Robert Jensen: Anti-Capitalism in Five Minutes or Less


Richard Moore

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Anti-Capitalism in Five Minutes or Less

By Robert Jensen

05/01/07 "ICH" -- - We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to
organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We 
know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. 
There¹s no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously 

How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly ‹ typically by 
those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the 
business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, 
universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, 
but rather simply is, like a state of nature. Maybe not like a state of nature, 
but the state of nature. To contest capitalism these days is like arguing 
against the air that we breathe. Arguing against capitalism, we¹re told, is 
simply crazy.

We are told, over and over, that capitalism is not just the system we have, but 
the only system we can ever have. Yet for many, something nags at us about such 
a claim. Could this really be the only option? We¹re told we shouldn¹t even 
think about such things. But we can¹t help thinking ‹ is this really the ³end of
history,² in the sense that big thinkers have used that phrase to signal the 
final victory of global capitalism? If this is the end of history in that sense,
we wonder, can the actual end of the planet far behind?

We wonder, we fret, and these thoughts nag at us ‹ for good reason. Capitalism ‹
or, more accurately, the predatory corporate capitalism that defines and 
dominates our lives ‹ will be our death if we don¹t escape it. Crucial to 
progressive politics is finding the language to articulate that reality, not in 
outdated dogma that alienates but in plain language that resonates with people. 
We should be searching for ways to explain to co-workers in water-cooler 
conversations ‹ radical politics in five minutes or less ‹ why we must abandon 
predatory corporate capitalism. If we don¹t, we may well be facing the end 
times, and such an end will bring rupture not rapture.

Here¹s my shot at the language for this argument.

Capitalism is admittedly an incredibly productive system that has created a 
flood of goods unlike anything the world has ever seen. It also is a system that
is fundamentally (1) inhuman, (2) anti-democratic, and (3) unsustainable. 
Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (most of it of
marginal or questionable value) in exchange for our souls, our hope for 
progressive politics, and the possibility of a decent future for children.

In short, either we change or we die ‹ spiritually, politically, literally.

1. Capitalism is inhuman

There is a theory behind contemporary capitalism. We¹re told that because we are
greedy, self-interested animals, an economic system must reward greedy, 
self-interested behavior if we are to thrive economically.

Are we greedy and self-interested? Of course. At least I am, sometimes. But we 
also just as obviously are capable of compassion and selflessness. We certainly 
can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity for 
solidarity and cooperation. In short, human nature is wide-ranging. Our actions 
are certainly rooted in our nature, but all we really know about that nature is 
that it is widely variable. In situations where compassion and solidarity are 
the norm, we tend to act that way. In situations where competitiveness and 
aggression are rewarded, most people tend toward such behavior.

Why is it that we must choose an economic system that undermines the most decent
aspects of our nature and strengthens the most inhuman? Because, we¹re told, 
that¹s just the way people are. What evidence is there of that? Look around, 
we¹re told, at how people behave. Everywhere we look, we see greed and the 
pursuit of self-interest. So, the proof that these greedy, self-interested 
aspects of our nature are dominant is that, when forced into a system that 
rewards greed and self-interested behavior, people often act that way. Doesn¹t 
that seem just a bit circular?

2. Capitalism is anti-democratic

This one is easy. Capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system. If you 
concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. Is there any historical 
example to the contrary?

For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary United States, 
everyone understands that the wealthy dictates the basic outlines of the public 
policies that are acceptable to the vast majority of elected officials. People 
can and do resist, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such 
resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist win victories, some of 
them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. Is this 
any way to run a democracy?

If we understand democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful 
way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in
ratifying decisions made by the powerful, then it¹s clear that capitalism and 
democracy are mutually exclusive.

Let¹s make this concrete. In our system, we believe that regular elections with 
the one-person/one-vote rule, along with protections for freedom of speech and 
association, guarantee political equality. When I go to the polls, I have one 
vote. When Bill Gates goes the polls, he has one vote. Bill and I both can speak
freely and associate with others for political purposes. Therefore, as equal 
citizens in our fine democracy, Bill and I have equal opportunities for 
political power. Right?

3. Capitalism is unsustainable

This one is even easier. Capitalism is a system based on the idea of unlimited 
growth. The last time I checked, this is a finite planet. There are only two 
ways out of this one. Perhaps we will be hopping to a new planet soon. Or 
perhaps, because we need to figure out ways to cope with these physical limits, 
we will invent ever-more complex technologies to transcend those limits.

Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary 
comfort, but they don¹t solve problems. They tend, in fact, to cause more 
problems. Those problems seem to be piling up.

Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have 
devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system, and it¹s the one in 
which we are stuck. It¹s the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, 
like the air.

A tale of two acronyms: TGIF and TINA

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher¹s famous response to a question 
about challenges to capitalism was TINA ‹ There Is No Alternative. If there is 
no alternative, anyone who questions capitalism is crazy.

Here¹s another, more common, acronym about life under a predatory corporate 
capitalism: TGIF ‹ Thank God It¹s Friday. It¹s a phrase that communicates a sad 
reality for many working in this economy ‹ the jobs we do are not rewarding, not
enjoyable, and fundamentally not worth doing. We do them to survive. Then on 
Friday we go out and get drunk to forget about that reality, hoping we can find 
something during the weekend that makes it possible on Monday to, in the words 
of one songwriter, ³get up and do it again.²

Remember, an economic system doesn¹t just produce goods. It produces people as 
well. Our experience of work shapes us. Our experience of consuming those goods 
shapes us. Increasingly, we are a nation of unhappy people consuming miles of 
aisles of cheap consumer goods, hoping to dull the pain of unfulfilling work. Is
this who we want to be?

We¹re told TINA in a TGIF world. Doesn¹t that seem a bit strange? Is there 
really no alternative to such a world? Of course there is. Anything that is the 
product of human choices can be chosen differently. We don¹t need to spell out a
new system in all its specifics to realize there always are alternatives. We can
encourage the existing institutions that provide a site of resistance (such as 
labor unions) while we experiment with new forms (such as local cooperatives). 
But the first step is calling out the system for what it is, without guarantees 
of what¹s to come.

Home and abroad

In the First World, we struggle with this alienation and fear. We often don¹t 
like the values of the world around us; we often don¹t like the people we¹ve 
become; we often are afraid of what¹s to come of us. But in the First World, 
most of us eat regularly. That¹s not the case everywhere. Let¹s focus not only 
on the conditions we face within a predatory corporate capitalist system, living
in the most affluent country in the history of the world, but also put this in a
global context.

Half the world¹s population lives on less than $2 a day. That¹s more than 3 
billion people. Just over half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on 
less than $1 a day. That¹s more than 300 million people.

How about one more statistic: About 500 children in Africa die from 
poverty-related diseases, and the majority of those deaths could be averted with
simple medicines or insecticide-treated nets. That¹s 500 children ‹ not every 
year, or every month or every week. That¹s not 500 children every day. 
Poverty-related diseases claim the lives of 500 children an hour in Africa.

When we try to hold onto our humanity, statistics like that can make us crazy. 
But don¹t get any crazy ideas about changing this system. Remember TINA: There 
is no alternative to predatory corporate capitalism.

TGILS: Thank God It¹s Last Sunday

We have been gathering on Last Sunday precisely to be crazy together. We¹ve come
together to give voice to things that we know and feel, even when the dominant 
culture tells us that to believe and feel such things is crazy. Maybe everyone 
here is a little crazy. So, let¹s make sure we¹re being realistic. It¹s 
important to be realistic.

One of the common responses I hear when I critique capitalism is, ³Well, that 
may all be true, but we have to be realistic and do what¹s possible.² By that 
logic, to be realistic is to accept a system that is inhuman, anti-democratic, 
and unsustainable. To be realistic we are told we must capitulate to a system 
that steals our souls, enslaves us to concentrated power, and will someday 
destroy the planet.

But rejecting and resisting a predatory corporate capitalism is not crazy. It is
an eminently sane position. Holding onto our humanity is not crazy. Defending 
democracy is not crazy. And struggling for a sustainable future is not crazy.

What is truly crazy is falling for the con that an inhuman, anti-democratic, and
unsustainable system ‹ one that leaves half the world¹s people in abject poverty
‹ is all that there is, all that there ever can be, all that there ever will be.

If that were true, then soon there will be nothing left, for anyone.

I do not believe it is realistic to accept such a fate. If that¹s being 
realistic, I¹ll take crazy any day of the week, every Sunday of the month.

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and
board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center . His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and 
the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The
Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the 
Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and 
Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter 
Lang). He can be reached at •••@••.•••. His articles can be found
online at

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