In a capitalist society, capital rules: the need of capital to maximize the return on its investments, is preeminent. That need takes precedence, almost always, over every other interest unless blocked or moderated, as it sometimes is, by the concerted effort of ordinary people. Capital on its own has absolutely no moral compass. It is inherently and constitutionally blind to every consideration other than profits. It will stop at nothing, no matter how morally odious, in the pursuit of its purely material ends. Slavery, conquest, genocide, large-scale theft, and deception: all these and more are the time-tested methods of capital.
The reason for this is not any human moral failing; for capital, to put it bluntly, is not human. It is not subject to moral feelings like empathy and compassion, for it has no soul, any more than a volcano or a tsunami. It is useless to appeal to capital to do the right thing, for it can hear nothing but the ka-ching of money coming in.
Let me illustrate with some examples. In spite of Germany’s innovations in green energy, thirty-seven percent of Germany’s electricity is powered by coal, and twenty-three percent of it by the dirtiest form of coal, called lignite, or brown coal. According to a recent NPR story,
seven of Germany’s brown coal mines are among the top 10 biggest polluting power plants in Europe. And yet, Germany still aims to reduce its carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
But although Germany is investing heavily in a transition to clean energy, it is not reducing its carbon footprint. There is a commission charged with the task of phasing out coal, but, as the article explains, one of its members, Stefan Kapferer,
head of Germany’s largest energy sector lobby, which includes coal companies… says that for an industrial giant like Germany, …it could take another 20 years to shut down coal use. “The coal plants belong to companies who have ownership rights,” he says. “So if you’re going to insist they shut down, appropriate compensation has to be awarded.” He adds, “We’ve got to ensure that our chemical, steel and aluminum industries can access and afford the electricity they need.”
So the economic weight of capital is a major political obstacle to the survival of the atmosphere our lives depend on.
Here’s another example:
In South Africa, the Black population is still waiting for the ruling party, the African National Congress, founded by Nelson Mandela, to live up to its original promises of liberation. The ANC’s official policy still includes “Radical Economic Transformation.” Yet, according to Michael Smith writing in the journal Catalyst, the newly installed president, Cyril Ramaphosa, once a man of the left, “must allay the fears of local and international capital.” Why must he do this? Because a critical mass of the nation’s wealth — resources, means of production, money to hire and pay workers and to pay taxes, consists of capital, and capital must profit and grow, and to do so it must do what it can to prevent anything like “radical economic transformation.”
Another example from the days when the engine of capital accumulation in Western Europe was the brutally enforced, involuntary labor of enslaved people captured in Africa. In her book about the slave trade, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along The Atlantic Slave Route, Saidiya Hartman tells of the horribly brutal murder by a ship captain of two enslaved girls during the Atlantic crossing in 1792. The case, widely publicized, caused a moral outrage in England, but the Admiralty Court could be trusted not to convict the captain. Quoting from the book,
Were two dead girls more important than the prosperity and commerce of Great Britain? Were the fools and idiots ranting about abolition blind? The fruits and majesty of the empire would be impossible without slavery. Prosperity had a price. There was no getting around it—death was the cost of the Africa trade. It was certain as the day was long. An iron hand was the only way to manage it. [And] the judge said as much during the opening of the trial.
Of course, the enslavement and deaths of millions of Africans in the interests of capital was also justified by racism, the idea that Africans were inferior. This is an idea that capital continues to rely on. In a recent interview about his film, Sorry to Bother You Boots Riley, asks (and I’m paraphrasing some), “Why racist ideas? Why are black folks imagined as savage, or insufficiently cultured, or angry or lazy?” The need for these tropes is to teach that poverty is caused by the impoverished, not by the system we are living in. This system needs poverty, it could not exist without it. If there were full employment, wages would be what workers demand, no one could be fired with nobody to replace them. There’s a direct correlation between unemployment going down and wages going up. And when wages go up, the value of stocks, which are capital, goes down. The Wall Street Journal openly worries when the unemployment rate goes down because of the impact on wages and profits. They have to have an army of unemployed workers to make employed workers willing to settle for whatever capital is willing to pay – or as little as possible. How do you get the people to accept a system that requires poverty? That’s where the racist trope come in. To convince the white working class that they are not at risk because they are not black, so white people can regard themselves as middle class because they’re not in the lower class signified by blackness.
The evils of capitalism are not produced by the immoral choices of owners, managers, and partisans of capital. Such people have lost their souls to capital, and insofar as they serve capital, they have no moral compass other than the sanctity of private property. Liberals who appeal to the moral conscience of business and political leaders to put people over profits are sending messages into the void where no one hears them. Moral reasoning is powerless against the imperatives of capital. You might as well ask the lion not to eat the lamb. But we can make a moral argument, over the heads of capital, to each other, affirming the obligation we have to each other to do our utmost to organize together in the project of challenging and replacing the power of capital with the power of the people united to share equally in the work of building a world that works well for all of us.