Friday, April 25, 2014

Could there be life after capitalism?

I can't think of a harder project than the one Cynthia Kaufman has set herself in this book; the title names her aspiration: Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope.

Well, guess what? This book isn't going to get us past capitalism, but it sure leads the reader through many of the issues along the way in an accessible manner. Kaufman, who teaches philosophy at a California community college, demonstrates that it is possible to write about capitalism for ordinary people without giving the impression that to do so we have to learn a bunch of jargon and probably also stop loving our iPhones.

Here's how she defines her subject:

Capitalism is a problem because it allows those with resources to use them without regard for the needs of others. That disregard leads to the destruction of communities, to millions of people around the world not having access to the basic things they need to live healthy lives, and to environmental degradation. Capitalism is one of the most important forces responsible for the fact the people do not have time to do what they love. Along with racism and sexism, capitalism is a powerful force for generating and maintaining devastating forms of inequality. It is largely to blame for the slow response to the global catastrophe being caused by climate change.

Since capitalism is the ocean in which we swim, it can be hard to see. But we can work on seeing more easily.

With capitalism. "the enemy" exists throughout the social fabric and challenging it will for some involve a struggle to redefine our sense of meaning and purpose in life as well as a struggle with the ruling class. As we work to get rid of capitalism we will need to work in ways that are more like the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, where we push from the inside to transform complex network that we ourselves are a part of and that constitutes our very being, rather than as a war where an opponent is defeated. ... We need to develop ways of conceptualizing capitalism that render it solid enough for patterns to be revealed and yet open enough to show the places where it is vulnerable.

Repeatedly Kaufman engages with the history of attempts to throw off capitalism. Marx defined the enemy; 19th and early 20th century European struggles led most anti-capitalists to think the answer was Revolution (capital R!), a quick overthrow of all the oppressive structures of private ownership and the state that the owners used to defend their power. Actual experience with Revolutions has not been happy. Small, disciplined party organizations that are good for carrying out a coup have usually proved unable to transition to any form of broad consensual politics, especially as capitalists routinely fight back. Those socialist regimes that seek to replace private ownership and markets with universal central planning for the greater good create a centralized power that precludes democratic participation.

But bad experiences with replacements for capitalism can't let those of us who hope for something better off the hook. Kaufman has many thought provoking observations to share:

If capitalism is a structure like a building, it can be brought down. If it is deeply woven into the social fabric, then overthrow isn't the right way to destroy it. We need instead to untie the knots that bind us to it. We need to reweave the social fabric in ways that don't rely on it, and that are resistant to it. ...

... Getting rid of capitalism requires a social revolution as much as, or even more than, a political revolution. ... All of our gains are fraught and partial, and we can never be sure of the ways that our activities will add up to meaningful change. ... Working for revolutionary reforms to capitalism, we do need to be mindful of the ways in that movements often lose momentum as people's lives are improved. ...

... For socialism to be the basis for a liberated society and not just a part of one, we would need to develop economic models that allocate resources efficiently and in ways that serve the common good and that do not lead to the development of an unaccountable state. ... There also needs to be some way to assure the viability of democratic processes even when the socialist society is under attack from pro-capitalist forces. ...

... Fear that our efforts are insignificant because our projects don't attempt to overthrow the system overshadows much anti-capitalist work today. But our projects are doing more than merely blunting the pain caused by an unchangeable system. If we understand the means through which capitalism replicates itself we will be in a better position to be strategic in deciding where to place our anti-capitalist energy. By reframing how we think about the nature of capitalism, I hope this book will open doors to more productive ways of challenging it.

General recognition of rising economic inequality leading to worldwide plutocracy seems to be growing by leaps and bounds; Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century rides atop the Amazon best seller list. Meanwhile, capitalism is visibly blocking any useful response to the existential threat of global warming. Kaufman offers insights both hopeful and helpful as we struggle with the challenges of the times.


Hattie said...

Right now I'm reading the Piketty book. It's already changing my mind. More later.

Michael Strickland said...

Lovely quotes that make perfect sense. Thanks for the heads up.

Rain Trueax said...

We don't actually have capitalism. we have government intervening or giving breaks to this one or that. I wonder though what we would have if we decided letting the market decide the value of a product? government determining it totally?

We haven't bought the Piketty book yet but have heard interesting things about it. If we finally get some down time, we will get it as I think the history of how we got to here, whatever here is, would be interesting.

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