Episode One: “Can’t We Just Tweak Things a Little?”
Is Capitalism a holarchy or a hierarchy, and why does it matter?
I can’t begin this series without a quick overview of holarchy. The building block of a holarchy, a “holon”, describes a complete entity that is also part of a greater whole, which is also a complete entity. For example, you’re an individual, but you’re also part of a family, a community, and a nation. Each of those entities is a holon in its own right. A set of holons is called a holarchy.
Holarchic theory is what you might expect if a batch of Russian nesting dolls spawned a love child with a Venn diagram.
Capitalism is not designed to respect the integrity or nourish the wellbeing of all the different holons impacting your experience of life. It more closely resembles a system designed by male chimpanzees to establish mating and foraging rights—male apes kowtow to stronger males and thump on the weaker ones to protect their position in the pecking order.
It’s no coincidence that capitalism is starting to crack now that people other than violent men have a say in how our society should be organized. After winning a century of battles for representation and inclusion, it turns out non-aggressive people don’t feel super comfortable with cultural norms that were established tens of thousands of years ago to broker social cohesion between males through the medium of violence and intimidation.
For most of recorded history, coercion and violence has been the norm, manifesting many different toxic holons rooted in male primate aggression and sexual competition—holons like feudalism, colonialism, neoliberalism, monopoly, financialization and oligarchy.
With such a track record, it’s hard to even imagine what a social system deliberately designed to nurture whole people, whole families, whole communities and healthy nations might look like—the social contract female primates might write, if they could. Nevertheless, since the spring of 2020, that’s what I’ve been up to, and I have a laptop.
Can’t we just make capitalism work better for everyone?
Capitalism was built from the ground up according to impulses born from male ape sexual competition. Every brick and beam of it. There’s no aspect of the holon we call “capitalism” that isn’t steeped in violent competition for status. No feature of capitalism can be saved if we aspire to a society that accepts, respects and nourishes every level of our individual and collective identities.
The supremacy of the individual and a preference for competition and aggression over collaboration and community are baked into capitalism. You’ll never find a capitalist manifesto or diatribe that doesn’t assume these drives are universal, rather than some weird male ape stuff non-male apes can feel free to ignore. Try this thought experiment:
Imagine what capitalism would look like without competition, aggression, or selfishness.
Were you able to imagine anything at all? If you had any luck, please leave a comment below. I’d love to explore your idea with you, because I am drawing a blank.
What can’t be repaired must be discarded or it becomes an obstacle.
When socialists say things like “smash capitalism”, “down with patriarchy”, or “defund the police”, we’re typically not saying “destroy these things because we hate them and want to see them destroyed”. We’re saying “we need to get these old, broken things out of our way, so that we can be free to imagine and realize new and better things.”
Within Occupy Wall Street, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and many other progressive movements, it’s what we don’t chant that binds us all together in a common cause. We all share an aspiration to sweep away broken systems that inflict needless suffering on the many to create lives of demonstrative excess for the few. And we all understand that we won’t be able to implement better ideas until several toxic, decaying ideologies born in the dark ages are swept from our path.
A structurally violent system responds with violence when threatened. The most compelling evidence that capitalism is crumbling is the resurgence of fascism. Incompetent people who offer nothing at all except vague promises to return to a social system that works better for white men are seeing their political fortunes explode as capitalism tries to save itself. Once in power, such people deliberately titillate their followers with displays of pointless aggression the rest of us find disturbing and grotesque. In ape communities, when the alpha male is a violent imbecile, the whole group exhibits symptoms of stress, so give yourself a break if you’re not feeling OK right now.
But don’t lose hope! I won’t get nerdy about statistics and voting demographics, but the long term trends are clear to anyone who cares to look. Aggressive displays by insecure white men who want to turn back the clock don’t stand a chance against the social aspirations of everybody else in an interconnected world.
So what comes next?
This particular moment in our collective story is more important than any other in our history. Reactionary fascism is a minor inconvenience compared to the climate catastrophe hanging over all of us, and a comparatively simple problem to solve. In fact, since fascism is a manifestation of selfishness and mindless aggression, it’s a problem that practically solves itself. Hardly anybody who isn’t already a fascist likes them or wants to become one.
In this series of essays, I’ll probe some of the core vulnerabilities of capitalism. I’ll talk about over-specialization, monetization, information overload, personal branding, the outrage market, and more. Each essay in the series will highlight a particular aspect of capitalist dysfunction as it manifests in our daily lives, and explore the psychological impact it has on us, our families, our communities, and our nations. Along the road, I hope to establish a philosophical foundation for better ideas.
Smashing capitalism effectively must be a collective effort, not an individual achievement. If my post inspired you to jot down a related idea, I would be more than happy to help you make sure it’s a good read and publish it on this blog. There’s no money in it (for anyone but my domain name registrar and web host), but I promise any ink you spill smashing capitalism on this blog will last much longer and be easier to share than it would on social media.