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The Future of Capitalism

The Crisis of Alternatives

Kshithij Urs

Action Aid, India

Rather than diminishing the power and hold of neo-liberal capitalism the
recent global financial crisis has strengthened its position as a hegemonic
economic system both in practice and in the cultural-democratic imagination
of people the world over.

A. Capitalism and the financial crisis

The horrific dispossession of people on an unprecedented scale that marked


the course of neoliberal capitalism peaked in the form of a Great Recession
that heralded the new millennium. This recession, the worst the world has
experienced in the past eight decades visibly shattered many illusions
surrounding free market doctrines. Tens of millions lost their jobs and many
more fell into poverty. Even as capitalism was being laid bare, like an
intrepid knight it rallied to its own defense. The way capitalism has
succeeded in challenging global discontent and public opinion to reclaim its
original vantage position demonstrates that the crisis was just a test of
resilience of global and local capitalisms and not an existential threat to its
unbridled sway over the lives of every inhabitant of the world. With no
organized public (people & state) mechanism to counter power with power,
Capitalism even prevailed over the real or imagined combined will of global
leaders. On the occasion of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburg President Barack
Obama and other Western leaders used the alleged secret nuclear plant of
Iran to successfully divert the world’s attention away from a potential
incendiary revolt against capitalism. As a result, a historical opportunity to
change economic fundamentals was stillborn and Capital won.

The recession was a spectacle of how the market system, dominated by


huge multinational corporations, can never set off down a virtuous path even
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when it is found guilty of the destruction of human dignity on such a large
scale. Capitalism’s ability to morph itself into localised forms, to face
adversity, to align itself with historically embedded and changing power
structures and to reassert itself is unmatched by any other economic
ideology propounded or practiced in world history. A rare silver lining
emerging out of this storm of a recession is the fact that the fundamental
nature of capitalism as a destructive force has been exposed and the
curiosity of the interested layperson in every corner of the world has been
kindled. The question is – Can and will this curiosity lead to an alternative
economic order that is founded on principles of social justice.

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B. The crisis of alternatives

Despite the extent of the recent crisis and the exposure of capitalism’s
destructive character, its ability to delude peoples’ dissent and reestablish
itself is both a witness of how well it can bring to bear its entrenched
dominance over instruments of global policy making and the portrayal of a
contemporary reality i.e, the crisis of alternatives. For progressive citizens of
the world who are still in shock, this crisis of alternatives must be their
wakeup call.

As a first point, In the course of action, neo-liberalism has effectively


infiltrated into the historical imagination of people by pitting Capitalism
versus Communism. Repeated projections of failed experiments of
communism in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe frequently feed into grand
pronouncements by Western leaders celebrating Capitalism and putting
peoples’ choices to rest. Even in an advanced democratic country like the
UK, Margret Thatcher’s ostentatious declaration that “there is no alternative”
generated little popular opposition at that time thereby reiterating the
valorization and augmentation of capitalist value relations.

The inherent character of capitalistic strategies and tactics filter out the
imaginations of alternatives to capitalism with the common person. The
establishment of the oligopolistic capitalism needs democracy to be
debased. This has translated into a systematic depoliticisation of societies
globally. This is my second point. The ensuing “Liberal Virus”1 has abolished
the opening of any alternative choices and has replaced it with respect for
procedural, electoral processes which often gets equated with democracy
itself. The other powerful effect of neo-liberal capitalism is the creation of
“Political Vacuuoussness” in states around the world. Political parties in
these states fail to offer unique visions of their own. From micro economic
policies to foreign relations, all political parties become similar. Without a
choice of change through peoples’ right to franchise, the possibilities of a
new, alternative political environment cease to exist. This state of political
vacuuoussness remains the single most important threat to democracy and a
crucial stumbling block to a ground-swell against Capitalism.
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Liberal Virus is the title of a book authored by Samir Amin.
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Third, the ideological alienation caused by Capitalism does not affect the
imperialist centers and their affluent societies alone. Peripheral countries
whose peoples’ are deprived of access to even acceptable levels of well
being and resource distribution are guided by aspirations of the opulent
North. In showcase peripheral countries like India, South Africa and Brazil,
capitalism seems like the only path and conspicuous consumption the only
goal. The Socialist experiment in India manifested in the form of state
capitalism and never transcended it. Any socialist values held by the state
were finally overwhelmed by neoliberal market economy when budget
mismanagement led the country into deficits of epic proportions and
therefore vulnerable to the IMF volley. In South Africa the apartheid politics
continues under a new guise while Lula’s Brazil was never a puritan form of
Socialism. Historical experiences of a socialist order are too few to inform a
robust challenge to the present day Capitalism. Are Socialists good theorists
and bad empiricists or was it that perhaps socialism in these countries was
simply capitalism in disguise?

Finally, all the grand theories of capitalism, communism and socialism are
economic theories developed by western theorists within the context of
European capitalist expansion. This euro-centric world view strengthened by
the colonial past of European nations has curtailed local theories and
practices from emerging beyond their regional confines, in turn aborting any
possibility of myriad forms of progressive, local theories to inform the ways
of the world. Virtues from Indigenous life practices, Feminism, Dalitology and
many more progressive views have been effectively sidelined by both
capitalism and the euro-centric orientation of its opponents. Theories like
limits to growth, degrowth economics, and voluntary simplicity which are
among the visible alternative theories are also Western in nature and
emerge from within the larger mandates of liberal capitalism and offer
nothing that is radical nor neccessarily just. This is hegemony of a sort and
to seek alternatives from within this paradigm is to acutely limit the fight to
end Capitalism.

The crisis of alternatives to capitalism is hence a crisis of democracy.


Alternatives to Capitalism are to be sought by deepening democracy. This
has to be a historical mission of global proportion but among political words,
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“democracy” is probably the most over-worked and so I quote Douglous
Lummins:

Democracy was once a word of the people, a critical word, a


revolutionary word. It’s time to restore it to its critical and radical
power.

Existing governance institutions of the state need to be coupled with cultural


institutions of democratic politics (political consciousness, deliberation, and
practices) and there is a need for awakening and invoking democratic
imaginations and democratic diversity. The need to strengthen the power of
local people to exercise and practice their presently marginalized and
undermined epistemologies should be pursued with vigour. Reflections on
non-western political thinkers’ i.e: Ambedkar, Boaventura de Sousa Santos
and contemporary political struggles against Capitalism in Latin America and
Africa must be synthesized for learning and propagation. As Lummins says:

Democracy is not everything but something. When the word is used in


the right place, at the right time, it is fresh, clear and true. There are
times when no other word can offer an alternative. And though the
history of the word is a history of betrayal, democracy, democracy is
somehow still a virginal political idea.

Understood radically, the idea of democracy contains a promise yet to be


fulfilled. And like John Pilger likes to say, there is nothing more powerful than
an idea whose time has come. For capitalism to be overturned, this is the
time to begin a new political project of democratic diversity and imagination
based on the core issues of social justice.

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