The separative qualities of capitalism and the dynamics of social evolution

The separation of the products we consume from the people who produce them; the separation of financial speculators from the products and people affected by their activity. These phenomena, while a function of the market and contributing to productive efficiency, create problems for many. They can be seen as the outcomes of an increasingly complex society, set in my view on a path towards rising globalisation and integration, and further complexity.

These separative qualities are probably a necessity of a society which is, as already mentioned, increasingly complex. Society is evolving faster than the individual human organism. Nevertheless (some) individuals are being driven to achieve their full potential by the forces arising from capitalism. This is all to the good, although these trends have not been examined from the point of view of human welfare and happiness. The forces unleashed by capitalism are driving some kind of evolution for the sake of itself.

The complexity of society then, reflected in these probably rising separative qualities, paradoxically involves many individuals in an increasing alienation from each other, from neighbours in big cities for example, even as they are integrated into a more global society. Where incomes inequality is rising, those at the top of the earnings scale become more and more divorced from those at the bottom, from those outside their gated communities or private clubs. Global production supply chains, whereby goods consumed in one country are part-manufactured in many others, with inputs of natural resources, labour and capital from all corners of the world are another part of this rising complexity.

These trends mean that human and natural resource exploitation can be hidden from the final consumption of goods and services. Of course, the hidden qualities of the production process can be revealed to the consumer and, once aware, he or she can take action to change and improve labour conditions and prevent environmental problems that may have been occurring. This kind of campaigning for forms of corporate social responsibility can be difficult and may involve contradictory processes. Raising the rate of growth of economic and social development may be required for labour conditions to improve, but protecting the environment may require a slower rate of development. The latter may involve internalising environmental externalities and companies realising more fully the costs of their activities.

‘Development’ then may necessitate increasing social complexity, even while the progress of individuals remains negligable biologically. Social transformation can revolutionise the behaviour of individuals, just as the behaviour of individuals can in turn transform society. These two views of progress are usually associated with the ‘left‘ and the ‘right‘ respectively. They remain models of society, simplifications of ‘reality’. I would argue that they are more fruitful when combined in dynamic fashion, moving us beyond simple political affiliations.


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