Sep 30, 2022

Why Capitalism Cannot Be Redeemed

By Miki Kashtan /
Why Capitalism Cannot Be Redeemed
Cover art: Films For Action

I have a very friendly relationship with Adam Bendell, who is very deeply involved in the world of impact investment and who has also been very interested in the work I am doing around gift economy. Over the years, he has come to events of mine and we have had some very significant conversations that have enriched both of us, including one that was open to those involved with the Nonviolent Global Liberation community.

After that conversation, he invited me to a reverse event: to have a conversation with members of Toniic, the impact investment group he is the CEO of. I decided to be brave and offered to engage with people on the topic of why capitalism cannot be redeemed, the title of this piece. My offer was accepted, and I had about two months to prepare. This piece is the result of my preparation: forty-three reasons why capitalism cannot be redeemed, in seven categories. I was quite nervous going into what I anticipated being the lion’s den of people deeply immersed in capitalism. The conversation was surprisingly engaging, open, and revealing for many of us. Only parts of it are viewable, those parts that show only me or Adam himself. You can view those clips here.

In the traditional Passover Seder, there is a ritual called “Dayeynu” (translated loosely into “that would have been enough for us”). It consists of a long list of all the things that God did for the Israelites in the story of Exodus, all laid out in this form: If God did this and didn’t also do that, that would have been enough for us. And then there is one more, and one more, and one more, for a total of fifteen, implying that God’s bounty and grace were overwhelmingly beyond what would have been enough. For me, the list I am providing here has the same felt sense: more and more reasons for accepting that capitalism must go and cannot be redeemed. What I mean is that capitalism is inherently problematic rather than simply a good system gone awry that can be tinkered with and fixed. I try to point out, with each of the items on the list, how the logic of capitalism and how it functions, and not this or that specific excess, is creating the impacts.

I don’t believe there is a future for humans with capitalism still around. It may look to others like there is no way that capitalism can ever go, and that a system based on global gifting and integrative decision making is simply impossible and naïve. My claim is exactly the opposite: that anything that retains the ways in which capitalism functions is doomed and that the notions that there is no alternative to capitalism and that a better future awaits us with capitalism are both illusions, two of eleven illusions that are in the last category of this piece.


Impacts on the planet

This is the area that has been most studied and talked about in the investigations about the impacts of capitalism. The absolute necessity of extraction for permanent growth is a key driver of such impacts. If there is any category for which the “Dayeynu” holds in particular, it would be this one, where the impacts of capitalism are so immense as to bring about a growing likelihood of human extinction.

  • 1. Permanent growth is incompatible with Planet Earth. Permanent growth is a built-in imperative within capitalism because of interest-bearing debt being a driver. Debt is an artificial human creation, which began so long ago that to many it seems “natural.” When so much is financed by debt, it means that we cannot pay back the aggregate debt except through permanent growth. This is because there is nowhere else that money would come from to pay the total interest on the total aggregate debt. This means that the rate of growth has to be bigger than the interest rate to keep everything going. Continually growing the economy requires extracting more and more from planet earth to produce things. This is driving us nearer and nearer to extinction. A system predicated on perpetual growth cannot be reconciled with a finite planet.

  • 2. The push to externalize costs makes extraction a logical conclusion. Within capitalism, it is considered good business practice to externalize as many costs as possible in order to increase profit. This includes costs to planet, people, communities, health, wellbeing, and anything else possible. One way of looking at it is that all the impacts that I am listing in this piece are externalized costs. Externalizing costs literally means eliminating feedback loops that could reveal the costs of extraction. When there is no feedback to let us know the impact of extraction, and profit is the only goal, extraction can only continue and intensify. Even triple bottom line companies, accountable in principle to people, planet, and profit and not only to profit, are still beholden to the principle of externalizing because, ultimately, if they were to internalize all costs, their products would become too high to be able to have a profit.
  • 3. Market value as a unique measure leads to inefficient use of resources. When the only measure of efficiency is how little money is used in producing and distributing things instead of how long an item lasts, how well it serves purpose, and how much resources it took to produce it, discardable items and planned obsolescence become inevitable. Sharing of resources is discouraged. And all this use isn’t even enhancing true wellbeing, only comfort and convenience.


Impacts on individuals

When we are born and raised into a particular social structure, most of us don’t question it and only try to adapt to it as best we know how. Capitalism isn’t natural; it’s a humanly created system. This system has impacted us, wherever we are within it. Although some of us have more than others in terms of comfort, ease, convenience, and access to ideas, information, and material resources that our ancestors would not have dreamed of, all of us suffer.

  • 4. We can’t attend to needs with a system designed for other purposes. Within capitalism, distribution happens based on effective demand, not based on needs. The two are not equivalent, and needs have no power in an exchange-based system. That means those without resources to exchange for their needs are most likely to suffer by not getting their most basic, material needs attended to. A distribution system based on effective demand cannot care for the needs of those without the resources to convert their needs into effective demands.
  • 5. We manufacture desires that don’t satisfy real needs. Those with resources are more and more willing to imagine that all their needs can be met via market mechanisms and through buying something. Non-material needs become progressively more elusive while people become convinced they need things that meet no real human need. We cannot reduce consumption to levels necessary for long-term species survival when more and more people convert almost all their needs to buying new things all the time without really getting satisfaction. This is inherent to capitalism because continuing to grow and have profit requires there being always more consumers paying for more things than we will ever need, including paying for things that are actively undermining our health, such as the amount of sugar and artificial or processed food-like substances that we consume, or the amount of online products that activate dopamine and create addictive cycles within us.
  • 6. We are divided into winners and losers. Exchange creates instrumental relationships that pit people against each other. It creates zero-sum games and necessitates losers. This keeps us separate from each other. Living in separation is toxic for humans, regardless of whether we win or lose. Winners and losers adopt predictable behaviors even over very short-term gains. This is investigated in the rigged monopoly game experiments, in which a coin flip creates “rich” players, who by necessity win because they have many more resources. They regularly act in ways that imply they deserve the resources they have and attribute their success to their decisions rather than to the moment in which a coin flip made them rich. This separation is built into capitalism.
  • 7. We are torn out of our evolutionary makeup. All of us come into being through ongoing, massive acts of unilateral gifting by mothers or others who take on that function. We wouldn’t reach adulthood otherwise. And yet this deep fact about us, that we are a mothering species, is distorted and made invisible by the exchange economy that is superimposed on us both individually as we grow up and collectively through the market mechanisms. As Genevieve Vaughan argues, exchange mechanisms extract, specifically, from the gift economy that remains invisible, in at least two ways: through unpaid and low-paid care work that attends to our basic needs, and through the gap between what workers are paid and what capitalist producers receive for the products, which renders the work an odd mixture of gift and coercion, as workers involuntarily gift their work to the capitalists.
  • 8. We lose capacity to experience enoughness. In order to increase consumption, capitalism always plants in us a sense of not having enough, of needing more, better, newer. It’s hard to find a way to feel that we have enough of anything, whether material or not. It instills an experience of needing “more” all the time. We measure wellness by having more. Even millionaires, on average, report that about 25% more than they have would be enough, independently of how much they actually have. This is inherent so we will be motivated to produce more, to buy more, and to make more money, all of which are designed to keep the engine of capitalism going.
  • 9. We are structurally pushed to act in ways that distort our view of human nature. The structures of capitalism put so much pressure on us, that most of us end up acting in self-interest in the absence of community and connection. How we then act, combined with related media productions, push on us more and more deeply the homo economicus view of human nature that has come down from millennia of patriarchal conditioning now intensified through capitalism. All this, in turn, makes it even harder to resist the pressure to act in self-interested ways.

  • 10. We end up requiring extrinsic motivation and lots of force to keep things going. Way too many jobs lack meaningful contribution and people do them solely because it’s the only way they have to attend to material needs, what in the global North is called paying bills. The need for “incentive” separates people from the intrinsic motivation of contribution except for small minorities of those who are wage workers and even many self-employed professionals. It does it through instilling fear and a mindset of scarcity. This is most obvious in those who don’t have enough, and it’s also present in those who have enough and even more than enough, as there is permanent anxiety about whether we will be valued sufficiently to be hired, or for our products or services to be purchased, or for our needs to be satisfied through charity or government programs, or for someone to marry us.
  • 11. We accrue immense amounts of individual debt, currently at crisis levels. Consumption pressures on individuals result in people getting into debt to finance their lives and makes it impossible for many to align their income and expenses. In some global South countries, this has even led to record numbers of suicides, especially among farmers who are suddenly needing to buy seeds instead of saving them because of predatory practices done by corporations such as Monsanto.
  • 12. Commodification degrades our relationships to ourselves and the natural world. Under capitalism, more and more of our material needs are attended to through what can be purchased rather than found, grown, created, or shared. In addition, more and more of our nonmaterial needs are attended to through paying people for services rather than through the flow of caring relationships. The result is that we lose the joy that comes with direct relationship to land and people, and we become progressively more disconnected. Capitalism would not be able to continue if large numbers of us redirected our energy away from the market and into attending to needs in direct relationship with land and people, without money or exchange.
  • 13. We become numb to the impact of our actions on others. We are separated from the impacts of our actions on others who are often physically far away and always made invisible to us. In this way, we become numb and less empathic the more access to resources we have. Given the intense legal and economic incentives to maximizing profits by externalizing costs, by paying as little as possible to workers, and by asking as much as possible for products and services, even engaging in ethical practices requires individuals who can stand up to such pressures, which invariably would be few. Systemically, we are creating people with less and less empathy.


Impacts on communities

People who are part of an intact community have no reason to go to the market for their needs, because they meet them in relationship with land and others. It’s the isolated individual, fending for themselves in the market, who is both the worker and the customer of capitalist enterprises. Capitalism requires the erosion of community to get started and, as it progresses, leaves progressively less capacity for communities to resist being incorporated into the market and to sustain themselves outside it.

  • 14. We lose, on purpose, non-market ways of meeting needs. Historically everywhere and currently in parts of the world that are converting to more intensive capitalist methods, people are actively being torn from communities and land and lose the capacity to continue living in the commons, where they can meet many more needs outside the market, in relationship with land and community. Where commons still exist, they are assaulted by capitalism, often with significant violence, so as to create the pressure to participate in market mechanisms.
  • 15. We lose access to connection to ancestral practices. Indigenous communities in particular, and more generally all communities, lose capacity to maintain practices and ways of being that are rooted in land, in deeper connection with life, in gifting, in relationships, and in interdependence, and are forced to adopt individualized, instrumental, modern ways of being, while their ancient ways are berated and even physically attacked. One particularly horrific example of this is the practice of forcing children to go to boarding schools to physically “root the Indian out of them.” In the US, it wasn’t until 1978 that Native American parents gained the right to prevent this from happening to their children.
  • 16. We lose resilience. Tight-knit communities have greater capacity to sustain themselves through the natural ups and downs of resource availability. With the massive disappearance of such communities and the shaping of our existence around nuclear families, communities are less able to rally when things are tough. This is because the pathways and relationships aren’t strong when they are not tied to material resource flow and only depend on the choice to care.


Social impacts

Within countries and globally, capitalism has brought to us immense challenges, even if for some minority of people globally it has brought unprecedented material benefits. This category may be the hardest to assimilate, especially for those who benefit from capitalism. The reason for the challenge is that these impacts are often on other people and often abstract or systemic, both of which are harder to see.

  • 17. The system requires a permanent underclass. Keeping wages down requires people who are always willing to accept the shit jobs and who then act as a downward pressure on the employed to be willing to work for less, lest they lose their job to others and join the ranks of the temporarily unemployed or even the permanently unemployable. When full employment was proposed and even put into effect, temporarily, during the New Deal period in the US, it was resisted by capitalists who accurately recognized it as a limitation on how much profit they could make.
  • 18. Increasing inequality is inherent, not an after-effect. There are two reasons I see for why inequality is a permanent and growing feature of capitalism. One is, simply, that within the exchange economy, resources flow to where they already exist rather than to need. The other is what Thomas Piketty researched, which is various mechanisms that make what is called the “rate of return” — the profit those with enough capital can expect to receive when they invest — higher than the overall economic growth. Because of both of these reasons, capitalism leads to increasing inequality which creates pressure within societies. For example, it is relative poverty, not absolute poverty, that drives misery. And growing inequality is correlated with crime and violence to such a degree that it is considered a causal link.
  • 19. Mechanisms such as racism are necessary to keep things going. Although many think that racism is independent of capitalism, a deep read of the history of capitalism points to intentional and unintentional ways in which racism was created both to keep people separate and thus not rising up to those in power, and to have cheap labor that is sustained through fear of losing employment. This situation is complex, because the potency of racist narratives sustains them, by now, independently of their contribution to capitalism. Still, racism is intertwined, both within countries and globally, with the requirement to have a pool of desperate people ready to take on any job at any level of pay, so as to keep others compliant.
  • 20. Instability and misery create legitimation crises and require enforcement. Attempts to prevent capitalism from starting or continuing have never stopped since massive accumulation began in the 15th century in Europe, and have become more organized and persistent, even while fluctuating, since the mid-19th century. This is directly the result of the grimness of the lives of many, even within the global North and definitely in much of the global South. This is one small part of why, even though states and markets are believed to be at odds with each other, strong states are actually necessary for capitalism to thrive. This means states that are successful at getting people to comply with the law, ideally through willingly believing what is happening to be legitimate. This then means that states will need to mobilize to restore trust when it erodes, as it does whenever there are the inevitable economic downturns, even through misinformation, or to enforce rules and suppress expression, in order to keep people from challenging the systems that govern us. In the US, for example, police departments have become progressively more militarized in the last number of years in parallel with the erosion of trust.
  • 21. Comfort in core countries and exploitation of periphery countries are intertwined. When Immanuel Wallerstein put forth his massive theoretical investigations of what he called World-System Theory (a four-volume series that spans the 16th century to just before WWI), he challenged the single country as a unit of economic analysis and pointed, instead, to what he called world systems, which are marked by having only one overall division of labor across multiple cultures. His analysis points to capitalism being, from the start, a world-system, a multi-region phenomenon in which some regions are incorporated into the capitalist system, involuntarily, as the periphery and semi-periphery supplying core countries with raw materials, agricultural products, or cheap labor. The reason for these names is descriptive, as mapping where resources flow shows thick webs connecting core regions to many others, with far fewer links happening within regions in the periphery, the countries of the global South. Within this, the semi-periphery countries have both core and periphery features to them. There is no way that capitalism could have developed within Europe independently of what was simultaneously happening in the many colonized countries. This phenomenon continues today, for example in the imposition of unequal exchange agreements forced upon weaker regions.

  • 22. Limits to increasing wellbeing are widespread around the world. The Threshold Hypothesis was put forth by Manfred Max-Neef. His claim is that for countries, just as for individuals, wellbeing can only increase so far through economic growth. Beyond a certain level, continued economic growth doesn’t add to human wellbeing, which may even, at times, decline with more economic growth. Max-Neef demonstrated that this threshold was crossed, within the core countries of the global North, mostly during the 1970–1980 decade. Since then, others have investigated this phenomenon and have shown that the threshold has been crossed at lower and lower GDP levels for each new society that has crossed it (e.g., a number of countries in East Asia). The reason for the existence of the threshold is believed to be material limits to extraction that are intricately linked to planetary environmental limits. This means that even after formal independence, core countries have continued to rob formerly colonized countries of the possibility of increasing wellbeing by relying only on increasing material outputs, as global North countries were able to do for so long. This is because they have already used so much of the planetary resources that less is available to new countries that are now able to increase their economic growth and yet are crossing the threshold earlier. This phenomenon is also intertwined with the crushing reality that even as the core countries continue to be the primary contributors to global warming, the periphery countries in much of the formerly colonized regions, are the ones bearing the brunt of the impact.


Physical violence

A host of practices initially designed to increase the pool of cheap labor are believed by many in the global North to have been an unfortunate and inessential part of the initial move to capitalism that are now largely gone. As documented by some researchers, though, such practices continue in large parts of the world now even as global North countries have shifted to relying more on economic than physical force to maintain compliance with laws that are designed to support capitalists. It will never be voluntary for people to mobilize to produce for the global North through losing their land, freedom, community, and meaningful existence and shifting to production of export cash crops that cannot sustain them or to becoming “unskilled laborers” who must join the labor market at wages that cannot sustain them. These practices are documented extensively in Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch. While the specifics vary across time and space, the essence of this point is that capitalism cannot continue without violence; it’s not an aberration.

  • 23. Land enclosures. Around the world, during any transition to capitalism, people have been forced off the land through enclosures of the commons. This was widespread in Europe in the two hundred bloody years of transition from feudalism to capitalism, and is now happening on an unimaginable mass scale in Africa.
  • 24. Slavery. Initially operating on a massive and overt scale, some form of slavery is integral to the transition to capitalism and is still widespread in many parts of the world, including trafficking in children. The consequences of the original forms of mass slavery continue to this day alongside new forms of informal slavery being created. Wage labor, itself, is a form of semi-slavery: the bosses “own” the labor of workers for whatever hours they are at work, increasingly more and more of the time for higher wage workers and managers.
  • 25. Colonization. The colonization of much of the world was a key driver of the enrichment of Europe, and the relationship with the formerly colonized parts of the world continues to be one of massive exploitation and redirection of resources from local production to export-based agriculture and industry that is sapping the lives of the majority of the human population. After a short initial period of focusing on local capacity, growing interventions by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have resulted in continuing and deepening challenges for massive numbers of people in the periphery countries of the global South. As far as I understand the dense and painful literature I have engaged with on these issues, these institutions began to issue loans to formerly colonized countries and to require what are known as “structural adjustments” as conditions for making such loans. This obscure phrase hides what are, in essence, policies designed to privatize everything and interfere with attempts by at least some states to direct resources to providing safety nets for people. The loans themselves are creating unimaginable suffering, as countries are incapable of exiting the spiraling cycle of debt.
  • 26. Witch hunts and other assaults on women. One compelling understanding of the function of the witch hunts is as an assault on women’s power to control their reproduction and their economic activities, which continues to this day around the world, in some places still taking the form of actual witch hunts. As such, as it seen by Federici and others as one mechanism for increasing cheap labor.
  • 27. Near perpetual war. Technically speaking, this has been true since patriarchy started and is not a unique feature of capitalism. Fundamentally, since patriarchal control and the concentration of resources inherently requires more capacity than could be in any one region, patriarchy has brought ongoing war to the world. Capitalism, as its intensification, has brought about more warfare. For example, the US has had only fifteen years of no war in its entire existence compared with about 200 years of near peace during the Roman Empire.


Blocked pathways to systemic change

Any living system is in constant learning and evolution. Human systems are no exception when they function well. Patriarchal systems in general, and capitalist ones in particular, are set up instead to perpetuate themselves. Any system that makes itself impervious to change is at higher risk of creating harm that won’t be stoppable. In addition, making change so difficult has, so far, led all empires to collapse. This section maps some of the mechanisms that interfere with the human capacity to create systemic change.

  • 28. We can’t individually overcome a system that is inherently separating. It’s harder for people to come together to see their shared benefit in shifting the system when their material conditions result in growing separation between them and makes it appear that they are fighting with each other for scarce resources. As a result, we stay separate and are less likely to come together, which is a necessary precondition for creating any systemic change.
  • 29. Only very few of us would be able to muster enough capacity to create change. Because we are all socialized and domesticated into the existing system, the sheer inertia of our situation and the degree of stress that both impoverished and wealthy people experience mean that very few of us will stand up to our socialization and aim to create change. When, in addition, there are internalized obstacles, peer pressure from others who accept the system, and increasingly more intense external pressures the more we walk away from the mainstream (loss of work, loss of income, loss of freedom, loss of life in some cases), the majority of us will stay within existing norms even if we are against them.
  • 30. Any community or region that aim for self-sufficiency are penalized. Whether through war, economic sanctions, or targeting of individual leaders, communities around the world find that their attempts to assert independence from the market are physically attacked. Key present examples are Cuba, Rojava, and small and large communities and movements in the Americas, both North and South. Less known examples are extensively documented though the information requires digging up.
  • 31. We have limited access to resources to make anything happen. Given that global capitalists control the overwhelming majority of the resources of the world, the majority of the world’s population doesn’t have, even collectively, access to sufficient resources to sustain ourselves outside the market or to banding together to mount resistance to capitalism.
  • 32. States, economic institutions, and the media are potent mechanisms of control. Any attempt to transform or even regulate or modify capitalism encounters immense resistance from existing power structures because capitalists now control all forms of power, not only financial, and thus even when the majority of a population wants something, it doesn’t become a law despite the claim to majority rule of “the people.”


Living in illusions

Living in illusions stunts our cognitive and emotional capacity, limits our imagination, and muddles our vision. This impacts our wellbeing directly, because we are cut off from truth about what is going on within and around us. It also serves as a mechanism that makes changing the system difficult. Given the serious primary impacts of capitalism, it is only accepting and internalizing the illusions that would make so many of us go along with it.

  • 33. Illusion of wealth creation. In a closed system wealth can only come from exploitation of people, relationships, and/or natural elements. Ingenuity doesn’t create wealth; it only redirects resources. The primary exception of input into our system is sun energy which, in itself, isn’t very usable by humans and requires conversion processes which, themselves, require energy and other substances that need to be extracted. While the theoretical pathway remains open, so far it’s only plants that have this direct capacity, and they don’t do it to create wealth, only as part of flow. The same holds for geothermal energy or moon-induced tides: in themselves, they are not usable, only through conversion processes. The idea of creating wealth, even with these possible exceptions, remains problematic for me and I see it as denying the reality of limitations that our existence on Earth signifies.
  • 34. Illusion of freedom. Because so much is funneled towards market pathways, capitalism gives us the illusion that having money equals freedom. Freedom is then narrowed in meaning and becomes the freedom to do whatever we want, especially in terms of getting and using things. I see freedom differently, as being about choice, about being able to connect with our needs and act from there. Our most essential needs cannot be attended to with money, only through choice that comes from connection with life and with other people.
  • 35. Illusion of anyone can rise up. The myth of capitalism is that, ultimately, the field is open: anyone can rise, anyone can even become rich, if they work hard enough and all the rest of that story. In the actual numbers, capitalism allows only a tiny trickle of people to move up from poverty and to individually overcome discrimination and exploitation. For the overwhelming majority of people, this isn’t an option. If everyone at once rose up, this would immediately destroy capitalism. However far from truth this myth is, it serves as a legitimation story that keeps many people from banding together to overturn capitalism.

  • 36. Illusion of meritocracy. The current myth is that those who rise to the top are those with most talent and skill. The reality continues to be that class of origin is highly predictive of where one lands, and that gender, race, and other factors continue to severely limit people’s options. This illusion is precisely the finding of the rigged monopoly games writ large.
  • 37. Illusion of jobs as a need and solution. Capitalism is said to support the common good in a variety of ways, including in particular by providing jobs. This is one of the most frequent explanations for why business is good for everyone and why anywhere from municipalities to whole countries end up courting corporations to come and invest within their jurisdiction. This is predicated on the idea that having jobs is a need and a solution, which it isn’t. A future of jobs-for-all is a future of alienation for all. If we look at actual needs, it is easier to attend to them through community-based solutions, directly, and without markets.
  • 38. Illusion of scarcity. Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. The more the economy grows, the larger will be the share of resources, in what we relate to, within the domain of scarcity. Because of financial and legal barriers to access, resources that may otherwise be plentiful are made to be scarce, keeping us fighting against each other.
  • 39. Illusion of abundance. In order to be able to continue to extract and exploit without deep soul agony, those with wealth believe that there is no limit to how many people can live a rich lifestyle if only they figure out how to become wealthy. This protects people from seeing that their needs are met at the direct expense of others; that their wealth is directly related to others’ impoverishment.
  • 40. Illusion of philanthropy caring for impacts. Philanthropy cannot solve things because of five reasons: a) the wealth that sustains philanthropy comes from having first extracted from people or nature to create wealth beforehand. Any of it that is given back will always be less than is taken; b) the giving takes again, this time from the common good by reducing the tax base; c) philanthropic giving is generally disempowering, as the givers make the agenda, not the receivers; d) grantmaking is generally an uneven and instrumental relationship in which people apply for funding instead of collaborating for a shared purpose; d) no philanthropy will fund moving out of dependence on the market and shifting to needs as the primary driver of economic activity.
  • 41. Illusion of things getting better. Although on aggregate it can be argued that humans are better off from capitalism, counting the costs and disaggregating impacts reveals that this improvement is only so for up to 10% of the population. For most everyone else capitalism worsened things, especially when looking at the lives of those who were incorporated into patriarchy through conquest rather than from one patriarchal system to another, where there may be some advantage over the centuries. When we look at people who lived in intact communities that were self-sustaining, at whatever scale they were living, measuring their well-being using modern standards misses the point of what their own experience is of loss or gain from capitalism.
  • 42. Illusion of development. There are multiple parts to this particular illusion, which is a sticky one: 1) The assumption that everyone would want what current core countries in the global North have in terms of way of living. Instead, what I see is that although many around the world have internalized and adopted European norms since being colonized, this isn’t true of everyone. 2) The belief that development is the same process anywhere in the world. Instead, what I see is what Wallerstein has pointed out: each country or region gets incorporated into the capitalist world-system in unique and specific ways. 3) The belief that the only barrier to any country reaching the standard of living that exists in global North countries is internal: their own will and hard work. Instead, I see that no country or region can follow an economic trajectory in isolation from the entirety of the world market and their place within it. Europe itself would not have reached the levels of comfort and standard of living that exist now without having other places to exploit; the two are not unrelated. There is no new place to exploit now. Capitalism has reached the end of its road in that regard.
  • 43. Illusion of a better future. The idea that what hasn’t worked so far and has made things worse for so many, can magically turn around those disastrous impacts through the same methods that created them is based on some read of capitalism that says that all the ills it has brought are not inherent to it; that they are happenstance events that can be eliminated while preserving the central mechanism of capitalism. No reliance on technology can solve problems that technology created. No market mechanism can solve problems that market mechanisms created.
  • 44. Illusion of no other option. Capitalism makes itself look like it’s the only game in town; that the only ostensible alternative was socialism and it failed; that with all its failings it’s done more good than ill to humanity and is the only path forward. This negates the entire history of humanity’s capacity to share resources and the principle of unilateral giving which continues: mothers give to children, especially early on, and the exchange economy is parasitic on this giving as well as all the care work that happens outside the market. Also, workers involuntarily give to employers the work they do beyond what it would take to sustain themselves. In the early days of capitalism, before work was regimented to the degree that it is now, they went to work only for the number of days necessary to get enough to supplement what they couldn’t get from the land because the land was taken away from them.


What next, then? (1)

The basic premise behind market economies has two parts. One is that we are self-interested beings and that we don’t know how to collaborate to solve problems in ways that support all of us. The other is that, if true, this isn’t a tragedy to mourn, because it actually is the best mechanism for distributing all resources optimally through the famous “invisible hand”: when we all pursue our self-interested activities, so goes this axiom, we cumulatively bring about the best possible social benefit without ever intending it.

As daring as it may be to do so, I question both parts of this premise. My entire life’s work rests deeply on very different premises. I soak up strength from every little bit of evidence of what Humberto Maturana calls the “biology of love” in his book that includes that term in the title, written along with Gerda Werden-Zöller. It’s in what I see and experience in some moments; in what regularly happens when emergencies bring people together; in what I learned from Genevieve Vaughan about the maternal roots of the gift economy and the necessity of unilateral giving for any of us to be alive; in what I have read about matriarchal societies and indigenous principles; and in what I have seen of descriptions of first contact encounters with such societies during the most massive colonizing times.

It’s from within this understanding of our evolutionary makeup and pre-patriarchal ways of being that I want to frame a different pathway that counters the either/or of capitalism and communism and is based on distributed, collaborative decision making.

Capitalism relies heavily on strong state mechanisms and yet pretends to have as little as possible to do with states. Capitalism inexorably leads to concentration of wealth and yet we hear the myth that no one has power and everything happens through open competition that brings forth the best possible outcome through the invisible hand.

Communism, on the other hand, at least as practiced so far, relies on coercive and centralized mechanisms that discourage local capacity and flow even while pretending to be a “people’s republic” as some call themselves. When the people of Catalunya self-organized in collaborative and distributed self-governing structures during the Spanish Civil War, it was the communist party, not Franco’s fascist forces, who brought that chapter to an end. As far as I understood, it was the party’s inability to accept anything that wasn’t ruled from above.

What I am proposing is entirely different from both and yet integrates features present in each of them.

Unlike communism, when decision making is distributed, there is no central planning and no one is in charge. Just like capitalism, and yet entirely differently, people decide for themselves what they need and what they are willing and able to do. Unlike communism, no one decides anything for anyone else without their participation or full entrustment.

Unlike capitalism, when decision making is collaborative, decisions are not individualized. Unlike communism, no one tells us what to do, and no one is going to solve our problems without our empowered participation. Unlike capitalism, we are not simply free to do as we please without regard for impacts, others’ needs, and what is actually available. When decision making is collaborative, care and mutual influencing are integrally built into the process. Just like communism, everyone’s needs and capacity are in the picture, with an intention to care for all the needs within overall collective capacity. Unlike capitalism, no one is free to accumulate at the expense of others. Unlike communism, there is full trust in life that people, on their own, without anyone deciding for them, can engage with each other and reach decisions that optimally flow resources from where they are to where they are needed, based on full willingness and capacity, and with the least unwanted impacts.

(1) This section is excerpted from a learning packet called “Practical Aspects of Restoring Resource Flow,” from a larger discussion of design principles for gift economies.


Trash external to trash can, public domain photo on PxHere

Silhouettes running on dollars, by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Young people behind wire, by janeb13 from Pixabay

Family by water, by White77 from Pixabay

Man by car, by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

Stairs up arrow, by athree23 from Pixabay

Dancing women circle, by David Nekrutman, on Flickr


Miki Kashtan is a practical visionary pursuing a world that works for all, based on principles and practices rooted in feminist nonviolence.

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