Profile Photo


18th September 2017

Is Capitalism Evil? Towards an Eclectic Economic System

Here is a question worth picking apart: “Is Capitalism Evil?” If, as is the case for an event on the same topic organized at the Strathclyde university, this question is cut along the lines of “Is it a force for good?” & “Is it better than the alternatives?”, clearly, the possible answers to these 3 questions are: Yes-No, Yes-No, Yes-No. So, one is to pick either or and then the case is closed?

These questions are not only problematic because of their inbuilt dualism which gives way to a narrow and static either/or perspective but also because of their implied hierarchical order: evil < good < better. We argue, that such a framing impedes the meliorative transformation of our contemporary economic systems by neglecting the following neuralgic questions: What is good about capitalism and what is good about the alternatives to capitalism? How can we fuse these aspects creatively and overcome the negative aspects of all available options in a cooperative mode? Such a constructive eclectic approach as preferred at the Galtung-Institut is not looking for a utopian alternative to the systems itself, one yet to be created ex nihilo, but allows us to espouse an intricate perspective on that which already is while at the same time going beyond the fixed limitations of a clear-cut frame like: capitalism-contra-socialism-contra-other alternatives.(1)

Such dualistic thinking as described above is deeply rooted in the occidental deep culture.(2) The Aristotelian non-contradictory either-or logic teaches us that A cannot simultaneously be A and B, thus capitalism cannot be right and wrong at the same time. Institutionalized Christianity has incorporated and reified this dualism with its idea of good and evil & heaven and hell. To this day, carriers of this mode of thinking are easily trapped in these dualistic concepts: liberal vs. conservative, pro vs. con, West vs. East, subject vs. object, capitalism vs. communism, Selfness vs. Otherness, different vs. equal etc. One begins to sense how problematic dialogues and negotiations can be, when carriers of such modes of thought aren’t even aware of such default modes of reflection running their minds.

Collins (2005) presents different dynamic systems of interpretation & intelligibility, which allow us to transcend this dualistic thinking and to conceive of the wholeness and the all-encompassing character of a constantly unfolding complex reality. The most accessible step in this regard is to avoid language that evokes dualistic thinking. Instead of asking whether capitalism is evil, we may ask, what within it is legitimate and humane, and what within its scope is illegitimate and inhumane. The latter attributes open for further meliorative exploration of the causes and possible solutions to the negative effects and consequences of capitalism. Evil however, is an a priori & final judgement which denies any legitimacy whatsoever – off the bat. Beyond such semantic efforts, Collins discusses and proposes to take inspiration from chaos theory, fuzzy logic, field theory, quantum mechanics and Zen Buddhism as potential systems of thought, which do not conceive the world as an order, hardwired to be dichotomous and hierarchical by default.(3)

Let´s have a closer look at the last one: Buddhism and its practice of mindfulness, which suggests the perception of reality in the here and now without any judgement instead of seeing it through distorting interpretative filters.(4) The practice of mindfulness and its concrete value to overcoming & transcending dualistic thinking is particularly interesting. A more profound and rather philosophical exploration on the relation between underlying Buddhist assumptions and non-violent conflict transformation can be found in Galtung’s work Peace and Buddhism.(5)

Despite its current profoundly reprehensible expression in Myanmar, Buddhism – at its most common core – is skeptical towards any kind of frozen views which try to wrap our messy, complex and ambivalent reality into plain, linear and coherent packages, which we call ideologies, beliefs, religions, worldviews etc. The reason is that any of these views which we embrace in our desire to control and mold reality, may well impede a clear and circumspect perception of that very reality.(4) As illustrated with the short list of frequently encountered dualisms above, these views which we hold (dear) mostly appear in pairs of opposites.

However, as soon as we accept one of them, the aspect which is perceived as its opposite is being embraced as well – even if ex negativo. This points to the Buddhist notion of co-dependent origination which needs to be understood and operationalized in order to move beyond dualistic concepts like either/or. Co-dependent Origination embraces the understanding that “everything, including the psychophysical compound that we call individual, exists only in relation to other beings and things and undergoes constant changes responding and reacting to them.”(6) This assumption of enduring transformation is highly compatible with our understanding, that peace as a fait social, is not a static condition which can be reached and then sustained, but rather an endless process of social change, creating increasing complexity beyond the facile and pragmatic either/or dichotomy. According to Kuttner, atomistic and dualistic Aristotelian logic ignores this complexity in favor of characterizing entities through continuous separate substance – not much unlike Cartesianism which one could easily argue is a downstream continuation of that tradition. Buddhist epistemology, on the other hand, posits that knowledge cannot be attained as long as we focus on this inner substance and neglect the relationality of co-dependent origination.(7)

Let’s take the social ill of violence for instance. According to Theravada Buddhism extreme violence – whether cultural violence, structural violence or direct violence – arises due to sensual desires which are rooted in the unwholesome mindsets of (a) ignorance, (b) craving and (c) greed. This point of view opens for two implications which are mutually interdependent: “(1) violence arises from an individual’s unwholesome state of mind, and (2) violence arises from unsatisfactory social and environmental conditions, caused by the unwholesome state(s) of mind(s) of other(s).”(8) So now, who or what in this constantly changing & interdependent complexity can we call good or evil? Very much in line with Galtung (2017)(9), Lederach (2005) argues, that in order to realize constructive social change, we must embrace this complexity of interdependence and mutuality with a paradoxical curiosity which does not rely on dualistic polarity. Voilá: That in a nutshell, is the core of professional conflict transformation! This creative openness is an essential ingredient for what he defines as moral imagination: “The capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”(10)

However, in our quest for that improved economic system which does not yet exist – a humane and eco-friendly global economic system which respects local communities alike – we seem to be standing in our own way; regardless of whether we tend to opt for the liberal or the Marxist version. As Galtung illustrates, both ideologies share not only the assumption of mutual exclusiveness and exhaustiveness, but also neglect the possible existence of a worthy option apart from the two: But of course, according to a superficial application of the Aristotelian Tertium non datur.(11) To discover such similarities, whether they are good, bad, or neutral, is but one station on the journey towards revealing the myth of their mutual exclusiveness and their assumed polarity. For some (a) deep answers on what can be gleaned when one looks at the issue without assuming them to be fundamental opposites, and (b) what an “eclectic economy with space also for a capitalism serving humans”(12) could look like, see Peace Economics by Galtung.

At another stop in this quest, we might ask “which role do these unwholesome states of mind called ignorance, craving and greed play in our prevailing economic system”? The following proves a helpful guide towards an answer: “We distinguish between the opposing terms because we want one rather than the other, yet the meaning of each depends upon the other. If wealth is important for me, then I am also worried about avoiding poverty.”(13) There is no rich without poor, no success without failure, no profit without loss. But as Hagen argues: “If your idea of good [or success or wealth] opposed something else, you can be sure that what you call ‘good’ is not absolute or certain.”(14) Cooperation for mutual benefit as well as mutual learning from different economic systems, cultures, regions then seem rather necessary imperatives order to build a living and human economy for a future, that includes all humans and not just a selection.

The inability of today’s economic system to do good for so many, is rooted in two major almost dualistic elements hardwired in its architecture: Namely the capital vs. labor (with increasing inequality) and finance vs. real economy (with an overwhelming dominance of the financial market (15)) contradictions. What is the alternative? Why not look for some inspiration in Islamic Finance which rejects speculative and uncertain transactions circling and accumulating wealth in the unproductive financial market without ever redistributing any significant assets to the real economy?(16) Also, cooperation in the form of bottom up cooperatives which share benefits and risks instead of companies with their dichotomous arrangement of labor-buyers and labor-sellers struggling for ‘jobs’ may be a new way forward.(17) These may be promising approaches to therapy when discussing the ills of capitalism. This essay, which might just as well have been titled “towards post Aristotelian modes of thinking” started out strongly in favor of non-dualist thinking while pondering capitalism and its discontents. Bridging both themes, we conclude with Collins: “[w]hen cooperation supersedes divisiveness for the good of the whole, dualism as we know it, ceases to be.”(18)


  1. Galtung, Johan (2012): Neither Capitalism nor Socialism: Eclecticism; available under: https://www.transcend.org/tms/?p=19335
  2. Galtung, Johan (2014): A Theory of Civilization: Overcoming Cultural Violence; Transcend University Press, p.44ff.
  3. Collins, Marla Del (2005): Transcending Dualistic Thinking in Conflict Resolution; Negotiation Journal, Apr 2005; 21;2; ProQuest p.263-280
  4. Galtung, Johan (1985): Peace and Buddhism; Université Nouvelle Transnationale; available under: https://www.transcend.org/galtung/papers/Peace and Buddhism.pdf
  5. Hagen, Steve (1997): Buddhism Plain and Simple; Broadway Books, New York, p.101ff
  6. Der-Ian Yeh, Theresa (2006): The way to peace: A Buddhist Perspective; International Journal of Peace Studies, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2006; p.91
  7. Kuttner, Ran (2013): From Positionality to Relationality: A Buddhist-Oriented Relational View of Conflict Escalation and its Transformation; Peace and Conflict Studies: Vol. 20: No. 1, Article 3; p.62; available under: http://nsuworks.nova.edu/pcs/vol20/iss1/3
  8. Zalta, Anja (2016): Contribution of Buddhist Mindfulness to the Transformation of Conflicts – Dependent Origination (paticca-samuppāda) and Deconstruction of Identity; p.143; available under: https://doi.org/10.4312/as.2016.4.2.139-151
  9. Galtung, Johan (2017): The Art of Peace: Global Peace Studies 101: Theory and Practice; Transcend University Press, pp.73-83 & 215-219 ; available under: https://www.transcend.org/tup/index.php?book=51
  10. Lederach, John Paul (2005): The Moral Imagination – The Art and Soul of Building Peace; Oxford University Press; Oxford; p.9
  11. Galtung, Johan (1980): Two Ways of Being Western: Some Similarities between Liberalism and Marxism; International Peace Research Institute; University of Oslo; Oslo; available under: https://www.transcend.org/galtung/papers/Two Ways of Being Western – Some Similarities Between Liberalism and Marxism.pdf
  12. Transcend University Press: Peace Economics – From a Killing to a Living Economy; available under: https://www.transcend.org/tup/index.php?book=36
  13. R. Loy, David: On the Nonduality of Good and Evil; available under: http://theconversation.org/archive/nonduality.html
  14. Hagen, Steve (1997): p.43
  15. Fischler, Franz (2010): Eine Steuer, die Spekulanten zähmt; Zeit Online; 27. May 2010; edited on 21. Sep. 2012; available under: http://www.zeit.de/2010/22/A-Finanztransaktionssteuer
  16. Dusuki, Asyraf Wajdi (2011): Islamic financial system. Principles & operations; Kuala Lumpur: International; Shari’ah Research Academy for Islamic Finance (ISRA).
  17. Galtung, Johan (2014): Christianity between Jewish and Islamic Banking; Transcend Media Service; 10 Nov 2014; available under: https://www.transcend.org/tms/2014/11/christianity-between-jewish-and-islamic-banking/
  18. Collins, Marla Del (2005): p.274


Share this:     


Leave a Reply

 
PEACE BY PEACEFUL MEANS

© 2017 by Galtung-Institut