The Nation magazine recently asked 16 activists and economists the following relevant question: “If you had the ability to reinvent capitalism, where would you start?” The responses were wide-ranging but a synthesis of how they viewed modern capitalism fell into three main categories: 1) surplus is distributed by those who own, not those who work and make; 2) more consumption is always better; and 3) anything “outside” the economy, like the environment, may as well not exist.”
Put in other terms, these three conclusions might say; 1) capital gleaned from production can be taken from the hands from those who make goods and placed in the sole possession of those who own; 2) in order to make more profit each year, as much has to be sold as possible, regardless of what’s left over; and 3) capital seeks its own level with little regard to destruction it doesn’t have to pay for.
What is important about these conclusions is that whether they are correct or not, they are now the perception of average citizens – the rule, not the exception. In any democracy this is capitalism’s major worry. If citizens couple action with their anger, confining legislation can result that seeks out a fairer equilibrium for the fairer distribution of wealth. This would be the figurative equivalent to capitalism having a root canal.
We all grew up with the idea the along with power comes responsibility. Yet it appears nothing possesses greater power and authority today than the multinational corporation – greater even than many sovereign states. No other group holds such influence, and it appears that none has been left with less responsibility.
In the not too distant past, Canada oversaw an economic order where the world of business was expected to accede to certain civic demands. For a time – Confederation up until the 1970s – free enterprise was viewed as a key partner to expanding citizenship and the key enabler of assisting governments in providing average families the ability to progress and learn. Previous centuries had taught leaders that wealth in the hands of the few meant privation in the lives of the many. Time proved them right, as it became clear that democracy was not the product of capitalism but rather it was the other way around. Recent history has shown that capitalism actually requires democracy to produce well-rounded and endowed consumers but actually has no idea how to promote either. In other words, markets are simply incapable of knowing how to build the public space or to furnish it with long-term sustainability. It used to know how, and was in fact a key partner in such pursuits, but has now forgotten its own history in the hurried pursuits of immediate profits.
Much as we have altered our view of corporatism, many corporate leaders have changed their view of us – from multi-dimensional citizens who were also consumers, to consumers solely. The big decisions are made on how we’ll buy and not on how we’ll progress. There are those who will toss out the standard retort that the corporate interest is only rationally pursuing the bottom line and efficiencies. But this wasn’t always the case, as past history has shown. Corporations have morphed from vital community partners to profit-driven entities, isolated and independent from the communities and countries in which they function. Our confidence in this model has become threadbare and in its place is arising the same derision many feel for the political order.
Are citizens ready to take action and insist on a new economic paradigm that no longer accepts that money is superior to people, that credit doesn’t cross-out community? Common goods and benefits are the result of common thinking. Civil society makes that possible, as does an effective form of politics. Private goods are primarily for those who can afford them and the benefits primarily accrue to those higher up the economic ladder. Whatever kind of reordering of the civic/capitalist partnership must plan for the reality that without a healthy public space there will be no sustainable private profits in our communities. Making space for citizens and giving them a choice in future public investments must be the overriding goal of any future strategy to win back our equitable prosperity and begin the shrinking of economic disparity.
By increasingly turning its back on the public right of citizens to say who invests in community, the market is cutting off its nose to spite its face – earnings will eventually fall into decline because corporatism will eventually run out of places to find low-cost labour and they will ultimately return back home to a domestic market that can no longer afford to purchase products.
Montaville Flowers, in his America Chained, predicted in the early 1990s that heading down the road of free market dominance would reduce workers from “the status of independence to that of hireling under humiliating regulations, thus lowering the spirit of communities and the nation.” Ask most citizens from London, Ontario whether they are experiencing that very subtle degradation right now and they’ll nod their heads in the affirmative. Why? One word: Caterpillar. Workers reduced by the mega-firm to having to accept half their salary virtually overnight has brought on an agitated community response of support for the workers themselves.
More than revenue derived from free markets, we require reform emanating from arduous citizens. It has to be about sustainability, not just sales. It’s more about civic progress than about capitalist profits. Thanks to Caterpillar we are slowly beginning to use such language, and in a shared vocabulary of citizenship there is hope.