The big argument against planned economies is that they don’t work, but that’s not true. The evidence is that they had shitty consumer products, but that ignores the value of public goods. Let’s look at this argument and the evidence in turn, then let’s look at the verdict that the Earth itself has pronounced.
If my examples from the NBA, New York rappers, and COVID-19 don’t convince you that Capitalism is a planetary con, then just take the planet’s temperature, or hell, take the temperature of millions of people dying of plague right now. Either we plan our way into this, or we’re planning to fail. This isn’t theoretical anymore.
The Argument: Planned Economies Don’t Work
A 2011 paper by Cereseto and Waitzkin “compared capitalist and socialist countries in measures of the physical quality of life (PQL), taking into account the level of economic development.” The results: “In 28 of 30 comparisons between countries at similar levels of economic development, socialist countries showed more favorable PQL outcomes.”
To some degree this is obvious. Socialist countries invest in more social outcomes (public goods) while Capitalist countries invest in more capitalist ones (private goods). You get what you pay for.
To a tragic degree, however, this isn’t obvious, because public goods are boring and invisible whereas consumption is literally conspicuous. If a health system or public housing is working nobody notices, but if an expensive drug or baller house is created, everyone does. And so Capitalism looks like it works better, even though it sucks.
For an example of this, let’s look at the NBA. When Jerry West (the guy on the NBA logo) started playing, the NBA was only about 20% black. Now that he’s a manager, the league has completely flipped. It’s around 80% black. Looks like progress, right? Exactly. Looks like.
Now let’s look at income gains for ordinary black families across the same time period. As Quartz said, ‘The typical black household is now poorer than 90% of white households.’ In the time that more black people were appearing on television screens, their income growth was being stolen behind the scenes. Looks can be deceiving.
As Biggie said, “Because the streets is a short stop, Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” As Giovanni Ribisi said at the beginning of the cautionary tale Boiler Room, from a white guy’s perspective (who listened to Biggie a lot):
I read this article a while back that said Microsoft employs more millionaire secretaries than any other company in the world. They took stock options over Christmas bonuses. It was a good move. I remember there was this photograph of one of the groundskeepers next to his Ferrari. It blew my mind.
You see like that and it just plants seeds. Makes you think it’s possible, even easy. And then you turn on the TV and there’s just more of it. The 87 million dollar lottery winner, that kid actor that just made 20 million on his last movie, that internet stock that shot through the roof. You could have made millions on it if you just got in early and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. Get in.
The 80s and 90s saw a lot of brilliant poets like Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z come out of the public housing projects of New York, and they looked rich as shit. The public housing they came from, however, got worse. American public housing has just been gutted to make rich white people richer.
However, because we have such a perception bias given more black people in the media, the system looks like it works, and that people it fails just aren’t trying hard enough. The people with wicked jump shots or who make it in the rap game are in our face, and everyone else is buried in statistics underfoot. Looks can be deceiving.
Capitalism is full of bullshit like this. America has some of the most advanced healthcare in the world, which is widely unavailable to its own citizens.Norwegians are proud of all their clean Teslas, while their economy runs on dirty oil. All across the White Empire—even in the ‘good’, social democratic parts—the system that makes them ‘look’ so good is a lie.
Using their cultural and media power, they have also retold history into a convincing arc that ends with them rightly at the top. Communism has already been tried and failed, socialism has already been tried at failed, and as Margaret Thatcher said ‘there is no alternative’ to Capitalism. But it’s just not true. Both in terms of human needs and ultimately the planet.
As Jason Hickel said, summarizing a lot of research:
Socialist states had lower infant mortality, lower child death rate, longer life expectancy, better literacy, better secondary education, better food access, more doctors and nurses, and better physical quality of life.
This research confirmed earlier results published by Amartya Sen. Sen found that in the global South, socialist countries tended to perform better in terms of social outcomes than capitalist countries. Building on these findings, Sen went on to spend his career arguing that democratically controlled public provisioning systems, entitlement guarantees, and state-led industrial policy are central to good development strategy, and should be prioritized.
These findings were supported again by the Spanish public health academic Vicente Navarro: “Contrary to dominant ideology, socialism and socialist forces have, for the most part, been better able than capitalism and capitalist forces to improve health.”
In this long year of our Lord COVID-19, I think we’ve all seen that this is true. Socialist countries like China and Vietnam fought off COVID much better. Meanwhile, Capitalist countries just let people die ‘for the economy’ and monopolized mRNA vaccine production for private profit.
They made a big show about developing miracle vaccines quickly, but then blocked global production to the point that the virus is evading them. This is great for profit because people have to keep buying these drugs forever now, but is it good for humanity? Fuck no.
It’s just another triumph of the marketing of Capitalism over the results of what unconstrained markets actually deliver. The truth is that markets within socialism are very powerful, but social services within markets just benefit the rich and powerful. As plenty of research shows.
But research is fucking boring, right? Instead of reading reports, you can just turn on the TV and see Capitalism working great. Oprah’s hiding cars under the audience’s chairs, black people are dominating sports, musicians are rapping their way up. But it’s all marketing, as much as the ads in between.
If there’s one thing capitalism produces well, it’s big TV sets and big stars to shine on them. But most people can’t afford a house to put the TV in, they can’t breathe the air without dying, and the whole planet is burning. Behind every bull market is a mound of bullshit, and the stench is finally becoming too much.
The Evidence: Consumer Goods
The general evidence for the superiority of Capitalism is all the stuff. And this is true, the malls and supermarkets are full of stuff. Francis Fukuyama famously declared ‘the end of history’ at this point, saying, “We might summarize the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.”
But just look at which products. Private, non-essential goods become available, but public goods become almost unattainable. You can watch a better life on a bigger TV, but your own life increasingly sucks.
As Mark J. Perry shows, the costs of the things you really need—like housing, healthcare, and education—have skyrocketed, while the stuff you don’t (like toys and TVs) is widely available. The masses have access to every possible opiate and very little sustenance.
In America buying a home is simply impossible for most young people, raising children is implausible, education leads to debt peonage, and any health problem courts total destruction. This suffering all shows up as profit on someone else’s balance sheet, so a line goes up, but their lives are going down. Quite literally, as Matt Stoller discusses:
Given that we all live in or are actively attacked by the White Empire with America as its capital, this affects all of us. Fukuyama was right to talk about the end of history. Too many of us really put socialism/communism in the dustbin, because Capitalism seemed to work miracles here and now. Even as Capitalism leads to hell on Earth, we still can’t imagine beyond it. What about all the stuff?
What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? In the end, you lose the world too.
The Verdict: Death
The wages of sin is death, and Capitalism is just the sin of greed elevated to a social virtue. While the Bible says death comes to every sinner in turn, the sin of Capitalism comes to every species on Earth all at once.
You cannot have rich people getting wildly richer and expect goodness to somehow trickle down. You just get the flood. You cannot light shit on fire and expect it to not get hot. You just burn the planet down. You cannot have endless growth against a finite planet. The planet just runs out.
While climate collapse isn’t an extinction-level event for all of humanity, it is for quite enough of us. While this quarter might look good, in a quarter century even holy profits will run out. We will be abandoned by both Mammon and God, left to stew in our scarred coastlines forevermore.
Frankly, there is no way out, there is just a less painful way in. The truth is that we need socialist revolution all over the world and planned economies that balance human needs and the Earth. But nobody wants that, or at least not enough people. We like our stuff, and we won’t give it up now. And so we delay taking action, until the climate takes action for us.
Climate adaptation within Capitalism is taking the same form as all the other bullshit changes we hear about. Now every ad talks about how climate-friendly their products are (like cars), but none talk about the need to degrowth and rebalancing with mostly public services (like buses). The market cannot even respond to a change like this except with ever more delusional marketing.
As the late Mark Fisher wrote, “Climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing… environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system.”
The fact is that controlled demolition of Capitalism now and the painful rebuilding of a planned economy over decades is the only rational way through, but we’re taking the irrational route of uncontrolled demolition and dragging the whole process out. Instead of reckoning with ourselves, we’re forcing the planet to reckon with us. The results are already mass extinction and a forever altered climate. Capitalism will just keep kicking the ball quarter to quarter, until we beggar the next thousand years of life on Earth.
If the argument against socialism is that it doesn’t work, just look at how Capitalism is working out. People having shitty TVs is one problem, but the entire climate collapsing is a much bigger one. And that’s where we are. We have the arguments, we have the evidence, and the verdict is being delivered, but we’re just ignoring it all.
We either plan our way into this, or we’re planning to fail. We have to plan economies for human needs, or else the Earth as we know it ends. The choice really is that stark. The traumatic implication is this. We cannot stop the fire and flood that are coming, but we can plan an Ark.