Capitalism as a political and economic system is often credited with granting the highest degree of individual freedom over its alternative. Liberalism — the ideology born out of the Enlightenment period that undergirds the capitalist system and is shared by both major American political parties to different extents — upholds freedom and liberty as ideals central to the human project. It measures societal progress using the metrics of individual autonomy and freedoms afforded to people under their governments. While liberal thinkers continue to envision capitalism as the ideal system to advance these freedoms and the overall quality of the human experience, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, capital, demonstrably and by design, degrades the quality of human and non-human life. In other words, capitalism is anti-people and anti-planet.
Capitalism’s anti-people nature is evident through its own impact on global health and the environment. In 137 low or middle-income countries (LMICs), “8.6 million people in LMICs die from causes amenable to health care,” per year, according to a 2018 study published by the Lancet Group, a peer-reviewed general medical journal. Of these deaths, five million were attributed to low-quality healthcare and 3.6 million to non-usage of or lack of access to healthcare. These countries, most of which offer universal health coverage unlike the United States, have far greater mortality rates than wealthy countries offering universal coverage. The difference here is that wealthy countries can afford the prohibitively expensive costs of medicine caused by the concentration of intellectual property in capitalist, imperialist superpowers such as the United States.
Oxfam identifies that “two critical factors limit access to [medical] treatment: the high prices of new medicines, particularly those that are patent-protected, and the lack of medicines and vaccines to treat neglected diseases, a consequence of lack of [research and development].”
Intellectual property laws allow corporations to own the rights to critical necessities such as software, designs and, in this case, medicine, which could otherwise be easily reproduced for the public good. Pharmaceutical producers can profit from artificial scarcity contingent on their sole rights to the production and distribution of life-saving medicines, precluding cheap, generic alternatives from reaching poor countries and communities. Whether it’s the exorbitant cost of insulin for diabetics in the U.S. to denying global south countries the rights to produce life-saving vaccines for preventable diseases, capitalist distribution prioritizes those who can afford goods over those who need them, degrading both the freedom of choice and quality of life for working class people globally.
As the climate crisis continues to destroy frontline communities through landslides, heavy rains and flood, heat waves and drought, capitalism chains wealthy countries to their dependence on fossil fuels and environmental destruction for the sake of profit. On the other hand, the disparity in economic development caused by centuries of deadly Western colonialism and imperialism — both motivated by the acquisition of profits — forces developing global south countries to rely on fossil fuels, lacking the capital resources or intellectual property rights to engage in environmentally sustainable development.
Intermittent forest fires eating away at the Amazon rainforest, reaching their apex in Brazil in 2019, are inextricably tied to deforestation for the sake of cattle-raising, agricultural projects and other kinds of developments. Furthermore, the biggest determinant of climate change — the burning of fossil fuels — remains increasingly lucrative, reaping an average of $1 trillion in annual profits. The capital afforded to oil and gas executives empowers them to further entrench the fossil fuel industry in society through lobbying politicians to adopt meager reforms failing to meaningfully mitigate the ongoing impacts of the climate crisis.
It should be understood that the impact of the climate crisis on people’s lives is not the only impact we should care about. Although the destruction of infrastructure and loss of life caused by climate catastrophes are of paramount importance, so too is the destruction of the ecosystem that houses and nurtures us. Indigenous ways of knowing, particularly in the Americas, maintain that a reciprocal relationship with the environment is necessary for undoing the effects of the climate crisis. The biosphere is a relative, and living on Earth means being in a community with it just as we are with the people around us. Capitalism and colonialism, however, position the Earth and all its inhabitants as objects to exploit, compete with and dominate if it can create individual benefit — the capitalist right to debase humans and the environment to extractable resources is in contradiction with the human right to an environment that sustains us.
Freedom is a misnomer for the actions that capitalism allows individuals to exercise. The freedom to own and profit from land or a business allows for dictatorial rule over those who inhabit or work for it, creating a dual system of liberty for the ruling class of capitalists and dependence and subservience for the global majority, or the oppressed class of workers in countries of the global south. As long as capitalism exists, workers will be forced to depend on a hegemonic, unequal system which continues to extract more and more from them and the planet in which they live. For people and the planet to flourish, capitalism must end.