It is many times argued, though admittedly less now during the global economic crisis, that global capitalism has improved life for everyone and has furthered freedom, democracy and human rights. As is often the case, it is of great value to investigate such doctrinal claims and, as is also often the case, when such an investigation is undertaken, it is soon found that reality is the direct opposite of the specific doctrinal dogma.
Let’s first examine the claim that global capitalism has improved everyone’s life for the better. Setting aside the factual basis of this claim, let’s assume it is true, is the fact that a specific system improves welfare an argument in its favor? As Noam Chomsky observes: “No…there were rising standards of living in slave societies. Slaves were better off in the early nineteenth century than the early eighteenth century. Is that an argument for slavery? It’s a terrible argument.”
The mere fact that life has improved within the confines of a capitalist system is not intrinsically an argument in favor of that system, just as the fact that life having improved within the institution of slavery was still not an argument in favor of slavery. Chomsky notes that the same argument would hold for Stalinism: economic conditions in the Soviet Union improved under Stalinism, but that's still not an argument in favor of Stalinism.
Having easily discarded the notion that capitalism is just simply because society has improved over the last several decades, let’s return to the initial presupposition: that capitalism is improving living standards for everyone. Has capitalism made life better for most people?
The populations of early Britain, Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Indonesia and various other nations which were forced – by dictators such as Pinochet and Suharto and capitalist "reform" enforcing organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization – to suffer under neoliberal economic policies – essentially “free-market” dogmas, although free-trade never entered into the picture in any meaningful sense - may have something to say about the effects of capitalism and neoliberal economic reform and their relation to the improvement of life.
Let’s take only the example of
Chomsky goes on to observe that “deplorable socioeconomic conditions persist, leaving much of the population in misery in a rich country with concentration of wealth and land-ownership that is high even by the shameful standards of
Chomsky is quoting Arlene Tickner, general coordinator of the Center for International Studies at the University of the Andes,
The illustrative example of
So, capitalism improving standards of living is not alone an argument in favor of capitalism and, furthermore, the presupposition that capitalism inculcates improved standards of living, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights is fallacious in the first place.
Apologists for corporate state-capitalism like to point out how modern corporations are trying to incorporate benefits and bonuses for their workers, as though this justified the existence of inorganic entities defined by corporate lawyers egregiously misusing the fourteenth amendment to define corporations as persons with the rights of such, but without the social responsibility of persons.
But the ultimate question is not one of simply improving already poor conditions, but of freedom, democracy and human rights.
It must go unnoticed by most people – especially the previously mentioned apologists – that corporations are in essence totalitarian. They are structured hierarchically with dictates flowing from the top on down and those on the bottom – labor – have essentially no input into the functioning and managing of the corporation: that is what totalitarianism is.
With some perverted form of representative democracy in the political arena, most people seem to fail to notice that within the realm of economic life, they are essentially voiceless and dominated by the interests of unaccountable tyrannies: corporations, conglomerates and so on, which just dominate the political and economic realm.
The problem of industrial feudalism is not only one of standards of living – which are violently denigrated within capitalist systems, even more so the “freer” the market is – but of freedom and democracy. Should people, the ordinary population, workers and so on have the ability to democratically run industry and the economy? Or should private, unaccountable tyrannies be allowed to continue to dominate in a totalitarian fashion?
Apologists would at this point argue that it is less efficient to allow democratic control over industry, therefore justifying corporate domination. To again quote Chomsky:
“So if you care about what is actually happening, the economy is moving towards totalitarian control, or mercantilistic control, and the claim is, as it has been since the late 19th Century, there is no alternative. And in a sense there isn’t, if the only alternative is markets, which are too destructive, so you have to have administration [a mixture of corporation and government control, with corporations having the advantage]. But then there’s the obvious question: why does the administration have to be totalitarian? You could say the same ting about governmental structures. In some respects they may be more efficient when they have totalitarian features, but that’s not an argument for them.”
A viable alternative would be the open and democratic administration of the economy by the workers and the population generally through workers’ councils, service collectives and community cooperatives. As John Dewey once phrased it: “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” It’s long overdue to cast some light on this shadow and do away with it's source once and for all.