Sunday, July 18, 2010

Consumption Junction - Argument

To be perfectly honest, I'm not as much an activist as I like to pretend I am. I'll latch onto an opinion and occasionally make an attempt to defend it, but generally I avoid argument as much as possible in my daily life.

Capitalism is kind of a touchy subject. Here's my last-minute attempt to discredit it:


Consumption Junction

A Discourse on Market Capitalism

More than sixty years have passed since the start of the Cold War, and western civilization now stands -- more than ever before -- as a monolithic symbol for capitalism. This particular type of economy has, in modern times, become pervasive throughout the first world. Even many rising nations that had been formerly opposed to a free market (such as China and India) have warmed to the promise of staggering economic growth. In spite of this widespread acceptance, market capitalism is inherently -- and incorrigibly -- unscrupulous, destructive, and unsustainable.

"But what," you might ask, "about all of the clearly-overwhelming benefits that capitalism has to offer over the alternatives? Competition," you would add, "is a good thing, isn't it?" Students of economics profess that greed is good, extolling the virtues of competition as a tool for stimulating cash flow and innovation in the marketplace. In these aspects, they're right; the beauty of a free market lies in the propensity of a profit motive to manifest the will of a population. In other words, the promise of financial gain means innovative ideas and higher quality products and services at competitive prices. A constant stream of new and often-novel products and services leads to more active consumers and, in turn, to healthier economies. Considering these benefits from the standpoint of a consumer, capitalism is an easy sale, but it doesn't go so far as to reveal the actual price we're paying.

Outside of the context of competition, "profit motive" is a dirty term. It provides incentive for profiteers to commit to otherwise-unsavory tactics, taking advantage of human vulnerabilities and insecurities for the sake of the bottom line. The socioeconomic impacts of this, especially with the refinement of pervasive marketing campaigns, have been widespread. Remembering that America was -- for most of its early history -- an agrarian society, we've seen many significant changes with the rise of consumer culture, ranging from the death of our economic independence as individuals become increasingly specialized to sweeping changes in our eating habits.

What's more, while many proponents of market capitalism argue that it rewards hard work and promotes fair competition, the system works very differently in practice. Though countless entrepreneurs might undertake the same venture, the majority of the business (and the profit) will ultimately go to the select few firms who come out on top. This is fine in concept, but the reality is that the element of chance is often a major factor in determining who is successful. Capitalism is a "winner take all" system, where a percentage of all of the work that goes into a venture goes to the victors while the remaining participants are left to fail. On the same token, participants who are aware of this will often not hesitate to undercut their competition. The potential rewards of doing business in this way encourage participation, and likewise have fostered a culture of ruthlessness among corporations. This system of imbalance only serves to amplify the wealth disparity, as the wealthy gain more wealth at the expense of weaker competitors.

This is all, as many will point out, simply the cost of doing business. Indeed, many people embrace these flaws, as certainly market capitalism's potential to gain outstrips any other market with a lower ceiling. Worse than these flaws, though, is the relentless, systematic destruction and consumption of the world's resources. Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines the word "consume" as "to destroy or expend by use; use up." More than any other market, capitalism and consumerism are inextricably tied, and it's easy to see why. A brief look at the typical supply chain as taught to business students around the globe shows something alarming: from harvesting to refinement to manufacturing to distribution and beyond, the flow of products moves in only one direction. The overarching business philosophy is a one-way track, focusing on the logistics of generating profit by enabling the consumption of resources. There's no cycle to the pattern of consumption; rather, the environment is treated strictly as a resource to be managed and converted to products. While companies have begun to "greenwash" their products to appeal to the environmentalist movement (who actually believes the concept of "clean coal?"), no amount of marketing or technology can change the fact that our pattern of consumption is irreconcilably finite.

It's easy to point to the numerous flaws of capitalism and insist that they can be overcome by simple regulations, that there are no better alternatives than the path we've chosen. Making any kind of meaningful change would require a collective effort that hasn't been seen since the second World War, but we cannot simply accept that we're doing the right thing when everything from the goods we buy to the food we eat are products of a broken system. It may be true that this is all just the cost of doing business, but is it a price that we can afford? Capitalism is destructive and unsustainable, and anything less than a massive change is, quite simply, decadent.


Ada M. said...

I am not sure how I found your blog on roomates... I just happened to be browsing and stumbled upon it. I thought it was interesting so I read it. :)

Alex said...

It seems that a lot of what is being criticized here about the current system of Capitalism seems to be about its wastefulness, but I'm not sure if that's fair. A feature of Capitalism in practice seems to be the dismissal of negative externalities like environmental damage and such, but if to improve upon the system we began to factor in such profit-unrelated variables, then wouldn't Capitalism as a system in itself work?

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Nick Woll grew up in the Florida Keys, and is furthering himself in the fields of writing, software development, and web design. You can contact him at nwoll27 at gmail dot com.