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!

IMAGE CREDITS: Photo by Adrien Delforge on Unsplash; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Patel – Wikipedia (cc) Jan Sturmann


79 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Vanja

    I don’t even feel the need to debate this

  2. avatar
    Христо

    Capitalism without welfare is something monstrous. If you don’t have a strong state to regulate the economy, your population is going to suffer. Pure capitalism is not a good ideology and same goes for socialism. Capitalism is acceptable when the rich pay their fair share, when there is welfare state, a strong middle class, economic rights and when the state regulates the market principles. The idea about the Invisible Hand of the Market that regulates everything is an example of wishful thinking. So for me the best system is social democracy. This is neither capitalism neither socialism. Social Democracy in Economics and National Liberalism in society. That’s a good combination.

    • avatar
      Manuel

      Not really (Capitalism without welfare is something monstrous) if you have freedom to make small organizations to help the most vulnerable.

  3. avatar
    Joe

    What has fone more harm than good is globalism, which you are pushing.

  4. avatar
    Gabor

    This what we have is no more capitalism! It’s a pump! This is oligarchism, protectionism, nepotism, neofeudalism, neoliberalism, elite and politicians criminalism, generationism, fashistoid communism, populism, manipulation, mafia governments, capturing the states and the societies and many – many more. Oximorons!? Just seemingly!
    Nothing more is here legal and everyone on a higher level it’s a servant and a pander. To often by the voters and the people too!

  5. avatar
    Martin

    Well, let’s see how the life is in non-capitalist countries – North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba…I think that they have much more poverty. No, the comunism and socialism didn’t work and never will…

    • avatar
      Ariano

      The world isn’t black or white and neither should be countries. Capitalism is great in some things but it can be very bad when you only have that mindset in a country. Look at the US: healthcare at the level of a third world country.
      In Europe you got countries which apply some capitalist ideas with some good socialism ideas, like a free universal healthcare for every citizen.

    • avatar
      Martin

      The healthcare isn’t free in Europe, you have to pay taxes for that. US healthcare isn’t at all like on third world country, just, it is not available to who has no insurance

    • avatar
      Mario

      tell me a country that, then, as free health care… or any other thing. Please indulge me.

    • avatar
      Ben

      free is a misnomer. Countries with Universal healthcare are many, with a wide range of how good they are. The USA isn’t one of them. They do spend a great amount of their GDP on healthcare though, if I’m not wrong.
      There’s maybe 20 nations that could be said to have true universal healthcare ie/ covering 100% of the population.

    • avatar
      Mario

      I just find this “you pay taxes so it’s not free” thing to be so primary.
      It is said to be free because you don’t directly pay to access it. You pay to a common box depending on your income and then are allowed, without further payments, to use the services/goods.
      I usually follow on to ask if those primaries use the roads. As they are so sensitive to issue they should not use them.

  6. avatar
    Michael

    We are in the midst of a shortage of vital medical supplies and flour, a basic foodstuff. Eight years ago they said we must sacrifice to save our country. We sacrificed, now we have to sacrifice even more. We are paying for benefits we will likely never see. The efforts we make to better ourselves are sabotaged. I’m not very impressed by this system we’ve inherited to say the least. Even less so by our terrible leaders.

  7. avatar
    Jacob

    “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”
    Franklin D. Roosevelt
    …well guess that in the end a bit of socialism won’t hurt to save the day because capitalistic things have really gone out of track and have messed up the world.

    • avatar
      Христо

      FDR was a social Democrat not a socialist.

    • avatar
      Jacob

      That’s not the issue.

    • avatar
      Alex

      the 1% have rotted good capitalism, their greed and dystopic view of the future led to the realization of roosevelt’s speech that is exactly were we are today. Reagan’s and Clinton’s policies paved the way for the mess we’re in today.
      All this lockdown bs is fishy af

  8. avatar
    Любомир

    It has made Europe one of the richest, most prosperous and desired places to live in all of human history. You tell me.

    • avatar
      Николай

      1%?

    • avatar
      Mario

      That was the work of welfare state.

    • avatar
      Любомир

      Where does this welfare come from mate?

  9. avatar
    Cãlin

    Capitalism is a very vague term, but, nevertheless, a well regulated capitalism does far more good than harm. You just take example from the states that applied a well regulated form of capitalism as the European ones. Most of their citizens live a good life, have a better health, education and a longer life span.

    • avatar
      Ben

      you mean USA?

    • avatar
      Cãlin

      although my exemplification was general I didn’t exclude USA and, although the US seem less regulated they also applied certain norms, maybe not unitary, and even there it’s hard to speak about a “raw” capitalism. Anyway, everything can be improved.

  10. avatar
    Hugo

    Redo that question with Socialism…

  11. avatar
    Serena

    Wowww, I completely agree with Raj Patell! exchanging goods is literally nothing new, but we are exploiting our planet and the people that live on it. this system has to change, we cant go on like this

    • avatar
      Donnie Maclurcan

      Serena, absolutely. You can have a market without it needing to be capitalist.

  12. avatar
    Cara

    unfortunately I don’t see a viable alternative to capitalism at this very moment, but the least we can do is limit its negative sides! lets have a look at the Scandinavian countries which have very strong welfare states, thriving economies and are leaders in environmental innovation and measures. We need to protect people from the exploitativeness of rampant capitalism, we need to give them a safety net – now more than ever! Corona is showing once and for all that we cant treat our hospitals like factories that have to work at maximum efficiency – its showing that everyone and I mean EVERYONE needs affordable or free healthcare and that we need living wages, and that the gig economy isn’t sustainable… we need to change our systems! And we need to protect our planet – who cares about GDP when the world is literally and figuratively burning?! I urge our leaders to take the warning sign of the Coronacrisis seriously and to make the decsions that are necessary, even if they are difficult!

    • avatar
      Donnie Maclurcan

      Cara you’re absolutely right about the need for a viable alternative. We’re working on one here, that builds on the best of capitalism, but leaves its worst aspects behind – a post-capitalist market system based on where existing trends are taking our global economy: http://howoenarth.us.

    • avatar
      UknownWarrior

      Yes the Scandinavian countries have adopted a good model of socialist capitalism. This is the idea and not an organized crime syndicate capitalism like in eastern Europe.

  13. avatar
    Filipe

    Capitalism, like any other system, has done good and bad. What works best, for me, is a mixed system, with a strong public sector in strategic industries, firm regulators and free market for the rest.

  14. avatar
    João

    All Economic systems are capitalistic….

  15. avatar
    Rajesh

    Not if we get down from our high horses ..

  16. avatar
    Maria

    The problem is China. The problem is Socialism in the EU.

  17. avatar
    Orlando

    Lol is funny how, when you ask that, people cry “AnD sOciAliSm?1?1?” implying that only thos two systems exists and not considering that socialsm has been applied in single countries (moreover opposed by all the other capitalist countries in the world)

  18. avatar
    Alex

    It’s NOT capitalism per se that led us to this mess but 1) the European Union, a supranational entity that regulates every little aspects of our lives but is inadequate when a big shock come in like the 2008 financial crisis, the destruction of Greece 2015, migrants crisis few yrs later and now thi pandemic. We don’t need to waste funds on this entity (essentially a currency based on German interests and a tax heaven aka the Netherlands which drain money from all the EU, is this the great European solidarity? You have to be naive or dumb to believe that fairytale).
    Other problem is American govt which paved the way for the speculative financial capitalism we are in today that led the greatest democracy in the world (so they believe) to a country led by oligarchs, corporations and the 1%..just follow the great projects the bill and melinda gates foundation, Google and apple have for us poor ordinary people.
    This pandemic maybe was not created on purpose BUT something is fishy: since when in history few thousands deaths caused a complete lockdown of states ,freezing the economy,put on hold civil liberties and the constitutions? NEVER

  19. avatar
    Boris

    People who failed to do something in their lives are blaming political regime, whatever one they have. Now it became popular to criticise capitalism. There is no any shape of economy where one can have something easily. There are poor in Sweden and there are rich in Venezuela. There are more rich in capitalism though.

  20. avatar
    Sandor

    Definitively! In the 80-ties we had an allocation of 250 g butter per month per person. We were sooo healthy and lean! /sarc

  21. avatar
    UknownWarrior

    I would like to join the debate please !!!

    Capitalism took over Eastern Europe in 1989, but it brought nothing, bur organized crime to Eastern Europe. Not to mention that most of the Politicians from those countries became very wealthy during these years of transition from Socialism to Capitalism.

    Lets face it. Western Europeans will not or never recognize Eastern Europe as a rightful partner due to the 45 years of Communism thanks to Soviet Russia. The reason why there was communism in Eastern Europe is because after the USSR defeated Fascist Germany they had the right to choose as victors prosperous land in Europe.

    Even now Eastern Europeans are second class citizens in the EU. If Hitler did not rose to power this divide would never have happened.

  22. avatar
    Rajesh

    European capitalism is sustained by favoritism… poor people create wealth which ends up in rich peoples pockets ..poor remain poor for generations rich get richer every generation

  23. avatar
    Maria

    I am for capitalism. But now there is a financialization of the economy. The money doesnt exist and there is no profit. This is making the control of the market by the corporations, who are more and more rich and can be bailout by the money that the central banks are printing more and more. We are serfs of the Gleb like in Feudalism.

  24. avatar
    Filipe

    I am not opposed to capitalism, but with some limitations. It is an illusion to think the market can solve all problems. We need a mixed system, and the states need some public companies in strategic industries to regulate the economy. I am completely opposed to private monopolies, like in the airport sector in Portugal, where one single company controls all international airports. This is not capitalism, and it needs to change.

  25. avatar
    Bernard

    I am glad i live on a continent where, in most countries, the sharpest edges are taken off the capitalist system. I think the Rhinelandic (German, Dutch) and Scandinavian systems are quite successful. BUT, I think ‘we’ should always think what we will leave for ‘the market’ and which public(!) services(!), we deem too important (health insurance, public transport, public housing?) to let ‘the market’ take care of this…

  26. avatar
    Oliver

    Capitalism is the most efficient system to create wealth.. The only thing to improve is to ensure equality of chance… If competition creates losers… Is it a problem?

    • avatar
      George

      we can not be all on the first place. And it’s ok. Still this winner takes it all situation we see now must be mitigated.

    • avatar
      Olivier

      yes but in France we redistribute more than 50%of GDP… We are in a semi communist system

    • avatar
      George

      govs must maintain a balancing act between socialist measures and advancing the “free market”.maintain a fair playing field. Where is that balance point that remains to be discussed…. :).

    • avatar
      Bernard

      two remarks:
      – 50 percent of GDP is re-distributed, yes, but what do you get in return?
      – have you ever compared the tax burden of someone in the French middle-class with the tax burden of someone in a comparable situation in the US, including the Federal, State and local taxes?

  27. avatar
    Oliver

    Its the worst system we have, exept everything else we have tried

  28. avatar
    Return the 80s movement

    The difference between Capitalism that there is hope for you to choose your destiny and what you own. In Communism you have no hope or chance to own your own business or choose. Politicians are rich and the rest is poor. The funny thing is that many leftist trying to push being poor on them selfs.

  29. avatar
    Oliver

    Darwinian selection and technological progress vdetermines inequality. It is unavoidable, but by state redistribution the chances of people to decent life can be increased.

  30. avatar
    Христо

    Capitalism is a liberal economic system that abolished and took the place of conservative feudalism. In capitalism anyone can enter the middle class or to become rich because unlike feudalism, capitalism has no interest of where you are born. It created economic growth and wealth. The problem of capitalism is that it doesn’t contain social element. This is the only mistake liberals made. That’s why socialists exist. Nowadays what we criticize is not capitalism. It’s neoliberal corporatism which kills the market economy by creating monopoly and killing the loyal competition between the people.
    Conslusion: We need capitalism but we also need welfare state made by the wealth capitalism produces. We need a strong state that participates in the market and that insures loyal competition and worker’s rights. Therefore we need Liberal Social Demoracy.

    • avatar
      Peter

      something like the Chinese model?

    • avatar
      Христо

      No, China is a neoliberal country since 1978. It’s political and economic system is very close to fascism.

    • avatar
      Peter

      I am only making the question as to how will the capital feed the state ? as we see taxation doesn’t work , should n’t the capital be owned by the state ?

    • avatar
      Julia

      If we took the BIS, IMF and central banks out of private hands we could magically print money ourselves to cover that.

    • avatar
      George

      all gov must do is make a balancing act between socialist measure and capitalism also maintaining a balance inside the “free market”.

    • avatar
      Peter

      bravo simple as that ! so we are not doing it because … there is no will I suppose

    • avatar
      Chris

      you had up until you tagged the Liberal part on, how about Conservative social capitalism

    • avatar
      Claudia

      China is a dictatorship!!!

    • avatar
      Peter

      yes and unfortunately their economic policies are working and they are conquering the world ..

    • avatar
      Христо

      Conservative capitalism is like socialist capitlaism – an oxymoron. Capitalism and democracy are always liberal. So about your suggestion of ,,Conservative Social Capialism”, I say no thanks.

    • avatar
      Chris

      Liberal always seems to mean, an erosion of morals, and standards. Loss, of culture and history and, nearly always includes mass, migration, no thanks

    • avatar
      Христо

      You don’t know what you are talking about.

    • avatar
      Chris

      yes, I do, just because I, don’t agree with you.

    • avatar
      Oliver

      read about liberalism in 19 century Britain, to see what really ment

  31. avatar
    Gabor

    We should change the system, but there is nothing better at the moment. The biggest trouble is us, human. No system will work until 100% of the participant will accept the game rules, and knowing the arrogance and egoism, also the stupidity of human beings that is just not happening.

    • avatar
      Alex

      *must be voluntary otherwise is dictatorship

    • avatar
      Gabor

      absolutely. Also must be an option to fully opt out.

    • avatar
      Oliver

      People are different, one size doesn’t fit all . Conformism leads t o stagnation. Imagine that all the people conformed to Catholic church at n Middle Ages. We would still think that Earth is center of universe. People don’t change much but societies yes. Read Illiad or Odissee for comparation

  32. avatar
    Yannick

    In my view it should not be about growth or degrowth, but about quality of growth

    • avatar
      Oliver

      Or level of life

    • avatar
      Oliver

      It is a rip off I think is was cheaper to buy a house for his, treat him there and then burn it

  33. avatar
    István

    always depending on, the LEADERS.
    systems are neutrals: kingdoms, socialisms, capitalisms, how good or how bad to live on them, ONLY depending, who sitting at the wheelhouse.
    in other hand: when You se a crashed car, do you blame the car manufacturers?
    do You?
    really?

    • avatar
      István

      as Otto von Habsburg said: a state, when peoples suffering of bad circumstances, does mean, that state governed by criminals.

    • avatar
      Oliver

      Sometimes is the fault of the car, bad brakes, bad steering wheel

    • avatar
      István

      indeed.
      it’s happen, when the car owner let that critical parts, to weared out.

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