Do we really owe modernity to capitalism?

The narrature of capitalism


One of the claims that the apologists of capitalism most repeat and last question is that which has been the system that has created the most wealth and progress in history. We owe you the Internet, the planes, YouTube, the computers from which we write and all the medical advancement and social and individual freedoms we can find today. Capitalism is not the worst or the least criminal of the systems that have existed, but this arrogant interpretation is also a kidnapping that ignorance makes history.

In absolute terms, capitalism is the period (not the system) that has produced more wealth in history. This truth would be enough if we do not consider it as misleading as when in the 1990s a Uruguayan minister boasted that his government had sold more mobile phones than in the rest of the country’s history.

The arrival of man on the moon was not a simple consequence of capitalism. To begin with, neither public nor private universities are, in their foundations, capitalist enterprises (except for a few examples, such as the Trump University fiasco). NASA was also never a private but a state-owned enterprise and was further developed through the hiring of more than a thousand German engineers, including Wernher von Braun, who had experimented and perfected rocket technology in Hitler’s laboratories. Invested fortunes (certainly, with some economic and moral aid from the great American companies). Everything, money and planning, were state. The Soviet Union, especially under the command of a dictator like Stalin, won the space race by putting for the first time in history the first satellite, the first dog and even the first man in orbit twelve years before Apollo 11 and just forty years after the revolution that turned a backward, rural country like Russia into a military and industrial power in a few decades. None of this is understood as capitalist.

Of course, the Soviet system was responsible for many moral sins. Crimes. But it is not the moral deficiencies that distinguished bureaucratic communism from capitalism. Capitalism is only associated with democracies and human rights by a narrative, repetitive and overwhelming (theorized by the Friedman and practiced by the Pinochets), but history shows that it can coexist perfectly with a liberal democracy; With the genocidal Latin American dictatorships that preceded the excuse of the war against communism; With communist governments like China or Vietnam; With racist systems such as South Africa; With destructive empires of democracies and millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were England, Belgium, the United States, France, etc.

The arrival on the Moon as the creation of the Internet and the computers that are attributed to capitalism were basically (and, in cases, only) government projects, not companies like Apple or Microsoft. None of the scientists who worked on such revolutionary technological programs did it as an entrepreneur or seeking to become rich. In fact, many of them were ideologically anti-capitalist, such as Einstein, etc. Most were salaried teachers, not the now revered entrepreneurs.
To this reality must be added other facts and a basic concept: none of this emerged from scratch in the nineteenth century or the twentieth century. Atomic energy and bombs are direct daughters of Albert Einstein’s speculations and imaginary experiments, followed by other wage geniuses. The arrival of man on the Moon would have been impossible without basic concepts such as Newton’s Third Law. Neither Einstein nor Newton had developed their wonderful superior mathematics (none of them due to capitalism) without a plethora of mathematical discoveries introduced by other cultures centuries earlier. Does anyone imagine infinitesimal calculus without the concept of zero, without Arabic numerals and without algebra (al-jabr ), to name a few?

The algorithms used by computers and internet systems were not created by a capitalist or in any capitalist period but centuries ago. Conceptually it was developed in Baghdad, the capital of the sciences, by a Muslim mathematician of Persian origin in the ninth century called, precisely, Al-Juarismi. According to Oriana Fallaci, that culture gave nothing to the sciences (ironically, capitalism is born in the Muslim world and the Christian world develops it).

Neither the Phoenician alphabet, nor commerce, nor republics, nor democracies arose in the capitalist period but tens of centuries before. Not even the printing press in its different German or Chinese versions, an invention more revolutionary than Google, were thanks to capitalism. Neither gunpowder, nor money, nor checks, nor freedom of expression.

Although Marx and Edison are the consequence of capitalism, no great scientific revolution of the Renaissance and Modern Age (Averroes, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Einstein, Turing, Hawking) owed that system. Wild capitalism produced a lot of capital and many Donad Trump, but very few geniuses.

Not to mention more practical discoveries, such as the lever, screw or hydrostatic of Archimedes, discovered 2300 years ago. Or the IX century compass, one of the most transcendent discoveries in the history of mankind, by far more transcendent than any smartphone. Or the wheel, which has been used in the East for six thousand years and has not yet gone out of style.
Of course between the invention of the wheel and the invention of the compass passed several centuries. But the so vaunted «vertiginous progress» of the capitalist period is nothing new. Except for periods of catastrophe such as the Black Death during the fourteenth century, mankind has been accelerating the emergence of new technologies and resources available to a growing part of the population, such as the different agricultural revolutions. It is not necessary to be a genius to realize that this acceleration is due to the accumulation of knowledge and intellectual freedom.
In Europe, money and capitalism meant social progress before the static feudal order of the Middle Ages. But soon they became the engine of colonial genocides and then a new form of feudalism, like that of the twenty-first century, with a financial aristocracy (a handful of families accumulate most of the wealth in rich and poor countries), with dukes and political counts and villains and demobilized vassals.

Capitalism capitalized (and capitalists sequestered) centuries of social, scientific, and technological progress. For that reason, and being the dominant global system, it was able to produce more wealth than previous systems.

Capitalism is not the system of some countries. It is the hegemonic system of the world. Its problems can be mitigated, its myths can be dismantled, but it cannot be eliminated until it enters its crisis or decline like feudalism. Until it is replaced by another system. That in case there is a planet or humanity. Because capitalism is also the only system that has put the human species on the brink of global catastrophe.


JM, July 2017

Rebelión has published this article with the author’s permission under a Creative Commons license , respecting its freedom to publish it in other sources.