The Heresy of Capitalism Threatens Well Being in Indian Country

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

The Heresy of Capitalism Threatens Well Being in Indian Country

Duane Champagne’s recent article on violence and poverty in Indian country is, sadly, a stark reminder that in the big picture not much has really changed for America’s first peoples. These are indicators of suffering; to be born Indian is to be born into a culture plagued by multigenerational suffering.

He rightly points out that high crime rates are symptoms of deeper social and cultural distress and that addressing poverty is only a partial solution. He cites college education, better housing, restoral of individual health, cultural renewal, and enhanced tribal self-government as necessary to lowering crime rates. Yes to all of the above, I say.

Champagne also quite predictably mentions the creation of jobs and “market sustainability” as crime deterrents. Of course, this is the conventional wisdom of how to create social well-being within a capitalist, market-based system. Economics is the god that free-market capitalism (and even socialism) worships, and to suggest that capitalist fundamentalism is a false religion is to commit heresy. I’m not afraid to admit I’m a capitalism heretic.

Settler colonialism effectively discredited and dismantled Indigenous social systems including science and economic systems (and, yes, we had our own science and economic systems). The systems replacing them–market and wage based economies–were entirely foreign to our ways of being in the world, and caused further social devastation. In essence we became social laboratory experiments to prove the superiority of European civilization compared to our own Earth-centered cultures. I think by now we all know how well that has worked out for us.

The problem is that not only has it not worked out well for our Indian communities, it’s not working out well for anyone else on the planet, two-legged, four-legged, winged, crawlers, swimmers or anyone else, except perhaps for the 1 percent or so at the top of the economic food chain. The changing climate is a direct result of the industrial age and mass consumerism that Western societies glorified as true “civilization.” Already we are observing catastrophic effects to human and non-human life and it’s only going to get worse. Far worse.

Capitalist market fundamentalism at its most basic level is defined by and depends on the endless exploitation of natural (and human) resources, or what we normally call economic growth. The principle of market sustainability holds that the maintenance of and unrestricted access to markets stimulates growth and reverses violence. It doesn’t take an economics genius to understand that on a finite planet there is no such thing as unlimited resources, to say nothing of how the unfettered exploitation of those resources, especially fossil fuels, is responsible for global warming.

But more to the point: market-based capitalism is fundamentally rooted in competition, and competition means there will always be winners and losers. Its results are an intensely stratified social class system. So the obvious question is, how can an economic system that creates such profound differences between the haves and the have-nots—and thus violent crime—simultaneously prevent violence? The answer is it can’t. It’s a fallacy of epic proportions to think that the invisible hand of an omnipotent market will lead to social equity.

Market-based capitalism runs counter to everything we’ve been taught by our ancestors. They taught us cooperation, not competition. To care for the environment and all the beings in it, not reckless exploitation. Colonization has programmed us to ignore those teachings and to invest our well-being in a system that only leads to illness and death, not life. It’s responsible for what the Hopi call “koyaanisqatsi,” or life out of balance.

As Native people we are obligated to our ancestors and to the future seven generations to imagine a better way to live on the planet. The kool-aid we drink is when we believe that there is no alternative to the current paradigm where everything on the Earth is seen as commodities to develop, not relatives to be respected. And that if we only had more money, more jobs, more education, better houses to live then we can be happy. “More” is the language of capitalism and its close companion, colonialism.

But we know that in our worldviews are the keys to envisioning a different, more sustainable life. It will likely involve decentralization of power on a global scale and as Dr. Champagne articulated, enhanced self-government for tribal nations. Increased regional control will allow communities to determine what is best for them in a bottom up, not top down manner. A return to more of a subsistence lifestyle where the things we need for life like food, water and medicine are not concentrated in the hands of multinational corporations would be sensible.

There is a rich and growing body of literature, scholarship and activism that dares to buck the current paradigm and imagine alternatives to the death culture of capitalism. But we must be brave enough to be capitalism heretics. Only then can we begin to refuse the poisoned kool-aid and choose a more life-affirming reality.