Overcoming Capitalism at Left Forum

May 13th, 2016 | By | Category: Articles, Events & Announcements


Overcoming Capitalism

22 May, 2016
Sun 12:00pm - 01:50pm
Room 1.109


Douglas Lain -- Publisher, Zero Books
Pete Dolack -- Zero Books, author of It's Not Over
Terry Tapp -- Zero Books, author of A Serf's Journal
Anne Jaclard -- Marxist Humanist Initiative
Andrew Kliman -- Pace University


To take up the topic of overcoming or transcending Capitalism is to start with a number of assumptions, and while the other panelists may choose to tackle the topic directly, prescribing actions or critiquing previous attempts to get beyond the current economic system, I'll start by describing these assumptions, my assumptions.


Capitalism is the social relationship that organizes the material production and reproduction of our lives. The attempt to transcend it is, by definition, the most radical task we could set for ourselves. The level of dissatisfaction or, conversely, of hope and desire for a better world must be very deep and profound, otherwise we would not take the risk that overturning the system that provides us with food, shelter, and technological power entails. When we simply ask the question "how do we overcome capitalism?" we start not only with a presumption that capitalism is the root, that it changing or getting beyond it would be radical, but also with the presumption that radical change, risky change, is justified. We have to have to concluded that the world as it is unacceptable. We must have, already, said no to the world.

While I disagree with the fundamental premise of John Holloway's book "How to Change the World Without Taking Power," I do agree with him when he writes, at the beginning of that book, that "When we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream. Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO."

sluggoBut if we are to overcome capitalism we must go beyond this mere negation. First, we must have some conception of what capitalism is and how it works. We have to be able to differentiate capitalism from other social forms or social relationships. When we say we want to overcome capitalism we have to be specific. We have to say no specifically to capitalism and not fall for the trap of the grocery list. We can't just oppose or say no to a random assortment of social ills. We can't just stick capitalism on a list of problems like this one: sexism, racism, environmental destruction, war, illiteracy, poverty, illness, inequality, and then, oh yeah, capitalism. The difficulty here is that by tackling everything in this piecemeal fashion, by listing the problems together, very little in the way of deep thinking can occur. And too often the remedy to this blockage in thought is to break up our efforts, to approach each problem on its own, issue by issue. When we do this we lose sight of that original no.

Another problem, once we've stopped thought with our grocery list, is that even if we try to hold on to the original "no," even if we maintain that scream, we're likely to replace the question of overcoming capitalism with a different question. We stop asking "how can we change the base of society?" Instead we ask, "how can we get other people motivated enough so that they'll change the root of society?" We begin to presume that the difficulty we're encountering is merely a matter of political will, of revolutionary spirit, of screaming loud enough. But, even Holloway wrote that the scream is merely a beginning.

42958c45190997d3bbccdead6763b521Another assumption we start with when we ask the question "how do we overcome capitalism" is that human beings have the capacity to consciously and intelligently reorganize the most fundamental aspects of our lives. We presume that while beavers build dams and bees build honeycombs, we humans build one damn strange thing after another. To ask the question "how might we overcome capitalism" means that we have to turn that scream against the world into a cheer for the power of the human imagination and intellect. It means that we reject the notion that what we need to embrace is our finitude. We must give up on searching for the most authentic way to live as this almost always turns into choosing a lifestyle from among all the various options on the market. Instead we must begin with the presumption that we can create a new authenticity.

Finally, asking the question of how we might overcome capitalism means accepting that previous attempts have failed. It means letting go of the idea that we have already transcended capitalism. It means that the ideas of fellow travelers like Mckenzie Wark and Paul Mason, leftists who claim that Capitalism has already transcended itself, are rejected at the start. We must start with the assumption that there is work to be done.

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