Gary, we need to talk about politics
I got a really nice reply to a story I put up here about why I don’t think there’s much alternative to capitalism. My argument is the usual one that what are sometimes called “wishy washy liberals” put out: there’s no realistic alternative to capitalism because the ones that have been tried to the right lead to fascism and dictatorships, and the ones to the left, as any George Orwell fan can attest, lead to totalitarianism and, well, dictatorship. And if you look back through history, you will see what I mean. But you don’t even have to look back at history. Take a look at what’s going on in the world at the moment. Need I name names? Hello, China. Russia. North Korea (a Democratic People’s Republic)…
Capitalism and the pandemic
Gary raised the usual arguments in response, and I found myself agreeing with him (he seems a decent lad). To whit: we can’t go on consuming at the rate we’re going (I wrote a PhD about that, Gary, so I’m not disagreeing with you there). And capitalism is what has got us into this mess. That’s true too. The problem is, while I thoroughly agree that a society (and a global community of one species) that relies for its survival on a model of constant growth is on a hiding to nowhere. Any ecologist will show you a petri dish, murmur ‘carrying capacity’ and ask you to watch as a population expands, and crashes. Nothing new here.
The problem is, neither Gary, nor any of the other good, interesting thinkers I’ve ever talked to, has given me an example of an alternative to capitalism that actually works. That got me thinking about what alternative systems do well. Authoritarian systems managed the pandemic rather well, don’t you think? If we look at the figures, it certainly appears that countries with greater emphasis on individual freedom have significantly higher rates of infection, and hospitalisation, and death, than those that put greater emphasis on safety, and obedience to the regime, and punishment of anyone who disagreed. Does that mean I want to live in an authoritarian regime? Not really. Two reasons: first, I’m not sure the statistics from those authoritarian countries were as honestly reported as those from countries with greater emphasis on freedom. I do think that there is still a high likelihood that more people have died in freer societies. (But there are no reported deaths from Covid in North Korea.) Second, even in a country that has a relatively high regard for freedom (Ireland), there have been restrictions on my personal freedom that I have found mildly onerous (and not always obeyed). I value freedom because I also think that I have the intellectual capacity, if I am allowed to exercise my freedom, to make choices that will preserve my own health and the health of those around me. And I would not be able to make those choices if my freedom was more constrained. Think Navalny on a flight, or in prison.
I know there are flaws in this argument. We all think we’re better at thinking about things than we actually are. My freedom to move was constrained and I live near a forest where I was not likely to meet anyone, so I disobeyed this restriction because I needed to exercise, and I was not putting anyone else at risk. If everyone had done what I did, there would have been more people out, but on the other hand, few people ever exercise in the part of the forest that I frequented, so even in ‘normal’ times I would not have met anyone.
Back to capitalism and sustainability — and profit
What has this to do with capitalism? Well, if I can take a step sideways on this one, I went to an open day yesterday, held by Teagasc, an Irish dairy farming association. They were talking about sustainability and climate change and the very first thing that the presenter of the very first presentation said was, “Number one, if it’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable. Two is environment.” I was a bit gob smacked, to be honest, but on the other hand, I’m reading Sustainability by Thompson and Norris (OUP, 2021) at the moment (for the second time). Their introductory section uses the analogy of a business. If you can’t make a living from a business, you’re not going to stay in business.
I’m attempting to earn a living as a sole trader at the moment so I know that this is true. I need enough participants in workshops, courses, and retreats to be able to pay my way. In many ways, economy and ecology are similar systems. And the profit which a service based business like mine makes is anything that is left after I have paid for training, marketing, venues, etc, etc, and totted up what other people have paid me. This is capitalism, isn’t it?
A small aside — my life story
I started out fairly privileged, but I quickly became disenchanted with the idea that I accept an unjust system of privilege as the norm, and I ended up going to the global South and working there as a volunteer. I had a bit of baggage — childhood trauma and the like — and what with one thing and another (bad timing, wars, being the wrong sex, that sort of malarkey) I ended up coming back to the global North and dropping out for a while. I started again, at the bottom, trying to live according to my principles, taking a job in a therapeutic community with ‘troubled kids’. As you can imagine, all this taught me a thing or two about class, ambition, and of course, capitalism.
In a sense, the children I worked with were the products of capitalism, since any society that exploits one group in order that another group can profit, which is the case in very unequal, inegalitarian societies, creates situations where abuse can flourish. By the way, I always think of myself as lucky, but in work terms, I’ve been extraordinarily unlucky, in the sense that I’ve been made redundant, and been unable to find alternative work in any but the most menial of positions, despite being extremely highly educated, more times than you can say, What’s a doctorate? My own situation was a product of capitalism: my own inability to thrive in a society that puts a low value on critical thinking is a good illustration of how capitalism exploits ignorance.
But the alternative is no better. What is the alternative? If I had been born in Cuba or Iraq, would my life have been better? I tend to think not. I tend to think that if I had been born in Cuba, I’d have ended up questioning the mores and morals of the president, and if I was lucky, I’d have found myself on the wrong side of a prison door. If I was born in Iraq or Afghanistan, the traumas I experienced as a child would have paled into Sunday afternoon dreams.
My point is not that capitalism is a sustainable system. I don’t think it is. My point is that I have yet to be convinced that any alternative system offers more possibility for solving the crisis we find ourselves in, the thing I call (after Tim Morton) the ecological emergency.
Where to from here? Shifting perspective on where we are
My problem with alternatives to capitalism is that I don’t see any that have ever worked. But I have to qualify that. I don’t see any in the modern era, and not among the social models that dominate the planet. That’s the issue, isn’t it? That we’re stuck on a course that can’t sustain itself, but that we quashed alternative social models and the dominant model, which is essentially exploitative, now makes it virtually impossible for other models to compete.
I’m thinking hard about this
My research has taken me down a route where I tend to consider things from the inside out. In other words, we need to change how we see ourselves, individually, collectively, before we can change how we act. That’s where I’m starting with capitalism. I need to do a lot more thinking about this, but I’m very grateful to take part in any conversation on the topic. I’m also trying to make ends meet in a business.
Economy meets ecology
Eco means home. We need numbers to add up, and we need a story that works. I’ve worked hard on the story of who we are, and how we are interrelated to all other systems. I’m not alone or original in this. But it is a story that needs to be told and retold as the alternative to the story that humans are somehow better than or outside other systems. But I’m also interested in how we can live here in a way that is sustainable, but that recognises that we need to be able to have some freedom.
As this was written in response to Gary’s reply to me, I’m going to hope he’ll take a look at this, and give his considered opinion. I need to do more thinking on this but the conversation is an important one. Stephen Pinker has just written a new book about the importance of rationality. He’s a rock star of psychology, but he misses one important sphere: we are nested in ecosystems. They are not services. They are our makers, and they will reabsorb us. Our relationship within them is crucial to our survival. I’d imagine Pinker is a fan or at least not averse to capitalism. Coming up with an alternative that works within planetary limits, and with respect for nature — I’d give a Nobel Prize for that.