This post is the second in an eight-part series on imagining alternatives to Capitalism. The first installment is available here. We invite you to join “Tackling T.I.N.A – An Anticapitalist Reading Group” for bi-weekly readings and discussions on this and related subjects. We meet every other Thursday at noon. Email Adam Heidebrink-Bruno (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Mareesa Miles (email@example.com) to see the schedule, join the email list and find out more.
Capitalism: they say there is no alternative. Of course, the business leaders and politicians who defend capitalist enterprise benefit greatly from the current economic system and have no self-interested reason to say otherwise. But for those of us at the short end of the stick— those who are on the impoverished side of the increasing wealth gap, those who are going hungry in the midst of plenty—for us, an alternative sounds pretty damn good.
But first, what is capitalism, really? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “an economic system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods and prices are determined mainly by a free market; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.” In Keywords, Raymond Williams traces its use back to the sixteenth century, viewing it as “a form of centralized ownership of the means of production, carrying with it the system of wage-labor” (Williams 51). Basically, it involves a capitalist class that uses its wealth to invest in productive projects and a working class that sells its labor to the capitalists.
Unfortunately, this rudimentary definition doesn’t capture the nuances found in various capitalist countries around the world. As James Fulcher discusses in Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction, Capitalism is not everywhere the same. In fact, as Fulcher argues, it’s more appropriate to think of Capitalism in the plural: Capitalisms. Looking at the economic infrastructure of three Capitalist countries—Sweden, the U.S., and Japan—Fulcher finds significant differences. Depending on the particular form of Capitalism used, there can be drastic differences in taxation, union strength, labor rights, wealth disparity, poverty, employment levels, access to welfare, susceptibility to economic crises, regulation, and environmental sustainability.
There’s also Agrarian capitalism, Mercantile Capitalism, Industrial Capitalism, Financial Capitalism, Welfare Capitalism, Global Capitalism, Technocapitalism, Sustainable Capitalism, Crony Capitalism, State Capitalism, Casino Capitalism, Keynesian Capitalism, and—of course—Neoliberal Capitalism. I think you get the idea. This dizzying array of Capitalisms is difficult to navigate and often leaves the public fighting over which model is best. Liberals generally want more regulation and state intervention to ensure welfare for all. Conservatives generally advocate for a free-market approach, arguing that unobstructed competition and deregulated marketplaces will produce the most efficient—and ultimately most beneficial— economic system. Back and forth the tug-o-war goes without ever pausing to realize how terribly limited and two-dimensional such arguments are. Regardless of whether one advocates for Welfare Capitalism or Neoliberal Capitalism, he or she promotes Capitalism all the same.
Envisioning Real, Anti-Capitalist Utopias
Fortunately, there are other voices among the crowd willing to challenge Capitalism writ large. Erik Olin Wright, the author of Envisioning Real Utopias and the provocative Jacobin essay “How to Be an Anticapitalist Today,” reminds his readers that today’s alleged “Capitalist” economies are decidedly hybrid models. In fact, even ferociously proud Capitalist countries, such as the U.S., contain a well-developed (if underappreciated) Anti-Capitalist infrastructure. Worker cooperatives, public libraries, and open source collaboration (such as Wikipedia) are all examples of what Wright calls “Real Utopias,” places where “emancipatory ideals are embodied in existing institutions and proposals for new institutional designs.”
Real Utopias do not rely on the same logic found in their Capitalist counterparts. Worker co-ops dissolve the age-old conflict between capitalists and laborers by making the laborers themselves the owners of the enterprise. Thus, every worker has an equal voice in the management of the business thereby ensuring that the workers (themselves) are fairly compensated for their labor. Libraries, as Wright says, “embody principles of access and distribution which are profoundly anti-capitalist.” I love this observation. Libraries do not distribute their goods and services (books, computer access, meeting space, etc.) based off of one’s ability to pay, but rather “to each according to need.”
Ultimately, Wright argues that we need to tame and erode Capitalism rather than trying to smash or escape it. We can do so by committing ourselves to building up institutions like those listed above. Support your local libraries, participate in peer-to-peer collaborations, and seek out businesses that are worker-owned and operated. Or better: work at one. Advocate for local, state, and federal policies that reinforce Anti-Capitalist infrastructure. Identify what Real Utopias already exist in your local community. Notice what’s missing, too, and imagine new ones. Then, organize your neighborhood, workplace, and school to bring those absent Utopias into being.
Checking a book out from your local library won’t end Capitalist exploitation tomorrow, of course. However, becoming more comfortable with the egalitarian and Anti-Capitalist logic that undergirds free distribution of public goods can chisel away at the dominant Capitalist ideology that runs deep in the American psyche. And, like a river cutting through stone, today’s Anti-Capitalist infrastructure is already eroding Capitalism’s once mountainous terrain. Join us in opening the floodgates.
Fulcher, James. “Chapter 4: Is Capitalism Everywhere the Same?” Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Williams, Raymond. “Capitalism.” Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford University Press, 1976.
Wright, Erik Olin. “How to be an Anti-Capitalist Today.” Jacobin, 2 December 2015.