The UK government’s strategy for mental health promotion – No Health Without Mental Health – claims that a “healthy economy” and the “wellbeing of the whole population” are equal priorities for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Implied is the idea that capitalism is compatible with mental health. Dogmatic assertions that there is no alternative to capitalism (Thatcher’s infamous T.I.N.A. doctrine) aside, a simple institutional analysis shows why such claims should not be taken seriously by anyone.
We know that social exclusion is bad for people’s mental health. It follows therefore, that an economic system that is inclusive will help remove this social determinant of mental illness. This raises a number of important questions. First, is capitalism a socially inclusive economic system? Second, if not, what might an inclusive economy look like?
Economics is all about the production, allocation and consumption of goods and services. These goods and services typically include things like; transportation, education, food, health care. You get the picture. For these three primary economic activities – production, allocation and consumption – to take place in an orderly fashion, a set of norms have to be established. Examples of such norms include:
- A norm for ownership of resources.
- A norm for sharing out tasks.
- A norm for decision-making.
We are now in a position to ask a number of simple questions. What is the norm for ownership of resources under capitalism? What is the norm for sharing out tasks under capitalism? What is the norm for decision-making under capitalism? When we have answered these questions we can then go on to ask if these capitalist norms are socially inclusive or exclusive. For the UK government’s claim – that capitalism and mental health are compatible – to have any credibility the answers would have to be that these norms are socially inclusive.
The answer to the first question is: Private ownership. In a capitalist economy resources – such as land, factories, machinery, etc – are predominantly owned by the capitalist class who typically make-up about one or two percent of the population.
The answer to the second question is: The corporate division of labour. This sounds complicated, but it is not. The jobs that we do are nothing more than a list of tasks. Some tasks are more empowering than others. In a capitalist economy tasks are shared out unevenly. It is this uneven distribution of empowering tasks that create the corporate division of labour. This results in about twenty percent of the workforce (the professional-managerial class – sometimes also referred to as the coordinator class) monopolising the empowering tasks whilst the remaining eighty percent (the working class) are left to undertake the unempowering and disempowering tasks.
The answer to the third question is: Top-down authoritarianism. In a capitalist economy decisions are made by the owners and managers at the top of the organisation. Decisions made are then filtered down through the hierarchy. Whilst it is true that the working class, via organised labour, may have a say in decision-making, this is despite and not because of this capitalist norm. Trade unions exist precisely because of, and in response to, the authoritarian nature of capitalist decision-making procedures.
We can now move on to ask are these capitalist norms socially inclusive or exclusive. More precisely; is private ownership socially inclusive or exclusive? Is the corporate division of labour socially inclusive or exclusive? Is top-down authoritarianism socially inclusive or exclusive? More generally, we can ask; is the class system that these capitalist norms generates socially inclusive or exclusive? The answers to all of these questions are too obvious to state.
Even with full employment, capitalism would still not be a socially inclusive economic system. Private ownership of resources, plus the corporate division of labour, plus top-down authoritarian decision-making, equals the class system described above. In short, capitalist norms institutionalise classism, which in turn systematically guarantees social exclusion.
With our first important question out of the way we can now go on to explore our second question: What might an inclusive economy look like? Again, the answer to this question should be pretty straightforward, if not obvious – especially after we have identified the right questions to ask regarding economic norms. But before going on to try to answer this question however, it might be worth pointing out that the traditional alternative to capitalist economics – namely, socialism – failed to be truly socially inclusive for some of the same reasons that capitalism continues to be today. Let me try to explain.
Although twentieth century socialism (think Leninist Russia, for example) opposed and rejected the capitalist norm of private ownership, it also maintain the corporate division of labour. This resulted, not in classlessness, but in coordinator class rule over the working class. Naturally enough the coordinator class used their position of power to monopolise decision-making and, insodoing also maintained the capitalist economic norm of top-down authoritarianism. For the majority (the working class) then, socialism was no more inclusive than capitalism. Such analysis clearly makes a nonsense out of the T.I.N.A doctrine mentioned above.
In light of the above analysis we can ask the following questions:
- What might a norm for ownership of resources within a socially inclusive economy be?
- What might a norm for sharing out tasks within a socially inclusive economy be?
- What might a norm for decision-making within a socially inclusive economy be?
Recall that we are looking for answers that eradicate the class system that is generated by the capitalist norms. We want norms that remove the capitalist class, the coordinator class and the working class. We want economic norms that institutionalise social inclusion for all equally – and insodoing help promote mental health.
At this point it might start to become apparent that our options are not that numerous – at least not at the first level of approximation. I mean, what are the alternatives to private ownership of resources and authoritarian decision making? How many alternatives are there to the corporate division of labour? Here are some suggestions that are drawn from the participatory economics (parecon) model that I think can begin to point us in the right direction when trying to answer our second important question: what might an inclusive economy look like?
- A norm for ownership of resources within a socially inclusive economy would be social ownership. The implementation of this norm would result in the removal of the institution that generates and maintains the capitalist class and insodoing move us towards classlessness.
- A norm for sharing out tasks within a socially inclusive economy would be an equal distribution of empowering tasks (in the parecon model this is referred to as a balanced job complex). The implementation of this norm would result in the removal of the institution that generates and maintains the coordinator class and insodoing move us towards classlessness.
- A norm for decision-making within a socially inclusive economy would be economic democracy (in the parecon model a more specific formulation of economic democracy is proposed called self-management). The implementation of this norm would result in the removal of the institution that generates and maintains capitalist and coordinator class dominance and insodoing move us towards classlessness.
Combined, social ownership, plus balanced job complexes and self-management constitute economic norms for a socially inclusive economy that would help promote mental health. As good old-fashioned capitalist, are the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister interested in implementing economic reforms that would move us towards such norms? Of course not! And that is why no one should take the UK government’s claims about the “wellbeing of the whole population” seriously.
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