Capitalist Disease

Laski’s dissection of  the ills of capitalism in 1932 remains valid to the letter today, despite the complete change in the nature of its formal adversaries.

The problems created by debts and reparations, the control of imports and migration in the interest of the several states, the new levels of taxation rendered necessary by the demands of social legislation, the refusal of the Far East any longer to accept the domination of Western Europe and America, all implied the futility of believing that the old laissez-faire was compatible with the attainment of social good. It had become clear to every careful observer that it was necessary either deliberately to plan the post-war civilization or to perish….

the [WM: capitalist] idol had feet of clay. The price to be paid for their accomplishment was a heavy one. The distribution of the rewards was incapable of justification in terms of moral principle. The state was driven increasingly to intervene to mitigate the inequalities to which capitalism gave rise. Vast and costly schemes of social legislation, militant trade unionism, a nationalism of pathological proportions, imperialist exploitation with its consequential awakening of nationalism among the peoples exploited,[iii] were all inherently involved in the technique of a capitalist civilization. Nationalism meant imperialism; imperialism meant war; in the struggle for markets there was involved an inescapable threat to the security of the whole structure….

the essence of a capitalist society is its division into a small number of rich men and a great mass of poor men….the existence of a wealthy class which lives without the performance of any socially useful function….it is inherent in such a society that there should be no proportion between effort and reward….There arises an insistent demand for economic and social equality….

…the experience of this generation leads most socially conscious observers to doubt the desirability of relying upon the money motive in individuals automatically to produce a well-ordered community….No governing class in the history of the world has consciously and deliberately sacrificed its authority….

Capitalist society…has to find some way of removing from the clash of competing imperialisms those structures of armed power which, clothed in the garb of national sovereignty, make certain the perpetual threat of insecurity and, born of it, the advent of war….

The principles which govern capitalist society are, in fact, completely obsolete before the new conditions it confronts; and it seems to lack the energy to bend itself to their revision. It needs a new scheme of motivation, a different sense of values. It needs the power and the will to move from the era of economic chaos to a system which deliberately controls economic forces in the interests of justice and stability. To do so there are required far more pervasive international controls, on the external side, and far greater equality in matters of social constitution, on the internal. To find equilibrium by the blind adjustment of competing interests is simply to court disaster. Yet, generally speaking, the men who govern the old world can think in no other terms….

[WM: Reformers of capitalism such as Keynes] underestimate the inertia of the existing order, the irrationality with which men will cling to vested interests and established expectations even when their title to response is no longer valid. Given something like a geological time, such rationalism might prevail against the passions which stand in its path. The tragedy of our present position is that the voice of the Mean is unlikely to win attention until humanity has been sacrificed to the call of the Extreme. [Harold Laski, “The Position and Prospects of Communism,” Foreign; thanks to Foreign Policy for reprinting selections from this article in the Jan-Feb 2012 issue; apologies to readers who will have to create one more irritating on-line account in order to see the source in Foreign Policy‘s files.]


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