Is capitalism past its sell by date? Or can it be reinvented for the digital age?
These were the questions that took centre stage in a debate between Gillian Tett and Yanis Varoufakis, two thinkers with overlapping but conflicting visions for the future of our economic system.
Both agree that capitalism today is in crisis. But while Tett has faith that business can play a greater leadership role in facing global challenges like climate change, Varoufakis puts forward a blueprint for a post-capitalist future.
Here are our key highlights from the debate:
These quotes have been edited for clarity and length.
IN DEFENCE OF CAPITALISM – Gillian Tett
Former anthropology academic, Gillian Tett, is the Chair of the US Editorial Board and Editor-at-Large of the Financial Times. She has spent the past decade documenting the rise of ‘conscious capitalism’– a movement led by the belief that businesses can no longer afford to ignore issues like climate change and income inequality, co-founding the ‘moral money’ section of the FT, which is dedicated to Environment Social Governance news.
Her latest book, ‘Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life’ (published June 2021), explores how we can use anthropology to make sense of people’s behaviour–in business and in life.
- “The core of my argument is: [the version of capitalism] we have today is not what Adam Smith sketched out. There hasn’t been a shared moral framework, or even, one could argue, a legal and ethical framework–essentially putting what’s been happening in business and finance into the wider social context.”
- “There is a fundamental problem with monopoly power, with a lack of transparency, and lack of access inside the tech sector. If we had the ability to pull our data out of any tech company, and go somewhere else, we’d actually have the beginnings of a proper market for us as customers.”
- “Most of the tools that we developed in the late 20th century are all very bounded by tunnel-vision. They basically treat everything that isn’t in the economic model or the balance sheet as an externality; like the environment. They ignored who was going to pay for the damage that was created or the cost of the natural resources they were using. If you could actually start measuring that and putting it into your economic models you would start to get a very different vision of how companies are valued and how they’re looking at the world.”
- “I don’t think we can sit there and trust the government alone to turn us green.”
“I personally still think that that vision of competition–of using profits to be reinvested back in growth, the idea that innovation occurs when you have some friction, when you have a sense of personal responsibility– is still a good set of principles to be using, to be driving an economy forward.” – Gillian Tett
IN OPPOSITION TO CAPITALISM – Yanis Varoufakis
An economist, writer and former Greek Finance Minister from January to July of 2015, Varoufakis is currently Secretary-General of MeRA25, a left-wing political party in Greece. He has spent the last decade envisioning a kinder economic system for the future of our planet.
His new book, Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present attempts to paint a picture of what a post-capitalist future could look like for politics, economics, housing and more. Seen through the eyes of three very different ‘characters’ – a feminist, an ex-banker and a technologist – Varoufakis unspools a complex web of clashing ideas, solutions and problems in his attempt to answer the question that many anti-capitalists struggle with: is there an alternative?
- “2021 is a little bit like the 1790s. There were specks of capitalist dust in a desert of feudalism. Adam Smith saw that what was growing was infecting feudalism, and that feudalism was going to be on the way out. I think we are in a similar moment. Capitalism is overthrowing itself in the same way that feudalism overthrew itself. We are already moving into a post-capitalist system, which I call techno-feudalism.”
- “Why is Jeff Bezos $50 million richer than he was at the beginning of the pandemic? It’s not the profits of Amazon, it is the increase in the share market.”
- “Under the cover of green growth, we’re seeing the devastation of ecosystems. The land is being degraded in order to make it appear ‘green’ and generate profit. Is this the green growth that we want?”
- “Throughout all of its magnificent transformations, capitalism has retained two main characteristics: first, the fuel that drives it is profit, and the second is markets. I can already see the end of capitalism, because profits have ceased to be the fuel of the economic system that we have.”
- “Amazon doesn’t have a monopoly. Amazon is different; it’s a platform. It means that you exit capitalism, and you go into a place where everything that is sold or bought is controlled by one company.”
- “I believe in green growth, but I also believe in green de-growth. There are things we need less of – less cement, less CO2 and fewer cars.”
“Under the cover of green growth, we’re seeing the devastation of ecosystems. The land is being degraded in order to make it appear ‘green’ and generate profit. Is this the green growth that we want?” – Yanis Varoufakis
The debate, hosted by Intelligence Squared, took place at the Union Chapel in London on October 4th 2021. Watch a recorded version of the event here.
Further reading on this topic:
- Capitalism Isn’t Working. Here’s An Alternative – Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian
- Gillian Tett on looking at the world like an anthropologist – Author Talks in McKinsey
- This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein
- The billionaire space race: the ultimate symbol of capitalism’s flawed obsession with growth – The Beautiful Truth
- What is stakeholder capitalism? – The Beautiful Truth