Last week I suggested we get rid of capitalism (The Sooner We Start Mourning Capitalism, The Sooner We Can Move On: The Young Widow). Many of the responses I got were along these lines: It’s the only system that can work in a free society.
Capitalism has become an incontrovertible, first principles, core truth in our imaginations. For an idea so young in the history of human society, capitalism towers over us. But does that mean it’s unassailable?
It is particularly apt to look back for perspective, given that capitalism (and the United States, its most loyal booster) did not exist in its current form in the 17th century when Jean de La Fontaine’s was writing his fables.
One day the Oak says to the Reed: You have every right to be pissed off at nature. I mean, even a wren is a heavy load for you. The least wind that blows across the water, wrinkling its surface, obliges you to lower your head. Whereas I, with my bold forehead so like a Russian noble, not content to merely stop the sun’s rays in their tracks, I also brave the tempest. For you, everything is the fiercest North wind. For me, everything is a warm breeze. If you’d just had the smarts to be born in the shelter of my foliage, which, I might add, pretty much covers the whole neighbourhood, then you wouldn’t have to suffer so. I could protect you from the storms. But for some reason, you are born most often on the marshy banks of the wind’s domains. It seems to me that nature has done you an injustice.
The Reed replied: I’m sure that your compassion comes from a good place, but, really, don’t worry about me. The winds are actually less formidable for me than for you. I bend, but don’t break. You have, until now, resisted the need to bow your back to the winds’ ferocious blows, but let’s see how things end.
Even as The Reed spoke the words, from the edge of the horizon, a new fury was born, the most terrible of any wind the North had delivered until then. The tree held fast. The reed bent. The wind redoubled its efforts, so well that it uprooted he whose head was neighbor to heaven and whose feet touched the empire of the dead.
I believe the winds of change are getting fiercer (and not just because I’m in Paris, where every weekend is dedicated to demonstrations against the increasingly gross economic inequality). At the same time, our ability to think beyond the confines of capitalism is weakening. We cannot conceive of an alternative. Current language theory suggests that as our vocabulary shrinks (caused by our addiction to media forms requiring fewer words), so shrinks our ability to conceive of alternative ideas and new ways of being in the world. As we lose the breadth of our language, we lose the depth and complexity of our thinking processes.
Capitalism is our tall oak and we feel so safe, sheltering beneath its canopy, that we can’t imagine another way of being. We say “free society”, without specifics.
So let’s get specific. To start, what do we mean when we say free? Because it obviously doesn’t mean, free to do whatever we want, whenever we want. We don’t live in a state of nature. Free is relative to our community. How do we define our community? Is it our neighbourhood, our town, our country, our continent, us and other countries “like us”, all humans, all sentient beings, the universe? Once we’ve identified our community, then we figure out how we want to live together.
One example: I believe in universal health care as a societal good. Every right comes with an obligation. In the case of healthcare, that obligation becomes taking care of one’s health. We are no longer “free” to destroy our health, because everyone is paying. The complexities of that analysis are evident already and well worth extensive thought. One more example: Universal Basic Income is another idea whose time has come, and not as some corporate sponsored sop given out at the discretion of the glutted billionaires, but as part of a more humane system.
We all feel the fury of the wind mounting. It’s time to think rigorously about our systems and structures. To reengage with the fundamentals of how we are in the world. To expand the vocabulary of our ideas. We need an economic system that reflects our world of plenty, which can deploy that abundance in a way that lifts everyone, in other words, with kindness and compassion. And if you think those two words don’t belong in a description of an economic system, then consider what words you would use and how those words affect the outcome. Words like efficiency and utility will always end up treating human beings (and other beings) as “resources” and resources are expendable, even fungible; humans (and other living creatures) are not.
Let’s step out from under the shelter of our giant oak of an economic system and into the unprotected domain of the wind. Plant ourselves in change’s path.
Flexible. Resourceful. Humble. Together.
What are these Fableogs?
Fable en Français