A Strategy to Replace Capitalism
BY RABBI MICHAEL LERNER | APRIL 29, 2020 (TIKKUN.ORG)
byronv2 People Wearing Masks
In the height of the largest pandemic the world has known since the plague in 1918, people are struggling to make ends meet, losing their jobs, struggling to pay mortgages and rents, in danger of becoming sick, and experiencing increased hunger. Food banks report being depleted of supply[i], while farmers in Wisconsin and Ohio are dumping and burying eggs, milk, and other produce[ii]. The largest U.S. dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, estimates that farmers are dumping 3.7 million gallons of milk each day. A single chicken processor is smashing 750,000 eggs every week.
Why, when people are in need of food, is food being thrown away? The NYT “neutrally” reports that “many of the nation’s largest farmers are struggling another ghastly effect of the pandemic. They are being forced to destroy tens of millions of pounds of fresh food that they can no longer sell.”[iii]
But who is forcing them? Most farmers would prefer to have their food used to help people who are hungry. The “capitalist system and its profit making imperative, itself enforced by government, media, and economists, are “forcing” farmers to (choose to) destroy the food so many people desperately need rather than give it to food banks and people in need.
Of course, there are many people who go hungry even in “ordinary times,” but the government does not interfere with this element of the capitalist economy. Big agricultural firms fear that government involvement, beyond the huge subsidies it gives them, would undermine their profits. As in so many aspects of daily life in a capitalist society, the hidden element shaping which human needs are met and which are not is this: the assumption that profits must be the foundation for all our economic interactions. The result: something as obvious as having a significant part of “the bailout of 2020” fund delivery systems from farm to food banks for the hungry was woefully not included. While giving $500,000,000,000 (five hundred billion dollars) to the large corporations, and many billions to smaller ones, the government did not require that the money go solely to pay worker wages and only to corporations that at least paid a minimum wage of $15/hr. But unfortunately our government is divided between those whose highest priority is further enriching the rich and those who would wish it could be different but do not have the backbone to stand up and say “no money to anyone unless it is disproportionately distributed to those most in need, including the poor and the homeless” and accompanied by instituting a living wage for all workers and a guaranteed income for every adult living in the U.S.
But the super-rich and powerful resist addressing these needs because funding them would require significant reductions in their wealth. And the rest of us lack the political power to successfully challenge corporate bailouts and demand the support necessary to meet our needs. In addition, the millions already unemployed and many more to come have found no effective way to organize themselves to pressure their governments to act on their behalf. In fact, the corporate insistence on huge profits for their stockholders led to many corporations to close badly needed hospitals around the country because they were not making enough profit. This made it very difficult for many Americans to even get to places where they could be tested or treated for a variety of ailments, most dramatically revealed in the way that those hospitals that remain have been overwhelmed, often without adequate beds or equipment. And without any obvious way to get their government to work on their behalf, many face isolation at home. Many think that all they can do is be cheerful about a grim situation (or pray that they and their friends and family don’t die) while frantically washing their hands, wearing masks, and avoiding anyone who stands too close in the supermarket or pharmacy.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that people only care for themselves, that we are all basically selfish, and that hence we have to just look out for number one. If that is the reality, then the hope of creating a society based on caring instead of on profit would be pointless.
But what we actually see is that there are literally millions of people who are risking their lives as doctors, nurses, hospital workers, bus drivers, supermarket and pharmaceutical workers, farmers and farmworkers, truck drivers, police, firefighters, caregivers, and many others who risk their lives to care for the rest of us who are correctly obeying the call to stay at home. It’s true that some may be driven by the need to make a living to feed their families, a reasonable goal! Yet many have chosen to continue to take the risks because they genuinely care about others. So if we had a society that was based on caring rather than profit, tens of millions of others would feel much better about their lives if they didn’t have to choose between making a living and serving the well-being of everyone else. People actually yearn to have work that serves higher needs than putting more money into the pockets of the super-rich.
For that reason, it is important to acknowledge that there is still a chance in the remaining weeks of social isolation for a mass movement to emerge and last beyond this sad moment. That movement would have staying power if it used Zoom-based conferencing to replace the hope to “get back to business as usual” with a vision of a different kind of society that we could create together.
This vision needs to satisfy both material and psycho/spiritual needs. It is the narrow articulation of human needs limited to material needs that has limited the appeal of the Left. Even when social democratic forces have won power and implemented generous programs to provide money, entitlements and services, the vast majority of people have accepted these goodies but not given much loyalty to those who delivered “objective caring.”
What the socialisms of the past offered was based on a theory of human beings that ignored our hunger for respect, love, generosity, and a sense of higher meaning to our lives. In my research at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health with thousands of middle income working people, exploring stress at work and stress in family life, I learned that many people think of the objective caring delivered by the Left (e.g., social security or even health care benefits) as a kind of insurance program. Just as they are happy to have home and car insurance, they are happy to have social security and health care insurance, but they don’t feel particularly close to their insurance agents! And when they have to interact with their government that delivers these services, they rarely feel respected or appreciated. Rather, in many instances, the message our government and media sends folks who receive government aid is that they are somehow less than those who have bigger incomes and don’t rely on government subsidies. Yet the truth is that many of the most economically successful have had plenty of help from government (building the infrastructure, creating ways for a significant section of the wealthy to pay a smaller percentage of their income or wealth in taxes than the rest of us, declaring that corporations are really “persons” with the same or greater protections on their wealth than any of the rest of us have and protected their “right” to spend millions to influence the outcome of elections, and actually not working as hard as many in the bottom half of income earners who often have to take frustrating jobs or work more than one job just to barely support their families.
Some recognize that in a society where the top 1% own more wealth in the U.S. than the bottom 80% of wealth holders, that their government insurance programs are really little more than a way of giving as little as possible to most Americans and giving as much as possible to the ultra-wealthy. Others just suspect that there is something missing in what liberal governments offer, so they don’t feel appreciative, particularly when they find that government benefits rarely are enough to deal with their material needs. As a result, just as the New Deal of the 1930s was followed by conservative or neo-liberal regimes in the U.S., the socialists who delivered even more generous objective caring benefits in Europe were eventually voted out of power.
What is needed then is a politics that gives equal attention to fostering a society based on generosity and kindness—the opposite of the capitalist marketplace. To get there, forget about the word “socialism” and instead let’s talk about what I describe in my book Revolutionary Love as ”the Caring Society—Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth.” To achieve that we will need a new bottom line.
In a capitalist society, we judge our institutions to be productive and efficient and rational to the extent that they maximize money and power. In “the Caring Society” a new bottom line would judge our economy, our corporations, our government policies, our legal system, our education system, our cultural systems, and even some of our personal behavior to be rational, productive, and efficient to the extent that they maximize our capacities to be loving and caring, kind and generous, attuned to social, economic and environmental justice for everyone on the planet, committed to overcoming every form of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, responding to each other as intrinsically valuable (or in religious terms, sacred beings) rather than simply valuing them to the extent that they can deliver something to satisfy our personal needs, and responding to the universe and our mother Earth with awe, wonder, and radical amazement, rather than valuing them only to the extent that we can turn them into commodities to sell in the capitalist marketplace.
Of course the caring society would also have material benefits, so I want to affirm the positive contributions made by those who helped create the social support system that does exist and who are righteously fighting to expand it, e.g. in the New Green Deal or the programs promoted by Bernie Sanders. Yet these campaigns would be far more successful if framed in terms of achieving the Caring Society and the New Bottom Line—speaking to the values that underlie their more narrowly framed specific legislative initiatives. Yes, the need to expand those objective caring programs is particularly urgent now, but that can only happen when we start reframing those efforts in terms of achieving the caring society, treating people with respect even when they do not yet agree with our vision, affirming rather than dissing their religious commitments (even when we disagree with some of what those religions teach), and including in our discourse the need for a life connected to higher meaning than profits.
And, the caring society must be visionary in what we ask for even in regard to “objective caring”. This should include, among other things, a living wage for everyone, 28-hour workweek over 4 days (leaving more time to be with friends and family and to be in nature), guaranteed paid sick leave, canceling student and medical debts and debts of the poorest countries of the world, universal health/child/elder care, free education through graduate or professional schools, 6 week guaranteed vacation, universal replacement of fossil fuels with environmentally friendly sources of energy, among other things.
This approach will be received more successfully if liberals, progressives, and caring people of every sort prioritize what I call “subjective caring.” We need to teach that people would easily be won to caring for others if society stopped rewarding selfishness. Eventually, caring behavior would become the norm at work and at play. Caring at work might well slow down the pace of what we consider traditional ‘production’, which would be good for the future of the planet and a contribution to making work more pleasurable. If the goal of production was no longer profits for the top 10% of income earners, we could still produce enough of life’s basic necessities to have enough for everyone, though we wouldn’t have new versions of our cell phone or computers every year, or new flashy cars. The pace of life will slow down. For those who love the intensity of challenges, there will still be plenty of challenges for them to tackle. The big challenge will be creating enough global solidarity that people can work together to save the earth from the environmental catastrophe predicted by environmental scientists that will make the current pandemic look like a minor problem.
We are at a crossroads. Right now, while ordered to remain in our homes till the pandemic crisis is over, you and I could begin the process to build a movement for a caring society. Otherwise we will soon find ourselves returning to “life as usual” and ignoring all the warnings we are being given that a far greater environmental danger to life on earth is developing less dramatically but even more destructive unless we change how and what we are doing to our planet. While champions of the capitalist marketplace in our major political parties lead them to accept the notion that “success” equals endless growth, producing more and more things, the Caring Society will see success in creating work and leisure that are serving the best interests of all humanity, the animals, and the survival of the life-support of Earth.
But how would it be possible to build a movement for a fundamentally different kind of world? There is something that each of us can do right now while so many of us are bound to our homes.
A first step is to invite everyone you know to engage in imagining a world they would really want if profit was no longer the bottom line. Ask them to share their vision and this new bottom line with everyone they know, and then to create large group discussions on social media and “face-to-face” on Zoom-like video platforms. Invite them to read with you my book Revolutionary Love: a Political Strategy to Heal and Transform the World. Go to tikkun.org/lj to read why this book has been endorsed by Cornel West (professor of African American Studies at Harvard), Gloria Steinem (founding editor of Ms. Magazine), Keith Ellison (Attorney General of the State of Minnesota and the first African American to have been the vice-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus), Medea Benjamin (co-founder of Code Pink), Riane Eisler, Dean Ornish, Walter Brueggemann, Henry Giroux, Ariel Dorfman, and many others! (You can purchase the book there as well.) This is not some new agey “lets change ourselves first and then we’ll change the society” (a position I show to be deeply flawed) but rather a tough minded strategy to actually build a different world. But it starts by changing the liberals and the Left so that they stop alienating the very people who they need to win over (for example by dissing all whites or all men or acting as though anyone into religion must be on a lower level of psychological or intellectual development than those who reject all forms of religion and dismiss all spirituality as nonsense). And what you can also do is invite people to an online book group discussion of Revolutionary Love, working thru your own and others’ resistances, and allowing yourself to really become advocates for a different world.
Every day we can read on social media or even sometimes on the corporate-dominated media stories of people showing caring during this pandemic. There are tens of millions of people in our society who would love to live in a world that valued generosity and caring. They just don’t believe it is possible—until you tell them that you are part of a movement that intends to build such a society. This is the kind of organizing that could lead to the birth of a non-violent revolutionary movement far more radical than we have seen, in part because it validates not only the legitimate material desires of socialist programs, but also the psychological, spiritual, and higher-meaning-to-life desires of many who have turned away from the one dimensional Left. And it can all happen right now. You can start the process with your own friends and contacts. And you can also take a training with Cat Zavis that will help you develop some of the skills you may need to talk to people who will at first dismiss your ideas because they themselves are fearful of allowing themselves to feel how unhappy they are with the world of money and power-over others.
This is one way to not, once again, miss the opportunity presented by the economic meltdown we are all facing.
Unrealistic? Yes, in the same way that the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the movement for GLBTQ rights were seen as unrealistic in the first few decades that they were being articulated. What I have learned is that you never really know what is or is not possible until you spend decades of your life fighting for what is desirable. So my advice: “don’t be realistic.” Instead make use of this very time of plague to create a new hopefulness that could change the world that will otherwise present itself as the only possible world – a world in which people will return to patterns and pathologies of the capitalist society, such as depression, hate of others, suicide, addictions, etc.
This is both the challenge and opportunity created by the current economic meltdown, and it will persist even when the media and government try to hide the ongoing suffering of so many who will be left behind by any “bail out stage 2 or 3 or 4” that the government is likely to provide. And this is the biggest spiritual and ethical opportunity of our time, and if we don’t take it, confine our focus to immediate (and very important) forms of societal repair of the worst suffering, but without a strategy to change the institutions and class and patriarchal practices that have caused so much suffering (including by failing to address human needs and give them priority over profit for the few, we will likely look back at this moment with deep regret. You and I can change that. The first step is to share this with everyone you can possibly reach.
[ii] Dumping Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic, New York Times, April 11, 2020.
ABOUT RABBI MICHAEL LERNER
Rabbi Michael Lerner holds a Ph.D. in philosophy (1972) and a second Ph.D. in psychology (1977), is editor of Tikkun www.tikkun.org, executive director of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in Berkeley, chair of the international Network of Spiritual Progressives, and author of 12 books, most recently Revolutionary Love published by the University of California Press (more info about this book at www.tikkun.org/lj). Lerner was recently described by Professor Cornel West of Harvard U. as “one of the most significant prophetic public intellectuals and spiritual leaders of our generation” and Keith Ellison, Attorney General of the State of Minnesota, says: “The caring society is the only realistic path for humanity to survive, and in Revolutionary Love Rabbi Lerner lays out a powerful and compassionate plan for building that caring society.” Talking about his book Revolutionary Love, Gloria Steinem, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, says “Michael Lerner takes the universal qualities wrongly diminished as ‘feminine’—caring, kindness, empathy, love—and dares to make them guides to a new kind of politics that can challenge the cruelty, competition, and dominance wrongly elevated as ‘masculine.’ Revolutionary Love opens our minds and hearts to a fully human way of living and governing.”