Free markets have lifted millions out of poverty, liberated women, and protected the environment. Why, then, are so many progressives against them?
By MIchael Shellenberger, Nov. 4, 2022
For the last three years, Greta Thunberg has said that her life’s purpose was to save the world from climate change. But last Sunday, she told an audience in London that climate activists must overthrow “the whole capitalist system,” which she says is responsible for “imperialism, oppression, genocide… racist, oppressive extractionism.” Her talk echoed the World Economic Forum’s calls for a “Great Reset” away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. There is no “back to normal,” she said.
But her claims are absurd. The “whole capitalist system” has, over the last 200 years, allowed the average life expectancy of humans to rise from 30 to 70 years of age. The “whole capitalist system” produces larger food surpluses than any other system in human history. And the “whole capitalist system” has resulted in declining greenhouse gas emissions in developed nations over the last 50 years.
Capitalism is far from perfect. It worsens inequality by making some people so rich that they can rocket into space on liquified hydrogen while leaving others too poor to afford natural gas. It is characterized by cycles of boom and bust that create frenzies of wealth followed by high unemployment. And it is constantly turning non-market relationships, including intimate ones, such as between parents and caregivers, into exchanges between buyers and sellers.
But capitalism is plainly better than any other system of economic organization yet devised.
High levels of inequality are the result of more rich people, not more poor people, who are much better off under capitalism than feudalism or communism. The business cycle of booms and busts provokes manias and depressions, but it is much more efficient, and less oppressive than governments deciding what should be produced, by whom, and at what price. And while it’s true that capitalism undermines non-market relationships, that’s often a good thing, even in the case of childcare, since it allows women and others to be compensated for their labor.
Capitalism better for environment than feudalism or communism
Capitalism is far better for the natural environment than feudalism or communism. Under feudalism, subsistence farmers rely on wood and dung for cooking fuels and must farm large tracts of land to produce a small amount of food. The industrial revolution not only liberated most people from back-breaking farming but also reduced the amount of land required, thanks to fertilizer, irrigation, and tractors. The same process allowed humans to switch from using wood to coal to natural gas and uranium as primary fuels.
The result has been the return, and “re-wilding,” of grasslands and forests around the world, including in Sweden. The reason is that market capitalism rewards economic efficiency and thus reduced natural resource use. Consider the whales. What saved them, in capitalist nations, was cheaper substitute oils, first petroleum and then vegetable oils. The Soviet Union, by contrast, kept whaling long after it was economically efficient to do so because whalers were protected from market competition.
All of this and yet, around the world, it is affluent and educated progressives like Thunberg who are anti-capitalist.
It wasn’t always this way. Left-wing parties, from communist to socialist to social democratic parties, used to be the parties of the working class. Now, across the Western world, they are the parties of educated elites. The latest polls show that Democrats have a 14-point advantage among college voters and a 15-point deficit among working-class voters, an 11-point increase since 2012.
This is true across the Western world. From British Brexiteers to Dutch farmers to the French yellow vests, working-class people are turning away from the Left and embracing pro-free market political movements and pro-capitalist political parties. Why is that? How did educated elites like Thunberg become anti-capitalists, and working-class people become pro-capitalists?
Capitalist vs. socialist values
Why do working-class people tend to favor capitalism over socialism and other forms of anti-capitalism? Anti-capitalists say the reason is “false consciousness”: they have been tricked by the schools, news media, and churches into believing that they are better off under capitalism than socialism.
A more sophisticated version of this, taught in elite universities around the world, is that capitalism’s strength stems from the “hegemony” of specific pro-capitalist values, like the ones held by my 83-year-old mother, who grew up on a working-class farm in Indiana in the 1940s and 1950s. She was recently asked what she learned from her parents. Here’s what she wrote:
The above lessons are roughly identical to what Max Weber famously identified as the Christian (not necessarily Protestant) values held by workers in the system of capitalism, in contrast to the values held by peasants under feudalism, which put a lower value on saving money and education. An anti-capitalist would say that her parents should have taught her:
- The capitalists who want you to work hard and “stick with it” are exploiting you.
- In your free time, you should organize others to help you overthrow capitalism.
- You should be ambitious, not humble: the goal is a worldwide socialist revolution!
- We should reject bourgeois schooling and get a radical anti-capitalist education to support efforts to overthrow capitalism.
- Families are an extension of capitalist social arrangements and people should not be confined by marriage or family.
- Disrespect people who hold different views than you; they are the enemy of humanity.
During the 20th Century, people around the world considered these two very different sets of values and overwhelmingly chose the ones held by my mother’s family. A big part of the reason for this is that they rightly associated the latter set of values with the horrors that were occurring in the Soviet Union and China, where Communist regimes killed millions. And, they realized, that working people in Western capitalist democracies were far richer, and freer, than their counterparts in Communist nations.
Socialists mask radical agenda to take over institutions
In response, socialists spent the 1950s and 1960s re-grouping. Taking the advice of Italian Communist Party leader Antonio Gramsci, a great theorist of cultural hegemony as a socialist strategy, the radical Left in the West began “the long march through institutions,” from universities to NGOs to the media, identifying as “issue advocates” as a way to mask their radical agenda. The greatest pioneer of the issue-advocacy strategy in the U.S. was Ralph Nader. The rate of motor vehicle deaths, both measured per vehicle and per mile, had been declining since 1934, but Nader persuaded much of the public that capitalism was antithetical to public safety.
Shortly after, Nader moved on to nuclear energy. The problem with nuclear is that it produced no air or water pollution and was functionally infinite, thereby undermining the ability of anti-capitalists to use pollution control and resource scarcity as justifications for expanded state control over the electric power industry. And so Nader and other anti-capitalists deliberately conflated nuclear power plants with nuclear weapons in minds of Baby Boomers who just a few years earlier had been terrified as schoolchildren by duck-and-cover classroom exercises to prepare for nuclear war. Fifty years later, progressives pursued a similar approach against fracking, convincing people that it was somehow worse for the environment than coal.
In admitting that she wants to overthrow capitalism, Thunberg briefly let her mask slip. Until then, she, like other anti-capitalists, had successfully convinced the public that she was simply more sensitive than other people. “I remember when I was younger and in school, our teachers showed us films of plastic in the ocean, starving polar bears, and so on,” Thunberg recalled in the spring of 2019. “I cried through all the movies.” This sensitivity is sometimes referred to as liberal or environmental guilt.
Religious component of guilt underlies environmentalism
There is, without a doubt, a religious component to liberal and environmental guilt. Educated elites tend to be more secular than working-class people. Without traditional religion to make them feel guilty for their original sin, elites find new reasons to feel guilty, with environmental degradation at the top of the list. Though capitalism has massively reduced humankind’s negative environmental impact, the psychological need to feel guilty remains.
But feelings of guilt are rarely innocent and frequently tied to demands for greater power and control. Judeo-Christian religious leaders claim that we are all guilty of having sinned against God and must behave in particular ways, such as by avoiding particular foods, procreating, and donating money to the church. Environmental leaders today claim that we are all guilty of having sinned against Nature and must behave in particular ways, including avoiding particular foods, not procreating, and donating to environmental groups. Expressions of guilt for the supposed suffering of polar bears are pretexts for demanding an immediate halt to fossil fuel use.
As such, innocent-seeming “awareness raising” is tied to anti-capitalist demands. The films about plastic in the ocean aren’t just about making school children feel guilty, they are also about demanding that society stop using plastics made from fossil fuels. The European Commission’s reports about nitrogen pollution aren’t just about the side effects of meat production, they are also about demanding a reduction in livestock farming. And Thunberg’s student movement isn’t just much about reducing carbon emissions, it’s about overthrowing capitalism.
As such, expressions of guilt are the emotional shock troops of the war on capitalism. The proven solution to plastic waste is to send it to landfills or incinerators, and not attempt to recycle it, since doing so is not cost-effective, which is why “recyclers” quietly send it to poor countries where it ends up in the ocean. The obvious way to reduce nitrogen pollution is to more carefully apply fertilizer, and control manure, not reduce livestock, which we need for food. And the fastest, cheapest, and easiest way to reduce emissions is to use natural gas and nuclear instead of wood and coal, not ban them, as Thunberg and her allies demanded, and which resulted in an increase in coal and wood burning.
Anti-capitalists oppose technical environmental fixes because they work
The reason anti-capitalists like Thunberg oppose such technical fixes to environmental problems isn’t because they don’t work, it’s because they do. At some level, consciously or unconsciously, Thunberg and her allies recognize, as Nader did, that solving environmental problems through waste disposal, nitrogen management, and natural gas and nuclear undermines their anti-capitalist crusade, which consists centrally of making food and energy less, not more, efficient, through the use of labor-and-resource intensive renewables and organic farming.
Why would people who ostensibly care so much about lifting people out of poverty and protecting the environment want to use less efficient methods to produce energy and food? Because their primary concern is not lifting people out of poverty and protecting the environment. It’s about maintaining and growing their power as a social class over the rest of society.
Such was the central insight of an early 20th Century Harvard economist named Josef Schumpeter. He believed Karl Marx was correct that capitalism is a process of “creative destruction” characterized by new technologies (e.g., chemical fertilizers, vegetable oils, coal) replacing older ones (e.g. organic farming, whale oil, and wood) and ushering in whole new modes of production (e.g., modern farming, modern food production, and modern electricity systems). But Schumpeter thought Marx was wrong in seeing the interests of capitalists and the working class as opposed. Quite the contrary, he argued: they were united.
Schumpeter argued that the real class struggle wasn’t between capitalists and workers but rather between the new rich and the old rich. The new rich were capitalists, their managers, and their workers. The old rich were the people who were born-rich, their employees, and allies. Today that group includes the professional-managerial class of philanthropic executives, journalists, NGO employees, university professors, school teachers, and government employees.
The old rich hate capitalism because it reduces the gap between them and the new rich. The heirs to the Getty and Rockefeller say they are financing anti-fracking advocacy because fracking is bad for the climate, but it was always obvious that fracking, by creating cheap and abundant natural gas to replace coal, would reduce emissions and be great for the climate. The real and often unconscious reason that the heirs to the Getty and Rockefeller fortunes finance anti-fracking is the same reason that Putin consciously did: fracking threatens their economic wealth, social status, and political power.
More oil and gas from fracking reduced the price, and thus the value, of existing oil and gas assets. It meant more money for free-market Republicans than for pro-scarcity Democrats. And it meant the old rich had to make way for the new rich in social circles. Think of how the country club snobs looked down on the Rodney Dangerfield character in “Caddyshack.”
Elites’ ‘luxury beliefs’ make life harder for lower classes
Anti-capitalism thus became the ideology of the old rich, or what early 20th Century sociologist Thorstein Veblen of the University of Chicago called “the leisure class.” Veblen noted the importance of “conspicuous consumption,” the tendency of elites to flaunt their wealth through fancy dresses and jewelry. Today, elites flaunt their wealth through what Rob Henderson calls “luxury beliefs,” which he defines as “ideas and opinions that confer status in the upper class while inflicting costs on the lower class.” Today, the main luxury beliefs of the ruling class are that we must make food and energy more expensive, through a return to less efficient, feudal modes of production, in order to protect Nature.
There’s a reason why anti-capitalists tend to be the people who inherited rather than created their wealth. The capitalist class, the people who built their wealth from scratch, tend to feel proud, not guilty, for what they built. They defend free markets as part of their legacy. Their children and grandchildren who inherit their wealth struggle with their purpose. They tend toward neuroticism because they know, at some level, that they did nothing to deserve their good fortune. They compensate for their feelings of inferiority by devising various ways to put down the new rich and their workers, such as by financing activists to block roads, writers like Bill McKibben to claim that natural gas is worse for the climate than coal, and politicians like President Joe Biden to restrict oil and gas production.
The anti-capitalist agenda of Thunberg is thus much worse for working people than a pro-capitalist agenda. The lives of elites like Thunberg aren’t materially impacted if food and energy prices increase; they are affluent enough to afford it. A recession might mean that the Thunbergs won’t be able to afford another $9,000 chair, but they’ll no doubt be able to pay a higher electrical bill. While there are some aspects of today’s progressive agenda that benefit working people, such as allowing the federal government to negotiate the price of prescription drugs, the highest priorities of anti-capitalist elites are all bad for workers since they are aimed at making food and energy more expensive.
Few working-class voters are doing a close cost-benefit analysis of the policies of the Republican and Democratic Parties. But they understand perfectly well that the Democrats are saying that we must pay more for gasoline and other fossil fuels in order to deal with climate change. By embracing free markets and rejecting anti-capitalists, the British Brexiteers, Dutch farmers, and French yellow vests are simply fighting for their class interests.
And so why, in the end, are educated elites like Thunberg anti-capitalist? Because capitalism reduces their power. Why are working people pro-capitalist? Because it increases theirs. If climate change didn’t exist, elites like Thunberg would find some other reason to be anti-capitalist, to demand a “Great Reset,” and to demand higher costs for energy and food, since such demands are essential to keeping the new rich, and their workers, down. The real reason Thunberg insists that there be no “back to normal” has nothing to do with the environment. It’s because back to normal means back to economic progress. And that, more than anything else, threatens her status, power, and privilege.
The original for this article can be found at Michael Shellenberger’s blog.