The Violence of Growth-Obsessed Capitalism
Corporate progress almost always comes at a cost to the most vulnerable
We know that nothing in nature can sustain an exponential rate of growth, but this doesn’t stop many of our leading economists and scientists from perpetuating this myth. They cherry-pick evidence that supports the endless acceleration of our markets and our technologies, as if to confirm that growth-based corporate capitalism is keeping us on track for the next stage of human evolution.
To suggest we slow down, think, consider — or content ourselves with steady profits and incremental progress — is to cast oneself as an enemy of our civilization’s necessary acceleration forward. By the market’s logic, human intervention in the machine will only prevent it from growing us out of our current mess. In this read of the situation, corporations may be using extractive, scorched-earth tactics, but they are also our last best hope of solving the world’s biggest problems, such as hunger and disease. Questioning the proliferation of patented, genetically modified seeds or an upgraded arsenal of pesticides just impedes the necessary progress. Adherents of this worldview say that it’s already too late to go back. There are already too many people, too much damage, and too much dependence on energy. The only way out is through. Regulating a market just slows it down, preventing it from reaching the necessary level of turbulence for the “invisible hand” to do its work.
According to their curated history of humanity, whenever things look irredeemably awful, people come up with a new technology, unimaginable until then. They like to tell the story of the great horse manure crisis of 1894, when people in England and the United States were being overwhelmed by the manure produced by the horses they used for transportation. Luckily, according to this narrative, the automobile provided a safe, relatively clean alternative, and the streets were spared hip-deep manure. And just as the automobile saved us from the problems of horse-drawn carriages, a new technological innovation will arise to save us from automobiles.
The problem with this story is that it’s not true. Horses were employed for commercial transport, but people rode in electric streetcars and disliked sharing the roads with the new, intrusive, privately owned vehicles. It took half a century of public relations, lobbying, and urban replanning to get people to drive automobiles. Plus, we now understand that if cars did make the streets cleaner in some respects, it was only by externalizing the costs of environmental damage and the bloody struggle to secure oil reserves. Too many scientists — often funded by growth-obsessed corporations — exalt an entirely quantified understanding of social progress. They measure improvement as a function of life expectancy or reduction in the number of violent deaths. Those are great improvements on their own, but they give false cover for the crimes of modern capitalism—as if the relative peace and longevity enjoyed by some inhabitants of the West were proof of the superiority of its model and the unquestionable benefit of pursuing growth.
These arguments never acknowledge the outsourced slavery, toxic dumping, or geopolitical strife on which this same model depends. So, while one can pluck a reassuring statistic to support the notion that the world has grown less violent— such as the decreasing probability of an American soldier dying on the battlefield—we also live with continual military conflict, terrorism, cyberattacks, covert war, drone strikes, state-sanctioned rape, and millions of refugees. Isn’t starving a people and destroying their topsoil, or imprisoning a nation’s young black men, a form of violence?
Capitalism no more reduced violence than automobiles saved us from manure-filled cities. We may be less likely to be assaulted randomly in the street than we were in medieval times, but that doesn’t mean humanity is less violent, or that the blind pursuit of continued economic growth and technological progress is consonant with the increase of human welfare—no matter how well such proclamations do on the business bestseller lists or speaking circuit. (Businesspeople don’t want to pay to be told they’re making things worse.)
So, with the blessings of much of the science industry and its collaborating futurists, corporations press on, accelerating civilization under the false premise that because things are looking better for the wealthiest beneficiaries, they must be better for everyone. Progress is good, they say. Any potential impediment to the frictionless ascent of technological and economic scale—such as the cost of labor, the limits of a particular market, the constraints of the planet, ethical misgivings, or human frailty—must be eliminated.
The models would all work if only there weren’t people in the way. That’s why capitalism’s true believers are seeking someone or, better, something to do their bidding with greater intelligence and less empathy than humans.