Questioning capitalism


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Since the heyday of McCarthyism, any suggestion that capitalism is flawed has been met with overt hostility. In the United States, capitalism has become more a religion than an economic system.

There’s recently been much ado about millennials preferring socialism to capitalism, but what many commentators are overlooking is that people aren’t railing against markets, they’re sick of living with “cancer as the model of our social system.” You can wrangle definitions, but at the end of the day capitalism isn’t the only way to have a market.

Citizens from all over the political map see problems with increasing economic disparity but are laying the problems at the feet of different political scapegoats. The left blames the rich, and the right targets government as the source of their woes. If we take a step back and look at the situation, a clearer picture emerges. The collusion of big government and big business has formed one of the strongest corporatist government/economic hybrids the world has ever seen, excluding perhaps the Dutch East India Company.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

In the richest country the world has ever known, why are there people dying because they can’t afford their medicine while billionaires have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all? I don’t believe that taxing the rich is the answer. Rethinking our economic system is. As one person said, “If you’re talking about wealth redistribution, you’re already too late.”*

Capitalism as it’s currently practiced in the United States, where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” is reaching a breaking point. Cutting back federal programs could allow subsidiarity to guide more tailor-made policies crafted at a local level. Even environmental protection can be carried out as compacts between states as has been done with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Our current reliance on the federal government for regulations has led to a regulatory monoculture that allows national and international megacorps to grow out of control. This would be a lot less likely if companies had to meet 50 different sets of business regulations or even more in state’s that don’t restrict municipal regulations through use of the Dillon Rule.

group of people near wall

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In 1888, Benjamin Tucker defined two forms of socialism: state socialism, and what is today known as anarcho-socialism. His essay reads as a prophecy of the horrors committed by the USSR in it’s pursuit of “equality.” It also shows that even 130 years ago, socialism didn’t have one “correct” definition. A lot of the tension in US politics right now is from people using the same words to mean different things. In a living language such as English, this isn’t unexpected. If we spent a little more time listening before opening our own mouths, we might find we have more in common than we think.

As someone who grew up as a devotee of free market capitalism, I’ve grown more and more suspicious that any one economic ideology is really suited for something as complex as human society. Maybe capitalism can be reformed, but dismissing alternatives out of hand is not a responsible way forward when we’re discussing something that so greatly influences the outcomes of people’s lives. No one is suggesting Soviet-style socialism, so conservatives should stop using the USSR as a bogeyman to distract from good-faith conversations regarding postcapitalism. Capitalism served us well for a time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of economic evolution. As they say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Capitalism as it is has failed marginalized groups as it was designed for wealthy white people. This is evident in prison slavery and the continued existence of tipping for service work in the United States. I think we can do better for a solarpunk future.

Are you critical of capitalism? Do you still believe that markets are an effective tool for managing scarce resources, or have you seen something else that could help us manage those things that still can’t be produced in abundance? Let us know below!

* I heard this attributed to the CEO of Mondragon, but can’t seem to find it anywhere, so consider it apocryphal for the time being. It might originally be in Spanish or Basque, so if anyone out there has seen the original, let me know and I’ll update this article.

8 thoughts on “Questioning capitalism

  1. Craig

    The idea of multiple states restrictions on operations is an interesting idea.
    I wonder if This would also give an advantage to local entities like coops as they would only need to work in their local framework.

    1. Solarpunk Gnome Post author

      I don’t have a deep academic knowledge, but more of an intuition here, but I feel like a lot of the problems with abuse of power have to do with the further abstraction of the people who make the decisions from the results of those decisions. This is why I’m a big proponent of municipalism.

      I think local family businesses and co-ops are more in tune with local needs, and thus do a better job of serving their community. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is one of the best resources regarding this sort of thing here in the US. I suspect there are transferable lessons to how things work in the UK.

  2. Solarpunk Gnome Post author

    My understanding is that in the 1970s and 80s, things became simplified from a legal standpoint which did allow companies to more easily spread across jurisdictional borders, but I’m not 100% clear on all the details.

    1. Solarpunk Gnome Post author

      Yeah, I think that’s a fair interpretation of their system. Goes back to people needing to listen to each other and not getting hung up on labels in my opinion. Was at my parents recently and talk radio was lambasting people for questioning capitalism and then brought out their USSR and Venezuela ponies to show how “socialism” would never work. Meanwhile they ignore the more relevant examples of Scandinavian countries which I believe to be more in line with what most millennials mean when they say socialism. I think everyone is starting to see the same cracks in the system, but some people think that system is worth saving at all costs, even when it is crumbling under it’s own weight.

  3. Adam

    I’m an anti-capitalist who is at least theoretically in favour of markets for distributing what we might call luxury goods. Staple foods, housing and medicare all need to be decommodified (and free or near-free for some base level minimum accommodation of each), but markets in which democratically run worker co-ops (and maybe some single proprietor small businesses) compete to sell other less essentially things (“fancy” food, housewares, clothes, etc.) seem like a reasonable way of distributing good that are either scarce (but not necessary for living a dignified life) or which aren’t something everyone would want (in which case, those who want it can pay whatever the market demands).

    I don’t have a super well thought out idea of what this would look like, but I also think being too rigid in our ideas of what a post-capitalism economy might look like can lead to a lot of mistakes when the experiments along the way don’t meet our exact individual definition of socialism or anti-capitalism. I recently read Erik Olin Wright’s final book, “How to be an anti-capitalist in the 21st century” and it had a surprisingly large impact on my political thought (he also suspects the transition to socialism will see a combination of different, non-capitalist and anti-capitalist economic forms — worker co-ops, UBI, gift economy — all coming together and interacting in ways that might be hard to predict but, all together can eventually result in an economy in which capitalist structures are reduced to a minority position and/or eliminated altogether…but without necessarily doing away with markets per se.

    (I’m getting long winded and starting to ramble off track…I’ll leave it at that.)

    1. Solarpunk Gnome Post author

      Thanks for stopping by, Adam!

      As a materials scientist, I tend to think of things a bit further back in the value chain (say, Indium metal), but I agree that we are either approaching or at the point where food, housing, and basic transportation shouldn’t be scarce resources.

      I’m a big fan of co-ops, but am a bit wary of UBI. I’m more onboard with universal basic assets (UBA) since UBI just seems like an easy cop-out to keep capitalism going.

      I’ll have to check out the book you mentioned, although, I must admit I’m quite far behind on my reading lately!

      1. Adam

        I’m skeptical of UBI for similar reasons. And, in fact, Wright notes that a lot of the reforms he suggests would prop up capitalism in the short term (which is why capitalist states would allow them), but would also simultaneously allow people to explore options outside of capitalism. If a UBI means you don’t need to work to live, you can experiment with non-capitalist ways of acting in the world. I don’t know if I fully buy the argument, but it’s interesting.

        The book is only about 150 pages and is written with a non-academic audience in mind, so it’s a very easy read without being watered down.

        I’ll have to check out the UBA idea. I’ve not heard of it before.

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