The Contradictions of Capitalism
We advocates of individual rights and free markets can’t win the intellectual debate with the ideological left. That’s because there is no intellectual debate with the left. There can’t be a debate since the opponents of capitalism are simply not open to rational discussion. They know capitalism is inherently evil, and no argument, no evidence, no facts will convince them otherwise.
Consider this example. Fabian socialism was founded in 1883, the same year Karl Marx died, when a small group of intellectuals gathered at 17 Osnaburgh Street in London to hear lectures on the promised new world order of socialism. From this meeting was formed the Fabian Society, dedicated to the willfully slow evolution of a socialist society in England.
The Fabians were a strong, if not the strongest, influence on the British Labour Party and had the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb to spread their propaganda on the virtues of Stalinism and Soviet communism. Its list of members read like the Who’s Who of British intellectuals and included R. H. Tawney, G.D.H. Cole, Harold Wilson, Harold Laski, Oswald Mosley (the founder of British fascism), Bertrand Russell, Clement Attlee, John Strachey, Stephen Spender, George Orwell, and others.
For over a century the Fabian Society has continued to promote a Marxist agenda for the various countries of the world. At the turn of the last century the Fabians waxed eloquently on the virtues of socialism and the vices of capitalism. They never tired of saying how capitalism would lead to poverty and misery for the bulk of England’s workers. They promised that only a socialist centrally planned society could achieve wealth and prosperity. The workers, noted the socialists, could never find happiness and self-satisfaction so long as they were entrenched in the poverty of a capitalist economy.
The Fabian Society still exists. Not long ago, on BBC World, I watched a documentary series titled “Big Ideas.” It was billed as an antidote to the pessimism of the politically correct. In truth it was hardly that at all. Instead the entire show, called “The Good Life,” concentrated on an economist, Michael Jacobs, who is the general secretary of the Fabian Society. Did Jacobs continue the classical Fabian rhetoric of the last century and castigate capitalism for leading millions into poverty? Of course not. The laughter from the millions of workers viewing the show on their color televisions would have drowned out the rhetoric.
Instead he went on about how the wealth of capitalism doesn’t lead to happiness. He lamented the luxuries of the average worker and ridiculed those who work hard to get ahead. This, he said, was clearly the fault of capitalism. It seems capitalism leads to too much prosperity, causing people to seek out luxuries and status-symbol consumer goods. Lest you think this an exaggeration, the BBC described the show this way: “Evan Davis presents the series which tests ideas at the cutting edge of debate. Evan is joined by Michael Jacob of the Fabian Society, who argues that although Britain has become more prosperous, we have sacrificed our quality of life. We are working too hard, buying too many useless luxuries, and destroying the environment. But does the answer lie with individuals or can government action create the good life for everyone?”1
When it was pointed out to Jacobs that individuals who didn’t want to work hard didn’t have to do so, he was unpersuaded. The problem with the wealth of consumer capitalism is the system itself forces people to compete. The individual who wants to drop out, perhaps to read the works of Marx, can’t do so because of the structure of the system. He is a victim of capitalism. People should, instead, be free to concentrate on the “important” things, by which he means things which Jacobs thinks important.
Of course, the solution to this structural problem is the “social ownership” of the means of production. Jacobs wants regulations and laws to prevent competition and wealth-gathering.
Just about one century ago his Fabian forerunners were saying capitalism leads to poverty and only socialism can create wealth for the workers. Turning a blind eye to a century of rhetoric, today’s Fabians are attacking capitalism for creating too much wealth. A century ago the worker, living in poverty, would never find happiness. Today the Fabians argue happiness is illusive because of the temptations of the riches created by capitalism. When poverty was the alleged problem the Fabians advocated state control. When prosperity reigns, it too is defined as a problem and they advocate state control. You start to get the impression the “problems” don’t concern them and what they really want is just state control.
Socialists loved to warn that capitalism leads to monopoly. They were utterly convinced (by what, exactly, we will never know) a market economy would mean less and less competition as time went by. Eventually, competition would disappear altogether, and the poor consumer would be at the mercy of ruthless profit mongers. Yet a century later the Fabians are condemning capitalism for creating too much competition. The poor entrepreneur doesn’t have time to stop and smell the roses along the way. Have I missed something?
Of course the environmentalist allies of the socialists have similar complaints. We all know capitalism is destroying the planet. Take “nonrenewable” resources. The greens love to argue about how capitalism is using up natural resources. A nonrenewable resource is obviously a resource that, once used, vanishes. A lump of coal that is burned is no longer a lump of coal and thus is nonrenewable. It doesn’t matter that all the natural resources that are commonly used by man have known supplies that will last us for centuries. The fact is a resource that is nonrenewable must disappear someday–or so they assume. There are many reasons why this is simply not true, but let’s grant the greens their premises for a moment. Capitalism is evil because it uses resources that are destructible.
But that’s not all. Capitalism is also evil because it creates resources that are not destructible. If you think the greens get upset when modern society uses a nonrenewable resource, look how they act when renewable resources are used. Plastic is evil because it doesn’t degenerate. But what are the choices? Under any economic system some resources have to be used. We can use resources that are destroyed–but that is evil. Or we can use resources that are not destroyed — but that’s evil as well. As the late Professor Petr Beckmann noted, the greens have a unique argument: “If it is nonrenewable, don’t use it, use something indestructible instead; if it is indestructible, don’t use it either. Nothing is feasible except the two possibilities he [the environmentalist] has set his heart on: a return to the caves or doomsday.”2
We’ve seen this “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” logic from the environmentalists before. Take the issue of the rain forest as an example. We have been warned man’s incursions into the rain forest may bring us to the brink of disaster. Lurking behind some fern could be a new, deadly virus unknown to mankind. Contact with it could lead to the destruction of humankind since people may not be immune to such diseases. No, it is far better man avoid the rain forest altogether, except for those primitive tribes that have learned how to live in harmony with nature.
But don’t forget there is another reason the rain forest must be saved. After all who knows what miraculous medical cures could be found in the leaves, roots, or barks of indigenous plant life? We may find the cure for cancer there–unless a deadly virus kills us all first.
Just a few decades ago the environmentalists were lamenting that in America wilderness areas were being turned into farmland. They cried about the dire consequences of the depletion of timberland. The fact is privately owned timberland has been increasing in the United States, leading to a growth in all forestland, not a reduction. America’s forests today are larger than they have been in about a century.(3) So are these anti-capitalists happy? Of course not. Now they are screaming about the loss of farmland!
The Fate of Women
The feminist left, building on old Marxist theories, attacked capitalism because it enslaved women as breeding machines. One article from Socialist Review stated that “the very structures of capitalism oppress women.” This is because the capitalist class needs the family: “[Capitalists] needed a family where the next generation of workers (and the existing generation) could be fed, cared for, socialized and given rudimentary health care and education-at minimal cost to the capitalist class itself.”(4) The author continues, “The role of the family in the reproduction of labour power was and is central to its [the family’s] existence-and to the oppression of women-today.”(5)
This is typical Marxism, which argues the family is a creature of evil capitalist exploitation. So they should be thrilled at trends in the modern world that limit the function of the family. Well, no; once again evil capitalists are also blamed for destroying the family. The very same article quoted above then laments: “It is often said that the capitalist system itself acts to break down the family. The pressures of working people mean that the reality of the family does not match the ideal. Families are torn apart by emigration, having to move jobs, or by the pressures of school and work. The divorce rate has soared, teenagers can’t wait to leave home, more and more people live outside the conventional nuclear family.”(6) The author has managed to condemn capitalism for creating the family and for destroying it at the same time.
Wendy McElroy noted left feminists “consider marriage to be an involuntary state, in which women have the status of chattel. To them, marriage and the family are inextricably bound up with private property, the class structure and the mode of production. In other words, the family is an aspect of capitalism.”(7) Thus the social order of the day is a creature of capitalism. On the other hand anti-capitalist philosopher John Gray has argued capitalism is destructive to the social order and says “libertarian condemnation of the state and celebration of the free market is a recipe for social breakdown and political instability.”(8)
The system of world free trade, or global capitalism, also offends all Marxists. The Iverson Dictionary of Terms and Terminology of Sociology defines the “Third World” as those nations that suffer the exploitation of capitalism. “Those less powerful, less influential non-Western governments of usually colored peoples who have experienced colonialization, are ex-colonized, or have experienced modern capitalism as a form of imperialism, i.e., those countries whose cultures have been disrupted by industrialization and expropriation of their natural resources with little or no concern by the capitalists about the disruption, oppression, and exploitation of the people or just compensation for their labor or natural resources.”(9)
One “revolutionary” British group says globalization is the “super-exploitation of the mass of the world by a handful of rich capitalist countries.” No surprise there since Marxists hate freedom of exchange and are expected to condemn capitalism on that account. But in the very next paragraph the group laments how the Cuban “revolution” has withstood “a sustained economic blockade at the hands of the world’s most powerful economic and military power, the United States.” The embargo of U.S. goods only, since most other countries ignore the “blockade,” is blamed by the left for Cuba’s dismal economic performance. They say Cuba is poor because it is denied access to the trading markets of the United States. And Cuba would be richer if allowed to participate in market globalization.(10)
So, the Third World is poor because it isn’t embargoed, and Cuba is poor because it is embargoed. Trade with the West leads to poverty, and the lack of trade with the West leads to poverty. Take your pick.
Yet here in Africa [where I wrote this] the left argues a lack of Western investment is proof of latent racism. And what should capitalists do with the profits from investments in the developing world? If they take the profits out, this is condemned. But if they reinvest them, that is condemned as well. One leftist book from the 1960s, The Political Economy of Growth by Paul Baran, took both positions simultaneously. “It is very hard to say what has been the greater evil as far as the economic development of underdeveloped countries is concerned: the removal of their economic surplus by foreign capital or its reinvestment by foreign enterprise.”(11)
To the left, capitalism is the eternal scapegoat and the explanation for all that goes wrong in the world. Whatever social problems exist in the West are, of course, all due to the evil nature of capitalism. And whatever problems exist in Marxist nations is the result of the evil nature of capitalism as well. People are poor–blame capitalism. But blame capitalism if they are “too” rich. For the left, capitalism can do no good, just as the devil can do no good. Once you abandon reason, no rational debate is possible.
2. Petr Beckmann, Eco-Hysterics and the Technophobes (Boulder, Colo.: Golem Press, 1973), p. 68.
3. Julian L. Simon, Population Matters (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1990), p. 328.
4. Lindsay German, “Will Women Always Be Oppressed?,” Socialist Review, March 1994, www.otherdavos.net/PDF/_Lindsay2.pdf.
7. Wendy McElroy, Sexual Correctness (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1996), p.105.
8. John Gray, Endgames: Questions in Late Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), p. 133.
9. Found at: www.iversonsoftware.com/sociology/third__world.htm.
10. “Rock Around the Blockade: Cuba Fighting Global Capitalism, Building Socialism,” undated.
11. Paul Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1982), p. 184.
This originally appeared in The Freeman, August 2002.