One of the greatest achievements of the Enlightenment movement is a passage found almost exactly in the middle of Voltaire's satirical novel Candide (1790). The adventurers Cacambo and Candide are searching for "more riches than were to be found in Europe, Asia, and Africa together" in Suriname, which is in the same region of South America as Venezuela. On a road, they come across a mutilated black man and ask that he explain why he is in such a horrible condition.
This is what the black man says:
'..Monsieur,' said the negro, 'it is the custom. Twice a year we are given a pair of blue canvas drawers, and this is our only clothing. When we work in the sugar-mills and get a finger caught in the machinery, they cut off the hand; but if we try to run away, they cut off a leg: I have found myself in both situations. It is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe.'
This is the price we pay for mass-produced sugar (one of the key commodities of early capitalism). Before I use this passage to blow to pieces Steven Pinker's and Bill Gate's religious admiration of "free-market capitalism", I want to point out that it has an echo in the fourth episode of True Detective: Season Three. When the two detectives ask a black man (and suspect of a murder/disappearance) about his milky eye, he explains: “I ain't the only one-eyed nigga in these parts. Farm work. The killing line at the chicken plant. Half the mother fuckers out here are missing fingers, toes or somethin’.”
That said, let's damage this popular conception of the "absolute" social benefits of a system of wealth distribution that has, of all things, self-interest as its motive force. Weirdly, my attack is not complicated and needs only a few words and no theory.
The Romantic Idea of a Plentiful Past Is Pure Fantasy: The evidence does not support Hickel’s assertion that people in the past “lived well” without much monetary income. https://t.co/2CCpyXbW55 #HumanProgressData
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) February 13, 2019
The basic idea expressed in the tweet by Pinker: The material advancement of capitalism did not only make rich people richer but, ultimately (absolutely), improved the lot of poor people, who otherwise would be poorer. This mode of feeling is as old as capitalism and has the Rousseauian worship of the simple life as its target ("The Romantic Idea of a Plentiful Past Is Pure Fantasy"). What Pinker and Gates (real realists) perceive to be the obvious truth of the matter is that common people, under capitalism, have lived longer, eaten better, and enjoyed access to more things.
But there is something important missing in this grand narrative of progress. It is deliberately one-sided. It completely ignores the history of struggle against capitalism. It's as if these struggles, which are considered even in the pages of the founding intellectual document of capitalism, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, did not change in any way the relationship between the society of workers and an economy dominated by the profit-logic of the market. They were, the realists believe, just hiccups on the road of progress and universal happiness.
According to Pinker and Gates and people of their ilk, it is capitalism on its own that made life tolerable (and finally comfortable) for workers. It reduced working hours, improved safety in workspaces, enforced standards on the quality of food products, stopped factory owners from throwing children into their plants, and raised wages. Now, this is a fantasy. Not one of these protections from and checks on raw capitalism was achieved automatically. Capitalism has no geist. Every piece of progress had to be pulled from the grip of capitalists with protests, with bloodshed, with strikes that threatened the system. Capitalism, in its natural form, has no problem whatsoever with child labor, with extending the working day to the extreme, with slavery. A worker in the grip of absolute capitalism is only that mutilated negro on the road in the South American country.
And here is the irony. The progress (higher living standards and so on) that Pinker and Gates attribute to the spirit of capitalism is actually a consequence of anti-capitalist movements.