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Is There An Alternative to Capitalism?

by Paul Burrows

Edited from a rough transcript of a talk given as part of the SMAC forum on "Alternatives to Capitalism" (Wednesday, April 11th, 2001)

"Is there an alternative to capitalism?" The short answer to the question is "yes." In fact, there are many alternatives, though not all of these are necessarily or equally desirable. I usually talk to Marxists, anarchists, Wobblies, greens, and assorted rare strains of retro-socialists, and so simply telling people that there are alternatives to capitalism, telling people that competition, exploitation, imperialism, ecological destruction, and hierarchy are NOT inevitable, is at best redundant, at worst insulting. At least for my usual crowd.

But beyond this general agreement among progressives that capitalism is inherently unjust, and beyond this general hope and insistence that the alternative must be some kind of worker-run society, some kind of real democracy--meaning, a democracy which extends to the economic, not just the political, realm--beyond a quite passionate belief in these compelling (but somewhat vague) principles, the Left, frankly, doesn't know what it's talking about.

What do I mean "the Left doesn't know what it's talking about"? I certainly don't mean that progressive values are bad, or that the abolition of the market and its replacement by democratic planning is naïve. But I do think that progressives are often incoherent, stupidly dogmatic, and almost unintelligible to ordinary people.

I don't think, in practice, that we convey effectively our vision of a desirable future, nor do we convey a strategy for achieving it that seems…well, achievable. I don't think most self-described socialists (Marxist or otherwise) could tell you, in straight, ordinary language (and that's the key) what a market economy IS, what the essential institutions and features and dynamics of capitalism are, and how a worker-run economy might differ from it, be more fair, and still deliver the goods.

I don't think most self-described anarchists could tell you that either, or for that matter, tell you about the essential institutions and function of the State, and more importantly, how a non-hierarchical polity might differ from a capitalist or State-socialist one.

When we're actually intelligible, we're not necessarily saying anything relevant. And finally, the institutions, political parties, alternative businesses, and movements that we do create, often replicate the hierarchies, divisions of labour, and decision-making structures of both capitalism and patriarchy.

I'm not up here to outline and argue for my particular pet alternative to capitalism. For those who need to define their allies and enemies according to tidy labels, my own allegiances are well-known. I favour a "participatory economic" vision influenced by the libertarian Marxist, anarchist, and syndicalist traditions. But I think it would be redundant, a waste of everyone's time to stand up here and regurgitate yet another stand-alone variant of socialism.

Nor am I up here to say that anarchism is better than Marxism, or decentralization is better than central planning, or that the State will never wither away--it can only be smashed!--and I'm not going to talk about who screwed over whom in which revolution. In my opinion, these hair-splitting debates have about as much relevance to the public as two churches fighting over the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

So where does this leave us? What are better questions to ask, better debates to have, if we want to build an anti-capitalist movement? How do our different visions of a non-capitalist future affect the strategies we adopt today, and vice versa? How do our organizational forms and strategies today affect the people involved, the content of our media, the direction we want to take, and so on? And finally: What if the privileges we enjoy today lead us (without even being aware) to obscure class and structural problems in the alternative models we propose, create, and work within?

I think that if we want to build a popular movement, and create an alternative to capitalism, we need to start by asking such questions, and by articulating them in a language that's real. (Not many people are interested in the subtleties of the "dialectical relationship between base and superstructure." Get real!)

From an organizing perspective alone, we need to recognize that the language we use, the mannerisms, style, and tone we adopt, is at least as important as the substance of our message. We need to have a little humility--we need to be a little less attached to our conclusions, a little more questioning of our assumptions, a little less quick with our judgements and dismissals. We need to ask ourselves "What are we really doing to create a welcoming movement, a culture of resistance; what are we really doing to foster solidarity; when was the last time I reached out to someone who didn't already share my politics; when was the last time I actually had an impact on someone?"

Ultimately, we need to be less concerned about the alleged failings and ignorance of others, and more concerned about our own political relevance. The entire progressive, activist community (young and old, socialist or not) needs to build or expand upon its own institutions, and more importantly, the alternatives we create must embody the values we profess to hold.

Instead of saying "Anything short of complete 'Revolution' is reformist" (and then going home to watch TV), we need to recognize that no revolution begins with the overthrow of the State. The dismantling or seizure of the State is usually a reflection of a deep revolution already occurring at the grassroots, community, and workplace level.

The Spanish Revolution of 1936-39 didn't just happen because the Spanish were more "radical" or "committed" than we are. It was the culmination of almost 70 years of organizing, making mistakes, building a popular base. Pre-existing structures and worker organizations made possible a workers' takeover of much of the Spanish economy (especially in Catalonia). Participation in radical unions, factory committees, and collectives for decades prior to the revolutionenabled Spanish workers to develop knowledge of their enterprises as well as a sense of their own competence, and gave them direct experience with collective organizational principles.

The struggle of the Spanish anarchists and communists offers many lessons--not the least of which is that revolution is a long-term agenda. (You might even call it…evolution!) Younger activists especially need to take this seriously, because they tend to think that militancy alone (regardless of popular support) will bring about a fast demise of capitalism. Unrealistic expectations are a fast road to burnout and despair.

At the same time, however, observing that the state-capitalist system is powerful, and believing that revolution is a long-term agenda, is not an excuse to stuff our nests, or avoid direct action. We need to maintain an "optimism of will, even if we have a pessimism of mind." In other words, we need to strike a balance between hope and reality--something that is absolutely necessary, if our efforts are to be sustained beyond youthful idealism into the rest of our lives.

We need to think hard about the meaning of solidarity. Solidarity is not about supporting those who share your precise politics. It's about supporting those who struggle against injustice--even if their assumptions, methods, politics, and goals differ from our own. Any anarchist who says they won't support Cuban solidarity efforts, or could care less about the U.S. embargo, because the Cuban revolution is "Statist" and "authoritarian," is in my opinion, full of crap. (This does not, however, imply that we should turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Cuba, nor that we should refrain from criticism of Cuba's economic system simply because we're worried about the declining number of post-capitalist experiments to support.)

Solidarity doesn't mean uncritical acceptance--it means that criticism should come from within a framework of solidarity, not outside it--and this applies as much to the local context, as it does to the global. Any activist who says they can't support indigenous struggles for hunting and fishing rights, or they can't support striking hog plant workers, because of animal liberation is full of crap. (But this doesn't negate for one second the compelling moral imperative of animal liberation.)

Any environmentalist who doesn't buy their paper from Humboldt's Legacy (or your local equivalent), because some of its prices actually include social and ecological costs, or because the store's not registered as a "non-profit," is full of crap.

Any activist who doesn't buy their groceries from Neechi foods, or Organic Planet, or some other place which is committed to community economic development on principle, because Safeway is "unionized" or the Megastore has this or that…is full of crap.

Any Marxist who doesn't buy their books at Mondragón or some similar organization, because the chain stores are more convenient, or they found a better discount at Borders, or they think anarchists are "petty-bourgeois," is likewise…full of crap.

I'm not saying this stuff just to be provocative, or to make anyone feel bad. I think people should be motivated to act by their positive convictions, not their sense of guilt. Solidarity is about putting your money where your mouth is. It's meaningless if it's simply theoretical.

Solidarity has to be put into practice, it has to be lived. I struggle with the need to overcome my own blinders and personal grievances all the time. It takes serious effort to make connections with people from diverse groups, and different generations, to disagree in a respectful fashion, and to support other struggles without compromising one's own principles.

Solidarity is about transcending divisions despite our political differences, and despite the inevitable personality conflicts--it's about transcending our divisions out of empathy and a sense of shared struggle. If we can't do this at home, we sure as hell can't take on the world-capitalist system. That's just a fact.

To go on, I'd like to come back, in a very round-about way, to the question of alternatives to capitalism. It seems important to emphasize that we should be less concerned about what we call our particular economic vision, and more concerned about its substance. We should be less concerned about regurgitating the slogans of dead people, or following a party line, and more concerned about asking new questions, based as much on our own experiences and common-sense, as upon the lessons of the past.

Do not take this as a rejection of learning from history, a rejection of learning from past thinkers. Anyone who knows me knows the value I place on history, on theory, on learning from the experiences of those who came before. But let's be serious: the point is to take the insights, to learn the lessons; it is not to adopt wholesale the assumptions and frameworks and baggage of people we admire.

Is there a future for "socialism"? As Mike Albert notes, it all depends on what you mean by "socialism." Some people use "socialism" to describe a particular economy, characterized by state or collective property, plus either markets or central planning, but in each case with typical corporate divisions of labour in the workplace.

Some people use "socialism" to mean an economy in which producers and consumers have appropriate empowerment, and receive fair and equitable incomes not based on any structural or class or personal advantage.

In my opinion, the first of these forms of socialism (which existed in the old Soviet Union and exists today in Cuba) should be off the revolutionary agenda--not because it doesn't work (it does, even by comparison to capitalism), but because it's not compatible with the greatest fulfillment and development of the majority, of the workers and consumers themselves.

Assuming it's attainable, only the second form of socialism seems worthy of pursuit--and I would argue, it's the only one that seems to be consistent with the aims of early theorists like Marx.

In any case, we need to ask ourselves what we stand for, beyond vague references to collectivizing the means of production. Let me loosely borrow four questions from Robin Hahnel:

There's nothing complex or mysterious about this--even though the High Priests of Capitalism (and some Marxists) work very hard to make economics seem that way. What do we value? What do we want an economy to achieve? Any attempt to conceptualize alternatives to capitalism must begin with these questions, if we want to interest ordinary people in the debate, if we want to be rooted in the real world.

One doesn't build a broad-based, anti-capitalist movement by pretending to understand the "labour theory of value," or by saying "capitalism sucks" (and not having a well-thought-out alternative model to put in its place). We need to ask straight-forward questions about what we want. We need to debate different proposals and options for how to best achieve our desires.

I don't care what you call this--communism, anarchism, participatory democracy, socialism as it was always meant to be--it really doesn't matter. But if we're going to develop a true alternative to capitalism, we need to be very clear about what values and principles we want to uphold. And if we can't communicate these values in everyday language, if we can't persuade anyone of anything, then we either don't know what we're talking about, or we're just plain wrong.

Paul Burrows is a co-founder of Mondragón Bookstore & Coffee House in Winnipeg, Canada