Defending Capitalism Against Ourselves

Defending Capitalism Against Ourselves

Philosophy January 30, 2012 / By Ben Irvine
Defending Capitalism Against Ourselves

The negative aspects of capitalism may lie in its misuse by individuals rather than the structures and practices themselves.

 “Riverside indigenous peoples don’t conceive of their river as something which flows, but simply as a place. Flow is a concept exclusive to our capitalist preoccupation with systems, transportation and exchange”.

I heard this statement uttered by a participant in a recent seminar, in which the main speaker had likewise regaled us with postmodern musings about life beside the water in South America (for a synopsis: imagine what would happen if you whispered “river” into Jacques Derrida’s ear while he was feverish). Never mind what the locals – adept canoeists and fishermen – would make of the ludicrous suggestion that they don’t know that rivers flow; what struck me was how impoverished our own worldview becomes when intellectuals in the humanities uncritically mythologize pre-industrial (i.e. tribal or hunter-gatherer or indigenous) societies and demonise global capitalism. It’s an issue that relates importantly to the project – which I wholeheartedly support – of promoting a more creative side to modern life; often the sought-after creativity is a state that’s imagined to apply to gentle faraway peoples unfettered by money. The point is, the linguistic waggishness adopted by intellectuals in homage to these so-called ‘noble savages’ in fact serves to obscure the truth about modern life, and thus the genuine possibilities for making it more carefree and creative.  

By the term ‘mythologizing’ I refer partly to the reluctance of many anthropologists, sociologists, historians and literary critics to acknowledge any innate psychological similarities in human beings across pre-industrial and western societies. There is a misguided fear that describing universal mental categories – a common, evolved human nature – doesn’t account for cultural variation, and is tantamount to oppression (as in that irksome feeling we get when a know-it-all tries to pigeon-hole us in conversation). So strong is the prevailing intellectual taboo against evolutionary psychology, few people are aware that this discipline has repeatedly emphasised that all societies are a combination of biological and idiosyncratic cultural factors; it remains the case that ‘the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme’, as Steven Pinker laments in The Blank Slate.

But the term mythologizing also highlights one particular allegation of dissimilarity emphasised by the extreme position; that pre-industrial societies are on the whole more peaceful, civilised and contented than western ones. Rather than alleviating problems in living, which anyone who flicks through an Argos catalogue might assume, capitalism is allegedly making life worse for us – as well as for people in the developing world, who would be better off left alone. Evolutionary psychology, it follows, is an ideological foil for an economic system based on plunder; propaganda for the exploitation more commonly known as globalisation.

Yet a spate of superb recent books – Robert Wright’s NonZero, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and, most recently, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature – have demolished the suggestion that pre-industrial societies tend to be less violent than capitalist ones; in fact, the statistical and archaeological evidence suggests the opposite. And we capitalists – with our credit cards and wads of cash – are nicer than you might think. When any two people trade – even if they are tens of thousands of miles apart – they are in essence agreeing to do each other a favour (thereby recognising that they’re more useful to each other alive than dead, as Pinker puts it). Moreover, when one person pays money to another for some service or product, anybody in the economy can be the recipient of the returned favour once the money is passed on: a collective mentality that hippies would be proud of.

Then there’s the trust implicit in all these exchanges. When money changes hands we generally know we can rely on each other to fulfil the obligations encoded in the transactions. How cosy! And how enlightened are our moral philosophies, which rightly insist that this togetherness should be maximally inclusive (embracing everybody, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, religion or political outlook). As for anyone with limited talent, the logic of reciprocity and division of labour humanely ensures that they can still contribute meaningfully and valuably to the economy, simply because even the most capable among us cannot do it all in a complex society.   

Also involved in this love-in are those dastardly bankers you hear about in the news: they scratch our backs by giving us money, as long as we make it worthwhile to them by promising to scratch their backs in future through paying interest. What other kind of reciprocation would be fair? Finally, there are the “evil” corporations: suffice to say that if you’d told someone a few hundred years ago that one day individual organisations would employ hundreds of thousands of people and feed hundreds of millions more around the globe, and do it daily, efficiently, and purely by virtue of civilians exchanging favours, you’d have been laughed at.

Viewed through this lens, even an issue as contentious as sweatshop labour doesn’t seem quite as clear-cut as knee-jerk critics of capitalism would lead you to believe. A corporation opens a factory in a far-flung impoverished location and the desperate locals work long hours. Why do they put up with it? Are they being forced to by capitalism? Yes, but not necessarily in the way you might think. The choice is often forced upon them through a contrast with the alternatives – starvation, prostitution, arranged marriage, or simply working conditions which are worse in other, locally-owned, factories.

Indeed, the lesson of history is that when countries voluntarily open themselves up to the reciprocal gains of globalisation (which has increasingly been the case, and is continuing to be so) they tend to become richer, healthier and more democratic – even if the process of development is, admittedly, racking by our privileged standards. The key question is which is the lesser of two evils: sitting in a seminar room eulogising about distant utopian communities as they starve, or going out there to build a factory and put an all-too-meagre meal on their plates? Philosophically it’s about the difference between goodness as a bog-standard favour performed in anticipation of acceptable payback (a definition under which I include charity and the reputational enhancement it affords), or goodness as an intangible, perfect ideal of benevolence achieved only by mythical others whose remote lives we should meditate on rather than engage with.

Needless to say, this brief caricature cannot do justice to such a complex and emotive subject. No-one in their right mind would deny that capitalism has its problems: environmental abuses, inequality, social atomisation and an economy spewing out phoney promises of happiness; I could go on. The most important point I wish to make is a less familiar one: that the mindset which causes intellectuals in the humanities to abhor meaningful commerce – both psychological and financial – with pre-industrial societies is also harmful to our own society. By turning a blind eye to human nature we not only fail to understand the lives and needs of people in developing countries, we fail to see ourselves for what we are.

We fail to recognise that we are modern humans with ancestral brains which sometimes (i) make anachronistic demands on us, and (ii) even mislead us. In the first case, we remain obsessed with status, gossip, danger and fatty or sugary foods (all of which our ancestors evolved to be captivated by) despite the fact that we now live in a time of solidarity, security, safety and plenty. We also tend to prioritise the here and now above the longer, broader view which is needed for reducing environmental harms (a view which, incidentally, communist countries are much worse at taking than capitalist ones). In the second case, we are increasingly faking the stimuli which our brains are primed for; opting for the impoverishing virtual realities of computer games, online gambling, TV, drugs and social networking sites rather than more substantial routes to happiness, such as families, communities, financial orderliness, physical fitness and job satisfaction. Capitalism has arguably become a little too slick. And, in the process, we’ve forgotten about the playful, creative and sociable side to human nature which helped build this global edifice in the first place. Working hard and playing hard are, after all, correlates.  

What I’m getting at is an equation of Darwinism with moralism. By understanding human nature we can understand where we can go right and wrong as a society. By recognising our evolved tendencies, we can know ourselves better – in both senses of the pun. Rather than throwing out the baby of capitalism along with the bathwater of our social problems, we can address those problems directly. We can enhance our understanding of ourselves and our true needs, and thus influence society via capitalism and history’s most powerful lever: consumer demand. We can, indeed, also become even more conscientious global neighbours by becoming happier in ourselves.


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