Does Capitalism Work?

“Professor Champions Capitalism” ran the gleeful headline in the Financial and Business supplement of The Scotsman (24 May). The story which followed told us that Professor H. B. Acton, who holds the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, has written a paper for the Foundation of Business Responsibilities titled “The Ethics of Capitalism” in which he glorifies the capitalist system and its beneficiaries, the capitalist class.

The Professor’s paper contains a statement on the historical contribution of the early capitalists:

“The bourgeoisie, more scrupulous and pacific than the aristocracy and less deferential than the peasantry, so , improved the arts of production that the system of warrior lords and dependent serfs was replaced by one in which large ” populations of free citizens enjoy a scope of living which goes beyond what the aristocracy formerly disposed of.”

Then follows a list of benefits which the capitalist mode of production brought in its wake:

“Free speech, free movement of trade, free thought, exploration of the earth and oceans, ‘an ideal of peaceful domesticity, etc.”

There can be no question that the Professor’s summary is more or less correct. Capitalism was a definite step forward for humanity. Capitalism did abolish the productive methods of feudalism, took away the power of the aristocracy, decimated the peasantry and replaced it by a class of wage-slaves to operate the technology which makes possible modern living, standards – and more.

So, preceding any of capitalism’s benefits, was the forcible removal of millions of these “free citizens” and their children from their means of living to be herded into the industrial hells and slums of the towns and cities. There is no indication that the Professor mentioned this in his paper but possibly the, study of Moral Philosophy doesn’t include a reading’ of, say, Gibbins’ Industrial History of England or Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England, and whatever the benefits of capitalism they were most definitely not what motivated the bourgeoisie when they set about carrying through their revolution.

Certainly the Professor could claim that all this was yesterday. Nowadays the children have been banished from the mills, mines and factories while in the same issue of The Scotsman Mr. Julian Amery, the Housing Minister, did state that the slum problem could at long last be solved within the next ten years. A likely story, for whatever excesses of the system capitalism does manage to curb it can never eliminate the glaring contradictions and divisions it has given birth to in society. Capitalist is ranged against capitalist over the share-out of the spoils; the workers are periodically at one another’s throats over the available jobs and cheap housing. More important, the workers are at constant war with the capitalists over wages and conditions of work. Indeed The Scotsman carried other reports on such conflicts as the war in Vietnam, a 1,000 lb. bomb explosion in Belfast, a possible strike of BEA pilots, a strike by 200 workers at Rosyth Dockyard, and a squabble between Roxburgh County Council  and Scottish Omnibuses over subsidies for 26 uneconomic bus services’

Even more pointed was the story concerning the discovery that Ford Motor company in Detroit have conducted faulty anti-pollution tests on its entire engine line for all l973 passenger models. Should the Environmental Protection Agency insist on the letter of the law then Ford would be forced  to carry out new lengthy tests, or be barred from selling their 1973 cars as  scheduled. Officials of the EPA have hinted, however, that the law might be bent to avoid such a disaster, for the article says:

“The situation brings into sharp, focus the potential conflict between government safety and pollution regulations and the practical alternatives when big industry says it cannot meet these standards; the usual approach has been to change the rules.”

So in order that capitalism’s day to day functioning isn’t interfered with too much the atmospheric poisoning (and Ford’s profits) may continue. Truly an excellent example of the “ethics of capitalism”.

Presumably all this strife and turmoil has eluded the professor’s notice. He is far too busy currying the capitalists’ favour by telling them to be proud of their role and to have confidence in fulfilling their prime function:

“to see that the things people need for life and civilisation are produced, modified, multiplied, protected,  stored, moved and delivered.”

Do bombs, napalm, defoliant and pollutants come into the category of “things people need for life and civilisation”? Certainly the capitalists see to it that these are “produced, modified, multiplied, protected”. And do they see to it that the necessary food is “stored, moved and delivered” for the starving and ill-fed millions throughout the world? No, Professor, the “prime function” of the capitalist is to increase his capital and everything else including human need must take a back seat.

Undoubtedly the coming of capitalism was a progression in social development since it provided the technical impetus for solving the problem of production. Now it stands as a barrier between man and his product and has split humanity from top to bottom. We now need to abolish the private (including state) ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution and introduce instead a new society based on their common ownership and democratic control. The Professor’s defence of capitalism is, in the light of all this, as justified as advocating horse-drawn transport in the jet age because it’s an improvement over walking.

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