Editor’s note: this is an edited transcript of a talk at the 2014 Earth at Risk capitalism and sociopathy panel. View the video here.
Thank you for being determined to investigate and understand the different aspects of this catastrophic situation that we are facing. Especially I want to thank those of you here who are doing something about it, or thinking about doing something about it. It is very important that we do. I am going to get into some of the more structural aspects.
We all know that capitalism is killing the world. In order to stop it, we can’t just keep resisting its effects. Capitalism doesn’t care if we protest on street corners a thousand times. That just proves how democratic they are. The solutions are not to be found within its framework. And they are even less to be found at the individual level. We don‘t actually have any power as consumers, I‘m sure most of you here already know. They would like us to think we do, but we can‘t buy or refrain from buying our way out of this. It‘s a social system, a class system, and it can only be addressed at a level of collective organized class struggle.
We need to understand capital, how it works, the mechanisms that keep it in place and are at the core of its functioning. Capitalism is a mode of production, based on the exploitation of labor and the generation of surplus value. This means that workers are paid a certain amount of wages for a day‘s work. But what they produce is worth more than that. The extra value is called surplus value, and the capitalist just steals it. This is what all profit is based on. This is what private property is all about. It is considered normal for the social means of production, the factories, land, everything that produces all the things that we all use, that these are privately owned, and for those owners to simply take whatever is produced in them.
Capitalism is not just an economic process, but the whole way that our society is arranged. It’s an ensemble or matrix of social relations, and these comprise three main fields: the economic, the political and the ideological. The economic field is determinate, profit is the point, and everything else is set up to solidify the relations of production that keep it coming. Capitalist ideology, centered on competition and individualism, is designed to make the way we live seem normal and inevitable. It‘s forced on us by its institutions, school, the church, the nuclear family, media and culture. Why would we need advertising for example, if they didn‘t need to convince us to participate? Ideological domination is unrelenting conditioning and indoctrination to naturalize capitalism, to make us compliant, passive, greedy and self-centered. To make us identify with it, instead of understanding it as the enemy that it really is.
Political domination, the job of the state, has two main aims: the first, performed by the government and its laws, is to regulate within and between classes, to keep the flow of capital smooth and free of obstacles. The second is for when ideological domination fails. When we can no longer accept living this way, the state turns to cohesion through terrorism. This function is performed by the state’s armed forces, its military and police. If we don‘t comply, that’s when the guns come out. We saw that with the Occupy movement. The entire purpose of this setup is economic, the accumulation of wealth for a small minority of people–those who own the means of production, namely the factories, tools, land.
This ownership was not ordained by a God, nor is it because capitalists are smarter or worked harder than anyone else and earned that right. It‘s because they took it. They started with trading, which many societies considered and understood as thievery, since it‘s the exchange of unequal values. This is still the way that mercantile capitalists accumulate wealth. They continued with land theft, backed up by war and genocide, which is still going on today as we all know. I just got back from Haiti a few days ago and saw huge areas of land that have been stolen from small farmers and towns people, their houses just bulldozed over without warning, so that the government could bring in foreign investors to build industrial parks and tourist resorts. They justified this by saying that the people will get jobs. They‘d be able to work in the new factories and hotels. That‘s the standard way that capitalists have been getting their workforce for the past 250 years.
The fundamental contradiction of capitalism, reproducing it and driving it forward, is capital versus labor and the production of surplus value for private accumulation. This process is what produces class divisions, class domination and class struggle. Classes are groups of people, defined by their role in social production. There are those who own and control it, and those are usually not the same people who are exploited in the process. Besides exploitation, capitalism also uses oppressive practices like racism and patriarchy, and has terrible effects like ecocides and war, which we all have to deal with. It‘s a social system that dominates all of social life, and all the dominated classes and social groups struggle against this in their own ways. But the core of it is embodied in the struggle of workers against exploitation.
Workers are the ones who face capital in their daily struggle for existence, in an inherently antagonistic relationship. They are the only ones able to offer an alternative to capitalism. Other classes can resist, but can‘t break the framework. So, if we‘re to actually destroy capitalism, the working class needs to lead all the dominated classes in a revolution to overthrow the capitalist class. We are all social agents, born into a structure that we didn‘t create. We are inserted into the existing relations of production, funneled into particular social slots, serving the various requirements of capital. Capital confines our relationships within a framework of relations between things. And it treats living beings, including humans, as objects. It has no moral or ethical framework, because it‘s not alive.
Nevertheless, it does have a motion, drive and imperative of its own. Its only aim is self-expansion. Even capitalists are merely stewards of capital and have no control over it. If they have an attack of conscience, an attempt to moderate it, then they are replaced. Sociopaths are drawn to this role; in fact a higher percentage are found in this class than in the general population. Because to serve capital in this way requires a lack, or total suppression, of empathy. Capital has no subjectivity and it doesn’t recognize it in others. But it is animate, thorough and embodied in its representatives. It has imbued them with its own sociopathy.
Surplus value is generated only in industrial production, when labor power is exploited in the process of converting raw materials, otherwise known as the living world, into commodities. And that‘s why it‘s ecocidal. Other forms of capital expansion, such as mercantile and finance, create inflated bubbles of fictitious value through unequal trade and speculation. All that must be based on the production of physical goods. For example, China builds twelve to twenty-four ghost-cities every year, mile after mile of malls with no businesses in them and houses with no people living in them. And those empty buildings serve as repositories for capital investment, objects to hold value and to speculate on. Surplus value must be re-invested as new capital, or it will degrade, it will lose value.
Capital will do whatever it takes to prevent its own devaluation, including all forms of brutal oppression, endless wars, total disregard for the needs of any living beings, stripping us of subjectivity, and turning us into functions for its own reproduction, even up to annihilation of all life on earth. This would of course mean its own destruction as well. Marx understood this when he said that class struggle will lead to either the overthrow of capitalism and the elimination of class domination in general, or the common ruin of contending classes. We still may have this choice to make, but that window is closing. We each need to make our choice now, and do the work required of us in this very intense and pivotal historical period. The work of understanding the structural crisis and vulnerabilities of the system that we‘re facing, plus the work of organizing our forces so that we can become strong enough to weaken and ultimately destroy it.
For eight years, Stephanie and I have had a bitter, bitter ideological battle. It‘s so bitter that we‘ve written a couple of books together and have become very dear friends. The question, that Stephanie and I have been having a great time slightly disagreeing on, is whether capitalism creates sociopathological behavior, or whether it took sociopaths to create a rationalization for their pre-existing issues, and to create a system that rewards this terrible behavior. And I don‘t really have an answer and I think the truth is, that they are mutually reinforcing, that once you get a system in place that starts creating sociopaths, then they will create additional rationalizations for their sociopathological behavior and additional ways to reward themselves. Especially when those in power are those who make the rules for those in power, then of course they‘re going to codify their pre-existing issues.
I want to say one more thing. The tragedy of the commons just pisses me off. That essay by Garrett Hardin in 1968, it’s such a lie. He basically says that the tragedy of the commons is that if you have a common area, that it will eventually be destroyed. He says this is because if you have a community area where the village is allowed to, say, run a hundred sheep, ten families and every family can run ten sheep. Then what‘s going to happen is that one family is going to run eleven sheep, and then another is gonna run eleven sheep, and then eventually the commons will be destroyed. But this is complete bullshit. What that is, is a tragedy of the failure of community.
If you have a community, and everybody knows that they can run ten sheep, if somebody runs eleven sheep, the other members of the community come to them and say: Dude, that is not a good idea. And if the person does it again, they’d say: Dude, that‘s a really bad idea. And if they did it again, they‘d burn down their house. So, what he is describing is a situation in which your community has already been destroyed.
No matter how talented he was, if Jimi Hendrix would have been playing his music in the 1920s he would not have found an audience. You have to have a receptive audience in order to have something become popular. So if you have a purely functioning community in the first place, and somebody says “Hey, I‘ve got this great idea! Everybody acting selfishly will create a greater good for our entire community!” they would say “You are nuts.” The only way you can have people go “wow, that’s a great idea!” is if they are primed for it.
In 1992, the year that Clinton was elected, he did this one speech that had this great moment where he said “I want to try to show that Adam Smith‘s invisible hand has a green thumb.” It was great, because the entire audience was silent. And then he said: “I thought that was a really good line,” and everybody is like “Oh, yeah!“ This is just one of the ways that propaganda works. First, and everybody knows this, is: “Adam Smith‘s invisible hand? A green thumb? You‘re fucking nuts!” But then when it‘s repeated, and of course if you have the NY Times take it up, and then if you have the neo-environmentalists take it up, and then if you have all these other groups take it up, twenty years later, everybody‘s like “Oh yeah, of course green capitalism will solve everything.”
95% of environmentalists in America believe that the solution to the environmental crisis is more capitalism. I had the quote from Tom Friedman, who made that argument very powerfully. He said there is “father capital and mother earth.” The two most powerful forces in the world to be married together will solve all our problems. Why this text is super important is that you‘re going up against a myth, a deeply embedded myth in the society. That the solution to climate change is more capitalism.
I would actually agree, that there is father capitalism and mother earth, and it‘s a deeply abusive relationship in which he is beating the shit out of her and raping her on a daily basis, and what she needs to do is put a gun to his fucking head and kill him.
There is really no way to reform it or fix it. It is not a system that has gone too far or that has run off the rails. The rails are constructed that way, the whole system is born that way. It’s not something that can be restrained or reformed or fixed. It is not broken. It‘s doing exactly what has been predicted for the last 200 years.
The accumulation of capital is an inevitable process. The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the monopolization of production, that‘s all part of how it works. And the only way that it can be gotten rid off is if we organize and become a powerful social force, more powerful than the lies, wealth and arms of our enemy. We have to first recognize it as our enemy. A lot of people don’t, because we are ideologically very dominated, and we’ve been conditioned for generations to accept this as normal.
The propaganda that there is no alternative, that everything else has failed, that nothing else will work, this is our only choice—we have to break out of that. Yes, there have been attempts at other systems that have failed. But these were babies, trying to learn how to walk. And if they fell down, are we going to say “this baby is never gonna grow up and learn how to walk?” We have to learn from the mistakes of people who have tried different things, modify that according to our current situation, and collectively figure out a different way to live. We evolved as collective beings. We are not like this. This capitalist society has turned us into unsocial creatures, but we are social creatures, we are cooperative. This is our nature.
We have to organize and collectively build a movement, a mass movement that is strong enough, that is led by a politicized, revolutionary working class, and overthrow them. Take over. Take over the political system, get rid of it and institute our own, which is going to be built in the process of the revolutionary struggle; and we need to take over the means of production and convert it to—instead of profit—human needs that are in line with the requirements of the natural world. That is not an impossible dream. That is something that we would naturally do, if we weren’t being prevented by a class of people who controls everything and enforces that control with their armed might. If we can be strong enough, organize enough to break through that arms might and control society ourselves, we can do a lot better.
It is not going to be utopia, of course. There is going to be a lot to work through in the process and afterward a lot of conflict among the people. But that’s not an antagonistic conflict; we can work it out. The real antagonism is between all of us and those few at the top, who are preventing a decent society from coming into being and who are killing us all.
The conversation we‘re having is not a conversation that‘s on the plate in the United States. You tell me, how often you have seen in the New York Times or CNN or even MSNBC, any of the mainstream media, a conversation about whether we should have or get rid of capitalism? You‘re seen as freaking crazy if you raise this question. The idea is not only that capitalism is the only good, it’s the only possible way of organizing society. That‘s the bad news. And it’s really bad, because the ideological forces of control have consolidated around this idea. It’s only in very small niches and communities where this kind of question would get on the table without being laughed off.
When you actually question people about what they believe, it turns out they believe that capitalism is pretty fucked up. They think that capitalism is putting money into Washington and into political processes in a way that is pretty sociopathic, they are pissed off about the bailing out of the banks, they believe that people who work in McDonalds or in nursing homes deserve a living wage, they believe that unions are good things and that community is important, and they believe in the essential need to protect the environment. So, there is a resonance. When do people become receptive to ideas?
The contradiction that we‘re dealing with is, on the one hand you can‘t even talk about what we‘re talking about today. Capitalism is the only reality that the ideological apparatus of the country will accept as a dialog. And in a sense, there is a resonance to that. There aren’t masses out in San Francisco even who are saying “We want to talk about class revolution or about capitalism,” who would embrace what Stephanie just said. On the other hand, when you carefully interrogate people about what it is they believe on real issues, they want healthcare, good education for their kids, to save the environment for future generations. There is a counter-resonance, a counter-culture, but it operates under the formal mechanism of politics which has become spectacle- and money-driven.
Somehow the practice of resistance and social change has to be diving under the surface of that resonant, controlling ideology, and finding the way to speak to the parts of people’s lives that are telling them everything is wrong in the society, that we need drastic change. We have to be really smart, and I mean that in an emotional way. We have to find a way to viscerally hook into the deep discontents that people are experiencing about their lives, and about their communities, about their kids’ prospects, about their own prospects. It‘s a little bit like an abused child.
You take an abused child, and you try to pull them away from their parents, and they will run to the parent who has been kicking them, and hold on to their knees and say “Don‘t take me away!” I think the body politic in the United States is operating a little bit like that. They know that they’re being abused, and they’re holding on for dear life to the abuser. And what a resistance movement has to do is to provide a source of safety and community that will allow people to realize I can let go of that and actually get rid of it, because it has been destroying my life.
A lot of environmentalists begin by wanting to protect a specific piece of ground, and they end up questioning the foundation of western civilization. And that‘s because they start by asking “Why is this land being destroyed?” and then they start asking “Why would any land be destroyed?” and then they hear that the needs of the economy are in opposition to the needs of the environment and they ask “Why would you have an economic system that is in opposition to the environment?” There is that huge split between grassroots environmental activists and mainstream activists. And the split is where their fundamental loyalty is.
With the grassroots environmental activists, the ones that I knew and grew up with is, their emphasis is always biocentric. And the loyalty of Tom Friedman is to capitalism. I keep thinking about the line by Harriet Tubman: “I freed hundreds of slaves, but I could have freed hundreds more if only they had known they where slaves.” It‘s the same thing with capitalism. One of our jobs in this pre-revolutionary phase is to help people to articulate the understanding that they already have, that they are enslaved by the system but they don‘t yet know it, just like the slaves Harriet Tubman tried to free didn’t know it.
The young people in the country have a feeling like what Derrick is talking about, that their connection to their world is being destroyed. At some level it is translating to an understanding, that this is a symptom of something fundamentally wrong in their way of life. That the environmental destruction and climate change, as terrible as it is, is a symptom of something even deeper. Which is the way we’ve constructed our civilization and our way of life. This is the realm of possibility. But they have to go a long way in their movement, from that very gut-level understanding to being able to articulate the connections that at some level they feel.
I agree that people are discontented. They understand that something is wrong. We can‘t go out and just talk about capitalism in abstract concepts at the start. I go out a lot and talk with people, pass out flyers and stuff like that, trying to organize. I start out by saying “It’s really difficult to survive under this system, where a few people take everything and we can’t even make a living,” and everybody is like “Yeah, it‘s horrible!” And I say, “We have to organize to do something about it. We have to fight back against this!”
“Yeah we do!” is a very common response. How do we crush it? I talked about it in very general terms, but a lot of people really want something more concrete. There is no easy formula for it. In order to make a political change—and a revolution is a political change—we need the ideological change first. In order to have a revolution in reality, we need to be able to imagine it in our minds. Organizing people means building relationships. If you can‘t find an organization that you agree with just start one. A conversation with one person, that’s how it starts. And then you find another person, and if you can’t find one or you don’t know one, then go out in the street and start talking to people. You don’t have to have all the answers, you need to open the conversation and you need to have regular meetings.
I know people don‘t like that, but you really need them. And you need to have study, and you need to have action. And that action is widely varied. Even going out and talking to people, that‘s an action. That’s how we start. There is no easy way to do it, there is no way around the tedious work of putting yourself out there. There is no other way to do it.
How do we crush the system? The North won the civil war before it started. Germany lost WWII before it started. The way you win war is by destroying the enemy’s capacity to wage war. That‘s the point of war. And one of the things we need to do—well, we need to recruit first, there is like fifteen of us—but one of the things we need to do is to destroy capitalism’s ability to wage war on us and on the world. We‘re not quite there yet.
One of the really big barriers to recruitment is a wonderful metaphor that somebody told me. I was asking a fisheries biologist about blowing up dams, and the fisheries biologist was saying that a flood is a natural process. Every time a river floods, it changes course. It breaks her heart, because all these fish, the frogs and the trees who were in the old channel die. But she said that‘s what rivers do, they change course all the time.
There is a phrase that just stuck with me so hard—every time a river floods there is short term habitat loss and long term habitat gain. And as soon as she said that to me I got chills, thinking Why do we stay in bad relationships? Because we are afraid of the short term loss for long term gain. Why do we stay in bad jobs? Because we are afraid of the short term loss for long term gain. I am not in any way attempting to dismiss the terror involved in the collapse of any system, which is completely dreadful. But that’s one of the biggest things that is holding us all back, because of the very real prospect of terrible short term loss in exchange for the very obvious long term gain that will be gained by getting rid of capitalism. This is a huge, very real barrier that we face.