Capitalism, that great and efficient distributor of goods and services. It has brought us, with its compatriots, colonization and Christianity, oppression and extinction of indigenous cultures, the creation and exploitation of the working class, systematic domination over nature and non-human animals, and other travesties. It’s given us over-consumption and species collapse, destruction of ecosystems and then biospheric conditions. It’s given us a plastic filled planet, more nurdles than fish. Fukushima. It’s given us global inequality as well as the contradiction of both poverty and obesity in the western world. It’s given us billionaires and homelessness. It’s given us information overload and antibiotic resistance.
You could argue the three C’s have also brought us education, health, longer life spans, medical advancements so women don’t die in childbirth, moral development (in the western tradition) and democracy. But in reality, those benefits and costs are so unevenly spread throughout society and throughout the world, that democratic capitalism doesn’t look so efficient at distributing goods and services after all.
Implicit in the role of the state, is an admission of market failure. A reluctant dance partner to regulation though, the market tolerates the least possible interference. Democratic processes and social action are an engaged audience to the dance. Environmental and social indicators in poverty and ruin locally and globally must condemn the whole. Resource exhaustion, market saturation and credit insecurity show capitalism is eating itself.
Capitalism seems to thrive on self-interest and greed. It taps into the egocentric impulses, the pursuit of the individual. It harnesses a latent Lord of the Flies culture in the homo sapiens primate. Ergo cynicism about the prospect of a benign, fair and utopian future.
But can critical political junctures such as elections or crises, offer potential for paradigmatic change? Wouldn’t we prefer that transition to a better model is organic and incremental not violent and brutal, the means justifying the ends? The Global Financial Crisis arguably provided Barak Obama with the opportunity for such paradigm shift and to live up to his messages of change, empowerment and hope. Instead, his legacies included bailouts for the fossil fuel automobile industry and corporate bankers, and increased militarization, so, no paradigm shift, just more of the same. Proving, after all, capitalism is too big to let fail.
New Zealand’s upcoming election is another one of those political opportunities where parties bearing the left mantle, in Government, could build incrementally, a vision and a construct for not just trimming the market’s branches, but planting a whole new tree. Would that be a politically feasible pre-election policy though? (No). Would middle New Zealand vote for it? (No, after all, ‘what are the costs and benefits for me’) And would local and transnational businesses stand for it, definitely not.
Is capitalism even redeemable through elections and changing the neo-liberal guard? Can democracy change the fundamental contradictions of market profiteering? Is a better way really possible in our time? What ‘better’ distributive model is there, that can be achieved without anarchy, violent revolution and the risks of power hungry subversion. If ‘property is theft’, what’s that really mean for the things I currently call my own? What sacrifices are people really prepared to make for some ideal, or Utopian goal? Is there really a chance of transition to a just society that wages peace not war, that shares power and resources, that respects and enables indigenous ways and wisdom, that offers creative and productive freedom for all? Now enters that cynicism again. And fear. Who’s going to stop the meltdown of nuclear power stations in a post-modern future, and who’s going to clean up the oceans?
Amid the worries of political, social and economic instability, from climate change, system change or war, we are well placed to remember that these conditions are actually the current reality for most others around the world. We’re just lucky it’s happening to ‘them’ not ‘us’. But in fact, it is happening to us. Just like the frog in the heating pot of water, while we weren’t looking, our rivers and lakes have turned to shit, our oceans have been raped by our own fishing companies, homelessness and debt slavery create a new proletariat. Capitalism has already had its pratfall, Donald Trump its biggest clown.
In many ways, capitalism has already failed. It’s failed people and the planet. It’s failed future generations. It’s failed the beauty of life. It’s humbled the integrity and mystery of ecosystems. It’s degraded humanity. It’s failed to live up to its potential and its hype. As Tennyson said, ‘from windswept cliff and quarried stone, she cries ‘ten thousand types have gone, all shall go’. Like the dinosaurs, and ancient civilizations, capitalism too shall pass. The ruins it leaves in its wake will force a whole new paradigm, sooner or later, whether we like it or not.Christine Rose SA