I am not an economist; have never studied economics and have come to an independent understanding of capitalism based on what I see of the way in which we, as human beings have organized our existence. Capitalism, being a human creation, is paradoxical; both positive and negative.
I once saw an item on TV which showed countless individual minnows being attacked by big fish. When the minnows organised themselves and banded together to take the form of a big fish to protect themselves, that to me expressed the essence of capitalism in its positive sense. Then in one of those wonderful nature documentaries, I saw dolphins rounding up hundreds of sardines, herding them together so that they could easily feed off them. That was capitalism in its negative sense. People who deride capitalism see only the negative, the abuse of power and the exploitation to which it leads.
The way I view it, when people put whatever power or resources they have together in order to ensure their well-being in the group, that is capitalism. In African townships in South Africa, people devised a simple form of capitalism known as “stokvel”. People club together, contributing a certain sum of money each month and the accumulated capital goes to the member whose turn it is to receive it. So each individual gets a chance to obtain what she otherwise would not be able to afford.
Capitalism came into being when we as human beings banded together to form communities to protect ourselves from predators and the vagaries of nature. Those animals that live in troops, have also adopted a very basic form of capitalism. They, like us, have banded together for the greater good of the group and the individual. In one episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth series, wild dogs are shown hunting impala. The dogs work together following a strategic plan to bring down their prey. When they have killed an impala, they call to each other so that every individual in the whole troop gets a share. That is capitalism in its ideal state – that is what communism was meant to be. Communism is really a form of capitalism; an idealistic version of capitalism in which power is equally shared by all, amandla awethu. The dogs got it right; human beings cannot; we are ambivalent – both selfish and altruistic. We are incapable of treating everyone equally. The wild dogs were able to share with all the members of their clan. Human beings, in general, are unable to do that; we are possessive. Only saints are not; and they are few and far between.
The principal on which capitalism is based is “one for all and all for one.” It requires trust and cooperation and a true sharing of means. When power and greed enter the picture, capitalism is turned to corruption. Criticism of capitalism, therefore, is really criticism of corruption. Those who vilify capitalism do not vilify democracy even though both are based on the same principle – the pooling of resources in order to make possible benefits for each and every member of a group.
The election process is a clear example of the capitalistic principle. Each individual in marking a ballot paper, gives away her individual power to a candidate. The candidate collects the power of all those who voted for him and with that accumulated power is sent to work for the whole group. It is equivalent to banking – an obvious form of capitalism. The accumulation of capital is akin to the accumulation of power under democracy. We put our money in banks and our power in government; that makes possible subsidization of schemes to benefit both the group and the individual. All clubs, organisations, societies, schools, universities etc., are based on the principle of pooled resources. Capitalism is our way of life. We may call ourselves communist or socialist but communism and socialism are simply variations on the theme of capitalism.
But capitalism, like democratic governance, is easily violated by those to whom we give power. And diatribes against capitalism are really vilifications of the overturning of the democratic-capitalistic principle of providing equitably for all.