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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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