In a Facebook discussion, my friend Vicka Corey asked if I thought capitalism had value at one time, which I think is an excellent question. When I said yes, she asked when and how I thought it changed, another excellent and important question. I’m copying my answer here with some minor edits because it might generate some interesting discussion. Here it is:
Huge question. It was progressive when it came into the world, although, from it’s birth it covered itself in blood. But in spite of that, it got rid of the kings and aristocrats, and in this country it ended slavery. It increased the productivity of labor to the point where there is no longer any reason for hunger, homelessness, untreated disease. It brought socialized production to a high art, although in doing so it increased the contradiction between socialized production and private ownership.
The US, from its inception as a nation, epitomized capitalism’s contradictory nature probably more than anywhere else. A huge creative spurt in productivity of labor (the “American system of manufacture”), and profound cruelty toward its own working class. Tremendous strides toward equality–and chattel slavery. A growth of freedom that inspired the oppressed throughout the world–and genocide of its native population combined with the most hypocritical warmongering ever seen (cf The Mexican-American War, and The Spanish-American War for early examples).
When did it change? One thing capitalism has always required is expansion. A company (with a few weird exceptions that end up proving the rule) that does not expand is dying. As capitalism is built on the nation-state, that means the expansion of nation-states, which means any society at a lower technological level is to be plundered and exploited by the more advanced countries.
World War I, 1914, marked the point where every less advanced country was “owned” by one of the imperialist nations: Germany, England, France, the US,* From there, the only way to expand was at the expense of another great power (of course, the helpless victims in the conquered countries counted for nothing.) So I would say it was at that point that capitalism had reached the end of its ability to advance mankind; any further continuance would require body counts in the millions and massive destruction of infrastructure just to provide it another breathing space.
* Add Belgium on a small scale, and Russia sorta kinda counted; it was both imperialist and a potential victim of imperialism, because of its massive size and weirdly contradictory development of technology, advanced in some ways, but deeply backward in others (including military technique).