Compassion and capitalism do not mix

Posted on June 12, 2020


(First published on Fin24, Friday, June 12, 2020)

Are we on the cusp of a new, more egalitarian and democratic post-pandemic world or are we merely transitioning to yet another change of form, but not of substance — and one that may be even nastier than what preceded it? It’s a very important question since, right across the spectrum, from corporate capitalists and governments to labour movements and rank and file activists, the cry is that the world cannot go back to “normal”.

Covid-19 has revealed even more clearly the obscene inequality on top of the dangerous pollution to the planet that corporate global capitalism has wrought. And this has triggered increasing calls for a new, united, global structure.

Yet, if we don’t study the past and learn from it, we cannot understand the present or plan sensibly for the future. This is something that, hopefully, is being seriously considered, especially within the labour movement, amid growing calls to “reimagine” a post-pandemic world.

So far, there is little sign of this. But, within the academic mainstream and among the popular commentariat, the central call is for a new, “compassionate capitalism”. To a lesser degree there are also demands within sections of the labour movement, for greater state regulation and control, sometimes equated with the “communism” of China.

But the only thing compassion has in common with capitalism and communism (either Chinese or Soviet-style) is the fact that all three terms start with the letter C. Compassionate capitalism is, in fact, a contradiction in terms because the essence of the system is profit driven competition in which compassion has no place unless it advances profitability.

This is the simple, underlying fact of the modern corporate world, a world that Adam Smith, hailed as the “father of free market (laissez faire) capitalism” would have found abhorrent. Mainstream economists, for example, either do not know, or forget to mention, that Smith opposed the shareholder companies that evolved into the global corporate monsters of today. He agreed that they were inherently prone to corruption and supported the British government’s effective ban of such creations for 115 years.

It is an historical lesson worth looking at. Especially as the route usually promoted as the way toward a “reimagined capitalism” is the social compact (or contract). It tends to be presented as the coming together of business, governments and “civil society” to the supposed benefit of all. But this is an oil and water mix since the fundamental interests of capital and those of the sellers of labour are diametrically opposed.

It is here that the state and the ultimate control of its policies and direction become critically important. And that old adage: they who pay the piper, call the tune, comes very much into play. Governments, as presently constituted around the world, form the managerial layer that acts in the interests of maintaining the stability of a system based on the maximisation of profit for a minority of competing corporations or (in the case of countries such as China, party and private sector elites) at the expense of the exploitation of the majority and the despoilation of the planet.

This system of governance has evolved over recent centuries, largely as a result of often bitter and bloody struggles by exploited and oppressed majorities. Demands for better pay and working conditions, for the right to vote and for education and health care. Each advance was fought for, won and sometimes lost over time.

These were incremental gains, often very shrewdly packaged by ruling minorities. And there were, throughout these struggles always a minority among the majority who argued that it was necessary wholly to transform the system; that it was necessary to seize the whole cake, rather than settle for yet another small slice.

At times of crisis, such as today, when the glaring contradictions of wealth and poverty tend to become increasingly obvious, these calls to overturn and democratise the entire system tend to gain greater traction. It is then that concessions are promised and made and incremental gains arrive.

A very good early example of this was in 1883 when Count Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Gemany, faced with increasing demands from the working class for wholesale change, delivered a raft of welfare provisions. These were among the demands of the majority and, for Bismarck and the ruling class, they did the trick: the majority of workers relaxed, having won what they considered their basic demands.

They had benefitted at the cost of their bosses and rulers. But, for the elite, it was a cost worth bearing, because the benefits of remaining in control far outweighed the cost of the welfare provisions. And these, in any event, could, when conditions permitted, be clawed back. In other words, nothing, fundamentally, had changed.

And that, in various different forms, is the history of advances and retreats as humanity has made its erratic way forward. The course now, in a pandemic ridden early 21st Century, seems to offer either a collapse into barbarism, the development of a humane and democratic order or the continued, gradual, despoilation of the planet and all that may remain on it.

The choices are ours. But whatever choices we make let us hope they take full cognisance of history.

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