ZNet, August 11, 2015
To be seriously radical on the Left is, among other things, to be against capitalism – the system that, as Karl Marx noted in 1848, “has left no other nexus between [people other] than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’” and “resolve[s] personal worth into exchange value” (hello Donald Trump?). Under the rule of capital and its holy so-called free market, the human spirit is “drowned in the icy water of egotistical calculation…all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (Marx). Stable communities, decent and meaningful work, economic security, nurturing and intact families, nurturing relationships, political democracy, social justice, healthy lives, nurturing childhoods, vibrant societies, public space, livable ecology, intellectual culture, communications and media, the common good – all these and more are brought to heel and ultimately trashed by the profits regime’s perpetually venal market reckonings. This is no less true today – when capital has created a “planet of slums” (Mike Davis) and cooked the globe to the point where Earth scientists warn quite seriously of the near-term possibility of anthropogenic self-extinction – than it was in Marx’s time.
Still, for many of us on the anti-capitalist Left, it is simply not enough to be anti-capitalist. This is, I think, for three basic reasons. The first is that there are numerous relevant and powerful forms, structures, institutions, values, and ideologies of oppression and environmental destruction that are technically distinct from capitalism and cannot be simply reduced to, or explained by, capitalism. Among those other oppression systems and values (hereafter designated “OSVs”) we must include patriarchy, masculinism, racism, ageism, nationalism, imperialism, militarism, bureaucratism, police-statism, narcissism, coordinator-ism (the privileged position and power of those who manage and supervise the labor of the relatively subordinated working class populace among other things), destructive anthropocentrism, the alienating corporate division of labor that subjects most working people and others to the rule of coordinators (the professional and managerial elite), and – of special relevance in the current era of incipient ecocide – extractivism. This last term refers to the reliance of modern societies on the relentless extraction of natural resources, above all fossil fuels, for economic and social development.
It is true that capitalism merges with, exacerbates, and fuels these OSVs to a very significant degree. It also true, however that each of these OSVs possess significantly autonomous lives and logics of their own and have been found in societies that are not capitalist in the full Marxist sense. The ancient Greek, ancient Roman, ancient Ottoman, feudal and absolutist European, ancient Chinese, Inca, and Aztec (and other past and pre-capitalist) empires and dynasties exhibited many of the above evils before the emergence of the first classically capitalist society in 17th century England and prior to the rise of modern capitalism in 19th century Europe, the United States, and Japan. The bureaucratic-collectivist and in fact socialist (if authoritarian) Soviet Union and its satellite regimes did the same in the last century. Twenty-first century populism and socialism in Latin America relies on an extractivist model (the term extractivism originated from ecological critique of that populism and socialism) to pay for its anti-poverty programs. It naturally and quite inevitably struggles with numerous of the OSVs mentioned above – all, of course, very much, in the context of 21st century global capitalism and US imperialism. In a similar vein, 20th century state-bureaucratic socialism (it is silly to call the Soviet Union “state capitalist”) showed itself fully capable of generating significant alienating class inequalities and of wrecking the natural environment through reckless extraction and pollution – all without capitalists, though not of course in a world without capitalists and capitalist empire.
Second, capitalism has always relied for its terrible reproduction and perpetuation on its merging with many if not all the OSVs mentioned above. Where would the de facto class dictatorship called capitalism be without the remarkable power of nationalism, racism, militarism, sexism, ethno-centrism, and imperialism to divide the workers of the world both within and across national boundaries? Without the critical role of coordinators in supervising, disciplining, dividing, and otherwise oppressing the broad working class populace and in handling numerous other technical and managerial tasks? Without the extraction of vast natural resources through a relentless assault on nature and other sentient beings to fuel its production processes, generate its surpluses, and power its seemingly endless, cancerous expansion? Without militarism to expand its access to raw material and markets and to destroy and then/yet absorb its surplus capital and to fund its research and development? Without the savage top-down sorting and segmenting of workers into hyper-alienating divisions and hierarchies of work and labor (a problem that capitalism took to new heights but did not invent and over which it possesses no systemic monopoly)? Being seriously anti-capitalist means opposing all the OSVs.
Third, radical anti-capitalists need to oppose the OSVs in order for their anti-capitalism to be remotely desirable to the broad mass of workers and citizens. Breaking with, struggling against, and overthrowing capitalism is no small matter! It carries considerable risks and costs for those who commit. Jobs, careers, homes, marriages, families, health, and more, even life itself, are at stake. Serious anti-capitalism is not for the meek of heart! Who is going to hazard all that only to create a word still ruled, say, by soulless eco-cidal coordinators and bureaucrats and/or by blood-soaked militarists and/or racists and/or sexists and/or power-worshipping despots, manipulators, misleaders, and narcissists ….in order, perhaps to more equally share out the fruits of an environmentally poisoned pie and/or to be mired in endless resource wars between internally semi-egalitarian but externally violent nation states? Being a serious anti-capitalist also means going beyond anti-capitalism when it comes also to developing a desirable mental and moral picture of a good life and society after capitalism – a vision of a world worth fighting for beyond the profits regime.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)