That Capitalism is Bad for the Soul

A debate at Macquarie University, 15 August 2007

Our opponents have tried to persuade you that, because we believe capitalism is bad for the soul, we are just tofu-eating, poetry-reading, bicycle-riding, leftist basket weavers. We plead guilty to all charges, except basket-weaving.

Capitalism’s fine in its place; the problem is that it has a restless urge to spread and colonise everything.

Take universities, those great institutions dedicated to encouraging us to spread our intellectual wings and soar to heights of sublime wonder through the pure joy of knowledge. The role of universities is to liberate us through learning from the shackles of our ignorance.

Who would want them debased by crude commercial interests − to become institutions where venal corporations pay for professorships and assert property rights over research, where universities compete ruthlessly for external funding, where the glorious culture of the humanities is trashed by the shriveled up bean-counters of the business faculties, where students become customers paying for degrees ….

Hang on; that’s what we have! Who here would not recognise that universities have lost their souls – sold to the highest bidder, flogged off in the pursuit of international competitiveness, traded for corporate favour.

That’s capitalism for you − you can’t put a soul into a machine, but you can have a machine that eats souls, and that machine is capitalism.

And it’s not just education. Now we see the economic calculus being applied to areas of life that were previously thought to be immune.

If proof were needed that capitalism is bad for the soul one need only to look into the souls of capitalism’s most passionate advocates − the economists, free market think tankers and corporate raiders, including our opponents in this debate on the dark side.

The free market economists make no apology for spreading the capitalist message; they want to colonize all aspects of life with their noxious doctrines. The foremost advocate of the colonisation of all human behaviour by the rules of capitalism has been the eminent Chicago economist Gary Becker.

Becker became famous for his economic analysis of marriage. Writing in one of the most prestigious economics journals, Becker defined marriage “as an arrangement to secure the mutual benefit of exchange between two agents of different endowments”.

Two people can produce what he calls “household commodities” cheaper than one. These household commodities include, and I quote, “the quality of meals, the quantity and quality of children, … companionship, love, and health status”.

But there is a downside, he writes: “The gain from marriage has to be balanced against the costs, including the cost of searching for a mate, to determine whether marriage is worthwhile.” Quite right: have you seen the cost of Bacardi Breeezers lately? Those search costs can be a killer. Better to resign oneself to a life of quiet masturbation.

Speaking of onanism, when I was a student studying psychology back in the 70s one young woman turned up with her baby and breast-fed it during the lecture. After this happened a couple of times, our professor, a very straight-laced Englishman, stopped the lecture and said to her: “Did you know that breast feeding is a form of masturbation”. She thought for a moment and replied:

“You do it your way, and I’ll do it mine”.

For Gary Becker love can be considered to be a “nonmarketable household commodity”. It is good if husbands and wives love each other because this increases the amount of “caring” behaviour they will engage in.

After pages of differential equations, in a triumphant conclusion Becker writes that, since love produces more efficient marriages, “love and caring between two persons increase their chances of being married to each other”!

Yes, the power of logic. It’s the power of the market.

Under capitalism, even love becomes nothing more than a commodity. The logic is impeccable, and in 1992 Gary Becker actually won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work. But who’d want to marry the bastard?

Capitalism may or may not be bad for the soul, but it is certainly bad for loving relationships. Your soul mate is really your partner in a business named Nuptials Pty Ltd, a mutually beneficial partnership between two agents of different endowments.

Some of Becker’s colleagues have applied the logic of capitalism to the market for babies. I promise I am not making this up. They argue that the failure to allow an effective market for babies has led to all sorts of problems, including too many abortions and too few babies available for adoption. If women were allowed to sell their babies, abortions would decline because it would be worthwhile to carry the babies to term then auction them off.

Also, and here I quote from their article published in an esteemed academic journal: “Were baby prices quoted as prices for soybean futures are quoted, a racial ranking of these prices would be evident, with white baby prices higher than non-white baby prices”.

Ah, capitalism. You’ve gotta love it.

We don’t need to go to Chicago to find vigorous defenders of the free market. In Australia we have our own fervent fans. Take Peter Saunders on the dark side. He is a leading light at the free market think tank, Sydney’s own Centre for Independent Studies.

The CIS seems to have had a compassion by-pass. Not long ago it put out a paper claiming that there is no such thing as poverty in Australia, except for those who choose to live in poverty.

Poverty is due to what the CIS calls “imprudent or irresponsible behaviour”. Raising welfare payments to poor families is pointless because the money would be spent, not on toys for the little children, but on cigarettes and heroin.

As some of you will know, there are two social policy analysts named Peter Saunders, a situation that leads to endless confusion, as the one at the University of NSW is progressive, caring and compassionate, and the other works at the CIS. In conversations among social policy people, if you mention Peter Saunders the first question is always: “Which one? The good one or the bad one?”

Peter always takes this with good humour.

But I think it is no coincidence that the opposing team, which wants to persuade us that capitalism is good for the soul, includes a member who is known at “The Bad One”.

The dark side wants to persuade you that capitalism is good for the soul. But isn’t that just what those who have sold their souls for callous cash payment must believe? They want to draw us all into their pact with the Devil.

If these people are to avoid the eternal fires of hell, there is only one solution. They must embrace Jesus, and do so with all the fervour they now reserve for praising capitalism.

In fact I am told there is a special section of the Hillsong Church set aside for those trying to wrestle back their souls from the clutches of the market. There is also an organisation called Economists Anonymous which is, according to its website, “a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from economism.”

It even has a 12-step program. “Hi, my name is Gary, and I’m an economist.”

But Hillsong plays a dirty trick. The soul-less ones get out to Baulkham Hills and find that Pastor Brian Houston teaches the prosperity gospel! God wants you to be rich, he proclaims. Being rich means God has blessed you with success. Hallelujah.

That stuff Jesus said about “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul” and “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” was fine in Judea 2000 years ago; but hey, get with the globalised world. Affluenza is the disease that needs no cure. Greed is not only good, it’s God. At Hillsong God comes customised to suit your needs. The Assemblies of McGod.

George W. Bush, the leader of the capitalist world, is also an evangelizer for God. He takes on not just the unbelievers but anyone who fails to defend capitalism, including those cheese-eating surrender monkeys in France. George W. famously confided to Tony Blair: “The trouble with the French is, they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”.

So Mr Chairman, it is sad but true that capitalism turns everything into a commodity − education, marriage, babies, love, religious fervour and God himself − they are all just like soybean futures.

No one has put it more eloquently than capitalism’s greatest critic, Karl Marx:

[Capitalism] … has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

If the soul is nurtured by love, learning, marriage, parenthood and religious belief, then capitalism can only be bad for it.

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© Copyright Clive Hamilton