The anthropologist’s view of capitalism has more perspective than the economist’s. The economist examines such details as the rhythms of booms and busts, the dynamics of prosperity and poverty, and the merits of deficits and surpluses. But the anthropologist examines capitalism as a passing cultural phenomenon within great sweeps of time, as an event comparable to the chipping of flint or the beginning of agriculture. Someone who does this with illuminating clarity is Ronald Wright, first in his book, A Short History of Progress, again in What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order, and then once more in a poignant interview with fellow author and journalist Chris Hedges in “The Myth of Human Progress”.
Wright describes the early years of capitalism in 15th century Europe as stagnant. Food production could not support a larger population. Wealth had plateaued. Limited European resources handicapped trade with the Orient. Then Columbus made contact with the New World in 1492. Within a few decades, potatoes, tomatoes, novel grains and other high-production crops from North and South America were proliferating in European fields. The population soared. Gold and silver from Aztec and Inca civilizations flooded treasuries. Valuable trading commodities passing through Europe energized its economy. The free labour of African slaves lubricated the entire process. Both Karl Marx and Adam Smith claimed that these factors culminated in the Industrial Revolution, an event that multiplied capitalism’s accelerating economic activity.
As Wright explains in his interview with Chris Hedges, this success was the cause of a a fundamental misconception. “The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever. It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal.”
Consequently, Wright explains, “We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”
Wright’s summary of our economic history from the 16th century to the present is succinct and insightful. It explains why our modern economic system, having expanded to encompass the entire globe, is so difficult to bring under control. The expectation of perpetual growth is so embedded in our culture that it has become a mythology, an “ideological pathology” incapable of considering alternatives. The result, when functioning in tandem with an exploding human population, is the over-exploitation of almost every ecosystem on the planet. Living in this illusion of normalcy is bringing us to the brink of environmental crisis.
The global economic system, by using desperate measures of exploitation and production, gives the impression that it is coping. But crisis is a word used with increasing frequency. The ecological stresses are rising uncontrollably by almost every possible measure—indeed, they are getting too numerous to list.
People are aware of this trend and are responding accordingly. The pervasive mood is a paradoxical blend of uncertainty and hope. The tension and anxiety are palpable—even among the ultra-wealthy, perhaps explaining why they are either hoarding or giving away billions to foundations trying to stem some facet of the crisis. The optimism that does exist is dependent on either a belated surge in the human sense for survival or in revolutionary technological breakthroughs. The frequent promises of a safer, cleaner, happier and richer world are sounding hollow in an era of growing skepticism. Capitalism, for all its merits and failings as a 500-year practice, may be better than the alternatives, but may not be able to meet the stringent conditions imposed by nature’s laws. These, ultimately, are the only measures that count.
As an anthropologist, Wright has studied the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history. He has no illusions about the frailties and the follies of those who inhabit them. His perspective confirms what many others are thoughtfully considering. Our economic system has worrisome flaws that are incompatible with the constraints imposed by nature. Such flaws may prove fatal if they are not identified and corrected.
This growing awareness is in collision with capitalism’s historical habits and practices. Wright’s duty as an insightful academic is to identify this collision and to warn us of the consequences; his response as a caring human being is to worry about his fellows and to safeguard their future. His prognosis, if we continue as in the past, is not promising. The details are a replay of nature’s dispassionate response to every experiment with an “ideological pathology”. We can either heed Wright’s warning or we can hope he is incorrect. Unfortunately, history as revealed by anthropology, is on his side.