Why it’s so important to be able to respectfully agree to disagree with each other, eg when discussing “capitalism”
A recent social media post from someone I’ve known for many years has made me think about this (not for the first time).
The post was encapsulated in the question: “If you agree that the system needs to be replaced, does that make you ‘anti-capitalist’?”
I think many people agree that the current human systems, at planetary scale, are unsustainable, ie they don’t ‘fit’ within a finite planet and biosphere, resulting in environmental degradation (eg what I might call “drawdown of natural capital”) and risk triggering one or more tipping points into a very hostile environment in which humans are unlikely to flourish in great numbers. I think there’s a strong case that some aspects of “capitalism”, as currently deployed in most of the world not under authoritarian rule, have significantly contributed to this sad state of affairs.
As well as the fundamental sustainability challenge, there is also the social justice challenge. As an example of how these two issues might inter-relate, or could instead be independent variables, it could be feasible to replace an unsustainable global system with a sustainable one, but one in which the massive imbalances in wealth and power remain in place. (think of the 20th century movie “Logan’s Run” for a simple example of such a dystopian future).
On the other hand, when considering wholesale systemic change, there is a risk of societal destabilisation, collapse and chaos during transitions. Would the cure be worse than the disease?
We are caught between the need to seek out a liveable future for countless future generations and the need to be aware of the dangers existing in times of dramatic change. How radical can changes be, even if in the interests of transitioning to a just and sustainable future, before the disruption of change causes more damage than was wreaked by the system it changes or replaces?
Another simple example is the English Civil War.
I’m not a historian, but the following is a precis of what I remember being taught and my interpretation of its relevance to the current discussion about systemic change.
At the end of the English Civil War between the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell, and the Royalists, led by King Charles 1st, Oliver Cromwell deposed the King, removed his authority to govern and gave it to Parliament. This was replacing one system of government with another. The King was executed at the behest of Parliament, acting on behalf of the people. (As an aside, was it truly the people’s will they were carrying out?).
Just a few years later, there was a popular call to crown Cromwell as King. “The people” were not happy with the way Parliament was running the country, and something had to change again. The irony was that Cromwell believed that it was fundamentally wrong to allow someone to have ultimate power as a birthright that would be handed on in succession by blood line, not by democratic elections or by any qualification of competency, let alone expertise in matters of governance. Cromwell declined the opportunity to become King (for that very reason, we were told), but eventually a new monarch was appointed by the people’s representatives, ushering in the basic elements of the system we still have today in the UK – a constitutional Monarchy in which the sitting monarch has ultimate power but never actually wields it, deferring to the authority of Parliament to rule on behalf of the people. That was an uneasy truce that has lasted for centuries, in a system that has essentially not been finally resolved one way or the other.
Were the people just being “fickle” in returning to a monarchy, or is there an important message to us about not pushing radical changes too far, too quickly when it comes to what might be termed “mass consciousness” of the people being led/governed?
With the passage of time since the Civil War being so great, we will probably never know with confidence whether Cromwell was the victim of his own radicalism (being “too far ahead of its time”) whether the royalists he deposed fought an effective public relations counter-revolution which ultimately deposed him in turn and re-established the English monarchy, or whether the people were, in fact, the ultimate force in exerting their will and establishing a new order of governance, without undue manipulation by powerful interests or individuals.
The examples I use might seem archaic, but there is a long history of both fictional writings about societal changes and an even longer history of actual societal changes which either went well or went badly. These reflect the human experience that fundamental changes don’t always go the way those who initiate them hope or expect they will.
So, when it comes to assessing the benefits and disbenefits of “capitalism” in the context of holistic systems thinking and contemplating potential changes, one important factor is the extent to which proposed changes are likely to be accepted by “the people”.
One suggestion at the more radical end of the spectrum is “replace capitalism with something else”. One that is less radical is “change the monetary and measurement systems and the definitions of capital that are measured but leave market mechanisms of capital accumulation and maintenance in place, regulated as necessary to achieve sustainability and social justice”. The latter is hardly a succinct marketing tag line, but a “middle road” is not often a simple one to communicate. It’s often much easier to create a simple but flawed banner headline for a movement, rather than express a feasible but complex future vision which has “emergent” properties.
What is important is to learn some very important lessons from history. If change is too radical for “the people” to accept, there will be resistance, and potentially backlash.
Whatever the future brings in the way of change, we need to recognise the importance of being able to discuss ideas frankly but also respectfully with each other – “jaw-jaw not war-war” – and this often means being prepared to “agree to disagree” without such disagreements spilling over into hostility. We should resist the temptation to continue arguments which are too entrenched and heated and in which it has become obvious that neither side is going to persuade the other to change their views. A pause is often all that is required in order for all parties to reflect, consider others’ views and (sometimes) modify their own positions.
The nature of the dialogue before reaching that point is of importance, of course, in order for various perspectives to be explored and understood better by all participants and audiences. In some ways, the quality of that discourse is more important than the fact it is is ended or paused.
I’ve engaged in numerous such discussions online on various platforms in recent years, with many different types of people, on topics I’m both highly knowledgeable and passionate about. Most people have come across as genuine and courteous, including the poster of the question at the start of this article.
Although not the most important element of this topic, I cannot conclude without mentioning one unsavoury aspect. Online trolls have been the bane of my life at times. I believe in freedom of speech, but there have been times when I’ve needed to block such trolls, mindful of not only my own wellbeing but also that of my networks and others witnessing the relevant exchanges in public online spaces.
In contrast to my experience with trolls, I’m very happy to engage with genuine people with differences of opinion when expressed in a civil manner. In fact, it's a pleasure to do so and I’ve learned much in the process that I wouldn’t otherwise have even thought about.
Regarding the topic of replacing or modifying “capitalism”, I talk about this extensively in my 2021 book “Unbalanced World – the asset stewardship shortfall” from which the following is an excerpt:
“It has been particularly evident from the responses to the worldwide economic circumstances surrounding the 2008 global financial system crisis, and again in the responses to the global covid-19 pandemic, that there is a strong and vociferous movement for the overthrow and replacement of the currently dominant model of capitalism. [A typical example [is] the Green New Deal (“GND”) movement]. Opinions differ, even among GND advocates, about whether, in order to create a sustainable and just future, it will be necessary to completely dismantle and replace the capitalist system (and, as a pre-requisite of this, break the suggested stranglehold maintained by the richest 1% of the global population), or whether it will be sufficient merely to reform capitalism in some way. The means to these ends, within Green New Deal narratives, is usually to adjust the balance, between the public sector and the private sector, of their powers over the economy and especially over the global financial and monetary systems. This is to be achieved (in GND narratives) through a new drive for localism at national and sub-national levels, given the failure of global and international accords and processes such as the Conference of the Parties in relation to Climate Change. While this radical and dramatic GND narrative has some attractions, especially when it comes to rallying people and inspiring action for change, and I have sympathy with many of the desired directions of travel indicated, at a personal level I’m not convinced that the case has been sufficiently proven for all of the actions and aims in the GND ‘manifestos’. As with many movements that have become politicised, polarisation creeps in, and the most extreme proposals for toppling and replacing existing regimes, rules and systems get written into aims and objectives, in order to create an action plan that is distinctive and which has an obvious social group as its scapegoat – in this case, the richest 1%. Mainstream sources such as the IMF (2020) suggest less radical pathways forward, for example that well planned public policies around such matters as carbon pricing can be used not only to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (one element of a set of milestones on the transition to sustainability), but also to eliminate the financial impacts of this on the poorest. Later in the chapter, I proceed to an analysis of the various different types of capital. This is all useful context, as it is at the root of the definition of “capitalism”, a concept that is itself at the heart of much debate surrounding sustainability, eg as phrased in questions about whether “natural capitalism” can co-exist with “capitalism” or whether the former is, in fact, an oxymoron. It also sets the scene for a discussion of ringfencing of capitals, which features in chapter 6”
The Planetary CFO - working towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet.