It is perhaps inevitable that a 19-year-old Greta Thunberg, speaking at her book launch in London, would repeat the now-standard Leftist vision of world history:
“What we refer to as ‘normal’ is an extreme system built on the exploitation of people and the planet. It is a system defined by colonialism, imperialism, oppression and genocide by the so-called global North to accumulate wealth that still shapes our current world order.”
This is a vision of modernity based on a particular reading of world history. Most historians today are trained in textual analysis, meaning they lack the quantitative acumen to pontificate on the evolution of capitalism. Ignorance of economics makes them susceptible to ideological caricatures of economic development, many of which have been kicking around for a very long time. In many cases, their views derive from mid-twentieth-century Marxist theory, rather than a realistic vision of how the world economy has actually evolved over the past 500 years.
As an economic historian, I am better placed than many of my colleagues to provide a straightforward critique of Greta’s vision of exploitative capitalism. I can do this by providing a synopsis of what economic historians have learned about world history over the past several decades. This enables me to conclude with a more hopeful blueprint for policymakers, based on a more realistic assessment of how we got here, and where we are headed in the future.
If Greta’s vision of exploitative capitalism sounds familiar, this is because some version of it has been seducing idealistic students (my own younger self included) for the better part of 100 years. Reading her statement, I was reminded of a similar statement put out by the editors of the (Marxist) academic journal Social Justice on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage in 1992. In an editorial called “Five Hundred Years of Genocide, Repression, and Resistance,” they prefigured Greta’s anti-capitalist environmentalism almost word for word: “The merciless assault on indigenous peoples served as the bedrock upon which Western culture and the capitalist economy were built.” After blaming Western colonialism and capitalism for the destruction of the ozone Layer, they conclude: “Simply put, today’s environmental crisis results from 500 years of unbridled capitalist exploitation. Progress has not come without a staggering price, if it can be called progress at all.”
The key charges are, first, that Western prosperity is built on the backs of non-Europeans, second, that capitalism is racist, and third, that capitalism invariably exploits the environment. Let us deal with each of these in turn.
Let us deal with the first charge: that European prosperity was built through oppression of non-Europeans. A key concept in European economic history is the so-called Great Divergence. This is the time when, during the later middle ages, the countries of north-western Europe began to produce far more wealth per capita than anywhere else on earth. In the year 1000, China and India had more per capita wealth than Europe, but by the year 1500, north-west Europe including England, the Low Countries, and northern Germany had pulled far ahead of any other global region in terms of wages paid to workers, and wealth produced per capita.
Note the timing: (northwest) Europe was already wealthier than anywhere else on Earth by the time it began its colonial enterprises in the sixteenth century. This is not a question of survival, but a question of production. As a rule countries do not produce splendid objects and buildings, if they do not have corresponding levels of surplus wealth.
Rather than colonialism creating wealth, it seems quite clear that pre-existing wealth is what enabled Europe to become colonialist.
How did Europe become so wealthy by 1500? The best explanation seems to be the peculiar set of institutions that Europeans had inherited or developed by the end of the medieval millennium. One of the most important was the concept of the “corporation,” whereby an association could have a legal existence apart from its members. This simple but powerful legal tool enabled the creation of universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, and Paris; it also enabled the cities of Western Europe to exist as entities somewhat independent of the Crown. This in turn encouraged the growth of urban republics, and it enabled businesspeople to pool their assets for entrepreneurial purposes.
In brief, capitalism and democracy developed from the same institutional framework. Both are structured around voting (i.e. corporate boardrooms), free will, meritocracy, and the right of individuals to own property. Anyone who wishes to get rid of capitalism will also have to get rid of democracy—and vice versa. This has now been proven by every single Communist experiment of the twentieth century—and by the examples of China and Russia today.
After several centuries, these European institutions gave rise to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution, in that order. All of these followed logically from one another. This is how secular, technological, scientific modernity was born. All of this would have happened with or without the input of European colonies. European GDP was boosted by colonial enterprise, but for most regions of Europe, the impact of colonial GDP was less than 10 percent. Large cities such as Paris, Venice, Florence, Genoa, Barcelona, Hamburg, Lubeck, Bruges, Antwerp, and London were already large commercial and intellectual hubs before the colonial era, and the laws of path dependency strongly suggest that they would have maintained this trajectory even if the New World or the route around Africa were never discovered.
As much as American academics want to write American slavery as the crux around which global capitalism was built, the fact remains that European GDP was far higher than American GDP until well into the twentieth century. The UK would have developed the factory system for making clothing whether there were colonial markets or not: we can infer this from the fact that the manufacture of clothing had been driving the economy of Atlantic Europe since the later middle ages—again well before colonialism had any significant impact. Even in the Americas, the vast majority of trans-Atlantic slave ships went not to the United States but to Brazil and other South American and Caribbean destinations, which never became major contributors to global GDP. The “slavery made capitalism” myth is completely chimerical.
This brings us to Greta’s second charge: that capitalism is necessarily racist, because it exploits non-European people. We have already disproven most of this, but we can add a few points. First of all, if capitalism exploited anybody, it was European factory workers, the vast majority of whom were white. What Marx did not live long enough to see, however, is that the capitalist-democratic nexus ended up being self-correcting, far beyond what his cynical vision permitted him to imagine. By the early twentieth century, women agitated for and achieved the vote. This helped to jump-start the creation of a Welfare State which took care of sick and aged people. It also jump-started the creation of a mortgage system that guaranteed home ownership to most people who could hold a steady job. Thus did “capitalism” create the world’s first system in which most people became middle class—a state of affairs that today’s activists take entirely for granted. If capitalism is “abnormal” it is that most people under it are middle class, rather than naked and starving as is the global norm. Even before the advent of the modern Welfare State, the freedom and agency provided by democratic society enabled the creation of private societies, unions, and leagues of reformers, who succeeded in ameliorating the worst public health problems enumerated by Engels in his Conditions of the Working Class back in 1845.
What a wonderful, nay miraculous, thing the capitalist-democratic nexus has in fact turned out to be.
Where precisely does racist exploitation come in to this equation? Capitalism has been wholeheartedly adopted by Japan, for example, meaning that people who might have felt victimized by early-twentieth-century racial prejudice in some European quarters, simply picked themselves up by their bootstraps, earning them a place in the G7 along the way. Shared prosperity and trade eventually overcame prejudice to the point that most modern businesspeople cannot imagine thinking along racial lines. Across the world, the capitalist system makes the same objective, colour-blind promise that science and mathematics make to every student: if you are practical, clever, logical, and do what makes sense, then you will prosper. Even now, the GDP of various African countries is growing by leaps and bounds—not because these countries have embraced some alternative to capitalism, but insofar as individual Africans and African governments provide the framework for the creation, sale, and distribution of the goods and services that people want.
Aha, you might say—but surely, you cannot defend capitalist democracy against Greta’s third charge: the charge that capitalism inevitably leads to environmental degradation. Capitalism is based on the premise of economic growth, and economic growth means exploiting and destroying nature!
Here we run into the distinction between what has been called the “dark green” and the “light green” vision of the relationship between capitalism and environmentalism. The environmentalist movement was born in the 1970s, during the high point of western, Chomsky-style apocalyptic post-Marxism. To this doom-burdened crowd, nuclear war was inevitable, ditto environmental destruction, democracy was a sham, and capitalism meant unending oppression. This led them to assume that the world was heading to heck in a handbasket, until capitalism was replaced by some revolutionary utopia. We see this echoed by the editors of Social Justice, above, when they blamed capitalism for the destruction of the ozone layer. And yet, within a decade of their doom-laden vilification of Columbus, the problem of CFCs had been eradicated by a successful global effort.
Social media has propelled the “dark green” doom mongers to near-hegemony in the environmentalist movement today. This is what is impelling thousands of people to lay down in the middle of the motorway, or glue themselves to masterpieces of western art. What these people don’t seem to remember, is that historically, autocracy and command economies are far more strongly correlated with environmental degradation (Eastern Europe under Communism, China today), than any democratic country. This for the simple reason that democracies are historically more responsive to the concerns of individual citizens. Go figure.
Every day, thousands of practically-minded people are working to solve the climate crisis in a way that is guaranteed to be infinitely more effective than 1 million climate activists hurling themselves onto the asphalt. In 2021, the Swiss company Climeworks opened up a carbon-scrubbing plant in Iceland that single-handedly increased the Earth’s atmospheric carbon removal capacity by 40 percent. Today’s environmentalists, it seems, roundly ignore practical, forward-facing initiatives such as Climeworks, for the very reason that it represents a practical, capitalistic solution to the problems created by capitalism. Solutions that they choose to ignore for ideological reasons—and to the great danger of us all.
It seems as though “dark green” environmentalists would prefer to watch the world burn in service to their dogmatic hatred of capitalism, rather than work towards a practical, technology-driven solution to our problems that is staring them right in the face. At base, the problem seems to be that they prefer drama to hard work.
To Greta Thunberg and to everyone else who has imbibed the Left’s apocalyptic vision of economic history, I say this. Environmental degradation is a serious problem, but “overthrowing capitalism” is an absurd, nineteenth-century way of looking at the problem and its possible solutions. Racism and exploitation are red herrings that have nothing to do with solving our climate problems. Only a nexus of democracy and capitalism have any hope of moving the world forward to the future that every sane person wants to see. Concluding that “progress” is bad will eventually doom the world to a second Dark Age. So please drop the 1970s “dark green” vision of environmentalism, encourage environmentalists to learn maths, and help us in the slow, thankless work that will create a truly sustainable future. Europe has led the world in the reduction of carbon emissions over the past 20 years, even as GDP has grown. Growth and greenness are not mutually exclusive. Arguably, the development and implementation of advanced technology is the only practical way to avoid climate meltdown.
Meanwhile, before repeating any more shibboleths about imperialism, colonialism, genocide, and racism, please, take a class on Western Civilization—led by someone with a modicum of knowledge about economic history. The things you learn there might just save the world.
Jeff Fynn-Paul is Senior Lecturer in Economic History and International Studies at Leiden University