The Critical View on Global Capitalism

Ten Sociological Critiques of the System

Children working in dangerous conditions for low pay symbolize some of the critiques of global capitalism made by leading sociologists.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo around 1,500 people die every day over fighting to control the lucrative trade in minerals. Cassiterite and coltan ore is used in the production of cell phones, DVD's and computers by the world's most familiar brands. Women and children form the majority of so called artisanal miners who work in cramped dangerous tunnels using shovels or their bare hands to extract rocks containing the minerals. Many are injured or killed by collapsing mine shafts. Young boys emerge from a tunnel at a mine in the Szibira district of South Kivu, Congo. Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Global capitalism, the current epoch in the centuries-long history of the capitalist economy, is heralded by many as a free and open economic system that brings people from around the world together to foster innovations in production, for facilitating exchange of culture and knowledge, for bringing jobs to struggling economies worldwide, and for providing consumers with an ample supply of affordable goods. But while many may enjoy benefits of global capitalism, others around the world -- in fact, most -- do not.

The research and theories of sociologists and intellectuals who focus on globalization, including William I. Robinson, Saskia Sassen, Mike Davis, and Vandana Shiva shed light on the ways this system harms many.

Global Capitalism is Anti-Democratic

Global capitalism is, to quote Robinson, “profoundly anti-democratic.” A tiny group of global elite decide the rules of the game and control the vast majority of the world’s resources. In 2011, Swiss researchers found that just 147 of the world’s corporations and investment groups controlled 40 percent of corporate wealth, and just over 700 control nearly all of it (80 percent). This puts the vast majority of the world’s resources under the control of a tiny fraction of the world’s population. Because political power follows economic power, democracy in the context of global capitalism can be nothing but a dream.

Using Global Capitalism as a Development Tool Does More Harm than Good

Approaches to development that sync with the ideals and goals of global capitalism do far more harm than good. Many countries that were impoverished by colonization and imperialism are now impoverished by IMF and World Bank development schemes that force them to adopt free trade policies in order to receive development loans. Rather than bolstering local and national economies, these policies pour money into the coffers of global corporations that operate in these nations under free trade agreements. And, by focusing development on urban sectors, hundreds of millions of people around the world have been pulled out of rural communities by the promise of jobs, only to find themselves un- or under-employed and living in densely crowded and dangerous slums. In 2011, the United Nations Habitat Report estimated that 889 million people—or more than 10 percent of the world’ population—would live in slums by 2020.

The Ideology of Global Capitalism Undermines the Public Good

The neoliberal ideology that supports and justifies global capitalism undermines public welfare. Freed from regulations and most tax obligations, corporations made wealthy in the era of global capitalism have effectively stolen social welfare, support systems, and public services and industries from people all over the world. The neoliberal ideology that goes hand in hand with this economic system places the burden of survival solely on an individual’s ability to earn money and consume. The concept of the common good is a thing of the past.

The Privatization of Everything Only Helps the Wealthy

Global capitalism has marched steadily across the planet, gobbling up all land and resources in its path. Thanks to the neoliberal ideology of privatization, and the global capitalist imperative for growth, it is increasingly difficult for people all over the world to access the resources necessary for a just and sustainable livelihood, like communal space, water, seed, and workable agricultural land.

The Mass Consumerism Required by Global Capitalism is Unsustainable

Global capitalism spreads consumerism as a way of life, which is fundamentally unsustainable. Because consumer goods mark progress and success under global capitalism, and because neoliberal ideology encourages us to survive and thrive as individuals rather than as communities, consumerism is our contemporary way of life. The desire for consumer goods and the ​cosmopolitan way of life they signal is one of the key "pull" factors that draws hundreds of millions of rural peasants to urban centers in search of work. Already, the planet and its resources have been pushed beyond limits due to the treadmill of consumerism in Northern and Western nations. As consumerism spreads to more newly developed nations via global capitalism, the depletion of the earth’s resources, waste, environmental pollution, and the warming of the planet are increasing to catastrophic ends.

Human and Environmental Abuses Characterize Global Supply Chains

The globalized supply chains that bring all of this stuff to us are largely unregulated and systemically rife with human and environmental abuses. Because global corporations act as large buyers rather than producers of goods, they do not directly hire most of the people who make their products. This arrangement frees them from any liability for the inhumane and dangerous work conditions where goods are made, and from responsibility for environmental pollution, disasters, and public health crises. While capital has been globalized, the regulation of production has not. Much of what stands for regulation today is a sham, with private industries auditing and certifying themselves.

Global Capitalism Fosters Precarious and Low-Wage Work

The flexible nature of labor under global capitalism has put the vast majority of working people in very precarious positions. Part-time work, contract work, and insecure work are the norm, none of which bestow benefits or long-term job security upon people. This problem crosses all industries, from manufacturing of garments and consumer electronics, and even for professors at U.S. colleges and universities, most of whom are hired on a short-term basis for low pay. Further, the globalization of the labor supply has created a race to the bottom in wages, as corporations search for the cheapest labor from country to country and workers are forced to accept unjustly low wages, or risk having no work at all. These conditions lead to poverty, food insecurity, unstable housing and homelessness, and troubling mental and physical health outcomes.

Global Capitalism Fosters Extreme Wealth Inequality

The hyper-accumulation of wealth experienced by corporations and a selection of elite individuals has caused a sharp rise in wealth inequality within nations and on the global scale. Poverty amidst plenty is now the norm. According to a report released by Oxfam in January 2014, half of the world’s wealth is owned by just one percent of the world’s population. At 110 trillion dollars, this wealth is 65 times as much as that owned by the bottom half of the world’s population. The fact that 7 out of 10 people now live in countries where economic inequality has increased over the last 30 years is proof that the system of global capitalism works for the few at the expense of the many. Even in the U.S., where politicians would have us believe that we have “recovered” from the economic recession, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of economic growth during the recovery, while 90 percent of us are now poorer.

Global Capitalism Fosters Social Conflict

Global capitalism fosters social conflict, which will only persist and grow as the system expands. Because capitalism enriches the few at the expense of the many, it generates conflict over access to resources like food, water, land, jobs and others resources. It also generates political conflict over the conditions and relations of production that define the system, like worker strikes and protests, popular protests and upheavals, and protests against environmental destruction. Conflict generated by global capitalism can be sporadic, short-term, or prolonged, but regardless of duration, it is often dangerous and costly to human life. A recent and ongoing example of this surrounds the mining of coltan in Africa for smartphones and tablets and many other minerals used in consumer electronics.

Global Capitalism Does the Most Harm to the Most Vulnerable

Global capitalism hurts people of color, ethnic minorities, women, and children the most. The history of racism and gender discrimination within Western nations, coupled with the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, effectively bars women and people of color from accessing the wealth generated by global capitalism. Around the world, ethnic, racial, and gender hierarchies influence or prohibit access to stable employment. Where capitalist based development occurs in former colonies, it often targets those regions because the labor of those who live there is “cheap” by virtue of a long history of racism, subordination of women, and political domination. These forces have led to what scholars term the “feminization of poverty,” which has disastrous outcomes for the world’s children, half of whom live in poverty.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Critical View on Global Capitalism." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). The Critical View on Global Capitalism. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Critical View on Global Capitalism." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).