How to Be an Anticapitalist Today | Eric Wright

“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.
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6 responses to “How to Be an Anticapitalist Today | Eric Wright

  1. “One way to challenge capitalism is to build more democratic, egalitarian, participatory economic relations in the spaces and cracks within this complex system wherever 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.”

    This is an attractive program, though it’s not always easy to distinguish the cracks from the pavement. Early in his article Olin observes that standards of living have improved markedly in capitalist economies. “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.” I’m all-in with indoor plumbing, but that’s no reason to hook it up to a privately owned washing machine, which our household of 3 uses maybe 5 hours a week. No doubt your experiences in communal living exploit these potentials for eroding the privately owned commodity form of capitalism in an anarcho-collective context. Sadly but predictably, capitalists also find ways to exploit these cracks, with Über being paradigmatic in the realm of car-sharing.

    In the last section Olin introduces the idea of the “real utopia”. HIs first example is the worker cooperative, prefiguring in praxis the emancipatory ideals of equality, democracy, and solidarity. His second example of a real utopia the public library: “Libraries embody principles of access and distribution which are profoundly anticapitalist… In the library, if there is an imbalance between supply and demand, the amount of time one has to wait for the book increases; books in scarce supply are rationed by time, not by price. A waiting list is a profoundly egalitarian device: a day in everyone’s life is treated as morally equivalent. A well-resourced library will treat the length of the waiting list as a signal that more copies of a particular book need to be ordered.” The egalitarian beauty of the waiting list makes sense for the communal washing machine — a physical object that costs money to manufacture, transport, warehouse, and operate. But in the era of the ebook the scarcity of supply is artificially sustained by industries reliant on perpetuating the commodity form of the book. An ebook can be duplicated and distributed for free, instantaneously, and without limit. A more utopian real public library wouldn’t accumulate and lend books one at a time; it would replicate and disseminate them as a public resource.

    “Real utopias can be found wherever emancipatory ideals are embodied in existing institutions and proposals for new institutional designs. They are both constitutive elements of a destination and a strategy.” I think that’s right: the already-existing real utopias are prefigurative praxes, movements in a direction, temporary outposts rather than a final destination.

    • ” temporary outposts rather than a final destination” this is what we might have the resources for if we are lucky, moments/islands of respite, which would put us in with the majority of people (and our fellow critters) across time and space, mere mortals scampering under the feet of titanic forces, only we know the horror that these are not gods worthy of worship at play and war but merely mechanically enhanced fellow humans and cults of personality make for very grim mythoi indeed…

    • Nice imagery, dmf. I watched from the sidelines as you and Michael squared off on this issue of whether locally realized experiments generally categorized as anti-capitalist can eventually capture larger swathes of territory or whether they’re doomed to collapse under irresistible macrosystemic forces. I’m concerned that those larger forces aren’t just being pressed down from the top, but that they permeate most of the strata. It was widely reported that US millennials think more highly of socialism than of capitalism, but in drilling down it seems that what they want is more egalitarian access to capitalistic gains, be it through higher wages or profit sharing or entrepreneurship. There have been eras in US history when the spread between rich and poor wasn’t as wide as it is now. Would it be a systemic improvement to rebalance the scales, “taming capitalism” (Wright’s term) a little bit in the social-democratic tradition? The right engages in wanton denial about global warming while at the same time the giant corporations are ramping up investment in “clean energy” — a euphemism that flies even among the climate change constituents — as a high-growth, high-ROI industry. If corporations strap a meter on renewable energy sources they’ll reap unconscionable profits, but maybe the worst-case scenario of environmental catastrophe will be averted. Is that a good thing? I acknowledge my ambivalence.

      • hey JD, the business/market incentives are all short-term (and so more of the same) and real infrastructural changes of the kinds that a truly greener/tamer form of capitalism/bernie-socialism would require can only be afforded (and commanded) by a federal government not unlike the sort of command and control efforts taken during WW2 (which in part led to folks like the Koch bros pushing back and now at the helms of federal agencies and statehouses) but we can’t even raise the gas tax here for minimal highway maintenance, if you look at cities like NY or SanFran they are literally falling apart at a time when they are richer than any people in history. The trend is for governments to push more and more people (and places) off their books (see posts here on Saskia Sassen and expulsions) into varieties of sacrifice zones and now we see businesses like Google & Amazon making more of their money off of selling cloud services to other companies and governments using AI they trained on our free labor on their platforms and eventually moving away from serving customers with free services as advertising goes under, we are ever more disposable, welcome to the precariat I suppose.

  2. In the science-fiction epic “the expanse” , On earth this is in the future, A large section of the population choose not to do anything to contribute to humanity in to humanities efforts. It’s not coming to mind right now what they call the program that these people are on, but it appears to be generally excepted that a large number of human beings simply will not want to be educated or to work a regular job and things like that; basically that the sheer number of people in a population a certain segment of the population will just be not motivated and in general he be “lazy”. This is just accepted by society, and because the other part of society that doesn’t want to contribute and does want to be educated and is motivated to work towards a whatever common goal, because this segment produces such excess of material they are able to support that portion of society who doesn’t want to do anything Without any harm or without any guilt or shame or anything imposed upon either side because there’s just so much wealth.. of course this segment of society that lives pretty much on the door they don’t get much but they have the right to live in so they get enough food to keep them healthy and they get clothes and I think they get a small place to live or something like that. But they have no money, because they don’t work. They are just giving the necessities of life so they don’t suffer.

    So earth has the largest population in the story and then there is a well-developed colony on Mars such that it sits on civilization pretty much with a few million people, where I think earth has something like 140 billion people or something. And then there is what they call the belt which is people that live on the astroid belt who mine astroids for materials for Mars and the earth.

    So in the segment that doesn’t want to contribute then there is the regular kind of struggle between the “good and bad” between the ultra wealthy and the poverty stricken oppressed workers, and then all the variations of people in between.

    It’s an interesting world these guys have created for this story, one that I don’t think is probably too far off from how it really will be.

    I think yes we can make a better humanity and things like that but I also feel that this better humanity really only includes a small part of people who really give a shit about what this better humanity is. And that most people just want to exist and they just want to live because they live in the way that they live their life is because the way the system has been set up, the way that they have to do things in order to eat and have clothes and listen to their music and stuff like that, basically things that they are told to do and things that they have to do

    Anyways…

  3. Sorry, there was the word “doesn’t” in there four times that I should be “does”. So I hope you can sort it out to be able to understand my comment. Lol

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