All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 2001

The Anti-Capitalist Children of Capitalism

The Market Economy Gives Anti-Capitalist Rioters the Means to Protest

The irony of the anti-capitalist protests that have plagued gatherings of world leaders in Seattle and Prague, and that threaten to disrupt any future such meetings, is that despite the atavism of the activists’ ideology, their means depend on the very economic system they profess to hate. Essentially, the rioters are the spoiled surplus population of growing and healthy economies: men and women freed from the production process by the market economy who thus have time on their hands to express their own dissatisfactions with the world.

Protests against the market system are not new. Historically, local riots have often targeted unfair practices, which unknowingly were generated by locally enforced legislation that hampered the market, or by the undeveloped state of those markets, or by an inflation promoted by more distant authorities bent on clandestinely securing more funds for their treasuries without having to raise taxes.

In the present extension of the division of labor, which transcends most of the world’s nations and production areas, ruptures in the market system are more often created by governments bent on short-term enrichment or financial gain than by international companies setting up new production centers. Rather than exploiting workers, multinational companies generate new opportunities and often raise local living standards. The addition of any new company into a market involves attracting workers from other industries by offering higher wages or better working conditions. This in turn produces beneficial changes in the older industries to keep workers from leaving. Where trade is free, the locals generally benefit (depending on their own capacity to integrate into extended commercial activities). But sometimes governments engage in collusive activities that hamper the free flow of resources, and thereby create their own homegrown injustices that may rightly be criticized—yet the fault there lies with government policies and not trade practices.

Riots may have a variety of local subplots. That is, they may possess a plurality of motives involving locals’ prejudices toward foreign merchants, the unfair application of local laws, inefficient government, existing protected industries, and so on. Nonetheless, the global plot should not be forgotten. As the market economy expanded so phenomenally over the last two centuries, it dawned on many intellectuals, critics, and reformers that local industries might indeed be affected by increasingly distant or diffuse sources. Wars in distant nations, the opening up of new markets thousands of miles away, and technological changes on the other side of the world could impose benefits, or costs, on people who were hardly aware of the existence of such places. (A good example is the effect of the American Civil War on the British textile industry.) Some critics reacted as strongly to this realization as previous thinkers did when watching foreign merchants entering the local markets or harbors; such fears were prompted by both disdain for the foreigner and fear of what changes might be forthcoming.

Yet as globalization continues apace the disruption to the local economy diminishes. Compared to the famines and economic devastation of wars, local piracy, and whimsical government intervention, the cost of continual adaptation to international markets is small—and increasingly fluid. Local interventions may hamper the process, but on the whole the pouring of capital and resources into hitherto undeveloped or relatively undeveloped areas has only been beneficial. And not just in higher wages either. The expansion of a locality’s capital base also deepens and broadens the local skill base, so if the markets should change, the population would be more able to adapt and would certainly be less dependent on one industry or specialization.

Fear of Change

From Martin Luther’s bombastic and ascetic Protestantism (his notion that rough woolen clothes should be good enough for his native sixteenth-century Germans) to Marx’s general critique of capitalism as a phase of class warfare, the fear of change remains a perennial concern in many intellectuals’ derision of the developments wrought by global markets. Fear of change and of unknown principles that circumscribe human life motivates rituals, superstitions, angst, in response to one’s own perceived fragility in the world. What better solution than to seek to impose one’s will—one’s reason—on the unseen forces that frame one’s destiny?

For a few centuries now, such a conclusion regarding the principles of physics has been rightfully regarded as ludicrous. Yet many have yet to understand the principles that guide man’s most important aspect of social life—the principles of trade. Market forces, cry the socialists, ought to be harnessed or eliminated—profit should be abandoned in favor of people. But what is interesting today is that the present protesters who come together do so on the back of capitalism’s own and highly technological implements—the Internet, the mobile phone, or at least the fax or the newspaper—all products of the market system of private enterprise they wish to overthrow. Do they seriously believe such products can be produced where there are no profits and losses to indicate where resources can best meet consumers’ needs? No centrally planned society, never mind an anarchic community of “New Age Travelers” or Internet socialists, has produced anything of value to the rest of humanity. Yet in their myopia, they do not see the glorious but silent removal of the fears and prejudices that have traditionally gripped men’s minds for thousands of years as the market system expands.

Anti-capitalist crusades may complement local senses of disorder or economic vulnerability. They may offer rationalizations providing a sense of universality or comprehension—that the local issues are in effect part of a global conspiracy against them, which, of course, they can change through local, direct action: the new revolution begins here! And the shop window becomes an easy iconic scapegoat to be smashed.

The rhetoric of the organizers rings with the words of Lenin’s fury against the industrialization of the nineteenth century—which then was gradually but noticeably improving life in his adopted Russia. The leaders of the communist revolution were then able to harness the profits of capitalism for their crusade against the nascent economic freedoms bubbling across Russia. Today, their intellectual descendants have once again harnessed the very products of capitalism that have increased productivity and hence the wealth of millions, and which most certainly have brought the world closer together.

Leisure Commonplace

A principle of wealth production is that it enables us to pursue more leisure activities than our ancestors, for whom leisure, if experienced at all, remained a luxury. The massive transformations generated by increasingly global markets have produced undreamed-of products and freed time for leisurely pursuits—and not just for the lucky few. The industrious poor of the Western nations, whose numbers were once particularly vulnerable to local famines and plagues, may now enjoy conveniences and pursuits not even the richest Victorians could have imagined. They do so because they are able to reap the rewards of increased productivity and concomitant wage increases—because they are part of the international market, and not subject to the vagaries of local market changes.

Globalization, when it can flourish in the absence of local, arduous restrictions, fosters stability: companies may come and go or change name, but the trained and educated skill base remains for others to tap into.

Back to numbers: the capitalist world has produced a massive increase in the numbers of people the world’s economies can support. As productivity increases, the growth in population reflects a successful expansion of man’s ability to survive. Unemployment, which once would have meant a deleterious impoverishment and corresponding malnourishment with reduced life expectancies, in the West at least can now be supported by the general pool of wealth residing in families and in state budgets (for better or worse!).

The intellectually infused mobile-phone Marxists and Internet intelligentsia, the new dot-com socialists of the 21st century, are certainly a spoiled bunch of idealistic youth brought up on the ideals of a free education and a free life: of computers and games for all—viva la revolución! they cry over the Internet (and it is worth checking some of the sites out). Smash the capitalist system, they scream in songs produced in hi-tech recording studios, played over radio and Net communications—well, why don’t they begin with their own wireless phones, personal organizers, computers, Internet sites, and e-mails? Give them up! Show the world the way back to the true nature of communism, and of course to poverty. Give up designer clothes, printed books even, and hair dyed by virtue of the complexities of the free market that offer fixing chemicals and dyes unheard before the revolution. Pick up your hand-carved wooden implements and inscribe your messages in your homemade inks from the natural dyes found in the weeds by the sides of the road, and oh, by the way, walk to the next IMF meeting on the other side of the world as the ancient Christian pilgrims used to do.

Not many takers? Not surprising: few would wish to give up their Internet-induced revolution, their trappings of luxury and wealth they take for granted. Few would wish to truly give up modern housing with constant water and heat on demand—but that’s what their demands entail.