STUART REES An End To Global Capitalism

The raiding of supermarket shelves shows the influence of capitalism at its worst: competition, selfishness, exploitation by the successful raiders at the expense of those who could not compete or decided not to.

Managers of supermarkets say there are products for everyone, no need to panic, no need to hoard at the expense of someone else, and goods might even be shared. That sounds like social justice values to influence at least household economies.

Even before the devastation of bush fires and the corona virus, the ill effects on societies built around competition in so called free markets, were apparent in poverty, low pay and unrewarding work. In areas of health and education, individuals had been perceived as commodities little different from new and used cars in a sales yard, each the subject of bargaining over a price.

Market forces have contributed to the threat to planet earth. Neither have they anything to say about the pandemic, no way of responding to the need for a large increase in hospital resources, for more publicly trained medical staff, or even regarding rules to ensure social distance and personal hygiene.

Changing Attitudes

In spite of the dangers to the health of people and planet, political leaders, business leaders and media commentators forecast a return to a stronger, more affluent golden age when this Covid-19 has run its course. There can be no such return. Capitalism has signed its own death warrant.

Changing the understanding and attitudes of leaders remains an obstacle to the development of different views about society and economy, even though the pandemic crisis has prompted actions which a few months ago would have been unthinkable. Rules about quarantine, social distancing and lock down, show policies in the interests of survival, and vast sums of money are being released to support health care, to keep people in work, to maintain essential services.

Intervention to combat corona virus has to be merged with initiatives to save the planet. If government can order citizens to lock themselves up, or keep distance from one another, it can intervene to put a price on carbon irrespective of howls from the coal industry or other capitalist faithful. Industrial capitalism has made the world hotter. A way of life ruled by neo-liberal economics has contributed to environmental destruction, the eradication of species, huge mental health problems, alienation from work and violence in every context of life. Social and economic selfishness looks like the self-destruction which has contributed to a twenty first century black death, yet we are told that we can and will return to the system that produced the problem.

Acceptance that global capitalism should be buried is one change of attitude which the powerful will find it difficult to accept. Even more difficult will be a change of attitude regarding the characteristics of non-market forces for guiding societies in transition to a different way of living.

Universal Basic Income

Two developments show a completely new role for the state. The first concerns financial help which in aggregate looks like foundations for a universal basic income. The second concerns the rise of networks of citizens providing their own services as part of an economy not based on profit.

Imaginative thinking about a universal basic income could change attitudes about economy and society. It is an old idea, not difficult to grasp. Paid out of taxes, this policy gives people the chance to build positions in the non-market economy. In his ground breaking ‘Post Capitalism: A Guide To Our Future’, Paul Mason argues, ‘The universal basic income is an antidote to the low paid service jobs which capitalism has managed to create over the past twenty five years, that pay little, demean workers and probably don’t need to exist. The ultimate aim is to reduce to a minimum the number of hours it takes to produce what humanity needs.’

Dangers from corona virus have forced governments to provide economic stimulus which in aggregate looks like the equivalent of a universal basic income. In the US, the Congress’ trillion-dollar rescue package sounds like President Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Marshall Plan, and has something in common with Democrats’ proposed Green New Deal. In the UK, to lessen the likelihood of large-scale unemployment and poverty, the government will pay 80% of workers’ wages. In Australia, a second stimulus of $66.1 billion was an increase from a first initiative costing $17.6 billion. Richard Denniss, chief economist of the Australia Institute, says ‘The actual result will need to be close to $170 billion.’

Universal basic income would replace the complex payments administered by Centrelink. Work for the dole would become a distant nightmare, so too the Poor Law mentality so apparent in long queues outside Centrelink offices. Equity would improve by ensuring that everyone has access to a liveable income. Regarding threats to mental health caused by unemployment and corona virus shut downs, remember that people living in more equal societies have better happiness and health outcomes.

There will be objections to the idea of a universal service to which every resident of Australia would be entitled, but those objections can be parried with the reminder that we already enjoy key universals, Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Alternative Economics

In several countries, the transition to alternative forms of governance and economy already exist. In different communities, networks of citizens support one another and provide services and financial support for vulnerable groups.

A network of utopian thinking individuals – as with groups assisting refugees financially and psychologically, as with backpackers helping to rebuild farm properties devastated by bush fires – contribute to a form of economy which is non-profit, non-competitive, community building and rewarding.

On ABC radio’s Music Programme, Andrew Forde pleaded for more fortunate members of the public to support musicians, songwriters and composers, artists who represent society’s artistic heart and must not be left to starve and disappear. That request is the plea of one concerned individual, but with ideas for a creative version of economy: the music of altruism at play.

In France, citizens councils meet to consider ways to confront global warming by limiting carbon emissions in local communities. In resource poor Philippines, through the solidarity of volunteer social workers, the movement ‘Health for Health’ (H4H) provides finance, food and protective clothing for doctors, nurses and cleaners, plus counselling services to deal with staff stress and consequent mental health issues.

Return to Old Ways

If humankind and the planet are to be rescued, there must be no repetition of policies which contributed to the current catastrophe. Under neo-liberal economic systems, the rhetoric was that governments should not intervene, even though they did so to promote privatization and corporate profit, all the time pretending that government was neutral. Now there has to be an enlarged, unashamed, creative role for the state, and not just in the form of rescue packages.

Industrial capitalism has always been tested by crises and has responded with various adaptations, but this time the pandemic threat to the lives of millions coincides with destruction of the planet.

Although governments are spending huge sums to subsidize key industries and to provide sufficient support to enable non-essential workers to stay at home, as yet there is no acknowledgement of the likely permanence of the state’s responsibility to intervene in the interests of a common humanity.

A choice looms, between return to a greedy, destructive capitalism or transition to a life preserving, life enhancing economy, not just as a means of survival but as a healthy, fulfilling way of living.

Stuart Rees, OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds ) Peace Prize


Stuart Rees OAM, human rights activist, poet, novelist, author of books on social justice. Recipient of the Jerusalem Peace Prize, Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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10 Responses to STUART REES An End To Global Capitalism

  1. Stuart Rees says:

    My thanks to those respondents, in particular to anaesthetist Richard Barnes, for identifying wealthy countries’ production of waste ( and pollution ) to combat Covid-19 and , so far, their relative indifference to the plight of the resource poor developing world.

  2. Con Karavas says:

    Dear Professor Rees,

    With respect, I whole heartedly agree with you and will read the book ‘Post Capitalism’ that you mentioned.

    Yesterday I was disappointed to read The Australia Institute Centre for Future Work’s Open Letter sent to PM Morrison that wrote:
    ‘[W]e recommend that the Commonwealth government immediately implement a large-scale wage subsidy scheme, similar to those already enacted in several other industrial countries (including, variously, the UK, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Ireland). Under these programs, government directly pays to employers (for a limited period of time) a majority portion of wages (between 70 and 90%) to cover the wages of workers who would otherwise be stood down from their positions.’

    Even as a retired business person my immediate thoughts were: 1. Here we go again, socialising losses after capitalising profits for the past 27 years at the expense of younger and future generations. 2. Why would Dr Richard Denniss who wrote the Quarterly Essay, ‘Dead Right: How neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next’ add his signature to such a letter?

    Scanning down the 93 Australian highly educated economists and policy experts signatories, while disappointed to see Dr Denniss and others from TAI on the list, I was pleased that a number of other economists I read / listen to were not on the list.

    It isn’t easy to tell such eminent people that you disagree with them, however it is high time world governments recognises that perpetual growth in a finite world is a really bad idea.

    In frustration I emailed The Australia Institute Centre for Future Work. I said in part:
    ‘Now is the time to be innovative and fleet of foot. People are hurting now!
    A simple rapid solution would be to introduce a Universal Basic Income. It would help both the people and small to medium businesses immediately.
    Its cost would be marginal if, with exception of benefits for the chronically ill, it replaces all benefits, pensions and other welfare payments and all the departments and companies managing them are closed permanently. Trials have shown people don’t just sit at home – they become more involved in the arts, social work and they become innovative in setting up small businesses. Trials also showed health benefits.
    To be paid by ATO referencing the electoral roll now and later to those who lodge tax returns. Managed by the ATO would have numerous advantages.
    Remember William of Ockham’s advice that, the simplest solution is most likely the right one.’

    Do I expect an answer from them? No.

    • Richard Barnes says:

      Con, I’m not an eminent economics thinker, but I agree.

      People losing their jobs is terrible, of course. But the complexity of helping them by helping their employers? And it took only 5 minutes for it to become clear that a whole lot of gig economy workers won’t get this money. And what about the people who don’t have jobs / aren’t already on welfare? – the most disadvantaged of all? – backpackers who are stuck here with no money and nowhere to live? – foreign sex workers (slaves) turfed out of the now-closed brothels?

      In the long-term, a UBI requires some finessing – and there are very real concerns that the level will be set at a Newstart level (or lower) and make the most impoverished more vulnerable than ever.
      In the short-term, however, surely there could just be a UBI of say $200 per week for every human being in the country who wishes to apply for it. Combine that with a moratorium on rentals and mortgage repayments; plus re-purposed hotels / vacant apartments as accommodation for those who have nowhere to live. Then everyone has enough food and toilet paper for now – maybe even a Netflix subscription. And we weather the storm.

      Best wishes.

  3. Richard Barnes says:

    Thanks Stuart for an excellent piece.

    I’m an anaesthetist in a major public hospital. Have spent the day caring for two patients having surgery, probably curative, for throat cancer. Both negative for COVID by all available criteria, BUT this sort of surgery creates large volumes of aerosol, so is regarded as high risk for staff. So all op theatre personnel wore the highest level of personal protective equipment; we did rigorous cleaning; etc. So we have done 2 cases in time which would usually allow 6 or 7. And I estimate we have thrown 5 times the usual amount of gear – heaps of plastic – into the waste bins.

    I really feel like crying. As you say, we in the wealthy West have caused this problem. Yet now we are using more resources than ever to provide the highest possible quality healthcare to our citizens and the least possible risk of infection to our HCW’s. Which from an Australia-centric view makes sense, but from a world view is insane. Our health service might (but might not), at enormous cost in resources, weather the storm. But in most parts of the world, the limited health systems will certainly collapse. The irony of Europe begging ‘the world’ for help is unbearable.

  4. Kien Choong says:

    It’s interesting that (to my knowledge) no retailers have sought to engage in profiteering during this time. Arguably the panic buying says something about public trust in the market system (or the government) rather than about the failure of capitalism.

    There may have been some panic buying in China, but nothing like in Australia. So does that say something about public trust in China vs in Australia? That said, I like to think that public trust in Scandinavia is also high. On the other hand, I have read that Americans are queing up to buy guns!

    • Allan Kessing says:

      Reported Monday 30/3/2020 that gun shops have been declared “essential service” in the Benighted States.

  5. Anthony Pun says:

    The nature of the Beast “Capitalism” – by itself, it is what does well for those who have the money and resources to make more money. The upward spiral for 1% who are super rich billionaires and 99% downward spiral for the down trodden. Like a bare copper wire that transmit electricity, it can kill without consideration unless it is enveloped by an insulator, our morals and ethics that shape our humanity; and in the form of some socialism that redistribute wealth back to the people. At the current trend, capitalism has run out of control and usurped by kleptocracy, plutocracy, oligarchy and created the great divide between the rich and the poor, thus looking for a revolution.
    Communism seems to have a better handle on Capitalism than neo-liberal democracy at the moment where the former has lifted 800 million people out of poverty (China) and the latter has started to push 40.6 million into poverty (US). This does not mean that Communism is a better political system than Democracy, but at the current observation of how to handle Capitalism, Communism is doing its best and Democracy is doing its worst.
    Mr Stuart Rees is kind enough to describe some of the ill symptoms of capitalistic behaviour (profiteering & price gouging) prompted by the coronavirus epidemic.
    When the richest country in the world announced a $2 trillion stimulus package, there was a short outcry that the money will benefit the corporation and not the ordinary citizen. It did not last and that goes to show that plutocracy is deeply rooted in the US.
    Without the protection of morals and ethics in business, and a bit of socialism, the ideal Democracy will not last but degenerate into something else.

  6. Vacy Vlazna says:

    I thank Prof Rees for his chalked outline of the corpse of neo-liberal economics struck by COVID-19 and the challenges of a brave new world of “alternative forms of governance and economy “.
    The cruel economic -locked mindset of PM ALOHA and his economically corrupt thugs as well as the LNP’s very quiet Australians (i.e. the ALP) won’t survive the anger of the soaring numbers of neglected unemployed with their growing curve out-peaking the virus.. ..
    a revolution of decency and decent wages, reversal of privatisation of essential services and return to socialism’s compassion and care is dawning.

  7. Scott MacWilliam says:

    Unfortunately as long as humans confine their horizons to the meagre possibilities that capitalism, in all its forms, has to offer then this crisis will soon be seen as nothing more than another moment of existence. As even one-time Hayekian devotee John Gray recognised, for those who romanticise the past there is no going back due to what has already occurred, stamped its features on human existence.
    As Marx pointed out more than a century earlier: `Accumulate! Accumulate! This is Moses and the Prophets!’ Hoarding toilet rolls is neither amoral nor unAustralian: it is the equivalent for working people and others of how capitalists behave every minute of their lives, searching for further accumulation. This is now existence all over the world for everyone – it hasn’t only been Australians stockpiling toilet rolls and stealing sanitizer dispensers from hospitals.
    The state (Australia, USA, World Bank etc) is the guardian and facilitator of this process of accumulation: reforming it, as Professor Rees proposes, is simply strengthening the capacity to oversee and enlarge accumulation. Restoring industrial capitalism to ascendancy is not simply reactionary, it is standing in the way of more substantial changes including ending what has now lost any potential for human progress.

  8. As a blessing in disguised, we now have the opportunity to turn around our economic system to serve humanity instead of humanity serving our economy.

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