The Olympic games have raised an old question: does capitalism encourage the pursuit of excellence or does it stifle it?
The question matters because any good social structure should facilitate both virtue and freedom. It should allow us to be the best we can be, whilst freeing us to pursue our own goals, whether these be artistic or sporting excellence or mere mediocrity.
Marx’s gripe with capitalism – perhaps his biggest gripe – was that it failed on this score. He thought work should be a means of human development but that under capitalism it became an alienating, tyrannical force, in which the pursuit of money drove out self-actualization*.
Was he right? There are some reasons to think not.
One is simply that capitalism has delivered the material prosperity that enables us to pursue our individual goals whereas pre-capitalism condemned us to what Marx called rural idiocy. The high-tech bikes and equipment that drove British cyclists to gold were creations of capitalism. And capitalist growth has been an enabling force for thousands. For example it has made musical instruments more affordable –John Lennon’s first guitar cost £5’10” in 1956, which was half a week’s wages – and the internet means that great music is freely available and that musicians can find some sort of audience.
Also, there’s no necessary conflict between the goals of excellence and mere money-grubbing. Tin Pan Alley and the old Hollywood studio system both chased the dollar, yet they gave us great art too. John Kay has described how some companies became big and profitable by making great products rather than being focused on shareholder value. And Deirdre McCloskey has shown how capitalism rewarded and thus cultivated virtues such as trustworthiness and prudence.
But on the other hand, Marx’s claim is surely still true for millions. Work is still a form of drudgery dedicated to earning a living rather than to higher ideals. When Jeremy Corbyn said “there is a poet, a painting, a novel, a play in all of us” he meant that capitalism stifled our creativity. As Alasdair MacIntyre said in After Virtue, only a few of us can get paid for pursuing excellence. Capitalism, therefore, he thought, marginalizes the goods of excellence.
It is, therefore, moot whether capitalism promotes excellence or not. Our Olympians exemplify this ambiguity. On the one hand, many are supported by lottery funding because capitalist markets do not reward their urge to master niche sports: unless they get lots of advertising endorsements, most of them, I suspect, will earn less than Joey Essex. But on the other hand, capitalism has generated an affluence that permits the luxury of helping some people chase their dreams**.
More prosaically, my own career reflects this ambiguity. If I were to try to maximize my earnings, I’d probably have done an even worse job at the IC than I have. I would have promoted rip-off actively-managed funds in the hope of getting a PR job in fund management. Or I’d have written bog-standard macro stuff that flatters my readers’ prejudices and so been employable on a national newspaper. However, I can only afford to resist these pressures for lower standards because early in my “career” I accidentally made enough money not to have to debase myself now.
So, for me it is unclear how far capitalism facilitates the pursuit of excellence.
We must, however, distinguish between capitalism and neoliberalism. One of the examples John Kay gives of how excellence can be profitable was ICI. When it was a chemicals company, it became great. But when it tried to maximize profits, it soon failed. The old ICI was a capitalist firm. The later ICI was a neoliberal one.
The point perhaps generalizes. Capitalism gave us Citizen Kane and Ella Fitzgerald. But neoliberalism gives us Simon Cowell and mindless sequels.
Free markets might well provide some space for the pursuit of different ends and of excellence – especially if accompanied by some judicious state interventions. But neoliberalism, in the sense of chasing money and (managerialist) power is more totalitarian. For this reason, among others, we should distinguish between the two.
* Here’s a brief explanation of alienation by Gillian Anderson. I’m in love.
** Or has it? The old USSR also produced many great athletes, albeit perhaps through less than laudable methods. Perhaps any system that produces a surplus facilitates excellence.