Skip to Content

What’s wrong with capitalism?

We could fill several issues of the Socialist Standard with details about the problems caused by capitalism, but let’s see how much we can say within the confines of a single article.

One pervasive aspect of capitalism is poverty. By this we do not mean destitution, as when people literally cannot afford food or clothing or a place to live. There are certainly plenty of homeless people in Britain, but poverty is far more pervasive than this. It involves people not having access to what they want or need, and having to make do with second- or third-best. Shopping at a cheap supermarket,  waiting for the sales to buy what you want, telling the kids they can’t have what they’ve set their hearts on - all these are examples of poverty. So is living in a house that’s too small for your family, or booking the cheapest holiday you can find. And so is working after your anticipated retirement age because your pension will not be big enough. Another illustration is the amount of debt with which people get landed, an average of £16,000 for each man, woman and child in the UK, and therefore much more than that for many individuals. Every day around a hundred people become bankrupt - the ultimate expression of how poverty causes people to live beyond their means.

It’s not just that the vast majority are forced to go without; it’s also that a relatively small number of people live in the lap of luxury. This inequality is not a matter of your neighbour having a bigger car than you or being able to afford two yearly holidays abroad. Instead we are referring to the millionaires and billionaires who own land, companies or shares, and don’t have to worry about two-for-the-price-of-one offers or whether they can afford a night out on Saturday. These people live in grand mansions, probably have a holiday home or two as well, own their own private jets, and employ armies of servants to look after them. Moreover, it’s not they who do the useful work in society: those who drive the buses, teach the children or work in factories or offices are the ones who suffer poverty. Socialists argue that there are two classes under capitalism: the working class (who work for wages and always struggle to make ends meet) and the capitalist class (who receive their income from rent or profit and get the lion’s share of wealth). Belonging to the working class is what makes you poor.

It also means you are likely to suffer from stress of one kind or another. This is partly the result of the daily fight with poverty, but there are many other sources of stress for workers. Many jobs are boring or dangerous, and many more offer little satisfaction to those who do them. Worrying about deadlines or targets, or feeling at the whim of your boss’s moods - all these increase the stress due to employment. And the farther you climb up the “career ladder”, the chances are the more responsibility you will bear and hence the more stress you will encounter. Add to this the insecurity of many jobs and the consequent fear of unemployment. Then there’s the stress of the daily journey to work, whether by car or public transport. Life under capitalism means worries and more worries.

A term sometimes used for people’s general feeling of unhappiness and rejection is alienation, a notion intended to cover the idea of rootlessness, of not belonging to a community, of being isolated, of seeing no real goal in life, of being powerless under the wheels of the capitalist juggernaut. Capitalism views people not as human beings with feelings and desires but as economic units, only useful if you can create profits. So people far too often relate to each other by means of money or comparable considerations (what’s in it for me?), rather than by cooperating with other humans. We are essentially viewed as individuals, not as part of a society. Many social ills can be attributed to alienation, from casual violence to suicide. The pressures of capitalism are not just financial but permeate all aspects of a dog-eat-dog social system.

One reason why people feel stressed and alienated is the lack of democracy which obtains under capitalism. It is true that in Britain there is more or less free speech and the opportunity to elect councillors and MPs. But there is no real democracy in the sense of people having control over their lives. Rather, we are subject to the decisions of others, both within and outside our workplaces. Decisions about shutting factories or moving an office to another part of the country are taken by a small group of bosses rather than the people most closely affected. Often it is the impersonal force of the market which determines what happens. Companies may be closed down or merged because they do not make “enough” profit, not because they do not produce anything useful. All political and economic decisions, whether about the siting of houses or quarries or new roads or whatever, are made within the context of a social system that puts profit above human need, and in such a system there can be no proper democracy, however many democratic institutions exist.

We mentioned above that many jobs are unhealthy and even dangerous. The violence inherent in capitalism is yet another problem thrown up by it. Industrial accidents and the violence perpetrated by many of those on the receiving end of capitalism’s oppression are vivid illustrations of the system’s shortcomings. There is also the ever-present danger of full-scale war. In the course of the twentieth century the nature of warfare changed, from a situation where victims were primarily combatants to one where it is now overwhelmingly civilians that are killed or maimed. Consider too that wars are fought in the interest of the capitalist class, as in the quest for sources of raw materials - oil wars are just a particularly clear case of this. Workers therefore kill and are killed on behalf of a bunch of wealthy parasites.

It is true that capitalism has had a tremendous transforming impact on the world, and that workers nowadays live longer and more rewarding lives than those in the days before the development of industry. However, comparisons should be made not with the distant past but with the present and future potential of Socialism. Judged by this yardstick, and on its own terms, there is so much wrong with capitalism that it is more than high time it was done away with.

Paul Bennett