Book review – Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future

Jeff Shantz and Jose Brendan Macdonald (eds), Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future (New York, NY, London, New Delhi and Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[Note: I accidentally agreed to do this book review before realising the journal, Political Science, isn’t open access. The text is below, and the citation is: Sky Croeser, ‘Book Review: Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future’ Political Science June 2015 67: 84-86, doi:10.1177/0032318715582131]

beyond capitalismThis volume is a necessary and important contribution to the exploration of economic systems, which centre on human needs and potential, and which put in place limits to growth for environmental and social reasons. It outlines a number of different models for radical change, arguing that alternatives to capitalism are not only possible, but also, in many cases, already exist in nascent forms. In discussing these alternatives, it also emphasises the need for change by outlining the deep crises that societies around the world are already experiencing.


The first part of the book outlines broad models for alternative economic structures and activism, including cooperatives, participatory economics and anarchist organising. Heloisa Primavera’s discussion of social currencies (currencies based on barter or small localities) is notable here, and makes strong connections with extensive literature from those involved in the social currency movement. The second part of the book investigates particular case studies, many of which offer deeper insights into the challenges and benefits of implementing the models introduced in the first section. These case studies primarily focus on Europe and South America, although there are also important examples from Africa (such as the chapter on farmers’ cooperatives), the US and Canada (including discussion of union involvement in the protests). Sadly, this leaves Asia and the Middle East unexplored, apart from brief references to India in Dada Maheshvarananda’s largely theoretical chapter.


While the political and economic perspectives discussed vary significantly, this work is notable for its openness to anarchist perspectives. The foreword argues that attempts at reform have failed because ‘the real problem is party politics, representative democracy, and the domination of politics by professional organizations’ (p. xxv); several chapters explore the tensions between hierarchical organisational forms and those that attempt to build a more open and decentralised structure. This is also visible in the emphasis throughout the book on empowerment and participation: the opening chapters all argue that people need to have more control in the workplace and the broader economy if we are to live in a truly democratic society. Jeff Shantz’s chapters, in particular, focus on anarchist approaches to change and the need to draw together anarchist and labour organising. Shantz joins others in the volume, including Gregor Gall and Peter Ranis, in drawing attention to tactics that fall outside official channels. These tactics include a willingness to engage in illegal factory occupations and unsanctioned strikes, as well as direct action during protests, which might include marching outside assigned routes or resisting arrests and other forms of police violence. This makes the book a welcome and useful addition to a body of literature on globalisation and its alternatives that too often stays within the narrow bounds of institutionalised dissent.


This is not to imply, however, that the state is always positioned in the volume as antagonistic to attempts to build more democratic economies. While the chapter by Albert outlining principles for a participatory economy (within a model labelled ‘Parecon’) argues against central planning, Maheshvarananda’s following chapter sees a federal government as playing an important coordination role. This diversity of approaches is also echoed in the case studies. Many authors point to the state as a repressive force, and specifically note ways in which top-down attempts to implement social economies have failed. For example, Satgar argues that the post-apartheid state in South Africa has implemented a form of afro-neoliberalism that has widened inequality,and that its encouragement of cooperatives has failed due to a lack of commitment to fundamental cooperative principles. In contrast, Monedero’s writing on the social economy in Venezuela positions the Chavez government as playing a vital role in supporting alternative associational forms and shifting away from neoliberalism (with some caveats). The volume holds open, then, the possibility of a state that will support shifts towards democratic alternatives to capitalism, although the case studies do not entirely support this optimism, creating a thought-provoking tension across the contributions.


Considerations of the role of the state are part of a broader dialogue about how democratic alternatives can exist within the current neoliberal system. The need for supporting institutions and movements is, perhaps, most visible through case studies that explore the success of cooperative movements in different parts of the world. Gall argues that the abandonment of the factory-occupation-turned-cooperative tactic as part of the labour movement’s repertoire in Britain is at least partially a result of the lack of a strong cooperative movement able to provide support and share necessary skills. In contrast, Alessandra B. Azevedo and Leda Gitahy’s research on the Mondragon experience highlights the many ways in which a network of research institutions and industrial cooperatives has been developed in order to produce one of the strongest and most long-running cooperative movements in the world. These chapters, and the several others discussing the role of unions (by Macdonald, Gall, Shantz and Ranis), provide an antidote to the current tendency to overlook effective labour organising as a prerequisite for building successful alternatives to capitalism.


Overall, this volume argues that alternatives to capitalism are not just a utopian dream: many different initiatives already exist and are demonstrating successes. These initiatives are not perfect. They face challenges in the form of capitalist backlashes, state violence and internal difficulties as those involved attempt to build skills for cooperation and mutual aid that often go against their previous training in the workplace and the broader community. Similarly, this book is not perfect. I found it particularly jarring to see unnecessary sexist [Note: I actually wrote ‘cissexist’ here, but it seems to have fallen victim to an editor] language used (p. 6) and references to indigenous peoples as ‘simple people’ (p. 5). More perspectives from activists and academics that draw on anti-colonial and intersectional analysis may have provided a deeper analysis of the ways in which gender, sexuality, race and other structures of oppression are linked to the problems of capitalism. The editors could also do better than a gender balance of three women authors out of 13. However, as a whole, this is a valuable contribution for authors and activists working towards the structural change we so urgently need.

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