Defend Truth


Of babies, bathwater and capitalism: Let’s not throw out the bath


Glen Heneck is a Cape Town businessman and occasional social commentator. He holds law degrees from UCT and Cambridge and was an avid Charterist until the mid 1990s.

Reforming capitalism is complex – because of the way the globalised economy is structured, there are no solutions available that only target the wealthy and the powerful. Whichever industries are singled out for cutting, there will be collateral consequences in the form of (masses of) impoverished people.

Jeff Rudin’s writing is reliably clear, eloquent and rousing; his remedies radical, simple and wrong. 

The ostensible focus of Rudin’s latest piece “Saving the baby from Michael Moore’s dirty bathwater” (Daily Maverick, 7 May 2020) is Michael Moore’s controversial new movie on the environmental movement. His real target though is neither Moore himself, nor his faux-progressive critics, but rather, as ever, the capitalist system as such. 

Using the medieval metaphor of the baby and the bathwater, Rudin takes specific aim at the idea that the climate crisis is a crisis of overpopulation. We need to be careful, he says, to focus on getting rid of the dirty system (that’s the bathwater), without in the process condemning the bulk of the human race (the baby). It’s a somewhat ungainly setup, but it allows him to exonerate “us” while casting the rapacious “them” as squarely and solely to blame. In other words, it’s not the consumption needs of seven billion ordinary people that really matters, but the innate greed of a tiny and cynical elite. 

The problem with that characterisation is not that it is devoid of truth, but rather that it is exaggerated, reductionist and ahistorical. It is based on an understanding of wealth accumulation (and of poverty) that made perfect sense in 1520, when the bathwater idiom was first used; that still made good sense in 1820, when the Industrial Revolution was getting going in earnest, but that makes little sense today. It’s absurd that the distributive justice rules allow one man to amass $80-billion, but it’s almost as absurd to argue, as many implicitly do, that Bill Gates won his fortune through force, or theft; or that the world would be a better, more prosperous place if he hadn’t started Microsoft. 

The basic premise of the article is thus flawed. Where it really goes off the rails though is when it comes to making practical suggestions for change. 

Rudin’s suggested starting point, on the path away from our modern dystopia, is the transport industry. Get rid of privately-owned vehicles, he urges, and the environmental outlook will improve immeasurably. Have the state provide a quality public service to all, using renewable energy sources, and we’re well on the way to a socialist nirvana. To a world without inequality, unemployment or poverty. Without exploitation, racism or strife.

Would that life were so easy.

Even if, like me, you share Rudin’s belief that, firstly, the transport industry is a primary culprit in global heating, and that, secondly, levels of inequality, worldwide, are appalling and unsustainable, it’s hard to support his suggested remedy. Not unless you also believe that Marx’s classless society is indeed a panacea, and that this end justifies whatever means it takes to get there. 

The better view, surely, takes proper cognisance of the following:


Depending how broad a definition one adopts, the vehicle industry is one of the biggest in the world, with close to 100 million cars produced each year, in dozens of different countries (including ours). There are nine million people employed directly in such manufacture, while the number rises to well over 30 million if those further up the chain of production are counted. Assuming an average of three people rely on one employee, that means about 100 million livelihoods would be immediately imperilled if the industry were to be nuked entirely.

There’s also a cascading or multiplier effect where jobs lost in one industry have an impact throughout the consumer economy, by virtue of a drop in aggregate demand. In the case of cars – and jets and ships, whose emissions are just as bad – the first-line victims will include petrol giants, insurers, banks, advertising agencies and repair shops. But the second and third tier impacts will leave no business, and no community untouched. Conservatively speaking, we’re looking at about 200 million casualties, worldwide, so the first question is then: Why not start with something a bit more modest?

Replacement cost

In fairness to Rudin, he does address the issue of employment attrition, though the way he does so is, with respect, surpassingly Pollyanna-ish. He reckons that many of the workers made redundant by his proposals “will find ready work in the new economy reflecting the primacy of social and environmental consciousness” (whatever that means), and goes on to say that global unemployment levels will actually reduce in time, “with a little retraining”. 

Perhaps I’m being ungenerous, but the images this brings to mind come from the Cultural Revolutions in China and Korea, and the cull-half-your-citizenry revolutions in Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Exploitative jobs suck, but play-play jobs suck a great deal more. 

Of course, one of the difficulties that anyone on the arch left faces is that they don’t want to see the system ameliorated, they want it completely destroyed. 

So the rise of renewable energy sources, and of vehicles that can run on such power, are far from unqualified blessings in their books. If the technology belonged to the state, that would be fine, but insofar as it provides profit-making prospects to private corporations, it’s yet another progress retardant. Having just read another (sympathetic) biography of Marx, I’m willing to bet he’d not be of that view if he were reincarnated in modern-day Highgate. 

Collateral damage 

For the record, I believe that we have to set about curtailing the mass production of things, and to do so fast. That has to be one of the central planks of the post-Covid political economy, along with (a) ramped up taxes on those whom the model most favours and (b) a truly universal basic income grant, tied to reduced birth rates. 

Untrammelled capitalism has had its day; the invisible hand finally undone by two other invisible forces (Covid-19 and carbon emissions). Reducing aggregate consumption is now a sine qua non for the survival of the species, but this is no time for revolutionary triumphalism. Or vindictiveness. Or arbitrariness. Or delusional memes about the irrelevance of population numbers. 

Even as we set about the necessary work of scaling down those industries that are identified as untenable/unsustainable/unworthy, we all have some agonising decisions to make. We have to move quickly, to be sure, but in so doing we have to carefully consider the fallout in terms of both individual fortunes and of the things we hold dear. 

Because of the way the globalised economy is structured – with employment spread everywhere, and employees all invested in mutual funds – there are no solutions available that only target the wealthy and the powerful. Whichever industries, or product types, are singled out for cutting, there will perforce be collateral consequences in the form of (masses of) people impoverished. A prospect which cannot but further inflame the populist-nativist impulses that are already roiling the planet. 

That’s one crucial trade-off to consider, and another is the impact on things that give us (all) pleasure. What the free-and-enterprising have done – together with the scientists in their employ – is provide the majority of people on Earth with ready access to an array of comforts, treatments, enrichments, amenities, opportunities and amusements. These aren’t all ennobling, some are quite the opposite, but they do provide their users with antidotes to boredom, to loneliness, to the meaninglessness of primate existence. 

The problem is, of course, that it is simply impossible to avail all these delights to everyone, everywhere, without in the process making our Earth uninhabitable. And that has two implications. Firstly, that we have to find a fair and practical way of deciding what in this cornucopia we forego; which might, awkwardly, be Rudin’s research laptop rather than his neighbour’s game console. And, secondly, that we have to reduce the size of our species. 

Who wins? 

The Rudin-Chomsky heaven, anchored as it is in Marxian materialism, abjures any kind of hierarchy. “From each according to his ability etc.” The truth is though that what this model effectively does is elevate its authors, and people like them, to top-dog position. It’s PhDs and culture that they’ll be flaunting, not Porsches and caviar, but at the end of the day, it’s still a form of privilege and it will still invite envy and resentment. 

Apart from the self-serving aspect, there are two other problems with this “sapio-normativity”. Firstly, it is inimical, if not openly hostile, to the kind of individual creativity, dynamism and freedom that made the capitalist age so astonishingly abundant. And secondly, in its universalism, it could well elevate some communities over others, in perpetuity. If there is only one primary advancement metric, then it matters a great deal whether the default progressive assumption is indeed valid. For if it isn’t then what looks at first blush like egalitarianism could soon fossilise into something like a caste-based hierarchy.

And so? 

Rudin has a point, needless to say. We do need to put the interests of ordinary people at the centre of the evolving Earthly project. All I’m really arguing here is that our problems require an incrementalist approach, not an inversion of the status quo. The matter is indeed urgent, but the summary abolition of private property isn’t the answer. That, respectfully, is tantamount to saving the baby from the dirty bathwater – but throwing out the bath. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted