Rehabilitating the c word

A long-deserved comeback

What do the writer-activist Naomi Klein, the academic economist Thomas Piketty, the art curator Okwui Enwezor and the Catholic Pope have in common? A cosmopolitan lifestyle? Concern for humanity? A knack for controversy? All of that. But something more substantive too. They each have rehabilitated the concept of capitalism - a concept that has all but disappeared from our social policy vocabulary, writes Gabriele Köhler.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I will summarise:

Thomas Piketty shows how economies organised on capitalist principles quasi automatically lead to growing income gaps, because wealth accumulates more quickly than incomes from work, so that the upper wealth quintile appropriates an increasing share of socially produced wealth over time. The result is an enormous concentration of wealth, economic inequality and social inequity - unless, of course, government plays a role and effectuates policies for primary or secondary income redistribution.

● For Naomi Klein, the profit motif of large TNCs drives the destruction of the environment in two ways: because of their rights-defying and resource-hungry investment strategies, and because of their capacity to steer government policy in their interest. As she puts it “… it’s not about carbon – it’s about capitalism. The convenient truth is that we can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”

Okwui Enwezor argues that Marx’s Capital is no longer applicable one-to-one since socio-economic classes have changed, but the analytical power of that work continues to explain the exploitative nature of globalisation and the root causes of social injustice, climate destruction, and gender- and ethnic violence – the overarching theme of the Venice 2015 art biennale which he curated. Which is why the entire Das Kapital is being read out loud, over the next six months, at the Biennale’s main venue.

● Ironically, the most outspoken condemnation of unfettered capitalism comes from the Catholic Pope: “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few… A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power… In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule. … . Such an economy kills.”

These four individuals, situated in very diverse intellectual and ideological worlds, are helping Das Kapital to make a long-deserved comeback.

● SDGs: The c word could help!

Conversely, the draft under discussion at the United Nations, designed to shape the global socio-economic, environmental and political agenda for the next 15 years – the sustainable development goals (SDGs) – lacks a coherent, analytical underpinning. This is despite its ambition to be “transformative” and pave the way for a “future we want” (United Nations 2012).

Arguably, the issues that the post-2015 development agenda (United Nations 2014) seeks to address would easily become understandable if one introduced the c word – i.e. if one allowed for an analysis of capitalism. The concept of capitalism and a critical understanding of the functioning of capital would help unveil and explain the causes of poverty, the reproduction of hunger, the systemically exploitative functioning of global production chains, and the massive depletion of nature’s wealth and diversity. It would, in other words, help connect all the dots of the 17 SDGs.

And, more importantly, a critical analysis of current globalised capitalism could kick-start a process of genuine reflection on how to change the current dynamics and arrive at a future that all would be able to want.

Gabriele Köhler is a Development Econonomist in Munic ( Actually she is a Senior Research Associate at UNRISD and Board Member with Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF) and with Deutsche Gesellschaft für die Vereinten Nationen.

References and links:
* Enwezor O. (2015). All the World’s Futures. Link >>> here.
* Klein, N. (2014). This changes everything. Capitalism vs. The Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster. Link >>> here.
* Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Boston, Harvard University Press. Link >>> here.
* Pope Francis (2013). Evangelii gaudium. Apostolic exhortation. Link >>> here.
* United Nations (2012) The future we want. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 27 July 2012 Res. 66/288. Link >>> here.
* United Nations (2014). Report of the Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals. A68/970. Link >>> here.

Posted: 17 Jun 2015

Recommended citation: Köhler, Gabriele (2015) 'Rehabilitating the c word. A long-deserved comeback', World Economy & Development In Brief, Issue 1-2/Jan-Jun, Luxembourg (

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