Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

capitalism-crash

The other day, I expressed my doubts about Paul Mason’s arguments about postcapitalism. But others see his argument in a much more positive light, including some friends of mine, Jenny Cameron, Katherine Gibson, and Stephen Healy [ht: sk].

They, too, however, assert that “technology does not in and of itself guarantee a better future.” What are needed, and which they see emerging in the midst of capitalism today, are “explicit ethical commitments that are developed independent of online apps and cyber networks.”

Technology is augmenting relations of care for others. Technology does not bring these relations into being.

In our research on the diverse economic practices that exist outside the purview of mainstream economics, we find people are forging new types of economies around six ethical concerns:

  • What do we need to survive well?
  • What happens to surplus, or what is left over after our survival needs have been met?
  • How do we act responsibly to those whose inputs help us to survive well (whether other people or the environment)?
  • How much and what do we consume in order to survive well?
  • How do we care for the commons – the gifts of nature and intellect that we rely on?
  • How do we invest so that future generations can also live well?

I think they’re right: we do need to be aware of the ways the existing set of relations—the relations of capitalist commodity production—not only create capitalist subjects, but also noncapitalist subjectivities.

The way I’ve put it in my own writing, capitalist commodity production both presumes and constitutes particular kinds of individual subjects (which Marx referred to as “commodity fetishism,” i.e., particular notions of “freedom, equality, property, and Bentham”). But it also brings into existence new collective subjectivities—new ways of “being in common”—that can transcend capitalism.

A concrete example might help here. The existence of capitalist healthcare (of healthcare providers as well as healthcare insurers) both presumes and supports the idea that healthcare is an individual concern: we are supposed to take care of our own individual healthcare (whether through the established healthcare system or via “alternative” therapies) and purchase healthcare commodities (again, either established or alternative) if and when they are necessary. But it is also the case that the existence of healthcare commodity markets also brings together providers and consumers—nurses, doctors, and patients—who have an interest in a different kind of healthcare, one that is less interested in profits and more in the well-being of both providers and consumers.

That alternative subjectivity—that “being in common” in relation to healthcare—can serve as the basis of a noncommodified, noncapitalist form of healthcare. And, pace Mason, new kinds of information technologies might even be useful for connecting producers and consumers in postcapitalist ways. There’s nothing automatic about it, of course. Still, both new ethical commitments and information technologies signal the possibility of ways of moving beyond capitalism.

The key is to find ways to combine those emerging technologies and ethical concerns in a political movement that is inspired by a fundamental critique: both what is wrong with the existing order and an imagining of a concrete alternative.

That’s what comes next. . .

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During last night’s discussion of capitalism verusus Catholicism, I made the point that everyone—rich and poor—is negatively affected by capitalist inequality.

My argument was that poor people are put at a distinct disadvantage within an “economy of exclusion,” because they are denied the basic material conditions necessary to sustain not only their individual lives, but also their participation in the wider society. But, I went on, rich people are also hurt by inequality, in the sense that are forced to act in selfish and unethical ways in order to maintain their positions of privilege.

I then referred to the psychological literature on the behavioral effects of inequality, about which I’ve written before (here and here). The latest contribution to this literature was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Social Class, Power, and Selfishness: When and Why Upper and Lower Class Individuals Behave Unethically,” by David Dubois, Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky. The authors set out to disentangle the differences between unethical and self-serving behavior in relation to social class. Here’s what they found:

Both higher and lower social class individuals can engage in unethical behavior, but the target of that behavior might often differ: The unethical behavior of upper class individuals is more likely to be self-beneficial, whereas the unethical behavior of lower class individuals is more likely to be other-beneficial. This parsimonious account complements and qualifies recent work on social class and unethical behavior (Piff et al., 2012) by advancing the argument that the link between upper social class and unethical behavior occurs primarily for self-beneficial reasons.

As I’ve argued before, the point is not that rich people per se display behavioral pathologies—or, for that matter, that poor people are noble. It is fascinating that there are systematic differences in the target of their unethical behavior. But I’m more interested in the idea that both groups, within a highly unequal society, are forced to behave in ways many of us would consider unethical, whether self-serving or altruistic.

What I had in mind when I made my remarks was, of course, Marx’s statement “that the capitalist is just as enslaved by the relationships of capitalism as is his opposite pole, the worker, albeit in a quite different manner.”

But after the fact, as I was driving home from the discussion, I had another thought: what if that is the true content of the preferential option for the poor? We often think of the preferential option as a kind of basic moral test, in the sense of judging the adequacy of current economic arrangements in terms of how the most vulnerable members of society are faring. But what if there is a somewhat different interpretation—that changing society to eliminate poverty will benefit not only the formerly poor but also everyone else? In other words, creating institutions that eliminate the kinds of grotesque inequalities that characterize contemporary capitalism will benefit even those who are not poor, since they will no longer be forced to lose or undermine or otherwise forsake their humanity by engaging in unethical self-serving behaviors. Thus, eliminating capitalist inequality can be seeing as restoring humanity to everyone, both poor and rich.

In that sense, the poor and vulnerable represent a universal class—not because of some kind of inherent nobility, but because eliminating the conditions of poverty and vulnerability will benefit not only themselves, but all others in a capitalist society.

That—and not pity or charity or individual instances of social mobility—may be the truly radical content of the preferential option for the poor.

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I know. I wrote I wouldn’t be able to comment on Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, until I found the time to read it, which won’t happen until the semester is over.

But the debate about the book is taking off and I simply don’t have the patience to wait until my lectures are over and final grades turned in. So, permit me, for the time being, to comment on the commentary.

Thomas Palley has observed that “Neoclassical economists have always talked of capital (K). The forbidden subject is capitalism.” Yes, but, even in talking of capital, they have a problem, one that was addressed during the 1960s in the Cambridge capital controversy. As Joan Robinson argued (and as my students used to learn in Principles of Microeconomics), capitalist income (total profit as the return on capital) is defined as the rate of profit multiplied by the amount of capital. But the measurement of the “amount of capital” involves adding up quite incomparable physical objects – adding the number of assembly-lines to the number of shovels, for example. That is, just as one cannot add heterogeneous “apples and oranges,” we cannot simply add up simple units of “capital,” unless one knows the price of capital, which is the rate of profit. Thus, you can’t use the amount of capital (as in the neoclassical aggregate production function) to determine the rate of return on capital—unless you already know the rate of profit.

That’s the thorny problem Paul Krugman simply sidesteps in defending Piketty’s use of the aggregate production function. Even Paul Samuelson had to concede the validity of Robinson’s critique.

But Krugman is right in arguing “you really don’t need to reject standard economics either to explain high inequality or to consider it a bad thing.” I agree. What’s interesting is that, as Piketty shows, it’s possible to analyze and criticize inequality using some of the tools of neoclassical economics. Not easy but it’s possible. Which means that neoclassical economists, for the most part, choose not to try to analyze and criticize inequality. In other words, the fact that they don’t spend much of their time—in teaching, research, and offering policy advice—in analyzing and criticizing the grotesque levels of inequality we’ve seen in recent decades is, in part, an ethical question. They could but they don’t.

And that’s perhaps an even more damaging critique of mainstream economics than the capital controversy itself.

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I haven’t yet seen a copy of Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities, by J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy. But here’s what a trusted friend wrote:

The book reframes the economy as a site of ethical action, not expert intervention. Not only does it provide a new way of thinking about the economy and our actions within it, it also explores what people are already doing to build ethical economies. The book is accessible and suitable for activists and academics alike.

That’s good enough for me!

These days, political discourse in the United States is governed by what Benjamin Hale calls the “veil of opulence.”

Those who don the veil of opulence may imagine themselves to be fantastically wealthy movie stars or extremely successful business entrepreneurs. They vote and set policies according to this fantasy. “If I were such and such a wealthy person,” they ask, “how would I feel about giving X percentage of my income, or Y real dollars per year, to pay for services that I will never see nor use?” We see this repeatedly in our tax policy discussions. . .

Of course, the veil of opulence is not limited to tax policy. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia advanced related logic in their  oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act in March.  “[T]he mandate is forcing these [young] people,” Justice Alito said, “to provide a huge subsidy to the insurance companies … to subsidize services that will be received by somebody else.” By suggesting in this way that the policy was unfair, Alito encouraged the court to assess the injustice themselves. “If you were healthy and young,” Justice Alito implied, “why should you be made to bear the burden of the sick and old?”

The answer to these questions, when posed in this way, is clear. It seems unfair, unjust, to be forced to pay so much more than someone of lesser means. We should all be free to use our money and our resources however we see fit. And so, the opulence argument for fairness gets off the ground.

But, contra Hale, John Rawls’s veil of ignorance is not the only alternative to the veil of opulence. In fact, if we admit we live in a society with different economic classes, the best Rawls’s approach gives us is a somewhat more equal distribution of income. What if, instead, we cast off all veils—of both opulence and ignorance—and started instead with the situation of people where they are within the class structure. Then, we would be able to see that there is a large class of people who work and get insulted and injured and live in poverty or risk falling into poverty and who have little say over what goes on in their places of work or in the political system—in short, who suffer the conditions and consequences of exploitation on a daily basis.

In liberation theology, it’s called the preferential option for the poor. In class terms, it’s the injustice of exploitation. Either way, it’s decidedly neither the veil of opulence nor the veil of ignorance.

The task, it seems to me, is to start from where people are, out in front of any and all veils, and then make that the basis of a universal claim: the idea that ending exploitation will benefit everyone, both those who are currently exploited and those who seem to benefit from the exploitation of others. Just as bourgeois ideology makes a universalizing claim—that everyone is or can become bourgeois—so the claim of working people can be a different universalizing claim, that a new kind of fairness is possible: from each according to ability, to each according to need.