Actually Existing Barbarism

Tonight The Pensive Quill features Guest Writer Liam O ‘Ruairc who addresses the issue of capitalism and what it means for society today.

The 2009 volume of Socialist Register “takes up a question that has preoccupied socialists for over a century – the likelihood that if capitalism is allowed to persist it will be characterised by increasing violence. When Rosa Luxemburg in 1916 quoted Engels’ famous statement that ‘capitalist society faces a dilemma: either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism’, she asked:

What does a ‘reversion to barbarism’ mean at the present stage of European civilisation? We have all read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without a notion of their terrible seriousness. At this moment one glance around us will show what a reversion to barbarism in bourgeois society means.’  (Socialist Register 2009, p.1)

Most of the essays included in the volume attempt to analyse the nature and roots of paradigmatic cases and types of violence that attends the development of capitalism today around the world as well as the counter-violence it generates. While they provide insight into specific examples, such as the commodification of violence in the Niger Delta or girls as disposable commodities in India, they do not provide a global picture of ‘actually existing barbarism’. (1) This is why it is useful to propose here a general discussion of the scale of ‘actually existing barbarism’ and the violence it generates today.

It is certainly true as Samir Amin notes in his essay included in the book, that “capitalism has historically fulfilled certain progressive functions” (Socialist Register 2009, p.260) Capitalism has been a very dynamic system that produced a tremendous amount of wealth. Never has the world been as rich as it is today. Global output increased more than eleven fold between 1850 and 1960, from $611 billion to $6936 billion in 1993 dollars. The world's population more than doubled during the same period, rising from 1.2 billion in 1850 to 3 billion in 1960. The net outcome: nearly a fivefold increase in per capita income. During the same period, the goods and services produced in the industrial countries expanded nearly thirty fold, from $212 billion to $6103 billion. Between 1960 and 1993, global income increased from $4 trillion to $23 trillion, and per capita income more than tripled. If trends continue, it should grow from 23 trillion in 1993 to 56 trillion in 2030. (2) It has allowed a huge development of consumption. Private and public consumption expenditure reached $24 trillion in 1998, twice the level of 1975 and six times that of 1950. In 1900, real consumption expenditure was barely $1.5 trillion. (3) “Yet” Amin warns the reader “all these achievements have been marked and limited by capitalism’s class nature”. (ibid)

For one, capitalism has made the world a very unequal place. The world’s 500 richest people today have an income of more than $100 billion, not taking into account asset wealth. That exceeds the combined incomes of the poorest 416 million. (4) The poorest 20% of the world’s people, roughly corresponding to the one billion people living on less than $1 a day, account for 1.5% of world income today. The poorest 40%, corresponding to the 2.6 billion people living on the $2 a day poverty threshold, account for 5% of world income. In comparison the richest 20 percent of the world’s population accounts for three-quarters of world income. (5) At the end of 2008, the top fifth of the world’s people in the richest countries consume 86 per cent of the world’s goods, enjoy 82 per cent of the expanding export trade and 68 per cent of foreign direct investment –the bottom fifth barely more than one per cent of all this. (6)

Capitalism not only creates inequality, but it increases it both between and within countries. The income gap between the richest countries and the poorest countries was a ratio of 1:3 in 1820. This increased to 1:7 in 1870 and 1:11 in 1913. In 1960 it was 1:30 and in 1990 1:60. In 1997 it was 1:74. (7)  Measured at the extremes, the gap between the average citizen in the richest and in the poorest countries is wide and getting wider. In 1990 the average American was 38 times richer than the average Tanzanian. Today the average American is 61 times richer. A Zambian today has less chance of reaching thirty years of age than someone born in England in 1840. (8)  Income inequality is also rising within countries. More than 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening. (9) Among the 73 countries with complete and comparable data (and 80% of the world's people), 48 have seen inequality increase since the 1950s, 16 have experienced no change, and only 9 (with 4% of the world's people) have seen inequality fall. (10) The Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality calibrated on a scale from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (perfect inequality), ranges from 33 in South Asia to 57 in Latin America and to more than 70 in Sub-Saharan Africa. (11)

In Ireland today, the 26 counties score 34.3 –together with Greece and Indonesia and just above Egypt. The 6 counties fare even worse. The Poverty and Social Exclusion NI survey revealed that inequality in the six counties is greater – a Gini coefficient of 42. (12)  "In other words”, argues the UN, “within national boundaries, control over assets and resources is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people." (13)

Thus: “As the successes of its global expansion have increased, the limitations of capitalism have grown steadily, today reaching tragic dimensions.” (Socialist Register 2009, p.261) As a system, capitalism does not work for the vast majority of the world’s population; it fails to provide for their basic needs.

One fifth of humanity lives in countries where many people think nothing of spending $2 a day on cappuccino. Another fifth of humanity survives on less than $1 a day and live in countries where children die for want of a simple anti-mosquito bed net. (14)

This is because capitalism is a system based on profit rather than need. More than 850 million people, including one in three preschool children suffer from malnutrition. (15) Yet, "If all the food produced worldwide were distributed equally, every person would be able to consume 2760 calories a day - hunger is defined as consuming under 1960 calories a day."  (16) But as a result of the operations of capitalism, every year ten million people die of hunger. In our increasingly prosperous world, more than 1.1 billion people are denied the right to clean water and 2.6 billion lack access to adequate sanitation. (17) The $7 billion needed to provide 2.6 billion people with access to clean water is less than Europeans spend on perfume and less than Americans spend on elective corrective surgery. This is for an investment that would save an estimated 4000 lives each day. (18)

Every year, 10.7 million children died before five of preventable causes. This means that every hour of everyday, 12000 children die of preventable causes. (19) Every year some 1.8 million children die as a result of diarrhoea and other diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation - 4900 deaths each day or an under-five population equivalent in size to that for London and New York combined. Deaths from diarrhoea in 2004 were some six times greater than the average annual deaths in armed conflicts for the 1990s and five times as many deaths of children from Aids. (20)  In the 1990s the number of children killed by diarrhea exceeded the number of people killed in armed conflicts since the Second World War. (21) Millions of people are in desperate need of medicines. But as the pharmaceutical industry is capitalist in nature, less than 10% of global spending on health research addressed 90% of the global disease burden and health problems of 90% of the world’s people. (22) In its 2008 report, the World Health Organisation states that the inequality generated by capitalism is killing people “on a grand scale”. For example, in the United States, 886 202 deaths would have been averted between 1991 and 2000 if mortality rates between white and African Americans were equalized. (This contrasts to 176 633 lives saved in the US by medical advances in the same period.) If the infant mortality rate in Iceland were applied to the whole world, only two babies would have died every 1000 born alive. There would be 6.6 million fewer infant deaths in the world each year. (23)  The USA has the same infant mortality rate as Malaysia -a country with an average income one quarter that of the USA. And the Indian state of Kerala has an infant death rate lower than that for African Americans in Washington DC. (24) Research by the Institute of Public Health and the Combat Poverty Agency estimates that in Ireland today (North and south) there are over 5400 premature deaths each year as a result of social and economic inequality. Official figures from their 2008 Tackling Health Inequalities – An All-Ireland Approach to Social Determinants show that those further down the social ladder run at least twice the risk of serious illness and premature death as those near the top. This is why “Contemporary globalised capitalism no longer offers an adequate framework for the pursuit of human emancipation…As such it must be considered as an ‘obsolete’ system –one may even say ‘senile’, despite the apparent success of its ongoing expansion.” (Socialist Register 2009, p.261)

Such deaths are in effect a form of ‘structural violence’. Structural violence corresponds to the systematic way through which a specific organisation of society kill people slowly by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Structural violence has a tendency to produce conflict, which will breed ‘institutional violence’ and ‘oppositional violence’. Institutional violence is violence used by the state through its institutions to maintain the way a society is currently organised, and oppositional violence that of those opposing it and/or seeking to transform it. Given the way the governments use ‘violence’ for propaganda purposes, it is absolutely essential to distinguish primary violence from secondary violence. It has been estimated that since 3600 BC there have been something on the order of 3500 major wars and 10 500 minor wars worldwide producing approximately one billion direct battle deaths. In over 3400 years of documented human history, only 250 have been years of peace. If we count both internal and external wars since the end of WWII, there have been at least several hundred wars, producing perhaps as many as 100 to 150 million deaths and not a single day of world peace. (25) However from twentieth century onwards, institutional violence has become the dominant form of violence.  "The major type and source of political violence and terrorism is that practiced by states and their agents and allies against civilians in order to create fear as political means. Quantitatively it is responsible for far more deaths than terrorism against state is. "(26) This is something noted by Michael Brie in his contribution to the 2009 Socialist Register on emancipation and the left:

During the twentieth century, acting on the responsibility of states, at least 160 million defenceless people were murdered – 4650 people on average on every day of the 36 500 days of the century- three civilian deaths in every one of the more than 50 million minutes of the century. In the preceding 25 centuries there were a total of 130 million people who became victims of such murders. Never before had the lives of human beings been abused so instrumentally as they were during the 20th century.” (p.247)

This is an underestimation. In his book Death by Government, R.J Rummell attempted to quantify the twentieth century's state-instigated mass murders, starvations and genocide. He calculated that in total, during the first eighty years of the 20th century:

almost one hundred and seventy million men, women and children were shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed helpless citizens and foreigners.

And this is conservative accounting, because it does not include combatants killed in wars; if these were included, the figure would be over 230 million people killed. He notes that because governments have been reluctant and unwilling to acknowledge such acts, "the dead could conceivably be near three hundred and sixty million people". (27) He concluded that no other century has seen a slaughter of such magnitude. One can understand why Adorno wrote that: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” (28)

Today, the United States government and its allies abroad lead the way in promoting terrorism. Authors such as Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky conclude that the global rise in terrorism has been mainly or fundamentally the result of Western - particularly US - foreign policy. They distinguish between the ‘wholesale terror’ practised by states and ‘retail terror’ practised by anti-state groups and argue that the US represents the hegemonic 'culture of terrorism' providing the central model and leading example emulated by every other nation involved in state terror around the world – Colombia for instance as Ulrich Oslender shows in his contribution to the volume. (29) The 'war on terror' has already lasted longer than World War Two and the US government has used the '9/11' terrorist attacks in 2001 as an excuse to launch a massive assault on the human rights of the people throughout the world. In 2005, four years after '9/11', Amnesty International reported that human rights continued to be in retreat worldwide, and for that the US bears most of the responsibility for this.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the picture is bleak. Governments are increasingly rolling back the rule of law, taking their cue from the US-led 'war on terror'. Secretary General Irene Kahn stated in the foreword to Amnesty International's 2005 annual report that 'When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants license to others to commit abuse with immunity'. Documented evidence shows that, in pursuing the 'war on terror' the US military has itself engaged in dozens of cases of abuse, torture and even murder of prisoners. Thus the US has joined the ranks of the growing number of 'torture states'. Amnesty charges that Washington has emerged as the leading purveyor and practitioner of torture and ill-treatment, and it has described the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay as the 'Gulag of our times'. (30) Such primary violence will encourage and generate various types of secondary violence of the kind the media is constantly bringing to our attention without distinguishing ‘wholesale terror’ from ‘retail terror’. (31)

Unfortunately, barbarism and violence are likely to increase and intensify. Samir Amin argues that:

the redoubled violence in the relations of domination of capital which characterises our time is not the product of the extravagances of extreme neoliberalism, but a requirement of the reproduction of capital under contemporary conditions. This is what makes capitalism an obsolete system, although certainly not in the sense that it is going to disappear on its own, dying peacefully of ‘natural’ causes, but rather in the sense that its reproduction will require from now on the exercise of increasing violence. We have thus reached the stage when people must get rid of it, threatened as they are, otherwise, with the prospect of seeing humanity condemned to barbarity. (Socialist Register 2009, p.270)

The present outlook is a bleak one. Today, as Frederic Jameson perspicaciously remarked, few seriously consider alternatives to capitalism any longer. Or as Slavoj Zizek puts it: “It is easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production.” (32) It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism especially if the threat of dangerous climate change, symptom of unsustainable ecological resource management on a global scale, is taken into account: what happened to New Orleans in 2005, but on a global scale is what awaits humanity. (33) The predicament of our age has been summed up by Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (34)


(1) Engels first used the phrase ‘the universal lapse into barbarism’ in his introduction to Sigismund Borkheim’s 1887 pamphlet In Memory of the German Blood-and-Thunder Patriots, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 26, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1987, 451. But it was Rosa Luxemburg's 1915 Junius Pamphlet (The Crisis of Social Democracy) which  clearly posed the alternative ‘socialism or barbarism’ as the historic choice confronting the working-class movement and the human species. Her text is available online at:
(2) United Nations Human Development Report 1996, Economic Growth and Human Development, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1996, p.12 and 36
(3) United Nations Human Development Report 1998, Consumption for Human Development, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1998, p.3
(4) United Nations Human Development Report 2006, Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the global water crisis, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2006, p.269
(5) United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008, Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2007, p.25. Note that: "Living on $1 a day does not mean being able to afford what $1 would buy when converted into a local currency, but the equivalent of what $1 would buy in the United States, a newspaper, a local bus rude, a bag of rice." (United Nations Human Development Report 2003, Millenium Development Goals: A Compact among Nations to End Human Poverty, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2003, p.41)
(6) Commission on Social Determinants of Health – Final Report, Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health, Geneva: World Health Organisation, 2008, p.36
(7) United Nations Human Development Report 1999, Globalization with a Human Face, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1999, p.3
(8) United Nations Human Development Report 2005, International Cooperation at Crossroads: Aid, Trade and Security in an Unequal World, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2005, p.26 and 37.
(9) United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008, p.25
(10) United Nations Human Development Report 2002, Deepening Democracy in a Fragmenting World, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2002, 20
(11) United Nations Human Development Report 2006, 272
(12) Paula Clancy, Shocking price of inequality not one we can afford to pay, The Irish Times, 7 October 2008 and Goretti Horgan, Class in Northern Ireland, in Sara O’Sullivan (ed), Contemporary Ireland: A Sociological Map, Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007, p.322
(13) United Nations Human Development Report 2003, p.39
(14) United Nations Human Development Report 2005, p.3
(15) Ibid, p.24
(16) United Nations Human Development Report 2003, p.87
(17) United Nations Human Development Report 2006, p.2
(18) United Nations Human Development Report 2005, p.8
(19) Ibid, p.1 and 24
(20) United Nations Human Development Report 2006, p.6
(21) United Nations Human Development Report 2003, p.104
(22) United Nations Human Development Report 2002, p.7
(23) Commission on Social Determinants of Health – Final Report, pp.29-30
(24) United Nations Human Development Report 2005, p.58
(25) Jeffrey Sluka, The Anthropology of Social Conflict, in Carolyn Nordstrom and JoAnn Martin (eds), The Paths to Domination, Resistance and Terror, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, pp.18-19
(26) Jeffrey Sluka, On Common Ground: Justice, Human Rights and Survival, in Anthony Taylor (ed), Justice as a Basic Human Need, London: Nova, 2006, p.118. See also Jeffrey Sluka (ed), Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000
(27) R.J. Rummell, Death by Government, New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1994, p.9
(28) Theodor W.Adorno, Negative Dialectics, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, 320
(29) Edward S. Herman, The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda, Boston: South End Press, 1982, Edward S. Herman and Gerry O’Sullivan, The ‘Terrorism’ Industry, New York: Pantheon, 1989, Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism, London: Pluto Press, 1988. See also Frederick Gareau, State Terrorism and the United States: From Counter-Insurgency to the War on Terrorism, London Zed Books, 2004
(30) Report quoted in Jeffrey Sluka, On Common Ground: Justice, Human Rights and Survival, op.cit., p. 130. In her contribution to the 2009 Socialist Register on the US prison system, Ruth Gilmore also writes that “In regular US prisons and jails, where one out of every 100 US adults lives, torture and terror happen every day. In California every week a prisoner dies from medical neglect of easily-treatable maladies.” (p.85)
(31) In ‘Violence and Brutality’, a foreword to texts of the Red Army Faction; Jean Genet for example contrasts the liberating revolutionary ‘violence’ to the ‘brutality’ of the capitalist system. Cfr. Textes des Prisonniers de la Fraction Armee Rouge et Dernieres Lettres d’Ulrike Meinhof. Preface de Jean Genet et Introduction de Klaus Croissant, Paris: Librairie Francois Maspero, 1977, pp.11-18. An important discussion of structural, institutional and revolutionary violence can be found in Frantz Fanon, Les Damnes de la Terre. Preface de Jean-Paul Sartre, Paris: Librairie Francois Maspero, 1961, pp.29-110 in particular as well as Sartre’s foreword pp. 9-26.
(32) Slavoj Zizek (ed), Mapping Ideology, London: Verso, 1994, p.1
(33) United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008, p.32 and 81
(34) Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, 276


  1. Liam,

    this is a great piece that should give readers food for thought. There is plenty there for us to mull over.

  2. Liam,
    an absolutely brilliant piece. Unbelieveable to think 'the world has never been as rich as it is today' and yet inequality is at an all time high.
    Like the Brits the US has used their hegemonic status to increase terror and inequality, line your pockets at the cost of the people seems to be the order of the day.

  3. Great piece, Liam.

    I think most people could tolerate a certain degree of inequality in the world if everyone was guaranteed a decent standard of living and if there was equality of opportunity. Unfortunately, it does seem that in order for there to be billionaires in mansions, there must also be exploited workers in sweatshops. I cannot see how capitalism can lead to a better outcome given that there are finite resources on this planet.

    On the other hand, 20th century governments that called themselves socialist and embraced Marxism have produced their fair share of barbarism too. Centrally-planned economies lead to corruption and shortages at best, and famines at worst. There also seems to be a correlation between "socialist" regimes and human rights abuses such as censorship, gulags, torture and mass killing. Indeed, one can argue that the record of actually existing socialism is worse than that of capitalism.

    I'm not sure where this leaves us, though. Free markets have produced a great deal of instablity, inequality, and, I would argue, poverty as well. Communism was a bloody failure. Perhaps a form of social democracy or democratic socialism with strong safeguards on personal freedoms and government accountability is the answer. What I am certain of is that human rights - both economic and social - must be at the forefront of any system of government.

  4. Fascinating article. I’d never come across the term structural violence before but it’s a very useful term for defining the somewhat passive and indirect way we lord over most of the world. Alfie, never mind the billionaires you refer to, surely we’re the same, slurping tinnies and watching Match of the Day while people more hardworking and intelligent suffer and die in the 3rd world purely through an accident of birth. In the darkest parts of our hearts are we not glad it isn’t us, more than we’re outraged? Is it this fear and petty selfishness as much as the inertia caused by its ubiquity that keeps capitalism endlessly ticking over?

  5. I was never a big fan of Sundays, but at the very least I can open the Sunday Independent and be regaled by the hilarious hubris of its columnists. Eoghan Harris, God bless him, is always good for a laugh. I do not think I have ever known a public figure who has been so self-obsessed - pace Kevin Myers. Harris spent the best part of his time as a senator supporting the Fianna Fail-led government and leading the Sindo's campaign against public sector workers, all the while ignoring the fact that his beloved free-marketeers brought down this country. Because of this, I am actually starting to think that I have more time for the Shinners than the Sindo brigade. Yes, the Shinners supported a war in Ireland that killed more than 3500 people over 30 years or so, but Eoghan Harris, Eilis O'Hanlon, Ruth Dudley Edwards and co. supported a war in Iraq that caused the deaths of at least 100000 civilians. And let us not forget that, before the Iraqi civil war began in 2005, coalition forces were the biggest killers of civilians in Iraq - 9200 killed by them at the very least. I doubt the Sindo will be publishing any pictures of those bodies on its front page any time soon.

    Today, Harris is objecting to some Irish Times journalists for having the temerity to criticise the Sindo's obsession with Martin McGuinness's presidential bid, even though it was clear that McGuinness hadn't much hope of being elected. Furthermore, Harris is annoyed with Kathy Sheridan for taking him to task for his hysterical tirades against Mary McAleese in the 1997 presidential election. Harris claims that Sheridan does not provide adequate context for his remarks at the time - namely, that a memo had been leaked which suggested McAleese was sympathetic to Sinn Féin. What he neglects to mention was that his antipathy to McAleese predated the leaking of the memo and was primarily based on the fact that McAleese was a Northern nationalist and an opponent of Section 31. Indeed Harris acknowledged this during the course of the campaign when he conceded than Mary McAleese "is not a Sinn Fein-er, she's a me fein-er. ... I don't believe it's a wise thing for the Republic of Ireland at this time to elect any kind of Northern nationalist, any extreme Northern nationalist, because it sends appalling signals to unionists at a sensitive time in the peace process, and every unionist I spoke to in Northern Ireland confirmed that." Harris also conveniently ignores that the substance of the leaked memo was quickly refuted at the time by many commentators and politcians, who pointed out McAleese's past support of the SDLP and distance from Sinn Féin. And anyway, why should it be in any way incriminating for someone to express satisfaction that a party transitioning from paramilitarism to constitutional politics would improve its vote?

    I suppose the really funny thing about Harris, O'Hanlon, Dudley Edwards et al is that they think they are morally superior to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. The reality is that the Sindo brigade has espoused an economic system and a Western foreign policy that has killed far more people than the Provos - or any IRA - ever did.

  6. Frank,

    To rephrase a line from my late grand-uncle, if this planet cannot support slurping a few tinnies and watching the football, it's all a matter...

    Seriously though, I believe there are enough resources on this planet to provide a good standard of living for all human beings. Once you have billionaires, though, I cannot see how poverty for a significant proportion of the world's population can be avoided.

  7. Liam has produced yet another of his typically well researched, statistically powerful articles which gives ample food for thought. The detail is as powerful as it is frightening to digest. The only conclusion one can arrive at from reading this piece is that Capitalism will devour all in its path in pursuit of profits.

    Humanity is but another commodity to be exploited and exhausted to the point of extinction. Death by starvation and poverty are the two most prolific killers of the modern age. Finite resources are being used up at an ever increasing rate in order to fuel the monster appetite of a insatiable economic system based on greed rather than need. And to top it all off, the economic power elites have little or no compunction about using extreme violence to maintain the present world order.

    Where is reason? Where is enlightenment? Where is common sense?

  8. Liam,
    How can you write such a long piece on any subject this this one-sided? Wouldn’t you accuse any advocate of Capitalism who wrote so many words in its defense without a single sentence even hinting that there may be another side to the story as insincere; unserious even?
    Three simple starters:
    1. You cite poverty stat after poverty stat, largely from the developing world, generally implying that if only more money was spent on medicine this would be avoidable. Don’t you think it merits considering at all where these medicines you advocate investing in come from? What is it about this system that produces such an abundance of tools to fight the many evils you cite? And more to the point, perhaps, what was it about all the attempts at more ‘equal’ societies that lead to such poor productivity by comparison?
    2. Don’t you think it’s worth noting that the countries that have most of the development evils you cite are the least Western Capitalist (if I can momentarily lump the” West” despite the various differences in capitalist production?
    3. “Structural Violence” in the twentieth century: Hardly synonymous with Capitalism Liam? Don’t the other systems that weren’t exactly shy of a touch “structural violence” merit a mention here?
    4. Why is inequality constantly associated with poverty and violence without qualification? This connection is anything but clear, indeed the very notion of equality implies an enforcement of sorts and one hardly likely to come without violence? Unless you're suggesting that equality (whatever that even means) is a more natural state of affairs?
    India, since you mention it does have greater inequality than before 1948 and China much more before 1979. And great for them - overall. While rising tides may not lift all boats, both countries are clearly benefiting (to put is very mildly) from their move towards capitalist production. Are they not?
    Play fair Liam.

  9. Unknown,

    just two mails came through. Your comment on Liam's piece and one expressing concern that you may have bombarded us with mail. That wasn't so. All was fine.

  10. Ruarai/Unknown,

    I think it is a bit unfair to accuse Liam of being totally one-sided in his condemnation of capitalism. I mean, he did acknowledge the "progressive functions" of capitalism such as its generation of wealth and its increasing of per capita income.

    Furthermore, it is misleading to claim that countries with the most poverty are the least Western capitalist. Over the past 30 years, most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America embraced neoliberalism at the behest of the West. During this time, these countries either stagnated economically or performed worse than they had previously. It is true that India and China enjoyed tremendous economic growth during this period; however, neither country fully embraced free-market policies. Yes, India and China opened up their economies to a certain degree, but both governments remain heavily involved in them.

    I think most people would agree that centrally planned economies - at least to the degree that they were planned in the old Communist bloc - will never succeed. But all the evidence suggests that free-marketism doesn't work either. Just because something looks nice and neat in a mathematical model doesn't mean it will work in real life. This is a truth to which diehard Marxists and diehard neoliberals are blind.

  11. From Liam O'Ruairc:


    " one can argue that the record of actually existing socialism is worse than that of capitalism."

    The evidence suggests otherwise.
    The UN's Human Development Reports show the achievements and
    successes of socialism. It notes that socialism was one of the world's
    history's "great ascent from human poverty". "There have been two
    great ascents from human poverty in recent history: the first in
    industrial countries during the late 19th and the early 20th
    centuries, and the second in developing countries, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after the Second World War. They had similar
    elements, but the second had a larger scale and a faster timetable.
    Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union made advances: infant
    mortality was reduced by half, from 81 to 41 per 1,000 live births.
    Life expectancy increased from 58 to 66 years for men and from 63 to
    74 years for women. And income poverty was declining. In Hungary
    between the early 1960s and 1972, the proportion of people living
    below the poverty line fell from 60% to 14%". (United Nations Human Development Report 1997, Human Development To Eradicate Poverty, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1997, 25)

    If we compare similar countries today on the basis of Human Development Indicators, socialist China and capitalist India, or socialist Cuba and capitalist Latin America, the achievements successes of socialism compared to capitalism are evident.

    (to be continued)

  12. From Liam O'Ruairc:

    Since 1949, China has made impressive reductions in human poverty.
    Between 1949 and 1995 it reduced infant mortality from 200 per 1,000
    live births to 42 per 1000 live births, and increased life expectancy
    at birth from 35 years to 69. Today almost all children go to school
    and adult illiteracy, 80% in the 1950s has fallen to 19%. The
    incidence of poverty from widespread fell to 9% in the 1980s. Hunger
    has been totally eradicated. (United Nations Human Development Report 1997, Human Development To Eradicate Poverty, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1997, , 49-50)

    By contrast, in India, 53% of children under age four, 60 million,
    remain undernourished. Infant mortality is 74 per 1,000 live births,
    and there are each year 2.2 million infant deaths, most of them
    avoidable. Rural poverty is 39% and urban poverty 30%. Half the
    population is still illiterate. Life expectancy is 61, eight years
    less than China. (United Nations Human Development Report 1997, Human Development To Eradicate Poverty, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1997, , 51-52)

    In China, public spending on education is 2.3% of GDP while that on
    health is 2.1% of GDP. The outcomes for human development are clear.
    Literacy stands at 84%, infant mortality rates at 32 per 1,000 lives
    birth and under-five mortality rates at 40 per 1,000 live births.
    (United Nations Human Development Report 2003, Millenium Development Goals: A Compact among Nations to End Human Poverty, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2003, , 73)

    Proportional to population, China spends three times as much as India
    on health care. In India health spending stands at 1.3% of GDP.
    (central and state governments combined) Human development indicators
    remain much lower for India than for China. Literacy stands at 65%,
    infant mortality at 68 per 1,000 live births, and under five mortality
    rates at 96 per 1,000 live births. (United Nations Human Development Report 2003, Millenium Development Goals: A Compact among Nations to End Human Poverty, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2003, 73)

    (To be continured)

  13. From Liam O'Ruairc:

    If India provided the same health care as China, every year 1.7
    million children could be saved. (United Nations Human Development Report 1998, Consumption for Human Development, New York: United Nations Development Programme, 1998, 156-157 and 176-177)

    In Cuba, there is one medical doctor for 170 people. In the rest of
    Latin America, the proportion is of one doctor for 613 people. Cuba
    spends per inhabitant twice as much on health care and education than
    the rest of Latin America. (United Nations Human Development Report 2003, 255)

    Cuba's per capita income is a small fraction of that of the USA, yet
    it has the same infant mortality rate and has kept HIV/AIDS under
    control. (United Nations Human Development Report 2003, 87)

    If the rest of Latin America invested as much as Cuba on health care,
    every year 400,000 Latin American children could be saved and 20,000
    fewer women would die in pregnancy or child birth.

    In Latin America, the ten per cent richest people earn 46 times what
    the poorest earn. In Cuba the proportion is five times. (United Nations Human Development Report 2003, 283)

    A quarter of Latin Americans have to survive on two dollars a day or
    less. In Cuba, less than two per cent do. (United Nations Human Development Report 2003, 245)

    Evidence shows that countries that abandoned the construction of
    socialism and adopted capitalism experienced a massive regression.
    Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS experienced the sharpest
    increase in poverty in the 1990s, the only other region with worsening
    trends in poverty is Sub-Saharan Africa. (United Nations Human Development Report 2005, 21)

    (to be continued)

  14. From Liam O'Ruairc:

    Ukraine fell 17 places and Russia 15 places while Tadjikistan fell 21
    places. Russia fell 48 places in world life expectancy ranking from
    1990 to 2003. (2005, 22) Life expectancy for men has fallen from 70
    in 1990 to 59 today, lower than India. If this remains constant, 40
    percent of 15 years old Russians will be dead before they reach 60.
    (United Nations Human Development Report 2005, 26)

    Between 2.5 to 3 million people died during the 1992-2001 period as a result of the restoration of capitalism. "In
    the absence of war, famine or health epidemics, there is no recent
    historical precedent for the scale of the loss." (United Nations Human Development Report 2005, 23)

    Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS experienced a dramatic increase
    in poverty. The number of people on less than $2 a day there rose from
    23 million in 1990 to 93 million in 2001, from 5% to 20%. (United Nations Human Development Report 2005, 34)

    In the countries of the former Soviet Union, transition brought with
    it one of the deepest recessions since the Great Depression of the
    1930s, and in many case despite positive growth over the last few
    years, incomes are still lower than they were 15 years ago. (United Nations Human Development Report 2005, 34)

    Since 1990 real per capita incomes have fallen by more than 10% in
    Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Ukraine and by 40% in Georgia, Moldova and
    Tajikistan. In Russia, 10 percent of the population live on less than
    $2 a day and 25 percent live below the national subsistence level.
    (United Nations Human Development Report 2005, 35)


    "There also seems to be a correlation between "socialist" regimes and human rights abuses such as censorship, gulags, torture and mass killing. "
    These have less to do with socialism than with the conditions under which it was built. Any country -socialist or not- that has to face blockades, invasions, civil war etc. will have to resort to these kind of measures.
    For a comparison of human rights in the Soviet Union and the United States, check Al Szymanski's "Human Rights in the Soviet Union" (Zed Books, 1984). It examines the historical evolution of human rights abuses and puts them into context. (It is important to note that "censorship, gulags, torture and mass killing" are heavily concentrated in about five years of the USSR's 75 years history - cfr Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century, Verso, 2002)

    (to be continued)

  15. Guys,

    this merits a longer response but...without wanting to sound trite or supercilious, citing China as an example of socialist success is begging for a chutzpah award.

    It's as plain as day that the further China has moved from socialism/communism and the closer to a market driven economy, the better off it's been.

    I studied communication in China 3 years ago and, tellingly, one of the big internal debates there was whether or not they should change the name of the CCP from the Chinese Communist Party to the Chinese Confucious Party so keen where they to move away from any sense of Communism (or socialism). (They haven't yet for fear of losing legitimacy by opening too big a debate.) In fact, if you read the China Daily occassionally you'll notice editorial after editorial asking people not to be so jealous of the emerging wealth so unevenly distributed.

    As for sub-Saharan Africa the best thing ever to happen to the place is the explosion of microfinance loans to impoverished women so they can launch and manage micro enterprises.

    Neo-liberalism? Straw Man argument. It's discredited, absolutely, yes. But Liam is arguing against Capitalism per se. In fact he's even arguing, or at least apologizing for socialism.

    As for Cuba being a model for anything... there aren't too many people jumping off the coast of Miami to swim to Cuba. They ran out of toliet role last year ffs! The place is a basket-case living off first Moscow and now, barely, Venezula. It's health minister got treated abroad (in secret).

    In a nutshell, capitalism unregulated is neither desireable nor existant - and no one is arguing for it (even today's NTY features a piece by Krugman exposing, again, the reality behind the rhetoric of the minority in the US who argue for truly free markets. No one wnats them - there's none to fight on that point.

  16. There is nothing like a battery of statistical data to pound home the facts of an argument. I think Liam makes a strong comparative case for supporting the achievements of socialism in Cuba and China when set against the performance of other new capitalist models in previously Soviet Block countries and India. Unlike his referencing internationally reputable Human Development Reports reports in order to support his claims, others have simply offered subjective opinion on the matter.

    Liam is a hard one to crack because his research is always impeccable. I find his contributions to the Quill interesting and informative. I suppose its the benefits of having a background in academia.

  17. Hi Alex,

    I'd caution about ever trusting someone based on their background rather than their arguments. Of the arguments, I agree that there was a tonne of stat and reports cited. I'm not even making the lies, damned lies and stats argument in opposition (a blog exchange can not and should not be conducted like an academic exchange), just questioning his framing:
    You're sticking to his frame that Chine is a socialist success story. That is Liam's frame - not the UNDP's. I've suggested why it's unreasonable to use that frame given then nature of "The Opening" after 1979 -and that's just an opinion, yes. But opinion is the only thing we have when weighing up the value and relevance of facts and stats.

    Incidently, here's a point: have you noticed that Liam is making a case for China - a dictatorship - over India, an emerging liberal democracy? Don't you think that the off stat about wealth, health and whatever else is a little redundant in that context?
    I'm sure women living in prisons in everything but name in Saudi Arabia would have a thing or two to say about "structual violence" regardless of the material wealth they may have. The thing is though, like China and Cuba and unlike India, we all know why they're unlikely to shout too loudly about it.

  18. Incidently, since the UNDP reports are cited a lot, is it not telling that a correlation can be discerned by the countries that are most developed - and developing fastest - and the extent to which the women living in them are free?

  19. Alex,

    Liam's sources, beyond the UNDP stats (that, as I've said, he interprets within his own normative frame) are Marx, Engles, Chomsky, Engles, Gramsci and Sartre. The weakest point of the whole piece is the sources: what other conclusion could he have come to?

    Is the use of such a sources selection process an exercise in academia or an exercise in ideology and polemic?


  20. Ruarai,

    Is it reasonable that you should seek to restrict the definition of capitalism to the point where it excludes its central tenet - the free market - yet use the term socialism as if it precludes any kind of market? The free market or policies that seek to approximate it have been at the forefront of Western economic policy for three decades. These policies are synonymous with modern capitalism. They have failed. That is not to say that communism or 'old' socialism is the answer; I don't believe it is. But Liam is right that such models have reduced poverty in the developing world more effectively than free markets, though perhaps at the expense of personal freedoms. I do believe that states ought to play a big role in their economies, particularly in market regulation, economic stimulus, health and education. I also believe that states should strive for equality, though not at the expense of basic liberties. I think that's a more socialist than capitalist strategy.

  21. Hi Alfie,

    Hi Alfie,
    if you’re happy with a definition of socialism that is based on regulating the market rather than replacing it then I suspect we're closer ideologically than you are to Liam.
    But once that point about regulation rather than replacement is conceded (or agreed, if you like), your premise is already to the right of even the British Labour party in the 1980s, never mind the staunch and committed anti-capitalists Liam uses as sources.
    At that point, what does it even mean to say that China has a socialist economy? What is socialist about it? If it’s a question of degree rather than type, and since no society has a totally free market based system (or anything close to it) we're now just talking – when comparing these countries - about differences in the balance of state participation in a market economy - differences in degree rather than type; not differences between models.
    "Northern Ireland", for example, has a hugely state-centered (and weak) economy - much moreso than Shanghai does. Yet would you say that Shanghai is more socialist than Belfast? If so, why?
    (And at risk of changing the subject - is Cuba a model of anything (other than poverty) given its utter dependence on outside charity?)
    But let's stick with China - I think it goes to the heart of the matter:
    The catalyst for development in China (whatever you want to call its system) since 1979 has been the market – far enough? Not the role of the market in isolation but very definitely the aspects of a market system – a capitalist system - that Liam is attacking: private business seeking profit, etc.
    For you (or Liam) to then say: score one for Socialism…how so? Surely this is an endorsement of the market – not a free market; not Jeff Sachs “shock therapy” post-Soviet market; not an anything but free neoliberal freedom for investors to run riot CAFTA market; but, nonetheless a market system. Not a socialist one.
    Best, Ruarai

  22. Liam - a direct question to you, Sir:

    Quoting exactly one of your responsing to Alfie (6:24 PM, November 07, 2011)

    "There also seems to be a correlation between "socialist" regimes and human rights abuses such as censorship, gulags, torture and mass killing. "
    These have less to do with socialism than with the conditions under which it was built. Any country -socialist or not- that has to face blockades, invasions, civil war etc. will have to resort to these kind of measures.

    I had to read that twice. Can you seriously be defending "mass killings, torture and gulags" based as conditions-dependant?

    What can of values can possibly inform such a claim? Can you elaborate on this?

    How can such claim be made - and made so casually?

  23. Unknown,

    Liam dose not conceal his preference for Socialism as he is a self proclaimed socialist. Likewise, it is clear from your posts that you would favor some form of capitalist production. In this respect Liam's approach is no less polemical/ideological than your rebuttals.

    The achievements of a small socialist country like Cuba in the important areas of health, literacy and life expectancy are factual advances that are well documented. All of this progress was realized against a backdrop of US military and economic aggression.

    China, whilst no longer a purely socialist economy, has made massive strides in reducing poverty and improving living standards for all. The introduction of a limited free market sector has helped to provide impetus and economic growth.

    In respect of the old eastern European countries there is much evidence to suggest that social inequality has deepened since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The break up of the USSR has lead to bitter conflicts and capitalist exploitation of a massive scale. Interestingly, it was reported recently that more than 60% of east Germans wished to return to the socialist model.

    Yes, there are profound lessons to be learned from the failure of the Socialist experiment particularly the tendency towards centralization of power and the corrupting influence of bureaucracy. However, I also believe there must be a better way to organize our economic affairs for the benefit of the greatest number of humanity.

    Today, Capitalism is in crisis because the system is driven by the desire to maximize profits

  24. (error)...rather than by rational planning to enhance the quality of life for the greatest number.

    Capitalism will rob our children of a future and it will ultimately destroy the planet.

  25. Ruarai,

    Perhaps I am ideologically closer to you than Liam. Perhaps you would call me a capitalist because of that, but I consider myself a socialist, though not in the Marxist/Leninist/Maoist sense of term - or the Bertie Ahern sense either! Yes, I do believe the market has a role to play in society, though not to the detriment of society itself. The best option may be a more highly regulated, state-directed market system. You might call this capitalism but the average American would call it socialism. The main area of disagreement between you and I, then, is one of definition: you think a country cannot be called socialist if it utilises market economics in any way, however regulated, state-led or even state-owned that market is; I, on the other hand, think that a country which uses and controls a market system in such a way that minimises poverty, maximises equality and protects civil liberties can indeed be called socialist.

    Do I think China is a socialist country? I would call its economy a hybrid of free-market capitalism and socialism, but I think its goverment's policies of censorship and suppression of dissent are abhorrent and against the original socialist ethos. I have similar objections to the Cuban system, but the fact that Cubans are on average healthier and better educated that those of most other Latin American countries should not be dismissed.

    Nevertheless, I was disturbed by Liam's apparent defence of the human rights abuses committed by communist countries. I don't care what obstacles a country faces, it should never resort to "these kind of measures", a rather chilling term if you ask me. If we have to resort to torturing other human beings in order to bring about a fairer society, then I do believe we'd all be better off dead.

  26. From Liam O'Ruairc:

    Due to technical problems I am unable to respond to comments right now, however there is one point I want to clarify.

    "Can you seriously be defending "mass killings, torture and gulags" based as conditions-dependant? "

    "Nevertheless, I was disturbed by Liam's apparent defence of the human rights abuses committed by communist countries. I don't care what obstacles a country faces, it should never resort to "these kind of measures", a rather chilling term if you ask me. "

    My point is not to defend human rights abuses committed by communist countries.

    If we want to have a proper understanding of why they happen and happened, they have to be set in their proper context.

    Why is it for example that they happened at one point of their history and not at another?

    It is impossible to make sense of the "red terror" measures of circa 1920 if one does not take into account the fact that Russia was in the midst of a civil war and foreign invasions.

    The same can be said of other countries. Why is it that the US government set up concentration camps for Japanese citizens in the 1940s and not in the 1990s for example?

    In that sense it is "condition dependent".

    I will respond to the other objections when I can.

  27. Liam,

    "Any country -socialist or not- that has to face blockades, invasions, civil war etc. will have to resort to these kind of measures."

    That is not an explanation; that is a defence. George W Bush and co. were saying the same thing about waterboarding and Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

  28. From Liam O'Ruairc:

    to add to the comment I just sent:

    "In that sense socialism is no more intrinsically connected to human rights abuse that the United States are to concentration camps."

  29. Liam,

    The internment of Japanese-Americans by the US government during World War II was wrong and unnecessary. But can we really compare it to the Soviet gulag system which went on for 30 years and killed over a million people?

    "Why is it for example that they happened at one point of their history and not at another?"

    That is true of the worst abuses. Nevertheless, censorship and imprisonment of dissidents continued in the Soviet Union until Gorbachev's era. They are happening right now in China. What is the justification for the Great Firewall of China or the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo? Should all right-wingers be jailed?

  30. Alfie,
    I agree with your take on centrally planned economies. They have let their people down. They create ‘losers’ just as capitalism does but maybe hid them better in gulags and such places. Free markets don’t work either. There is no reason that I can think of as to why capital should not be brought under democratic control. There leads me to think that the economy should be societally planned rather than centrally so. How that is to be done is another matter.

    Democratic socialism seems fine but I wonder when we use the term how it differs from social democracy. Poulantzas does a good piece in New Left Review I/109, May-June 1978 on democratic socialism.

    I would no longer describe myself as a Marxist, probably due to my experience of Marxists. But I always come back to political economy as being the best way to understand what drives society. I think Marxism has offered us the best descriptive analysis of the economy thus far but is woeful on prescription.

    ‘most people could tolerate a certain degree of inequality in the world if everyone was guaranteed a decent standard of living and if there was equality of opportunity.’

    This seems consistent with the view that most people don’t seem to think inequality per se as inherently unjust. They see it in sport, culture and celebrity and by extension the economy.

    ‘I cannot see how capitalism can lead to a better outcome given that there are finite resources on this planet.’

    Which does not make it a practical exercise in the long run. Yet as you point out what has passed as socialism has not delivered what people want. The human rights abuses seems a total negation of the ethics we had hoped socialism stood for.

    Are billionaires not just an inevitable by product of capitalism? How can the greed that creates billionaires be curbed within capitalism? If you create a rat race some rat will win. How far can you regulate the race with handicaps before the rats destroy it rather than have their greed curbed?

    Is socialism a process or an event? If it is a process what sort of process is it and how is it defined? I think when you say ‘more socialist than capitalist strategy’ you see it as a process with no one great definitive break from capitalism; a constant press for more state involvement vis a vis the free market yet recognising the productive potential of the market and the danger to rights in market free societies.

    Does it really matter what a country calls itself if the standard of life for its citizens is improved? If socialism is the total exclusion of the market and capitalism is the total exclusion of the state from the economy then we have neither socialism or capitalism, anywhere.

  31. Frank,

    Helder Camara was the first I knew to use the term structural violence.

    I tend to agree with Orwell that whatever the system, anywhere and everywhere, past, present and future, there are three types of people, those at the top, those in the middle and those at the bottom.


    Polemics tend to be one sided. That is what makes them powerful. Your point about productivity is one that always seems to go unaddressed. The socialist societies failed in that sense. The arms race was the West strategically exploiting its superior productive capacity. Had the Soviets been as productive they might still be in the game. All societies produce groups of ‘losers’ who lose because of the system rather than their own inherent failings.

    ‘the countries that have most of the development evils you cite are the least Western Capitalist (if I can momentarily lump the “West” despite the various differences in capitalist production?)’

    What countries can effectively exist outside the capitalist economy? Capital rules the world it seems. While certainly no economist I think it is hard to judge a country these days in isolation.

    ‘Structural Violence’ applies to many more societies than capitalist. It was endemic to socialist societies.

    Is seems pretty much apparent that inequality is a driving force behind poverty and violence. But capitalism is not the only form of inequality in the world. Your references to India and China tend to echo Marx in his emphasis on the capitalist mode of production. In his writings he flags up the immense energy of capitalism. It is where it would lead to that he raised serious questions about. He predicted barbarism.

    The defence you make of a regulated capitalism seems to put you closer to your critics in this debate than they acknowledge. I think the arguments you present simply cannot be overlooked. Otherwise all that is left is a set of slogans.