Nobody could regret the great blessings that have been brought to mankind by capitalism. You only have to visit a supermarket to marvel at the abundance of its capacity to supply. Yet history would suggest that it will have its day and pass, as all economic systems have done before it, brought to its knees indeed by that very capacity. Capitalism works because it will always seek out the lowest wages to make the highest profits. Once these lowest wages were earned by dispossessed peasants working in the hellish factories of the Industrial Revolution, described so vividly by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Now millions of workers in Africa and Asia are working often for less than a dollar a day. Supporters of capitalism, not usually the monsters they are often painted, regret these hardships, but they would say they are a price well worth paying. Capitalism may make some people disproportionately rich, but the rich spend their money, thus giving those who do not yet have money the capacity to earn it and so become rich too. Thus Britain today is no longer a land of dispossessed peasants but an affluent nation. This intrinsic logic of capitalism will work its benign magic in Africa and Asia just as it did in Britain, and indeed in China an affluent middle class is already springing up like mushrooms overnight.
But since capitalism always seeks out the lowest wages where will it go next, once its present helots have become affluent in their turn? The answer is surely obvious. According to Moore’s law computers double their capacity every few years, and already the pc on your desk is powerful enough to send a man to the moon. In the next thirty years millions of low paid labourers will be replaced by even lower cost machines. In a labour intensive industry like dyeing, for example, developments in nanotechnology will enable one single operator to change the colour of tens of thousands of t shirts at the flick of a switch.
Capitalism’s weakness lies in that very abundance of supply that is its strength. Poor labourers do not earn much but they do earn and use their earnings to purchase in their millions, and as they earn more they purchase even more, thus demanding in abundance what capitalism can supply in abundance. The problem with machines is that they don’t eat. They will in the future supply on a scale that even the present capacities of capitalism can only dream of, but they will not be able to purchase what they produce. Millions, perhaps, billions of people will have no jobs and no purchasing power, thus provoking the grandmother of all busts which at the best of times always follow booms, triggering a global recession that will throw even those who do have work out of it too.
Supporters of capitalism would say that this is a false prediction, for what had been manufacturing industries will be replaced by service ones. But is this true? Will service industries also become so automated that they too will not be able to provide jobs for all these workless millions? Already there are driverless trains. Already check out girls in supermarkets are being replaced by machines. It is not difficult to imagine robots stacking the shelves. To these problems we must add the almost unimagineable growth in population that is going to happen in the next few decades, half as many people again by 2050 in an already overcrowded world. If the worst prediction of the climate scientists are realised, parts of the world will become uninhabitable and the world’s food supply will be sharply diminished by floods and droughts. Desperate unwaged people who cannot afford the high prices that food will fetch on the world markets, and perhaps not even water, will be driven to desperate measures. We really might see terrorists using weapons of mass destruction in western cities to force the haves to share what they have, for desperate people will find these weapons as surely as alcoholics find drink.
Many will say I am a prophet of doom, a Jeremiah, a Cassandra. Not at all. I don’t think in any way that these things are inevitable. After all, few social predictions of this kind have ever turned out to be true. Far from Malthus’s predictions about over-population turning out to be true, it was the abundant supply of labour in the nineteenth century that enabled those Whig free traders who had been so terrified by Malthus to become rich. But often, too, it was because people took notice of timely warnings that ensured they didn’t come true. There was no overthrowal of capitalism in Victorian England because there were reforming governments. We have to find ways to deal with this oncoming global crisis and we have to find them now, because neither God nor Darwin will do it for us. Human beings are amazingly ingenious, witness their invention of capitalism. But the ingenuity of capitalism is not what we need now. To save the climate of the earth we need a new climate of mind, inspired by the desire to save the world, not to supply it with an abundance.it can’t purchase. Do we have that mindset? Most surely no. The mindset of capitalism has never been so triumphant. The problem with capitalism is that it works so well.