Capitalism Is Just A Story And Other Dangerous Thoughts
“That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise…. nonthinking is even more dangerous.” – Hannah Arendt
Wherever we turn, it seems that there is a great narrowing. Ideas that have engaged great leaders, philosophers, poets and visionaries through the ages are being boxed away as if they are obvious, and settled. What is human progress? What do we mean by “growth”? What is freedom? How do we balance our wants and needs against those of future generations? These ideas are the foundations of human life and society and yet there is ever less interest in them in the corridors of global power.
The front edge of this wave is that mesh of political and corporate actors who wield material global power; this includes the leaders of G20 nations and Fortune 500 companies and the vast majority of parliamentarians and executives that surround them. Each of them will give you the same basic answers. They will say that progress is, first and foremost, economic growth. Everything – by which they mean everything – else is secondary because it’s necessarily an offshoot of that growth; it’s the economy, stupid!
Growth, in turn, is the increase of profit or the national equivalent, Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Ergo, GDP is progress. Freedom is the capacity of me and mine to have and to own, to progress and to grow according to the above. Our wants and needs are paramount; sacrificing an inch of that freedom is unconscionable.
And that’s if they’re moderates. It matters little, now, whether they are nominally on the left or right of any aisle; everyone with direct access to global power believes the above to be so obvious as to preclude alternatives. How else, they say, could it possibly be?
The answer to which should be, how long have you got?
This narrowing is happening at a time when what is required is a great expansion. Is this truly the best/worst system human beings can create? Does economic growth really capture who we are? Does vast inequality represent the best humanity can do? Is destruction of our planetary habitat inevitable? To answer these sorts of questions we need more options, not more uniformity; more deep thinking, not more rote acceptance; more opposition, not more repetition of the cold, dry lie that there is no alternative.
We would like to suggest that our only absolute limitation is our collective imagination, expressed through our will to change the mythologies that hold this house of cards together. We believe there is an emergent consciousness, stretching out against this narrowing, gradually becoming aware of itself and its awesome power.
We can hear its insurgent voice in social movements as diverse as the Arab Spring, the Chilean Winter, the Idle No More Indigenous movement, the anti-corruption movements in Brazil and India, the gentle but insistent dissent of Occupy Central in Hong Kong, the furious disbelief of protestors in Ferguson and New York City, and the dozens of African Awakenings happening across the Continent.
They are each different and specific, but at the heart of all of them is a voice saying that we have a system that is failing 99% of us. As whole populations are learning to communicate and think together in order to cope with whole-world problems, it says, we can do much, much better.
Our system of modern capitalism is just one story; it is not the only one there is. It’s not inherent within us. It isn’t some inevitable expression of predefined Human Nature. It was invented by human beings and so human beings can change it. But in order to get there, we first have to engage in some “dangerous thinking.”
Dangerous Thought One: Ideology Rules
Those in power have always told us to beware of ideology. There is a strong inference that it represents a warping of our pragmatic ability to get things done by whatever means necessary. But that’s just plain wrong. And a necessary distraction, of course. Ideology is the set of ideas and ideals we all must hold to operate in the world. It is not a weakness of those who don’t agree with us.
The deep irony is that by demonizing ideology they are clearing space for their ideology in particular. If only bad or stupid people are ideological, the logic goes, those we vote for and buy from, who fill our TV screens and make our laptops, somehow can’t be ideologues themselves. The ideas that bind them must be above ideology. That is their story.
But is there any way in which the U.S. spending $400 billion annually on the military is not a statement of ideology? Or the subsidization of very large, very rich corporations like Exxon Mobil or GE with taxpayers’ money? Or the failure to regulate the casino banks of Wall Street? These are all active strategies for success by some measure, grounded in ideas and ideals, and so are, by definition, deeply ideological. Simply saying your ideals float above ideology doesn’t make it so. It merely turns our fear of “being ideological” into a means of reinforcing the potency of the status quo. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek says, “Ideology is always a background condition.”
The dominant ideology in the world today is called neoliberal capitalism. Some call it the Washington Consensus or Market Fundamentalism, but for the sake of this conversation, we’ll call it Neoliberalism.
Quite simply, it is a practical expression of three philosophical premises. First, that our relationship to others is best filtered through a competitive lens (am I better, richer, etc.), which inevitably leads to rigid hierarchies, zero-sum logic and a lot of unthinking dogma.
Second, it equates wealth with life success, which is then equated to virtue (e.g. rich people are good, poor people are bad, therefore poverty is a moral failing). Finally, the individual is the primary unit of power (e.g. Thatcher’s famous line: “There is no such thing as society, just individuals and families”). People are responsible to themselves first, peers second, and possibly their God, in that order. Classic Ayn Rand.
The implications for this “moral philosophy” are diabolical. It leads directly to the economics of the self-obsessed individual, which leads to the atomization of our society and the focus on personal consumption as salvation. It justifies the bankrupt notion of trickle down economics, smuggling in notions such as: “self-interest benefits everyone,” “there’s an all-knowing invisible hand,” “there is supreme efficiency in the market,” “the more rich people the better,” etc. And it prioritizes private property rather than the collective ownership, which in turn leads to what the late Harvard economist J.K. Galbraith called “private affluence and public squalor.”
Neoliberalism can be summarized by this equation: selfishness is rational and rationality is everything; therefore selfishness is everything.
Dangerous Thought Two: Climate Change and Inequality are Created by Our Current Economic System
How many of us truly believe the old economists’ trope that the world’s major issues such as climate change and inequality are “externalities” of our current system; things that have come to be entirely alongside or even in spite of what humans have been doing? It is self-evident that they are the logical outcome of a system that requires ever more consumption to drive perpetual material growth, and that is fueled by the extraction of a finite supply of natural resources.
Bloomberg recently reported that for every dollar of income created in the U.S. since 2008, 93 cents of the income growth has gone to top 1%. So it doesn’t matter where that money is made, 93 cents is going to the top 1%. Therefore, every dollar of wealth created by definition creates more inequality. As coders would say, this is not a bug in the system, but a feature of the system.
Relatedly, the activist and scholar Firoze Manji has suggested that climate change is not man made, but capital made. Every dollar of wealth created in the world heats up our planet because we have an extractives and fossil fuel based economy.
Capitalism turns natural resources into commodities in order to attract more capital. That’s its sole purpose. As the recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has shown, we are now on course for a 3-4 degree rise in temperature by 2050, which is correlated to a 40%-50% loss of biodiversity. In other words, half of all plant and animal life on this planet will no longer be with us in under 40 years because of the voracious human appetite for more growth. Scientists tell us that we are already in sixth great planetary extinctionwith 150 to 200 species dying every day. This is 1,000 times the baseline rate of extinction.
The logic of neoliberalism and our current economic system locks us into this path dependency, so it feels like we can never risk slowing growth. We even subsidize our own destruction by giving more money to fossil fuel companies and expanding their ability to destroy the planet through additional infrastructure like new pipelines and oil exploration projects. Exxon made over $40 billion in profit last year, the highest profit in the history of money, while the U.S. government gave them over $1 billion of taxpayer money in subsidies in the same year. And they are paying less than 15% in tax while paying zero federal tax.
Most of us understand these links and the logic, but with the great narrowing in the corridors of power there is seemingly no way to turn that knowledge into concerted action. At least, that is what the power elites would like us to believe.
We will explore the final three “dangerous thoughts” and what possibilities exist for radical change in part two of this series, which runs Friday.
Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk are founding members of “/The Rules,” a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers and writers dedicated to changing the rules that create inequality and poverty around the world.