Friday, June 18, 2010


In my Summer 2010, "International Political Economy" class, Mable wrote:
"People who express anti-globalization views would ask—how does minimizing economic insecurity change capitalism?"
This question is central to the debate between economic and political human rights. Originally, the UN Declaration of Human Rights was enacted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and it mentioned both sets of rights. Political rights protect the freedom of assembly, speech and freedom from torture, arbitrary detention and other oppressive actions by the state. Economic rights are states’ obligation to feed, shelter and provide medical care:
Article 25: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."
These entitlements are paid through taxes, which means that the wealthier segments of society shift their wealth to the poorer sections of society. This idea undermines the 'free market' philosophy of capitalism. The US only partially accepts health and welfare obligations. Therefore, the UNDHR was split into 2 Covenants: the Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Only the US and three other countries have not ratified the latter.
The US arguments for the non-ratification of the Covenant on E, S and C rights are as follows:
• A massive shift of wealth subsidizing one section of the society by another, undermines the principles of a free market.
• If a section of a society is allowed to enrich itself, the wealth will ‘trickle down’ naturally to subordinate sectors, thus enriching everyone.
• The states that have fulfilled, or tried to, economic rights were command economies that were repressive and anti capitalist (ie, the USSR).
• Today, economic rights are considered by the US to be ‘aspirational ‘(lex ferenda -- what the law should be). Political rights are considered by the US as more rooted in the world that actually exists (lex lata: the law that exists). Therefore most states are out of compliance with the Covenant on E,S and C rights, according to the US, and it makes no sense to ratify. Inclusion of economic rights has led the US not to ratify Covenants on the rights of women and the child.

Critics argue that low-taxed inheritances, tax breaks for the wealthy, and other policies that privilege the rich, are subsidies for the rich or ‘corporate welfare’ which also undermine the principle of the free market. The accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few has failed to trickle down to the rest of us.

Travis wrote:
"Capitalism is simply an idea about how certain human endeavors and behaviors should be conducted." This statement points to the social construction of capitalism in a specific historical and geographical context.
What is that idea? How do we define capitalism?
Adding an ‘ism’ to the word ‘capital’, indicates a movement or organization (as in Buddhism).
The definition of capitalism from the Financial Dictionary:

"An economic system based on a free market, open competition, profit motive and private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism encourages private investment and business, compared to a government-controlled economy. Investors in these private companies (i.e. shareholders) also own the firms and are known as capitalists."

In fact, no state has a completely free market. Corruption, no-bid contracts, subsidies for the wealthy, trade protection (e.g, the US protects certain types of textiles, also steel) exist most places. So, we could say that the Financial Dictionary's definition of capitalism is ‘aspirational’…the way capitalism should be.

Personally, I like short definitions. I define capitalism as ‘the pursuit of capital’, i.e. profit. Today, the US is a debtor nation running at a loss ($13 trillion debt, see Can it be said to be capitalist any more, since INCOME PLUS ASSETS MINUS LIABILITIES=NEGATIVE CAPITAL OR DEBT?

Joseph wrote
'statements assume that human nature is a fixed variable,'
It’s interesting how much political economic theory rests on definitions of human nature in European and N American philosophy. The rise of capitalism happened at the same time that definitions of human nature were being turned on their head. The God-centered, earth-centric and stable universe of feudalism defined humans as each having an immutable, divinely ordered function. You were either a king or a serf, knight or a priest or merchant. Women were subordinated to men. With the collapse of feudalism and the rise of the mercantile class, came the discovery that the universe was a much more chaotic place: the rise of the solar centric view. Essentially, humans began to be viewed from the 17th century on, as a mass of atoms with no spiritual purpose, a state of nature in which each possesses a selfish instinct for survival which engenders competition and conflict. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, popularized this view by advocating a strong ruler that could bring order to chaos (The Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, 1651).
The idea that humans are irredeemably and naturally competitive, greedy and aggressive, and that these are overriding factors, is now disputed. Anthropologists for example point out that for millions of years of human existence before the rise of ‘civilization’ 5000 years ago, hunter-gatherer societies led cooperative and peaceful lives. This, anthropologists claim, is the reason why humans have survived as a species. It is thought that the threats to survival today (nuclear, environmental degradation etc) are the result of the competitive view of human nature, which emphasizes hyper-masculine traits, territoriality and resource wars as norms. Authors such as the scientist Fritjof Capra (The Turning Point, 1991), believe that humans are moving towards another evolutionary phase, which is more cooperative, woman-centered and ecologically conscious.

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