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Gary Gutting on the Skidelskys' Views of Capitalism

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 27, 2012: Occupy Wall Street was a grassroots protest against the greed of certain people on Wall Street, many of whom contributed to the economic crisis that unfolded during President George W. Bush's administration. Above and beyond people on Wall Street, we have heard about the income inequality in this country: The wealthiest 1% of Americans versus the bottom 99%. Under our present economic circumstances, it appears that the bottom 99% will have to downsize their expectations regarding the proverbial American dream based on the proclaimed American ideal of the pursuit of happiness in our capitalist economy.

But what do we understand the pursuit of happiness to mean? For example, does it mean the pursuit of our individual desires, which may appear to be insatiable? But if our individual desires are indeed truly insatiable, then won't the pursuit of our individual desires be insatiable? So what's supposed to be so great about the pursuit of happiness if it insatiable? Pursuing the insatiable sounds like a formula for discontent, not a formula for happiness. Besides that, being subjected to insatiable desires sounds like it would be a challenge to our human freedom. Indeed, it sounds like it would diminish our human freedom if we do indeed have insatiable desires.

Or is it the case that we need to examine our individual desires and learn how to moderate them so that we do not allow them to become insatiable. Moderating our individual desires might enable us to experience satiation of our desires and therefore a modicum of contentment about our satiated desires.

In Plato's famous dialogues the REPUBLIC and the PHAEDRUS, we find a conceptual construct about the human psyche that is composed of three parts: (1) the rational part, (2) the desiring part, and (3) the spirited part (the Greek word is "thumos" or "thymos"). The spirited part of the human psyche is the source of what we today refer to as the fight/flight response.

These three parts of the human psyche parallel the three parts of the triune human brain that Paul D. MacLean identifies as the reptilian brain, the paleo-mammalian brain, and the neo-mammalian brain (the neo-cortex). The neo-mammalian brain is the part of the brain that corresponds to the rational part of the human psyche. The reptilian brain is the part of the brain that controls our fight/flight response. It corresponds to what Plato and Aristotle refer to as "thumos" (or "thymos"). The paleo-mammalian brain is probably the locus in our brains of most of our desires, or the desiring part of the human psyche.

In Plato's PHAEDRUS, we find the famous imagery of a charioteer guiding a chariot drawn by two powerful horses. The horses represent the desiring part of the human psyche and the spirited part ("thumos" or "thymos"). The charioteer represents the rational part of the human psyche, and the chariot itself represents the body.

As to insatiable desires, Plato and Aristotle prescribe the virtue of moderation, defined as the mean between the extremes of over-doing something and under-doing it (e.g., eating).

In addition, Plato and Aristotle prescribed the virtue of courage as the way to cultivate the spirited part of the human psyche ("thumos" or "thymos").

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As to the pursuit of happiness, Plato and Aristotle do not happen to work explicitly with this felicitous expression. Nevertheless, their way of thinking about virtue as the mean between the extremes of over-doing something and under-doing it seems to hint that we should avoid insatiable pursuits because by definition we would be over-doing whatever our pursuit is.

It remains then for us to figure out a way of thinking about happiness so that our pursuit of happiness does not become an insatiable pursuit, but a manageable pursuit that can be reasonably satiated.

But Plato and Aristotle did not live in our American capitalist economy, which appears to be based on a kind of economic insatiability. In his perceptive review essay in COMMONWEAL MAGAZINE online ("Less, Please: Capitalism and the Good Life") about Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky's book HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH? (2012), Gary Gutting, who holds the Notre Endowed Chair in Philosophy and who writes columns occasionally in the New York Times, sums up the Skidelskys' view of the economic insatiability of capitalism as involving "the intrinsic drive for increasing production (and therefore profits) without limit."

In the Skidelskys' view of capitalism, we Americans today are little cogs in the big capitalist economy, which seems to favor the 1% at the top more than the 99%.

For the sake of discussion, I will go along with the Skidelskys' characterization of capitalism as involving economic insatiability. In the short-term, the capitalist economy does drive toward increasing production and profits. However, as everybody knows, in the long-term, entire businesses come and go. For example, in my lifetime the production and marketing of personal computers came into existence. For this reason, I tend to favor Joyce Appleby's way of characterizing capitalism as relentless revolution. See her book THE RELENTLESS REVOLUTION: A HISTORY OF CAPITALISM (2010).

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But does it make any difference if we use the Skidelskys' characterization of capitalism or Appleby's?

The Skidelskys work with the supposed parallel between the economic insatiability of capitalism and the apparent insatiability of individual desires of people who grow up and work in a capitalist economy. But I would interpret the apparent insatiability of individual desires of people who work in a capitalist economy as showing their under-development of the virtue of moderation as Plato and Aristotle understood this virtue -- as the mean between the extremes of over-doing something and under-doing it. They may also suffer from an under-development of courage to moderate their desires. In other words, people who grow up and work in a capitalist economy are free to examine their own tendencies and to cultivate the virtues of moderation and courage in their lives.

As a thought experiment, I would suggest that we use Appleby's characterization of capitalism as involving relentless revolution, but then shift our attention to the people who grow up and work in a capitalist economy. But once we make this shift in our characterization of the capitalist economy, then we no longer have a reason to focus on apparent insatiable desires. Instead, the apparent problem would then presumably be the relentless revolution in our desires. But this apparent new problem would require another way of addressing the apparent problem.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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