An Anti-Capitalist Primer

For genuine development, anti-capitalism is not only necessary, but foundational

To the majority of my fellow Social Analysis 10, “Principles of Economics” veterans, I must already sound truly irrational, even heretical. Because we have been force-fed the message that our world today progresses more rapidly than ever thanks to open markets, free trade, and liberated entrepreneurs, any mention of an anti-capitalist agenda is likely to be dismissed with derision. Yet now, arguably more urgently than ever, it is incumbent upon us to cast off the shackles of that theology of free-market liberation and come to terms with the actual dynamics of the world we live in. For Harvard students fond of the message that ours is a big burden, it might be pertinent to add that the future of humanity almost certainly rests on the possibility of a radically different world order.

The fallacies of the principal myth peddled by the free-market fundamentalists demonstrates their dogmatism. In contrast to their conviction that markets freed from state meddling have engineered record growth, we see that the 1980s and 1990s, both decades of especially unfettered capitalism, were the second-slowest and slowest periods of real global growth since World War II, respectively (3.3 percent in the 1980s and 2.3 percent in the 1990s versus 4.9 percent from 1950-1973). In the same vein, the economist Branko Milanovic has argued that “the record of the last two decades (1978-1998) is shown to be almost uniformly worse than that of the previous two (1960-1978),” when state management of the economy was widely accepted as common sense.

More specifically, different histories following the imposition of free-market policies deliver a similarly damning verdict. In Russia, for example, where the transition to full-fledged capitalism was facilitated by our very own institution, “shock therapy” begot a country where 74 million people were living below the poverty line. As the journalist Naomi Klein has noted, given that only two million were poor in 1989 (defined here as living on less than $4 per day), this “means that Russia’s ‘economic reforms’ can claim credit for the impoverishment of 72 million people in only eight years.” Or consider South Africa, where an African National Congress disciplined by the whims of transnational capital was forced to abandon its apartheid-era radicalism and fall in line: from 1994 to 2006, the number of people living under $1 per day doubled to four million, while the unemployment rate for black South Africans increased from 23 percent in 1991 to 48 percent in 2002.

Tellingly, even the supposed success stories have been unconvincing. In India, alongside tales of gluttonous middle classes, reports emerge that—as a consequence of a cocktail of policies that attend to the interests of commercial agriculture—almost 150,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2005 (the equivalent of one every 32 minutes). In China, despite surging growth rates, peasant incomes have reportedly stagnated. This has generated mass discontent, as evidenced by a steep increase in the number of protests recorded nationally (87,000 in 2005, up from 8,700 in 1993). And while rural distress is particularly pronounced, the urban working classes are often equally enraged. In the province of Guandong, home to a Special Economic Zone that recorded growth rates of 20-30 percent for a quarter century, 10,000 protests took place in 2006.

The unsustainability of today’s trends cannot be emphasized enough. Ecologically, the critique has always been obvious: The consumption patterns familiar to many Western citizens today simply cannot be universally adopted. Instead, according to one environmentalist, if climate cataclysms are to be averted, we will have to reduce per capita carbon emissions to around 0.4-0.5 tons annually (the average American emits six tons). This is almost surely impossible barring a total transformation of current structures of consumption and production. As another, no less ominous example, consider the fact that mainstream economics has no answers for the displaced rural masses coalescing on the outskirts of monstrous megacities across the global south. As per capitalist logic, their inability to compete with large-scale commercial enterprises has demanded their demise. Yet, according to Samir Amin’s calculations, “in 50 years’ time, industrial development, even in the fanciful hypothesis of a continued growth rate of seven percent annually, could not absorb even one-third of this reserve.”

Much also deserves to be said about the undemocratic dynamics intrinsic to capitalism. The claim that free markets march hand-in-hand with democracy obscures their basic incompatibility: Capitalism denies participatory politics, insofar as central institutions in society (corporations, workplaces, etc.) are autocratically organized. It should therefore be unsurprising that, from savage coups in Indonesia in 1965 to Chile in 1973, free-market policies have typically been imposed in brutal defiance of the popular will.

Here at Harvard, anti-capitalist convictions are frequently misunderstood as angsty and anti-historical—or worse, the product of misguided privilege guilt. I consider that closed-mindedness self-serving negligence. The economic theory preached at our institution seems a textbook “ruling ideology,” frantically cloaking bourgeois agendas in the alluring rhetoric of rising tides and individual liberties. It’s hardly coincidental, after all, that Ec 10 renders heroic the careers most of us are funneled into upon graduation. The longer we let the wool be pulled over our eyes, the harder we will fall when the storm finally breaks.

Adaner Usmani ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.