Blocl activism

S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism (World Changing)

By Richard Swift

We need serious and widespread discussion of Swift’s central thesis that a reinvigorated left politics focused on policies such as degrowth, control of capital, and a guaranteed income can lead us toward the overarching goal of a just, compassionate, ecologically sound and democratically self-managed post-capitalist society.’ John P Clark, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, New Orleans, and author of The Impossible Community.

‘Our current economic model is not only waging war on workers, on communities, on public services and social safety nets. It’s waging war on the life-support systems of the planet itself – the conditions for life on earth.’

It is ‘pretty obvious that both inequality and growth are built into the very DNA of the capitalist system. Capitalism can never be about selling us less, living in a more modest way or reducing inequalities.’

‘The post-growth alternative to capitalism needs to be different in its very language. It must move beyond earlier preoccupations with class struggle, while maintaining its commitments to equality and democracy.’

It is pretty obvious that our world is in trouble.

It is more the place occupied by the human species that is in question as we destroy the ecological conditions necessary to support us in the numbers and style to which we have grown accustomed. That’s right – we are doing it to ourselves. Species suicide.

We think we are OK but the evidence is mounting that we are not.

When our best natures aren't suppressed, we can be loving, funny, carefree, courageous, thoughtful and capable of wondrous acts of generosity.

So what we need to do is to organize the world in such a way as to encourage our better selves and discourage our narrow-minded and nasty side. Our current system of capital accumulation (known as corporate capitalism) does just the opposite.

It has reached the point where t is easier to think of the end of the world than the end of capitalism. *

The purpose of this book is to tease out what such genuine alternatives to capitalism might look like.

In all periods of history from the Paleolithic through the Neolithic right up to the Late Feudal, people enjoyed their food, loved their children, thought about the universe and its meaning and tried to live according to their values.

The point is not that these were the pre-capitalist ‘good old days’ but that, until relatively recently, life was different from that which we experience in today’s market and commodity-dominated society. Sometimes it was better; sometimes worse.

It is the diversity of real possibility that we are losing under the homogenizing influence of corporate capitalism.

Today’s advocates of an alternative to wasteful capitalism have their roots in past human experiences. They can all find voices of past dissent that still speak to them and offer possibilities of roads not yet taken.

Even in the face of the obvious failures of the current phase of finance-dominated capitalism, the political class seems to have no ability (or even willingness) to regulate the destructive behavior of those wielding economic power – let alone the imagination to conceive of an alternative to capitalism.

One of the features of capitalism that has enabled it to survive is its ability both to create and to take advantage of economic crises.

It has inspired people to search for alternatives that provide a more balanced and stable form of existence, where they can count on regular access to the fundamentals of their survival – food and shelter, peace and community.

This current phase of capitalism is most frequently referred to as ‘neoliberal’.

Embedded in it is a dangerously limited notion of the human that reduces us to mere calculators of individual economic costs and benefits.

It is a project that reduces all human activities to ‘homo economicus’ and takes in almost every sphere of life from criminal justice to immigration.

It is easy to see the appeal of this to CEOs with eight-figure pay cheques and the rest of the one per cent. If you fail, the responsibility also lies entirely on your shoulders for having ‘mismanaged’ your own life by making bad choices. You pathetic creature.

Government may help keep you alive if it doesn't cost too much but don't come crying for more than the bare minimum. You’re lucky to get that.

Thoughtful people simply have the stubborn belief that we can do better than this. They have an underlying belief in the fellowship and solidarity of women and men and their capacity to co-operate with each other for the common good.

They quickly come to realize that the opportunistic freedom of the derivative trader, real-estate speculator or arms dealer results in bankruptcies, evictions and corpses.

In its increasingly desperate quest for profit, capital is driving us over the ecological edge, endangering the very possibility of sustainable human life on the planet.

In practice, most alternatives to capitalism are seen as some form of socialism, which now has a checkered history stretching back over two centuries. The early stirrings of socialist thought eventually crystallized into two main forms: communism and social democracy, both of which are flawed and seem to have largely capitulated to the forces they once resisted.

The main alternative in which those opposed to the system invested their hopes was a socialism brought about in one way or another through the democratic transformation of the state. In those days no-one doubted that the triumph of socialism meant more, not less, democracy. Opponents of socialism were staunchly opposed to such an expansion of democracy, seeing it as a form of threatening mob rule.

This blind spot about using state power to install socialism from above is common to the social democratic as well as the communist Left, and it has proved the undoing of the socialist hopes that were so strong in the 19th century.

Few would today argue that over-reliance on a centralized state played a key role in the undoing of both the politics and economics of orthodox communism.

The consequence was an alternative to capitalism that was decidedly unattractive, as it squeezed popular democracy and personal freedom while at the same time failing to deliver on the promise of economic prosperity.

In retrospect it could easily be claimed that orthodox state communism was not really an alternative to capitalism at all but merely a transitional form of it that allowed certain large ‘backward’ societies, hitherto blocked in their developmental path, to move towards their own peculiar model of autocratic capitalism.

Today, both Russia and China, once the two centerpieces of world communism, have evolved into models of authoritarian capitalism in which a political élite, mostly made up of former communists, rules in alliance with a corporate and financial oligarchy.

The other strain of state socialism that has competed with orthodox communism is that of social democracy.

During the early years it rallied around issues such as trade-union rights and extending the franchise to include women and those without property – as has already been mentioned, in the 19th century it was almost always assumed by both proponents and foes that socialism meant greater democracy. *

For the great social democratic parties of Europe World War One proved a watershed.Here was exactly the kind of conflict (a capitalist war fueled by nationalist posturing and the fight for markets and imperial influence) that socialism claimed to oppose. Yet party after party rallied around the flag, supporting a war that resulted in millions of young working-class soldiers dying or being maimed in the mud of the trenches. It was a shocking betrayal of the most fundamental socialist principles.

This was the beginning of the end of the commitment of mainstream social democracy to spearheading the creation of an alternative to capitalism. Despite various ebbs and flows, the rest of the 20th century saw the drift of the Center-Left towards an inexorable accommodation with the capitalist system which is by now quite clear.

The name of the game shifted from replacing capitalism to managing its business cycles and predatory nature in as fair a way as possible.

By and large,a tame Center-Left proved sufficiently accommodating to the needs of capital.

There were no illusions with Blair and company that there was going to be anything but an embrace of actually existing capitalism with a bit of tinkering at the edges.

Social justice is off the table and has been replaced by modest taxation and balanced budgets. *

Achieving high government office becomes a question of compromise and careers. It tends to trap the Center-Left into managing the fundamentally undemocratic structures (including the security apparatus) of government, and this sucks all the oxygen out of any remaining social vision.

Globalization, of course, greatly enhances the capacity of capital to move its resources around the world when threatened.

Only a radical government with a significant counterweight rooted in society would have any hope of facing down such forces.

But instead of building this kind of counterweight, the Center-Left concentrates on organizing to gain and keep electoral power.

It is the state that, in different ways, has consistently derailed socialist ambitions. In its Bolshevik form it led to dictatorship and the inevitable degeneration into ruthlessness and corruption.

The Center-Left has become hopelessly enmeshed: losing any sense of how to turn the oil tanker around, it has eventually decided that it is not possible or even desirable to do so.

The institutional power of the state itself needs to be recast and re-rooted back into the society it so badly represents.

Without voices to raise doubts about the corruptions of conventional politics and state power, social democracy was gradually transformed from an alternative to capitalism to a more humane version of its management.

Another nail in the coffin of state socialism and the Bolshevik tradition occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of unchallenged Communist Party rule in its former satellites between 1989 and 1991.

A couple of decades later, now that the insecurities of life in the market system have struck home, the tenor of politics is much darker than the sunny optimism of the immediate post-Soviet era.

The growing acceptance and assertion of women’s rights has eliminated or at least significantly challenged a large amount of arbitrary power over the lives of both women and men. But it has gone beyond the informal and personal to raise questions as to the legitimacy of how political power is exercised through the state.

Social movements exist within a broader milieu of ‘civil society’, which includes a number of non-state actors, such as non-governmental organizations, that advocate for the broader public interest and often act as watchdogs on state power. *

Not so long ago, the environment was taken no more seriously by the Left than by the Right. But the mounting evidence of ecological crisis has forged a new dividing line in politics – between those who insist on business as usual, whatever the costs, and those who understand that all of us, all over the world, have to find new ways of living within our ecological means.

These questions loom increasingly large, casting a shadow over not only capitalism but any orthodox alternative to it.

Today, only Cuba, with its emphasis on alternative energy and organic agriculture, stands as a partial alternative to sacrificing the environment on the altar of economic development.

Elsewhere, as with the late Hugo Chávez crafting a form of petro-socialism in Venezuela, short-term advantage seems to be trumping long-term ecological sanity.

The need for an alternative is urgent, as capitalism is irredeemably committed to a form of growth that endangers the existence of human life on Earth.

It is by now pretty obvious that both inequality and growth are built into the very DNA of the capitalist system.

The most visible political manifestation of the rise in ecological consciousness has been the birth of Green parties that now populate parliaments and assemblies around the world.

The first-past-the-post system popular in the Anglo-Saxon world has been successful in marginalizing Green political representation. *

They are often plagued by having to make the same kind of compromises that have seen the Center-Left adapt itself so readily to the needs of managing a capitalist economy.

The corruption of personal ambition and the enticements of power should never be underrated in political cultures that trade on such things.

A more basic challenge to the overall direction of capitalism and the social and ecological wreckage it is piling up is essential.

Inequality is the other major consequence of skewed capitalist growth.

For those of an eco-socialist persuasion, it is essential that the costs of slowing growth are borne in an equitable manner.

But have no doubt – degrowth there will be! It is just a question of whether this will result in equitable and democratic social arrangements or in gate-guarded communities serviced by underpaid workers and surrounded by large populations of environmental refugees.

Mainstream economists now believe that the age of growth that started in the 18th century is drawing to a close.

In such areas as global warming, species extinction and oceanic health, we appear to be reaching global tipping points. *

Any alternative to capitalism needs a post-growth future.

It has by now reached the point that any alternative to capitalism which does not accord the ecological survival of humanity a central place in its program simply cannot be taken seriously.

Utopian thinking is liable to provoke scorn from all sides – and totalitarian blueprints have given it a bad name. Yet conservatives are as prone to dream of perfect free markets as radicals are of equality or living in harmony with the Earth.

The history of different imagined and desirable futures is longer than that of the current epoch of capitalism through which we are suffering.

But, by the time of the Russian Revolution, it was widely believed by socialists of nearly all stripes that a more practical socialism had gained ascendancy and that the utopian variant had all but vanished from the field. Ideals gave way to the exercise of power.

Conventional state socialism has proved a disappointment even for many of its adherents, who were often among the first to proclaim its outright failures.

Keeping utopian thinking out of politics has united both the conventional Left and the conservative Right.

In a conservative sleight of hand, however, many reactionaries still hold a soft spot in their hearts for the ‘perfect competition’ utopian writings of the rightwing libertarian Ayn Rand.

And, while the quality of utopian thinking varies widely, in most of it there is simply a refreshing desire for a more equal and inspiring way of life.

If those proposing an alternative to our current capitalist civilization can only say what they don't want, and cannot give us a sense of what they actually propose, success will likely remain elusive.

This seems to be a fertile time to rethink our social and economic relationships.

There is at least one school of thought which holds that the mainstream of Western thinking itself – from the monotheistic religions coming out of the Middle East, through European enlightenment notions of progress, down to present-day capitalist rationality and market fetishism – is forever pointing towards a future that never seems to arrive. This is the utopianism of the powerful.

According to this utopianism of the powerful, the dystopian difficulties of the present are simply evidence of the sacrifices we make on the altar of some eventual salvation.

Yet somehow it is always those who don't have to make sacrifices who demand them of others.

Meanwhile, inequality grows and hundreds of millions across the world barely survive on a couple of dollars a day.

The post-Seattle slogan ‘Another world is possible’ is in itself evidence to the contrary. It is pretty clear that those who want to build an alternative to capitalism cannot help but think about what that alternative is going to look like.

How can we distribute the world’s wealth in such a way as to guarantee a decent level of equality? How can democracy be something more than popularity contests amongst the political classes?

How can we live lightly on the earth in order to sustain ourselves and the natural world on which we and other species depend?

It is also worth remembering that at one time such causes as ending slavery, child labor or the eight-hour day were thought of as utopian dreams that would never be achieved.

But things are changing. These days inequality in Latin America has dropped to its lowest level for 30 years – and this at a time when the rest of the world is seeing the gap between rich and poor grow dramatically. The business weekly The Economist will tell you that this has nothing to do with socialist governments – but they would say that, wouldn't they?

The basic tension within this kind of leftist movement is between those who think that their goals are best achieved through a more efficient and practical top-down politics, and those who insist on a new kind of democratic ecosocialist politics from below.

The differences express themselves over both limits and methods: popular assemblies or bureaucratic dictate; behind-the-scenes maneuvers or the politics of the street.

The large demonstrations spearheaded by activists for free public transportation that shook urban Brazil in June 2013 were further proof that the political class, whatever its Left credentials, is on notice to deliver the goods.

Behind the commons is the fundamental idea that life, information, human relationships, popular culture, and the earth’s riches are sacrosanct and not for sale.

Since the birth of capitalism there has been a constant pressure to transfer the ownership and control of common resources into private hands.

This process almost always sacrifices sustainability and ecological health for speed and expediency at the lowest possible cost.

Water politics is a growing source of tension between the survival economy and industrial demand.

The water crisis is largely of our own making. It has resulted not from the natural limitations of the water supply or lack of financing and appropriate technologies, but rather from profound failures in water government.

Another area of urgent concern for commons activists is the recent growth in large private landholdings in poor countries in the Global South.

Some are initiated by ‘food insecure’ nations such as China, Japan, South Korea and the oil-rich Gulf States. But most such major land grabs are still carried out by private corporations so as to take land out of food production and instead grow export crops .

Here the motivation is usually gaining a lucrative return and the players behind the scenes are a variety of investment, pension and hedge funds.

With neoliberal privatization, the idea that utilities are public goods that should be provided at minimal cost to all has pretty much fallen out of favor. Instead, corporations have developed private industries that are more committed to their shareholders and executives than to service recipients.

The commons is not just a battlefield between corporate predators and those who resist them – it is also a source of hope for those willing to imagine a world beyond capitalism. It represents a space between the private market and the political state in which humanity can control and democratically root our common wealth.

An alternative to capitalism must in the end be * based on a more complex sense of the human than orthodox economists’ notion that we are all hardwired to a rational calculus of individual costs and benefits.

If this does not succeed, then we risk everything, not least our genetic make-up and that of the plants and animals with which we share the earth, being turned into corporate private property.

The stakes are high. The commons are connected to our sense of place, to our identities, livelihoods and self-expression – ultimately even to our survival as a species. *

Politics has been professionalized and depoliticized. One party seems pretty much like another – with the result that voters’ distrust of politicians has soared and participation in elections has tumbled to new lows. Occasional eruptions of protest are not enough: something needs to change.

The burst of capitalist triumphalism that met the implosion of orthodox communism at the end of the 1980s did not last long.

The deregulatory climate that was supposed to free up capital to deliver jobs and prosperity turned out to be a speculative shell game.

But despite the crisis and mass moral revulsion that followed the crash, coherent opposition in the heartland of European and North American capitalism has so far failed to emerge. *

It leaves the field of ‘responsible’ opposition to a Center-Left that has already capitulated far too much to entertain creative alternative ways of reorganizing society.

The point is that conventional politics is being monopolized by a corps of professional politicians who are both too compromised and lack the radical imagination to go against the momentum of the market.

In the end, the generation of 1960s radicals even failed to defend their limited progress towards creating a more socially responsible capitalism. *

While most Sixties activists held that the problem with democracy was that there wasn't enough of it, these counter-insurgency intellectuals held that there was just too much.

With a few exceptions, they also had a compliant corporate media that acted as an effective loudspeaker for the business oligarchy.

By the 1980s, a sweeping offensive in favor of deregulation and privatization was well under way, led by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. This program was called ‘neoliberalism’.

When the communist world imploded that was just the icing on the cake for capitalist triumphalism.

A kind of galloping inequality took hold and has never looked back since.

Democracy in its original Greek sense meant self-rule by a designated population of citizens. Today, most accepted definitions give all citizens over a certain age the right to vote. But what they are voting for is becoming pretty murky. Self-rule is certainly not on the agenda.

Since the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s there has been a hollowing out of democracy to the point that large portions of the electorate no longer bother to cast their ballots.

The decisive factors in winning an election are access to the funds (provided in many cases by corporate capital) needed to buy media time, and expertise at manipulating the electorate.

Clinton and Blair represented the capitulation to a neoliberal consensus that has taken hold of the major parties in most multi-party systems.

What has emerged is a kind of managerial state with only minor shades of difference between the political parties aiming to run it.

The public is encouraged to think only as taxpayers concerned with getting ‘value for money’. The more generous bonds of citizenship, empathy and solidarity are dissolved in the acid of possessive individualism.

All of this comes at a time of serious economic crisis that has cost many people their dwellings and livelihoods, and polls show a discontent bordering on fury with the incumbents who are attempting to impose a draconian austerity regime almost everywhere.

The depoliticized culture has been tightly engineered by the political class.

Political issues today focus around how best to cater to the rich and the corporations in the hope that they might ‘invest’ some of their ill-gotten fortunes to provide us with elusive employment.

There lurks behind the scenes a half-formed awareness that something is dreadfully wrong – although what it is and what to do about it remain elusive. *

As noted earlier, our species faces an ecological crisis, the consequences of which are proving increasingly dire. In addition, the social terrain on which industrial society was constructed – stable well-paid employment won through hard trade union struggles; a safety net that caught the most vulnerable and gave people a realistic hope that their children would be better off than themselves – is now a thing of the past.

The consequences of this are dire for working people the world over – and increasingly also for those who think of themselves as middle class. Large numbers are falling through the cracks and finding that the social safety net has been yanked away by the neoliberal Right, often with the compliance of their center-left ‘opponents’.

The comfort zone of our political class will need to be breached if anything significant is to change. The political failures on everything from climate degradation through excessive military spending to control of the speculative banking industry speak volumes. Radical problems call for radical solutions.

There has over the past four or five decades been a dramatic shift in perspective on the part of the Left that still harbors serious intentions of replacing capitalism with a more humane social system.

By the 1960s the Marxist-Leninist paradigm had begun to lose its luster for many radicals and by the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s embrace of capitalism, the game was pretty much up. *

These days there is also a tone of desperation creeping in, born of the combination of ecological meltdown with austerity regimes imposed to pay for the speculative extravagances of the wealthy. As the new slogan goes, ‘There is no planet B’.

What is the purpose of a democracy of limited or symbolic representation that is so far from the actual exercise of popular self-rule? Why participate in an economics of centralized growth that spreads inequality while destroying the biosphere? What would be the purpose of any self-management if workers continued to produce the same weapons and waste? *

The Left needs a political presence that establishes both the necessity and viability of a better future – and some sense of how we might get there. Only if this starts happening will we be able to stop preaching to the choir and reach out to those who live in the suburbs, populate the shopping malls,hold down two or three low-paid jobs to feed their kids, and see no way out of the spiritual desert that capitalism is quickly becoming.

There is every reason to rethink the coercive state as it is currently constructed. It is a block to any notion of democracy in its most profound communal and socialist sense: the self-rule of the polity.

For in many ways the state, which is supposed to represent and care for society, actually occupies it as a coercive and alien power.

We need to move beyond anti-politics and have the courage to envision and advocate for an alternative. One such path involves embracing degrowth not just as an ecological necessity but as a path to greater quality (and equality) of life, putting financial capital at the service of people, and providing a universal basic income. We must dare to dream.

Ultimately, however, there is no real choice but to put forward a set of ideas that could lead to a more appealing future for humankind within a sustainable ecological framework that gives us a chance of collective survival.Otherwise our protests become * gratuitous or simply nihilistic.

There is great potential for change in the cracks and if the present momentum of the system is left unchecked, we will be heading over an economic and ecological cliff. We have decades, not centuries, to turn this around.But there is still just a chance (even if the odds are long) of saving our sad and beautiful world.