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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 02-01-2021 09:07

Sorry, capitalism is not about to die

Capitalism of one kind or another has been with us for millennia. It was there in ancient Greece and China. All attempts to stamp it out have had disastrous consequences.

Many people say they hate capitalism. Some hate it so much that they are willing to join forces with anything or anyone they think can help them bring it down. This is why leftists in North America and Europe see Islamists, fierce devotees of what, let’s face it, is an extraordinarily right-wing creed, as useful allies in what for them too is a holy war.

Others, among them Axel Kiciloff, even have a soft spot for the coronavirus. In their view the nasty little thing has its virtues. The Buenos Aires Province governor likes telling those who take him seriously that a bug so tiny that nobody without a good microscope can see it has brought capitalism to its knees and by doing so has ensured that from now on people everywhere will have to rely on the state. It would seem that Alberto Fernández agrees with Axel on this, but given the president’s habit of saying whatever he imagines will please those who happen to be within earshot, his real views are probably a bit more nuanced.

What do people like Kiciloff and the rest of them mean by “capitalism” or, to put it another way, what would they like to replace it with? Though most are reluctant to spell it out, the answer is straightforward. For them, capitalism is any economic system that is not controlled at every level by bureaucrats who obey the orders of their political masters. Perhaps they dream of a society in which their word is law and anyone who disagrees with them gets sent to a re-education camp until they recant. Would such an arrangement make life better for ordinary folk? There is no reason to think so, but it would surely benefit greatly a handful of individuals at the very top such as Kiciloff and give a measure of satisfaction to their adherents who are not against anything in particular but think they know what they dislike.

Capitalism of one kind or another has been with us for millennia. It was there in ancient Greece and China. All attempts to stamp it out, whether by aristocrats, fanatical clerics who strongly disapproved of materialistic concerns or, after them, leftist puritans with quite similar views who convinced themselves they could build an egalitarian utopia free from all that disgusting money-grubbing bourgeois mediocrities go in for, have had disastrous consequences for those who were unlucky enough to be caught up in the mayhem they brought about. Over 100 million died and just as many were reduced to utter poverty.

The brutal Soviet “experiment” and related efforts in Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba and China (until Deng Xiaoping came along and put an end to the Maoist nonsense which was keeping his country desperately poor) may have started as idealistic endeavours but they quickly turned genocidal. This was bound to happen; when members of the revolutionary elite face a choice, as they soon must, between letting enterprising people do what they had always done and forcing them to behave like true believers in the new official religion, they decide to overcome difficulties by liquidating those who stood in their way.

Luckily for much of humanity, few who nowadays say they are against capitalism because they think it is unfair are in favour or killing anyone who is rash enough to disagree. However, most do speak as though it should be evident to all that there are plenty of alternatives available. Are there? Only if you include the “mixed economies” in which the state plays an important role in allocating resources and running essential services, but since something like this can be found in every country on earth, treating them as alternatives does not help very much.

Pure unadulterated capitalism, unimpeded by bureaucrats, politicians or laws of any kind, does not exist anywhere, though it could be argued that countries in which corruption is ubiquitous and people with lots of money find it easy to buy politicians, bureaucrats and judges can be regarded as far more capitalist than those which are subjected to the rule of law and businessmen, no matter how rich and unscrupulous, must toe the line. If this is so, it could be said that thanks to Alberto, Axel and their ilk’s den mother, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina is getting more capitalistic by the day.

What allegedly annoys most of those who like going on about the evils of capitalism and the need to do away with it is the indisputable fact that, even in the wealthiest countries, there are plenty of people who are either sunk in poverty or find it hard to make ends meet. Can this be blamed on capitalism? Not really. As a general rule, the more capitalistic or, if you prefer, less plagued by meddlesome bureaucrats a country is, the higher will be its standard of living. It was only after powerful individuals convinced they had a right to micromanage absolutely everything beat a retreat that economies, first in Europe and North America, followed by Japan and, after a longish interval, other parts of East Asia, grew prosperous enough to let an increasing proportion of the local inhabitants get their hands on more luxuries than potentates of previous generations could even dream of. They could also afford to put in place generous welfare systems capable of helping those at the bottom.

Has the coronavirus pandemic brought all this material progress to a halt? Individuals in love with abstractions like Kiciloff and many others may hope that the world is about to suffer an economic meltdown so terrible that the wretched survivors will beg them to save them from the horrors they see lying in wait, but they and their supporters are only fantasising; if they took seriously their own musings about the virus’ destructive impact on the economic system they say they want to see consigned to the rubbish dump of history, they would be doing everything in their power to prevent people from being vaccinated, but instead they are doing their best to ensure that much of the population gets immunised as soon as possible, hence the rush to authorise the use of Sputnik V, the Oxford-AstraZeneca version and the one Pfizer has devised.

Capitalism is protean by nature and embraces all economic systems, apart from the ones devised by totalitarian control-freaks. Like the coronavirus, it adapts to circumstances. No doubt some things will change as a result of the pandemic, but most decisions will be made by “the market,” which is far better at detecting fluctuations in the public mood than any number of focus groups or think tanks. If, as seems probable, more money is invested in health services, it will be for sound commercial reasons though, needless to say, politicians will insinuate that the extra funds came from their own pockets and, as so many these days are doing the world over, go on and on about the tremendous self-sacrificing efforts they are making on behalf of the rest of us.

 

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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