“Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”
– Adam Ferguson
It is now 10 Years after the largest financial crash for nearly a century. There are still very real reasons for concern that despite the changes made to aspects of the banking system such as increased capital adequacy and an amplified focus on systemic risks, our current system displays many of the fragilities of a decade ago. In addition, there remain some big questions about the purpose and benefits of our financial system.
As Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation recently wrote “The financial crisis highlighted the big challenge of our time: to ensure the economy delivers for working people. Looking back over the last decade, it’s clear we have far from delivered.”
Given this, should we be asking more difficult and searching questions about what the financial system, and capitalism itself, is for?
Should there be a clear, shared purpose for capitalism?
Capitalism has no stated end-goal, no clear point or purpose, yet it dominates our planet; increasingly defining the prevailing norms of public policy enterprise, social life and even ethics. This lack of purpose should be of great concern.
Yet bizarrely, more and more effort is poured into preserving our erratic stumbling from one crisis to another. Just as the strategic challenges of a populous, increasingly consuming and polluting planet become ever more clear, so the capitalist response seems to be “leave me alone, I’m busy just now”.
A tactical planet
Who would run an enterprise on tactics but no strategy? Of course, governments have, over the last two decades substituted reaction to headlines for any long term vision, but companies are thought to have a more strategic perspective. Global business leaders are lauded as “visionary”, “far-sighted” and “prophetic”. All such terms are associated with the idea of moving beyond short term reaction to events, indicating an ability to read the runes, see the way the world is going and to envision and enact activities strategically over the long term.
If this is a quality that we value – or at least aspire to value, why is it not a characteristic we also seek in the world’s de-facto operating system?
If capitalism has no strategic intent, why are we so comfortable to let it drive our future?
Just what is the point of capitalism?
No direction, just travel
Capitalism is like a spaceship with no long range maps, not seeking an ultimate destination, valuing only the journey itself.
Of course philosophically we can tell ourselves that the journey is the destination, but given the clear picture that is emerging of the place that business-as-usual capitalism is taking us, it is becoming increasingly difficult just to relax and enjoy the ride.
Why are we in thrall to a system which recognises no common outcomes, which intends nothing except the agglomeration of an abstracted indicator (capital) regardless of its provenance or the sustainability and longevity of its foundations?
Capitalism works (for some)
There is lots of focus at present on a post millennial re-capitulation of Marx’s analysis of international capitalism. For instance, Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century” asks (and answers) whether capitalism works, and if so, who for.
If you were to ask the world’s 85 richest people on a bus (as recently described by Oxfam), they might well say “well, it works for me”. Indeed you could probably count on another one and a half-odd billion saying “it works for us and we hope it might work harder in future”.
The rest of humanity might still have a faint hope that capitalism is their best bet for personal enrichment and security.
Capitalism does work. However, it works much, much better for some than others, and it works best for a very small number of us and not at all for our fellow species.
Like a rolling stone
For the bus passengers above, capitalism is a bit like rolling a stone downhill; you do best if you live at the top and have access to stones.
Live at the bottom of a hill though and the stones will either be mostly static or coming downhill on a collision course with your house or your foot.
If so, your opportunities to benefit from the natural ease by which stones roll downhill will be severely compromised. Some living at the bottom of the hill will of course, through luck and hard work, make their way to the top. Generally though, where you start plays a defining role in where you end up.
What is the point?
We really ought to require a little more from our operating system. Capitalism needs a point and a purpose.
It doesn’t have to be much, just some intended outcome that we might judge and assess behaviour against, perhaps something simple such as:
“A sustainable and equitable world for humanity.”
We shouldn’t demand anything too prescriptive that would get in the way of creativity or entrepreneurial spirit, just something to indicate a clear direction and possible destination for the good of us all.
Within this context some people would of course do better than others, this is capitalism we are talking about, not communism. It’s just that a planetary operating system should be useful to the people who are part of it, not just those lucky enough to live right at the top of the rocky hill.
What’s the point of capitalism? It’s time we (all) made up our minds.
About Joss Tantram
Joss Tantram is an expert in sustainable strategy, reporting and management, with 20 years’ experience in the private and not-for-profit sectors in the UK, Europe and world-wide.
Joss leads Terrafiniti’s strategic services and their innovation initiative, Towards 9 Billion. Joss is the author of the Towards 9 Billion book series – presenting big, playful, hopeful ideas for a sustainable, equitable future, available at the Amazon Kindle store.