Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Capitalism - Is It Fair and Just? by Una Spenser and NY Brit Expat

This diary is a part of a series examining the nature of capitalism. I have been itching to explore not just the economics of capitalism but whether capitalism can ever be fair or just or sustainable. As this group is an anti-capitalist group, I felt the need to get beyond discussions of who owns production and distribution systems. I want to examine why anybody would even see capitalism as righteous. In the mainstream political discourse, if one dares to say that she is not supportive of capitalism, one is a heretic. So, what is this thing that we worship? What are it's values? What makes capitalism so worthy of it's righteous status in our culture?

I didn't really know how to dive into the topic from this perspective. I wasn't interested in starting the examination through an academic lens. I was thinking in terms of having a conversation with one's next door neighbor when you're both out weeding in the garden: is capitalism fair?

Perhaps, the exploration will broaden and deepen from here. I'd love to see that. To get things started NY Brit Expat had the wonderful idea of delving into what was niggling at me by asking questions and generating a dialog.

We share that with you today and ask that you join the discussion that we have started:

NY Brit Expat: When you say that the capitalist system itself is not fair and is not just, what do you mean by fairness and justice? What would consititute a fair and just system in your view?

To me, fairness and justice hinge on those that create things actually controlling the thing they create; so workers should get control over the product rather than capitalists. Another issue that should be discussed is how our notions of right and wrong ( ethics and morality) become conditioned by the system itself.

One more point relates to ownership and property rights that are ensured by the system and how this is then justified and no one ever questions these things.

UnaSpenser: to begin with, fairness and justice, to my mind are concepts which stand alone, regardless of an economic system. That is, if there are 10 hungry people in a room and there are 10 servings of dinner available, the fair distribution is to give each person a serving. It doesn't matter how the meals got there, because food is a basic human need. If someone says, "but I worked harder" or "but I'm worth more" or "but my people contribute more", then they are moving away from fairness. they are willing to deny someone else the foundation of survival when there is enough there to meet every person in the room's needs. If someone needs more for a health reason, then, yes, the group may need to figure out how to redistribute to meet that additional survival need. But, "I think I should get more because " is simply selfish and runs off the track of fairness.

fairness is when everyone has the ability to meet their basic needs without being obligated to, or compromised by, others. if someone says, "I can see that you need this meal, but I'll only give it to you if you agree to pay me later" or "i'll only give it you if you let me have sex with you", this is not fair. it is extortion, because the person must eat and cannot survive without meeting your demands. your willingness to make someone suffer or give up autonomy before they can meet the basic needs of life is cruel. fairness is a commitment to doing no harm to others and not impeding anyone else's ability to thrive autonomously. (one can be interconnected and still be autonomous.)

justice, to my mind, is a state of being where healing and the ability for everyone to function in society, have been restored, to the greatest extent we are able, after a transgression has occurred. the healing can't be to the fullest extent possible if anyone involved, even the perpetrator, has not received everything we can offer to regain the ability to function in society with fairness. so, justice would focus on returning all relationships to as balanced a state as possible. if things have become imbalanced, justice would demand working toward balance. also, justice is not born from fear. it is born from compassion. transgressions are born from fear. most often, when we make decisions based in fear, we further dysfunction and injustice. our response to a transgression then, must come from compassion for all. compassion which is not extended to everyone is not compassion. it includes treating some as though they are less than sentient than others. if you are treating anyone that you, you have corrupted your compassion and turned it into a tool for your fear.

back in that room: someone steals an extra meal and eats it. justice would demand that we understand why this person committed that transgression. that we work to resolve the issues that led to it so that the transgressor can function without harming or depriving anyone else. at the same time, we would need to figure out how to make sure that anyone who was deprived of a meal gets the needed meal. justice would demand that the one deprived and the transgressor work with everyone else on both the restoration of the transgressor's ability to be part of society and the restoration of the deprived meal. only this will heal the social relationships. functioning relationships rely on trust. trust is the framework. everybody must work to find out why and address all the spots of corrosion in the framework. for the transgressor to steal a meal, there must have been a fear, a lack of trust which led that person to not care how it impacted others and only think of herself. then, the transgression itself bred more distrust. the framework will start to crumble, as it can only take so many weak spots and still bear the weight of social responsibility. it is the responsibility of everyone to to repair the corroded spots in the society's framework.

everyone deserves to eat. When it comes meal time, depriving people of a serving, particularly if that person is aware that that everyone else will getting 10% more than needed by depriving her, is cruel and causes harm. if what someone needs is 1 serving, or 10% of the food, and they demand 11%, they are being unfair. if others agree to meet that demand, an injustice is committed by everyone. it isn't just that someone demanded. even if that person is a bully or holds some kind of power. everyone who acquiesces to an abuse of power is complicit in the injustice.

in capitalism, the foundation of the economic system is this concept of profit. profit means demanding that you receive resources of a greater value than what you contribute. (its gets even more complicated when you start to consider labor structures and that people are demanding to receive resources for someone else's labor. but, I don't want to get into that, yet. that's a symptom of an underlying moral/ethical issue with the basic precept of capitalism.) at the very core of capitalism is this axiom that all we do should produce a profit for us.

there are several problems with this axiom. first, there is a logical concern: it must include the precept that everyone could earn a profit. Otherwise, one would be saying that it's okay for some people to lose. But, to lose in an economic system means to lose the ability to provide for the basics needs of life. back in that room again: if the person who happens to carry the meals into the room demands so much from me for my meal , that I no longer have the resources to get my critical medications, then I will die. but, this is not a consideration in the capitalist construct. transactions don't have to take into account the ripple effects. they are only accounted for as independent transactions. the only time this is not true is when enough people gather enough power to demand that some effects be taken into account. in capitalism, power is measured by control of resources. so, those with control over more resources most often hold all the power when it comes to what will be accounted for. in capitalism, if you happen to be the one holding the tray with the meals, you automatically get more power. it doesn't matter how you landed in that position. It is the rare victory when the "little people" win a dispute over such a thing as the collateral effects of a transaction. this idea that "the market" will correct injustices has already proven itself to be wrong. those with the most resources control "the market." injustices abound. corporations can be deemed too big to fail. or too big to prosecute. that is because justice is not an ethic in the capitalist system. only winning the game of garnering control over resources.

for capitalism to be considered fair, it must assume that there are enough resources and enough equal access that everyone can pursue an unbounded accumulation for themselves without doing harm to others. yet, what we need for survival are resources from the planet: food, water, medicines, shelter, etc. No matter how large the Earth may feel, it is a limited resource. Access to the limited resources it offers is also limited. If that were not so, people would not be hungry or die from illnesses which can be treated. capitalism might pretend to be blind to this illogic, but that does not change the fact that is based on pursuing an unfair and unjust agenda.

When we see that food is accumulated in some places and lacking in others, we will also see that it is accumulated by those who have won at the profit game and lacking for those who haven't. Who wins at the profit game? Those more able and willing to have no concern for the well being of others and to continue to demand more resources be given to them than they are contributing. They see people who are hungry, who don't have warm clothes for the winter, who don't have homes, who don't have access to medical care and, still, they demand more for themselves. They start to have a skewed sense of what they are "due" or "need." They could walk into that room and feel completely comfortable demanding that 90% of the food be given to them, regardless of how that deprives everyone else. What is the characteristic of a person who behaves this way? Someone who has no concern for the well-being of others? A sociopath. What is the methodology they must use to get people to give them more than their fair share? Bullying. Capitalism is sociopathic in nature and to be a leading capitalist, one must be a bully.

We see a disproportionate distribution of food in the United States. While people are starving, the capitalist system will report "good numbers" in their economic analyses. It even has determined that a certain percentage of people unable to provide the basics of life for themselves is "tolerable." This is because, we know, deep down, that capitalism has to have losers. We train ourselves to believe in "competition" as an admirable, desirable thing, even though we know that in competitions there are very few winners and lots and lots of losers. Losing a baseball game may not seem like something to be concerned about when it comes to fairness and justice. But, we are inuring ourselves to the pain of the losers in all arenas. We are training ourselves to accept and tolerate that life has losers. We don't care whether that is fair or just. Capitalism is not about that. Capitalism is about turning us all into sociopaths. When you see the nature of the political discourse happening now, you see sociopathy running rampant.

this profit basis for every transaction we complete with our fellow human beings doesn't take into consideration whether you are taking more than you need, more than what you represent as a percentage of the people in your society, or if you are depriving others of what they need. it is without any morality. the moral code is "getting more for yourself, or your own people, is good" period. it is codified into capitalist laws, that corporations must do what they can to maximize profits for their shareholders. so, when a health insurance company has shareholders, it is their legal imperative to prioritize taking in more resources than they contribute to society, regardless of what this means to the health or suffering of human beings. it is not a system where the incentive is to provide the best care and do the most to reduce suffering. the incentive is to gather in more resources than you give out.

back to our room with 10 people and 10 meals. what is fair about demanding that you get 110% of a serving when you are only 100% of a serving? but, in a capitalist system, one isn't concerned with a fair distribution of food. one is concerned with making a profit. yes, in a room of 10 people, those people might decide to become a clan, knowing there are other rooms of people out there needing the resources of life and that together they might bully that other group better and maybe everyone in the room could make a profit. but, you can't extend that model very far, because at some point, you have to be getting your profit by causing someone else to take a loss. so, you can't decide to include all humans in your clan or else you wouldn't be able to be capitalists any more. if you are concerned with the well being of everyone, you can't prioritize profit. you have to shift to a different system of transactions and priorities. you have start operating as a collective.

so, I've started to discuss right and wrong. I think we could delve more into that.

I don't think I'll get to production control tonight.

PS: I'm adding the comment from our Facebook conversation which you suggested I put here:

if we want to honor the sanctity of life, we should never allow a person to starve, be homeless, or die from an illness which we can treat. that is we should honor the basic human right of those who are living to thrive. that includes those whom we feel have committed transgressions. every life deserves every resource we can provide to return to a state of autonomous, interconnected ability to thrive 

NY Brit Expat: Fairness and justice are broader than right and wrong to me; the latter are more individual in terms of individual behaviour; fairness and justice seem more global or universal to me ... Isn't that weird; they seem to me to be more like things that I perceive or don't on a societal level. In that it is how we as people or society should relate to each other. Right and wrong I can view in a social way, but I often view them as individual behaviourally oriented. I wonder why I think this is so? Actions can, of course, be fair and just, as can decisions. But it is to me a social relation between people in a social context that I view it. So, what makes for a just society? That all are treated equally w/o reference to gender or false conceptions such as race, or w/o reference to property ownership or power relations. Does fairness relate to everyone being covered independent of ability, but with all needs covered?

UnaSpenser: I can see that perspective: that fairness and justice are on a societal level. The examples I gave were meant to illustrate that by metaphor. the 10 people in the room represent a whole society. it becomes a state when they decide to be a clan. the transgressor could be an individual with power or a system within the society/state. the other rooms are other societies/states and the decision to work together with some of them are alliances.

I, too, see the quality of relationships as key to the definition of fairness and justice. probably something along the line of a Buddhist notion of right relationships. one key to that is that no one should have power over another. one may acquiesce leadership in a given moment or for a certain experience, but one should never give up having power over one's self, one's time, and one's ability to thrive. if access to food, clothing, shelter, medical care and education are not always accessible, one is forced to give up autonomy in order to acquire those things. this means giving others power over you, because you are coerced into a subservient position simply to meet the basic needs of life. power corrupts. therefore relationships where someone has power over another become corrupted. this corrupts society.

for me, a fair society is one where all have unfettered access to what they need to thrive, without being left in obligation to, or compromised by, others. (I am purposefully saying 'thrive' rather than 'survive.' Once can survive with a lot of unnecessary suffering inflicted by others.)

A just society is one in which we address any abuses of power or systems which inhibit that fairness and we return everyone to a state of being able to thrive in society.

I'll have to think more about right and wrong. I don't tend to think in those terms. will you tell me more about what you mean by right and wrong, please?

NY Brit Expat: I have always viewed right and wrong in terms of a moral relationship between individuals; that is, I behave in a certain way towards another person rather than how a society itself behaves which I think relates to justness and fairness. But societies can then take the individual moral relationship and use it to describe how we must treat each other ... this sometimes takes place in the context of laws and rules. But those do not guarantee fairness and justice in a society which depends upon other things to me. So, a society can guarantee that you have a right of property through the use of law and state power, but that right actually ensures injustice and unfairness in that society.

The question of right and wrong seems to be a different thing; but it does relate in a broader sense as we can have morals underpinning our society to ensure justice and fairness; but this becomes very difficult in a system based upon private property and protection of that property being enshrined in a legal system. We can say that it is right that no one should starve and that it is wrong that some people have many things and some have nothing, but implementing this without threatening the property right becomes very difficult if it is treated as a zero sum game (that is a given amount where anything given to one takes away from the other).

- Agreed. Implementing true fairness and justice when so much unfairness and injustice is already in place and has been for centuries is another question, altogether. If you start off with inequities, you can't just start by saying fairness requires that each transaction is a zero sum game. One has to start accounting for existing imbalances. One must restore balance first. That is, we must apply justice before we can enact fairness. How do restore justice is always the question that people use to stop the conversation about whether they believe we should work towards justice. It's often the "get out of jail free" card of social responsibility.

Before even trying to figure out how justice could be restored when there is so much inequity in place, we must at least be able to agree on what justice and fairness are and admit that we are not living it. Without these agreements, we have no starting point for any mapping of a journey towards justice. We need to speak the truth about where we are and we need to agree on where we want to go. We need to commit to that mission. Then we can begin to work together to figure out the stepping stones we must place to take the journey. We can't leap to building stepping stones, if we aren't all starting in the same place and seeking the same destination. So, I don't want to get into the itinerary of the journey, yet.

From UnaSpenser and NY Brit Expat: this is the beginning of a conversation. We invite you to think of it as the two people at one end of a table having started a discussion. As we get to talking more and more of you, sitting at the grand table with us are tuning in and listening. Then, you begin to offer your own thoughts and questions......




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Politically, the fundamental immorality and injustice of...

Ohio Barbarian's picture

capitalism may well be it's Achilles' Heel. How can any economic and political system that actively rewards one of the most destructive human emotions--greed--be considered moral and just? It can't, unless one turns around and proclaims "Greed is good" like they did in the movie Wall Street. 

Capitalism as an economic concept is very simple because its only goal is the acquisition of more capital, aka profit, and the quicker the better. Of course, capitalist propaganda proclaims that profits are morally good due to all of the benefits they can bestow on society, but that technique is really just a foil

For example, owners of businesses who choose to lower their own profits by paying their employees more are openly ridiculed by their fellow capitalists for doing so. And anyone who has been laid off or had a pay cut can attest, the owner's claim that "It's nothing personal; just business" rings hollow.

After all, what can be more personal than the loss of one's livlihood? 

In Western culture, greed was long considered one of the "Seven Deadly Sins," for good reasons. The Puritans went so far as to declare making a profit a crime, for, if one makes a profit, does not one obtain more value than what one put into it from another, and therefore make one a thief? 

I don't think we can ever get rid of greed so long as humans are humans, but we certainly don't have to elevate it to the status of godhood, as capitalism invariably does. Why do you think Ayn Rand is so popular with so many capitalists? And the equally execrable success theology with others? 

Both provide a justification for taking from others while accusing their enemies of being "takers" instead of "makers," when the capitalists themselves usually make nothing at all besides profit. 

Capitalism is a truly evil system, and it can not be negotiated with or regulated. It can only be destroyed. IMHO. It's also a threat to the survival of the species and the biosphere itself. 

As far as alternatives go, there are a bunch of them, and none of them are perfect. Personally, I find democratic socialism the most attractive, but for that to work there has to be an educated and engaged population, neither of which exist in America right now. When  capitalism collapses, and it will, I don't think democracy can function during the chaos of transition. Of course, it doesn't function now, in spite of all of the window dressing of elections, so I'm not overly concerned about losing something that hasn't really existed for most of my life, and I'm going on 55.

This is a critically important subject, though, and it really needs to be discussed so people like me who are convinced of the evils of capitalism may have a ghost of a chance of proposing a viable alternative. 


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capitalize the profits; socialize the costs

welshTerrier2's picture

Economists speak of "externalities".  These are costs associated with business transactions that are outside the scope of the marketplace and that do not affect the price of the product.

Capitalists preach the gospel of capitalism but lie, cheat and steal (and lobby) to externalize as many costs as they can.  They dump these costs on the society rather than burdening their products with them.

Most notable among these costs is environmental damage.  What are you paying today for a gallon of gas?  Now factor in the future economic devastation that all this fossil fuel
burning is causing.  Imagine widespread drought, failed agriculture, drought, disease, insect infestations, massive coastal flooding... and more.  Factor all that stuff in.

That gallon of gas that's been costing you $3 or $4 should really be costing maybe $20 or $30.

But why stop there?

Imagine that we understood that the $5 trillion dollar tab for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, really the American wars, should be factored into the price of every barrel of oil.

Now what's the price of that gallon of gas?  Maybe now we're up to $40 or $50 a gallon.

When we create institutions, i.e. corporations, whose sole purpose is to produce profits with no regard for the well-being of the rest of us or for the well-being of the planet on which all life depends, we are putting into motion evil forces to work against our own best interests. Why would we empower corporations to act in this manner?

As I always like to say:

Capitalism puts capital before people; socialism puts people before profits.

Great post, Barbarian!!!  That's three twisty little lightbulbs for you.

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The founders said a few things about this stuff

geomoo's picture

I was recently introduced to this Ben Franklin quote:

All the property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire  and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.

In an article for the National Gazette in 1792 James Madison wrote that the republic would be well served by laws which “reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.”

In Thomas Paine's last great pamphlet, entitled Agrarian Justice (1795), Paine described a tax supported, government administered system of monetary support for the aged, the poor, and the disabled that bears a startling resemblance to Social Security. As Paine put it, "Accumulation … of personal property, beyond what a man's own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”

In writing the Constitution for the State of Virginia, Jefferson included a provision to grant every male on coming of age fifty acres of land at state expense.

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Property rights have been taken to extremes over the last few...

Ohio Barbarian's picture

centuries. Franklin and Madison, who could not help but be exposed to the doctrines of the Anglican Church, a central tenet of which is "Moderation in All Things," could not help but notice that some folks were accumulating property to an extent that could not reasonably be called moderate. 

The fact that they themselves fell into that group couldn't have hurt. 

There's a school of thought that's been around for a long time that says that the only right people have is that of property, and is now being used to justify the excesses of capitalism. 

I think it is way past time to really question that philosophy. Good points, BTW. 

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great Madison quote

welshTerrier2's picture

"reduce extreme wealth toward a state of mediocrity and raise extreme indigence toward a state of comfort"

From an essay I wrote on FDL:

The core of any real movement for change has to be built around radically narrowing the gap between rich and poor and dismantling the corporate state. We cannot continue to allow massive corporations and their largest shareholders to dictate the national agenda. They control the government; they control the two parties; they control the money; they control the media and the message; they control you and me.

While you’re out campaigning for your candidate or your party or your big issue, their wealth and the power their wealth enables grow larger everyday. Fewer and fewer control more and more.

There is no plan B. There is no “yeah, but you’re talking about changes that will take decades.” There is not anything but a battle for power itself. Make no mistake about it, massive wealth, i.e. “excessive wealth”, means too much power and control over our country is concentrated in the hands of an elite minority instead of in the hands of the country’s rightful owners. Regardless of the laundry list you carry around on your little signs, nothing will change until we fight to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Failing that, you will squeak at them like mice hoping for a few crumbs of charity or your little piece of cheese. There is no safety net possible in the shadows of their great and corrupt towers. There is no justice you will win under their watchful eyes. There is no hope until you vow to take away their power and their source of power.

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And that is the crucial thing.

geomoo's picture

I was singing from the same hymnal in a dailykos diary in 2010:


Maldistribution of wealth is the issue at the root of all of our problems, including, believe it or not, the passionate rift here on dailyKos.  If we fail to stop and reverse the flow of capital, and thus power, from the middle and lower classes of this country to a few uber-rich, we will fail in our most faithful attempts to address other issues such as climate change, out-of-control military spending, public and private debt, erosion of constitutionality and the rule of law, the economy, media irresponsibility, etc.  

Henceforth, we progressives need to evaluate every policy decision in terms of whether it continues the flood of wealth upward or truly provides net value for the middle class.  (Perhaps it is more aptly called "downward.")  At the very least, we need to understand the forces which can cause a person passionately to hold opinions very much at odds with our own.  Assuming their goals are the same as yours—progressive, Democratic—they are likely neither trolls nor fools.

The results are in, as most of us here are painfully aware.  The wealth and income gap has increased during Obama's fake liberal presidency.

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The food distribution example reminds me of an AI dinner

geomoo's picture

Even though it all happened well after we were divorced, I still feel proud to say I had the sense to marry a woman who was honored with others at a dinner hosted by Amnesty International.  Attendees sat at different tables on the basis of arbitrarily assigned world status: subsistence economies, emerging, economies, and first world economies--not sure of the details, but along those lines.  Different tables had different amounts of food on the basis of their world status.  Needless to say, there was an enormous disparity in how well people ate, with only a few eating a full meal.  I was glad my high school girls were able to attend that with her and see that.

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One does have to consider the balance of right and obligation.

BruceMcF's picture

Its within the logic of any economy granting everyone a right to a level of basic goods and services imposes upon society the obligation to provide at least that level of basic goods and services, and that means that SOMEBODY has got to do it.

One thing that is inimical to capitalism is priority of needs. Under any capitalist (money controlling access to durable productive resources to produce goods to earn more money) system, the relative urgency of homelessness and yachtlessness is determined by how lucrative it is to meet each need.

Under any sane priority of needs, homelessness is a more urgent problem than yachtlessness.

Indeed, that is a fundamental flaw in unfettered capitalism as an economic system ~ more fundamental than fairness or justice. A money-goods-money circuit has no intrinsic incentive to pursue what is required to maintain the survival of the system within which it finds itself. And even a fair and just system that cannot see to its own viability is only fair and just to the point that it collapses through failure to take care for its own viability.

In addition of course to institutions support for more effective individual action, the needs of system viability imply constraint on individual action. It is in the required constraint that the real and perceived fairness and justice of the system is important, since maintaining that constraint over the long term requires maintaining the legitimacy of the system, and if a system perceived as fair and just, those are ground for increased legitimacy.

NB. comment repost from Agent Orange edition of the diary.

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