Capitalism and the Mad Uncle in the Attic
Listen. Can you hear the Mad Uncle in the attic? His muffled shriekings are getting louder as the myths, deceptions and delusions we’ve been living on evaporate one by one in the face of reality.
Can you feel that sickening thrill as we poise atop this Sisyphean peak we call capitalism, right before the inevitable, nauseating plunge back down into reality?
Can you smell the stench from the soon-to-fail Rio plus 20 meeting as we con ourselves into believing we can snatch a bit more time at the peak if only we could steal yet more of our children’s children’s children’s birthright?
Ah, but we – plutocrats and people alike -- all beg, can’t we keep this damned Uncle locked up for just a little more time. Maybe until this election is over. Or until we’ve extracted a little more money from a fossil-fueled economy based on greed and exploitation. Or until … oh, I don’t know … until we’ve bled the last iota of money from the 99%? Or at least until … I get mine?
Can’t we pretend for just one more generation that capitalism – pure, unconstrained capitalism, the kind Reagan promised us would bring morning to America – isn’t instead bringing mourning to America, and to the world?
Can’t we just pretend, for one more generation, that the whole infinite growth on a finite world thing isn’t just a giant, tragic Ponzi Scheme designed to sell out the future?
Can’t we pass this problem onto them?
Can’t we use buzz words and sound bites to drown out the lunatic? Words like socialist or redistribution or – most dreaded of all – communism. Can’t we keep pretending that capitalism is the necessary handmaiden of Democracy, the only path to prosperity, our only source of happiness?
No. We can’t. Because deep down inside, in places we don’t like to visit, we know the Mad Uncle is right.
What we’re doing now isn’t making us all rich. It’s impoverishing us.
Ultimately, all wealth comes from natural capital. Things like fertile soils; viable forests; intact gene pools; abundant minerals; clean water and living oceans; sustainable fish stocks; flourishing ecosystems; a stable, life-sustaining climate. We are liquidating these essential sources of wealth as if they were so much junk offered for pennies on the dollar at a desperate garage sale.
Our current version of capitalism is good at generating more currency, not greater wealth. And we forget that currency is merely a surrogate for things of real value, with no tangible value in and of itself.
And even the currency isn’t being distributed equally. It’s being siphoned off by the richest and most powerful in a spiral of inequity.
It isn't making us happy, it's enslaving us to a life spent pursuing more and more stuff we don’t need for reasons we don’t understand. Bigger; more; faster becomes biggest; most; fastest. But easy, easier, easiest becomes fatter, sicker weaker.
It isn’t making us free, it’s creating a tyranny of the corporations and plutocrats. They weaken government in the name of freedom, only to turn us into indentured servants to a system that's designed to take from the poor and middle class and give to the uber rich, even as it liquidates Earth’s treasures.
But the real tragedy isn’t our own alienation or our economic and spiritual impoverishment. It is the diminished legacy we leave the rest of humanity and indeed, the rest of the biosphere.
It’s our willingness to consume the future in an orgy of gluttony, drowning out the Mad Uncle’s protests with the noise of our own slurping, chewing, smacking, munching, crunching as we inhale our children’s birthright.
In the case of climate change we are at the threshold of igniting feedbacks that will usher in an inevitable and catastrophic set of changes that will make life difficult in some areas and impossible in others.
It’s time to admit that the Mad Uncle is right. Pure, unconstrained capitalism is the problem, not the solution.
What, then, are we to do?
There are alternatives. We could tie currency to sustainable eco-systems. Instead of a gold standard we could have a green standard. Thus, destruction of a nation’s stock of natural capital would devalue its currency, and make it poorer.
We could adopt systems of production and ownership such as Co-ops that emphasized cooperation, equitable sharing of revenue and stewardship of our natural resources. It’s not pie-in-the sky, to consider this. Cooperatives already produce more than $1 trillion in assets, enough to make them equivalent to the 10th largest economy in the world.
We could insist that trade agreements contain real, enforceable requirements for equitable treatment of labor and serious environmental protections, so that globalization ceased being a race to the bottom for humans and the planet.
Yes, these ideas are unrealistic, naïve, politically impossible and all the other labels that will surely be affixed to them and other ideas like them.
But it is worth remembering, that the only thing more unrealistic than junking our current bastardized system of economics is supposing we can continue to liquidate the Earth without consequence.
That’s what the Mad Uncle is telling us. We continue to ignore him at our peril.