Next Stage Of Capitalism: "A Balanced Society"


It's done so much for human well-being, but it's far from perfect. Will capitalism as we know it evolve into something new?

Nearly 250 years ago, the economist and philosopher Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, in which he described the birth of a new form of human activity: industrial capitalism. It would lead to the accumulation of wealth beyond anything that he and his contemporaries could have imagined.

Capitalism has fuelled the industrial, technological and green revolutions, reshaped the natural world and transformed the role of the state in relation to society. It has lifted innumerable people out of poverty over the last two centuries, significantly increased standards of living, and resulted in innovations that have radically improved human well-being, as well as making it possible to go to the Moon and read this article on the internet.

However, the story is not universally positive. In recent years, capitalism's shortcomings have become ever-more apparent. Prioritising short-term profits for individuals has sometimes meant that the long-term well-being of society and the environment has lost out – especially as the world has faced the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. And as political unrest and polarisation around the world have shown, there are growing signs of discontent with the status quo. In one 2020 survey by the marketing and public relations firm Edelman, 57% of people worldwide said that "capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world".

Indeed, if you judge by measures such as inequality and environmental damage, "the performance of Western capitalism in recent decades has been deeply problematic", the economists Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato wrote recently in the book Rethinking Capitalism.

However, that does not mean there are no solutions. "Western capitalism is not irretrievably bound to fail; but it does need to be rethought," argue Jacobs and Mazzucato.

So, will capitalism as we know it continue in its current form – or might it have another future ahead?

Capitalism has spawned thousands of books and millions of words, and so it would be impossible to explore all its facets. That said, we can start to understand where capitalism could be headed in the future by exploring where it began. This tells us that capitalism hasn't always worked the way it does today ­– particularly in the West.

The shift toward greater individual liberty changed the social contract. Previously, many resources were provided by those in power (land, food and protection) in exchange for significant contributions from citizens (for instance, from slave labour to hard labour with little pay, high taxes and unquestioning loyalty). With capitalism, people expected less from governing authorities, in exchange for greater civil liberties, including individual, political and economic freedom.

But capitalism would evolve significantly over the following centuries – and particularly so during the second half of the 20th Century. After World War Two, the Mont Pelerin Society, an economic policy think tank, was founded with the goal of addressing the challenges confronting the West. Its specific focus was on defending the political values of an open society, rule of law, freedom of expression and free market economic policies – central tenents of classical liberalism.

Its ideas eventually gave rise to "supply-side economics". This was the belief that lower taxes and minimal regulation of the free market would lead to the most economic growth – and, therefore, better lives for all. In the 1980s, coupled with the emergence of political neoliberalism, supply-side economics became a priority for the US and many European governments.

This newer strain of capitalism has led to increased economic growth worldwide, while lifting a substantive number of people out of absolute poverty. But at the same time, critics argue that its tenets of lowering taxes and deregulating business has done little to support political investment in public services, such as crumbling public infrastructure, improving education and mitigating health risks.

Perhaps most significantly, in many developed nations late-20th Century capitalism has contributed to a significant gap between the wealth of the richest and poorest people, as measured by the Gini Index. And in some countries, that gap is growing ever-wider. It's particularly stark in the US, where the poorest individuals have seen no real income growth since 1980, while the ultra-rich at the top have seen their income grow by around 6% per year. The richest billionaires in the world are almost all based in the US, and have amassed staggering fortunes, while at the same time the median US household income has risen only modestly since the turn of the century.

The inequality gap may matter more than some politicians and corporate leaders would like to believe. Capitalism may have lifted millions of people around the world out of absolute poverty, but inequality can be corrosive within a society, says Denise Stanley, a professor of economics at California State University-Fullerton. "Absolute poverty is basically folks are able to get… $4 per day per person. It’s a threshold measure," she explains, but relative poverty can unbalance a society over the long-term. Even if the economy is growing, income inequality and stagnant wages can make people feel less secure as their relative status in the economy diminishes. Behavioural economists have shown that "our status compared to other people, our happiness, is derived more by relative measures and distribution then by absolute measures. If that’s true then capitalism has a problem," says Stanley.

As a result of rising inequality, "people have less trust in institutions and experience a sense of injustice", according to the Edelman report. But the impact on people's lives may go deeper. Capitalism in its current form is destroying the lives of many working-class people, argue the economists Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Over "the past two decades, deaths of despair from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism have risen dramatically, and now claim hundreds of thousands of American lives each year", they write.

The 2007-2008 financial crisis exacerbated these problems. The crisis was brought on by excessive deregulation, and hit the working class in developed nations particularly hard. The subsequent bailouts of big banks led to resentment and "helped fuel the rise of the… polarised politics we’ve seen over the last decade", according to Richard Cordray, the first director of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and author of Watchdog: How Protecting Consumers Can Save Our Families, Our Economy, and Our Democracy.

Liberal democracies may now be at an inflection point, where citizens contest today’s capitalist norms with greater political intensity worldwide.

J Patrice McSherry, a professor of political science at Long Island University in New York, has observed this change in Chile, for instance. "Social mobilisation began with a rise in subway fares in October 2019, sparking broad-based protests that convoked more than one million people in demonstrations," she says. "The social movement has exposed the deep sources of discontent in Chile: entrenched and growing inequality, the ever-rising cost of living, and extreme privatisation in one of the world’s most neoliberal states."

Those grievances can be traced back to the late 20th Century, when Chile's authoritarian government introduced constitutional reforms that "institutionalised the economic and political domination of the dictatorship and enshrined a neoliberal framework that erased the role of the state in social and economic areas. It restricted political participation, gave the [political] right disproportionate power, and installed a tutelary role for the armed forces," writes McSherry in an article for the North American Congress on Latin America, a non-profit organisation which tracks trends in the region.

The publishing continues. The World Students Society thanks author Matthew Wilburn King, BBC.


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