Can capitalism be fixed or does it need to be overthrown and replaced?
It’s a question that’s been debated on the left for centuries now.
With new ideas of “conscious capitalism” emerging there’s growing momentum on the side of taking the best of capitalism and reforming its worst.
Conscious capitalism or revolution? Let’s take a look.
Conscious capitalism or revolution?
Is capitalism fundamentally flawed and unworkable or can it be reformed enough to make it more humane and functional?
The key difference between reform and revolution lies in corporate structure.
Do we keep the current laws around incorporation and free-market practices?
Or do we change how business is done at the most fundamental level and overthrow all of capitalism and its attendant factors like free trade?
Conscious capitalism seeks to make employees into shareholders and provide them significant social services and benefits while still running a for-profit business.
Revolution isn’t interested in compromise and believes that capitalism is inherently unjust and exploitative no matter how many improvements you make. Revolutionaries want to burn the whole thing down.
Today’s anti-capitalists mainly come from the left spectrum ranging from libertarian socialism to authoritarian communism, but there are also some anti-capitalist factions on the eco-fascist and national socialist far right.
Revolutionism and overthrowing capitalism
There are various examples of revolutionary movements that have sought to completely overthrow capitalism and start over.
Revolutionary movements believe that capitalism of any kind is just varying degrees of extracting labor from serfs for the benefit of the owner class.
They see any labor, ownership or production in a capitalist society as inherently unjust and unsustainable.
Revolutionary anti-capitalists don’t want capitalism to improve or become self-conscious, they want it gone. In fact, the worse it gets the closer it gets to what Karl Marx argued was the natural emergence of socialism and then communism as capitalism revealed its inner contradictions and injustice.
Arguing for a complete overthrow of capitalism, Revolutionary Marxism magazine says:
“There is not a shred of doubt that a new stage has opened up in the unfolding of the Third Great Depression and its accompanying consequences…
History is calling out to socialism as the solution and to Marxist forces as the standard bearer of that new society, much more adequate to the productive forces that have outgrown their capitalist straitjacket.”
Here’s a look at one national example and one group example of trying to fully leave capitalism behind.
Case study 1: Cuba
Che Guevara and Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the capitalist, American-backed government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 is legendary.
Critics slam Che and Fidel as terrorist scum who terrorized the island and took it over to enrich their friends and rule with an iron fist.
Supporters laud the duo and their fighters for liberating the island from imperialist decadence and trying to stand up to the American Empire.
Whichever side you fall on, there’s no doubt that communist Cuba tried to start over from scratch. They made corporations state-run and state-owned, collectivized farms and eliminated private enterprise.
The reality on the ground quickly became less appetizing, with ongoing food shortages, domineering imperialistic behavior by the former USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost led to nuclear war, and the widespread persecution of political dissidents.
On the other hand, many point to Cuba’s healthcare system and education sector as examples of the benefit of socialistic policies and overthrowing capitalist structures, arguing that negative aspects of modern Cuba are partly propaganda and partly the effect of punishing American sanctions.
Case study 2: The Farm
The Farm is a quite large hippie commune which completely left capitalism and modern society behind in the 1970s and still exists today on an expansive rural property in Tennessee.
As Chris Moody writes in his article, Farm founder Stephen Gaskin:
“Believed that America should return to natural living…
So in 1971, he and 300 hippies set out from San Francisco in search of a place to form an agrarian commune and ‘get it on with the dirt.’”
Those who joined gave up all possessions and were all vegetarian, pacifist, and not allowed to take birth control or other medications Gaskin considered harmful.
The Farm had 1,200 people by the 1980s and reached a peak before having financial issues and running out of supplies. They became sucked back into the capitalist system with Gaskin telling anyone who wanted to stay to find a job and source of income to help support the commune.
There are only about 200 members still living at the Farm today.
Although it still adheres to its anti-capitalist roots, the Farm still needs money and income to stay operational.
Members say it’s just the current reality, but their goal is still to leave capitalism behind for good eventually.
“We realize that there is no viable way to start a full commune within a capitalist society right now. What we can do is slowly leverage our way out of it,” said Farm resident and poet-activist Michael Beyer.
“Conscious capitalism” and reform
There is a growing movement of so-called “conscious capitalism” to consider as well.
The concept of conscious capitalism was created by Wholefoods co-founder John Mackey and Marketing Professor Raj Sisodia.
Conscious capitalism does not argue for revolution or overthrowing capitalism, but instead argues that a profit-based and private-enterprise model can be made humane and give back more to employees and customers.
The four main elements of conscious capitalism as outlined by Mackey and Sisodia are:
- Businesses motivated by ethical principles not just profit
- Stakeholder commitment including employees and customers as shareholders
- Inclusive leadership that avoids top-down attitudes and directives
- Ethical and engaged corporate culture that cares about workers and customers, not just money
Here are two case studies of conscious capitalism in action.
Case study 1: Wholefoods
Wholefood is a good example of “conscious capitalism” and the attempt to bring in elements of collective wellbeing and economic justice to a profit-based company.
As Isaac Chotiner discusses in this fascinating article, Wholefoods was founded in Austin, Texas in 1980 to be a supermarket and health food store.
“Originally we were basically hippies sellin’ food to other hippies.”
It grew from a single location to over 500 stores today and was bought out by Amazon in 2017 for $14 billion. Mackey’s still in charge and he is basically a right-wing hippie.
Mackey is essentially what conservative author Rod Dreher called a “crunchy con.”
Mackey doesn’t believe in man-made climate change and opposes government-run healthcare but believes that we must protect the environment from pollution, encourage fair trade and offer workers more benefits and compassion.
Wholefoods have been called out for only offering two weeks’ extra sick leave to employees during COVID, but Mackey says that his business is all about a “higher purpose.”
According to Mackey, “I’ve learned that you need to manage that system to optimize it for everybody. Instead of thinking in terms of trade-offs—if one is gaining, someone else is losing—you look for strategies where they’re all gaining, they’re all winning, they’re all flourishing.”
This idealistic, win-win outlook undergirds Mackey’s conscious capitalism philosophy.
“The beautiful thing about stakeholder theory, and I think about healthy capitalism, is that all of these stakeholders can simultaneously be winning. That’s just a very important idea, a revolutionary idea,” Mackey says.
Mackey says Wholefoods focuses on paying bonuses, overtime and looking after employees, including one-time past payouts of a share of Amazon (AMZN) stock.
It also supports the Whole Planet Foundation to end hunger in the Third World and the Local Producer Loan Program to give local growers and grocers loans to expand.
“I’m a conscious capitalist. That’s my political beliefs. I believe in capitalism. I believe it’s the greatest system for helping humanity to be advanced that’s ever been created. I think we can do it in a more conscious way,” Mackey says.
Case study 2: Patagonia
Patagonia is an outdoor apparel company founded in 1973 by rock climber and environmentalist Yvon Chouinard. It’s become a leading example of conscious capitalism.
As a leading Benefit Corporation (“B Corp”), Patagonia donates considerable slices of its profits to environmental groups and non-profit organizations, hosts workshops for economic and environmental activists, sources fair trade, sustainable, organic products and offers childcare and other services to employees.
Since 1986 Patagonia has given ten percent of profits or 1% of sales (depending on what’s bigger) to environmental causes, including employees doing work on renewable energy and environmental issues.
Despite sometimes higher prices for its products, Chouinard has seen remarkable success that’s only growing as Millennial shoppers increasingly turn to environmentally and politically conscious companies to shop instead of big box stores.
In fact, Patagonia’s revenue has gone up more than 400% in the past decade.
“Patagonia is in business to save our home planet,” Chouinard says.
The conscious capitalism of companies like Wholefoods and Patagonia is no longer an oddity. It’s becoming mainstream.
“Conscious companies like Patagonia are not an anomaly. Five years ago, when my agency explained to potential clients that we create ‘values-based businesses,’ we were met with a lot of resistance.
Now, we have a full roster of ethical, responsible, values-based clients dedicated to creating companies that benefit all stakeholders — and a waitlist. The tide has turned.”
Two perspectives on capitalism: Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky
American historian and activist Howard Zinn felt that protest against the injustices of capitalism and imperialism should not verge into violence but believed that citizens can break civil laws when necessary to have their voices heard.
“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it,” Howard Zinn said.
Zinn believed that capitalism must be done away with and yield to a socialist system of big government, guaranteed work, public healthcare and an end to eviction, poverty and class-based inequality.
Zinn explains his views very clearly in this 2009 interview with the International Socialist Review magazine.
According to Zinn, America and much of the Western world is trapped in a delusional idea of “trickle-down economics” that only benefits the very few ultra-wealthy.
“Even before Obama became president, you may recall, the first bailout of $700 billion went to the same financial institutions that have ruined us. I remember seeing a photo as the bailout was being signed, a photo of the two nominees, McCain and Obama, both standing there applauding this. I thought, this is wrong. This is wrong,” Zinn said.
“We’re pouring money into the top — it’s the trickle down theory, right?—giving money to the rich, to the bankers, to the financial institutions, hoping that some of that money will trickle down to the people that need it. That doesn’t work.”
Howard Zinn, anarchists and direct action
Howard Zinn has expressed support for what anarchists refer to as direct action, namely:
“We should say that we’re not going to give any of it, not a dollar, to these financial institutions. We’re going to take this money and we’re going to give it directly to the people who need it.”
He supports a socialistic ideal where everyone who is able to work does so and you get rid of “middlemen” corporations and market forces which “only works for profit, not for human beings.”
Instead, what Zinn wants is that “the government must give jobs directly to people who need them. Anybody who’s unemployed and wants to work, the government will employ you.”
In addition, Zinn emphasized that socialism needs to be put into practice in a workable, non-totalitarian way.
“It’s time that people were not afraid to utter the word socialism. You see, there’s a long period when socialism was discredited because it was connected to the Soviet Union. People thought, oh socialism, oh that’s Stalinism. It’s the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But it wasn’t socialist. It was something else,” Zinn explained.
“I think it’s very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion and to bring socialism back to where it was at at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union even existed, before the Soviet Union gave socialism a bad name.”
As for those who are scared of doing away with the old capitalist system, Zinn has little patience for them.
“And for those people who think, oh socialism means bureaucracy or socialism means centralization, no. Socialism is open to various forms. But the fundamental principle in socialism is production for use and not for profit. I remember learning that expression: an economic system for use, for human beings and not for profit.”
Zinn believed that anyone seeking answers within the two-party-dominated US system will be disappointed and said he considers the Democrat party to be only a lite version of the Republican party.
“The history of the Democratic Party is the history of being as expansionist and militarist and imperialist as the Republican Party,” Zinn says. “Really, just look at that history.”
At the same time, Zinn – who died in 2010 – never called for violent revolution and seemed to believe in incremental change, recommending that small acts can eventually change even a large system.
“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change,” Zinn says. “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
Zinn wanted state-run enterprises, guaranteed work and an end to the private free market system. Part of his rationale was that he believed capitalism had failed by not providing a decent standard of living to the majority of people.
“You have to go beyond capitalism. Capitalism has failed,” Zinn said.
Noam Chomsky says capitalism and direct democracy can’t coexist
As for Chomsky, he believes that capitalism and democracy can never coexist. Steeped in the anarchist tradition and philosophy, Chomsky is an anarchosyndicalist who believes in a form of libertarian socialism.
As a strong supporter of free speech and grassroots democracy, Chomsky opposes capitalism in any form. In fact, Chomsky considers the private corporation itself to be antithetical to freedom and equality, even comparing it to Stalinist Russia.
“It’s ridiculous to talk about freedom in a society dominated by huge corporations. What kind of freedom is there inside a corporation? They’re totalitarian institutions – you take orders from above and maybe give them to people below you.”
Chomsky has said, adding: “There’s about as much freedom as under Stalinism.”
An interview Chomsky did last year with Lena Matsiori provides the most up-to-date views of the leading linguist and political activist on how to approach capitalism.
Chomsky believes that neoliberalism – or right-wing austerity policies that favor privatization – have taken over government and even led to the severity of the COVID outbreak.
“The pandemic derives from deep failures of capitalism exacerbated by the impact of its savage neoliberal version. In 2003, after the SARS epidemic was contained, scientists warned that another coronavirus epidemic was likely and outlined ways to prepare for it. But knowledge is not enough. Someone has to act on it.”
“The obvious choice is Big Pharma, bloated with gifts from the public thanks to the devices of neoliberal globalization. But that is barred by capitalist logic: It is not profitable to prepare for future catastrophes. That leaves government, which is in fact responsible for the basic work in developing most vaccines and drugs. But that is blocked by neoliberal doctrine: Government is the problem, as Reagan intoned. So nothing was done.”
Chomsky sees hope in democratic socialism and politicians like Bernie Sanders, citing the “great promise” of Sanders and “along with Yanis Varoufakis and DiEM25 in Europe.”
Overall, however, Chomsky sees capitalism as irreconcilable with a better world and believes that continuing in any form of capitalism will eventually lead to the literal end of the world via climate change and environmental destruction.
Revolution or reform via conscious capitalism?
As can be seen in the above examples and thinkers, capitalism is widely criticized.
Supporters of capitalism often point out that it’s the least bad option for large-scale economies and technological innovation and that – at least – it allows the upholding of some rights instead of outright authoritarianism.
Ideological capitalists like Ayn Rand hold capitalism as the only truly noble and worthy system in which human beings can flourish and pursue real accomplishment and success.
While figures like Mackey and Chouinard advocate smoothing capitalism’s rough edges and using profits to join together on worthy causes, others like Chomsky say it has to be taken to the scrap yard and can’t be fixed.
Whatever the answer, it’s clear that revolutions against capitalism have been very poorly executed and managed in the past and have a horrible record for human rights, while reforms of capitalism from Mondragon to Wholefoods have shown much greater promise.
In addition, the possibility of capitalism helping innovation toward renewable energy, environmental progress, and many other areas of life from medicine to technology remains significant.