Reclaiming Our Imaginations from ‘There Is No Alternative’

January 28, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

We live in a time of heavy fog. A time when, though many of us dissent and resist, humanity seems committed to a course of collective suicide in the name of preserving an economic system that generates scarcity no matter how much is actually produced. To demand that all have enough to eat on a planet that grows enough food, that absurd numbers of people do not die from preventable disease, that utter human deprivation amongst plenty is not tolerated, or that we put the natural laws of the biosphere above socially constructed economic “laws” — is presented as unrealistic, as the fantasy of idealists or those who are naive to the “complexity” of the world’s problems. If we create and recreate the world everyday, then how has it become so supposedly absurd to believe we might actually create a world that is honestly making the possibilities of egalitarianism, justice and democracy?

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(Source: Flickr / jimkang)

Capitalism — the logic of subordinating every aspect of life to the accumulation of profit (i.e. the “rules of the market”) — has become today’s “common sense.” It has become almost unthinkable to imagine coherent alternatives to this logic, even when considering the most basic of human needs — food, water, healthcare, education. Though many have an understanding of capitalism’s failings, there is a resignation towards its inevitability. Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, “There Is No Alternative,” no longer need to be spoken, they are simply accepted as normal, non-ideological, neutral.

What sustains the tragic myth that There Is No Alternative? Those committed to building a more just future must begin re-thinking and revealing the taken-for-granted assumptions that make capitalism “common sense,” and bring these into the realm of mainstream public debate in order to widen horizons of possibility. We can’t leave this task to the pages of peer-reviewed journals and classrooms of social theory — these conversations must enter also into the family dining rooms and TV screens. Here are some thoughts on conversation starters:

Alternatives could never work. Does capitalism “work”? Even by its own indicators, as we’ve become more capitalist (i.e. neoliberalism), economic growth and productivity has actually declined.

Today’s globalized world is too complex to organize things any differently. Of course the world is complex — each of us is a bundle of contradictions and we need look no further than the dynamics of a single relationship to make a case for social complexity. But things are also quite simple — we live in a world where one billion people go hungry while we literally dump half of all food produced. Can we not come up with a productive socio-economic system that also meets people’s most basic needs? The gift of today is that we have the ability to reflect and draw-upon many forms, past and present, of non-capitalist social organization, and to creatively experiment with blending the best of these possibilities. The fact that we are more connected than ever before and have advanced so far technologically gives us more possibilities, not less.

Because of our “human nature,” we can only create economic systems based on competition, greed and self-interest. This is not only utterly pessimistic, but plain wrong. Again, we can start by remembering all sorts of societies that have existed through history. Then just look around and ask the question, what motivates you and the people you know? Fields as diverse as neuroscience and anthropology have mounted evidence showing humans’ incredible capacity for cooperation and sensitivity to fairness. We are actually all quite capable of anything; but it is up to us to decide how to use our capabilities, and of course that will be dictated by what our social systems encourage and teach us to value. If there is one thing that can be said about “human nature,” it is that we construct ourselves from within our societies and we are incredibly malleable.

Freedom is only realizable through a free-market. Attaching our values of freedom to the market is not only de-humanizing, but it also fails to recognize how one person’s “freedom” to economic choice is another’s imprisonment in a life of exploitation and deprivation. There is no possibility for freedom and emancipation until we are all free, and this will only come through a much richer and deeper conception of human freedom than one that is premised upon going to a grocery store and “choosing” between 5,000 variations of processed corn.

Capitalism is the only system that encourages innovation and progress. Progress towards what? And how does enclosing common knowledge through intellectual property rights, or excluding most of the world from quality education, or depriving half of humanity from the basic life-sustaining goods needed to function healthily, lead to greater innovation? Just begin to imagine the innovative possibilities of a world where all people had access to everything they needed to live, to think, and to contribute to the common good.

Things could be worse. Of course they could, but they could also be better. Does the fact that we’ve lived through bloody dictatorships mean that we should settle for a representative democracy where the main thing being represented is money?

Things are getting better. Can we really say that things are getting better as we head towards the annihilation of our own species? Sure, we may have our first black president and be making small gains in LGBT rights or in women’s representation in the workforce; but let’s not neglect the fact that capital is more concentrated and centralized than it has ever been and that its logic now penetrates into the most basic building blocks of life. I think we should give ourselves more credit than to settle for this “better.”

Change is slow. Slow is not in the vocabulary of the corporations who are stealing our common genetic heritage, or their buddies who are getting rich playing virtual money games that legally rob us all. The enclosure of our commons and the concentration of capital is not happening slowly. Whether we acknowledge it or not, change is happening — what is up for grabs is the direction of that change.

The best we can hope for is “green” and “ethical” capitalism. The logic of this belief is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that within capitalism, businesses can prioritize anything above the bottom-line. In actuality, businesses that commit themselves first and foremost to being truly and fully ethical and green will find it very difficult to stay in business. Of course there are great models of ethical business — worker-owned organic farms, for instance — but these cannot thrive and become the dominant norm when they are functioning within an economic structure that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of Monsanto. And while we should support these alternatives that exist within capitalism, we need to recognize that it’s way too little, way too late — structural change must (and will) happen, one way or another.

Getting rid of capitalism means abandoning markets as a tool of social organization. This is not necessarily true, although perhaps we would do best without markets anyways. Societies have existed that have used markets but restrained oligopoly capitalism, and many brilliant thinkers have envisioned a transition to a society structured by norms of equality and sharing where markets do play a role. I’m not advocating for or against any specific proposals here, but the point is that this assumption is historically inaccurate and we have barely begun to give serious thought to other possibilities.

People don’t care. People may be distracted by consumerism, may only have enough energy to struggle to pay their bills, may be fearful, may lack access to good information… but none of these things mean that they don’t care. Show anybody an image of a starving child who works in the cacao fields but can’t afford to eat (much less taste chocolate), and they will feel disgust. The charity industry is thriving precisely because so many people do feel implicated in the revolting manifestations of capitalism. But people’s sense of outrage has been channeled away from collective political action and towards ethical buying and holiday-time charitable donations. Without an honest and sophisticated society-wide conversation about the structural issues we are facing, people’s care is reduced to individual guilt and disempowerment.

People won’t stop consuming, plus all the poor people want what the rich people have. Of course they do! Doing away with capitalism doesn’t mean resorting to primitivism, or abandoning all of our washing machines, or leaving the poor destitute. While of course there are limits to the earth’s resources (fossil-fuels in particular), this doesn’t mean that we can’t organize a productive, equitable and sustainable social order that includes many of the comforts of modern life and excitements of technology. We need not abandon desire with capitalism. In fact, getting rid of capitalism gives us the best chance of having time to organize a sustainable system of consumption before it is too late — staying hooked into capitalism may actually be the quickest route to primitivism.

Capital’s enclosure of our commons — our common resources, genes and even intellect — has been accompanied by an enclosure of our imaginations. We need to re-claim and re-orient what it is to be “realistic” from the falsehoods of There Is No Alternative. This is not a call for pure imaginations of some future utopia. It is not a fantastic plea for a sudden and complete dissolving of all the social structures that currently pattern our lives. Instead, it is a call to take what is already going on all around us, all the time — cooperation, sharing, empathy — and let these aspects of our humanity that we most cherish guide our future. To begin to re-direct and re-structure our social systems towards the things we most desire and value — caring for and cooperating with one another, true participation and democracy, human freedom and free time, peace and co-existence — and in doing so, to watch these things begin to flourish.

If it is naive to believe that we can structure society to reward goodness instead of greed and prioritize people instead of profit, then I’m fighting until the bitter end to maintain my naiveté! Things become possible when we believe they are possible; so let’s start believing.

Tags: capitalism, imagination, social change