Saturday, August 16, 2014

capitalism (a reposting from the island institute's website)

I have come up with a definition of capitalism that I like because it has within it the explanation of the problem. It is not, in other words, a neutral definition, such as Webster's might try to give us. Neutral definitions are useful. And sometimes loaded definitions are useful too.
Capitalism is the system of relating to the world wherein absolutely everything--including all life forms, all land and water and air, mental processes, all labor, all pleasure, every stage of life including birth and death and love and loss, and everything else--is commodified.
In other words, capitalism is the commodification of everything.
I would like to have a conversation with a group of people with diverse viewpoints, who nevertheless agreed on this definition. We could then discuss: should everything be commodified? Why or why not? Should some things be commodified and not others? What are the consequences of commodifying human beings, for example? How are those human beings affected, and how are the commodifiers affected? How does it affect a forest when that forest is commodified? Is it different to commodify coal than to commodify salmon? If it's not different, why not? If it is different, what's the difference? How does it affect a person to commodify herself, to consider herself a thing to be consumed?
If someone in the conversation said that they believed in a model of limited capitalism, i.e., it's okay to commodify the Earth, but within limits, then I would want to know: who decides the limits? And based on what values? Maybe based on the pragmatism of living sustainably? Even in a system of limited commodification, are there still consequences to considering everything a product, a thing to be bought and used and discarded when done? Are those consequences that feel okay to us? What do we base that okay-ness on?
Is there an alternative way of living on Earth than to commodify everything? Well yes, of course there is. So then my question is: what would it take for any person in this conversation to consider converting to another way of living? Would you give up capitalism? Why or why not?


  1. Having an intelligent and informed discussion on capitalism is almost impossible. It's so loaded with emotion, for one thing. For another, I think most people just really haven't researched it all that much or had that many conversations about it, except with people who more or less agree with them. I'll be the first to admit that it is emotional for me, because I think that capitalism has fucked up the world. I definitely bring baggage to these conversations. Between being a very highly charged emotional issue and lacking information, it's a tough conversation to have.

    I find a lot of people who defend capitalism equate capitalism with free markets. So they have a very idealized idea of capitalism. All the problems that we see are due not to "real" capitalism but to "crony capitalism." I find a lot of people also object to perceived alternatives to capitalism (as we know it). They fear a strong, coercive centralized government. So most people think of the old USSR as the only alternative to capitalism as we know it. Naturally, they prefer to just work on the system we have than to all become Communists.

    I do like that we as a nation are starting to have these conversations. I think the younger folks are more open to discussions. There's a huge chunk of folks in the older generation who just seem impossible to converse with on the subject. But more and more, people are engaging the issue, and I for one want to be a part of these and to contribute healthy dialog, despite whatever emotions I might bring to the table.