Culture, capitalism and destruction

My colleague Guy Rundle, riffing in part off a piece by Chris Berg at the Drum, laments the cultural devastation wrought by (what he calls) capitalism and compares it to the recent program of destruction engaged in by Islamic State in the Middle East.

I feel Guy’s pain. There’s no doubt that capitalist states have at times done dreadful things to the built as well as the natural environment, and that’s something that supporters of capitalism – of whom I am one – need to come to terms with.

I also agree with Guy that Stalinism in central and eastern Europe (where I’ve been for the last few days) had a better record of preserving cultural heritage than capitalist western Europe. But I don’t think there’s anything ideological to that; it’s just a function of poverty. Most Stalinist redevelopments are actually worse than the worst capitalist redevelopments, but there are fewer of them because the communist governments couldn’t afford them.

I think there’s a disanalogy with IS, however. Neither “capitalism” (I’ll come back to what that means in a moment) nor Stalinism was engaged in destruction for its own sake; they put insufficient value on what was old, but they didn’t destroy it because they wanted it gone: they wanted to put something in its place.

IS is different. It’s not destroying in order to rebuild, it’s destroying in order to get rid of what it disapproves of, as did the Red Guards in China. That seems to me a fundamentally different impulse.

There’s nothing wrong with construction as such. Even the construction of capitalist or Stalinist monstrosities will at least give future generations something to marvel at. The trick is to find a social system that will do it in the most sensible way, preserving an adequate sense of the past without leaving people imprisoned by it.

Guy talks eloquently about the way that the visible cultural heritage frames people’s lives and gives them meaning. That’s important, but it’s only half the story. The past can also be a straitjacket: people need a sense of progress, of the possibility of new options, change, development. We need preservation, but we also need creative destruction.

Now if by “capitalism” you mean a decentralised market system of mostly small entrepreneurs, I think it’s historically done a pretty reasonable job of dealing with the competing pressures of sensible development. If you mean a system of giant corporations operating in cahoots with bloated and corrupt governments, it’s done an awful job.

No prizes for guessing which one Guy and I respectively have in mind when we use the word “capitalism”.

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