It’s cliche to blame things on capitalism. But it’s such a vague thing, only one step removed from blaming it on some amorphous concept like “greed” or even “sin”. When I say that capitalism “makes things worse” it’s easy to dismiss, because it is so very vague.
So. Let me get specific.
When a company seeks investment, be it public or private, it often leads to disaster. Not for the investors, but for the customers and employees of that company. Any vision that may have been at the heart of that company, any wider goals or ideals about creating some public good, those all go out the window. It’s all about profit and growth, the latter perhaps being even more important.
It only makes sense, really. The investors want a return on their investment, they want something for their money. Their shares in the company are worthless unless they bring in some money, either by increasing the value of the company itself or directly through dividends. So the mandate coming down to the CEO and the whole management structure of the company is this: increase profits. The specifics aren’t important, just make it happen one way or another.
This is why every website you use is slowly getting worse over the years. This is why phones are designed to break after a certain amount of time.
But! There is a great Excuse: The Invisible Hand. The idea behind this is that the market is self-selecting, anything that is harmful enough or unpopular enough will simply be destroyed by the natural forces of The Market. Thus, if you’re making money, you must be doing something right. Besides, if you’re making profit, it all filters down through various avenues back to creating more public good, in one way or another. Investors making money will reinvest in other companies, helping them bring their unique vision to life, and so on.
So, the theory is that money flows freely, and the need for profit is actually a drive for efficiency. After all, profit is created when goods are cheaper to produce than they are to sell, so whoever is making the most profit must be the most efficient! What a marvelous system, how could such a perfect be responsible for anything wrong with the world?
Well, the answer is that it doesn’t work that way in practice. The problem with this scheme, and the whole idea of the Invisible Hand, is that it relies too much on vague notions of “market forces” and, more specifically, doesn’t account for bad actors or information imbalance.
What actually happens is that people take this notion, that anything making a profit is helping the greater good, and use it as an excuse. And then any criticisms of it fall back into this exact vague philosophical debate that goes nowhere. I can say “the Invisible Hand doesn’t work” and you can say “sure it does” or “it’s only because people are interfering in the market with regulation” or any number of minor quibbles.
The problem is that there is a moral rot at the very heart of capitalism. All these different things are done in the name of profit. And what is profit? It’s finding ways to sell something for more than it costs to make. It’s finding money for nothing, a way to trick people into paying more for something than it is actually worth. It is built on exploitation from top to bottom.
The thing you have to ask when you look at anything that is done in the name of profit, that is excused with a resigned “that’s business”, is to ask what it really accomplishes? Where does that profit actually, at the end of the day, go? Most of the time, into the pocket of someone who doesn’t need it.
But, even there the waters are muddied. What about all those pension funds that invest in the stock market? What about the poor individuals who save up and put their money in an index fund? How can you condemn them with the same brush?
It’s easy, because it’s not about individuals. The problem with capitalism is what it does to society as a whole, not on an individual level. The ideals that it promotes, the blindness to reality that it requires to continue working.
To my mind, the most insidious thing that capitalism does, especially in America, is encourage everyone to empathize with the wealthy. It makes sense, really, you don’t need any special propaganda for it. Being rich is obviously great, it’s what everyone wants to achieve, it’s the whole point of all this toil and strife. So, you want it to be worth it, in the end, if you can ever get there. Rather than thinking about the present, which is miserable, people think about the future, what it will be like if they can get theirs.
So, the wealthy are coddled at the expense of everyone else. But everyone has their own problems, and our own problems aren’t so bad as someone else’s problems, so it’s all worth it, really. If you think only as a strong, independent individual, there are some minor problems but it’s not so bad, because there’s a chance you could win the lottery and live in luxury.
Simply put, the wild, insane luxury and power of the wealthy is easier to get excited about than making everything a little better for everyone. It’s easy to see how a big pile of money could improve your life, but if you’re talking about helping other people too, well, that’s just getting too theoretical. You get lost in theoretical arguments again, trying to craft a more perfect system, building rube goldberg machines to improve society instead of tackling issues directly.
Let us return to that question: what is all this profit for? Is it worth it, to cause untold pain to thousands upon millions of individuals, to make some numbers go up?
Capitalism is an evil force in our world because it has no purpose, no real concrete ideals. It is only about increasing profits, forever. About amassing power for the sake of having it. It is about concentrating control in the hands of a few individuals, elevating them for the purpose of having them elevated.
Efficiency is achieved as a byproduct, and still we are all worse off for it. The profits only go to the top, there is no trickle down, it’s been shown time and time again.
Do not be distracted by theories. Look at what happens right in front of you. A worker is laid off, his job is no longer necessary, the company can do things more efficiently. Do they benefit from that increased efficiency? Is the product any cheaper, do they get some small kickback? If no, then what use is that efficiency. Who does it actually serve?
Millions go without homes while millions of home stand empty. People starve on the streets while food is thrown away. Untold human misery is created for the cause of petty greed at every level of our society.
Capitalism cannot solve any problems, that isn’t what it’s for. It is only for increasing numbers, on graphs and spreadsheets, making sure they go up instead of down. Other things may happen along the way, great art may even be created, but that’s not what the goal is.
Also, capitalism cannot really do anything it all, because it is not an actor in the world. It all comes down to individuals taking action on their own, being influenced by countless things. Capitalism is merely the name we give to this vague system that is supposed to be making all of our lives better. It becomes an even better scapegoat than the Invisible Hand.
Nothing in the world is simple. There is always a way to tell a story that puts your view forward. I would encourage you, simply, to ask questions. Look with eyes unclouded at what is happening around you.
It’s all anyone can do.