23 Cons of Capitalism Challenged

Transcendent Llama

“Are you a Buddhist or a Capitalist?” asked my friend a few weekends ago when we were scaling the heights of “so-called success” –  a state you could shiftily define as the best a person can be at a given time in a world of bounded rationality or limited means.

“What?” I shot back quizzically.

“Because your Twitter feed is the most capitalist thing I have seen… But when you talk you’re always talking about soul and inner peace… So which are you? Two-faced climber or transcendent lama?”

“Both and neither.”

This spawned another all-nighter of us diverging and converging on culture, anarchy, greed, productivity, prosperity, civilization and homelands, like full-grown college-goers.

Then finally on the National Civic Holiday Weekend, I scrolled for succour in Ha-Joon Chang’s manifesto 23 Things they Don’t Tell You about Capitalism to get on board with some plane crash capitalism. I won’t summarize Chang’s book and spill the milk or beans or whatever other cherry crush in the making, but I will share some triggers and pulls based on what I read and some experiences.

Capitalism wears many hats in emerging and developed economies. It will manifest as a boon or curse depending on where you were born and with how many freedoms and so much else like your station, a combination of factors like your status in a country, cultural roots, class, gender, values, experiences, talents, aspirations. Also increasingly, your relationship with technology, as ordinary devices and gadgets race to control our expectations with “intuitive” design in fiercely algorithmic worlds.

Countries with a broad and happy middle class (eg. Netherlands) where income disparities are minimal and job satisfaction levels high (“the grocery boys are pleased as punch despite not being rich!” remarked another friend from Amsterdam) are no real harbour-front for capitalism. In fact, the Dutch who want to race to the top of the pyramid flee to Canada and USA in search of their elite 1% status.

Capitalism dictates that employees are 24-7 commodities for their corporations and executives. Oxygen is taxed, not just your office computer and the data in it. Working overtime — for more money (forget free) — is not the best indicator of your economic mobility nor the guarantor of an improved standard of living, because it doesn’t factor in dipping wellness levels from anxiety, stress or even sleeplessness (duh). Productivity is the dumbing down of human competency and skills, and the colonization of our distinctive assets (creativity, linguistic prowess, knowledge, intercultural awareness and agility for example) to wet-nurse false bottom-lines; it is the abuse of human intelligence and our enslavement to technology and its lesser tools. The working poor in some countries might not be much better off than the unemployed.

Productivity is at best a myth in a world of immigration control, if you compared the poor in poor countries with the poor in rich countries, writes Chang. Income earned is not a “full reflection of your worth” because competition rewards you based on the market you operate in. So the rich in rich countries are more productive than the rich in poor countries only because of their access to better technologies, organizations and systemic infrastructures. Considering the challenges faced by those who move to new markets on this unequal footing — it could take a whole few generations to meet this “competition”.  A snapshot of average Canadian earnings vis-a-vis immigrants’ earnings below is just the tip of the iceberg; these disparities are starker in other nations.

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People from poorer countries are more entrepreneurial than others know, as the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” alludes. But many from advanced nations don’t understand this; in fact they may even often view alternative thought-architecture and other frameworks of cultural motivation (whether powered by socialism, collectivism, interdependence or any other value-system) as “vice”-filled, toxic or a threat to national (and more pettily, corporate) cohesion.

Is capitalism then really the least evil order that Chang claims it is? Go take a walk in the financial district tomorrow and maybe interview some several odd business leaders and workers to understand this problem further, or design your own research. But also go to the library and read this soul-filling revelatory book.

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