COLUMN: Fair Shares -- the moral way to distribute social wealth: PART II

COLUMN: Fair Shares -- the moral way to distribute social wealth: PART II

This continues a discussion begun in Part I, last week.

Bad Capitalism: exploitation

If there is one single thing that separates me from most Lennonesque liberals and progressives who want One World, it is not my affection for defined and qualified Canadian nationalism. It is that I am anti-capitalist, whereas the majority of global neo-liberal progressives feel that capitalism is operating just fine. They say that because, in their social class, capitalism has enriched them and provided them with privileged, entitled lives that money can buy.

The single best book about liberals and wealth is, to my mind, Listen, Liberal! by T. Frank. He explains how the “liberal professional class” has engrossed most of the increase in economic growth in their incomes while most workers have seen their incomes stagnate, falling behind the former standards of a middle-class quality of life. Chris Hedges also has written about the historic phenomenon of liberal failure to share the wealth of America’s growth among working-class people. The liberal class gets richer, the 0.1 percent get obscenely rich, but the middle class and workers fall ever further into a life of deprivation of the material goods a fair income distribution would deliver.

Wolfgang Streeck, a German academic, has written a book which is receiving generally positive reviews: How will Capitalism end? He makes the point that our imaginations are failing to create an alternative to capitalism even as its defects become ever more manifest. We can more easily foresee a future in which climate change wrecks our civilization, Streeck writes, than we can imagine a future without capitalism. Capitalism is rife with contradictions that seem eventually must lead to its demise, a “snake devouring its own tail.”

It is intellectuals, of whom I have written in foregoing paragraphs, who are the social actors one expects to supply articulated imagination. If a future where capitalism is subjugated to provide human needs without ruining lives, or entirely replaced with a better economic order, is possible, then the intelligentsia are the people society expects to generate the new ideas.

Charles Eisenstein is one such intellectual often mentioned in my columns, and Karl Marx is another. But despite powerful words from writers such as these, it is hard to discern that capitalism is being supplanted by Marxian “scientific socialism” or Eisenstein’s “sacred economy of the gift.”

Capitalism is in a triumphal phase, thanks in large part to the power science and technology has given to it over the decades since the end of WWII. Streeck chose the title of his book with that fact in mind, for it is very difficult at this moment to see a contender for the role of “terminator of capitalism”. How will capitalism end, indeed?

One review summarizes Streeck’s comments on opposition to capitalism this way: “Capitalism is defeating its opposition. -- The masses, both poor and less poor, seem firmly in favour of consumerism, and firmly against collective action. ‘Black Friday’ sales proliferate, labour unions dissolve and collapse.”

[Read the review at]

Good Capitalism: liberation

But once again the point needs to be emphasized that not all intellectuals are against capitalism, and some defend it with arguments both moral (e.g., Ann Rand, F. Hayek) and practical (M. Friedman). Jonathan Haidt is one such thinker, and in his essay “Capitalism Changes Conscience,” he attempts to persuade us that in the long term, people who prosper materially from capitalism became altered by that experience over generations, and move in a “progressive” political direction.

“-- I’d like to point out how capitalist development tends to change values and lifestyles in ways that might be reassuring to those who identify as left-leaning, politically, on social and environmental issues. … and this is my central point: Capitalism and the wealth it creates changes nature [ecology, environment] and humanity simultaneously. -- Capitalism changes conscience. Capitalism got us into this ecological mess, back when most people had materialist values and cared little for the environment. But as values and cultures shift toward post-materialism all over the world, capitalism just might get us out.”

[Read Haidt’s interview at ]

Two points will undermine Haidt’s notion. My first point is about timing, to refute the process he describes. My second point is about the feebleness of progressives in halting the triumphal tide of capitalist super-development.

One, the fact that Western nations have Green parties, anti-materialist sub-cultures, and powerful movements trying to obstruct capitalist development, is true, but he has not drawn a causal link between capitalist material prosperity and “progressive politics.” Progressive politics began in the French Revolution, well before material capitalism entered French economy. English progressives opposed to the “dark, satanic mills” of industrialization, as the poet Blake exemplifies, were in evidence at the very start of English industrial capitalism. The love of Nature, and distaste for the immorality of capitalist social habits, do not wait for materialist excess to be evident before manifesting in the felt experience of people who express their opposition to capitalism. Well before capitalism has reached full maturity, sensitive minds are rejecting its ways.

Two, the progressive movements Haidt notices, the “life-styles” and social “values” he calls “left-leaning,” are not delaying the juggernaut of capitalism, merely making corporations find new ways of advancing their agenda. The neo-liberal program for global free trade is putting corporate power in command of third-world nations (even weak first-world states like Greece suffer this). When their power is stymied by citizen activism in rich democracies, corporations, who have the legal rights of fictive individuals in the American legal system, can take governments to court for violating free-trade treaties.

Sharing and distributing wealth: morality at work

Super-wealthy individuals have a wonderful privilege for doing good. Jimmy Pattison, BC’s wealthiest man and a true rags-to-riches entrepreneur, just donated 75 million dollars to a medical campus for a Vancouver hospital, and is garnering lavish praise and public acclaim for his generosity. Bill Gates and his Foundation regularly get noticed for his philanthropy, particularly his declared aim of aid for Africa to fight diseases, and funding for libraries.

Elon Musk and Richard Branson, celebrity billionaires known for their “flamboyance” and style, are not celebrated so much for philanthropy as for their visionary promotion of space travel and colonization. There appears to be an appetite in popular culture for exalting the egotistic ambition of such types of capitalists. Every time these types make celebrity news, I want to cringe for the obviousness of the propaganda. “Don’t call them egotists, call them giants of human ingenuity, champions of the entrepreneurial spirit, captains of industry.” Oh, puh-leeeeze!

Oprah Winfrey, Yoko Ono, and J.K. Rowling, are famous rich women noted for their sharing ethics. Rowling has my respect for her donations to charities.

A truly admirable capitalist, worthy of being a model to owners of corporations, is Mary Anderson, a co-founder of Recreational Equipment Incorporated. REI is operated as a consumers co-operative, owned by its patrons. She is featured in a current New York Times opinion piece on corporate philanthropy.

Philanthropy is not altruism, since “love of humanity” is not synonymous with altruistic (self-denying) action to promote other humans’ needs ahead of your own. Capitalists are frequently philanthropists, while still being egoists in their economic behaviour. It is an error to criticise them for not being altruists – for it is possible to be a moral person and not be altruistic.

“When altruism is equated with morality, egotism becomes logically ineligible as morality” in the words of Haidt; he is correct, the equation is wrong. Altruism is not  identical with morality.

Intellectuals who attack capitalism for having no morality are mistaken. Capitalism has a moral culture; that it leads us to this present moment of accumulating crisis demonstrates the bankruptcy of that moral culture.

When CEO’s vote themselves pay and bonuses that are hundreds of times more than the annual wage income of workers, their justification is that they are “worth it” and the best minds in business deserve their high pay – in the grand competition among corporations around the world, the business genius can command these huge sums because he or she enriches the corporation.

Haidt notices that “capitalism changes conscience.” He fails to understand what possession of huge capitalist wealth does to the capitalist ruling class. Capital is a phenomenon that changes the human mind, in my understanding of consciousness. It empowers the egoic forces of rich men (women are still an insignificant fraction among the most potent capitalists). The resulting social maladies and deformations of our culture and politics due to the machinations of the outrageously rich have not been so manifest until this modern era.

Until Capital appeared late in the history of civilization, the social layer that dominated culture, economy, and politics was the aristocracy, the men of noble blood. They are no longer with us in the West, and are weakened in the rest of the world (although the Saudi royal family and some others might be named important exceptions.) Nobility and lordship are qualitatively different aspects of human character distinct from the personal traits of successful billionaires. A capitalist is powerful beyond the dream of a feudal baron, able to impact workers and governments all over the world if his capital is great enough.

I am grateful for the personal moral imperative that drives a capitalist to voluntarily share her/his wealth with society, but I am unwilling to let the individual conscience of the rich be the determinant of sharing wealth.

I am a socialist in the basic meaning of that label, wanting the material wealth we all own to be public, social wealth, not privatized by capitalists in right of their investment. I reject the claim that the capitalist risks his investments and his main duty to society is to provide paying jobs and taxes. Not enough; I want wealth distributed fairly, not by “the invisible hand of the market” (Adam Smith’s phrase, written at the dawning of Capital in England.)

Please notice two things in my last paragraph: I am politically and ethically a socialist, and intellectually opposed to capitalism as a moral code. When I wrote “material wealth we all own” I meant something “old-fashioned” by saying “we” – I meant a national community, Canadians, and its natural resource endowment. All Canadian citizens own the resources of Canada, and they are not equally the possession of all human inhabitants of earth.

[I am sorry, but I think Canada is not equally owned by citizens of Canada and the rest of humanity. History has unfolded so that just one nation-state rules over this territory, and that’s us. Otherwise, one would have to sympathize with Americans who look at the Arab nations and ask, “why did God put our oil under your land?”]

Transforming consciousness

I know -- I think the evidence proves -- that capitalism has done something to human consciousness. What capitalist economic behaviour has done to consciousness is, I conclude from history, negative in effect. All of us, not merely the very rich, have felt the impact. It makes us materialists, and empowers our egos. These are not effects that are positive for our peace of mind, for the good of the planet, or for peace among ourselves.

A world without the discovery of capitalist economic behaviour would not be a worse world than this one. In my humble opinion.

Concurrent with the success of capital have been triumphs of science and technology in the last two centuries; political democracy and societies with strong human rights have also developed in this time-frame. I do not see capitalism as the root cause of the other changes, the cause of democracy or technology, but the relationships are conflated. All these evolved together.

Capitalism, as Streeck describes it, is very strong and seems to lack opposition that might transform it into something less destructive. Kahan thinks capitalism deserves intellectual support to shore up its morality. Haidt sees capitalism altering conscience, but his analysis is superficial, and the “left-leaning life-styles” he says come “inevitably” when capitalist materialism succeeds, are nothing but froth on the surface.

Under the cultural bubbles of progressivism lies the bedrock of capitalist inequality, and Haidt has nothing to say about that. Haidt actually says this instead: “Billions of people are rising out of poverty as globalization connects them to international markets -- In a few decades, billions of people will as wealthy as Americans are today -- Also, as societies get wealthier, life generally gets safer, not just due to reductions in disease, starvation, and vulnerability to natural disasters, but also due to reductions in political brutalization.”

He sums the progressive process this way: “Wealth rises and values shift -- The net effect of rising security is to transform people’s values in ways that the modern political left should love.” [my emphasis]

Haidt’s vision of the future, of billions of humans much richer than they are now, boggles my mind. He seems to be lost in a materialist, techno-utopian consciousness typical of the late nineteenth century, before Europe plunged its civilization into the abyss of the First World War. I simply cannot comprehend his optimism. I cannot fathom that he believes the arc of politics and culture of the wealthy West since the late eighteenth century is the model for all other nations on earth as they struggle to become modern economies in the global neo-liberal order. How can anyone think that is a desirable, probable future?

Transformation of human consciousness is what might make it possible for our species to turn aside from self-destruction and the ruination of our planet. But that’s just my preference, an opinion gleaned from the writers and visionaries I read, and it is hardly a consensus. There are loud voices agreeing with Haidt, and those whose vision encompasses humanity colonizing the moon, Mars and so forth, regularly broadcast that perspective into globalizing ideology.

I prefer the attempt to project another future not modelled on how the West achieved dominance, and a fine voice for that perspective is Willliam Irwin Thompson. His pamphlet, From Nation to Emanation (1982) was absolutely prophetic, and has some very dark descriptions of possible futures.

Thompson looks to artists to lead our visions away from the kind of planned capitalist world advocated by world-governance dreamers like OECD economists and Mars-colonizers. Like me, he has high praise for the writing of Doris Lessing in her Shikasta novel-cycle. He says this about globalist notions of controlling the future with the agenda of the recent past:

“In environmental engineering, there is no transformation of consciousness whatsoever; the engineer simply approaches nature as a machine to be fixed. Planetary culture is not simply globalist thinking, it is a transformation of consciousness and of society. The purpose of this political pamphlet [From Nation to Emanation] is to prevent planetary culture from being turned into an ideology -- ”

It is supremely unfortunate, I think, that Thompson has virtually disappeared as a voice for planetary culture; a dire sign of his obscurity is that Charles Eisenstein, when I inquired by email to him, informed me he had not heard of Thompson. Thompson has retired from public life, and his past writing is difficult to find amidst the blizzard of new writing every day online. To me, he is yet one more great intelligence whose impact has been minimal in this time of super-production of the written and spoken word. (I feel this every time I add my own noise to the online world here in the Arc.)

I will give Thompson the last word, and urge readers to try and find his works and insights wherever they can.

“We are now in a period of darkness and disturbing heat; we are being closed in, and the planet is becoming smaller and smaller in this age of global compression. Space colonies are talked about -- [Remember] a long time ago in the mystery schools of Egypt and Mexico, the initiate was placed in a coffin to endure the terrors of initiation in the larger world of out-of-the-body consciousness. So it is now with us for the planet -- [I]t is truly dangerous and terrifying, but out of the darkness can emerge a new clarity if we realize that the sarcophagus, our planet, is a crystalline image of everything we need to know to endure and prevail.”

“Now as we enter a new age we may be called upon to work at the other end of history, to create a civilization suffused with divinity. -- [an] act of creation of a new sacred civilization, when in the words of the ancient Sumerians, ‘Kingship descends from heaven.’ ”

What can one individual do to promote planetary consciousness or bring “kingship” down from heaven? Essential acts of human kindness: be your own Buddha. Concerted efforts at daily mindfulness: be your own ruler.

Like a little candle, burning in the night -- an effective contribution to a better world.


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