HOTHOUSE Episode 007: Nothing Natural About Capitalism (Part 1 of 2)
August 22, 2018
Copyright Leah Churner 2018
[intro with excerpts]
Chenjerai Kumanyika: Capitalism is much more than simply an economic system. It's really a system of values that tells us what our priorities should be, and those priorities are based in a narrative about human nature that I think is false and that's been given to us, and that narrative basically goes that humans are by nature selfish, and that we're greedy.
Ryan Rosshirt: There's nothing inherent to life about capitalism or anything inherent to our society about needing to operate that way. If we're a capitalist democracy, it seems like the capitalist part is coming first. And we really need to put the democracy back in charge.
Leah Churner: This is Hothouse, a podcast about design, ecology, and the way we garden now. I’m Leah Churner, a landscape designer in Austin, Texas, and on this episode of Hothouse we’re going to be doing something a little different. This is part one of a two-part series on the overlap between democratic socialism and permaculture called “There’s Nothing Natural About Capitalism.”
The first voice you heard at the top was Chenjerai Kumanyika, who co-hosts the podcast Uncivil. I flagged him down for an interview in a hallway at the Podcast Movement Conference in Philadelphia last month.
The second voice was Ryan Rosshirt, who is my guest on part two of this series. Ryan is a permaculture designer, backyard farmer, and an activist with the DSA and the Democratic Party. Ryan is one of the only people I know who is involved in both permaculture and with the DSA, so it felt like since we are both in this tiny area of overlap in this political and vocational venn diagram, I should interview him to get his take on where left-wing politics and gardening converge.
Since this is such a crazily specific and unusual topic for a gardening show, I asked my friend and the engineer of this podcast, Mike Moody, to interview me about democratic socialism. This is going to be kind of a Q&A for people who are curious about what all the fuss is about. As you’ll hear, Mike is a podcaster too. He is one of the co-hosts of a Star Trek podcast called the Star Trek Discovery Pod.
Now for a disclaimer — When I’m talking about the DSA, I’m not speaking in any official capacity here. I am speaking as a member, and these are my opinions on what I find appealing about the DSA. Second disclaimer, Chenjerai Kumanyika is not in the DSA, as far as I know. Capitalism has many critics, and they’re not all part of the DSA.
So, with that, here is my conversation with Mike. And I promise we'll get back to the plant stuff in the next episode.
[Music, transition to interview #1]
Leah: I think it would just help me to try to have a conversation with someone who's not like in my exact echo chamber. I’m going to try to give a good, concise description of what I mean by permaculture, and talk the social justice side of it, and the ways in which it overlaps with democratic socialism.
Mike Moody: Awesome. That's good. Because I am a listener of yours, but a lot of this is very new to me when I listen to your show.
Leah: Yeah. I'm not really an expert on this. So I feel anxious about trying to talk about it and people are going to be like, "Well, she doesn't know what she's talking about." You know, the dyed-in-the-wool socialists, they're going to be like, "Eww, who's that?" And then the people who are, just not quite sympathetic to it, I might just like lose some of those people. So I don’t know.
Mike: Yeah. I've dealt with the same thing with a much dumber subject, which is Star Trek, the really just hardcore experts in Star Trek. Right? I host a star Trek podcast, but I don't know everything about Star Trek and that is part of the point of view of the show. I'm just enjoying Star Trek, and I have questions, and I do have my opinions. But I get a lot of feedback of “You get this tiny thing wrong in this episode…” It’s like, I’m just enjoying it. I'm coming as a TV critic who's also learning.
Tell me about the DSA because I first really learned about the democratic socialist movement in the 2016 election, like a lot of people when Bernie [Sanders] was running and I identified with a lot of the tenets of it and I supported a lot of it and I supported Bernie through that first part of the election.
And now we have [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez, who just won her primary and it's bringing the philosophy of democratic socialism back to the forefront in terms of media coverage and it's in the air. The DSA has seen a huge spike in members, right? Like in 2015, there were like 6,000 people who were a part of this officially and now there's like almost 50,000 people? And it's hard to get a grip on exactly what it is because the more research I do, the more I realize that people who are part of the DSA, a lot of them have different ideas of what democratic socialism is. Are you able to get a grip on it or how you feel about it?
Leah: I think that Ocasio-Cortez is a really good representative of what the DSA looks like to me. I should back up and say it's not a party, it's just a political organization, anyone can join. The basic message is that the systemic inequality in our country is just out of control. In a country this wealthy, it shouldn't be so difficult for average people to get by. And so we should redistribute some of the wealth at the top. We should maybe think about not having billionaires anymore. And you can do that through taxation. It doesn't have to be violent overthrow, I don't think. [Laughs.] So some of the goals would be free college tuition, debt forgiveness for people who are in student debt, just a minimum standard of safe and affordable housing, access to clean water, safe living spaces, and then having a living minimum wage.
One important point about democratic socialism would be that you keep all of the rights that you already have. But you get to have, in addition some economic rights as well, you know, just a base guaranteed kind of there's a floor and a ceiling of standard of living for people and it's not all the same for everybody, but at least there's a basic minimum of care for everybody.
Mike: Yeah. Making it possible for somebody to live a life of dignity, right? And to not be afraid that the bottom's gonna fall out next month constantly.
The basic idea is there, of wealth redistribution; common good is a good thing. But it's hard to kind of narrow down what the end goal of democratic socialism would be for everyone. I guess that's what I struggle with, and that's what a lot of people struggle with.
Leah: Yeah…What’s the end goal? Part of the issue that we have is that we have a very hard time imagining doing things [differently]. Like we're all disgruntled and pissed off right now, but we have a very hard time imagining anything different. You know? It's like, "The future looks bleak, but it's also like, what's the alternative? There is no alternative. It’s capitalism.”
A lot of the things that are kind of on my radar in terms of the DSA in Austin are local initiatives, things that the DSA is trying to get the City Council to pass, resolutions and stuff. So those would be, for instance, in the last episode I mentioned that there is a bond package with an Affordable Housing component to it. [Also, the City of Austin passed a Paid Sick Leave Ordinance in February.] Paid sick leave should be required for all employees in the city as an ordinance in Austin. And the campaign for Medicare for All, which is another DSA initiative.
One of the big features of what democratic socialism would look like is you have co-ops for things rather than having [private] corporate ownership of the biggest industries. And so under democratic socialism you would have a cooperatized energy and transportation and whatever, you know, all the big industries and utilities and things like that. And so we can think of an example of a co-op grocery store, you know, like Wheatsville Co-op in Austin. That is a very socialist-[type] thing because they have a board, anyone can get on the board. They vote on stuff, you pay dues to be a member and then at the end of the year when there's a surplus, they give it back to the owners. The people who were members, owners of co-op. People work there seem pretty happy and they buy stuff from local farms and it seems to work pretty well.
Mike: You know, it's interesting, you don't have to live in a city like Austin. My mom lives in a suburb of Dallas. She lives in Arlington and she is part of an electric utility co-op. She's someone who doesn't follow politics. But she just thought this was a great idea and her friends were involved in it and she saw no downside and they became part of this co-op. And this happened a few years ago and it was surprising to me, but I think it's a nice example that this co-op idea just made sense to somebody like my mom, who's in a different, you know, she's a different generation, she does kinda lean conservative, but it just made sense to her and she's been part of it for years.
Leah: Co-ops have been around for very long time there, you know, there were farmers cooperatives in the early 20th century and I recently saw one in, I think it was New Braunfels, the little feed store, the farmers' feed store where you get chicken feed and stuff like that is a co-op and they have a big sign that says co-op. So it's not necessarily, it doesn't have to be a big liberal city thing.
Mike: It feels like the media narrative largely around things like democratic socialism is, "This is scary. This is going to change the world as you know it and you won't be able to keep your money." Some people I know, I go to a Christian church, you know, I'm a liberal Christian and there's a lot of liberals who go to that church, but there are definitely some people who are very right wing and who are afraid of things like that, who listen to Fox News and when the term "democratic socialism" is discussed on Fox News, they tell me, "Well, they tell me it's going to be like Venezuela." You know? And they cite these examples that are horrible. It's hard to explain to the masses sometimes when you have so much disinformation about this movement.
Leah: Right? Yeah. And I mean the name really is--
Mike: It's a triggering name.
Leah: It's a very triggering name. It is a problem. That’s one thing that Ryan and I talk about in the interview. Because no one wants to live in the USSR. I mean, just because Venezuela is called a democratic socialist country, North Korea describes itself as a democracy. Just because we call it something doesn't mean that it's a working example of that.
The slogan of the DSA is "bread and roses," which is based on an idea that you don't have to choose between needs and wants, you can have both, but we should make it more possible for everyone to have both, not just the very wealthy. Everyone needs bread, yes, but like everyone should have roses too.
Mike: It’s funny that we started talking about Star Trek because the idea behind Star Trek is democratic socialism. There’s no money, the theme of the Federation, which is where Captain Kirk comes from, is about obtaining knowledge and spreading that knowledge for the good of all races. And working together in harmony with all different kinds of races all over the universe. And it’s all about the common good. It’s interesting. That’s really what made me love it.
Leah: That’s so interesting, because I’ve heard that there is this utopian strain to [Star Trek] but I’ve never heard anybody say, “Oh, that’s kind of what democratic socialism is.”
I think the point I would stress about democratic socialism is trying to move away from a scarcity mentality and a punishing mentality.
Mike: I think deep down we'll want a post-scarcity world, right? But that can't happen unless we all share.
Leah: I heard Chenjerai Kumanyika, who co-hosts [the Civil War revisionist history podcast] Uncivil, on Gimlet. He was speaking [at the Podcast Movement Conference in Philadelphia in July 2018] and I was like, “I've got to talk to him.” So after he finished speaking, I waited in line and I was like, [nerdy voice] “Can I interview you?” So I interviewed him briefly because I wanted to talk to him about a completely separate question about Confederate monuments, like a year out from Charlottesville, where are we on this? And he mentioned capitalism. My ears kind of perked up and I was like, “So, you just said something critical about capitalism. Where are you politically?” And he said, “You know, I think that there is a critique of capitalism that precede Marx, that is this idea that it is really a mindset. And it’s a set of attitudes about human nature.
[Music, transition to interview #2]
Leah: You mentioned capitalism. I do want to talk about that, because I feel like it's capitalism that drives continuing inequality, obviously. One of the ways in which it manifests itself in Austin is through the housing crisis that we're having. Like everywhere in the country, there's tons of money to build these expensive condos, but no one's building affordable housing, and no one's trying to help people get affordable housing. So, I guess … how would you approach capitalism? What's your thought on that?
Chenjerai: Well, I think that obviously there's a rich literature which precedes Karl Marx that defines capitalism. I could give a simple definition to say that capitalism is a system which expropriates the work of workers and creates value for non-producers. I mean, that could be like a basic system, and I think that that's an important thing to examine how that operates in our economy, but with relation to housing and some of these other things, I think capitalism is much more than simply an economic system. It's really a system of values that tells us what our priorities should be, and those priorities are based in a narrative about human nature that I think is false and that's been given to us, and that narrative basically goes that humans are by nature selfish, and that we're greedy, right?
Yeah, and that that selfishness is actually good. And of course, there's tons of scientific research that's come out that show that that's actually not true. Human beings are actually extremely altruistic, and we can see this with our children. I mean, there's some selfish things that we have, but people like to collaborate, and so there's all kinds of science backing up that people are altruistic, but capitalism has given us this narrative that we're selfish and that the market, this thing called the market, which is posed as a set of natural laws, is the way to clarify and lift up our natural selfishness to the fore as the force that should guide and drive forward society.
So the reason why that matters when it comes to something like housing is that underneath, when you have people evaluating policies that would regulate the housing market in certain ways, that would say, "Well, no, you can't treat homes as a certain kind of financial commodity, create financial instruments out of homes. We can't treat developers as this kind of privileged class who doesn't have to pay taxes, and you have to really protect tenants." All those kinds of values, those are priorities that are saying tenants and people who are everyday workers who are trying to afford housing and where that's an extremely intensified problem across the country, those people have to be prioritized. We want to prioritize people being able to afford their homes, not some abstract idea of the market which should guide everything.
And so for me, what capitalism does is it gives us this false narrative about human nature and then justifies the wrong priorities. Those priorities then get encoded into laws, and we're now seeing the fruit of those laws. We're seeing them here in Philadelphia where people are being displaced. We are told we can't afford to fund public education, and yet the biggest rentiers, which are the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel [University], they are given tax breaks and don't really have to pay any significant taxes. Developers don't have to pay taxes. Tenants are not protected.
Fortunately, what we're seeing, and I don't know if we're seeing this in Austin, but we're also seeing in places like New York and here in Philadelphia, we're seeing tenant unions, people coming together and saying, "We're not just going to let you do this to us to extract profit from us just because you can. Like if we collectively come together and say we're not going to stand for it, we can actually stop this,” and the tenants' unions here have had some important victories, and they are across the country.
So, there's hope, but what the tenant unions are clear on and what actually a lot of journalists are becoming clear on because I bet you there's a lot of clarity and reflection on capitalism happening at the former employees of The Daily News. The Daily News just laid off like, I don't know how much, a third of its staff? And this happened predictably [on July 23, 2018].
It's funny because I heard an interview where they were like, "Yeah, I have no idea why this happened." They were going on some interview, and they were like, "Yeah, why would they do that?" And I'm like, "We know why." If you study the capitalism, you understand. Not to simplify it, but to say, as so many political economists of media have predicted, that when you have a media monopoly that starts to take over, like [the publishing conglomerate] Tronc, who owns, I think, sold the LA Times and all these other things that just simply looks at these media properties as commodities and doesn't have to face the same kinds of competitive battles. They tend to do stuff like that, like, "Oh, we'll just liquidate this part of The Daily News, turn that into capital that we're going to then use somewhere else." The fact that that translated into jobs, people's livelihoods, people's mission and quality journalism that was needed for working class people in New York? That's capitalism's values that does that. So, anyway, yeah, there you go.
[Music, transition back interview #1]
Leah: Capitalism is really a mindset. And it’s a set of attitudes about human nature. And so the capitalist mindset is that we are all striving to compete rather than cooperate and that the powerful [few] will have control and that's just the way that human nature is and that there's not enough stuff to go around and that we have to compete for the morsels and that that also entails imprisoning large numbers of people and restricting immigration to the point where we have concentration camps and having a police state to enforce this idea that it's a dog eat dog world. But it's like, what if that's not true?
Mike: What if reality wasn't rooted in this cynicism? Right, because capitalism just seems to be rooted in so much cynicism.
Leah: And you see, like for instance, after a disaster, how in so many cases communities will come together, you know, and people will help each other and there will be no profit motive for doing that. People just have a certain altruistic part of themselves. Now I'm not saying that I'm so idealistic that I think everyone just loves each other and have everything's gonna be fine. It's just that I think we have to leave room for there to be some dignity for all people and give people the benefit of the doubt that like this is not necessarily the way that human nature has to be, you know?
Leah: I think the exciting thing about a democratic socialism is that it gives us another way of doing things besides the more moderate Democratic way of doing things. Neoliberal capitalism is very ascendant. There's a lot of concern for identity politics, but class is left out of it.
And so, even under Hillary, like if she had been elected, there would still be this problem of growing inequality and of the effects of climate change, for instance, those are going to fall disproportionately on the people who have less money. And so there's going to be kind of, I've heard it called "climate apartheid." There's going to be people who are really relegated to some bad circumstances due to climate change and the people who have enough money are going to be able to build their way out of it.
Mike: That makes me think of another question. How does a capitalist society -- How does that affect our environment? How does capitalism in America, like in my town in Austin, how is that affecting my environment?
Leah: The easiest way, and this brings in the topic of permaculture, the easiest way that I would describe what capitalism does to our environment is obviously the goal of capitalism is to maximize profits and the bottom line is profit and that is the only thing that underpins the philosophy. Sustaining the environment, sustaining people is not part of it. And so you can think about factory farming, which is a system that is only efficient in terms of generating profit. So if you think about like a big monoculture [farm], so like one crop planted in hundreds of acres, what's going on there is that planting one thing economically makes sense, but ecologically it's a disaster. Because you are destroying the local ecology --
Mike: You're putting your profit over planet.
Leah: Specifically, you're depleting the soil because you're just planting the same thing over and over. You're having to use a lot of fertilizers because you've depleted the soil, you have to bring in tons of pesticides because the ecology is all out of whack. So you get explosions of certain pests who just like corn, you know. Whereas if you had a more balanced ecosystem with a lot of different crops in one place, then you'd welcome bugs into your garden or into your farm. And you'd have lots of different [insect] species that compete with each other and do "pest control" without you having to spray anything. Bats are a good example. Bats in Austin are a huge help for the farmers that live east of town because they fly out every night and they eat all these bugs and if we didn't have the bats, those farmers would have to use tons and tons more pesticides. And so we want the bats, we want all these beneficial critters that are gonna help regulate the environment and do some of that work for us.
So the way that I would describe what capitalism does to the environment is that we’re pumping a ton of CO2 in the the atmosphere, and we’re causing things to go extinct, and we are depleting our water. And I would say that permaculture has an affinity with democratic socialism, because permaculture really stresses not using any pesticides, not even having to use fertilizers, because you are composting and you're supporting ecology of the land. And so you're creating systems that are actually renewable.
I guess what would happen [in a socialist society] and what would be very ecologically helpful would be if everyone consumed a little less and worked a little less. It's going to be hard to get out of ruining the planet as long as we are governed by the profit motive. It's not gonna be enough to just buy straws made of bamboo instead of straws made of plastic. We're going to have to have maybe less time spent shopping and less acquisition of stuff and less hours at work and more time to hang out.
Mike: That makes sense. So the more you know your neighbors, the more empathy and compassion you feel for them.
Leah: Yeah. And like, yeah. And that's a good point is like, and it's important to, to really put emphasis on community because we have so much emphasis on individuals right now.
Mike: We're all siloed.
Leah: Yeah, we're all very siloed, and it would be really great if we could have more of a sense of a community. And I think, you know, that's one thing that's really important about a church or about a political organization or whatever, is that it brings you a sense of community and that's majorly significant to your quality of life. And I think it's really important that we draw a distinction between "standard of living" and "quality of life" because they're not the same thing.
Your standard of living is your material circumstances. And you can have a really, really high standard of living, you can be super wealthy, and have terrible quality of life. Because you're siloed and you're lonely and your family hates you because you voted for Trump. [Laugh.] And so I think quality of life is driven by your not having to worry about starving or becoming homeless or not getting the healthcare that you need, just not having the basic necessities hanging over your head. Being safe. And also having a community. Feeling engaged in a community.
And also being able to envision that the future is going to be okay or having some kind of a vision for where you're going in your life. Because I feel like that's another [reason] that, right now, a lot of us are suffering from a not-so-great quality of life. Because even for those of us who are really lucky and our material standard of living is good, we still might be suffering from a poor quality of life because we feel disengaged. We feel cynical and we feel isolated and we don't know how to make it better. And that's just the worst. Feeling like things are bad and there's no way to fix them? That’s just the worst feeling.
Mike: Is that partly what motivates you to be involved in permaculture? Like you can put your hands in the dirt and make things better?
Leah: Yeah, both. Both democratic socialism and permaculture. I would say the DSA in Austin is all about local action. Very local issues that people are having. Going to protests but also going to city council meetings and saying, "Okay, we want to change this." And I will say I never would have thought this, but city council meetings can be really entertaining. [Laugh.] You would not think so, but they get wild!
Mike: I bet, because people are really engaged now.
Leah: People are engaged. There's cheering, there's booing, there's signs. People have props. Like, at the last one I went to, someone had this long roll of toilet paper and they were making some point with it. I mean, it's like theater and you can go participate and you can go talk.
You just have to sign up that same day and then they'll let you talk. And I kind of figured that out when -- You can watch the city council meetings on the internet. The City of Austin has a channel, like a Youtube channel. And Adam and I started watching the [public testimony for] paid sick leave at the council meeting [on February 15, 2018] and we were just hooked! It was person after person, hundreds of people testifying in favor, some people were testifying against, but each person had this impassioned, they had one minute to talk and they were just going to give it their all for that one minute. And so since then [we've] started actually going to the city council meetings. I love it, but it’s also very boring at times.
But it's fun to get involved and it's fun to feel like you can do something. When you feel paralyzed with inability to take action, that is the worst feeling.
And it's the same thing with permaculture, with gardening. I mean, that's kind of why I'm interested in it is because I feel like, okay, here are some concrete things that you can do, some actions that you can take that actually can demonstrably improve the environment where you live and you can see that because you put some plants out that the butterflies like, and the butterflies and the butterflies come. And you put a bird feeder out, and the birds come. It's very rewarding. Even if individual actions like that aren't going to be enough to like turn the tide of ecological disaster, it's also very meaningful to be able to just be like, "Okay, I put compost down and now the soil has improved."
Mike: Change starts at home sometimes. I go back to this quote from Kurt Vonnegut a lot: “Clean your latrine.” Take care of your home, your house, and that’s where change starts. That’s where you start shaping your world. You gotta start there, and then it grows.
Leah: Of course it’s about a latrine if it’s Vonnegut! Vonnegut, talking about peeing.
We started out talking about, I was saying how I feel anxious about doing this episode because I am new to all of this. I’m new to permaculture. I just took a permaculture design class last fall. Which is a pretty intensive course, but I’m very new to that. And I joined the DSA around the same time. The last straw for me was around Labor Day last year when Trump was going to rescind DACA. Of course that still hasn’t been resolved. But I was just like, “I can’t fucking take this anymore. I need to do something, I need to get politically involved.” And I’m trying to explain this stuff to myself.
I’m also open to not being a total cheerleader for it all the time. There’s definitely stuff that, there’s stuff in the DSA, and there’s stuff in the local Austin permaculture community where there is #metoo stuff going on. There are some women who have come forward and said, “Hey, this guy did such and such, and he’s a person in power, either a permaculture teacher or someone who’s been involved in the DSA for a long time, and then there’s some kind of retaliation against the person who speaks out, and then it becomes this whole THING. And I don’t want to seems so rosy-cheeked about it that I don’t see that there are problems within these organizations and these communities too, because there are.
The thing with democratic socialism is that the emphasis is on the democratic. Everything is a process that is communally [voted] upon. That can be a very messy situation and the meetings can get really contentious and tedious sometimes. But I think it's a good way to try to try doing things.
I guess that’s another overlap with permaculture. When I think about a permaculture garden, every single element is serving some kind of a purpose. Even if it looks haphazard. It's actually everything's in process.
And so it kind of looks chaotic, compared to what you would think of as like a manicured garden, but everything has a purpose and has a process that's going. I guess I would say it's less about the product and more about the process, but I don't even know if that makes sense.
Mike: It's less about aesthetics, it sounds like. More about promoting naturalism.
Leah: Yeah. And I think when you put on your "permaculture goggles,” then the functionality and the efficiency of having every little piece of the garden serving a purpose can become kind of aesthetically appealing on its own. So there’s some overlap, and I’m going to work on articulating it a little more in the next episode.
Leah: And that’s it for this episode. We will get more into the weeds on the next episode with Ryan Rosshirt, and we are going to discuss a bunch of different stuff, including Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance that was passed back in February, we are going to talk about backyard farming, and a cooperative of backyard farmers called the Yard-to-Market Coop, and we are also going to get a tour of Ryan’s chicken coop and learn about his feathered friends.
[on location - Ryan’s farm]
Leah: What are their names? [chickens squawking]
Ryan: The white one’s Yellow Bird, the barred rocks are Babs, Jezebel, and Delilah. This one’s Fiasco, that one’s Ladybird...
Leah: Visist us at hothousepodcast.com and find us on Instagram and Facebook @hothousepodcast. Our music comes from Austin’s own Moonsicles. Check them out at moonsicles.bandcamp.com. We taped this show at Permanent RCRD in Austin, and our engineer is Mike Moody.
Ryan: Man, there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of ways to influence civics. People feel like they can’t, but it is an open environment and your voice is important.