Economic system

Capitalism is the worst possible economic system for a planet ravaged by climate change

Evil fate the earth, to hasten the evils a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and where men degrade.

Olivier Goldsmith.

Twenty years ago I wrote an editorial in which I described free market capitalism as “the most unjust and barbaric economic system ever conceived, and which now oppresses and mistreats most of the peoples of the world”. I have been despised and vilified by neoliberal pundits, and even berated by some progressives who thought that calling the dominant economic system “barbaric” was going too far.

Here’s how I responded to my reviews at the time:

Search your dictionary for the word “barbarian” and you will find several synonyms, including brutal, cruel, and savage. They all apply to the current capitalist system – and even more so to its rulers. These suave rulers don’t look or act like Attila the Hun. They dress smart, speak quietly and their table manners are impeccable. But remove the shiny veneer and you’ll find the ruthless autocrats beneath the surface.

These modern barbarian leaders do not personally lead their hordes to invade other countries. They do not physically destroy crops, openly plunder and plunder cities, or brutalize their citizens. But they engage in the equivalent of all this barbaric activity from the isolation of their meeting rooms, sometimes with a simple phone call or the press of a computer key.

Their invasions take the form of “free trade”. Their plunder and plunder occurs through surface mining, deforestation, privatization, deregulation, currency speculation, and IMF-imposed repayments of heavy debts.

As a result of these corporate depredations, billions of people are doomed to poverty, hunger and disease, and many millions to premature death. They are as much the victims of barbarism as those massacred by Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. The business thieves who plan and run these pogroms don’t have blood on their neat hands, but they make the Goths and Vandals look like delinquent teenagers.

This curse dates back to 1999, but I wouldn’t change or remove a word from it today. On the contrary, corporate barbarism has intensified on a colossal scale, to the point of endangering the very sustainability of human life on the planet. The scourges of poverty and inequality are even more endemic.

“There is no alternative” – really?

Defenders of this inhuman system argue that the “free market”, while it is true that it is flawed, remains the best way to run the economy. Its high-profile shortcomings – job cuts, outsourcing, tax evasion, financial fraud, recurring collapses and consecration of competition over cooperation – are all brushed aside as inevitable flaws of an otherwise ideal system, which anyway cannot ‘would have no alternative.

“If our economy weren’t run by capitalists,” I have often been asked, “would you prefer it to be run by communists? These critics had either never heard of the democratic socialism that thrives in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, or chose to dismiss it as an aberration confined to the Scandinavian countries and a few other nations of Europe.

Neoliberal fanatics conveniently overlook the sustainability of an economic system built on the expectation of infinite growth on a finite planet. Capitalism, of course, could not continue without such a demented and ultimately self-defeating illusion. If left unchecked, it will eventually collapse due to resource depletion and the devastation of climate change – perhaps as early as the 2030s, but certainly well before the middle of this century.

In the meantime, reckless economic growth will continue to be pursued and blindly sanctioned, not only by corporations, but by their subordinate governments and mass media propagandists. In this world of Alice in Wonderland, the unhindered growth that threatens any semblance of civilization is welcomed while the limitation of growth that is so urgent is despised. So, in effect, lifelong cancerous growth is being treated as the “cure” for the planet’s malaise instead of its cause.

In a rational society, the recurring economic crises triggered by neoliberal capitalism would not only expose its recklessness, but force its abandonment. So would the worsening levels of poverty and inequality around the world. Instead, like Guardian columnist George Monbiot underlines in How did we get into this mess ?, “The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments are using neoliberal crises as both an excuse and an opportunity to cut taxes, privatize remaining public services, dig holes in the social safety net, deregulate businesses, and re-regulate citizens. “

The profit motive prevails

Safe from government intervention, businesses are free to generate economic growth and profits by any means they choose. Equally irresponsible governments will cut corporate taxes, increase their subsidies, and facilitate their continued destruction of the ecosphere.

The profit motive guides the conduct of the business and sets priorities. If something can be developed, produced and sold at a profit, it continues to be produced and sold, regardless of the ruinous long-term consequences. On the other hand, if something is really needed to improve public welfare, but would not be profitable, it is not produced.

The extraction and sale of greenhouse fossil fuels is profitable.

The plundering of non-renewable resources pays off.

Deforestation is profitable.

Pollution pays off.

War pays off.

Offshore tax havens are profitable.

Poverty and inequality pay off.

Hooking children on sugar and their parents on junk food pays off.

Poor health pays off.

Pharmaceutical drugs are profitable.

Child labor and slave labor pay off.

Low wages and high unemployment pay off.

Dangerous workplaces pay off.

Buying politicians pays off. Very profitable.

Conversely, anything that would benefit most people, but not making a profit as large as fast food clogging the arteries or the latest electronic gadgets, will not be undertaken. Restoring our impoverished industrial sector would stimulate the economy and create more jobs, but not be as profitable as outsourcing jobs to low-wage, low-tax countries. Reducing the high rates of disease caused by poverty and malnutrition would lower health care costs, but would not be as cost effective as treating the sick with expensive and often debilitating drugs.

“A rapacious oligarchy”

One of the books that enlightened me when I compiled my Under company rule columns in the 1990s was The next American nation by Michael Lind, editor-in-chief of Harper’s magazine. His book, published in 1985, avoided euphemisms. He called the small group that held most of the money and power in the United States during the era a “rapacious oligarchy.” This oligarchy, he said, “supported by the media (which it largely owns), has waged a war of attrition against the salaried majority through regressive taxation and the expatriation of the country. ‘industry through free trade’.

Lind listed the four tactics deployed by the American ruling class to maintain and increase its dominance. These included: 1) adopting a “divide and conquer” strategy that pits various groups against each other in zero-sum struggles for a share of declining wage incomes; 2) take full control of the main political parties; 3) withdraw from the rest of society into heavily guarded enclaves; and 4) successfully promote the belief that their oligarchy does not really exist.

In the 32 years since Lind exposed the dire behavior of the corporate and political oligarchy, all of these ruthless corporate strategies have grown even more powerful and pervasive. The same goes for their brutal ripple effects of poverty, inequality and, above all, climate change.

Ed finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as an apprentice printer, reporter, columnist and editor of that town’s daily, the Western star. His journalistic career includes 14 years as a labor relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was involved in politics between 1959 and 1962, as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for a few years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Photo: Rachel Docherty / Flickr

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