Greed, Altruism & Capitalism: A Critique of John Mackey


John Mackey - Conscious Capitalism

John Mackey, Advocate of Conscious Capitalism

Note: The following is a transcript of a video published here.

In this article would like to offer my critique of some statements made recently by the CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods Market John Mackey on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. As you’ll see, Mackey tries to defend capitalism using some very weak arguments which I would like to expose here.

Although I’ve written a lot about the flaws of our economic system, when I do that I rarely talk about “capitalism” or “socialism” or “communism” or any other “ism”, because, for one, I find that those terms are loosely defined, and hence their use tends to create confusion instead of clarity. In addition, a lot of people identify as socialists or capitalists and so on, so when the “ism” they support and advocate is challenged, they usually become defensive and fight against the opposing side to win over it, without caring about having an actual discussion.

Now, John Mackey is a self-proclaimed conscious capitalist – a term that makes me laugh, really – but, anyway, he is speaking a lot about why business and competition and markets are so good for society and the planet, and basically he’s claiming that capitalism is amazing, and that, although it could be improved, it’s the only economic system that works — and not just works, but works great!

I find his claims to be far-fetched to the point of being delusional, but I hear claims like his all the time, so I thought of making this video to refute some of them and help show why our dominant global economic system – call it “capitalism,” “market economics” or however you will – is for the most part a destructive force that has to be stopped, if we truly want to live at peace with each other and in alignment with nature.

So, let’s start by reading what John Mackey has to say about business:

“Business isn’t primarily about maximizing profits. Business is primarily about creating value for other people. And through creating value for other people, you do make a profit. But it’s the value creation that comes first. The profits come second, in exchange. Right? And it’s almost if you are creating value, then you are profitable. And then you can reinvest those profits and you have this upward spiral.”

Ok, so, Mackey says that the primary goal of businesses is not to maximize profit, but to provide value to the consumer.

It’s true that businesses do in general provide consumers with something that the latter value, otherwise they wouldn’t buy it, and, as a result, businesses would not make profit, and hence die. The problem, however, is that what is valuable isn’t necessarily good — “good” in the sense of contributing to our personal, societal or planetary well-being. What if, hypothetically speaking, I find value in buying products that are made using toxic materials that pollute the soil or the air or the sea? Businesses can provide those products to me in exchange for profit, so does that mean such businesses are helping me or society or the world? Not really, for my very health and that of people and animals and everything else alive depends on the health of our planet.

Now, although businesses do want and, in fact, have to provide some kind of value in order to stay profitable, the truth is that for most of them, profit is the end goal, and serving the needs or wants of people is just the means through which they make profit. If that wasn’t the case, I’m pretty sure that businesses would not sell all the crap that they do or deceive people through advertising.

Having said that, I’m sure there are some — although, not many — businesses that do want to contribute to the well-being of the world, but their effectiveness in achieving that is restricted by the very structure of our economic system, since to serve the well-being of people and the planet in a way that is what you might call “ethical,” isn’t that profitable in the competitive, consumption-based and deception-filled game of business and markets. Hence, most of those businesses can’t really make much of an impact, for they have an extremely hard time staying alive in such a fundamentally anti-social and anti-environmental economy.

John Mackey goes on to talk about greed and how it is “human nature,” suggesting that it’s essentially pointless to try to minimize it since it’s an inseparable part of who we are.

“Business has its potential for higher purpose. It’s primarily about greed. Greed is found in human nature, Joe, it’s not just found in business people. There are plenty of greedy governmental officials, plenty of greedy politicians, greedy lawyers… Greed is endemic to the human nature. Business people either have no more or no less than it, it’s just part who we are.”

There’s no doubt that greed is part of human nature. Violence is part of it too. Murdering, raping and punching others in the face is, in a sense, “human nature.” When it comes to violence, of course, we understand that people who are violent, are generally people who have been subjected to harsh or violent conditions, such as poverty and abuse, and we know statistically that if those conditions were improved significantly, then violence in society would be largely reduced.

Greed, just like violence, has psychological and economic roots. I’ll not go much into what those are right now, since I’ve already made another video exploring this very topic. In relation to this context, however, I’ll just say that monetary greed results from a sense of inner lack that is caused partly by our debt-based economic system which creates artificial scarcity and incentivizes competition and incessant economic growth.

Mackey continuous:

“It’s a type of utopianism. It’s an attempt to change human nature. If we would all love each other, if we’d all share equally, then the world would be a better place. And, hey, guess what? It probably would be, if we were naturally that way, but we are not naturally that way.”

If greed has its root causes, is it utopian to think of changing the conditions that tap to and feed the greedy part of our nature? Is it utopian to consider altering or even getting rid of the business game as we know it, with its profit-seeking orientation that breeds greedy behavior by design?

Again, greed is part of human nature, and there’s no denying that most likely people will always be greedy to one degree or another. But my point here is that greed can be minimized by changing the conditions that give rise to it, and should be, if we want to live in a saner and overall healthier world.

Let’s listen to some more pearls of wisdom coming out of the conscious capitalist’s mouth:

“The beauty of capitalism is, it’s a win-win-win game. It’s an infinite game. It’s a game because the customers are winning, or they wouldn’t trade. The employees are winning… How the customers are winning? They are getting products and services, and there is competition to make those services and products better. The employees are winning because they have jobs and opportunities to grow, benefits are paid. And they do that voluntarily, they’re not forced to work for any particular company. They do it because they think it’s in their best interest.”

OK, Mackey made some big statements here.

Firstly, he said that customers are winning. But, are they? Are they, for example, truly happy spending their hard-earned money buying stuff they don’t really benefit from yet which they were persuaded to obtain by manipulative advertising that seeks to destroy our self-esteem in order to increase sales? And, saying that they wouldn’t trade if they weren’t happy doing so, is ridiculous. For, in this system, we have no other choice than to trade when it comes to meeting our needs. You have to buy food or you starve, you have to pay for housing or you live on the streets. In other words, the freedom to not trade simply does not exist.

Secondly, he says that employees are winning because they have jobs and the opportunity to grow, and that they voluntarily choose to work for the companies they like. Do most people in this system have the choice to not work for some company? Not really. In other words, they are coerced to sell their work to someone, for otherwise they won’t be able to earn money and make it out alive. Hence, in this system the exploitation of workers by the employers is structurally inevitable.

Now, here’s the part from this interview that I enjoyed the most:

“We may do some things for altruistic reasons, but you cannot build a society around it.”

Let me repeat what he just said: We may do some things for altruistic reasons, but you cannot build a society around it.

Oh, really? You can’t build a society around altruism? You can’t build a society where people share resources – which, by the way, are enough to satisfy everyone’s needs — instead of neurotically hoarding them at the expense of others? You can’t build a society where people work together to maximize social well-being, instead of fighting against each other when they don’t actually need to?

This is bullshit.

Next, John Mackey talks a bit about the environmental impacts of our economy and the importance of regulating business:

“There will be unintended negative consequences, as you say, environmentally. Well, that’s why you have to regulate business to a certain extent. That’s why you have to make people responsible for their environmental pollutants.”

So, Mackey says that it’s important to regulate business so that it is forced to be more environmentally-friendly, forgetting that our economic system requires endless economic growth and consumption on a planet of finite resources. Why? Because money has to be constantly moving in the economy or else the economy would collapse. If the circulation of money was stopped or reduced significantly, people would lose their jobs and hence spend less money in the market, which would create unemployment on a vast scale, and that would result in impoverishment and social instability. In other words, our economic system requires the over extraction of the Earth’s resources. Hence, it’s structurally anti-environmental.

Now, concerning regulation, in a world ruled by money those who have the most possess the power to influence regulation to their own economic advantage. The government itself is, in a sense, governed by the rich. I do agree that regulation does help overall, but not much. That’s obvious, for example, when you consider that, despite the efforts made thus far by activists and certain political figures to regulate businesses, all life support systems are currently in decline due to the game of business, and both we humans and the countless other beings we share this planet with are suffering immensely because of that.

Lastly, John Mackey goes on to say that we needn’t attempt to fundamentally change our economic system, and the reasons he gives for that are hilarious.

“The sad truth is that humanity is not perfectible. We can never create the perfect system. And the attempt to create the perfect system, the perfect enemy is the good. Capitalism is not perfect, because people’s choices and what people want is varies. Capitalism will sell cigaretts to people because that’s what people want. It gives them pleasure but it’s bad for their health, but they are giving people what they want. It’s the same thing in any type of externality. That’s not deliberably done to harm the society, it’s a sort of a byproduct.”

Sure, humanity is not perfectible, and, I agree, no system will ever be perfect. But that doesn’t justify having an economic system that by design creates artificial scarcity, poverty and disease, that breeds competition, violence and war, and that causes environmental destruction to the point of possibly seeing our very civilization perish in the near future.

All the above are largely the result of business and profit-seeking. So, to say that, although our economic system isn’t perfect, it is still good or anything close to that, is just delusional. This system is inherently destructive, and unless we radically redesign it, things will only get worse.

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