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A Contradiction at the Core of Democrapitalism:

Some Socio-Political and Ecological Implications

Abstract

Peter Barnes has made the following observation regarding the incompatibility of democracy and capitalism: democracy is an open system, while capitalism is a gated system. Yet the dominant global political economy is ‘democratic capitalism’ (or ‘democrapitalism’), which, in the light of Barnes’ observation, is an oxymoron. A result of the presence of a gated capitalist ‘core’ within democracy is the political prioritisation of ‘business as usual’, which resists socio-political or economic changes because economic growth is a prerequisite of capitalism. Authentic responses to some of the challenges facing humankind – challenges arising from unrestrained economic growth – cannot occur if economic growth is permanently on the political agenda. A broad literature review is here conducted in order to highlight aspects of the open-closed contradiction that lies at the heart of democrapitalism and some of its accompanying effects, and links are made between to the broader issue of the impact of human economic activity on ecology at large occurring alongside the prioritisation of economic growth in democrapitalism. Acknowledging the open-closed contradiction of democrapitalism means acknowledging its in-built incapacity to rise to some of humanity’s current challenges, such as the ecological crisis. Solutions to such challenges, it is suggested, should be sought elsewhere.

Keywords: democracy; capitalism; open-closed distinction; the occupy movement; ecological crisis.

 Introduction

In this paper, I collate views from several critical thinkers for the central claim that a deep-seated contradiction lies at the heart of the ‘union’ between democracy and capitalism, or ‘democrapitalism’. In the context of this paper, these denote a political economy with economic growth being a central defining feature, the presence of which excludes the possibility of curbing economic growth. Yet capitalist economic growth is a restless dynamo (Kovel 2002, 39) – it is a form of growth based on the presumably endless expansion of human economic activity via the increase in the throughput of ‘natural resources’ extracted from nature. I will expand on these focal areas, and it will be clear that one implication of the emphasis of certain themes is that capitalism and democracy are incompatible[1]. From the outset, however, I wish to make clear what I am not arguing: I am not arguing that democracy and capitalism are inherently ‘bad’, undesirable, or in need of excision from the human socio-political and economic arenas, regardless of my personal opinions on these matters. I am also not setting out to trace the historical development of the relationship between democracy and capitalism. I do argue that, due to the open-closed paradox at the core of democrapitalism, solutions to issues caused by capitalist characteristics (such as ‘addiction’ to economic growth) must be sought outside of the so-called democratic political sphere indistinguishable from capitalist ‘business-as-usual’.

Features of capitalism under scrutiny

Joel Kovel (2002, 39) reminds readers of his explicitly-titled book, The Enemy of Nature: the End of Capitalism or the End of the World? of an inherent defining feature of capitalism: that capitalist production is primarily for profit:

Those who do not know yet that capitalist production is for profit and not use can learn it right away from watching Wall Street discipline corporations that fail to measure up to standards of profitability. Capitalists celebrate the restless dynamism that these standards enforce, with its drive for innovation, efficiency and new markets.

Kovel continues his exposé by immediately outlining the difference between ‘exchange-value’ and use-value, the former being the central focus of capitalism in that ‘exchange-value’ is the area in which capital (profit) is accumulated; he writes (2002, 39) that use-value

signifies the commodity’s place in the ever-developing manifold of human needs and wants, while exchange-value represents its ‘commodity-being’, that is, its exchangeability, an abstraction that can be expressed only in quantitative terms, and as money. Broadly speaking, capital represents that regime in which exchange-value predominates over use-value in the production of commodities – and the problem with capital is that, once installed, this process becomes self-perpetuating and expanding.

Foster, Clark and York (2010, 40) agree on this point: “It is exchange value, which knows only quantitative increase – not use value, which relates to the qualitative aspects of production – which drives the system”. In capitalism, the focus on exchange value is elevated to soaring heights by the exclusive focus on ‘quantifiable profit’. Baer (2012, 300) reminds readers, via reference to Foster, that private “corporations are institutions with one and only one purpose: the pursuit of profit”. Kovel (2002, 48) discusses this ‘pursuit of profit’ with reference to the benchmark of progress in industrial neoliberal ‘free-market’ capitalist society – GDP. Capital, he says,

employs purely quantitative indices such as gross domestic product (GDP) because they are convenient indices of accumulation. Scarcely a critic of the ecological crisis has refrained from commenting upon the stupid brutality of this number, which reduces the living and the dead alike to the common denominator of what can be extracted from their commodification. It is necessary, though, to see thinking in terms of GDP as no mere error, but the actual logic of the reigning power…

Already, from the lattermost observation, an ecological consequence of the focus on GDP (and concomitantly, economic growth) is apparent, and this consequence will be brought more into focus later in this article. To give a clearer picture of capitalism’s prioritisation of such indices, consider the following from the online Library of Economics and Liberty[2]; the focus is on the USA, the country heralded as the epitome of free-market capitalism, a system that has had global reach for generations:

Gross domestic product, the official measure of total output of goods and services in the U.S. economy, represents the capstone and grand summary of the world’s best system of economic statistics. The federal government organizes millions of pieces of monthly, quarterly, and annual data from government agencies, companies, and private individuals into hundreds of statistics, such as the consumer price index (CPI), the employment report, and summaries of corporate and individual tax returns. The U.S. Department of Commerce then marshals the source data into a complete set of statistics known as the National Income and Product Accounts. This set of double-entry accounts provides a consistent and detailed representation of production in the United States (GDP) and its associated income (national income).

Accompanying globalisation has been the spread of the prioritisation of GDP throughout the world – countries are often listed according to their GDP statuses. A country might be more or less democratic depending on whichever criteria one uses to ascertain the level of democracy in a country; but all countries, in being part of a global economy, participate in economic activity, which is measured in GDP. So all countries might not be democratic in the same way that the USA is, but all governments, democratic or otherwise, participate in the global economy, thereby creating a system-driven imperative to prioritise GDP.

Capitalism’s presence in democracy

Noam Chomsky[3] once responded to the question, “Do you vote?” – and voting is the main political contribution of the average citizen of a democracy – with the following observation:

I often do, without much enthusiasm. In the US, there is basically one party – the business party. It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies. By and large, I am opposed to those policies. As is most of the population.

Chomsky’s observation draws attention to the homogeny of a supposedly heterogeneous democratic political sphere. Chomsky is commenting on the USA, but as McChesney points out in the introduction to Chomsky’s book, Profit over People (1999, 10), the USA is “the spawning ground of liberal democracy”, which is to say the American model of democracy is applicable when discussing democracy in general considering the extent to which the model has via globalisation been implemented in many countries. Speth (2008, 31), in The Bridge at the end of the World, agrees, emphasising the economic aspect of the model in question: “With increasingly few exceptions, modern capitalism… is the operating system of the world economy”. Speth (Ibid) is very specific about the type of ‘operating system’ he is denoting; it is clearly not exclusive to the USA, and it clearly does involve ‘government’, or what Speth refers to as the administrative state:

I use “modern capitalism” here in a broad sense as an actual, existing system of political economy, not as an idealized model. Capitalism as we know it today encompasses the core economic concept of private employers hiring workers to produce products and services that the employers own and then sell with the intention of making a profit. But it also includes competitive markets, the price mechanism, the modern corporation as its principal institution, the consumer society and the materialistic values that sustain it, and the administrative state actively promoting economic strength and growth for a variety of reasons.

The administrative state referred to by Speth is, for the purposes of this paper, synonymous with the term ‘government’, and the main point I am emphasising from Speth’s observations is that when capitalism is the economic base of a country, the administrative state promotes economic strength and growth, be it by way of policy or other means. Both Chomsky and Speth single out of this kind of policy – business policy – in the political/governmental/administrative sphere, thereby drawing attention to the USA’s explicit capitalist attitudes and ideology at a political level. But McChesney makes it clear (1999, 9)  that neoliberal capitalism is “the defining political economic paradigm of our time”, which is certainly true if one considers that extensive capitalist activities occur in all countries, albeit to varying degrees. With a focus on the USA, Steger (2009, 121), quoting Nadar, points out in Globalisms: the Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-First Century, that there is a serious problem for democracy when a capitalist monetary economy is in use: a “‘massive avalanche of corporate money’ has buried the democratic system of the United States”. Keeping in mind the aforementioned point that the United States’ democracy is representative of the globalised neoliberal capitalist political sphere, it is useful to consider more information from Nadar via Steger:

Government has been hijacked to a degree beyond anything we have seen in the last 70 years. It’s been hijacked by corporate power, the multinationals mostly. They have their own people in government. They run [for elections] their own people, they appoint their own people, they get corporate lawyers to become judges. And when that happens you no longer have a countervailing force called government arrayed against excesses of what Jefferson called ‘the moneyed interest’. Instead, you have this convergence, almost a phalanx, of business controlling government and turning it against its own people.

This phenomenon is confirmed in a 2017 report from Oxfam called ‘An Economy of the 99%’[4] in a manner that makes the ‘corporate hijacking of democracy’ relevant beyond the confines of the USA:

Many of the super-rich also use their power, influence and connections to capture politics and ensure that the rules are written for them. … Some of the super-rich also use their fortunes to help buy the political outcomes they want, seeking to influence elections and public policy.

The state may have at several stages in the history of democracy included some regulatory functions, but since the ‘free-market’ economic neoliberal regimes unleashed during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, deregulation has been a priority of the democrapitalist government[5]. Speth (2008:218) goes so far as to say that government has been “captured by the very corporations and concentration of wealth it should be seeking to regulate and revamp”[6]. It is worth looking at the entire paragraph (Ibid) from which this sentence has been extracted for the clear relevance it has considering the themes and issues raised so far in this article:

There are many reasons why government in Washington today is more problem than solution. It is hooked on GDP growth – for its revenues, for its constituencies, and for its influence abroad. It has been captured by the very corporations and concentration of wealth it should be seeking to regulate and revamp, a pattern that has now reached alarming proportions. And it is hobbled by an array of dysfunctional institutional arrangements, beginning with the way presidents are elected.

‘The way presidents are elected’ is a reference to voting, and voting is a characteristic of democracy by definition, not just in the United States. Being ‘hooked’ on GDP growth is certainly also a trait shared by any country participating in a capitalist economy (granted, to varying degrees), and it is hard to find examples of countries not participating in capitalist activity. I have laid enough of a conceptual foundation at this stage of the paper to get to the crux of my argument. Peter Barnes, quoted by Speth (2008, 218) puts it succinctly:

Democracy is an open system, and economic power can easily infect it. By contrast, capitalism is a gated system, its bastions aren’t easily accessed by the masses; capitalism’s primacy thus isn’t an accident, nor the fault of George W. Bush. It’s what happens when capitalism inhabits democracy.

Barnes’ explanation goes some way in justifying Speth’s following damning remarks about the state of Democracy based on his research thereof. He calls it “weak, shallow, dangerous and corrupted” (Ibid), stating that it is “the best democracy money can buy”, and that the “ascendency of market fundamentalism and antiregulation, antigovernment ideology makes the current moment particularly frightening”. Speth later (2008, 219) explains, by way of Barnes again, that the notion of the state promoting “‘the common good’ is sadly naive. …We face a disheartening quandary here. Profit-maximizing corporations dominate our economy. …The only obvious counter-weight is government, yet government is dominated by these same corporations”[7]. These observations are supported by the 2017 Oxfam report[8], ‘An economy of the 99%’, in which the democrapitalist system I have outlined so far is referred to as ‘crony Capitalism’. Some effects of this system are also identified in the report:

Crony capitalism benefits the rich, the people who own and run these corporations, at the expense of the common good and of poverty reduction. It means that smaller businesses struggle to compete and ordinary people end up paying more for goods and services as they face cartels and monopoly power of corporations and those with close connections with government.

How do corporations achieve such influence? Speth (2008, 219) quotes Gar Alperovitz to explain that “the large corporation regularly”…

  1. Influences legislation and agenda setting through lobbying
  2. Influences regulatory behaviour through direct and indirect pressure
  3. Influences elections via large-scale campaign contributions
  4. Influences public attitudes through massive media campaigns
  5. Influences local government choices through all of the above – and adds the implicit or explicit threat of withdrawing its plants, equipment, and jobs from specific locations.

Steger (2009:7) clearly agrees, specifically with the focus on points 1 and 5 regarding agenda setting and the influence on local government:

I contend that market globalism is a political ideology that has achieved dominance in our time. Espousing a hegemonic system of ideas that make normative claims about a set of social processes called ‘globalization,’ market globalists seek to limit public discussion on the meaning and character of globalization to an agenda of things to discuss that supports a specific political agenda.

These ‘normative claims about a set of social processes’ used by ‘market globalists’ to ‘limit public discussion’ are factors that clearly prevent social change in the interests of ‘the people’ (which is often called for by ‘the people’ when they exercise their political contribution in the form of a democratic vote), whether the market globalists know it or not. Further factors are identified in the Oxfam report already mentioned:

…[T]he rich [construct] ‘reinforcing feedback loops’ in which the winners of the game get yet more resources to win even bigger next time. For example, they use their wealth to back political candidates, to finance lobbying and – more indirectly – to bankroll think tanks and universities to shift political and economic narratives towards the false assumptions that favour the rich.

Capitalism is not synonymous with democracy

Changing focus now to a frequently encountered pro-market, pro-capitalist claim made by market globalists: ‘globalisation furthers the spread of Democracy in the world’ – this is a claim that needs to be addressed. Steger (2009, 84) points out that this “market-globalist claim is anchored in the neoliberal assertion that freedom, free-markets, free trade, and democracy are synonymous terms”. This is an interesting point to consider in hindsight of something that J.S. Mill makes clear in On Liberty[9] regarding the dangers of democracy, namely that liberty (freedom, popularly and naively associated with democracy) was originally conceived of as being in opposition to the state. He says that in “old times” liberty meant “protection against the tyranny of the political rulers” (2002, 3). Clearly, then, liberty and freedom are not necessarily synonymous with the ideology of a state, and in fact any consideration of the concept of freedom (based on an historical approach) needs to address the limitation of the power and extent of the state – in other words, liberty partly entails freedom from the power of the state.

There are supporters of the notion that democracy and economic development go hand-in-hand. Here is Steger (2009, 85) quoting Fukuyama:

Francis Fukuyama, for example, asserts that there exists a clear correlation between a country’s level of economic development and successful democracy. While globalization and capital development do not automatically produce democracies, ‘the level of economic development resulting from globalization is conducive to the creation of complex civil societies with a powerful middle class. It is this class and societal structure that facilitates democracy.’

Steger’s response (Ibid) is that such a definition is a “‘thin’ definition of democracy” in use in the neoliberal ‘free-market’ capitalist, globalised world, a definition that “emphasises formal procedures such as voting at the expense of the direct participation of broad majorities in political and economic decision making”:

This focus on the act of voting – in which equality prevails only in the formal sense – helps to obscure the conditions of inequality reflected in existing asymmetrical power relations in society. Formal elections provide the important function of legitimating the rule of dominant elites, thus making it more difficult for popular movements to challenge the rule of elites. The claim that globalization furthers the spread of Democracy in the world is based largely on a narrow, formal-procedural understanding of “democracy”.

Steger (Ibid) continues with some crucial analysis:

Neoliberal economic globalization and the strategic promotion of polyarchic regimes in the Third World are, therefore, two sides of the same ideological coin. They represent the systemic prerequisites for the legitimation of a full-blown world market. The promotion of polyarchy provides market globalists with the ideological opportunity to advance their neoliberal projects of economic restructuring in a language that ostensibly supports the ‘”democratization” of the world.

No surprise then that in a previously encountered sentiment from Speth (2008, 218), neoliberal ‘free-market’ government was described as being “hobbled by an array of dysfunctional institutional arrangements, beginning with the way presidents are elected” (emphasis added). Steger has provided some strong grounds for scepticism about the electoral process. This concern is implicit in the quote from Chomsky, where he comments that there is really only one party in the USA, the business party. McChesney (in Chomsky 1999, 11) puts it bluntly: “Democracy is permissible as long as the control of business is off-limits to popular deliberation or change, i.e. so long as it isn’t democracy”. Such ineffectiveness of the vote is one of the reasons identified by McChesney (Ibid) for neoliberalism being “the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States but across the planet”.

Profit over people and the environment

Another reason identified by McChesney (1999, 10) for neoliberal Democracy being the ‘enemy’ of participatory democracy has to do with the pernicious social (and as will be seen, ecological) impact of the former ‘thin’ version of democracy. He explains that to be effective,

democracy requires that people feel a connection to their fellow citizens, and that this connection manifests itself through a variety of nonmarket organisations and institution groups, libraries, public schools, neighbourhood organisations, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provide ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens. Neoliberal democracy, with its notion of the market über alles, takes dead aim at this sector. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomised society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralised and socially powerless.

It is clear from the above explanation from McChesney that he views people as socially and politically malleable: put them in an environment suited to encourage participation between people, and such interaction is likely to occur. On the other hand, the latter neoliberal capitalist environment is one where the capitalist ‘free-market’ motive of profit-making turns physical environments into ones where individuals are forced to perpetuate corporate profit-making, i.e. people are turned into consumers. Good consumers are ones whose attitudes have been shaped by the capitalist assumption that economic growth is good, that freedom is the freedom to consume, that political participation is the marking of a piece of paper in an election in order to elect leaders who will make sure that the economy keeps growing, and so on – these are aspects of the “hegemonic system” referred to in an observation from Steger (2009, 7) earlier on in this article. So scrutiny of capitalist assumptions in a democracy, specifically the assumptions that endless growth is desirable or inherently good or logical, and that the role of politics is to ensure the growth of the economy, does go a considerable distance in answering the question, ‘what perpetuates the attitudinal factors causing the ecological crisis?’. In a nutshell, part of the answer is the presence of a ‘gated’ capitalistic growth-demanding core in a shallow ‘democratic’ arena.[10]

In McChesney’s observations (Ibid), clear attention is drawn to the social consequences of the prioritisation of the market in a neoliberal democracy, but the ecological implications should be clear: consumers and shopping malls are symbols of the kinds of activities associated with capitalist growth, which requires a constant increase in the processing of nature’s resources to increase GDP, which comes with obvious deleterious effects on the health of ecologies. The issue McChesney has highlighted can be restated as the issue of ‘profit over people’, a concept that can be broadened to include ‘profit over the environment’ considering the ecological focus I have at times alluded to and which I will discuss in more depth below. As already seen, the idea of ‘profit over people’ is the title of Chomsky’s 1999 book. In it, he writes (1999, 132) that the “the most effective way to restrict democracy is to transfer decision making from the public arena to unaccountable institutions: kings and princes, priestly castes, military juntas, party dictatorships, or modern corporations. The decisions made by GE affect the general society substantially, but citizens play no role in them, as a matter of principle”. It is fitting that Chomsky uses as an example GE (General Electric), one of the world’s most influential and powerful players in the fossil-fuel industry, an industry notorious for systematising massive ecological damage. GE is one of a large number of corporations with more economic power (and therefore political power too, considering what has been revealed so far about the problematic union of the economic and political arenas) than most countries in the world, which can be seen in the following excerpt from Steger (2009, 120), who is again highlighting information offered by Nadar: of the “top one hundred economic entities in the world”, he points out,

fifty-two are corporations and only forty-eight are countries. Moreover, the gross annual sales of such huge TNCs as General Motors exceed the gross domestic product of countries such as Norway, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia.[11] Shaping the globalization of commerce and finance in an authoritarian fashion, these transnational companies contribute to a widening ‘‘democracy gap’’ between ordinary people and their political institutions.

Steger (Ibid) turns to Nadar’s explanation of how the widening of the ‘democracy gap’ occurs:

The global corporatists preach a model of economic growth that rests on the flows of trade and finance between nations dominated by the giant multinationals – drugs, tobacco, oil, banking, and other services. The global corporate model is premised on the concentration of power over markets, governments, mass media, patent monopolies over critical drugs and seeds, the workplace and corporate culture. All these and other power concentrates, homogenize the globe and undermine democratic processes and their benefits.

 Homogenisation of the globe

‘Homogenisation of the globe’ (Ibid) is a useful term to use when considering not only the social and political impact of the domination of the ‘free-market’ neoliberal Capitalist economic system, but also its ecological impact. Democracy in its idealised form is undermined, as has been shown in this paper already, but so is the ecology of the planet due to the restless dynamism of capitalism that demands of the democracies it infiltrates the processing of ever-increasing amounts of ‘resources’ or services for economic growth. So when Chomsky (1999:132) says that the “‘corporatization of America’ during the past century has been an attack on democracy”, one can legitimately add that it has been an attack on the ecologies of the planet as well; i.e. an attack on nature, the preservation of which is in the interests of ‘the people’ considering the all too obvious, yet often overlooked, fact that people need nature to remain in-tact and healthy and diverse if human life is to be sustained. Remember here that the ‘democratic’ system of the USA is a symbol for the kind of ‘democracy’ that has swept the planet has already been discussed earlier on in this paper; what is said about the USA is relevant the world over to varying degrees depending on the level of democracy occurring, and wherever capitalist activity is taking place. Chomsky (Ibid) continues with relevant information regarding the issue of what prevents the kind of social change often in the interests of ‘the people’, and (I will add) in the interests of the ecologies that constitute life on the planet as well: the “so-called ‘free-trade agreements’ are one such device of undermining democracy. They are designed to transfer decision making about people’s lives and aspirations into the hands of private tyrannies that operate in secret and without public supervision and control”. It follows that a political system in which ‘secret operations’ (whether in the economic or political worlds, which I am arguing overlap) in which decisions are made that affect the lives of millions, is not openly democratic – instead, it is operating in a ‘gated’ manner (which, of course, is a reference to the open-closed distinction I attributed to Barnes earlier). Within the gates – within what I have referred to as the core of the democrapitalist system – lies the capitalist commitment to ‘grow the economy’, which usually entails increasing industrial activity, which in turn usually entails increasing the throughput of natural resources for profit. In a quote from Kovel (2002:48) that featured earlier in this paper, the link between economic growth (measured in GDP) and negative ecological impact is clearly made: “Scarcely a critic of the ecological crisis has refrained from commenting upon the stupid brutality of this number [i.e. GDP], which reduces the living and the dead alike to the common denominator of what can be extracted from their commodification”. But reducing the living and dead in such a manner cannot not occur if an industrial-technological capitalist economy is to survive: it survives at the expense of what is considered to be a ‘standing reserve’ of natural resources (which, ironically, undermines the political economy’s long-term survival by jeopardising the well-being of the natural platform on which humanity depends) – this is why Kovel (Ibid) referred to ‘GDP thinking’ as “the actual logic of the reigning power”. So one could reasonably expect that, if my argument about the open-closed paradox of democratic capitalism has any merit, as democracy (an open system) spreads, so does capitalism (a closed system), and vice versa, and alongside the growth of these shapers of discourse, there is an increase in the rate of ecological destruction as citizens are transformed into consumers, and ‘resources’ are processed according to the capitalist imperative to ‘grow-or-die’ – and this is indeed observable: the spread of democratic capitalism and the accompanying devastating impact on the natural world.

Solutions? Look elsewhere.

Based on the themes I have developed so far in this article, it should be clear that if a person believes that solutions to issues such as the large-scale destruction of natural ecologies are to be arrived at from within the realms of democrapitalism, then such beliefs would be rendered naïve. A ‘shallow’ democracy is impotent at achieving fundamental system changes when a deep-seated (gated, closed) capitalist kernel gives impetus to continue economic growth. Unsurprising then that after a long history of inter-governmental meetings convened to form a response to an issue like climate change, few (if any) actionable constraints on one of the primary causes of climate change, namely economic growth, are discernable in reality. Perhaps there is something of an explanation to be seen in an observation Thomas Princen (2010:55) makes, via reference to Robert Chambers, about ‘lack of political will’. In the following, Princen (via Chambers) equates politicians (i.e. the representatives of democracy) with ‘the rich and powerful’ (i.e. the ‘cream’ of the economic ‘crop’): “lack of political will means that the rich and powerful have failed to act against their own interests”. It could be suggested that a different form of democracy would be needed – and here one can consider the ‘direct democratic’ process put into practise during the height of the Occupy Movement. Here is Ian Buchanan’s description of the Occupy Movement’s participatory process, followed by some comments he makes on the “pale shadow of ‘true’ democracy” that I have contextualised in this paper: ‘Occupy’, says Buchanan (2015:193),

was an example of participatory democracy in action – the set of principles the occupiers wanted to live by was created and embraced by the occupiers themselves. All proposals required the support of at least 90% of the General Assembly in order to be ratified, which is far more onerous than parliamentary democracies anywhere else requires. And of course that was precisely the point: it demonstrated that democracy as we know it, that is, democracy as it is practiced in the United States and elsewhere is a pale shadow of ‘true’ democracy, which is open to all and premised on the notion that only near-consensus can be regarded as representative of the will of the people. As impractical as this model of democracy might be, its symbolic value should not be underestimated. It bespoke a powerful hunger for social justice, for a political and economic system that represents the needs of the many not the greed of the few that not even President Obama could fail to perceive.

Having been a part-time member of the London chapter of the Occupy Movement in 2011-2012, I was involved in the direct democratic process – arguably an attempt to engage in a transition from a shallow democracy to something deeper. At no point was the process unimpeded by the presence of the ‘henchmen’ of democrapitalism: police-people continuously played a ‘cat-and-mouse game’ with us, disturbing meetings by arriving with ever new-and-urgent conditions and often with police-barriers which the police placed around us in an attempt to minimise the activists’ discussions. This is illustrative of the manner in which change is prevented in an ‘advanced’ consumer capitalist industrial democracy, and it also raises a problem regarding the effectiveness of large-scale dissent: large-scale dissent is conspicuous, thus making it easy for the henchmen of democrapitalism to identify ‘threats’ and prevent the kinds of activities that would undermine the reigning power of the system. Whether a more ‘decentralised’ democracy, like the one aimed for by ‘Occupier’, would be one that curbs economic activity in a manner that responds effectively to issues like destruction of natural ecologies is up for debate. What is not up for debate, based on the links that I have made in this article, is that something is needed, or rather various steps need to be taken toward an ‘alternative’, one markedly unlike the model of the oxymoronic democratic-capitalist-government in which economic growth is of paramount importance, if ecological sustainability is to be viable. These are desperate ecological times[12], and perhaps desperate measures are needed.

 Conclusion: deep political and ecological transformation starts with the individual, perhaps via a psychedelic experience and implementation of permaculture principles

In the wake of the marriage between democracy and capitalism, with the knowledge that a large-scale attempt like ‘Occupy’ did not achieve a tangible, long-lasting alternative[13], with the awareness that calls for deep transformation aimed at a democrapitalist governments are ‘barking-up-the-wrong-tree’ (because, as has been seen, the rich and powerful are unlikely to act against their own interests), and knowing that unprecedented ecological crises face the human race, I suggest that deep systemic transformation begins with transformations at the personal level. What I mean by this – and based on what has surfaced in this article – is that a person can make a concerted effort to decrease purely capitalistic ‘endless-growth’ thinking, to lessen the ‘governmentality’ in which voting is seen as sufficient political action, to incorporate into their thinking the notion that democracy is not synonymous with capitalism, to recognise the restless dynamism not only at the heart of capitalism but as the impetus for political agendas as well (regardless of the lip-service given to egalitarian motives by capitalists and politicians alike), and to radically alter their relationship with ‘nature’ so that nature is not treated like a ‘standing reserve of resources’.

There are various methods in which to decrease purely capitalistic ‘endless-growth’ thinking and to lessen ‘governmentality’. An education wherein critical thinking skills are enhanced, which happens (for example) in the Humanities, is one such method, but education of this sort may take several years to achieve a substantial change in the way a person thinks about ecology and democrapitalism. Such an education would also not guarantee that a person ‘translates’ theory into action, and the person may simply perpetuate business as usual afterwards. However, there is an education of a different kind that can be achieved in a matter of a few hours, after which it is guaranteed that a person will be radically transformed.

The education to which I refer is one that occurs during a proper psychedelic experience. The topic of psychedelics may seem controversial, but psychedelic studies are receiving extensive attention in the USA and elsewhere[14]. It may be impossible to accurately put the experience into words, but it is possible to measure some aspects of the results of the experience, which is what numerous researchers have done[15]. One study published extremely relevant results in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, results supporting my claim that a psychedelic experience can very quickly transform the way in which people think about their relationship to nature, and also lessen ‘governmentality’. The title of the study (by Lyons and Carhart-Harris, 2018) is revealing: “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”. Here follow some results (emphasis added):

In the general population, psychedelic drug use is not associated with increased incidence of mental health problems (Johansen and Krebs, 2015; Krebs and Johansen, 2013)[16], but is instead associated with lower rates of suicidality and psychological distress (Hendricks et al., 2015a, 2015b; Johansen and Krebs, 2015; Krebs and Johansen, 2013). Psychedelic drug users have also been shown to exhibit greater optimism (or reduced pessimism) than non-users (Grob et al., 1996) as well as increased concern for others, nature and the environment when compared with users of cannabis, amphetamine or heroin (Lerner and Lyvers, 2006). Experience with psychedelics has been found to positively affect one’s sense of feeling part of nature rather than separate from it, leading to pro-environmental behavioural changes… A recent correlational study of ours found that lifetime psychedelic drug use in the general population positively predicted nature relatedness and negatively predicted authoritarian political views. (Forstmann and Sagioglou, 2017).

Having substantiated the claim about the psychedelic experience imparting pro-nature and anti-authoritarian political views, I will turn to Gary Fisher (quoted in Walsh and Grof 2005) to support my claim that the psychedelic experience works remarkably quickly in achieving personal transformation:

Fortunately, after a successful psychedelic experience, you never go back to your previous state of consciousness – that’s the whole point of taking psychedelics. If you don’t integrate the higher levels of consciousness into your daily life, then the trip has been irrelevant. … If a psychedelic doesn’t result in your becoming a human being who is more human, then psychedelics are meaningless and don’t make a difference. I have never known anyone who had a profound transcendental experience who wasn’t significantly changed in his or her daily life by that experience.

Having had a transformation coterminous with the one facilitated by the psychedelic experience, it may be difficult for a person to know how to ‘translate’ their experience into ecological pro-activity. Regarding this issue of implementation, I will refer to some of the research I conducted in my PhD study[17], specifically Chapter 6, where I focus extensively on the positive ecological impacts of the personal implementation of permaculture principles in various context-specific manners. In a nutshell, one can drastically reduce their contributions to cyclical consumption (cyclical consumption is excellent for capitalist economic growth) and organise some aspects of some of the systems on which s/he relies according to down-to-earth principles of sustainability. One can be left with very real, tangible examples of ‘alternative systems’, examples that may be symbolic in that they may be convenient microcosms from which lessons can be learned regarding how to use permaculture principles, which are ecological principles, to order larger macrocosms like communities and cities.

One such microcosmic alternative system is a compost toilet. It might seem absurd that I am ending an article that is ostensibly about the unholy marriage of democracy and capitalism – by all means massive intuitions that shape discourse in complex ways – by invoking the image of a simple and humble compost toilet. However, it is a remarkably and surprisingly powerful symbol: a compost toilet system is something a person can take complete control over. It can be built using recycled or ‘upcycled’ materials; it is ‘flushed’ with compost or saw-dust, or even a handful of sand, thereby saving water. No faeces or urine are flushed ‘away’ to be dealt with by ‘someone else’; no nitrates enter a given ecology ‘in excess’ thereby causing nitrification, which is detrimental in the context of broader ecology. One can safely incorporate the correctly-processed compost into a vegetable garden or orchard, thereby facilitating the growing of food. One can point at a compost toilet and proclaim, ‘Look, I built this, I maintain it, I empty it, and I create fertility from it and I grow food as an end result. I don’t have to earn money to pay for the water that flushes my faeces away so that it can be processed ‘somewhere else’ where it often ends up detrimentally impacting nature (via nitrification of rivers, oceans, and water-tables), and I obtain food produced from my own environment because I have taken control of one small aspect of my life’. No representative of democrapitalism needs come and inspect the cement foundation and sewer system (for a fee, of course) and ‘hook you up’ to the municipal water supply (for a fee, of course), because no cement foundation, sewer system, or municipal water supply is necessary for a self-built compost toilet.

So it is without facetiousness that I end with a question arising in light of the themes I have built on in this article, and in the recent light of my invocation of the symbol of a compost toilet: what is more useful in the age of democrapitalism and unprecedented ecological crises – voting in the elections for the particular administration of an inescapably capitalist democracy, or responsibly undergoing a psychedelic experience, and thereafter applying permaculture principles in some small manner as a first step in re-organising the systems on which one depends?

 Funding details

This work is based on the research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant Number 99188, SARChI Chair in Identities and Social Cohesion in Africa, Nelson Mandela University). Opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this work are those of the author’s alone and the NRF accepts no liability whatsoever in this regard. The author also acknowledges research support he received during his PhD (2014-2017) from the NRF and the University of the Free State.

 References

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Chomsky, N. 1999. Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order. UK: Seven Stories Press.

 

Foster, J. & Clark, B. & York, R. 2010. The Ecological Rift – Capitalism’s War on the Earth. USA: Monthly Review Press.

 

Kovel. J. 2002 and 2006. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (First and second editions). London and New York: Zed Books.

 

Lyons, T., Carhart-Harris, R.L. “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2018, DOI: 10.1177/0269881117748902

 

Mill, J.S. 2002 [1859]. On Democracy. USA: Dover Publications, Inc.

 

Pittaway, D.A. 2017. ‘Broadening the context of the ecological crisis: featuring the Orphic and the Promethean’. South Africa: University of the Free State.

 

Pollan, M. 2018. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. michaelpollan.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/ How_to_Change_Your_Mind_excerpt.pdf accessed 28 May 2018

 

Speth, J. 2008. The Bridge at the end of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. USA: Yale University Press.

Steger, M. 2009. Globalisms: the Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-First Century. USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

 

Walsh, R. and Grob, S. 2005. Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics. USA: Sunypress.

 

[1] This is not a new idea, but I provide support for it in a manner that may reveal different themes for consideration.

[2] http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/GrossDomesticProduct.html accessed 30 May 2018.

[3] http://www.newstatesman.com/international-politics/2010/09/war-crimes-interview-obama accessed 30 May 2018.

[4] https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/bp-economy-for-99-percent-160117-summ-en.pdf accessed 30 May 2018

[5] In 1987, during Reagan’s presidency, then Vice-president George H.W. Bush visited a Monsanto laboratory in 1987. The company was trying to circumvent what company people called “bureaucratic hurdles”, a reference to regulatory processes. Here is a video clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7Dw_aSbkDg accessed 30 May 2018) of Bush and his entourage being shown the gene-manipulation process. Of note are his words, “We’re in the dereg [deregulation] business. Call me”.

[6] This point is driven home in the documentary, ‘The World According to Monsanto’ (youtube.com/watch?v=N6_DbVdVo-k accessed 31 January 2017), where it is made abundantly clear that a ‘revolving door’ exists between Business and politics. Google search the name Michael Taylor as a case in point, and the phrase ‘Monsanto revolving door’; the infographic at the following site reveals unbelievable collusion: whale.to/a/monsanto_revolving_door.html

[7] Barak Obama made a comment in his interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast in support of the notion that government as it is in the USA (and therefore elsewhere in the world) is heavily influenced by ‘institutions’ such as the National Rifle Association, which is not a corporation but certainly functions according to the corporate model. Obama is commenting on a shooting spree perpetrated by a young person who had easy access to arms and ammunition (a common phenomenon in the USA), but the comment is relevant in the context of this article because Obama alludes to the impotency of government to actualise change: “… unfortunately the grip of the NRA on congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this congress. I don’t foresee any real action being taken until the American public feels a sufficient sense of urgency and they say to themselves this is not normal this is something we can change and we can change it. And if you don’t have that kind of voter and voter pressure then it is not going to change from the inside” (https://www.scribd.com/document/270074395/The-Complete-Transcription-of-Barak-Obama-and-Marc-Maron-on-WTF-Podcast accessed 30 May 2018). The NRA is one institution that has a grip on congress; a multitude of corporations also wields such power. In the context of this article, Obama’s argument is flawed – it shows an ignorance of a chronology dilemma: the voting public is identified as the entity from which pressure must materialise, but, as will be seen soon in this article, a vibrant and democratically proactive public arena is dismantled by neoliberal decisions made by politicians who act in the interests of corporations: “Instead of citizens, [neoliberal democracy] produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomised society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralised and socially powerless” (McChesney, in Chomsky 1999, 10).

[8] https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/bp-economy-for-99-percent-160117-en.pdf accessed 30 May 2018

[9] First published in 1859.

[10] I have elaborated on this answer at some length in this paper, based on research conducted in my PhD study, ‘Broadening the Context of the Ecological Crisis: Featuring the Orphic and the Promethean’ (2017). I developed several other themes in the process of answering the question about attitudinal causes of the ecological crisis, and these will be explored in other articles.

[11] More recent information about this is found in Oxfam’s 2017 report called ‘An economy for the 99%’: “Big businesses did well in 2015/16: profits are high and the world’s  10 biggest corporations together have revenue greater than that of the government revenue of 180 countries combined”.

[12] Foster, Clark and York comment (2010:155): “It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Available evidence now strongly suggests that, under a regime of ‘business as usual’ with no substantial lessening of the drivers of environmental destruction, we could be facing within a decade or so a major ‘tipping point,’ leading to irrevocable and catastrophic climate change”.

[13] This is not to say that ‘Occupy’ was not influential. Indeed it was, as is evident in the following observations from David Harvey: “I credit the Occupy movement with sparking that new conversation – a conversation that highlights the wealth inequalities all over the world. … It’s interesting that everybody knows what you’re talking about when you mention the “one per cent”. The issue of the one per cent is now on the agenda and given depth by studies like that of Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Joseph Sitglitz has a book on inequality, too, and several other economists are talking about it. Even the IMF is now saying that there is a danger that follows when inequality reaches a certain level. Even Obama is saying it. But Obama wouldn’t have said it if Occupy hadn’t done so first”.

[14] See Michael Pollan’s latest (2018) book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

[15] Simply do a search for ‘psychedelic studies’ and refine search results to the studies conducted at Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, and NYU.

[16] Note that these in-quote references are not included in the reference list at the end of this article. The in-quote references can be traced via the specific paper by Lyons and Carhart-Harris, namely “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”.

[17] The study is called ‘Broadening the context of the ecological crisis: featuring the Orphic and the Promethean. University of the Free State, 2017.