I am a language enthusiast mainly blogging about my experiences of learning Mandarin Chinese. Previously a journalist, I have written about social issues for the Guardian, the Independent, New Internationalist, Huffington Post, Equal Times and the Big Issue in the North, among other titles.
Since the financial crisis, capitalism has been blamed for the growing levels
of social injustice and inequality across the UK. While the 1,000 richest
families have more thandoubled
their incomesince 2009, average incomes are still
lower than they were before the crash, leading many to argue that our system is
failing ordinary workers and communities.
But is it all bad?
Many business leaders believe that far from being to blame for society’s ills,
capitalism is a positive force that fosters entrepreneurialism, creates jobs
and allows communities to prosper.
Live debateat Manchester Central Library four panellists
argued for and against the motion: Capitalism is good for communities. In a
city that’s home to some of the most socially deprived areas in the UK, it was
clear that those arguing in favour of the motion would have a tough task.
founder of Brands Are Best, warned that blanket criticism of capitalism is
harmful: “If we simply condemn and vilify capitalism we abdicate our power and
our influence over it, and risk seeing our economy and society stagnate,” she
“The worst excesses
of capitalism; zero-hours contracts, fat cat bankers. I would argue that these
are exceptions and are not the rule.” According to Walsh, the driving force
behind capitalism is not greed but “enlightened self-interest”.
This means that entrepreneurs
come up with innovative and useful business ideas that benefit society, and
employ passionate, motivated people. Examples include a company that sells
mouldable glue, and a pet retailer that employs dozens of people.
But Georgia Rigg,
leadership lead at youth leadership project Reclaim, disagreed, insisting that
a distinction had to be made between how capitalism should function and how it
actually works. “I’m not talking
about what capitalism has been or what it could be, I’m talking about what
we’ve got, which is neoliberalism,” she said.
“Thatcher said that ‘there is no
such thing as society’. This is the capitalism we have today, based on
individual gain, self-interest and competition. It therefore stands in direct opposition
to community values, such as mutual care or solidarity, and ultimately comes
down to making profit.”
the disturbing levels of inequality that blight capitalist societies worldwide.
“The scale of inequality around the world is massive and it certainly doesn’t
reflect the knowledge, merit, input or ability of people,” she said. “The myth
that everybody can make it may be a beautiful one, but it’s still a myth.” Her
speech was met with loud cheers and applause from the gallery.
Next up was Penny Haslam,
chief executive of media training company Penny Haslam’s Expert Women (Phew),
who suggested that casting capitalism as the pantomime villain was too
simplistic. Like it or not, she said, all of us benefit from capitalism: “Who
went for a coffee this week? Nice wasn’t it? Capitalism is the system in which
someone innovates, comes up with an idea, a service or a product that people
may or may not want to buy … if capitalists then make a profit I say ‘well
Haslam added that
the rise of “conscious capitalism” and corporate social responsibility is
leading to an increasingly moral global business environment. However, she
angered members of the audience when she suggested that large corporations,
such as Starbucks, should not be criticised for tax avoidance on the grounds
that it is not strictly breaking any rules: “Somehow tax has become a moral
issue,” she said to loud jeers.
Asked by a woman in
the audience to justify her defence of corporate tax avoidance, Haslam replied:
“If you were told that you didn’t have to pay tax, would you then put your hand
in your pocket and offer some more?” To which large sections of the audience
Last to speak was Paul
Kennedy, a sociologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, who argued
against the motion, but conceded that capitalism was not all bad.
“Historically, capitalism has been hugely responsible for improving humanity,”
contended that the capacity for businesses to do good was limited by a system
that prioritises profit over social conscience: “Private companies do not exist
to achieve economic development or improve social justice and solve poverty.
Their purpose is to make profit. Many businesses do have a partly moral or
ethical concern, but no business can prioritise it or they will go out of
business and fail to compete in the market.”
Kennedy ended by
lamenting the meteoric rise of the financial sector, which, he said, has
contributed to a wider capitalist culture of short-term gains and greed. “This
new model of vampire capitalism is sucking the wealth out of economies and much
of that is going into the hands of the top 1% of the population. That isn’t
good for the rest of us and it isn’t good for capitalism itself.”
A poll of the
audience at the end of the debate showed that the vast majority strongly