The terror of consumption: why capitalism is blamed for everything


Before the emergence of capitalism, a majority of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. In 1820, this applied to 90% of the planet’s population; today it is less than 10 percent. And most remarkable: in the past decades, since the end of communism in China and other countries, the decline of poverty has accelerated at a rate unprecedented in any previous period in the history of the humanity. In 1981, the poverty rate was 42.7%; by 2000 it had fallen to 27.8% and by 2021 it was only 9.3%.

There is more good news: the number of child laborers in the world has dropped dramatically, from 246 million children in 2000 to 160 million twenty years later in 2020. This despite the fact that the world’s population is growing. increased from 6.1 to 7.8 billion people during the same two decades.

Despite these facts, most people don’t like capitalism. The Edelman Trust 2020 Barometer, a survey of twenty-eight countries, concludes that on average 56% of people believe that “capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world” . In Europe, the French were most likely to agree with this statement (69%), followed by respondents in Italy (61%), Spain (60%), Germany (55%) and the United Kingdom. Uni (53%). In the United States and Canada, 47% agreed with this critical assessment of capitalism.

Anticapitalism is a political religion. In classical religions, the devil is the prototypical expression of evil in the world. In the political religion of anti-capitalism, capitalism assumes the role of evil incarnate. As a result, capitalism is not only responsible for all the ills of society, but also for everyone’s personal problems. People blame capitalism for hunger, poverty, inequality, climate change, pollution, war, alienation, fascism, racism, gender inequality, slavery, colonialism, corruption , crime, mental illness and cultural decay.

Wars were more frequent in the pre-capitalist era than when capitalism was born. And numerous scientific studies on “capitalist peace” have shown that free trade and capitalism reduce the likelihood of military conflicts. In addition, various studies show that environmental standards are much better in capitalist countries than in non-capitalist countries – and there are the facts cited above about the extent to which capitalism has reduced hunger and poverty. So why don’t most people want to hear these facts?

Well, one of the reasons is that when it comes to topics like hunger, poverty, climate change, and war, it is very difficult to engage in a discussion based on facts. The more emotionally charged a subject, the less willing people are to acknowledge the facts, especially when they contradict their personal opinions. Scientists have encountered this phenomenon in numerous experiments and surveys.

In many almost identical representative surveys that scientists have conducted over the past decades, respondents were presented with a sheet of paper with a picture and a speech bubble and asked the following question. “I would now like to tell you about an incident that occurred the other day during a roundtable discussion on [then followed various topics such as genetic engineering, climate change, nuclear energy, air pollution, etc., all of which are emotionally polarizing]. The experts were talking about the risks and the state of the research. Suddenly a member of the audience stands up and shouts something at the panelists and the audience. The researchers then asked respondents to look at the person and the speech bubble on the paper that contained the words “What do numbers and statistics mean to me in this context?” How can you even speak so coldly when the survival of humanity and our planet is at stake? Under the bubble was a question: would you say this person is right or wrong? This question has been asked repeatedly over a twenty-seven year period in fifteen different representative surveys on a variety of highly emotional and controversial topics. Invariably, the majority of respondents agreed with the heckler who was not interested in the facts. On average, 54.8% said the fact-resistant heckler was right, only 23.4% disagreed.

Anti-capitalists cannot be convinced by the facts. If there are too few goods, then capitalism is to blame. It is the same if there are too many goods (“the terror of consumption”). And even when a person is shopping and cannot find the products they are looking for, capitalism is to blame. Author Eula Biss is widely celebrated for her novels and begins her book on Possession, Capitalism and the Value of Things, To have and to be had (2020), with this anecdote:

We have just returned from a furniture store. What about capitalism, asks John, that we have the money and want to spend it but can’t find anything worth buying? We almost bought something called a splashback, but then John opened the drawers and found it wasn’t made to last. I think there are limits, I say, to what mass production can produce.

Later in the book, the author recounts a conversation with her mother, who asks her if she thinks capitalism is good or bad. She responds with. “I say I’m tempted to think it’s a bad thing but I don’t really know what it is.” For many people, anti-capitalism is an emotional issue. It is a diffuse feeling of protest against the existing order. There is no harm, neither in society nor in my personal life, say the anti-capitalists, that cannot be attributed to the capitalist “system”, even if it is only the fact that I cannot find furniture. to buy.

Rainer Zitelmann is the author of the book The power of capitalism.

Image: Reuters

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