Are We Entering a Post-Capitalist Era?

I
t was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” Thus begins A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps we are now living in such times, when the vision of a new social system beyond capitalism can finally be entertained if not realized. The inevitable question arises: what exactly needs to be done?

The philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead’s stated once that theory without praxis is sterile and praxis without theory is blind, but even such an insightful statement remains pitifully inadequate to the challenge of that simple question. Let’s analyze briefly the current situation and then hazard some suggestions on what ordinary citizens can do hic and nunc without waiting for a Charismatic Politician (Nietzsche’s Uberman) to appear walking on water, for to expect miracles in political life is to be eventually sorely disappointed!

Few people doubt nowadays that the entire capitalist system is in crisis. The media and the politicians try to focus our attention on how to repair the system with some tinkering here and there, but a growing number of common citizens are having second thoughts on the idea of fixing a broken system. Some things are better left broken and need to get worse before they get better. They are beginning to entertain the more radical idea that we should instead be using this moment of crisis to fundamentally transform the realities that have historically shaped our lives, especially those of us who live in the democratic West.

This is indeed the silver lining of the whole crisis. The current moment allows us to move from being an object in someone else's system, with the market as a sort of demiurge to be slavishly worshipped, to becoming the active subject of our own history and destiny. Suddenly we have new choices and we can envision and create realities that just a few years ago would have been ridiculed and caricaturized as naïve and utopian.

The crucial question at this point in time is this: can we get out of this crisis before it is too late and the whole elaborate capitalist scheme comes crashing down causing tremendous suffering to most ordinary people? Is our jubilation at having survived another global regression, which almost became a depression, in any way justified?

Not easy to answer such a question, but one thing remains clear: to embrace the possibilities of the moment means to stand outside the political frame developed by the media and the politicians. This puts progressives, those who are convinced that things always get better and better and there is no sliding back, in a rather difficult position. The present historical moment calls for something far more imaginative and radical than what administration on both sides of the Atlantic have managed to muster so far. And it is not a mere lack of civility and mutual respect, a failure at compromise and tolerance or worse, a matter of “political correctness” or ideological purity.

There is, however another take on this issue: that the ideology of anti-ideology is simply another face of global capitalism. The neoliberal policies that are now crumbling before our eyes were brilliant attempts to extend the basic underlying philosophy of capitalism-that the common good is best served when everyone pursues his or her own economic interests, the famous “laisse faire” economic model whose fruits are dubious at best: what we have seen over several decades is that the rich have gotten richer and tripled and quadrupled their wealth, with the rationale that their wealth would trickle down to the rest of society. What has happened indeed is that while the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten the crumbs and have become poorer. The divergence continues to expand. Those are mere market forces, we are told, not to be tampered by ideology.

Indeed, to be non-ideological in a world in which one out of every three people is living on less than $2 a day is to be a champion of inequality, even when one sheds crocodile tears over children starving as we speak, and throws a few miserable billion dollars toward "foreign aid."

If the truth be told, however, we need to begin to acknowledge that the economic crisis of the West is symptomatic of another deeper malaise: spiritual impoverishment. So spiritual progressives must move beyond the struggles of the moment and provide a different paradigm. People have to be reminded that when the economic system was going full force not long ago, it was also on an immediate collision course with the environment, as Al Gore found out, to his surprise, only after he was out of office and could do nothing on a purely political level. Fortunately, he went into the field of education, environmental education, and we are all better off for it.

People indeed remain to be educated to the hard to swallow empirical evidence that the extremes of selfishness that has led so many of the "big wheels" in the economy to loot their own firms for the sake of personal advantage were not a product of individual pathology (many of those people still consider themselves virtuous and decent) but rather an inevitable working out of the essence of the capitalist ethos and its primary appeal: that if you focus on your own needs and maximize your own interests, without any regard to the well-being of others, you can "make it" and have a very comfortable life. Indeed, when the concept of the common good has all but disappeared, a society will inevitably find itself in a spiritual crisis.

In short, the system that our political leaders are presently trying to revive is already morally bankrupt and environmentally dangerous, but if they know it, they are not telling anybody, yet; often they deny such a reality. But plans to rev up the system so that it can return to those good old days are fundamentally irrational. Which is to say we need a new global economic system; a system under which institutions, corporations, public policies, laws, and even individual behaviors are perceived as "rational," "productive," or "efficient" not only to the extent that they produce power or money or new technologies for someone, but also to the extent that they enhance our capacities and our desire to be loving and caring, kind and generous, and ethically and ecologically sensitive.

We are in desperate need of an economy that transcends the narrow utilitarian or instrumental approach of classical liberalism; a novel system which allows us to develop our capacities for awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe and the dignity of other human beings. That is something that the ancient Stoics (who were no Christians) seemed to be fully conscious of, but we moderns seem to have all but forgotten, while we pay lip service to spiritual realities.

But to return to the question of what exactly needs to be done, we need a grassroots movement of people meeting together in their communities in "After-Capitalism" groups, discussing their own original ideas on how to create a better global economy. Spiritual progressives should play a central role in stimulating these discussions, not only in every church, synagogue, mosque, and ashram, but also on college campuses, in union halls, in professional organizations, and at town meetings, that is to say the “agora” from which the voice of religion should not be focibly suppressed.

Which is to say, that the activist Left perhaps needs to get out of the way and stop its bad habit of criticizing rather than to propose new options, especially when it comes to the spiritual sphere of human existence. The failure of communist and socialist ideals in the twentieth century has unfortunately led progressives to mere cynical criticism rather than envisioning a new social system. They seem too comfortable in merely criticizing what is or was rather than proposing and leading struggles for what might be. From being idealist they have become realists steeped in “real-politik” Machiavellian thinking. They don’t trust the politicians but they trust even less the idealism originating from a religious paradigm. Deprived of the moral compass of the socialist ideology provided in former times, they now seem at a loss. Some have moved from the Left to the Right. We have the incredible spectacle of a Vladimir Putin financing right wing political movements all over the EU in cynical attempt to divide and conquer.

What in fact needs to be overcome is a cynical pessimism in the West about the possibility of ever creating a society in which people routinely act in altruistic and generous ways toward others. We seem to be constitutionally unable nowadays to imagine ourselves into unselfish cooperative roles. The attempt on the part of conservatives of every stripe to diminish the huge levels of cooperation that made possible the New Deal and that characterized many of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s have been successful in part because of their control over the media, the educational system, and the government. The last twenty years have been especially devastating.

We should frankly acknowledge that the economy itself on both sides of the Atlantic fosters an ethos of selfishness wherein others are treated as instruments for one’s own satisfaction and needs. There is something missing and as hinted above it is the absence of a spiritual dimension to progressive politics without which it is hard to sustain commitment for any kind of long-term struggle. It has not escaped notice that organizations created on the Left by radical activists may champion the ideal of caring for the victims of capitalism but rarely provide active caring for the activists themselves. And without that kind of attention, people quickly burn out and leave their activism behind. They eventually settle for winning the lottery and escape the common misery. It is the blind praxis devoid of theory of which Whitehead spoke about.

Ultimately the real question facing us today is whether the seriousness of the contemporary crisis can lead people to transcend these negative dynamics enough to form a coherent movement that could address the need for a vision for after capitalism. In short, we need to replace selfishness and materialism with charity and magniminity. How would the world look like after capitalism? There is no lack of literature in this respect.

More pragmatically, the New Deal employed artists to paint, poets and writers to write, and took some tentative steps to build a culture of caring. A dramatically expanded program for the unemployed should and in fact could address the cultural and spiritual dimension of human needs aside from mere utilitarian pragmatic considerations. People have to be taught that “we” is more important that “me” and it simply means to take care of each other and that each of us is responsible for his/her own brother or sister’s welfare. Admittedly, this is an “outside the box” vision; one born within the worst of times in which to operate, but also within the best of times. A paradox, perhaps; or an opportunity to be seized. Any takers?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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