Modern capitalism has ignored the lessons of history in the ignorant and short-sighted pursuit of individual wealth. See for example the article Economics for the People by economic historian Dirk Philipsen in Aeon magazine, from which I quote at length, due to its eloquence:
In preindustrial societies, cooperation represented naked necessity for survival. Yet the realisation that a healthy whole is larger than its parts never stopped informing cultures. It embodies the pillars of Christianity as much as the Islamic Golden Age, the Enlightenment or the New Deal. In the midst of a global depression, the US president Franklin D Roosevelt evoked an ‘industrial covenant’ – a commitment to living wages and a right to work for all. During the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr gave voice to the broader idea when he said that no one is free until we are all free. On Earth Day 1970, the US senator Edmund Muskie proclaimed that the only society to survive is one that ‘will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others, … clean air for some and filth for others’. We should call these ideas what they are – central civilisational insights. Social and economic prosperity depends on the wellbeing of all, not just the few.
Cultures that fundamentally departed from this awareness usually did not, in the long run, fare well, from the Roman Empire to Nazism or Stalinism. Will neoliberal capitalism be next? Rather than acknowledge the endless variety of things that had to be in place to make our individual accomplishments possible, it is grounded in the immature claim that our privileges are ‘earned’, made possible primarily by private initiative.
But what a claim it is: where would we be without the work and care of others? Without the food from the farmer? Without the electricity and housing and roads and healthcare and education and access to information and hundreds of other things provided to us, day in and day out, often for free, and routinely without us knowing what went into their existence? Seeing ourselves as seemingly free-floating individuals, it’s both easy and convenient to indulge in the delusion that ‘I built it. I worked for it. I earned it.’
The painful flipside are the billions of those who, through no fault of their own, drew the short end of the stick. Those who were born in the wrong country, to the wrong parents, in the wrong school district – ‘wrong’ for no other reason than that their skin colour or religion or talents didn’t happen to be favoured. The limited focus on the individual can here be seen as nakedly serving power: if those who have privilege and wealth presumably earned it, so must those who have pain and hardship deserve it.
Make no mistake, this is the mistaken direction that the US and UK have increasingly taken since the 1980s, the ideology that has driven tax cuts for the well off and austerity for the public good. This is the ideology driving the right wings of both the Republican Party in US, the Conservatives in UK and similar parties across the Western world.
It is time that the direction of travel changes. Covid-19 and climate change are making this crystal clear; the system has produced these, and they are the necessary corrective. We really are all in this together, and making a good life for everyone really is the answer, and should be the goal.
The pendulum needs to swing big-time. Some call it socialism, with a derogatory tone to their voice. It is basic human dignity and the basis of civilisation.
Featured image is from the article in Aeon magazine.