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How to Be an Anticapitalist in the 21st Century

A pragmatic strategic guide to building an alternative economic system

By Erik Olin Wright
  • Read in 21 minutes
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  • Contains 13 key ideas
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How to Be an Anticapitalist in the 21st Century by Erik Olin Wright

How to Be an Anticapitalist in the 21st Century (2019) is both a moral critique of capitalism and a pragmatic strategy guide to building an alternative economic system. Drawing from Erik Olin Wright’s four decades of work in sociology, it provides a nuanced account of why democratic socialism is both possible and desirable.

Key idea 1 of 13

Although capitalism can claim many successes, it also has many failings.

“How to be an anticapitalist in the twenty-first century?!” a supporter of capitalism might exclaim. How could any reasonable person be such a thing in this day and age?

After all, our pro-capitalist might argue, just look at capitalism’s track record. Since the mid-twentieth century, the developed world has enjoyed massive increases in overall prosperity, economic growth, labor productivity, technological innovation, average life spans, living standards, and the range of consumer goods and services available to ordinary people. 

Sure, there’s still poverty and economic inequality – but thanks to capitalism, even lower-income people can enjoy modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, washing machines, and televisions. Meanwhile, all of these benefits are increasingly spreading to the developing world as well. Why would anyone oppose such a successful economic system? 

The key message here is: Although capitalism can claim many successes, it also has many failings. 

To begin with, the problems of poverty and economic inequality can’t be waved away so easily. Basic modern conveniences aside, millions of people in the US alone suffer from malnutrition, ill-health, unsafe neighborhoods, and other serious issues related to poverty – and all of this despite living in one of the richest capitalistic societies on earth. 

Furthermore, poverty and inequality call into question all those material successes our pro-capitalist touted earlier. Sure, capitalism has produced tremendous increases in economic growth, labor productivity, and so forth – but who gets to benefit from these achievements? Mostly the elite. Because of inequality, the majority of people only get to enjoy capitalism’s bounty to a limited and disproportional degree, compared to the wealthiest members of society. And because of poverty, many people struggle to even meet their most fundamental human needs. 

Meanwhile, the majority of people also have to pay a heavy price for all these “benefits” that are mostly reserved for the rich. To produce all that prosperity that flows upward, most working adults are stuck in boring, unfulfilling jobs. To make way for all that innovation that boosts the bottom lines of big businesses, many people lose their livelihoods and get thrown into destitution as their jobs become “obsolete.” And to promote all that economic growth that feeds capitalism’s insatiable desire for profit, our current economic system is destroying the environment, causing climate change, and endangering our very ability to continue living on our planet. 

It all adds up to a pretty serious list of problems. 

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