Saturday, October 24, 2009

You need to think about capitalism if you want to change the world.

Riane Eisler has written a number of books about personal and social change. The most recent one, published in 2003 is called The Power of Partnership:Seven Relationships that will change your Life. The book is interesting; it makes many important points, chief among them that the world is often run on a domination model and that we want to replace that by a partnership model. Well said, but how do we go about that?
People have thought about that question for centuries and many people all over the world and in the US have tried to do just that. Examples are the coops founded by farmers, or the collectively run workplaces that exist all over the US. Examples are the intentional communities of Amana, Oneida, of the Shakers and many others. These communities were founded as intentional alternatives to the capitalist market place and the dog-eat-dog capitalism often encourages.
But Eisler will have no truck with any of those earlier advocates of cooperation. In a recent article in Tikkun that gives a brief summary of her ideas she writes that we should not talk about capitalism--because that is “yet another old way of thinking.” Considering capitalism is “useless for understanding what a more equitable, sustainable and caring system would look like.”
Is that true?
Eisler makes some really important observations in her critique of economics. As it is practiced now, economics focuses on prices and commodities – things you could sell or buy, that have monetary value. As a consequence family caretakers-- primarily women –do work that is thought to have no economic value in our society. They are said to be “economically inactive.” Even worse is the fact that many destructive activities, for instance, producing tobacco products or cluster bombs, since they involve commodities bought and sold, count as positive values in the gross national product of a society even though their effects are an entirely destructive.
All of this is terribly important and needs repeating. So is her insistence that we move from dominative ways of organizing society to cooperative ones. Many people agree on that: cooperation needs to replace domination. The question of how to move our societies from domination to cooperative structures has long been debated and tried out in different communities. The sad fact is that we have not yet managed it. But Eisler is undaunted. She tells us that we must not pay attention to centuries of thinking about these changes. Forget the Diggers and Levelers in 17th century England, forget Marx and Engels, forget the socialist kibbutzniks or the flower children of the late sixties,and many, many others. Theirs are “old ways of thinking that we must . . . transcend.”
What we must do instead is explained in Eisler's 2003 book The Power of Partnership. We must prevail upon existing enterprises to treat their employees as human beings instead of as interchangeable factors of production. (67) Eisler has many stories of corporations that have done that and have not only, thereby, done the right thing, but also made a lot of money. Doing well by your fellow men and woman and doing well by your bottom line are in Eisler's new economics perfectly compatible.
But things are not quite so simple. One of the companies mentioned in her book, Hyatt Hotels, is cited for treating its employees better than many other companies and being rewarded by employee loyalty. A few weeks ago three Hyatt hotels in Boston laid off about 100 housekeepers – mostly women who make beds, clean floors and toilets –some of whom had been with the company for 20 years or more. These housekeepers had a pension plan and health insurance and made $15 an hour – about $30,000 a year. Hyatt replaced them with housekeepers working for eight dollars an hour without any benefits.
How could Hyatt Hotels, committed to treating their employees humanely do such a thing? When they were criticized for their action, Hyatt Hotels justified themselves as follows: In the present economic crisis, the hospitality business is suffering and so is the hotel chain's bottom line. Hence the firings of long term employees, replacing them with others paid half the wages of the fired workers. As long as we live in a capitalist economy that is a perfectly good justification. Companies like Hyatt are responsible to their stockholders who want their stocks to go up and their dividends to come in regularly. The managers of Hyatt hotels are not the owners; their job is to increase stock value and if that requires cutting their wage bill by firing established housekeepers that is what they will do even if, personally, they really hate doing it.
There is an important lesson in the story: a capitalist economy encourages the spread of domination. Capitalist managers must do whatever it takes to make ever more money, even if that means expanding domination and restricting cooperation. If that is what you oppose, as Eisler does, then you cannot just ignore capitalism as “another old way of thinking.” Replacing domination with cooperation is not merely a matter of trying as hard as you can to be a good person, to change, and to encourage others to do likewise. In our world capitalism promotes domination; it encourages laying off workers, cutting wages, foreclosing on mortgages, denying health care to the sick and to the poor. Capitalism is a serious component of the problem of domination. Yes, capitalism also promotes cooperation—as long as it makes you money. When it is no longer “cost-effective” as the Hyatt case shows so vividly, cooperation goes out the window.
The project of replacing domination by cooperation is a very ancient one. Human beings have tried it in many different ways and found it extraordinarily difficult. It has not become any easier. We must not misrepresent the difficulties of this task. To overlook centuries of thinking about capitalism – about the private ownership of productive resources – and to make the whole project of one of goodwill and personal change does a disservice to all of us. Well meaning reformers, if they believe Eisler, will try to change themselves and others only to find that good will does not take you very far in times of economic crisis. Why do we have almost 10% unemployment--while CEO's get excessive bonuses and salaries-- or a still rising rate of foreclosures? Eisler's followers will, most likely, be discouraged when they encounter capitalism at its most predatory, blame “human nature” and give up trying to change society. Eisler's oversimplification will in the end only produce frustration, cynicism, and political passivity.
Her advice to ignore ideas of past generations, also dishonors many, many generations of persons of good will who have struggled against domination and for cooperation, sometimes sacrificing their lives. It completely overlooks the most striking contemporary efforts to replace domination by cooperation--the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque country of Spain, or the large and complex cooperatives in of Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy. Mondragon has been providing jobs and decent income to the employees of 150 associated co-ops for 70 years. The Italian co-ops are equally large and well established. These and myriad other cooperatives, here and abroad, function well because they are self-consciously opposed to domination, in the form of capitalism.
Reducing domination and fostering cooperation is very, very difficult. If you are unwilling to think about capitalism, it is impossible.