HISTORY OF IDEAS Capitalism – Free Ebook

Today, pretty much every economy in the world is organized along capitalist lines but at the same time, capitalism is almost everywhere regarded with disappointment, frustration and suspicion. Interestingly, none of the criticisms are new. They’ve been dogging capitalism since its inception. So let’s look back in time to figure out how capitalism got its bad name and what might be done to improve it. Padua, Italy, 1304. 0n the wall of a church in Padua near Venice, the painter Giotto makes a fresco: Jesus and the Money Lenders. It restates for his own times an idea that had by then already been well established for centuries in the West: the notion that a good spiritual life and the pursuit of business and money are sworn enemies. Jesus goes to the temple in Jerusalem, sees merchants and small-time bankers crowding the forecourt and gets furious. This sacred place is not a fitting arena for the polluting activities of buying and selling. The Christian attack on the immorality of money is deeply influential and severely holds back the development of capitalism for centuries. Venice, 1450. A Franciscan friar, Luca Pacioli, publishes the first ever book on accounting: Summa de arithmetica. It’s the single most important capitalist invention until the birth of the joint stock company and the modern factory. In the book Pacioli introduces the principle of double-entry bookkeeping which gradually become standard practice in all companies. Pacioli’s textbook proposes that dealing well with money doesn’t depend on faith anymore. Money isn’t a divine punishment or reward; it’s a kind of science that can be learnt through patience, reason and hard work. Geneva, 1555. In powerful sermons to his congregations in Geneva, the Protestant theologian John Calvin emphasizes to his Swiss audiences the importance of what have become known as the Protestant virtues: hard work, self-denial, patience, honesty and duty. These will turn out to be extremely useful qualities for capitalism. Calvin along with many other preachers who share his outlook explains that you must never indulge yourself not spend money having a lavish life. You must simply put any surplus income back into your business as an investment. Calvin adds that being good at business is far more pleasing in the sight of God than being an aristocratic warrior or even a monk. Perhaps more than technology, it’s this new mindset that will accelerate the progress of capitalism. 1670, Delft, Dutch Republic. The newly independent Dutch Republic is the world’s first explicitly capitalist nation where lazy aristocrats are looked down upon and hard-working merchants revered. In the churches, Protestant sermons about thrift and hard work are heard. In the arts outgo glorifications of kings and queens. Johannes Vermeer finishes painting The Lacemaker, a depiction of the intricate careful and homely tasks of manufacturing lace. In his painting The Little Street, the suggestion is that living peacefully and quietly in your own home running a business is far more glamorous and noble than fighting in a war or going to a monastery. 1776. 141, the Strand, London. These are the offices and shops of Strain & Cable, publishers who have a big success with a new book: an inquiry into the nature and causes of The Wealth of Nations written by a Scottish philosopher called Adam Smith. Smith demystifies wealth creation by explaining how capitalist economies grow. He reaches several important conclusions. Slavery is remarkably inefficient. Violence is less of an incentive than money for a worker and the cost of buying and maintaining slaves far exceeds the cost of wages. Capitalists will make far more money by treating their workers legally and humanely. It’s by specializing that economies grow, says Smith. Smith focuses on the pin making industry and concludes that while one worker could make up to 20 pins a day, a team of 10 workers well arranged could make not 200 but 48,000 pins, thanks to what Smith terms the Division of Labour. Smith also tells us that capitalism is guided by an invisible hand. By maximizing one’s own profit, individuals inadvertently benefit society providing goods that people want and need. As Smith puts it: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” These ideas further remove the moral suspicion that once surrounds capitalism. But not all will be won over. 1854, London. The British economy is now the largest in the world thanks to its enormous industries of cotton, shipbuilding, steel and coal. Vast cities have chewed up the countryside of the Midlands and northern England. Merchants and the newly rich capitalist class have triumphed. But many are furious. Charles Dickens, one of Victoria England’s most passionate critics of unrestrained capitalism publishes a novel: Hard Times. Set in the fictional town of Coketown, a version of Manchester, it takes aim at heartless capitalists like Mr. Gradgrind who abuse their workers, exploit young children in mines and chimneys and use their relentless capitalist logic to blind them to their desecration of nature and human life. Here is Dickens’ writing on Coketown: “It was a town of red brick, or a brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.” Dickens argues that capitalism is evil because it encourages appalling conditions for the producers. Under the sway of capitalist logic otherwise quite nice people will keep coming up with reasons why it’s okay to employ a child in a factory or to let poor people starve once they’ve reached the end of their working lives. 1860, London. The English reformer John Ruskin publishes Unto This Last, a furious track against capitalism that takes aim not so much at the production side of capitalism as the area of consumption. Like Dickens Ruskin is incensed that people are being exploited and the environment ruined. But he asks a further question: In the name of what? Ruskin notes that large capitalist fortunes are built up on selling people absurd things: knick-knacks, fancy plates, embroidered napkins, bonnets carved sideboards. The whole of the suffering of the cotton factories of Manchester are being fed by our appetite for very cheap shirts with delicate collards. We are ruining our lives for trinkets, whereas for Ruskin money shouldn’t only be made morally, it should be spent morally on the truly noble and beautiful things that humans need. He contrast the beauty of Venice with the ugliness of modern Britain to make his point. Berlin, 1963. The leader of communist East Germany, Walter Ulbricht launches an ambitious new scheme: the Neues Ökonomische System or NÖS. It aimes to solve for East Germans the two major failings of capitalism in his eyes. One: It will guarantee workers good conditions with a huge expansion in the number of state schools, housing blocks and holiday camps. And secondly: It will focus not on the fripperies of capitalist production like blue jeans and pop music; it will give people the works of Plato and Marx and uplifting television programs about track to production. 1976, Dresden, East Germany. The fatal flaws of communism come to a head in January with a massive riot about the unavailability of coffee. East Germans love drinking coffee but a huge rise in global prices means that the German Democratic Republic can no longer afford to import it in the necessary quantities. The Politburo decides to remove all coffee from shops and replaces it with “mich Kaffee”, mix coffee which is 51 percent coffee and 49 percent a range of fillers including chicory, rye and sugar beet. Dissatisfaction with this eventually has to be quelled with the use the Stasi or secret police. It’s an inadvertent tribute to capitalism which is especially good at providing us with life’s little luxuries. Edeka hypermarket near Hamburg, November, 1989. East Germans who have recently breached the wall head straight for West German supermarkets like Edeka near Hamburg. They marvel at the productive capacities of capitalism and the ability that it has to provide such modest but very important things as olive oil, party hats, ice spuns and coffee. The old East German elite who had believed that the people could be satisfied with philosophy, athletics, sauerkraut and TV programs about farming are hounded out of office. 1999, Seattle, USA. The World Trade Organization, a capitalist body dedicated to removing protection from industry and liberalizing markets gets together for its next round of talks, 10 years since the fall of communism and after a decade of unprecedented economic growth. But though the mood of politicians is upbeat, out in the streets hundreds of thousands of anti-capitalist protesters have gathered to call an end to the iniquities of global capitalism. The complaints are strikingly similar to those made by Jesus Christ. Capitalism doesn’t look after the producers and capitalism downgrades the important spiritual ends of life for the sake hamburgers, unsustainably cheap clothes and garish distracting mass media. With their beards and guard figures many of the protesters look a little like Renaissance’s renditions of Jesus. The police take a very heavy hand, fired tear gas into the crowds, arrest 2000 and call in the National Guard. The protest remind the world that besides the winners of capitalism there is an enormous army of the disenfranchised and the angry who see more sense in Jesus, Dickens and Ruskin than in Adam Smith and Bill Clinton. 2015, Cupertino, California. Apple Computers officially becomes the largest corporation in the world. It’s a giant success story. But the very same challenges remain. It turns out that Apple are indirectly responsible for the suffering and abusive of workers in the supply chain in China by the Foxconn corporation and with the launch of the Apple watch, a gadget that seems to have no particularly urgent purpose, questions are once again raised about why we are exhausting ourselves and the planet for ends that are so out of proportion with the costs they impose on all of us. To generalize: Capitalism is amazingly productive but it has two big flaws. Firstly, it systematically inclines to ignore the sufferings of workers unless regularly prodded not to. And the wealth of companies is often built up on satisfying what are not the essential needs of human beings. Fortunes are made on making unhealthy food or bad television programs. The challenge for the future is how we might be able to make money humanely by treating people and the earth well and also make money through activities which address the more noble end of human needs. Till then, the rage of Jesus in the temple will periodically always go on.

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