Alain de Botton: capitalism isn’t dying – it’s only just started

Philosopher says capitalism was intended as a way to make the maximum number of people happy – but is only just starting to work out how 

Capitalism has drifted away from its original aim of maximising happiness, but will find its feet again, says eminent philosopher Alain de Botton.

De Botton used the recent Changeboard conference to say that the world’s most popular economic system was still in a very early, unsophisticated phase.

“In a time when there is a lot of cynicism about what business and capitalism is about, let’s remind ourselves that the whole thing started with bold claim about human happiness,” he said. “Its early defenders in the 18th century who spoke up for the system we call market consumer capitalism did so because this system and this system alone could guarantee the most happiness to the greatest number of people. It was not, primarily, about greater profitability. That was a secondary consideration.”

But the British thinker warned that “something has gone a little wrong, both intellectually and practically”.

Capitalism is still at a very rudimentary stage, he said. “We are still only just learning to sell things that are relatively basic in terms of Abraham Mazlow’s pyramid of needs, the basics of food, transport, communications etc.

“Right at the top are love, belonging, purpose, meaning, connection etc.

“If you map the economy against that pyramid you will find that most of the companies – certainly the FTSE100 – is down at the bottom of that pyramid. The transportation of lumber, timber, cement etc. This is what most of the economy is about.”

In Stage 2 capitalism humans will learn to sell each other more meaningful things, de Botton added. “On your way to your airport you see a giant advert for a bar of chocolate. This is taking up a large space in your life and yet it is such a trivial part of any decent human existence.”

Social media giants such as Facebook are Capitalism Phase 2 sellers, de Botton said. “They are selling friendship,” he said. “The are dealing with something which is right at the top of the pyramid. I’m optimistic about Facebook.”

Rather than selling alcoholic drinks by linking their consumption to better social lives, why not sell the social lives? he asked. Rather than selling bath products by linking their use to a feeling of calm, why not just sell the calm? “Companies like [meditation consultancy] Head Space are doing very well,” he said.

“I don’t believe that the precious things in life are beyond commerce,” de Botton added. “Commerce gets to grips with them, systemises them, and makes them more widely available.

“People say: “a good conversation should be free.” Well should it? You can go somewhere and have a good conversation, and you can pay someone to listen to you – a psychotherapist perhaps.

“People say that they start talking to their friends and, in five minutes, they are out the door. Much better to pay someone – then they can’t leave.”