“A stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” – Winston Churchill on the displacement of indigenous peoples
In 1943, during the height of the Second World War and the waning days of the imperialist British Raj in India, a famine — like all modern famines, primarily the result of human inaction — struck. The Famine Inquiry Commission, empowered by the British to investigate, reported husbands deserting wives, wives husbands, and parents their own children in search of food. Half of the refugees in Kolkata had abandoned family members. 2–3 million Bengalis would die by the end of 1944.
Despite his War Cabinet having stockpiled 170,000 tons of Australian wheat for the supply of liberated Europe, Prime Minister Winston Churchill – Britain’s famed wartime leader – continued to demand the export of rice from the starving Bengalis, and blamed the famine on the Indians themselves, claiming they “breed like rabbits”.
Cornelius Walford, an official of the Raj working in the midst of the previous 1876 famine, estimated that in 120 years of British rule in India, 34 famines had occurred. Only 17 recorded famines had occurred over the entire two millenia preceding the arrival of the British East India Company. Combined, these 34 famines killed 70.3 million during the entire British colonial enterprise in India.
As the people of India starved, died of plague, and were subject to atrocity after atrocity during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 – including massacres at Delhi, Allahabad, Kanpur, and Lucknow, the use of sexual violence as a weapon, and at Cawnpore forcing Hindu rebels to eat beef before hanging them – the ruling class of the British metropole enjoyed the highest standard of living in the industrialized world.
As the Manchester proletarian faced death in industrial accidents, mine collapses, or — if they were fortunate — terminal respiratory diseases caused by long hours of work in un-ventilated textile mills, the forces of British capital used the wealth they created to trample African nations which had been independent since time immemorial.
Wherever the British capitalist marched — from Durham to Dublin to Delhi to Durban — they brought with them hunger, sickness, and death.
I don’t mean to dismiss the accusations — the credible ones at least — of abuses under leftist systems. They have happened, and if we neglect to study the machinations behind them, they will happen again. My intent is merely to attack the bad-faith insinuation that such abuses are inherent to the socialist model, that capitalism is comparatively utopian, and the use of such rhetoric to attack even the most basic requests for concessions by the Western working person.
This article will, point-by-point, dismantle some common arguments made by the likes of Turning Point USA and other right-wing groups.
It’s undeniable, even to the Marxist, that capitalism has done much for the living standard of the average person since becoming the dominant mode of production in the 19th century. Sanitation, health, comparative plenty in both quantity and variety of food — these are all achievements of capitalism. Using this evidence of social benefit, the conservative stands from their podium and argues: “Look at these achievements, which are incredible, evenly-distributed, and beneficial for all”.
While the standard of living has undeniably increased for a steel mill worker in 2020 compared to a steel mill worker in 1820, the same could be said for a French peasant in 1789 compared to 1089. In the same way that a modern worker, in industry or the services, can easily access more goods and services than centuries prior, the 18th-century peasant could expect far more food security and far less work-per-calorie than the medieval peasant. This does not mean that feudalism was the best — or even a particularly good system. Feudalism was just, like all systems, incredibly efficient at refining and perfecting itself in pursuit of its own material goals.
This is likewise for capitalism. Yes, a 21st-century worker has vast amounts of consumer goods at their disposal. But this plenty only exists as a result of the refining and perfecting of capitalism in service of maximizing the material aims of the capitalist. This mode of production, like the last, does not exist in the service of the average person, but in service of those with control of the reins of production — under feudalism, aristocrats, under capitalism, capitalists. These cliques only pursue the perfection of material conditions insofar as they increase the productivity of their mode of production. Neither the aristocrat nor the capitalist exists for the benefit of the average person — as any conservative would agree. They exist for their own benefit.
One might counter-argue by saying that capitalism must be better at increasing quality-of-life because capitalism encourages innovation, due to the profit motive, but this also is misguided. The perfection of production, both under feudalism and under capitalism, has also as a side-effect increased the human population, and with a greater population comes the emergence of more potential innovators, and thus the exponential growth of technological advancement. The sheer power of numbers and productivity has, for most of human history, been the driving force behind technology.
In fact, in the past century the many ways in which capitalism, through the tragedy of the anticommons, impedes innovation have emerged. Despite evidence of global warming as a phenomenon dating to the 19th century, and agreement among Exxon-Mobil executives of its reality in the 1960s, no innovation was made in response, due to the high cost of investment and the unwillingness to risk profit margins. Despite the need for global coordination on tasks such as vaccine development for COVID-19, the drive to maximize profit by beating the competitor to the punch has made this impossible.
These are not schemes by comically evil villains — these are rational decisions by amoral actors in pursuit of the profit motive that happen to have socially undesirable results. As the contradictions of the anticommons in a more common world emerge, the more capitalism tries desperately to preserve itself.
As this dash to justify its own existence continues, capitalism is bound to become grotesque in ways we can hardly imagine.
The planned economy is not a monolithic enterprise, not even when centralized, but a complex system of bureaucratic inventory-taking, focus-grouping, and general assessment of needs, managed by several groups from top to bottom. In fact, the planned economy is not so different from the modern corporate structure, with its own massive bureaucracy and politicking, except in their aims — the profit motive in the case of the corporation, and the general well-being of the population in the case of the planned economy.
The argument that the shape of economic production determines the shape of political power is correct — but this principle doesn’t only apply to socialism. The idealized capitalism assumes a corps of small-to-medium producers, each with equal input into government function, in open competition with each other.
This idealized capitalism would result in democratic governance, with representative institutions and open suffrage — but we need to only look at how capitalism has evolved, especially since the expansion of laissez-faire economics in the 1970s, to see the ultimate result. The medium firms consume the small firms — the voice of government becomes concentrated in the hands of the few, now large firms — government becomes unresponsive and oligarchical. The fundamental fact is that this isn’t an aberration. This is what any form of capitalism would devolve into, as firms seek to safeguard their profits, and resort to all possible means of doing so. We are now locked in an undemocratic corporatism, and in the face of this reality, the conservative paints a myth.
The idea that all socialist countries are Stalinist closed societies is oblivious to the massive variety that exists in the applications of socialism in different places at different times; for example, the non-partisan democracy of Cuba, the federal republic of Mexico post-Revolution, the open society of Allende’s Chile, or the explicit anti-authoritarian character of Revolutionary Catalonia. How these nations relate to authority is unique to each, but oftentimes operate not necessarily in favor of — or even explicitly reject — centralized authority.
But what about the regimes that did resort to authoritarian centralization? To assess them, we have to assess their material origins. A perfect case study of this is the isolation the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea faces. Early in the Cold War, while the South was under the dictatorial rule of Syngman Rhee and then Park Chung-hee, the DPRK offered greater food security, availability of consumer goods, and a higher quality of life than the South.
In many ways, the decline did not come until the collapse of the USSR and the ensuing isolation from the global economy. With the Soviet collapse, the Western world began to impose a strict term of blockade on the DPRK — economic liberalization or famine. North Korea got famine, a traumatic event resulting in the death of millions, arising purely from the Western ambition to enforce global capitalism. Out of these ruins came paranoia; the establishment of juche; songun; the will to remain independent despite international pressures, creating a reactionary semi-monarchy in the process. North Korea is a beast of the West’s own creation.
But these experiences don’t disprove socialism any more than the experiences of Athens or Rome disproved bourgeois democracy. Both were primitive forms of the capitalist political system, built on the backs of slavery and conquest — Athens once sacked a neutral Aegean island for refusing to submit to occupation during wartime. Rousseau despised Athens, viewing it as weak, and preferred Sparta. Rome was perennially unstable and devolved into imperial monarchy.
Despite these failures, one only needs to go to a city hall to see the influence these prototypical democracies had on modernity. Their failures did not disprove the theory of democracy; the failures of the states of the 20th century do not disprove socialism.
The conservative argues that capitalism is a system which has lifted billions from poverty, made luxury accessible, and, most importantly, treats the individual as more than a mere cog in an economic machine, as an actor responsible for their own fate.
Is the migrant worker whose patterns of living depend on the whims of the company who grants them their visa responsible for their own fate?
Is the black American helpless to resist the white cop who bullies their community with impunity responsible for their own fate?
Is the gig worker unable to negotiate their own pay responsible for their own fate?
Is the Bengali farmer forced to beg on the street or die in 1943 responsible for their own fate?
The fundamental fact of the matter is that conservative critiques of socialism, for the most part, are pure projection. They argue that capitalism views the individual as more than the value they produce, even as the American economy feeds hundreds of thousands to the meat grinder of COVID-19 for the sake of modest economic gains. They argue that capitalism hasn’t perpetrated atrocity after atrocity, and in fact has given millions luxury, even as the children of Pinochet’s victims look on, and as the low-paid, multi-job service worker looks desperately for what “luxury” they have. They argue that capitalism hasn’t been responsible for the unnecessary deaths of millions, even as capitalist British atrocities in India alone killed over 70 million.
Winston Churchill is, in many ways, an icon of British capitalism. His stalwart demeanor and determination in the face of Nazi oppression have made him a hero. But this is not the whole truth.
In Ireland, as the hero of British capitalism, he ordered the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve to burn the city of Cork.
In Iraq, as the hero of British capitalism, he demanded the use of chemical weapons against local tribesmen.
In China, as the hero of British capitalism, he advocated for the partition of a country which had stood for thousands of years.
In India, as the hero of British capitalism, he oversaw a famine which killed 2–3 million Bengalis.
In Churchill, we can see the progress made under capitalism — the defeat of the Nazis was no small feat. But we can also see the racism, the imperialism, the wholesale murder and neglect without which capitalism would not function.
With this in mind, we ought to say to Churchill, and to capitalism: thank you for all you’ve done. Now, goodbye.
“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” – Winston Churchill