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It’s a corporate trial that has the French public, and particularly the working class riveted. But it’s more than just a legal proceeding. The case may have reverberations throughout the developed world. Possibly, what happens in France over the coming weeks and months may invite questions about the very institution of capitalism.

Facing criminal allegations of “moral harassment” are former top-level executives of France Télécom. Prosecutors accuse the well-heeled defendants for creating an extremely toxic and humiliating environment in a bid to push them out. Reasoning among themselves, according to multiple testimonies, that coerced resignations were beneficial toward cutting costs, the execs did everything possible to make many workers’ lives miserable.

Tragically, the despicable tactic worked all too well. According to The New York Times, 35 employees committed suicide due to the onerous and unprecedented pressure. Pouring fuel on the fire was a litany of internal and external factors that contributed to the unnecessary deaths.

For one thing, the French version of labor and capitalism is different from our own. Largely, we view work as a means to an end. In France, companies represent a second family. Moreover, many France Télécom workers vested most of their professional lives into the organization.

Then, you must consider the timing. After the tech bubble in the U.S., France Télécom suffered financial pressures and mounting debt. Subsequently, the burgeoning digital revolution ate into previously viable revenue channels. In many ways, executives had no choice but to lay off workers.

However, strict French labor laws prevent companies from terminating workers without generous compensation. Thus, came the disastrous scheme. Along with it, the crisis raises serious concerns about capitalism.

 

The Darker Side of Capitalism

At a young age, we’re indoctrinated to believe that free market capitalism is the superior pathway to economic success. This conditioning was much more effective during the Cold War era, when communism manifested itself as the foreign “other.”

But even today, we have a guttural reaction against socialistic policies, and for good reason. But what I would caution my fellow alternative-minded investors is to not play into the black-white paradigm offered to us. Instead, we should recognize that the platform doesn’t really matter so long as powerful people without accountability rule them.

For instance, the capitalist ethos suggests that entities do whatever they can to generate profits. Under this context, the corporate executives were merely following capitalism’s edict. Who cares if a few workers die? As long as the company made profits, the ends justify the means.

But universal ethics recoils at such a notion. Instinctively, we know that something is wrong here. This then draws attention to capitalism’s seedier side: how can we prevent societies from deteriorating into purely profit-driven machines, irrespective of the costs?

To put it another way, it’s not just socialism that has failed. Capitalism appears on the verge as well, and that should concern everyone.