It sounds as if Peter is suggesting that science and technological progress is only possible under global capitalism. This would be remarkable news to the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, and so on. Perhaps capitalism does facilitate the extremely rapid rate of technological development, however I would suggest that unfettered capitalism has not been particularly helpful to solar and wind-powered electricity. Rather capitalism has tried to break free of the bridles of democratic control and engagement that attempts to harness it for environmental good and not evil. What’s missing here is the counter-argument that for all capitalism has given us, it has taken away many important things. Perhaps these things are harder to measure than units of i-pods shipped. Culture, meaning, belonging, identity, interconnectedness with nature and so on.
The critics are, of course, correct when they say capitalism cannot give us everything we need in life. But most people are aware of this. The critics assume consumption pre-empts the pursuit of genuine happiness, but commercial relationships do not rule out friendships, family ties, voluntary activity or religious worship. Owning a nice house, car or plasma TV does not mean you cannot also build meaningful social relationships.
It doesn’t prohibit these things, but it can make them difficult to sustain. Anyone with a crushing mortgage and two jobs knows this. Most nuclear families now require two incomes instead of one to purchase their shelter in Sydney. I’m reminded of a comment by an academic on a PBS documentary called “the Persuaders” (view it free online here) about the advertising industry. He put forward the notion that any society where the overwhelming majority of social interactions are commercial in nature, ceases to be a culture at all.
All we can ask of any socioeconomic system is that it enables us to construct happy and worthwhile lives.
Peter has already stated above that capitalism doesn’t do this !! In fact, we should ask of our socio-economic system that it serves us rather than ruling us. We should ask that it nourish and support societies in which it takes root and support a healthy living, natural world. (It is up for debate as to whether capitalism is a socio-economic system or just an economic system).
On this test, capitalism passes with flying colours. It delivers necessities such as food and shelter, allows us to interact freely, and maximises opportunities to realise our potential through hard work and innovation. The rest is up to us. So enjoy the prawns and the chardonnay, and don’t feel guilty about the money you spend on the children’s presents. Download Bing Crosby from iTunes, phone the relatives in London at a couple of cents a minute and have yourself a really good Christmas!
Peter Saunders is social research director at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Its the end of the world as we know it – and I feel fine. -REM



4 responses

17 01 2008

Thank you for your insightful piece. If only the SMH would publish this.

I love the stencil (and the irony). In further irony, I’m still buying my clothes from sweat shops (well, through the Aussie middle man anyway). I’ve cut down my purchasing lots, but I haven’t totally given up this evil habit. The other day I noticed something interesting about my clothing. I still have (and wear the now unfashionable) clothes I bought a decade ago and on the label of one shirt it said made in Australia. I know this was probably piece-work done in the worker’s home (Aust’s version of a sweat shop), but the shirt came from one of those chain stores. Today these stores’ clothes are all made in China. If I stop my sweat shop pruchasing totally, perhaps in another ten years things might have changed for the better.

I’m so happy to see the little owl on your sidebar. Let’s make the world ad-free!

17 01 2008

Thanks very much Clare,

It is virtually impossible to avoid sweat shop products. We are pretty much divorced form the origins (geographical, social, environmental etc.) of all the “stuff” we buy.

I’m increasingly convinced that a heavy focus on individual decision making in ethical purchasing (and most environmental matters) is misplaced. As a society we need to make it easy (and occasionally compulsory) to do the right thing rather than rely on a shopper’s choices. The latter approach just won’t work sadly.

Hey that “Made in Australia” shirt might be worth some money thanks to its rarity.

Re: ad-free blog symbol: I’d seen it on your and other blogs. I’ve noticed the insidious rise of corporate and mass media blogging and thought it was a good way to support independent blogging. As far as ad free media, I’m a massive ABC fan.

11 02 2008

Debunking is necessary and you’ve done a fine job here. Marcuse said the problem with capitalism was not that it gives us too little, but that it gives us too much. The result is an alienated society of “one-dimensional men”. Singer has done nothing to show that Marcuse was wrong. We have but to look around at contemporary society to see that it is one dimensional, a dimension we can call ever increasing grow or, more simply, social isolation.

Great post.

12 02 2008

True Trin. It’s disappointing to me that people equate the idea of “markets” with global corporate cowboy-nomics. There are many other possible market based systems that we are yet to fully explore.

I’m a fan of the quote (can’t recall author):

“The problem with capitalism in its current form is not that capital is in the hands of private individuals but rather, that most people haven’t got any.”

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