Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Blaming Capitalism for Virtually Everything Wrong with the World

That has always been the outstanding fault of the far Marxist left, and, I am afraid, it is even quite prevalent on the Postmodernist left and more mainstream left. It has also been taken to some ludicrous extremes.

But it is ridiculous. In many ways, it is the mirror image of Rothbardian or Misesian libertarians who blame virtually everything on “socialism.”

One could write a lot about this issue, but let me take just two examples: (1) global warming and (2) imperialism.

Global Warming
How often do you hear the cry:
“Capitalism is responsible for global warming!
However, if we accept the current consensus on global warming, there is a terrible problem with this assertion.

Did anyone think of the 20th century communist world’s contribution to greenhouse gases?

The Soviet Union had a great deal of industry, as did other communist states, and had a horrendous record on pollution and environmental degradation. For example, Soviet irrigation programs caused an environmental disaster for the Aral Sea.

Shahgedanova and Burt (1994) even state that the former USSR was our planet’s second largest producer of harmful emissions and in 1988 produced about 79% of the total harmful emissions produced by the US.

Surely communist industrial civilisation deserves a fair share of the blame for global warming too. You can’t just blame it on capitalism.

What is even worse: imagine a world where the Soviet Union had won the Cold War or where the West and developing world had gone communist after World War I. Communism is precisely an ideology obsessed with rapid industrialisation. Wouldn’t mass industrialisation in such a counterfactual Communist world – especially the Third World – have massively increased greenhouse gases and caused even worse problems with global warming than a capitalist world?

So – in light of both these issues – why then do some people on the left want to blame capitalism alone for global warming?

Imperialism existed long before modern capitalism, and if one wants to look at history with an open mind some of the worst, most genocidal imperialism of human history comes not from capitalist societies, but from the eruption of essentially stateless and non-capitalist nomads or semi-settled people from the Eurasian steppe. Sedentary agricultural peoples down through the centuries – in Europe, the Near East and China – have been terrorised by steppe nomads many times in human history: we need only think of the Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Magyars, Tartars, Cumans, Khazars, Mongols, Mughals and Manchus.

Arguably, in terms of per capita deaths, Mongol imperialism was probably the worst in human history (see also Pinker 2011: 195). The terror, destruction and death was unparalleled and mass extermination was the fate of those who resisted.

It is estimated that some 40 million people died during the Mongol invasions and if the same per capita death rate had happened in the 20th century in some war it would have been the equivalent of some 278 million people dying. Given that the Second World War only killed some 55 million people, we can see how violent Mongol imperialism actually was.

You need only read the history books on the Mongol invasion. They descended on China, the Middle East and Europe and committed mass murder on a scale that is unfathomable. Their imperialism had nothing to do with capitalism.

But let’s turn now to the Communist world of the 20th century. Umm, do people forget Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe? What about the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan? What about the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979?

If the Soviet Union had only been much stronger, and the West weaker, who knows what kind of imperialist madness the Soviet Union would have embarked upon?

So there you have it. We have two of the most serious problems the left think is wrong with the world today – global warming and imperialism. The first has to be regarded as just as much the fault of communism. Analysis of the second suggests that the worst and most genocidal imperialists in human history were the Mongols. Either way, we have serious problems with the narrative we hear from some extreme people on the left.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking, New York, NY.

Shahgedanova, Maria and Burt, Timothy P. 1994. “New Data on Air Pollution in the Former Soviet Union,” Global Environmental Change 4.3: 201–227.


  1. The link between capitalism and global warming, is the monetary system being based on banks creating money through debt, and how the interest on that debt makes overall debt grow far out of proportion to the amount of money in the economy, with the primary way of dealing with that (before the disproportionate increase in debt inevitably leads to the end of an economic cycle), being inflation through exponentially increasing economic growth (and as soon as that growth stops, it all comes crashing down).

    This need for exponential economic growth, then feeds pretty directly into global warming. So it's directly built-in to the actual monetary system.

    1. This explanation is badly flawed. Any system that wants to lift human beings out of grinding poverty must industrialise: industrial civilisation -- given limits of technology -- tends to produce more pollution and greenhouse gases. That applies equally to communism and capitalism.

      What is worse, communism was also endlessly obsessed with economic growth and high growth rates. Why do you think they had endless 5 year plans?

      As I said below, the only exception I can think of is the Khmer Rouge. Look who that insane state turned out.

    2. And look at the apologetics you get for them infra. "it's complicated."

    3. My explanation, distilled to one line, is: "Global Warming is a result of exponential economic growth, which is built into the monetary system."

      You say that explanation is badly flawed, but you don't state why - you just say that other economic systems also sought endless economic growth (but we're talking about capitalism, so that's whataboutery).

      Did they have endless economic growth directly built into the monetary system though? From what I can see, they didn't.

      I'm not interested in defending Communism though, I am more interested in pointing out how the current form of capitalism, has global warming actually built-in to the monetary system - do you disagree that it is built-in, to the monetary system?

      Worth checking out Steady-State-Economics/Herman-Daly. I'm more of an MMT'er myself, but it's very interesting.

    4. Your obsession with the monetary system is a red herring. To the extent that capitalism tends to increase goods by means of greater economic activity, under given technology, it increases pollution and greenhouse gases.

      However, to the extent that communism tends to increase goods by means of greater economic activity, under given technology, it increases pollution and greenhouse gases.

  2. Maybe off topic, but relevant to your recent train of thought I think.

    1. Not nearly as bad as some forms of PC madness these days.

  3. You're largely just comparing 20th century communism with capitalism. I could disagree with some of your characterisation of the former but it's not really worth it - what's important is that the question of whether capitalism is responsible, at present day, for global warming and imperialism is independent of what other systems have done in the past. The question of whether there is an alternative which would not create these things is one that is surely worth asking.

    1. "what's important is that the question of whether capitalism is responsible, at present day, for global warming and imperialism is independent of what other systems have done in the past"

      But I've already shown how a counterfactual Communist world – especially the communist Third World – would massively increase greenhouse gases and cause even worse problems with global warming than a capitalist world.

      At bare minimum, it is seems reasonable that world capitalism today would be causing less greenhouse emissions than a counterfactual communist world.

    2. I feel like we're trapped in a false dichotomy here, between USSR-style central planning and capitalism. For me, socialism means worker ownership, but you can drop the all the -isms and just ask: would democratically owned workplaces, which directed their production using political channels, avoid some of the problems we face today? I say yes, maybe you say no, but this is the issue we need to be debating.

  4. A while ago I noticed that the far-left online was drifting away from Marx for a while to rediscover De Leonism (Reds!, a popular alt history plot online, is about a De Leonist society), though it seems to have stopped now.

    While this was an improvement over them being Marxists is there A) any significant differences between De Leonism and Marxist Leninism in practical terms and B) any more plausable as a way to organize a society than communism or other far-left ideologies? I'm not a De Leonist or on the far-left but I'd be curious to hear your take on it.

    1. De Leonism just sounds like another utopian fantasy to me. Trade unions have collapsed in the Western world -- and De Leonism's grand plan is to establish socialism by ... trade unions??

  5. The fact is, it's process of industrialization itself that pollutes, not this or that economic system. As such, I don't think the argument above is very strong.

    The point socialists make is that capitalism has no real way moderate that process; the heedless drive to maximize output growth is "baked into" the system globally. Any effort to slow this only endangers the stability of the economy by potentially triggering a crisis via deflationary spiral. In essence, it is argued, capitalism has no way to "ease off the pedal."

    As the story goes, a socialist state need not mimic the USSR's output-driven model because, contrary to conventional thinking, socialist planning is potentially a very flexible system, since what happens in the economy is the result of conscious decision-making, rather than spontaneous market forces.

    The discussion on imperialism also misses an important point: imperialism takes different forms under different systems of production. Leftists referring to imperialism are generally talking about the sort that is specific to capitalism. You can read an overview of the development of the theory here:

    The imperialism in question forms the economic basis for international politics, and it's argued to be at the root of the last century of warfare. A nation is not considered to be "imperialist" just because it projects force or pursues its interests (i.e., "has a foreign policy"); the designation has a material, rather than procedural, basis.

    I hope that helps to clarify the matter.

    --Will F.

    1. "The fact is, it's process of industrialization itself that pollutes, not this or that economic system."

      And I was driving at that very point.

      "As the story goes, a socialist state need not mimic the USSR's output-driven model because, contrary to conventional thinking, socialist planning is potentially a very flexible system,;"

      This is absurd. Industrialism is also the core of Marxism, and anyone who denies this is being foolish.

      The only exception I can think of is the Khmer Rouge. Look who that insane state turned out.

    2. No one is denying the importance of industrialism to Marxism, but the point that socialism operates on different internal drives than capitalism stands regardless.

      Also, the Khmer Rouge are a complicated example, considering they were receiving funding from the West and were ultimately defeated by Vietnamese communists.

      --Will F. (no relation to the Will Feret above)

    3. Marxism does NOT operate on different internal drives than capitalism. They both need and want constant and strong economic growth via industrial, agricultural and services growth.

      Why do you think the Soviet Union had endless 5 year plans? Sheer accident?

    4. Well, what do you suppose 5-year plans are? They're plans, obviously. They can take a variety of forms depending on the needs of the state, no? Nothing makes it logically necessary that a plan should prioritize one thing over another; rather (as the story goes, again), it is supposed to reflect the particular needs of a nation at a given time, and on there's no reason to suppose otherwise on logical grounds.

      On the other hand, capitalism is ultimately beholden to the profit motive, which operates more or less independently of the concrete needs of a nation. That's the point I was trying to make.

      --Will F.

    5. So you are saying a viable communist system could have 5 year plans that produce no economic growth? This is plainly ridiculous.

    6. May I ask why?

      If global production is already meeting needs, and it is determined that additional production would produce more costs than benefits, it stands to reason that steady (or a focus on developing less wasteful) output is a desirable outcome for a plan to target.

      I admit that I cannot think of a reason to the contrary. Can you?

      --Will F.

    7. So is there no population growth is this imaginary communist world? No developing world?

    8. In this particular hypothetical, such assumptions are not necessary, no.

      --Will F.

  6. There is a fundamental conflict between environmental protection and economic growth because of the drawing of resources from the natural economy into the human economy at a rate that is much faster than the natural economy can replenish stocks.

    Where there is a abject poverty in a full world then income distribution becomes a much more important agenda item because of the consequences of economic growth for the environment.