At Reason Ilya Somin, in keeping with his annual practice since 2007, has chosen May 1 — May Day — as his date for observing “Victims of Communism Day.” Somin cites the “authoritative” Black Book of Communism as his source for a death toll of 80-100 million in the 20th century. To put that “authoritative” descriptor in perspective, this summary of the controversies — including controversies among the authors — regarding methodological concerns, and one author’s alleged running up of the score to arrive at a nice round figure of 100 million, might be of interest.
I propose a Victims of Capitalism Day, to commemorate the death toll from capitalism (judging capitalism by the same standards Somin applies to communism).
I should state, by way of disclaimer, that as an anarchist I have no desire to whitewash the historical record of Marxist-Leninist regimes (never mind whether the exclusive association of the “communist” label with Leninism with Marxism-Leninism — an association encouraged both by Marxist-Leninists and by capitalist apologists — in prejudice to non-Leninist Marxism and other libertarian communist traditions, is legitimate). Members of non-Leninist Marxian traditions, let alone anarchist and other non-Marxian socialist traditions, have not fared at all well under such “workers’ states.” Neither have actual workers, for that matter, as evidenced by the suppression of the factory committees under Lenin. And regardless of whether the numbers in the Black Book were to a greater or lesser degree cooked, the Marxist-Leninist project has certainly been willing to break more than a few eggs; and its omelettes have taken authoritarian high modernist or developmentalist directions that bear an unfortunate resemblance to the earlier industrial history of capitalism.
No, far from counter-attacking capitalism in defense of “communism,” I acknowledge that Marxism-Leninism has been an authoritarian, extractive system of class power. I attack capitalism in addition to Marxism-Leninism, as another authoritarian, extractive system of class power, equally tied up with the state and with a death toll comparable to that of “communism.”
So let’s get started. Of course there’s the obvious — all the deaths directly inflicted by states or by capitalists over the centuries, in the name of maximizing capitalist profit.
State violence has been intimately involved in the history of capitalism since its inception. The central prerequisite of capitalism is the separation of labor from the means of production, in order to force the great majority of the producing classes to enter the wage labor market and operate means of production owned by capitalists. This includes the enclosure of open fields in late medieval and early modern Europe, and Parliamentary Enclosure of common pasture and waste in 18th and 19th century England. It also includes the similar nullification of traditional peasant land tenure rights throughout the entire colonial world, under European rule, from Warren Hastings on: the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous populations in North America and Australia, the establishment of the hacienda system in Latin America, the expropriation of the most fertile 20% of land British East Africa (and similar action by the European powers throughout Africa and the rest of their colonial possessions around the world), and ongoing land robberies and enclosures by neo-colonial regimes since independence after WWII. To take one example of the human cost of imposing capitalist agriculture on Africa, just consider King Leopold’s War in the Belgian Congo.
It includes the millions of deaths in trans-Atlantic slave ships, and the lives stolen and shortened by slave labor for the profit of capitalist agriculture.
It includes the violent suppression of economic competition to European industry (e.g. the Calico Acts in Bengal).
It includes all the bloody wars, invasions, coups, and support for terrorism — both by colonial and by neo-colonial power — in order to maintain capitalist title to expropriated land and resources and thwart land reform. In fact some of the bloodiest pages in the Black Book of Capitalism — the murders of hundreds of thousands by Suharto in Indonesia (with the CIA Jakarta station providing kill lists), the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala and rampant death squads throughout Central America in ensuing decades, the wave of fascist takeovers throughout South America under Operation Condor — were carried out in the name of “fighting communism.” The US war in Vietnam was fought, in major part, to keep that country’s tin and rubber integrated into the American corporate economy. In fact the main US motivation, in seeking a pretext for war against Japan, was Japan’s threat to withdraw the resources and markets of French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, etc., from the Grand Area required to remain under US control for its survival, and instead incorporate them into the autarkic Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Internal State Department planning documents in 1940 and 1941 are full of warnings that American capitalism could not survive in recognizable form without guaranteed access to Indochinese tin and rubber, East Indian oil, and so on, coupled with the clear statement of intent to initiate war with Japan by any means necessary if that access became immediately threatened.
US foreign policy in the 20th century was driven primarily by the expansionist needs of capital. American corporate elites (and capitalist elites in the European colonial powers as well), experiencing the Depression and labor unrest of the 1890s, saw it as the result of a crisis of surplus capital, idle industrial capacity and underconsumption that could only be remedied through the conquest of new markets and the export of investment capital. Hence the central theme of US foreign policy became what William Appleman Williams called “Open Door Imperialism,” whose defining feature was policing the above-mentioned Grand Area and preventing defection from it.
A retired Marine Major General, Smedley Butler, was quite honest about the class interests served by all the wars he fought in.
I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
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The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.
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I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.
Expropriation wasn’t just a one-time thing required to get capitalism started. What David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” is an ongoing feature of capitalism, right up to the present. The Black Book of Capitalism includes privatization and enclosure of common resources under neoliberalism, often extorted by the IMF under structural adjustment programs.
To summarize: Over the past few centuries the overwhelming majority of the earth’s arable land and resources have seen all traditional and communal tenure rights nullified, and been converted into the property of absentee capitalist owners — in the interest of capital. Most of the world’s population has been forcibly separated from its possessory rights to the means of production, and driven into wage labor like beasts — in the interest of capital. And the capitalist world has inflected countless megadeaths and devastation, all over the world — in the interest of capital — wherever this violently imposed system of property and wage labor has been threatened.
So far we have only considered direct, visible, dramatic violence. But all these visible deaths are dwarfed by the death toll from Bastiat’s “Unseen.” Namely, all the deaths resulting indirectly from state action on behalf of capitalists. All the previous deaths are from the “out of the ordinary” events that occurred at the outset of the capitalist system, for its establishment, or in the ongoing process of enforcing capitalist rule over the planet. You know, all the things the American educational system and media sweep under the rug, and that most Americans have never heard of. So now let’s take a look at all the “normal” stuff, all the things that Americans accept as just an inevitable regular part of everyday life, “just the way things are” — and all the deaths resulting from them.
The expropriation of land and resources, and privatization of common goods required for survival, have left a centuries-long legacy of inequality, destitution, and starvation that is less dramatic, but even deadlier in the long run for all that.
The Black Book of Communism, remember, does not limit the death toll from communism to deaths directly inflicted by Marxist-Leninist states. It includes famines resulting from state mismanagement, or as an unintended byproduct of policies pursued for other reasons (e.g. deaths from famine in China during the Great Leap Forward).
This means that, in assessing the death toll from capitalism, we include all the deaths resulting from inequality or structural poverty under capitalism, as a result of the massive land and resource expropriations, concentration of wealth, and ongoing extraction of economic rents.
Stop and consider: Far from the received version of history — in which global starvation resulted from the persistence of “primitive” pre-capitalist forms of agricultural production, and was averted by Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution — the truth is that the world produces enough food for ten billion people, and starvation results entirely from mal-distribution. To be specific, starvation primarily occurs among those, and the descendants of those, who were evicted from the land on which they were previously feeding themselves, so that their land might be converted to cash crop agriculture. And much of the grain that could have fed numerous human beings is instead fed to beef cattle to supply the urban or foreign markets. To put it bluntly, the descendants of the robbed and expropriated lack the money to compete in that “dollar democracy” that right-libertarians are so fond of. Everyone who starves in the streets of Calcutta, whether because their ancestor was evicted by Warren Hastings or they themselves were evicted by the IMF, is a victim of capitalism.
Everyone who dies in Flint from the privatization and enclosure of the water commons, who dies in America from inability to afford healthcare, who suffers ill health or malnutrition from living in a food desert, or from the pollution that’s disproportionately discharged in communities inhabited by poor people or people of color, is a victim of capitalism.
Regarding the death toll from all these “normal” events, capitalism is in serious trouble if its own Black Book employs the same methodology used in the Black Book of Communism. In counting deaths from famine, disease, etc., under communism — as opposed to deaths deliberately inflicted for political reasons — against its total, the Black Book authors open capitalism to similar accounting for all excess mortality resulting from starvation or disease associated with enclosures and evictions in early modern Europe and in the colonial world. The same goes for all deaths resulting from economic inequality under post-colonial rule or neoliberal regimes, whether in the Periphery or the Center.
For example, Noam Chomsky argues that, if instead of just comparing deaths between China and India in famine years, we also look at India’s excess mortality over China in “normal” years, the picture changes considerably.
[Amartya Sen] observes that India and China had “similarities that were quite striking” when development planning began 50 years ago, including death rates. “But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India” (in education and other social indicators as well). He estimates the excess of mortality in India over China to be close to 4 million a year: “India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame,” 1958-1961.
In both cases, the outcomes have to do with the “ideological predispositions” of the political systems: for China, relatively equitable distribution of medical resources, including rural health services, and public distribution of food, all lacking in India….
Overcoming amnesia, suppose we now apply the methodology of the Black Book and its reviewers to the full story, not just the doctrinally acceptable half. We therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist “experiment” since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the “colossal, wholly failed…experiment” of Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone. The “criminal indictment” of the “democratic capitalist experiment” becomes harsher still if we turn to its effects after the fall of Communism: millions of corpses in Russia, to take one case, as Russia followed the confident prescription of the World Bank that “Countries that liberalise rapidly and extensively turn around more quickly [than those that do not],” returning to something like what it had been before World War I, a picture familiar throughout the “third world.” But “you can’t make an omelette without broken eggs,” as Stalin would have said. The indictment becomes far harsher if we consider these vast areas that remained under Western tutelage, yielding a truly “colossal” record of skeletons and “absolutely futile, pointless and inexplicable suffering.” The indictment takes on further force when we add to the account the countries devastated by the direct assaults of Western power, and its clients, during the same years.
Everyone who dies of starvation because they can’t afford food, whose ancestors were directly producing food for their own subsistence before they were evicted and forced into the labor market (or just into the street), is a victim of capitalism.
Any right-libertarian who has managed to read this far has no doubt shouted herself hoarse with repeated objections that “this is not capitalism!” That is, after all, the standard right-libertarian refrain when confronted with the death toll of actually existing capitalism.
No, no, my friend. You and your right-libertarian ilk constantly praise the present-day capitalist system for all the wonderful things like the iPhone it has allegedly created, and for benefits like the alleged “global decline in absolute poverty.” But the transnational corporate capitalism you praise was erected on the foundation of all the atrocities I enumerated above, and in many cases continues to directly profit from their ongoing legacy. Take Apple, for example. If the iPhone is the fruit, robbery and rent extraction are the roots of the rotten tree. They are integral to its business model. When you take credit for the sausage, you must also take the blame for every bit of bone, hair, viscera and offal that went into it. They are inseparable.
Therefore apologists for capitalism own the long, bloody history of death recorded in the pages of its Black Book, every bit as much as any Marxist-Leninist owns the death toll of the Ukraine famine, the Stalinist purges, the starvation during the Great Leap Forward, or the killing fields of Cambodia. These deaths, commemorated on Victims of Capitalism Day, are yours. This Black Book is yours. They are the legacy of the capitalist system you’ve sold your souls to defend. Embrace them as your own, or shut the fuck up about “communism.”