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Capitalism: Friend or Foe

This is a response to Kiss Me On a Burning Barricade and other recent post at Gods and Radicals. I do sympathize very much with the intentions and energy of this forum. I would just hope to see it focused more precisely on human behavior, rather than abstract ideology.

A speaker at a recent conference exhorted liberals to reclaim Adam Smith, whose concerns regarding abuse of workers under the system of capital have been ignored by the “Greed is Good” and “Invisible Hand” libertarians that took over the Republican Party during the Reagan era. Smith saw capitalism as simply the use of wealth to invest in technology that would amplify the effects of labor. It was this process that finally overturned Malthusian poverty (see The Grand Pursuit) because while the cost paid per shirt went down, the cost of a shirt fell even faster.

Under your definition of productivity, the core problem in the situation that you describe is psychopathy, which is subtle and seductive and has infected many of our institutions. In Smith’s work, this is articulated as the problem of the Commons: well-meaning people create value for one another, accumulate wealth, and then the psychopaths come in and steal it from them.

For example, the sleepy Savings and Loan industry of the ’60s and ’70s allowed the middle class to pay itself interest at 6% while borrowing at 7%. Reagan deregulated the industry, allowing raiders to take the assets it had accumulated and transfer them to high-risk instruments. Now the middle class borrows at 18% and gets interest on deposits of 0.2%.

Regarding the specific situation you outline, there is a movement among the restaurant workers to establish humane working conditions in an industry that exploits mercilessly. Among the industry’s crimes include lobbying against a general working wage increase in order to protect an extremely low minimum wage for their industry. As agitators document, in many states the tips we leave are in fact the bulk of the worker’s wage.

Abstracting from Smith, the theory of Capitalism and productivity is a means for organizing information about economic activity, including work practices. While proponents of capitalism cite the benefits in increasing productivity, the information they gather can also be used to identify psychopathic behavior. The reason that you have the numbers to criticize the workplace practice is because of that theory. Don’t blame the messenger – attack the root cause.

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