The candidates don't get it: from pandemics to climate change, the real problem is capitalism itself

Trump and Pence accuse the Democrats of being too left-wing. In truth, they aren't left-wing enough

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 11, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Mike Pence, Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Mike Pence, Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Last week President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, engaged in a fierce debate that was noted by millions for the unpleasantness of Trump's repeated interruptions. During those interruptions, Trump frequently denounced Biden as either radically left-wing or a hostage of the radical left. Eight days later, Vice President Mike Pence made similar insinuations that Biden's running mate (and his potential replacement), Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California, is some kind of socialist.

If only it were so. The truth is that the ailment afflicting America is capitalism, and the difference between the two parties is that the Democrats will only describe some of the symptoms but refuse to provide an honest diagnosis, while the Republicans outright defend the disease.

Most of the major problems with America, and the world, can be traced back to the singular cause of capitalism, an economic system in which a society's means of production are primarily controlled by private individuals hoping to make a profit. It is a system that has devastated our planet to the point where it may soon be largely uninhabitable, created massive income inequality and left us woefully unprepared for crises like the novel coronavirus pandemic.

We can start with the last item on that list, the coronavirus pandemic. Because capitalist systems require perpetual consumption and growth to maintain prosperity, any little hiccup in the ability of most industries to stay profitable causes the whole economy to crash. This is why, despite the economy doing relatively well prior to the mandatory shutdowns in March, whole sectors began to collapse while unemployment skyrocketed once the pandemic forced people to shelter in place.

If America had a universal basic income in place — that is, a monthly amount of money guaranteed to every citizen to keep each one above the poverty line — ordinary people would have had at least been able to stave off desperate poverty during these trying times. The same is true of the eviction epidemic: Although Trump has announced a mostly symbolic eviction moratorium, he has refused to implement the real thing, and as a result millions of Americans face the likelihood of being thrown out of their homes... assuming that has not already happened to them.

Yet on a deeper level, the problem with capitalism is that it is built on the need for private enterprises to make money, no matter what. During a pandemic in which everyone will ultimately require some kind of medical care — for some to treat the disease, for others to be vaccinated once a vaccine becomes available — the need for corporate profit clashes with the needs of the general public.

"There is a unique incapacity of the capitalist system — by which I mean, a system of private enterprises owned and operated by shareholders, families, individuals producing for a profit and the ordering about of the majority of people involved in every enterprise or the employees — that system is uniquely incapable of securing public health," Dr. Richard D. Wolff, the professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Salon earlier this month. "And since public health is a basic demand, a need of human communities, this represents a profound disqualification of capitalism. And to spell it out just briefly: it is not profitable for a private, profit-driven competitive capitalist to produce masks by the millions, or gloves, or ventilators, or hospital beds, or all the rest of them."

Wolff noted that the government is entirely capable of stepping in and filling a void left by the private sector when a given industry deems this to be in its best interest. This is what happens, for example, with the military-industrial complex.

"A government failure cannot be excused on grounds of the government not doing such things or conceiving of such things, because that's not true," Wolff told Salon. "The government does exactly what it failed to do in the maintenance of public health. It does that for the military. It is just as unprofitable for a private capitalist to produce a missile and then store it in some warehouse and monitor it and clean it and replace it and repair it, waiting for God knows however long a time until the next war makes this missile something the government buys."

The problem is that the American health care industry — including doctors, drug and device makers, hospitals and medical insurance companies — do not want to establish any precedent that could lead to socialized medicine. Therefore, even though we have the resources to help everyone during this pandemic, we do not avail ourselves of them.

A similar dynamic is at play when it comes to the issue that most immediately threatens the survival of our species — climate change. 2020 saw some of the worst wildfires in recorded history on the American west coast because humanity has artificially warmed the planet through emission of greenhouse gases. A report by the World Wildlife Foundation identified global warming as the primary culprit for the cataclysmic decline in animal population sizes, with a 68 percent drop being recorded among "mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish" since 1970. If global warming is not brought under control, and soon, we can expect a world in which "a large part of the planet will become unlivable (either too hot or too dry)," Penn State climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann told Salon in 2018.

"More and more of the available land surface will be used for agriculture and farming to feed a growing global population. That means more concentrated human settlement—and probably a lot more conflict," Mann added. His colleague, Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, also predicted at the time that "food and water become major issues with costs and shortages." 

If it's so clear what's happening, why doesn't humanity take the steps necessary to fight climate change?

In the words of Ted Morgan, a professor emeritus of political science at Lehigh University: "The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the world's developed capitalist economies, with China and the US leading the way." He added that "each of the capitalist powers is loathe to weaken its competitive position vis à vis the other capitalist economies. In a capitalist world, each economic unit must act to protect what it deems its own interests. The only counterweight comes from the public sector." Yet government authorities are reluctant to aggressively curtail capitalist industries that emit greenhouse gases — from the fossil fuel industry and big agriculture to those that cut down rainforests — because they are "constrained by the fear that pushing public interests too far will cause capital flight, thereby undermining its viability. And, of course, corporations and the wealthy dominate the shaping of public policy — nowhere more than in the US."

That term, "capital flight," is absolutely critical here. Under capitalist systems, companies that do not like potential government regulations often have the right to threaten to close up shop or move their businesses elsewhere, in the process taking away people's jobs and hurting local economies. This is known as a "capital strike" and it has been used since the Industrial Revolution to do everything from get tax breaks from the state and break up labor movements to killing legislation that business magnates oppose, particularly when they help workers' rights.

Capital strikes are ethically dubious even when permitted for those purposes, but allowing them is literally suicidal when an issue like climate change is at stake. Because capitalism encourages businesses to coerce governments into allowing them to destroy the planet, most of humanity is forced to watch helplessly as the Earth literally burns up. And it is not as if there are any eventual winners in systems where capital strikes are allowed: In the end, the 20 firms that contribute to one-third of the planet's carbon emissions will eventually suffer just like the rest of us, since they inhabit the same planet.

Finally there is the issue of systemic poverty. In 2020 we have seen the problem of capitalism in the fact that our supposed economic recovery has been "K-shaped," meaning that the wealthy have disproportionately gotten better while everyone else suffers more than they did before. Yet this severe income inequality long preceded the pandemic: For more than forty years, in fact, businesses have manipulated the government into making sure that the super-rich gain far more than their fair share of our wealth. Indeed, if income had kept pace with overall economic growth in the United States since 1970, the bottom 90 percent of our country would be earning an average of $12,000 more each year.

With income inequality comes not only poverty, but economic injustice. According to the Brookings Institute, as of 2018 American households held over $113 trillion in assets. If that was distributed evenly among the 329 million US citizens, each person would have more than $343,000. Yet as of 2016 the top 20 percent of households held 77 percent of the wealth, while the top one percent owned 29 percent of the wealth. This is the direct result of capitalism for two reasons: First, it allows the wealthy to make sure that the government does not restrain their greed through policies that require a fairer distribution of resources; and second, it continuously empowers the rich compared to everyone else by making sure that they have far more means of influencing policymakers than their significantly disempowered non-wealthy counterparts.

This brings us back to those presidential debates, in which precisely none of these observations were made. On the one side you had the Democratic candidates for president and vice president, Biden and Harris, who sounded like latter-day examples of America's most left-wing president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. To be clear: It is unambiguously good that Biden wants to put America back in the Paris Climate Accord (which would help fight climate change, but not do nearly enough to eliminate it entirely); that he wants to create a Pandemic Testing Board on the scale of Roosevelt's famous War Production Board, with the goal of using science to fight the pandemic (Trump, by contrast, has deliberately ignored science since the pandemic reached our country at the start of the year); that he wants to invest in trillions of dollars in stimulus spending that would create millions of jobs; and that he supports other progressive measures like improving regulations on banks and other powerful industries, providing free public college to lower-income and middle-class individuals, forgiving federal student-loan debt at a minimum of $10,000 per person and requiring businesses to provide paid emergency sick leave.

These are all very good things — and they are certainly a far sight better than Trump and Pence shilling for the status quo. Yet Biden and Harris also went to great pains to emphasize that they are not socialists, that they support capitalism, and that their proposals would only nibble at the edges of the problem rather than obliterate it entirely. Indeed, Biden even bragged in his debate with Trump that he had barely conceded at all to the Democratic Party's anti-capitalist wing — led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who almost became the party's presidential nominee this year — and he is absolutely right. When Salon spoke with Sanders insiders who had tried to get Biden to move to the left, they all agreed that they won only modest concessions.

This approach is not going to cut it in the future.

"It really has to be an 'all hands on deck' that allows our economies to be completely transformed in order to literally allow human survival," Professor Julia K. Steinberger, a professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds, told Salon in June. "That's what's at stake in terms of the gravity of the situation and the rapidity with which the climate crisis is unfolding."

Steinberger says Biden doesn't "fully understand" the magnitude of the crisis. She sounded very much like Bernie Sanders himself, who last year rejected the claim by another Democrat that you could support meaningful change while remaining a capitalist by arguing "I think business as usual and doing it the old-fashioned way is not good enough. What we need is, in fact—I don't want to get people too nervous—we need a political revolution. I am, I believe, the only candidate who's going to say to the ruling class of this country, the corporate elite: Enough, enough with your greed and with your corruption. We need real change in this country."

I think it is best to close this with a personal story. Last year I interviewed Ben Shapiro, one of the most popular conservative commentators in America today, and confronted him about his belief that if there are starving children in America, one possible solution is to take them away from their parents. His reasoning was that, because capitalism provides everyone with an opportunity to support themselves and their families, the parents must be at fault if their children can't afford to eat. When I argued that he was ignoring the problem of systemic poverty under capitalism and lacking compassion for capitalism's victims, he responded:

No, I don't see how that lacks compassion in any way. If you are unable to feed your child, and you cannot find a social fabric to help you take care of that child, your child should not be with you. You're living in the freest, most prosperous country in the history of the world. It is not all that expensive to pay for a child's lunch.

When I pointed out that millions of Americans work full-time and are still unable to support their families. Shapiro cut me off.

"I do not accept your premise that we live in a society where people literally cannot afford to feed their children, [where] their children will starve without a free school lunch."

Shapiro's inability to even comprehend economic realities hints at the root of the problem. While Biden and Harris may not outright detest the poor as Shapiro does, they still share his unwillingness to accept the premise that there could be anything wrong with capitalism as a system.

Unfortunately, to quote President John Adams, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

The state of facts and evidence proves that capitalism is condemning millions upon millions to hopeless poverty, rendering us incapable of effectively coping with manageable problems like a pandemic and literally destroying the planet. Unless that reality becomes part of our mainstream political discourse, humanity is doomed.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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