The Terror of Consumption: Why Capitalism Gets Blamed for Everything

October 3, 2021 Topic: Capitalism Region: Americas Tags: CapitalismMoneyDemocracyPandemicEconomy

The Terror of Consumption: Why Capitalism Gets Blamed for Everything

Anti-capitalists cannot be convinced by facts. If there are too few goods, then capitalism is to blame. The same is true if there are too many goods.


Before the emergence of capitalism, a majority of the global population was living in extreme poverty. In 1820, that applied to 90 percent of the people on the planet; today, it is less than 10 percent. And most remarkably: In recent decades, since the end of communism in China and other countries, the decline in poverty has accelerated to a pace unmatched in any previous period of human history. In 1981, the poverty rate amounted to 42.7 percent; by 2000, it had fallen to 27.8 percent, and in 2021 it was only 9.3 percent.

There is more good news: the number of child laborers worldwide has dropped significantly, falling from 246 million children in 2000 to 160 million twenty years later in 2020. This is despite the fact that the world population increased from 6.1 to 7.8 billion people over the same two decades.


Despite these facts, most people do not like capitalism. The Edelman Trust Barometer 2020, a survey that is conducted in twenty-eight countries, concludes that, on average, 56 percent of respondents believe that “Capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world.” In Europe, people in France were most likely to agree with this statement (69 percent), followed by respondents in Italy (61 percent), Spain (60 percent), Germany (55 percent) and the United Kingdom (53 percent). In both the United States and Canada, 47 percent agreed with this critical assessment of capitalism.

Anti-capitalism is a political religion. In classical religions, the devil is the prototypical expression of evil in the world. In the political religion of anti-capitalism, capitalism assumes the role of evil incarnate. Accordingly, capitalism is not only responsible for all of the evils in society, but also for everyone’s personal problems. People blame capitalism for hunger, poverty, inequality, climate change, pollution, war, alienation, fascism, racism, gender inequality, slavery, colonialism, corruption, crime, mental illness and cultural decay.

Wars were more frequent in pre-capitalist times than in the period since capitalism came into being. And numerous scientific studies on “capitalist peace” have shown that free trade and capitalism reduce the likelihood of military conflicts. Also, there are various studies showing that environmental standards are much better in capitalist than in non-capitalist countries—and there are the facts cited above about the extent to which capitalism has reduced hunger and poverty. So why don’t most people want to hear these facts?

Well, one reason is that when it comes to topics such as hunger, poverty, climate change and war, it is very difficult to engage in a discussion based on facts. The more emotionally charged a topic is, the less willing people are to acknowledge the facts, especially when they contradict their own personal opinions. Scientists have encountered this phenomenon in many experiments and surveys.

In numerous almost identical representative surveys that scientists have conducted over the past decades, respondents were presented with a sheet of paper with a picture and a speech bubble and asked the following question. “I would now like to tell you about an incident that happened the other day at a panel discussion about [then followed various topics such as genetic engineering, climate change, nuclear energy, air pollution, etc., all of which are emotionally polarizing]. Experts were talking about the risks and the state of research. Suddenly, an audience member jumps up and shouts something to the panelists and the audience.” The researchers then asked respondents to look at the person and the speech bubble on the paper that contained the words, “What do I care about numbers and statistics in this context? How can you even talk so coldly when the survival of mankind and our planet is at stake?” Below the speech bubble was a question: Would you say this person is right or wrong? That question was repeatedly asked over a period of twenty-seven years in fifteen different representative surveys on a variety of highly emotive and controversial topics. Invariably, the majority of respondents agreed with the heckler who was not interested in the facts. On average, 54.8 percent said the fact-resistant heckler was right, only 23.4 percent disagreed.

Anti-capitalists cannot be convinced by facts. If there are too few goods, then capitalism is to blame. The same is true if there are too many goods (“the terror of consumption”). And even when a person goes shopping and can’t find the goods they are looking for, capitalism is to blame. Author Eula Biss is widely celebrated for her novels and begins her book on possession, capitalism, and the value of things, Having and Being Had (2020), with this anecdote: 

We’re on our way home from a furniture store, again. What does it say about capitalism, John asks, that we have money and want to spend it but we can’t find anything worth buying? We almost bought something called a credenza, but then John opened the drawers and discovered it wasn’t made to last. I think there are limits, I say, to what mass production can produce. 

Later in the book, the author recounts a conversation with her mother, who asks her if she thinks capitalism is good or bad. She responds with. “I say I’m tempted to think it’s a bad thing but I don’t really know what it is.” For many people, anti-capitalism is an emotional issue. It is a diffuse feeling of protest against the existing order. There is no evil, neither in society nor in my personal life, anti-capitalists say to themselves, that cannot be blamed on the capitalist “system,” even if it is only the fact that I can’t find any furniture to buy.

Rainer Zitelmann is the author of the book The Power of Capitalism

Image: Reuters