If not capitalism, then what?

We’ve done a fair bit of criticising contemporary capitalism in this blog. One of the follow-up questions we have been asking ourselves all along is: “if not capitalism, then what?’

Well yes. If not life as we know it, with all its enormous ‘reality’, complexity, and slow-turning, apparently unstoppable power and momentum – then what? And how do we get from here to there? It’s quite a topic for a couple of part-time bloggers to tackle. The hubris! But then we’re not tackling it on our own – human society is always and inescapably a collaborative venture – we’re hitching a ride with the thinkers whose work we’ve commented on, hopefully in return bringing it to some who would not otherwise have met it.

So where have we got to so far, in our hitching, in our answer to this big question?

Let’s start by considering a few aspects of the nature of this thing we’re calling ‘capitalism’.

First, it’s not one singular, monolithic thing: Wikipedia  lists 27 major varieties of capitalism,(1) and that list doesn’t include ‘green capitalism’! The variants do have (more or less) some key features in common: private ownership of the means of production, goods and services sold/traded in markets, profits returned to the owners of capital, and (when looked at as a system) an ongoing attention to reinvestment, accumulation of wealth, and ‘economic growth’ (The focus on accumulation and growth is often neglected in conventional definitions, but we think it is critical to understanding capitalism).

Second, looking at the variants, and of course at the societies we actually live in ourselves, it is clear that capitalism is not a pure thing – it is always socially constrained and shaped, both by government laws and policies and by wider social norms, values, and expectations. Indeed, without this surrounding social infrastructure, capitalism could not exist and function.

So we can safely conclude that Capitalism-as we-experience-it-locally (wherever that is) is always just one chosen path among a range of possible capitalisms. There is always an alternative.

But can we move away from ‘capitalism’ more generally? I cannot imagine a plausible future without some form of business, markets, and trade. They are simply too socially and practically useful to forgo entirely. But the social context, and the rules of the game can and will change, perhaps astonishingly, though.

It seems to me that the crucial break-point, both in terms of sustainability & capitalism, will be the focus on growth: sustainability  will not be possible without dethroning and radically re-defining ‘growth’, and an economy that undertakes this redefining and dethroning – while it almost certainly will still feature some form of business and markets, will no-longer be capitalist.

Again then, how might we get from here to there, what might this future look like?

The basic first policy directions we need to follow for a fair and sustainable future are reasonably clear:

  • Greater income equality (within and between nations) both as a practical measure and a moral  imperative
  • A change to a renewable energy society, with all the major ensuing structural changes that implies.
  • Large-scale public role
  • Eco-taxes
  • Income redistribution
  • Public investment in sustainability
  • A change in the composition of national income (less private consumption, more public consumption)
  • Appropriate regulatory framework and enforcement of environmental standards

More challenging than developing suitable policy will be bringing together social coalitions to support its implementation and continuance (a), (b) . It is encouraging that there’s potential for a positive-feedback loop (or virtuous loop), once we begin, as implementing the  first policy steps should support the longer-term direction of social change we need. In general though, at this point in the Western world (certainly in Aotearoa New Zealand), we doubt that the green movement (to the degree it even exists) has enough social traction to successfully achieve major social change, and we feel the most effective focus is still on ‘winning hearts & minds’,  rather than on ‘storming the heights of office’ (Of course ‘a week is a long time in politics’).

A second major challenge, if a green policy agenda were implemented, would be how to control the machine of State itself, given the large role of government that it requires. Certainly at the moment the  State is a locus of centralised, top-down power, largely captured (or at least highly constrained) by the interests of corporate capitalism. Green political theory has been strong on the danger of such power, and those traditions, if heeded, will be valuable, but Green political parties have not, in practice, shown themselves to be consistently able to resist the organisational siren-call of centralised top-down power. The outcome may be different where parties advocating a green agenda are supported by a genuine mass-movement or strong social coalition – the importance of strong, independent, civil society in a green future must not be forgotten – but this is an experiment we have yet to observe.

Ultimately, a sustainable society will need broad, cross-cutting political support for this goal (otherwise, the options are inaction – the current situation – or authoritarian action, probably in the service of élite interests). In Aotearoa New Zealand, arguably our politics is dominated by two major political parties who are generally conservative but who will occasionally engage in radicalism on behalf of corporate capitalism. We have a long way to go, and we don’t need a timid, ‘pick me too’ Green Party seeking to join the conservative parties in the status-quo mainstream – rather, we need a green movement shifting the centre and a ‘daring to be different’ Green Party championing the movement’s policy and political goals.

It starts from the roots. Apart from building a green movement, and developing a strong, independent civil society, there must be a wider and deeper transformation of values and expectations– the development and spread in society of less individualistic and materialistic values; and  in terms of the broad policy agenda a focus on security, inclusion and fairness rather than ‘growth’ and competition. As Hervé Kempf puts it: “We must urgently revitalize democracy, religitimize concern for the common welfare, and reanimate the idea of collective destiny”(2).  This is not an overnight project, but it can happen, and we’ve looked at some ideas about how to achieve this over the past couple of years (3).   In the end, as Jonathan Schell demonstrated so powerfully, despite all the looming darkness, this world is unconquerable, determined soft people-power wins, and hope springs eternal.

(1) as of 16 Jan 2010, click ‘variants’ on the sidebar.
(2) pp.95-95, “How the Rich are destroying the Earth”, 2008
(3) Apart from the links already given, check our post index ‘strategy’ categories


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