The coronavirus pandemic could push half a billion people into poverty. The United Nations is warning of the potential for famine of “biblical proportions”. Profiteering and price gouging are rife, and market-based public health systems seem to have been woefully unprepared for the scale of the crisis.
Two of the central arguments in favour of what is sometimes labelled (usually by its critics) “neoliberal globalisation” or “global capitalism” are that free market reforms have lifted over a billion people out of poverty since 1990, and that capitalism has helped to feed the world and greatly reduced the number of deaths by famine. However, could the COVID-19 crisis (and the ongoing climate crisis) challenge that argument?
What do our readers think? We had a comment come in from Gheorghita arguing that, on balance, global capitalism has done more harm than good. Is she right?
To get a response, we put Gheorghita’s comment to Raj Patel, academic, film-maker, and best-selling author of books including The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy and A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. What would he say?
I think you’re right, Gheorghita. And I think that we need to just be clear about what that ‘global capitalism’ is. If you’re thinking capitalism is where people go to the market to exchange goods for money, that’s not capitalism. People have been doing that for millennia, from the souks and bazaars along the silk road, to trading posts, people have been meeting and exchanging money forever.
But there’s something particular about capitalism that requires us to be alienated from the world around us, from nature, from one another, and from our work. And when that happens, when the driving force is about creating and exploiting new frontiers, and turning the rest of the natural world as we understand it into money, then you start destroying forests, you start crowding wildlife together, you start creating the conditions for zoonotic disease – which we’re living through at the moment – you start creating a world which is filled with the possibilities of massive destruction.
And some people say: ‘This is the anthropocene era, human beings are just bad’. But this isn’t the anthropocene. This is an era of capitalism. If you look at the major problems that the world is suffering at the moment, whether it is the sixth extinction or climate change, you will find the fingerprints not of humanity but of a capitalist system… We don’t have to do away with exchange, I think exchange is wonderful. We don’t have to do away with cash, I think exchange and having money and having a limited amount of stuff that’s yours, that’s fine. But I think we need very much to transform the paradigm that humans are above the web of life and we can exploit it, because that, it seems to me, is precisely the cardinal sin of capitalism.
What about the argument that capitalism has massively improved material wealth and living standards for huge numbers of people? Or that it has driven innovation in technology and research to the betterment of all of us?
As we move forward in this world, driving the world to extinction, you may say: ‘Well, at least we’ve got good dental care’! Well, that’s great. But we’ve got great dental care and fast cars in a world that won’t be survivable 100 years from now. So, we can say ‘capitalism is great’ only if we say it in the same way that a banker who’s just jumped off a ledge says ‘so far, so good’ seconds before they hit the bottom.
Right now, it feels to more and more of us like we’re hitting the bottom. And, in fact, the worst is still to come in terms of climate change. COVID is just a blip; when we’re looking at the deaths associated with climate change, it’s far greater and the road ahead is going to be far harder. Recognising that capitalism has made that is going to make it easier for us to imagine a world after capitalism.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Otto Brøns-Petersen, Director of Analysis at the Centre for Political Studies (CEPOS), a free-market think-tank in Denmark. What would he say?
I would completely disagree. I think we tend to overlook the wonderful development thanks to capitalism, especially if we look at poverty in the world. We’re seeing an unprecedented fall in world poverty because of globalisation and because of market reforms, for instance in China and in India. So, I think there’s no doubt that capitalism, on balance, has provided a much, much higher standard of living and a much higher sustainable population than we would otherwise have.
Finally, we put the same comment to Donnie Maclurcan, Executive Director of the Post Growth Institute, an international not-for-profit organisation exploring “viable ideas for a fair and regenerative, full circle economy beyond capitalism”. What would he say?
Has capitalism done more harm than good? Is it sustainably lifting billions of people out of poverty? Or is it driving us toward destruction? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!