True Capitalism Also Hasn’t Been Tested

Early, unfleshed-out thoughts from reflecting on Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara

Robert M. Vunabandi
8 min readFeb 20, 2024

Cobalt Red by author Siddhartha Kara explores how the critical mineral of cobalt gets mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In this book, Kara exposes a side of this global operation that seldom gets talked about: that those who mine not only use rudimentary methods and work in terribly dangerous environments without much support whatsoever and that more often than not, children are involved—and all of this just so you and I living in the Western world can perhaps drive a Tesla, perhaps use our iPhone to communicate with each other, or perhaps have a smart electronic device in our kitchen.

A passage from Cobalt Red Chapter 3, “The Hills Have Secrets”, reads:

We are rarely asked, if ever, to confront the untold suffering that has been endured by Africa. Imagine for a moment what it was like for an African person to be ripped from her home; separated from husband and children; chained, branded, beaten, raped, and incarcerated—all before being forced into the putrid cargo hold of a slave ship, crammed next to hundreds of agonized men, women, children, and babies. Or, what it was like to spend six weeks in this cargo hold without room to sit upright, locked down by flesh-ripping shackles day and night. Or to have to use a bucket for a toilet in front of hundreds of people as the ship crashed through waves. Or to try to comfort an inconsolable child who was frightened, feverish, and seasick. Or to be one of the gravely ill, but still living, who was thrown into the ocean like so much refuse. Or to survive this hell only to arrive in the Americas and be sold into slavery, where the real torture began.

Imagine for a moment the toll taken on a person, a family, a people, a continent across centuries of the slave trade, followed by a century of colonization. Empires were built and generations of wealth were amassed across the Western world in this manner. Perhaps that is the most enduring contrast of all between our world and theirs—our generally safe and satisfied nations can scarcely function without forcing great violence upon the people of Africa. The catastrophe in the mining provinces of the Congo is the latest chapter in this unholy tale.

It’s deeply uncomfortable to try to confront these facts, and one thing this made me question, coming from the perspective of someone that has for the longest time believed that capitalism is the best system we’ve got, is whether true capitalism can exist without this sort of unjust suffering?

From everything I’ve learned and read on the topic, capitalism—true capitalism—has never existed without this sort of unjust suffering. Capitalism is what has enabled me to write this blog and you to read it, and despite that and all the global, technological, societal, and economic progress in the world that capitalism has enabled, it’s impossible to answer whether it has all been worth it. In the next few paragraphs, I will explain my reason and why as a people, we must strive to find a better system.

What is capitalism, just so we’re clear?

Capitalism is defined as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit” (Google’s definition), but it’s important to highlight one of capitalism’s core function, which is the idea of supply and demand:

  • Demand: the market “demands” a particular product—like textile—that it needs for whatever reasons.
  • Supply: the same “market” in turns responds by supplying that particular “demand” in whatever way it can.

This sounds not only innocuous but also effective, so why can’t capitalism exist without the “unjust suffering” pointed out earlier? Well the truth is not that it can’t exist without the unjust suffering but that it has never existed without the unjust suffering.

Photo by Mahdi Bafande on Unsplash

Capitalism’s Supply Problem

I’m going to take a gamble and say that supply, in the true spirits of capitalism, (1) is supposed to be “voluntary” and (2) it’s especially not supposed to be “coerced”. However, there are no country or place today where capitalism happened with true, “voluntary” supply from the beginning, and that’s where the “unjust suffering” often occurs. Evidence shows that at the beginning of any capitalistic societies (and often even in the present day), there has always been a form of supply coercion that has enabled that society to get off the ground. The passage above shows us that evidence: North America and most of Europe has done this through the slave trade.

If the supply of labor was truly “voluntary”, then there wouldn’t have been a need for slaves. Would North America and Europe, in some parallel universe, ever get to where they are today if they didn’t coerce slaves from Africa to labor for them and build the societies they’ve built? Or would such endeavors have been too costly in the first place?

Nobody knows, but what I’m convinced of is that such a successful capitalistic society has never been built before. (If it isn’t obvious, this upcoming sentence is meant to be a little sarcastic) Let me be honest here and say that I haven’t read about every country on earth that espouses the ideals of capitalisms and verified that they didn’t have some form of supply coercion in the past, but do I need to? The problem is, to this day, most societies are still either relying on the fruits of the past supply coercion (e.g., slavery in the past, or more recently, the exploitation of the Congolese people in the mining regions of the DRC in what the author Siddharth Kara discusses in Cobalt Red). Capitalism hasn’t flourished anywhere without proper voluntary supply, which I’m defining as any of the following:

  • 😊 The supplier willfully and enthusiastically supplies the demand (e.g., a successful musician supplying good music/concerts/etc)
  • 🙂 The supplier weights their options and still chooses to supply the demand (e.g., someone with a skill—perhaps an accountant with a few years of experience—who can apply to various company and supply their labor for the one they best like)
  • 😮‍💨 The supplier doesn’t have a lot of great options and still chooses to supply the demand (e.g., a new university grad who doesn’t have a lot of skill and takes the best job they can)
  • 😰 The supplier has bad options and still chooses to supply the demand (e.g., someone who lives in a town where there are not a lot of jobs available so they do whatever they can)
  • 🤕 The supplier only has this one option and still chooses to supply the demand

Even with the last 2 abhorrent criteria, capitalistic societies still needed to force people and often entire populations to supply a demand that they didn’t want to supply in the first place. In the passage above, capitalism has led to the taking and mistreating of slaves against their will to build the Americas. In today’s world, it’s the constant externalities:

  • Oil spills, for instance, involve worsening the environment in certain regions/areas that—you could argue—belong to others who live in that area (or who suffer the consequences of these spills). These people’s homes/livestock/etc, which they own, has been forcefully taken (supply coercion) by those who caused the oil spills.
  • Displacement of the Congolese population in the mining regions: i.e., their homes are taken forcefully from them for the profit of the mining companies.
  • Other examples I could quickly think of are: the Franc CFA in Central Africa, the Rohingya crisis in China, the Israel-Palestine conflicts, etc.

Many countries have gained a huge leg up thanks to the impact of past supply coercions, and to ignore that—to ignore the pain, suffering, and deaths that has caused—when making claims about capitalism is disingenuous. To me, it’s an impossible exercise because it means weighing one life against another and anyone making the argument has to assume that they’re on the side of the living.

“Capitalism is the System that Has Worked the Best So Far”

This truly depends on the metrics you’re looking at. Best for what? Global GDP? Most definitely. Technological innovation? You bet. The ability for people to travel and see everything the world has to offer? For sure. I can surely come up with countless metrics for which capitalism, by far, has worked the best out of every other system, but isn’t that just cherry picking? Isn’t that just ignoring other metrics?

There are a lot of things that, depending on where you are in society, capitalism works great for you. This is why most Google images of capitalism look like this:

I promise I’m not cherry picking. Here’s the full Google image search:

My own Google image search.

It’s as if you’re fortunate enough—really: if you’re lucky enough—you might just benefit from capitalism. So again, saying that capitalism is the best system so far is just disingenuous.

We Still Haven’t Found the Answer

What is the best economic system for a society? We still haven’t found the answer.

I have mixed feelings about this because as far as I’ve looked into these matters, I do believe that capitalism at least offers the best opportunities for social mobility and I do not believe that communism/socialism is the answer. At the same time, capitalism has caused, due to this supply coercion, unimaginable suffering. You can’t quantify suffering and trauma, and if capitalism requires that to happen (by virtue of evidence but not necessarily proof), then perhaps the best thing we’re left with is that we haven’t found the answer to the best societal system that works.

So how are we supposed to solve this?

Similar to how both Socialism (by Karl Marx) and Capitalism (by John Adams) were thought of from the ground up, I think that the world needs a social systems that’s rethought from the ground up.

In the way I see it, we always have this observation that capitalism relies on coerced supply to get off the ground, and perhaps, the issue with that is the inherent lack of “skin in the game”. When I buy a new smartphone, I have no skin in the game in the way the cellphone is made, and everyone down the chain doesn’t either. The Congolese people in the mining regions are the ones who have to suffer by digging up the cobalt using rudimentary methods as Cobalt Red points out countless times. And to give capitalism some slack, I believe socialism suffers from the same lack of skin in the game: the people who determine the distribution of resources do not have any skin in the game in terms of how those resources are gathered—just reading Animal Farm by George Orwell should help explain how.

I feel that a system that can alleviate this problem of coerced supply and unjust suffering needs to address this lack of skin in the game, and perhaps, in such a system those who are benefitting the most in today’s societies, both in more socialistic societies or in more capitalistic societies, will have to give up something in order for this to happen. After all, any systemic societal change has always resulted in a breakdown of the status quo.



Robert M. Vunabandi

Learning through life experiences and books, I share my ever-evolving understanding of the world and the niche-sphere of life that I live in.