Is There Such a Thing as Ethical Capitalism

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Kerry-anne Mendoza:

"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. Please watch the short video below.

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?’

Do we want, as a society, to make people choose between personal wealth and making the best decisions on critical matters like curing cancer?

Far from progress being caused by capitalism, in many areas progress has been made in spite of capitalism. Considering the incredible pace of scientific and technological advancements with these limits in place, the mind boggles at what would happen to human progress if the collective mental and physical power of the three billion people currently starving in the world, were available.

This is why context is so important when addressing the matter of ethical economy, and one way in which capitalism places ethical dilemmas into just one area of our lives.

Moving on to perspective, this is vital in addressing questions of ethics, particularly in the case of capitalism. One of the hardest argued cases for capitalism is the aforementioned progress. Capitalism, it is said, propels people to work hard, in order to succeed financially, and therefore wider society benefits from the increased productivity of the population. It is also leads inexorably to individual liberty, freedom and democracy.

Now, superficially, taking a ‘Western’ view of this, the post industrial revolution period of history has seen extraordinary leaps of progress in science, technology, human rights and democratic participation. So for many people, compared to feudalism, capitalism is an improvement. People cite democracy, universal healthcare, education and the welfare state as representative of this progress. Let us assume for the moment that they are.

If you were born into another family, country or region of the world – you would have seen quite the opposite. From Foreign Direct Investment, to The Debt Trap, to coups of democratic leaders in order to install dictators who would ultimately generate a profit for western corporations, to Structural Adjustment Programmes used by the IMF on African and Latin American countries shifting production to foreign trade rather than domestic need, to the morally defunct trade in weapons, to a toothless UN general assembly and a pointless US dominated UN Security council. All of these policies, decisions and institutions, created in order to perpetuate and stimulate ‘progress’ on one side of the world, at the direct and indirect expense of survival, let alone progress, on the other. This argument is not refuted by realists of politics, economics or international relations – it is defended and justified. It is only neo-liberals and neo-liberalist ‘idealism’, that seeks to wash its hands of any responsibility for generating this mass dispossession, suffering and death – whilst claiming to be the only show in town in terms of dealing with it. It could be argued that rather than replacing feudalism, capitalism merely globalised it.

It is unconscionable, to the Citizens of the World perspective exemplified by the global Occupy movement, that this progress continue to be made at the cost of, and with little or no benefit to, the majority of people on the planet. On the whole, set in context, they find it difficult to see how on earth, given the competitive nature of it, a capitalist economic model is the choice model for the globalised civil society emerging in the 21st Century.

The Least Unethical Thing?

For those people who see the ethos of capitalism itself as unethical, when people ask ‘is there an ethical or more ethical form of capitalism’ the initial response is a palm to the forehead.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the UK government and leader of the Liberal Democrat party, is currently trumpeting the idea of what he calls a John Lewis economy. It is not clear that it means anything at all. John Lewis is a department store; it operates within a capitalist economy. Aspiring to a John Lewis economy is like aspiring to Scout Club Christianity, or Air Cadets Security. John Lewis is a company, the world isn’t. A wistful, ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice if all our companies acted like John Lewis?’ does not translate into a just and ethical economic model – what of currency control, trade agreements, migration – what would John Lewis do?

Furthermore, even if we take the statement at face value, assuming it to mean a more equitable, responsible, fair capitalism, the concept is still problematic if capitalism itself is considered unethical. In this light, talking about John Lewis Capitalism, is comparable to talking about Theresienstadt Nazism or expounding the virtues of ‘separate but equal’ over slavery. They may well be moving in the direction of ethical on a spectrum scale, but what is the point of making such an unethical thing, slightly less unethical? Surely, one could conclude, our collective time and energy would be far better spent in the act of creating an ethical scenario, than seeking – cynically or otherwise – to dampen the worst impacts of an unethical one.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

As before, in the dying days of feudalism, human society is once more at the point where its economic model no longer fits the ethical or social ambitions of the majority of its constituents. There is friction, fracture and frustration. Discontent hangs in the air, as does the unspoken terror that is (in stage whisper) ‘change’.

So, is there such a thing as ethical capitalism? I believe not. More importantly, despite the failure of political and other institutions to do so, broader social movements are resetting the horse before the cart by asking first – what kind of society do we want? We can then move into ‘what kind of economy will best deliver on those ambitions?’, ‘what economic model serves that society best?’

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.

A day will come when whatever new model replaces capitalism also ages, withers and no longer fits our future society’s ambitions, and the process of socio-economic evolution will continue. This is the reality of human existence, and in my view, the wonder of it. Let us take this opportunity to be not the desperate hangers-on to a dying, unjust regime, but the instigators of evolution and the architects of our social and economic destiny." (

More Information

About the author Kerry-anne Mendoza camps at Occupy London Finsbury Square, participates in the media team there and is a student of the LSE (Politics & International Relations) and a freelance management consultant.