Thursday, May 24, 2007

For Democracy, Against Capitalism - Continued

Earlier this year, I began an irregular series of posts intended to explore ideas of democracy (collected here). My point of departure is that a society is democratic to the extent that people have non-trivial say in the important decisions affecting their own lives. It seems clear to me, then, that capitalism is inherently anti-democratic. An obvious implication of this is that the United States is not remotely democratic.

In recent years, I've become increasingly interested in exploring the history of capitalism and the history of revolutionary movements and ideas. In studying the history of capitalism I am trying to find out several things. What systems did capitalism replace? How did it replace them? Crucially, what kind of resistance did it face? How was this resistance defeated? This is not simply an academic exercise for me, nor is it a nostalgic one--though I will admit that a certain nostalgic wistfulness can come over me as I read about customs and traditions that were crushed by the cold logic of capitalism, and when I read about the loss of clarity and loss of vital energies with the defeat of this or that revolutionary movement.

I am hardly alone in desiring serious, substantive change in the American political and economic landscape. Nor am I alone in desiring either an end to capitalism, or at least significant modifications to capitalism (which I see as valuable, but insufficient). There are, of course, many obstacles to be overcome before such changes could occur. One such obstacle--perhaps the key obstacle, aside from the tenaciousness with which capitalists will and do protect their ill-gotten gains--is that it is difficult for people to imagine things different than they are now, difficult, indeed, to even imagine that things could be different. To a huge extent, we believe Margaret Thatcher's insistence that "There Is No Alternative"--no alternative to neoliberalism, no alternative to capitalism. We tend to look on capitalism as the "natural" order of things. We are conditioned to view it as associated with freedom, part and parcel of liberal democracy (which, well, it is, with emphasis on the work "liberal", but more on that later). With the Protestant work ethic, we have internalized the idea that if we do not succeed, if we do not survive, under the current system, it is our own damn fault.

In the United States, movements against the system are strange and unfathomable, and eruptions of violence against it are all but incomprehensible--people don't understand. In a piece that originally appeared in 1970 in The New York Review of Books, and which now serves as an introduction to the NYRB edition of Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, John William Ward put it like this:
The American creed of an open, egalitarian society means that there can be no violent protest against the conditions of American society because there can be no real cause for it. The act of violence cannot be understood. It must be the act of a deranged and mad individual. It escapes historical understanding.


A society which believes that it is the result of the actions of free and equal and self-reliant individuals has, logically, no reason to suppose that the state and the institutions of society are important. To the degree one believes that America is a uniquely free society, that each person is unencumbered by forces beyond the determination of his own personality, to the degree such an ideal has power over one's mind and imagination, there is no way to understand violence except as irrational and aberrant. Our difficulty in understanding violence in American is, in part at least, a consequence of our insistence that ours is a society of equality and opportunity and individual freedom. To ask questions about the reality of violence would force us to ask questions about the reality of our ideals.

Furthermore, our ideology, to the degree it is believed in and acted upon, leads to intense frustration which easily spills over into violent behavior when the social situation, the daily, lived experience of actual people blocks and prevents them from acting out what they are told is ideally possible.
I come here to neither praise nor condemn political violence. The point is that what Ward wrote holds in a broad sense for dissent in general. Later he says: "The insistence that all men are free and equal leads to the curious consequence of a mass conformity and a mood of intolerance for dissent in any form." This insistence leads also to the curious notion that the lives we lead are the consequence of our choices only, of necessarily rational, conscious exchanges between people of equally held rights and power.

So, to wrap up this post. I want to know more about what came before capitalism, and about how it unfolded, not because I desire to erase history and return to some unrecoverable, edenic paradise that exists only in my imagination, but because I'm interested in those aspects of what came before that were worth preserving and which could be incorporated into a way forward, a way out. And the nature of the various resistance movements against capitalism, how they fought, what traditions they drew on, how they lost--these I consider instructive (and inspiring), both as part of a need to learn from mistakes of the past, but also to learn from the limited successes and short-lived victories. Enter revolutionary movements and ideas. I hope to be able to continue writing about this, though I have proven to be poor at predicting what will happen on this blog, ambition aside. Obviously this particular plan requires a lot of reading in history and economics and political economy and so forth, which I've been doing, if slowly, slowly (recommendations are welcome). Some of the key works and thinkers I've barely skimmed the surface of (Marx, for instance) . . .

Much more to come.


Anonymous said...

I apologize if I'm suggesting something you've already read, but Hobsbawn's four "Age of" series (Revolution, Capital, Empire, Extremes) are excellent on how we got where we are.

Richard said...

Thanks, bdr. I've not read those, but I am aware of them and do intend to read them...

David Kendall said...

Mr. Crary,

First, you are a far better writer than I. In just a few paragraphs, you have... expressed every sentiment I've merely "thunk" for a very long time. Maybe sometime you and I should have lunch. I think I'd enjoy that very much.

Meanwhile, you invited some recommendations for further study, so I hope you don't mind if I provide some:

Regarding what came before capitalism, how it evolved, and where it's probably headed -- I would strongly recommend Charles A. Barone -- "Radical Political Economy: A Concise Introduction". This book should help a great deal in your study of Karl Marx, particularly his three volumes of "Capital".

As a primer to revolutionary "thought", I would suggest Erich Fromm's 1963 essay, "On Disobedience". For what it's worth, I only recently (just now) discovered that Fromm is actually considered a "Marxist writer". An extended bibliography of his work is listed at

In terms of revolutionary "practice", I would highly recommend the writings, and the thinkings, and the doings of -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Read all of his speeches. You can find them at: ( There is also at least one book still in publication that contains a complete collection of his public speeches.

Also -- read Dr. King's letter from the Birmingham jail, (

Then, if you can get your hands on a copy, read "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?" -- also by Dr. King. A key excerpt from that book can be found at: (

While I'm not sure he ever actually used the term "economic democracy", I tend to agree with others that this seems to have been Dr. King's overarching lifetime goal in his war on poverty.

Rasmus Jack Rasmus is the author of "The War At Home: The Corporate Offensive From Ronald Reagan To George W. Bush". He has also released a tremendous amount of research regarding "The Trillion Dollar Income Shift" on the Internet, ( Tough reading, but well worth your time.

James K. Galbraith recently wrote an article regarding "fair wages" versus "fair trade", the "Scandanavian Model", which appears here: ( Rather than imposing "trade" legislation on foreign nations, Galbraith suggests the problems we face are best solved right here at home -- in downtown "America" -- while we still have an artificial semblance of "democracy" to suffer those conflicts (and survive them) in this country, and then transfer the benefits to the rest of the world.

John Kenneth Galbraith (father of James?) wrote a huge body of work, the most celebrated of which might be "The Affluent Society". I must admit that I have not personally read any of his work (YET). But he does come highly recommended by (a huge body of) some very reliable sources. Take a look. Judge for yourself.

American Businessman, Peter Barnes, has recently written a book that you can download for FREE, called "Capitalism 3.0", ( This is a common sense look at the "commons", which Barnes says must be reclaimed in order to "upgrade" the current "operating system". While I doubt capitalism can ever be "upgraded" in favor of the "commons" or the "people", Barnes does present a surprisingly viable overview of the problem, and he sticks to the root of it, which is -- capitalism. So my hat is off to him, overall. You can find an excellent "review" of his book at: (

Meanwhile, Michael Albert has devoted most of his life to discovering and designing a socio-economic structure that is NOT based on capitalist exploitation of workers. He calls this vision of the future, "Participatory Economics", and you can learn more about it here: (

Beyond that, you can certainly study the research of activists like Aaron Russo and Michael Moore. These guys are far from being morons, but (in my opinion) they tend to squander their resources on sensational rhetoric in dramatizing the problem (capitalism), rather than providing any suggestion for real-world solutions. But you make your own evaluation.

And finally, take a quick look at the "Air Car", and try to imagine the economic possibilities of dropping Big Oil on its thick slimy head. If you're like me, you might be dubious about how the workers in India are being treated as they manufacture the Air Car for an assembly of gluttonous "American" consumers. But then again, how much "chaos" is required to promote "community" in a world full of idiots?

Your guess is as good as mine, I'm sure. I hope you find these references helpful. Thanks for having me. I hope we can meet and talk sometime.


Richard said...

Hi David, thanks for the compliment. Are you in Baltimore?

I'll check some of those links, thanks. I have read some of the stuff you mention, though not a lot of it.... some of King's relevant stuff, as well as a lot of Michael Albert (though not his Parecon book, yet I've had it for some time).

The Barone sounds particularly interesting... which reminds me, I recommend Robin Hahnel's The ABCs of Political Economy. Excellent. As you probably know, Hahnel and Albert devised the Parecon model; Hahnel is the actual economist.

Thanks again.

Casey said...

The history of the idea of "just price" makes for interesting study -- you'll even encounter things like "maximum wage" (rather unsuccessfully implemented in colonial America to offset labor scarcity). See Bernard Bailyn's The New England Merchants.

Part of the problem of the critique of capitalism is that the mythology of a harmonious pre-capitalist feudal world (the basis of Marx's critique, really) doesn't really hold up... which isn't to say that capitalism doesn't deserve criticism -- I agree that it does. But one thing that must not be overlooked is that capitalism allows for subjective valuation ("freedom?") in a way that previous economic models had not.

Mixing morality and economics has a long history of problems -- but as you imply, completely separating morality from economics has its own shortcomings. You know Joseph Schumpeter's The History of Economic Analysis? Very helpful...

Richard said...

Hi Casey -

Your point about the myth of the harmonious pre-capitalist world is important. I am not looking to feudalism as a model to be followed, that's for sure. I almost included something about that, but decided against it for reasons of time and space. Anyway, this is why I referred to "aspects" of older systems or traditions, etc.

Thanks for the comment and the recommendations.

David Kendall said...

Hello Richard. No, I'm not in Baltimore. Unfortunately, I'm much closer to the opposite coast. But I hope we can meet someday, anyway. I'm increasingly curious about what you're up to, here.

Thanks for the tip about Hahnel. There is a ton of reading I'd like to do, if I had more time and money. So I do what I can, when I can, with what I've got. In the time I've been searching for ways to survive the inevitable death of capitalism, the Internet has improved dramatically as a viable resource. Two years ago, when I performed my first Google search for "surviving capitalism", the Parecon Web site was the literally the only return. But now I've got one "Google Alert" set to "capitalism", and another set to "real-wages", and I cannot even keep up with all the reading. I've also got an "alert" set up for "guaranteed minimum income" that yields almost nothing, as you might expect.

However, my nets dragged in a pearl the other day that is well worth your time.

Richard C. Cook proposes a "National Dividend" based on "Social Credit" -- if I understand him correctly. While capitalism artificially imposes economic "scarcity", it also generates unlimited abundance that tends to be hoarded by a slim one-percent of the population. So, in direct contradiction of its selfish, most fundamental aims, capitalism has ironically proved that "scarcity" simply doesn't exist. There are plenty of resources available on this planet for everyone, and it's a wonder to imagine what life might be like under a more equitable system of "Economic Democracy".

I can't begin to tell you how excited I was to stumble upon Cook's essay. I hope you'll take a look, and let me(us) know what you think. Meanwhile, "Economic Democracy" seems to be an "alert" that I have overlooked in my Google search for solutions. As such, David Schweickart recently wrote a book on "Economic Democracy" called "After Capitalism", which I can't afford to purchase, and haven't read yet. But the whole idea of "Economic Democracy versus Parecon" seems a far more productive discussion than "We The People versus Capitalism". Now, we're at least talking about alternatives and solutions, rather than just bitching about problems that are "too big" for us to handle.

Good job, "America". There might be hope for you yet.

Anonymous said...

An Alternative to Capitalism?

The following link, takes you to a "utopian" article, entitled "Home of the Brave?" which I wrote and appeared in the American Daily which is published in Phoenix, Arizona on March 14, 2006.

John Steinsvold