A sideways look at capitalism

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Capital and its associated "ism". It's been one of the hot topics of the year. People are asking if it's fundamentally unequal, structurally flawed.

Often talk of capitalism is wrapped up in ideology and jargon. Maybe it's worth asking what capitalism is. That's what I set out to do.

Straight away as I begin this I can sense your unease. "Uh-oh, a comedian talking about capitalism." You're probably worried that this will be a glib, dumbed down version and will barely scratch the surface of such a complex topic.

You're probably right but in my defence I did get some cleverer people to help explain at least some of the intricacies.

I went to the Kilkenomics festival of economics - laced with a thread of comedy - which is held in November in Kilkenny every year. It's a good place to go to try and find out about some basic economic theories as quite a few eminent thinkers go there. People such as economists Ha-Joon Chang, Deirdre McCloskey and Mark Blyth, and journalist and author John Lanchester.

And of course I read some Marx and Keynes.

Finding stereotypes online

But before I met them or read these thinkers, I tried to take a few shortcuts to see what capitalism meant to people.

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Image caption,
Is this your idea of a capitalist?

The natural place for any journey of knowledge about a topic - yes I called it a journey, deal with it - is to do a Google image search to see how capitalism and capitalists are represented.

Turns out they are all fat, male with a twirly moustache and dressed in a nearly bursting pinstripe suit complete with pocket watch. I often think it must be unfortunate for anti-capitalists who happen to have a predilection for pinstripe suits. They run the risk of being called capitalist pigs.

Surely it can't be as simple as this. There must be more nuances. Well, if you search on Amazon.co.uk for capitalism there are tens of thousands of book results.

One that comes up very near the top is Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. It contains two centuries of hard data. Indeed it is hard data, it has 600 pages. I knew I was in trouble in the bookshop when I bought it and the guy behind the counter said: "Good luck with that."

Ironically the bookshop in which I bought it, Hodges Figgis in Dublin, is mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses. Ulysses is both a modernist classic and a book that a lot of people own but haven't read. It currently sits on my bookshelf next to Capital. Both are in equally pristine condition.

But that's me laughing at something I don't understand. Classic pandering to dumbed down culture. Just because a book deals with complex ideas doesn't mean one shouldn't at least attempt to read it. So I am going to persevere, just not yet. And maybe understanding this topic requires a little bit of lateral thinking.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
James Joyce's Ulysses: heavy reading

'Move to Sweden'

As a comedian, I find it hard to articulate and work out jokes without knowing how they sound in front of an audience. So, regardless of how badly formed and misshapen the material, it must be launched into the big bad world of a live show like a fledgling nudged out of the nest by a cruel-to-be-kind mother bird.

Could the same work for ideas like capitalism? Why not give it a try? As part of my research, I struggled to work out my limited understanding in front of a reasonably forgiving radio audience. I used a slide show. Which is utterly useless to those listening in on the radio, but in its own way apes a certain facet of crony capitalism. Those within the circle are beneficiaries of extra information that the general public are not.

I also wanted to find out other people's understanding of the word. I "took" to social media to canvass people's views. Some might say that this is a lazy form of research. Let me reject that implication. I was merely saluting a new form of commerce: social media capitalism. The traditional capitalist paradigms are being additionally disrupted. So there.

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Image caption,
Not everyone is a fan

And I "took" to social media, meaning there was certain dynamism involved. As opposed to "going on social media", which is just sitting passively and accidentally "liking" someone's wedding photos from five years ago. Views on Facebook ranged from "Capitalism is America" to "Capitalism is great when you're young, healthy and don't have kids. As soon as you have kids, you need to move to Sweden, believe me."

Capitalism... or extortion?

What about the man and woman on the physical street? What do they think? There was no better street on which to find out than Wall Street, for many people the epicentre of the C-word.

Image source, colm o'regan
Image caption,
The Wall Street Bull (on the left)

I took a selfie in front of the galloping copper bull, I spoke to others doing the same and got the very trenchant views of one true capitalist - a street seller called Ty near Bowling Green subway station. He articulated a common complaint about capitalism: that for the little guy, the notion of free enterprise is hollow.

This is something that Mark Blyth, professor of international political economy at Brown University, echoes: "We don't really do capitalism.

"So to think about banking you can run a business model which is an extortion racket against the taxpayer. If the risks [go wrong] you can't be allowed to fail so you have a brilliant business model. That's not capitalism - that's extortion. I think capitalism is a great idea. It's just that the version we end up with isn't capitalism."

Ha-Joon Chang agrees. He is the author of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. With a title like that, you just know that he thinks we've been labouring under a misapprehension: "Over the years I have come to the increasing realisation that when people talk about capitalism or inequality or whatever, they do this on the basis of a huge range of myths that they think are facts."

Now I'm at the end of my "journey" through capitalism. And where am I? You were right - I've only scratched the surface of the topic.

But here's one thing I think I have learned: capitalism might be a good idea, if we tried it.

The Documentary: Number Crunched - Colm O'Regan's Story of Capitalism is on BBC World Service at 02:30 GMT, 16:30 GMT and 20:30 GMT on Tuesday, 9 December, or listen again on the BBC iPlayer.