Talkin’ ‘Bout Capitalism

Now and then, at the end of the day, my partner and I sometimes end up talking about capitalism — what it is, what it does, what it encourages, what it does and/or does not allow.  We observe that it seems to foster creativity and innovation, but we wonder whether it’s part of its nature to then squash any truly status-quo-challenging pursuits.  We don’t know whether or not it contains within itself the capacity for facing and solving the problems it has caused. These are sincere questions.


Not long after one of these late-night conversations, I randomly came across this lecture by Paul Mason, recipient of the Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize, published in the New Statesman on June 12, and it attracted my interest. Keynes, Mason says, believed that capitalism (barring unforeseen circumstances) would have to end up providing for the well-being of all. But Mason disagrees, or rather points out that the circumstances that followed Keynes’ prediction were indeed unforeseen, and as a result of these circumstances, most recently the rise of information technology, capitalism has evolved into a system that can’t support itself indefinitely. (In my words, I would say that the system is unsustainable).

Mason describes the economic impact of a situation “where large amounts of information are produced and exchanged at negligible real prices, if not for free.”  He argues,

Consider the social implications: if the cost of information goods tends towards zero, and the ability to standardise and virtualise the manufacture of real things also rapidly reduces their cost, the real price of labour will also fall because a) supply exceeds demand and b) the input costs fall.

That is what I think underpins the surprise outcome of the neoliberal revolution: the impoverishment of the developed-world working class. It looks like the outcome of class struggle and defeat, but it may also be the product of a one-time technology event.

Mason goes on to point out specific ways in which the phenomenon of the concentration of wealth constrains people’s movement, speech, choice, and wellness.  The examples he gives, like the protester being kicked by the official, resonate with his analysis; really, they are just a very few of the many possible events, public and private, that could be cited.

Yet Mason also notes that the new information technology and culture have led to a flourishing of “non-managed, peer-produced, non-market activity based around information” — all the content and all the software that people are creating and giving away for free.  “Non-market activity”!  Those are good words, to me.  Activity that exists outside of the market?  Really?  It can exist?  What an important site of production.  Mason thinks that it has the potential, if not the destiny, to unravel capitalism itself.

What most stood out to me in this lecture, however, might have been nothing more than a quirk of phraseology.  Toward the end of the essay, he writes:

If we avoid this dire outcome, it will because the forces for good, for understanding and knowledge and restraint are also being strengthened by technology. I think we should imagine new technology creating the world of abundance Keynes longed for, but it is likely to be decoupled from the question of pure GDP growth and compound interest.

It won’t happen by 2030. It will not be the transition Marxists imagined, led by the state suppressing market forces, but a transition based on the controlled dissolution of market forces by abundant information and a delinking of work from income. I call this – following economists as diverse as Peter Drucker and David Harvey – post-capitalism. In making it happen, the main issue is not economics but power, and it revolves around who can envisage and create the better life.

It’s this language of imagination that compels me.  “Creating the world of abundance … decoupled from the question of …” What he’s calling for, or maybe just observing the need for, is a paradigm shift.  Can we imagine a world of abundance?  One that’s based on something other than the working models of the current economic system?  Can we imagine that?  I think we NEED to devote a lot of our attention to imagining that, and imagining the tools that we would need to get there.

I love the last line of this passage.  It points to the idea that power, as it is currently aligned, stands in the way of any type of paradigm change.  It states that “the better life,” hopefully the sustainable life, is something that needs to be envisaged, visualized, envisioned (or held as a vision), and created, emerging from our creativity, imagined and brought into being.  My interpretation: that the practice of envisioning a better world, of a different order entirely, must be nurtured and spread, until so many people are doing it that it begins to have power of its own.


Mason ends the lecture by claiming that “the true Keynesian thing to do is to imagine a humanist future based on abundance and freedom, and explore what tools we have that might make it come about. There is no better time to imagine it.”

Social change needs imagination right now.  Ok, it needs a lot of things.  And one of those things is imagination.  From school to business to personal relationships.  From science and technology to human services to politics.  Everybody has imagination.  It is a truly vast, undertapped resource (here in America in the present day).

If imagination were truly valued in America, would we stand for companies buying out promising innovators with planet-saving solutions simply to shut them down? Or companies like Monsanto buying the research firms that test their products for safety?

Would we cut every imagination-developing class from our public schools?

Why does anyone wonder why we haven’t yet imagined, on a mass scale, a sustainable society?

And who does the status quo serve?

It is said that every system does exactly what it is designed to do.

What is our system doing?

Is that really the best we can imagine?

Less Is More!


This is my mantra for the year.

During winter break, when I was consumed by the desire to change my life, the urge to paint this in enormous flowing red letters across my living room wall was so strong I actually checked in my lease to see if I could do it. (Alas, no. One of the very few arguments in favor of buying a house someday is that I would be able to paint the shit out of it.)

A couple of weeks ago, the engine of my partner’s car melted in a bizarre accident, leaving us sharing mine. It’s been going surprisingly well. When we lived in the mountains, I always grieved that there were no commuter buses (anymore — the metal and plastic shelter only remained, getting more and more decrepit as each winter did its worst). But since moving down the hill, I’ve been pretty much all talk about how “I’m going to” ride the bus and bike places, like I used to do in Minnesota. I have all these happy memories of the flat ol’ Twin Cities where I could bike for miles and miles, and the awesome public transportation that was my only form of motorized transit (since I didn’t learn to drive until I moved away from there, and many unknown people can be thankful for THAT) … Well, now I’m actually doing it. Using shared conveyances or my own muscles to get around. Of course, it helps that it’s spring (almost) and I just want to be outside all the time!

So: one of the things I have less of in my life is fossil fuels. And that‘s a very happy thing for me.

But most of the things I have allowed to fall away are food-related. I’ve been working with the practice of mindful eating. Geneen Roth’s work, especially the book Women, Food, and God, influenced me a lot in this regard — or not influenced me so much as turned my brain upside down and knocked it out cold on the mat for a good two minutes. In part I’m addressing my habits of using food as filler, not sustenance … eating for reasons other than hunger (a complicated topic that can perhaps be more fully explored in its own post sometime). In part I’m paying attention to what goes in to my body, from the understanding that the energy contained in the food (and, as Michael Pollan puts it, “nutritionally worthless foodlike substances”) becomes the energy in and around my cells. That includes my skin cells, my fat cells, and even my brain cells.

Indeed, this is why I became a vegetarian several years ago: in massage school, when I studied and practiced forms of energy work such as reiki and pranic healing, I became increasingly, unavoidably conscious of the fact that when I ate, let’s just say, most of the meat produced in the United States, I was eating the energy of suffering, and that was becoming part of not only my own energy field, but my very body, my very cells. To put it concisely, it started to feel gross.

This year, then, I have felt intensely drawn to further refine my diet, both of food and of other goods, if not to eliminate, at least to reduce my consumption of things produced from energies of suffering, of torture, of harm to the planet or to people. As with meat, once I started asking myself, my body, and/or my intuition what I wanted to put into that system, the answers were startlingly rapid and clear. Many things — things I had previously LOVED, things I said I would never give up until the Apocalypse rendered industrial production impractical — I simply ceased to want.

So here are some things I now have less of floating around in my bloodstream:

  • Sugar
  • Aspartame (gone! shocking!)
  • Refined grains
  • Processed food
  • Pesticides
  • Growth hormones
  • Fertilizers
  • Chemicals in general
  • Excess in general
  • Gasoline fumes

Some of these things I just sense are not the healthiest for me, at this moment. And others of them I deeply believe are detrimental to humanity, to the planet — they are unsustainable. (More to come on this, too.)

And some other things I have cut back on, since embracing the mantra:

  • Homework for my students
  • Arguing
  • Anxiety
  • Trips
  • Days when I work from the time I get out of bed to the time I go to bed

But you know, as great a mantra as Less Is More has been for me in making major health-life changes, I don’t want less of everything. No, there are some things for which MORE is more! And in the spaces created by the things I’ve let go of, hopefully MORE of these things will flow in:

  • Love
  • Relaxation
  • Art
  • Music
  • Kindness
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Energy
  • Fresh air
  • Walks
  • Humor
  • Feelings of abundance
  • Generosity
  • Date nights
  • Comics
  • Restful sleep
  • Support
  • Freedom
  • Reliable employment
  • Creativity
  • Fun!

And, of course, as you’ve no doubt noticed, more blogging! I’ll probably always be a fan of the longform, though maybe someday I’ll get it that less words can also be more. 😉 Some things never change … But you know, whenever I say that, secretly inside I also say “uh-oh,” because let’s just say I’ve been wrong before.