My brother pointed out that the invention of grain storage dramatically increased the population that could be supported on a given plot of land. He maintained that Capitalism was born then, and has produced "the greatest good for the greatest number" of any economic system. I continue to think (and write) about the linguistic, cultural and religious implications of this fascinating idea.
Looking at the world now, I doubt if it is so simple, or that the "greatest good" measure even applies at all. I heard recently that seventy percent of Americans own their homes. Yet we now know that the numbers on general consumption (five percent of the world's people - us - consume eighty-five percent of the resources) indicate something quite different from efficient storage and distribution of the common wealth is going on.
A word about my bias is appropriate here. I believe that if people are starving, it probably doesn't matter if it is their fault or not; but nobody goes hungry on purpose. I see no point in blaming victims, except to justify letting them starve to death. I say, flying in the face of History, that this is inhuman, and that the wealthy must be responsible for the poor. Much of what follows is my attempt to explain this, as though it were necessary. The short version is that Capitalism was not an evolutionary breakthrough for humanity, but for Feudalism. Unregulated Capitalism is essentially a parasitic relationship that kills the host, eventually. It is an abuse when it is substituted for Government.
If we are honest, a full definition of Capitalism must include the fact that it consumes its victims. It doesn't just ignore them, it relies on a certain level of poverty. Recently a friend asked me to expand on this statement. The answer is so simple it eludes us most of the time. It comes down to the old pie metaphor. The world's resources are not infinite. Despite glib pronouncements about "growth" and "productivity", the simple fact remains that even when wealth is being created, profits, for those who profit, are outrageously disproportionate. For some people to have excessive wealth, others must suffer dearth and privation. Just the stark facts of poverty prove this, despite the pervasive slight-of-hand, misdirection or denial of "Scientists" like Milton Friedman. To repeat: the economy is a pie; if some people are going hungry, others got more pie. Even if the pie is a "growth" pie, as some claim it will be if we just trust them. All arguments for disproportionate distribution of wealth are based on elitism: that some people deserve more pie, because they make sure it gets baked. Baloney! Horse feathers! "Growth" is just a word for baking more pies. This affects equitable distribution not at all.
In the light of this fact, then, that Capitalism relies on a certain level of starvation to produce "growth", the Nazi Holocaust is an example of an attempt at a horribly pure form of Capitalism, baldly incorporating the ovens into the economic machinery. Such brutal efficiencies have proved aesthetically unacceptable, but only just barely. Most historians agree that Hitler very nearly pulled it off. Even though the terrible Nazi project was stopped, the people who are pushed off the bottom end of the Capitalist economic ladder are still recycled, but now they are allowed to deteriorate into human compost instead of being industrially processed. Genocides occur regularly and are largely permitted or prevented in the context of international economics, not humanitarian considerations. So a real Holocaust continues unabated, as it has for hundreds of years. American enslavement of human beings was not an anomaly, but a major component of Capitalist boom times. In those times nearly everyone lived as miserably as enslaved people anyway, at least in the beginning. So many of us are now quite comfortable thanks to the awful sufferings of those who went before, yet we do not reject the old system in favor of a more equitable one now that we have risen so far. There is a very good argument that the American slave system ended for economic reasons, not from our higher moral sensibilities; the cotton gin, among other innovations, simply made human labor on such a scale obsolete. But we didn't abolish slave labor by any means. We just changed the labels on the same old chains. Now we've moved the enslaved people offshore, thanks to another innovation, the computerized shipping container system. This is much more efficient, and very Capitalist.
If an economy is the brawn of a society, Democracy must be it's brain. An economic system is a circulatory system analogous to heart. lungs and blood. If the governing, organizing system, i.e., the brain, does no more than support circulation, this is known as a "persistent vegetative state". The purpose of a political system is more than basic survival. It is generative, creative, inventive, adaptive, flexible, evolutionary, far beyond what is necessary for a healthy gene pool. It functions in a greater context. Its function is stewardship, husbandry of community, not to kill off competitors but to cooperate with them to mutual advantage. The "Ivisible Hand" of an economic system is not going to come up with a solution for global warming, or recognize itself as the cause; an advanced political system just might, possibly even anticipating such a problem early enough to organize and accomplish the enormous work now required of us.
Capitalism is at least as antithetical to Democracy as any other "ism," if allowed to determine public policy. And this is not inherent to the economic system, any more than it is to the political one. It is simply that the two cannot both fulfil the same functions of governance at the same time. If Democracy is to hold sway in public affairs, the economic system, whatever it is, will have to be regulated so as not to impinge upon it. In other words, the economic component of the overall organizing system will have to be put in its place, instead of being the entire structure as it always has in the past. Democratic societies will have to impose discipline, where Capitalism tends to get drunk and disorderly, in between episodes of depreassion.
Given the span of a human lifetime, which has lengthened even within my own half-century or so for those of us in the more comfortable echelons of economic power while it has shortened correspondingly for others, I think we may expect our lives to be determined by the economic system (and our positions within it) for the foreseeable future, for better or worse. But this is not inevitable, if we can find a way to recognize that an economic system may not be the best form of social organization. Until that happens, Maggie Thatcher's statement, "There is no alternative" to Capitalism, will remain true. Not because it was foreordained, but because force (as distinct from power) is in the hands of the Capitalists, and one significant, perhaps defining characteristic of Capitalism is that if successful, it is the only game in town. Like Wal-Mart. Or Small Pox.
Let it now be declared: There Is An Alternative! The alternative to Capitalism is not Communism, Socialism, Fascism, Monarchy, Anarchy, Oligarchy, Nationalism - all of which including Capitalism I stubbornly maintain are but sly euphemisms for Feudalism - the alternative to all of them, I say, is Democracy. Whatever economic system we want or are stuck with, we must place it below Democracy. Until we do, the world will be at war with itself, as it has been for thousands of years.
As long as we suffer from the competition between these disparate systems, we will remain as helpless as leaves in the wind. And here I do not mean the supposed struggle between economic systems, "our" brand of Feudalism vs. "theirs". I mean the actual, ongoing contest between the economic and the political (both "ours") that goes on as if they were all apples, or all oranges. They are not. The struggle between the forces of Capitalism and the larger interests of all of society should be seen for what it is, not a philosophical argument, but a parasitic assault upon the many by the few, the object of which is a disproportionate share of the pie.
Much of this confusion would dissipate if enough people were clear about this distinction between a society and its economy. But this clarity is itself a threat to Capitalism, and a threat to individual politician/Capitalists who have turned their public offices into business enterprises. It is even acceptable to propose that Government be "run like a business" these days. What an idea! But here we are: our assets have already been stripped, and our public services "privatized" from schoolhouse to jailhouse. Most of our communities now rely on gambling enterprises to support basic, essential public services. What is our Government now, if not a vast corporate business enterprise?
It is not the Emperor who has no clothes, I greatly fear.