Imagine a system better than capitalism

23 Sep

Is imagining a better economic/political system a necessary step in making it happen?

To answer this important question it is helpful to consider its antithesis: Is it possible that a different system could be built without people first imagining it?

Seems far-fetched, given that most everything humans build is first envisaged and then planned.

Unless, of course, one believes that “building” an economic system is beyond our capability because the economy is ordained by a supreme being or is simply part of nature, like life itself.

Given how our current crony capitalism is leading a warming, war-weary world to more income inequality and environmental devastation, our very survival depends on neither of these propositions being true. We’re cooked, literally, if the way things are is the way things will continue to be.

So, for those of us who believe human beings are in control of our own destiny, or at least the rules that govern our economy and politics, it is time to come together and imagine a better system, one that promotes environmental sustainability, equality and international cooperation.

The way to begin is by identifying the most critical issues we face then think about how our current system makes those problems worse or prevents us from dealing with them.

Environmental degradation (including global warming), war, inequality and the lack of sustainable development are four key problems the global community currently faces. What is the relationship between our current economic/political system and these critical issues?

It seems impossible to deny, at least for any reality-based thinker, that our current global capitalist economic/political system has created, and prevents us from fixing, the mess we are in.

Primarily this is due to the powerful private profit engine of capitalism, which in turn incentivizes the externalization/socialization of as many costs as possible. The owners of capital are driven to make ever greater profits — the system rewards those who do and punishes those who don’t — which of course leads the profit seeker to reduce costs in any way possible. To survive, capitalists must try to avoid paying for the negative consequences of whatever is the source of their profits, be it the instruments of war, environmental destruction, global warming, over-consumption or an unhealthy food system.

Protecting and maximizing profit gives capitalists an incentive to deny the ill effects of their products, to fund global warming deniers and to promote war. The potential for governments to pass laws that may negatively affect profits is an incentive for capitalists to do whatever it takes to make sure the political system works in their narrow, immediate interests. This is the source of what some defenders of an abstract, idealized capitalism call cronyism, but which is, in fact, a logical outcome of a system that promotes greed and private profit.

Our current reality is an economic/political arrangement that is run by and for the richest people in the world. Effectively it is an oligarchical system of one dollar, one vote; certainly not a democracy based on one person, one vote.

Given where the status quo is leading us and the best estimates of scientists about how quickly we will get there, we need to change and fast.

But what sort of economic/political system can be imagined and then built that will save us from global warming, other forms of environmental disaster and growing inequality; one that can come about relatively peacefully so that weapons of mass destruction are turned into ploughshares rather than destroy the planet?

For change to happen peacefully it must be popular, supported by most people around the world. That, in turn, means the new system must ultimately be more democratic, because the most popular system is one in which most people feel they have a stake.

Certainly the new system we imagine must get rid of the perverse incentives that result in war, the devastation of our environment and inequality. Instead it must encourage environmental stewardship, cooperation and equality, both of responsibility and power. These must become foundational principles of our economy as well as our political system on the local, national, international and personal level.

But this imagined system must be achievable, because it is worse than pointless to dream about something that cannot happen, it is a waste of time we do not have. And to be achievable this new system must be something that can be built by the people who are currently, or soon to be, alive.

A very tall order, indeed, but whatever the details of this new system of economic and political democracy, millions of us need to soon begin imagining it.

Gary Engler

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