The Toll of Capitalism

While on all sides of the street the harlot, Capitalism, was decked in horrible array of all possible and impossible colours, there was projected from the windows of the SDF a transparency of five feet, giving the statistics of deaths in war, deaths in concentration camps, the numbers of paupers, the number of unemployed in Britain, the famine deaths in India, and the famine deaths, emigration and evictions in Ireland.

– Social Democratic Federation

All that is solid melts into air…

 – Karl Marx

A painting on the wallDescription automatically generated

All That Is Solid by LS O’Brien.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the red thread of twentieth century politics, brought into fruition with 1917 and ended in ’89, a blood red.

After all, who doesn’t know, courtesy of The Black Book of Communism, that the great socialist experiments resulted in 100 million deaths? As a result, there are few names more villainous in our lexicon than Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.

But what is less noted, if at all, is the fact that these were figures who, primarily, were responding to the permanent state of crisis that is capitalist modernity. The support the Bolsheviks received was in large part due to their promise to end Russian participation in WWI – that chaotic melee between capitalist powers and the meat-grinder of a generation. Mao offered his people independent development in a country ravaged by famine, civil war and foreign exploitation.

And Pol Pot emerged from the USA’s destructive crusade against national liberation in Indochina. One that saw a colossal bombing campaign — worse than anything witnessed during WWII — that left Cambodia, alongside Vietnam and Laos, completely shattered.¹ (Overall, over four million tonnes of Minnesota can be found scattered across Indochina, at one time packaged in payloads called Rockeye, Daisy Cutter and Pineapple.)

This is not to absolve Stalin and his ilk – their murderous campaigns were horrific and unforgivable, and they should never be forgotten. But it is to give them context. Too often are communist leaders spoken of as if they were imposed upon history, rather than as products of it. If you were to take seriously Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama (of End of History fame) or the authors of the Black Book, you’d come away perplexed at why anyone would want to diverge from the natural, progressive and all-together rational march of liberal capitalism.

But in fact, capitalism had a very particular and peculiar origin. Arising in England because of a uniquely market-dependent tenet class, it likely would have fizzled out were it not for the fruitful outsourcing of this model, in the form of empire building. It is here, in the rapacious expansion of capitalism – and its logic demands perpetual growth – we see the counter movements come into effect, likewise inescapable.

It was the successful commercial relations between Britain’s outposts of Progress and the old country which solidified capitalism as a new mode of production. The immense wealth it directed to the ruling class convinced other Europeans into emulation, at a huge externalised cost.

As Fanon said, “the entire Third World went into the making of Europe.” The first Americans were forced to sacrifice their lands, the Asians their industries, the Africans their very bodies,² all to feed the capitalist megamachine.

Adherents to the new ethic resemble nothing short of religious zealots, convinced that their tenets of “improvement” and boundless profit-making justified the most debased acts – from the massacre of Pequots by the Puritans to the recent, bloody “liberation” of Fallujah.

Indeed, in his incredible book Enchantments of Mammon, Eugene McCarraher directly pursues the claim that capitalism is a modern religious movement. In doing so, he challenges the standard view that its ascent brought about a “disenchantment of the world”:

“I take this as a point of departure and argue that capitalism is a form of enchantment—perhaps better, a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world. Its animating spirit is money. Its theology, philosophy, and cosmology have been otherwise known as “economics.” Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies—the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design. Its beatific vision of eschatological destiny is the global imperium of capital, a heavenly city of business with incessantly expanding production, trade, and consumption. And its gospel has been that of “Mammonism,” the attribution of ontological power to money and of existential sublimity to its possessors.”

The problem isn’t that capitalism is value-free, as one reader put it, it’s that it values the wrong things. This could hardly be clearer than during the so-called Anthropocene, where the passengers are busy sizing up the drapery as an iceberg tears through the hull.

Whether they be true believers or simply prisoner to its logic, all caught within its remit join the pitiless struggle called Getting-On. The price is worldly, as well as personal, reconciliation.

“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.”

– Walter Benjamin

Those measures that brought about the much touted success of capitalism — the generalisation of wealth — were in their time decried as socialism. Take, for example, the trade union representatives who successfully negotiates pay rises and greater worker representation, or the enormous technocratic Keynesian reforms of the post-war period. Only after the event are the social benefits of such chalked up as a win for capitalism. (It was, after all, the representatives of Capital that fought them so bitterly.)

Karl Polanyi saw these occurrences as part of liberal society’s double, or counter, movement. These are the redistribution efforts — or exertions on the emergency brake — demanded by a demos subject to capitalism’s insatiable drive towards total commodification. There is only so much a people can take of enclosure, privatisation, environmental destruction and mounting personal debt before they turn to revolution, in the face of catastrophe.

The Terror of the French Revolution is well known and used as a rhetorical bludgeon against those seeking societal change. Yet what is so often overlooked is the violence employed by those maintaining capitalist hegemony. In the same capital King Louis XVI lost his head, a vibrant socialist experiment – the Paris Commune of 1871 – was crushed with more bloodshed than all the guillotines had spilled. All told, 25,000 men, women and children were murdered for daring to take the Republic’s founding tenets seriously. (The forces of repression were so cruel that the invading Prussians were taken aback.)

So-called times of peace under capitalism are ridden with terror. The Cold War brought this into focus most dramatically.

In the West, the standoff can be understood less as a restrained defence against the International Communist Conspiracy, and more as the very active effort to keep the Third World in its place.

The USA, inheritor of European empires, became the “Pax” Britainnia of the 20th century. This role saw to it that everywhere from El Salvador to Angola to Indonesia found themselves subject to American power. Coming in the form of electoral interference (as in Greece and Italy in the post-war period), coup sponsoring (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iran, the Congo), or outright invasion (Vietnam, Grenada and Iraq), there was, or is, nowhere safe for genuine self-determination in the Global South.

Former CIA agent John Stockwell has called this long, globe-spanning campaign the “Third World War”. The Association for Responsible Dissent, an organisation made up of ex-national security employees, estimates the death toll of which has been 6 million.

There are conservatives who, sour on all talk of revolution, celebrate the most destructive of them all: the Industrial Revolution.

In Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, readers learn how the appearance of the Third World was a direct result of the globalisation of capitalism. Perhaps 60 million perished as a result of its tenets being imposed upon Ireland, India, China and South America.

“Millions died, not outside the “modern world system,” but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered, as we shall see, by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.”

Interrogating John Locke, the precursor of all three, helps belie those claims that capitalism’s origins were inevitable or somehow peaceful. When he outlined what we consider today as standard property relations, Locke was writing against the myriad traditions of his day. To a significant degree, land was held in common in England — as it was almost totally in the vast New World his patron was busily engaged in colonising (you can find a philosophical justification for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in his pages). And it took a huge and violent effort to impose the privatised, enclosed system that characterizes today’s economy.

As Herbert Spencer wrote:

“Violence, fraud, the prerogative of force, the claims of superior cunning—those are the sources to which titles may be traced. The original deeds were written with the sword, rather than with the pen; not lawyers, but soldiers, were the conveyancers; blows were the current coin given in payment; and for seals, blood was used in preference to wax.”

To be sure, the Invisible Hand has been an all too apparent fist for those who were here first.

A conservative who bucked a servile attitude towards the bourgeoisie was John Ruskin. He was concerned primarily with how the Industrial Revolution was debasing what made men and women what they truly are: complex souls of incalculable worth. This was in direct confrontation with the ideology tied most intimately with English capitalism, utilitarianism, the followers of which value people solely on the market’s confining and pecuniary terms.

“We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men — broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, — sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is — we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, — that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.”

Liberals claim that they alone appreciate and defend “the individual.” Their doctrine, after all, epitomised by Locke, Smith and Mill, champions the bourgeois, go-getting Man with a capital m. But actually existing liberalism teaches us something else: when the individual is made the measure of society, it robs him of his autonomy and opens the way to his total eclipse.

“Freedom from society robs him of the strength for freedom. For however real he may be in his relations to others, he is, considered absolutely, a mere abstraction. He has no content that is not socially constituted, no impulse transcending society that is not directed at assisting the social situation to transcend itself. Even the Christian doctrine of death and immortality, in which the notion of absolute individuality is rooted, would be wholly void if it did not embrace humanity.”

In the process of discussing this, Adorno draws the reader’s attention to the golden age of Athenian democracy, where in it was well understood that true freedom was attained through the polis, and not detached from it. Individuality, it could be said, was predicated on a certain collectivity. Yet, with time, this context was lost and a cult came to surround the individual. Quoting Jakob Burckhardt, Adorno writes:

“The situation in which the individual was vanishing was at the same time one of unbridled individualism, where ‘all was possible’: ‘Above all, individuals are now worshipped instead of gods.’”

This produced the strong men politicians that became the city state’s oligarchy. Fascism, today and in the same way, threatens the liberalism that makes its idolatry viable.³

“Men will not always die quietly. For starvation, which brings to some lethargy and a helpless despair, drives other temperaments to the nervous instability of hysteria and to a mad despair. And these in their distress may overturn the remnants of organization, and submerge civilization itself in their attempts to satisfy desperately the overwhelming needs of the individual.”

John Maynard Keynes

In the early decades of capitalism’s growth, Adam Smith, a moral philosopher first and foremost, defined political economy as having, “two distinct objects: to supply a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or, more properly, to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services.” For Kate Raworth — famous for her “Doughnut economics” — this represents an important, lost understanding in the practice of economics: when it was goal-orientated. It was simply a given for Smith that social and moral considerations, and not blind accumulation, were the priority.

This treatment surprises those of us brought up in a time when the economy is treated with a sort of awed reverence; one that treats all “intervention,” even for the sake of the commonwealth, as sacrilegious. (Especially by those who claim to be in the Smithian tradition.)

Hayek, one of the godfathers of neoliberalism, made a career out of expounding this view. He saw his enemy as those socialists which sought to turn the market into “a deliberately run organisation serving an agreed system of common ends.” The gall! To him, the Market (and it feels necessary to capitalise here) was a sublime hyperobject, that should be left to grant favour or take where it alone sees fit. Any threats to this functioning should be met by the disciplinary hand of the state (otherwise stripped of purpose), as happened in Pinochet’s Chile.

He writes, “it was men’s submission to the impersonal forces of the market that in the past has made possible the growth of civilization.”

Through submission, it is promised, freedom awaits. Orwell saw what this bowing out of the at least somewhat accountable state in fact meant.

“Professor Hayek is also probably right in saying that in this country the intellectuals are more totalitarian-minded than the common people. But he does not see, or will not admit, that a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.”

And many, many will not. In depoliticising labour and economic matters more generally, liberals deny these also-rans the possibility to even articulate their loss.

Max Horkheimer is known for writing with Adorno Dialectic of Enlightenment – a bracing account of how, within the liberatory project of the Enlightenment, there resides the potential for the greatest unfreedom. He would’ve understood the neoliberal turn as part of this larger trend.

To understand why it’s necessary to turn to his examination of reason, which is defined by two distinct types. The first is objective rationality:

“This view asserted the existence of reason as a force not only in the individual mind but also in the objective world—in relations among human beings and between social classes, in social institutions, and in nature and its manifestations. Great philosophical systems, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, scholasticism, and German idealism were founded on an objective theory of reason. It aimed at evolving a comprehensive system, or hierarchy, of all beings, including man and his aims. The degree of reasonableness of a man’s life could be determined according to its harmony with this totality.”

These systems have dominated people’s lives and coloured them with meaning throughout the millennia. But exactly through domination they invite revolt: and this often comes in the form of subjective reason. Subjective reason parcels off (or encloses) specific claims with a view to evaluating their personal validity or usefulness. This calculative and deconstructive process is what chipped away at now defunct mythologies. Given the need to be coherent, subjective rationality had been known to employ universal concepts that in turn became their own objectivity — as seen with the competing Greek schools.

In our own enlightened age however, a deep skepticism towards all truth has led to what Horkheimer calls the “formalisation” of subjective rationality. This means rationality is very much present, but without the overarching meta-narratives that determine common ends. Effectively this means a pervasive nihilism. (A state of affairs, according to philosopher John Gray, where “values have come to be regarded as being essentially subjective and emotive. The test of what is right, good and true has become personal feeling.”)

This type of rationality compliments capitalism, and neoliberalism in particular, well. Reason has become just like the capitalist’s means of production: a mere tool of self-preservation.

“In the industrial age, the idea of self-interest gradually gained the upper hand and finally suppressed the other motives considered fundamental to the functioning of society; this attitude dominated in the leading schools of thought and, during the liberalistic period, in the public mind.”

What this means for the people at large is chaos. Now that subjective reason prevails over society, one finds theirself subject to “blind, natural powers” which they can no longer make sense of (i.e. there’s no corresponding truth). Instead, they are bound by the logics of the plethora of machines they find themselves integrated with; and they are conditioned by the untethered self-interest of a billion others. They have become freed from the fetters of custom and traditional philosophy only to fall victim to the ever-fluctuating and inscrutable processes of the market.⁴ And with globalisation there is nowhere free from this inhuman force.

Least of all valued by the now triumphant regime is the welfare of non-humans. The Enlightenment taught that an immense gulf in duty and sympathy separates men from their fellow creatures, and the market sees only cash cows.

As a result, non-humans have become products; their very bones, flesh, skin and waste commodities. Witness to the terrible meatpacking factories of Chicago, Upton Sinclair was amazed at just how much capital could be squeezed out of these animals:

“No tiniest particle of organic matter was wasted in Durham’s. Out of the horns of the cattle they made combs, buttons, hair-pins, and imitation ivory; out of the shin bones and other big bones they cut knife and tooth-brush handles, and mouthpieces for pipes; out of the hoofs they cut hair-pins and buttons, before they made the rest into glue. From such things as feet, knuckles, hide clippings, and sinews came such strange and unlikely products as gelatin, isinglass, and phosphorus, bone-black, shoe-blacking, and bone oil. They had curled-hair works for the cattle-tails, and a “wool-pullery” for the sheep-skins; they made pepsin from the stomachs of the pigs, and albumen from the blood, and violin strings from the ill-smelling entrails. When there was nothing else to be done with a thing, they first put it into a tank and got out of it all the tallow and grease, and then they made it into fertilizer.”

60 percent of all mammals on Earth are livestock, and 99 percent of these are found in factory farms. And yet more land is being cleared for these death camps. An incomprehensible 72 billion pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep and goats are butchered every year (and this is to say nothing of the ultra-exploited sealife). Almost without exception they endure short, confined, filthy existences, replete with the most unimaginable pain (some of which is documented in the important free-to-watch film Dominion), before ending up on our plates.

There would surely be a moral reckoning for all this in generations to come, were it not for fact that, along with much else, the extreme climate alterations of the Capitalocene will truly end history.

Cattle in the slaughter-pens, laboratory dogs
Slowly tortured to death, flogged horses, trapped fur-bearers,
Agonies in the snow, splintering your needle teeth on chill steel, – look:
Mankind, your Satans, are not very happy either. I wish you had seen the battle-squalor, the bombings,
The screaming fire-deaths. I wish you could watch the endless hunger, the cold, the moaning, the hopelessness.
I wish you could smell the Russian and German torture-camps. It is quite natural the two-footed beast
That inflicts terror, the cage, enslavement, torment and death on all other animals
Should eat the dough he mixes and drink the death-cup. It is just and decent. And it will increase, I think.

Robinson Jeffers


¹ Pol Pot was convinced into taking the ultra-violent path he did after witnessing the peaceful communist movement of Indonesia stamped out with such brutality (see The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins). There, over a million civilians were killed by the military and paramilitary gangsters.

² This has come back to haunt the white American: practices devised by Southern slave masters trace a direct line to those employed by today’s corporate administrators.

³ Lawrence Klein explains,

“[Fascism] is the form that our capitalist society will acquire unless we are successful in bringing about Keynesian reforms or a socialist economy. If we let nature take its course, the economic law of motion of capitalism will take us down the same road that Germany followed so recently.”

⁴ Horkheimer expands:

“Shrewd as man’s calculations have become as regards his means, his choice of ends, which was formerly correlated with belief in an objective truth, has become witless: the individual, purified of all remnants of mythologies, including the mythology of objective reason, reacts automatically, according to general patterns of adaptation. Economic and social forces take on the character of blind natural powers that man, in order to preserve himself, must dominate by adjusting himself to them. As the end result of the process, we have on the one hand the self, the abstract ego emptied of all substance except its attempt to transform everything in heaven and on earth into means for its preservation, and on the other hand an empty nature degraded to mere material, mere stuff to be dominated, without any other purpose than that of this very domination. For the average man self-preservation has become dependent upon the speed of his reflexes. Reason itself becomes identical with this adjustive faculty.”