Alternate Worlds: Against Capitalist Realism

Many words walk in the world. … There are words and worlds which are lies and injustices. There are words and worlds which are truths and truthful. … In the world of the powerful there is no space for anyone but themselves and their servants. In the world we want everyone fits. In the world we want many worlds to fit.

— EZLN, “Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle,” 1996.

Systems of oppression have always had one thing in common: the implication, presented as common-sense fact, that the way things are is not only the way they should be, but the way they must be. The core assumption of all ideologies is that the construction of the world they present constitutes an accurate picture of the world as it really is; the image is mistaken for the real.

Capitalist Realism, by Mark Fisher, is a popular book in leftist circles. Even those who haven’t read it may be familiar with its most famous line: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The book asserts that, since the fall of the USSR and the subsequent proclamation of “the end of history,” the logics of capitalism and liberalism have manufactured a sense that it is impossible to imagine plausible alternatives to capitalism. Capitalism has learned to disguise itself as an inevitability that stands outside the particulars of history and culture.

Yet despite capitalist ideology’s claim to represent the end of history, cracks are unmistakably beginning to show. With each new crisis of capitalism and failure of liberalism—and we have witnessed many in recent years—these cracks only widen. The fragile contingency of capitalist realism, the depressingly unimaginative premise that there can be no alternative to its status quo, has been increasingly laid bare. What's more, the real-world consequence of this failure of imagination is to permanently alter global ecologies and irreversibly undermine our futures. If those in the so-called “developed” countries—those most responsible for the climate crisis—don’t soon figure out how to imagine and engage with the world differently, the future will not improve.

If we are to learn to imagine outside the limited bounds of capitalist realism, it must be through dialogue with people who have been silenced and marginalized for centuries by the logics of colonialism and capitalism—two sides of the same coin. Alternative ways to conceive of the possible may be constructed in conversation with cultures whose ways of imagining the world differ radically from those of the colonial and capitalist global core.

The “ontological turn” describes perspectives that depart from traditional notions of culture and instead address questions of being, treating all worlds and ways of being within them as equally real and valid. This turn suggests that we should shift our attention from ways of seeing to ways of being in the world. The difference may seem slight, but there are important implications behind the suggestion that non-capitalist worldviews—which, of course, are the vast majority in the historical and ethnographic record—are just as real and important as capitalist ones.

This is not just a philosophical difference; the cultural inhabitation of different conceptual worlds has real effects on the physical world we all share. To borrow an example from the anthropologist Wade Davis, when Westerners (to generalize for a moment) look at a mountain, they see a pile of rocks, latent mineral wealth waiting to be exploited. When an Indigenous Andean (again to generalize) looks at the same mountain, they see an apu, a spirit embodied by the mountain which protects those it watches over, who in turn have a duty to honor it. This difference in seeing directly translates into a difference in being. The Westerner will upturn the mountain to extract the mineral wealth of the earth, blasting and carving it apart to turn a profit, indiscriminately destroying ecosystems and Indigenous people’s sacred landscapes in the process. The Indigenous Andean, by contrast, knows a very different world, in which one is bound by relations of reciprocity and respect to the landscapes one inhabits.

Numerous other examples of such differences in thinking abound. Where one may see a forest as an abode of spirits and a repository of vital energies, the multinational mining firm, logging company, or coca farmer see latent profit. These differences in belief have tangible and long-term effects on how we live in the world, and it is no coincidence that in the given case, the Western worldview produces a highly unsustainable—and, what’s more, an essentially alienating, exploitative, and vacuous—way of being in the world.

The point is not to idealize non-Western or non-capitalist cultures, nor to suggest that these cultures do not have limits of their own. Instead, these examples demonstrate the possibility of engaging with the physical world in very different ways—far more sustainable, reciprocal, and respectful ways. The challenge now is to make these alternatives clear to people in capitalist societies. These alternatives not only allow people to question capitalism, but to imagine a world without it.

In dialogue with non-Western and non-capitalist cultures, we in the capitalist core can begin to conceive of the other-than-human not just as things to be exploited, but as beings with rights to be respected and to whom we owe responsibilities. Beyond the environment, we should consider what other such cultures have to say about gender, race, and class. Under current globally dominant ideologies, these constructs are systems of oppression and legacies of colonialism. But they don't have to be. Capitalism and colonial thinking are mutually reinforcing: to challenge one is to challenge the other.

Capitalism thrives on the failure of imagination, on a fatal disbelief in the possibility of alternate ways of being. It requires us to hopelessly submit to its flattening vision of the possible and the real and does all it can to convince us that there are no other options. It is the task of the radical, now as always, to seek out and present alternatives. When, as we increasingly find, the cultures of the global mainstream have none to offer, we may instead find solutions through engaging with the countless cultures whose voices have long been silenced and ignored by virtue of the fact that they suggest viable and vibrant alternatives to the way things are. If we fail to initiate these reflexive dialogues, we may not have to imagine the end of the world at all—we may live it.

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