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Saoirse McHugh: We need to talk about capitalism

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N HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.   

A most ludicrous situation is taking place in which we are disrupting weather systems we have relied on for centuries, poisoning drinking water, destroying habitats that provide food and fuel and pushing ourselves outside of the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed for the past few thousand years.

Despite all of this, most of our media and the great majority of our politicians refuse to talk about the reason why I believe this is happening. What is driving us to continue down such a grim and unpredictable path? The answer is capitalism.

Extracting profit from resources (often privately owned) and labour only to reinvest in further extraction has wreaked havoc on our world. The accumulation of profit as a shaping force in society leaves so much unaccounted for and undervalued.

In general, there is no cost given to implications such as resource use, pollution, and (much and all as I don’t like the term) ecosystem services such as air and water cleaning, pollination and nitrogen cycling.

When these are factored into cost it can have an alleviating impact, but of course the natural world does not trade in dollars and no amount of money can ever compensate for species extinction, coral reefs dying or the damage caused by oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The need for growth and the relentless expansion into and enclosing of new commons, such as carbon use and genetic information, means that capitalism is entirely incompatible with a finite planet and a just world.

Despite all this it is rare to hear our economic system discussed openly in Ireland outside of a few groups or lone politicians. It has developed the impression of being outside of our control, almost like some God imposed this system upon us.

When the conversation comes up politically, our elected representatives shy away from it and speak in vague terms about prosperity and growth. They do not delve into the idea that not only do we have the power to begin changing our economic system, but we have a moral and environmental imperative to do so.

‘But look at North Korea and Cuba’ 

I am not fully sure why there is such hesitancy to speak about capitalism. Is it because decades of American television have well and truly damaged the ability to talk about it without somebody bringing up the Soviet Union and communism?

I myself have had so many conversations where capitalism comes up and is met with: “But look at North Korea and Cuba, look at how many people died in Soviet Russia.” No doubt atrocities occurred in countries which were under a different economic system.

However, that argument ignores and minimises the atrocities that have been carried out in capitalist countries. The suffering and destruction capitalism has caused and is continuing to cause in the world is immeasurable.

It is a system with its origins in colonialism and to this very day there is a massive extraction of wealth from previously colonised countries. The social, physical, and economic violence used to keep these relationships in place is beyond comprehension and much of it has become accepted as normal.

It is ridiculous to talk about environmentalism without talking about capitalism, yet many people do so. Not only is it a part of our lives but it is the system within which we all operate.

It is all that most of us have ever known and for that reason people tend to avoid the conversation, perhaps for fear of looking radical or outside of the world of common sense.

The promises of green growth or sustainable capitalism are tempting, yet I fear that every year spent chasing these will-o-the-wisps is a year lost while continuing to worsen our predicament.

There will be no climate justice until we move to a different economic system. We need to halt the extraction of wealth from previously colonized countries and, more than that, repay and compensate these countries as fully as possible.

Obviously, it is not just capitalism that damages the environment. There are discussions of petroleum-based socialism and of communism focused on growth, which are extremely damaging too but we have arrived at a time where capitalism is the dominant economic model.

There is no point in skirting around the issue, we need to transform our economies and recognise that any politician who is not engaging in the conversation about our economic model and ways to change it is wasting everyone’s time. 

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Capitalism’s connection to our ever-worsening mental health

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In 2011, British writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher penned an essay entitled The Privatisation of Stress, perfectly capturing the relationship between depression, social conditions under capitalism and increasing alienation in the post-Reagan/Thatcherite years.

“It is hardly surprising that people who live in such conditions—where their hours and pay can always be increased or decreased, and their terms of employment are extremely tenuous—should experience anxiety, depression,” Fisher wrote. “But . . . this privatization of stress has become just one more taken-for-granted dimension of a seemingly depoliticized world.”

I think of Fisher and his writings often. I regularly reread his most famous work, Capitalist Realism, and have always admired his ability to not only write through depression and anxiety but to connect social conditions with our ever-worsening mental health. Despite headlines constantly blaring that our standard of living is ever increasing and our collective wealth is more abundant than ever, social stressors gnaw away at the foundations of our collective psyche.

The death of culture and art, for example, evident in the endless production of music algorithmically designed to evoke feeling but never provoke emotion. Literature circumscribed to appeal to the endless adolescence of an arrested readership. Tent-pole superhero films that have long since ossified and crumbled within the vaults of Disney and Warner Bros. The death of fulfilling labour, where the gig economy has driven the concept of “work” into utter absurdity (no pensions, no benefits, often no pay!), and the death of social institutions, including the church (which forever haunts us with its most destructive remnants, such as dogmatism and puritanism, even in the most liberal social scenes).

And, of course, a political culture that abides no realities, possibilities, no faint hopes outside of the neo-liberal consensus. Nowhere is the death of better things more evident than with the newly minted Joe Biden administration.

From a much-feted Inauguration Day poem by 22-year-old youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman calling for national healing (yet drawing water from the shallow and toxic pool of American exceptionalism that remains permanently tainted by its history of chauvinism, hypocrisy and genocide), to the collective meltdown over Bernie Sanders’ frumpy winter attire (viewed by many apoplectic liberals as an offensive gesture to the pageantry of the inauguration; these people can’t even be happy when they get what they want), to a trillion-dollar stimulus package that will once again deliver the goods to large corporations while handing out sparse change to working Americans (and yet again denying them universal health care, even during a deadly pandemic), the state of American politics is yet another handshake in the devil’s bargain that is capitalism.

Despite the COVID epidemic and endless political urgings for all of us to pull together, Black people continue to die at the hands of police. Children remain separated from their parents and sleep on cold floors behind ICE fencing. Wall Street hedge funds clamour for bailouts because investor pushback on their long-time market manipulations managed to blow up their plans. Suicide hotlines are overworked; polling of Canadians and Americans show we are contemplating suicidal ideation at heretofore unseen levels.

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Two million dead: The tragedy of capitalism

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Over 2 million have been killed as a result of COVID-19, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 21st century. Protecting the sanctity of human life should be every country’s number one priority in a global pandemic, so what has gone so wrong?

COVID-19 cases continue to soar across the world, with the free-market oriented liberal democracies of the world leading in death tolls and death rates. The UK and United States of America have made it clear that there will not be any mass efforts made to eradicate the virus entirely. 

From the start, scientists have stated that the only way to save lives is to freeze human movement in order to starve the virus of its hosts and eventually eradicate it from the population. Countries such as China, Vietnam, Cuba and New Zealand have successfully curbed the spread of the virus, keeping both new cases and related deaths at an all-time low. This was done through rigorous testing and state-wide restriction measures.

According to data confirmed by John Hopkins University, the official COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. hit a grim milestone of 500,000 on February 23. The U.S. and European countries are among the top 10 spots for highest death rates (per million). This is almost a year since the virus first arrived on either continent’s shores. In comparison, China’s current COVID-19 death toll remains under 5,000 and its neighbor Vietnam’s is under 50.

In a press conference led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, plans were discussed for lockdown restrictions to ease over the next few months, with nightclubs anticipated to re-open on June 21. It was stated that the UK public should “expect the disease to become a manageable problem comparable to winter flu.” The government will reportedly work toward deciding an “acceptable” number of deaths to justify the complete re-opening of the economy.

In no civilized, morally upstanding society should the mandate of “acceptable” deaths be uttered by the state when these deaths are entirely preventable. The UK government has made an active choice to allow its most vulnerable populations to die.

In the words of Karl Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs;” every member of society is as valuable as the next and should have access to an equal quality of life, whether disabled or not. In a truly democratic, people-centered society, the state should mobilize all of its resources and productive forces to ensure that these vulnerable populations receive the highest priority of care and attention. However, latest figures show that the UK has failed to do so.

Sixty percent of people in the UK who have died from COVID-19 were disabled, and people with learning or developmental disabilities are 3.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19. 

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Peace And The Council For Inclusive Capitalism

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The recently formed Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican seeks to foster a more equitable financial system. The Council was announced in December of 2020 and comprises a group of CEOs and global leaders in collaboration with Pope Francis. 

The group hopes to realise a model of capitalism which enhances equality of opportunity, intergenerational equity, fairness and equity of outcomes. It aims to transform the private sector by garnering actionable commitments from organisations related to the International Business Council’s four sustainability pillars: People, Planet, Prosperity and Principles of Governance. The commitments will also advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), contributing to enhance well-being, reduce poverty, improve gender equality and regulate and reduce climate change, among other goals. 

The Council comprise part of a broader social movement toward stakeholder capitalism which emerged after the 2008 financial crisis. Stakeholder capitalism holds that businesses have an ethical and social responsibility to consider the interests of their stakeholders as well as their shareholders. Stakeholders include anyone affected by a business’ actions: employees, investors, environmental organisations, future generations and members of the public affected by externalities. It stands in contrast to shareholder capitalism, which claims that the sole responsibility of businesses is to maximise shareholder value (MSV). 

The Council’s founder Lynn Forester de Rothschild cites the financial crisis and the subsequent occupy wall street movement as highlighting the inequities of the financial system. She told Reuters magazine: “Basically, I was a money-is-good, neo-liberal person who believed in the sanctity and sanity of free markets. A rising tide lifts all boats, and all that.” UN special envoy Mark Carney argues that the crisis exposed the moral injustices of a financial system operating largely on the basis of MSV. After the crisis, it became obvious that there were banks that were “too big to fail” and financial bubbles that reflected gross economic inequities. Inclusive capitalism attempts to reform the system to cater to a more just distribution of goods and resources. 

The success of the Council for Inclusive Capitalism’s efforts will depend to a large extent on the protocols they put into place to monitor the goals and progress of the organisations they work with and prevent greenwashing. Further, although it boasts over $10.5 trillion in assets under management, its influence may be too small to make any tangible difference. Stakeholder capitalism also faces considerable adversaries who argue that maximising values besides shareholder value will have a detrimental effect on the market. The latter debate is both technical and ideological.

Setting aside these issues, however, the social movement toward Inclusive Capitalism may have interesting implications for violent conflict. According to the Development for Peace, while economic inequality alone does not predict the rate of violent conflict in a given nation, it is an explanatory factor in conflicts between groups divided by ethnic, religious or cultural identities. Economic inequality exacerbates conflict where intergroup tensions already exist, especially when these inequalities exist along ethnic or sectarian divides. Economically dominant minorities are often targets for discrimination and persecution. In its ideal form, Inclusive Capitalism is purported to enable “all people to pursue prosperity and quality of life, irrespective of criteria such as socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity, religion or age.” A widespread shift toward corporations engaging in more stringent Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG), encouraged by groups such as the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, could thus have secondary social benefits in alignment with the goals of the Organisation for World Peace.

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