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If not Capitalism or Authoritarian Leftism, then what?

By John Courtneidge

First published in 'The CCPA Monitor', October 2009.

In a series of articles starting this month and culminating in the March 2010 issue, I present some ideas, materials, and suggestions that I hope can help map a peaceful path out of the unsustainable, violent mess called capitalism.

Capitalism is a human invention that relies on theft, rapacity, extortion, and exploitation.

If that description seems too fierce, it can be viewed in the light of history and against the less opprobious definition of capitalism given in the Oxford English Dictionary (The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Seventh Edition, 1982): "Capitalism — Noun: possession of capital or wealth; system in which private capital or wealth is used in production and distribution of goods; (Politics) dominance of private owners of capital and production for profit."

If not Capitalism, then what?

The opponents of capitalism are often described as "the Left," and their standpoints are often described as socialism, communism, and anarchism (with various adjectivized variants ("libertarian socialism," "utopian socialism," etc., etc.), while the term "capitalism" is often conflated, or confused, with terms such as "neoliberalism," "the market economy," "neoconservatism," even — in a triumph of post-modernist, deliberate confusion — as "democracy."

So, if capitalism relies on the "values" of legitimized theft ("ownership," usually obtained through war and "defended" by other forms of violence, intermingled with theft and extortion: "accumulation," "use for profit" — usury), let's start by considering what other set of values we might use to define a human system that is a "Not-capitalism."

So what are our values?

On the following page, I have listed a set of contrasting values.

If a study group wishes to explore its own values or preferences, I suggest that they start, individually at first, on blank sheets of paper, writing out a list of their own values, and then choosing the three values which seem most important to them.

Second, again individually, they might then run through the set of pairs on the next page (perhaps on photocopied sheets), first to highlight their preferred value in each pair, then to make another three-fold selection of those values that appeal most strongly to them.

Next, in pairs, take these individual trios of preferred values and, in pair-wise discussions, come up with a possible set of three "agreed-upon" values. Then, iteratively, with pairs of participants coming together as "pairs of pairs," and so on, the entire study group could then come up with some set of values which, at that time, could be a guide to further action. (More on that in a later article in this series.)

An Excursion: Towards a values-defined society

It is tempting to think that the first conception of a "not-capitalism" is the one ethical society that can take us from the present catastrophe to a "New, Better World," as though all "ethics" are automatically "for the good."

But any ethical system reflects just one set of values, so a claim that "the set of values I hold is the only route to peace and prosperity" is a dubious one, at best.

Thus the value of shared — and ongoing — values-mapping processes like the one outlined above.

Values-mapping — as we have just done — is carried out implicitly (rarely explicitly) by each of us on a daily, almost minute-by-minute basis. Accordingly, when Margaret Thatcher declared that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families, she was voicing a strong opinion held by many people: that humans are basically "nasty, selfish, and violent."

By contrast, most socialists tend to take the opposite view: that human beings are basically "sociable, cooperative, and lovable."

This contrast in views as to "the nature of human nature" informs (literally "in-forms") the values sets or ethical standards that shape these human systems we create to contextualize human activity. So, for example, if you believe that humans are violent, and yet you value peace, you might be drawn to the conservative, feudal ethic of a powerful, rigidly hierarchical state which has a monopoly of legitimated violence as a sanction against that "natural" tendency for humans to be violent ("fighting fire with fire?)

Totalitarianisms of both Left and Right are much alike

Conversely, you might argue that humans, again "naturally," are entirely pacific, and so any rule over them (be it state, religion, personal, or social sanction) is antithetical to human nature, and so you would advocate a purely anarchic human system, without any rules, regulations, or sanctions.

These two viewpoints suggest that human systems are set upon a continuum — a spectrum "from right to left": from totalitarian feudalism ("family-ism," "tribalism," "fascism" or "neo-conservatism," etc.) "on the right," to pure anarchism "on the left."

But human experience over the past two centuries (and our own experiences during our lifetimes) suggests that this concept is far too simplistic.

Our experience is that systems of political economy — politics, economics, philosophy, sociology, etc. — are more nuanced. We see that the "Authoritarian Leftisms" of Marx and Mao, of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin bear remarkable similarities to the "Rightist" totalitarianisms of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Bush, Harris, Harper, and Blair.

Hence our search for a simple —but not simplistic — guide to present-day action: one that avoids recreating the perils of the past that we wish to avoid. Such experience folds back to our discussion of values.

What Are Our Values? A Checklist:
Human race           or    Rat race
Chance               or    Community Chest
The needs of money   or    The needs of the planet
Lottery              or    Predictability
Communication        or    Secrecy
Wealth               or    Health
Wealth               or    Money
Learn                or    Earn
Money                or    People
A Shared World       or    A Selfish World
The Needs of People  or    The Needs of Money
Public Need          or    Selfish Greed
Thank-you            or    Stuff you
Peace                or    Conflict
Loved                or    Rejected
Bullied              or    Loved
Good                 or    Bad
God                  or    Evil
Pure                 or    Polluted
Fear                 or    Security
My Children          or    Our Children
Safe                 or    Threatened
Drab                 or    Colourful
Happy                or    Sad
Broken               or    Whole
Friends              or    Alone
Bored                or    Fulfilled
Loneliness           or    Togetherliness
Cooperation          or    Conflict
Art                  or    Ephemera
Science              or    Superstition
Education            or    Ignorance
Truth                or    Deception
Education            or    Training
Long-lived           or    Short-lived
Unity                or    Variety
Unity                or    Harmony
Only one             or    Every-one
Social               or    Anti-social
My house             or    Our house
I want               or    We need
You, me              or    Us
Community            or    Competition

I hope that you've valued this exer­cise: please feel free to make copies for others.


So, as a teaser for the rest of these articles, it might be helpful to point to two more values-mapping exercises that study group participants might like to undertake before the next session.

By visiting two sources:

one can self-explore possible variants of values sets, and their consequential political economic possibilities (noting, however, that the horizontal "left/right" axis on the political compass site is reversed as compared to the Environics map and the Co-operative Socialism map.

For now, take a peek at the figure on Page 11, which I'll explore and explain next time, and please read the important Statement on the Co-operative Identity from the International Co-operative Alliance on the next page. Your study group might enjoy comparing its value sets, individually and collectively, with your own.


John Courtneidge  is a scientist, writer and teacher, with a PhD in chemistry and experience as a researcher, co-educator, small-scale farmer, community organizer and activist. He is a Quaker and pacifist, with a clear program of democratic "Co-operative Socialism" — a new eco/equality politics that has evolved from his work as an elected Labour and Co-operative Town Councillor in Hertford, England. His writings include "The Fair World Project," which can be explored at and sustainabilitynotcapitalism.blogspot.comThe second article in this series — "What can we do about capitalism?" — will appear in our November issue.)