After capitalism

The most pressing question for 2019 has already been asked – by Pankaj Mishra*, among others. ‘What comes after capitalism?’ So many ‘isms’ have been tried already. They start out with that buoyant step all new ideas have until they reach the mud. Then they get bogged down by two opposing forces. Clever crooks find loopholes in the system which allow them to rip off everyone else. So regulations are brought in to control the more exploitable elements of the regime.

At the same time the concept is pushed beyond its reasonable limit. ‘More means better’ practitioners murmur as they step on the accelerator. Only when the vehicle reaches about twice its safe limit is there an almighty crash. ‘Too fast’ everyone says – including those who were encouraging more speed. As already posed, more does not mean better. It often means worse.

Neither of these causes of failure reach the root of the problem, however. Cake is good; too much cake kills you. Our touching belief in systems is valid only if we learn how to modify our use of the procedures we create. The agricultural revolution was probably the real start of ‘process’. It was mercifully slow. Carthorses don’t move fast, nor do the seasons. Domesticated livestock take a ponderous view of life. Those who lived in the countryside before mechanisation did so, too. I can remember the remnants of that time. It was very beautiful. A calm scene.

Mechanisation was vividly resisted by the Luddites who suffered deportation rather than the loss of their gentle but tough, life-supporting jobs. We now know that they were silly to remonstrate against efficiency. First, they couldn’t win and second, they were (as they would have put it) ‘spitting into the wind’. Some progress is inevitable, much is desirable. Unnecessary heavy lifting and cruelly harsh working conditions are no objectives of humanity. Relieving them is good.

The mechanical digger saved us having to shovel graves for the dead. It also enabled us to unearth the planet’s resources. The former was a putting in, the latter, a taking out. The woofer enabled us to accentuate bass sound so that all might hear. Overdone, it is making everyone deaf. Antibiotics save lives; they also create fatal bugs. Abortion can be life-giving; it can also become infant murder. Why does our amazing, creative mind seem always to drive us to extremes?

Testing is a logical way to learn where the limits are. It can usually be done on a small scale with minimum risk to life and livelihood. Our impatience makes us demand instant answers. Most vivid example of impatience is banking. The clamour to invent new ‘products’ (really?!) and faster ways of transmitting money are leading inexorably to another banking crisis, perhaps heralded by the current Danish experience. Or there is Goldman Sachs, a well run business, as far as we knew, which shot itself in the foot by precisely following the horrific example of Barings Bank.

We put our faith in process and regulation even though history suggests we shouldn’t. But what else is there? The coffee shop, the foundation of the insurance industry, was a place of trust. People who knew each other met there to gossip. Some of it was idle gossip – time spent together usually produces some of that. But gossiping allowed for a leisurely assessment of the value of the other person’s word. It wasn’t infallible; it sometimes failed. It taught us how to judge others.

At the heart of the system was personal responsibility, modestly exercised, consensus driven. It was founded on good behaviour, the avoidance of excess. Successful families and societies are still based on that trust. It is a trust born of moderation, not of greed.

If 2019 is to be a year of moderation, how is that to be achieved?

Only thorough questions to ourselves about our personal attitudes and behaviour, I suggest.

*Pankaj Mishra ‘What comes after capitalism?’ Straits Times 27Dec18

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