Back to blog

How Capitalism Idly Watches as People Die

Within the luminous halls of affluence, a disconcerting melody resonates, the leitmotif of the cold equations of capitalism. This melody, which is unrelentingly hammered out on the harsh anvil of human suffering, creates a bleak symphony where the quest for profit supersedes the value of human life.

This is not a dystopian novel, but rather our harsh and unforgiving reality. Whether it's brave first responders gasping for breath in the aftermath of 9/11, NFL players trading their long-term health for short-lived glory, or ordinary folks grappling with a pandemic while politicians debate the death count. If you peel back the veneer of progress and wealth, and you find a chilling pattern: when dollars are on one side of the scale and human lives are on the other, capitalism chooses money every time.

There’s a cold underlying rationality which corrupts the motives of even the most well-meaning, and in the absence of strong accountability mechanisms, individual ethics can only go so far. Ultimately the problem is structural, and the solutions will need to be structural, too. Liu-Abolish Silicon Valley

Radium Girls

One of the more striking examples of the indifference of capitalism is the story of the Radium Girls. The Radium Girls were young women who were employed by US Radium Corporation between 1917 and 1926. Radium, as you may have surmised from its name, is extremely radioactive. The Radium Girls painted watch faces with fantastically bright glowing radium dials, allowing their owners to see the time in the dark.

The women who painted the watch faces were unaware of the health risks they were exposed to while handling the toxic material. But their bosses knew. Their bosses were careful to avoid the radioactive paint. By 1930, nearly 200 of the workers had fallen ill due to radiation-induced health issues such as cancers and tumors, as well as occupational illness like anemia, necrosis, and other medical conditions caused by radiation exposure. The women had been instructed to keep their brushes sharp by wetting them with their lips. Many women's jaws fell from their faces from radiation poisoning. Those women no longer had faces, but many men could now see the time in the dark.

The NFL

The National Football League (NFL) is the pinnacle of the capitalist entertainment industry— a billion-dollar spectacle whose priority often appears to be profit over anything else. For generations, the NFL has operated with scant regard for its primary workforce, the very lifeblood of the game: the players.

Repeated studies and biomedical research reveal that the majority of NFL players suffer from chronic pain, traumatic brain injuries, and joint ailments due to injuries sustained throughout their careers. However, it's not just about the injuries sustained on the field. Long-term issues such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)—a degenerative brain disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma—are prevalent among retired NFL players for their entire lives.

Despite knowing the extensive risks posed by the sport, the NFL has historically downplayed these issues- and we can only guess at their motives for doing so.

This pattern of behavior comes into sharper focus when we examine the financial predicament of NFL players. An alarming number of these athletes, despite their million-dollar contracts, file for bankruptcy within just a few years of retirement, largely due to financial mismanagement and lack of job opportunities for their skillset.

In this sense, NFL players are no different from factory workers or miners whose health deteriorates due to poor working conditions while corporate elites prosper from their labor. Capitalism has a propensity to dehumanize individuals into mere instruments of production or entertainment so that we as fans aren't sickened when we watch the brutal gameplay.

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/28/sports/ncaafootball/football-concussions-cte.html

COVID

In a startlingly brazen display of neglect, our country's systems dragged their feet on implementing lockdown measures. The result? An ungodly toll of human lives lost, an indelible stain on our collective conscience. And this burden did not fall equally—it disproportionately crushed communities of color who were already bearing the brunt of economic inequality.

We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings. Taibbi-Crabapple-The Divide

The delay in providing necessary medical care—especially to underserved communities—exposed a harsh truth: capitalism is intrinsically ill-equipped to cater to public welfare when it's at odds with profit-making. Its response to crises is marred by an underlying disdain for those who cannot contribute to its wealth-making machine—the weak and poor—and a reverence for those who can—the rich and successful.

9/11 Responders

Just ask the survivors and responders from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many of whom are still dealing with the long-term health effects of that day.

It's a poignant reminder that under capitalism, your worth is tied inexorably to your ability to contribute economically. Once that capacity diminishes or ceases altogether—as in the case of these sickened responders—you are swiftly relegated to society's periphery.

What does this mean for our future?

Given this history, what lessons can be learned as we approach a period of intense growth in Artificial Intelligence? Deconstructing Crypto, AI, and the 21st Century Colonial Mindset

Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future. William R. Catton Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

We must recognize the warnings of history and take steps to protect vulnerable communities from being taken advantage of by those in power. Capitalism's disregard for human life is a cautionary tale for all industries, including AI. We must be vigilant in ensuring that progress does not come at the expense of human lives or dignity.

Many capitalist societies are plagued with stress-related illnesses, inadequate public education, pollution, and prohibitive healthcare costs. In fact, the United States, one of the wealthiest capitalist countries, ranks poorly among developed nations in terms of healthcare access and quality.

Imagining a Post-Capitalist World

It's time to envision a system where success isn't measured by the accumulation of wealth but by the wellbeing of its citizens. We can learn from capitalism's failings and use them as stepping stones towards a better future—a future where no one has to die for the sake of profit.

In a post-capitalist world, our values needn't be dictated by profit margins and GDP growth. Instead, we could prioritize wellbeing, sustainability, and mutual aid. Society would be measured by the happiness of its citizens and the health of its environment rather than its billionaires' net worth.

The Internet, which serves as the backbone for our digital age and countless billion-dollar industries, was born out of government-funded research, not corporate enterprises.

Most fundamental breakthroughs, from satellite technology to life-saving medicines, often have their roots in public sector research. Market-driven innovations typically focus on turning these publicly funded breakthroughs into marketable products rather than driving the frontier of knowledge.

Of course, the radical shift we need will not happen overnight. But acknowledging capitalism's fundamental flaws is the first step toward building a more compassionate, equitable future. If history has shown us anything, it's that no system, not even capitalism, is too big to change or fail.


  1. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 - Profits were prioritized over worker safety, resulting in 146 deaths.
  2. Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 - Ignored safety standards for cheaper operations, leading to a devastating environmental disaster.
  3. Financial Crisis in 2008 - Irresponsible lending for quick profits triggered a global financial meltdown.
  4. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 - Cutting costs on safety measures led to the largest marine oil spill in history.
  5. Flint Water Crisis starting in 2014 - Switching to a cheaper water source led to lead-contaminated drinking water.
  6. Asbestos Exposure throughout the 20th century - Asbestos was widely used to cut costs, despite knowing its links to cancer.
  7. Union Carbide Bhopal Disaster in 1984 - Safety standards were ignored to save money, leading to a gas leak that caused thousands of deaths.
  8. Tobacco Industry from the 1950s onwards - Aggressively marketed cigarettes and lobbied against regulations to maintain high profits, despite knowing health risks.
  9. Pharmaceutical Opioid Crisis from the 1990s onwards - Painkillers were aggressively marketed for profits, leading to a nationwide opioid crisis.
  10. Boeing 737 Max Crashes in 2018 and 2019 - Ignored safety concerns to save money, leading to two fatal crashes.