For the last three years, Greta Thunberg has said that her life’s purpose was to save the world from climate change. But last Sunday, she told an audience in London that climate activists must overthrow “the whole capitalist system,” which she says is responsible for “imperialism, oppression, genocide… racist, oppressive extractionism.” Her talk echoed the World Economic Forum’s calls for a “Great Reset” away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. There is no “back to normal,” she said.
But her claims are absurd. The “whole capitalist system” has, over the last 200 years, allowed for the average life expectancy of humans to rise from 30 to 70 years of age. The “whole capitalist system” produces larger food surpluses than any other system in human history. And the “whole capitalist system” has resulted in declining greenhouse gas emissions in developed nations over the last 50 years.
Capitalism is far from perfect. It worsens inequality by making some people so rich that they can rocket into space on liquified hydrogen while leaving others too poor to afford natural gas. It is characterized by cycles of boom and bust that create frenzies of wealth followed by high unemployment. And it is constantly turning non-market relationships, including intimate ones, such as between parents and caregivers, into exchanges between buyers and sellers.
But capitalism is plainly better than any other system of economic organization yet devised. High levels of inequality are the result of more rich people, not more poor people, who are much better off under capitalism than feudalism or communism. The business cycle of booms and busts provokes manias and depressions, but it is much more efficient, and less oppressive than governments deciding what should be produced, by whom, and at what price. And while it’s true that capitalism undermines non-market relationships, that’s often a good thing, even in the case of childcare, since it allows women and others to be compensated for their labor.
Some of the people who have benefitted the most from industrial capitalism are people like Thunberg and her family. The remarkable wealth of their home nation of Sweden is due to the industrial revolution, which allows for a tiny number of people to produce food, energy, and other necessities for life so that the majority of Swedes can do other, less arduous, and more pleasurable things. The same is true across the West. In the U.S., just 2% of the population works on farms and just 8% in factories.
And industrial capitalism allowed Sweden to create a generous social welfare state consisting of free health care, free education, and 480 days of paid leave for parents when a child is born or adopted. The Thunbergs are, by any global or historical standard, rich: the annual per capita income globally, according to the World Bank, is $11,000, which is less than the cost of the two chairs in Thunberg’s living room.
Capitalism is far better for the natural environment than feudalism or communism. Under feudalism, subsistence farmers rely on wood and dung for cooking fuels and must farm large tracts of land to produce a small amount of food. The industrial revolution not only liberated most people from back-breaking farming but also reduced the amount of land required, thanks to fertilizer, irrigation, and tractors. The same process allowed humans to switch from using wood to coal to natural gas and uranium as primary fuels.
The result has been the return, and “re-wilding,” of grasslands and forests around the world, including in Sweden. The reason is that market capitalism rewards economic efficiency and thus reduced natural resource use. Consider the whales. What saved them, in capitalist nations, was cheaper substitute oils, first petroleum and then vegetable oils. The Soviet Union, by contrast, kept whaling long after it was economically efficient to do so because whalers were protected from market competition.
All of this and yet, around the world, it is affluent and educated progressives like Thunberg who are anti-capitalist. Our language reflects this. Across the West, affluent anti-capitalists are referred to as “latte liberals,” “Neiman Marxists,” “champagne socialists,” “radical chic,” and “cashmere communists.” Similar expressions exist in non-English language nations: izquierda caviar (caviar leftist in Spain); gauche caviar (caviar leftist in France); Salonsozialist (salon socialist in Germany); and — in Thunberg’s home nation of Sweden — Rödvinsvänster, which means “red wine leftists.”
It wasn’t always this way. Left-wing parties, from communist to socialist to social democratic parties, used to be the parties of the working class. Now, across the Western world, they are the parties of educated elites. The latest polls show that Democrats have a 14-point advantage among college voters and a 15-point deficit among working-class voters, an 11-point increase since 2012. “Lest anyone think that declining working-class support was solely due to white working-class voters moving away from the Democrats,” writes the self-described social democrat Ruy Teixeira, “it should be noted that nonwhite working-class voters moved away from Democrats by 19 margin points over the time period.”
This is true across the Western world. From British Brexiteers to Dutch farmers to the French yellow vests, working-class people are turning away from the Left and embracing pro-free market political movements and pro-capitalist political parties. Why is that? How did educated elites like Thunberg become anti-capitalists, and working-class people become pro-capitalists?