10 min read

What it Means When I'm Critical of Capitalism

What it Means When I'm Critical of Capitalism

I get in trouble, sometimes, for…being critical. Of capitalism. So let me take a second to clear up some misconceptions. We’ll use the example of the recent deal reached at COP 28, the climate change conference, to “transition away” from fossil fuels. We’re going to talk about the need to shift past yesterday’s tired dichotomies, and how to create the future. And by the way, there's a little intro post (OK, a long one!) that I wrote at Medium to accompany this, it's more for newer readers, but you're welcome to dig into that, too.

Now. When anyone criticizes capitalism, it’s still painted as some kind of “radical" stance. Because it “means” that you “must” be a “socialist.” The only two choices, right?

Insert eyeball roll. Can we get real please? What is this, 1884? 1972? These days, capitalism doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation. Less than half of young people view it favorably, and of course, that’s because their lives are currently somewhere between “wrecked” and “devastated.” It’s not exactly the stuff of wild-eyed revolution to ask in an age of polycrisis: is this thing working? So to be critical of capitalism is hardly some kind of radical position these days just in simple prima facie terms, as in, what do people really think of it, anyways. It should hardly be radical in another way, too, which is the objective sense. the factual one.

So. Am I a “capitalist” or a “socialist”? Neither one. Not just because…come on…I'd not want to define myself in such terms. But because we’re now seeing the birth of what I’ll just call for now “post-capitalism,” for simplicity’s sake. I’m going to explain it to you, having a played a little role in its creation myself, reinventing the world of marketing and business around it.

But before we get there, let me clarify some terms.

What do I even mean by capitalism? Is this just a way to speak ill of Big Business? To stop someone owning a bar? Is it about money? You see, Americans, in particular have undergone a kind of identity fusion process with capitalism—the old term for it was “false consciousness.” They can tend to see criticism of capitalism as a personal attack on them. It isn’t, because, of course, the average person is just a working person, earning a salary, and only a tiny, tiny fraction are anything like a capitalist class, earning an income from capital. So capitalism isn’t about any person in particular, nor is it even about classes, in the old sense, anymore really.

What is it about? When I use the term, I use it the way that classical sociologists and economists did. To mean systems and institutions. So it doesn’t mean the butcher, baker, brewer—that’s just everyday commerce, which existed long before capitalism proper, even back to antiquity. Nor does it even mean Big Business—because there, we see the birth, in places, of post-capitalism: plenty of Very Large Corporations are pushing hard on the sustainability and equity fronts, investing colossal sums, yet find themselves having to fight the system to do it, which is funny and ironic, in a way.

What system are they fighting? Greenwashing aside, and we'll come back to that, the one that says the only point of human existence is maximum profit, delivered this nanosecond, for the benefit of some illusory group of shareholders, all of which adds up to the “growth” of a thing called “GDP.” How’s that system doing, as an economy? Is it…OK…to even ask this question? I mean…shouldn’t we want to know?

The facts—remember when I said we’d come back to those?—are that it’s doing pretty catastrophically. I’ve discussed plenty of stats about it recently, but let me share with you just a few. The majority of Americans are “cashflow negative.” 70% of people feel financially traumatized. Young people are “completely overwhelmed,” “numb,” and “can’t function.” Generation after generation’s seen downward mobility, for decades now.

These are facts. Now, a funny thing happens. To state these facts again gets painted as somehow “radical.” I think that’s ridiculous and absurd. Facts are facts. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to evaluate a system of political economy, whatever it is, and look at the facts. The facts in this case are...dire. I could keep going with them—the percentage of Americans who struggle with “medical debt,” or “student debt.” The facts paint a picture of a system which begs to be thought about critically.

Now. If the facts were rosy, then I’d be pleased to report to you that in fact, capitalism was doing amazingly well, and in fact, we seemed to solved one of humanity’s great problems, which is how to organize a political economy. That was the theory. Remember those days? That was the central notion at the heart of Fukuyama’s End of History, which became the linchpin of what was later called the “Washington Consensus.” Capitalism would provide prosperity, and democracy would thus sweep the globe.

Now, look at the world today. What do you see? Democracy hasn’t swept it: it’s in steep, sharp, stunning retreat. Freedom House, which is one of the world’s organizations taking the most authoritative look at it, finds 15 years of solid declines, which are now accelerating to the point that America’s ready to perhaps accept what even the Washington Post calls a “Trump Dictatorship.” History didn’t end. The theory was incorrect.

This is why we need to look at the facts. They demand a critical appraisal of capitalism. Again, that doesn’t mean what a lot of people, especially certain kinds of Americans, might imagine it means. That I or anyone else is saying that nobody should be allowed to own a dry-cleaning business or a home. Or that there’s only a dichotomy of political economy, which is American capitalism versus Venezuelan socialism, which there emphatically isn’t.

This point, that capitalism needs critical appraisal, is there to be understood in a more subtle and grown up way than all that. What kind of system are we to have to meet this need of having a functioning political economy, if capitalism—profit, privatization, abstraction, hyperfinancialization—has resulted in levels of inequality, despair, deprivation, and immiseration that have pushed even Americans past breaking point, as in, the majority now appear to be effectively perpetually broke? Can we really say that a system that’s left the majority of people in debt, aka “negative cashflow,” is working? As a system—not just for those elites at its very top?

Ah, now we come to the more intelligent question. What do we want from an economy, anyways? We want well-being, above all. Financial well-being, which is security and stability. Social well-being, emotional, community, in terms of health and longevity—well-being has many dimensions, and it’s easy to see how capitalism’s one-dimensional focus on maximum profit above all is a poor match for all that.

So. Now let’s think about the deal reached at COP 28. Good? Bad? What happened was that after much rancor and ado, a large number of nations, not all, agreed to “transition away” from fossil fuels. That pledge is non-binding, though it’s attached to a certain set of targets. I won’t bore you with the details—that’s enough for us to chew on.

Is this good enough? You see, now that we’ve thought critically about capitalism, we’re in a better place to understand the deal. What we’d really need if we want progress isn’t just nonbonding pledges and a general agreement to “transition away”—loopholes aplenty—yet it’s not that that’s bad, it's agreement, anyways, just that it’s not really transformation in terms of systems and institutions that we’ve already discussed.

So what might that change look like? Well, we’d need a Green GDP, for starters, because remember, the point of everything in capitalism is to add to “growth” in GDP, but of course, we all know that things like carbon and pollution and so forth cost us dearly now, yet still aren’t counted, nor is disinformation or stress or anxiety or misery. Was there a Green GDP unveiled at COP? Nope. Don’t worry, though, I’ve already made one, and we’ll unveil it soon—it shows that the economy’s basically at zero or negative territory, and that there’s no real “growth” at all, once you subtract the costs of climate change.

Why should we build that? Why do I say it’s necessary? Because then and only then can we really begin to understand things like what the economy actually is anymore. Here’s another little calculation I did, and we’ll unveil that one soon, too—in next-generation terms, like those of Green GDP, many of the world’s largest economic actors are effectively generating far, far less than they suppose. In real terms, once we adjust for all these real costs, the economy looks very, very different. It looks closer to what people are experiencing, which is that it’s terrible out there, and a bitter, brutal struggle just to make ends meet. Now our picture of what the economy is, and what people feel, match up better.

That’s where a critical appraisal should lead—to a more accurate fit, or congruence, between lived experience and statistics. And when we do all that, it’s easy to see that no, this system isn’t anywhere close to maximizing well-being—in many ways, it’s minimizing it, and you can see that in the numerous crises now afflicting us, from crises of the soul, suicide, loneliness, despair, to those of the mind, anxiety, depression, unhappiness, to those of society, division, spite, pessimism, and on and on. Now that we’ve been a bit critical, in other words, we can actually think and understand better.

So what kind of political economy is the one I’ve talked a little bit about? It’s not capitalism. It’s not really “socialism,” either, and that dichotomy’s over. You see, what we learned in the last half century or so is that neither of these systems work, in extreme, polarized terms.

Now we’re discussing post-capitalism. What does that mean? It’s a political economy where real costs and benefits are counted more accurately, and you can’t just earn a bazillion dollars by melting down the planet, or peddling sheer disinformation, or insert whatever hidden calamitous cost you like. It’s one in which we have systems of what’s called National Accounting that are updated for the 21st century, and so are corporate and organizational bottom lines, all of which of course, impacts culture, vision, attitudes, and possibilities. And it's central focus is maximizing well-being.

And as that’s done, the ground for new social contracts emerges. There’s more now to invest in the very things that societies and our civilization as a whole desperately need, from next-generation systems, to universals, like education and healthcare, right down to protecting nature and the future. As we sow, so we reap, and our bitter harvest these days is a result of not investing enough for decades. By the way, in that system, we don’t have, or we have a lot less of, this growing problem of debt, afflicting both nations and people, because of course, we’re not on the merry go round of fake numbers that don’t make any sense to begin with.

So. That’s a little taste of post-capitalism. What is it, in broader terms? It’s a form of political economy that, again, maximizes well-being. Think about, for a moment, how you’re doing in those terms today. The numbers are cataclysmic, when I look at them, and if your life is any reflection, you probably feel a good deal of suffering, in many forms, all of which is reduced well-being, whether it’s reflected in sinking moods, social tensions, loneliness, ill health, the desperation of making ends meet, or more. Post-capitalism is about all that.

That’s a little bit of what it means when I’m critical of capitalism. Of course I’m critical of it—practically everybody under the age of 45 is, hello, being critical of capitalism is more popular than Kim Kardashian. There’s a reason for that, which is that the numbers are grim, and reflect a system that might be delivering what it’s “supposed” to, which is maximum profit, but only, increasingly, seemingly, at the expense of well-being, at the largest levels, right down to the planet’s itself. Now, to be critical of it shouldn’t be anything like radical at this point. It’s just factual. Nor does it make anyone a “leftist” or some kind of socialist revolutionary. Quite the contrary. We're shattering a dichotomy, not perpetuating it, if we think well.

All around us, we see the hints of post-capitalism now. They’re struggling to be born. Plenty of boardrooms will agree with everything I’ve had to say, and I’ve helped transform more than a few into post-capitalist organizations. And yet even they struggle against the system itself.

Far from being radical, the birth of post-capitalism is now something that even Big Business is keenly aware of, and knows needs to happen, at least its more enlightened side, which is why it’s racing ahead and at least trying to make parts of it happen. At its leading edges, it’s in everything from reimaginations of urbanity and architecture, to new ways to interact and relate, to new forms of consumption and production, right down to simple stuff, like the funny way Gen Z has withering contempt for “brands.”

That struggle, though can’t be won by even something as powerful as enlightened Big Business alone, let alone through the kinds of twisted class wars that our politics have degenerated into. Think again about COP 28. And the missing link of Green GDP. Those kinds of transformations need to happen for our economies to be healthy again, and yet they can’t happen yet even at our biggest fora, like COP 28. So we still have a long ways to go in terms of creating the kinds of institutions and structures that can make these changes happen. Boardrooms, even the most powerful, can’t, COP, a conference of tens of thousands, can’t—so who can? The truth is that we’re going to need to create those systems and institutions. That’s part of the transformation, too, not just the outcomes.

So we’re talking about true paradigm change. In all these forms. At the level of the average person, and pundit who miseducates them, not just falling prey to the foolish old dichotomy of “if it’s not capitalism, it must be socialism!” At the level of nations, embracing genuine transformation in terms of what economies are for. At the civilizational level, actually rebuilding our most fundamental institutions, whether GDP, markets, or the ways we measure debt and income and even money itself. These are huge, huge tasks. They won’t happen overnight. But the transformation is to post-capitalism is real, and it’s on plenty of minds these days, from the world’s most visionary CEOs, to the globe’s most intelligent economists and politicians—even if it’s still oft foolishly painted as “radical” by a sigh-inducing media.

The question is whether it happens—enough—before the window closes. That window is narrowing every day now. It’s made of a lot of things, from climate change, to inequality, to democratic decline, to the sheer anxiety and distress people feel these days. We’ll discuss that more, too. For now, I thought it was important to clarify some of this, so I hope that gave you plenty to chew on. Thinking well? It’s not about yesterday’s tired dichotomies, which are failing all around us—but about creating the future, while we still can.

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