How to Use Non-Capitalist Thinking for Social Change and Hope

How to Use Non-Capitalist Thinking for Social Change and Hope

Eva Bullens (she/her) headshot

Eva Bullens (she/her) is a group facilitator, educator, artist, and activist. She is interested in social ecosystems and in her work she focuses on the development of the culture that exists within our organizations, institutions, and daily practices. 

“Culture is the soil our daily routines are rooted in. If we want a radical just and equal world we need to cultivate the soil this world can grow out of. When we collectively dream of a world where we care for each other and the planet, and we want this to become reality, we should start with collectively reconsider what we value, the symbols and rituals we use and who we honor as our heroes.” 

Do you ever wonder why, despite how much we try to do differently (recycling, buying second hand, organic food or donating to social projects), the outcome (the state of the world) seems to stay the same or even get worse?

Does it frustrate you when you think of a solution to solve one big problem and the next problem already seems to pop up?

Does the complexity of the amount of problems that we as humans face nowadays, paralyze you, get you depressed or makes you cynical?

I can totally relate to that. And I hope to bring you some relief.

In the few lines below, you won’t find the solution, the way out, the quick fix to the massive problems we find ourselves in. But what I do offer is a way of thinking that might help you to investigate the world we live, so you understand it more deeply, appreciate the complexity, and maybe even, find a new, non-capitalist way forward that works for you.

The Power of Our Thoughts  

I start with this quote from Albert Einstein “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

So, let’s first examine the thinking that got us here: binary thinking, linear thinking and analytical thinking. It is important to know that these ways of thinking are considered normal in our culture. It’s like the water fish are swimming in. Do they notice the water? Or are they like: What water?! 

But this kind of thinking is not neutral: it comes along with the same systems that create the inequality, oppression, and exploitation we are facing at the moment– systems like capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, neo-liberalism, colonialism, and racism.

Our current ways of thinking are useful in our current systems (and institutions), and that means it serves the people in power. If we wish to dismantle the systems that oppress and exploit us and the planet, we can start by changing our way of thinking and looking at the world in non-capitalist ways.

The Current or Status Quo Thinking

Below, I will give you 3 examples of our current way of thinking. Before we look at non-capitalist alternatives, it’s important to be able to recognize the current status quo.

Okay, let’s start with the first one: Binary thinking. Examples include:
  • Either or thinking: Things are considered good OR bad (can’t be both); we do it like this OR like that; we are a boy or a girl, you’re either gay or straight… You HAVE to choose.
  • Objectivity: There is only one truth (or only one god), there is only one true perspective on things.
  • Ideas are fixed: I am like this, so I’m also acting like this. Or, it is just like this, no doubt about it.
The second one: analytical thinking. Examples include:
  • Independency: Seeing things separated and independent from each other. For example: in school you have one hour of economics, and then one hour of history, and then one hour of geography.
  • Zoom in: Tending to details, keeping out complex relationships or history
  • Simplification: Things are true when it’s easy to explain why it is so. This also includes the tendency to generalize easily.
  • Rationalism: The idea that we have to understand or approach every problem only with our minds, without considering our body, feelings or emotions.
The third example is linear thinking. Examples include:
  • Uniformity: Everything has to be the same or be done in the same way in order to function well.
  • Perfectionism: The idea that things there is only one right way to do things, and then it can be done perfectly.
  • Efficiency: The goal is to get things done as quickly, cheaply, and easily as possible.

This kind of thinking makes perfect sense in the world we live in. Surviving in 2020 means to be in a rat race with time, money, competition, image. This is one of the effects of capitalism: the systems needs linear growth in order to work. And (as we are told) in order to keep society functioning as it does..

Growth and progress are not inherently bad. We want our veggie gardens to grow, and we want to grow the anti-racism movement, for example. We want progress when it comes to the position of womxn and LGBTQ+ folx in our society.

The point that I’m trying to make is that the concepts of growth, efficiency, uniformity, and perfection that were introduced with capitalism, are now fully part of the way we deal with almost all aspects of our personal lives, and the effects of this are tangible. On the one hand, we see the devastation of our planet, and, on the other hand, a lot of people suffer from burnout.

Non-Capitalist Alternatives for Social Change

So, here, I’d like to offer you some tools for dealing with this complex world. This includes 3 non-capitalist ways of looking at the world, which you can apply in your daily life immediately.

From binary thinking to plural thinking:
  • View things as complementary to each other. This is a good idea, AND this is a good idea.
  • Try not to frame things as good or bad, but see the spectrum of goodness (or less good).
  • See the balance that is needed in everything, in nature, and in society.
  • Try to search for multiple perspectives on a topic, and appreciate the many truths that can exist alongside each other.
  • The only consistency in life is change. Try to approach things not as fixed, but know that everything is always in development.
  • Appreciate diversity and inclusiveness. When you work with other people, try to include as many people and perspectives as possible (or desirable) for a decision-making process.

So, for example, if you’re in a discussion with friends about politics, try not to overrule each other with your point of view. Instead, be curious about the perspectives and ideas of your friends. Really listen. All of your lived experiences are true, AND multiple solutions can exist next to each other. You’ll get to know your friends in a deeper way, and you might learn something new about them!

From analytical thinking to holistic thinking:
  • Try to see how things interconnect and are dependent on each other.
  • Try to look at things as a whole, not just a part.
  • See people as humans, with emotions, feelings, and a spirit.
  • Look for relationships between things. Notice how things connect with each other and how.
  • Learn to appreciate the complexity, and zoom out to see the bigger picture.
  • Try not to control, but see how your actions might gently change things.

For example, if you are a gardener and one plant has bugs, don’t just use pesticides to kill the insects on this one plant. The poison will affect other organisms in your garden. There is probably a reason the plant is not healthy. Rather, look at the whole: Is the plant in the right spot in your garden? Can it benefit from other plants or other insects surrounding it? Does the soil need some nutrients?

From linear thinking to systems thinking:
  • Learn to appreciate that processes have (unpredictable) dynamics.
  • Learn and see where you find some things going in cycles (like the seasons).
  • See how different parts form a system where energy (money, time, effort, power) flows.
  • Learn more about how one system can be part of a bigger system or how different systems hinge on each other and influence one another.
  • Appreciate chaos; allow things or processes to be messy.
  • Always look for balance.

For example, when you want to change something that is happening in your neighborhood, it can be useful to create a map of all stakeholders involved. Is there a hierarchy? Once you have talked to some people about your concerns, some dynamics might already be noticeable in the system. These dynamics might change the way you approach the others, in a way that you could not have predicted before. It’s not a matter of ‘doing’ the things in the right way or ‘getting it done’, but a matter of paying attention to what is happening and seeing what needs to be done next.

Sitting with the Nuance of Non-Capitalist Thinking

  1. I am not suggesting we should never use linear, binary, or analytical thinking again. No! Sometimes you need to create a linear process to get things done quickly. No use for doing laundry in a chaotic way. And yes, there are things like facts (that have only one truth). And looking at details is very important to learn how things actually work. We just need a new set of thinking, rooted in non-capitalism, as an addition to this, to bring back the balance.
  2. None of these ‘alternative’ ways of thinking are new. They come from big ideas like permaculture and Buddhism and are practices in places like worker cooperatives.
  3. When you are going to experiment with how to apply non-capitalist thinking in your daily life, you might get some backlash from others. Remember, the ‘old’ way of thinking keeps things as they were. Not many people are willing to radically change the status quo. (That does not mean you should not do it; just know it may be complicated and messy*.)

I believe becoming aware of our ways of thinking, and practicing alternative and non-capitalist ways of thinking (when possible) is the first step towards a new society.

* I suggest naming the kind of thinking you notice in the systems you are a part of, and when you can, suggest an alternative way instead of disqualifying people who do not want to or can’t join your revolution. This can be the most productive approach to dealing with the complex and sometimes harsh reality of living with others 😉 

I’d love to connect and learn more from you at IG! Find me at @evabullens and @collective_practice.

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