Gift Exchange Economies—An Alternative?

August 28, 2014 § 5 Comments

Well, I’ve been ranting and railing against the capitalist economic system for several posts now, using strong words like “evil” (which I didn’t bother to define) and “dung”. I find it brings out the vitriolic in me; it tempts me to a righteous and poetic indignation. Not so good. Not very constructive, anyway.

So it’s time to own up once again to the fact that our economic system is not only evil—not only hierarchical and anti-democratic; competitive, if not actually violent; deceitful and manipulative; inherently anti-worker and effectively anti-consumer; carcinomic, rapacious, and unsustainable; oh, and anti-biblical . . .

It is also good, in that it has raised the standard of living for huge numbers of people, arguably in fact everyone on the planet—except for indigenous peoples. It is an extremely creative engine of technological advance, and many of these advances serve the greater human good. Not so much the good of whales and frogs.

But more to the point—what else is there?

When I first started talking and writing about these predicaments of capitalism and Quaker testimonies, the Soviet Union still held sway over millions of people, and inevitably, Friends would respond with: “So, what—would you have us all become communists? Look how well that’s working out.” As if there were only two economic systems in the world. Now, many Americans anyway, think there is only one.

But what about socialism? Some democratic quasi-socialist states, like Norway, are doing quite a bit better than we are by virtually every measure. Many countries have vital socialist parties and manage, mostly, not to fall into chaos or hell, as the true believers in capitalism fear would happen here.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to have forgotten that fascism is also an economic system, featuring private ownership of capital but state control of the economy. Also basically a failed experiment.

But the economic systems that I find most attractive are the gift-exchange economies that most indigenous peoples have. Had. Virtually all the traditional gift exchange economies on earth have been destroyed by the market economy.

In a gift exchange economy, one gathers power, not by amassing wealth, but by giving it away. Those gifts obligate the receiver to reciprocate in some way at some time. Because people are different, as are circumstances, places, luck, and a host of other factors, some people end up with more power than other people—they have wider networks of obligation owed to them than the complex of obligations they owe to others. They often become chiefs.

The classic case is Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was the first and only man to be the traditional chief of all seven tribes of the Lakota people. He achieved this status by providing many gifts, but one especially—the (temporary) salvation of his people. Sitting Bull saw that the American military strategy was to cut off the annual, seasonal, north-south migration of the bison, kill them off, and starve the plains peoples into submission. Military power wasn’t doing so well, at least not until the invention of the carbine, a short-barreled repeating rifle that could be cocked with one hand and used in close quarters, and thus was suitable for use by cavalry. William Tecumseh Sherman, more famous for his reign of terror across the deep South during the Civil War, and named, ironically, after one of the greatest Indigenous warriors of all time, commanded the Indian Wars for a time; he called the Plains Indians the best light cavalry on the planet, with the possible exception of the Cossacks, another indigenous horse-people.

Anyway. Sitting Bull’s counter-strategy was to cut off the southern bison migration himself and keep what was left of the bison herds in the north. He talked all seven tribes, the Northern Cheyenne, and several other tribes, into cooperating to achieve this. This delayed the conquest of the Northern Plains for almost a generation. Among his own people, he was called He Feeds the People. The Lakota gifted him with this name in recognition of his great gift to them.

In gift exchange economies, you gain power by feeding people. Or by giving them hides, for clothing, shelter, containers, bedding, etc. Or by giving them rights to one of your fishing camps. Or by gifting them with horses, or basket rushes, or . . . You get the idea.

Now, you feed people and provide all these other necessaries, in many traditional indigenous life-ways, by being very good at living with the land, by really knowing it and understanding it, by possessing a sublime eco-intelligence, by possessing valuable skills, by possessing powers of organization and persuasion, by caring about future generations. By giving.

Gift exchange economies elevate social roles, instead of giving people jobs. Instead of working for a wage and then buying your life in parts and assembling it at home, like we do, in a gift exchange economy, you trade goods and services, tasks and labor, favors, songs and dances, names, reputations and loyalties. You sing at my daughter’s wedding; I give your whole family meat that lasts a week; or maybe, two winters later, I take you in when your own hunters can’t find a herd.

Gift exchange economies work for small groups who live in partnership with the land. Scaling one up to serve 300 million people would be a challenge. When everyone lives three or ten degrees of separation from basic production of basics—of food, building materials, energy sources, clothing materials, medicines, etc.—the chains of exchange would become extremely complicated; only computers could keep track. When everyone in the system has quite specialized skills and jobs, trading services would be impossible. When the only thing you could trade is things, you are still locked into the mass production-mass consumption economy to acquire the things you might trade in the first place. So—elegant idea, maybe, but totally impracticable.

The market economy has won. It’s like kudzu: it soaks up so much of the sunlight that no other economies stand a chance.

What to do? We are left with the project of radically reforming capitalism.

We could start with usury laws. These were deregulated under Ronald Reagan, so many of us remember a time when interest rates were regulated more or less equitably, though I doubt that many of us were really paying attention. I know I wasn’t. But you can draw a straight line from Reagan’s policies on interest rates to the Great Recession. And here, unlike with many of our modern problems, the Bible really has something to offer as a starting point.

So let’s start there. Next time.

Mendaciousness—Capitalism and the Testimony of Integrity

August 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

I said in the introductory post of this series on capitalism and Quaker testimonies that, in terms of both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in what it likes to call the open market, capitalism has built lies into its very structure. It also encourages deceit by its practitioners. It lies about its overhead, about the true costs of the resources it consumes and the wastes it produces. And it lies to its end-users in its advertising.

Capital lies.

The material culture of capitalism requires raw materials, resources that come from our Mother Earth to make and do the things it sells to consumers. It assumes that half the balance sheet of the Earth—the planet’s assets—are available for the taking. As for the liabilities, especially the accounts payable—to these capitalism turns its gigantic blind eye.

This cavalier attitude toward the Earth’s bounty should be noxious to anyone or any culture that holds a biblical worldview because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1; actually this is only one translation of this passage, and not, I suspect the most valuable one, both to us and to the writer of the Psalm—but that is another post). In this view, the Earth is not even a gift, but actually a loan. God has put it into our hands for right use and we will be held accountable for that use. But, when it comes to economics, our society is anything but biblical in its worldview, and the more conservative you are, and even the more conservative Christian you are, the less biblical your economic worldview is likely to be.

But back to capitalism and the Earth’s balance sheet. The “households” in our economic system factor the current cost of the resources it extracts from Mother Earth into the prices it charges for the goods and services it provides. Businesses pay the current value of these resources in the market. They factor in the cost of the rights to extraction; they factor in the cost of the resource as determined by competition for it in the market; they factor into the end-product price the cost of its transformation into capital goods. It’s worth noting, however, that the players in these markets try to distort the markets or manipulate them in order to get advantageous prices. This works especially well in the international market for raw materials, where the over-developed nations almost always hold resource-rich developing countries at a disadvantage.

However, the current value of a resource is not its real value. We do not really know its real value, because it is likely only to go up over time as the supply dwindles. More importantly, while a given resource (say, molybdenum, which is used in specialty steels, and which only a couple of countries currently produce)—while a given resource may be quite valuable to us today for our consumption, it might be desperately necessary some time in the future to our descendants for something we cannot today even imagine. Capitalism is oblivious to our descendants’ needs and it cares not a whit for the fact that they will curse us for our profligacy.

To account for this unknown potential value of Earth’s assets, we should be creating escrow trust accounts to help our descendants cope with the shortages we are creating. And we should be doing the same thing with the resources themselves; we should be holding some percentage of all that we extract as a trust against the demands of the future.

We do neither of these things. We lie about the true cost and value of our capital.

Waste lies.

We do the same thing with the true cost of our waste management. Capitalism does not figure into its pricing the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which ought to be part of its overhead, and never is. And when—or, to be realistic, if—the bill ever comes due for cleanup, capitalists inevitably try to squirm out of paying; it hurts profits and equity value.

This is especially important for wastes that do not biodegrade, but remain toxic and present in the body and bloodstream and organs of Mother Earth more or less permanently. And because Mother Earth is us—because our very bodies come from her—these wastes remain toxic and present in our bodies and bloodstreams and organs, as well.

The great killer disease of the industrial age was tuberculosis, the destruction of human lungs caused by the use of coal as a fuel. The great killer disease of the post-industrial age is cancer, the mutation of cells by toxic foreign substances. Thus some serious percentage of our healthcare costs should be included in the overhead cost of waste management.

Capitalism pretends that the only cost it must bear for managing its prodigious waste stream is the immediate one of getting it some distance away from its producer and providing for some minimal treatment before it gets poured back into Earth’s bloodstream or buried in her soil-flesh.

The superfund put aside for the treatment of “superfund” sites should be the model for the entire economic system. The goal should be zero toxic, non-recyclable waste returning to Mother Earth, zero toxic substances in our own bodies and those of our children—and a massive escrow account fed by some meaningful percentage of every economic transaction set aside to solve these so-far unsolvable problems in the future and to fund research and care for a public health increasingly threatened by capitalist dung.

The true cost of eliminating carbon dioxide, or uranium waste, or the 50,000 or so chemicals that we have never even tested for toxicity, would be staggering. So we just don’t think about it. Let the great-grandchildren deal with it.

In fact, if we really did account properly in our pricing for the destruction of natural capital and the remediation of capitalist waste, the system would collapse. Short-term greed is the main reason we don’t deal with these issues, but the reason we don’t even talk about it is the existential threat to the system itself that transitioning to an honest economic system represents.

Advertising—marketing lies.

Finally, capitalism depends on advertising for growth in an environment of intense competition for market share. This tempts economic households to psychologically manipulate their consumers through advertising. This manipulation distorts human relationships by turning consumers into objects. It tends to misrepresent the true character and value of its goods and services to make them seem more valuable than they really are. It tends to hide any negative aspects of its products and services. It resists attempts to keep it honest and transparent. The tobacco industry is the classic example. More recently, the lies and subterfuge about credit default swaps and mortgage derivatives brought the entire system to its knees—and taught the liars no real lessons at all.

But misrepresentation of products and services is just the more or less visible surface of its mendaciousness. More troubling really, is the ways that advertising invades and distorts our worldview, our understanding of the good life, and thus our very dreams. It tells us that consumption is good for us; that low prices that allow more of us to consume more, are good for us; that we actually need the things that in reality we simply desire. It tells us that the good life is defined by the things and experiences that we can buy in the marketplace.

The catch-all phrase (in America) for this constellation of lies is “the American dream”—owning your own house and as many good cars as your family thinks it needs, providing a good education for your children, securing freedom from fear of want, healthcare, and acquiring some things that provide, or at least represent, a comfortable life. Now, given the system, who could argue? These are all good things that anyone would want.

Only the earth cannot sustain seven billion American dreams. Nor is it true that you need all these things to be happy or fulfilled. And especially, it is not true that a mass production–mass consumption economy is the only way to have these things.

Is it? Are there any alternatives to this kind of system? These are my first queries for Friends. Here are some more:

How do we remain true to the testimony of integrity when our entire social, and material, and perceptual, and cognitive, and physical, and even emotional environments are totally saturated with lies—with salesmen seeing in me the pathway to their quota, with plastic bubble-wrap for individual pieces of processed cheese product, with images of half-clad women tugging on my pud with the promise of some fantasy fulfillment, with ideas like “the American dream”, with ads and billboards everywhere I look, with false desire trying to crash the gates of my amygdala? Why should our spiritual discernment and environment be polluted by this trash?

And now to the core: Would I be willing to pay the real cost of sustainable resource capital management and waste management with markedly greater prices for everything? And with my or your (probably) stagnant wages, how could you or I? Would I be willing to utterly change my lifestyle to accommodate a truly sustainable economy? For instance, would I accept the inevitable percentage of vermin that bulk food distribution inevitably entails—not just bring my own containers to the store—so that we could limit food packaging to the every minimal and the truly recyclable? How much am I willing to sacrifice, so that Mother Earth—and her creator-logos-the-christ—are not crucified on the cross of our economy instead?

Capitalism and the Peace Testimony

August 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Capitalism is predicated on competition: competition between businesses for markets, resources, capital, research breakthroughs, and labor; between labor and management for the terms of contract agreements; between workers for jobs; between industries for government support; between corporate nation states and other economic macro-systems for all of these things.

Competition assumes shortages or limits—there is no need for competition if there is already enough of what everyone wants. Competition within the context of limits, real or assumed or artificially imagined or created, often leads to conflict, and conflict sometimes leads to violence. Capitalism is inherently, if not necessarily in any given instance, violent.

A classic historic example is the violence against unions in the early days of labor organization, a violence that has never really ceased, except that businesses no longer hire paramilitary organizations like the Pinkertons to murder and assault workers. And God help you if you’re a teacher, or work for any level of government.

Does competition have to lead to violence? Enlightened business owners, labor leaders, and political leaders can rely on cooperation and mutual understanding to resolve competing claims, and we do have a fairly robust infrastructure of negotiation and arbitration, from the United Nations to the National Labor Relations Board. Cooperation is most possible when the system is working well and no parties are near the particular edge or shortage that they fear. But the system does have these edges—these divisive thresholds—that necessarily separate the participants when we reach them, when oil becomes really expensive or when job shortages make dependence on military spending attractive. 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, making conflict and violence more likely.

For a truly eye-opening and compelling look at how the unbridled global expansion of capitalism—what we call globalization—often collaborates with superficial democratization to unleash ethnic violence, I highly recommend Amy Chua’s World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. She describes how, when elections finally give power to an ethnic majority that has historically been dominated economically by an ethnic minority, that majority tends to turn on their minority oppressors. That is part of what is happening in Iraq right now, with a majority Shiite-dominated government paying back the Sunni minority for decades of oppression and disenfranchisement, except that in Iraq the religious identities are even more important than the ethnic ones.

This dynamic has played out in country after country, in the Balkans, in Indonesia, the Philippines, in Rwanda, and southeast in Asia, just to name a few. We have even seen it in the United States sometimes, as in the occasional tensions between Asian small store owners operating in mostly African American neighborhoods.

It’s true that business competition is extremely creative. It drives innovation. But even this dynamic is destructive. “Creative destruction” is the term of art for the fate of established businesses that can no long compete against upstart innovators—Kodak, for example, or the manufacturers of floppy disks, or the publishers of printed, multi-volume encyclopedias. This creative destruction almost always hurts workers; they lose their jobs to the technological advance. And it almost always disadvantages the lower-wage workers most, because they are the most easily replaced by technology. In this way, and in many others, the system tends to increase inequality, especially in mature economies that have more or less finished the process of industrialization.

We value—and measure—this destruction of jobs. We call this measure “productivity”. Productivity tracks how much work a worker can do in a given period of time. Increased productivity means that human energy has been replaced by technology. Economists and politicians love high productivity numbers, gleefully glossing over the fact that it means fewer human jobs, fewer humans needed to do the same work.

R. Buckminster Fuller defined another measure that economists seem to have ignored—the energy slave—which measures goods, services, and processes in terms of how many years of human labor have been replaced by technology. The energy slave is the only economic measure that, if only indirectly, acknowledges capitalism’s debt to the Atlantic slave trade. In places that can’t come up with enough energy slaves, they tend to come up with human ones.

Most importantly, perhaps, the moral system that is capitalism has no inherent interest in the fate of those who suffer at its hands, those whom it grinds down or even out of the system. The system has never done even the obvious, basic thing of providing for those who lose their jobs to layoffs or technological advance. That it leaves to government; that is, to you and me.

More importantly, it actually takes unemployment as a given and accepts 3–5% of the workforce trying to live without an income as a “good” number. This reflects the fact that the capitalist system needs at least a modicum of unemployment, of competition between workers for jobs, as a means of keeping wages and benefits down. And the system leaves it up to external actors to care for these victims, making the government and even the workers themselves pay for the human cost of this inherent competition. And we all accept this as normal, as a given, even as appropriate. We are all praying for an unemployment rate below five percent, as if that would be a great thing.

Furthermore, the competitive genes in capitalism’s DNA have always driven it to expand its influence beyond its own spheres of activity in the market, to seek to distort the behavior of external actors in its interest. Capitalism corrupts the political class, especially, and the entire social fabric, as well, with the ideology of the market as god, as the preeminent, most pervasive, and most valuable social system we have, as the “creator of wealth” and the pathway to, and even guarantor of, democracy (ironically, given its own quasi-feudal structure), and as the set of values and needs that should trump all others in social policy. That is the message of, and the reasoning behind, the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision: the legal “personhood” of a corporation is even more valuable and important than democracy itself, certainly more valuable than real human persons.

And, of course, capitalism corrupts other systems, especially the political system, directly sometimes, through outright graft. Companies seek advantage, and inevitably, some politicians are willing to give it to them. For some people in high places, being a slave to capital, being ideologically captive to the system, is not enough. They want to remodel their house or go on an expensive vacation, too.

Back to the creative effect of capitalist competition, because this is a credible and compelling argument for it. We humans are going to compete, especially when faced with shortages. Furthermore, this competition has historically driven incredible advances in human well-being over the last three centuries or so. That’s the trade-off for the destruction and subjugation of indigenous and traditional societies, the rape of the earth, the infection of all other social systems with market values. And yes, the social-economic systems of the past have also been unequal and oppressive, though none has been as rapacious. And meanwhile, we see no clear alternative. We have to work with what we’ve got.

Nevertheless, I believe that capitalism historically and inevitably, if not necessarily, has and does lead to violence. That Spirit that leads us to avoid all occasions of war calls us to bring peace to our economic system, as well as to all other theaters of conflict.

I might pose the queries for Friends regarding competition thus: Is the trade-off between innovation and technological advance and the violence the system does to everyone, but especially to workers, worth it? How can we promote cooperation in a system that is adversarial to the core? How do we protect the weak and disadvantaged when shortages heighten the competition to the point of violence, whether physical or “just” economic, especially since we are approaching severe shortages of some basics around the globe—food and water, particularly, and many other resources regionally? How can we make economic “households”, especially corporations, inherently careful of the needs of all the stakeholders in the system—workers, consumers, and non-workers—and not just careful for owners and stockholders, while retaining the innovative energy that competition provides rather than chasing after them with regulators and economic ambulances after the fact of their violence?

How can we speak to that of God in the men and women who run our economic households? To that of God in those who find themselves the victims or the adversaries of these people and the systems they manage? To that of God in those who set social and economic policy? How do we speak to that of God in the legal “person” that is a corporation, if there is such a thing? What if there isn’t such a thing? How do we bring the gospel of peace to our economic institutions?

Capitalism—The Carcinoma Economy

August 6, 2014 § 5 Comments

Capitalism is predicated on growth. Unique among all physical systems in the universe, capitalism pretends to disobey one of the laws of thermodynamics by claiming to produce more energy than you put into it. It pretends to be a perpetual motion machine that not only keeps going, but actually picks up speed. Capitalism calls the allegedly surplus energy it produces profit. The energy you put into it is capital plus labor, or, following the Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding, materials, energy and know-how. Capitalism claims that after you account for costs, there’s still some energy left over for humans to use as they please. Never mind that we did not really factor in the true costs to the Earth and to wider society, let alone future generations, of irretrievable resource destruction, thorough waste management, worker basic education, infrastructure building and maintenance, and the support of other social systems that provide capitalism with numerous necessary services.

Profit—growth—is the goal, the fictitious end towards which the whole system strives. Furthermore, the growth itself is expected to grow. The curve is supposed to climb, producing more profit all the time, and it is best if the growth of the growth grows—the ideal system has periods of acceleration and expansion.

In a biological system—in an organism—growth that never stops is called cancer

The earth is a biological-physical system, a super-organism in which the biological subsystems—its ecosystems—interact with each other and with the earth’s physical systems, such as the atmosphere, the rivers, lakes, glaciers, and seas, and the rocks and soils, in a billions-year-old process of evolution that has been self-regenerative throughout all those geologic epochs. 

Capitalism is a cancer in our Mother Earth. Like a cancer, it never stops sucking up resources that other organisms in the super-organism need to survive and thrive. It never stops consuming Mother Earth’s finite supplies of captured energy, water, and industrial minerals. It never stops displacing other systems and organisms as it consumes, grows, and excretes its poisons. It never stops debouching its wastes into earth-cleansing systems that increasingly cannot keep up with the load.

Capitalism has metastasized. It has always needed fuel, water, and minerals. But at first, the fuel was wood, the water was local, and the mineral was iron. Now the fuels are several and most are poisonous, all the water of the planet is at risk, and the mineral and other material resources it requires include virtually all of the periodic table of the elements. At first, only local ecosystems were fouled by its waste. Now the vast oceans, all the waterways, virtually all the underground aquifers, and the entire atmosphere of the earth groan in tortured poisoned pain and unsustainable drawdown. Now even the electromagnetic fields of the planet are distorted and extra-planetary radiation rains in through its holes, killing off the primary source of oxygen on the planet, the phytoplankton off the coasts of Antarctica. We even put junk on the moon.

This describes the global capitalist system as a whole in the Mother Earth. But the smaller organisms in the system follow the same patterns. The cancer operates at all levels of capitalist organization. Tiny individual companies hope to sprout branches in nearby neighborhoods or cities. Startups dream of becoming big enough to go public or be consumed by some larger engine of consumption and profit. Whole new industries rise up to drive the expansion exponentially. National companies seek to become transnational. Some trans-national corporations are already meta-national—they no longer have any meaningful national identity and exist only as global entities with no meaningful allegiances except to profit. It seems only a matter of time before one of them makes a small country into a company nation, the way smaller corporations used to create company towns with their growth and hegemony (I think of Johnson & Johnson’s purchase of New Brunswick, New Jersey), trading meta-national status for the gift to a nation’s people of economic development, and thus acquiring a seat in the United Nations General Assembly. I expect Exxon Mobil to be the first, since it already has made Trinidad Tobago into a company country.

The system is predicated on a simple model of mass-production and mass-consumption. Companies produce goods that consumers consume or services and experiences that consumers purchase and internalize. In doing so, the companies themselves consume goods and services that other companies produce, and so on, back to the Earth as the ultimate source. Venders, producers, and consumers alike consume fuels in order to consume and they release wastes back into the system as an inevitable byproduct. All this takes place on a mass scale. Capitalism is a mass-production, mass-consumption, mass-excretion economic system.

Are you an organism in this system, a business, or a worker, or a consumer? Stop producing and you start to die. Stop consuming and you start to die. Run out of supplies or suppliers, you start to die. Run out of energy, you start to die. Lose your job, you are diminished. Have a really old computer or mobile phone? It breaks down and we lose touch, we lose our productivity, we die a little consumer death. We run out and get another one.

This economic system has to keep producing, keep consuming, keep growing, or it starts to die. The only thing worse than a recession, in which a nation-state organism in the system gets ill and starts shrinking instead of growing, is a depression, in which the organism goes into a coma.

Capitalism is carcinomic. Mother Earth’s immune systems cannot keep up. What reforms can we imagine that would halt its rapacious growth while continuing to deliver its benefits? This fantastical outcome seems impossible to me. Constant growth is part of capitalism’s basic DNA. 

So I might present the predicaments of capitalism for Friends in these queries: Can you imagine an economic system that is not predicated on continual growth at the expense of all the other physical and biological systems of planet Earth? Following the Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding, who popularized the phrase “spaceship earth”, can we envision a system in which all of its production, consumption, and waste generation take place in a series of completely sustainable cycles of reuse and regeneration as we travel through the galaxy in this finite vessel made of earth and air and fire and water? 

No—these are not true queries. They only have yes or no answers. The true query is not can we, but how do we, deliver the benefits of industrial and post-industrial capitalism without carcinomic growth, without the fiction of profit?

The deeper question is how can we redefine wealth as weal-th, as well-being for all organisms on Mother Earth, without embodying this well-being in things that must be produced and consumed, in experiences that must be produced and purchased? How can we organize the natural and necessary processes of an ecos, an organic household economy—providing food, fuel, shelter, clothing, health and healing, art, study, entertainment, and other forms of human expression and fulfillment—in a system that treats all the material and social resources required for these things as gifts to be returned, to the Earth and to each other? How do we build an economic system out of mutuality, reciprocity, respect, and renewal, without continual consumptive growth?

Owner Autocracy—Economic Non-democracy

July 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

Capitalism is inherently vertical in organizational structure. It consolidates power in the hands of the few and the power radiates down in a pyramid through management structures. This dictatorship can be varying degrees of benevolent, but, ultimately, the only power inherently vested in the worker is the power not to work—the power to strike or quit. It took a long time for the power to strike to become a legal right, we are still not completely there, and, since Ronald Reagan sacked the entire air traffic control community as his first official act in office, it’s been losing ground again. Moreover, it stretches things to call the power to quit or strike a “power”, since it makes workers so vulnerable.

Owners and managers decide virtually everything that’s important about your job: who gets to work, when, how, where, with whom, and for whom. They design or determine the time, space, body movements, and actions of your labor, sometimes even your speech. They monitor and evaluate your performance and they hold the ultimate power over you, as well—they can fire you.

Whether ownership is private, corporate, or public/bureaucratic, the system is barely post-feudal in its vertical structure. Since the transformation of European political feudalism and the fall of the sovereign monarchies, we have come to define democracy as the sine qua non of social justice: people should have a say in the things that affect their lives. But we take the tyranny of capitalism for granted. Capitalism is undemocratic.

This power corrupts, of course. Given the complete absence of any inherent, structural limits or mitigating counter-forces in the system, we must rely on outside social-political forces for protection against the misuse of this power. For this, we have turned to government. Gradually, centuries after capitalism’s rise to power, we workers have been granted protections from abusive hours, unsafe working conditions, harassment and discrimination according to a very slowly growing list of vulnerabilities.

Capitalism hates this advance in human rights. Naturally, therefore, the handlers of this power do all they can to limit the regulatory power of government. Thus the corruptive influence of power that is built into capitalism’s DNA inevitably infects the political system, and our protection is routinely and systematically undermined. 

Conservatives, whose mouths are constantly shaping the words “liberty” and “freedom” and “individual rights”, define these terms over and against the government only—against the only countervailing advocate we have against capitalism’s tyranny. Capitalism gets a pass. In fact they often worship the power and freedom of the market with a kind of religious fervor. Only our weak, compromised, and late-comer protectors in the government are to be feared.

I might summarize the predicaments for Friends regarding the power structures of capitalism in the following queries:

  • Given that the quasi-feudal hierarchical structure of our economic life inevitably if not necessarily leads to quasi-feudal patterns of discrimination and oppression, what can we do to bring the testimonies of justice and equality to bear on behalf of capitalism’s victims?
  • As a community that has proven over more than three centuries that horizontal power structures do work, how can we do a better job of transforming the vertical power structures of our economic system?
  • As Friends, how can we better promote the concepts and practice of servant leadership, a phrase coined and a practice first championed in the modern era by our own Quaker Robert K. Greenleaf? (Read an article by Larry Spears, the Quaker champion of Greenleaf’s work and servant leadership in our time, published in Quaker Life, titled Servant-Leadership and Quakers.)
  • Does your yearly meeting have a coherent, Spirit-led testimony on labor and worker rights?
  • Most importantly, how can we leverage our education and our Spirit-led testimonial power to begin conceiving a true alternative to this abusive system?

Private Ownership—The Moral Structure of Value in Capitalism

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Capitalism is predicated on the private ownership of capital and of property in general. Only the owners or stockholders are entitled to the profit, the surplus wealth, which the system generates. They usually benefit from other privileges, as well.

By separating the owners of capital from the rest of the participants in the economy for profit and other privileges, capitalism creates a system of value that has moral implications. It says that capital, or property, is more valuable to the system than the labor which transforms it into something of worth in the market, and that the people who own the property are more valuable to a particular business, and in the wider social-political economy, than either those who work for it or those who buy the end product.

The practical consequence of this investment of value in capital and profit is that workers, consumers, even other businesses and industries, are relatively devalued: their needs are of secondary concern to the owners of a particular business, especially when those needs are in conflict with the pursuit or protection of either capital or profit. Workers are always in this position, because they are a cost to be cut.

I might summarize the predicament for Friends, then, in these queries: How does the quasi-moral aspect of an otherwise secular social system influence the actual ethical choices of individuals, especially the people who make the decisions about a business’s behavior? How might the investment of value in capital, property, profit, and owners/managers distort the moral framework of society as a whole? How do we build into our economic system the moral freedom to value appropriately the interests of other stakeholders in the system besides the owners and shareholders? Does your yearly meeting have a coherent, explicit, and Spirit-led testimony on economics and economic justice?

Quaker Testimonies and the Predicaments of Capitalism

July 11, 2014 § 4 Comments

I believe we have to question whether participation in the capitalist economy brings Friends into conflict with our traditional stands on peace, simplicity, economic justice, earth stewardship, community, and the right sharing of world resources. I am led to believe that it does. This is a predicament.

I use the word ‘predicament’ deliberately to mean not only the dilemmas that capitalism presents to Friends but also to indicate that capitalism is predicated on assumptions that necessarily bring Friends into conflict with their traditional witness testimonies. I am not arguing that enlightened participation in a capitalist economy is impossible, or that capitalism does not have its good points. Only that it has structural evils that one cannot avoid, that dynamics of human behavior and interaction are built into the system that necessarily lead to conflict, violence, social and economic injustice, materialistic excess, and damage to Earth’s ecosystems. Oh, and it violates the gospel of Jesus.

I see five basic predicaments of capitalism that challenge Friends’ lives in the light of their own testimonies. These are quite inter-related and sometimes it hardly makes sense to separate them, except that it’s so hard to make sense of them if you don’t. The five predicaments are:

  1. Private ownership of capital: Individuals (or the stockholders of corporations) own the goods and services that generate income when sold in the market, and they own the means to produce these goods or provide these services. It puts into private hands things that properly belong to the community and to future generations: mineral resources, agricultural resources, water, the wealth of the oceans. As currently structured, the community is cut out of the deal.
  2. Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of community, equality, and right sharing of resources.
  1. Competition: Capitalism is inherently competitive and assumes an ‘open market’ relatively free of direct government or collective social control. It competes for everything—resources, labor, energy, markets, customers, attention, even our dreams. Competition inevitably leads to conflict; inevitably over time, though not in every instance, conflict leads to violence.
  2. Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of peace, economic justice, and right sharing of world resources.
  1. Owner autocracy: Capitalism concentrates economic sovereignty—the right to make decisions—in the hands of the owners of capital and, by delegation, their managers, in an overall system of vertical organization. Until recently, the social history of capitalist economies in the over-developed world has been evolving toward increasing democratic governance; those for whom free-market capitalism is a religion give capitalism the credit. However, capitalism itself remains feudal in its governance structures; it is inherently undemocratic.
  2. Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of community and equality.
  1. Growth: Capitalism determines the health of a business and of the system as a whole in terms of growth; at all levels, its command is to expand—or die. Furthermore, the primary locus of value, the goal of the whole system, is profit, that is, surplus wealth, which is also a kind of growth. Capitalism assumes that economic growth has no limits and it pursues this goal with no structural limitations. Tissue that grows without limits is called cancer, and this disease is killing Mother Earth.
  2. Capitalism violates the Quaker testimony of caring for the earth.
  1. Mendaciousness: In terms of both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in an “open market”, capitalism lies to itself and to its participants in three ways: about the nature of capital, the nature of overhead, and in its advertising.
  2. It does not take economic responsibility for the real value of the resources it treats as capital, which it almost always consumes without replacing, and it does not build into its pricing either the known real value of these resources or their unknown potential value to future generations. Meanwhile, it is drawing down the resource capital of the entire planet at a now catastrophic pace.
  3. Furthermore, capitalism does not figure in its pricing the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which is part of its overhead. When—if—the bill ever comes due for cleanup, capitalists inevitably try to squirm out of paying; it hurts profits and equity value.
  4. Finally, capitalism depends on advertising for growth in an environment of competition for market share. This tempts it to psychologically manipulate its consumers through advertising. Advertising invades and distorts our worldview, our understanding of the good life, and thus our very dreams, with desires that drive human behavior independently of real human need or broader social welfare; and that’s even when it is telling the factual truth.
  5. Capitalism lies—it violates the Quaker testimony of integrity.

Capitalism’s meta-predicament lies in the very structure of the system itself as a whole, the way it structures our relations with each other socially and politically and our relations with our Mother Earth. Capitalism wrongly structures these relations and it cannot do otherwise.

But the meta-argument about the rightful role of an economic system in civilization will have to wait for another post, as will fuller discussions of each of these predicaments. And then there’s Jesus.

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