How to Evolve Past Capitalism

Economic systems are like ecosystems. In America, capitalism may be the dominant species. But other species exist there, too.

Economic systems are like ecosystems. And so, to say that America is capitalist isn’t quite accurate. Instead, argues Erik Olin Wright, it is more precise to say that America has an economic system in which the capitalist mode of production is the dominant species. Yet other species exist. Public libraries and co-ops, for example, are socialist in nature. Much like the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Wright believes, the transition from capitalism to postcapitalism must involve a gradual erosion of capitalism through invasive species and the conditions that allow these species to flourish. That is, the transition must involve moves from below (resisting and escaping) and moves from above (dismantling and taming). The end result is socialism.

In contrast to capitalism, where the owners of capital have the most power, and statism, where state officials have the most power, socialism is an economic system where “the investment process and production are controlled through institutions that enable ordinary people to collectively decide what to do.” From Wright’s perspective, socialism is synonymous with economic democracy. While Wright does not offer a blueprint for what socialism should look like—and realistically cannot, since socialism in practice must result from democratic deliberation and experimentation—he does suggest building blocks: unconditional basic income, public credit institutions, codetermination laws, participatory budgeting, and so on.

Unlike some Marxists, Wright is against neither markets nor the state. What he is against includes the unrestrained power of markets (capitalism) and the unrestrained power of the state (statism). How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century is not a manifesto for revolution. It is a manifesto for reconstructing the “rules of the game of capitalism” and to “deepen democracy wherever possible,” in the pursuit of a desirable and realizable alternative to capitalism.

On the radical left, there will be few readers who disagree with Wright’s criticisms of capitalism. Still, there will be leftists who disagree with Wright’s vision of socialism and the means to realize it. Indeed, if responses to his past work are any indication, there will be leftists who object to Wright’s embrace of both the state and the markets within socialism. There will be leftists who bemoan Wright’s rejection of revolution as the means to socialism. And there will be leftists who question the union of class politics and identity politics in Wright’s latest contribution. For these reasons and others, How to Be an Anticapitalist will inspire important debates.

Capitalism is the dominant species, according to Wright. It is time for socialism to take its place.

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The Piketty Effect: Part 1

By Erik Olin Wright et al.

Wright opens How to Be an Anticapitalist with a brief but important observation: “For many people, the idea of anticapitalism seems ridiculous.” And he’s right: capitalism has improved the lives of millions of people in countless ways, from the availability of fantastic and affordable goods to the longer life expectancies around the world. Against the backdrop of a collapsed Soviet Union and China’s embrace of the free market, many people cannot even imagine what an alternative to capitalism would look like. Even fewer people can imagine an alternative that is both desirable and realizable. Wright, who died of acute myeloid leukemia in January of last year, was not one of these people.

To combat the accusations of ridiculousness, Wright answers the question “Why Be Anticapitalist?” by drawing on three different ethical standards that capitalism fails to meet.

The first standard is equality/fairness. Most people will agree that we should all have the opportunity to live flourishing lives. Yet there is a difference between equal opportunity and equal access. Technically, every American has the opportunity to be the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In reality, only a few of us have access to the resources that will make this dream realizable. Whether it is access to elite schools or more basic needs like housing and healthcare, capitalism is neither an equal nor a fair system; it is a system that benefits those at the top.

The second standard is democracy/freedom. “In a fully democratic society,” according to Wright, “all people would have broadly equal access to the necessary means to participate meaningfully in decisions about things that affect their lives.” In such a society, a capitalist would not be able to build a toxic waste dump in a community that he or she does not live in, unless that community agreed to it; nor could a company shut down their manufacturing plants and pursue higher profits abroad, with no input from all the workers who would lose their livelihoods. An inherent feature of capitalism, according to Wright, is that disparities of economic power are constantly generated, thus ensuring that the system is neither democratic nor free.

The last standard is community/solidarity. Privatized consumerism and competitive individualism are the hallmarks of capitalist culture. Privatized consumerism means that “people are led to believe that life satisfaction depends to a significant extent on ever-increasing personal consumption.” Relatedly, competitive individualism revolves around greed and fear. Amid such mindsets, we not only think we, alone, can and must get ahead, but we view the successes of others as a threat to our own success.

In this respect, greed and fear are not just character traits of individuals. They are psychological states fostered by markets. At a moment when global threats like climate change require people to look for global solutions to shared problems, capitalism’s anticommunal pillars pose a real problem.

Wright believes that an anticapitalist project will be built on values as well as on material interests.

Drawing on these three standards, Wright makes a compelling case for why capitalism has failed the modern world. Next, and more interestingly, Wright dissects the five possible routes we might take in moving beyond capitalism, a movement that he calls “anticapitalism.” While not all approaches are viable, argues Wright, the combination of the remaining approaches can produce radical change.

Wright rejects the first option, which is trying to smash capitalism. According to some, capitalism cannot be reformed, it has to be smashed. Wright disagrees. For starters, he is skeptical that anticapitalist forces can amass the needed social power to accomplish this task. If such a revolutionary force were to emerge, Wright is further skeptical that it would bring forth a better world. As he puts it, “It is one thing to burn down old institutions and social structures; it is quite another to build emancipatory new institutions from the ashes.” From Wright’s vantage point, the revolutions in China and Russia led to authoritarian regimes that were, in many ways, also economic failures.

If we can’t smash capitalism, then how do we proceed? Wright proposes four interlinked methods—dismantling, taming, resisting, and escaping—that together have the power to make socialism the dominant species.

In dismantling capitalism, the state is used to create a less capitalist society. Anticapitalists might use the state to socialize the healthcare system, for example; or, as Britain did after World War II, to nationalize the railroad system. This approach depends on a stable electoral system and a progressive party that can win elections. Taming capitalism also requires a stable electoral system and a competitive progressive political party. This party then uses the state to neutralize capitalism’s harms. Social democratic interventions are the reference point: environmental regulations, vocational training, and the like. These interventions are funded through progressive taxes.

While some anticapitalists, in Wright’s model, should be assembling political power, for the purposes of dismantling and taming capitalism, others can challenge capitalism with different methods. Resisting capitalism involves protests aimed at influencing capitalists and politicians—a strike for higher salaries is a textbook example. Lastly, escaping capitalism spreads utopian communities, co-ops, and other forms organized around “principles of democracy, solidarity and equality, free of the alienation and exploitation of capitalist firms.”

Ultimately, these four strategies—dismantling, taming, resisting, and escaping—constitute Wright’s manifesto, How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century. Wright terms this four-pronged approach eroding capitalism.

Think back to the ecosystem metaphor that Wright loves. Anticapitalists cannot kill capitalism, as a predator kills its prey. Even if they could, the result would be disastrous for the rest of the ecosystem. As noted, Wright does not advocate revolution. By eroding capitalism, however, anticapitalists can slowly turn capitalism into an endangered species. Over the long haul, the ecosystem will adapt to capitalism’s decline as it evolves into socialism. In short, the socialist species will become the dominant species as the capitalist species struggles to survive.

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Against Human Capital

By Hadas Weiss

One can expect at least three critical responses to Wright’s last book. First, there will be those who object to Wright’s market socialism, and his defense of the state within socialism. In one of his chapters in Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy, Robin Hahnel argues that markets are a cancer that cannot be contained, as Wright imagines they can.1 There are also a number of leftists who see the state as an inherently capitalist state. As such, they do not see a place for the state within socialism. Second, there will be those who object to the strategy of erosion that Wright champions. In his response to the article that foreshadowed Wright’s book, sociologist Dylan Riley contends that anticapitalists need “an approach informed more by military strategy and less by biology.”2 For these critics, a more decisive break with capitalism is needed to realize an alternative to it.

Third, other leftists will express concern over whom Wright sees as the collective agent of transformation. To be sure, workers are central. Yet many workers occupy “contradictory locations within class relations.” The worker who busses tables with no health care and the worker who is a tenured professor are both workers, but one might not benefit from the redistribution of wealth and power that socialism involves. Since the “99 percent” are so heterogenous, their economic interests are not coherent enough to coalesce as the sole pillar of an anticapitalist project. In other words, some workers of the world have more to lose than their chains.

Just as workers have different economic interests, they also have different values. There are low-paid workers who support progressive taxation, and there are low-paid workers who oppose it. There are low-paid workers who love the competitive individualism of capitalism, and there are those who hate it. There are even low-paid workers without health care who object to the idea of universal health care. For these workers, an equal/fair society is not the one envisioned by Wright. It is the one envisioned by the Tea Party. Accordingly, Wright believes that an anticapitalist project will be built on a combination of material interests and values. Both are important, but neither is sufficient in itself. The anticapitalist project will also have to be built on identities.

The task for anticapitalists in the 21st century is not just to survive but to dominate within this complicated landscape.

For Wright, a politics that fails to look beyond the working class is inadequate. Here, Wright turns to the question of identity, and to how identity politics can inform and empower anticapitalism. “What has been termed ‘identity politics’ of oppressed social categories,” argues Wright, “should be treated as an integral element within a broad emancipatory politics rather than a matter of secondary concern.” According to Wright, emancipatory values—equality/fairness, democracy/freedom, and community/solidarity—can connect class struggles with other forms of struggle.

Since capitalists use racism, sexism, and other prejudiced ideologies to divide the working class, Wright argues that anticapitalists should also be antiracists and antisexists. If anticapitalists want to broaden their constituencies, they will also benefit from approaches that connect to the quotidian concerns of people who do not see themselves as anticapitalists. These concerns range from racial profiling to gender-neutral restrooms.

Furthermore, the equality/fairness principle that undergirds socialism includes a demand for “social respect, or what some philosophers call social recognition.” Even apart from economic restraints, social stigma impedes a person’s ability to flourish. Thus, there are pragmatic and normative arguments for the union of anticapitalism with identity politics.

Despite the relevance of identity politics to the anticapitalist project, Wright’s resolution to the problem of competing identities raises its own problem. At one level, a scarcity of time and resources is one of the biggest obstacles that anticapitalists confront. Time that is spent working to reform access to restrooms is time that is not spent working to raise the minimum wage.

At another level, identity politics—to adapt an argument made in Where We Stand: Class Matters, by bell hooks—can be used to “deflect attention away from the harsh realities class politics exposes.”3. As hooks explains, “Clearly, just when we should all be paying attention to class, using race and gender to explain its new dimensions, society, even our government, says let’s talk about race and racial injustice. It is impossible to talk meaningfully about ending racism without talking about class.”4

Twenty years after the publication of Where We Stand, the commitment to antiracism has not been matched by a commitment to anticapitalism. In fact, Adolph Reed Jr. and others argue that much of what passes as antiracist politics is the “left wing of neoliberalism.”5 It is not just an incomplete approach to social justice; it is a concerted effort to universalize an ideal of social justice in which “society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc.”6

Here, we can extend Wright’s metaphor and think about the left—which I will here define as a loose group that stretches from multiculturalists to Marxists—as an ecosystem. In this ecosystem, there are species of identity politics that coexist with and aid anticapitalist politics. There are other species that, as hooks suggests, distract from anticapitalist politics. In the Reedian analysis, there are also species that express capitalist politics. Wright’s book may leave much to be desired in terms of how anticapitalists should navigate this terrain of classes and identities, since “the practical challenges of how best to overcome these obstacles … are highly context-dependent, varying enormously over time and place.” Yet his four-pronged model of eroding capitalism and the destination offers a valuable reference point for strategy and debate. The task for anticapitalists in the 21st century is not just to survive but to dominate within this complicated landscape. icon

  1. Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright, Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy (Verso, 2016).
  2. Dylan Riley, “An Anticapitalism That Can Win,” Jacobin, January 7, 2016.
  3. bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters (Routledge, 2000), p. 7.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Adolph Reed Jr., “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence,” nonsite, September 16, 2016.
  6. Ibid.
Featured image: Photograph by Simon Shim / Unsplash