It depends on the meanings we attach to these two concepts.
Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s ex finance minister, is convinced that ‘Capitalism will eat democracy – unless we speak up.‘
Since he has some experience in this matter I’ll follow his line of thinking – for a while.
His point being that you can have successful capitalism in undemocratic societies – like Singapore and China – and that effective power has slowly shifted from the political sphere of the society to the economic one – which is undemocratic by definition.
Can’t say he’s entirely wrong, can we?
But we can say he’s somewhat confused…
So, he mentions Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore and China as capitalistic success stories and then says that the political sphere is gradually falling under the yoke of the economic one… Well, last time I looked, in China the state was still in full control of everything that moved and the state was firmly in the hands of the politicians. Same thing was happenning during Yew’s tenure as Singapore’s good willed dictator.
Unfortunately there is some truth in his words when we look at what’s going on on the both sides of the Atlantic and that’s why I’m going to examine whether we have the same kind of capitalism in both situations.
By Google-ing the word I got two definitions for the concept.
The first definition that was offered by the search engine came from Oxford Dictionaries, “An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state” and the second one came from Merriam Webster: capitalism is “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market“.
Putting them together we have private ownership, private decision, free market and profit as a goal.
Are these enough to describe a reasonably well functioning economic system?
I’m afraid not.
Let me give you some examples.
The French state has a controlling interest in Renault and the land of Bavaria quite a sizeable one in VW. Renault is in good shape and VW was too, until very recently. So private ownership is not an absolute necessity.
In the US we had quite an interesting situation. Two out of the three big car manufacturers had to be bailed out by the state. All three were privately owned so we must look somewhere else: the Ford family still has a powerful word in the management of the single one which didn’t had to be bailed out. In Europe the best run auto company seems to be BMW – again controlled by a single family, the Quandt’s. It seems that it helps a lot if those who call the shots have a long time interest in the well being of the company versus the situation in which the top management has (short time) profit as the single/obsessive target.
Coming back to Renault and VW, they can be compared to Singapore, China and, maybe, Spain. Singapore was able to develop a ‘capitalistic’ economy despite it being an authoritarian society simply because Lee Kuan Yew was a very special kind of ‘dictator’ – one that not only cared sincerely for the greater good of his people but also didn’t loose his head during his long stage at the helm. A similar thing happened in Spain – Franco was the sole dictator who had made preparations for a democratic evolution after his demise, while China had to wait for another good-willed dictator to grab the power – Deng Xiao Ping – before it could steer towards the present course. No other authoritarian regimes but these two have ever managed to replicate this feat – we still have to wait a little before pronouncing Vietnam as the third, and very few other publicly owned companies fare so good as Renault does.
So, we have rather strong evidence suggesting that ‘skin in the game‘ trumps blind insistence on short time profit and that a free, democratic, society offers greater chances for economic development than a authoritarian one. In fact the politicians that need periodic confirmation from the people they govern do have some skin in the game while the authoritarians are in a position that is somehow equivalent to that of the CEO’s of the huge corporations whose stock owners are so disspersed that practically don’t count much – the members of the board practically slap each-other on the back and are able to do practically what they want with the companies. Look what happened at GM, Chrysler and, for example, ENRON.
But how free should be that society in order for capitalism to thrive?
Could it be so free that a guy could come from the street and claim your house as being his own? No?
So we need a free but orderly society. One where private property changes hands only when its owner says so – or has previously entered into a contract which stipulates that in certain conditions that transfer has to take place.
Meaning that in order to have a functioning capitalist society we need not only private ownership but also private owners who have enough trust in each other to start making business together.
You see, the feudal lords of the Dark Ages did have a lot of private property but capitalism couldn’t take hold in earnest as long as the (absolute) monarch could strip a man of his property and give it to somebody else. They couldn’t enter into (longish time) contracts because the era was dominated by huge uncertainties regarding various aspects of the social and economic life.
In fact it is exactly this well tempered freedom that is the crux of functional capitalism. Enough freedom so that everybody could feel confident that he is his own master but tempered by rules enforced in a pwerfully enough manner to give everybody sufficient trust that most contracts will be executed faithfully.
In this sense for capitalism to work properly we need to have a market that is free in more dimensions that one.
It has to be free from political intrusion in the sense that the government should leave it alone as a rule of thumb but also that the same government should keep it free from becoming cornered by a single group of interests.
In fact there is no difference from a market that is run by a governmental agency or by a monopolistic corporation – no matter if the latter is private. As soon as decision making becomes concentrated in too few hands mistakes starts happening. And their effect accumulate until the system finally collapse. Or is dismantled by some ‘exasperated’ more powerful agency – as Standard Oil and ‘Ma Bell’ were dismantled by the US government. Which, by doing so, created the premises for the huge development of those two respective markets – oil and communications.
Only this freedom of the markets can seldom be preserved by an authoritarian regime. Yew’s Singapore and contemporary China are exceptions, not the rule. Most authoritarian regimes cannot resist temptation and start meddling in the economic life of their countries. By doing so, they introduce a lot of ‘noise’ into the system. Eventually, this noise drowns the useful signals and ‘blinds’ the decision makers.
Same thing happens – and here Varoufakis has a valid point – when economic agents become so powerful that they can dominate the policy makers. The politicians can no longer preserve a balanced stance towards the economy and give in to ‘special interests’. This way the markets loose their freedom, with all the malign consequences that come with this situation. Among them, the lack of trust that slowly creeps in the souls of those who have to do business in the no longer free markets. Which lack of trust is very bad for all those involved.
And another thing about which Varoufakis is absolutely right. A lot of money are not being moved through the ‘front doors’. Not that they are not invested at all but because they are kept somewhat hidden they do not contribute as much to the well being of the world economy as they could/should.
– 2.1 $ trillion have been accumulated, as of October 2015, in off shore accounts by the top 500 American companies in order to avoid taxes and
– Between $21 an $32 trillion have been hiding in 2012 in various offshore jurisdictions.
Why is that? Simply because those who are called to decide about these money do not ‘trust’ that by bringing these money home and by investing them there, after paying the taxes, will be able to generate profits equivalent to those produced by leaving them off shore?
So what should we do? Tell them ‘democratically’, by electing somebody who is crazy enough to implement such a measure, to bring them home? Or even confiscate them, one way or another?
I’m afraid that here I part again ways with Mr. Varoufakis. And with Aristotle: the way I see it democracy is not ‘the constitution in which the free and the poor, being in majority, control government‘. That would be ‘mob rule’.
A truly democratic process starts before the vote. When every stakeholder can make its point known to those who are going to cast a ballot so they’ll be able to do that having a reasonably clear understanding about what’s going on.
Frankly I’d rather rephrase Varoufakis’ message. ‘Corporatism has a tendency to disembowel democracy and transform it into ‘mob rule’ – the situation where the poor are no longer that free simply because they are convinced through ‘unholy’ methods to vote one way or another.
What can be done? Explain, loud and clear, that if jobs disappear the same thing will happen with the aggregate demand?
Explain that by giving their workers as little money as they can in reality the results are way worse than if the wages were as high as the companies could afford?
Ford didn’t give his workers more money because he loved them but simply because he had understood that in the long run he would be better off himself by doing this, you know!