I want to acknowledge the limitations on my perspective from being raised and schooled in the U.S.A. by upwardly mobile middle class Jewish parents who themselves grew up poor and working class. Although I have worked hard to overcome these limitations, they continue to affect me.
THE RELATIVELY SHORT EXISTENCE OF CAPITALISM
Scientists estimate that life on earth began between 3 and 4 billion years ago. Modern humans appeared about 160,000 to 200,000 years ago. Modern colonialism (or imperialism) began about 500 years ago. It seems as if capitalism (the use of wealth to create more wealth) started about the same time. Capitalism has existed a very short time (about 1/3 of 1%) of human existence.
CAPITALISM: BENEFITS AND PROBLEMS
Capitalism is attractive because: it has resulted in better health care and longer lives for many people; increased comfort; improved material conditions; and increased leisure time for creativity and recreation. In many ways human intelligence has flourished under capitalism — in art, music, literature, science, and technology, for example. These benefits have often resulted in people neglecting its negative effects – for example, the exploitation of peoples’ labor for the benefit of others and the abuse and destruction of the environment. The burning of fossil fuels, in particular, threatens the existence of our, and many other, species. In addition, scientific and technological advances have created the possibility of extinction through nuclear war.
The benefits of capitalism were created by human intelligence and are not dependent on our economic system. I believe that we can create a society that allows human intelligence to flourish without exploiting people or destroying the environment.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HUMAN BEINGS
First of all, we are intelligent organisms with enormous abilities to solve problems. We have immense brains for our size. We developed the capacity for speech and writing that allow us to pass on knowledge to our descendants. We can respond more flexibly to new situations than other species. Some of the values that humans developed are beneficial to our survival. Among these are love for our children, caring for and curiosity about other humans, and interest in how the world works.
Most significantly we learned to cooperate with one another. That was very important, perhaps essential, for the survival and thriving of our species. We also developed standards for acting humanely. Most of the major religions have the principle of treating other humans well.
We can do better. Not only do humans kill each other, we also use tremendous resources to kill people in war. Some sources estimate that about 26 million people have been killed in war since World War II. The number of people killed in genocide since 1945 is harder to determine, since there is wide disagreement about what constitutes genocide. We do know that genocide continues, sometimes under the name of ethnic cleansing or re-education, and sometimes under denial that it is happening. Another measure of mistreatment is the number of displaced persons. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that there were about 70.8 million forcibly displaced individuals worldwide in 2018 as a result of persecution, conflict, or violence. This is the highest level of displacement on record. And finally, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute the world spent US$1.8 trillion in 2018 on military expenditures.
In addition, we allow large numbers of people to live in extreme poverty, and to not have adequate food or readily available clean water. Enslavement of other humans was a condoned and legal feature of societies until recently. Illegal slavery (including sexual slavery) exists to this day.
Most importantly, in its relatively short existence capitalism has brought humanity to the point where its very existence, as well as the existence of many other species, is threatened. If we are to survive we must transform society to one that respects the environment and all human beings. This will take an enormous cultural shift in a short time frame. I will start by examining the values and behaviors that capitalistic society has nurtured.
PEOPLES’ VALUES AND BEHAVIORS UNDER CAPITALISM
I am not claiming that all people have the values below, only that they are generally accepted or tolerated by societies in the United States, other western countries, and in countries that are becoming more influenced by capitalism. I am aware that one’s class background affects how they are influenced by the dominant culture. I know that capitalism has affected my attitudes, behavior, and feelings in many of these ways.
- Seeking and being addicted to comfort. We consume and accumulate material things for comfort that are not necessary for our survival. We do this despite the fact this this contributes to global warming and to pollution of our oceans.
- Many people, particularly the more affluent, develop the attitude that I come first. They use personal connections or bribery to get advantages for themselves or their family. It is not uncommon for business associates to try and cheat or even financially destroy each other or their competitors.
- Making excuses for our own practices that are inconsistent with our beliefs about climate change. For example, we may take vacations by plane, eat beef, or take long showers.
- Letting things slide for the sake of friendship, connections, and keeping our privileges. We are often silent from fear of upsetting people in our social group. Or we “sanitize” the language we use by avoiding words such as racism, sexism, classism, genocide, sexual slavery. Instead we use words such as bias, ethnic cleansing, and human trafficking.
- Supporting industries that oppress people, for example the sports industries and the pornography industry.
- Corporations fighting regulations that would benefit public health, but affect their profits. For example, for years U.S. automobile companies fought against requirements for seat belts in cars. Airlines and restaurants fought against prohibitions on smoking. Corporations are now fighting regulations to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel extraction.
- Judging one’s worth or other’s worth by wealth. We are told that people from working class or who grew up in poverty are not as smart as affluent people.
- Accepting corruption. For example, wealthy people in the U.S. often are able to get tax breaks for their projects by bribing politicians or contributing to their campaigns. They often avoid prosecution for crimes or receive very light sentences when convicted. Corruption is so common that most people are numb about it.
- Allowing schools to omit telling the truth about history. For example, when I was in elementary school, I learned nothing about the horrors of slavery or the reality of colonialism. White Christians praised themselves for bringing “civilization” and “religion” to “savages”. My history books said nothing about the genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas, or the U.S. military invasion of Mexico that resulted in the conquest of what is now a large part of the southwest of the U.S. I learned nothing about the long history of the oppression of women.
- Allowing hopelessness and discouragement to influence one’s actions. The phrase in my family was “you can’t fight City Hall” (the center of city government).
- Settling for small gains and compromises. For, example in the U.S. some cities have passed laws that will increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, over the next few years. That is an important accomplishment. But in most major U.S. cities it is not possible to live on $30,000 per year. Nearly 200 U.S. cities had a median home value of at least $1 million as of June 2018.
- We are told repeatedly in many ways that capitalism is the best system possible, and that everyone who works hard can be successful. We are often told that those who are poor are just not working hard enough. We have come to accept these lies. We may feel hopeless and discouraged about the inequities, but be reluctant to change them because we might lose some of the privileges that we have. We are also told that wealthy people deserve their wealth because they work harder than other people. This is false!
- People in wealthier countries usually do not acknowledge the long history of western colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and genocide as a source of their wealth. Nor do they recognize this history as a major cause of the difficulties that former colonies or targets of genocide face. People in countries that colonized or committed crimes in other regions find it difficult, if not impossible, to listen to the stories of people from colonized countries. There is often a refusal to even consider reparations for the damage. (The major exception that I know about is Germany who has admitted its role in the genocide of the Jews and paid substantial reparations.) In addition we allow corporations to economically exploit former colonies and destroy their environment.
- Using Gross Domestic Product as a measure of economic progress. (GDP is the market value of all the final products and services turned out in a given period by a country.) Most people take it as a good sign when the GDP rises. But it means the country is producing and consuming more, which increases fossil fuel emissions. It is encouraging to know that some young economists are challenging the idea that economic growth is good.
Part of a protest by young economists at the American Economic Association’s annual conference in Boston. January 2015.
Transforming a system as deep-rooted as capitalism will require a major shift in human consciousness. Achieving that shift will require that all people examine their values and behaviors. I hope that you will do so — and add your ideas to the list above.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Once we understand that the economic system we grew up in deeply affects our values, attitudes, and behaviors, we can work for change. This will require people talking about the origins of their values and behaviors, making decisions to change them, and discussing with others the progress they are making. These values, attitudes and behaviors will be difficult to change. But they CAN be changed. One positive development is that people are increasingly aware of the failures of capitalism. More and more people are seeing the necessity of not organizing our economic system based on greed. My goal is a society that respects all people, while ensuring the world’s resources are shared equally and the essential ones preserved forever. What is your goal?
GREED AND FEAR
Why have humans reached the point that the existence of our species is in danger? There is no simple answer, but a central cause is greed (the desire to accumulate increasing amounts of material goods). Greed dominates the organization of economic activity under capitalism. Many people are consistently trying to increase their wealth, without regard for the effect it has on the environment or on all living things. This is not to say that every human being is dominated by greed. But the gap between the rich and the poor is higher now than since records have been kept. We are all affected by living in a society that places profit above people.
Greed comes from fear. I think our ancestors must have experienced a tremendous amount of fear – of starvation or of being killed by animals or hostile tribes. I am sure that they experienced fear from war and genocide, because I have listened to the stories of many who survived, or whose parents survived, those ordeals. People can and do make decisions to ignore fear. The emotional release of trembling, shaking, and laughing helps us recover from fear and to think more clearly. I have written about healing from distress (including fear) in the blog Healing the Hurts from War.
Humans have the ability to think about the consequences of their actions, both as individuals and as a society. We can identify or speculate about how our values and behaviors developed. We can work for changes in policies and practices that are immoral, oppressive, or threaten our existence.
In regard to climate change, science is able to predict the consequences of our actions as a society, even though each individual’s contributions may be very small. It will take changes in both our laws and policies, as well as individual practices, to stop climate change.
We can overcome the pull to act on our feelings and instead act on our thinking. If we have a person who can listen to us, we can release our emotions about how we acquired our attitudes and behaviors. We can overcome embarrassment about showing our feelings and make decisions to change our behaviors. We can talk and listen to other people about the problems caused by capitalistic society, without blaming them. Many human beings throughout history have spoken out for justice. They have taken great risks, been attacked and imprisoned, and some have lost their lives. They helped cause big changes in people’s awareness of prejudice and oppression. The same is happening now with regard to climate change. More people than ever are working for social and economic justice. Many people have used music, theater, literature, and art to help people think about what is possible. In this regard I will mention one song that is a favorite of mine — Imagine by John Lennon.
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. In his speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church, New York City
I do not have a guaranteed plan for how society can transform itself to a “person-oriented” society. I doubt that anyone does.
I am sure that:
- violence will not work, since violence results in pain and suffering and leads to more violence — or passivity from fear;
- humans will need to unite behind common goals and work cooperatively with each other;
- an essential step is changing the values and behaviors acquired under capitalism, as described above in the section Peoples’ Values And Behaviors Under Capitalism.
In addition to working on personal issues, I propose that we work toward the following nine goals. These proposals may seem, or even be, unrealistic. But capitalism is on the verge of destroying society as we know it. I think it is time for us to consider, discuss, and take steps that will change the direction of where we’re headed.
- Establish a food consumption tax in every country whose calorie per person consumption is higher than average. The funds would be managed by the United Nations in order to eradicate hunger and ensure healthy water for everyone in the world. A “person-oriented” society’ would not allow any person to be hungry or without healthy water.
- Ensure that there is no profit to be made from making weapons of war and that each nation agrees to reduce its military expenditures by 10% each year. The money saved can be used to meet real human needs.. If there were no profits from war, the number of wars, and therefore the number of displaced people, would be greatly reduced.
- Remove the possibility of making profits from the extraction of fossil fuels. If there were no profit to be made from fossil fuels, we would be more likely to develop measures to avoid the climate crisis that threatens our existence. I don’t think that humanity can stop climate change without prohibiting profits from fossil fuels.There is too much money to be made and the fossil fuel industry has too much power to resist change.
- Pass laws in each country making it illegal to cut down forests. Forests play an important role in taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They also provide clean water and flood protection.
- Regulate salaries so that no one in any corporation or institution makes more than 10 times the lowest paid worker in that organization. Make it impossible for anyone to leave more than US$100,000 (or its equivalent in other currencies) to their children.This would begin the redistribution of wealth that is necessary for us to be “person-oriented”. It would result eventually in giving every new-born equal access to the world’s resources
- Establish structures worldwide for people to discuss the effects of capitalism on them and their country. These groups can propose solutions for replacing capitalism. Changing the culture that leads us to accept the detrimental effects of capitalism is an important first step. And it will be necessary in the ongoing process of transforming society.
- Provide equal funding for the education of each child from birth through college. The unequal access to educational resources is a major obstacle to a “person-oriented” society.
- Work for your country signing and ratifying the United Nations treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons and establish methods of verifying their elimination. Use the resources currently spent on nuclear weapons for the benefit of humanity. In 2017 the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace prize for its work in this area.
- Ensure that activist organizations that you are part of adopt a strong and binding principle of non-violence.Violent protests are always used by capitalist society to increase the repression of progressive movements.
Some questions to think about and discuss in pairs and small groups:
- How did you first learn about money?
- How did you learn that some people were richer/poorer than others?
- How does your class background affect the way you accepted or rejected the values and common behaviors of capitalistic society?
- What additional values and beliefs nurtured by capitalism would you add to the list above?
- When did you learn that some countries ruled other countries as colonies? That some people owned other people? How did you feel about that?
- What can you do to learn more about the mistreatment of people colonized by your country?
- Choose any of the values/beliefs in the section Peoples’ Values and Behaviors Under Capitalism and talk about how your values and behavior were affected in that area.
- When did you first learn about war? About the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? About the fire-bombing of various cities? About the genocide of the Jews; the indigenous peoples of the Americas; of the Kikuyu (an indigenous tribe in Kenya); or other genocides?
- What additional proposals would you recommend?
- What could you do? What would you be interested in doing?
We can have the society we desire and deserve. What will you do to help us get there?
3 thoughts on “CAN HUMANITY SURVIVE CAPITALISM?”
Hi Julian,Thank you for this. I do appreciate you, and your thinking, and understanding of the feeling- like the windscreen wipers on a car-clearing the seeing for action, and the work you are doing, and the information you are sharing. You’re a guiding light for me. Gradh mor Brian Smeaton
Julian! I have been waiting to see this. Thank you so much. There is seminal thinking here. I particularly appreciated the “Values and Behaviours Under Capitalism”, section. Those 14 points are fantastic, taken together or individually, they really speak to the sickness that needs to be healed. I think these 14 have extended, unfortunately, to capitalism in Japan and other places, not only “Western Culture”
As an artist, I am not sure that capitalism has encouraged the flowering of art, music, literature etc. It has certainly commodified it. Take a look at paleolithic art, mostly extant in caves (in the Basque country and surrounding areas, but not only there) Pre-capitalist society had fantastic artists doing deeply meaningful work. I am sure this is true for music, literature (stories etc) too.
Very glad you did not shorten this piece. It is very well worth reading, studying, and of course, taking action on!
It is so good you wrote this and put it out. After one skim through and one more careful reading, I know I want to read it more carefully. The section on People’s Values and Behaviors Under Capitalism I think is extremely important. It seems the vast majority of people think we can’t be otherwise. Of course. That’s the line we are fed. Powerful photos (the slavery one I can barely look at) and great quote from Martin Luther King. And wow, those are some goals. Last, the reflections, as always are important, I think. Thank you!!!