Capitalism cannot be successful and at the same time ethical
Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”
This article is cross-posted from Branko’s Substack blog
What “Succession” serves us is the end of the illusion of ethical capitalism. The issues are the same as they appeared in the beginnings of the commercial society, and were discussed by Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith. The question was the following: can the unchecked use of what are conventionally considered vices, namely passions for power and wealth, be reconciled with the existence of an ethical society? Can a society that places the acquisition of wealth on the pedestal, considers it the most desirable social attribute, and regards the rich as worthy of emulation, be ethical?
It is important to make here the distinction between an ethical society and a society where the acquisition of wealth takes place within the legal rules. According to Hayek, speaking of “just” incomes does not make sense (nor should ethics be at all involved in the judgment of how market incomes are earned); what matters alone is whether the rules of the game have been obeyed. But it does not mean that acquiring incomes while following the rules of the game is sufficient to make a society moral.
Adam Smith, while criticizing what I call in “The Visions of Inequality” the “really existing capitalism” and the way that the wealth is made through enslavement of people, plunder, monopoly, or raw exercise of politics still held the possibility open—in the background—that a commercial society could be ethical. To be ethical it must minimize the use of, and the ability to use, power. Power comes either through politically-mediated ability to impose one’s preferences or through the ability to order others, for pay, to do what we wish. The use of power can be brought to minimum if there is full competition so that actors cannot influence prices and conditions under which they sell their goods. This rules out monopolies, oligopolies, and economic power derived from politics But in addition to the output markets, it is also important to minimize the exercise of power within the companies. The companies, especially when they are large, are hierarchical. When they are hierarchical the power of those on the low levels becomes small and the power of those on the top proportionately increases.
Adam Smith’s “capitalistic ideal” that would, I think, combine efficiency and agency would be realized in small companies, either family-owned or with few employees, enabling the voice of the employees to be heard, and reducing the power of the owners of capital, while competing on a level playing field with hundreds of similar companies. The power would be dispersed and the power of everyone would be kept in check by the similar power of others. Such a society would never allow the “masters” to become powerful enough to dictate political decisions. It would be thus politically equal too.
The problem is that the current capitalist societies are anything but such small-scale “ethical capitalism.” Our world, on the contrary, is a world of large corporations, monopolies, cutthroat competition among such corporations as well as within the corporations themselves, where workers have no right to make any decisions and influence the process of production, and are thus alienated from it. It is the world of extreme commodification and hierarchical relations. Hierarchical relations within companies and hierarchical differences in power between the companies enable the richest to assume a political role which makes the society resemble a plutocracy.
The value of “Succession” is that it shows us clearly that world, without committing a mistake of introducing extremely immoral actors that break the law. The strength of the script lies in that all the players work within the confines of legality without –for all that—being either ethical or sympathetic. Everybody follows self-interest only, exhibiting in the process large amounts of self-love, and being a stranger to any moral considerations. Other than the need to stay within the law, or perhaps more accurately, not to be found out to have broken the law, everything is permitted.
Everybody lives in the world of moral grayness. Moral grayness is so pervasive that it is impossible to distinguish among the characters those who exhibit darker hues of moral turpitude from those who might show some lighter nuances. This behavior is not limited to the professional life but percolates into the family life. In “Succession” this is obvious from the very beginning because the issue is who will among the children succeed the father, and thus most of the action takes place inside the family. Parents and children behave with respect to each other the same way as they behave towards everybody else: their employees, suppliers or investors. Commercialization and amoral behavior have invaded the family life to such an extent that there is no longer any difference between the family and the rest of the world. There is just unanimous moral grayness between the characters, and between professional and private lives.
This absence of behavioral difference between the two spheres (the private and the professional) would have surprised Adam Smith. For his two big works “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “The Wealth of Nations” were written to apply to two different spheres of our existence. TMS deals with our relations within the family, with friends and others who are relatively close to us, to what one may call the “organic community”; WoN is supposed to apply to our relations within the Great Society, that is with respect to, and in the intercourse with, everybody else. But in “Succession” the two areas are no longer divided, they are both parts of the same commodified world, and the same rules of amorality hold whether we are talking of families and friends or people whom we have met once in our life. The main characters are remarkably egalitarian in their treatment of people. You are as likely to please Shiv, Rom, and Kendall if you are their closest cousin or if they have met you for the first time ever. The grayness envelopes everybody.
The incompatibility of a fully commercialized society with an ethical society is a problem for those who, evidence to the contrary, believe that capitalism can be successful and at the same time ethical and who deceive themselves by inventing “stakeholder capitalism”, “responsible business”, “ethically-produced coffee or textiles”, and the like. “Succession” disabuses them of these notions. Rather cruelly. The similarity of behavior that we observe on screen and in real life, and the moral bleakness of the characters, upsets this naïve view. In order to preserve the fantasy of successful and ethical capitalism a very superficial discussion of the series in The New York Times, ignores all the issues mentioned here and puts the accent on an entirely incidental feature, namely that the company over whose ownership the children fight is a media company that influences people through biased news. This however has nothing to do with the main storyline which is the story of ethics and capitalism. Exactly the same situation would have existed had the company been selling electricity like Enron, been involved in “packaged” mortgages like hundreds of companies during the 2008 meltdown, was laundering money like the Credit Suisse, was mistreating workers like Amazon, or used its monopoly power like Microsoft. So whatever the company Logan Roy and his children had, had nothing to do with the main message of “Succession”. The main message was to disabuse us of the notion that an advanced commodified society that for its success depends on “disabling” conventional moral norms may be ethical. Or could be made ethical if we were willing to tweak a thing or two. “Succession” says: you cannot have both.