The Moral Cost of Capitalism

[The following is a talk I gave this afternoon as part of a faculty colloquium on “Radical Futures” at North Central College, part of the Intellectual Community series co-sponsored by the Faculty Development and Recognition Committee (of which I am chair) and the Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence and organized by my colleague Sean Kim Butorac.]

Since I teach in the Shimer Great Books program, I will begin with an experience teaching one of the all-time greats, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In my ethics class this semester, we were discussing Book 1 and came to a passage where Aristotle had isolated three possible human goods that seemed to be good candidates for happiness—by which he means the human good that we pursue for its own sake, with no need for further justification or explanation. The first is pleasure, which is presumably self-explanatory. The second is honor, which we could paraphrase as respect or esteem. The third is contemplation, which we could see as a form of knowledge or understanding. In all three cases, Aristotle believes, it wouldn’t make sense to ask why we are pursuing these goals. Why do you want pleasure? Why do you want people to like and respect you? Why do you want to figure things out? The question doesn’t make sense.

The list feels pretty exhaustive, but Aristotle goes on to introduce a fourth possible candidate: money. Initially it seems to fit the bill—all things being equal, no one will turn down more money. But Aristotle points out that money is not truly an end in itself, but rather a pure means. We only want money because of the things we can do with it. And this, I point out, is an area where Aristotle is out of date. He can’t imagine living a life for the sake of stockpiling as much money as possible, much less orienting an entire society around it. We can.

The shift to a pure market society, to a kind of totalitarianism of capitalism, was so successful that it has become almost invisible to us. Like many other analysts on the left, I choose to call that transition—ushered in by Pinochet, Thatcher, and Reagan, and then adopted by virtually every governing party in the West and every international organization—the shift from the postwar Fordist economic model to neoliberalism. One way to gauge this shift is to think in terms of means and ends. In the postwar era, the existence of an alternative economic model in the form of the USSR—which at the time was experiencing the highest economic growth in human history up to that point—meant that capitalism had to justify itself. It had to prove that it was better, not just at stockpiling money, but at creating broadly shared prosperity that lays the groundwork for national greatness. And through a combination of heavy government intervention, very high marginal tax rates on the wealthy, and high union concentration, the capitalist system really did mostly fulfill its promises, at least for the stereotypical white suburban family. Hypothetically speaking, capitalism set itself an empirical standard that certainly included economic criteria but was not limited to them—in other words, capitalism was a means to an end.

Since the fall of the USSR, capitalism has felt increasingly unburdened by the need to justify itself. Instead, competitive markets are taken as ends in themselves and as models for every area of social life. The reason we want markets is not that they produce better results or they’re more efficient or whatever else—we want markets because we want markets. Market logic is self-evident, the final standard, the final word. It is no longer the means, but the end. And once money is set up as the ultimate end—not even personal wealth that someone could potentially use, but the depersonalized money of endless “economic growth” and endless increases in asset prices—then everything else becomes a means. Where once we made friends, now we network, in the hopes that our social contacts will advance our career. Where once we relaxed and had fun, now we practice self-care, in order to recharge and guarantee increased future productivity. And to bring it a little closer to home, where once we went to school to develop our full intellectual capacities, now we seek the hot job skills employers crave.

Of course, the “before” of this “before and after” dynamic is a bit simplified and idealized in my presentation. There were no good old days when people at large pursued only the highest ends with unmixed motives. Yet I would submit that in past eras, people were better equipped to discern that such ends existed and that the mixed motives were less than ideal. This comes through clearly, for example, in a famous essay by John Maynard Keynes, “The Economic Prospects of Our Grandchildren.” As is well known, this text predicts that within two generations, humanity would essentially begin “cashing out” of capitalism by trading productivity gains for reduced working hours so that they could spend time on what was really valuable in life.

By my math, this would have been my parents’ generation, so obviously this did not occur. But for my purposes, the most interesting thing about his failed prediction is how he characterizes the benefits of the transition. One of the architects of the postwar capitalist order, as well as a gifted financial speculator, Keynes proposes that once humanity has leveraged the immense productivity of capitalism to set itself free from economic necessity, it will be a relief to admit that none of those wealthy businessmen was really as admirable as we pretended they were, that there was something a little disreputable and sad about the way they’d chosen to live their lives.

The neoliberals did everything they could to squelch that insight, to the point where we are supposed to believe that an obviously broken and miserable man like Elon Musk is a genius-level benefactor of humankind, for instance. It’s easy to point and laugh at Musk’s pathetic army of admirers on Twitter, but we academics are guilty of our own distortions. The other day I was meeting with a major in our program, a very strong student who I had not had in class before. We wound up talking for a good half hour, and at a certain point the thought slipped into my head that it was a good thing I was doing this and making her feel so supported, because we really need majors…. A very rewarding part of my job, which I was doing for its own sake and even enjoying, suddenly felt like a cynical manipulation.

I know I’m not the only one to fall victim to this line of thinking, because I’ve heard similar remarks in many other discussions. For instance, once a faculty discussion about providing mentoring and support for students of color devolved into a reflection on the importance of reaching Latinx students for our bottom line. A question of justice becomes a question of finances. No one intended for that to happen—it just rolls right off our tongues.

And more broadly, of course, we are all well-versed in defending our disciplines in market terms. The humanities provide valuable job skills! Employers tell us they want liberal arts majors who can think on their feet! Liberal arts majors eventually catch up to and even exceed the incomes of their STEM counterparts! I understand that such rhetoric is tactically necessary, especially in a media sphere full of misinformation about the value of different fields of study. I also happen to think these things are true! But even though it’s true, it’s harmful to frame the value of education in such narrowly instrumental terms. I did not get into this line of work so that Johnny can get that big promotion years down the road or Suzie can contribute to better quarterly results for her department.

But of course Johnny and Suzie need to be able to get those employment outcomes, or else they aren’t going to be able to pay off the student loans that are financing their education here. And this brings me to another way in which the full-saturation capitalism that I call neoliberalism degrades our moral sense: it shrinks our political horizons. Once installed in a given area of life, marketization produces a feedback loop that constrains our choices within a very, very narrow range. And living a life where the most important choices about our lives and livelihoods are made by an impersonal mechanism—by everyone and no one—cultivates habits of deflection and irresponsibility. We aren’t making decisions or value judgments—we are simply responding appropriately to the demands of the market, and if we don’t, we will lose out to someone who does. In practice, this leads to the conformism of “best practices” that one of our colleagues criticized today—the alibi that we should do what everyone is doing because everyone is doing it.

I am not sure in detail how to get out of this self-reinforcing doom loop of marketization, though in my book Neoliberalism’s Demons, I suggest that we need to embrace the abolition of the market and the establishment of a system of democratic economic planning as a long-term goal. In our more immediate context, I would suggest that—beyond changing our rhetoric about the cash value of majors or the financial urgency of student retention—we need to find a way past our competitive zero-sum approach to curriculum design. Instead of outsourcing those decisions to student choices, we need to find ways to discuss, collaboratively and creatively, how we can best deploy the North Central faculty’s massive talents and expertise to deliver the kind of education we want our students to have. Our marketized system has deeply internalized habits of cynicism and fatalism in most of us, but as Aristotle teaches us, the only way to develop more virtuous habits is to practice.

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