From the Archives: Capitalism  (Issue #22)

By Tad Beckman

This piece may well be shocking.  For it is based on a rejection of an orthodox view about capitalism.  Capitalists and Conservative defenders of capitalism assume a form of capitalism in which there is no moral burden on Capitalists, no moral responsibility for the well-being of those in the community who join in the productive process by selling their labor.  However, we have reached a point in our political discourse in which that assumption can be called into question.

The Conservative Right likes to see themselves as the guardians of Capitalism.  Liberals, in the worst light, are viewed as Socialists at the very least and, when tempers get really riled up, Communists.  The trouble with the Conservative right’s position is that they neither define nor justify the particular form of Capitalism which they are guarding.  However, Capitalism can have many forms depending on the character of the people involved.

In the most basic sense, Capitalism is simply an economic system in which there is private ownership of the means of production.  At the time of our nation’s founding, the economy was agrarian so the principal means of production was land and tools involved in farming the land.  The majority of Capitalists were independent farmers, the very population upon which Jefferson rested his utopian concept of a democratic government.  With so much in common, people would be able to come together to participate in government and solve their shared problems.

Of course, even in the infancy of our nation, there were already economic factors that, as they developed, would topple such a utopia.  There was already an industrial-agricultural split between New England the South.  And Southern Capitalism depended upon slavery.  In the North, the means of production was moving toward the tools and institutions of industry and away from mere land and cottage tools.

In the era of industrial production, Capitalism took on an entirely different appearance.  Since the means of production were becoming factories and large-investment machines, Capitalists were far fewer in number and the remainder of the population increasingly turned to laboring for their means of survival.  As Marx saw it, Capitalist society became increasingly divided between the Bourgeoisie (Capital owning class) and the Proletariat (laboring class).

The notion of “means of survival” is interesting in the context of this discussion.  In a strictly agrarian society the “means of production” are equivalent to the “means of survival”.  That equivalence continues for the Capitalist in an industrial society, but the remainder of the population is alienated from the means of production so that its survival becomes contingent.  Capital is a means of survival for the majority of people only in the contingency that they are able to sell their labor at a price that can sustain them.

Today, the vast majority of Americans depend on selling their labor in order to survive.  While 80% of Americans were still small farmers in the late 19th century, the percentage of small farmers now is so small that the U.S. Census has dropped the category as inconsequential.   But selling our labor depends entirely upon the management of Capital and that means an enormous division of power.

Jeffersonian democracy is a thing of the past.  No matter how one wishes to characterize the American government today, it is no longer a coming together of equals to solve shared problems.  It is far more an “oligarchy in democratic clothing”.

In fact, the system of industrial Capitalism places an enormous moral burden on a small number of people since the welfare and survival of the majority of their countrymen has become their responsibility.  That is the sad truth – sad because with only a few exceptions Capitalists have largely ignored this burden.  

The situation is rather like that of the doctor Plato describes whose true role is nurturing the health of patients, but who becomes so involved in the making of money that his patients’ health suffers.

Capitalists of the late 19th century enhanced their profits by buying labor at the lowest possible price, one established by the most meager sense of survival: the simple ability to get up the next day and work again.  Anyone injured in the process or becoming ill or refusing the indignity could easily be replaced.  So long as the aim of the Capitalist is simply maximizing profits all kinds of terrible things can happen.

I see no problem with the Capitalist system of economy if the moral burden is understood.  That burden is to produce products of superior quality for delivery to consumers and to contribute to the well-being and survival of the people who contribute to production by selling their labor.

But this burden requires that Capitalists focus on other matters than pure profit taking.  The quality of products is a simply matter of honesty.  Caring for the well-being of those who work for you is a less simple but still clear matter.  The means of production are useless without the help of those who labor: hence, the welfare of those who labor is an obligation that must be met.  It is not a matter of simply buying labor at the minimum wage possible:  it is a matter of functioning as part of a cooperative community.

This piece was originally published on Tad Beckman’s blog: