Dealing with capitalism

2011-11-02 00:00

IN world politics and economics 2011 has been a memorable year. Things have been shaken up.

The Arab Spring has not only altered the face of North Africa and the Middle East; dictators everywhere have become conscious that repressive power is vulnerable. It isn’t certain how the various revolutions will turn out: revolutions have a bad habit of doing almost more harm than good. But any movement towards real human freedom must be welcomed.

The economic crisis in the West, which is now having serious repercussions throughout the world, is even more momentous than the political upheavals. It is becoming clear that there is something very seriously wrong with the way in which capitalism is being implemented. The interesting and encouraging demonstrations against the current economic status quo that have been taking place in various parts of the world are being described by the media as “anti-capitalist”, but in fact the demonstrators represent a variety of different causes and viewpoints, and it is by no means certain that most of them are against capitalism as such.

If the last 100 years have shown how flawed in various respects the capitalist system is, for all its undoubted successes, they have shown even more vividly that almost every attempt to eradicate capitalism has led to an authoritarian denial of human freedom. And it is notable that at the moment no real thoroughgoing alternative to capitalism, to the overall market system, is being offered. What is being proposed, however, in various ways by various groups, is a capitalism which is restrained and regulated in a variety of ways — a system in which the large corporations will not have everything their own way, local products will not always be trumped by cheap imported goods, and international money will not be able to move around too freely and whimsically. Something like a consensus is beginning to develop about the global need to narrow the gap between rich and poor, to create employment, to curb the casino-like tendencies of some banks, and to prohibit the ludicrously large salaries and bonuses paid to some CEOs. There can be little doubt that the world’s current economic system is fraught with absurdities. What is needed is a distinct move towards democratisation and equalisation.

But how are restraint and regulation to be achieved? This is a question that is being asked in many quarters. One suggested way forward has recently been offered by the Pope’s Council for Justice and Peace. For well-known reasons the reputation of the Catholic Church is at a low ebb at the moment, but this document deserves to be taken seriously. (I should add that I am myself a critical Catholic.)

The document proposes a gradual movement towards a “true world political authority”. One cannot question the logic of this suggestion: we are all in innumerable ways part of a global entity, and any large communal entity needs sensible rules and regulations. The document warns that “If this road is not followed, despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations.” That is to a considerable degree what is happening at the moment. The authority that is envisaged would have “a global reach that cannot be imposed by force, coercion or violence, but should be the outcome of a free and shared agreement and a reflection of the permanent and historic needs of the world common good. It ought to arise from a process of progressive maturation of consciences and freedoms as well as the awareness of growing responsibilities.” Most urgent among its policies would be “those regarding global social justice … financial and monetary policies that will not damage the weakest countries; and policies aimed at achieving free and stable markets and a fair distribution of world wealth.”

Is all this over-optimistic, idealistic? The document states firmly that “In this process, the primacy of the spiritual and of ethics needs to be restored and, with them, the primacy of politics — which is responsible for the common good — over the economy and finance. “Will hard-bitten diplomats and marketeers be impressed by this? Will they be prepared to let their hard bargaining be held back by “the primacy of the spiritual and ethics”?

Let us hope so. In a crisis people often behave at their best. This happened, for example, in the South African negotiations in the early nineties. The world is in a state of prolonged crisis. It is the right moment for its leaders to behave in a fully human and humane way.

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