Editorial: Against capitalism or against “the system”?

IssueDecember 2011 / January 2012
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

Someone selling Peace News at the St Paul’s Occupy site was taken to task for our (front page) description of the camp in the last issue as an “anti-capitalist occupation”. It turns out that there has been a vigorous debate at Occupy LSX over its attitude towards capitalism, resulting in a decision to move away from the “anti-capitalist” tag.

The site newspaper, The Occupied Times, published two views from the camp. One asked: “Is the best you can wish for yourself and your loved one a modified version of this?” The other piece posed the alternatives as “the current system” on the one hand and “Soviet-style global collectivism with a nice big fat central bank run by international bankers” on the other. The author of the second piece continued: “You never know, a pragmatic, ethical capitalism might just work.”

A piece published in The Occupied Times entitled “Seven media sins” begins with a denial that the camp is anti-capitalist, saying that many media outlets have either engaged in lazy journalism or are out to “discredit or marginalise the Occupy movement” by using such labels.
The article describes the balance of opinion in the camp: “Many dislike the [capitalist] system and wish to see an alternative; many more wish to see the current model reformed.”

Speaking from outside the St Paul’s camp, but with a strong sense of solidarity with Occupy LSX in particular and the Occupy movement in general, we would like to suggest that all our movements need to head in an anti-capitalist direction, with some important qualifications.
It is perfectly consistent, and in fact necessary, to seek the replacement of capitalism by a more humane system, while at the same time admitting that, for the foreseeable future, we can only hope to modify dominant institutions. For the foreseeable future,  immediate modification rather than immediate revolution must be the focus of our efforts – to ensure the survival of the species if nothing else.

One of the problems in having these discussions about capitalism is that there is very little clarity about what it is people mean by “capitalism”. Very often, what people mean by the word capitalism is greed or competition or exploitation. While these are undoubtedly features of capitalism, they don’t make up the core of the problem.

The wrong answer

If we go back to 1917, when the general level of political awareness in Britain was higher than it is today, unfortunately, we find Labour radical GDH Cole making these trenchant remarks: “What, I want to ask, is the fundamental evil in our modern Society which we should set out to abolish? There are two possible answers to that question, and I am sure that very many well-meaning people would make the wrong one. They would answer POVERTY, when they ought to answer SLAVERY.... Poverty is the symptom, slavery the disease... The many are not enslaved because they are poor; they are poor because they are enslaved.”

The difference between then and now is that now the “fundamental evil” apparently identified by the Occupy movement is not poverty, but super-wealth – the 1%. In 2006, a UN report found that the richest 1% of adults in the world owned 40% of the planet’s wealth. According to the tax authorities, in 2005, the richest 1% of people in the UK owned 21% of the country’s wealth.

There is no doubt that this kind of inequality is deeply wrong in itself, and leads to all sort of social evils, but it is not in itself the fundamental source of our problems.

Cole’s point was put in a different way by Noam Chomsky, who observed that in western societies, we enjoy a certain amount of democracy in the civil and political sphere – we expect to have a say in electing those in government and in shaping policy – but in our economic lives, we live in an authoritarian system where there are no elections.

(Managers who have never given their workers the slightest chance to elect them or to choose their policies criticise trade unions for the slightest flaw in their democratic procedures.)

Chomsky observed: “a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist; that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level - there’s a little bargaining, a little give and take, but the line of authority is perfectly straightforward.”

The core problem of capitalism is what used to be called “wage-slavery”. That is, under capitalism, human beings are treated as things. We are allowed to rent out our minds and bodies, but we are not allowed to govern ourselves at work. We are treated instrument-ally, as tools of greater or lesser usefulness to business interests.

Capitalism is a social arrangement whereby capital, the investment potential that makes it possible for the economy to function, is under authoritarian rather than democratic control. We are all “free” to choose where to work, but apart from a few statistical errors our only options are in capitalist workplaces.

Taking this view of the problem, we see that “Soviet-style global collectivism with a nice big fat central bank run by international bankers” is just another variety of capitalism – state capitalism.

What do we want ?

If we want our workplaces and our neighbourhoods to be run by general assemblies, where everyone has a voice and everyone helps to shape policy, we are opposed to capitalism.

If we want our society and our economy to be built out of the cooperation of workplaces and neighbourhoods, rather than top-down control by elites, we are opposed to capitalism.

If we want to abolish the permanent division between those who give orders and those who have to take them, we are opposed to capitalism.

A right-wing commentator in the Financial Times (which has been quite sympathetic towards the Occupy movement, itself an interesting indicator) wrote recently: “Without an ideology, what you have is not a movement, but a lifestyle.”

Christopher Caldwell went on to observe, also correctly: “our problem involves more than the greed of 1 per cent of our citizens. It involves something systemic.”

As Noam Chomsky pointed out at the Rebellious Media Conference in October, it is pointless to complain about “greedy bankers”: banks are legally obliged to seek profit at the expense of all other goals. It is the institution that is destructive.

Caldwell’s piece is entitled: “The protests failed [untrue] but capitalism is still in the dock [true]”.

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