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In a June 2, 2018 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, focuses on what I understand as the collapse of liberal democracy in the U.S.: “The United States has the highest inequality of the richest nations. It has the highest incarceration rate by far. It has among the highest child mortality rates. It has the highest youth poverty rate. It has one of the lowest levels of voter registration in the rich countries. In essence, it scores extremely poorly on almost all of the comparative measures when compared with other developed states.”

Limits of Capitalism

Further Alston predicts the political consequences of this inequality: “It’s not sustainable politically. The upheavals that we’ve seen with the election of President Trump, with the increasingly large-scale rejection of the key institutions of society, I think will only become more extreme as the wealth differentials become ever greater. We are building a society where wealth and privilege will dominate everything, where you will start to move toward the privatization of ever more government services.” Privatization of all resources, natural and human is the neoliberal, or hypercapitalist, agenda. Privatization of course means profit and profit means transforming the socialized services—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, etc—to line the pockets of corporate managers and shareholders.

While the Alston interview tends to focus on the effect of the Trump administration’s policies for the state of the union he describes, in his December 15, 2017 UN report on poverty in the U.S., he notes “the already high levels of wealth and income inequality between the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of Americans,” which implicitly points to a historic situation of “wealth and income inequality” that my book The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States (PaperBoat Press, expanded paperback, 2019) elaborates and analyzes. What is most damning in Alston’s report is not the historic situation itself, desperate though it is, but, as Alston notes in his report, the lack of political will to address it: “But at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the USA, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”

In his UN report, Alston notes: “The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion…since the US now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries.” The title of my book, The Disinformation Age, focuses on the narrative of the American dream as just that, Disinformation: a narrative that has no referent in reality, a hallucination, and a deadly one at that. The hallucination, or “illusion,” needless to say, is deadly because it keeps us from focusing on the socioeconomic catastrophe that we are living and without focusing on it, without giving it our undivided attention, we cannot end it.

The limits of capitalism’s imagination are marked by four words, what I refer to as “boundary terms”: property, profit, production, and progress.

The question is: what keeps us from focusing on this catastrophe? The answer I propose in The Disinformation Age is that we cannot focus because we are trapped—have trapped ourselves—within “the limits of capitalism’s imagination.” The limits of capitalism’s imagination are, I argue, marked by four words, what I refer to as “boundary terms”: property, profit, production, and progress. These four terms in conjunction with each other produce and guarantee the perpetuation of wealth inequality and environmental disaster.

Property is the foundation of capitalism: it is the conversion of the earth, which sustains us and is the original source of wealth, into a commodity that can be traded: real estate. In this way the land becomes a source of profit and where there is profit there is inevitably exploitation—extractive industries, factory farming, etc—which brings environmental devastation and its attendant subversion of health. I am defining property here as the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke defines it. For Locke, land, in what he calls “the state of nature,” becomes property when an individual mixes his/her labor with it (strictly “his” in Locke’s time and for a long time afterward and today in significant ways).

Thus, property is land individualized or privatized as a form of wealth. This is why I consider the phrase “private property” a redundancy. For all property is in Lockean terms private; that is, it is a commodity possessed either by an individual or individuals or by an entity (a corporation or the government acting as an individual) that has the right to exploit the land for profit. As noted by the French philosopher Proudhon in 1840: “Property is theft! (La propriété, c’est le vol!)” It is theft because historically the power of arms and wealth masquerading as the law has determined the distribution of property, the unequal distribution in the first place of what in Lockean terms was “the commons.” Thus property and poverty are synonymous, though capitalist Disinformation is at pains to erase that equation.

Profit is the zero-sum game of capitalism, the winner-take-all gambit of exploitation. In the U.S., the apotheosis and dead end of Western capitalism, profit drives the capitalist machine without question; it is in the very marrow of the nation imagined as an unmitigated good. James Madison made this perfectly clear in Federalist 10 when in elaborating the theory that informs the U.S. Constitution, he writes, in attempting to find a mechanism to control the destructive force of factions in public life: “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.” He goes on to say: “the most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”

In sum, for the man who wrote the Constitution and for the men who ratified it, all holders of significant amounts of property, land stolen from the Indians and labor stolen from Africans, the unequal distribution of property was not only a given but it was (and is) “the first object of government” to “protect[…]” that inequality. This is made perfectly clear at the end of Federalist 10 when Madison tells his readers that with the projected Constitution: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union.” In the wake of Shay’s rebellion of indebted farmers in Western Massachusetts, the Constitution was instituted to protect a class system based in the accumulation of wealth by some (profit) at the expense of others, a class system based in the fiction of talent (“faculties”) not the reality of privilege.

Capitalism thus is a system of profit (for some) and loss (for the many). That is the way it has played out in the current global system, and in the U.S. with particular virulence. Poverty cannot be cured by capitalism because it is an essential product of capitalism and its profit motive. This motive, quite simply, mandates the cutting of costs in the system of production and the primary cost in that system is labor. Thus, capitalism must reduce the cost of labor as low as possible without fomenting insurrection: costs not only in wages but crucially in benefits. The continual corporate undermining with government collusion of private sector unions since the 1950s, when 35% of the private sector work force was unionized as opposed to the current 6.6%, is a prime example of how the profit motive works to impoverish the worker. This attack on private unions, substantially supported by government right-to-work laws, was recently mounted in the public sector in Janus v. American Federation Of State, County, And Municipal Employees, Council 31, Et Al (2017), which now undermines the collective bargaining power of public sector unions with the same right-to-work provisions.

So capitalism, with its grounding in the hyper-individualism of the property system, is always primed to resist any forms of the communal or collective among the grass roots. Nothing marks this more emphatically than the U.S. genocide against the communal cultures of Native Americans, where land was the antithesis of property: literally “mother earth,” a part of the extended kinship structures of Native communities. While the violence of settler colonialism disrupted these structures, they remain, in whole or in part, in the theory and practice of Indigenous communities across the Americas: for example, in the autonomous Indigenous villages of the EZLN and in The Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. The ongoing corporate-governmental attacks against Indigenous communities from the Dakota Access Pipeline of the Standing Rock Sioux to the recent right-wing coup against the Indigenous government of Bolivian president Evo Morales represent the threat forms of grassroots communalism pose to neoliberalism. The original “Reds,” then, were not the Russian communists (still haunting the U.S.) but the “redskins,” the racist name for Indians.

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Production is synonymous with profit. Under capitalism production is an end in itself, a positive good, independent of what is produced (armaments, for example) and how the means of production (the use of fossil fuels, human labor, and animal life) and habits of consumption affect social and environmental conditions. Production fuels consumption and consumption, production, a vicious cycle that produces “according to the United Nations… 2.12 million tons of waste every year.” The bulk of this waste pollutes the environment, and the part that is recyclable simply goes back into the production/consumption/waste cycle. The environmental scholar and activist Cara Judea Alhadeff notes: “In 2014, an estimated 300 tons a day of marine plastic debris ended up on the shores on India’s coast.”

The next time you are in a grocery store ask yourself how much of the commodities on the shelves you need to sustain your life (staples) and how much is superfluous to that end, wants created through advertising to fuel the production/consumption/waste cycle. Then ask yourself how many millions of people in the world are going hungry every day because they are not able to meet their basic nutritional needs. According to the World Food Programme [sic]: “Every day too many men and women across the globe struggle to feed their children a nutritious meal. In a world where we produce enough food to feed everyone, 821 million people – one in nine – still go to bed on an empty stomach each night. Even more – one in three – suffer from some form of malnutrition.” At the same time, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization: “Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes [sic] — gets lost or wasted.”Then ask yourself: what does the capitalist marketplace have to do with this maldistribution of nutrition?

In their book World Hunger (12 Myths) Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins, and Peter Rosset give us the answer. They link hunger to “powerlessness” and powerlessness to “a scarcity of democracy,” specifically economic democracy, noting that while the U.S. endows its citizens with certain political rights, “we lack a concept of economic citizenship.” Thus as obviated by the Constitution but called for by Franklin Roosevelt in his last state of the union address, the U.S Constitution has no economic bill of rights and today in the U.S., “1 in 6 people...face hunger” (. Accessed October, 2018). “Democracy,” the authors of World Hunger write, “carries within it the principle of accountability. Democratic structures are those in which people have a say in decisions that most affect their well-being. Leadership can be kept accountable to the needs of the majority. Antidemocratic structures are those in which power is so tightly concentrated that the majority of people are left with no say at all. Leaders are accountable only to the powerful minority.” In what sense then can the U.S. call itself a democracy; the term oligarchy seems to describe it most accurately.

In his UN report on poverty in the U.S., cited above, Philip Alston notes: “About 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. In the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%.” The approximate average turnout in the last four presidential elections was 58.5%. The turnout in midterm elections is significantly lower, approximately 40%, although the 2018 turnout was 49%. While Alston notes some of the “overt” and “covert” ways the vote is suppressed among classes of citizens on the lower end of the economic scale, he offers a further explanation: “A common explanation is that people see no improvement in their wellbeing regardless of who they elect, so that voting is pointless. But the most compelling and dispiriting explanation I received came in answer to my question as to why voting rates are so extraordinarily low in West Virginia. A state official pointed to apathy, which he explained by saying that ‘when people are poor they just give up on the electoral system.’ If this is the case, as seems likely, some political elites have a strong self-interest in keeping people in poverty. As one politician remarked to me, it would be instructive to undertake a survey of the campaign appearances of politicians in overwhelmingly poor districts.”

A year after Marx and Engels published their Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), which ended with the memorable lines: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE,” Henry David Thoreau published “Resistance to Civil Government,” which influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in their struggles for democracy defined by social justice. In it, he noted that “All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong.” Today the game is loaded in a different way than it was then when only white men could vote. Today money loads the game, the concentrated wealth of both corporations and individuals, represented in PACS and lobbyists, which effectively buy congressional and presidential candidates, and Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and Janus v. AFSCME. What the poor in theU.S. understand, implicitly or explicitly, is, as the authors of World Hunger remark, “Leaders are accountable only to the powerful.” Thoreau’s message points to other forms of resistance beyond the vote in order to bring about systemic change. For the vote is very much a part of the system gamed by wealth and its hired hands: gerrymandering and voter suppression.

Hunger and poverty go hand-in-hand and both are outcomes of the production/consumption/waste cycle, the maldistribution of nutrition, that is contributing to the collapse of the climate. Alhadeff sums up the apocalypse that is resulting from this cycle: “Tropical rain forests and oceans are our two primary global carbon sponges—another manifestation of biological control (homeostasis). Soon neither will be left to absorb relentless corporate and consumer arrogance.” We must be clear, then, that capitalism and environmental justice are incompatible, just as capitalism and democracy are. For, as noted, one cannot separate poverty and hunger from environmental devastation; to end the latter one must end the former—it is a matter of balance in both cases—and that cannot be done within the limits of capitalism’s imagination, which is grounded in imbalance.

Thus, capitalist solutions, such as carbon pricing, for the climate collapse that capitalism has produced will only continue the production/consumption/waste cycle under different forms. In an article on the inseparable link between capitalism and environmental destruction, Rob Urie notes: “Environmental destruction is profitable.” Commenting on capitalist solutions to the climate crisis, he continues: “The history with ‘alternatives’ is of carefully delimited successes, gaming and scams. Carbon taxes have been in place in Europe for decades and the result is gaming and scams. Solar cells are dirty to manufacture and toxic to dispose of. The only way they ‘work’ is through separating climate crisis from the other ills of capitalist production to which they are additive. Wind power is promising but capacity is limited. As I and others have argued, the ‘Green New Deal’ is siloed, unlikely to resolve climate crisis and has an economic constituency that is motivated by the desire to prolong environmental resolution into perpetuity.”

Progress demands progression, a notion of movement forward in linear time. This is the kind of time that suits capitalist production: time by the clock that dominates the work week, the assembly line, clerical and service labor. It is the kind of time that under capitalism structures the life of the individual, which must progress in fixed stages to be “successful.” In this system success is typically defined in quantitative terms (advancement in pay grade). While it can be argued that this kind of time is industrial time rather than simply capitalist, it can also be argued that capitalism has crafted this time to its purposes by commodifying and individualizing it. It is not collective time, time we share with others, taking collective responsibility for what we produce. Rather, each of us is isolated in her or his particular time zone or track of time to the extent that workers are not also owners in the concerns for which they work or members of strong unions that participate in the direction of the concern.

Progress also compels us to live in the future, looking forward to the next stage in our lives, rather than in the present and thus progress is pitted against death, which is no longer an organic part of life but alienated from it: that which ends all progress. Progress, thus, has a Darwinian cast to it: the survival of the fittest. In that respect, progress has no tolerance for difference, for deviation from the norms imposed by capitalist production.

Under this system, the physically or mentally different, those who won’t or cannot comply with the assembly line of time, are deviants. This includes the poor and the homeless whom the system first marginalizes and then blames for their marginalization. Thus, under capitalism, we encounter superfluous populations: those who don’t contribute to progress or only contribute to it by representing the fate of the employed if she or he does not comply with the work conditions the company imposes. In this way the superfluous populations function to suppress workers’ pay and benefits. These populations function as the ultimate limits of capitalism’s imagination.

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Eric Cheyfitz