The deepening economic recession is beginning to cause a lot of stress and insecurity for people who are losing jobs, facing piles of bills they can’t pay, and dealing with losing houses and other material things they spent years working to obtain. Even for those of us who are still working and still have enough money to get by, there is a sense of uncertainty — will it all come crashing down next month?
If you’re critical of the system, you have to be suspicious of the level of hype and the narrowing of the discourse surrounding the recession, even while you feel concern for people at the short end of the economic stick. The fact that the recession is causing such mass suffering reveals the failures of the capitalist system — its mal-distribution of resources, its inequality, and its focus on production and growth divorced from human needs or happiness. Mainstream politicians want to “fix” capitalism so we can return to a state of steady economic growth. But capitalism is broken when it is growing — we don’t want to return to business as usual. How can we use this period of economic collapse to move farther away from capitalism, rather than allowing its problems to hijack our lives?
Perhaps there are ways in which the recession can be a creative time for the human energy that would have gone into the fast-moving economic machine to go in different directions: to the community rather than selfishness, to social change rather than the status quo, to living outside the system now rather than trying to live up to its pre-set goals of property accumulation, status and the future.
The recession can help us see the absurdity of the capitalist system that is better hidden when business is booming. It can provide time to wonder whether our lives during the good times were really making us happy, or whether all that frantic activity was ultimately meaningless. If so, what would a more meaningful existence look like? Can we build alternative economic structures that last beyond the recession and build opportunities for cooperation outside of the capitalist machine?
The Invisible Hand
Recessions are not really malfunctions of the capitalist system — they are a fundamental part of it. The history of capitalism features an inevitable business cycle of boom and bust. Pro-capitalists who hope to perfect capitalism so it can exist without recessions don’t understand the way their economic system works. Conversely, radicals who predict the demise of capitalism each time the stock market falls aren’t studying history carefully enough, either. This recession — like all the other recessions and depressions before it — will not on its own spell the end of capitalism. That doesn’t mean that recessions can’t be used by radicals against capitalism — just that we can’t fool ourselves into thinking capitalism will end itself. It needs our help.
It is instructive to see the politicians and business owners — from Bush to Obama and from China to Russia to Germany to the USA — united in their powerlessness over the economic system itself. The recession makes it clear that people don’t control the economy — the economy controls people. Just as the economy controls what you can do for work, what you can buy, and how you live, the system controls the actions of the politicians and the business managers who supposedly are in charge.
This is precisely backwards from how an economic system should be. A reasonable system would serve people — giving them the things that they need, responding to their collective decisions, and balancing human interests and environmental concerns. Capitalism, to the contrary, by its very nature manipulates and constrains people — forcing humans to adjust to the system’s imperatives — while destroying the natural environment. Capitalism silences the self-determination of the population, while selecting a lucky few to hold somewhat more power to act within its artificial constraints.
Recessions are moments when the system’s intense productive energies turn in on itself — economic activity and growth fall off precisely because economic activity and growth have produced too much stuff to be purchased and consumed by those who have money. Note that the capitalist system can run out of consumers even while many people don’t have enough — capitalism only serves those with money, not necessarily those in need. As purchases fall below production, economic activity contracts, throwing people out of work, who then themselves must cut consumption because they no longer have money, leading to a downward spiral of decreasing consumption and production.
Capitalism’s own perverse logic requires economic inequality and scarcity of resources for huge numbers of people. Competition acts to depress wages for workers — with a desperate unemployed “reserve army of labor” totally without work and therefore without money to get what they need. And yet the system simultaneously needs to find consumers with money to purchase the goods it creates. The system ping-pongs back and forth between temporarily solving the problem by bringing new consumers, resources and methods on-line, only to hit a crisis point as its internal logic plays itself out.
This painful oscillation between boom and bust, competition and income stratification nonetheless overall produces limitless economic growth, i.e. greater and greater human transformation of natural resources into processed forms for use by human beings. This is determined by the internal logic of the system — each individual or company must expand production, efficiency and wealth or lose out to another individual or company which is better at playing the game.
The most crucial flaw in capitalism is not the boom and bust cycle, but its limitless growth, because capitalism exists on a planet with finite resources. While this problem hasn’t been very noticeable until recently, it is likely to eclipse the pain of income stratification and the boom and bust cycle as the key reason why capitalism cannot continue on its present course. Environmental crises like global warming, over-fishing of the oceans, deforestation, soil depletion and loss of species are not really scientific or technological failures. They are the new face of economic crisis in which the economy destroys the earth faster than it can regenerate itself.
Discrediting the rat race
Because the recession makes visible the ways in which the market economy doesn’t serve people’s needs, it can be a good time to nurture opposition to the capitalist system on a political and philosophical level. In good times, the economy is less visible — people get so busy buying and selling that they don’t have much energy left for critique. When the economy goes wrong, people have extra time to question why things are the way they are.
Radicals can seek to move the discussion beyond shallow media hyped fear about job loss, bank collapse and stock market decline and the need to get “back to normal.” We can question whether all this industrial production and consumption — which causes so much ecological damage — is really making us happy in the first place. A lot of what people are expected to consume — fast food, the newest gizmo, suburban homes — is superficial junk. A lot of the economy’s energy is used to market consumption for its own sake.
When times are “good” people are on a treadmill — seeking the next new thing. But when they get there, they feel empty until they start grabbing for something else. It is all about the pursuit, and not the enjoyment, awareness or appreciation of the destination. There is no now, only desire for some future experience that will trigger satisfaction. But to keep the cycle moving and the economy growing, you never actually get there. As the economy gets more efficient and productive, we’ve seen a speedup in the process — people develop a short attention span and seek more consumer stimuli every day.
Recessions can help break the cycle and provide a path off the psychic treadmill. Right now, millions of people are re-thinking their consumption and trying to adjust to living with less. While the mainstream sees this as unfortunate and painful, there are other ways to understanding living with less. If all the stuff and speed of the boom times left us feeling unfulfilled, was it really worth all the overtime, deforestation, carbon emissions and sweatshops? Or could there be another way?
Getting off the grid
Cooperation, sharing, and doing stuff ourselves are the opposite of competition, each for themselves, and depending on an industrial economy for all our material needs. During recessions, the system offers forms of assistance designed to disempower people and make them more dependent on the system — welfare, unemployment insurance, charity.
What if people organized to build alternative economic structures to help us get through the recession, and off the system for good even after the recession is over with? This could mean cooperating to help each other rather than buying and selling services, re-learning how to make our own goods and grow some of our own food, and realizing that a lot of the stuff we have been consuming is not really all that important to our happiness in the first place. When you’re involved in creating what you use, the idea of consuming for its own sake no longer makes sense. The system is all about marketing and creating new needs — when you step off the system, you reclaim your internal sense of what you want and really need. Of course ultimately you can’t really reclaim your life without getting rid of capitalism once and for all.
In the end, the boom and bust economic cycle distracts from more fundamental questions. The real issue is not whether stocks are up or down. Perhaps we don’t want the economy to bounce back to frantic levels of growth — tearing up the earth in pursuit of more stuff, more technology, more hours spent at a job, less opportunities to do stuff for ourselves — and less satisfaction and space to engage with our lives. Since the capitalist economy doesn’t really supply many people’s needs even in the good times, maybe we need to find ways to meet human needs other than the very limited form of economic growth embodied by capitalism. When everyone is furiously building sterile condos and making pre-packaged “home cooked meals” in a plastic bag, we’re creating a lonely and sad world. We seek human satisfaction and ecological balance with a healthy planet, not gross domestic product. When we are faced with living with less, we may find that we can regain our inter-connection with others, with the planet and with ourselves.