Capitalism unbuttoned

Submitted by martin on 14 May, 2009 - 12:37 Author: Martin Thomas

The Financial Times is well worth reading these days on the economic crisis. And along the way, precisely because the paper takes for granted that its readers are wealthy enthusiasts for capitalism, it tells us things about the texture of capitalist society and our ruling classes.

On 2 May it ran a vox pop article on Britain's wealthiest postcode, in Chelsea, and its poorest, in the Possilpark suburb of Glasgow.

People in Possilpark are often unemployed, or have insecure, low-paid, often arduous jobs. Their diet is poor. Rates of drug abuse, alcoholism, and crime are high. They can expect to live 13 years less than in Chelsea.

But teenagers in Chelsea were not happy. "I come down from Eton most weekends. It’s boring there, no girls. I get £80 a month allowance but I never have any money. I smoke a lot, and you need money at Eton. This area is bad because it’s difficult to get into pubs. I’ve also had a knife pulled on me..."

And in Possilpark? One teenager said: "This area is shite, there’s nothing to do. There’s heavy crime everywhere. There are lots of coppers around..." But another: "It’s good living here, you meet hundreds of people at the youth club". And another: "Everybody is like a family, there’s lots of caring. You don’t grow up in a bubble. You get experience for life; it makes you a bit tougher. I never broke windows or took drugs – it’s this you can pass on to your children. Everyone is down to earth, no one judges anyone".

A capitalist society degrades both the poor and the well-off, but generates among the poor more of the solidarity needed to end the degradation.

Other recent items in the FT suggest why. The FT has a column where managers write in about work dilemmas and others respond. One agonised: "My boss has instructed me to distribute misleading information to all employees in my name. I guess it’s his right to feed the staff balderdash... Having it go out with my name... bothers me..."

Response: "At some point everyone over a certain level in a company has to decide if they are one of the workers or part of the management. If part of the management, then there are worse things one has to do than this".

The editor of the column, Lucy Kellaway, affects a wry realism. (Thus: don't sweat, workers never believe bosses' memos anyway). She opines: "You can't be a nice person and manage a successful business". The best you can hope for is "honourable".

When a manager wrote in about sacking a friend, she shrugged. "Friendships in companies do not work across levels. As a manager, you can't be friends with your underlings". (Which means that if you are in a steep managerial hierarchy, you can only be friends with the few people on exactly your level - with whom, however, you are in constant competition to get to the next higher level...)

Other managers who wrote in agreed, or suggested: "fire the least popular member of the group with the fewest contacts in the organisation".

The world of the rich may have gadgets and luxuries, but in human terms it is bleak and bloody.

Why does a Eton teenager feel he "never has any money"? To you and me, the rich just look rich, in the same way as the stars just look far away. But the "ordinary" rich in capitalist society see themselves way "below" others who are as much richer than them as they are richer than the ordinary person.

Economic inequality in capitalism is often explained away as a natural corollary of natural inequalities between people. But a person who is, for example, exceptionally good-looking, or exceptionally affable, does not constantly feel "below" others who excel him or her as much as he or she excels the average.

There is no rankling rat-race competition, no greed which expands with feeding, built in to the natural inequalities. There is with capitalist economic inequalities. Millionaires are reminded every day that they are "worth" just one-thousandth of one of the billionaires around them.

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