Forbes is a magazine and website whose purpose is described in its motto, “The Capitalist Tool.” The purpose of this particular tool is to allow rich people to win any battle with their conscience. Forbes puts out a steady stream of articles whose audience is the rich, whose purpose is to arm them with the arguments that explain why it’s OK to have more wealth than you could possibly earn or use in your lifetime.
It’s no surprise that such a magazine exists. That’s the magic of capitalism; if a small number of very rich people want a balm for their conscience, then they’ll get a Forbes. If a large number of people – let’s say 29,000 children every single day – want not to die of hunger or preventable diseases, but they have no money, well then the market isn’t interested.
The latest example is an article by Wendy Milling entitled “Without Question, Capitalism is Supremely Moral” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/03/21/without-question-capitalism-is-surpremely-moral/). It is notable for its naivety on the one hand and its viciousness on the other, which are very closely related.
“Being born in unfortunate circumstances does not prevent a person from becoming successful. It just doesn’t. […] Upward mobility is a reality that is easily observed in the countless rags-to-riches stories that dot Americana. People have risen from the slums to become wealthy.”
Yes, “people” have risen from the slums to become wealthy. “People” have also been born with eight limbs. “People” have become Olympic Gold medallists. “People” have become serial killers. “People” can fly over the city of Rome in a helicopter and then sit down with a piece of paper and draw every detail of the city flawlessly from memory. Go onto Youtube any day and find yourself a hundred examples of things “people” have done. What Milling actually means is that a statistically insignificant minority of “people” from the slums get rich.
The vast majority of people born into slums have not become wealthy. Even the vast majority of people born into middle-class communities have not become wealthy. The vast majority of people born into wealthy families, however, have money, opportunity, support and contacts to develop their talents, and they stay rich.
Imagine me walking for days into the middle of a steaming equatorial jungle, then setting yellow tape around a five-foot square piece of clear grass and saying, “Look at my five-foot square piece of grass, this proves that we are not in a heavily wooded area!” That’s a precise analogy for Milling’s argument.
We also need to take issue with her talking about people “born in unfortunate circumstances.” The majority of our species are “born in unfortunate circumstances”! Half of us earn less than two dollars a day. And most of the remainder are unemployed or in jobs that won’t set the world on fire pay-wise. Capitalism doesn’t just fuck over a small number of people “in unfortunate circumstances” who we have to look after. “Unfortunate circumstances” are nothing less than the conditions of real life. The wealthy are removed from the conditions of real life, which is why they swallow garbage like this article.
Directly following the passage we just quoted comes:
“The only true impairment is a lack of motivation, and that is not the responsibility of an economic system, or government, to fix.”
Now in refuting this argument I’m not going to push it to ridiculous extremes. It goes pretty far in that direction without any help from me. The only impairment to success is lack of motivation. Just think about that. So when the recession hit Ireland and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs it must have been due to… Hundreds of thousands of people suddenly losing their motivation! This is not a caricature, it is the logical implication of what she says.
Of course I’m talking about people as workers – but you’ll forgive me because that’s what the majority of people are. Maybe what Milling is talking about is success in business rather than success in finding and holding down a job, which is enough of a challenge for most of us.
At least at school they told us if you wanted to set up a business you needed “land, labour and capital” as well as some cloudy, undefined thing called “enterprise”, which I believe is a personal quality close enough to “motivation.” Forbes has printed an article which insists that the only reason why everyone in the world is not a successful businessperson is because the vast majority of us are lazy.
What about the factors that already motivate people to desire to get rich? What about hunger, misery, poverty, Christmas, advertising, a popular culture that presents average people as losers, drudgery of work, children, pressure from family and partners… It’s very difficult to imagine anyone lacking the motivation to be “successful”, ie, to have money.
There are people who are utterly demoralised by generations of poverty and unemployment; there are a small layer of people who work comfortable jobs for comfortable pay, who have no desire to change anything. These are the closest thing that exists to what Milling imagines is a chronic condition afflicting the vast majority of our species who have not “succeeded.”
In an article that focuses on a “moral argument” for Capitalism, it’s interesting how horrible and anti-human most of Milling’s ideas are. For a start, if everyone has an equal shot at getting rich, what does that say about those of us who aren’t? That is, at least 95% of the human race?
As Forbes itself points out, most of the world’s billionaires are from the USA. Most of those are white. Now let’s, just for a second, look at the world through Milling’s eyes and just ignore slavery, sexism, all power relations, thousands of years of human history and capital accumulation, the massive differences in opportunity between the rich and the rest and between one country and another, the vastly different economies and societies that exist in the world, and the exploitative relationship between worker and capitalist. Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Milling’s world view can’t explain why white males remain the richest people in the world. If capitalism provides equal opportunities for everyone and the only variable is motivation, then white people must be more motivated than everyone else. Men must be more motivated than everyone else. Milling should write for Stormfront, not Forbes.
As always throughout history, one group of people being more powerful than another forces the powerful group to come up with “moral” reasons why this should be the case. European domination of the world in the 19th century gave birth to pseudo-“scientific” racism. Likewise the spectacular monopoly of wealth in the hands of the 1% leads to a theory of “enterprise” and “motivation” that is evil in its own right, as well as logically shading into racism.
“The moral obligation of government is to provide equality under the law.”
This paradoxically means that the government has to apply vicious moral double-standards. How can you treat two people as legally equal when one has very little money and another has many times more than they need? If one has a relatively easy life and the other has a frustrating, bitter, difficult life? If a millionaire mugs someone it’s obviously a different story than if someone whose parents have been unemployed for thirty years mugs someone.
A capitalist, who by definition owns a lot of money, is socially a different species from a worker, who has to rent out their body in order to get money. “Equality under the law” is like a racing track, on which one contestant gets a racing car and the other nine get only their own two feet. But it’s OK, because they all have to race an equal distance.
No, Capitalism is not “Supremely Moral” but if Milling is anything to go by it is Supremely Moralistic. In trying to outline a moral vision that justifies capitalism, of course Milling ends up doing the opposite and just showing how cruel and wrong the system is. Justifying capitalism demands a worship of power, a worship of the accomplished fact, a removal of all things from context. It demands a hatred of the weak.
It’s similar to medieval Europe, when the priests and monks preached to the peasants that the wealth of the nobles was justified because the job of the nobles was to protect them… from other nobles. Or under Hinduism, in which anyone who’s rich or powerful must have been unbelievably good in a previous life. Well, at least they had a bit of imagination. Not like today’s priests of Capital, Forbes, who just come out with a mix of the naive and the nasty.