Why capitalists fear abundance

What is the big problem in today’s world? Is it scarcity? Not enough food, shelter, clothing and other necessities? Not enough knowledge, science, technology to produce all these things in abundance to satisfy human needs and wants?

That certainly was the problem not that long ago for the vast majority of people on our planet. And we were told that the only economic system able to produce what was needed was capitalism, driven by the market, competition and the profit motive to constantly expand.

And expand it has. The world is an entirely different place than it was 150 years ago, not just in the rich, developed — and imperialist — countries, but in the areas that Europe, the U.S. and Japan conquered in the 19th and 20th centuries, both through direct invasion and through wars among themselves to redivide the world. The resource-rich areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America were first milked as outright colonies. Since decolonization, their labor and resources continue to be exploited by the transnational banks and corporations through neocolonial plunder.

During this whole period, the dominant colonial and imperialist powers did everything they could to suppress scientific and economic development in the rest of the world. Railroads were built and electric power installed in the colonies only to bring ore and other raw products to ports for export while the people lived in misery.

Schools were allowed only to train workers for menial jobs. For example, when Indonesia finally gained its independence after 350 years of Dutch colonial rule, only 100 Indonesian doctors and 10 Indonesian agricultural experts existed in a country of 100 million people.

Today, however, the genie has escaped from the bottle, and the scientific-technological revolution, although still primarily in the hands of the imperialists, holds the promise of lifting the entire world’s population out of poverty and underdevelopment.

China alone, in the last 10 years, has developed huge areas of its interior and officially raised 300 million people out of poverty, showing that this can indeed be done, much more quickly than expected, when development is centrally planned and the infrastructure belongs to the state, not to private capital.

Does this make the future rosy for the world?

Only in the sense that the scientific-technological revolution is laying the basis for social revolutions. Development for the people can only be assured by breaking the grip that the small, super-rich class of capitalist owners has over the vast productive means built up by the workers of the world. For as long as capitalism continues to polarize the planet between paupers and billionaires, the promise of a better life is unattainable for billions of people.

How do the capitalists themselves see all this? One of them, a Wall Street investment banker named Daniel Alpert, recently summarized his views in an op-ed called “The Rut We Can’t Get Out Of.” (New York Times, Sept. 30)

Abundance or ‘oversupply’?

According to Alpert, the real problem is not what was being talked about in September: the impending government shutdown or the default that might result from the budget impasse. He says that what is really holding back the global economy is abundance: “We are in an age of global oversupply: an oversupply of global labor (hence high underemployment); an oversupply of global productive capacity (hence ultra-low inflation); and an oversupply of global capital (hence low interest rates).”

Alpert is a capitalist banker, but one who wants the government to intervene and get the economy going by creating jobs. His view runs counter, for now, to what has prevailed on Wall Street in this era of budget cuts, layoffs and austerity. In effect, he is advocating a New Deal, the Keynesian approach to a capitalist crisis of overproduction. Otherwise, he sees stagnation ahead: “the rut we can’t get out of.” His advice is aimed at others in his class. His goal is to preserve their control of the world’s capital.

What about the workers? Don’t we want the government to fund jobs? Of course we do. So many popular slogans — “Money for schools, not for jails,” “Health care for all” — expose how little the government allocates to basic services and how much it spends on war and repression. With the vast sums in the U.S. budget, the talents of millions could be employed or redeployed to help people and the environment.

But that won’t solve the basic contradictions of capitalism. It didn’t do it in the 1930s, when the market crashed again in 1937, even after the New Deal took effect. Only the awful destruction of World War II, which got rid of so much of the world’s “oversupply” of workers, productive capacity and capital, gave the capitalist system a new lease on life.

An abundance of labor and productive capacity is a prescription for unimaginable disaster under capitalism.

Under genuine socialism, whose aim is to abolish capitalist ownership and class divisions, it is the means to realize the promise of scientific and technological development: a better life for all.