The Good Fight: What is “realistic” about maintaining capitalism?

Why is capitalism seen as the only “realistic” system? Harry Zehner investigates. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

While discussing Algerian psychiatrist, writer and anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon in class this week, my professor posed a question: Do you agree with Fanon’s proposal for the Algerian workers and peasants to collectively own factories and businesses? In other words, do you think formerly colonized countries should have embraced socialistic economic systems? 

The responses from my classmates were various iterations of: “It’s a nice idea, but it wouldn’t work in practice;” “Personal interest will always win out in society — collective ownership will crumble eventually;”and my personal favorite: “It won’t work. It’s an issue of realism versus idealism.” 

This last claim is a common first line of defense against alternatives to capitalism. In most contexts, if you so much as suggest collective ownership of the economy, or have the audacity to think healthcare, housing and other social services should be available for free — you will be condemned as a dreamer, an idealist with no grounding in reality. 

It’s critical for us to break down this claim that capitalism is the most “realistic” way to build a thriving society — and that collective alternatives are “unrealistic.” First, we should establish a basic understanding of what comprises a successful society. While this is a rough definition, most would probably agree that a successful society is one whose members have the full capacity to live fulfilling, happy lives. I think it’s also fair to say a successful society should be sustainable — a happy society that can only maintain a high quality of life for a short time is not particularly successful. 

With this in mind, now we ask the question: Does capitalism meet those criteria? 

The answer is a resounding no. Thus far, we have witnessed half a millenium of racial capitalism, and it has proven to be conducive to prosperity and general happiness for only those lucky few at the top. Those who own the factories, businesses, land, houses and tools — in other words, the capitalists — and those who can profit off of proximity to the capitalists, have enjoyed a luxurious existence. The rest of the world, broadly speaking, has been disempowered and subjected to violence and poverty. Its important to note that Black, Indigenous and non-White people have borne the brunt of capitalism’s violence and disempowerment — hence the term racial capitalism. 

One of capitalism’s defining features is its profit incentive, which creates a constant search for new markets, new consumers, new labor and new raw materials. This lust for expansion is directly responsible for the monstrous system of American chattel slavery. The settler genocide of Indigenous Americans is inexorably tied to a westward expansion of American capitalism. Likewise, the driving force behind the horrors of European colonization of Africa, Asia and Latin America was an unquenchable thirst for resources, labor and eventually, new consumer markets. Even after anti-colonial revolts resonated across the “third world,” control over these countries’ resources and markets was largely maintained by former colonial powers. Leaders like Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso who sought to rid their nations of colonial ties were assassinated or deposed by western-backed coups. International organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank bent newly sovereign countries to their will by imposing “structural adjustment” programs in which countries were forced to privatize industry and open up their country to foreign investment (read: foreign control). This “neo-colonial” state of affairs continues to this day. 

The long-standing processes of colonization and extraction have benefitted just a few countries, namely in Europe and the United States. Trillions and trillions of dollars of wealth, labor and natural resources have been looted, and continue to be looted, to sustain the decadence of these wealthy nations. 

And what has this centuries-long project of violent, organized robbery produced for the beneficiary countries? Certainly not the widespread prosperity or happiness of those societies. Despite standing on a mountain of stolen land and wealth, America does not provide for its own people. Half a million are homeless, children across the country face starvation, sexual violence is rampant, Black americans are murdered and degraded at the hands of the police and more than two million Americans (mostly Black and Hispanic) live their day-to-day lives in cages. For the majority of working Americans, there is little time or ability to follow our passions and unleash our creative energy. A profound mental health crisis has emerged from this late-capitalist purgatory. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, claiming near 50,000 lives a year.

So no, even the societies which have benefited most from the plunder of global capitalism are unwilling (and unable) to secure a general standard of prosperity and happiness for their citizens. Even the modest social-democratic reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society which helped (almost exclusively white) Americans gain access to housing, healthcare and basic social services only survived for a few decades before they were neutered by Reagan. 

Now, onto my second criteria: Sustainability. Perhaps the greatest crime of capitalism is the climate collapse we are living through. The rule of capitalism is that it must grow to survive, hence the heavy emphasis that capitalist economists place on the growth rate of the economy. The equation then for climate collapse is simple: Perpetual economic growth and extraction are on a collision course with a planet which has finite resources. That is where we find ourselves now. Climate collapse is in motion, already devastating poor, Black, Indigenous and colonized peoples. 

In this Sept. 28, 2020, file photo, a staircase remains at the Restaurant at Meadowood, which burned in the Glass Fire, in St. Helena, Calif. In three of the past four years, major wildfires driven by a changing climate have devastated parts of the world-class region, leaving little doubt that it’s vulnerable to smoke, flames and blackouts during the fall. Photo by Noah Berger/AP Photo, File.

Yet, despite scientific consensus that carbon emissions need to be dramatically lowered over the next decade to salvage any future for our species, capitalist states and mega-corporations display little urgency. Recently leaked documents from oil giant Exxon Mobil reveal they plan to increase emissions in coming years. Their position is not uniquely evil. Even the rosiest and most “progressive” of climate action plans, such as the Green New Deal, rely on a model of perpetual economic growth, ever-expanding energy use and resource extraction from the global south (after all, the rare metals used in solar panels and electric car batteries have to come from somewhere). 

It is fundamentally ahistorical to argue that the capitalist system — which is responsible for colonialism, indigenous extermination and full-blown ecological collapse — is in any way equipped to bring about collective prosperity, happiness and sustainability. 

What is “realistic” about maintaining this system? 

In all fairness, the idea of transforming our society at such a fundamental level is inconceivable to many, which is why it’s so easy to dismiss alternatives as unrealistic. As Frederic Jameson once said: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” 

Fight against this impulse. The end of capitalism is not just possible — it is necessary for our collective liberation (and for the survival of much animal and plant life on earth). But don’t just take my word for it: Read the work of the Black feminists who comprised the Combahee River Collective. Read Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary anti-colonial work. Read native perspectives on climate change, overconsumption and resource extraction. Read Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, George Jackson, Walter Rodney — any fighter on the front lines, battling racism, sexism, colonizers, bosses, landlords and the like. They have identified racial capitalism as the disease. 

If our goal is to build a society which ensures prosperity and happiness to its people, the only realistic course of action is clear: Destroy capitalism. 

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