Does capitalism encourage evil? That’s a thought that occurred to me after my daughter asked me about my personal definition of evil. So first I had to solidify that definition.
Even though I grew up surrounded by Christians, I never quite agreed with the idea that there is some sort of disembodied evil ‘out there’ waiting to corrupt us. As far back as I can remember, all the nasty stuff in the world came from selfish choices human beings made, on a small or large scale. So my definition of evil pretty much amounts to this: ‘I want what I want regardless of the consequences to anyone else.’ It’s a point of view that eschews personal responsibility or any of that seventh-generation type thinking in favor of instant gratification and a truly profound amount of self-centeredness.
Of course, we’ve all seen this kind of activity: People running roughshod over others’ feelings, inflating themselves by putting others down, or taking what they want from a situation without regard to the harm they’re doing to other people, animals, the environment…this is nothing new. Most of it amounts to what I call ‘small evils’ – nothing world-changing. But what about the world-changing variety? And what about a system that encourages that kind of evil?
I remember being shocked to discover that in the U.S., it’s the law that a corporation must put profits above everything else. Even if the people who run the company would prefer to make decisions that support the workers or protect the environment, they are legally bound to do otherwise. By law they must look to short-term profits over any other consequences. That exemplifies my definition of evil, and it’s cemented in law!
We live in a capitalist society, where the worth of something is judged by its market value (the price of an object, the salary of a human being). The amount a customer or employer is willing to pay says nothing about the consequences of the action: the stripping of natural resources for the manufacture of consumer items, or the degradation of human life when people are forced to survive on meager wages in order for their employer to turn a bigger profit.
As Terry Pratchett noted in I Shall Wear Midnight, evil begins when you treat people as things. I suggest that this also includes treating the environment as a bunch of raw materials for profit rather than an interconnected, living system. I’m pretty sure capitalism doesn’t embrace the idea of All My Relations.
The environment: there’s a touchy subject. I’ve noticed that every time we identify a problem with the environment (endangered species, climate change, and so on), the solution is always: Buy This Product.
So ultimately, I have to say that capitalism does encourage evil, at least by my definition of it. The question then is, can we change capitalism so it doesn’t do that or must we scrap it entirely? And if we scrap it, what are we going to replace it with? It’s one thing to say, ‘This system stinks’ and quite another to actually find something better.
I’ve been reading through all sorts of articles about a post-capitalist society, and I have to wonder what direction we’ll eventually head in. Will we choose that direction on purpose, with responsibility and thought, or will we just fall down the path of least resistance?