Book Review: S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism by Richard Swift

Review by Mike Carr | December 15, 2014

Our beautiful planet earth is suffering the very beginnings of a vast and multi-layered eco-catastrophy that will, if left unchecked, destroy our civilization and our species.  As the most recent and most definitive Synthesis Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has outlined, global climate warming is unequivocal.  Concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are at their highest level in 800,000 years.  The report warns that it is “extremely likely” that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and other human generated sources are the dominant cause of global warming.  The disappearance of species has reached the highest levels of extinction since the end of the dinosaur era 65 million years ago as world-renowned paleobiologist E.O. Wilson has detailed.  Loss and destruction of habitat through de-forestation, road and expressway proliferation, mega dam construction, urban auto-sprawl and other massive human interventions are the causes.  In short, the system of industrial and commercial growth, endless growth on a finite planet, is behind the global ecological disaster which is also a social disaster as great disparities of wealth and poverty rapidly grow even greater.

 It is also clear that growing numbers of people around the globe are becoming aware that capitalism, a system whose core dynamic is based on incessant, accelerated growth, is the root cause of the crisis.  Awareness is especially true in the global South, but many people in the advanced capitalist nations, especially youth, since the great financial collapse of 2008 now feel disinherited by capitalism from any meaningful future.  In the U.S., large numbers of youth favour socialism over capitalism, as do a majority of blacks and liberal democrats.

Currently, a peoples’ movement, System Change Not Climate Change (SCNCC), recently helped organize a huge successful protest march of 400,000 in New York City.  Many other cities in Canada and elsewhere also held marches as a growing number of people within SCNCC and other social movements look for alternatives to the dominant system.  So, the appearance of S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism by Richard Swift is very timely.

S.O.S. provides a very well researched, concise, and articulate account of a range of 20th and 21st century alternatives to capitalism along with an incisive critique of the capitalist political order.  That he has achieved this in a mere 150 some pages without over-simplification and in a very accessible language makes this book a must read for busy social and environmental activists, and anyone else who wants to seriously think about alternatives to the reigning system.  While his critique of capitalism is uncompromising his analysis of the range of alternatives also looks critically at these ideologies and systems that have claimed to build alternatives, beginning with 20th century state socialism (self-styled “communism”) and social democracy. 

As Swift argues both have attempted to bring in socialism organized top-down using state power.  SOS takes the reader through two centuries of thought and experience to achieve socialism using state power from the Jacobin dictatorship (so admired by Lenin) during the 1789 French revolution to the Stalinist dictatorships of the old USSR, China and North Korea.  Swift maintains – quite correctly in this reviewer’s opinion - that the “legitimacy of the political state and the way it exercises power remains one of the left’s major political blind spots”.  Further, Swift argues, this blind spot is common to the social democratic as well as the communist left.  Both flawed systems have proved to be the undoing of the democratic socialist hopes of the 19th century.  With respect to Leninist vanguardism (i.e., using a “vanguard” party of professional revolutionary cadres to substitute itself for working class opposition), Swift reflects that, in retrospect, it could easily be claimed that orthodox state communism was “not really an alternative to capitalism at all, but merely a transitional form of it that allowed certain societies blocked in their developmental path” (Russia, China), to move toward their own peculiar model of autocratic capitalism.  The “ideological glue” that sustained these former centres of world communism is no longer based on communist ideals of equality and producer self-rule, but on “Great Power nationalism and individual self-enrichment”. 

Moderate socialism, social democratic style, gradually deteriorated over the course of the 20th century from being staunch advocates of democratic forms of socialism to being nothing more than centre-left loyal supporters or “modernisers”, as Swift puts it, of the capitalist system.  Swift uses 2 main examples, the French Socialist party under Francois Mitterand in the 1980s and British Labour under Tony Blair starting in 1997.  While Mitterand began with a promising program of nationalising certain industries, raising the minimum wage, pensions and other welfare social safety measures as well as a “solidarity tax” on high incomes, his program was quickly curtailed, caught “in the early vice of globalization” as Swift observes.  So, the Mitterrand government made an austerity turn that “stopped the leftist program in its tracks”, introducing “labour flexibility” and fiscal restraint now familiar to us today as basic mantra of neo-liberal capitalism.  Publicly owned companies were quickly sold back to the private sector at rock bottom prices.  In the end, “French nationalism replaced socialism as Mitterand’s main political coinage”.

Under Blair’s Third Way, his party worked to reposition Labour as a market and business friendly alternative to what they termed the “destructive class politics of old Labour and the left in general”.  Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal capitalist program of austerity was actually speeded up under Blair through further deregulation and privatization.   Swift pinpoints Blair’s New Labour as the “prototype of a new kind of social democratic party that has abandoned any significant attempt to reform capitalism”.  Tellingly, Swift concludes, social democratic parties of the centre-left underestimate the sheer inertia built into the structures of the state.

Swift`s analysis of the state is undoubtedly one of the major strengths of his book. He argues that the state in an advanced capitalist economy is hemmed in by the sheer weight of the corporate economy on which it depends for the fundamentals of economic well-being: growth, taxes and jobs.  What to do?  In essence capitalism captured the state through its economic and political power, including its control of the mass media, backed up of course by its vast military forces and the various security and espionage systems of the national security state(s) led by the United States of America.  At this point in his account of the nasty social and ecological situation faced by all humanity, Swift moves on to an analysis of those social/political movements that have attempted to undermine capitalism from below, beginning with anarchism.

Anarchists and other libertarian left movements have from their origins firmly rejected the use of state power to transform capitalism from above by capturing state power.  He quotes Karl Marx in his The Civil War in France: “the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”.  Thus, the anarchist impulse to smash state power.  For Swift, the best of Marx is found in this work, analysing the Paris Commune of 1871 where workers under their own organization and inspiration formed their commune which governed Paris for some two months.  Swift outlines a brief history of the roots of anarchism in the 19th century.  For Swift, anarchism has been divided since its beginnings and down to the present between two strands of thought: those who favour a violent overthrow of the state through acts of mass defiance (Bakunin, Malatesta) and those who support building “spaces and practices of self-rule so as to challenge state structures” (Proudon, Kropotkin).  This latter strand of anarchism, libertarianism or autonomism has gathered more adherents in the 21st century as the appetite for violent overthrow has waned with the globalization of massive state power.  Unfortunately, Swift observes, the history of the libertarian left in the 20th century up until the 1960s “is rich in its diversity, but poor in its political accomplishments”.  The 1960s marked an upsurge of left libertarianism, “the beginning of the end for Leninism as the default position in radical leftist political culture”. 

The 1960 s also marked the beginning of what Swift terms, “the eco-divide”.  Before the first stirrings of ecological knowledge and thinking, most of the alternatives to capitalism shared two key assumptions with the capitalist system: a shared notion that economic growth was an absolute necessity: it was “a concept of progress dependant on the exploitation of the supposedly endless bounty of the natural world”.  The other shared notion was “an almost unqualified belief in the beneficial nature of science and technology”.    This “gospel of progress”, born in the Enlightenment, believed that the future of humanity depended on the conquest of nature.  This unfounded belief is still all too common today as many people clutch desperately to the progress parade of consumerist industrial society, even in the face of massive evidence that the ecological crisis is already now upon us.  Swift argues that an ecologically coherent left must come to terms with its own productivist past if it is to mount a convincing critique of capitalism.   

The birth of green parties “the most visible political manifestation of the rise of ecological consciousness” - at first quite hopeful - has proved after several short decades to become caught up in the dominant electoral politics.  Greens have all too quickly become plagued by the same kind of compromises that the social democratic center-left engages in, adapting to the ‘practical’ politics of managing capitalist economies.  It is fair to say, Swift sums up, that green parties have failed to present “any kind of overall ecological alternative to capitalism”.  And this is true of even the most successful of the greens, the German Green Party, as Swift points out.

 So, where to turn?  Swift spends the second half of SOS attempting, as he says, to “tease out” answers to this question.  One vital element of a new post-capitalist transition Swift contends must be the use of utopian thinking.  Traditionally scorned by many Marxists, social democrats and anarchists, utopian thought is making new inroads into the search for solutions to the crisis of civilization.  Swift’s traces the twin history both of utopian thought and of the anti-utopians.  Marx, Swift observes, was “probably right in his reluctance to speculate on the details of life under communism thinking that, in history, utopias write themselves”.  Still, in an age where it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism, Swift argues strongly for the need to propose alternatives to the system.  If we can only say what we don’t want (no pipelines, no tankers, no mega-projects, etc.), while failing to propose broadly conceived post-capitalist alternatives, then “success will likely remain elusive”.  Swift further outlines the “utopianism of the powerful”, the belief promoted daily in the capitalist mass media that human salvation lies in technology and progress realized through the market.  Quoting Hungarian anthropological economist Karl Polanyi, Swift shows that the idea that the laws of commerce were the laws of nature and consequently also the laws of God was a “blind faith akin to the fanaticism of sectarians”.  Against this dominant utopianism of “capitalist rationality and market fetishism”, we who seek a way beyond the capitalist technological promised land, need to re-vision a future grounded in the “humane values of community solidarity and empathy with a more rooted morality than the grand abstractions and expediencies of nation and profit”.  Indeed, since the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico inspired the renewal of libertarian and autonomist ideas and action in the 1990s, many people in many movements in the North and the South have adopted the post-Seattle (1999) slogan ‘Another World is Possible’.  As Swift opines in his terse phrasing, “While the old Bolshevik-inspired sects still exist on the sidelines, the main thinking about alternatives to capitalism is decidedly decentralist – encapsulated in the ‘one no and many yeses’ first advanced by the Zapatistas”.

With this, Swift turns his search to “Rebuilding the Alternatives Southern-Style”.  In this chapter he explores many movements in a range of geographies around the global South, focussing especially on the sweep of workers’ and peoples’ uprisings and revolutions in Latin America.  Here, most notably in Venezuela, Swift outlines various efforts to re-invent a 21st-century socialism that “empowers the grassroots rather than being imposed from above”.  The Venezuelan experiment is an attempt at coming to grips with the knotty problem of using state power democratically - not to rule over civil society, but to assist in the building of peoples’ power from below.  Swift argues that contrary to neo-liberal, Leninist and most anarchist views of the state as an instrument to enforce arbitrary rule (or be smashed), the state is more than that.  It is also a terrain to be fought over.  Rather than simply using strategies to restrict the state to its coercive functions (the conservative or neo-liberal line) or to extend its ‘welfare state’ functions (the centre-left line), there is a potential third position that would champion the state’s egalitarian obligations to respond to popular needs, but would at the same time “seek to expand the notion of democracy and embed it in communities and workplaces”.   Swift cites direct-democracy initiatives devolving power to local workers’ and community councils in Venezuela (and to indigenous territories in Bolivia and Ecuador).  He credits the late Hugo Chavez with “picking up and amplifying the sentiments of Venezuela’s dispossessed” in attempting to decentralize power through assisting self-organized cooperatives and communes.   More might have been made of this key piece of Venezuelan Bolivarian socialism, especially given the centrality of the dilemma of state power in Swift’s argument.  Swift, in his usual judicious account, does not fail to present the downside to Venezuelan “petro-socialism”, noting that “the government has resisted any real extension of worker’s self-management in the vital oil sector and has ignored agriculture to the point of seriously undermining food sovereignty”.  Again on the positive side, Swift quotes statistics showing that under Chavez’s Bolivarian politics, Venezuela now has the most equal distribution of income on the continent.  Indeed, this applies to the whole continent as inequality in Latin America has dropped to its lowest point in 30 years.   

What emerges from this impressive chapter is that without the social movements, the self-organization of workers and communities, there would be no 21st century socialism, no Chavez, no Evo Morales in Bolivia, no Bolivarian governments.  The defense and expansion of the commons so well described by Swift is only possible through the efforts of the people(s) themselves.  The commons for Swift is very broadly defined as the earth and all its ecosystems, soils, forests, oceans, etc.  The Global South is now leading the way forward to defend the global commons.  Another world outside of capitalism is not only possible, it is already in its initial birth process.

Swift argues that to assist this process, we, the peoples of the earth, South and North, need to organize ourselves in our workplaces and our communities everywhere.  In a section called Beyond Growth Politics, de-growth is explored both as a new social movement and as a proposed way out of capitalism.  Clearly, there are limits to growth on a finite planet.  The earth’s capacity to adsorb “the filthy by-products of global capitalism’s voracious metabolism is maxing out”.  As Swift underlines: “Have no doubt – de-growth there will be!  It is just a question of weather this will result in equitable and democratic social arrangements or in gate-guarded communities serviced by underpaid workers and surrounded by large populations of environmental refugees”.

In a key chapter called Sources of Hope – Life Before Capitalism, Swift overviews the anthropology of the diversity of early human societies that did live in and with the earth, its systems and its other creatures in a long period of sustainable communalism.  Today, in Latin America and elsewhere indigenous societies are showing possible ways out of capitalism.  Indigenous age-old practices and world-views are inspiring new forms of organizing.  The indigenous Zapatista movement’s slogan ‘leading by following’ has inspired many in Latin America and also autonomists, libertarian Marxists and anarchists in the global North, as more horizontal ways of organizing take root.  What we need particularly in the Global North, is to take strength, as Swift puts it, “from the spirit of our many ancestors and look for real diversity – not as a consumer choice but as an insistence on living and valuing differently”.  Drawing from indigenous radicalism - both ancient and current can help us “live within the bounds of our ecological possibilities”. 

In his final chapter, Swift begins by reflecting on the limitations of social movements that oppose various social injustices and ecologically destructive assaults on the natural world, but without making proposals for a new post-capitalist way of life: “When all opposition is thought of in terms of negation, it limits the ability of anti-capitalism to think beyond capitalist terms”.  This is the “trap of anti-politics”.  It allows the rule of capital to continue to frame the debate.  Ultimately, Swift argues, there is no real choice but to advance a set of ideas for a future within a sustainable ecological framework that gives us a chance of collective survival.  It is clear that Swift proposes a form of ecological socialism.  Swift is careful to offer his ideas as merely a “modest starting point”.   The first is de-growth.  De-growth is already a social movement in its infancy.  De-growth is described as not only a reduction in consumption, production, and resource use, but also a move toward a society characterized by autonomy, frugality and solidarity.  An economic democratization that replaces material growth with an economy of sufficiency is proposed wherein economic decisions are taken in the public sphere by those most directly affected by them: workers and local communities.  The second proposal is to bring finance under social control.  For Swift, “socializing capital markets is essential if we are to ensure that people control capital rather than the other way around”.  There is already a fledgling public banking movement spearheaded by the Public Banking Institute, created in 2011.  And, of course, many community banks, credit unions and cooperative banking institutions exist “almost everywhere”.  Without a fundamental shift to public control of finance Swift cautions that it is hard to imagine “a future of convivial and democratic de-growth”.  Finally, Swift proposes a change in thinking about the wage-labour system.  This requires taking on the “powerful nonsense” that all taxation is theft.  Swift proposes that we need to be able to establish the notion that taxation “is the gift we give each other in a caring society”.  Not so easy you say, but Swift warns that if we don’t win this battle, we are not likely to win any others.  To implement a transformation of the wage-labour system, to “overcome our job addiction”, a framework based upon both a guaranteed annual income and a robust social wage (free healthcare, education, legal representation, eco-friendly public transportation, and a convivial infrastructure of common spaces and recreational and cultural opportunities) are necessary.  Some examples do exist such as the significant social wage in some social democratic states in Northern Europe, but even there it is always under threat of being rolled back by the corporate world.  In Swift’s proposal, the scale of work and production will be diminished and work places democratized.  Labour would become less productive, but more meaningful, convivial and autonomous.  As production decreases with de-growth, the trade off would be more “free time in place of consumer fantasy”.  Swift is aware the paths forward will not be easy, and will need to be struggled for through examples, education and agitation.             

This critical book will be controversial for much of the left from social democrats to autonomists, but it opens many much needed crucial questions.  It is grounded in an impressive base in the literature of alternatives to capitalism and in a wide knowledge of many social movements around the world.  Swift’s creative approach to imagining alternatives to capitalism has sparked this reviewer’s imagination, and I hope it will yours.

Richard Swift is a journalist/activist.  For over two decades he was an editor of the New Internationalist.  He has written a number of books on a diverse range of topics, including the No Nonsense Guide to Democracy.  He also edited The Great Revenue Robbery: How to Stop the Tax Cut Scam and Save Canada. 

Mike Carr has been a citizen activist for decades, including radio journalism for Vancouver Co-op Radio.  His only published book is Bioregionalism and Civil Society: Democratic Alternatives to Corporate Globalism.  Currently, he is a member of the Vancouver Eco-Socialist Group, the Circulo Bolivariano Louis Riel, and Van City Credit Union.