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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 7/31/10

The End of Capitalism? Part 2B. Social Limits and the Crisis

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The following exchange between Michael Carriere and Alex Knight occurred via email, July 2010. Alex Knight was questioned about the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway.

This is the third part of a four-part interview. This part is a continuation of Alex's response to the second question. Click here for Part 2A. Scroll to the bottom for links to the other sections.

Part 2B. Social Limits and the Crisis

MC: Capitalism has faced many moments of crisis over time. Is there something different about the present crisis? What makes the end of capitalism a possibility now?

AK: As I described in the last section, the current crisis can be understood as resulting from a massive collision between capitalism's relentless need for growth and the world's limits in capacity to sustain that growth. These limits to growth are both ecological and social. In this section I'll discuss the concept of social limits to growth.

The Extraordinary Power of Social Movements

Social limits to growth function alongside the ecological limits but are drawn from a different source. By social limits we mean the inability, or unwillingness, of human communities, and humankind as a whole, to support the expansion of capitalism. This broadly includes all forms of resistance to capitalism, a resistance that has arguably been increasing around the world through innumerable forms of alternative lifestyles, refusal to cooperate, protest, and outright rebellion.

As a disclaimer it's important to recognize that not all resistance is progressive. There are right-wing, fundamentalist, and undemocratic forces that also resist capitalism, for example the Taliban, or North Korea. These are not our allies. They do not share progressive values, we cannot condone their attacks on women, or on freedom more generally, and I don't see anything to be gained by working with them. However it is important to recognize how these forces are aligned against capitalism, in addition to being aware of the danger they present to our own hopes and dreams.

Progressive resistance, on the other hand, has always taken its strength from grassroots social movements. Silvia Federici writes about the immense and varied peasant movements in medieval Europe that fought for religious and sexual freedom, challenging both feudal lords and emerging capitalist elites. I like to think of these rebels as my European ancestors they were just commoners but they rose up to fight for a better world. This is the nature of social movements. Ordinary folks, daring to pursue their deepest aspirations, interests and dreams, join together with others who share those desires, and thereby create something extraordinary. The magic exists in the joining-together. Isolated individuals lack the power to accomplish what a group can achieve.

We can appreciate this extraordinary power if we look at how social movements have transformed our lives. A century ago, millions of American workers joined the labor movement and won the 8-hour day, Social Security, and workplace safety. Regular folks carried forward the Civil Rights Movement and broke Southern segregation. The feminist and LGBT movements have transformed the way gender and sexuality are viewed all over the world. It's hard to overstate how dramatically these and other social movements have improved society. While capitalism has invented ways to co-opt social movements and redirect them into outlets that do not challenge the system on a deep level (like the "non-profit industrial complex"), movements have remained alive and vibrant by empowering people to reach towards a different world.

Have social movements limited capitalist oppression recently? To answer this we need to learn the story of the Global Justice Movement.

Demonstrators tear down security fence at WTO protest, Cancun
Demonstrators tear down security fence at WTO protest, Cancun
(Image by Global Justice Ecology)
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The Global Justice Movement

David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist, wrote a remarkable essay called "The Shock of Victory" in which he looks at this movement that suddenly flared up at the turn of the millennium and seemed to disappear just as quickly. Although most Americans may not remember the Global Justice Movement, and those who participated in it may feel demoralized by the fact that capitalism still exists, Graeber points out that many of the movement's ambitious goals were accomplished.

A decade ago, capitalism was pursuing a strategy to transform the entire world into a single marketplace. It claimed this "globalization" would benefit everyone because everyone would get to share in the spoils of growth. What it really wanted was to extract maximum profit from the cheap labor of the "Global South," by moving industry and jobs out of high-wage areas like the US, while imposing privatization and debt on the poor countries of the world. This strategy was called "neoliberalism," because it aimed to eliminate all barriers to trade, such as worker protections or environmental regulations. Multinational corporations would have a bonanza. Like previous rounds of enclosure, the damage these policies would have on poor communities and on the planet was disregarded.

Starting from directly affected communities in places like Mexico, Brazil, India, South Korea and Africa, an enormous network of farmers, workers and educators connected with progressives and anti-capitalists in North America and Europe. They didn't have a single leader or organization, but they came together as a Global Justice Movement to coordinate efforts and stop the spread of neoliberalism. The movement became visible to the world when it manifested at the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, where steelworkers, indigenous people, environmentalists, and students literally shut down the trade negotiations with creative civil disobedience.

Along with the WTO, the other main institutions responsible for pushing global neoliberalism were the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The GJM moved to confront all three. "Free trade" agreements such as the hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) were also challenged. Through creative protest and non-violent direct action, the movement called into question the dominant story around "free trade" and pointed towards a new world of global cooperation. And to their own surprise, they were incredibly successful.

According to David Graeber, Global South governments (like India and Brazil) were emboldened by the worldwide protest and refused to compromise on the North's (European and American) unfair agricultural subsidies. As a result the WTO's negotiations have totally broken down. The FTAA never came into existence at all. It was stopped in its tracks. The IMF and World Bank saw their reputations tarnished after their policies led to the meltdown of the Argentinean economy in 2002, and they are no longer welcome in some parts of the world. This is especially true in Latin America, where the political landscape has completely turned around in the last 10-15 years.

In the 1990s, most of the continent was still under the heel of military dictatorships and authoritarian states, but since then a wave of leftist governments has been swept into power by unprecedented social movements opposed to neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism. For example, in 2005 Bolivia elected their first-ever indigenous president, Evo Morales, who came directly out of the social movement that successfully stopped water privatization in Bolivia. Morales has become a spokesperson for many:

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Alex Knight is a proponent of the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway. He is (more...)
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