Musings on Capitalism, Individual Choice, and Corporate Responsibility

Throughout my internship I’ve asserted that I really have no experience or even true past interest in the “business world”. The rumors are true, I did take Econ in Arabic this year and can tell you all about the complex theory of “supply and demand” (العرض والطلب ) which built off my one day of Econ 101 well. But that’s really the extent of my academic pursuit in the area. However, as I approach my final week of my internship, I’m challenging myself to dig into this “newbie” assertion.

In reviewing essays from syllabi of my past courses, I’ve found a number of titles that seem to hint at an economic sub-subject. Hooked, I decided to re-read articles from a course I took my sophomore year, “Sex, Politics, and Feminist Philosophy”.

With a reading list that includes names like Friedrich Engels, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill; but also, Angela Davis, Emma Goldman, Bell Hooks, and the Combahee River Collective, a mainstay of the course was absolutely economic theory, specifically the deconstruction/revision of much of it.

Curious as to how I interpreted these readings, I reread a few of my essays from the course and decided to share an excerpt from a paper I wrote, “Capitalism and Choice” and comment on how my thinking remains constant, changed, and why – since my semi-entrance into the “business world”.

*Warning, the excerpts analyze themes of capitalism and agency through two readings by Virginie Despentes: Sleeping with the Enemy and She’s So Depraved You Can’t Rape Her. Both of these readings center around themes of rape and prostitution.

Important introductory point: “Due to the necessary brevity of the paper, the ‘prostitute’ under discussion is assumed to be female, and the buyer/consumer is assumed to be male.”

“Virginie Despentes concludes “She’s so Depraved You Can’t Rape Her,” quoting Gail Pheterson: “The paradigm of women serving/men paying corresponds to an unequal social exchange—an exchange I have decided to label ‘prostitutional’” (She’s so Depraved You Can’t Rape Her, 9). Despentes then proceeds to argue in “Sleeping with the Enemy” that prostitution is a decision that “must remain free” (Sleeping with the Enemy, 1). However, conclusion of the article reveals—counter to her enduring thesis—that prostitution, clearly rooted in the capitalist system, serves to further subject women. Leaving “Sleeping with the Enemy”, the takeaways reveal that prostitution may be an act of choice but cannot be deemed one of free choice. Aligned with Pheterson, due to the structure of markets—the base function of supply and demand—the prostitute cannot enter into a contract out of pure free will. The demand of the man births her existence, and the exchange of money—innately coercive—robs her of agency.

To start, I wanted to re-analyze my thoughts on  because I believe it’s one of the most ethically challenging instances of exchange our world has. On the one hand, given present-day systems of power that award certain people and harm many others, sex work often lays extreme harm on those whose bodies are approached as the commodity. I say this to introduce (not assert!) the idea that sex work may not be inherently harmful. Rather, the context in which it exists and scenarios in which it encounters may, in a sense, poison a person’s agency and right to earn a living.

That said, I won’t try to write about the ethics of sex work in this blog. I believe such public analysis needs to be thorough, thoughtful, and well-informed so as not place harm or contribute to negative tropes, stereotypes, and misinformation. As I’m not confident in my ability to completely avoid such impacts right now, I’m going to skip the conversation about the ethics of sex work itself, and focus on the elements of markets, supply, demand, and free will.

Now, returning to excerpt two paragraphs ago, I’d like to focus on the ideas of agency. Specifically–

“… prostitution may be an act of choice but cannot be deemed one of free choice. Aligned with Pheterson, due to the structure of markets—the base function of supply and demand—the prostitute cannot enter into a contract out of pure free will. The demand of the man births her existence, and the exchange of money—innately coercive—robs her of agency.”

Though systems of enslavement and human trafficking exist and at times run parallel to sex work, sex work is unusual in that the actual “commodity” necessitates the presence and action of a human being and may even be seen as the individual – body – itself. It’s also difficult to say exactly what the commodity is. Is it sex, power, companionship?

Regardless of the actual “commodity”, there exists an argument that asserts individuals’ right to not only determine how they make a living, but how they use their body.

And absolutely, the right to earn a living is certainly ingrained in the psyche of our country, at times even weaponized to defend systems that perpetuate inequality. However, free will/true agency is in question when one has few or no other options to make money and survive in a capitalist system.

Abridging Marx – in an economic system based off of mass supply and demand, does anyone truly enter a contract based off of free will? Or is it a constant case of maneuvering and re-aligning to reach enough of a consensus to fuel a profitable demand?

Again, I give – we live in a communal society so such sacrifices and compromises are essential to our mutual existence. However, what if the working goals of our society isn’t mutual existence, at least not in an equitable monetary sense. Rather, what if we give Marx and Engels the green light and any capitalist system is ordered to benefit an elite few at the expense or exploitation of the larger mass? We certainly see this across our world, but does it have to be this way?

The Ryan of two years ago wrote–

“Despentes mores her argument of the prostitute’s freedom within the prostitute’s contract by placing it relative to the marriage contract. In a form of ‘what-about-ism’ she argues for the prostitute’s preferential position as she is able to profit from sex, procuring currency that supposedly pads and paves freedom. However, the argument is inherently flawed. Within it, Despentes asserts that wealth is absolutely freeing. However, given the coalescence between patriarchy and capitalism, the amassing of wealth furthers an innately unequal system. Being more active within a flawed system doesn’t equate to a scenario of free will, but rather informs a plane of choice that will inevitably benefit the system more than the agent.

I think this Ryan is right, but I can also see where the argument is limited. Throughout my internship I’ve heard that social and corporate responsibility organizations work to help businesses do better, but they’re not burn-it-to-the-ground advocates. Many such organizations look at ideas like redistribution and restoration to approach equitable, livable, and just scenarios.

Are corporate and social responsibility organizations “part of the problem” because they work within the “system”? I don’t think so. Does corporate responsibility put band aids on cancer? I don’t think so.

Rather, an adage I’ve heard throughout my internship rings true – “we must work with the world as we find it.” I think similar to having tough conversations with relatives about issues racial justice and lack-there-of in the U.S., we have to meet and work with the perpetrators of harm.

I suppose this is a long way of saying that I don’t think my thinking or individual ideology has changed since my internship, but that is also because I hadn’t and still don’t have any concrete answers or absolute opinions on business, capitalism, etc.

I’m proud and very grateful to work for an organization that analyzes, identifies, and combats inequity and harm in business. And that can exist while entire systems are flawed.