Few would disagree that the contemporary capitalist societies of the Western world are in crisis. The crisis takes the form of a syndrome — a condition made up of a variety of symptoms that relate to each other in complex ways — including economic collapse, endless wars, climate chaos and energy depletion.
The symptom most likely to affect the lives of significant portions of the population in the near-term is the economic crisis, the jobs crisis, or, to put it more specifically, the inability of the financial management authorities to “grow the economy” sufficiently to ensure everyone has access to food, clothing, shelter and the basic respect required for democracy.
As I see it, the economic crisis is really a crisis of plutocratic governance and resource depletion. At this point in our history, capital, and the social power defined by capital, have become so concentrated in the hands of a minority, an overclass driven by self-interest, that a growing percentage of the population is in real danger of falling out the bottom of the mainstream society held together by capital-power.
So what happens from here?
It is possible the plutocrats will seek to enact reform, as FDR did in the New Deal, introducing new programs and regulations and laws intended to effect some degree of sharing of the wealth produced by the growth society. This approach starts from the insight that if the money economy does not provide more or less everyone with food and shelter and a bit of free time, people will fall out of the money economy and no longer be integrated into the social system that produces profit for the wealth holders.
Ultimately, real “share the wealth” reform would have to be aimed at something like what the corporate pundits derisively call the “European model” in which tax policy is used to ensure the rich don’t get too rich and the poor don’t get too poor. But even if the plutocracy seeks the path of reform, it seems likely to be much harder to pull off now than in the 1930s, at least in part because of the intensified globalization of wealth accumulation, and in part because capitalism’s founding myth of infinite growth is running out of steam.
In the 1930s, the smarter plutocrats understood that keeping everyone on the inside of the system helped ensure the system’s continuation, a longer-term goal worth giving up some wealth-power to achieve. Of course, even back then there were strident opponents to reform among the economic elites, and today’s plutocrats don’t seem as smart as their ancestors. It is easy to imagine the plutocrats of the Fox News Era rejecting the idea of reform (“socialism!”) until it’s too late and the whole thing – capitalist modernity as a society and way of life – will burn itself out.
To me, this seems like the more likely scenario, especially considering the largely-ignored, happening-now consequences of climate chaos, caused (it is reasonable to believe) by the very lifeblood of modern capitalist society – the burning of fossil fuels. Throw in the impending crisis of increasing oil scarcity and it appears the whole modern capitalist Ponzi scheme – rooted in the delusion of infinite growth – has run its course – the bubble at the bottom of all the other bubbles appears to have burst.
So maybe the plutocrats will attempt reform, or maybe they’ll go down like the power-mad captain of a sinking ship. But no matter what, we shouldn’t be waiting around to see how they play the collapse. We should be asserting and enacting our basic democratic right to have a say in how our societies and lives are organized. The question for us, it seems to me, is which approach to pursue: reform or regroup.
Again, reform may not be possible, depending on how the plutocrats proceed. But if possible, some significant democratic reforms could include much more sharing of the wealth of society, the end of corporate personhood, proportional representation, cooperative nonprofit management of vital community resources, and other policies.
But can anyone really see this happening? In this society, at this time?
See you in hell first
My sense is that some significant percentage of the wealthy, their lackeys, and minions would resist this kind of reform to the point of violence, willing to bring down everything rather than share power. Further, even if successful, it has to be noted that the power that would be shared is the power to manage a complex, centralized social system based on materialist consumption and profit, a social system on the brink of collapse.
Do we really want to share that power? Or should we do something different? Wouldn’t it be a better strategy, for future generations and our own peace of mind, to move past the idea of reform and head straight to “regroup”?
The crisis of capitalist modernity – the sudden shakiness of what had seemed so powerful and secure – provides an opportunity to regroup: to rethink and reorganize the ways we live our lives.
Through the cracks of our crumbling society we can glimpse the profound human truth underlying every society: the truth that we, as members of groups, create the reality of our societies and everyday lives. You can think – you can use language to communicate – you can work with others to get things done and make things happen; those capacities, those powers, those freedoms are the root of society and reality – it all comes from there, from us.
Taking to heart this profound truth about what it means to be human opens the beginning of a path to creating whole new societies, new voluntarily-associating, self-governing groups – “neopublics” whose ongoing democratic processes will lead to ideas and practices and ways of living we cannot even imagine from where we are now. In other words, for those of us who would go for regrouping rather than reform, the capitalist crisis presents an opportunity to start down a new, (r)evolutionary path of freedom and responsibility – the path of true democracy.
I would almost always support people using opportunities to fight for a more fair share of power, or better working conditions, or any issues involving the advance of democracy over plutocracy.
But I would also assert that the better longer term goal is not a fair share of the plutocrat’s power, but new ways of doing things, new democratic societies in which the kind of power plutocrats wield (power related to the elite management of a complex, highly-stratified, centralized society) does not exist.
— Art Martin