Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program envisions the future of capitalism in her first blog post in 2019. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Capitalism has the capacity to excite both love and hate in equal measure, depending on which side of the divide one stands. I will look at capitalism as it exists today and then explore these two questions: Is capitalism a good or bad thing for society? What is the future of capitalism?
Capitalism is a social phenomenon where the market players or owners of capital set prices based on demand and supply. The market eliminates inefficiencies with the aim to maximise profits. In the absence of competition or where it is minimal, monopolies and oligopolies result. There is a willingness among market players to adapt to change for greater efficiencies and more profits. This adaptability is typified by an ever-growing dynamism fuelled by technology and innovation. There is a constant search for new ways of doing things and new products. In capitalism, self-interest pays. The more capital one has, the more profits one is likely to make which further adds to what one has. Capitalism is self-reinforcing. Capitalists become wealthier as the providers of labour in society become poorer.
This classical capitalism is a free market economic system founded on the private ownership of the factors of production such as land, labour, capital, and entrepreneurship. In such an economy, there is minimal interference by the state and individuals have free will to make decisions regarding their property and labour – without infringing on the rights of others.
Capitalism in its pure form is almost non-existent. There are no free markets as such. The state intervenes through tax policies and by regulating markets to ensure that there is no manipulation. Left to their own devices, the owners of capital would oppress the providers of labour through dismal wages and poor working conditions. This is especially the case in situations of excess semi-skilled labour supply such as in Asia and Africa today.
Where there is strong competition, capitalism delivers value to the whole society. The contrary is true in monopolistic and oligopolistic situations where the benefits largely accrue to the owners of capital. The growing use of technology, especially automation, and the need to remain competitive has led to consolidation and concentration in many sectors. Deloitte cites technology as the number one driver of acquisitions and mergers in 2018. A lot of the wealth of companies today relates to economic rents from copyrights and patents related to technology and other soft forms of property. This is making competition a lot harder to achieve than in past decades. Globalisation has presented opportunities for capitalists to further their profits by expanding to markets previously beyond reach.
Despite all the fears and criticism, capitalism has delivered value to society.Globally, the last few decades have seen a greater decrease in inequality than in past centuries. However, there is growing inequality both across and within countries. There are segments of the population, even in progressive economies, being left behind which could lead to discontent and unhappiness. The increased use of technology has led to more demand for specialist skills and less use of unskilled labour.
The situation can only worsen with the prospect of immense automation in the second half of this century. This will be further exacerbated by the anticipated aging of society due to higher life expectancy in the next 50 years. The youth bulge in Africa and Asia will be no more. These two factors will result in high dependency ratios. Yet the need for human inputs to sustain the dynamism of markets through innovation, the essence of capitalism, will remain. The more educated who have cognitive skills that are valued by this capitalist economy will continue to be in demand. This will drive inequality between the skilled and unskilled segments of society further. A situation that is not sustainable.
Capitalism does not exist in isolation but in the bigger planetary system whose resources are bounded. Natural resources are dwindling and the need for humanity to live in harmony with nature for sustainability is escalating. The future of capitalism depends on the sustainability of the planet. Businesses thus need to abide by the nine planetary boundaries. Capitalists have great influence over society and are a key driver of the sustainability of the planet. It is the business of business to safeguard the planetary resources for itself and future generations.
What does all this mean for the future of capitalism? Capitalism in its current state is unsustainable. Capitalism needs to transform into a more responsible form. Mixed economies where capitalists address the inequalities in the societies by subsidising the incomes of those at the bottom are inevitable. Simultaneously, governments will need to ensure that everybody is given an opportunity to engage with and contribute to the economy. Governments can realise this by providing public goods such as education and healthcare which would in turn support capitalism. Both outcomes can be realised through progressive tax policies. States will also need to effectively regulate markets by establishing frameworks for property and contract rights, and planetary boundaries, and to provide a level playing for all market players.
© Felistus Mbole 2019