IT has been almost five years since the onset of the global financial crisis. For much of this time political leaders and corporate bigwigs alike have prophesied recovery (and redemption).
Yet the plain truth is that things will not go back to ‘normal’ anytime soon, because capitalism, even at the best of times, is not a normal state of affairs. The word crisis — so familiar to us here in Pakistan — is often misleading inasmuch as it can be understood as a discrete event that happens rather suddenly and then just as quickly becomes history. In fact, crises are often prolonged affairs, with multiple causes and effects that have no clear beginning or end.
It is so with capitalism too, a system that most heterodox social scientists — and Marxists in particular — would argue is almost synonymous with the word crisis.
Yet those who are critical of the critics, or those who might be termed defenders of the capitalist order, can hardly be refuted in their claims that capitalism has to date proven to be the most resilient social order that the world has ever known.
Crises or not, the capitalist world system warded off the revolutionary upheavals of the 20th century, and appears unlikely to face a systemic threat in the coming decades of the present century.
Perhaps most importantly, the capitalist system has presided over unprecedented material progress, particularly over the past few decades with the innovations in finance followed by the so-called information revolution.
While it is true that the global financial crisis has had a significant negative effect on incomes and consumption of a large percentage of the world’s population, it is also true that the majority of people in First World countries still enjoy impressive standards of living, while a larger number of people in the rest of the world now have the means to perceive erstwhile luxuries as basic needs.
Yes, relatively, inequality has increased in recent times. But the utopian dreams of revolutionary thinkers proved to be misguided recipes for collective disaster, says the bourgeois intelligentsia. It is therefore rational to suggest that capitalism is as good as it gets. And it’s worth reiterating that it is pretty good for an increasingly large number of people.
The problems with this line of argument are many, not least of all the fact that selective presentation of the facts warps an understanding of the relationship between want and plenty.
In other words, capitalism is a system in which development and underdevelopment are directly related. The rich stay rich because the poor stay poor, and vice versa. This is as true of the relations between individual capitalists and the workers who the former employ as it is of the dynamics between developed and underdeveloped regions, both within countries and at a global level.
But there are other reasons to be suspicious of the ‘as good as it gets’ hypothesis. Among other things, capitalist modernity still leaves a vast majority of women to pick up the scraps that patriarchy throws at them. Even in the richest countries in the world, too many women still suffer from severe discrimination in the home, at the workplace, in schools, and in the public domain.
Women and girls are still forced to conform to gender stereotypes about their ‘proper’ roles, while a majority of the work they do remains completely unaccounted for because it consists of housekeeping and child-rearing.
Thus while it is true that ‘”behind every successful man there stands a woman”, what we really ought to be saying is that — under capitalism as much as any previous social order — men garner almost all of the spoils while women do almost all of the work.
Then there is the ecological fallout. It is well-established that capitalist expansionism is blind to the question of sustainability. Capital’s insatiable appetite for profit has led to the creation of holes in the ozone layer, destroyed approximately 80 per cent of global forest cover and depleted at least half of known marine resources.
We decry the fact that minerals and resources under the soil and mountains have still to be exploited, yet do not spare a thought for the effects that our tendency towards instant gratification will have on future generations, and for the natural habitat that has sustained humanity for millennia.
It is worth bearing in mind that the life of plenty that capitalism’s defenders would have us salivate over is a physical impossibility for anything more than a small minority. To take one example: we would need at least five times the amount of known natural resources in the world today if all of us consumed like the North Americans do.
And then there is perhaps the most important question: is acquiring material possessions and having access to an unlimited supply of leisure services the be-all, end-all? Notwithstanding the desire of billions of people to migrate to rich countries, is what we see in the citadels of capitalism the pinnacle of humanity? Is capitalism really as good as it gets?
Needless to say I would have to make a case for an emphatic ‘no!’
The social contradictions that exist in First World countries are not necessarily easier to resolve than those that exist in countries such as ours. In fact, alienation of various kinds is more pronounced in the former.
And if rich countries have by and large addressed the problem of material deprivation, they have done so by exporting it — via imperialism — to the rest of the world.
In a world beset by war, injustice, hunger and a host of emotional and psychological disorders to boot, we surely cannot be satisfied with capitalism. It can, and indeed must, get much better than this.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.