Monday 27 October 2014

Book Review - SOS Alternatives to Capitalism by Richard Swift

SOS Alternatives to Capitalism provides us with a densely-argued and exhaustive review of global practices which might, conceivably, add up to his basic goal of disengagement from a system which, like the titan Kronos in Greek mythology, must devour its own children, with its growth obsession that extinguishes bio-, cultural and human diversity alike.

If the title of the book is excitingly misleading, since it suggests a multiplicity of alternatives to capitalism when most of us would settle for only one, Richard Swift’s advocacy of a ‘democratic ecosocialism’ as an alternative to capitalism is sustained and persuasive. From the earliest formulations of red-green politics, distributive justice was a basic principle: if the assault on the earth is to be contained, sufficiency for all is the first imperative. Swift is particularly powerful when he moves effortlessly across the globe, highlighting inventive local initiatives; what he has in mind is truly international in scope and suggests the power to unite rich and poor countries in a common project. His insistence on those groups of (mainly) indigenous peoples who protect the ‘global commons’ is a potent starting-point for any alternative which protects simultaneously both planetary integrity and distributive justice. His historical overview of the variants of socialism and their shortcomings, although brief, is incisive and to the point.

The ideas he propounds have existed, in one form or another for a long time; and these sometimes echo the prescience of the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, whose understanding of the meaning of ‘conviviality’, and whose denunciation of a ‘development’ that had declared war on subsistence, might have formed just such a theoretical basis for that other – and better – world, known to exist, but tantalisingly out of reach, by virtue of the absence of any known conveyance to take us there.

Richard Swift strikes a fine balance between denunciation of an ecocidal commitment to economic growth that is overwhelming the planet, and an elaboration of the thousands of candles of hope that lighten the gloom. His book is full of brilliant ideas – ‘escaping the tyranny of the economy’, ‘surviving progress’, ‘transcending a destabilizing market rationality.’ He also wryly observes that those on the Left who scorn ‘Utopian visions’ should bear in mind the extreme Utopianism of a Right, animated by an impossible Utopia – the dream of perfect equilibrium and harmony that would exist, if only truly ‘free’ markets could be established.

It is sobering to reflect how swiftly what looked like the monolith of state socialism crumbled; and the velocity with which capitalism flooded the vacuum, drowning alternatives, efforts at renewal and practices that were already thriving within the interstices of a failing system. This demonstrated the sheer material power of the dominant world ideology. It has hard to be believe that it is mere chance – and not some providential visitation – that an industrial culture born in one part of the world, should have so successfully colonised virtually all other societies and civilisations which, however resilient, have gone down before the economic ‘rationality’ of the West; and this is why Swift places the recuperation of the global commons at the heart of his project of reclamation of the politics of hope.

It is exhilarating to read of the multiple possibilities that already exist and can serve as an energizing inspiration to action. But the great mobilizing myth that will move the peoples of the world to make the great wager that it is worth risking everything for the sake of something better, remains elusive. We are all familiar with the stories that have been effective in gaining widespread popular adherence – the capitalist tale that everyone can be rich; Marx’s story that History was on the side of the workers; even the religious tale that this world is a vale of tears and we must await our reward in the next one. The formulation of ecosocialism – that we court catastrophe unless we limit our predations on the planet – is too negative, and requires a positive, emancipatory slogan. Richard Swift’s book, eloquent and inspirational, is certainly a movement in that direction.

Written by Jeremy Seabrook and first published at Red Pepper

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