Thursday, May 24, 2007

Capitalism- An Unsustainable System ?

We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. There's no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously irrelevant. How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly...

So begins an article by Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin who dares to ask, in the midst of a capitalist nation, in a world where globalisation is a holy writ, whether that which we have now come to take as inevitable is the only choice. Have we really reached an "end of history" with the dominance of capitalism and "free markets"--when they seem to only reap rewards for a minority of people on the planet? Has the "defeat of communism" assured that capitalism will prevail, or do we dare to take a critical look at our system.

The drive to sustain capitalism is literally entrenched into our society. We learn from our youth that it is right and just. As we grow up, we're taught it's democratic--that the profit making of free markets is somehow intrinsically tied to liberty and freedom. And no wonder, as Lizabeth Cohen points out in her work A Consumers' Republic- The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, the "pursuit of prosperity" (through consumption) has become one in the same with the "pursuit of happiness."

As Jensen notes, we are told and taught to support capitalism as an inevitable and unquestionable economic strategy...

...typically by those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, but rather simply is, like a state of nature. Maybe not like a state of nature, but the state of nature. To contest capitalism these days is like arguing against the air that we breathe. Arguing against capitalism, we're told, is simply crazy.
The 2003 PBS documentary Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World's Economy attempts to trace the rise of the current capitalist global system, starting in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI, through the Great Depression and WWII, culminating in the fall/failure of communist states and the dominance of the current political economic order. An informative piece, for all its attempts to analyze the breadth of prosperity and poverty wrought by globalization, the documentary still puts forth economic capitalism as the "central global reality." There is no actual questioning of the premises on which the system rests, but rather if it is "too complex to be controlled" and the means by which the "stakeholders...[will] devise new means to include the dispossessed."

The capitalist narrative, even when critically introspective, tends to go something like this: Capitalism is inherently good. Capitalism is forward-thinking, modern and progressive. Capitalism is inherently synonymous with freedom. Capitalism won a hard fought victory over varied systems that sought to threaten and defeat it, but it prevailed, and is thus the "natural" way of things. Sure it has flaws, generated by a few bad apples and for those unable to adapt. But it is still the most logical system--one that works. Compared with the disasters we saw in the Soviet Union and other communist states, how can anyone say otherwise? It allows us to have laptops to write our blogs upon, and inspires us to dream of working our way up the economic ladder.

Yet capitalism also gave us wholesale chattel bondage and global imperialism, as seen in the West's trans-Atlantic slave trade and European colonisation. Though some economic historians have tried to point out that slavery and colonialism are antiethical to the workings of capitalism, and thus why both ended, the fact remains that the capital gained through these events are themselves tied to the rise in capitalism. It is also the inherent manipulation of resources and labor to enrich a few. We see this in the exploitative practices of neoliberal globalization and privatization that disenfranchises workers and the forces of labor both in the U.S. and in countries around the globe. With the "spectre of communism" gone, who is there now to blame for the growing disparity of wealth in the world? Most states--including the most impoverished in Africa, Asia and Latin America--follow a capitalist model, complete with economic reforms engineered by industrialized western nations. And yet the majority of the people who live within them--the majority of the globe--still live in poverty. And matters have gotten worse in the past decade, not better.

Jensen lays out three broad charges at capitalism, highlighting how its stated productive aims clash with some of our key touted principles:
Capitalism is admittedly an incredibly productive system that has created a flood of goods unlike anything the world has ever seen. It also is a system that is fundamentally (1) inhuman, (2) anti-democratic, and (3) unsustainable. Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (most of it of marginal or questionable value) in exchange for our souls, our hope for progressive politics, and the possibility of a decent future for children.
Is Capitalism inhuman? Sometimes it certainly seems so, when you watch a documentary like Independent Lens Black Gold, which tells the story of the $80-billion-plus coffee industry, where Ethiopian farmers (in the land where the coffee bean originated) are paid such low wages that many have been forced to abandon their fields. It looks so when you see the result of NAFTA, forcing farmers in Central America off their land and into the precarious and dangerous migrations across increasingly hostile borders of the U.S. in search for exploitative low wage jobs. It certainly gives that sense of inhumanity when you see big pharm companies fight to keep their HIV medicines high priced, denying access to the sick and dying of the world that cannot afford it. Inhumanity seems to abound when you see the global masses of the impoverished--all in countries that now follow capitalist neoliberal policies--who live off less a day than we spend for breakfast.

Half the world's population lives on less than $2 a day. That's more than 3 billion people. Just over half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1 a day. That's more than 300 million people. How about one more statistic: About 500 children in Africa die from poverty-related diseases, and the majority of those deaths could be averted with simple medicines or insecticide-treated nets. That's 500 children -- not every year, or every month or every week. That's not 500 children every day. Poverty-related diseases claim the lives of 500 children an hour in Africa.

We all admit that while we revel in capitalism, it's inherent profit-driven dictates clash against our inherent humanity, and cause us to wonder how such gross imbalance can occur, what brought it into being and--most disturbing--how is it that we endure and live with that reality each and every day?

Is Capitalism anti-democratic? You can get that idea when the push for profits outweighs the need for protection of the very individual rights democracy claims to rest upon. Even a self-described "communist" nation like China pushes this ideology, managing to blend the harsh nature of old-style Maoist "re-education camps" with 19th century style industrial capitalist "labor factories." The documentary China Blue details the life of Jasmine, one of the 130 million migrant workers on the move in China, who may end up in factories that manufacture goods--in this case jeans--for the West. In this symbiotic relationship that turns parasitic upon the masses, an anti-democratic system in China works in concert with an anti-democratic global capitalist system. China wants the profits of business; the Western companies push for cheaper and cheaper garments to maximize its own profits. All this leaves workers like Jasmine, who can work 17 to 20 hr days for meager pay, with no recourse. To do something democratic like form a labor strike is illegal in China, and that's precisely why multinational corporations take jobs from here and go there. All of this returns home to us, as the same forces that attempt to stifle economic democratic dissent overseas push for deregulation, privatization and a favoring of business over labor and individual rights.

And if the lack of economic prosperity, joblessness and homelessness that plagues us in the West is not enough to ponder the inhumane and anti-democratic nature of the system, think upon the many wars and military actions (covert and overt) that the U.S. has engaged in to sustain the capitalist order--often in the face of democratic principles. From the alliances between the United Fruit Company and the U.S. government in the Guatemala coup, to the experiments of neoliberalism once the deposed elected Salvador Allende was replaced with the CIA allied dictator Augusto Pinochet, to the CIA and the British SIS deposing of the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq of Iran and replacing him with the semi-monarchical Shah, to the present day oil driven wars and machinations carried bout by the U.S. and Western powers from Iraq to Nigeria, the capitalist economic order has been a key ally in militarism, and tied into that often unnamed "military industrial complex"--a term dreamed up by no less a "kooky leftist" than former Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Is Capitalism unsustainable? We may finally be willing to admit this to ourselves. As Global Warming has now become a household term, we are forced to question whether the way we live is healthy not just for our economy or individual nation-states, but the planet itself. A look at the oceans alone shows the dismal state of affairs. Giant 400-ft trawlers now "stalk" the seas, raking in something over 1 million pounds of fish a day. Nearly a third of this is discarded, dead, back into the ocean as "un-saleable." This means a staggering 50 billion pounds of fish are killed, churned to gore and thrown back into the ocean each year, simply to meet the profit demands of the global economic system. The fish industry calls this "harvesting" carried out by floating "fish factories;" others call them "killing machines."

As oceanographer Sylvia Earle points out in the PBS documentary Journey to Planet Earth: State of the Ocean's Animals:

Although we talk about harvesting the sea, it's a misuse of the word if ever there was a misuse. We don’t plant fish in the ocean. We go out like hunters and gatherers, track them down, find them, extract them. In half a century we have lost on the order of 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean. I say lost, actually, we haven’t lost them. We've consumed them. We’ve eaten them. We’ve captured them. Though our fish markets may give the impression of an inexhaustible resource, what we are really seeing is the consumption of the final 10 percent of the world's fisheries.
The rapacious depletion and careless squandering of Earth's oceans has happened not because of a population explosion of humans, not over the vast course of humanity's time on this planet, but mostly within the last 50 years, to meet the economic profit-driven surplus and needs of a minority of the planet. In fact, these "fish factories" are devastating local fisherman--both off the coast of the U.S., and even worse in Africa, who simply cannot compete. The economic pressure this places on the coastal dwellers of regions like Senegal, spawn into food shortages, poverty and unrest--all the while robbing billions of a vital food source. Whether it is the oceans, forests, green-house gases or other aspects of the ecosystem, our planet can't sustain the current economic system much longer. Even if free market capitalism could live up to its dubious claims to "lift all boats" and we did live in the ideological economic World is Flat fantasy landscape of Thomas Friedman, we would rapidly deplete the planet of the resources needed to sustain the American-Western way of life for the 6 billion, and growing, members of the global community. As one scientist put it, we would literally need "three more Earths."

Or as Jensen puts it rather succinctly:

Capitalism is a system based on the idea of unlimited growth. The last time I checked, this is a finite planet. There are only two ways out of this one. Perhaps we will be hopping to a new planet soon. Or perhaps, because we need to figure out ways to cope with these physical limits, we will invent ever-more complex technologies to transcend those limits. Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary comfort, but they don't solve problems. They tend, in fact, to cause more problems. Those problems seem to be piling up.

To further quote Jensen, "Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised... It's [just] the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air." And herein lies my main point. In all honesty, I don't have definitive answers. Though I've studied my fair share of economic history, I am no economic theorist like Adam Smith or Karl Marx. I have no new and ground-breaking model or system for the world to follow. For the moment, most seem resigned to attempting to reform the system. We have devised, and continue to push, for ways to counteract the forces of "unchecked" capitalism, many of which (ironically) come from socialism--labor unions, medicare/universal healthcare, social security, pensions, government regulation, public welfare states, etc. Thanks to such movements and organizations, we have everything from the institution of child labor laws to some form of financial/health protection in old age. Many of these came about in the 1930s, as Franklin D. Roosevelt, reacting to popular calls for socialist upheaval in the midst of the capitalist wrought Great Depression of the 1930s, instituted New Deal policies based on co-opted socialist themes. Thus in irony, socialism (though rarely named, except by detractors) is seen as the cure, or at least quick patch, for rampant capitalism.

But even with reformation, we still need to ask some tough questions of the financial system we currently exist under, and take a look at its long range feasibility. Contrary to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's claim that when it comes to capitalism, "there is no alternative," we have a right, a responsibility, to do so. The global political economy need not be a fait accompli from which there is no turning back or dissent. One may agree with Jensen or not, but the real issue here is not so much the triumph of an economic ideology, but rather our blind belief in its alleged infallibility.

Read the full article by Robert Jensen: An Unsustainable System: Anti-Capitalism in Five Minutes.


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