Capitalism: the fifth horseman?

The four horseman of The Apocalypse: Death, Famine, War and Conquest. In some interpretations of the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible, Death is called Pestilence or a plague.

Intrigued today by this somewhat inadequate piece in The Guardian with brief quotes from historians like Michael Wood and Tom Holland trying to link Coronavirus and climate change, the argument being that we are at dangerous juncture of human history caused by western capitalism. They argue that things like Covid has broken out because humans are putting ecosystems under stress with intensive farming harming the natural world. The key quote is from Wood:

“Everything that is going on at the moment, it seems to me, all links together.”

History has seen great civilisations in China, India and across Eurasia, “but they’ve not caused these crises that we are living through now, and nor has the African world.”

“You know what happened? Roughly 500 years ago, these small, aggressive maritime powers on the shores of Europe went across the world with their technology and created their empires by sea.”

“And I think what we are seeing now can all be interpreted in the light of the post-imperial [age].” (The Guardian ‘A very dangerous epoch’: historians try to make sense of Covid’ by Esther Addley, 12 February 2021)

The implication here is that the rest of the world inherited and applied the learning and economic models of the north west Europeans over the centuries leading to the wider degradation of the planet and the deep hole of misery some people find themselves in, fuelling wider trends that have rebounded on those western capitalists and their populations like migration.

I’m often tempted by these ‘long views’ of history, or global history. They are interesting, but can be imperfect in my view. How far does the ’cause’ and ‘effect’ tracing of events really work back in practice? Of course, there are short and long term causes and effects of many events, but I think I take the view that key events have ‘catalysts’ instead. Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, but he was already tapping into a long tradition of calls for reform with the western Catholic Church. The French Revolution may well have been inevitable at some point, but 1789 was a ripe point in time because of the bad harvests and economic conditions that immediately preceded it. Similarly, whilst the Second World War’s causes were rooted in the First World War’s peace settlement and grievances, it needed a ‘Hitler’ to exploit them. So I’m cautious with sweeping statements that the world is in a bad place in 2021 because Portugal, Spain, Holland and England decided to embark on their voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries and build their empires, which of course clearly had some economic motives. However, Dutch mercantilism would not have started without the Reformation and the Dutch part of the Spanish Netherlands rebelling against Catholic Spain. So if you are wanting to play the cause and effect game, you might want to consider the motives, circumstances and economics of 16th century England as well and before you know it you’re back to the Black Death as a cause of current global troubles!

This isn’t very helpful and I’m sure The Guardian is paraphrasing the words of eminent historians like Wood (whom I like very much), who knows full well these things are much more complex, but perhaps the idea of capitalism ‘gone wrong’ is not necessarily a bad one for current global problems. If indeed Covid-19 did start in a so-called ‘wet market’ in a Chinese city where cross-species contamination of live food stuffs took place, it was the ‘unregulated’ capitalism of that market (no hygiene rules/safety controls) which was the catalyst for the outbreak of a deadly coronavirus.

But I don’t like the premise that ‘capitalism’ – some argument remains as to what capitalism really means as a concept – was the cause of 21st century troubles from the start. The Guardian of course does have an anti-capitalist, or socialist bias which may be a factor here. (There’s nothing wrong with that editorial slant of course, but we do have to be alert to bias or newspapers pushing an agenda.) However, as I noted in my previous post, if you take Britain’s (England’s) empire, it did not start with honourable capitalist intentions. Rather it began as an activity of seaborne violence and theft, smashing and grabbing Spanish treasure. It was not conceived by imperialists who were aiming to establish English rule and systems over foreign lands and supplanting them with industrious colonists and new economic models of production. That all came later, but first off it was the English trying to steal someone else’s empire. (There is of course a school of thought that a 21st century version of this initial British ‘buccaneering’, so-called disaster/venture capitalism, exploiting wherever it can, is alive and well in Britain and you could argue that it has a long historical tradition).

However, it is fair to say that capitalism as we understand it today did emerge in north west Europe, particularly in England and the Dutch Republic. The Amsterdam stock exchange was founded in 1602 and the Dutch East India company is widely thought of as the first publicly traded company. The Bank of Amsterdam founded in 1609 is viewed as the first ever central bank and the Dutch led the way in the founding of other financial products like mutual funds and investment schemes.

But capitalism requires a pre-cursor for it to function – an agricultural revolution with other means of production more mechanised, food surpluses to trade, and where those surpluses also free up labour to work in manufacturing and supporting industries. You need to produce more and more food with less and less labour time, and this is true today in 2021 especially when there is even more people on the planet to feed. In 16th, 17th and 18th century Britain, the agricultural revolution that allowed the industrial revolution was foreshadowed by processes like the enclosure of common fields and land leaving the landowner free to adopt new farming practices which ended feudal practices of subsistence farming. Enclosure and other practices transformed agriculture in Britain.

There’s a bit of chicken and egg situation here – improvements in agriculture allowed for an increase in population and of course more population needs more land turned over for agricultural production and changes in land use. Whilst draining fenland in eastern England or converting pasture into arable farming had little impact on a global level, it does then become a problem when that population growth becomes exponential. The 21st century agricultural revolution required to fuel the industrialisation of (and feed) the rest of the planet including rapidly industrialising nations like India, China, South American is massive and does have huge global implications. Rather than enclosure of English common land, the Amazon rainforest is getting felled; fossil fuels are needed to produce the fertilizer that all the wheat and soya needs to grow; and a limited number of cows and sheep on an British pastoral landscape eating grass compares now to world farming on an industrial scale in massive feed lots; or factory trawlers scooping fish out of the oceans. As city suburbs grow to house more of us, humans are brushing up directly against ecosystems and habitats are now under threat affecting the air we breathe, the atmosphere, and the indeed the potential for zoonotic pandemics.

In places like Britain, as industrialisation led to more democracy, Parliament started to control and regulate things like enclosure, and think about the environmental impacts of capitalism with the creation of things like national parks, marine conservation zones, clean air legislation and others rules and regulation of aspects of its capitalist market economy eg. animal welfare and hygiene, and labour laws. Many people view this regulation of capitalism as insufficient of course particularly in the context of climate change; and equally you find the free traders and others opposed to regulations that are argued stifle business, competition, and no doubt shareholder dividends. However regulation of capitalism by western democracies has not reached everywhere around the world – felling of rainforest goes unchecked in many places. As the historians argued in the Guardian article, western capitalism has been ‘exported’ and copied by other civilisations around the world, but perhaps the issue is that they need to catch up with the original founders of capitalism and increase the regulation of markets? That seems a long way off, needs huge amounts of international cooperation, and may indeed be even too late given the huge numbers of people on the planet to feed and house. Plus we all like buying ‘stuff’ – history shows that when humans have a bit of surplus they do want to trade and spend on items and luxuries that make life more comfortable and bearable.

In the Guardian article, the historians describe the current world as ‘a very dangerous epoch’. I’m sympathetic to the view that uncontrolled capitalism is a significant cause of world’s problems compounded by competition and demand for the world’s water, land, fuel and other resources; and the technological progress that had underpinned the success of capitalism has allowed more and more humans to populate the planet. There might be no solution, but we do know from the history of science that species in the animal kingdom that outgrow their natural resources of food and resources, die and decrease. Covid-19 may not have killed huge numbers of people on a global scale yet but it could be a harbinger of a Malthusian future for the world if we cannot cure it with changes in technology and beneficial future progress. At a global level we are the victims of economic capitalist progress – I’m reluctant to say ‘success’ but of course there have been benefits including less hunger, poverty, better healthcare, and new science and technology – but also the lack of checks and balances against it. As a result, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are alive, well, and on the march and I can see why the historians writing in the Guardian are pessimistic.


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