An Unsustainable System

We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. There’s no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously irrelevant.

How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly — typically by those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, but rather simply is, like a state of nature. Maybe not like a state of nature, but the state of nature. To contest capitalism these days is like arguing against the air that we breathe. Arguing against capitalism, we’re told, is simply crazy.

We are told, over and over, that capitalism is not just the system we have, but the only system we can ever have. Yet for many, something nags at us about such a claim. Could this really be the only option? We’re told we shouldn’t even think about such things. But we can’t help thinking — is this really the “end of history,” in the sense that big thinkers have used that phrase to signal the final victory of global capitalism? If this is the end of history in that sense, we wonder, can the actual end of the planet be far behind?

We wonder, we fret, and these thoughts nag at us — for good reason. Capitalism — or, more accurately, the predatory corporate capitalism that defines and dominates our lives — will be our death if we don’t escape it. Crucial to progressive politics is finding the language to articulate that reality, not in outdated dogmatic slogans that alienate but in plain language that resonates with people. We should be searching for ways to explain to co-workers in water-cooler conversations — radical politics in five minutes or less — why we must abandon predatory corporate capitalism. If we don’t, we may well be facing the end times, and such an end will bring rupture not rapture.

Here’s my shot at the language for this argument.

Capitalism is admittedly an incredibly productive system that has created a flood of goods unlike anything the world has ever seen. It also is a system that is fundamentally (1) inhuman, (2) anti-democratic, and (3) unsustainable. Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (most of it of marginal or questionable value) in exchange for our souls, our hope for progressive politics, and the possibility of a decent future for children.

In short, either we change or we die — spiritually, politically, literally.

1. Capitalism is inhuman

There is a theory behind contemporary capitalism. We’re told that because we are greedy, self-interested animals, an economic system must reward greedy, self-interested behavior if we are to thrive economically.

Are we greedy and self-interested? Of course. At least I am, sometimes. But we also just as obviously are capable of compassion and selflessness. We certainly can act competitively and aggressively, but we also have the capacity for solidarity and cooperation. In short, human nature is wide-ranging. Our actions are certainly rooted in our nature, but all we really know about that nature is that it is widely variable. In situations where compassion and solidarity are the norm, we tend to act that way. In situations where competitiveness and aggression are rewarded, most people tend toward such behavior.

Why is it that we must choose an economic system that undermines the most decent aspects of our nature and strengthens the most inhuman? Because, we’re told, that’s just the way people are. What evidence is there of that? Look around, we’re told, at how people behave. Everywhere we look, we see greed and the pursuit of self-interest. So, the proof that these greedy, self-interested aspects of our nature are dominant is that, when forced into a system that rewards greed and self-interested behavior, people often act that way. Doesn’t that seem just a bit circular?

2. Capitalism is anti-democratic

This one is easy. Capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system. If you concentrate wealth in a society, you concentrate power. Is there any historical example to the contrary?

For all the trappings of formal democracy in the contemporary United States, everyone understands that the wealthy dictate the basic outlines of the public policies that are acceptable to the vast majority of elected officials. People can and do resist, and an occasional politician joins the fight, but such resistance takes extraordinary effort. Those who resist win victories, some of them inspiring, but to date concentrated wealth continues to dominate. Is this any way to run a democracy?

If we understand democracy as a system that gives ordinary people a meaningful way to participate in the formation of public policy, rather than just a role in ratifying decisions made by the powerful, then it’s clear that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.

Let’s make this concrete. In our system, we believe that regular elections with the one-person/one-vote rule, along with protections for freedom of speech and association, guarantee political equality. When I go to the polls, I have one vote. When Bill Gates goes the polls, he has one vote. Bill and I both can speak freely and associate with others for political purposes. Therefore, as equal citizens in our fine democracy, Bill and I have equal opportunities for political power. Right?

3. Capitalism is unsustainable

This one is even easier. Capitalism is a system based on unlimited growth. The last time I checked, this is a finite planet. There are only two ways out of this one. Perhaps we will be hopping to a new planet soon. Or perhaps, because we need to figure out ways to cope with these physical limits, we will invent ever-more complex technologies to transcend those limits.

Both those positions are equally delusional. Delusions may bring temporary comfort, but they don’t solve problems. They tend, in fact, to cause more problems, and those problems seem to be piling up.

Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system, and it’s the one in which we are stuck. It’s the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air.

A tale of two acronyms: TGIF and TINA

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous response to a question about challenges to capitalism was TINA — There Is No Alternative. If there is no alternative, anyone who questions capitalism is crazy.

Here’s another, more common, acronym about life under a predatory corporate capitalism: TGIF — Thank God It’s Friday. It’s a phrase that communicates a sad reality for many working in this economy — the jobs we do often are not rewarding, not enjoyable, and fundamentally not worth doing. We do them to survive. Then on Friday we go out and get drunk to forget about that reality, hoping we can find something during the weekend that makes it possible on Monday to, in the words of one songwriter, “get up and do it again.”

Remember, an economic system doesn’t just produce goods, but produces people as well. Our experience of work shapes us. Our experience of consuming those goods shapes us. Increasingly, we are a nation of unhappy people consuming miles of aisles of cheap consumer goods, hoping to dull the pain of unfulfilling work. Is this who we want to be?

We’re told TINA in a TGIF world. Doesn’t that seem a bit strange? Is there really no alternative to such a world? Of course there is. Anything that is the product of human choices can be chosen differently. We don’t need to spell out a new system in all its specifics to realize there always are alternatives. We can encourage the existing institutions that provide a site of resistance (such as labor unions) while we experiment with new forms (such as local cooperatives). But the first step is calling out the system for what it is, without guarantees of what’s to come.

Home and abroad

In the First World, we struggle with this alienation and fear. We often don’t like the values of the world around us; we often don’t like the people we’ve become; we often are afraid of what’s to come of us. But in the First World, most of us eat regularly. That’s not the case everywhere. Let’s focus not only on the conditions we face within a predatory corporate capitalist system, living in the most affluent country in the history of the world, but also put this in a global context.

Let me return to a statistic I cited on the first Last Sunday: Half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. That’s more than 3 billion people.

Here’s a new statistic that I recently read: Just over half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1 a day. That’s more than 300 million people.

How about one more statistic: About 500 children in Africa die from poverty-related diseases, and the majority of those deaths could be averted with simple medicines or insecticide-treated nets. That’s 500 children — not every year, or every month or every week. That’s not 500 children every day. Poverty-related diseases claim the lives of 500 children every hour in Africa.

As we try to hold onto our humanity, statistics like that can make us crazy. But don’t get any crazy ideas about changing this system. Remember: there is no alternative to predatory corporate capitalism.

So whilst the dominant culture tells us that to believe and feel such things is crazy. Maybe everyone here is a little crazy. So, let’s make sure we’re being realistic. It’s important to be realistic.

One of the common responses I hear when I critique capitalism is, “Well, that may all be true, but we have to be realistic and do what’s possible.” By that logic, to be realistic is to accept a system that is inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable. To be realistic we are told we must capitulate to a system that steals our souls, enslaves us to concentrated power, and will someday destroy the planet.

But rejecting and resisting a predatory corporate capitalism is not crazy. It is an eminently sane position. Holding onto our humanity is not crazy. Defending democracy is not crazy. And struggling for a sustainable future is not crazy.

What is truly crazy is falling for the con that an inhuman, anti-democratic, and unsustainable system — one that leaves half the world’s people in abject poverty — is all that there is, all that there ever can be, all that there ever will be.

If that were true, then soon there will be nothing left, for anyone.

I do not believe it is realistic to accept such a fate. If that’s being realistic, I’ll take crazy any day of the week, every Sunday of the month.


Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center

His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang).

He can be reached at and his articles can be found online at


11 thoughts on “An Unsustainable System

  1. Because there is so much deeper truth and merit to this post, i have set up a special folder for all the information it contains so i may thoroughly study each and every thought expressed and implied therein.

    Accordingly, i will only now say: Yes to all you say except with one observation, like democracy, republics, religion, the USA constitution, and all other such human institutions that are basically intended to harmonize humanity, but have been so distorted with deception over time that they truly appear clearly unsustainable, Capitalism may actually be sustained by removing all its deceptive failures.

    Moreover, such removal is humanly possible ((only with numerous generational efforts) when one and all are taught, and eagerly accept, a code of conduct that allows all to stand on their own two feet and be their best self so long as in doing so they personally refuse to harm any other, or instantly cure any harm they necessarily cause.

    mere chitchat, nothing more, after i study the full thought behind your complete post, i will try to return with a more meaningful reply.

  2. The capitalist system that has created a situation in which so many people are in such vulnerable life situations… socialist revolution is the path to solve the situation.

  3. I have some sympathy with the disaffection with capitalismo , but really … apart from vitriol and hyperbole, what has the author actually proposed? What solutions? It’s a rant, nothing more. Come up with some ideas big boy.

  4. Capitalism is not good, nope, no way, but I’d like to actually hear what you propose to replace it with. So far we are at 100% failed systems: capitalism and all attempts at other types of systems… Hmm…

  5. We could have had world peace 150 years ago, we could have had it, we could have been free of all these evils, but out of our own free will we said no. (We can still have it if we wanted to, by the way.) Out of our own Free Will — the very thing that we can also use to Change and that means we don’t *have* to be the way we are now (unlike what many want people to believe) — we chose to entertain our lower, baser, animal nature, and not our higher, spiritual, human nature. Why? Because it *seems* easier and gives quick “pleasure” — but in the long run it is silly.

    There’s more evils that need to be changed other than just capitalism. Another is partisan politics. Politics should not be a divisive and competitive activity, “us versus them”, “my ideology wins over yours”, but a way to run and administrate things. For some reason, though, present-day “politics” involves parties, fighting, “victory”, etc. and seems more like a way to hold grudges and battle than to really do anything useful.

  6. How do you know that the world would not be in a worse mess if it wasn’t for capitalism? The horrors of soviet style socialism are obviously not a viable alternative, so what is?

  7. The working class comprises the majority in society, it has the power to shake the system. Unfortunately, this does not mean that most of its members have a clear idea of their ability to replace the existing system with a better one. On the contrary, being brought up in capitalist society leads most people to accept the ideas of the system to a greater or lesser degree – its racism, sexism, competition and greed, and the belief that there is no other way of living. As Karl Marx once wrote “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.”

    Working class organisations, such as trade unions for example, simply do not have the resources necessary to compete with the capitalist media hence only a minority of people accept ideas that challenge the system as a whole. The majority take most things for granted and accept much of what the capitalist media says.

    It is only when those whose labour keeps capitalism going are engaged in fighting aspects of the system that they discover they have the power to paralyse it. Only then do large numbers begin to see clearly that their interests run in opposite directions to those of capitalists. They discover through struggle that they can challenge the system, and that as a class they have an interest in uniting to replace profit making and competition with a society of democratic self organisation. It is through struggle that people discover that they have the collective capacity to change society.

    This is the type of awakening and enlightenment I refer to. When you look through history again and again we see examples of how the moral and intellectual condition of the working classes has deteriorated.

    In 1870 Thomas Cooper, a former activist in the chartist movement 30 years earlier, surveyed the workers of the north of England and and said:

    ‘it is true, in our old Chartist times, Lancashire working men were in rags by the thousands; and many of them lacked food, but their intelligence was demonstrated wherever you went. You would see them in groups discussing the great doctrines of social justice… they were in earnest dispute respecting the teachings of socialism. Now you will hear no such groups in Lancashire. But you will hear well dressed working men talking of cooperative stores and their shares in them, or in building societies (banks). And you will see others, like idiots, leading small greyhound dogs, covered with cloth on a string… Working men had ceased to think..’.

    If only Thomas Cooper could see the streets of London today! Millions of Londoners standing around at bus stops and on trains, before and after work, all reading the same “news” from the same sources – the free newspapers containing nothing but the same old ideas of the system – racism, sexism, competition and greed – reinforcing the ideas and beliefs and maintaining the status quo that keeps the majority ignorant and exploited.

    People need to see beyond the capitalist rhetoric and know that YES, an alternative society IS possible. The majority want a society in which production is for human need and not for profit. A society in which those who work, not those who own, make the decisions. A world in which human beings of all races and nations cooperate and children learn the lessons of the past of war and poverty in history lessons, astonished that such atrocities could ever have happened. Maybe I am naive, but I believe it is only when the majority wake up from their slumber and stand up and take power that it will happen.

  8. Pingback: Is It Time To Turn Our Backs On Capitalism and Give Socialism A Chance? « Bala Fria

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