Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Twenty years ago, I wrote an op-ed in which I described free-market capitalism as “the most unjust and barbaric economic system ever devised, and one that now oppresses and abuses most of the world’s people.” I was scorned and vilified by neoliberal pundits, and even chided by some progressives who thought that calling the dominant economic system “barbaric” was going too far.
This is how I responded to my critics at that time:
Look up the word “barbaric” in your dictionary, and you’ll find several synonyms, including brutal, cruel, and savage. They all apply to the current capitalist system – and even more so to its leaders. These suave chief executives don’t look or act like Attila the Hun. They dress smartly, talk smoothly, and their table manners are impeccable. But strip away the glossy veneer, and you find the ruthless autocrats beneath the surface.
These modern barbarian chieftains don’t personally lead their hordes to invade other countries. They don’t physically destroy cultures, openly loot and pillage cities, or brutalize their citizens. But they engage in the equivalent of all these barbaric activities from the seclusion of their boardrooms, sometimes with just a phone call or a tap on a computer key.
Their invasions take the form of “free trade.” Their looting and pillaging is done through strip-mining, deforestation, privatization, deregulation, currency speculation, and IMF-enforced repayments of onerous debt-loads.
In the wake of these corporate depredations, billions of people are doomed to poverty, hunger and disease, and many millions to premature death. They are as much the victims of barbarism as were those slaughtered by Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. The business brigands who plan and direct these pogroms don’t have blood on their well-manicured hands, but they make the Goths and Vandals look like teen-aged delinquents.
That malediction dates back to 1999, but I wouldn’t change or take back a word of it today. If anything, corporate barbarism has intensified on a colossal scale, to the point of endangering the very sustainability of human life on the planet. The scourges of poverty and inequality run even more rampant.
“There’s no alternative” – really?
The defenders of this inhumane system argue that the “free market,” though admittedly flawed, is still the best way to run the economy. Its publicized faults – job cuts, outsourcing, tax evasion, financial fraud, recurring meltdowns, and the enshrinement of competition over co-operation – are all brushed away as unavoidable defects of an otherwise ideal system, one that in any case allegedly has no viable alternative.
“If our economy wasn’t run by capitalists,” I was often asked, “would you rather have it run by communists?” These critics had either never heard of the democratic socialism that thrives in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, or choose to dismiss it as an aberration confined to the Scandinavian countries and a few other nations in Europe.
Neoliberal fanatics conveniently overlook the insanity of an economic system that is built on the expectation of infinite growth on a finite planet. Capitalism, of course, could not continue without such a demented and ultimately self-destructive delusion. Left unchecked, it is bound to collapse eventually from the depletion of resources and the devastation of global warming — perhaps as early as the 2030s, but certainly well before the middle of this century.
In the meantime, reckless economic growth will continue blindly to be pursued and sanctioned, not just by the corporations, but by their subservient governments and mass media propagandists. In this Alice-in-Wonderland world, the unimpeded growth that threatens any semblance of civilization is welcomed while the curbing of growth that is so urgently needed is disdained. So, in effect, perpetual cancerous growth is being treated as the “cure” to the planet’s malaise instead of its cause.
In a sane society, the recurring economic crises triggered by neoliberal capitalism would not just expose its lunacy, but force its abandonment. So would the worsening levels of global poverty and inequality. Instead, as Guardian columnist George Monbiot points out in How Did We Get Into This Mess?, “The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatize remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations, and re-regulate citizens.”
Profit motive prevails
Secure from government intervention, corporations are left free to generate economic growth and profits by any means they choose. Equally irresponsible governments will cut corporations’ taxes, boost their subsidies, and facilitate their ongoing destruction of the ecosphere.
The profit motive drives corporate conduct and sets the priorities. If something can be developed, produced, and sold for a profit, it keeps getting produced and sold, regardless of the ruinous long-term consequences. On the other hand, if something is actually needed to enhance public welfare, but would not be profitable, it doesn’t get produced.
Extracting and selling global-warming fossil fuel is profitable.
Pillaging non-renewable resources is profitable.
Deforestation is profitable.
Pollution is profitable.
War is profitable.
Offshore tax havens are profitable.
Poverty and inequality are profitable.
Hooking kids on sugar and their parents on junk food is profitable.
Ill-health is profitable.
Pharmaceutical drugs are profitable.
Child labour and slave labour are profitable.
Low wages and high unemployment are profitable.
Unsafe workplaces are profitable.
Purchasing politicians is profitable. Very profitable.
Conversely, of course, anything that would benefit most people, but not make as large a profit as artery-clogging fast food or the latest electronic gadgets, will not be undertaken. Restoring our depleted industrial sector would boost the economy and create more jobs, but not be as profitable as outsourcing jobs to low-wage, low-tax countries. Reducing the high rates of disease caused by poverty and malnutrition would lower health care costs, but not be as profitable as treating the sick with expensive and often debilitating drugs.
“A rapacious oligarchy”
One of the books that enlightened me when I was compiling my Under Corporate Rule columns in the 1990s was The Next American Nation by Michael Lind, a senior editor of Harper’s magazine. His book, published in 1985, shunned euphemisms. He referred to the small group holding most of the money and power in the U.S. at that time as “a rapacious oligarchy.” This oligarchy, he said, “supported by the news media (which it largely owns), has waged a war of attrition against the wage-earning majority through regressive taxation and the expatriation of industry through free trade.”
Lind listed the four tactics deployed by the American ruling class to maintain and increase its dominance. These were: 1) adopt a “divide-and-rule” strategy that pits various groups against one another in zero-sum struggles for a share of declining wage income; 2) gain complete control of major political parties; 3) withdraw from the rest of society into heavily guarded enclaves; and 4) successfully promote the belief that their oligarchy doesn’t really exist.
During the 32 years that have elapsed since Lind exposed the baneful behaviour of the corporate and political oligarchy, all these ruthless corporate strategies have become even more powerful and pervasive. So have their brutal spillover effects of poverty, inequality – and, critically, global warming.