Occupy London:

9th November 2011

I recently passed the occupation site in Finsbury Square.  There were slogans "capitalism isn't working".

And I wondered, as I tend to, about what the words mean, writes Kim Stephenson.

How is capitalism defined?  Is it Marxist, replete with the sweat of the workers' brows and downtrodden masses?  I suspect that would imply that property is theft, so the tents are all stolen.

Seriously, presumably it means that actually we want to get away from a big division between rich and poor and want more of "from each according to her or his ability, to each according to his or her needs."

Honestly, I'd be in favour of having everybody with what they need and doing what they can.  It would be lovely, in theory.  But it never seems to have worked terribly well in practice.  For example, Marx talked about the proletariat owning the means of production.  I have the feeling that in theory (there it is, theory again) we own some of the banks.  It doesn't seem to have done us much good in practice.

The problem is, people didn't evolve to be good at working hard and giving all they can, and expecting only what they need.  They evolved to be a suspicious of other people getting more than they are entitled to, and slacking.  There's even a term for it- it's called "social loafing".  For example if you get a tug-of-war team and measure the power of the individual pulls, the team pull is almost invariably less than the sum of the parts.  Add in a bit of perfectly human xenophobia, like a lot of the rhetoric about Greece, Ireland etc. over the last few weeks, and you have a recipe for system breakdown.  And you are going to get precious little "from each according to their ability and to each according to their need", while you'll get plenty of "grab what you can and hang on to it".  That's people for you.

On the other hand, if we accept that capitalism probably works as well or better than any other system (anarchy, communism, Marxism, dictatorship etc.), but isn't working particularly well and we might be able to improve it, I'd probably buy into that one.

But it still leaves open the question of exactly what we mean by capitalism and which bits we want to keep and which we get rid of (if, indeed we don't have to take it "all or nothing").

Which gets to the complaints that "they're protesting, but they don't have any better ideas".  Probably, they do.  The trouble is we're saying "the protesters" as if they are a one person, with a single goal and (in my terms) a single definition of capitalism.

What we've probably got is 1,000 people or whatever, with at least 1,000 objectives, and rather more than 2,000 versions of which bit of capitalism they want to change.

We've then got several thousand people interpreting capitalism in their own way (as I've done for myself) and agreeing in part with some of the views expressed, agreeing totally with the concept that we want a fairer society, and disagreeing totally with some other aspects of their own interpretation of the mixed messages their getting.

What to do?

Read more…

More from Mindful Money:

Capitalism in crisis: Time to turn to new ideologies?

Occupy London Stock Exchange: Dissent and adapt

Big Society: The wisdom of crowds

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