The plan for capitalism

Capitalism at the moment is pretty terrible. Obviously, we all know how much many big businesses wreck the environment and societies around the globe. But mainly, capitalism is lacklustre. It is terrible for what it lacks. The system organizes lots of effort towards creating and distributing products that are incredibly dull. Yet it is so big and world-conquering that it makes you think it is important – the most important thing. In the 19th Century we started with efficiently made bread and shoes and nails; today there are empires of people dedicated to watches, cars, cereal, moisturiser, more shoes, beer, soft drinks, etc. It has of course been a great achievement: a lot of industrial capitalist effort is put towards organizing very good things like clean water, electricity, roads, hospital equipment, wifi, etc. Compared to any other era we have an extraordinary power to organize these basic things on a large scale.

What is missing is the capacity to meet needs higher up the ‘pyramid of needs’. We have amazing systems to provide water, food and transport, but no equivalent large-scale organization around good relationships, mindfulness, self-knowledge, and wisdom about one’s career – to name a few practical areas of great need. For example, there is a central human need to have good relationships, but we are only at the beginning of designing products and services that will help us with this. The dating industry is the ‘pioneer’ in this area: even though its services are not very helpful, it is at least engaging with the need for relationships. The dating industry is brings in about $2 billion USD annually in the US (growing at 5% per year). In the background is the self-help market, which also touches on needs around relationships; it is worth $9 billion in the US. Both dating and self-help are very rudimentary industries at the moment, but there is huge scope to design new products and services that better meet the underlying challenges and aspirations people have in this area of life. Really, given the scale and centrality of the need, companies helping us have better relationships should be bringing in revenue of something like $400 billion – at least equivalent in scale to global annual sales of smartphones.

As for relationships, so for the other areas where organizations currently provide us with little help. One could imagine LinkedIn, for example, growing into a business that offered us well-crafted and highly personalized help around how we think through our careers – helping us clarify and address the underlying longings we have around ‘careers’ as well as addressing the practical issues of getting seen by recruiters and meeting the right company to join, and so on. Offering personalized help around careers should be an industry as big as soft drinks – the needs around career decisions are even stronger than the desire for soft drink, it is just that effective products are harder to design. Once we crack the design of these products though, the global desire is very strong, and almost entirely unmet. Capitalism at the moment is very good at creating a wide variety of shoes and holiday packages; the capitalism of the future will be equally as organized, efficient and widespread around meeting needs that are central to the human soul. We will get organized and successful around providing key aspects of human flourishing – highly personalized products and services that help us become truly more fulfilled – because if we don’t, then our competitors will.

Taking a step back to look briefly at the global politics of capitalism – of course many people don’t yet have access to clean drinking water and a range of affordable shoes. Creating these things is of course vital to continue. What we don’t want is for large sections of the planet to become prosperous and ‘middle class’ in the way we currently find depressing: being anxious and lost about careers and directing one’s work in life, having worse relationships, lacking all mindfulness and compensating with a million distractions and anxiety suppressants. In the places where we have clean drinking water, we need to focus on filling in other parts of the picture of human flourishing, so that when people are lifted out of extreme poverty, there are ways of living with money and resources that are worth aspiring to, that are good for ourselves and good for each other.

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