Measured by the sheer volume of stuff produced, capitalism is a very successful system. According to World Bank data, in 1960 global gross domestic product (GDP)—which measures the monetary value of goods and services sold—was just under US$1.4 trillion. By 2022 it had risen to $101 trillion. The world’s population has increased a lot in that time, but the volume of stuff produced has increased by far more.

How useful are all those products and services?

The overriding goal of production under capitalism is profit, not poverty reduction or human happiness. What determines what is produced, and when, where and how, isn’t a thing’s usefulness—whether it fulfils a genuine need—but how much money it will make for the person selling it. Defenders of capitalism say that this is the most efficient way to organise the economy. But reality tells a different story.

Much of what is produced is, put simply, trash. For some capitalists, this means trash in a very literal sense. Think, for instance, of the vast and ever increasing quantities of unnecessary plastic and other packaging we’re drowning in, only a small fraction of which is recycled. Producing all this rubbish is highly lucrative. The global packaging market is worth more than US$1 trillion and is growing rapidly.

Another, bigger, section of the capitalist class, while not producing trash in an immediate sense like the plastic peddlers, is nevertheless producing things that will by design become trash a few months or years after being purchased.

As capitalism has developed and grown, so too has the role of built-in obsolescence: purposely making products to not last. The waste of resources and human labour involved is mind-boggling. Take “fast fashion”. In 2018 (the last year the Environmental Protection Agency published data), 11.3 million tonnes of textiles were dumped in landfill in the US alone. In Ghana, a centre for the “recycling” of clothing discarded by consumers in the West, locals are forced to live side by side with giant piles of discarded clothes. 

It’s a similar picture with cars, computers and mobile phones. They could be made to last much longer than they do. The economy would be more sustainable, and our lives better, if they were. But this would undercut the capacity of the companies involved to sell ever increasing quantities. Your iPhone must die so that Apple’s profits can live!

Built-in obsolescence should be something that generates widespread rage against the system. The fact that it doesn’t, and that many people—particularly in wealthier countries—think nothing of disposing of clothes they’ve bought after wearing them only a few times, reflects the success of decades of capitalist propaganda geared towards making disposability seem, if not a virtue then at least something that’s entirely normal and unobjectionable. The phenomenon of “fast fashion” is just the tip of a very large iceberg. 

The alienated reality of working-class life is helpful too from the perspective of a capitalist class always on the lookout for ways to sell more stuff. In his 1844 Manuscripts, Karl Marx wrote, “The more the worker spends himself [in labour], the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself—his inner world—becomes, the less belongs to him as his own”. 

Our working life exhausts our energies and dulls our minds. The consumer culture of capitalism is offered, in a similar way to how religion functions, as a kind of compensation for this loss. If you can just earn enough to buy into the latest clothing trend, upgrade your mobile phone or get a new car, then—so the non-stop bombardment of advertising tells us—all your worries will be washed away and you’ll finally be happy. The daily grind of life in capitalism empties our souls, the better to fill them with trash.

Another side of capitalism’s extraordinary productive capacity is darker still. There is a significant, and growing, section of the capitalist class engaged in producing things of a genuinely high quality and durable nature. The purpose of this class of products, though, isn’t in any way to improve our world, but to destroy it. Some capitalists produce trash. Others produce terror.

According to market research company MarketsandMarkets, in 2022 the inaptly named global defence industry was worth US$2.2 trillion. It has been enjoying a growth spurt. A powerful section of the global capitalist class is making massive profits supplying all the fighter jets, drones, missiles, ammunition and other weapons required for Israel to inflict mass death and destruction on Gaza and for Russia to do the same in Ukraine. There are even more lucrative opportunities associated with growing tensions between the US and China.

The longer the wars go on, and the greater the level of death and destruction inflicted, the more opportunities for economic growth there will be—for arms companies, at least.

If, instead of capitalism’s profit-driven, trash and terror economy, the immense capacity of global production were directed towards satisfying human needs, we could rid the world of poverty and other major problems virtually overnight. We could produce housing instead of fighter jets and bombs. And we could make public transport networks, renewable energy systems and clothing and other essentials that are built to last instead of wasting trillions on plastic trash, “fast fashion”, built-to-fail devices and the saturation advertising required to convince people they should buy this stuff in ever growing quantities.