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Capitalism and Human Values

Symon Hill

Tony Wilkinson
Imprint Academic, 220pp


'We scarcely have values any longer, just economic aims,' says Tony Wilkinson. 'It is as if we created a machine so glittering and powerful that we came to worship it, forgetting that economic output and consumption are only part of what we are or could be.'

This is essentially a book about ethics. Its author believes that we have lost our way in terms of values. We need, he says, to develop shared values. He argues that this does not mean getting rid of capitalism, but rather living with a different focus, so that capitalism will not determine our values.

It is here that his argument begins to unravel.

Wilkinson has a point when he says that as a society we are unclear about our values. He writes, 'We rely on various, mostly confused, strands of history, religion, tradition, culture, feeling and whatever else.' (I am assuming that 'we' refers to people in Britain, although Wilkinson is often vague as to who he is talking about.)

However, he then goes on to argue that 'the processes and practices of the marketplace... have a way of filling the vacuum left by the absence of wellfounded values'. Thus, 'consumer capitalism comes to provide our social values by default.'

For Wilkinson, capitalism provides our values only because there is no other set of values that might provide an alternative. He does not discuss another possibility: that a society's values reflect its economic and social structures. Capitalism depends on ever-increasing consumption. Could it really do this without an ideology of consumerism?

A large chunk of the book is taken up with a discussion of where our values should come from. Wilkinson insists that shared values must be 'secular', because religious values will not be shared. Despite insisting that he is not attacking religion, he seems to equate it with 'supernatural beliefs'. This is not a definition that would be recognised by many scholars of religion.

After relatively convincing attacks on utilitarianism, legalism and emotivism, Wilkinson champions virtue ethics, quoting Aristotle's view that people should make ethical decisions that are in accordance with their 'purpose' as humans. Wilkinson then discusses at length the question of how we can choose a 'central goal'. He suggests that the idea of seeking 'happiness' does not go far enough but needs refining. He proposes the goal of 'satisfied mind'.

This is not as woolly as it sounds. Wilkinson has worked through its meaning and is clear that he is talking about deep and developed 'inner lives', based on the cultivation of 'inner skills.' This is a position that many religious people, particularly the more mystically inclined, could agree with.

Wilkinson says that in emphasising inner skills, he is not dismissing external circumstances. But at severalpoints he sounds as if he is doing just that. He writes, 'Even pain which most people would find difficult to endure can be and is regularly overcome by brave and hardy people who find the resources in themselves'. I am not sure how Wilkinson would describe this idea to people in extreme pain who, through no fault of their own, are unable to find the resources within themselves.

While Wilkinson clearly wants to reform capitalism and improve society, he comes perilously close to implying that this is of relatively little importance compared to the cultivation of inner skills. He acknowledges he may 'sound glib' when he writes that to endure harsh work as a matter of economic necessity 'requires a high level of inner skill'. He adds, 'But this is how the world is, until we change it.' Why then, I wonder, should we not focus on changing it?

Wilkinson sees capitalism as 'a good servant but a bad master'. He repeatedly asserts - rather than argues - that there is no realistic alternative to capitalism. He writes, 'this form of economic organisation is unchallenged accept for the marginal protests of the dispossessed.'

This is one of several points at which I was unsure whether Wilkinson was making use of shock value or if he was unaware of the shocking nature of his words. It is bad enough to describe large-scale anti-capitalist movements such as Occupy, Syriza and Latin American socialism as 'marginal'. To imply that the protests of the dispossessed are irrelevant is even worse.

The section of the book headed 'Marxism' is not so much a caricature as an outright misrepresentation. Wilkinson says almost nothing about Marx's own views and ignores the many and varied manifestations of Marxism. Instead, he equates 'Marxism' with the worst aspects of Soviet-style governments. This is rather like writing a section headed 'Christianity' that consists of nothing but a description of the Spanish Inquisition.

To be fair, Wilkinson is passionately opposed to the worst excesses of capitalism, such as short-term speculative trading. Nonetheless, he is keen to promote capitalism itself. He defends the notion of competition, urging us to 'think of adjacent market stalls rather than the power of a giant supermarket chain'. The problem is that capitalism is not about adjacent market stalls. Capitalism by definition involves the concentration of ownership in a small number of hands (as Wilkinson appears to recognise at other points in the book).

Wilkinson wants us to maintain capitalism while living by non-capitalist values. This seems to me to involve the same mistake as other proponents of 'ethical' capitalism. Such people argue that socialism is unrealistic. Yet they consider it realistic to expect society to reject values of greed and consumerism while operating an economic system that depends on green and consumerism in order to survive. Wilkinson rightly attacks the common obsession with economic growth. Yet capitalism relies on endless growth, which requires ever-increasing consumption.

In the light of this, ethical capitalism seems rather less likely than warm ice cream or solid liquids.