Quaker Testimonies and the Predicaments of Capitalism
November 13, 2011 § 7 Comments
A few days ago, an Oakland policeman shot a young man with a rubber bullet while he was videotaping a police line at the Occupy Oakland demonstration. The man videotaped his own shooting, so you can see that, far from provoking the attack, he was actually trying to confirm that his behavior was acceptable to the police who were dealing with him. This incident illustrates one of the ‘predicaments’ of capitalism, as I call them, when viewed in the light of the traditional Quaker testimonies.
I call them ‘predicaments’ because capitalism is predicated on them: they are aspects of capitalism that inhere in the way the system defines itself and in the ways it operates; they are part of its DNA. And they are ‘predicaments’ for Friends because they violate our traditional testimonies.
I have identified five such predicaments:
- Private ownership of capital: Individuals (or the stockholders of corporations) own and control the money and goods or services that generate income when sold in the market; they own the means to produce these goods or provide these services—property, patents, machinery, etc.; and by virtue of this ownership, they have more or less exclusive access to the business’s profits and perquisites.
- Owner autocracy: Capitalism concentrates economic sovereignty—the right to make decisions about the company’s actions—in the hands of the owners of capital and, by delegation, their managers, in an overall system of vertical organization.
- Growth: The health of a business and of the system as a whole is determined in terms of growth; furthermore, the primary locus of value, the goal of the system, is profit, that is, surplus wealth, which is also a kind of growth. Capitalism assumes that economic growth has no limits.
- Mendaciousness: Capitalism lies to itself and to its participants in two ways, in regard to both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in an open market. First, it deceives itself about the nature of capital and of overhead: It does not account for or take economic responsibility for the real value of the natural resources it treats as capital, or the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which is part of its overhead. It systematically undervalues both. And it deceives its customers in its marketing and advertising: it’s dependence on advertising in an environment of competition for market share tempts it to psychologically manipulate its consumers and to withhold information from them and from regulators. Capitalism lacks integrity.
- Competition: Capitalism is inherently competitive and assumes an ‘open market’ relatively free of direct government or collective social control. It makes everyone and everything both a competitor and an object of competition.
The Oakland shooting illustrates the predicament of competition: Competition inevitably leads to conflict; it is, in fact, an organized form of conflict. And conflict inevitably leads to violence. I don’t mean ‘inevitably’ in the sense that every instance of conflict will lead to violence, or even that any instance of conflict will necessarily lead to violence. People can always avoid using violence to ‘resolve’ a conflict (of course, violence never does resolve a conflict). But capitalism generates so much conflict that some of it inevitably turns violent because that’s how humans are. Capitalism is inherently violent. Thus it violates our peace testimony.
Capitalism competes for everything and it drags everyone into its competition: Companies compete with each other for resources, labor, energy, customers, research breakthroughs, our attention, even our dreams. Workers compete with each other for jobs and for advancement; they compete with their employers for their compensation and work conditions. Industries compete with each other. Nation states compete with each other. And the economic system itself competes with all the other stakeholders in the planet’s ecosystems for the resources it needs to survive and to grow.
Does competition have to lead to violence? Enlightened business owners and national leaders can rely on cooperation and mutual understanding to resolve competing claims. This is most possible when the system is working well and no parties are near the particular edge or shortage that they fear. For capitalist competition is predicated on shortages—there is no need for competition if there is already enough of what everyone wants. But the system has these edges—these divisive thresholds—that necessarily separate the participants when they are reached—when oil supplies are threatened, for instance, or when employees demand new rights that cut into profits. And the disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom—between economic classes at home or between the overdeveloped and the developing countries of the world, for instance—these disparities create a distance of experience and worldview that undermines understanding even when intentions are good.
Of course, competition is creative, too, as its apologists so often claim. In their competition, Amazon.com and Apple drive each other to keep innovating and we get the iPad2 and the Kindle Fire, competing visions of the tablet. In the competition with the Soviet Union that Sputnik ignited, we got a generation of incredibly creative and productive scientists and engineers.
But we also get the Luddites smashing the mechanized frames of their early adopters in the British textile industry, and the violence of the state and then of the mobs in response. We get Pinkertons gunning down workers in their picket lines in the early days of labor organization. We get the first and second Iraq wars.
Because one of the defining characteristics of the state is its (theoretical) monopoly of deadly force, the dominant powers in the system—corporations—turn to the state to protect their interests. This is what gave that man in Oakland that ugly, painful, temporarily disabling bruise on his leg. The police almost always defend private property and the interests of the owners of capital, rather than workers, consumers or the integrity of the natural world. That young man was lucky, in a sense; that could have been—and often has been—live ammunition.
But we must acknowledge that that rubber bullet shooting escalates the conflict: the viral video of unprovoked police assault and all the other incidences of police violence we can see now on YouTube give the flywheel of violence another kick. They feed more energy into the feedback loop of violence: Demonstrators tussle with police lines => Police fire tear gas canisters => Black robed anarchists torch stores => Policemen shoot peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets => . . . What’s next? I could not help but think of Kent State.
What to do?
Commitment to nonviolence and training in nonviolence prevailed in the civil rights movement. It doesn’t stop the violence, but it cuts it in half because one side won’t use it. It interrupts the feedback spiral. It helps in the competition for “hearts and minds.” And it is the right way to go. And it does address the seeds of violence in individual people. But it does not address the causes of violence, the genetics of violence embedded in our economic system.
So we are left with the queries: How can we reform capitalism in ways that will value cooperation at least as much as competition? And what can we do to break the feedback loop that escalates its competition into conflict and this conflict into violence?