Highlights and notes from "How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twentieth Century" by Erik Olin Wright, which I'm reading as part of the DSA SF Reading Club (

"The pivotal issue is not whether material conditions on average have improved in the long run within capitalist economies, but rather whether, looking forward from this point in history, things would be better for most people in an alternative kind of economy."

"Where the real disagreement lies -- a disagreement that is fundamental -- is over whether it is possible to have the productivity, innovation and dynamism that we see in capitalism without the harms."

"Two general kinds of motivations are in play in these diverse forms of struggle within and over capitalism: class interests and moral values."

On the complexities of class interests within modern capitalism: "Highly educated professionals, managers and many self-employed people, for example, occupy what I have called contradictory locations within class relations and have quite complex and often inconsistent interests with respect to capitalism."

"[...] a purely class interest-based argument against capitalism will not do for the twenty-first century, and probably was never really entirely adequate"

"People often act against their class interests not because they do not understand those interests, but because other values matter more to them."

On the importance of clarity on values: "We need a way of assessing not just what is wrong with capitalism, but what is desirable about alternatives."

"Three clusters of values are central to the moral critique of capitalism: equality/fairness, democracy/freedom, and community/solidarity."

On how the desire for a democratic _society_ goes further than a just a democratic state: "it requires that people should be able to meaningfully participate in all decisions that significantly affect their lives, whether those decisions are being made within the state or other kinds of institutions."

The community/solidarity "values cluster" is perhaps the most radical piece in this section. Olin Wright defines this as: "Expresses the principle that people ought to cooperate with each other not simply because of what they personally receive, but also from a real commitment to the well-being of others and a sense of moral obligation that it is right to do so."

This is fundamentally at odds with Western ingrained ideas about competition and "survival of the fittest".

A recent Slate article talks about the flaws in Darwin's theory, and how his thinking was heavily influenced by the ideology of this time and circle (Adam Smith et al):

"[...] we must learn to recognize the impulse to naturalize a given human behavior as a political maneuver. Competition is not natural, or at least not more so than collaboration."

Onwards to Chapter 2: Diagnosis and Critique of Capitalism

Ways in which capitalism violates the equality/fairness value cluster:
- Inequality in income and wealth systematically violate egalitarian principles of social justice.
- Some suffer absolute deprivation of the conditions to live flourishing lives, not simply unequal access.
- Imbalance of power between capital and labor, leading to exploitation ("the rich are rich, in part, because the poor are poor").

- It is the nature of market competition for advantages and disadvantages to accumulate over time, amplifying inequalities.
- Economic dynamism often destroys jobs, but displaced workers can't instantly retrain and/or move to places with jobs appropriate for them: new jobs are created along with the marginalization and destitution of displaced workers.

Ways in which capitalism violates the democracy/freedom values cluster:
- "Private control over major investments creates constant pressure on public authorities to enact rules favorable to the interests of capitalists."
- Owner-worker power dynamics violate the principle of self-determination that underlies both democracy and freedom.
- Inequalities in wealth and income create inequalities in "real freedom".

Ok, that was a lot of words to say that capitalism leads to wealth and income inequality, which in turn lead to unequal power and freedom.

On the ways in which capitalism undermines community/solidarity:
- "Capitalist cultures generally affirm two clusters of broadly shared values that are in tension with community and solidarity: competitive individualism and privatized consumerism."
- Capitalist culture narrows the social contexts in which most people see the values of community and solidarity as relevant, and expands the contexts in which competitive individualism operates.

This chapter ends with a section on skepticism of anticapitalist arguments.

According to Olin Wright, there are two main kinds of arguments:
1) Capitalism is not the main or only cause of these problems. He counters: "The diagnosis and critique of capitalism does not imply that capitalism is the only cause of deficits in the values of equality, democracy and community, but only that it is a significant contributor."
2) There are no viable alternatives. The rest of the book addresses this.

Onwards, to Chapter 3: Varieties of anticapitalism.

Which starts with this thought: any project of deep social change has to worry about unintended consequences.

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@anaulin So great that you're reading it. I've gotta get that. I miss that man.

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