This is the second of ten extracts from the book Democratic Economic Planning (2021, Routledge) by Robin HahneI. It is the introduction to PART III ‘A participatory economy’.
Answer to Auntie Tina
[Capitalism] is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous – and it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.– John Maynard Keynes (1933)
With all the work we must do responding to economic crises and protecting people and the environment, why is it important to take the time to think through how a desirable alternative to capitalism can work? There is no shortage of scathing indictments of capitalism, and serious anti-capitalist movements have been around since capitalism first burst on history’s stage. Yet capitalism has survived despite its many flaws. Why is it so hard to get rid of this bad penny?
The people who profit most from capitalism have developed an arsenal of weapons to disempower the rest of us. There are bright lights flickering in Times Square, clever consumer goods to buy us off, the alluring myth that we are all middle class, as well as the contradictory myth that anyone willing to work hard can climb up into the middle class or beyond. There are various social cleavages that pit us against one another, a sophisticated corporate media that lulls us into a stupor, and the illusion of democracy because we are free to buy, apply for employment, and vote as we please. Ultimately, there is the violence of the police and military if we step too far out of line – or simply belong to a more threatened community. Together, all this forms a brutally efficient system of domination that protects the privileges of the few at the expense of the many.
But these are not the only reasons capitalism has been with us this long. We have argued that capitalism is incompatible with the best of human potentials – which is why we should replace it with an economic system that is not! But unfortunately capitalism is compatible with some of our worst potentials. No economic system totally at odds with human nature could possibly survive as long as capitalism already has if it did not resonate with some part of what human beings can become. Defenders of capitalism play on this fact by claiming that humans can only be reliably motivated by greed and fear, that most people are incapable of making good economic decisions and must be told what to do by others who are wiser, and therefore, we can only hope that placing most under the command of a few and forcing the greedy and fearful to compete against one another in markets will yield reasonably desirable outcomes. This is the time-honored “human nature” defense of capitalism. What it amounts to is the defense of a sorry-assed economic system as our destiny because we are a sorry-assed species.
The fallacy in this argument is that it fails to acknowledge that humans have other potentials as well – potentials that cannot be fulfilled under capitalism but can become the basis for an economic system in which people manage their own economic activities democratically, fairly, sustainably, and efficiently. The fallacy in the “human nature” defense of capitalism is not that people are not capable of acting out of greed and fear and sheepishly obeying orders – because in an economic system that systematically rewards greedy and fearful behavior, many of us will often behave in these ways. The fallacy is in asserting that in a system where people are given the opportunity to make their own decisions, where people are positively rewarded for embracing a fair distribution of the burdens and benefits of economic activity, where people are rewarded, not punished, for acting in solidarity with others, that in such a system we are incapable of doing so. The fact that we can see people behaving in these positive ways every day despite disincentives to do so is clear evidence that such behavior is not beyond human capabilities.
The “ugly side of human nature is all there is to human nature” lie is the launching pad for the TINA defense of capitalism. In the early 1980s British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher turned a rejoinder long used by self- serving ruling elites whenever their victims begin to grumble – “There Is No Alternative” – into an unforgettable acronym, TINA. In the middle third of the last century, many on the left responded to the TINA defense of capitalism by pointing to the Soviet Union, or Maoist China, or Castro’s Cuba. Others who could not ignore the increasingly obvious deficiencies in Communist societies succumbed to TINA and resigned themselves to trying to make capitalism a little more humane. Both responses were mistakes. As we argued in Part II, Communism was never a desirable alternative to capitalism and, therefore, never a compelling response to TINA. On the other hand, TINA is nothing more than a desperate assertion made by those who are hard pressed to defend capitalism on its merits.
In Part III we begin the process of spelling out a feasible alternative to capitalism in which workers manage themselves instead of working for an employer or a commissar, and worker and consumer councils and federations plan their own interrelated activities themselves without submitting to the dictates of either central planners or markets. We explain how this “participatory economy” can work efficiently and fairly, why it need not tie us up in endless debates at interminable meetings, why it can motivate people to work hard and enterprises to innovate, and why it can protect the natural environment better than any economic system before it. The remainder of this book is an answer to any who, like Lord Keynes, are increasingly disgusted with capitalism but find themselves “perplexed about what to put in its place.” What follows demonstrates that TINA is not only an empty assertion, it is the ultimate “big lie.” There is a highly desirable alternative to capitalism that builds on the best rather than the worst of human potentials, and it is perfectly feasible.
We need a compelling response to TINA because without a vision of something worth fighting for, we cannot expect people to take the risks necessary to change things. We need a response to TINA because without a clear idea of where we want to go, we cannot forge a strategy for how to get from here to there. And finally, we need a response to TINA because you can’t beat something with nothing!
Keynes, J.M. 1933. “National Self-Sufficiency.” The Yale Review (22, 4): 755–769.