Turbocapitalism, passion and traditional values of justice

Sean Coyle

Yesterday I suggested that some scope exists for a distinctive private law response to some of the problems I have been examining. But it would be too blunt to say that whereas public ordering responds to a nebulous ‘public good’, private ordering is capable of responding more directly and sensitively to the needs of individuals whose vulnerability is (after all) experienced in endless different forms. If the global reality of the marketplace limits the ability of the state to respond to vulnerability, to defend the public good, the conditions of the market itself similarly tell against the effectiveness of private ordering.

Advocates of liberal capitalism point to the fact that the market’s division of labour and tendency to specialization increase productivity, making it possible to meet an ever growing number of needs. To this may be opposed the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘false’ needs: ‘far from satisfying existing needs, the market economy only gives rise to new ones, rendering homo economicus daily less satisfied and more insatiable.’ [Emile Perreau-Saussine] At the root of this problem is the tendency of the market to obliterate all measures of priority between forms of interest by relativizing all interests to a single measure: money. This monetization of value does not simply render property independent of its social function, but operates to convert non-essential luxuries into ‘vital needs’. Incapable of differentiating between what is useful or necessary, and what is not, capitalist societies frequently ignore fundamental social needs. At a deeper level, dependency on consumer goods, and associated behaviours of constant replacement and ‘upgrading’, are increasingly becoming second nature to many, irrespective of basic income. The result is a kind of turbocapitalism: forms of behaviour that are shaped by the market reinforce and accelerate the very tendencies of capitalism.

Do we truly understand the significance of this? Organized state responses to vulnerability remain hamstrung by the lack of middle-class will for the higher taxation that would pay for them. But the aspiration for the middle-class lifestyle itself has similar implications for private ordering. The ‘way of life’ around which capitalist societies are organized is one that fundamentally distorts traditional values of justice. The desire of the poor to obtain the advantages and trappings of a middle-class lifestyle does nothing to disturb, and indeed confirms, the values of a capitalist society, so that nobody clearly perceives their social responsibilities to a ‘public good’ that can be thoroughly served only through higher levels of taxation and acts of redistribution. As the economic order becomes progressively detached from its social context, so it will come to be regarded as essentially spontaneous and natural, causing state regulation to be seen as correspondingly unnatural, and best if limited. It remains that, against such a background, the idea of usury is barely intelligible. It is all but inevitable, in such circumstances, that markets in high-cost credit will exist to ‘respond’ to the ‘needs’ of the most vulnerable.

The unfortunate truth is that clearly perceiving and articulating the problem, even offering potential solutions, will do little to deflect society from its present course. The problem of political will has always been a vexing one for reformers, but it is especially so, I think, in relation to liberalist capitalism. As a social system, liberalist capitalism is perhaps the purest expression of, and gives the most direct impetus to, that characteristic of the human being variously identified by Kant, Rousseau, Hobbes and above all Saint Augustine: libido dominandi. I end with the following thought. The early capitalists were perhaps right to suppose that the force of this drive, forever embedded in the human heart, cannot be successfully opposed but can and must be harnessed to work (via the ‘invisible hand’) for the good of all society. But the same capitalists failed to understand that in making an ally of so powerful a passion, they thereby encouraged and sublimed it, setting it free of all limits. The turbo-capitalistic conditions of modern economies are the result of a world that has forgotten even these high-minded motivations.

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