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Published on 12 May 2021

Greed, growth and human nature

Capitalism works, although it has become unpopular to say it in recent years, especially amongst parts of the environmental and degrowth lobby who have picketed financial institutions and halted business in the name of ‘overthrowing the greedy beating heart of our climate emergency and social injustice’. Yet, capitalism works. It is also deeply flawed and high time for reform.

The concerns about capitalism that led to activists gluing themselves to the front doors of Barclays bank are not new.

Karl Marx famously believed that if capitalism was allowed to flourish it would inevitably lead to the increased exploitation of workers and land, as firms seek to remain competitive by lowering prices, thereby reducing profit and in turn reducing wages and costs.

He went further to suggest that this continual race to the bottom would lead to the unavoidable rebellion by workers, resulting in either a worker’s revolution or greater violence and oppression. 

The truth is that whilst wide of the mark, Marx and his modern-day disciples are not entirely wrong. Injustice, oppression, and greed run throughout the roots of capitalism.

We can't offshore our responsibilities

In 1819 the British government introduced the Cotton Factories Regulations Act, restricting children under nine years of age from working within the cotton mills which filled the landscape of the day. Sure enough, the action raised significant concern and outrage amongst factory owners who relied upon a ‘free’ unregulated employment market, to build their business upon what we would simply accept today as child exploitation.

However, in what is a damning display of corporate offshoring morality recorded in The New York Times, 1st June 1861, we read:

'[Britain] at large has been steadily increasing its pecuniary support of Slavery, by doubling its consumption of Southern cotton every ten years.'

40 years after market regulation outlawed the employment of children within UK cotton factories, those same factories working under those same legal and moral frameworks continued to import around 10 million Cwts of cotton per year from the well documented, family filled slave fields of the southern states of America.

I recognise the complexity of the issue; around a quarter of all British families relied directly upon the cotton trade. Other, albeit more costly but less exploitative cotton was available, but not purchased.

Corporate responsibility not to exploit children was taken offshore so as to maintain and maximise capital. Out of the sight and mind of regulators, executives and consumers, the cost of trade continued to be paid by those who had no voice to be heard.

In fact, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, with its legal and state sponsored commodification of human beings, is a prime example of capitalism run wild, fuelled by the maximisation of financial return at all and any cost.

Capitalism itself is not the perpetrator of injustice

Capitalism that focuses on the maximisation of financial value through the privatisation of commodity at any cost, such as the slave trade, is the very same economic ideology that is responsible for some of the environmental catastrophe we see today.

However, despite these injustices made possible within an economic system that allows for individual or private, and therefore at times deviant, motivations to drive activity, capitalism itself is not the perpetrator of injustice; rather we are.

Ultimately capitalism is simply the mechanism for private ownership, production, and distribution. The problem is when private ownership robs others, people, and planet, of their rights to the same.

Further reading

Read parts 2 and 3 in the series

Continuous economic growth: part 2

Is it human nature or systematic failure?

Continuous economic growth: part 3

Just as we can be prone to greed, so too we are capable of great generosity