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Wilson Wong

It’s not the apple that’s rotten but the barrel: Why capitalism fails the test of stewardship

Authors: Wilson Wong Dr Wilson Wong

10 May 2012

This week I heard James Quilligan, economist and founder of the Global Commons Trust, launch his series of London seminars on the Emergence of A Commons-based Economy at Portcullis House. He put forth his argument that the sequestration of the planet’s resources by the few so that the majority are denied the means to their survival, livelihood and well-being is morally and economically corrupt. By considering only consumption, capitalism fails to address the flip-side, replenishment. He argues the solution is a system of governance that preserves, protects and uses the resources with a view to its enjoyment by our children and theirs – the Commons.

Also this week, at the London School of Economics, Adair Turner, Margaret Hodge MP, Jonathon Porritt, David Robinson and Dharmendra Khanani converged to speak on the irreparable harm posed to future generations of a system of economic governance based on the dogma of growth at all costs.

The evidence is there for all who choose to see – the overfishing, the Gulf of Mexico, the rapacious system of banking and finance, the repeated failure of the market to allocate resources to ensure fair access for all, growing poverty, starvation in the midst of an obesity pandemic – the list goes on ad infinitum. All these in pursuit of a narrow definition of wealth as GDP growth – a measure based on the calculated exclusion of priceless intangibles like health, happiness, community and stewardship.

As consumers we are too removed from the process of production to appreciate the impact we have when we treat everything as disposable and purchase every gizmo as fast as it rolls into shops. I have colluded with this system all my life. I’m even now shamelessly coveting the iPad 3 as I blog on my perfectly adequate 1½ year old laptop.  Apple doesn’t need me to add to its $100 billion in cash reserves.

As an economic psychologist studying the way time horizons frame decisions, I realise of course that it’s all about immediate gratification. Why take a long-view of my behaviour towards other people or the planet. After all, who can hold me to account?

After 9/11, Dubya exhorted the American people to go about their business: “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point…where people don’t shop.” So, by consuming, I am doing my patriotic duty. Hooray! Multiply that millions of times and you have consumer-driven capitalism; which by the way also means that millions more are disenfranchised from being consumer-citizens.

There is something bankrupt about a civilisation based on consumption and one that  reifies everything people need for continued survival - water, clean air, land, creativity, etc. - onto a spreadsheet while denying us health and well-being, human dignity, security and peace. The Quilligan trusteeship-stewardship model, by setting a cap on the extraction and use of resources in order to preserve these for future generations sounds by comparison - sensible.

I don’t expect the governing elite – the multinational corporations, the financiers, politicians and neoclassical economists – to agree. After all, they think market failure is the exception and the financial crisis is just a case of a few rotten apples. But I have on my side a formidable array of minds of those who know (e.g. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom) that the current system of capitalism is the road to certain hell. That barrel is rotten. If we are all going to have a future, it is time for everyone to recognise that a new form of economic governance is overdue.

The Work Foundation 2012 Annual Debate on 30 May is part of that journey. Deborah Meaden, Mark Littlewood, Umair Haque and Lucy Marcus will be discussing the price of and for business should they ignore the growing consensus that the present system of capitalism is broke.

Meanwhile, I am continuing my journey to discover just how rotten an apple I am by attending another Quilligan seminar, this time on economic stewardship. Feel free to join me.

Seneca, Stoic philosopher, Roman statesman, tutor of Emperor Nero, shared this caution 2000 years ago, “Wealth is the slave of a wise man. Master of a fool.”

In colluding with the status quo, what price the fool?


Comments in Chronological Order (Total 3 Comments)

Mercia Josephine

11 May 2012 4:58PM

Yes to the need to challenge unrestrained consumption by the few - that is something that I have held to since a teenager in 1983. What has changed since then is the greater number of successful non-Western economies (as opposed to Japan bucking the trend). So any change would need to avoid pulling up the capitalist drawbridge after the West has benefited from its unrestrained past.

Dr. Mihoshi Boosh

12 May 2012 4:44PM

Of course, the underlying plot to JQ’s Commoning initiative (what a nice verb) is that there must occur some sort of reverse mode of Primitive Accumulation. “The expropriators are expropriated” Marx says, and this is what shall be needed for a form of trusteeship to flourish as anything more than a comforting trinket or aspect of window dressing in a self satisfied, ‘moral’, capitalist economy. He will have to do a lot more than a PR campaign – complete with ‘converted’ ‘young people’ – to pull that one off! Nevertheless I am watching, albeit with an ironical smirk.
I liked playing with models as a kid; philosophers, politicians, economists and the like enjoy this more than any possible fetishisation involving Lego could have given to me in those bygone years. Is that a failure of my enthusiasm for order; a lack of blind love for censorious governance in my early years? Or – perhaps – I understood something far more profound in my youth (yes, I was a Socrates); that models are models, that a dream that they themselves will reify or appear (erscheint, back to Marx), as if awaiting birth in the world of forms, is greatly exaggerated. Systems, as abstracted as they are in the West, take on a peculiar form that involves cliff edges and anomalies; logic takes them captive. In short, everything appears as in external imposition; neo-conservatives often imagine a world where they live on an island where the state, as if a spectre of a beyond world appearing ex-nihilo, comes to steal their money - their existence in society seeming a sort of absurd and uncomfortable point to concede (based on a ‘contract’, yes the language of property and exchange runs right through their blood!). If there is to be some sort of common something-or-other a new model is merely a nice bit of child’s play, appearing mechanistic and imperialising. In this sense, it shall be Quilligan’s own Lego blocks – his constructions – that will take him hostage in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome scenario where he sits among ‘the four walls’ telling them how beautiful they are.

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