SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism

By Richard Swift
Between the Lines, November 30, 2013, $16.95

Richard Swift’s book, SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism, is a much needed antidote to the myriad of political clap trap that spouts from our daily newspapers and much of our “left” journalism which suggests that capitalism can be reformed and regulated in such a way that an ecological and economic disaster can be avoided. 

Right of the bat, Swift speaks of “species suicide” in reference to what we are doing to the planet, which sets a tone of urgency that is carried throughout the book. Swift says that we need alternatives to capitalism that go beyond economic change and points out that “When our best natures are not suppressed, we can be loving, funny, carefree, courageous, thoughtful and capable of wondrous acts of generosity.” The implication clearly is that under capitalism such traits as greed, selfishness, individualism and meanness are promoted. Capitalism thrives on them. The former, not the latter, traits, must drive alternatives to capitalism. 

Swift leads us on an exploration of our pre-capitalist roots pointing to the historical reality of different ways of living without falling into the idealistic trait of simply glorifies the past. Following Polanyi he points to an earlier time when the economy was embedded in, and thus in service to, the society. This is in contrast to the present day era of advanced capitalism where society is embedded in and thus in service to, the economy. “Advocates of an alternative to wasteful capitalism,” says Swift, “have their roots in past human experience.” 

In a short chapter, Swift traces the historical roots of capitalism and cautions us that a reading of capitalism that suggests that the bad old days of ‘primitive accumulation’ and the ‘enclosures’ are gone avoids the truth that new forms of primitive accumulation have taken their place. The latter stages of capitalism — neoliberalism and financialization — are referred to as “casino capitalism” and that there is “no meaning outside the cold calculus of the market.” 

Swift does not limit his scathing criticism to capitalism, but also to erstwhile versions of socialism.

From the Bolsheviks and state socialism to the various strains of social democracy he see the oppressive, largely undemocratic, rule of the state. On the failure of social democracy he points out that the ‘centre-left’ has become “hopelessly enmeshed” in the capitalist game and in his ingenious turn of phrase says of the ‘centre-left’ that “losing any sense of how to turn the oil tanker around it has eventually decided that it is not possible or even desirable to do so.” His conclusion is that “the institutional power of the state itself needs to be recast and re-rooted back into the society it so badly represents.” 

Throughout much of the rest of the book Swift deals with various aspects of what this recasting and re-rooting might look like.

A discussion on Anarchism points to a decentralizing of power as an alternative to capitalist social and political structures. As the book unfolds he talks about the commons and mutuality. Delving into the individualistic ‘me first’ attitude that permeates consumer capitalism, a warning is sounded about the pending ecological disaster and that this attitude “is in sharp contradiction to the mutuality needed if we are to find a collective way to live more lightly on the earth.”

Swift has a soft spot for utopian thinking, suggesting that it stimulates the imagination and reminds us “that at one time such causes as ending slavery, child labour or the eight hour day were thought of as utopian dreams that would never be achieved.” 

In SOS‘s ever-expanding reach, Swift turns to Latin American analyzing the situation where in a number of countries the common struggle of the people has successfully elected a ‘left’ government. But in this ongoing struggle we are reminded that in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina “there is a real disagreement between the left in the streets and that in government.” A point made by journalist Jeffery Webber:

The ultimate fate of the Venezuelan experiment will be the balance of forces within Chavismo, between those in favor of democratic revolutionary socialism from below, and those bureaucratizing the process and cementing their privileges from above. 

It is pointed out that “since the birth of capitalism there has been a constant pressure to transfer the ownership and control of common resources into private hands.” Therefore alternatives to capitalism involve defending and expanding the commons. The commons “represents a space between the private market and the political state in which humanity can control and democratically root our common wealth.” 

Swift also speaks of ‘the democratic emergency’, the rolling back of the 1960s and the embedding since then of a concept of democracy where representatives are elected only to be subject to a ‘disciplined obedience’ between elections when the market rules supreme. As Swift in his colourful phraseology puts it “Any sense of the common good was buried in the shopping malls and online boutiques.” 

My disappointment with the book comes in the last two chapters.

The second to last chapter, “The Autonomous Rupture,” devotes 20 pages, of a 164, to analyzing European debates on the left and the need ‘for a strategy of exit from capitalism’. While this discussion is informative, Swift himself cautions that the challenge is how to move beyond the anti-politics of autonomy. He might have done better to devote more space to a concept he introduced earlier where he spoke of the notion of ‘living well’ which is rooted in the traditions of the Indigenous people of the Andes. This could have led him to devote more space to Indigenous worldviews as they apply to the land, natural resources and the commons.

The last chapter is devoted to degrowth. As Swift points out earlier, degrowth will happen whether it is through the ravages of market capitalism or in a thought out fashion. The chapter does provide an illustration of what a post-capitalist world might look like. It does seem to me that a more careful exploration into non-European mindsets, for example the Andean indigenous concept of ‘living well’, would move us further along the post-capitalist road.

In the end, Swift does get it right when he cautions that scenarios for the future must not been seen as blueprints but as a process, an ongoing movement toward ‘living well’. It is for a better understanding of this process that we need to turn to Indigenous thought. 

SOS is a book that should be read, not only read, but also seriously contemplated by all who are concerned about the present state of affairs. In this book we are both challenged to rethink where we have been and are provided much fodder to stimulate our collective imaginations as to where we need to go.