Democracy Vs. Capitalism, or, Money Isn't Everything, Part 2
October 7, 2009 - 5:07pm ET
Yesterday, I looked at what Michael Moore's call for a democratic economy would mean at the national level. Today, I wanted to look at what it means at a smaller scale, at individual workplaces and for the values that each of us carries around.
There are ways in which our usual understanding of capitalism and economics runs headlong in opposition to a democratic ethic. Because this is so rarely discussed, I don't think I can lay the groundwork any better than John Ikerd did in his book, Sustainable Capitalism, so I'm going to turn the floor over to him for a moment:
... In economic choices, each person is expected to protect his or her own self-interest, and therefore the interest of others never enters into the decision. In economics, all relationships also are instrumental, meaning that they have no value other than as a way of acquiring something. Purely personal relationships have no instrumental value.
... However, economists were not willing to limit their discipline to those things that could be legitimately measured mathematically. They have attempted to internalize social and ecological externalities by devising ways to assess the monetary market values of relationships and stewardship. Market values, however, reflect only the instrumental valuesof social and ecological relationships; that is, the reflect their values as a means of creating economic value, and not their direct or intrinsic value in enhancing the quality of life. Reduced to their fractional economic values, the apparent values of social and ecological capital have become so diminished as to appear insignificant in relation to the values of economic capital and wealth.
... For example, clean air and water had no economic value until water and air became sufficiently polluted as to make clean air and clean water scarce.
... In assessing social values under the democratic belief system, each person is equal in dignity and worth, and thus, the values of each person must be given an equal weight in the valuation process. Obviously, people have unequal impacts on economic values because they have unequal abilities to contribute to and benefit from the economy, being inherently unequal in ability, energy, creativity, and wealth. ... Social value quite simply cannot be measured in terms of economic value. ...
Importantly, an economic understanding of the world has only one measure of value: money. Money is essential, but we all understand there are things that can't and shouldn't be measured by it.
There's a person's freedom, for example. This is why people aren't allowed to sell people into slavery anymore. People aren't even allowed to sell themselves into slavery (the ancient slave population was often a mix of the forcibly captured and those who sold themselves to discharge a debt) or indentured servitude. And no matter the demand, no one is legally permitted to set up a market for slaves, sell people into slavery to repay debts, or view other humans as extractable resources for such a trade. People aren't even allowed to sell their votes, the civic expression of their free will, because of the understanding that allowing votes to be exchanged for a cash value would corrupt democracy beyond recognition.
There's health, the old standby for pricelessness. People are not permitted to sell their limbs or organs, not even if they want to, need the money and swear they wouldn't miss them, anyway. It's easy to understand that allowing such a market would put intolerable pressures on the poor to accept a maiming as the price for getting out of onerous debts. Loansharking would take on a whole new dimension of evil.
There's affection. As Ikerd writes elsewhere in the book, “a life without love is a life without quality,” a proposition so inarguably true that he says it doesn't need more proof than what everyone already knows. While there are relevant statutes, we all do know that warm feelings can't be purchased and without them, acts of generosity or intimacy ring hollow.
There are things that shouldn't be bought, sold or trade. Things that can't be priced without being destroyed.
Still, when talking about economic matters, we often forget the wisdom of our common human experience telling us that money can't measure everything. So cruelty is excused. So destruction of communities is excused. So perversion of our democratic ideals is excused.
Consider how often money is allowed to shield people from the principle of equality under the law, allowing them to get away with outrageous crimes against others, and you can see what I mean.
At the level of the workplace, the moral authority to direct work, goals and resources now rests entirely in the hands of the people with the most money. And as making more money is the only morality built into today's capitalism, if the public interest requires a shift in goals, if people need more work or fairer pay and the free market won't pony up, outrageous crimes end up being perpetrated against the broader community, as well.
There was a time, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Works Progress Administration projects, when the US government even operated as a work state, providing jobs in building a national infrastructure to those who couldn't find work elsewhere. The WPA took labor the private sector couldn't use and directed it towards building needed community resources that we still use today.
It was a good idea, but the WPA was a temporary solution that faded back to an economic system that crashed all over again. So what about going back to one of Moore's suggestions, which has been around for a long time, that workers at failed businesses be given the chance and backing to reform their workplace as a cooperative? This can create viable businesses with greater agility and more accountability to community needs.
If democracy is a good way to run a country of around 300 million people, maybe it's a fine way to run a factory of 3,000, or 300, or 30. Maybe if we took the next step towards trusting that democracy is a good principle for organizing human beings, we'd try it more often.
To get to a far economy that usefully provides for the common good, economic activity needs to be subject to democratic principles at every level. Labor investments in business need to offer a path towards equity and real partnership as much as capital investments – workers need to be acknowledged to have a stake in their own livelihoods. It needs to be easier to start a small business and have access to a social safety net while doing so – so more people can contribute ideas to the marketplace, reducing the pressure to huddle together for employment at monopolistic corporate behemoths.
In short, the workers at mills and factories that are closing down need to have support in reforming their workplaces as cooperatives where they can make things the country really needs: like high speed rail tracks, train cars, solar panels, and high-efficiency building materials.
Unregulated, unfettered capitalism has left us with a lot of people willing to work and a lot of work that needs to be done. Going back to democratic first principles can start us towards turning two problems into a solution.
A national policy boldly favoring economic activity that benefits the greatest number of people and a flexible workforce that's supported in living its democratic principles would logically, inevitably, be a lot more capable of providing a market for mass transit and clean energy that was made in America. When people aren't so dependent on large companies for work, when corporations are no longer treated as though they had a special right to profit, it will become easier to do the right, and popular, thing.
I think Michael Moore got this exactly right.
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