17-23 October 2014 #728

Capitalism in the age of Ebola

Capitalism, a subject of abiding interest ever since Karl Marx penned Das Kapital, has come under intense scrutiny after the near death experience of 2008.

Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity

by William I. Robinson

Cambridge University Press 2014

252 pages paperback


In Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, sociology professor William I. Robinson enlarges his focus on the impacts of the system evolving under capitalism. A mix of crises that approach systemic proportions is in motion, he argues, threatening ‘the ability of billions of people to survive, and raises the specter of a collapse of world civilisation and degeneration into a new Dark Ages’.

The gloomy book serves as a warning: The world is more integrated than we realise, and humanity can either prioritise sustainability or suffer the consequences. ‘Capitalism is a system wracked by internal contradictions that generate crises,’ notes Robinson. Crises can disrupt a community overnight. Few communities can insulate themselves from the effects of war, climate change, the spread of infectious diseases or pollution. Any community is vulnerable, protectionism is futile, and ignorance is dangerous.

Globalisation rolls along in a highly uneven way – regions, nations, cities, villages have their own pace, tensions and transformations. Yet, he argues, the uneven accumulation is not a function of territory, but rather social relations, including the capital-labour relation. He questions the feasibility of a tightly integrated world where the wealthiest 10 per cent of people hold 85 per cent of the wealth and the lowest 50 per cent hold but one per cent. The global elite and industrial leaders have more in common with one another than they do with their fellow citizens whatever nationality. Networks of elites, not nations, conduct transactions.

Citizens are encouraged to aspire to lifestyles of the elite and take on debt. Finance pervades all transactions, even quick trips to a grocery store or a routine lunch, creating an illusion for producers that all have more to spend. The speculative global casino economy, with its unsustainable excesses, disguises the real economy.

Widening inequality gives license to more exploitation, and reckless financial behaviour seems to go unpunished. ‘The global mobility of capital under globalisation and especially its ability to move money almost frictionlessly and instantaneously has allowed it to extend the mechanism of capital flight to the planet as a whole,’ Robinson writes.

The outlook for reform is bleak, and Robinson unfortunately offers little advice for resolution. Globalisation and integration of national economies have led to common class interests. The challenge for the ruling class is to stabilise capital and minimise crises, and the challenge for the disgruntled poor and middle classes is to organise across borders.

So far, the elites have great cohesion; they are politically engaged, capable of driving or slowing policy at all levels. Still, the most astute, wealthy or not, recognise all too well that efforts to carve out safe communities could fail against threats like climate change, global pandemic like Ebola or determined terrorists who plot alone. Robinson concludes that strategising at the global level is essential to counter the cycles of war, greed and profit-making – with all the distracting panics in between.

Susan Froetschel