books social justice

Book review: Seven Ethics Against Capitalism, by Oli Mould

If you’ve read the title of this book and felt your blood rising at the idea of anything or anyone being ‘against capitalism’, this book’s not for you. Go and read Doughnut Economics, which interrogates capitalism is some imaginative ways. You can come back and read this one later. Oli Mould’s book is for those who already know that capitalism is failing in multiple ways, driving up inequality and destroying its own environmental foundations. The question is what to do about it. If the author is right that “capitalism cannot be fixed”, then what replaces it and how do we get there?

If your answer to those questions is ‘communism’, then – again – this book’s not for you. Mould does not advocate a top-down revolutionary project, which history suggests would only end up recreating the inequality and power imbalances along slightly different lines. The most promising alternatives lie in the empowering and democratic idea of the commons.

The commons is a way of managing resources that is neither centrally controlled nor market driven, but organisation by users. (Guy Standing’s book The Plunder of the Commons is a great introduction to commons thinking, how it has evolved, and where it could take us.) Mould makes the case for a planetary commons, and by definition, “the commons is that which we build by being together”. It’s not something that can be imposed, or that can be summed up in manifestos in advance. And so rather than attempt a how to, the book focuses on the kind of thinking that will get us there.

The seven ‘ethics’ presented in the book offer a “creative and infectious force of planetary commoning”. They are patterns of thinking, rather than fixed templates telling people what should be done. And what are they? Allow me to bullet them for you:

  • Mutualism
  • Transmaterialism
  • Minoritarianism
  • Decodification
  • Slowness
  • Failure
  • Love

The first of those is familiar enough, summed up by a call to “renounce self-interest as a guiding force of society” and seek the good of others. It’s a profoundly good and human way to be in the world, and one that is discouraged by individualist consumerism. Transmaterialism is less familiar and is a bit of a mouthful, but it essentially questions the idea of humans as the top of a pyramid, with all materials, animals (and ‘de-humanised’ people) at our service and disposal.

As the term ‘transmaterialism’ illustrates, this is a book that is knee-deep in theory. One stand-out paragraph navigated “post-phenomenological accounts of materiality”, and the “vernacular of actor-network theory, object-oriented philosophies and/or assemblage theory”. That’s four things I need to go and look up now if I’m going to understand what we’re talking about, and I really can’t be bothered. Not least because I once read a book of object-oriented philosophy and still couldn’t tell you what it is.

However – and this is important – Seven Ethics Against Capitalism is only knee-deep in theory and no more than that. Every time I felt I was getting bogged down in things I didn’t know enough about, it moved onto the firmer ground of real world examples. Transmaterialism is explained through veganism, the right to repair, and the earthy resistance of eco-squats such as Grow Heathrow.

Minoritarianism is an interesting idea, and although I’ve never given it that name I realised that I practice it to a certain degree. My book Climate Change is Racist is essentially minoritarian, in that it deliberately seeks out a minority perspective on climate change. Not minority in numbers, but in power. It’s an “ethical alignment with oppressed marginal subjects, whether we are ourselves marginalised or not.”

It’s not the only one of Mould’s ethics that I practice quite purposefully, including slowness and failure, which both need more explanation than I’m going to give you right now. I found much that resonated with me and my interpretation of the Christian faith, and so it was little surprise that Mould makes that connection explicit with the final ethic, love. It’s not a Christian book, but its fascinating to see its call for selfless love as a transforming force expressed through social theory rather than theology.

I really liked Seven Ethics Against Capitalism. It’s bold and original, and it felt like an invitation into a more compassionate and generous way of being in the world. These sorts of attributes are often dismissed as ‘soft’ and idealistic compared to the hard and ‘serious’ realism of capitalists, but the intellectual rigour here shows that to be false. There is nothing soft and ‘fluffy’ about choosing love as a foundational principle to live by. It can be deeply considered, philosophically sound, and ultimately powerful enough to change the world.

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