“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.”
– The Dark Knight
“America isn’t a country. It’s a business. Now give me my money.”
– Killing Them Softly
Theoretically, capitalism isn’t the problem. Aristotle once argued that democracy was the “least among evils” as a political architecture (compared, for instance, to tyranny and oligarchy). Similarly, perhaps, capitalism…among economic architectures. It’s certainly more egalitarian than feudalism. No. Capitalism isn’t the problem. The way global capital is practiced today is a problem. Hey U.S. citizens, are you surprised that the world is turning evil? The legal mandate for corporations in the USA is that they maximize profit to shareholders. The army of American corporations is an army of money-robots with no morality except for the single virtue: maximize profit. We made it that way. It’s not just the norm. It’s in the legal fabric that is subject to our votes. If we want a better world, let’s change the laws that govern corporations, allowing them to be socially responsible. Then let’s motivate corporate social responsibility. After all, we’ve got centuries of traditions that sustain the legal fiction that corporations (of any size) are rational agents. What kind of rationality would you give to an army of robots with super-human economic strength? What future exists for a world ruled by ruthlessly greedy, giant robo-dinosaurs?
Suppose we win the race to the Singularity…and lose our very humanity in the process. Suppose we accomplish Strong AI in ways that would make this generation’s Einsteins blush. We map the physics of subatomic particles. We build warp drives. We travel the known universe in seconds. These accomplishments would be marvelous, breath-taking, ground-breaking, and awe-inspiring. Far better than pyramids. But what if the trade-off is a world that is heartless and inhumane? Is it worth it?
Yesterday, I saw a bum get arrested for sitting on a curb in the 99 Cent Store parking lot. Was his crime being poor? Smelly? Unsightly? Disturbing working class consumers trying to score some cheap coconut water and sunglasses?
Today, I got angry at a California Buddhist trying to tell me “you can’t take it with you.” Can I leave it to my kids? My community? Do the words “legacy” or “heritage” mean nothing? Don’t get me wrong. Buddhism is, overall, a peaceful belief-system. As a critique of Christianity, I used to say that “resurrection puts the Ego back into reincarnation.” The issue I had today with the California Buddhist was precisely that of Ego. Individualism. Buddhism grown individualistic. Here was a suboptimal display of Buddhism confronting private property. He says, “You can’t take it with you.” I ask, “Does that mean I can’t give back?”
Belief systems are social. Moral choices are social. Moral judgments are social. Indeed, language is social.
Aristotle talks about how we owe our parents an infinite debt. They gave us the infinitely valuable gift of life. What do we owe to our parents? What do we owe to the rainforest, the oceans, the earth? What do we owe to Homo Erectus, the first African story-tellers, the first Indian musicians, the first painters of caves, builders of cities, tamers of goats, planters of crops…Aristotle, Da Vinci, Bach, and the vast wealth of our global cultural heritage? What do we owe to the sun, the moon, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe? What do we owe to the love of our friends, our family, our community? All of these are the common heritage of humanity. All of these are infinite debts.
Infinite debts can’t be calculated. They can never be repaid. That doesn’t mean we can’t be accountable to them. Kant said, “Keep your promises.” Even financial ones? What if you fall on hard times? What if you’re a mega-bank? Sorry, Kant. Worse than promise-breakers are ingrates in the face of magnanimity. Use your judgment. Which is worse? A man who repays every penny of debt he ever borrows…but lacks gratitude for the infinite gifts at his fingertips (e.g. despises his parents, extorts usury on his borrowers, relentlessly harvests all common lands for personal profit)? Or on the other hand, a person who cannot always repay her debts but fosters constant gratitude for life among her peers: who creates, collaborates, and shares with her community? Keep your promises. Even more: be grateful.
Today’s global economy wants to privatize the global abundance that is our common legacy. And today’s global economy wants to make you in its image. Not only are you expected to believe in private property, you are supposed to be motivated by private property to the extreme. Coconut water and sunglasses. Employment ads. Patent trolls. Exxon. All of this is backward. Today’s ethos murders our common global heritage so that it might dissect it into private profits for a privileged few. Isolationist privatization breeds vicious social Darwinism. It’s not just corporations that need new incentive.
Fortunately, at least for networked individuals, it’s not all bad news. A shift is afoot. Clay Shirky outlines it in his book Cognitive Surplus. Projects and movements like Wikipedia, Wikileaks, the Open Source movement, the Pirate Party, Arab Spring, Occupy, and Makers of all sorts are emerging. The motives here are not for profit. Even Aristotle would laud creating and sharing and contributing freely out of our personal abundance as a noble and grateful response to the infinite gift we’ve been given.
Forces in the global economy systematically minimize the infinite gratitude that defines our humanity. These forces are its moral defect, its ugliness. Today’s practice of global economy is a bad habit. Let’s change it.
 Aristotle, Politics, III.11.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 8.14.