Number 572 February 18, 2015

This Week: Capitalism

"Quote" of the Week: "Beyond Purely Economic Aspects"
The Fifth Big Theme of the Year 2014: The Evolving State of Capitalism
Capitalism is Not Sustainable
Life After Capitalism
Sumak Kawsay: The National Plan for Good Living


This week in Nygaard Notes the Big Theme for organizing the news is The Evolving State of Capitalism. You'll notice that this is The Fifth Big Theme of 2014. Last week's issue, on climate, was The Fourth Big Theme of 2014. However, recipients of the email version of the Notes got a headline that said that Climate Change was the Third Big Theme. Whoa! That's my second editing error in three weeks. Happy 2015 to me. My apologies for the errors. Thankfully they didn't involve any significant distortions or incorrect reporting. Just bad editing, for which I am sorry.

This week's theme is somewhat related to the Second Big Theme, which was The Decline of the U.S. Empire. But it's not the same thing. The top of the imperial hierarchy can be occupied by any country, or group of countries (NATO, anyone?) that has sufficient power. But the state of the capitalist system itself is far more important, as the global system dictates how resources, and thus power, are distributed throughout the world. To understand the distinction, first ask yourself, "Would my life be much different if China were the great imperial power instead of the U.S.?" Then ask yourself, "Would my life be much different if capitalism were replaced by something else?" See what I mean?

A tip of the stocking cap,



"Quote" of the Week: "Beyond Purely Economic Aspects"

This week's "Quote" of the Week comes from a remarkable document called The National Plan for Good Living in Ecuador. It's a planning document that I discuss elsewhere in this week's Notes:

"In the present we are aware that capitalism is provoking cyclical crises all over the international sphere, although the current slump goes beyond purely economic aspects. The current crisis of civilization includes society and Nature, and it is out of control. This imbalance manifests itself in the crumbling of institutional foundations, because they no longer meet humankind's needs. It is conveyed by questions of a way of life, a system of outrageous consumerism, institutions that are no longer functional in contemporary society, and an international system that is unable to solve the planet's problems."


The Fifth Big Theme of the Year 2014: The Evolving State of Capitalism

Many interesting developments occurred during the year 2014 (continuing into 2015) in regard to the state of the economic system that dominates the world scene. That's why, on this theme, I'm calling my Top Story of 2014 THE BUILDING OF A POST-CAPITALIST SOCIETY.

I do not mean to imply here that we are on the verge of having an entirely new system for ordering the global economy. What I am saying is that the tiny seeds of a new system are beginning to sprout, and the corporate media—were it paying attention—would have many stories to report that would help us to see what it is that's growing here, how fast it's growing, and what the struggle itself might mean for all of us.

Going back 500 years, we can see that one of the most fundamental conflicts in the hemisphere has been the conflict between the capitalist economy brought by the Europeans, and the largely commons-based indigenous economies that were already functioning all over the Western Hemisphere. The systems were so profoundly different, especially in regard to land and our relationship to it, that they could not co-exist.

For one thing, a capitalist economy is based on accumulation, while a traditional Indigenous economy tends to be based on "the assurance that every member of the community benefits and has enough." (those words are from First Peoples Worldwide) Secondly, capitalism emphasizes private ownership, while traditional indigenous economies in what is now the U.S. tended to be, in all their diversity, more commons-based. That is, they subscribed to a more complex understanding of ownership, if the concept of "ownership" was accepted at all. The Wampanoag leader Ousemequin (also known as Massassoit) has often been quoted on the subject, asking "What is this thing you call property? It cannot be the earth. For the land is our mother, nourishing all her children. … Everything on it belongs to everyone and it is for the use of us all. How can one man say it belongs to him?"

This irreconcilable difference has been the cause of enormous suffering. And, I would suggest, the victory of capitalism over a more commons-based world system is at the heart of the various crises which confront us today.

Before continuing, I need to point out that there is not one, or even a few, "indigenous models" of a commons-based economy. In his essay "Indigenous Peoples and the Commons" Preston Hardison reminds us that "There are over 6,000 unique indigenous peoples around the world, and many more local communities, each having its own unique set of beliefs." So it's important to avoid imagining that there is some single, unifying concept—especially not some romanticized fantasy about native peoples—that exists to guide us in our attempts to begin building an alternative to the current political economy that shapes our world.

Still, having said that, there is all sorts of news that could be reported about attempts around the world to imagine, design, and begin to build alternatives, and many of them are led by indigenous people and inspired by indigenous ways of engaging with the world. Greater awareness of this work would go a long way in empowering people to counter the insidious slogan popularized by the great neo-liberal champion Margaret Thatcher—"There is no alternative"—and replacing it with the empowering slogan "Another World Is Possible." Let's have a look at some of the exciting developments that make The Building of a Post-Capitalist Society one of the Top Stories of the year.


Capitalism is Not Sustainable

It was in May of 2014 that a remarkable book by the French economist Thomas Piketty reached Number One on the New York Times best-seller list. In the book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty makes the point that capitalism has a fatal flaw, which is that it does, and must, lead to ever-greater inequality. And this flaw, says Piketty, has the effect of destabilizing the societies it afflicts. In other words, capitalism is not sustainable. The newsworthy thing about this is not that some French economist said it, but rather that such a fundamental critique of the prevailing economic order has become so much a part of the public discussion in this country. On January 4th 2014 (even before it became a best-seller) my local paper reprinted a commentary on the book from the British newspaper The Economist, under the title "State of Global Capitalism in 2014: The Economics." Remarkable.

This growing awareness, even among ultra-establishment media outlets, that "the concentration of wealth may be the 'normal' condition" under capitalism (as The Economist put it) seems to be giving permission to a general audience to consider some of the critiques that activists around the world have been making for a long time. For nearly 524 years, in fact.

It was back in 2011 that the Occupy Wall Street movement burst onto the scene. Within a month of the first protests in Zucotti Park in New York, the Washington Post reported that "Rallies were held in more than 900 cities in Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as in the United States, with some of the largest occurring in Europe." The reason that tens of thousands of people turned out, according to the Post, was to express "their anger at the global financial system, corporate greed and government cutbacks." But the news around the world is not just the "expression" of feelings—important as that is—but to offer support and solidarity for many real and ongoing efforts to change The System.

Mainstream commentators were frequently heard criticizing Occupy activists on grounds that the protestors had "no plan," or their demands were "too vague." But the fact that nearly everyone understands, in general terms, what is meant when we refer to "The One Percent" and its relationship to "The 99 Percent" indicates a remarkable elevation of a class analysis into a subject that anyone and everyone can think about. And that's the point: The protestors and activists are a part of a movement, a movement so large that it looks "vague" or even incomprehensible to people in the media who have not been paying attention. And, despite what you have not heard from the media, that movement is not dead.

The next article will mention just a few of the exciting things that don't get the attention they deserve.


Life After Capitalism

I've spoken in these pages about the traditional medical system in the United States and how it is "pathology-based." Here's how Dr. Ralph Snyderman, MD, Chancellor Emeritus at the Duke University School of Medicine, puts it: "What we have now is a 'sick care' system that is reactive to problems." And UCLA professor Dr. Ka-Kit Hui, MD, remarks that "current health care works by waiting until symptoms of disease arise, as opposed to spending more time and effort on disease prevention so that those problems do not occur in the first place."

And so it is with the mass media in the U.S.: It is organized in such a way that it "notices" the negative and is typically oblivious to the positive. People often complain about this: "Why don't you ever report the GOOD news?" But I'm not advocating for a smiley-face optimism, or for more feel-good stories about individuals overcoming cancer or rescuing babies from burning buildings. (Although I have no problem with such stories, and they are sometimes inspiring.)

Instead, what I am suggesting—in fact, what I am doing in this issue of the Notes, and often do—is to point to the events, efforts, and "symptoms" of health and hope in communities and nations around the nation and the world that are helping us all to see—and live—in ways that transcend the individualism and competitiveness of the capitalist world. Reporting on such efforts is my idea of "good news" reporting. Of course, one person's good news is another person's bad news, which is why we need a whole new media system. But, for now, let's look at some good news that, in my idea of a new media system, would have been Top Stories in 2014—and should be in 2015.

The Commons Movement

In response to "the hyper-individualization and consumer-mania that has taken over our society," movements are arising here in the U.S. to recognize and develop the parts of our world that we share. That's why I would place the ongoing development and cohesiveness of what some are calling the Commons Movement into the "Good News" category.

I've defined The Commons this way (in Nygaard Notes Number 473):

The Commons is the realm of non-owned things, both tangible and intangible. The Commons are held in trust by all humans, and all humans are responsible for their stewardship. All people and all beings have equal claim to co-existence with The Commons, and a corresponding responsibility to honor, respect, and share The Commons to the best of their ability and understanding.

This movement, which is aimed at developing and further defining The Commons, is hardly limited to the U.S. In fact, it's probably more advanced elsewhere. David Bollier, founding Editor of, tells us what to look for as we scan the planet:

"The commons can be seen in irrigation collectives in Latin America; in farming ejidos in Mexico; and in coastal fisheries off Chile. The commons is alive and well in community forestry systems in Nepal, participatory budgeting systems in Brazil, and stakeholder cooperatives in Canada. The commons is hard at work in seed-sharing communities in India and community gardens in cities around the world. It is powering the 'collaborative consumption' that lets people share cars, apartments and tools."

Here in the bioregion that is my home—the Upper Mississippi/Laurentian Great Lakes—we have something called The Great Lakes Commons Initiative, which is "a grassroots effort to establish the Great Lakes as a living commons—shared waters that we all take care of and protect in perpetuity." On their website they say that "Leadership of the Great Lakes Commons reflects an unusual and promising alliance of people from across Nations, geography, ancestry and traditions." It's exciting stuff, check out their website, sign the Great Lakes Commons Charter, send them money.

In a sort-of related way, information technology is chipping away at the foundations of the private property-based system that we know as capitalism. The very idea of "property rights" begins to lose its meaning when information can be infinitely copied and shared. Think of it this way: In the commodity-centered world of capitalism, if I take your car without asking, it's understood to be theft because now I have your car and you don't. In the world of file-sharing, I can make a copy of your book/song/video, so I have it... but you still have it, too. How does capitalism account for that? It doesn't, and that's giving rise to all sorts of creative ideas about how to support creative people in the digital age. And what it means to "own" something.

I wrote about the problems with copyrights and patents in a couple of articles back in 2006 in Nygaard Notes #332 (Patent Nonsense: Imagine The Alternatives and An End to Copyrights: The Artistic Freedom Voucher). Other ideas to fire the imagination can be found on the website of the P2P Foundation. "P2P" is shorthand for "Peer To Peer," a term which originated in the world of computer geek-hood, but now is used to refer to all sorts of post-capitalist arrangements, including commons-based peer production.

Some of the most exciting alternatives-to-capitalism work in the world right now is happening in South America, which is no longer America's Backyard. At the top of this exciting list is Ecuador, to which we now turn.


Sumak Kawsay: The National Plan for Good Living

In his State of the Union speech last month, President Obama stated that "I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action." That may be why there was no mention in the speech of Central or South America, where it is becoming increasingly clear that North American leadership is neither wanted nor needed. In fact, an active rejection of the capitalist leadership known as the "Washington Consensus" can be seen all over the hemisphere, most notably in Ecuador.

In September 2008, the people of Ecuador approved a new constitution for the country. Out of this grew a national development plan (as we might call it; it's more than that) called El Plan Nacional para el Buen Vivir, or The National Plan for Good Living. The terms "Good Living" and "Buen Vivir" are very inadequate translations of an indigenous concept that, in the original Quechua language, is known as Sumak Kawsay. Briefly, the idea is to live in harmony with nature, placing spiritual well-being over acquisition of material goods, and emphasizing "collaboration over competition, sharing over accumulation, solidarity over disagreement, cohesion over discord..." In the Andean world from which the concept comes, everything is alive, and "The world is not split between the anthropocentric society and natural environment, but rather is seen as a holistic environment which survives on coexistence." (According to scholar Ryan Cobey of East Carolina University.)

Before I go any further, I should say that there appear to be two very different versions of Sumak Kawsay at work in Ecuador. There is the version that "is being taken up by both indigenous and non-indigenous communities who are defending their rights against the onslaught of extractivism," in the words of Ecuadorian organizer Carlos Zorrilla. And then there is the co-opted version that is used by both government and corporate forces to justify the very onslaught referred to by Zorilla. As you might guess, in this issue I'm talking about the first version, the one that inspires and guides those who are genuinely attempting to challenge the prevailing capitalist model of development.

"Life Is the Supreme Asset"

If you read the "National Plan for Good Living, 2013-2017" you'll see that it says that Ecuador is engaged in an announced, unabashed attempt to create a post-capitalist society. The urgency of the project is expressed like this: "Ecuador is...striving to...set our own 'social maxima', deciding to pursue irreversible, rapid, profound, radical change in this country."

As I mentioned, there's a big gap between that vision and the day-to-day politics at work in a modern nation-state. Also, the fact that Ecuador's economy is bound up in the global capitalist economy complicates the process enormously. Oil extraction and sale is a huge part of the economy, for example, which the Plan admits when it says that "accumulation of wealth will depend initially on commodity extraction, [but] the strategy will be to promote new non-polluting industries and diversify exports based on bio-products and ecological services, which will significantly relieve pressure on the environment in the long-term."

Time will tell how successful these plans may be. But still, even if the National Plan for Good Living is so far not much more than words, some of those words are pretty powerful. For instance, here's an excerpt from page 22 of the English translation:

"The political horizon of the Citizens' Revolution is the Socialism of Good Living. The ultimate goal of Socialism for Good Living is to defend and strengthen society, work and life in all its forms. The first step is to guarantee equitable access to goods, opportunities and conditions of life, in order to ensure that individuals, communities and future generations enjoy lives of dignity without causing irreparable harm to nature. Good Living is a day-to-day effort. It demands the construction of a plurinational people's state that protects the interests of the majority, and which has the capacity to govern itself and change the current model of capitalist domination. Socialism for Good Living questions the dominant pattern of hegemonic accumulation, i.e., neoliberal models of production, growth and distribution. We propose a transition toward a society in which life is the supreme asset. This demands a deep democracy and the constant involvement of its citizens in the country's public affairs. It is based on the pursuit of the common good and individual happiness, rather than excessive accumulation and consumption."

The current issue of Yes! Magazine carries an article by Michael Goodman on the story of the community of Sarayaku, Ecuador, "a rainforest community of 1,200 Quechua people that has successfully fended off oil companies and a government intent on exploiting their land for profit." The people of Sarayaku, says Goodman, describe sumac kawsay as "choosing our responsibility to the seventh generation over quarterly earnings, regeneration over economic growth, and the pursuit of well-being and harmony over wealth and financial success." Despite the fact that it is "a remote, pastoral community," the people of Sarayaku are "fighting back by advancing a counter-capitalist vision called Sumak Kawsay." By thus "engaging the Western world politically, legally, and philosophically," the people of Sarayaku are serving as "the face of 21st-century indigenous resistance" to a capitalism that increasing numbers of people are beginning to see as suicidal.

Good Living Excerpts

The entire National Plan for Good Living is over 100 pages long, so I won't even attempt to summarize it in any comprehensive way. What I'll do instead is to offer a few brief excerpts that I hope give a sense of what is in this remarkable document:

1. "The concept of Good Living presents the world with a substantial alternative to conventional development models. It surpasses the limitations of these conventional models, which reduce the concept to only economic growth and, instead, aims to achieve a more just society."

2. "Good Living cannot be improvised—it must be planned. Good Living is the style of life that enables happiness and the permanency of cultural and environmental diversity; it is harmony, equality, equity and solidarity. It is not the quest for opulence or infinite economic growth."

3. "The 2008 Constitution is part of the new wave of Latin American constitutionalism that began with new constitutions in Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia. These have all emerged in response to the need to guarantee human rights vis-à-vis public or private power, which have increasingly become homogenizing forces and are driven by a liberal/bourgeois approach to power."

4. "The Plan is an array of goals that shows our will to continue Ecuador's historic transformation. Its aims are: To consolidate democratic governance and construct the people's power. To foster social and territorial equality, cohesion, inclusion and equity in diversity. To improve the quality of life of the population. To strengthen citizen capacities and potential. To build spaces for social interaction and strengthen national identity, diverse identities, pluri-nationality and interculturality. To consolidate transformation of the judicial system and reinforce comprehensive security, with strict respect for human rights. To guarantee the rights of Nature and promote environmental sustainability globally. To consolidate the social and solidary economic system, sustainably. To guarantee dignified work in all its forms. To promote transformation of the productive structure. To ensure the sovereignty and efficiency of the strategic sectors for industrial and technological transformation. To guarantee sovereignty and peace, enhancing strategic insertion worldwide and Latin American integration."

5. "The new constitutional order emphasizes social rights and puts them in relationship with the Andean/Amazonian notion of Sumak Kawsay, or Good Living. As a consequence, one responsibility of each member in the society is to promote the common good and place general interest before individual interest, i.e. which realize the primacy of collective values over individual values..."

So much more could be said! But no room. Take a look at the document online, if you're so moved. You can find it HERE.