As banks fall and the political-news cycle continues to obsess about staving off the impending global financial failure, it is important for those of us who claim to be against capitalism and the increased power of the state to understand what is happening and think about how we might interact with collapse (and the material and emotional ramifications of it) in a way that is sustainable.
It is difficult, at this point, to know how much of the latest crisis will translate into tangible effects for people who are not large stakeholders in the market system. The power of any successful state structure lies in its ability to make the vast majority of people feel that their own goals, inspiration, and identities are linked to the success of its power players, that each citizen’s well-being is tied to that of the system. Capitalist states do this by presenting the convincing illusion that each and every person or family is just a small scale model of a legal corporation, and that problems for the corporations always presage problems for actual persons, whose overriding motivation must necessarily be to acquire more economic power. Because of this, financial ups and downs that actually affect a relatively small subset of the population concretely are routinely presented as important for everyone to be either proud of or worried about.
The leadership of all political parties have the same task: to make the power structure that is in place work better by proposing minor adjustments. This government in particular claims to have an ideological, almost religious faith in what they see as the justice of market forces. Acts that challenge the supremacy of the ‘free market’ by restricting its growth are seen as heretical. The only alternative presented is an increase in the power and jurisdiction of the state, either replacing the one god for the other or finding some sort of equilibrium between the two. This is the discussion surrounding the recent financial meltdown and resulting government bailout.
The truth, however, is that neither the market, nor the state are omnipotent godheads but have, in fact, been created by people and survive, in large part, because people in the world choose, actively or passively, to believe in their power and reality. I am not saying that the effects of the market will cease to exist if you just stop believing in them. At this point the market, like the state, has become this very real thing that can and does easily destroy people. I am merely pointing out that today’s economic totality is not eternal and its laws are not absolute: there was a time when it did not exist and there will be a time when it will no longer exist.
The fact that the system seems so weak at this moment could lead one to wax optimistic about the opportunity it gives us to create communities of people that are autonomous and practice mutual aid, building new worlds out of the ashes of the old: indeed, it is always time to be doing that. It is also important to note however, that people have been heralding the end of capitalism on and off for the last hundred and sixty years and so far its moments of crisis have led to stronger states, and increased authoritarianism (including actual fascism) more often than they have led to beautiful alternatives.
If we are going to be people who are both critical of the world as it is and honest about our actual relationship to it, then we have to acknowledge that we, as individuals and communities, are not separate from or immune to the effects of an economic collapse. The collapse of capitalism, when it eventually comes, will not be pretty or easy. Most people, including anyone dependant on banks, supermarkets, or fossil fuels for their survival will face uncomfortable new realities. The 1929 stock market crash led to unemployment, starvation and homelessness on an unprecedented scale, in the US and around the world.
The rational fear generated by these realities can certainly lead people to be more conservative, less trusting, and more willing to submit to whichever authority promises some measure of stability. Yet there is also a way that pressure imposed on people during times of hardship can act as a catalyst for more positive emotions, forcing people to rely on themselves and each other and to live life more intentionally. The fact that this latest economic crisis comes at a time when we are also facing an ecological disaster means that the possibilities are particularly stark. Will people, by in large, jettison their environmental concerns because they are perceived as too expensive, or decide to change the way that they interact with the ecosystem because it is too costly not to? Questions like this exist on a multitude of overlapping levels. Choosing to let these be opportunities for positive transformation is something every body can do in the context of their own lives.
It is important not to minimize the very real fear that comes with economic crisis, but it is as important to engage with that fear constructively and not let it overpower us. Living on edge, in a place of anxiety and insecurity is not a sustainable practice. Fear that is denied, or unacknowledged, lurks forever in the background of our consciousness until we are not even able to trust ourselves with the responsibility of keeping it at bay. Recognizing our fears and understanding where they come from can transform them into tools that helps us better identify dangers, assess risks, and make decisions about how to proceed. The truth is there is no way to prepare completely for any catastrophic event, be it global climate change, a hurricane, great economic depression, or the death of a friend. We do not get to choose what the world throws at us, but our freedom lies in the ability to choose how we engage with it.
More concretely, it is possible to take steps and build networks that make us less dependent on the solvency of economic capital, and more able to depend on each other outside the protocol of economic relations. Investing in the relationships in our lives is crucial: so many of our connections to other people are mediated by money. The more that we can learn to know and trust one another, the more prepared we will be to both give and receive love and mutual aid when shit hits the fan and the less likely we are to feel isolated and afraid.
It is also important to invest in our own knowledge of how to take care of ourselves materially outside of the context of fossil driven trade and technology. During the depression of 1930’s most people still possessed the knowledge of how to preserve food without refrigeration, to bake their own bread, mend their own clothes and tend their own gardens. There may come a time when these skills will again become necessary and knowing how to be more self-sufficient is an empowering defense against worry and despair.
There is a way that these moments of instability, as difficult as they are, test our ability to transcend capitalist logic and dependency. By nurturing goals and following passions that are not expressed through the acquisition of economic power we can stop playing into the hand of the state. By developing relationships of mutual support that we can trust — and learning how to do things for ourselves — we can prevent the kind of overwhelming fear and insecurity that breeds reactionaries and begin to play with each other, for ourselves.