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Capitalism and human rights abuses go together like yin and yang


Athena Iluz under a Creative Commons Licence

When discrediting a social movement or a political entity, the powers-that-be will often point to how violent it is, as a way to delegitimize it.

A popular criticism of communism, which still lingers today, years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, is that it was inherently violent.

Anti-communist, pro-capitalist propagandists will point to the violent nature of Stalin’s five-year-plans or to Pol Pot’s social cleansing. ‘Look, it’s all well and good in theory, but in practice it’s the most violent system,’ they say. Capitalism, on the other hand, is the religion of peace.

This simplistic logic is not only grossly flawed but contributes to a convenient narrative to delegitimize any movement that is not pro-markets, which has been the status quo since the end of the Second World War.

In that period, capitalist economics have become the modus operandi for the Western world and have been (violently) pushed onto the rest of the world. This has become so accepted as the triumphant system over the evils of communism, that the end of the Cold War was famously (and incorrectly) regarded as ‘The End of History’ by US political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama.

What this narrative does, though, is whitewash the crimes of capitalism, which is conveniently exonerated of its sins, while an association is made between violence and any alternative system, so as to continue to position capitalism on higher moral and economic ground.

On closer inspection, however, it is difficult to disagree with the fact that capitalism is almost undoubtedly the most violent economic system of recent times, responsible for more deaths and more social disruption than any other.

Even if in much of the industrialized and developed capitalist word there is the veneer of a state of peace, capitalism, as a system, is maintained and upheld through violence, both overtly and in more subtle ways.

Western expansion, slavery and colonialism are inherently tied to white, patriarchal, capitalist economics that are still in play today. Capitalism has claimed millions of lives and has led to violence as a result of structural adjustment programmes forced on former colonies by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There was the Belgian Congo holocaust. Or what was essentially the ethnic cleansing of an entire continent in South America resulting from Spanish and Portuguese capitalist expansion during the colonial era.

Yet when we discuss capitalism we tend not to discuss the violence associated with it. In terms of death tolls, the violence of colonialism cannot be over-stated. The slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism have contributed to untold numbers of dead.

Even something such as the war in Iraq can be linked to capitalism when we look at the embedded nature of arms companies within the Western state apparatus, as well as the fact that access to oil resources was a motivating factor for invading.

Capitalism and human rights abuses go together like yin and yang. People might detach themselves from concern about how the chips in their iPhones are made, but in the Democratic Republic of Congo, human rights abuses are taking place on a daily basis so that Western firms can exploit cobalt resources.

It’s not just overt violence that works to underpin capitalism. There is also ideological violence: capitalism relies on subtle forms of coercion to sustain a system of domination and exploitation made possible through the existence of a social hierarchy. Anyone who isn’t a white, straight man is in a position of disadvantage and is inherently discriminated against.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it in his book, Violence, this ‘ultra-objective or systematic violence’:‘is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism, which involves the “automatic” creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed, and the “ultra-subjective” violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious, in the short, racist “fundamentalisms.”’

Such oppression is rarely considered violence; it is seen as an unfortunate by-product of competition, rather than an essential component of a corrupt system. The violence of capitalism has for a long time benefited a ruling elite who continue to prosper ( 1 per cent of the world’s population controls 50 per cent of the world’s wealth).

Capitalism systematically oppresses people at the bottom of the social ‘food chain’ and is reliant for its continued existence on an underbelly of the poor and powerless.

There is no fast or easy solution. But what we can do is have an open conversation about capitalism and the ways in which it has been sustaining itself. And we can be more critical of the media representation of violence waged by Western states, which is often presented as benevolent, rather than as the result of a violent capitalist agenda.

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