“Anticapitalism isn’t simply a moral stance against injustice — it’s about building an alternative.”
For many people the idea of anticapitalism seems ridiculous. After all, capitalist firms have brought us fantastic technological innovations in recent years: smartphones and streaming movies; driverless cars and social media; Jumbotron screens at football games and video games connecting thousands of players around the world; every conceivable consumer product available on the Internet for rapid home delivery; astounding increases in the productivity of labor through novel automation technologies; and more.
And while it’s true that income is unequally distributed in capitalist economies, it is also true that the array of consumption goods available and affordable for the average person, and even for the poor, has increased dramatically almost everywhere. Just compare the United States in the half century between 1965 and 2015: the percentage of Americans with air conditioners, cars, washing machines, dishwashers, televisions, and indoor plumbing increased dramatically. Life expectancy is longer; infant mortality lower.
In the twenty-first century, this improvement in basic standards of living has also occurred in poorer regions of the world as well: the material standards of millions of people living in China since it embraced the free market have improved dramatically.
What’s more, look what happened when Russia and China tried an alternative to capitalism. Aside from the political oppression and brutality of those regimes, they were economic failures. So, if you care about improving the lives of people, how can you be anticapitalist? That is one story, the standard story.
Here is another story: the hallmark of capitalism is poverty in the midst of plenty.
This is not the only thing wrong with capitalism, but it is its gravest failing. Widespread poverty — especially amongst children, who clearly bear no responsibility for their plight — is morally reprehensible in rich societies where it could be easily eliminated.
Yes, there is economic growth, technological innovation, increasing productivity, and a downward diffusion of consumer goods, but along with capitalist economic growth comes destitution for many whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the advance of capitalism, precariousness for those at the bottom of the labor market, and alienating and tedious work for most.
Capitalism has generated massive increases in productivity and extravagant wealth for some, yet many people still struggle to make ends meet. Capitalism is an inequality-enhancing machine as well as a growth machine. Not to mention that it is becoming clearer that capitalism, driven by the relentless search for profits, is destroying the environment.
Both of these accounts are anchored in the realities of capitalism. It is not an illusion that capitalism has transformed the material conditions of life in the world and enormously increased human productivity; many people have benefited from this. But equally, it is not an illusion that capitalism generates great harms and perpetuates unnecessary forms of human suffering.
The pivotal issue is not whether material conditions on average have improved in the long run within capitalist economies, but rather whether, looking forward from this point in history, things would be better for most people in an alternative kind of economy. It is true that the centralized, authoritarian, state-run economies of twentieth-century Russia and China were in many ways economic failures, but these are not the only possibilities.
Where the real disagreement lies — a disagreement that is fundamental — is over whether it is possible to have the productivity, innovation, and dynamism that we see in capitalism without the harms. Margaret Thatcher famously announced in the early 1980s, “There is No Alternative,” but two decades later the World Social Forum declared “Another World is Possible.”
I argue that another world — one that would improve the conditions for human flourishing for most people — is indeed possible. In fact, elements of this new world are already being created today, and concrete ways to move from here to there exist.
Anticapitalism is possible, not simply as a moral stance toward the harms and injustices of global capitalism, but as a practical stance towards building an alternative for greater human flourishing.