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It’s best to begin with a quick definition of Capitalism to identify what we’re talking about below. The first use of the word is attributed to novelist William Thackeray in 1854, and is derived from the French word ‘capitalisme’, defined as ‘the condition of one who is rich’. In essence, it’s an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production (land and capital), for the production and distribution of goods or services for profit. It differs from earlier feudal systems, which even involved ownership of the third essential factor in the means of production: labour. The disintegration of feudalism after the labour shortages that followed the ravages of the Black Death in Europe, between 1348 and 1350, resulted in individuals being able to charge for their labour and move around freely to maximise their income. However, over the following increasingly industrialised centuries capitalists largely re-
Capitalism has been around in various forms since at least the 17th century (although it can arguably be traced as far back as the pre-
It could be argued that the financial institutions were no better than the individuals who defaulted on their mortgage payments, because they too were over-
How has capitalism failed us?
There is no need to look any further than the big banks to answer this. We have seen above how investors, and in particular the large investment arms of the big banks, were largely responsible for the economic crisis of today: or rather, they are a manifestation of the capitalist system which allowed them to trade, not only in the speculative values of capital, but also the livelihoods of millions of citizens across the globe who are unwittingly caught up in the economic framework which governs their welfare. Indeed, the term ‘service industry’ is surely a misnomer with regard to the banks, because they appear to have become little more than self-
A major criticism that can be levelled at capitalism is that it encourages the moral corruption of the individuals involved. Let’s face it, we are all to a greater or lesser extent self-
Way back in the early 1870s British ship owners opposed Samuel Plimsoll’s attempts to introduce a load line on ships to prevent overloading. Indeed the then Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, attempted to quash Plimsoll’s Bill. The reason for the strong opposition to the Bill was because the ship owners were often deliberately overloading their vessels to maximise profit. This was done regardless of the risk to the crew: indeed, the ships were then heavily insured so that if they sunk the owners wouldn’t lose out, resulting in the term ‘coffin ships.’ This scandalous disregard for the lives of those who were merely the ‘labour’ element in the magical triangle of capitalism discussed above was to be repeated countless times: it resulted in the loss of limbs and lives in the textile mills and mines of the industrialising world of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, when the imperialistic expansion of nation states resulted in a massive boost to capitalism: there were countless new commodities to trade and there was bountiful (surplus) cheap labour. A classic example of this is the Gresford Mining Disaster when, in 1934, 266 lives were lost due to a horrific explosion in this (pre-
“…lamps [being] extinguished by gas, blowing the gas about with a banjack, of protests and quarrels about firing shots in the presence of gas. There is no language in which one can describe the inferno of 14's. There were men working almost stark naked, clogs with holes bored through the bottom to let the sweat run out, 100 shots a day fired on a face less than 200 yards wide, the air thick with fumes and dust from blasting, the banjack hissing to waft the gas out of the face into the unpacked waste, a space 200 yards long and 100 yards wide above the wind road full of inflammable gas and impenetrable for that reason.”
[Source: Hansard, House Of Commons, 1937]
We haven’t come very far from those days, as the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill testifies (a company which, incidentally, had previously been accused of illegally dumping hazardous waste in Alaska in the 1990s). But there are countless other examples of where capitalism puts profit before ethics. Here are a few:
…the list is endless, almost literally, but the few examples cited above will hopefully prove the point.
Capitalism: It’s Time To Move On.
But let’s not leave this without one further reflection: the vast wealth of imperialist capitalist nations was bought largely at the cost of the exploitation of other people, and other peoples’ resources; these peoples almost invariably suffered rather than benefited from the process, even to the point of their cultures being driven to the point of extinction, and the slave trade is probably its most shameful legacy, and one of the greatest indictments against the whole tenet of capitalism. It’s worth noting here that, as with the Plimsoll Line, the rich slaver ‘entrepeneurs’ resisted the abolition of the slave trade: they were more concerned with their own personal gain than any sense of morality. At this point we should also consider the fact that, in addition to the recognised trade of non-
Inefficient use of resources
In addition to the above ethical questions, capitalism results in the inefficient use of resources. These are any resources from which a profit can be made, but are perhaps particularly relevant when we specifically consider the earth’s natural resources. Food waste has already been mentioned, but in addition one needs to consider the mass deforestation of our rainforests for short-
Illustration: the social pyramid according to Industrial Worker, 1911.
implications such as an increased risk of flooding of the surrounding land). Another example which those of us in the ‘developed world’ can see all around us is the excessive use of packaging in order to make products more attractive to the purchaser -
Where there are winners there are losers
This is one of the greatest flaws in capitalism: its success is based upon some people winning and others losing, because there is not enough wealth to go around, and in any case those with the capital to speculate don’t feel that others deserve an equal share (even though that capital has in many cases been acquired by questionable means, often historically). The resulting divide, as we have seen, is part of what fuels capitalism: there needs to be a surplus of labour desperate to work for whatever an employer will pay them, as well as an endless market for products. The latter can no longer be sustained in a world of depleting resources, and as a result products are becoming increasingly ‘virtual’ commodities such as equities. The cost of this is probably incalculable worldwide, resulting in massive social divisions which fuel seething resentment, crime, and war. These three things were around, of course, before capitalism existed in name, but capitalism fuels rather than quells these flames. There’s also another cost though, more difficult to evaluate: the under-
The ultimate aim of capitalism is monopoly
Here is another fundamental flaw of capitalism: those that sing its praises claim that competition is good for the consumer. That might well be the case, but capitalist-
Let’s face it: Capitalism doesn’t work
For all the reasons cited above, capitalism just doesn’t work: it’s ethically unsound, resource wasteful, and structurally flawed. In the short term a large proportion of people might benefit, although some will always lose -
What of the future?
It would be incredibly naïve to think that capitalism will change its spots in the future: if left unchecked, profiteers will continue to seek profit at whatever cost to others. But in a world of depleting resources there is less ‘product’ to go around, and we need to share these resources more equitably. For a chilling look at potential future scenarios, take a look at the science-
To look at alternatives to capitalism is really the subject of a future article, so suffice to say here that many people are now questioning capitalism as a workable structure to carry humanity into the future. One shouldn’t confuse capitalism with enterprise. Enterprise is good: indeed, it’s what has carried the human race forward from our days in the jungle. It’s the motivation for that enterprise that is under question. It surely does the human race a disservice to suggest that people will only be driven to engage in enterprise for selfish gain, and that the bigger the gain the more effort they will put into it. This is partly true, no doubt, because of the way in which successive generations have been brought up, but to suggest that personal gain at the expense of others, which is an inevitable consequence of capitalist enterprise, is something to be condoned is to ignore those in the human race that have offered their skills for the betterment of others without becoming hugely rich: the scientists; the aid workers; the countless volunteers who do unpaid work to improve the lot of others. No, there is another side to the human race which we have perhaps under-
© Global Fightback, 2013.
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