David Koch Was the Avatar for Modern CapitalismPhoto by Johnny Nunez/Getty Politics Features Capitalism
Capitalism has no moral center. That’s not me saying this, that’s capitalism saying it. Moral outcomes are not the central focus of this economic system—profits are. We are sold a lie that profits are inherently moral, because they are supposedly a rising tide that lifts all boats. A cursory look at the profit-driven conditions behind the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the ghost town of once-thriving Picher, Oklahama, or the entirety of West Virginia’s mining history proves that profits do not automatically equal morality. Often, the blind pursuit of profits is an inherently immoral act, which brings us to the billionaire industrialist who died today.
David Koch was one of this era’s premier bogeymen. He and his brother Charles have occupied a special place in the liberal imagination this century, and for good reason. He spent billions of his own wealth to help shape the Republican Party in the Trumpian image you see today. Given that his and his kind’s blind pursuit of oil and gas profits have helped bring about the literal apocalypse, it is an objective fact that David Koch was a net drag on our society, despite his “philanthropy” that is included in every single summary of his death (as Anand Giridharadas has masterfully proven, philanthropy is simply PR for billionaires who refuse to actually contribute their fair share to society).
There’s a part of me that looks at the liberal response to David Koch’s death and says “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” He is simply a product of the system he operated within. We decry the dystopian outcomes that he and his brother created, and yet those outcomes would not have been possible without profit-driven incentives built into the bedrock of our economic system. Again, capitalism has no moral center by design. This is both a critique and a statement of fact that capitalists have said they agree with. There is no moral calling at the heart of this system because that is not, nor has it ever been—the point of this economic system that rose in tandem with the transatlantic slave trade in the 16th century. Morality is, at absolute best, a secondary concern when perpetual profits are the name of the game.
The crisis in the Amazon jungle, a thriving ecosystem that is responsible for creating 20% of oxygen on this planet, and whose collapse basically guarantees a breakdown in human civilization within the next century, is driven entirely by capitalist motives. Sure, there’s a lot of racism against Amazon tribes in democratically-elected Brazilian dictator Jair Bolsonaro’s invective, but demonizing them is simply a means to his true end: industrializing what is commonly called “the Earth’s lungs.” It is the perfect metaphor for the value system espoused by capitalism. People like David Koch and the industrialists burning down the rain-forests as you read this are, quite literally, exchanging oxygen for profit.
The commoditization of the Amazon is the ultimate example of capitalism’s inherent lack of morality. Humans need air to live, and industrialists are destroying our best source of air in order to profit off the land. Capitalism is something of a form of human sacrifice, where we end millions of people’s lives in the name of profits. The barbarity in that statement is not felt in these actions I am describing, because this kind of mass murder is largely accomplished through mundane bureaucratic maneuvers, as exemplified by David Koch’s ability to persuade our political system to let him pollute everyone’s air. The body count of the mass murders that get our attention, like 9/11 or America’s weekly mass shooting, pales in comparison to the slow churn of people trapped under the boot of a capitalist system built to view everything as nothing more than a means to profit.
It’s a nice thought to “not speak ill of the dead,” but it is one that is impossible to adhere to with immensely powerful people like David Koch. We agree that people like Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden should not be mourned, yes? Then we have established that it is, in fact, perfectly fine to speak ill of the dead, so long as the atrocities perpetrated by the dead meet the standards set by the living. The sad irony of our modern hellscape is that our culture gives respect to oligarchs like David Koch that is never returned in kind. In order to properly summarize David Koch’s legacy in this world, you must include the people who his actions killed, otherwise you are not describing an accurate legacy, but instead are creating Koch-approved propaganda.
What you’re actually doing when you’re opting to “not speak ill of the dead” in this instance is whitewashing the atrocities brought upon this world by David Koch, and all this intended act of decency does is further help to shape our brutal and indifferent world in the mold of guys like David Koch. If you take offense to bringing up facts like how a hundred thousand Americans die from air pollution each year—air pollution created by profit-driven companies like David Koch’s—then you are stating that David Koch’s life is more important than any of his victims.
As much as liberalism tries to turn the Koch brothers into this unique kind of conservative evil, the only thing that really separates them from any other billionaire is the scale of their fortune and their ambition to use it to influence the political system. The basic construct at the heart of their worldview—that no one should be able to get in the way of their insatiable appetite for eternal profits—is espoused by capitalists across the ideological spectrum. This fundamental belief is why Michael Bloomberg intimated that he would vote for Trump over either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. A cursory glance at just the history of World War II in Europe and Japan proves that when presented with an alliance either with fascists or socialists, capitalists won’t hesitate to choose the former. That’s the short story of how Jair Bolsonaro was democratically elected to a position where he has the capability to restrict the world’s ability to breathe.
The Amazon is burning. Antarctica is on fire. We are hurtling towards the collapse of human civilization. It sounds hyperbolic, but what other conclusion can you reach based off of a scientific consensus which says that food and water will be far more difficult to come by in the near-future?
The end of the world is the ultimate legacy of capitalism. This economic system has no long-term strategy because profits can be leveraged out of any thing and at any time—that is what the financialization of capitalism taught us in the 1980s. David Koch was a monster, and history will remember him and his brother as the destructive force the reality around you proves them to be, but remember that he was not special. He believed the same things the people stopping the Democratic National Committee from hosting a climate debate believe: that moral outcomes in a capitalist system should always come secondary to short-term profits, even when we only have 11 years to reverse the apocalypse known as climate change. This is who capitalism has made us, and it took a lot more than the actions of just one billionaire to drive us to the impending collapse of modern civilization.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.