Is capitalism sustainable?
The ecological emergency is climate change, biodiversity loss and ideological polarisation. These all imply societal collapse. One thing that is touted as a way out of imminent catastrophe is a move towards socialism. Is changing to a non-capitalist society the answer? Probably not. But there’s a strong argument for a mixed model.
Capital means the goods and services that produce wealth. And wealth comes from the old English word ‘weal’ which has the same route as wellness, or well-being. The most important thing for humans is not to be happy. It is to have a sense of connection. If we have a sense of connection, we have support. This includes material support like enough food and shelter, and also social support, like friends and companionship. It also includes a sense of connection to place, to the natural world that is our common home.
There are five kinds of capital: financial, natural, produced, human and social. These aren’t really five kinds, though. They’re really two kinds: things that come from nature directly — trees and water, air and fish, for instance — and things that don’t. The first kind we rely on for survival. If they run out or get polluted, we get sick, or die. The second kind includes money, which is a made up idea of what to count as valuable. It includes humans working for other humans, which is the thing Marx objected to (however, no society has ever managed to stamp this practice out). And it includes what we produce from the things that come from nature — like oil that comes from millions of years old crushed plants and animals.
Money is one of the things anti-capitalists complain about. If only we didn’t have money, they say, people wouldn’t be able to exploit other people. We would be equal. Certainly, money lets the rich get richer. But money and selling doesn’t go away in non capitalist societies. Look at North Korea and China. The rich still get richer. The poor just have less to sell. In liberal countries, the poor can sell themselves until their bodies are worth nothing any more. This freedom is then worth nothing. But it’s free. In socialist and communist countries, people are supposed to be given enough to live. If that doesn’t happen, the authorities often turn a blind eye and pretend that things are going well. This happens in North Korea and in Cuba, as well as in China. Socialism and communism therefore limit freedom at the cost of control. Control is not always a good thing to cede.
The simple truth is that no one system fits all. We do not all live the same way and nor do we want to. Some level of inequality is always going to exist. Not everyone wants to work and not everyone who works hard succeeds. People need a system that helps them when they’re in difficulty but also allows them freedom to go it alone when they’re doing well.
This system almost exists in Nordic countries, and in states like Kerala in India. It doesn’t work perfectly anywhere but it works better than other systems. It would work even better if it worked everywhere.
It means high taxes for the rich, and it means that those high taxes need to be applicable across state borders — no hiding your profits in Panama. And it means that those taxes need to be used for a robust and functioning health system, and a system of welfare for those who need it. A good education system — one that teaches how to be wise rather than just how to get knowledge — is vital. Above all, get understanding, as the bible says.
A mixed economic system like this would include a high level of freedom of expression but also levy a high punishment for hate crime and abuse of any kind. It would give strong support for the arts, perhaps through a universal basic income. The arts, philosophy, and music, are vital in times of crisis. It would also add a fourth function to the traditional trio of economic activity: produce, consume, distribute — and maintain. It would understand the connection between human interests and the interests of other species so there would be a strong push for people to learn about the community they live in beyond the human community. And it would teach people to defend themselves, but in non-traditional ways, like through martial arts, and through learning how to form defensive groups, because if a way of life is worth having, it is also worth holding onto.