A recent popular article by Don Fitz from Washington University embodies this approach to capitalism. In the post, titled “Inside the Psychology of the 1%,” Fitz says some of the following about capitalism:
“Why then, is having more money at a give point in time associated with more happiness (even if only slightly so) while increases in income over time fail to bring more happiness? It is largely because of class divisions and the obsession of capitalist culture with material objects.”
“…it is the glorification of object possession in capitalist society that inflates it beyond reason.”
“The fact that capitalism prizes accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the many would mean that, even if the worst corporate criminals disappeared, they would soon be replaced by marketplace clones.” [emphasis added]
Is capitalism obsessed with material objects? Does capitalism inflate object possession beyond reason? Who are these “corporate criminals,” and what is their crime? The author doesn’t have the honesty or courage to directly say what he thinks their “crime” is. He does pose the following disturbing question, though:
“Will academics proclaim that “public health needs” dictate that we suspend civil liberties of corporate executives even if they ‘have not been convicted of any crime?'”
Fitz essentially argues that many or most top-paid corporate executives are psychopaths; those that are should be treated like criminals, even if they haven’t committed a crime. I don’t know about you, but the idea of throwing an innocent person in jail based for an crime he or she never committed or intended to commit does not sit well with me. In fact, it’s horrendous.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that those currently earning more than 99% of us are very likely to be psychopaths. Should we treat them as threats “for the good of society”? Would it therefore not also follow that those raised in violent homes should have their liberties revoked, based on research suggesting they are far more likely to grow up and be violent themselves? Conviction based on demographic averages is a truly chilling thought, lacking any semblance of justice.
What about the claims that capitalism glorifies object possession? Note how the subject shifts from “capitalist culture” and “capitalist society” to capitalism itself having human desires. Is this a true representation of capitalism?
Capitalism is merely an economic and social system that lays out how things should be bought and sold. It’s a system of supply and demand wherein the price of something is determined by agreement between buyer and seller. If the price the seller wants is too high, buyers will either decide it’s not worth it or look to the competition for a better price. If the price the buyer wants is too low, the seller will have to look for other interested buyers or be unable to sell anything. That’s it.
Capitalism says nothing about what we should prize, but merely lays out the most fair and efficient way to produce wealth. It doesn’t say that love is less valuable than money, or that accumulating more things than you need will make you happy. And why would it? It’s simply an economic system.
In the ultimate socialist bait-and-switch, capitalism is equated with materialism. It should now be clear how intellectually dishonest this is. It’s entirely possible to believe in efficiency, free markets, and private ownership of property, and still believe that acquiring more things is no end unto itself. Indeed, free markets and magnanimity are both highly regarded by Rational Romantics.
Fitz and Counterpunch certainly aren’t alone in suggesting that capitalism and materialism are the same thing. Paul Farrel echoes Michael Sandle’s article by stating, “Capitalism is killing our morals, our future.” He argues that where all things can be bought and sold, market values replace personal values. Does this really happen? How? Both Farrel and Sandle leave that largely up to the readers’ imaginations.
It’s probably true that some things should not be bought and sold: the example given is the right to shoot endangered animals. According to Farrel, these auctions are caused by the capitalist economic system rather than being a result of poor morals among those involved. Further, we must believe in a thing called “market values” that replace our moral values. Is it true that capitalism has a viral consumerist moral code, or is the way we spend money rather an expression of our individual morality?
To answer this question, we must look not only at those who buy and sell the rights to shoot rhinos in the wild for $250,000, and also consider those who would never do such a thing and would instead give the money away to help others. How does one account for the philanthropist who gives free-market gains to those less fortunate? If we do blame capitalism for those who feel a never-ending need to acquire more for themselves, must we not by the same logic also credit it for the people who gave over $300 billion to charities? This number is likely only a small sample of giving, as it only takes into account tax-claimed giving to registered charities, and says nothing of private giving and countless acts that are the reverse of self-centered materialism.
About 40% of Americans say they do not have a positive view of capitalism, according to Gallup, up from about 20% in 2002. Anti-capitalist sentiment has clearly been growing, fueled largely by resentment over gross inequality. Growing inequality should indeed concern us deeply in today’s America, but there are no answers to be found in these straw-man arguments against the free market.
It is also true that materialism is commonplace in the United States, but it is by no means unique to western or capitalist countries. In fact, one study found that Turkey was more materialistic than the United States, with three other European countries trailing closely behind. Another study found communist-leaning China to be significantly more materialistic than the United States. Obsession with accumulating objects is largely a human failing – one likely rooted in pre-historic conditions where basic survival resources were scarce and required constant collection.
Whether by dishonesty or foolishness, anti-capitalist activists have located a a problem – materialism – and blamed it on capitalism without further research or evidence. They have already decided that capitalism is what’s wrong with our society and ignored anything that might tell them otherwise, confirming their own biases without considering the issue fairly. Much like materialism, this confirmation bias is a widespread human condition that is often detrimental to our happiness.
We can accomplish much together in the fight against materialism and consumptionism, but only if we can advance past the false dichotomies and broad-stroke arguments put forth by leading anti-capitalists and their ultra-conservative counterparts.