Ethics & Capitalism : Truth Eludes the Bourgeois Liberalists


The all-out crisis of capitalism further aggravated by the Covid-19 Pandemic  has pushed the advocates and admirers of capitalism into a still more severe crisis. They are in a fix. They   can neither deny the truth, nor admit it. They can neither ignore Marxism-Leninism, nor dare to accept it. What they end up doing, often turns out to be a funny and pathetic mix-up of contradictory scribbles. 

For instance, one noted columnist starts from Adam Smith regarded as founder of bourgeois economics in the 18th century. From Smith, he lays down ‘simple tenets’ of capitalism, namely pursuit of self-interest, division of labour and free trade and asserts that pursuit of  and furthering self-interest is a basic human instinct (Capitalism and Ethics by G Bhattacharjee in The Statesman Kolkata, 20 September 2020). And then those subscribing to the same view proceed to say that profit, or ‘call it greed’ emanates from this basic instinct. It is the  primary driver of all economic activities ( italics added). In capitalism, economic activities are motivated by the ‘yearning for more profit’, because capitalism thrives on ‘profit’.  It is in capitalism that ‘higher greed begets higher profits’. And then comes the conclusion that in capitalism that ‘yearning for more profit is not a vice’. So, greed is not a vice then.

Material base of ethics and morality

History  teaches us that inexorably nature and society are law-governed. Naturally, it is true in the case of capitalism as well. Here the very motive of production or the basic law is to earn maximum profit. This profit accrues by way of appropriation of surplus labour power by the capitalists owning the means of production. This profit hunt generates inequality and deprivation. And as we know, spiritual production is determined, shaped and patterned by material production so, the inherent inequality and deprivation in the economic base of capitalism is also manifested in its superstructure or sphere of mental production including the concepts of ethics and morality. It means that capitalism thrives  upon the unjust appropriation of  surplus labour of workers, rather the entire toiling masses, it lives its lavish life based on depriving and discriminating the working people and usurping what is due to them. That is why, Marx once elaborated that the struggles of the working class are never fight for some wage increase, or comfort or some such things. The kernel of all  those struggles lives in the fight for regaining the self-esteem, for fighting against the injustice, for standing up against any deprivation and discrimination. The question of ethics and morality need be judged on the anvil of this understanding.

Inability to grasp the basics leads to riddle

The Statesman columnist referred above recognizes capitalism and also agrees that it thrives on profit. But he fails to or avoids recognizing how profit is generated. And thus creeps in the ideas of basic instinct, greed etc. to explain profit. The failure or non-recognition of the very origin of profit leads  such writers to a riddle.     

Reality draws him to say that capitalism thrives on ‘profit without responsibility’ and  ‘the market does not provide protection against exploitation, it has no ethics or soul.’  Capitalist greed has killed millions with cold indifference. Is greed in capitalism not a vice then? Picking up instances from other walks of life, some experts allege that during the present Covid-19 pandemic, corporate hospitals  are now ‘perceived by many as businesses that are only interested in cash flow’ where ‘chances of surviving a viral attack are directly proportionate to the size’ of  the patient’s bank balance. (Free market is great but not when a patient’s survival depends on it  in The Times of India, Kolkata 27 September 2020). Is it not greed then a vice? 

Greedy or not, vicious or virtuous, the capitalist world was overjoyed with the debacle of  the socialist countries. Their advocates noted “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama triumphantly proclaimed …. humanity has reached the end of history …. Western liberal democracy …the final form of human government”. (Bhattacharjee , ibid) But again the reality stands in their way. So they had to admit that the utopia of Western liberal democracy, meaning bourgeois democracy in capitalist countries, has turned into ‘a cannibalizing dystopia of unfettered greed and spiralling inequality’. Even Pope Francis in his latest  encyclical, that is in his letter to the Bishops, had to admit that the Catholic Church doctrine which justifies ‘war as a means of legitimate defence’ was no longer viable. He further criticized the ‘perverse global economic system’ because it enhances discrimination.  But such denigration of capitalism throws their own existence at stake. So, some of  these   critics  tried  to compensate  by saying that  capitalism  is capable of generating ‘mass prosperity’. That means, inequality or discrimination could engender and be balanced by mass prosperity. A queer proposition indeed! What is the reality? We shall come to that  later.

Reference to history without recognition of historical reality

In course of these twists and turns, the flag-bearers of capitalism decide to refer selectively to history. They could not ignore the Great Depression of the 1930s and hold the ‘failure’ of laissez faire capitalism as a cause.  But was it not the reality that by the time capitalism had got into the Great Depression, it had crossed the stage of laissez faire long back and had been entrenched into the stage of monopoly and even its highest and moribund stage of imperialism? Monopoly, market crisis, finance capital, international trusts and cartels, imperialism and imperialist greed for global supremacy had developed long before that.

The experts or columnists had to again admit that ‘Keynesian welfarism’, a new post-war panacea, was evolved to save capitalism in the face of challenging achievements of socialism. As advocates of capitalism, they also elaborated that Keynesian theory had emerged strongly, emphasising social democratic principles of regulating the market, which was held and is still held as the only reliable agency for generating wealth. Between 1945 and 1970, West European countries going by Keynesian ideas, apparently experienced prolonged periods of economic growth with a so-called welfare system for citizens to be sustained by taxes.

But during the 1970s, even those apparently welfare-oriented Keynesian prescriptions  started to crumble. The experts could not but admit this end, which was inevitable, but they accepted it with a heavy heart. The results were: declining growth rate, stagflation, shoddy nationalisation and ascendance of unscrupulous global financial intermediaries, that is preponderance of usurer capital playing havoc in the stock markets etc. All these continued and aggravated, despite much-trumpetted austerity measures, pushing the masses into more and more privation, on the one hand, and privatisation as well as swelling the monopolists’ wealth, on the other hand. Capitalism has become ‘morally bankrupt’: so do the experts and advocates say, obviously admitting another reality. 

To come out of that bankruptcy, to get rid of the tax-barriers  which they had once created themselves  for the sake of development of capitalism and which had subsequently become thorns in the necks of the capitalists by that time, capitalism floated the doctrine of globalisation as the catchword by the end of the 1980s. It shifted the focus from ‘unsustainable’ state welfarism to deregulation, accompanied by ‘disruptive economic reforms’, ‘restraining the Government’s role to only a facilitator’, that is pushing  the governments to the back-seat, and ‘relinquishing control of production’ back to the private sector, even handing over crucial service and public welfare sectors, like education, health and such other vital ingredients of human life and society, to the private operators as newly opened favourable  ground of profit-hunting.   But even by piggybacking on technological revolution and globalisation of the markets to satisfy unending greed, the nemesis of the economic meltdown of 2007-09 could not be prevented. This once again pointed to the ‘inherent flaw of capitalism sans ethics’. This was what the experts could conclude. The globally integrated economic order soon started  collapsing on itself.

 Turn of events during Covid 19 prove baffling for ‘balancing’ columnists

It was during this collapse that the Covid 19 pandemic came. Even the columnists who hitherto eulogized free market as great could not but allege that during this pandemic, survival and bank balance were directly coupled. As apologists of free market, such  columnists  had to put forth the argument that ‘when you call a hospital ‘corporate’… it is a business… a good business will always look after the interests of its shareholders’. So ‘the hospital is doing nothing immoral in providing beds to only those who can afford to pay’.  But then they infer that in a ‘global medical emergency over which one has no control’, no ‘one should be made to choose between possible death and seeing his or her life’s savings vanish in days’. Once they say free market is ‘still one of the best ways to organise production and distribution’ while again they hold ‘it is a completely different story if the businessman has a better chance at surviving the pandemic because he has financial resources’. See how one is baffled if unaware of the truth.

Pope  Francis in his encyclical, referred to above, wrote : “The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic  has demonstrated  that not everything can be resolved by market freedom.” He even suggested reforms to the extent of rejecting the concept of an absolute right to property for individuals.

There were others, too, suggesting reforms, such as the British economist Paul Collier who concluded : ‘Capitalism needs to be managed, not defeated’ by integrating it with an ‘ethical state’, ‘ethical firm’, ‘ethical family’ in an ‘ethical world’. Neglect of  their duties towards society and even their employees has earned  universal contempt for capitalism as a synonym for greed, selfishness and corruption. The corrosive force of the market has progressively undermined the family, the business firm and the state — ‘the organising structures of collective life’. So Collier inferred, ‘We need an active state, (playing) a more modest role; we need the market, but harnessed by a sense of purpose securely grounded in ethics’. The ethical bounds of society will be determined by the alignment of our personal needs to societal needs. Elsewhere some other author concluded, ‘It is wrong to create a situation where a pandemic hits everyone, but some have a better chance at surviving it.’ With excerpts from the parable of the Good Samaritan, Pope Francis highlights its lessons of charity, kindness and looking out for strangers as ‘the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded world’. There were other variants. Pronouncing that the ‘process of creative destruction’ is ‘the very process that gives capitalism its astonishing dynamic’ and thus equating destruction with dynamism,  the same author comes down to conclude : The active state must support  the victims to this process. A just society must be based on ‘reciprocal obligations’ between members of the family, the larger society, between business firms and their employees and also between nations. It must restore its ethical foundations to prevent corrosion from inside. The Covid19 crisis has given the state an overarching, almost dictatorial authority. It ‘needs to be restrained’. But it is a mere pious wish! The decadent capitalism of these days, if we use their term, lives on the  ‘process of creative destruction’. Yes, it is the destruction of all human creativity,  machine, science, values, society, even  destruction of nature upon which the capitalism  boastfully claims ‘creation’ of their new world order, their haven of wasteful wealth, lavishness and consumerism. But their process takes its toll.   

The authors  have to admit that capitalism today is making people lead ‘anxious lives’ in divided societies. Yet they cherish hopes that capitalism is ‘the only economic system that has proved to be capable of generating mass prosperity.’  As said before, Pope Francis held market freedom as the villain. Others suggest a more radical redistribution of wealth and income appear necessary for capitalism to survive. They wish businesses will continue to make profits but would share a substantial part of it for the welfare of society, enabling us to reconcile the individual objective of living with little with the social objective of moving towards a higher goal based on ethics, morality, trust and justice.

Referring to Marx but not giving recognition to Marxism

In this vortex of arguments and contradictory counter-arguments, the authors even had to take recourse to Marx. They say : Capitalist production demands continuous expansion of capital in order to produce more and make ever more profits, we recall the earlier comment ‘higher greed begets higher profits’, leading to what Marx had called “the epidemic of over-production”. To prevent recession and other disastrous consequences that would follow inevitably, artificial demands are created in crisis-torn market, for products we do not actually need, by promoting consumerism. True, but is it the whole truth? Let us withhold elaboration for the present. Only we add that the same writer brings out his ingenious suggestion. He thinks, if the enforced lockdown has taught us one thing, it is that we need very little to survive and to add substance and quality to our lives, in consequence the environment becomes more sustainable and Nature rejuvenates. In our suffering and feeling of helplessness before a tiny virus, we have learnt the importance of empathy: this is what the writer realizes.  And he reiterates: Despite all its corrosiveness, capitalism’s power to create mass prosperity remains undisputed.  So he calls for a new social contract, for ushering in a world where happiness, joy and harmony, climate, environment and Nature will be reckoned as more fulfilling objectives of life.

Whirlpool of confusions and contradictions

So this is how the advocates-admirers of capitalism wade through arguments and counter-arguments, presenting, as said before, blunt contradictions.  Or, at best, they miss the point that they may sincerely be searching for truth, but they see the world with a particular ‘inertial’ world outlook, an outlook they have inherited from the system which is causing them pain and urging them to seek the truth. So they wish to suggest changes or reforms within the ambit of the existing system itself.  They call for restraining the over-arching state. Do they not see how the governments of different capitalist countries, for instance of India, are bringing totally and shamelessly anti-people measures including legislations and policies taking advantage of the pandemic? Who will restrain whom?  They express anxiety at the discrimination and disparity in the society. At the same time, they hold that capitalism brings mass prosperity. Knowledgeable as they must be, are they not acquainted with the enormous statistical data, global or of any imperialist-capitalist country, including India, which show how the staggering bulk of national wealth is accumulated in the hands of a miniscule of population, the monopolists? There are also global data on hunger index. Do those  indicate mass prosperity? Or, is capitalism, in reality,  generating the most disturbing inequality and mass poverty? The columnists suggest a more radical redistribution of wealth and income and even rejection of absolute right to property for social purpose and common good. If it be so, would it remain capitalism? And whom do they address for more radical distribution of wealth? Who listens to it?  Are they not aware that during this lockdown, when people have been losing life and livelihood, when a blank future has been staring at their face with unimaginable job-losses and consequent suffering, the leading monopolists of this country and elsewhere have not failed to increase their wealth  manifold? Do they expect that the monopolists, the super-rich, would be ready to pay any heed to their ‘pious’ suggestion of living on little?  Are they asking the devils to listen to scriptures? On the contrary, will not their suggestions turn out to be salt rubbed into the wounds of the already bruised and battered masses? Will those who build helipads on the roof of their palatial residence be content with as little as needed for survival? Marx could find mention with the issue of ‘over-production’, which, according to these columnists, leads to recession and then remedial course suggested is artificial stimulation through consumerism. Partial truth! The main artificial demand and market, as well as consumption to keep the market moving, is created by the military-industry complex which fosters more and more militarization of economy  that has become the trademark of all capitalist countries nowadays, big or small.  That is why capitalism, in this stage of imperialism, inevitably generates war, local, partial, regional or on a bigger scale. The wars consume stockpiles of arms, clean the market to make it artificially ready for more investment and production in defence production. Industry produces new arsenals that soon accumulate into over-produced stockpiles. The cycle thus goes on. And so the authors find that ‘capitalist greed has killed millions with cold indifference’! Let us recall what great Lenin had observed a hundred year back: “Imperialism, on the other hand, i.e., monopoly capitalism, which finally matured only in the twentieth century, is, by virtue of its fundamental economic traits, distinguished by a minimum fondness for peace and freedom, and by a maximum and universal development of militarism.”1

Marxism-Leninism provides the world outlook to know truth

So the honest advocates and admirers of capitalism, liberal bourgeois humanists in political parlance, hover around the truth, but cannot locate it or do not acknowledge it. They do not have the vision, the world outlook to ferret out the truth. Had they possessed it, they would have seen : “…greed, meanness or the mentality to exploit did not grow in society because the inherent good in man had been eclipsed by satan. … it was only after the emergence of an exploitative social system, that is, only after the appearance of the material condition in society necessary for exploitation, that satan did appear in man’s mind. It was not greed that created the exploitative social system, rather, it was the exploitative social system which begot greed in man.”

“…. In spite of the primitive stage of mental development and behaviour and constant tussles and fights, the mentality to exploit or the mentality to extort profit  by exploiting the labour of others did not grow in the primitive clan society. Human society did not witness such mentality till stable property, which could be preserved and increased, was created, or so long as the method of engaging man’s labour for continuous development of production and extorting profit out of it was not found out.”

“With the creation of stable property and introduction of cattle breeding and agriculture in society, which for the first time could engage human labour for production — at the early stage of development of such production — there was constant contradiction between scarcity of production and constantly growing human necessity which, in fact, led to the idea of exploitation.”

“… Whereas the savages of the clan communist society despite tremendous want did not know how to exploit, yet today’s civilized men, the humanists … are failing to free themselves from this mentality to exploit, from greed and meanness – their pious wishes, ideals and exhortations for the same notwithstanding. Why ? The very capitalist social system – the capitalist mode of production and production relation is the root cause of all sorts of oppression, tyranny, social injustice … continually giving birth to these mentalities and attitudes in society.” 2 These are not mere words from Comrade Shibdas Ghosh, one of the eminent Marxist  thinkers of the day and  the founder General Secretary of SUCI(Communist), the revolutionary party of India. These are the products of a comprehensive world outlook based on science and history. This is Marxism- Leninism. It provides answers where liberal bourgeois thinkers and columnists grope in the dark.  

Right now, overwhelmed by the abject annihilation of ethics-morality, the sincerest of sincere persons cry for ethics, for social good. And way back, in 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”: “It (The bourgeoisie- P Era)) has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.” This is what ethics means to capitalism. The liberals may rest! And this should provide a lead to their question “ …we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to build in the future. Do we want to build a society where we value human life only in terms of bank balance?”  There is no question of building such a society in future. Their free market society, that is, capitalism has already provided mankind with such a society which they tend to abhor. 

Coming forward into history when capitalism had entered its decadent imperialist stage, the great leader Lenin said :  “Even in the most democratic bourgeois state the oppressed masses at every step encounter the crying contradiction between the formal equality proclaimed by the “democracy” of the capitalists and the thousands of real limitations and subterfuges which turn the proletarians into wage slaves. It is precisely this contradiction that is opening the eyes of the masses to the rottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy of capitalism.” 1

Reality corroborates analysis of great Marxist authorities

Today, nearly two centuries after Marx and Engels wrote those words, the same bourgeoisie has turned totally reactionary. A century after Lenin spoke of how its ‘rottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy’ is exposed to the masses, the system the bourgeoisie runs, that is capitalism,  has not only got into the imperialist stage, it has reached total decadence. So what the great authorities of Marxism had to say about that class and its system have run further into rot. Today the system stinks. As Comrade Shibdas Ghosh, elaborated, “…whatever be the political theory, if its practice does not infuse moral strength and if it does not reflect a higher cultural standard then in whatever lofty words its theoretical essence may be couched, it is merely an empty facade, a lifeless body.  Just as a corpse has inevitably to be disposed of, so also if one clings to it out of attachment, it will, in its putrefied state, spread stench and be harmful for all people in society. … Remember, if a political ideology or a movement cannot rouse moral strength or elevate the cultural standard of the people, then that is surely harmful and has become absolutely obsolete.” 2

The earlier the advocates and admirers of capitalism turn to these simple truths, the easier it will be for them to realize why after wandering about in search of truth, they come down to some such baseless conclusions which they themselves would never have wished for. 

[Quotation references- 1. The Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky, 2. The Cultural Movement in India and Our Tasks : speech by Comrade Shibdas Ghosh on 26 May 1969 in Bengali, first published in May 1970 and in English version in August 1982.]

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