A Reflection - Can Capitalism be Fixed?

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i had the pleasure of attending a Next System Teach-In at Seattle UW organized by Rethinking Prosperity.

the panelists were well-chosen and covered a pretty good spectrum of questions and perspectives. i was able to attend the day portion only, consisting of four one-hour blocks, with panelists and a 15 minute discussion time at the end at each table of about a dozen people.

really enjoyed the mix of old-timers, students, teachers etc. and, a lot of great points were made in what short time we had for discussion. hard to get that in-depth with that amount of time. so many branches to the tree, and back to the trunk, and up from the roots to leave.

the format was such to cover a broad spectrum of ideas on systemic change based on speakers, but not really to approach existing proposals for a more unified vision, or specifics on some core questions that raises, just to describe.

the fourth hour of discussion raises the question “Can Capitalism be Fixed?”

i enjoyed some of the thoughts put forth, but i would have liked to see a bit of breakdown of definition as an intro. what is it that needs to be fixed? and is that capitalism? or however.

i think it’s important that we explore our definitions if we pose questions like that. political terms can mean different things to different people. just as, some might literally define socialism as “where the government gives your money to lazy people”, it is also true that some who oppose capitalism do not necessarily have an accurate or consistent definition. one could ask “do you oppose capitalism?” the response is yes, and internally “yes, i oppose greed and exploitation.” if so, those are human conditions, which may thrive in a capitalist environment, but are still just outcomes, not defining elements (for example). and while there may be varying ideologies surrounding capitalism, like Rand’s objectivism, those aren’t defining elements either.

Sarra Tekola was my favorite speaker on that topic and the only one to start with a definition of capitalism, which was straight off of google: “an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”

i liked what Sarra mentioned about not defining a next system by any system that has come previously, but drawing on them for the working elements as we create something new. just in that google definition, a choice is given between “private owners for profit” OR “the state”. i think my dictionary has been infected with a false dichotomy, but, private ownership and profit seem pretty accurate as core elements to capitalism.

so maybe that’s what could be questioned next, as an accepted understanding.. private ownership and profit (is that accurate?). so, are they the problem? are they both the problem? what are the alternatives independently or mutually??

let’s say every business in america was cooperatively-owned but still existed in a market? will that solve problems created by accumulation of wealth via profit?

what if we reigned down heavily with government regulations on wealth.. taxing and capping? would that solve our social dynamics concerning ownership, decision-making, empowerment?

is profit a necessary incentive for productivity? is competition necessary for innovation?

how should one be remunerated for their work? how should authority be granted? what are markets?

oh wait, that google definition of capitalism said “an economic and political system”. hmm, partly accurate. economy and polity are surely integrated, but i don't see capitalism as a direct form of governance even in the extreme libertarian-americanus definition. but, well.. how should we make decisions?

that takes me to the third topic of panels concerning what a real democracy would look like. and jumping back some more without exploring, that takes to me to strategy, in which i’m largely in favor of the second panel’s focus on local solutions that can become models in a global system. and! as we create this more equitable system, do decision-making models that apply to that also allow us to stay within ecological limits?! or what institutions are required to balance participatory democracy and social equity with science? hinting at the first panel..

so i personally organize the panels backwards (and obviously am glossing over large topics in that overview), but i guess that's my reflection.. and again loved the whole experience, and part of raising questions is also about how to raise other questions.

how do you answer? Can Capitalism be Fixed?


Colin Wright's picture

Great review and reflection. Let me just jump at your question, how can local solutions allow us to stay within ecological limits? Well, not with a market economy, even if democratically controlled, in my opinion. As Marx or David Harvey might point out, as long as the surplus value from labor is reinvested as new capital, the system will continue to grow. Even a 3% growth rate leads to a doubling of the economy in just 70/3=23 years. How many more doublings can the earth take? So it seems to me markets cannot play a dominant role in any sustainable economy. We need an entire rethink (at least in the global North for now).

BeeB's picture

Can capitalism be saved – or rather, should capitalism be saved? I think not. It started out exploiting workers and the environment and, immediately, after hard won worker protections were in place, capitalists began working towards their undoing. Similarly with environmental regulations: as soon as it was possible to evade them by moving factories elsewhere, they did - we have all seen pictures of Bejing’s dystopic air pollution. In Southeast Asia, workers labor under Dickensian conditions to produce clothes, knickknacks, and gadgets, primarily for western consumers. When it comes to resource extraction, exploitation has continued unabated since the beginning of capitalism. Capitalism’s rapaciousness has brought us to a point where the survival of human civilization is at risk. My question is how to replace capitalism.