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Anticapitalist Practices: Systems Thinking

I want to talk a little bit about two economic and political systems that together, can shape us without our realizing: capitalism and neoliberalism. I've written more about how I define capitalism here, in case you're looking for a little more definition than I offer in this post.


The short version: Capitalism extracts labor from people and resources from the earth. As individuals living within capitalism, we often participate in extracting labor from other people and resources from the earth, too.


In tandem with capitalism, neoliberalism is often subtly at work in our thinking . Camille Barbagallo has a great definition: “Neoliberalism is a political project that makes you, not the state and never capital, responsible for all of the choices and non choices that you supposedly make...and when it’s your choice, you can be punished and [held] responsible for your choice.”


Neoliberalism tells us that the exploitation we experience is the result of the choices we've made or refused to make (rather than the system of capitalism or other oppressive, world-shaping systems). Neoliberalism also tells us that what happens to other people is the result of their own choices (and therefore not our, or anyone else’s responsibility).


Here’s an example. There was a tweet going around a while ago about how “carbon footprint,” a way of thinking about the annual amount of energy each of us consumes, is a concept created by the corporation BP. On the surface, thinking about the impact our energy usage has on the planet is a good idea. But, "carbon footprint" is a neoliberal strategy because it turns our attention 1) away from a corporation responsible for a devastating environmental disaster, 2) away from the system of extractive oil drilling and petroleum-dependence, and 3) toward us as consumers. It turns the conversation into “which individuals are consuming the least energy” (energy usage becomes a choice) and away from the companies that profit off of an extractive energy system, the corporations responsible for the vast amount of energy usage/pollution, and the ways our governments facilitate these companies. It pits us, as individual consumers, against each other (or at least focuses our attention on our own behavior) rather than encouraging us to organize together and demand that our governments and the millionaires/billionaires in charge of multinational organizations do energy differently. And, after a year where many people greatly reduced their "carbon footprint," global emissions only dropped by 7%, which as this post points out, is because of (at least in large part) the subsidies the fossil fuel industries received to keep grinding on.


By looking at where responsibility is laid, we can start to see neoliberalism at work everywhere. Who is made/held responsible for what happens to them (especially when what happens to them is random or shaped by systemic oppression or advantaging)? And who or what isn’t held responsible?


I’m not trying to say that all of our choices are determined by systems, but I am saying that we (and more importantly, our institutions and the media and our governments) don’t pay enough attention to the ways our choices are shaped and constrained by the systems we live within.


Neoliberalism can subtly show up in our questions about purpose, too. We can feel like not having the “perfect” life, the work most aligned with our values, the most meaningful days, is somehow our fault. As if we've made a series of bad choices along the way, and if we just make better ones in the future, we will finally have the life we're longing for. But if we don't take into account the ways the system of capitalism has shaped our lives and our ancestors' lives, we're missing some key context - that not everyone has access to the same resources, that not everyone experiences the same kinds of exploitation, and that when we live within an economic system that is based off of exploitation, we can't always live the lives we are longing to live - full of connection and purpose and deep care for each other and for the earth.


Another way neoliberalism can show up in our thinking: we can forget how systems shape our experiences of being resourced and being exploited, and tell other people who are experiencing exploitation that they just need to work harder, do x practice if they want their life to be better. It becomes about their behavior or “mindset” as an individual rather than about the impacts of systems. And that’s such a cruel thing to internalize about ourselves, and to put on each other. So no, it isn’t a personal failing. It’s a system (many systems), working as intended.


And I wonder, what does knowing that make possible for you? What does it shift?


For me, it helps me feel less heavy, less like I must make the “right” choice at all times. It lets me remember that life doesn’t have to look a particular way, and that I (and more importantly other people) am not responsible for every bad thing (or advantage) that happens to me.


I am in no way an expert on neoliberalism - I am just a human living inside this system that shapes all of us really profoundly. If you want to learn more about neoliberalism and where I got some of the ideas for this, check out Left Book Club’s recent video of Silvia Federici and Camille Barbagallo and Gargi Bhattacharyya in conversation about anticapitalist care, and this podcast from Kelly Hayes' Movement Memos with Sarah Jaffe.

If you’re interested in learning more about my coaching, or know someone who might want to work with me (angst about your job or what the heck you should be doing with your life is a good indicator), there’s lots of ways to connect with me - I send out bi-weekly email notes, have sliding scale monthly check-ins through Patreon, and offer 1:1 coaching work for people leaving their jobs, seeking career changes, working on writing or other creative projects, or who feel stuck around work or purpose under capitalism.

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