Why Capitalism is (Not) Committing Suicide

By Shlomo  Maital


    David Brooks has another superb column in the weekend new York Times.  Titled:  The Ambition Explosion, he quotes work by sociologist Daniel Bell, who wrote in 1976 that “capitalism undermines itself because it nurtures a population of ever more self-gratifying consumers. These people may start out as industrious, but they soon get addicted to affluence, spending, credit and pleasure and stop being the sort of hard workers capitalism requires.”

    Add to that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate wealth, corrupting democracy with it, and you have two huge reasons for its demise.  Right?

    Perhaps not.   My wife and I are returning home today from a long trip, which included mainland China.  There, I found highly ambitious young people, full of aspiration and amibition,  some working as waiters while studying, and one,  who started a vending machine business while working one of seven jobs and studying for his B.A.   “For instance” is not a proof, as the Yiddish saying goes, but it sure convinced us.

    Brooks cites what he thinks is the real Achilles Heel of capitalism – not the lack of ambition, or even wealth concentration, but the lack of real meaning!  

        “The real contradiction of capitalism is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life. It nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.”

      In the end, the ‘toys’ you buy with great wealth – like Lamborghini’s, we saw a dealership for them in Hong Kong and it was active and profitable —  do not in themselves provide meaning or satisfaction or fulfilment.  So what does?  Some try philanthropy.  Others, social entrepreneurship. 

      Make meaning, not money, counsels Guy Kawasaki, serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and Macintosh guru.  For young people  —    at the start of your career, define your legacy and your life goals, goals that will at the latter end of your life give you satisfaction and make your life meaningful.  THAT will make your boundless talent and ambition focused and directed toward a worthy goal.   It will also keep capitalism from committing suicide through sheer boredom.   Listen to what Brooks counsels: “Capitalist ambition is an energizing gale force. If there’s not an equally fervent counterculture to direct it, the wind uproots the tender foliage that makes life sweet.“