The 1923 publication of Selections from the Writings of Kierkegaard contains a brief statement, one that today’s curious seekers and revolutionaries might entertain. “Not only in the world of commerce,” writes Søren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialist thought, “but also in the world of ideas our age has arranged a regular clearance-sale.” Of course, to claim that ideas exist on the market like everything else in a “world of commerce” is not to pinpoint a truth, but rather, to invoke a metaphor. Kierkegaard does not contend that worthy ideas must come with a hefty price tag in order to verify their importance among thinkers. Instead, he laments the fact that “ideas” increasingly seem attractive simply because they require so little of their “consumers.” In other words, the benefit of a bargain-price idea is that it costs, on an existential level at least, so little. Today, generations after Kierkegaard walked the earth, existentialism is perhaps a philosophical luxury that few can literally afford. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard’s insight holds true in a different sense: Without any doubt, today’s worst “clearance-sale idea” is capitalism, and the destruction it both causes and requires knows no boundaries. There is an alternative (namely, socialism), and the world’s quintessential neoliberal state (the United States of America) is key to a global rebellion against capitalism.
Far too many Americans have bought into the notion that capitalism comes at little or no cost, and thus the expenses of the many continue to benefit the few. Today’s privileged fraction—i.e., the global 1%—has the great fortune of experiencing life without the encumbrances of dire poverty, hunger, lack of rights, alienation, persecution, repression, etc., which plague billions of others crushed by capitalism and the global capitalist system. Moreover, if the plutocracy fancies that it can enjoy capitalism at little personal cost, then why should its privileged ranks consider alternatives that give credence to a communist thinker, like Karl Marx, or to his conception of a “new type of human being who needs his fellow-men,” for example? Why should the ruling elites fashion any “real constructive effort to create the social texture of future human relations,” as Marx states? The fact is that, if capitalism’s overseers ably exact a profit from capitalism at seemingly little expense to themselves (whilst growing ever richer in the process), then rationally they should have no plans for undoing the economic system that empowers them thusly.
In the West, a reigning few trump universal equality, and the freedom of ownership is at war with the common good. In fact, this problem is centuries old. Noam Chomsky’s recent treatment of the Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary is this year, also contains some very relevant thoughts on the Charter of the Forest—the companion to the Great Charter that calls for the “protection of the commons from external power.” The commons provided a spring from which the general population might sustain itself. This includes “food, fuel, construction, materials, a form of welfare, whatever was essential for life,” says Chomsky, who recalls that by the 13th century the English forest “was not primitive wilderness,” but “carefully nurtured” by generations of users. All had access to the riches therein. People without access to cultivable land used the commons, and they maintained what British social historian R.H. Tawney identifies as an “open field system of agriculture…reposed upon a common custom and traditions,” which exist in addition to other elements of traditional societies that yet stipple today’s world.
As an outgrowth of British economic history, Americans today are unlikely to find any such commons despite their looking, and some may have no clue why. Late historian Howard Zinn recounts a moment in North Carolina history (1766-1771), for example, when agitation against the British left little room for class issues—but one reminder of the fact that America’s experience with the side effects of unfettered capitalism is clearly centuries old. One movement, dubbed the Regulator movement, involved what Marvin L. Michael Kay calls “class-conscious white farmers in the west who attempted to democratize local government in their respective counties,” and who called themselves “poor Industrious peasants,” “labourers,” “the wretched poor,” and “oppressed,” by “rich and powerful … designing Monsters.” The movement decried the knockout combination of wealth and political power as the ruling force in North Carolina, and it denounced officials “whose highest Study [was] the promotion of their wealth.” The Regulators indeed organized and occupied in protest of many things, petitioning the government, citing “the unequal chances the poor and the weak have in contentions with the rich and powerful.”
Chomsky, too, invokes the 18th century and the drastic changes that took place when the Charter of the Forest “had fallen victim of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and moral culture.” He cites this turn as responsible for the famous “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that individual avarice will destroy that which is not privately owned. Peter Linebaugh observes, “The Forest Charter was forgotten or consigned to the gothic past,” and thus no longer were the commons protected for the sake of what Chomsky identifies as “cooperative nurturing and use.” That which could not be privatized effectively restricted the rights of common folk, and Chomsky claims that this category “continues to shrink, to virtual invisibility” today. Indeed, capitalist development has radically retooled and revised both the treatment and the conception of the commons, and for Chomsky, Garrett Hardin captures today’s predominant view in his argument that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
Despite Hardin’s prevailing pro-private property argument, there are many 21st-century global efforts that take aim at capitalism and capitalist development, which forever privatizes the commons and marginalizes those who might otherwise benefit from them. Of course, there are myriad reasons why so many global citizens despise and actively seek the overthrow of capitalism. In December 2014 and January 2015, the Festival of Rebellion and Resistance Against Capitalism, for example, worked its way through Mexico largely thanks to organizational efforts by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI)—“a federation of indigenous communities in resistance around the country,” as Patrick Weiniger and Lourdes García Larqué write. On day one of the event, many people contributed new accounts of the problems that capitalism causes in their local nexus. Two main themes emerged: dispossession and repression, two key implements of capitalism. Mexico certainly is no stranger to the ravages of capitalism, and Zapatistas as well as wider networks of Mexico’s indigenous resistance have persevered for more than twenty impressive years. Different mass struggles yet emerge, and despite repressive and murderous efforts, government there has failed to silence these very important voices.
With the creative power of capital to bolster the cause of the few and propel it, though, some earnestly ask what relevance do indigenous and marginalized voices have. Why listen to their nightmare tales of capitalism, that is, if superficially it seems a moot point, if the rich and powerful grow more so by it, if the “bargain-sale” price of global capitalism is so easy and attractive? Well, if the collapse of financial markets in 2008 was not proof enough that the capitalist cancer spreads, and alarmingly so, the plutocracy itself now expresses concerns about current monetary policies that engender enormous financial bubbles that threaten the vitality of the system. Mouthpieces for the global 1% now sound the alarm about the likely disastrous consequences that indigenous (as well as other) groups have denounced for so long. The head of the Reserve Bank of St. Louis, for example, warns of a an asset price bubble that could potentially “blow up out of control.” The US stock market clearly enters a situation comparable to patterns such as those of 1929, 2000, and 2007—years in which an economic crash loomed on the global financial horizon. Nevertheless, multi-trillion dollar financial markets continue to operate on what began as a criminal venture almost a century ago. Not for these reasons alone do indigenous voices matter, but ruling elites also and ironically warn of capitalism’s disastrous trajectory.
There are other indicators of economic contraction, including lowered manufacturing activity in China and failure in British consumer prices to rise. New orders, export orders, employment, and also output prices have all experienced decline. Even the European Central Bank admits that injecting one trillion Euros into financial markets over an 18-month period would not up employment in the future. And yet, the corporate and financial oligarchy continues to enrich itself at the expense of the working class that is subject to an unflagging austerity assault everywhere within the capitalist system. Rather than working to change this system, which would not be in the ruling elites’ self-interest, the international consortium of financial puppet-masters rather conspire to offset total market destruction with smaller crises at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable human beings. Perhaps as many afflicted voices and voices of resistance would therefore agree that “saving capitalism from itself” is not the solution to US global parasitism, criminal wealth appropriation, and an utterly bankrupt profit system. No longer does the strength of US capitalism fuel a boost for productive forces and methods that once sent ripples through a globalized economy. So, many have argued that the remedy for the historic crisis of capitalism is international socialism. If this is true, then that socialism surely must be ecosocialism.
Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at www.guerrillaprose.info.