How the game of capitalism creates winners and losers
Think of the game Monopoly.
The goal of the game is for one player to accumulate the most wealth and property, while the other players have to pay off their debt by selling their properties, which often eventually leads to them losing everything. However, Monopoly is not just a long board game to play on a lazy day at home, but actually an illustrative example of the capitalist system our society has today.
The original idea for the game, before Charles Darrow claimed he invented it and sold it to Parker Brothers, was actually from the anti-capitalist Elizabeth Magie. Her “Landlord’s Game,” which she patented in 1903, showed the income inequalities and power of the monopolists at the time. According to a New York Times article from 2015, Magie “created two sets of rules for her game: an anti-monopolist set in which all were rewarded when wealth was created, and a monopolist set in which the goal was to create monopolies and crush opponents. Her dualistic approach was a teaching tool meant to demonstrate that the first set of rules was morally superior.” However, the monopolist version of the game caught on and Darrow claimed a version of it and became rich as a result.
An article by The Guardian from April 2015 titled “The secret history of Monopoly: the capitalist board game’s left-wing origins,” quotes Magie as saying the game contained “all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem[s] to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.”
This desire for the accumulation of wealth has led to capitalism becoming ingrained in our society. And like Monopoly, capitalism is a game with winners and losers, creating social stratification and the idea of meritocracy. The history of capitalism dates back to Western Europe during the Middle Ages, but today it has evolved into a far-reaching global system.
Capitalism.org defines capitalism as a “social system based on the principle of individual rights.” The website writes that “Politically, it is a system of laissez-faire (freedom).” Legally, it is a system of objective laws, meaning capitalism’s purpose is to protect the rights of the individual, with the economic aspect of the system being its commitment to having free markets.
John Plender, a senior editorial writer and columnist for The Financial Times, defines capitalism as “a business cycle.” He said this cycle was unknown before the Industrial Revolution and it is made volatile by an unstable banking system.
“The dynamic of capitalism inflicts constant change as whole industries rise and fall as a result of technological advance,” Plender said. “So working people are subjected to wrenching swings in the level of employment, communities are disrupted and beautiful countryside in the early stages of capitalism is made ugly by industrialisation.”
Within a capitalist society, social stratification — how society groups people into different categories based on their social status, wealth and occupation — is usually prevalent and Plender said classes tend to be split by wealth and income.
“Capitalism has a built-in tendency to create inequalities of income and wealth and has no means of addressing global problems that require collective solutions such as environmental pollution,” Plender said.
He said historically, capitalism resorts to old class hierarchies that made wealth independent of land ownership.
“But the new hierarchies depend on the particular model of capitalism that countries pursue,” Plender said. “In many countries, crony capitalism grants monopolies to oligarchs. And that includes the United States, where politicians on Capitol Hill have been systematically bought by Wall Street and the Business Roundtable through campaign finance and heavy-duty lobbying.”
Meritocracy, which is the idea that power should be held by individuals with ability, talent and levels of achievement, is also common within a capitalist society. This pertains to capitalism in that those who are the most successful tend to be treated as superior in a capitalistic society.
However, there are advantages to the system of capitalism, Plender said. He said he believes that capitalism works for our society. Capitalism as a system brings people out of poverty, Plender said, mentioning as an example how China decided to adopt the capitalist model of urbanization and industrialization in 1978. Plender said the country then saw an eightfold increase in per capita gross domestic product over the next three decades.
“If you look more widely, the number of people living at or below $1.25 a day, after adjusting for the purchasing power of the dollar in different countries, fell from 52 percent in 1981 to 21 percent in 2010, according to the World Bank,” Plender said. “That is a transformation in living standards that has no precedent in human history. Before capitalism there was, for centuries, scarcely any rise in living standards.”
However, there are those who believe the system of capitalism is more destructive than it is beneficial.
Stephanie McMillan is a cartoonist who is opposed to the capitalist system. Through her cartoons, she advocates against different aspects of capitalism in order to inform the public about what she sees as an unfair system. McMillan said she believes the capitalist system is exploitative and oppressive and that it cannot be any other way.
“The way that profit is generated is through the production of surplus value and the production of commodity, and that can only be done by exploiting workers and selling the commodities for higher prices than our workers are paid for their labor power,” McMillan said. “So exploitation is inherent in the process.”
McMillan also said the system is ecocidal, which means that it is leading to the destruction of the natural environment.
“[Capitalism] requires potential growth, which means that ecocide is also inherent in the process because it [capitalism] constantly has to be increasing the amount of natural resources that it’s putting into production,” she said. “For me, it’s a nightmare system that we need to get rid of.”
In the metaphorical sense that capitalism is a “game,” there are clear winners and losers. McMillan said she sees the wealthy capitalists as the ones who clearly benefit the most from the system, while she believes that most people within the system are losing.
“[The capitalists] are the ones who enforce it and everybody else loses, because it is the few who are profiting from the backs of the many,” McMillan said. “While there might be relative differences in the many different ways people lose … we are all still losing, and the capitalists themselves are the only ones taking everything. I wouldn’t even call it winning because eventually they are going to destroy their own habitat as well.”
In contrast, Plender believes there is merit in having a capitalist system because it raises living standards in countries that embrace it. While Plender said capitalism has led to a lot of damage throughout history, he said the government has learned how to lessen the severity of the damage through different forms of economic intervention, such as being involved in the free market process. Plender said an example of this is how after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the U.S. did not suffer a huge loss of output like it did in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
However, Plender acknowledged that capitalism is by no means a perfect system.
“While the losers lose less today than they did in the nineteenth century, an increasingly narrow group of big winners are scooping an astonishingly large amount of income and wealth,” Plender said. “The structure of newer high-tech and financial industries seems to create a winner-takes-all environment in which inequality has become more extreme than at any time since the 1920s, another period of financial excess.”
Some people argue that capitalism cannot be fixed and say society should instead move to a system of socialism, which they believe would create equality for all.
Doug Barnes is the national secretary of the Freedom Socialist Party, a socialist and feminist organization that has been in the United States for 50 years. The organization is active in different social movements and one of the goals of this group is to overthrow the capitalist system.
“I think socialism is essentially shared equality and by doing that, by redistributing wealth so that everyone’s basic needs are met, it brings everyone up to a level of ending mass starvation, mass deaths and wars that are going on,” Barnes said. “So by collaboration and cooperation we can end a lot of the ills of this current economic system.”
Barnes describes the capitalist system as a “dog-eat-dog” system. He said by sharing the wealth of the world, everyone can gain a decent standard of living, education and healthcare — all the basic needs Barnes said are human rights not respected by the capitalist system.
Instead of this however, Barnes said people like Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump are creating hatred and waging war on the poor and lower classes. The organization Barnes is part of wants to end the oppression of marginalized people in society.
“The increased disparity within groups, between men and women, between people of color and between people of different sexes and sexual orientation — it’s criminal,” Barnes said. “And it’s creating these divisions. We want to see an end to that and also the ability to creatively work with each other to solve the world’s problems.”
According to an article written in January by The Fiscal Times titled, “Bernie Sanders Says He’s a Democratic Socialist. Here’s What That Means,” socialism is a smoother system, while capitalism has booms and busts.
“By [capitalism’s] very nature, it is built to increase profits for those that profit,” Barnes said. “Some billionaires own more than a lot of countries in the world, gazillionaires, whatever you call them. It’s an incredible, unequal, unfair … damaging and dangerous system that’s plunging us towards economic and environmental suicide.”
The capitalist system, as Plender puts it, is essentially a paradox. It increases productivity in our society, which generates wealth. However, the system itself is unstable because of the inequalities it creates.
Ana Borruto is a sophomore journalism major who will kick your ass at Monopoly. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org