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Do economics and politics have a common ancestry?

Posted By Robin Jourdan, Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Robin Jourdan considers the origination point of Democracy and Capitalism in her tenth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

No straightforward origination point of capitalism can be teased out of history. Of any of the origin stories, one thread is common: capitalism's goal is benefit of the one, the owner. Thus, Democracy and Capitalism are at odds. Each depends on an ideal of equality: everybody may share in political decision-making, and everyone to do the best they can in the market, respectively. Conflicts between the two systems often rub where property rights and workplace conditions are involved.

 

Politics is local in its intentions; while capitalism is essentially global. Democratic politics is founded on the equality of its citizens; capitalism cares little about the distribution of riches. Democracy says all citizens have a voice; capitalism gives the rich by far the loudest. From the 1940s to the 1970s, when the government in the US was most reliable and allied with business, the stakeholder age, it seemed everybody won. Earlier, the Great (global) Depression of the 1930s brought the policies of laissez-faire (noninterference by the states in economic matters) to an end in most countries..

 

Technology is creating a whole new class of the worker today; the machine, robot, AI workforce. Will today's working-class become the new "useless" class? For sure, machine learning and robotics will change what work will be in the latter half of this century. As AI eliminates dependence on people or physical resources, the current global economy based on traditional capitalism could give way to 5th Industrial Revolution practices. The phase-in of a smart Digital Europe may ultimately lead to a highly automated market economy by mid-century. However, the problem is transnational. Businesses often answer to more than one government.

 

Looking back from 2050, what economic and political conditions were essential to prosperity? Markets will continue to rely on continual growth. The emerging connection, information, and sharing economy will bring a new pulse to bend markets.  These will require a new set of business rules. Growth comes to those who take full advantage of opportunities. Local agencies will lead efforts for economic development, welfare policy, and citizen engagement strategies.

 

A feature distinguishing capitalism from previous systems was the use of accumulated capital to enlarge productive capacity rather than to invest in economically unproductive enterprises, such as pyramids and cathedrals. Shifting from the Industrial to the Information Revolution as we are today globally won't follow yesterday's recipe for success.

 

Democratic politics depends on solidarity; capitalists do not prioritize nationality. Electorates desire economic security; capitalism is susceptible to boom and bust. Capitalism seeks the benefit of the one, winner take all; a benevolent and strong political governance system seeks the benefit of the many; we're best when we're together. It is naïve to ask capitalists to change capitalism from inside. Context matters. Its conflation with Democracy as a governance system shortchanges governance. Rather, it is economics that needs to be re-thought and reinvented.

 

Though bits and components existed in different locations since ancient times, these two ideals together caught fire with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. Capitalism was born at the same time that the phrase "I want more" came into our collective consciousness. Do they have a common ancestry? The simple answer is no.

 

© Robin Jourdan 2019

Tags:  capitalism  democracy 

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What will responsible capitalism look like?

Posted By Felistus Mbole, Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the responsibility of capitalism in her tenth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Capitalism has been the key driver of global wealth and prosperity. Despite this, it has yielded huge economic inequality and mistrust. This is because the system which is driven by private owners operates to maximise shareholder wealth. The need to generate profits at whatever cost works contrary to the interests of other members of society and the planet. The idea of shareholder supremacy is deeply entrenched within the current corporate culture. Everything else takes secondary priority. The outcome has been huge global inequality and a looming backlash.

 

The cry for responsible capitalism which started after the Second World War is climaxing. The need to conduct business in a manner that is equitable and balances the interests of shareholders, suppliers, employees, customers and the larger society is dire. Despite their benefits, there is a sense of unfairness and being overburdened accompanied by a loathing and mistrust of enterprises. As legal personalities in society, corporates should owe responsibility to others in how they conduct their affairs. Yet this has not been the case. What will save capitalism from itself? What will responsible capitalism look like?

 

Responsible capitalism is not corporate social responsibility. It is not giving a tiny proportion of the wealth generated by enterprises in the form of charity or a gesture of goodwill to society. It is the integration of the needs of the wider society into how business operates, a manner that benefits all stakeholders. Responsible capitalism is an economic system which appreciates the need for harmonious co-existence between enterprises and other members of the community.

 

Left on their own, markets will continue to maximise shareholder wealth at the expense of the rest of society. The 2008 financial crisis is a clear illustration of this. Responsible capitalism will take a greater role by state in regulating the affairs of markets. Governments will need to rise to the challenge by prescribing ways in which corporates should conduct themselves. The UK’s Companies Act 2006 for instance encourages responsible capitalism. These will be in form of policies that ensure fair work terms and conditions and redistribution of the generated wealth through taxation for society’s common good. To whom much has been given, much will be required. Responsible global enterprises will diligently pay rather than seek to avoid taxes to support the communities in which they operate.

 

Responsible capitalism will be enterprises whose strategic purpose is to serve society alongside their investors. This will mean fair compensation to employees and minimising of margins in pricing of goods and services to customers. Responsible corporates will be aware of the planet boundaries and mindful of the impact of their business activities on the environment.

 

In today’s increasingly dynamic and complex world, enterprises will have an opportunity to demonstrate their responsibility by rendering a service to society. They will use their resources to address the wicked problems facing global society for the common good. Their service to society will need to be embodied within their corporate strategies alongside delivery of value to shareholders. Responsible capitalism will take a paradigm shift in corporates’ purpose for existence from maximising shareholders’ wealth to serving society. A realisation that it is in serving society that sustainable value is created for investors. It will comprise enterprises focused on long-term rather than short-term gains.

 

@ Felistus Mbole 2019

Tags:  capitalism  inequality  society 

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Can transforming capitalism solve global inequality?

Posted By Felistus Mbole, Friday, September 20, 2019

Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the possibility of resolving global inequality in her ninth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Global wealth has been increasing and is predicted to grow by 43% in the next 10 years. While global poverty has reduced in the last few decades, this wealth is mainly driven by markets and is held by a tiny proportion of the population. The current form of economic structure is defined by short-termism. It is focused on optimising returns to owners of capital at the expense of all else and the long-term good of the society. It is not sustainable. Can capitalism be transformed to solve global inequality? What could it transform to?

 

A good place to start in exploring the possibility of transforming capitalism for the prosperity of society is to first understand what is broken. Businesses have one key agenda: to optimise profits. Yet capitalism does not operate in isolation but within the broader society which has clear planetary boundaries. Businesses need to demonstrate this consciousness and should be held to account regarding serving the long-term good of society. Natural resources are limited and likely to be depleted in future unless deliberate action is taken to ensure sustainability. It cannot be profits at whatever cost to the environment. Measures such as green taxation for business could lead to a more sustainable economic system.

 

A heightened sense of industry self-regulation driven by an appreciation that, in the long-term, society together prospers or perishes could trigger the right change. Another pillar to sustainable capitalism is the need for economic inclusion. This can be realised through government policies aimed at taxing business resources and not labour which would lead to unemployment and further inequality. Businesses could also invest in upskilling their workers to fit within the new business environment.

 

The current wave of digital technology characterised by use of personal data and machine learning has fuelled unprecedented economic growth. The challenge is that this wealth is not shared equitably across society. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. This situation is likely to get worse in the future as more low-skills jobs get taken over by machines and unemployment rates rise globally. It can be addressed through the effective use of taxes to equip the labour force with skills that would enable them to effectively engage in the emerging digital economy.

 

What can governments do to transform capitalism for the prosperity of society? Effective regulation of markets could transform the economic system of the future. This would include consumer and data protection. As the economy becomes more data driven, personal data should be made more public and portable across businesses. This could lead to greater benefit to the owners of data and reduce the current monopolies that have entrenched inequality.

 

The digital wave is sweeping through all sections of society. Many governments are transitioning to the use of digital platforms for delivery and payment for public services. Considering this and the growing use and importance of digital rails in the economy, digital infrastructure should be made a public good just like roads and other physical infrastructure. This might not necessarily mean nationalisation of the existing private investments. By assuming this responsibility, states could drive economic inclusion. Ensuring that the majority have access to the infrastructure and skills that are needed to gainfully engage with the emerging digital economy in the long-term will reduce the economic divergency.

 

Finally, a broader stakeholder representation in business ownership and governance could make capitalism more sustainable in future. The biggest aspect of capital in today’s data driven businesses is the knowledge and skills which is brought in by management and other employees in the business. This argues for an employees’ share in the profits and wealth of the businesses thus reducing inequality. Capitalism could transform itself by taking on cooperative characteristics to avoid potential future crises.

 

Capitalism has proven itself effective in delivering goods and services to the global society, but its long-term sustainability is threatened. It could transform itself to serve the collective good of the society and solve global inequality.

 

© Felistus Mbole, 2019

Tags:  capitalism  equality  global inequality 

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Will technology fuel or quench capitalism?

Posted By Felistus Mbole, Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the dual role of technology in her seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

We are living in a technological era like no other. The latest forms of internet and communication technology has made the world a global village. People can connect in real time across the globe. It is only three decades since the worldwide web came into being and roughly half of the global population has internet access according to UN’s International Tele­communication Union (ITU). Technology today is synonymous with internet and digital connectivity. Our lives have become so centred around internet connectivity and the opportunities that this creates.  It is hard to image life without digital communication. Will this new wave of technology quench or fuel capitalism?

 

The connectedness through digital technology has had clear benefits for society. Digital technology has possibly brought greater development than any other technology before it. It has enabled unprecedented levels of communication and the accompanying economic, political and social benefits. For instance, more people in Africa today have access to mobile phones than electricity. Mobile money is becoming a way of life for many, with about half of Kenya’s GDP estimated to be driven by it. This said, a significant digital divide, that is the gap between people who are digitally connected and those who are not, exists. The main reason for this digital divide is the cost of access in terms of data or airtime and the digital devices. Other reasons are poor connectivity and lack of digital skills.

 

Technology has long been established as a key driver of income inequality. In the emerging digital global economy, the economic gap between those digitally left behind and the owners of the technology is growing. The benefits of digital technology seem to be consolidated in the hands of a few. Digital technology has the power to change the market structure in a manner unlike any other technology. Disruptive digital innovations have changed the functioning of markets, resulting in the emergence of new dominant players with substantial long-term rents. Copyrights and intellectual properties out of these innovations give innovators an edge that their competitors cannot easily bridge.  It is a case of the winner taking it all, at least in the short-term. The impact of digital technology on society has been profound. Six of those on the Forbes list of top ten billionaires globally have made their wealth out of digital technology. They have mined their wealth out of data, the new oil.

 

Data is the lifeline of global capitalism today. It is the oil that lubricates the current economy.  A lot more data traverses the globe each day than goods and services combined. Big data companies such as Google and Facebook collect huge amounts of data from the population at minimal cost and sell it to others at a fortune. The data collected from the public can be used to improve services and products, making them more targeted and relevant. It can be used by security agents to fight crime and terrorism. Data has also been used to monitor and manage health related challenges. Data has however, been used to predict behaviour and worse still, to nudge human behaviour into the most profitable outcomes for business. Shoshana Zuboff terms this kind of data usage ‘surveillance capitalism’. It is not about the clients but centred on the business, promoting capitalism. Initially, it was individuals under surveillance. Now it is communities and soon it will be the whole of society.

 

Based on the current trajectory, technology will fuel capitalism even further in future. The progression towards a more connected world and artificial intelligence will generate massive amounts of data. This will present greater opportunities for capitalism and promote higher levels of inequality if unchecked. We are likely to see emergence of more stringent data protection regulations in future in an effort to guard against abuse of data. Innovation is good for the economy. Appropriate tax and innovation policies can help make the benefits of technology more inclusive. These could act to quench the fire of capitalism.

 

© Felistus Mbole, 2019

Tags:  capitalism  equality  technology 

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Is liberty compatible with capitalism?

Posted By Administration, Friday, March 22, 2019

Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program examines the compatibility of liberty with capitalism in her third blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

The current economic theory of the ‘free market economy’ and capitalism requires a world of scarce or finite resources, together with ‘infinite wants’ of the consumer, in order to work. Scarce resources drive consumer acquisition and increases the market value of the resources. This balances nicely with a key tenet of the liberal view: the freedom to acquire whatever you want, even (or especially) at the expense of others.

 

The free market economy with unconstrained and unrestricted growth at all cost is now impinging on the freedoms and livelihoods of others. This effect occurs within the market supply chains who manufacture and supply goods, services and natural resources. It occurs with those who do not have the means to afford current market value. This causes even greater scarcity in key earthly resources such as food, water, mineral deposits and energy. It also has a clear link to climate change.

 

We have the strange paradox of capitalist freedom of acquisition that leads to the undermining of liberty and human rights of others. This has been the pattern as long as the market economy has operated throughout history. Whilst the individual is encouraged to be competitive and individualistic, from a spiritual point of view consumerism proves to be an empty vessel that contains no nourishment. Capitalism promotes ‘happiness’ through acquisition of money and goods over community and individual spiritual prosperity and growth. It undermines the public ‘good’.

 

What other models can we consider going into the future that can promote liberty and freedom? It is interesting to explore some models that reverse the paradigms that we live within today and speculate on futures driven under different mental models for both liberty and economic good.

 

One model that we see today is the governance-driven capitalism model, where societal benefit is promoted alongside profit. This can be seen for example in the ‘B-CORP’ model, where capitalist endeavours can be nurtured spiritually by knowledge that they are promoting good in the world, or at least not causing harm.

 

Others observe that the future will evolve into a post-scarcity economy, where resources are abundant through greater utility and efficiency of innovation, and digitisation will provide both basic and greater needs of the world’s population. This is predicated upon greater information about the world we live in. However, when the commodity underpinning the economy is data or information, where will ownership lie?

 

Another model suggested is that of ‘Commoning’, where ownership and control of resources is participatory. Resources are protected from sale in the market and belong indefinitely to the community that created them or nurtured them - in the same way that a river might be maintained by communities along its banks, instead of being consumed or sold by a third party to outside interests. In such a model, data would be owned and consumed by those that generate it.

 

In all of these models, how will the desire of the individual to acquire at the expense of the community be balanced with the community good? One presumes in the manner that this has always been resolved, through some form of political governance, either provided internally by the community, or presided over by a benevolent external body. Benevolent governance seeks to balance the needs and wants of a community against the resources generated or available. It seeks to regulate the internal and external stakeholders’ interests against moral or ethical dilemmas.

 

Accountable benevolence, ethics, morality and human rights must be clearly defined in accordance to a normalised common good. This clarifies what the community finds tolerable for the welfare, safety, security and health of the community members. The result is the antithesis of capitalism, to which liberty is incompatible.

 

© Ruth Lewis 2019

Tags:  capitalism  economics  liberty 

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Is capitalism a danger to itself?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program warns about the survival of capitalism in her third blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Many believe that global inequality has been growing for decades. A month ago, the world’s elites - who comprise global political, business, advocacy, and activism leaders - gathered in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum.  Inequality was a key topic in their discussions. It seems the issue is finally getting their attention. Is capitalism becoming a danger to itself?

 

Inequality is likely to continue to grow into the foreseeable future based on the present trajectory. The growing inequality could lead to the classing of society into a small wealthy elite and the rest of the people. This could pose a danger to capitalism if markets are perceived as benefitting the owners of capital at the expense of workers and the consumers of the goods and services they provide.

 

For long, most people believed in the Washington Consensus that the market economy was the best way to deliver long-term prosperity. According to the consensus, wealth would somehow trickle down to the rest of society through employment and other forms of economic engagements with markets. This has not happened. Globally, people are less optimistic about the future than they were at the turn of this century. They are discontented about stagnating standards of living as the wealthy around them attain increasing levels of affluence.   

 

In wealthier economies, globalisation is becoming a chief agenda item for western populists. The opponents of globalisation dislike it for its power to potentially destabilise their status and sense of community economically and socially.  Economically, it is perceived to cause economic losses through the loss of jobs and the imports of goods and services from other economies. Globalisation was effectively slowed down between the two world wars. This is unlikely to happen in future given the advancement in technology. Rather than fight globalisation, business owners and global leaders should ensure that it works for everyone.  

 

Given prevailing rapid globalisation, it not surprising that there is a growing wave of populism especially in parts of America and Europe. Populists purport to speak for the average people - whom they position as different from those in authority - and as disadvantaged. They present themselves as having a solution to the problem and advocate for a change in the status quo.  Populism is disruptive to society and to capitalism in particular.

 

This state of affairs is not sustainable. If the wealthy are seen as the elite within society who are driving a political agenda which is divergent from the will of the people, this can lead to populism. As inequality increases, the proportion of those feeling left behind is likely to increase. This could endanger capitalism. Rather than being a zero-sum game where the wealthy are perceived to take it all, capitalism could be made a win-win game for everybody. How could capitalism be transformed into a responsible system that benefits society as a whole?

 

© Felistus Mbole 2019

Tags:  capitalism  economics  politics 

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Could social entrepreneurs do better than capitalists?

Posted By Administration, Sunday, February 24, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Esmee Wilcox has published her second blog post in our Emerging Fellows program. She believes social entrepreneurs are succeeding where they understand how to make use of the creative capital. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 


It’s easy to think of social entrepreneurs as providing the antidote to modern capitalism. Seen from this perspective, social entrepreneurs are likely to remain at the margins of unreformed capitalism in the latter half of this century. The production of social value out of balance with the primacy of the economy. But hidden within the creative means of producing social goods lie the opportunities to tackle complex global challenges. So where are there hints of these new social norms that could displace how we value economic capital? How might this help us transition towards a world rich in creative capital?

Looking back, there are examples of nineteenth and twentieth-century capitalism that shifted the organising model towards greater social benefits. The Co-operative movement is well known. Public enterprise perhaps less so, but particularly influential in the USA in shifting popular perceptions of what was important for society at large. From the distribution of ice for food safety in rapidly growing municipalities in the early twentieth-century, to the building of ships to keep supply lines open during the second world war. They required a level of social co-operation to displace private gain.

They were distinct from charitable activity that is dependent on philanthropy and separate from the means of economic production. Not only did these co-operative enterprises challenge the imbalance of economic and social value. What they also did through a co-operative model was to demonstrate a more creative means of enterprise.

The social values that were necessary to engage workers in producing social benefits, were what enabled the production of economically valuable goods to be more efficient and innovative. It’s the same empathy, generosity and inclusivity that enables us to work across disciplines and organisational siloes in our modern creative enterprises. We need these organising principles to be widespread to tackle the complex, interconnected issues of our times. We live with hyper-connectivity in our age of the internet. The social, political and environmental challenges we face exist within complex systems.

Co-operative enterprises are more akin to self-organising systems, which we know are capable of co-evolving with changes in the external, operating environment. This self-organising model challenges the existing economic order that links power and status with capital and hierarchies. We no longer need ‘rent-seeking’ managers that disconnect those thinking about the problem from those experiencing the problem. People are able to think and solve problems in dynamic systems themselves. Human capability and ingenuity is released in unexpected places.

Communities that are poor in capital and consumptive power threaten those that steadfastly hold onto it. Government institutions need to stop seeing socially inclusive enterprises as replacements for welfare programmes. Government Innovation Prizes could hint at a shift in practice, making it easier for new social enterprises to find a way in to organising around a myriad of complex societal issues. But it’s Social Innovation Incubators that are countering the institutional bias against people from poor places, who have been held back from accessing their own creative capital. Acknowledging and bridging the gap between those that know the rules of the game and those that want to create new ones.

Vested interests will give up economic power where the alternative is more compelling in the present. However much we may foresee the redundancy of capitalism as it stands, social enterprise will only displace it where it can also be resonant now.

Social entrepreneurs are succeeding where they understand how to make use of the creative capital that is more evenly distributed amongst us. The economic capital we have now won’t be meaningful in the age of scarcity at the end of the twenty-first century. What will matter is how we self-organise around the complex challenges of our times. Empathetic, inclusive, and generous social entrepreneurs can show us how to make this transition.

© Esmee Wilcox 2019

Tags:  capitalism  economics  entrepreneurship 

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What is the future of capitalism?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, January 17, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

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

Tags:  capitalism  economics  society 

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Do We Need to Own Things?

Posted By Administration, Friday, January 11, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tim Morgan publishes his first blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by revisiting the concept of ownership. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Immediately after the painting “Girl with Balloon” sold at auction for $1.4 million, the painting began slowly destroying itself. A malfunction caused it to stop half-way.

The anonymous artist known only as Banksy had secretly hidden an automated shredder inside the frame. The half-destroyed work is now considered a new piece of art, valued much higher than the original painting. The event is an unlikely but apt metaphor for how automation is redefining ownership.

The Eighteenth Century philosopher Adam Smith described capital as owned property used to produce an economic return. Capitalism’s central feature is that owned things are used to produce exchangeable value, be they a farmer’s vegetables or self-sabotaging paintings. Ownership from a capitalist perspective is control of something used to create enhanced value. In turn, exchanges of ownership are synonymous with exchanges of value. Each side gets something they value more than what they are willing to give in exchange. Centuries of worldwide progress and prosperity rest on ownership as capitalism’s bedrock social organizing principle.

Control determines who can create value from property. Capitalism assumes that control and ownership are inextricably intertwined. Yet Banksy’s auction stunt illustrates how automation is changing the current relationship between ownership and control. Traditionally if you own capital then you also directly or indirectly control it. Banksy subverted that control by using automation to go beyond “I don’t want my art sold” to embedded enforcement of “You can’t sell my art, even if you own it”. Automation enables embedding active governance rules into owned items themselves. Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig describes this as “Code is Law”. Banksy’s embedded painting shredder is analogous to copy protection of digital movies and music files. You own the ability to experience, but not the thing itself.

These embedded automation rules constitute an increasing level of external control over owned things. If ownership equals control, then those who are implementing the automation are increasingly the owners, no matter who holds the receipt. Existing legal frameworks have always considered use as a legal component of ownership, but those institutional frameworks are lagging the breakneck pace of automation. A user can own an AI-enabled smart-speaker appliance like Amazon Echo or Google Home, but those same items become expensive plastic bricks without their backend automated services.

But does this loss of control due to automation extend to productive capital? History shows a progression of ever more abstract relationships between owners and control of productive capital. We went from the concrete control of simple property such as farms and animals, to abstract control via corporate shares and investment funds. Even in the past few decades innovations like millisecond flash-trades and complex financial derivatives make it unclear who owns what at any given time. At each stage the use of capital to create value appears to become more tied to its control than to its ownership.

It is ironic that Banksy’s automated assertion of control over “Girl with Balloon” increased the piece’s value, rather than destroying it as intended. The work has been appropriately renamed “Love Is in the Bin”. The new owner adapted to Banksy’s attempt at automated control. By inadvertently relinquishing a bit of control to unknown automation, the new owner gained more value than they originally purchased.

Love may be in the bin, but for now capital still hangs on the wall.

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  capitalism  value 

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Has The Economy Failed Society?

Posted By Administration, Friday, January 4, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Esmee Wilcox has published her first installment in our Emerging Fellows program. She recaptures socioeconomic theories in the light of realities being experienced in our modern age. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Societies have sleepwalked into an acceptance of the predominance of capital. We have gone far beyond Karl Marx’s theories of capital driving the ordering of society. We no longer question the consequence of this imbalance for our existence. We need to rebalance the needs of capital and society. Not simply as an end in itself, but primarily because we need new social norms to tackle future global issues. How has this imbalance come about?

Is Marx right that the ordering of society is necessarily driven by the needs of capital? If so, what does this mean for the assumptions we bring to our conception of society? What does this mean for the widely-held view that capitalism has triumphed other economic models?

The 1990s view of the ‘triumph of capitalism’ came out of the toppling of the old communist order in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire. Alongside this came a slow opening up of China to trade and privately run enterprise from the late 1970s. However, there is a flaw in the logic to present capitalism as the only alternative to communism. Without any credible alternative models on the table, it is easy to see why the ideology of capitalism took hold. 25 years on, with rising populism coupled with pervasive neo-liberal power, there are three interconnected trends that illuminate the contradictions and flaws in the predominance of the economy in our patterns of local and global behaviours.

First, the enduring power of the interests of capital at the heart of government. Politically-centrist governments have gained and retained power with policies that appeal to lower-income communities. They appeal to the interests of capital because they have done so without transferring political influence.

At the same time, the interests of capital have subtly influenced the organising of public and social value to be more ‘commercial’. It has confused being responsive to citizens needs with being economically driven. The ‘McKinsey effect’ on public policy-making should not be underestimated. In more recent years there has been some recognition of the need to rebalance social with economic value within UK local government: the 2012 Social Value Act created a space for public policy-makers to utilise its purchasing power to balance economic efficiencies with social benefits. However, it hasn’t challenged the underlying economic model whereby one’s life expectancy and life chances can be predicted by one’s mother’s educational status and the extent of your vocabulary at age two.

Second, our attachment to material possessions – aptly described as ‘affluenza’ – at the heart of our economic growth model, placates the reality of our diminishing ability to influence capital power. Credit is freely available, we can buy our housing association property, but we can’t persuade governments to pay for sufficient modern housing stock to have a home and a family life. This consumerist economic model drives income generation over friendships and developing community capital. Coupled with business interests creating a more precarious working environment, we are increasingly squeezing out time to care.

Third, the status anxiety that comes from our awareness of our social position in any social interaction. We’re so worried about people who have more income. More luxurious experiences than us. Retaining our rung on the ladder. Our status dominates our social interactions and reduces the joy in them. As social encounters become harder to have, we shy away from them and become lonelier and more isolated.

This is why it’s interesting to consider alternatives to the predominance of economic drivers on our society. It doesn’t just affect people at the bottom of income distribution, but the powerful interests of capital. Society can’t be divided into economically self-supporting strata when social phenomena exist as a response to the whole. We can no longer ignore these feedback mechanisms.

Marx’s theories were conceived of in far less connected societies. They have remained intact as we have become more globally connected. However, they are not a guide to our future that is more complex, interconnected and unpredictable. We know that self-organised, adaptive and resilient communities are more able to respond to changes in the external environment. This requires high levels of co-operation and collaboration, the antithesis of atomised economic self-supporting behaviours. These are a clue to the social norms that have to be in abundance if we are to tackle global late 21st Century issues.

The triumph of capitalism is a binary argument suited to the interests of 20th century phenomena. It has taken hold because we have become seduced by its simplicity and its immediate rewards. It is much more difficult, and yet more compelling, to seek out the 21st Century socio-economic norms that will help us face up to scarce physical resources. It will be disruptive but offers hope for future generations.

© Esmee Wilcox 2019

Tags:  capitalism  economics  power 

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