A Way Out of Capitalism

– By Siobhan Neyland| May 24, 2017

IN OPINION

Image: tricky1800, flickr.

The transformation towards the non-capitalist future needed for humans to flourish in future centuries will only be possible if we can first escape the discursive clutches of capitalism—to not only imagine alternatives, but to see them as they are already happening.

Increasingly, in the books I’m reading and the conversations I’m having—about climate change, about automation and the future of work, about the many current and coming crises—the conversation keeps spiraling back to ‘capitalism is the problem’. And most of the time, it’s a dead end, because no-one knows what to say next. ‘What-then-must-we-do’ gets relegated to the too-hard basket. Indeed, theorist Fredric Jameson famously quipped that ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’.[1]

The true triumph of neoliberalism—the ideology that capitalists have adopted and propagated over the last four decades—is its overwhelming discursive power. Its triumph manifests in its ability to prevent us from imagining anything different. Its triumph is that it has closed off spaces for creative criticism and a discussion of alternatives. Marxist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci argued that capitalism has developed a cultural and economic hegemony over the public’s idea of what is and isn’t possible. If collective psyches are being trapped epistemologically by the limits of what those in power define as ‘commonsense’, then our job is to redefine what is possible, and generate a new commonsense for our age.

Resistance to neoliberalism’s discursive hegemony is multifaceted. Part of this exercise is to emphasise that capitalism is an ideology, rather than a ‘natural’ state of affairs. Another element is therefore questioning capitalist assumptions about human nature, where capitalism is seen as the natural order. Finally, it is important to promote alternatives while not feeling pressured to present a complete, utopian vision for what could be built in its place.

If we can understand how this discursive power manifests, then we can develop the skills to critique and resist it. So what are some of the key assumptions we might run up against when opening a discourse of non-capitalism?

Human Nature

People like to make claims about human nature. We hear that humans are inherently competitive, individualistic and self-interested.[2] We are told that we have evolved to put our own interests first in a Hobbesian struggle for survival. This often leads people to the assumption that capitalism is a ‘natural’ state of economic relations which suits the typical human. It rewards competitiveness, selfishness and greed, and it creates and fosters a network of atomised individuals living and working as what Byung-Chul Han describes as ‘self-exploiting workers’ and ‘entrepreneurs of the self’.[3]

But are we obliged to accept this grim view of human nature, and that this particular economic system is somehow natural or inevitable?

Humans have the capacity to be good, evil, selfish, altruistic, competitive and cooperative. Every day, in our lives and cultures, we witness the full spectrum of human behaviour.  So why should we be so easily persuaded that one particular quality is universally prevalent? Evolutionarily speaking, Yuval Harari argues that the debates over the human ‘natural way of life’ misses the point because there has never been a single natural way of life for humans, only ‘cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities’.[4]

Humans have the capacity for an infinite number of dispositions, and some are more selfish or competitive than others. Humans may appear to be more competitive overall, but this is hardly surprising given that selfishness is what the current system rewards. If we had a system that instead nurtured and rewarded cooperation, would we be more cooperative?

Geneticist David Sload-Wilson argues that co-operation exists everywhere in nature both within and between species. His research has charted the phenomenon of ‘group selection’, and his argument is that ‘survival of the fittest’ should be thought of more in terms of groups than individuals, in that ‘groups that are composed of co-operative individuals will always out-compete groups of selfish individuals.’[5] This idea has a timely potency, as biologist Martin Nowak points out, ‘the survival of intelligent life depends on whether we can learn to cooperate with each other before we destroy the ecosystems of the planet’.[6]

We can resist capitalist ideology’s persuasive narrative of naturally competitive humans by promoting a more flexible conception of ourselves. If we accept the premise that within a system which rewards altruistic and cooperative behaviour there will be more of it, then we will have more motivation to build such a system.

Capitalocentrism

Capitalism has only dominated the minority world (also known as the Global North or Western world) for a few short centuries, and its more globalised form is even more recent. It is not an accident or natural inevitability that all markets in the world will eventually be absorbed into this juggernaut. Capitalism’s dominance is the result of colonial expansion and domination, and the rapid spread of this ideology in the last few decades has been the result of a very concerted and conscious effort on the part of elites who stand to benefit most.

Margaret Thatcher infamously declared in the 1980s that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism. This neoliberal slogan is used to underwrite neoliberal and free-market fundamentalism, and to spread this type of economics all over the world. It is the doctrine imposed by the International Monetary Fund to justify its imposition of austerity and its agenda for privatisation, deregulation and trade liberalisation.

The more this ideology comes to dominate economic disciplines, the more it is seen as the only option. This often paralyses those who wish to resist capitalism. It keeps our attention on the thing we want to rail against without arming us with ideas about alternatives. In this discourse, economics starts to become synonymous with capitalism.

Scholars Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson have highlighted how capitalocentric discourse—on both sides—restricts our ability to recognise that multiple, non-capitalist economies exist within capitalism.[7] These other economic forms, explored below, would be easy to dismiss as marginal, but as Chris Hesketh argues, ‘what happens on the periphery does not have to stay peripheral. Highlighting the continuation of non-capitalism offers an opening to how alternative socio-economic models could develop’.[8]

Non-Capitalism

Rebecca Solnit points out that while ‘most of us would say that we live in a capitalist society’, our first commitments are often to family and friends, as well as social, spiritual and political organisations.[9] These commitments are non-capitalist and based on ‘love and principle’. If we start with the idea that our lives and passions are non-capitalist, we can resist the woefully inadequate neoliberal conception of ourselves as rational, self-interested individuals living in a profit-maximising economic system. We could, rather, learn to recognise and imagine ourselves as so much more—capable of building systems which nurture and reward our instincts to love and care for each other and our environment.

But the million-dollar question is: what are the alternatives? What might these systems look like? What is being done already? What and where are these fledging systems within systems?

Gar Alperovitz, in his call to arms ‘What Then Must We Do?’, argues that the time is ripe to democratise the ownership of wealth and describes the ways this is already happening through local cooperatives, worker-owned companies, public-owned enterprises, social enterprises and reinvigorated public institutions. He discusses the way towns and cities in Ohio which were abandoned by capitalism when jobs were outsourced to machines and overseas workers, rose out of their economic depression by taking matters into their own hands.[10] One example is the group of Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, a network of worker-owned enterprises which came about through a partnership between local not-for-profits, hospitals, universities and the local government, and which generates income through enterprises such as a carbon-neutral laundry and a network of greenhouses.

Another example is the Earthworker Cooperative, a project aiming to establish a network of worker-owned cooperatives throughout Australia informed by the belief that ‘social and environmental exploitation are intertwined, and that the problems of climate change, job insecurity and growing inequality must be tackled simultaneously.’[11] Earthworker’s pilot project has involved establishing a worker-owned factory producing renewable energy appliances and components, in areas that are at risk of economic depression with the decline of coal mining. Perhaps the most impressive project of this kind, in terms of scale, is the Mondragon Corporation located in the Basque region of Spain. Mondragon is a federation of worker cooperatives employing a total of more than 74,000 people in 257 organisations related to ‘finance, industry, retail and knowledge’.[12]

These examples represent just a tiny fraction of all that is going on. New Internationalist magazine estimates that cooperatives employ more than 100 million people globally and in 2008, the world’s 300 largest cooperatives had revenues of $1.6 trillion USD.[13] There are already things being done, paths being forged. Cooperatives are one way of doing business where profits are enjoyed collectively by all workers, not by a small group of shareholders, and where social and environmental benefit is factored into the ‘bottom line’. This can happen on many different scales.

Another idea being floated in the face of capitalism’s mounting crises is that of the ‘steady-state economy’. In their book ‘Enough is Enough’, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill map out a vision of a whole-of-economy approach to building a future which doesn’t rely on economic growth.[14] The book explores very specific strategies for conserving natural resources, reducing inequality, democratising control of the financial system, creating jobs, changing the way we measure progress, changing consumer behaviour and above all, transitioning to a society and economy of ‘enough’. The authors explain in depth the changes needed for this transformation, including: new meanings and measures of progress, limits on consumption and waste production, a stable population and labour force, more durable products, better pricing of external costs (e.g. carbon pricing), a shorter work year and more leisure time, reduced inequality, fewer status goods, less deceptive advertising, more local and less global trade of goods and services, and education for life, not just for work.[15] These are just some of the ways people are thinking about how social and environmental costs and benefits can be woven into the fabric and calculus of everyday exchange.

Just Getting Started

Gramsci highlights the need for a new commonsense. And is it not perfect commonsense to conclude that we can’t keep going the way we are going? Our rates of consumption, and capitalism’s addiction to growth and profit, are clearly incompatible with happy and healthy future human populations.

In their ‘Accelerate Manifesto’, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek argue that ‘today’s politics is beset by an inability to generate the new ideas and modes of organisation necessary to transform our societies to confront and resolve the coming annihilations. While crisis gathers force and speed, politics withers and retreats.’[16]

But where there are crises, there are always opportunities for revolution, re-creation and regeneration. Where there is political paralysis and ineptitude, there is grassroots organising, cooperation and creativity. Naomi Klein frames it very simply: ‘change or be changed: this changes everything’.[17]

Taking seriously the multiple non-capitalist forms that are either new, suggested for the future, or that have been here all along, is the strongest form of resistance to the hegemony of neoliberal ideology. ‘There Is No Alternative’ is the most powerful, and deadly, myth of our era. Rebecca Solnit argues that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not in the limelight of the centre stage.[18] We should invest our hope and our attention in those on the edges who are fighting for something different, who are daring to imagine, suggest and enact radically different ways of working and living together.

There is no blueprint, there is no one solution. There is only a broken system beset by countless crises, and just as many different pathways out, many of which we can begin to explore further with renewed energy. We shouldn’t expect it will be perfect, and we can’t know what it will look like, but we can be sure it will be better.

In the words of activist John Jordan: ‘when we are asked how we are going to build a new world, our answer is, “We don’t know, but let’s build it together.”’[19]

Siobhan Neyland wrote her honours year in 2014 about the role of race and whiteness in Australian refugee discourses. Since then she has interned at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, travelled and worked in South America, worked as a politics tutor at ANU, and is currently working as a project officer at the Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership in Melbourne. She is interested in the idea of democratising the economy as a strategy in the local and global struggle for climate justice.

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[1] Fredric Jameson (2003) ‘Future City’, New Left Review 21, May/June 2003, <https://newleftreview.org/II/21/fredric-jameson-future-city>

[2] Hutson, Matther (2015) ‘Why We Compete’ The Atlantic, October 2015. <https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/why-we-compete/403201/>

[3] Han, Byung-Chul (2015) ‘Why revolution is no longer possible’, opendemocracy.net, 23/10/2015 <https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/byung-chul-han/why-revolution-is-no-longer-possible>

[4] Harari, Yuval (2011) Sapiens: a brief history of humankind, London: Random House.

[5] Cormier, Zoe, ‘The Unselfish Gene’, New Internationalist July/August 2012 – 22

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gibson-Graham, JK (2006), A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[8] Hesketh, Chris (2016), ‘On the survival of non-capitalism: from nowhere to now here’, ppesydney.net/nowhere-now-survival-non-capitalism, 27/5/2016.

[9] Solnit, Rebecca (2004). Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, New York: Nation Books.

[10] Alperovitz, Gar (2013) What then must we do? Straight talk about the next American revolution, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

[11] Earthworker Cooperative, For sustainable jobs, for community, and for the enviornment, accessed 9/4/17, <earthworkercooperative.com.au>

[12] Mondragon Cooperative, Mondragon website, accessed 9/4/17, <http://www.mondragon-corporation.com/eng/>

[13] Elwood, Wayne, ‘How co-ops are building a better world – The Facts’, New Internationalist July/August 2012 – 22.

[14] Dietz, Rob and O’Neill, Dan (2013) Enough is Enough, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Williams, Alex and Srnicek, Nick (2013) #AccelerateManifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, <http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/>, 14/5/2013.

[17] Klein, Naomi (2014) This Changes Everything,London: Penguin Books.

[18] Solnit, Rebecca (2004). Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, New York: Nation Books.

[19] Ibid.

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