The Choice Fruits Of Capitalism: The Right delights in claiming that the dramatic improvements in the lot of ordinary people in the quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union, far from being the result of clean water, mass education and mounting political pressures from below, are to be attributed to the beneficence of free-market capitalism. And yet, wherever untrammelled FMC has been installed - as in the Russian Federation under Yeltsin, or in US-occupied Iraq - the results have been catastrophic.
IT’S THE RIGHT’S COMFORT BLANKET. Pressed to present a moral justification for their politics, it’s what they reach for. The unquestionable progress of humanity: out of poverty, ignorance and injustice, and towards prosperity, education and more equitable social arrangements; is held up as proof that their ideology works. They are particularly struck by the global improvements that have taken place in the quarter-century since the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in Russia and Eastern Europe. Capitalism, they insist, is not just good for capitalists – it’s good for everyone.
It’s nonsense, of course, but the weakness of the argument is not always apparent to those lacking a strong grasp of modern history. The Right’s trick is to conflate the dramatic expansion in human knowledge and technological prowess with the rise of the capitalist economic system. Only a fool would argue that the two occurrences were not closely related, but it would be much more foolish to claim that the latter caused the former.
Advances in agriculture, engineering and medicine have indisputably contributed the most to human welfare. The average human-being lives longer and in much greater health than his or her ancestors, not because they had capitalism imposed upon them, but because civil engineers made possible the supply of pure drinking water, and the safe disposal of dangerous waste. The discoveries of scientists and physicians similarly extended human life-expectancy and vastly increased the productivity of just about every aspect of agricultural activity.
The history of capitalism is by no means the story of how these scientific and technological advances were harmoniously integrated into its constant quest for increased profits. Improvements in the quality of life of ordinary people were often made in the teeth of fierce capitalist opposition. Even today, attempts by governments around the world to regulate the worst aspects of capitalist profit-seeking are resisted at every turn.
Nevertheless, the steady advancement of humanity has proceeded apace. Not because the big-hearted capitalists have been demanding that their workers be given the best of everything, but because workers and peasants around the world have insisted on translating advances in science and technology into measurable social progress for themselves and their children.
Almost always this has been achieved by mass political movements harnessing the power of the state to institute mass public education, health and welfare programmes. If the big capitalist corporations sometimes deigned to get out of their way it was only because they realised that the processes of globalisation proceeded more smoothly (and profitably) if the peasants they were enrolling in their vast new sweatshops knew how to read and write, and if the inevitable injuries they suffered could be patched-up at the host nation’s expense.
Nor should the impact of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the Save the Children Fund, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and the International Labour Organisation be underestimated. The humanitarian and social-democratic impulses which gave these global agencies of human progress birth, and which for more than 70 years have kept the flag of true internationalism flying, have been the targets of unrelenting right-wing hostility.
It was the capitalist triumphalism inspired by the fall of the Soviet Union, however, that stuck (and still sticks) in the throat of left-wingers the world around. To hear them talk, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had succumbed to a vast horde of right-wing ideologues brandishing copies of The Economist and The National Review. That the Berlin Wall was toppled by Baroness Thatcher – rather than a border guard who refused to open fire on his fellow citizens. Strange, too, how the Right has forgotten that it was Mikhail Gorbachev, not Ronald Reagan, who set the wheels of political and economic reform in motion, and Boris Yeltsin who turned back the coup-plotters’ tanks without a shot being fired.
What they have also forgotten, and what fundamentally undercuts all their boasts about the advances of the last quarter-century being driven by the forces of benevolent capitalist internationalism, is the fate of the Russian people after the fall of the Soviet Union. The United States was quick to offer the new Russian Federation all the advice it needed to apply what Washington insisted was absolutely necessary “shock therapy” to the moribund Russian economy. This was capitalism in its purest form: unpolluted by the slightest taint of socialism, or even social-democracy! And what was the result? What sort of society emerged from this capitalistic “Year Zero”?
The answer is that Russia was transformed into a vicious kleptocracy in which bribery, corruption and outright gangsterism rode roughshod over every economic principle Adam Smith ever enunciated. A system which had only just managed to work under the Communists, very quickly ceased to work at all. Unemployment, homelessness and alcoholism soared and even those fortunate enough to keep their jobs and their apartments were lucky to get paid once a month or keep the power on. Most tellingly, human life expectancy – that great reflector of the advances of the modern era – began to fall.
This is what happens to a country to which the principles of pure free-market capitalism are applied.
So, the next time a right-winger reaches for this spurious comfort blanket, remind him that while Capitalism may be correlated with the economic, social and political progress of humankind, any and all claims that it is the cause of our species’ advancement must be rejected as historically and morally unsustainable.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 15 February 2016.