It must be said at the outset that this is “a” critique of “a” certain idea of capitalism. There are many types of capitalism in their concrete, liquid, historically existent forms. Then there are ideas of “capitalism” that exist in the minds of everyday people. There are, too, ideas that exist in the minds of scholars, which may or may not be congruent with the ideas of capitalism found within popular culture. Before beginning a critique, we should probably converge on which idea, who’s idea, and the like of “capitalism” that we’ll be critiquing. Perhaps, too, it could be that the presuppositions upon which capitalism are based are more profitable for critique.
We should also decide from which standpoint and with which aims we will be critiquing capitalism. Economic? Political? Ethical? Religious? The positions may be endless. I have decided to focus on the foundational problem with capitalism most referenced in economic, political, moral, and even religious critiques: Greed and its consequences. Because this is not a new issue by any means, but an old one, I would like to look at capitalism through the lens of an ancient philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic.
Diogenes was erratic, anti-conventional, and a full-on “cynic,” but he got at some of the root problems of the “greed” and lack of contentment that human longing expressed through civilization tends to bring about. He believed that Prometheus’ fire—the fire that brought the disdain of the gods but also humanity’s power to set up for itself a striving after divinity—was actually the beginning of the end of the good life, rather than a bridge to it.
Fire was discovered. This was a great achievement. Once discovered, however, the uses of that fire were multiplied with the wants of humans. We may, indeed, say “needs,” but Diogenes rebelled against the idea. When we say that we “need” the fruits of a particular kind of capitalism (that we need a 5 bedroom private home in a safe neighborhood with good schools, that we need gas, electric, sewer, central air-conditioning, fast internet, cable tv, cell-phone service, that we need all the “necessary” home appliances, etc.), we soon realize the emptiness of the meaning of “need.” Diogenes realized that fire was not a gift but a curse. One need—let’s say fire’s use for cooking meat or making tools—begets a thousand other “needs,” which then fosters a thousand more. Capitalism, in all its particular and abstract forms, rests on such an endless thirst: Greed. People must crave more and more luxuries as needs so that they will keep purchasing things and work harder to get these things in order to attain and maintain a lifestyle where these “needs” are met.
Diogenes recognized that something as simple as wanting to eat meat required that people would need livestock, which would require grain/grasses to feed the livestock, which would require lands from which the livestock could roam and feed and barns in which to shield them from the elements and to proffer their rest. Of course, people would also need to acquire the resources used to obtain more cattle: sometimes by trade, by theft, or by war with one's neighbors. Furthermore, one would have to procure and maintain the resources with which to cook the meat. This would, in many circumstances, require “trade” and the specialization of goods for certain merchants. It would create a division of labor in which certain masters would have certain holds over others at certain times and would acquire greater demand. These masters would then often take over the interests of those whose services and resources were of the lesser demand. The one who had much would gain more, and the one who had little would have less to gain or would lose. Such was the cycle. People continually needed more to sustain the more that they “needed.”
The critique, then, of such a system as capitalism—which is based upon supply and demand, the fostering of unquenchable desires for production and consumption—is that the more “needs” we create the more endlessly greedy and covetous we will become of further objects to satisfy our unquenchable thirsts. The fruits of this are the violence and selfishness for gratifying these ever-increasing needs at any cost.
The solution of Diogenes was to live simply and to actually sustain oneself on one’s real needs. Diogenes lived in an old wine vat, he ate off of wild lentils in the country side, he gave up his drinking cup when he realized he could drink with his hands, he broke with conventions that he found cumbersome and truly unnecessary (mere luxuries and encumbrances that were meant to divide people and exclude others rather than to satisfy). Should we take up this “cynic” wayfarer’s mantle? I don’t know. I do know, however, that he left us with some though-provoking ideas, which, if heeded, may encourage us to skirt conventions of greed—conventions that could very well be the root of most arguments for why “capitalism” is best or even “necessary.”
- Cynics by William Desmond
- The Cynic Philosophers from Diogenes to Julian ed by Robin Dobbin
Don is an adjunct professor of philosophy and ethics. He earned a B.A. in Theological Studies from Spring Arbor University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary, and an M.A. in Philosophy from Loyola Marymount University. In his leisure time, Don enjoys spending time with his wife and two dogs, reading thoughtful fiction, and exercising.