A year into a once-in-a-century pandemic that has already killed millions, it has become morbidly clear that a more democratic economic system is necessary. Yet, piling on to capitalism’s attendant crises including climate change and austerity, the COVID crisis has left the majority at a loss for what is to be done. Capitalism’s “history ending” triumph in the 1990s depleted the left, with movements having either to resuscitate ailing institutions, beat down by decades of attrition, or to start from scratch.
With several seemingly distinct paths to win another possible world, the rebuilding or invention of new leftist institutions—whether they be unions, political parties, mutual aid networks, cooperatives, or even media collectives like your very own Canadian Dimension—often end up mired in debate on the strategies for socialism. Some are deemed too radical or not radical enough, and others are deemed unfeasible or the only way forward.
Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s posthumously published How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st century attempts to bridge the varieties of anti-capitalism that have existed into a broad front that can ultimately “erode” the system to make way for socialism. As the last book written by Wright before his passing from terminal cancer in January 2019, the academic and author of lengthier analyses including Classes and Envisioning Real Utopias, How to Be an Anti-capitalist condenses his theory and research into a shorter manifesto that draws up the basics for strategy to achieve economic democracy in the present day.
Unlike the 19th century’s Communist Manifesto, or even the 20th century’s democratic socialist Regina Manifesto, which outline the sins of capitalism from its inception and present a list of demands and actions, How to Be an Anti-capitalist is built on a more academic framework. But Wright, despite the theory involved in setting out strategy for a socialist world, does not complicate the manifesto with much leftist, or even academic terminology.
The third chapter entitled “Varieties of Anti-capitalism” is itself lifted from Peter A. Hall and David Soskice’s influential text Varieties of Capitalism, and borrows from its typology framework that delineates between Anglo-liberal market economies and European coordinated market economies, for a capitalist analysis of industrial institutions. This typology is also strongly associated with the framework outlined in The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, another seminal volume that describes Anglo-liberal, continental-conservative, and Nordic social democratic levels of welfare system commodification (written by Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen, a friend and academic collaborator of Wright’s). Even though the varieties of anti-capitalism are based on an academic framework, built on the notorious two-by-two grid of the social sciences, it is actually explained better using this outmoded device of economic behaviouralism to illustrate the costs and benefits of each strategy of anti-capitalism.
Meant for a wider readership, Wright even does away with the 19th and 20th century nomenclature of the different shades of anti-capitalism. Between communists, anarchists, syndicalists, democratic socialists, and social democrats, he sorts the varieties of anti-capitalism into their primary actions: smashing capitalism, escaping capitalism, resisting capitalism, dismantling capitalism, and taming capitalism.
For each strategy against capitalism, Wright illustrates how these examples fared in the previous century, where they succeeded, and the reasons why they ultimately failed. The distinguishing features and historical narrative of each type of anti-capitalism is almost glossed over, but the point Wright makes is that any one of these alone is not enough to oppose capitalism. Each strategy must be taken together, broadly, to erode capitalism by weakening and displacing capitalist institutions with socialist alternatives for an ecosystem that fosters greater economic democracy. Where many on the left this past century saw these varieties of anti-capitalism as antithetical to each other, Wright sees them as complementary where, taken as a whole, each action can bring about a great transformation.
In the 20th century there are examples where communist militants, focused on smashing capitalism, needed to participate in labour movements that were focused on resistance. Wright points to the union of democratic socialists focused on dismantling capitalism with social democrats who sought to tame capitalism to form, at their height, effective workers parties within capitalist systems. In other words, he alludes to a broad left coalition to erode capitalism.
Anti-capitalist institutions such as political parties, unions, and other voluntary associations of the left limped into the 21st century, eroded by waves of globalized capitalism that divided the left and conquered each strategy in isolation. Today’s younger generations can be forgiven for knowing the left instead as a nebula of online personalities, podcasters, YouTubers, and a few politicians in the US Democratic Party—radicalism transformed into an individual endeavour in place of collective agency, due to the diminished state of the institutions that fostered it. This is one of the big challenges to anti-capitalism that Wright identifies, though the strategies proposed for solving this problem, based on identity alongside class, may appear to some as a weakness.
Contests between race and class often divide those pursuing different anti-capitalist strategies, with either identity or material well-being taking precedence over the other in analysis and action. 2020, however, should demonstrate why these struggles are complementary rather than competitive. Towards the end of the year, hundreds of millions of workers in India rose up against the government’s neoliberal reforms of its agricultural sector. The movement, galvanized against capitalist encroachment on the livelihoods of farmers for profit, was also energized by rising Hindu nationalism and casteism enabled by the Modi government. The largest general strike in history could not have been organized by institutions that only operated within the lines of class and identity alone.
The same dynamics are at play in the Movement for Black Lives and the outcry for police divestment that exploded within the hearts of the world’s imperial metropoles over the summer, but the institutions needed to facilitate a great transformation towards police abolition remain weak. Ultimately for Wright, to build the foundations for economic democracy means that institutions need to accommodate or work with all against capitalism.
Left-of-centre political parties, damaged after a drift towards the extreme centre, ought to embrace their left wings if they are to survive, and new electoral parties of the left face the same problems of starting from scratch. Meanwhile, militant leftists cannot overlook the renewed energy of social movements that are emerging from the failures of capitalism that are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. New or renewed institutions to bring about greater economic democracy such as universal basic income, democratized firms, public banking, and other state-provided goods and services are not projects that need to compete with one another—they are complementary and should be taken as a package together to erode capitalism. Institutions that focus on one strategy of anti-capitalism against the other will not flourish without bringing all into their demos.
Though “Orwellian” is again misused in the contemporary moment to describe the January storming of the US Capitol, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a better illustration of the consequences when a left Popular Front fails to realize another possible world. This left that fights amongst itself loses against the rising tide of fascist tendencies, empowered by the capitalist machine. How to be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st century wants its readers to know that:
First, another world is indeed possible. Second, it could improve the conditions for human flourishing for most people. Third, elements of this new world are already being created in the world as it is. And finally, there are ways to move from here to there. Anti-capitalism is possible not simply as a moral stance towards the harms and injustices in the world in which we live, but as a practical stance towards building an alternative for greater human flourishing.
While not a heroic call to arms, Wright’s last book is useful in its analysis and concise in its strategy. His life’s work imagined utopia, and while some may find this manifesto too tame of a project or too naïve to embark upon, it ought to be a great starting point for those who feel stuck in capitalism’s contemporary quagmire and have yet to envision a socialist alternative.
Clement Nocos is an Ottawa-based policy analyst and writer.