Skip main navigation

Capitalist inequalities and illusions

In this article learn about the inequalities created by capitalist greed and the illusion of choice it creates for consumers.
© Creative Computing Institute

Much of what’s been discussed so far has been around our relationship to materials, how we expect a certain level of fidelity in the technologies we consume and the expectations this creates. All of these materials and products exist as part of global economies, so let’s take a deeper dive into how economies work and the ways they could change.

Global economies are currently designed in a way that profits float upwards. At the end of 2022 1.1% of the global population owned 45.8% of the global total wealth, a figure which has only been increasing since the 1980s (1). Breaking that figure down even further, 11% of that wealth is owned by the top 0.1% of earners, with billionaires specifically owning 3% of that 11% (2). To put that into perspective, there are an estimated 2,688 billionaires in the world for a population of around 7.8 billion, from here we can begin to see how much wealth is being hoarded by such a small amount of people (3). Tech, in particular, plays a huge role in this, as of 2022 6 of the top 10 wealthiest billionaires made their money in tech, with the top two in a near-constant flux between Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Elon Musk founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX.

How did people get so rich?

The system that has made all of this possible is capitalism. Simply put capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of production methods and their operations for profit. In reality, it has led us to a society where profits are prioritised over people and the planet. As Samuel Hammond states “capitalism is unrivalled in its ability to produce material abundance and coordinate the use of scarce resources”. But above and beyond that functional success, capitalist societies also inculcate a set of commercial values that reinforce its supremacy and reward its expansion”(4). Capitalism is the dominant global economic system, and its impact on the environment is almost immeasurable because the environment is one of capitalism’s primary resources. As Trotskyist Fraction highlights, the environment is viewed in one of two ways, as “an ‘inexhaustible’ resource”, producing energy, and products for consumption or “as a waste dump”, and “the earth’s ability to endure the destructive processes of capital is reaching its limit”(5).

But what has capitalism created for us as consumers?

Well, it has created just that, the ability for us to consume. Earth’s natural resources are packaged up and presented to us as products. Markets present us with choices, but as Terry Hathaway argues, “a great deal of the choice on offer to consumer-citizens is illusionary”. We tend to view choice as the cornerstone of a fair and democratic society. That as citizens we have the agency to choose who we elect. The same is supposedly true of being a consumer, in our choice to purchase. Hathaway points to the supermarket as a perfect example of the illusion of choice. In the UK if you are purchasing confectionery, besides a supermarket’s own brand and the more premium choices such as Lindt, or Guerlyian, then you are likely purchasing from Mars, Nestle, or Mondelez. These three companies own the majority of supermarket confectionery, from Cadburys, Toblerone, and Terrys, to Rowntrees, M&M’s, Green and Blacks, and many more. While the choice between confectionery is confined to a single aisle, Mars for example also owns brands which you will find in other areas of the supermarket, such as Uncle Ben’s, Dolmio, Wrigley’s and several pet foods, and the same is true for many of the other conglomerates (5).

So what does this mean for choice?

As Hathaway points out, the main point is the illusion that your choices are driving competition between brands, when in fact, the choice between one bar of chocolate and another might mean profit for the same company. Mars could very easily brand everything the same, with all the confectionery they produced being under the M&M brand for example. While this wouldn’t be very exciting for the consumer, what Mars maintaining multiple different brands does, is obscure the fact that behind all of these choices is one multinational conglomerate, which is still privately owned by a single family, whose net-worth amounts to $120 billion. Equally, it obscures their actions. Branding and marketing, one of capitalism’s primary tools, create a public image for the company that obscures bad press. For example, up until recently, Mars was one of the world’s biggest users of palm oil. A resource whose harvesting has accounted for 5% of global deforestation (6).

Capitalism is a system that benefits the richest people in society, while simultaneously driving wealth inequality and destroying the planet. Something has to change, economists the world over have proposed new models that move away from systems that benefit those at the top and work towards more curricular and redistributive economies. We’ll be looking at these concepts more in the next step.

Discussion prompt

Before moving on we want you to discuss with other learners whether what has been raised here has made you reflect differently on the choices you are presented with?

References

  1. Anshool Deshmukh, 2021. Simple Chart Reveals the Distribution Of Global Wealth, Visual Capitalist.
  2. Nicole Goodkind, 2021. World’s richest people now own 11% of global wealth, marking the biggest leap in recent history, Fortune.
  3. Forbes, 2022. Forbes’ 36th Annual World’s Billionaires List.
  4. Samuel Hammond, 2019. What comes after capitalism? Quillette.
  5. Trotskyist Fraction, 2019. Capitalism Is Destroying the Planet—Let’s Destroy Capitalism! Left Voice.
  6. Terry Hathaway, ​​2015. Contemporary capitalism is not really a system of choice, London School of Economics.
  7. Palm Oil Alliance.
© Creative Computing Institute
This article is from the free online

Building a Sustainable Future with Technology

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education