What would wholesome capitalism look like?
“Wholesome” means healthy, in the sense of something that promotes physical and moral well-being. Wholesome capitalism would take into account the wholeness of people and the social and natural world we live in, and it would enhance that wholeness.
Some people think capitalism already does this. They note how good it has been at generating wealth. The word wealth, meaning abundance, derives from roots meaning well-being and wholeness. Many of capitalism’s advocates feel it should be freed from constraints so it can generate more wealth.
Others note that capitalism – while generating wealth for some – many or few, depending on its form in a particular time and place – nevertheless generates much suffering and destruction in the process. It reduces everything to money and maximizes financial return even if it has to degrade and destroy human and natural life to do it. Many of capitalism’s critics feel it should be undermined or overthrown.
Still others note both the blessings and problems with capitalism. They think we can have the wealth without so much suffering and destruction. Most of these people promote freeing capitalism’s creativity and productivity while restraining its rapaciousness in various ways – using everything from laws, regulations and taxes to moral suasion and consumer-shareholder activism.
In this article I advocate all three positions – odd as that may sound – but only after reframing “capital” and “wealth” to better reflect wholeness.
THE PRIMARY DYNAMIC OF CAPITALISM
The special gift of capitalism is its ability to create MORE – more products and services, more self-organized economic activity, more wealth. In systems science, this tendency to create more-ness is called a positive or reinforcing feedback dynamic. If A creates more B – and B creates more A – then the ongoing interaction between A and B will generate more of both of them – more and more and more. We see this in escalating quarrels between parties who don’t really listen to each other, in screeching sound systems where microphones and speakers are too close together, and in intensifying concentrations of wealth where financial and political investments generate more money.
At the heart of capitalism is a reinforcing feedback loop involving wealth and capital. Basically, wealth and capital are the same thing playing two different roles: WEALTH is something you have or spend; CAPITAL is the same thing when you use it to create more wealth. For example, if you have financial WEALTH you can use it as financial CAPITAL – that is, you can invest your money in an enterprise that will make you more money (as interest or profit). So financial wealth is money you have, while financial capital is money that you are using to create more money. It’s all money, but in its role as “wealth” you HAVE it and you either spend it (to satisfy your needs and desires) or accumulate it (for power, status, or security). In its role as “capital” you INVEST it to make more money.
When hundreds or thousands or millions of people are pushing this dynamic with thousands or millions or billions of dollars, the reinforcing feedback loop generates what is known as economic GROWTH. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP), our overall measure of the amount of money being spent in the economy, goes up. If it goes up a lot, we call it a boom. If it goes down, we call it a recession. If it goes down a lot and stays down, we call it a depression.
The other statistic tracked closely by capitalist society is the stock market, which tells us what the “investment climate” is – that is, how interested are the holders of wealth in investing that wealth as capital to promote growth. The “health” of the economy is measured by the ability of capital to promote growth.
NOW WE ADD IN WHOLENESS
So this growth dynamic is all well and good if all we want is more money and we have an infinite planet to work with. This capitalist economic machine is really good at generating more money – and cranking out a lot of goods, services, suffering, and destruction in the process. Oddly, none of these except money are actually being measured by GDP. At the highest statistical level of economics it seems like goods, services, suffering and destruction are almost side effects of the big money-magnifying feedback loop.
But what if we want something more than just money? What if we want more happiness, more satisfaction, more health, more healthy environments, more beauty, more hope, more meaning, more connection – more quality of life?
When most social philosophers and revolutionaries ask that question, they conclude that if we want more of these non-monetary things than we need to get rid of capitalism.
But what if we changed the definitions of wealth and capital to embrace more of what we actually want. What would capitalism look like then? Could capitalism’s power to generate more-ness be harnessed to deeper, more wholesome human aspirations than mere money?
Let’s pursue those questions. Let’s add wholeness to capitalism and see what happens.
REDEFINING WEALTH AND CAPITAL
First, let’s take wealth. What if we defined WEALTH as all the resources that help us meet our needs and pursue our aspirations? Abundance would then mean having all of what we need to meet our needs and pursue our aspirations. Quite realistically speaking, we need a lot more than money to succeed at that. We need community, personal skills, freedom, opportunity, spirit, healthy food, fresh air, clean water, wisdom, and more.
If that is what wealth is, that means that CAPITAL includes those resources we can invest in (or devote to) the creation of more of what can help us meet our needs and pursue our aspirations. Capital then includes the community, wisdom, personal skills, freedom, opportunity, spirit, healthy food, fresh air, clean water, and everything else that we might use to generate MORE community, wisdom, personal skills, freedom, opportunity, spirit, healthy food, fresh air, clean water, and more.
This is not a totally fringe idea. The study of economics has been evolving in this direction for some time. I’m just pushing it to an extreme, as a provocative thought experiment.
Mainstream economists already acknowledge that there are forms of capital other than FINANCIAL CAPITAL (in the form of money, debt, financial instruments). For example, they often speak of INTELLECTUAL CAPITAL – knowledge, patents, artistic works, etc. – and manufactured or BUILT CAPITAL – all the machines and tools and factories and roads needed for economic activity.
Economists also talk about HUMAN CAPITAL – people’s skills, capacities and inclinations – especially in the workforce – often referred to as “human resources”.
Sociologists have recently added SOCIAL CAPITAL to the “forms of capital” inventory. Social capital includes the links within and between groups, organizations, and communities that provide the trust and interactivity that societies and economies need for health and growth.
Environmentalists have added another form of capital: NATURAL CAPITAL – the land, atmosphere, water, animals, plants, biodiversity, and “ecosystem services” (like purifying water and changing CO2 to oxygen) upon which we all depend – and which we use every day in our economic activities to satisfy our needs and pursue our aspirations.
We could easily flesh out, deepen and expand each of these forms of capital to embrace more of what we want, more of what constitutes true, wholesome wealth. The excitement of this new approach to capitalism is that we can ask, with each of these sources of well-being “Do we want more of this?” and, if our answer is “Yes!”, then we can tell ourselves and each other this strange new idea:
“Wholesome capitalism could give us that!”
EXPLORING FULL-SPECTRUM – “WHOLE” – CAPITAL
There are many forms of wealth we could re-conceive as wholesome capital. Here is an inventory that works for me, subject to additions and revisions, written from the perspective of an established wholesome capitalism.
NATURAL CAPITAL is fundamental, the ground upon which everything else is built, the most important target of our investment using all other kinds of capital. Natural capital constitutes wealth not only in its physical support of human life, but in its fruitfulness of beauty, meaning, inspirational pattern, spirit, wildness, and virtually everything else we think of as Life. There is a very real sense in which all other forms of capital and wealth are manifestations of this most basic living reality. Creating more of this kind of natural capital is a boon to all life, including the many potential future generations of human life. Wholesome capitalism provides the means to create that.
CULTURAL CAPITAL includes all the arts, ideas, technologies, languages, games, practices, healthy systems and institutions, customs, values, standards and ethical codes, symbols and narratives of a people – achievements and patterns of life that generate success in living, engagement in community (social capital) and enjoyment. We naturally want more of this kind of cultural wealth. (Note that cultural capital re-conceptualizes “intellectual capital” in a way that doesn’t preclude private ownership, but transcends and contextualizes such proprietorship within a more wholesome framework – “the commons” – which surrounds and contextualizes all forms of wealth and capital, especially natural and cultural.)
HUMAN CAPITAL includes all our individual human capacities and gifts – labor, intelligence, health, curiosity, creativity, talent, integrity, diversity, experience, passion, compassion, strength, spirit, humor, wisdom, expressiveness, and so much more. Everything that makes us human – and everything that has been studied in the “human potential” movement – is something we can use (as human wealth) to satisfy needs and pursue aspirations or invest (as human capital) to generate more of itself or other forms of wholesome wealth and capital. We all seek to create more of that, for ourselves, for each other, and for our whole society.
SOCIAL CAPITAL expands to embrace all aspects of our social lives that enhance our interconnection, our “social fabric”. This includes reputation and trust, respect, familiarity, celebration, networking websites, love, empathy, peace, mutual aid, co-creative collaborations, public parks and gathering spaces, conversation, solidarity, recreation, transpartisan and interfaith activities, patterns of interaction and expectation, etc. In a very real sense, each one of these is a form of capital in its own right. For example, reputational capital is used (invested) – especially in a gift economy – to get almost anything we need or want or to make more of itself or other forms of capital. Same for conversational capital and co-creative capital. If we have them or spend them, they are wealth. If we invest them to make more, they are capital. Naturally, we want as much of these things as we can have and create!
BUILT CAPITAL is very similar in the new capitalism to how it was viewed in the old capitalism, with the additional factor that what is built is built to last and/or to be readily re-usable or recyclable (in whole or part) when it no longer serves its user. Once we expand the ideas of capital and wealth to embrace the whole, the natural principle of “waste equals food” enters the picture. Anything created should, when it is no longer functional in its current form, be readily usable as a resource (“food”) that serves other existing or emerging functions. Manufactured items have appropriate longevity and recycling built into them, so that as wealth they persist in their service and as capital they truly serve the growth of whatever comes next. Garbage and toxics – waste as useless or harmful material – is properly seen as a very inefficient use of precious capital, and the new capitalist system is designed to eradicate it and/or to build something else useful out of any garbage and toxics that exist. We want lots and lots of sustainable material wealth.
FINANCIAL CAPITAL is recognized as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Money is a symbol of value, a quantifying tool for the exchange of value when we are exchanging different things; it is not valuable in and of itself. More than any other form of capital, its accumulation is seen as dangerous to the extent it is not clearly channeled into the enhancement of other forms of wealth. Its fluidity – its ability to purchase any other form of wealth – is both its blessing and its curse. It is an extreme and volatile form of power which, like fire and electricity and atomic energy, requires good management to prevent the damages that it naturally imposes in its wilder manifestations. So our wholesome capitalism impedes and taxes speculative financial investments like hedge funds that are not directly linked to funding productive activities. Furthermore, wholesome capitalism honors forms of exchange like local currencies that build social capital – we want as much of that as we can get – while using national, regional and international currencies primarily to fund transactions with more anonymous trading partners.
WHOLESOME EFFICIENCY AND “WASTE”
In the section above on “built capital” we noted that throwaway consumerism is not just “waste” but is also economically inefficient, reducing our return on investment – especially in a wholesome capitalist economic system. I find it fascinating to apply this perspective on waste and efficiency to the other forms of capital as well. For example, wholesome capitalism would not want to waste human passion, nor the wealth of empathy and art, nor the functionality of natural systems. Wasting or toxifying any of these would be the antithesis of profit. In wholesome capitalist system, profit (which would include ALL forms of wealth) would fall to those who learned how to tap into any of this waste, to rechannel it towards productive uses, to invest it in enhancing all other forms of capital and wealth.
Through this lens, then, competition, war, and colonization would be seen as forms of social investment that involved tremendous waste. True, the great wars and colonial eras saw tremendous interactivity and interchange across cultures, while destroying whole aspects of some of those cultures – and sometimes whole cultures – in the process. It generated wars between oppressive nations and civil wars between oppressors and oppressed. All this constituted colossal waste – whereas any such cultural capital gains could have been achieved with far less waste (i.e., more peacefully) which, in wholesome capitalistic terms would add up to “efficiency” – producing more with less investment and waste.
Through this lens, Gandhi could be seen as a social entrepreneur, a social investor, someone who took the tremendous toxic waste of oppression and recycled it as an investment of human and social capital through nonviolence. As an investor he was not after money but after a return on his investment of humanity in humanity, enhancing human and social capital using human and social capital. Although his enterprise was under-capitalized – i.e., there was insufficient investment from other social investors to succeed in the kind of growth of human and social potential he was seeking – the cultural capital he created – nonviolence – was repeatedly invested by others in their subsequent social entrepreneurial enterprises aimed at salvaging and reinvesting the wasted social and human capital of oppression in other times and places.
Ultimately, the proactive investment of social capital in the form of dialogue, diplomacy, negotiation, respect, empathy, generosity and co-creativity can produce forms of social wealth that involve far less waste than war and d
omination. They are, from the standpoint of wholesome capitalism, more efficient, more productive, and provide better return on investment. They are totally comparable to the use of renewable energy and wise design in the manufacture of material goods to increase profits by reducing waste.
INTEREST – AND WHAT WE WANT
All of this suggests that a wholesome capitalist perspective might offer new ways to think about interest. What an interesting word! It comes from Latin for “it is important”. What engages our attention and life energy is interesting. What engages our investment is the share we gain in the enterprise of “making more” through some activity – i.e., the interest on our investment. Interest is intimately tied to what we want more of or more from.
So: What are we interested in? What are we willing to invest our life energy in? What do we want more of?
This article gives us a hint of a new direction, woven out of the ideology of the old system of capitalism which is now reaching its limits. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I find this a particularly intriguing question: How can we expand our economic worldview beyond money to enlighten the potent dynamics of capitalism into greater wholesomeness so it can give us more of what we really want – not just more goods, services, suffering, and destruction?
Blessings on the Journey.