Conscious Capitalism Is not THE Solution
I read an interesting piece in The Elysian. In it Griffin posits that modern capitalism is better poised to solve our inequality because governments are broken. What she missed was that governments are broken because they are run by the corporations. Amazon alone has spent over $5,000,000 six months into 2023 on lobbying and buying elected officials. Since Regan was elected, America has seen massive deregulation and reduced tax rates and increased tax loopholes for corporations. Corporations have outsized power in America because they have no check, no one to keep them in balance. So, Griffin and Davis Smith are right that we have to hope for their altruism. But that’s insane. (One definition of insane is: extreme foolishness or irrationality.)
First, most companies are not altruistic. The goal of most companies is to make money hand over fist. Their marketing may claim that they care, but their main goal is profit, and many companies will do anything for profit ethics and even the law be damned. Ironically, their profit lust often makes companies short-term thinkers, which inhibits their long term profitability. They pay less and take away benefits to save money or dump byproducts into the air and water to save money. But then down the line they have to spend way more busting unions, training new employees, dealing with the PR fallout, and cleaning up their environmental messes. Because of this profit-first short term thinking, the EPA and Department of Labor’s exist to hold corporations who pollute the planet and screw over their employees responsible. Davis Smith claims that corporations have “eradicated extreme poverty.” But it ate were true, we wouldn’t need Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help communities take care of their homeless, we wouldn’t need free lunch programs, or any of the social welfare programs 65 million Americans use. If corporations did actually provide adequate healthcare benefits then we wouldn’t need medicaid and medicare, 56% of insured Americans wouldn’t have medical debt, and 66% of bankruptcies wouldn’t happen. But they don’t.
But ok, let’s run with this idea of altruistic capitalists for a minute. Some of the examples in Griffin’s essay are probably actually good. Most of us can agree that paying employees during the pandemic was a good thing, that giving the company’s profits to orgs that are working saving the planet from climate change is a step in the right direction. But what about in good times? Who decides where the profits should go? Do the employees get to decide? Eh. That starts to sound a little like a democracy, and we know the capitalists believe governments don’t work. Not the shareholders because they’re the problem, right? So, the CEOs? Cool. At a bare minimum it’s patronizing. The man at the top (because statistically it’s a man) says, “here, dear plebes, I bestow a little more money on you so you can almost pay your bills.” It’s like how grocery stores raise prices then offer you a member discount so they can sell your information rather than just keeping prices low to bringing with. Or the man at the top says, “I have decided to put the money into planting trees.” But is that what the people want? Will that actually help? In reality it’s authoritarian. Benevolent authoritarianism, but authoritarianism nonetheless. The CEO gets to make unilateral decisions that affect the lives and effectively governs their employees. Soon they’ll be making towns for their employees to live in and stores from them to shop in. After all, housing and feeding people is a proven method of eliminating poverty. Oh wait. We’ve been there; it didn’t go well. When Colorado miners went on strike in 1914 because of issues caused by company towns, Rockefeller had the Governor call in the National guard and they went to war with miners and massacred women and children. Corporations can’t help but try to make a profit off of everything, even the housing and feeding of their employees. Without regulations we just have to assume the conscious capitalists will do what is best for us. Like Subaru? They donate a ton of money to valuable non-profits like Make-a-wish and Leukemia and Lymphoma society. But they are one of the last brands to start making nonpolluting cars. So we can’t breathe, and the air pollution from their vehicles can cause cancer, but it’s ok, because they will bring us food when we’re in chemo? I see a problem here.
Fundamentally, we cannot solve any of our problems with an us-vs-them mentality. We need a functional government (aka not influenced by corporations) that represents the people to balance the greed and for-profit model of corporations. Their job is to provide for the needs of the people equally without making a profit. Thus government programs that house and feed people are successful, while company towns just further fucked over the people. We need the government. We need the EPA to help determine what new chemicals are polluting and force corporations to be responsible for the clean up. We need the Department of Labor to stand up for employees. Unfortunately, when BFFs of CEOs are elected to the Presidency, agencies like the EPA are defunded and regulations are rolled back. Shockingly, corporations don’t take that as an opportunity to do good. We need corporations to help us bring innovations to the wider market. We need businesses to provide the goods we plebes need to survive (at least in this version of America.) We need communities to support the actual people, keep the government and the corporations in check, tell the powers that be what the ground-level problems are. We need a balance between government, corporations, and community. Without the third part, government and corporations are just rival overlords. But with strong communities we can put them in their place. We can remind them, they exist for us. Not the other way around.
A popular argument for unfettered capitalism is “those poor poverty stricken communist souls in North Korea and Cuba.” (Let’s not talk about the poverty stricken people in capitalist countries.) But those people are poverty stricken because of authoritarian governments, not communism in and of itself. When comparing North Korea’s economic devastation to South Korea’s success, it is the Democracy welcomed by the rest of the world, rather than sanctioned and cut off, that makes the difference. If North Korea were a capitalist system under Kim Jon Il, it would still be cut off from the rest of the world limiting the amount of money the people could make. And most of that capitalist money would still end up in the Supreme Leader’s pockets. Just as most of the capitalist money in America ends up in the 27 American billionaires pockets.
I like the idea of altruism, of CEOs giving their profits to the people and plant that allowed them to get rich. I like it in this current iteration of our society. But it should not be a goal. We should aim higher, create something better. A society that values its people, that sees them as chosen family. A society that understands the necessities of survival—clean air, food, water, shelter—should be free to all, shared and given with love. We are often told it’s an either or. We can either have the comforts we have now or we go back to caves. It’s a lie. Many societies have lived without caste systems. Cities and states have existed that took care of all their people and refugees. Large groups of people have lived together without destroying the planet. Our species is very creative. We can come up with an entirely new way to organize. But it might including disempowering those at the top, and even the conscious capitalist doesn’t want that.