Capitalism finally getting required scrutiny


Although public debate over “the economy” seems to be vast and furious these days, everything’s been boiled down for us commoners to the kind of simple-minded, A or B choice we demand: the well-worn “big government versus small government” debate. Since this is actually the framing voice of the 1 Percent, it stands to reason the question of what an economy is for or what advantages other arrangements may offer is never brought to the attention of those who will most vividly experience the follies of economic policy.

Gospel in the United States since its inception is that capitalism — an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit, according to Wikipedia — must be served. To challenge or even question what is in the absence of critical analysis an assumption is to invite public scorn — or worse. The last several decades have seen the triumph of a particularly severe school of capitalism — free market capitalism — that demands absolute freedom from restraints by the general public to work its magic.

Now, after several decades of supremacy among the most powerful nations in the world, capitalism seems to be killing the golden goose many of us call Earth. A mountain of evidence continues to build, suggesting the foundation of capitalism rests on a man-made system of accounting that ignores costs to the life systems of the planet.

It has also become apparent that the central tenet of capitalism, private property, has succeeded in removing most if not all barriers to social pathology. As wealth becomes ever more concentrated, producing a society of the powerful and the powerless, a wide gap has also opened between what is “legal” and that which supports a healthy society.

Leaks in capitalism’s armor reveal themselves in a seemingly newfound interest in alternative ways of organizing an economy — “the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services,” according to Wikipedia. In reality capitalism has had its critics in this country all along; current conditions of crisis have simply lent them increased visibility and credence.

First in a brief and admittedly incomplete survey of the search for alternatives to free market capitalism might be those, such as author Steven Hill (Europe’s Promise), who point out that the American ruling class’s rabid loathing of European economies — featuring strategic mixes of capital-driven activity, high taxes, and strong social safety nets — is entirely self-serving. There is ample evidence, for instance, that the institution of a European-style health care system in the United States would neutralize the budget deficit.

Of note also are new associations being formed by professionals to address what they uniformly understand to be a critical juncture of failed economic policy, the corrupt and ineffective political culture it has spawned, and worldwide social and ecological crises. Notable for the heavyweights involved is the Institute for New Economic Thinking, headlining Nobel laureate economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, and financial insiders such as billionaire investor George Soros. While unafraid to explore solutions quite radical by Wall Street standards, INET seems determined to find solutions from within the general framework of capitalism, such as minimum wage hikes and a renewal of government spending to stimulate demand.

Further outside the small box that is mainstream U.S. economic thought, the New Economics Institute studies and advocates alternative models to corporate capitalism which already exist “hidden in plain sight” throughout our society: non-profit enterprises, co-operative businesses, worker — and municipal — owned ventures, and many more. NEI envisions a fundamental shift to economic models that coexist and reinforce democracy in contrast with the top-down command structure of private property ownership.

Economist Richard D. Wolff merits mention here. The books and speeches of Wolff, often described as a socialist professor of economics, has gained increased notoriety since the latest capitalist bust – not surprising in light of the widespread skepticism that has set in among those millions harpooned by free market capitalist ideals.

Yet the 1972 publication of “The Limits to Growth” may have initiated an existential challenge for any economic system dependent upon the constant expansion of output and consumption. The work of Donella and Dennis Meadows and their associates described computer modeling which suggested unlimited economic growth and related rising human consumption levels on a planet with finite resources could, or would, lead to economic and societal collapse in the 21st century. A 30-year update of the work in 2004 largely supported that early hypothesis.

Following the science and logic of this momentous revelation has led a wide range of scientists, economists, engineers, planners of every stripe, and a growing number of everyday folks to put their faith and energy into what is sometimes called “steady state economics” or in common terms, “sustainable communities.” The plural form is an appropriate reference to the small scale, localized economies many see as a prime characteristic of future societies.

The essential principle of course is to live with nature rather than from her. Once again the master explorers have discovered a way of life indigenous societies around the world — including their own ancestors — have known for eons. Will we allow it to thrive this time around?

Dave Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation who coaches and directs collegiate sports in Socorro, is suspicious of those who know it all. Contact him at