The Scorpion And The Frog


On the 8th & 9th of October I attended the Rebellious Media Conference in London and saw the legendary Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert speak in person.

It was amazingly well organised by a team made up entirely of volunteers (I was one of them). There were 1200 tickets sold and it was inspiring to spend 2 days with such a diverse and committed group of people.

The sessions were stimulating and my head was left spinning (in a good way). Over the next few days I will be posting short sketches stimulated by some of the issues raised. Here’s the first:

The Scorpion & The Frog

Those of us on the Left are often ‘outraged’ by the behaviour of capitalist enterprises. We see the accumulation of profit regardless of human cost as a moral issue. But is this really a useful way of viewing the capitalist system?

The truth is capitalism does it’s job very well. The function of capitalist enterprises is to make profit for the owners. It’s as simple as that. Banks and bankers do their job well by the standards and logic of the system that spawned them. Mainstream media does it’s job well within the cultural logic that favours profit over content. Corporate culture serves the interests of share-holders and senior managers very well and corporate execs do what is expected of them, [and those who see themselves as potential senior managers i.e those who identify their interests with shareholders and senior managers].

Within the logic of the system ‘externalising’ costs and discounting external effects (i.e. pollution) is entirely rational and, indeed, the duty of a capitalist enterprise and by extension those who manage them.

To accuse bankers of being “greedy” is like berating the scorpion for poisoning the frog. Criticising corporate executives for being heartless in their exploitation of third world child workers is like criticising a Cuckoo for laying it’s eggs in another birds nest. To exploit the work of others and to be greedy and heartless is their job, it is inherent in the system and expected of them by those who employee them. It is the nature of the beast.

Nonetheless, recognising that this world view has unpleasant real-world consequences for those sometimes described as “the victims of capitalism”, defenders of capitalism have developed a moral justification of the system, often framing their arguments in terms of “justice, freedom & democracy”. These arguments begin with the proposition that the market is more efficient and just as an information and incentive system, and as a system for the ‘fair’ distribution of limited resources. This theory asserts that by each individual pursuing their own interests the common good will be provided. Thus personal selfishness is defined as an overarching social moral good.

This is what these people mean when they say, “there is no place for morality in business”. They mean that the relentless and heartless pursuit of their self-interest is a moral good, that their greed is what makes the world work and puts food on everyone’s tables, programmes on the TV and cars on the road.

So to criticise bankers, managers and executives on moral grounds for simply ‘doing their jobs’ is surely counter-productive. They do not see themselves as evil; on the contrary they see themselves as crusaders for freedom and the common good – which is exactly how most of us on the Left would see ourselves.

This line of reasoning could be perceived as presenting some problems for the traditional Left who often like to demonise “Evil Capitalists” and ‘Bankers” on the basis of personal morality. The accusation being that these people are making personal moral decisions that are exploitative and heartless, and that by extension the ‘Evil Capitalists” are themselves exploitative and heartless individuals. Unsuprisingly, most Corporate Execs and Bankers do not recognise themselves in this description, as far as they are concerned they are simply doing their job to the best of their ability and resent being called evil for doing so. To them generating profit and building a business is a morally good thing, the fact that it makes them rich is also not a bad thing because that wealth creation is the system wide ‘incentive’ that makes the whole thing work.

So is the Left to recognise the humanity in the Execs and Bankers and try to convince them that they too are victims of the capitalist system? Or should we continue to demonise these figures if only as a tool to generate anger and thus political action in the true victims of the system?

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