11 May, 2008

Idealist and/or a Capitalist?

I was challenged yesterday when a friend I was talking to about the pros and cons of capitalist world we live it (yes a very light topic for Saturday morning coffee!), said in a backward way that I wasn’t an idealist.

It has got me thinking. Helping Danielle Strickland and Campbell Roberts with their new book Just:Imagine over the summer, we came to a very clear conviction that we need to be dreamers of a better world for justice and equality to become a reality.

So my question is – can we be dreamers and idealists if we are capitalists too? I have to admit I enjoy the joys of my new little ipod and I enjoy the relief of antibiotics when I am sick. Both innovations driven by profit.

But for those of us working with people on the margins, we see the flaws, warts and wounds of the system we live in. We don’t need convincing that there is something terribly wrong.

The main argument that has been given to me is that the capitalist system inherently contains motivators for greed. But my question is- is it the capitalist system that is the problem or our flawed humanity? I think that even if we created another system, wouldn’t those same broken qualities simply rot it away?

So is it about imagining a new system? Or a better humanity? Does that question then shift our focus from the structure to the people as the starting point?

In the words of one of my heroes, Muhammad Yunus, “I support globalization and believe it can bring more benefits to the poor than its alternative. But it must be the right kind of globalization. To me, globalization is like a hundred-lane highway criss-crossing the world. If it is a free-for-all highway, its lanes will be taken over by the giant trucks from powerful economies. Bangladeshi rickshaw will be thrown off the highway. In order to have a win-win globalization we must have traffic rules, traffic police, and traffic authority for this global highway. Rule of "strongest takes it all" must be replaced by rules that ensure that the poorest have a place and piece of the action, without being elbowed out by the strong. Globalization must not become financial imperialism.”

For these rules to become a reality, people have to change too. We have to change. People power has to tell the market they demand fair trade, ethical business practices, laws that prevent people preying upon the vulnerable…

That's enough sunday rambles from me. Love to hear people's thoughts...

Til next time,


Mike Todd said...

I think its about a new system.

I love Yunus too, but he is early in his relationship with capitalism. He can see all that it will do for the poor, and initially I think he's right.

We in the west have been in relationship with the system for a long time. Capitalism defines itself as "enlightened self-interest." I would define the gospel as "enlightened other-interest." In my view they are diametrically opposed. I'm of the opinion that the Enrons, WorldComs, etc., of the world are not exceptions, but the inevitable evolution of unfettered capitalism in a fallen world.

Alright... enough preaching. All this to say that we need to stretch our imaginations to picture a new reality beyond the existing system.

JUST thoughts on human trafficking... said...

Pope John Paul II 'the greatest threat to this generation is excessive capitalism and the death of persons not yet born.' - these are of course connected in a world were everything and everyone becomes a commodity!

the real truth is that the problem lies in the hearts of men. Booth's ability to preach individual heart changing gospel coupled with new systemic imaginings are the making of a new and better world... in the meantime if we could get capitalism to work for the poor - let's do it!!

Heather Saunders said...

Hi Mike,
Thanks for commenting!

My friend mentioned 'enlightened self interest' amongst the debate. Can you explain more?

I would be all up for 'a new system' if i thought the system could fix the inherent problem with humanity's greed. And i'm all open to discussion and suggestions? When it comes down to it, I'm with Danielle's comment of 'in the meantime if we could get capitalism to work for the poor - let's do it' But i ask myself these questions because i don't want to 'settle' for 2nd best...I want to be able to imagine a better world.

By complete fluke, I was reading Martin Luther King,Jr.'s autobiography today and it seems he wrestled with the exact same questions...Let me quote you a bit (though i recommend reading the whole chapter!)

"In spite of the shortcomings of his analysis, Marx had raised some basic questions. I was deeply concerned from my early teen days about the gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, and my reading of Marx
made me ever more conscious of this gulf. Although modern American capitalism had greatly reduced the gap through social reforms, there was still need for a better distribution of wealth. Moreover, Marx had revealed the danger of the profit motive as the sole basic of an economic sytem: capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity....

My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each represents a partial truth. Historically capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth-centruy capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal. The Kingdom of God is neither the thesis of individual enterprise nor the antithesis of collective enterprise, but a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both."


armybarmy said...

let's cap salaries... that's one way of protecting us from excessive capitalism... we make a social agreement that anything over 1 billion is too much for any person - and even though they or their company can still make money it has to be given to society somehow... through charity etc...

i think caps on salaries are an idea for entertainers and sportsman as well... we should be able to determine the value to society not just the money people can make...

what do you think? we could call it marcitalism?

Mike Todd said...

I think Marx had some great ideas... the problem is they were never put into practice effectively.

The enlightened self-interest thing is a tough one. The idea is if I look out for my own interests, I will prosper, and in prospering I can help others. Great theory, but again, lousy execution. (This could also drag us into a conversation about the fallacy of trickle-down economics, but I'll avoid that temptation for now.)

I'm torn. Like Danielle I think that there's a lot capitalism can do for the poor. And yet, do I wish for them to start down a road that leads them to a materialistic, consumeristic society? In other words, a road that leads to us. But yet again, do I have the right to sit here, surrounded by all the benefits of that broken system, and tell others that it's not for them?

Jesus had the answer, and it ain't capitalism.

(Just sitting here at the airport in Vancouver, heading out to East Africa. Ask me again in a few days...)

Sarah Roberts said...

Agreeing with Mike I think its about a 'new system'. The difficulty being that those who have power (i.e. capital) would most likely be losing something in a new system and no-one likes to lose. Danielle however makes a good point that its also about the hearts of men - selfishness and self-indulgence drive this system - if we believe this can change and man can be generous and work in the interests of others then we have something and can maybe work within the system to develop a capitalism that benefits the poor??(We can do all things through Christ!!)

I think we need a system where everyones needs are met, where the power lies with all people not just with the prosperous, of a system that does not depend on poverty to exist. Capitalism is inherently unequal and thus is not the system that I dream of.
(As yourself, Mike and Danielle have pointed out however, I exist in, benefit from and enjoy this system... arrgh... more thought to that another day)

On the concept of enlightened self-interest; it seems to simply validate peoples selfishness and give them justification for putting themselves first. Is this biblical?? I think not. Is capitalism biblical - I haven't looked into it in great detail - but I don't think God's idea of economy or society is based on such gaping discrepancies in provision, status and value. If this is not God's economy why do we defend it??

Its based on profit. Its based on progress that our planet can't sustain, its based on consumption when we literally cannot continue consuming at the rate we are and expect the planet to survive, its based on wanting and not needing, its based on indulgence and affluence at a huge cost to the poor and oppressed.

I say DREAM, we need to be idealists and visionaries, we need to be hoping and working towards a better way of doing things. I'm not sure what this looks like yet. Let me look like a fool but I'm willing to hope for a revolution.

Mike Todd said...

"Its based on profit. Its based on progress that our planet can't sustain, its based on consumption when we literally cannot continue consuming at the rate we are and expect the planet to survive, its based on wanting and not needing, its based on indulgence and affluence at a huge cost to the poor and oppressed."

Exactly! I think we default to defending the status quo because we have no imagination to envision anything different. We're talking about major, long-term change. And we need to emphasize the "long-term" part. This will not happen overnight. We're not reaping, we're not sowing, we're not even plowing. I think we're just clearing the land on this one.

In the meantime, the idea of "social businesses" has some appeal, as long as in the back of our minds, we don't lose sight of the fact that this is not the ultimate answer. And it is about the hearts of people. Ultimately, systems are constructs of people.

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