More capitalism, please -- Are you sure?

Terrible things are happening all over the world. Rainforests are disappearing, icecaps melting, the air is becoming unbreathable, and the Chinese are poisoning our toothpaste. And besides all that, there are people who want to kill us, although they don't even know us. Just in today's El País, lead stories include "50 big cities [just in Spain!] exceed air contamination limits," new suicide attacks in Baghdad and in northern Iraq,and terror in the United Kingdom perpetrated (apparently) by physicians who are supposed to be saving lives. And inside there's a map of all the places too dangerous to visit on your vacation.

What's going on, and what should we do? Besides duck, I mean. Is global capitalism the problem? Or is it the solution? And is there anything we can do about it, either way?

Scholar, Richard. Divided Cities: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) gives us arguments on all sides. James Wolfensohn, the intelligent and enterprising past-president of the World Bank (1995-2005, before the lamentable Paul Wolfowitz), is well aware of the problems but convinced that only capitalism can solve them: he gives us lots of persuasive examples of how fomenting capitalism among the poor has improved lives from Rio de Janeiro to South Asia (micro credits, for example, using capital scraped together by the poor themselves, or provision of basic services like water for which the poor are willing to pay a small fee). Meanwhile, Stuart Hall and David Harvey have no doubts that global capitalism is creating poverty, inequality, frustration and massive social violence -- not to mention (curiously, they don't) environmental degradation. Changing the system will be a massive job but not impossible, thinks Harvey. But it will require challenging the very concepts of rights and social justice that Wolfensohn buys into.

Michael Likosky mostly agrees with Harvey and Hall, even as he accepts Wolfensohn's record of good accomplishments -- but raises the moral issue, of whether it is right to make the poor pay for infrastructural improvements that mostly benefit, economically, the big companies that build them?

And then there's Peter Hall, no relation genetically or ideologically to Stuart. He thinks things aren't all that bad, and anyway there's no alternative to capitalism. (He doesn't buy Harvey's argument.)

The only sensible answer is, yes, of course, to all of them. "Capitalism" is many things, all operating simultaneously, with notoriously contradictory effects. The clearest definition of it I know is by Ellen Wood: "a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labor power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where, because all economic actors are dependent on the market, the requirements of competition and profit maximization are the fundamental rules of life."

Such a system is not entirely evil. It has proven very efficient at capital accumulation, which is needed for investment in anything, including good things like those listed by Wolfensohn. And a lot of perfectly awful things, enumerated by Stuart Hall. More important, and in support of Harvey, capitalism (as defined by Wood) is NOT inevitable or unchangeable. Maintaining it obviously requires constant "inputs" of energy and capital in propaganda, police and military repression (think Iraq), an elaborate state and judicial structure (for example, to deny rights to Bush & Blair's prisoners of war). This is because, basically, it goes against those most common human instincts of solidarity and group loyalties, instincts that are likely to break out whenever the State relaxes its vigilance. Nor is the system everywhere in effect (think of how decisions are made in Saudi Arabia, for example, or in your family), but because it is in effect in ruling sectors of the most powerful countries of the globe, its operations in some ways condition everything else.

But our discussions of that great ball of meanings we call "globalization" will get nowhere as long as we use such catch-all terms as "globalization" or even "capitalism." We can sit around nodding our heads in agreement with those who use these words the way we like, but to do anything useful we are going to have to pierce the rhetorical fog and challenge cherished formulations. Harvey seems to be pointing us in the right direction, though so far he is only waving vaguely. And it will only be worth following that path if we can deliver solutions at least as good as Wolfensohn's.