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An Unsustainable System
by Robert Jensen
We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. There’s no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously irrelevant.
How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly — typically by those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, but rather simply is, like a state of nature.
Yet for many, something nags at us about such a claim. Could this really be the only option? We’re told we shouldn’t even think about such things. But we can’t help thinking — is this really the “end of history,” in the sense that big thinkers have used that phrase to signal the final victory of global capitalism? If this is the end of history in that sense, we wonder, can the actual end of the planet be far behind?
We wonder, we fret, and these thoughts nag at us — for good reason. Capitalism — or, more accurately, the predatory corporate capitalism that defines and dominates our lives — will be our death if we don’t escape it. Crucial to progressive politics is finding the language to articulate that reality, not in outdated dogma that alienates but in plain language that resonates with people. We should be searching for ways to explain to co-workers in water-cooler conversations — radical politics in five minutes or less — why we must abandon predatory corporate capitalism. If we don’t, we may well be facing the end times, and such an end will bring rupture not rapture.
Here’s my shot at the language for this argument.
Capitalism is admittedly an incredibly productive system that has created a flood of goods unlike anything the world has ever seen. It also is a system that is fundamentally (1) inhuman, (2) anti-democratic, and (3) unsustainable. Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (most of it of marginal or questionable value) in exchange for our souls, our hope for progressive politics, and the possibility of a decent future for children.
In short, either we change or we die — spiritually, politically, literally.
1. Capitalism is inhuman
There is a theory behind contemporary capitalism. We’re told that because we are greedy, self-interested animals, an economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behavior if we are to thrive economically.
Are we greedy and self-interested? Of course. At least I am, sometimes. But we also just as obviously are capable of compassion and selflessness. We certainly can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity for solidarity and cooperation. In short, human nature is wide-ranging. Our actions are certainly rooted in our nature, but all we really know about that nature is that it is widely variable. In situations where compassion and solidarity are the norm, we tend to act that way. In situations where competitiveness and aggression are rewarded, most people tend toward such behavior.
We certainly can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity for solidarity and cooperation.
Why is it that we must choose an economic system that undermines the most decent aspects of our nature and strengthens the most inhuman? Because, we’re told, that’s just the way people are. What evidence is there of that? Look around, we’re told, at how people behave. Everywhere we look, we see greed and the pursuit of self-interest. So, the proof that these greedy, self-interested aspects of our nature are dominant is that, when forced into a system that rewards greed and self-interested behavior, people often act that way. Doesn’t that seem just a bit circular?
2. Capitalism is anti-democratic
This one is easy. Capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system. If you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. Is there any historical example to the contrary?
For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary United States, everyone understands that the wealthy dictate the basic outlines of the public policies that are acceptable to the vast majority of elected officials. People can and do resist, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist win victories, some of them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. Is this any way to run a democracy?
If we understand democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful, then it’s clear that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.
Let’s make this concrete. In our system, we believe that regular elections with the one-person/one-vote rule, along with protections for freedom of speech and association, guarantee political equality. When I go to the polls, I have one vote. When Bill Gates goes to the polls, he has one vote. Bill and I both can speak freely and associate with others for political purposes. Therefore, as equal citizens in our fine democracy, Bill and I have equal opportunities for political power. Right?
3. Capitalism is unsustainable
This one is even easier. Capitalism is a system based on the idea of unlimited growth. The last time I checked, this is a finite planet. There are only two ways out of this one. Perhaps we will be hopping to a new planet soon. Or perhaps, because we need to figure out ways to cope with these physical limits, we will invent ever more complex technologies to transcend those limits.
Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary comfort, but they don’t solve problems. They tend, in fact, to cause more problems. Those problems seem to be piling up.
Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system, and it’s the one in which we are stuck. It’s the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air.
A tale of two acronyms: TGIF and TINA
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous response to a question about challenges to capitalism was TINA — There Is No Alternative. If there is no alternative, anyone who questions capitalism is crazy.
Here’s another, more common, acronym about life under a predatory corporate capitalism: TGIF — Thank God It’s Friday. It’s a phrase that communicates a sad reality for many working in this economy — the jobs we do are not rewarding, not enjoyable, and fundamentally not worth doing. We do them to survive. Then on Friday we go out and get drunk to forget about that reality, hoping we can find something during the weekend that makes it possible on Monday to, in the words of one songwriter, “get up and do it again.”
Remember, an economic system doesn’t just produce goods. It produces people as well. Our experience of work shapes us. Our experience of consuming those goods shapes us. Increasingly, we are a nation of unhappy people consuming miles of aisles of cheap consumer goods, hoping to dull the pain of unfulfilling work. Is this who we want to be?
We’re told TINA in a TGIF world. Doesn’t that seem a bit strange? Is there really no alternative to such a world? Of course there is. Anything that is the product of human choices can be chosen differently. We don’t need to spell out a new system in all its specifics to realize there always are alternatives. We can encourage the existing institutions that provide a site of resistance (such as labor unions) while we experiment with new forms (such as local cooperatives). But the first step is calling out the system for what it is, without guarantees of what’s to come.
Home and abroad
In the First World, we struggle with this alienation and fear. We often don’t like the values of the world around us; we often don’t like the people we’ve become; we often are afraid of what’s to come of us. But in the First World, most of us eat regularly. That’s not the case everywhere. Let’s focus not only on the conditions we face within a predatory corporate capitalist system, living in the most affluent country in the history of the world, but also put this in a global context.
Half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. That’s more than 3 billion people. Just over half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1 a day. That’s more than 300 million people.
How about one more statistic: About 500 children in Africa die from poverty-related diseases, and the majority of those deaths could be averted with simple medicines or insecticide-treated nets. That’s 500 children — not every year, or every month or every week. That’s not 500 children every day. Poverty-related diseases claim the lives of 500 children an hour in Africa.
When we try to hold onto our humanity, statistics like that can make us crazy. But don’t get any crazy ideas about changing this system. Remember TINA: There is no alternative to predatory corporate capitalism.
One of the common responses I hear when I critique capitalism is, “Well, that may all be true, but we have to be realistic and do what’s possible.” By that logic, to be realistic is to accept a system that is inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable. To be realistic we are told we must capitulate to a system that steals our souls, enslaves us to concentrated power, and will someday destroy the planet.
But rejecting and resisting a predatory corporate capitalism is not crazy. It is an eminently sane position. Holding onto our humanity is not crazy. Defending democracy is not crazy. And struggling for a sustainable future is not crazy.
What is truly crazy is falling for the con that an inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable system — one that leaves half the world’s people in abject poverty — is all that there is, all that there ever can be, all that there ever will be.
If that were true, then soon there will be nothing left, for anyone.
I do not believe it is realistic to accept such a fate. If that’s being realistic, I’ll take crazy any day of the week, every Sunday of the month.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at email@example.com.
[6 jan 08]