The Cynical Psychology of Capitalism

By Kanner, Allen D. | Tikkun, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

The Cynical Psychology of Capitalism


Kanner, Allen D., Tikkun


TWO YEARS AGO, THREE PSYCHOLOGISTS AND AN ECONOMIST PUBLISHED A long journal article on the dubious psychology that underlies American corporate capitalism. The original title of the piece began with the phrase, "A Taboo Topic," but the authors (myself among them) were warned by a sympathetic editor to be as unprovocative as possible to avoid being instantly written off as leftist ideologues. We deleted the phrase, thus assuring that the taboo against criticizing capitalism remained alive and well.

It's time for us all to confront this taboo. Capitalism rests on several key ideas regarding human motivation and development that fly in the face of much of Western psychology. Here I will focus on two of these: that people are primarily self-interested and that the acquisition of material wealth is the key to happiness. If these "insights" prove false or seriously incomplete, then capitalism unravels at the seams.

Are people fundamentally self-interested? Most theories of human development describe a progression of life stages that begins with an infant's preoccupation with self and then expands that awareness outward, first to family and friends, and then to community, society, and future generations. Although self-interest does not disappear, our sympathies become "more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings," observed Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. Many individuals do not reach the latter stages of human development, but the most mature, wise, and fulfilled among us do. In contrast, becoming stuck or fixated at a particular stage leads to unhappiness and psychological problems.

Similarly, many forms of psychopathology are characterized by a preoccupation with the self and an inability to value the needs and wishes of others. This is evident, for example, in narcissism, sociopathy, and most other personality disorders. Psychological health, in contrast, includes a well-developed sense of empathy and the capacity to put other people's needs above one's own, while still caring for oneself. For most clinical approaches, movement in the direction of greater empathy and compassion, combined with a hefty dose of self-love, is a sign of significant progress.

When we apply this general perspective to capitalism's insistence that people are fundamentally selfish, the economic system comes out looking fatalistic, if not downright cynical. It assigns humanity to a low and easily attained level of moral, social, and emotional development and offers scant hope of collective improvement. Proponents of free enterprise argue that it is futile to attempt to alter our self-serving nature. Rather, the marketplace should organize itself based on the premise that everyone is out for her- or himself.

This brings us to the second key assumption we challenged in our article. The free market has as its primary goal the ongoing accumulation of wealth, which is supposed to provide the best opportunity available for attaining happiness. …

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