OCTOBER 11, 2020 6:00PM (UTC)
If only it were so. The truth is that the ailment afflicting America is capitalism, and the difference between the two parties is that the Democrats will only describe some of the symptoms but refuse to provide an honest diagnosis, while the Republicans outright defend the disease.
Most of the major problems with America, and the world, can be traced back to the singular cause of capitalism, an economic system in which a society’s means of production are primarily controlled by private individuals hoping to make a profit. It is a system that has devastated our planet to the point where it may soon be largely uninhabitable, created massive income inequality and left us woefully unprepared for crises like the novel coronavirus pandemic.
We can start with the last item on that list, the coronavirus pandemic. Because capitalist systems require perpetual consumption and growth to maintain prosperity, any little hiccup in the ability of most industries to stay profitable causes the whole economy to crash. This is why, despite the economy doing relatively well prior to the mandatory shutdowns in March, whole sectors began to collapse while unemployment skyrocketed once the pandemic forced people to shelter in place.
If America had a universal basic income in place — that is, a monthly amount of money guaranteed to every citizen to keep each one above the poverty line — ordinary people would have had at least been able to stave off desperate poverty during these trying times. The same is true of the eviction epidemic: Although Trump has announced a mostly symbolic eviction moratorium, he has refused to implement the real thing, and as a result millions of Americans face the likelihood of being thrown out of their homes… assuming that has not already happened to them.
Yet on a deeper level, the problem with capitalism is that it is built on the need for private enterprises to make money, no matter what. During a pandemic in which everyone will ultimately require some kind of medical care — for some to treat the disease, for others to be vaccinated once a vaccine becomes available — the need for corporate profit clashes with the needs of the general public.
“There is a unique incapacity of the capitalist system — by which I mean, a system of private enterprises owned and operated by shareholders, families, individuals producing for a profit and the ordering about of the majority of people involved in every enterprise or the employees — that system is uniquely incapable of securing public health,” Dr. Richard D. Wolff, the professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Salon earlier this month. “And since public health is a basic demand, a need of human communities, this represents a profound disqualification of capitalism. And to spell it out just briefly: it is not profitable for a private, profit-driven competitive capitalist to produce masks by the millions, or gloves, or ventilators, or hospital beds, or all the rest of them.”
Wolff noted that the government is entirely capable of stepping in and filling a void left by the private sector when a given industry deems this to be in its best interest. This is what happens, for example, with the military-industrial complex.
A similar dynamic is at play when it comes to the issue that most immediately threatens the survival of our species — climate change. 2020 saw some of the worst wildfires in recorded history on the American west coast because humanity has artificially warmed the planet through emission of greenhouse gases. A report by the World Wildlife Foundation identified global warming as the primary culprit for the cataclysmic decline in animal population sizes, with a 68 percent drop being recorded among “mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish” since 1970. If global warming is not brought under control, and soon, we can expect a world in which “a large part of the planet will become unlivable (either too hot or too dry),” Penn State climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann told Salon in 2018.
“More and more of the available land surface will be used for agriculture and farming to feed a growing global population. That means more concentrated human settlement—and probably a lot more conflict,” Mann added. His colleague, Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, also predicted at the time that “food and water become major issues with costs and shortages.”
If it’s so clear what’s happening, why doesn’t humanity take the steps necessary to fight climate change?
In the words of Ted Morgan, a professor emeritus of political science at Lehigh University: “The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the world’s developed capitalist economies, with China and the US leading the way.” He added that “each of the capitalist powers is loathe to weaken its competitive position vis à vis the other capitalist economies. In a capitalist world, each economic unit must act to protect what it deems its own interests. The only counterweight comes from the public sector.” Yet government authorities are reluctant to aggressively curtail capitalist industries that emit greenhouse gases — from the fossil fuel industry and big agriculture to those that cut down rainforests — because they are “constrained by the fear that pushing public interests too far will cause capital flight, thereby undermining its viability. And, of course, corporations and the wealthy dominate the shaping of public policy — nowhere more than in the US.”
That term, “capital flight,” is absolutely critical here. Under capitalist systems, companies that do not like potential government regulations often have the right to threaten to close up shop or move their businesses elsewhere, in the process taking away people’s jobs and hurting local economies. This is known as a “capital strike” and it has been used since the Industrial Revolution to do everything from get tax breaks from the state and break up labor movements to killing legislation that business magnates oppose, particularly when they help workers’ rights.
The state of facts and evidence proves that capitalism is condemning millions upon millions to hopeless poverty, rendering us incapable of effectively coping with manageable problems like a pandemic and literally destroying the planet. Unless that reality becomes part of our mainstream political discourse, humanity is doomed.
Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.