An opinion piece in The Guardian caught my eye recently. It was entitled “Why was there no water to fight the fire in Maui?” and written by Naomi Klein and a law professor at the Ka Huli Ao Native Hawaiian Law Center. They documented how powerful entities in Maui — plantation owners, developers, luxury resort operators with their irrigated golf courses and pools, etc. — have trampled for generations on the water rights of Maui’s indigenous people. The writers went further, suggesting that these same forces would mobilize to exploit the disaster and seize more of that scarce commodity, water. Klein has a name for the methodology used to take advantage of dislocation and chaos following a natural disaster: disaster capitalism. In her book, The Shock Doctrine, she documented the effects of disaster capitalism on post-Katrina New Orleans. If you think it’s far-fetched that capitalists and right-wing ideologues would make common cause to cash in on post-traumatic chaos, read The Shock Doctrine.
The crisis in Maui is but one example of many that illustrate what happens when the interests of capitalists collide with the interests of native peoples. It adds fuel to a fire that has been burning in my brain for a good while: Is capitalism salvageable? Can the economic system that has driven economies around the world since at least the 18th century survive the age of climate crisis?
Over the past few years I’ve often written negatively about the U.S.’s brand of unfettered capitalism. But more recently, I’ve begun to question whether any form of capitalism — restrained, unrestrained or anything in between — is a framework around which a decent society should be organized. Capitalism always seems to be the force behind bad things that plague us. For example:
Money in politics: Every major industry uses lobbyists to influence legislation beneficial to their particular interests. Bankers lobby for loose regulation. Arms manufacturers lobby for increased military spending everywhere in the world and push military solutions for all kinds of issues. Oil and gas companies push for more and more extraction while minimizing the danger of climate change. Gun manufacturers lobby for lax controls on gun ownership and for “open-carry” laws.The result is entirely predictable: Our pliant elected officials do the bidding of assorted capitalists who handsomely reward them with campaign contributions before the next election. The common good is a casualty of business.
Gun Violence: I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining how gun manufacturers, through their trade groups, promote our shameful gun culture. But I do have to emphasize that they do so to increase their profits, a goal our country cherishes above most others. Has the outcome — more easily available guns — been a good outcome for society?
Addiction: Would we have had the opioid crisis absent the avarice of the Sacklers? Didn’t their greed for more wealth drive the opioid epidemic? Wouldn’t the FDA have acted sooner had it not been cowed by the power and money of Big Pharma? Who benefited from the epidemic — wealthy Purdue Pharma shareholders and management.
I could easily add to this list. Some other problems we face, chief among them climate change, can be logically laid at the doorstep of greed. Greed is sanctified in our society by the golden glow of the capitalist ideal — anyone can be a millionaire. America’s manifest destiny has been to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps and dominate not only nature but other nations, all in the name of profit. You can’t stop “progress.”
A friend of mine, Maggy Baccinelli of ACLU-LA, sent me a small book by the Indian author Arundhati Roy. It had the interesting title, Capitalism, A Ghost Story.
The great Western Capitalists have done business with fascists, socialists, despots, and military dictators. They can adapt and constantly innovate. They are capable of quick thinking and immense tactical cunning.
But despite having successfully powered through economic reforms, despite having waged wars and militarily occupied countries in order to put in place free market “democracies,” Capitalism is going through a crisis whose gravity has not revealed itself completely yet.
Despite their strategic brilliance, they seem to have trouble grasping a simple fact: Capitalism is destroying the planet. The two old tricks that dug it out of past crises — War and Shopping — simply will not work.
Although Roy was writing from the perspective of an Indian citizen in 2014, I find her words applicable to our situation today. There are simply so many dilemmas of modern life in which the interests of capitalists (to make more money) conflict with the interests of society (justice, fairness, peace, the common good). Yet no one in public life, apart from a few lonely voices from the left of the Democratic Party, will call out our model of ruthless capitalism as the cause of some of our troubles. Why is it not a topic discussed more often and more energetically?
I blame primarily our two-party system. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are sufficiently independent of powerful capitalists to dare to criticize the status quo.
Capitalism run amok is as much a danger to our society as Trumpism. Yet its dangers are cleverly cloaked in our dominant ideology — the virtue of making money — so it commands much less attention than the outrages of Trump. Our two parties are hopelessly in thrall to capitalist ideology; so there’s no need to look to them for solutions.
I dream that a third party will emerge and look at US capitalism with skepticism, not reverence. A new party could ask hard questions about why corporate profits are more important than protecting the planet, protecting our children from gun violence or keeping PAC money out of elections.
Why should all this remain only a pipe dream?