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Open Source Anti-Capitalism

Derek Wall, Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 236 pages, paperback, $26.95.

Sarah Grey is a freelance writer and activist based in Philadelphia. Her writings on food, food politics, and ecosocialism can be found at her blog, TheRealPotato.com, as well as in International Socialist Review and the forthcoming Grid Magazine.

For decades we’ve been told that “there is no alternative” to global capitalism—that trust in the market was the only way to bring progress and end poverty, despite the clear absence of an actual end to poverty. The global financial crisis of 2008 has undermined the rhetoric of inevitability, as even its most prominent practitioners begin to question the logic of neoliberalism. A Washington Post editorial titled “The End of American Capitalism?” quotes the Nobel Prize–winning former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz as saying: “People around the world once admired us for our economy, and we told them if you wanted to be like us, here’s what you have to do—hand over power to the market. The point now is that no one has respect for that kind of model anymore given this crisis. And of course it raises questions about our credibility. Everyone feels they are suffering now because of us” (October 10, 2008).

Those of us who opposed capitalist globalization before the Washington Post was entertaining such criticism have been arguing for many years that it is fundamentally unstable—as well as pointing out that neoliberalism has never worked for the majority of people on the planet. But after so many decades of marginalization, socialists, anarchists, and other critics of the system formerly derided as “flat-earthers” are finding surreal surprises in the daily news, as even Alan Greenspan begins to question the validity of neoliberal economics.

Economist and UK Green Party leader Derek Wall attempts to find common ground between the many strands of leftist movements in his 2005 book Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements. In a sweeping survey that covers a broad swath of the left, from Stiglitz to Vandana Shiva to Hardt and Negri, Wall examines the politics of anti-capitalism and attempts to sort out each approach, describing “the anti-capitalist movement” as “an amalgam of different schools of thought with different forms of analysis and varied demands. The aim of this volume is to unpick the intellectual knots in the protest network, to show how anti-capitalist ideas have developed” (3).

This is a huge amount of ground to cover for a fairly small book, and the results are uneven. It’s not always clear whether forces like anti-corporatists, monetary reformists, Marxists, green localists, anarchists, autonomists, and ecosocialists in fact comprise one movement, and whether that movement is anti-capitalist, anti-globalist, or for that matter anti-imperialist. Wall does not clearly define his terms for the reader, and this muddles the terrain of the debate somewhat. The book is organized by school of thought, moving from capitalists who question the Washington Consensus from the inside (such as Stiglitz and George Soros) toward schools of thought closer to Wall’s own, which appears to be an eclectic blend of autonomism, ecosocialism, and Rastafarianism.

Wall’s exposition of each intellectual current varies dramatically. His explanation of ecosocialism is clearly heartfelt and well understood, and relies largely on quotes from prominent ecosocialists Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster to relay ideas about the meeting of green and red. Unlike many of the ecosocialists he looks to, Wall views ecosocialism as distinct from Marxism, arguing that “environmental concern seems to be on a tick list of modern socialist virtues but rarely goes very deep” (164). He explains the contradiction between use value and exchange value as being at the heart of ecosocialist thought; by relying solely on exchange value, capitalism forces us constantly to buy and sell and therefore propagates constant expansion. An ecosocialist system would concentrate on the use value of goods, or how people actually use them—producing durable, non-polluting goods and nutritious food for human need rather than for profit. He argues, along with Kovel, for a “radical materialism” that “values what is physically present rather than viewing consumption, production and distribution as goals in themselves” (168). He also ties environmental degradation to the degradation of workers, using Foster’s analogy of the expansion of capital as a giant treadmill, noting that “the market must be broken not only because it kills the planet, but also because it kills those of us who work a little every day” (164).

The chapter on Marxism is contradictory as well. Wall clearly admires Marx as a historical figure, but his account suffers as he attempts to cover the politics of Marx himself, the main historical currents of Marxism, and the politics of the many small Marxist groups in existence today. A wham-bam five-page explanation of “the utter basics” of Marxist economics would prove dismally confusing for anyone not already versed in the topic; sentences like “a worker makes, say, ten mopeds in a day and the capitalist takes seven of these” do little to clarify the idea of the exploitation of labor (106). Do the workers get to take the other three mopeds home?

Wall also argues multiple times, throughout the book, that Marx was, and by extension Marxists are, in favor of unfettered capitalist economic growth, writing that “capitalism in its search for profits is the force that promotes globalization but will mutate into communism” (109) and describing the Marxism promoted by “many, but not all, Marxists” as promoting “a productivist politics that celebrates the expansion of the economy” (122). Leaping from Marx’s claim that capitalism has developed technology and created the conditions that make a surplus possible, he argues that “despite the prophecy of many Marxists, the promotion of hyperglobalization seems unlikely to flip society neatly into a socialist order. While there are contradictions inherent in capitalism, it is not a system based on clockwork that will strike twelve and chime in revolution” (177).

This caricature of the Marxist idea that the capitalist system “produces its own gravediggers” is flawed because it fails to take the actual gravediggers into account—Wall’s analysis of Marxism glaringly omits the working class as an agent of change. Marx argued that the ever-expanding growth upon which the entire capitalist system relies created certain factors that would in turn create the possibility of its own downfall. Industrialization, for example, forces peasants to leave the privacy of their farms to seek work in factories in the cities, where they are able for the first time to view themselves as a working class with common interests and to organize themselves. Furthermore, the technological advances spurred by capitalists facilitate economic growth, but also produce labor-saving devices, life-saving medical technology, and agricultural advances that could feed the world—the sorts of advances that, if shared and used for the common good, would allow a future socialist world to share the wealth, rather than the poverty.

None of this, in Marx’s view, makes that socialist future in any way inevitable or automatic. What he argued in The Communist Manifesto was that class struggle is inevitable, but its result is not decided; that through the course of history “oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Whether or not the ecological and economic crises we are seeing today constitute that “common ruin” is up for debate.

The key idea to which Wall returns again and again throughout the book is the concept of the commons. He argues that the critical activity of corporate globalization, just as with the first waves of privatization and industrialization about which Marx wrote, is the enclosure of the commons. The notion of the “commons” comes from the commonly used pasture and farmland in pre-capitalist England, which was enclosed for private profit. Wall quotes Vandana Shiva’s succinct explanation that “the World Bank is basically taking away the resources of the people, putting it in the hands of global capital, destroying the livehoods [sic] of people in the name of efficiency and forcing destitution on millions and billions of people” (82). By privatizing the land, food supply, and water, even the stories, cultures, and ideas of people are turned into saleable commodities. Capitalism forces people to participate in markets by depriving them of any alternatives. Wall argues that the ideas of taking back the commons can bind together the disparate strands of anti-capitalist thought.

While state provision can be humanized and markets tamed by the social, the more fundamental task requires that both the state and the market are rolled back. The commons provides an important alternative to both. The anti-capitalist slogan above all others should be ‘Defend, extend, and deepen the commons’… Anti-capitalist globalization could be labeled positively as the movement for the commons. (183–84)

Of course, the definition of the commons has changed somewhat since the time of Marx; it now includes not only land and physical resources, but also ideas, creative work, and of course the Internet, arguably where the greatest battle over the commons is now taking place. Wall enthusiastically endorses the principle of open source software as an engine for development, one that emphasizes use value over exchange value:

Open source is an excellent example of how something that does not directly increase GNP can fuel real prosperity: for example, it provides citizens and governments in developing countries with free access to vital computer software… Open source encourages users to add their own touches, focusing attention on the quality of the product. It is a stunning example of how both the market and the state can be bypassed by cooperative creativity. The barrier between user and provider is eroded; a direct agreement between society members is maintained… Marx would have been a Firefox user. (188–89)

Wall’s analysis of the commons as the locus for anti-capitalist thought is intriguing and demands further development; in many ways the book would be more successful if it had concentrated more fully on this theory and how it interacts with various schools of anti-capitalist thought. Where Wall does succeed, though, is in the book’s sheer enthusiasm. As free-market orthodoxy falters and the left moves into what may well become a long-overdue resurgence, his message is one of hope. Although the book was written before the current economic crisis burst into full view, it contributes to the discussion now opening up about the legitimacy of capitalist economics at a time when a growing number of people are searching for alternatives. There are alternatives to capitalism; there are new ideas that go beyond the sectarian divisions of the old left; and it is the creativity, ingenuity, and hope of ordinary people that will change the world.

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