Complaints about “capitalism” have become more common the last few years in the United States. This has been a welcome development. Anytime the collective perspective is widened, it’s beneficial to at least some degree. In a complementary way, calls for “socialism” have also become more frequent.
We can credit these trends to social conditions. First, as such conditions have worsened by several measures — such as those that track economic factors and health statistics — more people have been willing to question the status quo. As the system falters, the number of folks no longer willing to play along goes up.
Secondly, some credit is due to the activists, scholars, artists, etc., who have kept fringe ideas alive through the times that were leaner philosophically (though wealthier financially). Occasional eruptions of activity have provided necessary exercise for these ideas, such as the turn of the century Anti-Globalization movement, and Occupy.
However, I put “capitalism” and “socialism” in quotation marks for a reason. The main issues that have been raised — income inequality (including falling wages and rising executive compensation) and a disintegrating social safety net (like lack of access to affordable healthcare, housing and education) — are grievances with Neoliberalism,* and the principal solutions, especially as enumerated in the Green New Deal (the Democratic party version) — such as increased government action and spending to create jobs, redistribute wealth and provide essential services — would not be Socialism, per se, but rather a return to, and ramping up of, Keynesianism.
This is not about splitting hairs. This is about getting to the root of the matter.
FDR’s New Deal (and Johnson’s Great Society) were both Keynesian; that is, they followed the theories of economic philosopher John Maynard Keynes, who developed them in the 1930’s (good summary). Keynesianism was not at all Socialist, and in fact sought to preserve Capitalism by blunting its sharper edges. With Keynesianism the sword is left entirely intact, and remains in the grip of the ruling class. With actual Socialism, by contrast, the workers seize the sword from the ruling class and wield it themselves.
What is the nature of this sword? Ironically to some — not the least of whom would be many in the Pacifist movements — this sword is a kind of plowshare; both are murderous. The multiple, intertwined crises we are facing today — whether economic, social or environmental — all precede Capitalism by several to many millennia. Capitalism emerged in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s (with no small help from the colonialism and slavery that marked the euphemistically named “Age of Exploration”) and Socialist thought rose in the mid-1800’s, as the massive dislocations of the industrial revolution demanded a reasonable response.
Yes, the depredations of Capitalism (and “capitalism”) have been horrifying, and yes, Socialism (and even “socialism”) offer something marginally softer, or more “humane” in comparison, but we must look back further in history than these relatively recent philosophies and practices if we want to address underlying causes.
I am speaking here of what Jared Diamond called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”: Agriculture, which burst onto the scene about 11,500 years ago.
Some people pin the wrong turn earlier, to the “taming of fire” (125,000 years ago at the latest) and I will not disagree with them here. However, the rate, quality and scale of change exploded with the Agricultural Revolution, and the wounds are still fresh. Socially, humans suffered the rise of Patriarchy with its brutal denigration of women (arguably manufacturing the first “class” division). Property, money and war all sprang from the tilling of fields, as well as a new philosophy of dominating nature. Soils were ruined by salinization from over-irrigation as long ago as 4,000 years in the Near East and ice cores reveal increased levels of atmospheric methane 5,000 years ago when widespread rice cultivation started in the big Chinese river valleys. As if all of this wasn’t enough, individual health declined as the new diets and more sedentary lifestyles led to decreased lifespans, shorter stature, weaker bones, dental problems and infectious disease (the last from living in close proximity to newly domesticated animals). (I explore all this at more length, and with copious references, in my book, “The Failure of Farming and the Necessity of Wildtending.”)
Obviously, mental/emotional/psychological issues arose from all this trauma, and our current culture’s notion of “normal” is a product of such imbalances. That is, what we’re used to, collectively, is drastic, chronic dis-ease, with physical and mental components that are far more deeply ingrained than mere economic, political, nationalistic or even religious elements could be.
On the topic of religion: yeah, sure, people kill each other over which god is real, but most share a concept of divinity that is agricultural in origin, namely, the idea that what is sacred exists outside the world, up in the sky or wherever (notwithstanding the occasional burning shrubbery), and not in the world, in all its forms, animate and inanimate. This was an important and tragic shift because when the world lost its holiness (and scoff at that concept all you want), it lost its livingness (not so easy to laugh off), a heresy that has brought us to the brink of extinction.
The way forward is on two parallel paths, one communal and one individual. First, as a species, we must step back, set down our tools (so many of which are weapons) and take a good, hard look at what we’ve done and where it’s going and how we should most sensibly proceed at this point (hint: in entirely different directions). Among other things, we must pitch our current notions of wealth and power and embrace entirely different values and relationships. We must abolish not only the coin of the realm, but the realm itself.
Secondly, as individuals, we must pursue entirely different attitudes and activities. We must throw out judgement and domination and instead immerse ourselves in empathy and giving, in all that we do, all day and every day.
The relationship between these two tracks — cultural transformation and the personal path — should be clear. They are inextricably linked, as are strands of DNA, and — like genetic instructions — they are creative forces, directing the assemblage and expression of the grand and the material from the infinitesimal and mysterious. There’s that old saying: “think globally, act locally;” I would say that what’s global must be understood to involve what’s fundamental (and seemingly — but not actually — unchangeable) and what’s local to include what’s between our ears (and which is also entirely mutable).
On the level of global organization: get rid of “capitalism” (or Capitalism) and you’ve still got problems up the yin-yang. Switching out private ownership for public does not make a difference all by itself. That is, a worker-owned endeavor can clearcut a forest for timber, blow up a mountain top for coal or drain a wetland to plant export crops. Pollution, extinctions, climate chaos will not be stopped merely by nationalizing resource extraction activities. The destructive activities must themselves stop. Unfortunately, ecological sanity is not demanded by Socialism (and certainly not by “socialism” or the Green New Deal).
(I must interrupt here to acknowledge those like writer and historian Paul Street, who calls himself an “eco-Marxist,” and is not at all blind to the grave environmental crises of our time. See his excellent, “The Not-So Golden Age: a Radical and Eco-Socialist Take on Post-WW II America and ‘the Anthropocene'” in Counterpunch, for more on the ill effects of both Keynesianism and Neoliberalism, and for his call for eco-Socialist solutions. I hope that viewpoints like his rapidly burgeon from being exceptions to the rule.)
In the meantime, I am not a Socialist myself, but if “seizing the means of production” is the necessary precursor to dismantling the means of production, then I will lend a hand.
Should we smash Capitalism, and all its flavors including Neoliberalism and Keynesianism? Hell, yeah! But that’s only a start. Still standing would be Patriarchy and Human Supremacism, among other nasty institutions, which will inevitably march us to tragic ends under a flag of any color, whether red, white and blue or just red. Must we abandon their unholy parent, Agriculture, in order to live on this planet in true health? Ultimately, I expect that will be the case. But since our future will necessarily flow from this present, it will include much of what we have acquired, even as we learn to live without much of what we falsely believe is indispensable. And of course, the either/or outlook — dualism — is itself a product of the Agricultural mind, and so is not helpful. But Agriculture will have to take forms unrecognizable to today’s farmers if it is to shed its negative consequences, environmental, social, etc.
What is undeniable is that the current state of ecocidal affairs must end, and damn soon (like yesterday). Whatever new state emerges must be different radically (“in its roots”). In pursuing such big thinking, imagination will be an essential ally. Given the inertia of the current system and the intransigence of its present rulers, I believe we would be best served by handing off all important decision-making to the youth of the world immediately (no older than the Millennials). The adults have proven themselves unable to conceptualize, let alone make, the necessary changes.
That is, better than a Socialist revolution would be a full-on youth insurrection. Count me in as an enthusiastic supporter when that day comes.
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