Antidote to Capitalist Realism

What to Say When They Say It’s Impossible

Here are ten smart responses you can use when people tell you
there’s no alternative to the capitalism that’s cooking the planet.
posted Jun 13, 2013
Raining exclamation points
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


Reprinted under a Creative Commons License.