PragerU’s Moral Case for Capitalism Is Terrible

Megapopular right-wing YouTube channel PragerU’s “moral case for capitalism” fails to address capitalism’s massive defects — its injustice, exploitation, and instability. Instead, it offers a glib pep talk about why modern society is better than feudalism.

Daniel Hannan, the British politician who starred in PragerU's "moral case for capitalism" video, gives a speech on May 16, 2023, in London, England. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Prager University has no classrooms. It has no dormitories or cafeterias or students running around playing frisbee on sunny days. It is not a university at all, though it does have a lot of lectures.

To date, PragerU has uploaded 3,200 videos. The channel, which has been built up with lavish support from billionaire donors, has 3.22 million subscribers. That’s over half a million more than CNBC. Several states have recently moved to approve PragerU videos for use in their public schools.

All of this is concerning not just because the avowed purpose of the “U” is right-wing indoctrination, but also because anyone who sits through much of the curriculum may actually get worse at critical thinking as a result. Take one of their most recent videos, titled “A Moral Case for Capitalism,” narrated by British conservative Daniel Hannan.

Hannan is a high-ranking member of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords — none of which is mentioned in the video. He’s identified only as the author of a book called Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World.

As the video starts, Hannan makes a bold promise. While many people will grant that capitalism is a highly efficient economic system, he says, he’ll do something more unusual: he’ll make a “moral” case for it.

You would think, then, that the meat of his video would be taken up in addressing and refuting the standard reasons given by capitalism’s critics for thinking the system is unjust. Instead, Hannan pretends those criticisms don’t exist.

Hint: Capitalism’s Critics Don’t Typically Support Feudalism

Hannan never defines “capitalism” but he seems to vaguely identify that word with the existence of markets, liberal political institutions and the rule of law, or perhaps some vague combination of the two. But neither of these is enough to differentiate capitalism from alternative systems. Markets have existed in a variety of noncapitalist societies. They might well persist under some version of market socialism. And democratic socialists make political institutions that respect individual rights central to our conception of a desirable postcapitalist society.

Much of Hannan’s airtime is devoted to painting a grim picture of life before capitalism. This part is mostly accurate, with one glaring and hugely consequential omission: Hannan starts the clock at the agricultural revolution

Hannan presents capitalism simply as an outgrowth of “human nature.” This narrative would have been severely undermined if Hannan had acknowledged the existence of the long phase of human history that Karl Marx calls “primitive communism.” Humans were organized into hunter-gatherer tribes with communal property relations for the vast majority of our history as a species, and these societies were necessarily classless. There simply wasn’t enough food to go around to support a ruling class that wasn’t hunting or gathering.

How is it that the earliest human societies and the ones that lasted the longest were at odds with our alleged nature as a species? Instead of grappling with this contradiction, as Marxists do, Hannan sets an arbitrary start date. About “twelve thousand years ago,” he says, “one of our ancestors made a world-changing discovery.” If you “left seeds in fertile soil, plants would grow from them.” Sadly, it “didn’t take long for someone to make the next discovery,” which was that you could use coercion to force others to grow food for you.

Compressing everything between then and “roughly the end of the seventeenth century and the birth of modern liberal capitalism,” Hannan says that “almost everyone on the planet . . . lived in servitude” and that every society previous to “modern liberal capitalism” was “based on systematized oppression.”

That much is more or less true — at least if we start our story, as he does, at the beginning of class society. Slavery and feudalism are very bad systems. This is a point on which hardcore Marxists can agree with hardcore defenders of “modern liberal capitalism.”

But it’s hard to tell how this video is meant to function as a defense of capitalism against it’s most prominent nineteenth-, twentieth-, or twenty-first-century critics. Capitalism’s critics don’t long for a return to feudalism. We think the transition from feudalism to capitalism was a long step in the right direction. We just don’t think it goes far enough. In short, Hannah’s video doesn’t engage with our actual views enough to refute them.

Hannan is right to say that capitalism has very efficiently developed the productive capacities of our society, thus creating a level of material abundance unimaginable to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as well as our feudal ones. But right now those capacities are controlled undemocratically by a small minority of the population and the resulting abundance is distributed in a grotesquely equal way. That’s what socialists seek to change.

“Status to Contract”

Quoting “the great Victorian jurist Henry Maine,” Hannan summarizes the move from feudalism to capitalism (or, in Hannan’s formulation, “the move to modern liberty”) with the phrase “status to contract.” In other words, rather than being born as either serfs or lords, people under capitalism are free to buy whatever they can afford and enter into employment contracts as they see fit.

The problem with this isn’t that he isn’t talking about something real and important. It’s that he’s not talking about a subject on which he disagrees with socialists, and nothing he says is relevant to where defenders of capitalism actually clash with capitalism’s critics.

The socialist philosopher G. A. Cohen talked about three different conceptions of “equality of opportunity” in his book Why Not Socialism?. “Bourgeois equality of opportunity” means eliminating all legal impediments to anyone who can getting ahead in society. Achieving this kind of equality is certainly important. But is it the only kind of equality worth wanting? A libertarian dystopia where all schools were privatized and poor children went to work in coal mines as soon as they could walk, after all, would still have this kind of equal opportunity, as long as there were no laws against upward mobility.

Cohen’s second-level conception of equality, “left-liberal equality of opportunity,” involves trying to remove social impediments to people getting ahead, like substandard schools in impoverished areas. Efforts made by various welfare states to move in the direction of left-liberal equal opportunity certainly represent an improvement over bare-bones bourgeois equal opportunity.

But Cohen holds out as the real ideal that we should use to evaluate social progress how closely they approximate “socialist equality of opportunity” — the idea that all inequalities are unjust if they’re outside of the control of whoever ends up with the short end of the stick. It’s one thing for one person to have more than another because they worked longer hours or agreed to do a particularly demanding job others didn’t want, and quite another for a wealthy capitalist to simply inherit a business from his father the way kings inherit their thrones. Or even for some people to end up with significantly better lives than others depending on whether they had to work menial jobs or they happened to be born with the set of skills that helps them climb the ladder of middle-class upward mobility.

Cohen’s “socialist equality of opportunity” principle forces us to think about whether, and why, people who do socially necessary but “unskilled” labor deserve worse lives than lawyers or accountants. Such questions don’t seem to arise in Hannan’s worldview. He seems to think people who work long hours for low wages should just shut up and be grateful that they weren’t born as serfs or slaves.

Contracts, Status, and Class

The most important critic of capitalism in the system’s history, whose name doesn’t appear in Hannan’s video, is Karl Marx, whose masterpiece Capital is precisely devoted to analyzing what a society where production is organized around “contract” rather than formally codified “status” actually works. One of the central arguments of that book is that capitalism is a class society too, even if the way that ruling classes extract the “surplus” created by the laboring population is different than the way it works in feudal and slave systems.

Marx proposed that in all of these systems the “immediate producers” (whether serfs, slaves, or modern workers) divide their time between the hours when they’re working to meet their own needs and the hours when they’re working to enrich slave owners or feudal aristocrats, or capitalists. Under feudalism, it all happens right out in the open. The serf is allowed to farm his own little plot of land for a certain number of weeks a year and legally required to farm his lord’s land during other weeks. Under both slavery and capitalism, Marx says, the division is disguised, though in opposite ways.

Slaves appear to spend all of their working hours working to enrich their owners, but this is misleading, since the resources owners spend feeding and clothing them are themselves produced by slave labor — whether directly or through the slaves making products that the owner sold and used to buy the food and clothing. Under capitalism, by contrast, workers are officially paid for every hour of their labor, but in practice they make goods or services equivalent to what they get back in their paychecks during part of the day, and during the rest they’re producing profits for the boss. If a worker produces $400 in goods over the course of an eight-hour day, and only gets back $200 in wages, then in effect they’ve spent four hours working for themselves and four hours doing unpaid labor on behalf of the boss.

Marx says that the extraction of these hours of unpaid labor is involuntary, even if under capitalism they’re being extracted not by direct coercion, as in earlier forms of class society, but by the “mute compulsion” of economic necessity. The vast majority of people born into the working class — which is to say, the vast majority of society — have no realistic way of making a living except to sell their working hours to a capitalist. That means that to put food on the table and pay rent they have no acceptable choice except to sign an employment contract in which they agree to give up much of their autonomy for eight hours of each day, and to give up a massive share of what they produce to the capitalist.

In Marx’s phrase, workers under capitalism are “doubly free” — both legally “free” to make employment contracts with any capitalist who will have them, and “free” from any alternative way of making ends meet. In other words, they’re forced to sign contracts that confer a subordinate status.

Socialists seek to change that through some form of collective ownership. Those of us who advocate democratic forms of socialism think that workers and communities should control productive resources and decide together how to use them. So, for example, Amazon, the business Hannan uses as an example, could either be converted into a worker cooperative or nationalized by a democratic state, or worker and state representatives could run it together in some combination of the two models. The point from a democratic socialist perspective is that, in a phrase popularized by political theorist Michael Walzer, “what touches all” should be “decided by all.”

Other than few desultory references to authoritarian regimes like North Korea — hardly the model that any socialist in his own society advocates — the only sentence of the video that even acknowledges the possibility that the move from feudalism to capitalism could be a step toward something better than capitalism (rather than humanity’s final economic destination) is one where he says that “socialism replaces our natural human relations with state control.” But he doesn’t tell us why working-class people making decisions collectively and democratically about, for example, how the package-shipping industry should work is less “natural” than warehouse workers taking orders from Jeff Bezos.

Why is PragerU Afraid of the Free Exchange of Ideas?

If Hannan acknowledged that any of these critiques existed, he might argue that mute compulsion isn’t real compulsion and that it’s not the job of social and political institutions to guarantee that everyone’s needs are met, only to protect everyone’s rights. He repeatedly celebrates capitalism as the only system that he doesn’t see as resting on “coercion.”

This defense would be step up from Hannan’s weak offering. But it would still fall flat. The material conditions that produce the mute compulsion are upheld by direct coercion. Any system for distributing scarce resources relies on coercion. A letter from the IRS saying you still owe back taxes, or a letter from a socialist government telling you that your business has been nationalized, certainly carries with it at least an implied threat of force — but so does a “No Trespassing” sign on private property. The enforcement of property rights is by definition the use of coercion to ensure that some people and not others have access to limited resources.

If he was willing to engage with the ideas of anti-capitalist writers and thinkers, Hannan would be forced to explain why coercion to protect Bezos’s wealth hoarding isn’t “real” coercion like nationalizing Amazon. It would be interesting to see how he’d try to do that.

But he doesn’t engage with those ideas. Instead, he just gives a pep talk about markets and why modern society is better than feudalism that completely elides the points in contention in real debates about capitalism and socialism. So, for example, he brings up Amazon as an example of how market exchanges benefit both parties. Bezos becomes “fractionally richer,” but consumers get the things they need. Meanwhile, Amazon workers disappear entirely in this picture.

Indeed, the closest Hannan comes to acknowledging the existence of class distinctions within capitalist societies — never mind mounting a defense of those distinctions — is when he quotes the economist Joseph Schumpeter saying that the “capitalist achievement” consists not in providing more “silk stockings for queens” but in making those silk stockings cheap enough to put them in the reach of “factory girls.”

An attentive viewer might ask, “Wait, what’s that about factory girls? That sounds like a class division! Why don’t you say more about that?” But that’s exactly the kind of conversation the PragerU propagandists run screaming away from having.

Real universities, at their best, expose students to a wide variety of perspectives and sharpen their critical thinking skills so they’ll be better equipped to decide for themselves what they think. PragerU is only interested in telling people what to think.

If you let the “factory girls” and their equivalents in contemporary shipping warehouses think for themselves, after all, they might start questioning their status. And who knows where that could lead?