Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Capitalism: The Best of All Possible Worlds?

All for the best?

The German philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Leibnitz thought that the way things were arranged in society was the best of all possible worlds. He coined the term “best of all worlds” in his 1710 work Théodicée (ESSAYS ON THE GOODNESS OF GOD, THE FREEDOM OF MAN AND THE ORIGIN OF EVIL). Leibnitz’s doctrine was ridiculed in the form of Dr. Pangloss, by Voltaire in his novel Candide. Dr. Pangloss teaches his pupil, Candide, the doctrine that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” but undergoes increasing misfortune, undercutting his shallow optimism about the world as he finds it.

Leibnitz was not stupid as to argue that there were no bad things in the world but he believed there was nothing you could do about it. His view of the world was conservative allowing no change and no alternative social arrangement. In this he could be considered as the intellectual source for the conservative doctrines: “there is no alternative”, “there is no practical alternative to the market” and “capitalism is the best of all possible worlds”.

These dogmas are constantly chanted out by conservative politicians like the late Lady Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron. To the thinking of the conservative mind, any alternative social arrangement to capitalism is a pie in the sky fantasy or just wishful thinking.

Even if a mathematical model or an algorithm could be produced to demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt that socialism was a practical and viable alternative to a social system based on commodity production and exchange for profit, it would cut no ice with the free market fanatic. There is nothing a socialist could say or do to change their mind. Conservatism: the highest form of ignorance and the lowest form of thought.

Economic Panglossians

The economic Panglossians are not disinterested scientists but apologists for a capitalist class “who possess but do not produce”. There is nothing which could ever persuade these economists that the market is not benign; that there cannot be infinite growth without social and environmental consequences and that the actions of the “butcher, the brewer and the baker” can and does lead to catastrophic consequences.

Here, from an article on food adulteration in the nineteenth, is the reality of Adam Smith’s harmonious market order set out in his WEALTH OF NATIONS up until the Sale and Food Act of 1875:

Some of the commonly used additives in the 19th century were poisonous. To whiten bread, for example, bakers sometimes added alum… and chalk to the flour, while mashed potatoes, plaster of Paris (calcium sulphate), pipe clay and even sawdust could be added to increase the weight of their loaves. Rye flour or dried powdered beans could be used to replace wheat flour and the sour taste of stale flour could be disguised with ammonium carbonate. Brewers too, often added mixtures of bitter substances, some containing poisons like strychnine, to 'improve' the taste of the beer and save on the cost of hops … By the beginning of the 19th century the use of such substances in manufactured foods and drinks was so common that town dwellers had begun to develop a taste for adulterated foods and drinks; white bread and bitter beer were in great demand.

The dogmatic conservatism, which denies the socialist alternative – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society - to the profit system, is fanaticism to the extreme. Unfortunately for the fanatic, there is a problem. The fanatic is always carrying a secret doubt.

The free market economists deny there is a problem with capitalism and inequality even though the 62 richest people now own more wealth than half of the world’s population, including the $47 trillion hidden away in off-shore tax havens. For the rich, capitalism can only get better.

Economists are the latter-day Panglossians. They hold the a Panglossian belief that capitalism has exponential growth as the normal state of affairs, in spite of recurring crises, cyclical depressions and environmental consequences of capitalist production. Their economic text books and mathematical equations say that capitalism will exist forever because it is a rational, harmonious and self-adjusting social system. It cannot be questioned unless by a madman.

The Mistakes Economists Make

In a paper “THE MISTAKES THE ECONOMISTS MAKE” (September 2009), the environmentalist, Dave Cohen, asked why this world of buying and selling of commodities for profit is not to be questioned. He said that the economic Panglossians base their world view on a fundamental error. They assume that:

…markets, a human invention, are like God – omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (always present) and omniscient (all knowing)…It follows that markets assure ongoing and orderly progress…to provide greater and greater comfort to more and more people…(

But the markets did fail. Although, in typical Panglossian fashion, no economist has ever stood-up to criticise the functioning of the market and its negative outcomes and failures. When did you ever hear of a theologian criticise God?

So, an integrated and market driven capitalism is better for everyone, so say the Panglossians, despite the evidence to the contrary. Like a heroin addict the free market economist wants a purer and purer capitalism; an Ann Randian utopia of markets without governments. The purer the heroin the quicker it kills the addict. And as an example of someone who is confident that we are living in the best of all possible worlds we need look no further than the Nobel Prize winner and professor of economics at Princeton University, Angus Deaton.

The professor claims all is well in capitalism. He claims he is an expert on world poverty patterns in domestic households. He even provides statistical models by which to measure poverty. Apparently we have never had it so good. As one commentator recently said of the Professor:

Deaton’s central message is deeply positive, almost gloriously so. By the most meaningful measures — how long we live, how healthy and happy we are, how much we know — life has never been better. Just as important, it is continuing to improve

For over 35 years the ruling economic orthodoxy in most universities across the globe has been “red in tooth and claw” economic liberalism, celebrating the market and the rich. One argument they use to show the philanthropic magnificence and generosity of the capitalist class is the “trickle- down” theory of economics which purports to show that as a by-product of the rich becoming richer and richer is that the poor also benefit by becoming richer too; a rising tide lifts all boats, so to speak.

The reality of course is altogether different. A report by five IMF economists, published in June 2015, dismissed “trickle-down” economics as a fallacious economic doctrine. Many boats, through ill-repair, just sink.

Flash Mobs and Economists

Any criticism against capitalism as the best of all possible worlds is immediately attacked by a flash mob of economists and economic journalists. When Thomas Piketty published his book, CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY, there were hundreds of papers instantly published on-line on blogs and free market web sites by economists claiming that his statistics were wrong, and rather than capitalism become more unequal the reverse was true. Capitalism can never be blamed. It is a secular heresy.

This does not mean Piketty’s book has not got serious flaws. It has. Like the Panglossians he does not want capitalism abolished. He is obsessed by the capitalist dynamic in “creating wealth”. Instead he wants the profit system to be made more “fair” and “equitable” through taxing the rich and giving to the poor; a failed Robin Hood politics of the social reformer.

We even had Bono of U2, the multi-millionaire rock-star, telling us that capitalism was eradicating poverty the world over; that capitalism was a force for good. Bono is capitalism’s new market missionary off to the continent of Africa on behalf of his corporate and colonialist chums in the multi-nationals and neo-con think tanks. He told an audience at a lecture in Georgetown University that “capitalism took more people out of poverty than aid” (GUARDIAN 13th August 2013).

What he should have said is that capitalism causes poverty and government Aid will not solve the problem. If Bono had censured capitalism then he would not have received such a warm embrace from FORBES magazine and the hundreds of free market web sites found throughout the world

The free market fanatics all meet at Davos and have a jolly good time. Nothing could ever be said to dampen their optimism about capitalism. There, on unlimited expenses, they do enjoy the best of all possible worlds. Or do they?

In CANDIDE, Dr Pangloss walks through the best of all possible worlds while contracting syphilis, losing an eye and an ear, encountering two volcanos before being partially hanged in a bodged execution and finally enslaved. If the economists, with their perfect market order showing capitalism to be the best of all possible worlds, do not personally suffer from their misguided optimism, the same cannot be said for the world around them; economic chaos and crises, mass unemployment, enforced migration for millions, war, state and private terrorism, the exploitation of the 99% by the 1%, abject poverty, death and destruction.

Unlike Dr. Pangloss, the worse that can befall the economists preaching their market utopia at Davos over fine wine and Michelin star food is to be buried under an avalanche of snow. They would not be missed.

Socialism or Reformism?

Of course, the standard reformist argument, put forward by the Pope, Piketty, Oxfam et al, against this Panglossian world view is that there should be state intervention to distribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Who will do it? Where are the political parties who support this type of intervention? The social democratic parties are all signed up to economic liberalism and the religion of the market. What of Labour’s Messiah, Jeremy Corbyn? He has more chances of walking on water than of making an impact against international capital and its institutions.

Even if political candidates were to step forward and were prepared to force through redistribution policies as advocated by Oxfam and Piketty what would be the consequence? Not a lot. As Marx said, how can you have a fair and equitable distribution of wealth in a society based on the private ownership of the means of production and distribution?

Marx’s solution, one which socialists agree with, is for the working class to abolish capitalism. That is how you end poverty and that is how you deal with the Panglossian nonsense of the economists.

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