Without capitalism, can there be culture?

John Meadowcroft’s recent article in defence of free markets, ‘From Big Macs to Big Brother’, begins thus:

‘One of the most important contemporary debates in political economy concerns the impact of the market on culture and the allegation that unfettered market forces will supply “dumbed-down”, low-quality cultural products that pander to people’s worst instincts.’

As a corrective, he notes, ‘It is often claimed that high quality cultural products should be subsidised by the government because they cannot meet this test of commercial profitability.’

What then follows may be described as an apologia for the law-abiding marketplace:  it is a voluntary, ‘positive-sum’, non-coercive exchange, wherein all participants benefit from their transactions without moral censure or reproach; goods and services find their own place in the subjective pecking order, and what may be dismissed as low commercialism today may be tomorrow esteemed as high art.

Yet Dr Meadowcroft only hints at the larger, free-market implications for culture – that an exchange economy is not simply a value-free instrument for its creation and  growth, but that it is the engine, if not the essential component, for the rise of Western civilisation.

For the development of those cultural attributes held in reverential awe require both time and expertise: time that can be spared from providing the barest essentials of existence, and the expertise of those ‘idle’ hands and brains to provide for the mind once the body’s welfare is assured.

These combined requirements are met first by the division of labour, whereby activities that are requisite for survival are learned and their execution perfected, with increased production in one area allowing for the development of new skills in other areas. Meadowcroft acknowledges that ‘an advanced market economy allows the development of myriad niche markets, whether in imported cigars, speciality foods or socialist cinema’ – a market economy whose ‘progressive’ implications were described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations:

‘As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or, in other words, by the extent of the market. When the market is very small, no person can have any encouragement to dedicate himself entirely to one employment, for want of the power to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for.’(I.iii.i)

A second civilisational pillar is met by capital – the surplus of labour and materiel upon which a cultural heritage may be built (which in many quarters is jeopardised by the taxing predations of the welfare state). ‘In the midst of all the exactions of government,’ observed Smith, ‘this capital has been silently and gradually accumulated by the private frugality and good conduct of individuals, by their universal, continual, and uninterrupted effort to better their own condition’ (II.iii.36). As Eamonn Butler elaborated,

‘…saving part of our product, instead of consuming it all, allows us to grow our productive capital; which in turn allows us to increase our product in the future. It is an expanding circle of wealth … Through the accumulation of capital, more specialist and more labour-saving processes can be developed.’

‘It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people’ (I.i.10), proclaimed Smith. Meadowcroft echoes this assertion: ‘Indeed, the wealth generated by market economies has given people the leisure time to enjoy a greater range of cultural products than ever before.’

Nor can the argument that capitalism is a bulwark of civilisation be dismissed simply as self-serving propaganda from partisans; it is advanced, too, by disinterested scholars themselves, such as the world-renowned Thomist, Josef Pieper. In his classic defence of action that is undertaken for its own fulfilment, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Pieper criticised the all-encompassing state in which there is no private property, and thus no accumulation of savings – capital – whereby the quotidian work-load can be diminished for the pursuit of ‘higher activities’.

In extreme examples the state becomes all powerful, absorbing everyone into its sphere of ‘total work’, so that no other form of existence become possible or even imaginable – ‘the total working state needs the spiritually impoverished functionary, while such a person is inclined to see and embrace an ideal of a fulfilled life in the total “use” made of his “services.”’

For an antidote to this nightmarish condition, whether ‘this narrowness be conditioned through lack of ownership, compulsion of the state, or spiritual poverty’, Pieper foresaw that ‘…in the realization of such a program, again, three things would be necessary:  building up of property from wages, limiting the power of the state, and overcoming internal poverty.’

The cure, therefore, to overcoming Pieper’s spiritual poverty and the cause of Meadowcroft’s cultural cornucopia is, in a word, to be found in capitalism.