George Walford: The Trouble With Success

Would anarchists find capitalism acceptable if it were more efficient? The article “Profit and Loss” (Freedom, February 1989) comes close to implying that they would. It lists the recent British disasters – the Zeebrugge ferry, Piper Alpha, Kings Cross, Clapham, Lockerbie, and the Boeing that crashed on M1, and ascribes them to “a profit system which, as we have seen, is a killer.” If that is the anarchists’ reason for objecting to capitalism, then avoidance of the errors, misjudgments, accidents and disputes immediately responsible for these and other horrors would be enough to satisfy them. Surely this is not so.

Under capitalism people die in wars they did not want and in accidents they did not cause; each year millions die from lack of nourishment. But if we control our emotional responses and think about what is happening, it draws us to the question: How many survive? Far more survive under capitalism than were able to do so without it. The profit system is a killer but also, and far more, it is a life-bringer. The illustration that appeared with the article showed a figure of Death with the caption “The never changing face of capitalism.” The implied accusation is unjustified. During this capitalist century the number of living people has grown, from under two thousand million to over five, an increase of human life never known before.

The article distinguishes between capitalism, causing disasters, and the ‘ordinary’ people who risk their own lives to save the victims. The distinction is imaginary. Those who left the bow doors open, mis-designed Piper Alpha, failed to clear the rubbish from Kings Cross, mixed up the wires at Clapham and on the M1 Boeing and, probably, those who planted the Lockerbie bomb, were also ‘ordinary’ people; it is they who operate capitalism. “Profit and Loss” speaks approvingly of the rescue teams at the oil-rig (two of them died in the effort) and of the firefighters, but these are as much part of capitalism as P&O, Boeing and the owners of Piper Alpha. Capitalism is not something separate from the ‘ordinary’ people, imposed on them in some incomprehensible way by a mysterious minority, but an effect produced by their actions (plus some small input from a few distinguished by having a lot of money). If capitalism is to be blamed for the failures it must also be credited with the successes, and these far outweigh the failures.

Here we reach the crux, because it is exactly this that is wrong with capitalism. The worst disasters it has caused, and the frightening prospects it opens now, come from its achievements. The threat of sudden extinction comes from developing nuclear power, the destruction of the environment from growing technology, the insupportable growth of population from improvements in public health and production of food, the increasingly smooth integration of people into the hierarchy and the state system from growing skill in education and mass communication. The trouble with capitalism, already, is its astonishing, unbounded, unbalanced, uncontrolled success. No increase in its efficiency can ever render it acceptable to anarchists.

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.