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SEVEN ETHICS AGAINST CAPITALISM

To shift attention toward planetary commons as a method of thinking about viable alternative for the future.

  • Essay
  • Nov 07 2022
  • Oli Mould
    is a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His academic research and writing focuses on the role of urban creativity, activism, and politics. His books include Urban Subversion and the Creative City (2015), Against Creativity (2018), and Seven Ethics Against Capitalism (2021).

While being an anti-capitalist is still considered radical by some, it would be the most effective course of action for us all. Capitalism is so all-consuming that we don’t even know where to begin. It does irrevocable damage to the planet, the climate, biodiversity, democracy, and to us as a species. It cannot be tweaked; it needs to be removed completely. 

In support of this way of being, around us, scattered, hidden and diffuse, since human prehistory, throughout capitalism’s growth and all of the failed revolutions of the past, the very real ideology of the commons has remained. 

Fundamentally, the commons is that which we build by being together. More than a natural resource – a forest, a lake, a field – the commons is the community that builds up around and beyond that resource, the society it creates and the continual act of democratising access, sharing the gifts of it to those who need it most. 

Building on the work of anthropologist Stephen Gudeman and geographers J.K. Gibson-Graham, the commons can be thought of less as a unitary or singular protected “natural” resource (such as a rainforest, a pasture, or an irrigation system, which are traditionally thought of as “common” resources in institutional narratives), and more as a symbiotic relationship between a resource and the community said resource creates. Without thinking of common resources as being of the community, the commons as an ideology will continue to be threatened by capitalist enclosure. 

To maintain the progressive utility of a rupture and not let it scab over with existing inequalities or something far worse, we need to find ways to be ethical. Here are seven ways to achieve this.

 

1. Mutualism

Mutualism is about philosophically and empirically understanding that there is an actually existing “we”. We can look to recent studies in neurology, for example, which have shown the ways in which we are inherently empathic beings, and have the capacity to be compassionate “hard-wired” within us . Also, recent studies in microbiology have shown that we are anything but individuals: Rather, we contain a multiplicity of other organisms that are necessary for our survival. We are anything but self-contained individuals and we need to be “radically connected”, resisting egoism and selfishness.

This is the most important ethic, because without it, activism will fizzle out before it can even start. 

2. Transmateralism 

The capitalism of the Anthropocene is an extractive machine, one that dominantly and violently dictates which nonhuman life is to be sacrificed on the altar of profitability and which is not (yet). The conversion of sedimented dead organisms from millions of years ago into oil renders them subordinate to the needs of the consuming human; the life of the Amazon rainforest that is destroyed to make way for cattle grazing or palm oil plantations is deemed not worthy. 

Therefore, transmaterialism (and I use the term trans- deliberately because of its agency in disrupting dualisms, in the case of gender or, here, the human-nonhuman binary) is about bringing the human and the nonhuman on the same existential plane. Transmaterialism is about realising the potency of the material world in creating and sustaining life. 

3. Minoritarianism

An ethic of minoritarianism is fundamentally an ethical alignment with oppressed marginal subjects – whether we are ourselves marginalised or not – in order to understand how the oppressive institutions of capitalism work and how they affect the lives of everyone. A planetary commons is energised by “new” thinking, subjectivities, and drives for equality that emanate from the margins of capitalist society. The struggle for equality has always come from the margins and from oppressed people – a form of what the sixth president of the United States John Quincy Adams talks about as Abolitionism, which he says requires “‘the overthrow of racism and capitalism as modes of governance and reproducers of state power”. 

4. Decodification 

Have you done your 10,000 steps today? Have you had five a day? Our eyeballs are bombarded with tailored shopping lists that are beamed directly to our social media feeds. Even something as intimate as sleep is infiltrated by apps, coding, and measurements. 

To be anti-capitalist, then, and to build a commons, is to resist over-quantification and codification; furthermore, it requires an active Decodification of things, an uncoupling of experiences with their codification (algorithmic, digital, or otherwise). Activism needs to make use of those atmospheres that are not codified; those forces that are barely perceptible, but no less powerful. 

5. Slowness

Capitalism is obsessed with short-term fixes, because in doing so, it secures its long-term goal of expansion and precarization. Part of the appeal of capitalism is short-term,so, to be subversive is to think outside of the time frame of capitalism by thinking in the long-term.  To be subversive temporally, then, is to insist on slowness, a denial of rapidity, slickness, and hyper-mobility. 

6. Failure

Success is a mantra that capitalism exudes at all times. The competitive self-interest that success is built upon means that “failure is not an option, unless it is a precursor to success”. 

But to build a planetary commons is to utilize failure as means of resistance to the injustices of capitalism. Failing spectacularly in your specific goal does not mean failure of the broader movement. Failure is the gap between who we are and who we could be,  hence, it is an essential part of activism. As Jack Halberstam writes, “there is something powerful in being wrong, in losing, in failing, and that all our failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner . . . Failure loves company”.

7. Love

The Ancient Greeks had four words for love, all pertaining to a very different kind.

Eros – erotic

Philia – friendly 

Storge – familial 

Agape – unconditional

The focus of this ethic is the Greek word agape, which pertains to a transcendental form of love. Such a love can propel activism further and further, because it denotes unconditional love: Positive action without any desire for reciprocal reward. A radical love forces us to forgo solid comforting behaviors for the uncertainty of poverty, marginality, and unstable ground. It is a love that propels human agency to be focused on collective and social justice, and it fuels all  other ethics that have come before. Being mutual, material, minor, decodified, slow, or a failure all require love. It is an energy that is contagious and powerful in its subversive potential. 

Individually, then, these ethical mindsets are a way to resist capitalism, but in being woven together, they offer a tantalising view of a better world in common.

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As the capitalocene continues to usher us into a climate emergency, it certainly feels – to me, and to many others, particularly those in the Global North, who are privileged enough to have been shielded from capitalism’s worst atrocities – that the world is not just changing: It is rupturing. What kind of world we build in the ashes of capitalism is up to us.



  • Footnotes
    .
    Image: Installation view of Barbara Kruger; "Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.", on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from July 16, 2022 – January 2, 2023. Photo: Emile Askey.

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