Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Capitalism. Read other perspectives here.
The answer to the question of capitalism's success depends on what you imagine capitalism was supposed to deliver in the first place. If you're part of the 1 percent holding most of the world's wealth, then I imagine capitalism looks like a raging success. If you are going hungry, homeless, seeing your landscape poisoned by fracking, or trapped in a war zone, capitalism is definitely not helping you in the slightest.
The alleged ideal of capitalism was something along the lines of "a chicken in every pot and a car on every drive"—good stuff for all, by whatever your current measure of good stuff is. The idea we were sold was that greater wealth would improve everyone's lot, and trickledown economics would raise us up so that even the poorest have a sufficiency of all things.
It just isn't happening. It never could. Capitalism by its very nature could never deliver the things we have believed it would. Capitalism is about making profit, and to make a profit you have to create a difference between the value of a thing—in terms of labor costs, production costs, and raw materials—and the price you sell it at. It is that difference that gets us into trouble, not least because the profit so often ends up in the hands of someone who did not do the work. Furthermore, when someone stockpiles money, as the super-rich do, they effectively take energy and resources out of the system, reducing what is available for everyone else. Money is just a token for barter. If we move those tokens around, we move goods, services, and opportunities around at the same time. If we put them in a big pile and lock the door, those tokens are of no use. Much of the world's wealth is locked behind the doors of the very few right now. No wonder the rest of us are struggling!
Capitalism functions in exactly the same way as any other faith position. It is only our belief in money that makes money viable as a system. It is our belief in the value of the things and our belief in the price tag that makes it work. Stocks and shares are basically about buying and selling belief and how much we are prepared to believe in the future worth of a commodity.
Modern economics (I gather from reading professor of economics Molly Scott Cato) were dreamed up before we'd figured out a lot of basic physics. Modern economics has its origins in a time when we didn't understand finite energy systems. This is why none of it works the way it is supposed to—it is based on beliefs that are largely wrong.
Anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about religion will have run up against the issue of belief. The further removed a belief is from discernible reality, the more problematic it becomes, and the more dysfunctional it is likely to be. One of the things I like about Paganism is that you can do it with very little belief at all. The seasons change, the earth goes round the sun, creating an impression of rising and setting. We live, we die. I do not need to believe anything much to engage with this. All I need is to find life valuable.
I do not believe in capitalism. I do not believe in banks. I do not believe in stocks and shares or in international currency markets. I do not believe in GDP. I do not believe in neoliberal economics.
Now dare to imagine what would happen if we all stopped believing in capitalism and, like the questioning pioneers in so many other fields of human endeavor, started asking some serious questions about how the economy works.
4/9/2014 4:00:00 AM