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Patrick S. O'Donnell


For various reasons, your post brought to mind the following passage from Iyer's book, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (1983 ed.):

"Gandhi's fascination as a thinker lies in his inward battle between two opposing attitudes--the Tolstoyan socialist belief that the Kingdom of Heaven is attainable on earth and the Dostoevskian mystical conviction that it can never be materialized. The modern Hindu standpoint has generally been anti-utopian: Rama Rajya lies in the bygone Satya Yuga [a Golden Age], and Kali Yuga [the darkest of the yugas in Hindu cosmology and mythology in which we are now living] is the age of unavoidable coercion. Gandhi began by challenging this view under the influence of Tolstoy, but he ended his life with more of a Dostoevskian pessimism. This does not mean that he abandoned either his imaginative, Utopian, political vision or what he called his practical idealism embodied in concrete programs of immediate action. He did not feel that it was wrong to URGE men to set themselves, as he did in his own life, seemingly impossible standards, but he came closer to seeing that it is wrong to EXPECT them to do so."

I hope to speak to other important aspects of your musings in future posts (e.g., I don't think it's possible to 'impose moral principles on capitalism' owing to the structural conditions and imperatives of this economic form,* which is not to say that we cannot or should not strive to ameliorate those conditions and imperatives or work to counter its unjust and immoral effects.).

*Owing largely to reasons proffered in Michael Luntley's The Meaning of Socialism (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989).

Best wishes,

Steve Shiffrin

Patrick, I look forward to your follow ups. I suspect we agree that capitalism is a social construct, that human beings caught up in corporate organizations and the market make decisions they would never make in their individual capacities (Max Weber, Reinhold Niebuhr, Ed Baker), and that at a minimum, radical control of these companies is required under current conditions. When I want to impose moral conditions on capitalism, it is far reaching reform and restructuring animated by moral principles. As I am sure you realize it is not just moral education of corporate executives. I take you to be saying that this liberal package inherently can not succeed (I imagine even if corporations are controlled by workers with strong regulations in place). I am interested in the alternative.
On most days I am pessimistic. I believe with Derrick Bell that racism (and corporate domination) will always be with us, but that we have a responsibility to combat it. I am sunny enough to believe, however, that things can improve. Even if I were not that sunny, I would think that combating injustice in a lost cause is better than sipping sherry at the local country club.

Patrick S. O'Donnell


It would have been better had I simply said that I think the imposition of novel and democratically sanctioned moral contraints and conditions--principles--on capitalism: in the workplace, on production and consumption, on the behavior of corporations, will, or at least should, have the cumulative effect (whereby quantity is transformed into quality and we have genuine Hegelian Aufhebung) of transforming the economic system into something other than what we now call "capitalism." And this will represent historical progress similar or analogous to that seen in the transformation from feudalism to capitalism.

In other words, we will have finally established not just another form of capitalism (e.g., monopoly, late, casino, turbo-, finance, state, neo-, etc.) but a truly different economic system that is, at the very least, more intimately grounded in and tied to democratic methods, practices, principles and values. And I hope the concrete steps and measures that make up this transformation are characterized by collective action generated from the intimate spheres of everyday life in which the traditional barriers between elites and masses are on occasion transcended as we engage in a nonviolent and imaginative politics of simultaneous resistance, reform and (socio-cultural) revolution. The result will be neither heaven on earth or utopia, but progress in the direction of the full and free actualization and externalization of the powers or capacites and abilities of the individual in a way that meaningfully embodies a eudaimonistic conception of the common good.

Steve Shiffrin

Patrick, this I can sign up for.



No offense (I hope) but if you sign up for whatever Patrick just layed out, you're taking on a "Bill of Goods."
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I'm with you, Steve, in your first two posts: Capitalism is a social construct, and the social organization (society, we the people) can regulate it. We regulate every aspect of our human interaction under the rubric of "law," which when you boil them down are a list of "things we as a society have decided you are not allowed to do."

Example? While every individual is capable of making the decision to earn a living by taking funds from other people, we as a society have outlawed this method of capitalism. We call it theft. In short, we regularly say, "There are ways you can't make money in this society." You may not make a living by substituting melamine for protein in milk. You may not make a living by selling rotting meat as fresh. You may not lie about the contents of your product, so as to appear equivalent to a higher quality product, you may not bait-and-switch, etc. Each and every law of this type is a regulation on Capitalism. I don't buy Patrick's view (if I'm decoding the rhetoric correctly) that Capitalism is just some natural force upon which we cannot impose our will.
Neither do I accept what appears to be an appeal to free-market capitalism being the engine that will lead us to a better conception of "the common good."

So... what kind of society do you want? I want one that places the citizen first; is highly restrictive of fraud, economic predation and use of monopoly to leverage further power. I advocate a society in which we (via the government) insert the control rods to limit the extent to which "nuclear" forces can run amok and meltdown. Capitalism is such a force: It operates on a single principle: make more money, in any way possible. Allowed to run free, this principle does not lead to a better society, and it requires societal regulation to make sure that we reap the benefits of Capitalism without having to suffer its meltdowns.

We CAN do better. We HAVE done better in the past.

Patrick S. O'Donnell


I can only conclude that you have not carefully read what I wrote above, or the views I expressed in my inaugural post on this blog.
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It was Steve's post, not mine, so I did not want to highjack the post with specifics, either with regard to what I think, or with regard to particular principles.

It is NOT my view that "that Capitalism is just some natural force upon which we cannot impose our will."

It is NOT my view that we cannot "regulate" capitalism.

I myself have never made any appeal whatsoever "to free-market capitalism being the engine that will lead us to a better conception of 'the common good.'"

Please see the following posts by me at Ratio Juris:




And this post at Dorf on Law: http://www.dorfonlaw.org/2010/02/new-blog-and-thought-on-failure-of.html

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Yet another paean to capitalism from yours truly: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/04/ecological-political-economy-of-hunger.html

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