Author: Harvey Dryer
Whilst reflecting on life during lockdown, many people have craved a return to ‘normal.’ A normality that includes commodity fetishism, alienation of work, and selfish economic behaviour. Such reflections should be cast out along with existing economic institutions that purport capitalism as their vade mecum. We should not desire a return to the way things used to be. Out of the rubble, humanity must cooperatively work towards a new normal: a better normal.
Capitalism is the current global economic system. Although there are many forms of capitalism, they all share the same core values of private property, economic freedoms and individualism. In the analysis of these values and the meaning granted to them by notable conservative thinkers, one can effortlessly uncover the numerous flaws and contradictions within the hegemonic economic system. In this article, three critiques of capitalism will be discussed.
One of the many purports of capitalism is that humans are economic animals. To become truly self fulfilled we must become economically free actors. These beliefs are reflected in, new right thinker, Robert Nozick’s Entitlement Theory, which suggests everyone possesses the right to claim the fruits or products of one’s labour as private property (Nozick, 1974). State interference in the economic sphere, such as taxation, is a form of theft from the individual. However, state regulation in the economic sphere actually helps maintain key capitalist market principles. Without state interference, the competitive nature – desired by us ‘economic animals,’ would be unfulfilled. Bankruptcy laws and monopoly laws – passed by state legislatures – ensure that ‘free’ market principles are upheld. The US Congress is even holding hearings to question the leaders of four market giants to determine whether they are hegemons in their sectors (Paul and Rushe, 2020). The current ‘state of the state’ is doing more to enable ‘economic freedoms’ than the ‘night watchman’ state desired by Nozick ever could. Capitalists believe that the state is the enemy of capitalism, but it is actually a key supporter in maintaining it. Without laws to restrict economic freedoms from being taken, our nature, in the eyes of Nozick and Co., would become alienated.
The concept of alienation brings with it a whole other criticism. Capitalism places worth on private property and other material possessions. Whether it is the goods you consume, the product you make or the means by which you make transactions – all exist within the physical realm and are empirically verifiable. They have become the essence of human existence. To paraphrase a famous pop song: we are living in a material world, and we all material people. Without wealth, consumption and tangible products, we are unlikely to survive. Karl Marx, a key socialist think, argued that this has an alienating effect on people. Marx determined that those working only for the material profits of their labour will become alienated not only from the product they produce but also from their work (Marx, 1848). There is no worth given to the work or the product your work besides the monetary value assigned to it. We are just the sum of our material possessions. Thus, human worth is mathematically calculable.
Human consciousness is destroyed in process as well, as workers are transformed into machines that churn out material goods and participate in consumer capitalism. Conservatives see this as self-fulfilling, but most would regard it as a waste of time. For work to not be alienating, it requires intrinsic value. So, for work to be truly self-fulfilling, it must become an end itself; not a means. Conservatives mistake worth as being tangible,
which is why they place so much emphasis on products, services and wealth rather than the work itself. But worth is not confined to the physical world. One only has to read about Aristotle’s Eudaemonia, or Buddhist Nibbana to realise that worth is not simply found in material possessions.
The final criticism that will be discussed revolves around Marx’s commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism refers to the skewed beliefs we form that values commodities and places them into a hierarchy. So often, we fetishise rarity in place of utility. Adam Smith compared the value of a diamond to the value of water (Smith, 1776). Both commodities are acquired though similar levels of work yet the value of the one carat diamond exceeds that of one cubic metre of water enormously. As diamonds have more value, their desirability compared to water is increased. More research, labour, and technological advances are then poured into the extraction of diamonds because of the profit it brings and not into sourcing water, which is essential for human life. The undervaluation of water underwrites the issues of water scarcity within the world. It is simply not profitable. When an economic system places little worth of commodities that humans rely on for survival, it devalues human life. Any system that doesn’t uphold the sanctity of human life is not of value to humanity.
In sum, capitalism conflates state interference with anti-capitalism, destroys human consciousness through alienation and produces an inhuman framework for valuation. The development of this system has been one of the most painful acts of self infliction. Its dynamism gives capitalism an irreplaceable quality, which means it is impossible to remove it from its entrenched position.
However, this year – humanity has a chance to reflect on how the deficiencies of capitalism have been magnified by the current pandemic. The inability of capital to provide equal protection against the virus, compounded by the global outburst of philanthropic action may provide a path to reform the stain of capitalism.
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State and Utopia. New Jersey: Blackwell Publishing.
Marx, K. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin Random House UK
Paul, K and Rushe, D. (29th July 2020). ‘Too much power’: Congress grills top tech CEOs in combative antitrust hearing. The Guardian.
Smith, A. (1776). The Wealth of Nations. London: Shine Classic.