Saturday, February 4, 2012

Is there such a thing as ethical capitalism?by Kerry-anne Mendoza

It is interesting that this question – 'is there such a thing as ethical capitalism?' – is asked in binary terms, yet often answered in spectrum.  Notice the question is not ‘what is the most ethical economic system?’ or ‘which economic model promotes the most ethical economy?
Furthermore, the very question itself acts as a ring fence around the resulting debate, concentrating the imagination within the boundaries of just this one system – capitalism. The reason it is answered in spectrum might well be that the unethical behaviour associated with capitalism is so overwhelming and unignorable, that even the most ardent defence relies on relativity arguments – ‘given human nature’, ‘compared with communism’, ‘would you rather live here or North Korea?’.
Therefore I consider the question itself to be unethical.  It is either insincere or ignorant...
Our understanding of capitalism is incredibly limited.  Despite this being the prevailing world economic system, it is not taught until University in the United Kingdom.  This means the vast majority of the population have never even had a structured, informed conversation around the mechanics and iterations of capitalism, let alone whether it is ethical or not.  People, on the whole, don’t know what it is, what it does, what it means, where it came from or what it replaced.
As a snapshot, capitalism is a socio-economic ideology, a theory and the current global economic paradigm.  It originated in the West, gained a foothold in the 1700s and 1800s and ultimately replaced feudalism. It has gone through various incarnations, or developments, from Mercantilism, Industrialism, Keynesianism, and the latest, Neo-Liberalism.  It exists in established democracies and totalitarian dictatorships. 
Yet I have had conversations on the topic of a world without capitalism with intelligent people who, without irony, have stated that capitalism has always existed and will always exist because people will always want to exchange things with each other. To be clear, you can have an economy without it being capitalist.  You can have trade of ideas, labour, skills and products without capitalism. Capitalism is not synonymous with any of these things. 
I mention this not to belittle, but to demonstrate how successfully and misleadingly capitalism has been branded as natural, inevitable, permanent and, arguably the most intriguing, ‘post-ideological’.  It is none of these things. But consider for a moment: if most people believe it is, then does it matter whether it is ethical at all?  If something is natural, inevitable, permanent & not based in ideology, isn’t even entering a conversation about the ethics of it somewhat irrelevant outside of the curiosities of academia?...
...technological and scientific progress rely on the broadest population of educated, innovative, critical thinkers with access to means of contributing ideas, skills and capabilities to achieve breakthrough results.  Yet in order to safeguard the profit from any venture, it makes economic sense to have the smallest group of people involved as possible, operate secretively, and use patents and licenses to prevent others from ‘stealing your idea’ and making the profit from it that you yourself seek.  In order to progress more quickly, one would need to over-ride or compromise this economic imperative.  There has been fascinating work recently covered in TED talks on this matter and I’ll use one example: cancer research.
Jay Bradner, a researcher at Harvard University, and his lab discovered a molecule JQ1 which they thought might explain how cancer cells know they are cancer cells – and wanted to explore if this finding could be used to outfox cancer.   He expounds on the success of the decision of his microbiology lab to refuse to patent JQ1, and instead to publish their findings, post them out to 40 other labs, and open source the development of their work. The work is truly inspiring.  This case demonstrates two things.  Firstly, that scientific progress does not rely on competition, but collaboration. Secondly, people are driven as much by purpose and passion, as they are by financial gain, or put another way – actual success and economic success not synonymous.
Even in this case, participation is still limited by the need to make money from it at all, and no doubt Jay Bradner and his team made less money than they ultimately could have if they had chosen to stay in the secretive, closed, patent model.  This is important as it is exactly what has the majority of people remain in the model which Bradner and his team have demonstrated is a de facto slow lane for research and development.
Supporters of capitalism might ask ‘why should people not benefit financially from their skills and capabilities?’, yet it could equally be asked of capitalism, ‘why would you penalise people for collaboration?’, or ‘why would you incentivise behaviour which holds us back?’...
The people today refusing to entertain even the conversation, or imagining of a post-capitalist economy, are no different to the feudal barons and peasants who could not foresee or were hostile to the dynamic newcomer capitalism in centuries past.  For them, humanity has reached the apex of its ability to generate economic and political ideas.
To hold a view of humankind as static, or finite in our ability to innovate and create is, in my opinion, to fundamentally close one’s mind to the facts, as demonstrated by human history.  It has been said before, that the economy is a great servant but a terrible master.  This is demonstrated perfectly by a glance at the current state of our world.  It seems we have forgotten that we, human beings, invented this economy. If it has ceased to serve us then our best efforts should - and in the tent cities, repossessed public buildings and occupied homes across the world are -being made to design another...

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