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On Why I Can’t Let Go of Capitalism

One of my two current Gray Matters is capitalism. I have a difficult time seeing it (rather than greed or unethical behavior) as the core problem. Like any system, it’s only as good as the people involved, which I guess is the problem.

I don’t think profit is bad, I don’t think money is bad, and I don’t think everyone should have equal amounts of everything. Equal opportunity would be optimal, though we all know we don’t have that.

Why can’t we simply (and by that I don’t mean it would be simple) replace the businesses that are founded on principles of exploitation with businesses that aren’t? Why can’t we create new ways to deal with all of the problems we have caused, and then profit from those technologies or products? I’m not talking about greenwashing; I’m talking about a legitimate alternative. What’s wrong with the idea of vegan businesses that are in business to make money? Is a system based on the production of commodities to be sold for a profit necessarily bad? Is it the system that has to be replaced? Can’t we instead work to transform the ethics involved? (I realize that hasn’t worked in most corporations with accounting practices and executive pay, but it has had some success.)

Do you think that:

A)    Capitalism is the problem?

B)    The way we do capitalism is the problem (subsidies, etc…)?

C)    People are the problem?

D)    All of the above?

And finally: If sentient nonhumans were not relegated to the status of property, would capitalism still be the problem in your mind?

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. All of the above. Regarding capitalism, may I suggest a book I am currently reading: Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine".

    May 27, 2008
  2. Kenneth,
    Between The Shock Doctrine and Confessions of an Economic Hitman, it makes it very hard to assume that people in power will do the right thing in a crisis.

    May 27, 2008
  3. Dan #

    I say D) all of the above, with C being the BIGGEST problem by far. If C wasn’t a problem, then B would take care of A. But given C, B is virtually inevitable and A will always be a problem. C is also the problem with every other choice of political-economic system. C makes anarchy and communism a huge problem. The best system is the one that controls C to the greatest extent.

    May 27, 2008
  4. I'm no expert on critiquing capitalism, but the answer to the question: is the system the problem? Seems like a resounding YES! to me.

    The Capitalist system necessitates classes, those people at the top necessitate a working class. The vast amount of labor used to make a product and hence a profit is not rewarded in an equitable way, it cannot be in the system of capital gains. If the workers were paid for the value they add to the product there would be no profit for those at the top who can afford the factories, etc… The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

    Bob Torres' latest book 'Making a Killing' touches on some of these issues.

    May 27, 2008
  5. JonBen,

    I haven't read the Torres book, but in my opinion Capitalism is the best system we've got, though it is profoundly flawed in its execution. This might be an unpopular opinion, but I don't have a problem with people working for other people and people profiting from the work of others. I can list the problems I see with Capitalism, and they are all things that can be changed–some with legislation and others through shareholder activism and other behaviors. Paying workers a pittance, or seeking workers to exploit is a behavior that isn't necessary. Executive pay being exponentially higher than worker pay isn't necessary either–it's a choice.

    On a micro level, my family has directly benefited from our system, and I am where I am today because of it. People can indeed change classes, and unethical practices, lust for power and greed don't have to be at the heart of that change.

    On a more macro level, what we need is real Capitalism rather than Corporate Socialism. Our government is now virtually run by corporate America and that is NOT what Capitalism is supposed to be. That's why I have a hard time giving up on it.

    May 27, 2008
  6. Dan #

    I have read Torres’s book, and while I agree with much of it (e.g. stop abusive and/or oppressive exploitation of humans and nonhumans), I don’t agree that capitalism, per se, is the root of the problem at all. I agree with Mary that a major overhaul of the current free market system to create more of a fair market system through a major tax overhaul (e.g. taxing social evils, both at the individual and corporate level, to the point of economically eliminating the choice of committing social evils, taxing inheritance of multi-millions) and a much better system of corporate accountability to government and shareholders (in all areas from personnel to environmental stewardship) is the best we can do. Scrapping capitalism and/or a market system entirely will just put another monster at the helm.

    May 27, 2008
  7. a) I think unregulated capitalism where corporations have legal person status is ALWAYS bad. Corporations are not people and they shouldn't have the legal protections we give to people.
    b) I don't think working within the system to change the system is necessarily bad. There are often creative, subversive ways to shift consciousness/ change the world within the system.
    c) I think vegan for-profit business are often OK. (For example = any vegan cookbook where the royalties go to the author, not to charity.) People who chose to live within our society must make some sacrifices. Getting a job is often one of them. Better a vegan job than a non-vegan job.
    d) I think there is, however, a fundamental problem with the notion of capital. Money doesn't represent value. And the problem with capitalism is that it forces people to treat money as though it represents all kinds of value, thus, people learn to think and act as if anything can be bought, including other people, animals, land, etc.

    May 27, 2008
  8. PS, Mary, my a,b,c,d don't correlate to yours. I'm not sure why I did that. Sorry.

    May 27, 2008
  9. Angus #

    This is an important question. Capitalism is an inherently expansive system (grow or die). Whether enough of that growth can be channelled into non-material products so that the planet's ecosystems do not collapse, is not clear. I highly recommend The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, by Robert L. Heilbroner. In the course of his very clear exposition of what capitalism is all about, Heilbroner says:
    "Capitalism requires and engenders a belief in the indifference of 'nature' to the operations performed on it by man, a point of view epitomized by the scientific outlook. The culture of capitalism thus expresses a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward the material world — a point of view that would be impossible if that world were portrayed as 'mother' Nature."
    I would say that capitalism, while it may not actually be incompatible with the liberation of animals, exerts a powerful economic tendency to exploit them in the service of capital accumulation, and an ideological tendency to view them as having little or no intrinsic moral value. At the same time, because capitalism is inherently amoral (not immoral), it does not forbid elevating the moral status of animals or humans — so long as the wheels of capital can keep turning, and turning out profit.

    For the purpose of understanding the perils our planet faces and where we may be headed, I also recommend Evolution's Edge, by Graeme Taylor. The book is due out in July. Buy lots of copies and pass them out to your friends. (Full disclosure: the author is my brother.)

    May 27, 2008
  10. I don't think (A) – is the problem – "Capitalism" It does not exist. "Laissez faire", hands off, free-market economics is theory only. Government interference, grants, subsidies, lobbyists, "pork-barrel projects"…. (sorry about that) all corrupt and negate any chance for "capitalism".

    (B) Yes, we do capitalism terribly wrong. I've been self employed all my life. I understand the need and rewards of getting "more value" than what's exchanged….. To "profit". You're right, not everybody should have equal amounts of everything – but they should have the opportunity for "equal". That's the part of capitalism that government meddling prevents – the "risk". Yet little is "equitable" or fair anyway. Government sets minimum wage laws – yet turns a blind eye to illegal-alien employees. Government sanctions corporations that do "business" in exploited countries – Sometimes even making wars so these "businesses" have an even greater edge. Far from what I think the concept of capitalism is.

    "Is a system based on the production of commodities to be sold for a profit necessarily bad?" I don't think so. Animal interests, veganism, should be motivated to monetary gains. Commodities enable that…. and encourage growth and profit. Honest profits aren't bad – but profits made deceptively are.

    Think of the media blitzes that are "public service" ads for dairy, "beef", "pork"….. the USDA mean-while, is the institution's biggest customer……. It's dishonest and economically reeks of corporate socialism, not capitalism.

    Animal interests and Vegan businesses need all the financial insentives and success it can manage, to combat the unfair advantages bestowed to animal users, who exist through tax dollars and government hand-outs…… Which leads to (C), "people" who allow it. "We The People", ironically much too busy chasing the "illusions" that dollars pretend to buy, while ignoring the lack of substance in the exchange –
    But Elaine says it best: "Money doesn't represent value."

    May 28, 2008
  11. *Dan,
    I'm with you ("Scrapping capitalism and/or a market system entirely will just put another monster at the helm.") The devil you know . . .

    I find it disgraceful that corporations are persons and have some rights while sentient nonhumans do not. If anyone hasn't seen The Corporation (, I highly recommend it.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I liked Natural Capitalism (, though I've had discussions with the authors about nonhuman animals that didn't thrill me–they're happy meat people. And though capitalism might exert a tendency to exploit any and everything, it's the job of people to not let that happen. Then again, as we all know, capitalism isn't what we have.

    I can't help but come back to C, the people who allow it because we're too busy chasing illusions. It doesn't matter if money doesn't represent value if we won't ever go back to the gold standard, though. Like with capitalism, I think we have to work with what we have and pick our battles.

    May 28, 2008
  12. Bea and Elaine,
    I just walked the dogs and while I was out I realized you probably weren't referring to the dollar but to any kind of currency, and I agree that though it doesn't represent value, it does act as a proxy for worth in the marketplace, with the amount determined by what the market will allow, and I can't envisage a realistic way out of that. But I sure am open to ideas!

    May 28, 2008
  13. I'd like to go back to the gold standard – A system based on paper money is living on borrowed time. Government's print more and more, while what's in your wallet devalues accordingly. We might return to a currency based on intrinsic value (someday), perhaps after the inevitable collapse? A wheel-barrow full of bucks for a loaf of bread – Not a pleasant consequence of paper money (or credit cards)that represent "nothing".

    I'm of little help – I have just a hint of the problems – and even fewer solutions. But how do we really "know" what the market will bear when corporations are propped up and bailed out by government? When we're at the pump – paying not what gas "costs" but rather what it will be "worth" in the future? Which I'm certain, will be lots & lots of filled wheel barrows.

    May 28, 2008
  14. Sean B #

    I would also like to recommend Making A Killing, it's really worth taking the time to read. Also, if you do a google search (I couldn't figure out how to post links here) for "Animal Liberation and Social Revolution", there is a short pamphlet by that name regarding capitalism and veganism (though it isn't abolitionist from what I remember).

    June 3, 2008

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