I’ve spent a few years reading around this subject now, and to my mind there are four levels of critique that seam to be levelled at the Capitalist system – advanced by numerous voices with the Anti-Capitalist movement. I name this my ‘multi – layered critique of the Capitalist system’ – Each is progressively deeper and more difficult to understand, especially no.4!
There are different political view points within the movement – anarchists have different logics of critique to Marxists for example, and there are different theories on how important the state is in relation to Capitalism, these four layers of critique do not relate to those, this system of categorisation is just one way of looking at some of the different angles people take on criticising this callous economic system.
1. The most basic criticism that the anti-Capitalist movement makes of contemporary Capitalism is that the pursuit of profit often leads to social and environmental harm. Most of these criticisms focus on Transnational Corporations and Individual capitalists themselves. Examples of this would be a Transnational Corporation exploiting cheap labour in the developing world; polluting an area in pursuit of oil and not clearing it up; or a company profiting from war.
2. Deeper criticisms, in my view, are levelled at the institutions that set the ‘rules of trade’ that allow Capitalists the freedom to do harm while pursuing profit. Clearly, there are laws that prevent corporations making a profit out of killing or enslaving people. We could also establish laws of trade and investment that force Capitalists to pay people enough to have a decent standard of living; we could establish laws that force them to bear the full cost of clearing up any pollution they create, and we could enforce laws that force them to invest in socially useful enterprises, but such laws do not exist, and if anything the rules of global trade tend to favour the Capitalist class over people and planet. The ‘rules of trade’ are set and enforced by global institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund. Many within the Anti-Capitalist movement are very critical of such institutions.
3. The third layer of critique focuses on the underlying dynamics of the Capitalist system. Two examples of this are Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine – in which she argues that pro-corporate, Neo-Liberal policies are often brought in after a society experiences a ‘shock’ – a natural disaster (the Tsunami) or a war (Iraq), for example – thus neo-liberal forms of capitalism require disasters and misfortune in order to advance. Another well developed, yet less known body of theory is that of Zygmunt Bauman who reminds us that Capitalism is a dynamic system which destabilises local communities – and the central dynamic and central problem of Capitalism is that a globally mobile Capitalist elite destabilises the world in pursuit of profit, and the globally immobile poor are left relatively disempowered with communities that are more unequal, more fragmented and more unstable than before Capitalism arrived. He reminds us, and this is important, that the poor are much less able to escape the problems Capitalism creates than the wealthy. Another example of this type of theory would be Wallerstein’s World Systems theory and one might even argue that Habermas’ theory of the colonisation of the lifeworld fits into this too.
4. The fourth, and deepest, layer of critique comes from David Harvey, and what he calls the ‘unresolved crisis tendencies of Capitalism’. In other words, the means whereby the Capitalist class seeks to increase its profit and wealth actually undermines their ability to maintain profitability in the long term – thus the ‘internal contradictions of the capitalist system’ means that economic growth will only ever occur for relatively short period, say a decade or two, and then the rate of growth will either decline or stagnate, which is what we call an economic crisis. When this happens, Nation States, or international economic institutions typically step in to solve the ‘economic crisis’ – but, according to Harvey, whatever measures are taken to ensure sustained economic growth are doomed to failure mainly because as the international economy grows it becomes harder and harder to maintain the same level of growth.
Where to go now – see my blogs on these different types of criticisms of the Capitalist system