Reimagining Capitalism Again, Part I: Reflections on Greider’s Soul of Capitalism

In his 2003 book, The Soul of Capitalism, William Greider wrote, “If capitalism were someday found to have a soul, it would probably be located in the mystic qualities of capital itself” (p. 94). The recurring theme in the book is that the resolution of capitalism’s deep conflicts must grow out as organic changes from the roots of capitalism itself.

In the book, Greider quotes Innovest’s Michael Kiernan as suggesting that the goal has to be re-engineering the DNA of Wall Street (p. 119). He says the key to doing this is good reliable information that has heretofore been unavailable but which will make social and environmental issues matter financially. The underlying problems of exactly what solid, high quality information looks like, where it comes from, and how it is created are not stated or examined, but the point, as Kiernan says, is that “the markets are pretty good at punishing and rewarding.” The objective is to use “the financial markets as an engine of reform and positive change rather than destruction.”

This objective is, of course, the focus of multiple postings in this blog (see especially this one and this one). From my point of view, capitalism indeed does have a soul and it is actually located in the qualities of capital itself. Think about it: if a soul is a spirit of something that exists independent of its physical manifestation, then the soul of capitalism is the fungibility of capital. Now, this fungibility is complex and ambiguous. It takes its strength and practical value from the way market exchange are represented in terms of currencies, monetary units that, within some limits, provide an objective basis of comparison useful for rewarding those capable of matching supply with demand.

But the fungibility of capital can also be dangerously misconceived when the rich complexity and diversity of human capital is unjustifiably reduced to labor, when the irreplaceable value of natural capital is unjustifiably reduced to land, and when the trust, loyalty, and commitment of social capital is completely ignored in financial accounting and economic models. As I’ve previously said in this blog, the concept of human capital is inherently immoral so far as it reduces real human beings to interchangeable parts in an economic machine.

So how could it ever be possible to justify any reduction of human, social, and natural value to a mere number? Isn’t this the ultimate in the despicable inhumanity of economic logic, corporate decision making, and, ultimately, the justification of greed? Many among us who profess liberal and progressive perspectives seem to have an automatic and reactionary prejudice of this kind. This makes these well-intentioned souls as much a part of the problem as those among us with sometimes just as well-intentioned perspectives that accept such reductionism as the price of entry into the game.

There is another way. Human, social, and natural value can be measured and made manageable in ways that do not necessitate totalizing reduction to a mere number. The problem is not reduction itself, but unjustified, totalizing reduction. Referring to all people as “man” or “men” is an unjustified reduction dangerous in the way it focuses attention only on males. The tendency to think and act in ways privileging males over females that is fostered by this sense of “man” shortchanges us all, and has happily been largely eliminated from discourse.

Making language more inclusive does not, however, mean that words lose the singular specificity they need to be able to refer to things in the world. Any given word represents an infinite population of possible members of a class of things, actions, and forms of life. Any simple sentence combining words into a coherent utterance then multiplies infinities upon infinities. Discourse inherently reduces multiplicities into texts of limited lengths.

Like any tool, reduction has its uses. Also like any tool, problems arise when the tool is allowed to occupy some hidden and unexamined blind spot from which it can dominate and control the way we think about everything. Critical thinking is most difficult in those instances in which the tools of thinking themselves need to be critically evaluated. To reject reduction uncritically as inherently unjustified is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, it is impossible to formulate a statement of the rejection without simultaneously enacting exactly what is supposed to be rejected.

We have numerous ready-to-hand examples of how all reduction has been unjustifiably reduced to one homogenized evil. But one of the results of experiments in communal living in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as of the fall of the Soviet Union, was the realization that the centralized command and control of collectively owned community property cannot compete with the creativity engendered when individuals hold legal title to the fruits of their labors. If individuals cannot own the results of the investments they make, no one makes any investments.

In other words, if everything is owned collectively and is never reduced to individually possessed shares that can be creatively invested for profitable returns, then the system is structured so as to punish innovation and reward doing as little as possible. But there’s another way of thinking about the relation of the collective to the individual. The living soul of capitalism shows itself in the way high quality information makes it possible for markets to efficiently coordinate and align individual producers’ and consumers’ collective behaviors and decisions. What would happen if we could do that for human, social, and natural capital markets? What if “social capitalism” is more than an empty metaphor? What if capital institutions can be configured so that individual profit really does become the driver of socially responsible, sustainable economics?

And here we arrive at the crux of the problem. How do we create the high quality, solid information markets need to punish and reward relative to ethical and sustainable human, social, and environmental values? Well, what can we learn from the way we created that kind of information for property and manufactured capital? These are the questions taken up and explored in the postings in this blog, and in my scientific research publications and meeting presentations. In the near future, I’ll push my reflection on these questions further, and will explore some other possible answers to the questions offered by Greider and his readers in a recent issue of The Nation.

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