Which way for the anti-capitalist movement?

Babylon and Beyond: The economics of anti-capitalist, anti-globalist and radical green movements
Derek Wall, Pluto Press 2005, £14.99

Research has shown that studying conventional economics makes you more selfish. This slim volume, an introduction to anti-capitalist economics, will hopefully have the opposite effect. Derek Wall, lecturer in political economy and UK Green Party activist, sets out to ‘unpick the intellectual knots’ within the modern anti-capitalist movement. In each chapter he examines a different school of thought, starting with those who seek to reform capitalism and moving on to those who see the market as inherently exploitative.

One of the questions Wall attempts to answer over the course of the book is whether economic growth should continue in a post-capitalist system. Ecosocialists such as US author and activist Joel Kovel see environmental destruction as an inevitable outcome of continual economic growth, which is only necessary when goods are produced and marketed in such a way as to maximise profit and consumption rather than to meet real needs. Many socialists play lip-service to environmentalism, while maintaining that production should continue to expand under socialism. Wall follows Kovel in arguing that economic growth would be unnecessary under socialism, and should therefore be rejected on ecological grounds. Wall draws a parallel here with the thought of Cuban President Fidel Castro, who has argued similarly:

‘It is not that I think the world should become a monastery. However, I do believe that the planet has no other choice but to define which are going to be the consumption standards or patterns, both sustainable and obtainable, about which mankind should be educated.’ (Castro, On Imperialist Globalization: Two Speeches, 2003)

Wall draws favourable attention to the fact that both Cuba and Venezuela are promoting organic farming. He is also clear that both countries deserve international solidarity for providing health, education, and housing for all, and for their essential role in fighting imperialism. However, elsewhere Wall criticises Cuba for being a one-party state, assuming that the only type of valid democracy is a multi-party system, and leaving the uninformed reader to conclude that Cuba is therefore not democratic.

In the last chapter Wall discusses how we should go about getting rid of capitalism. He criticises Marxists for believing that capitalism will inevitably create the conditions for its own downfall. Wall is sceptical that this time will come: ‘Capitalism has crisis tendencies but capitalism uses barriers as a pole vaulter uses obstacles to practise jumping ever higher’ (p177). For Wall, any anti-capitalist strategy should be rooted in the present. He advocates ‘amphibious strategies’ – ‘half in the dirty water of the present but seeking to move on to a new, unexplored territory.’(p178). Examples that Wall gives include the electoral success of the Green movement in parts of the US (and its beginnings in China) as well as workers’ cooperatives, the anti-imperialism of Cuba and Venezuela, and open-source software.

Wall sees the open-source movement, where volunteers collaborate to write free software, as the cyberspace front of the fight to ‘defend, extend, and deepen the commons’ which he says should be the anti-capitalist slogan above all others. For him the commons (resources that can be used by a community, rather than exclusively by an owner) are vital because they show how access to finite resources can be regulated by the community of users themselves, providing an alternative to both the market and the state. Wall cites numerous examples of commons systems still in operation, from the harvesting of wild rice in Canada to the sustainable management of grazing land in Switzerland.

For Wall, ‘amphibious strategies’ are important because they demonstrate that there are alternatives to the capitalist mode of production. This is important, but by focussing on it exclusively Wall sidelines the issue of class, which will be central to any serious challenge to capitalism. If, as Wall advocates, people do start reclaiming the commons, the state will defend the rights of property owners, using brutal force if necessary. Only a movement based on the class consciousness of the oppressed would have the will to resist such an attack. Wall criticises Marxists for believing that crises in capitalism will ‘flip society neatly into a socialist order’, but this is a caricature. Crises do occur, forcing capitalists to increase exploitation of workers, who do fight back. These struggles are the key to overturning capitalism.

This book works well as an accessible introduction to the various strands of anti-capitalist thought, but the concluding chapter on strategy is unconvincing. Wall ends by saying that the system lives through each of us, so we have the power to change it, as long as we keep protesting. The problem is that he doesn’t say how this approach could build a movement strong enough to challenge the state machinery that defends capitalism.

Sam Baker
FRFI 192 August / September 2006


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