Anti-Capitalism

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Contextual Citation

Erik Olin Wright:

"So, how to be an anti-capitalist in the 21st century? You should give up the fantasy of smashing capitalism. Capitalism is not smashible, at least if you really want to construct an emancipatory future. You may personally be able to escape capitalism by moving off the grid and minimizing your involvement with the money economy and the market, but this is hardly an attractive option for most people, especially those with children, and certainly has little potential to foster a broader process of social emancipation. If you are concerned about the lives of others, in one way or another you have to deal with capitalist structures and institutions. Taming and eroding capitalism are the only viable options. What you need to do, is participate both in the political movements for taming capitalism through public policies and in socio-economic projects of eroding capitalism through the expansion of emancipatory forms of economic activity. We need a renewal of an energetic social democracy to neutralize the harms of capitalism in ways that facilitate initiatives to build real utopias with the potential to erode the dominance of capitalism."


Typology

Erik Olin Wright:

"Capitalism breeds anti-capitalists. In some times and places the resistance to capitalism becomes crystallized in coherent ideologies with systematic diagnoses of the source of harms and clear prescriptions about what to do to eliminate them. In other circumstances anti-capitalism is submerged within motivations that on the surface have little to do with capitalism, such as religious beliefs that lead people to reject modernity and seek refuge in isolated communities. But always, wherever capitalism exists there is discontent and resistance in one form or other.

Historically, anti-capitalism has been animated by four different logics of resistance: smashing capitalism, taming capitalism, escaping capitalism, and eroding capitalism. These often co-exist and intermingle, but they each constitute a distinct way of responding to the harms of capitalism. These four forms of anti-capitalism can be thought of as varying along two dimensions. One concerns their relationship to the problem of transforming capitalism: strategies can either envision transcending the structures of capitalism or simply neutralizing the worst harms of capitalism. The second dimension concerns the primary target of the strategy: strategies can either primarily work through the state and be directed at macro-levels of the system, or strategies can be directed at the micro-level of the system and focus directly on the economic activities of individuals and organizations. Taking these two dimensions together gives us the typology below."


Smashing Capitalism

"In the 20th century various versions of this general line of reasoning animated the imagination of revolutionaries around the world. Revolutionary Marxism infused struggles with hope and optimism, for it not only provided a potent indictment of the world as it existed, but provided a plausible scenario for how an emancipatory alternative could be realized. This gave people courage, sustaining the belief that they were on the side of history and that the enormous commitment and sacrifices they were called on to make in their struggles against capitalism had real prospects of eventually succeeding. And sometimes, if rarely, such struggles did culminate in the revolutionary seizure of state power.

The results of such revolutionary seizures of power, 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,” the evidence of the heroic attempts at rupture in the 20th century is that they do not produce the kind of new world envisioned in revolutionary ideology. It is one thing to burn down old institutions; it is quite another to build desirable new institutions on the ashes. Why the revolutions of the 20th century never resulted in robust, sustainable human emancipation is, of course, a hotly debated matter.

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The evidence from the revolutionary tragedies of the 20th century is that smashing capitalism doesn’t work as a strategy for social emancipation. Nevertheless, the idea of a revolutionary rupture with capitalism has not completely disappeared. Even if it no longer constitutes a coherent strategy of any significant political force, it speaks to the frustration and anger of living in a world of such sharp inequalities and unrealized potential for human flourishing, and in a political system that seems increasingly undemocratic and unresponsive. If, however, one wants to actually transform capitalism, visions that resonate with anger are not enough; what is needed a strategic vision that has some chance of working in practice. "


Taming Capitalism

"The idea of taming capitalism does not eliminate the underlying tendency for capitalism to generate harms; it simply counteracts their effects. This is like a medicine which effectively deals with symptoms rather than with the underlying causes of a health problem. Sometimes that is good enough. Parents of newborn babies are often sleep-deprived and prone to headaches. One solution is to take an aspirin and cope; another is to get rid of the baby. Sometimes neutralizing the symptom is better than trying to get rid of the underlying cause.

In what is sometimes called the “Golden Age of Capitalism” – roughly the three decades following World War II – social democratic policies, especially in those places where they were most thoroughly implemented, did a fairly good job at moving in the direction of a more humane economic system. More specifically, three clusters of state policies significantly counteracted the harms of capitalism:

1. Some of the most serious risks people experience in their lives -- especially around health, employment, and income – were reduced through a fairly comprehensive system of publicly mandated and funded social insurance.

2. The state assumed responsibility for the provision of an expansive set of public goods paid for through a robust system of relatively high taxation. These public goods included basic and Chapter 1. How to be an Anti-Capitalist 5 higher education, vocational skill formation, public transportation, cultural activities, recreational facilities, research and development, and macro-economic stability.

3. The state also created a regulatory regime designed to deal with the most serious negative externalities of the behavior of investors and firms in capitalist markets: pollution, product and workplace hazards, predatory market behavior, etc


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Perhaps the three decades or so of the Golden Age were just an historical anomaly, a brief period in which favorable structural conditions and robust popular power opened up the possibility for the relatively egalitarian, social democratic model. Before that time capitalism was a rapacious system, and under neoliberalism it is rapacious once again, returning to the normal state of affairs for capitalist systems. Perhaps in the long run capitalism is not tamable. Defenders of the idea of revolutionary ruptures with capitalism have always claimed that taming capitalism was an illusion, a diversion from the task of building a movement to overthrow capitalism.

But perhaps things are not so dire. The claim that globalization imposes powerful constraints on the capacity of states to raise taxes, regulate capitalism and redistribute income is a politically effective claim because people believe it, not because the constraints are actually that narrow. In politics, the limits of possibility are always in part created by beliefs in the limits of possibility. Neoliberalism is an ideology, backed by powerful political forces, rather than a scientifically accurate account of the actual limits we face in making the world a better place. While it may be the case that the specific policies that constituted the menu of social democracy in the Golden Age have become less effective and need rethinking, taming capitalism remains a viable expression of anti-capitalism."


Escaping Capitalism

"One of the oldest responses to the onslaught of capitalism has been escape. Escaping capitalism may not have been crystallized into systematic anti-capitalist ideologies, but nevertheless it has a coherent logic.

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This impulse to escape is reflected in many familiar responses to the harms of capitalism. The movement of poor farmers to the Western frontier in 19th century United States was, for many, an aspiration for stable, self-sufficient subsistence farming rather than production for the market. Escaping capitalism is implicit in the hippie motto of the 1960s, “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The efforts by certain religious communities, such as the Amish, to create strong barriers between themselves and the rest of the society involved removing themselves as much as possible from the pressures of the market. 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. And, in time-limited ways, escaping capitalism is even embodied in long distance hikes in the wilderness.

Escaping capitalism typically involves an avoidance of political engagement and certainly of collectively organized efforts at changing the world. Especially in the world today, escape is mostly an individualistic lifestyle strategy.


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There are examples of escaping capitalism which do bear on the broader problem of anti-capitalism. Intentional communities may be motivated by the desire to escape the pressures of capitalism, but sometimes they can also serve as models for more collective, egalitarian and democratic ways of living. The D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) movement may be motivated by stagnant individual incomes during a period of economic austerity, but it can also point to ways of organizing economic activity that is less dependent on market exchange. And more generally the “life style” of voluntary simplicity can contribute to broader rejection of the consumerism and preoccupation with economic growth in capitalism."


Eroding capitalism

"The fourth form of anti-capitalism is probably the least familiar. It is grounded in the following idea: All socio-economic systems are complex mixes of many different kinds of economic structures, relations and activities. No economy has ever been – or ever could be – purely capitalist. Existing economic systems combine capitalism with a whole host of other ways of organizing the production and distribution of goods and services: directly by states; within the intimate relations of families to meet the needs of its members; through community-based networks and organizations; by cooperatives owned and governed democratically by their members; though nonprofit market-oriented organizations; through peer-to-peer networks engaged collaborative production processes; and many other possibilities. Some of these ways of organizing economic activities can be thought of as hybrids, combining capitalist and noncapitalist elements; some are entirely noncapitalist; and some are anti-capitalist. We call such a complex economic system “capitalist” when it is the case that capitalism is dominant in determining the economic conditions of life and access to livelihood for most people. That dominance is immensely destructive. One way to challenge capitalism is to build more democratic, egalitarian, participatory economic relations in the spaces and cracks within this complex system where this is possible, and to struggle to expand and defend those spaces.

The idea of eroding capitalism imagines that these alternatives have the potential, in the long run, of expanding to the point where capitalism is displaced from this dominant role. An analogy with an ecosystem in nature might help clarify this idea. Think of a lake. A lake consists of water in a landscape, with particular kinds of soil, terrain, water sources and climate. An array of fish and other creatures live in its water and various kinds of plants grow in and around it. Collectively, all of these elements constitute the natural ecosystem of the lake. (This is a “system” in that everything affects everything else within it, but it is not like the system of a single organism in which all of the parts are functionally connected in a coherent, tightly integrated whole. Social systems, in general, are better thought of as ecosystems of loosely connected interacting parts rather than like organisms in which all of the parts serve a function.) In such an ecosystem it is possible to introduce an alien species of fish, not “naturally” found in thelake. Some alien species will instantly get gobbled up. Others may survive in some small niche in the lake, but not change much about daily life in the ecosystem. But occasionally an alien species may thrive and eventually displace the dominant species. The strategic vision of eroding capitalism imagines introducing the most vigorous varieties of emancipatory species of noncapitalist economic activity into the ecosystem of capitalism, nurturing their development by protecting their niches, and figuring out ways of expanding their habitats. The ultimate hope is that eventually these alien species can spill out of their narrow niches and transform the character of the ecosystem as a whole.

This way of thinking about the process of transcending capitalism is rather like the typical stylized story told about the transition from pre-capitalist feudal societies in Europe to capitalism. Within feudal economies in the late Medieval period, proto-capitalist relations and practices emerged, especially in the cities. Initially this involved commercial activity, artisanal production under the regulation of guilds, and banking. These forms of economic activity filled niches and were often quite useful for feudal elites. As the scope of these market activities expanded they gradually became more capitalist in character and, in some places, more corrosive of the established feudal domination of the economy as a whole.

Through a long, meandering process over several centuries, feudal structures ceased to dominate the economic life of some corners of Europe; feudalism had eroded. This process may have been punctuated by political upheavals and even revolutions, but rather than constituting a rupture in economic structures, these political events served more to ratify and rationalize changes that had already taken place within the socioeconomic structure.

The strategic vision of eroding capitalism sees the process of displacing capitalism from its dominant role in the economy in a similar way: alternative, noncapitalist economic activities emerge in the niches where this is possible within an economy dominated by capitalism; these activities grow over time, both spontaneously and as a result of deliberate strategy; struggles involving the state take place, sometimes to protect these spaces, other times to facilitate new possibilities; and eventually, these non-capitalist relations and activities become sufficiently prominent in the lives of individuals and communities that capitalism can no longer be said to dominate the system as a whole.

This strategic vision is implicit in some currents of contemporary anarchism. If revolutionary communism proposes that state power should be seized so that capitalism can be smashed, and social democracy argues that the capitalist state should be used to tame capitalism, anarchists have generally argued that the state should be avoided – perhaps even ignored – because in the end it can only serve as a machine of domination, not liberation. The only hope for an emancipatory alternative to capitalism – an alternative that embodies ideals of equality, democracy and community – is to build it on the ground and work to expand its scope.

As a strategic vision, eroding capitalism is both enticing and far-fetched. It is enticing because it suggests that even when the state seems quite uncongenial for advances in social justice and emancipatory social change, there is still much that can be done. We can get on with the business of building a new world, not on the ashes of the old, but within the interstices of the old. It is far-fetched because it seems wildly implausible that the accumulation of emancipatory economic spaces within an economy dominated by capitalism could ever really displace capitalism, given the immense power and wealth of large capitalist corporations and the dependency of most people’s livelihoods on the well-functioning of the capitalist market. Surely if non-capitalist emancipatory forms of economic activities and relations ever grew to the point of threatening the dominance of capitalism, they would simply be crushed.

The central argument of this book is that the idea of eroding capitalism is not a fantasy. But, I will argue, it is only plausible if it is combined with the social democratic idea taming capitalism. What is needed is a way of linking the bottom up, society-centered strategic vision of anarchism with the topdown, state-centered strategic logic of social democracy. We need to tame capitalism in ways that make it more erodible, and erode capitalism in ways that make it more tamable. One concept that will help us to link these two currents of anti-capitalist thinking is real utopias."