Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Anti-Capitalist

Those of you who watched LD finals at Harvard will recognize one of the cards present here from the round. Otherwise, these cards are a gift to the trendy Marxist debater near you.

[A caveat: When I post debate evidence, it should not in any way be taken as an endorsement of the material unless I explicitly say so. Debaters need evidence from all sides of the debate, include evidence that critiques capitalism. They request, I respond]

Brian Massumi, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at McGill University. The Politics of Everyday Fear. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)
"The commodity endows us with identifiable qualities. It registers our gender, social status, and character traits: buckled up and prudent but still stylish; multi-time zoned jet setter; home-bodyish, with an adventurous streak. The commodity stands (in) for our existence. The ground(lessness) it stands on is the accident in its most general expression--the accident-form, exemplified as downfall, the unqualified or generic founding event. Our generic identity (our subject-form, or humanity) is the generic event (the accident-form); our specific identity (the content of which is our "individuality" or "self") is the sum total of our purchases (axiom 2). In other words, contingency is the form of identity, and identity is determined (given content) through the serial commission of the act of groundless consumption. We buy and buy, until we die. We are in free-fall, held aloft by the thinnest of credit cards. "Shop till you drop" is our motto. We know we are alive--or at least in a state of credit-suspended animation--as long as we are shopping. "I buy therefore I am" (axiom 3). The commodity encounter not only specifies but actualizes the subject of the purchase. The subject of capitalism cannot be said to exist outside the commodity relation." (7, emphasis added)

Rodney D. Peterson, Professor of Economics at Colorado State University. Political Economy and American Capitalism. (Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1991)
"As political pressure groups from different segments of the citizenry assemble to negotiate, the result is often a compromise skewed in favor of those who were most successful at using their bargaining strengths. Success is often based on the amount of persons a bargainer represents and the property and wealth backing the bargainer. Those with most political influence are often those with most economic advantage. Once both have been acquired, they reciprocate and reinforce each other, especially if the property holders are active in the political arena, pressuring to get laws passed for their benefit, or to gain privileges, subsidies, and favors for themselves from the system. All of this is a logical extension of freedom, self interest, and profit seeking…" (37)

Another line of attack is the famous "tragedy of the commons," which shows how autonomous beings acting totally rationally and without constraint will destroy the environment (for more on the intersection between capitalism and the environment, see my posts here and here)
Garett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, 162(1968):1243-1248
Capitalism locks rational persons into environmentally destructive decisions
The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.

2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision­making herdsman is only a fraction of - 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Finally, one undeniable aspect of Capitalism is that it privileges the current generation over the future. The rational capitalist actor has perhaps some incentive to provide for his/her own children, but none whatsover to the other members of generation next. They will not consume the capitalist's products, they will not revolt against his mansion, their cries will not offend his pacified ears. This is immoral.
Philip Phenix, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum. Harper and Bros., 1961.
"Up to now the people of the industrial nations of the world have lived as though the material bounty of the earth were inexhaustible. In this respect we have been guilty of a "plutocracy of the present," through grasping material privileges without taking account of the needs of future generations. Such a way of life is just as undemocratic as the forcible subjugation of the poor by the wealthy at any given epoch. Democratic justice as between generations requires the employment of the earth’s resources in such a way that they shall be conserved, restored, and replenished for continued use by our children and our children's children."

1 comment:

TJ said...

Regarding the section, "Capitalism locks rational persons into environmentally destructive decisions."

The despoilers of the greatest commons on Earth, the oceans, have included nations with every sort of economic system. The Communist USSR was responsible for taking huge amounts of fish from U.S. water on factory ships in the 1970s -- one reason the U.S. expanded its economic zone to 200 miles. China is one of the dirtiest countries on earth, but the state interferes with or controls business decision making at all levels, and is still at least nominally communist. How about comparing the environments of East vs. West Germany before the merger? Is the East cleaner now? Didn't the capitalism of West Germany give them the financial capability to have a cleaner environment, and then to clean up the East, post reunification? Some clear thinking, please.