Let us state the obvious. Capitalism has failed.

It has failed because it failed to deal with climate change.  This was a forseeable, and foreseen disaster.  We knew it, without any reasonable doubt, by the late 70s. If we had acted then, we could have stopped the worst of it.

We did not.

The death count will be in excess of a billion people. I think, given the way that damage counts keep coming in above prior estimates, and given how vicious cycles act, that the death count will be in the billions.

It is not inconceivable that we could see the end of human, and higher, life, on Earth, though it is still unlikely.

We are in the middle of a Great Extinction. Each life-form which dies off takes genetic wealth with it and weakens the ecosystem. Ecosystem collapse has happened in the past in limited regions, it can happen globally.

If it does, we may need to bend over and kiss our asses, lives, and species goodybe.

Capitalism’s great claim to being a superior form of organization for production and distribution of goods and services is that it is best able to account for costs and benefits: It produces that for which people are willing and able to pay.

People weren’t willing and/or able to pay to stop climate change.

In part, this is because actors with money were able to obfuscate both the science and the situation, spending millions on doing so, and buying the political process.

In part, it is because climate change’s worst effects were expected to take place AFTER the death of the people who needed to act to stop it.

If you were 30 in 1980, you are 66 today. If you were 40, you are 76. If you were in the decision making class, overwhelmingly allocated to those who were 50+ in 1980, you are 86 today.

People who were in their prime and during their decision-making days, when we needed to act on climate change, were making a DEATH BET.

They bet they would be dead before the worst results of climate change happened.

They will win this bet.

This was a RATIONAL thing for them to do. I want to repeat that, because too many people think “rational=good.” It does not. It was rational for them to discount a future they would not see.

Note also that they did not prioritize their children and grandchildren’s well-being over their own.

This, also, is RATIONAL.  How your children do after you are dead has only an imaginary effect on your well-being. (For instance, if you think they’ll be ok, that’s enough. And that’s an easy enough thing of which to convince yourself.)

Our capitalist markets did not discount the future properly. Capitalistic accumulation, which gave certain corporations and individuals excess rewards, and thus power, also made it easier for them to capsize the democratic process.

This does not mean that capitalism is entirely to blame, not directly. In 1980, the US was not yet an oligarchy. At that point, it took a mass movement, a constituency, to decide: “Fuck all that environmentalism and conservation crap.”

That movement was headlined by Reagan and presaged by Thatcher in Britain. Reagan won because of the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” who abandoned the post-war Democratic coalition to vote Republican.

They were substantially and primarily SUBURBAN voters. The suburbs, now, but especially then, would have been hammered by properly done environmental and conservation changes, as they were massively energy inefficient.

You do not get a generation and a half of suburban housing prices rising faster than wages and inflation in such a world. (You do get better wages, as there is more real work to be done.)

As time went by, the advantages that Reagan put into play disproportionately (and vastly so) benefited a small number of Americans, and America became an oligarchy.

You can date America’s descent to oligarchy somewhere between Gore v. Bush (2001) and Citizen’s United in January, 2010. Personally, I would pick the passage of TARP, done in the face of phone calls in excess of one hundred to one against: 2008.

Capitalism has thus, in the span of less than five decades, ensured that there will be billions of deaths and has bought-out the popular sovereignty system of representational democracy.

Despite triumphalism, it is also true that we have had the ability to end hunger and famines for decades and have not done so. Serious poverty in Africa has dropped as a percentage, but risen in absolute numbers.

In the past 30 years, the average amount of calories consumed in India has dropped. China has industrialized, but studies show that those who remained in traditional villages are happier.

It is very easy to look at what has been achieved under capitalism and cheer. Vast growth, vast increases in food production, and so on. One can argue how much was driven by capitalism, how much by democracy, how much by government bureaucracy, and how much by industrialization, but the last 200 years have seen massive accomplishments.

Those who die in the next 100 years will not be so sanguine about the costs, however, as they will be the ones to bear them. Those who do not die, but suffer and see their loved ones die, are unlikely to forgive.

They WILL be looking for an alternative to capitalism, because it will be clear to them: The cost of capitalism is too high.  Especially if we skirt species extinction in a visible way.


There is no “end of history” minus an end to sentient life. There never will be.

The world keeps changing, capitalism and democracy were never going to be the last systems, and it is now obvious and visible that they are unlikely to be.

It is possible that one or the other might survive, in a modified form, but only if it casts blame on the other.

This doesn’t mean markets won’t survive. Markets have been with us for thousands of years, but markets as the prime distribution and production mechanism for the majority of the population have not.

The Death of Capitalism, and possibly the Death of Representational Democracy, are nigh. If you are young, you will see one or both. You may even if you are middle-aged.

(This is part 1 of a semi-series.  Read part 2 on “What Capitalism is and part 3 on “Did the Industrial Revolution Require Clearances, Genocide and Imperialism.”)


Ian Welsh

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