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Exiting the Mental Prison of Capitalism: a document for my friends who do not read Marx

Sandra Lindberg

Exiting the Mental Prison of Capitalism:

A Document for My Friends Who Do Not Read Marx

By Sandra Lindberg

2800 words​

Bio Sandra Lindberg lives and writes in the primarily conservative Republican land of Central Illinois. Born to Swedish immigrants who taught her about the potential kindness of socialism, she experienced how capitalism brought chaos and hardship to her family and its friends and children in the US. Her work as a theatre practitioner and scholar have taken her to many communities, where she could not avoid seeing how environmental challenges made life harder for most people there. Canvassing for CARAL in the ‘90’s, she saw how overcrowding, poverty and degraded natural environments made life so tough, especially for women and children living in the barrios along the Pacific Ocean. Touring Shakespeare scenes to rural communities in Idaho, she heard from residents how military installations in the state harmed the water, animals and people living on the land. While studying, teaching and acting in San Diego, she learned how run-away land development and a huge military presence was over-taxing water and land resources in Southern California. Working at the Virginia Shakespeare Co, she opened the phone book in Williamsburg and found an evacuation map for nuclear attack staring at her from its opening pages. Teaching in North Dakota she learned the quiet area was likely to be attacked first in the event of war because of the missile silos located just miles from her home. In Chicago, she provided theatre performances in public schools and libraries and learned of the dearth of resources available for the children. When performing at large, union theatres there, she saw how only the wealthiest could afford to attend many of the shows. In Central Illinois she has come to understand how racial and economic inequality dominate towns even as a complicit local media fails to analyze the situation and a few multinational corporations control the local reality. These days she chooses to focus her work on electronic organizing and writing. She does not travel long distances unless in a multi-passenger vehicle or via ground transportation. She is a strong supporter of the ecosocialist group System Change Not Climate Change, an independent member of the newly formed Marxist Center, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Ecosocialist Working Group, and organizer with the Macon County DSA and DSA of Macon and Logan Counties. She is a novice birder, a recent graduate of the Macon County At the Glacier’s Edge Master Naturalist Program, a volunteer at the Rock Springs Nature Center Library, and grows vegetables and small fruit on permaculture beds on a quarter acre within Decatur city limits. In addition to constant study, she practices the valuable skills her mother and father taught her: food preservation, cooking, carpentry, home repair, knitting, sewing and ornamentation techniques of all kinds. Her articles have appeared in Against the Current and the System Change Not Climate Change website.

Sandra holds a BS Theatre major and English minor and MA in theatre criticism with a research concentration in sociology from Illinois State University. Her MFA is from the Old Globe Professional Acting Program at the University of San Diego. Before taking early retirement, she was associate professor of theatre at Illinois Wesleyan University for fifteen years. She has taught in multiple states, and acted and directed in just as many. Now, though, she does not work in a black box and create imaginary realities. Now she works for a radical and better future.

Why This Paper? For over twenty years in Central Illinois, I have tentatively, patiently or angrily conversed with conservatives and liberals about climate change, political theory and social inequality. Attempting to openly discuss Marxist concepts, though I find them powerfully important, instantly drives my friends into retreat. And yet I am very concerned about what is going to happen to my friends, colleagues and all in our community, as current crises worsen. I have been searching for a metaphor and a method to share my perspective with people who fear non-capitalist ideas. My goal is to keep them reading and considering, at least for a little longer than I seem able to manage in conversation. “Exiting” is my attempt to invite my friends into a way of thinking that they might admit had some merit. After that, who knows what will unfold. As to the present environmental and political challenges, Sandra is known to say: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Adelante!

Once Upon a Time in What We Now Call Colorado

(credit NPS)

When marauders swept through what is now called Mesa Verde CO, when droughts hit the city followed by famine and disease, a day came when a few members of the community persuaded city leaders to meet with them. The few pointed out to the leaders that the people needed to abandon their city in the cliffs. It was time to find a better place for the people. Some suggest that leaders of the Ancestral Pueblo are believed to have resisted the idea of abandoning their home, their traditions so tied to place and their way of life. And yet research has revealed that many people from Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon traveled south, eventually mingling their ideas and customs with the people now known as the Hopi and Pueblo. And in this way aspects of 12th Century Ancestral Pueblo lived on in lands with better rainfall and less warfare.

Today’s Version of Impending Societal Collapse

In 2018 all life on earth is faced with circumstances far more encompassing than what threatened the Ancestral Pueblo. For many plants and animals, including humans, the possibility of leaving behind a dangerous environment to find a place of greater safety simply does not exist. The dangers confronting life on earth are global.

And yet, as with the Ancestral Pueblo people, some today understand how dire are the present circumstances. These scientists, activists, women and mothers, farmers and those already dispossessed of earthly security--these growing in number every day--demand that today’s leaders abandon the current way of life to make survival possible. Frustratingly, history threatens to repeat itself. Like some of the Ancestral Pueblo who perished in their grand city in the cliffs, most of today’s leaders offer timid suggestions to address an approaching cataclysm. They sit trapped within the intricate boxes of thought they cannot imagine how to leave. The leaders struggle frantically to maintain a complex system that requires all their time and enormous amounts of energy to shore up. They sit as if in prison cells and have forgotten the bars are their own design. So convinced are they of the inescapable strength of their imaginary cells, they have forgotten the prison door is missing. Their cells have no locks except those they choose to impose upon themselves.

As a recent article observed about climate change, “We know what we have to do.” And yet the CO2 level continues to rise, polar ice keeps melting and the number of living creatures destroyed by climate change increases at an almost incomprehensible rate.

The worst of course is that there is nowhere to go. In this respect, the present human situation is not like that faced by Ancestral Pueblo people. We cannot simply migrate south--or north. We must mitigate and adapt to the destructive forces our species has set loose on the planet. If we fail to change, we will perish.

What is the nature of this mental prison so many humans currently accept as real and undeniable? It can be described.

The Mental Prison We’ve Built

The System

  1. Human males dominate positions of power.

  1. Men, or women working within the system, study the system(s) men have devised during preceding thousands of years. Current systems receive most focus and study.

  1. Of present systems, capitalist and socialist systems receive greatest scrutiny. Each is also dissected into subcategories.

  1. While all this study continues, the systems men have set up bring the planet to its knees. Leaders of systems find reasons why “the system” or “the work” or “the world” must continue largely as it is, despite planetary crisis.

  1. Through all of this increasing chaos, those disempowered by the systems are barred from offering their perspectives. Their theories are dismissed and their suggestions are largely ignored.

Current System Premises

  1. Humans and society are thought to exist separate from nature.

  1. Humans do not really believe themselves to be animals.

  1. Reproduction of life forms, whether human or “animal,” just happens. It’s not formally incorporated into an understanding of how the planet or human systems work.

  1. The factors and conditions that lead to reproduction and the rearing of immature humans and “animals” are not factored into the systems’ equations. These realities are assumed to happen as if all by themselves without the need for adequate system recognition or support.

  1. The complex interrelationship between all aspects of the planet are not studied by the majority of humans. Instead the planetary ingredients needed by humans and their systems are quantified. Other planetary realities are studied primarily as they relate to human needs. Example: bee destruction is studied because humans need bees to pollinate food crops.

  1. Time is assumed to be linear. Relationships are assumed to happen in a causal and linear way. It is assumed humans wish to move
    “forward,” not “backward.” “Progress” is assumed by most to move in one identifiable direction.

The above ideas, which are assumed to be true and mentioned mostly in passing, are codified in the capitalist system’s laws. A great deal of energy is devoted to persuading humans of the necessity, and even sanctity, of these laws until most people lose the ability to question them. And so the prison of the mind is built.

Assumptions Are Not Facts. What Fears Keep Us From Exiting Our Mental Prison?

If growing numbers of us understand the current system threatens to change environmental planetary conditions so profoundly that most life on the planet will be destroyed, what human fears keep us in our prison cells? Faced with droughts that persist for many years, tsunamis of mythic proportions and drastic changes to weather patterns that threaten humans’ ability to grow food, even the above assumptions should not be enough to keep us frozen in our world view. What dreads are so strong that it keeps us from acting to protect ourselves from climate change?

  1. One fear seems to be that we cannot drastically reduce CO2 levels because doing so will bring financial chaos and complete system collapse. But is there an underlying assumption that would guarantee such a fear became reality? Though we do not speak of it, many people believe that in order for financial meltdown to happen, humans in power would have to act as if maintaining current rules about property was more important than the survival of the planet. Even if the majority of humans allowed such an assumption to stand without revolting, this perspective logically should lead to the understanding that preserving current rules about property will likely mean property and its owners will disappear, wiped out by a human-made uninhabitable planet. This ultimate, logical conclusion is simply ignored.

  1. A second fear broadly encouraged by those in power relates to laws, rights, and human ways of living in relationship with each other that were first devised when human population was much lower. When securing dependable shelter, fuel, food and clothing involved great physical effort, a collective agreement to recognize a person’s right to hold onto private property may have improved human society. To our detriment, these customs and laws about private property have not been reexamined or revised to reflect new realities. Changes to definitions of concepts such as corporations and property laws revised by legislators only intensify the wealthy’s right to become even richer while those with little are expected to endure increasingly precarious lives. If human numbers had remained relatively small, this inequality might have been overthrown. Unfortunately, a swelling human population, encouraged in part by capitalism’s desire to maintain a surplus of human labor, exacerbated private property laws’ increasingly unequal effects. So many today lack the ability to secure basic human needs. Persuading the disadvantaged that they must revolt becomes difficult when they have no confidence that revolutionary leaders will help them to even the insufficient amounts of shelter, food and clothing they have within the current, and unequal, system.

These assumptions promulgated by the oppressors and accepted by the oppressed ignore an ever growing reality that should force all classes to abandon today’s concepts about property, inheritance, and the distribution of resources. Laws say communities cannot “take” the wealth of a few to quickly increase renewable energy sources, shut down fossil fuel operations, and redesign transportation, housing and agricultural systems to help the majority of humans and the planet. Such laws and customs make no sense in the face of a heating planet. Neither logic, fear nor experience support the continuance of systems that threaten the earth. Taking apart the system will lead to violence and chaos? We have those realities now! Should people reassign the idle wealth of a few to protect the planet? Of course they should. Should a slew of professions and businesses be abandoned and replaced with methods that directly and fairly address climate change? Undeniably. Is there any merit in arguments of the wealthy that such “takings” are illegal and immoral? If “takings” are illegal and immoral, why does the concept of eminent domain exist? We should turn the concept of eminent domain against the oppressors. The illegality and immorality belong in their world that is so willing to bring suffering to the many while they (temporarily) live like demigods. The truth is if humans continue to respect current laws, we will soon lack a world in which legal debates are even possible.

  1. Perhaps some of the privileged admit there is no logic to the system as it currently exists. But yet another fear they promote helps to keep their capitalist system chugging along. According to those in power, if the world attempts to set aside current systems, chaos and violence will be the unavoidable result. Ironic isn’t it that those willing to support a system that asks so many to suffer claim to believe in the rule of law? What underlies the assumption that system change can only be accomplished through violence is the belief, and it is a belief, that a majority of less powerful people, less wealthy people, will be unable to resist a desire to take revenge on the powerful. This condemnation of human nature is called up by the guilty consciences of those who currently design societies in which unspeakable inequality and suffering are simply accepted as unavoidable. A truly democratic change of system to one that reflected what up to 80% of Americans desire could be accomplished without violence at all. The challenges the planet faces at this time and the dangers humans must address require us to carefully reassign all resources and refocus all abilities in an effort to turn the planet from its present destructive course. If the majority came to trust that around the globe all populations and all environments would benefit from these planetary changes, there would be no need for the momentary satisfaction of revenge.

If We Abandon Capitalism, What Ideas Could Guide Our Journey?

If the great majority of us embraced system change--the complete abandonment of capitalism for a new social system whose label has yet to be chosen--what premises and major tenets might such a system embrace? Here I will offer an attempt at such description, though fully recognizing this is only one person’s attempt to contribute to a reimagined world.

  1. We might embrace a world view that takes into account two ends of a spectrum with individuality and commonality at either end. One end of the continuum, that each of us is unique and that we live on a beautiful and biologically diverse planet, we visit regularly. In fact, this idea is the perspective that has led us to emphasize individual rights and the desire of each person to experience as much of the earth’s richness as is possible within a single lifetime. Currently, we focus too much on this idea: we lack a counter-poised perspective to balance the scale.

While attempting to adopt indigenous philosophies or ideas from earliest ages may be less than ideal--we would do well to learn from them and develop a contemporary recognition that the sphere in which individual choice exists touches countless other lives and, in fact, is encompassed by a sphere in which all earthly life ebbs and flows. We have the opportunity and perhaps the responsibility to explore our individual potential--but such striving must happen from an equally vibrant awareness of how our choices affect others and the planet as a whole. We must learn again how to balance individual desires with the needs of other life forms with whom we share the Earth. Some might describe this awareness as the ability to balance personal rights with larger responsibilities, but the needed change of mindset is deeper than that. Individual rights are, in fact, a subset of our existence in a larger, complex reality. We must acknowledge the destruction that has resulted from industrial era beliefs that individual rights can somehow be indefinitely pursued in the rapacious manner that is consuming the planet. Our individual rights must be understood to be limited within an understanding and appreciation of the planet’s limits.

  1. In a future world healing from the wounds of capitalism, humans might have learned to accept and value how time on earth also emerges through the inter-relationship with two more continuums. The second continuum involves an awareness of the cycle of life and death on the planet. The third involves a human awareness that we share the planet with other lifeforms in an intricate dance of competition and cooperation. In capitalist societies humans are encouraged to celebrate life and push an awareness of death aside. Also, as part of the present capitalist world, humans are programmed to admire competitive impulses while cooperative efforts are deemphasized and undervalued. Extending this dichotomy to the relationship between humans and other life forms, the capitalist myth argues that people somehow exist at the top of a hierarchy of life forms that humans are entitled to dominate. The danger to other creatures posed by this artificial hierarchy is justified as a necessary condition for human progress.

(Pinterest; closed system terrarium: 80b2f29362797.png)​

In a future world humans might appreciate that these complex continuums are necessary to the health of our planet. Both life and death will be celebrated within this existence because they are needed to maintain the planet’s continued balance and viability. We will also understand how all life forms are necessary for our closed system’s survival. Also essential, the demotion of humans from an apex species to one living in complex relationship to many life forms will be the necessary shift in thinking for humans whose fear of death currently threatens to propel their lives and the viability of the planet toward a poisonous and fast destruction.

  1. In a future world when humans will live fascinated by the intricate dance of planetary continuums, one final willingness to understand will signal an important stage of our evolution: the ability to accept that neither our species nor this beautiful planet can persist without change or destruction. However, even this recognition of impermanence might be tinged with joy. While a crashing meteor or profound disruption to the planet’s core could wipe out the balance of life we enjoy on earth, we would live knowing our species had found its way back into better planetary balance. We would face destruction knowing we did not cause it. Whether we died when a meteor unalterably destroyed our home, or managed to send a few of us into space searching for a new planet, we would experience those events with an acceptance of the complicated balance needed to sustain life.

What to Call This New Worldview?

What these paragraphs attempt to describe is not socialism. It is ecosocialism. These paragraphs imagine a world in which human society will be designed to exist within the limits of our planetary home. In an ecosocialist society, the divide between nature and society will fade until what humans design will live as easily on the earth as species who coexist with others in their complex web of life. In an ecosocialist society, humans will once again proudly embrace their animal identity, no longer judging other species as different or inferior to them. In an ecosocialist world, humans will step onto a prairie or into a forest and know their kin live all around them-- in the soil, the air and the water.

Our current capitalist system is cruel, unequal, undemocratic and profoundly destructive. It is a prison of ideas that a few humans have imagined and forced upon us all. The system is not the end of history, but a series of choices. We can and must make better ones. We haven’t arrived at the best system. We have imprisoned ourselves in cells whose bars are made of ideas. We can, and must, see these bars as the mirage they are. We can walk out of our prison and return to a life in balance with the planet. The planet is real. Humans and all life on earth are real. Capitalism? It is a nightmare that has troubled us for a time. It is now necessary for us to leave that nightmare behind and ensure our, and the planet’s, survival.

Sandra’s garden in Decatur IL​