When was the last time you read a critique of capitalism that included the word “hope”? Read on, dear reader. But first, let me lay the groundwork with a little story: I support Occupy San Jose more in word than deed, but one day while delivering food and Halloween costumes for the movement’s party, I talked with a few people dwelling in the well-ordered tents in front of City Hall. The participants were grads of “the school of the streets.” They sometimes debated the value of obtaining a GED, but one told me that an activist who had been living atop a light pole for several days was so affected by reading Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change, he decided to enroll at De Anza College, where the book’s author, Cynthia Kaufman, teaches.
Fighting Capitalism: The Practical Way
How wonderful that a book could inspire someone to positive action. I was intrigued. Well, Cynthia Kaufman has a new book that seems likely to have the same effect: Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope (Lexington Books, 2012). She described it to me as a hopeful book about combating capitalism.
So how does this brief (156 pages) but valuable book propose we get past capitalism? First, by improving our metaphors, seeing capitalism not as a monolith with a “command center” that needs to be taken out, but as an infection that has “become entangled with our cells and needs to be fought from within and from without.” Kaufman mentions being influenced by a talk given by the geographer Julie Graham, who suggested a feminist model of “pushing back on practices [we] are opposed to.” “It was exciting,” Kaufman notes, “to see that there are realistic alternatives to capitalism, that we thrive in those alternatives right now, and that society can be transformed to the extent that those alternatives become … more predominant in our lives.” We need to look for “advances” rather than “clear victory.” All the same, our long-term project is “getting rid of capitalism,” and it can be done.
Until the Revolution Comes, There’s Nothing to Do But Complain—Not!
Probably most activists have at some point either wallowed in sinkholes of despair, or drowned in the baleful analyses of non-doers who seem to exist in a symbiotic relationship with the evils of the world, eagerly pointing out the matchless power of the enemy and the tragic deficiency of reform. For myself, I have come to feel I cannot afford to fixate on downward spirals and catastrophes. Even if (worst case) the world is a torture chamber and ultimately doomed, perhaps especially if that is the case, I have to preserve my spirit for doing the good I can, however transient. In the here and now, those actions matter, and that is sufficient for me.
A glimpse of chapter titles illustrates Getting Past Capitalism’s overlap with taking action now and the expectation that it will make a difference: “What Is Capitalism and Why It Is a Problem,” “Ways Not to Think About Getting Past Capitalism” (i.e., Lenin, Luxemburg, inevitable “stages,” and all-or-nothing binaries), “…How to Fight a Hydra in a Fog,” and the final chapter, “Practical Steps for Building a Movement to Get Past Capitalism.”
One of my favorite parts was this: “Close your eyes and conjure up the image of an anti-capitalist revolutionary. Perhaps you are looking at a man with a gun. Few of us can be, or want to be, that man with a gun. This masculine fighting stance … allows us to romanticize and displace the action from the places that most of us inhabit.” By contrast, a better “anti-capitalist agent knows the importance of hope” and much like a public health worker, “must use a multiplicity of means.” What a difference between a public health worker and a person with a gun!
I greatly appreciate this non-depressing, practical, and lucid work which any intelligent activist could enjoy.
Not Just an Armchair Theorist
Finally, although Kaufman has all the usual academic credentials (Ph.D. in Philosophy- University of Massachusetts, chair of the Women’s Studies Department, and former member of the Socialist Review editorial collective), she is no armchair theorist, having worked as a union organizer and an activist with Central American Solidarity, for example. An interesting role is her directorship of De Anza College’s Institute of Community and Civic Engagement, which offers classes such as Grassroots Democracy: Leadership and Power, and Critical Decision Making in Groups; it supports activist groups, such as Students for Justice, which makes its voice heard— quite effectively—on social justice issues.