The Sacred Cows of Capitalism

I am starting to see that racism and capitalism are bedfellows. The accrued wealth and power of white individuals, businesses, neighborhoods, communities, institutions, and even nation-states, cannot be separated from capitalism’s mechanisms of accruing wealth and power that developed in tandem with racism and inequity. I’m mostly speaking about the United States, with its unique history of slavery and racism, but this perspective can apply in other places too, where it might overlap with caste and class, alongside race. I encountered the clearest description of this recently in Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Anti-Racist, where he calls capitalism and racism “conjoined twins”. We should rename capitalism, as we know it here in the US, “racial capitalism”. 

As a white woman, who grew up in Europe and the US, currently based in NY State, I am using this insight to refine where I put my own energies as an ally in the fight for racial justice, living economies, and healthy communities. If the goal of my work is to be a part of redesigning the economy so that democratic principles drive every aspect of it and the benefits accrue to all people — from the distribution of wealth and resources, to governance, to business ownership, to implementing shared leadership — then I have to take on the reality of the “conjoined twins”. I have to integrate the idea that capitalism as a system cannot survive without its twin – racism – which means the systemic change we need is a radical redress as well as a redesign.

This is uncomfortable terrain in places where there are deep assumptions about the benefits of capitalism. For example, many people hold that capitalism is the best system to bring developing nations out of poverty, despite its inherent flaws. Or they point to the ability of individuals to transcend their circumstances and pull themselves up by their “bootstraps”, because capitalism gives them that opportunity. Or they point to the power of private investment to turbo-charge new ventures, creating jobs and innovation. Then there is the insidious assumption that we are entering a post-racial world, so to talk about racism is to give it more power than it actually has. 

Yet, in order to succeed and thrive at scale (to use a favorite capitalist term) as a species, I believe we need to examine and potentially overturn many of the assumptions that capitalism rests on. In its current form, I don’t believe US capitalism and globalized markets are capable of accompanying us in the deep changes ahead. To ensure the survival and regeneration of our ecosystems and to build an economy that provides justice and opportunity for all people, we need to pull apart the twin myths that capitalism is the de facto choice for us and that racism isn’t a key part of our current systems. 

Kendi writes that in the 1920s W.E.B. Du Bois was “binge-reading Karl Marx” while seeing the New Deal leave Black people out. This led Du Bois to the insight that had him call for anti-racist anti-capitalism, an idea that has resurfaced periodically, and which is holding sway in some academic circles today. Kendi goes on to make the case that “the source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest,” and so, the solution is not to work on changing people’s feelings about race, but rather changing policy to legislate equity and make antiracism align with people’s self-interest. This was also the focus of a recent training I participated in on “Building Racial Equity”, where we talked about the need to focus on institutional change, and track the effects of that systemic-level change, to make progress. Policy change often comes before changes in societal norms, when it comes to social justice. 

Policy will only change when there is enough pressure. That pressure can come from external shocks, like a war, or from the slower process of ideas spreading and taking hold, often becoming visible suddenly during a time of crisis. Moving from person to person, in community meetings, over time, ideas that once seemed radical can suddenly seem practical. I hate to give props to the father of extreme free market economic thought, but I do think there is wisdom in the words of Milton Friedman when he said that economists had a role to play:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

If the movement for a more democratic and equitable economy is intrinsically linked with building racial justice and social equity; and if I then connect that with the hunch that massive social and economic change is only possible when we hit a crisis big enough, then I think we are here now, at the cusp of potential system-wide change. The economy is being battered from so many directions, with COVID-19 being the visible cause of the most recent crises; people are rising up in ever greater numbers to protest racial injustice and economic vulnerability; our healthcare system is fracturing under the strain of a jobs-based insurance system crashing into a pandemic that is causing a tidal wave of job losses; we are being tested, and the resilience of our country and of our local communities is being revealed as brittle and inadequate to the situation. All of which brings to my mind, that “the ideas that are lying around” are more important than ever. The power to voice those ideas is in our hands.

Kendi states, “Seizing power is much harder than protesting power and demonstrating its excesses.” This sentence jumped out at me. In a world where we perceive that power is concentrated in few hands, and that the politico-industrial-military complex is so entrenched, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, and the ongoing protests can start to feel ineffectual. I can fall into a case of déjà vu and exhaustion. But then I watch the Confederate statues and flags being taken down; I weep with relief, shock, and joy that Kamala Harris, a Black woman, a South-Asian American, is now on the ticket as Vice President; I join the efforts in my community to provide mutual aid and ensure the integrity of our election systems; I listen to new language flowing more fluently out of my mouth, amongst my peers, in the media, words that embody what we want to manifest in more places: “equity”, “POC”, “shared leadership”, “democratic governance”, “local currency”, “neighborhood pods”, “empowerment”. Something is shifting.

To me, the term “seizing power” means figuring out what to seize, when to seize it, who is best positioned to seize it, and what to do with it once you’ve got it. If power is defined as the ability to act, then seizing power means you go from a protest stance to moving into action to address the issues you care about. It is relatively easy to define power this way and identify it when we see it: we can look for who is in the room making the decisions that affect massive numbers of people. That is generally how history has been written.

But power also can be defined as the inner fire that allows us to operate in a complex world with a compass set to justice and beauty, and the ripple effects this has on our work and on those we come into contact with in our lives. This definition of power is more aligned with influence, wisdom, and inner resources. In the framework developed by Leticia Nieto and Margot Boyer to better understand power and privilege, they define power very differently than is typical, and they put it in relationship with new ways to think about status and rank. They state:

Power relates to our connection to that which is greater than ourselves, to the numinous or the divine. It signals our connection to ancestors and descendents, to nature and to the whole of creation. Any person can have access to power; it’s not a function of social role or worldly success. We connect with power through our spiritual practices and our creative lives, through our mentors and loved ones, and through anything that allows us to move from a genuine center. (Full article link)

Nieto and Boyer point to power as the end goal in a personal journey, as an individual starts to understand how their own privilege, status, and rank in society function to either uphold or dismantle oppression. I am seeing that this journey towards a different experience of power is an essential part of the change we need. As we work to transform our economic systems and institutions, seizing and using that more outward definition of power, I believe we must be simultaneously engaged in that personal transformation that leads to inner power and awareness. This will allow us to grow out of the assumptions we hold that do not serve the next economy, and it sheds light on how racial injustice has been embedded in our current capitalist system. 

It is time for us to move into a new conception of power, so we can build systems collaboratively, and develop organizations, businesses and relationships that are truly just as well as innovative. And if that means we have to jettison the sacred cows of capitalism, so be it. The growth, energy, and innovation that are seen as hallmarks of capitalism come at a tremendous and unbearable cost to a vast majority of people, especially people of color, to our planet, especially in non-Western countries, and to our own sense of meaning, connection, and rightness as human beings. What would we call a new system based on wise stewardship, equity, and joy? 

7 thoughts on “The Sacred Cows of Capitalism

  1. This was a powerful piece to read that made me rethink many of my own associations with capitalism.

    You mention the idea of “redesigning the economy so that democratic principles drive every aspect of it and the benefits accrue to all people”. What does that look like for you?

    If economic systems are on a scale where today’s version capitalism is on one side and “the ideal” is on the other, do you think that we need to go all the way to “the ideal” today or can / should we move in steps?

    What experiences or insight helped you to come to the realization that capitalism and racism are “bedfellows”? What kinds of beliefs did it cause you to overcome? How can others begin on the “journey” you describe?

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    1. Thank you so much – I will mull on your questions as a starting point for my Reflection. I definitely recommend “How to be an Anti-Racist” as a book to read in regards to realizing capitalism and racism are intertwined. I also have been reading Charles Eisenstein this year, and while he doesn’t focus exclusively on that, his critique of capitalism has been a revelation for me in uncovering the assumptions.

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  2. Helene, this really spoke to me. I believe very strongly in the notion of personal power and I also believe that it takes a crisis to usher in real change. Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign have done a lot of work lifting up the depth of the problem of systemic racism. Tinkering around the system and NOT recognizing racism where we see it and working to change the system will not produce any of the results that we claim we want.

    I think that when you decide to use your personal power to change something, it is critical that you know exactly what change you are seeking. I think that part comes first and then you can more easily identify the leverage point(s) and reverse engineer the tactics that will get you where you want to be.

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    1. Yes! I was introduced to Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign this spring and find the work and Rev. Barber’s voice incredibly powerful and needed right now. I agree with you, that we need to be very clear what we want to change – and that’s why to me this idea of changing policy before “feelings” when it comes to racism in this country is such a critical insight. Because policy is something we can implement, and measure the impacts of, and if it isn’t working as we imagined (to decrease the inequity in our communities) then we try again. In a way, for me, that is how we need to look at all these systemic changes. We need to act and create real structures and projects, and measure their impact, and iterate. And all the while, that subterranean work of influence continues to make possible changing people’s values, “feelings”, and priorities through relationships, idea-spreading, and working on the skills we need to better communicate with each other, centering empathy and wisdom, instead of individualism and personal achievement.

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  3. Thanks, Helene. This is incredible work.
    What did it feel like to write this?
    I love your re-definition of power with Nieto and Boyer — thanks for introducing me to them.
    Where do you find yourself on your journey / in your relationship with power defined by them or others?

    Where does a relationship with performance art and creative work and the unseen ripple effects relate to building a new economy centered around: wise stewardship, equity, and joy?

    When have you felt like you’ve had the most agency to make meaningful change in yourself, in your organization, in broader settings?

    You’re on a powerful journey. What new insights are emerging as you synthesize these pieces for yourself?

    What new wisdom about joy and wise stewardship are you encountering coming from your own truth and journey in this world?

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  4. Great piece Helene!
    I enjoyed reading about your new found commitment to dismantling the double headed beast of racism and capitalism. I also imagine this revelation would be one that’s hard to share with peers who are convinced that the two are not interrelated and that you can remedy the foibles of capitalism by erasing racism. Especially since doing away with the base of capitalism , racism both locally and internationally, would spell the end of the the wealth and privilege that give the elite their sense of “power”.
    It would also mean that some of the orgs dedicated to fighting oppressive and racist power, and that do so now through personal relationship with people with wealth, trusts, and large multinational businesses, would lose their access to that power as well.
    Do you believe, and envision, there is a way to start to set up the foundations that are fighting for an end of racial capitalism so they aren’t as dependent on the tools of the system they ultimately want to dismantle?

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