Kajsa Ekis Ekman was born in Stockholm 1980. She is a journalist and author of two books, “Being and being bought” about trafficking in women, and “Stolen Spring” about the eurocrisis and its consequences for Greece. Her books have been translated into several languages and she lectures around the world about crisis theory, women’s rights and Latin American politics. She is a critic at Sweden’s major daily Dagens Nyheter and an op-ed writer for the newspaper ETC. She is the founder of the climate action movement Klimax and the solidarity network NFG.
Following is the full text of her TEDx Talk: Everybody Talks About Capitalism – But What is It? at TEDxAthens.
We heard today about inventions, about economy and about war, but there’s one word that has not been mentioned the whole day and, yet, is the force that drives all of these things.
Okay, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness that’s talking about God, right? It’s another word, “capitalism.”
Do you know what that is? What is it then? I didn’t hear anything.
See, that’s the interesting thing. When I went to school, I learned that we were living in a society that was governed by democracy, right? And if you didn’t know exactly how many MPs were in your parliament, you didn’t pass the test.
So when I got out of school and I looked for a job and I got a job, I didn’t see no democracy there. The boss was ruling like in a dictatorship.
When I was going to buy my first apartment, I didn’t see no democracy there either. When you go to the stores, where’s democracy?
And I realized there is another force that’s guiding society that’s much more powerful than democracy, and this force is capitalism.
Now, I know what you’re thinking now, that I’m going to talk about capitalism being bad and all that. It’s not the point.
The point is we have to understand what this thing is, we have to understand the mechanisms of it. I came to this point when I came to Athens in 2011 to write my book about the euro crisis.
This was at a time when — When I landed in Athens, Syntagma was full of tents, full of people talking, having meetings and things like that, sharing experiences. It was a time when the whole European media was talking about Greeks being lazy, not working enough, retiring too early and so on, facts that later on have been disproven.
I mean, I’ve been an investigative journalist for about ten years. I don’t think it’s ever been so easy for me to check facts. I looked at the ECB, the OECD, the ILO, Eurostat, and you see that nowhere are those facts to be proven.
However, when I was going around Sweden and talking what were the causes of the crisis, I realized that crises today are much more difficult to understand than, say, 500 years ago. Five hundred years ago, as the historian Fernand Braudel describes really well, crises were easy to explain.
There were too many people and too little food.
When population grew at the same time as there was a natural disaster, all of a sudden people didn’t have enough to eat. Today’s crises look very different.
We have stores full of food, but outside, there are people who are hungry and begging for money. So, there must be something wrong in the mechanism.
Now, let me give you a definition of capitalism. A lot of people think capitalism is free market, it’s free choice, it’s individualism – No. Capitalism is production for profit in private hands, as opposed to, for example, what’s happening in China, where we have state’s capitalism, where the state produces for profit, but it’s not owned in private hands; or as opposed to production in private hands that’s not made for profit.
So, capitalism is when the production of goods and services is done for the sake of profit and is in private hands.
Now, this is the total opposite of a market. In a market, the principle, as Marx described, is product – money – product. A farmer might go to the market with eggs, get money for the eggs, and with this money, buy some milk, right? So, the money is just a tool.
Now, a capitalist works the other way around, starts with money. Either you take a loan or you have money to invest. You make your product just to end up with more money than you had in the beginning.
So, the principle is money – product – more money, right?
Now, capitalism isn’t good or bad in itself. It doesn’t have a moral. The point is it doesn’t have a plan, it doesn’t have a responsibility, because in every company’s goal is only that thing: to end up with more money at the end.
It doesn’t have a responsibility for the climate, or the economy, or the country, or the world.
Now, the point is here that capitalism isn’t the same all the time. It takes many forms. It can take the form of imperialism, as we know; it can take the form of a free-market type of capitalism; it can take the form of vampire capitalism as we saw in Russia in the ’90s, when people were just robbing the hell out of the economy.
What I’m going to try to describe here is the changes that capitalism has gone through over the last 40 years, which has brought us to this period where crises are happening one after the other in the whole world.
Because capitalism, mind you, doesn’t always lead to crisis. As the economist Andrew Kleiman has said, you cannot blame capitalism for crisis. That is as blaming plane crashes on gravity. I mean, gravity is always there, right? But planes do not always crash.
And as a matter of fact, in the post-war period, 1945 to 1973, the West didn’t see a single crisis. It was a time when profits went up at the same time as salaries went up. The working classes became consuming classes for the first time in big parts of the West, could buy a TV, could buy cars, could go on vacation and things like that.
Now, in 1973, what happened? The oil crisis. After the oil crisis, all of a sudden, profits went down all over the West.
Now, of course, bearing in mind that if you have a company the point is to make profit, what does a company do when they no longer can make profit? Well, one way is to go bankrupt. Another way is to cut costs.
So, companies all over the West started cutting costs, meaning the cost of labor, lowering salaries, which of course meant also attacking trade unions. You had to do that in order to be able to push down salaries, as much as they did.
They got political help in the beginning of the ’80s with Regan and Thatcher, who launched major attacks on trade unions all over Britain and America.
Another strategy when profits went down was financialization. Now, as you might remember, finance had been a very repressed part of the economy since the Great Depression. Of course, because in the Great Depression, in 1929, they saw what would happen if you had an unregulated financial sector.
It led to a big bubble that then crashed, and millions were unemployed. So, after the Great Depression, they installed regulation for finance. Right?
Now, in the beginning of the ’80s, investors were pushing for these regulations to be taken away, in order to – as you remember, the formula money – product – money – to shorten this formula and make money off of money.