Notes From Babel

The Virtue of Capitalism

with 2 comments

Most people don’t want the world to move as fast as it does, I think. But we have forgotten how to see things any other way. We go to work for people and corporations whose success depends on moving ahead at a lightning pace. These people and corporations become the ideal of humanity. It no longer matters that they don’t give us what we really want, were we to ever remember–modest comforts, earnest employment, and time for family and reflection. Instead, they make greater and greater demands to extract for themselves wealth, recognition, and appeasement of the peculiar desire to give body and soul over to career. Over time, we start to take these qualities as the new ideals of a prosperous society, and wonder how to replace our ideas of earnestness and balance with the total subordination of man and nature to an unnatural competitive will. This unmitigated virtue of capitalism starves all of the other human virtues.


Written by Tim Kowal

January 27, 2009 at 6:39 am

2 Responses

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  1. I don’t agree with the idea that a competitive will is unnatural. In fact it would seem to be the most natural element, especially looking at the way nature’s creatures behave. Animals battle for food, plants battle for light and water, and humans battle to subdue them.
    I would argue that it was capitalism itself that brought about the ability to even have modest comforts and time for family and reflection. The industrial age brought about a transformation from labor working harder to machines working harder. I don’t suppose we have the luxury of supposing that subsistence farming allowed idle time to while away the day with friends and family.
    All that to say I do agree that our materialism has driven many (though not all) people to give their lives over to career. It would be good for those of us that applies to, to take your words to heart and refocus our energies.


    January 30, 2009 at 4:20 pm

  2. This was written in one of my Rousseau inspired moments, although I did not mean to suggest that capitalism itself is unnatural. As you noted, it is one of the most natural components of all living things, and perfected in mankind. My trouble is with the unmitigated nature of competition. As you correctly pointed out, subsistence farmers are a poor example of the “balance” we strive for today–their competition was with nature itself. By the 19th and 20th centuries, western civilization and its competitive and innovative spirit transcended the need for subsistence into the desire for more pleasure and comfort. By the late 20th century and into the present, however, we have transcended even that. So, just what is it that we are striving for now? What does the competitive will drive at now?

    Thus, I suppose the problem has to do with the teleology of competition, the problem of purpose. Competition has always been a means to some end. Ironically, now that all those ends have been served, we do not esteem competition less but more. It seems a great oddity to me, as it did to Rousseau. The more we become free, the tighter the chains become.

    Note, however, that I certainly do not mean to invite politicians to solve this puzzle, even were it solvable.

    Tim Kowal

    January 30, 2009 at 4:47 pm

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