Beyond Capitalism

Beyond Capitalism

Recently, Ursula LeGuin asked speculative fiction writers to write about possible systems beyond capitalism for the world to move to. I am currently reading a book titled “Zen and the Art of Making a Living” by Laurence G. Boldt.

Boldt writes in the first chapter:

“About the time the Industrial Revolution was really getting into gear, political revolutions were everywhere replacing kings with parliaments, presidents, and promises. The key promise was that the common man would soon be king. He would possess for his own the kingly prerogatives of power, leisure, and security—power over his station in life, the liberty of leisure, and the security of property.”

Boldt goes on to discuss that capitalism was intended to provide us all, via the free market, with labor saving devices that would ensure our leisure. Capitalism was how through the exchange of goods we would all benefit and become kings of our own castles—whether they were mansions or a trailer. The dream was to obtain power, leisure and security.

What other virtues did we lose track of?

While we were focusing on power, leisure and security, what other virtues and conditions did we lose track of? If we explode the myth of our modern existence, what has the work of most people resulted in? Do we have lives of leisure?

I remember seeing videos of what the future would look like, as predicted by people in the 1950s. The work week was supposed to be shorter. Household chores were to be done with “push button” ease. Everyone was to live in cleanliness, safety and comfort. Leisure.

While the vision of life in the future from the 1950s was a specific kind of rosy view, our reality is not comfortable for most. Recently, a United Nations official investigating poverty in the US in Alabama was shocked at the level of environmental degradation in some areas of rural Alabama, saying he had never seen anything like it in the developed world. Read More.

Further, while things recently have grown more extreme as income inequality has grown, in the US the free market has not been benefiting everyone. More and more families are in poverty. A few years ago a report was issued in the US that stated 1 in 3 American adults were in collection for non-payment of debt. Read More.

Capitalism is Not Serving Us

Capitalism is not serving the majority of us. For instance, most Americans are working longer hours with fewer days off. Further, we have little power in a world where the very rich can influence elections that make them richer. Worldwide, this coveted western existence with our twin obsessions of owning things and consuming, has lead to the degradation of the environment and a pan-global culture lacking in meaning.

With things as they are, what if we step off the treadmill? What if the goal is no longer “more”? Ever more and more “Gross National Product”. Or more clothes, money, electronics, etc.

Further, what have we forgotten about? The environment. Or perhaps our inner lives. Our humanity. Creativity. The ability to have the freedom to direct our lives. The ability to see our own identity beyond what we do for a living. Duty. Wisdom. Peace. Connection to our communities, to our families, and to other people.


What if in a future economic system value was placed on not pulling resources from the earth, but rather recycling? What if there was value in not making money but rather being wise? Or clever enough to find creative ways to do with less? What if there was value in work that nurtured the soul?

Before you scoff at these suggestions, remember that you live inside of our societal myths and we are firmly embedded in the “rightness” of our current economic system. Perhaps, in 200 years if humanity survives climate change and the current great extinction, our notions of owning, having and consuming will shift. Maybe, in that time period, this age will be looked on as Golden Age because people will live in a time of scarcity. Or maybe, they will live with more balance and look back at this time periods as a period of obscene over-consumption and stupid degradation of our habitat. Maybe there will be a shift in thought. What future systems can you envision?

What We Choose to Believe

When I was a kid the Soviet Union was the “evil empire” and everyone was terrified of what the Soviets might do. They weren’t like us– good, upstanding, moral Americans. Of course, there was the message out in the media that they “loved their children too”, which was supposed to mean that they weren’t going to be likely to start a nuclear war and was an argument against the Star Wars defense system. The Soviets were built up to be ruthless, powerful, and scary. They were an enemy to generate paranoia. Fear.

But then there was this odd article that I remember reading in the Christian Science Monitor when I was in about sixth grade that talked about the Soviet state farms and that they were having a hard time plowing their fields and keeping food in production. And there were stories about food shortages in the Soviet Union. And then I read about how they designed a huge tractor for the Soviet state farms to plow the fields and miscalculated the weight of the tractor and what the spring mud could support. The tractor sank half way up its man-sized wheels in the mud.

I grew up in rural Michigan. Michigan. The home of the US auto industry and some of the best blueberries, apples, peaches, cherries, corn– well awesome produce. This did not add up in my thinking. Suddenly, when Ronald Reagan was calling the Soviets the “evil empire” it didn’t make sense. They weren’t so terrifying to me if they were simply having that much trouble feeding their people and designing a tractor. They needed some assistance. Wouldn’t we all be better off with improved relations, mutual exchange of ideas and information, and cooperative trade?

On a regular basis I talk to people. Parents of children. Whoever. I remember when I was a kid, my cousins and I were allowed to run pretty free during the day. We got into mischief and got ourselves out of it. But we felt a great deal of confidence being on our own. We had trust in world, trust in ourselves. Now, I have heard it repeatedly expressed that kids should not play out on their own because it is too dangerous. Play dates, lessons, after-school activities, and more take up kids time rather than free, independent play outside. When I have asked parents about what they think is dangerous about their children playing outside independently, I have had numerous people tell me that they fear harm to their children from strangers. Child molesters. When I ask them who they think these molesters are, they tell me that they are predators just waiting for kids. Kind of like the boogie man.

Most people do not know their neighbors. Houses are like isolated pods where each family lives their life separate from their community. They do not know the strangers on their street. Any of them might be a predator. Isolation creates fear and fear creates isolation.

I have been listening the last couple days to the reports on NPR about Osama Bin Laden being captured and killed. For so long he has been the Al Queda Boogie Man. After Sadam Husein was killed, he was the primary focus. But this one man doesn’t solely represent the face of terrorism. And for US policy killing one target means momentarily “celebrating” how mighty the US is in being able to hunt down and kill a man after a decade of trying, but already the rhetoric is ramping up and the number two man who will take over is being built up as really bad. Someone potentially worse. We have to stay vigilant. Keep sending those troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today I read the State of the World’s Mothers 2011 Report that was released by Save the Children. The United States, the world’s wealthiest country, placed an embarrassing 31st on the list. But we love our children too. Right? While we are spending over $800 billion per year bombing Iraq, we spend approximately .5% of our federal budget on programs that are focused towards programs dealing with poverty. One of the best ways that we could create a more secure United States would be by focusing more money towards humanitarian aid and education. Both within the US and outside the United States. Our rate of childhood poverty is deplorable as is the fact that we have the worst rate of pregnancy related deaths of any of the industrialized nations.

I have heard it said that we are now part of a global economy. A global community. But I think many views within the US do not follow this. Our foreign policy feels to me like more than a bit of a relic from a time past. It is there to support the war time industries– companies like Halliburton. It feels like a gross application of individual isolationism where we do not really know our neighbors or try to foster good relations with them because they might be dangerous. Better to have a gun and be able to defend ourselves rather than try to reach out and create a relationship.

So what makes an enemy?