What to Say When They Say It’s Impossible
there’s no alternative to the capitalism that’s cooking the planet.
- Photos from Lana N/Shutterstock and Yes! Magazine
Those committed to building a more just future must question the taken-for-
granted “truths” that support the beliefs that capitalism is the only common-
sense possibility and that there is no alternative. We can’t leave this task to
the pages of peer-reviewed journals and classrooms of social theory—these
conversations can start with family and friends but must spread until we
create a new common sense. Here are conversation starters to address
some standard defenses of the status quo.
1. Alternatives could never work.
Does capitalism “work”? Even by its own indicators, as we’ve become
more capitalist—deregulating finance and promoting “free trade”—
economic growth and productivity have actually declined. Capitalism
does work for accumulating wealth and power in the hands of a few.
Is that what we want, or do we want a system that works for all?
2. Today’s globalized world is too complex to organize things any differently.
Of course the world is complex. But some things are also quite simple
—we live in a world where 1 billion people go hungry while we dump
half of all food produced. 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.
3. It’s either the system we have, or it’s no progress at all.
Doing away with capitalism doesn’t mean resorting to primitivism,
denying the poor their right to development, or abandoning all of our
washing machines. There are limits to the Earth’s resources, but we
can organize a productive, equitable, and sustainable social order that
includes many of the comforts of modern life and the benefits of technol-
ogy. 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 be the quickest route to primitivism.
4. Freedom can only be realized through a free market.
Attaching our values of freedom to the market is not just dehumanizing.
It also fails to recognize how one person’s “freedom” of economic choice
is another’s imprisonment in a life of exploitation and deprivation. There
is no possibility for true freedom until we are all free, and this will only
come through a much richer and deeper conception of human freedom
than one that consists of going to a grocery store and “choosing”
between 5,000 variations of processed corn.
5. Capitalism is the only system that encourages innovation and progress.
Progress toward 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 of the basic life-sustaining
goods needed for health lead to greater innovation? Just begin to imagine
the innovative possibilities of a world where all people had access to every-
thing they needed to live, to think, and to contribute to the common good.
6. Things could be worse.
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 represen-
tative democracy where the main thing being represented is money? Fear
of change is a great tool to limit our imagination about human possibilities.
7. Things are getting better.
Can we really say that things are getting better as we head toward the
annihilation of our own species? Sure, the United States 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, centralized, and in control than it has ever been. I think
we should give ourselves more credit than to settle for this “better.”
8. Change is slow.
Slow is not in the vocabulary of the corporations that are stealing our common
genetic heritage, or financiers 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.
9. The best we can hope for is “green” and “ethical” capitalism.
This belief is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that within capitalism,
businesses can prioritize anything over the bottom line. But businesses that
commit themselves first and foremost to being fully ethical and green will find
it difficult to stay in business in the current system. There are great models of
ethical business— worker-owned organic farms, for instance—but these
cannot become the norm within an economic structure that concentrates
wealth and power in the hands of Monsanto. And while we should support
these alternatives, we need to recognize that we can’t shop our way to a
better world. We’ll only change the structure and scale up existing
alternatives through collective political struggle.
10. People don’t care.
People may be distracted by consumerism, may not have time or energy
outside of struggling to pay their bills, may be fearful, may lack access to
good information. Those things are different from not caring. The charity
industry is thriving precisely because so many people do feel implicated
in the revolting manifestations of capitalism. But this is part of the problem
—much of our outrage is being channeled away from collective political
action and toward “green consumerism” and charitable donations, as if
more capitalism could save us from capitalism. Despair, guilt, disempower-
ment— these are all symptomsof living within a system that rewards greed
& self-interest over our innate desires for compassion, care, and cooperation.
Andrea Brower wrote this article for Love and the Apocalypse,
the Summer 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Andrea is a Ph.D.
candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Auckland.
Adapted from an article originally published at commondreams.org.
Reprinted under a Creative Commons License.