Johan Fourie, associate professor of economics at the University of Stellenbosch, wrote a revealing column (paywalled) after talking to a group of journalism students about capitalism. Most of the students believed capitalism to be a system that exploits people, impoverishes them and takes away their freedoms.
Fourie’s PhD was in economic history, so he was on solid ground when he pointed out that the global rise in prosperity over the last two centuries can largely be attributed to private property rights, democracy, press freedom and free markets. In the past 40 years alone, extreme poverty has declined from 44% of the world’s population to less than 10%, because of the spread of economic freedoms.
Why, asked one student, have they not been taught this view of capitalism? This question is pertinent, and reflects badly on the ideological orientation of university faculties, especially in the arts and humanities.
University faculties lean strongly leftwards. In the US, academics who identify as Democrats outnumber Republicans by five to one. In the liberal arts, the ratio is eight to one. In sociology, the ratio is 44 to one.
This strong left-wing tendency in academia can be traced back at least as far as the baby-boomer generation of the 1960s. Though not the first or only counter-culture movement, it was perhaps the most global and far-reaching.
It challenged the conservative conventions of the “establishment” and was closely associated with the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, workers’ rights, opposition to the Cold War and the rejection of patriarchal, moralistic views about issues such as sexuality, women’s liberation and recreational drugs.
In many respects, the rebellion was justified. Nominally, the “Western model” of the post-war political order established after 1945 was based on common liberal values of liberty, the consent of the governed and equality before the law. Classical liberals espoused the virtues of democracy, limited government, peaceful co-existence and trade between states, individual and civil rights, free-market capitalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.
Those values, like the hippy movement, also militate against discrimination, making war, exploiting workers or infringing on personal liberties.
Practically, however, much of the conservative establishment of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the US, still defended a racist, patriarchal, war-mongering and morally authoritarian orthodoxy.
Senator Joe McCarthy, by going on a witch-hunt against communists during the 1950s, probably did more than anyone else to undermine the capitalist cause, clearly associating it with the verkrampte older generation that the 1960s counter-culture sought to overthrow. Those accused of Soviet sympathies, whether justified or not, acquired a veneer of respectability as heroic, persecuted figures.
McCarthy was not entirely wrong, however. George Bernard Shaw openly supported Stalin’s purges, in which hundreds of thousands met their demise. John Steinbeck supported the Soviet invasion of Finland, and its installation of a puppet government there. Ernest Hemingway spied for the Soviets.
Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times, told the public that tales of famine during the Holodomor in Ukraine were exaggerated propaganda, while privately advising British intelligence that millions of people were dying. It wasn’t until after the fall of communism that the New York Times renounced his reporting as some of the worst it ever published.
Many prominent professors, writers and clergy visited the Soviet Union and sympathised, either because they associated capitalism with the Great Depression or because communists were allies in the fight against fascism. They returned with tales of valiant struggles against the decadence of the Western bourgeoisie, while omitting from their narratives – or even defending – evidence of brutal repression, violence, starvation and death.
Students were well acquainted with these writers. In their minds, capitalism became associated with conservatism, greed and even war, while socialism chimed well with the new egalitarianism of the hippy generation.
Eventually, this generation would come to populate the ranks of academia, carrying with them romantic notions of socialism, intellectual disdain for capitalism and Marxist ideas about oppression and class struggle.
In developing countries like South Africa, the effect was not dissipated by distance from the hippy culture’s origins in the US and Europe. On the contrary, it was amplified by the experience of the liberation struggle.
During the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine committed American foreign policy, and by extension the NATO countries, to a policy of containing Soviet geopolitical expansion. According to historian Eric Foner, the Truman Doctrine “set a precedent for American assistance to anti-communist regimes throughout the world, no matter how undemocratic”.
By contrast, the Soviet Union supported revolutionary organisations and liberation movements in those countries where the West propped up undemocratic regimes. The righteous victory of these movements gave added legitimacy to the Marxist ideology that was ingrained in the victors.
The great triumph of the Cold War is that Western liberalism proved to be more successful than Soviet communism. The great tragedy of the Cold War is that it condemned so many countries newly liberated from colonialism to Marxist authoritarianism and poverty.
The notion that colonial oppression was never a capitalist enterprise and contradicted liberal values, and could be fought entirely on classical liberal terms, never penetrated the hallowed halls of academia or the corridors of power.
Outside of business schools and commerce departments, universities almost universally taught some version of Marx’s historical materialism, which argues that society’s organisation and development is primarily a product of its material conditions and the struggle between different social classes, and not of thoughts, principles, beliefs and ideals. Marx explicitly rejected the notion of rights, such as the right to life, liberty and property which are the hallmarks of Western liberalism.
Marxism’s intellectual successor is critical theory, which eschews objective attempts to study society and culture in favour of critique which aims, in the words of Max Horkheimer, one of its founders, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”
Critical theory is explicitly concerned with critiquing forms of authority and injustice that accompanied the evolution of industrial and corporate capitalism, abandoning all pretence at political neutrality or objectivity.
It extends Marxist thought to all social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology and psychology.
It is inherently subjectivist, emphasising concepts such as “self-reflection” and “lived experience”. It elevates language, symbolism and social construction over empirical research and knowledge. It views meaning itself as unstable and dependent on ever-changing social context.
Ultimately, critical theory is a nihilist doctrine. It focuses so much on critiquing the shortcomings of the existing social, economic, political and scientific order that it fails to offer political solutions or a clear way forward.
It is, of course, easy to be a theoretical Marxist when you’re a tenured professor unafraid of losing your job, earn a lavish salary paid for by taxpayers, and have never left the comfort of the ivory tower of academia to labour among the crass commercial classes.
There is also a self-selection bias that results in ideological bias at universities. Intelligent people that are well-disposed to market capitalism generally find opportunities in the professional or business world. Intelligent people who aren’t, are more likely to gravitate towards academia.
These are the people that drill the socialist mantra into students at universities, caricaturing capitalism merely as a power structure that undermines social justice and perpetuates oppression.
Having thrown objectivity out the window, it is no surprise that journalists, who probably never took so much as an introductory course in economics, take such a negative view of capitalism.
Professor Fourie’s defence of capitalism undermines academia’s worldview of capitalism as a structure of immiseration and oppression which only makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Yet the facts contradict the Marxists and support Fourie.
Capitalism’s critics tend to focus on inequality because they dare not point to the indisputable fact that capitalism has lifted the majority of the world’s population out of poverty in the last two centuries, and continues to do so.
They argue that not all socialist experiments have failed, as those in the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Cambodia, Zimbabwe and Venezuela did so spectacularly, accompanied by so much misery, starvation, repression and death. Just look at the Scandinavian countries!
In reality, the Scandinavian countries are very far from socialist. The Fraser Institute publishes an annual report on the economic freedom of the world. It ranks countries based on numerous metrics, broadly grouped into five categories: size of government, legal system and property rights, sound money, freedom to trade internationally, and regulation.
In its 2019 report, published last week, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland all rank in the top quartile of most free countries. That they have used their prosperity to establish large welfare states does not make them any less capitalist.
The report notes that nations in the top quartile of economic freedom had an average per-capita GDP six times higher than those in the bottom quartile. The average income of the poorest 10% in free countries was seven times higher than in unfree countries and exceeded the average per-capita income in the least-free nations. In the top quartile, 1.8% of the population experience extreme poverty, compared to 27.2% in the lowest quartile.
Infant mortality is much lower and life expectancy much higher in economically free countries compared to unfree countries. Political and civil liberties are considerably higher in economically free nations than in unfree nations. Gender equality is greater in economically free nations. Happiness levels are higher in economically free nations.
Fourie is right to note that students, instead of being taught to merely critique modern society from a Marxist perspective, ought to be taught the practical origins of prosperity, well-being and poverty.
They should be taught the moral basis of classical liberal values being rooted in individual freedom from state control and repression. They should be taught how decentralised markets lead to superior outcomes when compared to central planning, even though intellectual elites often labour under the conceit that their theoretical plans are better than the choices people make for themselves.
If they were, they would view free-market capitalism, for all its shortcomings, in a far more positive light. That universities teach otherwise has a long history, but it is both factually incorrect and morally dangerous. DM
Note: A shorter version of this article first appeared in Afrikaans in Rapport on 22 September 2019.