Earlier, on this blog I predicted that purely secular/liberal effects to overcome Capitalism are doomed from the start. I laud their efforts, and I think most of the Marxian critiques of Capitalism (as well as other critiques such as the Anarchist critique) are absolutely accurate. Recently the Erik Olin Wright wrote an article in the Jacobin magazine called “How to be an Anti-Capitalist Today” Where he outlined 4 approaches to be an anti-Capitalist. The first two are obvious, the revolutionary model of the Anarchists and Marxists, and the Social-Democratic Model, the problems with those models are obvious to anyone who has paid attention to the 20th century. Wright puts it quite succinctly in his article, first with the revolutionary model:
The results of such revolutions, however, were never the creation of a democratic, egalitarian, emancipatory alternative to capitalism. While revolutions in the name of socialism and communism did demonstrate that it was possible “to build a new world on the ashes of the old,” and in certain specific ways improved the material conditions of life of most people for a period of time, the evidence of the heroic attempts at rupture in the twentieth century is that they do not produce the kind of new world envisioned in revolutionary ideology.
Then with the Social-Democratic Model:
Globalization has made it much easier for capitalist firms to move investments to places in the world with less regulation and cheaper labor, while the threat of capital flight, along with a variety of technological changes, has fragmented and weakened the labor movement, making it less capable of resistance and political mobilization. Combined with globalization, the increasing financialization of capital has led to massive increases in wealth and income inequality, which in turn has increased the political leverage of opponents of the social-democratic state.
Instead of being tamed, capitalism has been unleashed.
The next two approaches are a little more subtle; one is escaping Capitalism. This approach is formulated by the old hippy motto “turn on, tune in, drop out,” Wright mentions the Amish as an example, people who pull a kind of “into the wild” adventure and other intentional communities. You also have simply the idea of “living simply.” Things are a little bit more complex here, so take the Amish as opposed to some wealthy guy living in the countryside. The Amish haven’t just dropped out of Capitalism to live off a trust fund, they have created a quasi-theocratic communal system, it’s an actual alternative way to organize a community whereas the wealthy guy living in the countryside hasn’t produced any alternative, he’s just less engaged than he was. I think this is an important distinction, since Capitalism is really a system of how people relate to each other, and how those relations are regulated (specifically through property, markets and individual profit). What the Amish have done is basically skip the enlightenment, they haven’t accepted the categories of the modern secular system on which Capitalism is built, they don’t believe in the absolute autonomy of the individual, or moral relativism or the separation of religious and civil authority. Because they don’t play by the same rules as Capitalism (they have another set of rules, namely the bible), it’s not that difficult for them to have a completely alternate system of community. The wealthy fella who drops out of Capitalism does so on Capitalist terms, the wealth is “his wealth,” earned through private enterprise, he drops out because he chooses too, he has no obligations other than his own happiness, and he drops out so as to have a more personally fulfilling life. He drops out of Capitalism using the same logic as he would had he decided to continue running some hedge fund. When he drops out no alternative community is made, no new logic of human relation is made, it’s simply a different way of doing Capitalism.
Under this section Wright makes a small note about the family, and it’s a shame it’s only a small note because I believe the family far more important than Wright may realize, he says:
The characterization of the family as a “haven in a heartless world” expresses the ideal of family as a noncompetitive social space of reciprocity and caring in which one can find refuge from the heartless, competitive world of capitalism.
Alain Badiou has called romantic love the smallest possible communism, I think that’s true, and that would make Marriage the smallest possible communist institution. From marriage comes the idea of Kinship, family, a larger institution where social relations happen outside Capitalist logic. I think the word “reciprocity” is a little problematic however, what happens in a family relationship is not reciprocity in the “I scratch your back you scratch mine” kind of way. What happens is actual communism, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” the very idea of counting the inputs of the individuals in the relationship so as to justify the distribution would seem to ruin the very logic of the family.
From a practical level, this may not seem like a big thing to focus on for someone worried about Capitalism, but on a theoretical level, I think it’s huge, and it’s certainly something the Market pays attention too. Multi-Level Marketing companies, i.e. Pyramid Schemes, are some of the fastest growing industries in Capitalism, it’s estimated to be a $30 billion a year industry. In a sense these Pyramid Schemes are the ultimate Capitalist institutions, everyone is their own Capitalist, the “virtues” of capitalism are constantly pushed, self-reliance, individual initiative, sales, economic autonomy and so on, it’s about making money by yourself, making it yourself, what could be more Capitalistic. These schemes also depend on one thing, commodifying and exploiting family relationships and community relationships, they do what Capitalism has always done, commodify the commons. People who sign up for these schemes bring the logic of Capitalism into the family, into their friendships, thus effective destroying those relationships, by destroying the logic behind them.
If there ever were a death cult of Capitalism, it would be these Pyramid schemes. But these things feed on and destroy family. Then what is left? What other relationship outside Capitalism is left? There is none.
The fact that the family is a common and seemingly natural form of social interaction that defies the logic of Capitalism is what makes it so important (not to mention the fact that it is good in its own right).
The Last approach is eroding Capitalism. The idea here is that within Capitalism there aspects of the system which are not Capitalistic, the state, families, cooperatives, non-profits, communities and so on which fill the “gaps” of capitalism (externalities for example, or other needs not met t by capitalism), and that in these “gaps” systems can be build which will expand and erode Capitalism.
What I think is very important to emphasize here, that within these “gaps” can be found systems of human interactions some of which follow the logic of Capitalism and some of which do not. I would argue that the State sector follows the logic of Capitalism in many aspects, work for pay, interaction solely through exchange, commodities, “efficiency,” and so on, the one aspect they don’t follow is maximization of profit, the same goes for cooperatives and so on. I’m not saying these things aren’t important, they are, and they are real alternatives. But what I’m interested in are relations that follow a completely different logic. Families being one of them, Church communities, being another, Public Parks being another. Let’s take Church communities, a whole lot of Church activity is socializing and eating together. In early Christianity the Agape feast, was in a sense a cross between a communal meal and the Eucharist. The logic there is simple, in the Church we are to love one another, and one way to do that is to share a meal together. It is economic activity, yet we often don’t think of it as such since it involves human relationships, often we think of economic activity as what you do with people with whom you have no relationship.
This is a logic of Capitalism I want to challenge, the idea that the real economy is between strangers, who owe nothing to each other and who have no relationship, who are only tied together through the logic of the market. In Feudalism, the entire system was relational; the serf was to be faithful to his lord, and the lord as to care for his serfs. Capitalism was, in a sense, liberation from obligation, from forced relationships, Capitalism frees one up to make of one’s self as one wishes. Capitalism takes over local economies first by destroying traditional forms of relationships, often things like the commons survive through a kind of social pact, based on communal relationships (for example, I’m not going to litter because I care what my neighbor thinks about me), Capitalism thrives by privatizing the commons and feeding off those relationships.
So for example let’s go back to the Pyramid schemes, the reason they are so successful (not for the people who are suckered into it, but the executives) is because they are tapping into natural networks of families and friends, and essentially privatizing them. They are turning relationships based on mutual love and respect, relationships of small c communism, into relationships of exchange and exploitation. To me this is one of the most dangerous aspects of modern Capitalism, the destroying of non-market ties. Loneliness is a Capitalist externality. The idea is that they are “tapping into” some un touched market (that’s Capitalist speak for Privatizing the commons), what’s really happening is they are taking an economy based on relationship and mutuality, and turning it into Capitalism.
This is even found in regular male/female relationships, meeting someone has become an industry, and it’s no longer contingently finding someone who you fall in love with, it’s not becoming finding someone who fits your specifications. When Capitalism has even privatized and commodified romantic love and sex, what’s left?
I think the idea of a Mega-Church, is also problematic. Church, in the Christian tradition, is a communal affair, necessarily, where people are tied to each other on the basis of faith, they worship together on the basis of a common spiritual experience. The Church was the beginning of the welfare state, providing medical care, education, and support for the poor in late antiquity and through the Middle Ages. All of this economic and social activity was done separate from the market, and was based not on Kinship, but rather on a common faith, and a faith that fosters communal relationships. Mega-Churches destroy that, again, it takes a relationship outside the market, and attempts to commodify it. A Mega Church reduces religion from a communal striving to faith, to an individualistic self-help seminar (especially with the Joel Osteen type mega churches). Religion in a mega church follows the Capitalist Logic; it’s all about you as an individual, and what you can make for yourself.
I think these 2 things, Kinship and Church, are really the only places where an authentic community can build outside Capitalism and even overcome Capitalism. Specifically because they rely on both interpersonal relationship, and a common ethic.
There are also things like public libraries, public parks and so on. These are very important and great models of institutions that follow non-Capitalist principles, and often small “c” communist principles. Here’s the problem, they both can only exist in societies where there is a network of interpersonal relationships and a common ethic. A public library depends hugely on trust, on the idea that people depend on the trust of others, a public park depends hugely on certain manners, certain customs, (like picking up your dog poop, cleaning up your area after a picnic and so on). These things aren’t problems in themselves, but they do point to an even bigger issue, the struggle of community against capitalism is primarily a moral one.
Capitalism depends on redefining morality as primarily individualistic, it depends on destroying moral obligations, and it depends on the idea of private property as an absolute right (rather than a social relation) and so on. It’s not enough to just say “more democracy,” “more community” or whatever, the moral foundations need to change. This is why I think the institutions are family and Church are so important, because they not only give us another model, they give us another moral logic. Any attempt to overcome Capitalism, be it the Unconditional Basic Income, Cooperatives, or whatever, will fail, I guarantee it, as long as the logic of Individualism and Autonomy rule. We need a new way of thinking of social and moral obligations; the New Testament is a good place to start.