5 reasons why capitalism can’t be patched up, and has to go

By Eddie McCabe

If the world today seems chaotic and the future looks bleak, try to remember one thing: it’s not you, it’s capitalism. 

The accelerating decay of this system is increasing the rate of all kinds of disasters, as well as their intensity. This reality means more hardship for billions of people daily, and devastation for millions. Naturally, it’s also deeply affecting the political outlooks and aspirations of those people. From everyday conversations about precarious work, underfunded healthcare, extreme weather events, or the misogynistic treatment of Britney Spears, it’s not a leap to arrive at the conclusion that the injustice, turmoil and dangers we face are systemic, and that the system is capitalism. 

This is certainly the conclusion that socialists want to assist more and more people to draw. We would also add that it needs to be eradicated urgently for the sake of everyone and everything we know and love, and crucially, that it can be. But understanding the systemic nature of our problems is the beginning of a revolutionary outlook because it means understanding that reforms, compromises and ‘lesser evils’ simply won’t do.

With that in mind, below are (just) five of the most pressing reasons that capitalism has to go.

1) Inequality: unfathomable wealth alongside unbearable poverty

Capitalism today is epitomised by the obscene wealth being hoarded by a tiny fraction of the population, while most of the world lives in abject poverty. There are so many stats that demonstrate this point, such as the fact that the ten richest billionaires increased their wealth by half a trillion dollars in 2020 alone, while an extra 150 million people were estimated to have been pushed into extreme poverty – having to survive on less than $1.90 a day.

It’s worth briefly illustrating what’s involved when we speak of trillions of dollars, particularly as we are approaching the horrifying milestone of the world’s first trillionaire. If we use the measure of seconds in time we see that:

  • 1 million seconds amounts to 11 and 1/2 days.
  • 1 billion seconds amounts to 31 and 3/4 years.
  • 1 trillion seconds amounts to 31,710 years.

There are around 2,750 billionaires in the world, and between them they have over $13 trillion, more than the combined GDPs of Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada – five of the top ten economies in the world. Of course with such wealth comes immense political influence. 

The objection to these ultra wealthy people is not a moral one, or not just a moral one – how could it be considered anything other than immoral to have so much when so many have so little? 

The problem is that they have so much because so many have so little, the two are not unrelated – in fact they are directly related. Oxfam has reported that in 2020 at the same time as the wealth of billionaires increased by 3.9 trillion, the wealth of workers globally declined by 3.7 trillion. 

Now it doesn’t always work out like that, with an almost exact contrast, but this is basically how capitalism works. As Marx said in the Capital: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

It would take a worker on the medium wage of an Amazon employee 2,586 years to earn what Jeff Bezos earned in 2020. Bezos doesn’t work 2,586 times harder than an average Amazon worker, but his wealth is based on exploitation, i.e. profits made from the unpaid work of hundreds of thousands of workers. This arrangement, which is the basic foundation of capitalism, is the source of the inequality we see in the world.

One of the most shameful things about this inequality today is not just that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, it’s that compared with any other period in history, there’s less justification for anyone being poor: because the wealth, resources and productive capacity exist to ensure that everyone could be more than provided for if only the wealth, resources and productive capacity were commonly owned and democratically planned.

2) Pandemics: produced and exacerbated by the profit system 

It’s quite possible that pandemics wouldn’t have made the cut on a list of the five main reasons capitalism has to go if the list were being compiled before 2020. Even though the threat of a pandemic such as the one that’s currently causing so much havoc in the world has been in the offing and warned about for decades. The fact that you couldn’t possibly have a list without it now is an indication of how rapidly things can change and how volatile the system is — something that’s worth registering, for good and bad. 

We won’t waste time outlining the debilitating effects of Covid on the globe — everyone knows. What everyone doesn’t know, because it’s rarely if ever addressed in all of the discussion on the issue by politicians, scientists or medical professionals, is that this is not a ‘natural disaster’. Rather, it is a specifically capitalist disaster — in three main ways:

a) failure to prepare: The current pandemic was not unforeseen or unexpected — it was warned about in numerous scientific articles, reports and white papers, which were effectively ignored. So from capitalist governments, there were no increases in investment for more R&D, ventilators or PPE — which were all in short supply at the outbreak — never mind hospitals or healthcare systems in general. As for the private pharmaceutical industry, in 2018 just $36 million was spent on researching coronaviruses, while over $30 billion was spent on “marketing” in the US alone. 

b) the origins of the virus outbreak: The outbreak of this virus, like all previous epidemics in the last number of decades such as SARS, MERS or Ebola, was a result of the encroachment of human activity — in the form of big businesses (primarily agribusiness) and capitalist governments — into wild habitats which disrupts ecosystems. Certain pathogens that have been kept in check over thousands or millions of years are then shaken loose, and find new hosts in humans or animals that humans come into contact with. 

c) inability to contain or cope: The inability to contain relates to the global nature of the world today in terms of the production, trade and travel generally, which means a virus can spread very quickly. This would be a problem no matter what, but the division of the world into competing nations, including hostile powers, means that the ability to cooperate and coordinate an effective containment strategy is hampered. The dominance of business interests over public health and welfare is also a major block on the type of rapid response needed in terms of effective temporary shutdowns. 

The inability to cope relates to the underfunding of health services over decades, which has massively contributed to the death rate of this virus. Big pharma’s patents on vaccines, which were produced with massive public funding, is also now a major block on the production of generic vaccines — which is the only way the global population can be vaccinated in a timely fashion, preventing further illness, death and the development of new dangerous variants.

All of this means that as long as capitalism remains, so does the threat of new pandemics, and their effects will be all the more devastating.

3) War: violence, dislocation and destruction in the interests of the ruling classes

As noted above, while just $36 million was spent on researching coronaviruses globally in 2018, by comparison, a colossal $1.8 trillion went on military expenditure that same year. In 2019 (just before the pandemic) it was up to $1.9 trillion, and in 2020 (during the pandemic) it was up again to $2 trillion — the highest rate since the end of the Cold War.

Where these trillions actually go year after year is hard to say, but there are children in Gaza who’ve experienced three major bombing campaigns in their short lifetimes who can testify to the terrifying ferocity of modern weaponry.

Imagine if such sums were spent on healing people instead of killing them. And that’s what war is: murder, or the preparation for murder, usually through imperialist plunder or sectarian conflict. By very conservative estimates over a million people have been killed in wars so far in the 21st century. 

None of which was waged in the interests of ordinary people. But war is inherent to the capitalist system and is ultimately a product of one of the main contradictions of capitalism: the global nature of the economy, of production and trade on the one hand, and the division of the world into rival nation-states on the other.

The history of capitalism is a history of wars fuelled by competition for resources and territory. In a world based on private ownership and competition, tensions inevitably build up between rival powers, which can explode at a certain point. 

Today we have a new cold war developing between the US and China, which reflects the changing balance of their positions in the world economy and in geopolitics. Some of the main tensions relate to competition for new technology and the conflict between China’s tech giants and those in Silicon Valley. These may be big private corporations, but make no mistake they are backed by their own capitalist states. Even in the context of the pandemic we’ve experienced ‘vaccine nationalism’, where vaccine technology has disgracefully been weaponized for political purposes. 

In short, capitalism means unending war, with the consistent loser being the international working class which has no interest in fighting such wars on behalf of its capitalist rulers. 

4) Oppression: discriminating gender, race, sexuality, religion, nationality… 

The revolutionary civil rights leader Malcolm X put it best when he said “you can’t have capitalism without racism”. Fifty-seven years since the Civil Rights Act was passed in the US, ending segregation and outlawing discrimination based on race, black adults make up 33% of the adult prison population, despite being only 12% of the overall adult population. One out of every 1,000 black men will be killed by police.

The plain fact is that legal equality, while extremely important, didn’t resolve the problem of racism in the US because racism is stitched into the fabric of US capitalism. Its origins can be traced to the brutal system of chattel slavery and the ideologies and institutions that were built up to maintain that system, but remained in varying guises even after slavery was abolished. 

For the ruling class in the US, represented by the Republicans and Democrats, racism has been essential to the maintenance of their political power by keeping the working class divided. And this phenomenon is not restricted to the US. This is the primary benefit the ruling classes of all countries gain from all forms of oppression.

To Malcolm X’s quote above we could add: neither can you have capitalism without sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, sectarianism etc. Whether Uighur muslims in China, Kurds in Turkey, Travellers in Ireland, or migrants virtually everywhere, minorities in capitalist society face discrimination to varying degrees, and if the establishment feels it necessary, can be used as scapegoats for problems in society. 

Whatever about the individual attitudes of capitalists or capitalist parties themselves, the system they represent relies on division, discrimination and oppression, and fosters these through the state, the media, or through cultivating social norms and ideas that present those that don’t adhere to them as ‘others’ or ‘outsiders’.

The particular oppression of women predates capitalism but remains intrinsic to the workings and the profitability of the system. For example, the unpaid labour that women do around the world is estimated to be worth €10 trillion dollars every year. This aids the reproduction of capitalism’s workforce and therefore its profits. 

From BLM to #MeToo, to indigenous peoples rising up, the struggles of the oppressed are strongest when they take an uncompromising stance against capitalism. 

5) Environmental crises: the existential threat

In many ways the most compelling argument against capitalism and for a socialist alternative today is the environmental crisis, and climate change in particular.

If we go by the UN’s 2018 report we have just nine years to radically change the way our society functions or global average temperatures will hit 1.5°c above preindustrial levels, and then we’re in real trouble — the type of trouble that will make the Covid pandemic seem like a breeze.

As global warming accelerates we can expect sea level rises of up to two metres, and a proliferation of superstorms, floods, droughts, wildfires and deadly heat waves. Increasingly large parts of the earth will become uninhabitable, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced and many more species will go extinct. All of which will add to the vicious cycle of ecological breakdown that will spiral inexorably towards human extinction. The prospects really couldn’t be worse.

Thankfully the debate on whether climate change is a natural or human-caused phenomena has been settled. But another debate remains to be won, because the reality is that the problem is not just human activity itself, which has coexisted with the natural world for 200,000 years, reshaping it for sure but not irreversibly damaging it. The problem, rather, is capitalism.

The mass destruction of the environment and the production of unsustainable levels of CO2 emissions dates back to the mid-19th century, with the development of industrial capitalism. Although half of all CO2 emissions have been produced since 1990. And the major contributor to global warming is not all people in general, but the 100 major corporations that have produced 71% of all CO2 emissions since 1988. Similarly, the richest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of the world’s CO2 emissions, and the poorest 50% are responsible for just 10% of emissions.

Notwithstanding the obvious threat that climate change poses to the capitalist class itself — even if the working class and poor will bear the brunt — it is utterly incapable of acting to avert catastrophe. Despite the race against time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even as agreed in the hopeless Paris climate accord in 2015, the world’s 60 largest banks have pumped $3.8 trillion into the fossil fuel industry since then.

This is why billionaires like Bill Gates have no workable solutions to the climate crisis: they’re part of the problem. Even if they have good intentions as individuals, their system — the capitalist market system — has as its beating heart the rapacious drive for short-term profit. And it is this system that is the real existential threat we have to overcome.

The socialist alternative

An alternative to this system is not just desired by billions of people today, but is desperately needed. Socialists and socialist ideas exist not because of great idealist aspirations, but out of necessity. The alternative to capitalism, practically speaking, is socialism.

For example, if we have a planet of over 7 billion people and 1% have more wealth than the other 99% combined, we clearly need to turn this situation around. So that the wealth that we all collectively produce as workers, in the case of the majority, is used for the benefit of us all. That means taking the billions from the billionaire class, and taking over the major corporations, such as the Fortune Global 500, that generated $33.3 trillion in revenues and $2.1 trillion in profits in 2020.

If the anarchy of the capitalist market and the private ownership of the economy is causing the most pressing problems in the world then it needs to be ended, and there is no alternative but to take it out of private hands and into public ownership. That means taking over big agribusiness so we can prevent future pandemics. It means taking over big pharma so we can keep the world safe and healthy. It means taking over big arms manufacturers so we use their technology for human need not death and destruction. It means taking over big big fossil fuel companies so we can transition to a zero carbon world.

Through public ownership, and with democratic workers’ control and management as part of an overall plan for the economy, these industries could be transformed and utilised (or done away with in the case of arms and fossil fuels) to serve the interests of society and the environment, with local, regional and global cooperation. Such a socialist, planned economy is the only basis upon which a truly democratic and free society could be built.

In a sustainable and equitable way, everyone’s living standards could be profoundly improved. By dramatically reducing the working week, through sharing out the work, we could facilitate the participation of more people in the running of society, allowing for progress politically, economically and culturally. Likewise in science and technology, which could — in a real way, with human advancement not profit as the motive — be geared towards solving problems like climate change or curing diseases, or making discoveries that we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

Socialism is the alternative to capitalism that we need. More and more people around the world are drawing these conclusions, especially young people, and it is these people, as part of an organised movement — political, economic, social — that can bring about this revolutionary transformation of
society in the 21st century