Commentary. We can no longer remain on the surface of the upheavals taking place, considering justice and equality only as a matter of compensation and redistribution, but we must go back to the deep structures that articulate our systems of production.

The pandemic lays bare amoral capitalism

The global COVID-19 pandemic is blowing up the modern world: labor shortages, ecological transformation, migrants, biotechnology, artificial intelligence and the unchecked development of science, education, public goods, and culture. The Davos Forum, which last year called for “no more profits without ethics,” is now calling for “better economies and societies.” From many quarters, there is a demand to discuss the legitimacy of capitalism, including from a strictly moral point of view.

While some scholars dwell on the celebration of the fifty-year anniversary of the essay in which Milton Friedman claimed that capitalism has no social responsibility except to increase profits (the business of business is business), questions are re-emerging, ranging from the “broken ethical foundation” of capitalism according to Paul Collier to the need for liberation from “market fundamentalism” entrusted to a “progressive capitalism” according to Joseph Stiglitz, to the explicit desire to reconstruct the “normative bases” of capitalism put forward by two philosophers, Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, who argue that no economic practice is neutral, and therefore separated from normativity, and capitalism should not be seen as a simple economic system but as an “institutionalized social order.”

Thus, to the question “Does it make sense to question the morality of capitalism?” not only can one answer in the affirmative, but one can argue that reasoning about this is the most important thing to do today, since in the absence of such reasoning the paradigm shift in the direction of the creation of a needed “new model of development” cannot take place.

It should be noted that Branco Milanovic—although he is a distinguished scholar of an issue with strong moral connotations, namely inequality, which he sees, however, as a redistributive problem above all— disagrees. He considers inevitable the amorality of capitalism and the “externalization” of morality—by which the internal mechanisms of self-control of individuals, now considered dead or deprived of their power, are transferred to the external coercion of rules and laws—in the belief that “amoral behavior is necessary for survival in a world where everyone tries to get as much money as possible.”

It is no coincidence that Milanovic shares the eighteenth-century opinion of Mandeville—opposed by Adam Smith—that success depends on stimulating the most greedy and selfish behavior in individuals, and thus accepts the equating of preferences not with values that can be examined, but with tastes that cannot be, extending to the economy the Latin saying “de gustibus non est disputandum” (“there is no accounting for taste”), and argues against the criticism by Karl Polanyi of widespread and indiscriminate commodification, because this is supposedly freely desired and wanted by individuals, not “an unnatural development that presages the crisis of capitalism.”

Thus, Milanovic fully accepts the postulates of the old paradigm pushed to the extreme by neoliberalism, its claim of neutrality and the split between ethics and economics. A claim challenged by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen since his early days as a scholar, with the criticism of the hypostatization of the economic agent as an isolated individual, exclusively self-interested, obsessively maximizing, perfectly rational on the instrumental level, an agent that Sen branded in the 1970s, with his famous definitions, as a “rational fool” and a “social idiot,” precisely because his only problem is to match given means with given ends, without thinking about either one or the other and in total ignorance of his own intrinsic sociability and interdependence.

Perhaps there is something very deep that can make the difference, in the end: if the accentuated ethical-political character of the current upheavals calls into question, in a non-trivial way, the dimension of values, this, on the one hand, gives a strong moral meaning to the denunciation of social and political failures, and on the other hand gives morality a high critical content, configuring the moral action tout court as “critical action.”

It is becoming obvious that we can no longer remain on the surface of the upheavals taking place, considering justice and equality only as a matter of compensation and redistribution, but we must go back to the deep structures that articulate our systems of production and our productive roles, namely our duties, our powers, our social prestige.

In this way, the question of “full and good employment” comes to the fore, an issue that has been eluded until now even by center-left governments, while it is extremely significant that during the electoral campaign that led to Joe Biden’s success in the US presidential elections, many American Democratic politicians committed themselves to the elaboration, discussion and promotion of “guaranteed employment” programs.

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