Five or ten years ago, when I made comments about capitalism being broken, having failed or being dead, my friends would dismiss it as a joke, or smile indulgently at me and my extreme ideas. But finally it seems that the mainstream western world is beginning to realise that the end of the capitalist project is imminent. Our prime minister Jacinda Ardern recently described capitalism as “a blatant failure” and today The Guardian columnist George Monibot has dared us to “call capitalism dead – before it takes us all down with it.”
Their voices are loud and clear, and join a chorus of intelligent thinkers who have been writing over the last decade about the need to move on to something better than capitalism. Among my favourites are British economist Tim Jackson, whose very readable book “Prosperity without Growth” outlines the necessity, and possibility, of a flourishing society within the limits of our finite planet; Naomi Klein – in particular “This Changes Everything”, but all her writing from “No Logo” on is important; and of course Marilyn Waring who developed feminist economics and has spent decades arguing against the validity of GDP as a measurement of a country’s success. Now that the climate crisis is finally starting to be taken seriously, all of the economics needs to be viewed in the context of seminal texts such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“. We live in an intricately interconnected ecosystem and can no longer ignore the connections between exploitative extractive capitalist practices and the now rapid collapse of the environment – starkly illustrated in the devastation of NZ’s environment in the interests of profiteering through intensive dairy farming. Something’s got to change, and if we don’t step up and make the urgent tough decisions, that change is going to be our own extinction. Or as Manibot succinctly puts it, “Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?”
Many people resist imagining the possibility of life after capitalism by demanding an instant replacement solution: the argument is that if you don’t have a viable alternative all worked out in fine detail, you’ve got no right to criticise the existing model, even when it’s blatantly failing. But no innovations ever spring fully formed from the mind of one person. It takes a process, and many minds – ours included. Monibot points to a number of prominent writers and thinkers who are contributing to work towards a new framework, and I’ll add to that the movements that are bursting forth from the people – the school strikes for climate action, Extinction Rebellion and Mission Life Force, to name but a few. Vocal and genuinely grassroots movements such as these have real influence and power, and we must get behind them. My own contribution has been to participate in Letters to the Earth, with a cyberformance reading of some of the letters in UpStage.
In “This Changes Everything”, Klein counters her despair at the devastation we have already allowed with strong hope for the future,. She draws attention to the indigenous peoples at the frontlines of many battles, mainly in her region of North America, but pointing to such movements all over the globe, as well as to “Blockadia” – the Occupy movement, the same energy of which we are seeing now in Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes. Indigenous people’s stand against devastating capitalism can be seen in the long-running fight of the Wangan and Jagalingou people of Queensland, Australia, to stop multinational coal mining company Adani from destroying their traditional lands; the stories of climate refugees in the Pacific Islands; and the struggle for survival of tribal peoples all over the world. We should be looking to these peoples for lessons on sustainable living – for example Australia’s indigenous people have thrived in extremely harsh conditions for thousands of years – as well as their traditional social structures which may well offer viable alternatives to capitalism.
It is difficult to imagine another system, when capitalism is so ingrained in our western lives that it seems inevitable and natural. But it’s not. It’s a construct, an ideology that humans imagined, invented and imposed on the world over a very long period of time. It’s not the first ideology to dominate the world and – unless we allow it – it won’t be the last. The question is not really what can replace capitalism, but rather how can we just get on with the business of replacing it – because we must begin immediately. The what will reveal itself once we start getting on with the how; and the first step of the how is to move beyond denial and accept the urgency to start the process now.