How to be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century (2019) by Erik Olin-Wright

Why be an anti-capitalist? Because capitalism systematically erodes the values that we care about. Equality and fairness, democracy and freedom, community and solidarity; these values are anathema to capitalism. Instead, capitalism promotes competitive individualism and privatised consumerism. Economic inequality is inherent – not incidental – to the proper functioning of capitalist systems. If we care about these things, we should be against capitalism. But is an alternative possible? Erik Olin Wright thinks that it is.

How to Be an Anticapitalist in the 21st Century (2019) outlines Wright’s values-based critique of capitalism, summarised above. Wright contends that a gradual transition towards democratic socialism is not only desirable, but possible. Aimed at a general audience, How to Be an Anticapitalist is accessible, concise, and highly readable. Although Wright tries to avoid abstract debates, some readers may still find it too theoretical. For me, this was no problem. I enjoy theory. For the average reader or political activist however, it may be a dealbreaker. That being said, it is an extremely short book, so one definitely gets value for money.

Very briefly, capitalism is an economic system characterised by private ownership over the means of production. As a result, those who actually produce wealth (workers) do not see its benefits (profits). Any criticism of capitalism worth taking seriously must also contend with its positives: the ability to generate immense wealth, lift millions out of poverty, and spur technological innovation that improves lives. Wright acknowledges these strengths immediately, to his credit. But it is also true that capitalism creates poverty amidst plenty, erodes the environment, and alienates us from our work and each other. Democratic socialism sets expectations high by promising to have the positives without the negatives. Wright labels his strategy for getting there as “eroding capitalism”. Is it persuasive? Sort of.

Revolutionary attempts at breaking with capitalism clearly failed. If Marxist-Leninism didn’t work in the early twentieth century, it certainly won’t work now. Class structures in contemporary capitalist economies are highly fragmented; there is no clear divide between workers and owners of capital. Very often, people’s interests vis a vis capitalism are contradictory. One might be a labourer, but also a small business owner. This is why Wright grounds his anticapitalism in an appeal to values rather than interests. I will return to this later. But for now, how can we erode capitalism?

Wright gives the analogy of an ecosystem. Occasionally, foreign elements can be introduced into an ecosystem which change its dominant characteristics over time. Capitalism is a socio-political ecosystem whose nature can be changed, or eroded, by introducing socialistic elements over time. Already existing examples of this include universal healthcare and public education. Of course, we must go further. Wright suggests introducing an unconditional basic income (UBI). UBI would liberate people from the power imbalances inherent in the labour market. With their basic needs met, workers would no longer be forced to accept sub-standard conditions just to survive. UBI would also create space for non-market or non-economic activity, such as art and caregiving. One of Marx’s central critiques of capitalism was that it alienated humanity from our essentially creative nature. Creating the material conditions for everyone to pursue activities for their own sake is vital to socialism.

I agree wholeheartedly with Wright’s recommendation for UBI, for basically the same reasons. I am less enthusiastic about his values-based strategy for getting there. It seems to me that most people agree with socialism’s moral vision. The battle for values has already been won. The biggest stumbling block in implementing a left-wing agenda today is the perception that socialists are naïve to how the world actually works. Too often, socialists are perceived as absent-minded moralisers, rather than clear-headed economic thinkers. When Wright says that the task is not to develop a systematic analysis of our current circumstances, I completely disagree. Socialists and the left more broadly need to demonstrate that they have a superior understanding and alternative to the economic realities which shape most people’s daily lives. How will democratic socialism affect wages, energy prices, house prices, trade deficits, and so on? Wright might dismiss this as “classical Marxism”, a crude appeal to material interests. But as Wright himself notes, the appeal of right-wing populism occurred in a vacuum created by centre-left parties embracing neoliberalism. Who is left to champion the material interests of the workers? It really is the economy, stupid.

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