Saturday, December 26

“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” John Maynard Keynes

Capitalism and the free market system are held up as the cornerstones of the democratic system, the key to our advanced and sophisticated way of life. True believers in the free market system will tell you that the competitive impulse provokes in us the root of drive to create amazing technology, the advances we are responsible for as a race in the fields of science, medicine, math and even the arts. They suggest that greed is a positive impulse in that it motivates us to achieve and strive. That inequality and social stratification is a natural state created by the impulse to surpass others.

They aren’t entirely wrong. Capitalism and the representative perversion of democracy that we’ve lived with for the last 250-400 or so years has been extant during a period of unprecedented advances in technology and in our scientific understanding of the world around us. That system has allowed, and even in some ways inspired, those advances. That’s just simply the truth of it.

To say, however, that it’s the whole reason for those advances, or to suggest that the system works, and then to try to support that assertion with circumstantial evidence of those advances, is to paint a very incomplete picture. Rather than give capitalism credit for the positive things that have happened in the last few hundred years, I’d posit that we have done many of these positive things in spite of capitalism, not because of it.

In truth, capitalism generally only takes advantage of innovation when it occurs outside of the capitalist system. Rarely do truly positive innovations take place within the machinery of capitalism. Most great innovations that truly benefit mankind have been made in the environs of academia or by independent inventors and are then co-opted by capitalism in order to make them profitable. Once new technology or medicine or art makes it into the capitalist system it is monetized, its intrinsic value commuted into a means for revenue generation, often at grossly inflated rates, and the innovation then generally stagnates, turned into variations on a theme to prompt future revenue generation. Sometimes the original innovation prompts new thought, usually outside of the commercial system, and a new innovation is spawned, only to be co-opted again.

Consider electric vehicle technology: The means exist currently to replace almost every surface vehicle used for personal and light commercial use with vehicles that run entirely on electric power, yet we still use primarily fuel-based transportation with small, recent nods to hybrid vehicles that still use fossil fuels, but do it slightly more efficiently. Electric prototypes exist that can run for 1200 kms at 200 km/h on a single charge with a 4-hour re-charge time, and that technology isn’t all that new. In fact, innovations in battery technology have been being bought up by petro-chemical and auto manufacturer companies for years where they sit on the shelf. They’ll come out eventually, when it becomes less profitable to continue to exploit carbon-based fuels than to retool for electric transportation. And that dynamic repeats itself with medicine, computers and all other technologies in the same way.

In essence, capitalism holds us back from truly taking advantage of new innovations, the innovators corrupted by the huge sums of money thrown at them by the commercial giants.

Consider politics: The system we use is generally thought of as democracy, but it isn’t. It’s a version called representative democracy that, when it was developed back in ancient Greece, was the only way to facilitate a system of democracy. We don’t all have one vote except during elections and rare referendums. Instead we abdicate our true democratic ‘rights’, electing representatives to cast votes on our behalf in Parliament or Congress. The technology exists to convert our system to a truly democratic system. Computers exist in more North American homes than not, and most of those have frequent if not continual connection to the internet and secure websites, yet we still vote the old fashioned way, and still vote away our rights to democratic say in how our countries are run. We complain about how our politicians betray us and act in anything but our best interests, but they aren’t the problem – we are. We have voluntarily given up our right to democracy in favor of the lazy comfort of not having to pay much or any attention, in order to enjoy the ironic pleasure of complaining about our elected officials’ performance, and in service to the divisive nature of partisan politics.

So I won’t be saying that capitalism is responsible for any progress we’ve made. The best I can offer capitalism is a sarcastic nod for allowing some of the good things that have happened, and that, in my opinion, is far outweighed by the damage it does.

Today is Boxing Day, the biggest shopping day of the year in Canada. I’ve had the TV on a bit while writing this and watched the same commercial for a major retailer play several times. In the commercial, a family is rushing to leave the house in order to take advantage of some amazing sales that started this morning at 7am. As they run out the door, they leave their infant child in his car seat in the forefront of the picture. Dad closes the door and then, a second or two later, runs back in to grab the car seat and baby. The message? The deals are so good that you’ll forget your family, and forgetting them is okay, cute even. Nice, yeah?

In another one, this one for a cellular network, a law enforcement team is thwarted in their chase to find a criminal by the subject’s use of their more advanced and pervasive 3G network. The message? Use our service because it’s good enough for criminals! Wow… inspiring.

Consumerism is the true foundation of our capitalist/representative democracy. “Bigger, better, faster, more” is the motto. This day, this week, more than any other in Canada and on par with Black Friday in the US, is the symbol of the consumerist and capitalist system. This is the real legacy of our free market system; that we have abdicated our dignity in favor of a vain pursuit for nicer stuff, and hopefully more of it than our neighbors, and if we’re really fortunate and work hard maybe so much money and stuff that one day we won’t have to work any more or will be able to join the truly rich.

Mmmm-mmm, makes me want to go set up a tent and be the first in line with a big, happy ‘Go Capitalism’ t-shirt on to show my pride. Just kidding… You got that, right?