Capitalist society needs nature, but destroys it; it depends on people's care work, but makes it precarious; it demands public policies, but disarticulates them. This is a cannibalistic system, and to prevent it from continuing to propagate self-destruction there is only one alternative: to overthrow it.
Puerto Rican society is in crisis. We feel it. We live it. Inflation stalks us. Most survive on low wages. Debts and their collection burden not only the government but most families as well. Rising electricity costs hit the pocketbook. Higher oil prices make use of cars, on which we depend almost completely, given the absence of comprehensive and reliable public transport, more expensive.
Basic services like health deteriorate. There are fewer and fewer general practitioners or specialists. There are also no adequate services for the care of the chronically ill, the elderly or infants. These tasks, which the state and private enterprise ignore, fall unequally on women. Many of them work outside the home and do what they can at the expense of their health. That challenge is compounded when water or electricity is lacking, as is the case after hurricanes sweep the country, but too often in many communities. In the face of a moderate drought, water disappears due to sedimentation and loss of reservoir storage capacity.
The same destructive effect is due to inadequate housing and the absence of urban planning, the most visible consequences of which are recurrent flooding caused by hurricanes. For families affected by coal-fired electricity generation or ash deposits, the threat to well-being and health is even more serious. People with functional diversity subsist in marginalization or helplessness. Many communities live surrounded by clandestine dumps or accumulations of scrap metal and waste. The mountain of garbage no longer fits in landfills. And it would be easy to extend this list: construction in the maritime-terrestrial zone or in wetlands, or government-business corruption, to give just two examples.
Usually, these problems are discussed as if they only existed in Puerto Rico. The debate focuses on the government's inability to address them. But you have to wonder why the government is so incapable. And to answer that we must begin by understanding that the causes of the problem are not internal. It is not a “Puerto Rican” problem but a systemic one: the evils we are talking about here (and others) correspond to what the scholar Nancy Fraser has called “cannibal capitalism”.1 This is a voracious system, and our lives are its food.
Capitalism is not only characterized by the subordination of labour to capital. It also depends on at least three elements: nature and its resources, care and social reproduction work (which is carried out mostly in households and by women) and certain public goods provided by the state. But the race after short-term private profit, imposed by competition, not only renders the situation of workers precarious, but also destabilizes, disintegrates and destroys both nature and care and public goods. Capitalism not only takes advantage of, but also disarticulates the elements and processes on which it depends.2
The climate crisis is an example: we have known its cause for four decades, but capitalism has not stopped the burning of fossil fuels that leads to catastrophe, causing rising sea levels and the greater frequency and intensity of droughts and storms, which, in our case, affect us directly. That these processes cause losses to corporate interests or in the long run make the planet uninhabitable does not prevent the system from continuing its blind march towards the abyss.3
The planet is finite, but capitalism uses it as if it were an infinite source of resources and an infinite repository of waste. Who can be surprised that landfills are no longer enough to accommodate the river of garbage that runs towards them?4 . The same pursuit of private profit fuelled preference for private cars (and the relegation of public transport) with all its environmental and settlement consequences, including scattered urbanization, the planting of agricultural land with cement and the construction of urban spaces more suitable for cars than people. In the same way, because it is good business for some, construction continues in the maritime-terrestrial zone. Agribusiness imposes monoculture, mistreats land and animals and degrades food, which is often transported thousands of kilometres to be consumed, after local sources have been destroyed. In Puerto Rico we have dependence on imports and Monsanto's experiments as examples of those trends.
Capital resists paying taxes and demands reduced public spending. Governments, unwilling to touch the profits of big capital, borrow, and that debt is used to discipline them by imposing structural adjustment plans, which include rationing public services well below social needs Since 2006, Puerto Rico has been an example of the former. After 2017, an example of the second, with the imposition of the Fiscal Control Board.
Fraser argues that it is largely through debt that capital expropriates populations in the centre and periphery and imposes austerity on citizens, regardless of the policy preferences they express through elections. It is difficult to read this without thinking about the case of our country. Among the most painful “savings” imposed on the public sector are the closure of schools in hundreds of communities, of whose life and history they were an important part, and the halving of the budget of the University of Puerto Rico, which has already caused the loss of accreditation of a faculty of the Medical Sciences Campus.5
In line with policies opposed to social welfare, the care of those in need is entrusted to families and, within families, to women. But families have limited resources and many women work outside the home to begin with because they need that income to survive. Who then cares for infants, the elderly, the sick or those with special needs? The state, inadequately, or women, barely. Children are often cared for by grandfathers and grandmothers. But who takes care of grandparents? This is what scholars of the subject call the “crisis of care”.
This system makes male and female workers compete. Companies, goaded by competition, always prefer those who learn faster, move with more agility and produce in less time. Profit, and not the full life of the human being, is the motive in this system. In such an impersonal and relentless process, the integration and participation of people with functional diversity will always be exceptional and limited, barely tolerated and marked by pity instead of respect.
In this society everything depends on money. The standard of consumption and living, security and ability to respond to unforeseen events, social prestige, political influence, even the ability to help other people, all depend on money, the size of the bank account. This applies to rich and poor. It is understandable that many people live obsessed with money: to get something if they do not have, to get more if they already have something. In this world where everything depends on money, egoism becomes the supreme value.
Despite the talk of “neighbourliness”, solidarity, community, the imperative that governs economic life is the greatest possible accumulation of private wealth (one of its manifestations is widespread corruption in government) and the ethics that accompany it, the ethics of “everyone for themselves”. Other people and nature become means to the only end, which is money. It is assumed that from this clash of egoisms emerges the well-being of all. But it is not so: its effect is to fragment the community, isolate the person and destroy nature. That aggressiveness and violence proliferate in such a society cannot surprise us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a spectacular display of cannibal capitalism. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease: it results from the jump of a pathogen from the animal kingdom to humans. At present this is a consequence of the invasion and destruction (deforestation, extraction and so on) of habitats of various species, a consequence of the insatiable search for private gain. The fact that the pandemic paralyzed capitalist economies for months – and therefore profit generation – does not prevent the system from maintaining the practices that fostered it. On the other hand, privatization, a result of the same search, also dismantles and fragments public health services and other government agencies, which in many countries have been unable to provide a comprehensive and coordinated response to the pandemic.6
In Puerto Rico since the 1990s the war against the public sector and the desire to turn it into a source of private profit led to the privatization of the public health system. The result is plain to see: a system hijacked by private insurers and health services that, according to the College of Physicians, are on the verge of collapse. According to the same Association, the voracity of insurers is the main cause of the exodus of health professionals.
In short, capitalist society needs nature, but destroys it; it depends on people's care work, but it destabilizes this and makes it precarious; It depends on public goods, such as a health system that works with a minimum of coherence or a university that provides the professionals it needs but disarticulates and disintegrates them. It needs adequate infrastructure, but allows it to deteriorate, by denying it the resources for the required maintenance. It drowns in the garbage it generates, but it keeps generating it. The enthronement of competition and private profit as fundamental regulators of economic activity undermines, limits and distorts any attempt at planned development.
There are other processes that could be mentioned. Capitalism distributes income unequally and then satisfies the demand of those with purchasing power: the rest are doomed to varying degrees of precariousness. Hence, second and third luxury homes are built, but not social housing. Hence, the poorest population continues to be cornered in flood zones or those prone to landslides.
In this market economy, money rules. And whoever has the most money commands the most. An example is the process designated by the word “gentrification”. It takes place in economically depressed areas, with degraded housing, facilities and infrastructure, depreciated properties and impoverished population. This area, from a certain moment, attracts the interest of wealthy sectors who begin to acquire properties and “renovate” them. Rents increase and shops oriented to that privileged clientele appear. The area “revives”, but at the cost of the displacement of its former residents, who cannot afford the new rents and whose homes have been demolished or rebuilt to serve “another market”.
Currently, Puerto Rico is fertile ground for this process. We are a depressed area, with degraded homes and facilities, depreciated properties, an impoverished population therefore vulnerable to a process of “gentrification” led by those who have the most money: investors from the United States. To this is added the “strategy” of encouraging these investors to move to Puerto Rico to avoid paying taxes. Meanwhile, business logic leads to the proliferation of short-term accommodation (Airbnbs), with its disintegrating effect in many residential areas.
Internationally, cannibal capitalism perpetuates inequality between countries and the racist conceptions and practices with which that inequality has historically been combined. It closes the borders of the richest countries to those trying to escape impoverishment and condemns thousands to death in seas and deserts. At the same time, it takes advantage of the legal defencelessness of those who manage to cross to subject them to worse levels of exploitation than the rest of the working class. Puerto Rico's colonial situation was an example of the former, and the Fiscal Control Board was an example of its recent worsening. The often tragic odyssey of the yolas in the Mona channel and the situation of “undocumented” immigrants in Puerto Rico are examples of the latter.
The power of capitalist metropolises in the world economy and of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization and their ability to impose policies on governments demonstrate that mere political independence is not enough to enjoy full sovereignty. Without the struggle against the domination of big capital, independence becomes an empty shell, even if it is painted with the colours of the national flag.7
In Puerto Rico, “free trade”, the free movement of money and capital to and from the United States since 1900, has led to the subordination of the island’s economy to foreign capital, unilateral specialization in its different stages (sugar, “light” manufacturing, high-tech industry), the lack of articulation between countryside and city (first agriculture without industry, then industry without agriculture), profit extraction and lack of employment for a large part of the labour force, with a consequent depressive effect on wages and emigration as a measure of survival.
Behind each of these evils (inequality, environmental destruction, lack of planning, super-exploitation, subordinate "development" and so on) lies the same mechanism: the preponderance of the pursuit of private profit over other considerations. Companies impose this imperative on each other through competition, so much praised by the defenders of capitalism. President Biden has recently said that “capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It's exploitation.” He is doubly wrong: capitalism is exploitation and competition, far from attenuating it, forces each capital to try to intensify it or risk being displaced by its competitors.
After all, why have laws been necessary to limit the working day, to set a minimum wage, to prohibit child labour, misleading advertisements, the discharge of toxic materials into the earth, air or water, among others? Because without those limitations, the race after profit would impose sixteen-hour days and real starvation wages, it would have thousands of children in factories and not in schools, and the environment would have deteriorated much more than it has already done.
This also shows, of course, that it is possible to put limits on the destructive nature of the system. In fact, these tendencies are so extreme that they sometimes require the state to intervene to defend the system from itself. And that also allows concessions to be extracted from it to protect people and the environment. But these concessions are dams that leave the source of evil standing. That explains why they are always partial and always in danger of weakening and revocation (as is the case with labour conquests).
It also explains why the government is incapable of addressing so many problems: because far from questioning it, it is at the service of cannibal capitalism. Beyond the role of private funds in elections, the weight of business lobbying in the legislative process, the capture of regulatory agencies by the companies they are supposed to regulate, beyond these “levers of power”, there is the massive blackmail power of the owners of the economy: the more a measure or policy affects their privileges, the quicker they respond forcefully with investment “strikes” and capital flight, with the consequent economic malaise.8 In Puerto Rico, any progressive tax or labour measure immediately generates the objection: “that will scare away investment!”, “that will make foreign capital leave!”. This is how the dictatorship of capital is imposed.
The state is complicit, certainly, but the culprit is the system. To criticize the “political class”, “politicians” or parties, as so many editorials and analysts do, without talking about the capitalist class or talking about the failures of the government without talking about the nature of the reigning economic system is to end the analysis half-way. Worse: it is shielding, or rather exonerating the culprit, by focusing exclusively on their accomplice. We have to go beyond criticism of government by “politicians” or parties and partisanship. If we stay there, we play into the hands of the system.
In fact, the attribution of problems to “politics” leads us in an anti-democratic direction. If the problem is “politics” or “parties,” the solution would be to suppress politics and parties and replace them with an “efficient”" authority that solves people's problems. But it is not necessary to go to that extreme: the idea that “politics” or parties are the problem leads to proposals such as that government agencies or departments (of education, for example) be led by unelected people or those appointed by elected officials. It has been proposed, for example, that the term of leadership of the Department of Education be more than four years and be disconnected from changes of administration. In the face of the prevailing politicking, the idea can be attractive. But, in that case, in the name of “taking politics out” these agencies are taken out of the possibility of democratic control by the people. People vote and elect the government, but those agencies follow their course, regardless of the feelings and preferences expressed through the elections. The denunciation of “politics” is also used to promote privatization, that is, to expand the scope of the market and competition, which are not subject to democratic control.
In short, the problem is not politics or parties: the problem is the type of politics and parties that have governed and continue to govern. The solution is not to depoliticize (which really means removal from debate and the possibility of democratic control), but another politics and other political movements, committed to the people and the environment and based on that commitment, willing to challenge the rules of the dominant economic system. As for government agencies, the liberating alternative is neither the technocratic control of some experts nor privatization, but their democratization, with labour and citizen participation.
Fortunately, all these dimensions of cannibal capitalism have generated resistance, around the world and also in Puerto Rico: for renewable energy, against the burning of coal and the deposit of ashes, for public transport, adequate housing, defence of the maritime-terrestrial zone, a policy of zero waste and circular generation, against the displacement of communities, for universal health insurance and a public health system, against school closures and in defence of the University of Puerto Rico, against the helplessness of older adults, for drinking water services in communities affected by interruptions, in defence of wages, pensions and labour rights, against the Fiscal Control Board and its policies, for food sovereignty and agro-ecological practices, against racism and in defence of immigrant communities, for the rights of people with functional diversity, feminist struggles and for the rights and needs of women, for decolonization and national self-determination, not only political but also economic, among others.
These forms of resistance have deployed various actions: pickets, marches, stoppages, strikes, civil disobedience, participation in public hearings, preparation of proposals, community education, electoral initiatives, among others. It is necessary to coordinate these struggles. This convergence has a solid basis: if the struggles respond to different problems, they are all a consequence of the same system. Although they are now fragmented, they are aspects of the same battle. And that battle is, because of its content, anti-capitalist.
A shared program, which would include the specific program of all these struggles, would reverse the priorities of cannibal capitalism: it would prioritize the care and social guarantees that all human beings need, the protection of nature, and the democratically planned and managed public enterprise that would make it possible to achieve those goals. Our goal must be to ensure the satisfaction of the needs of all people (housing, water, electricity, health, education, care for children and old age) and the reduction of the working day, which frees up time for social participation and voluntarily chosen activities and not under the obligation to "earn" a living. That is, we must strive to give way to a fuller life, freed from the aspiration to consume an increasing amount of commodities that capitalism forces itself to produce and sell despite the social or environmental consequences.9
Will we be able to coordinate our struggles and recognize their inescapable anti-capitalist character? That will be determinant in whether Puerto Rico has a future that deserves to be lived.
Rafael Bernabe is a university professor and senator for the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Puerto Rico).
- 1Nancy Fraser, “Cannibal Capitalism. How Our System is Devouring Democracy, Care and the Planet—and What We Can Do About It” (London: Verso, 2022).
- 2To understand this reality, we must draw on classical anti-capitalist theory and also on the contributions of feminism and ecological thinking.
- 3Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate”, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014); Ashley Dawson, “Extreme Cities. The Peril and Promise of Cities in the Age of Climate Change” (London: Verso, 2017). See also Daniel Tanuro, “Green Capitalism. Why it Can't Work” (London: Merlin, 2013).
- 4Heather Rogers, “Gone Tomorrow. The Hidden Life of Garbage” (New Press, 2005).
- 5Rafael Bernabe, “Puerto Rico: Economic Reconstruction, Debt Cancellation, and Self-determination”, International Socialist Review, 111, Winter 2018-2019, https://isrevi…
- 6Andreas Malm, “Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. War Communism in the Twenty-First Century” (London: Verso, 2020).
- 7For an analysis of the contradictions of capitalism in all its variants (Keynesian, neoliberal, developmentalist and so on) see Tony Smith, “Globalization. A Systematic Marxist Account” (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009). See also Eric Toussaint and Damien Millet, “Debt, the IMF and the World Bank” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
- 8Kevin A. Young, Tarun Banerjee, Michael Schwarz, “Levers of Power. How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do about It” (London: Verso, 2020). For an account of the imposition of the neoliberal agenda in the United States, see Nancy MacLean, “Democracy in Chains. The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America” (New York: Penguin, 2018).
- 9Kate Soper, “Post-Growth Living. For an Alternative Hedonism” (London: Verso, 2020). See also Michael Lowy, Bengi Akbulut, Sabrina Fernandes, Giorgos Kallis, “For an Ecosocialist Degrowth”, Monthly Review, 73:11, April 2022. https://monthl…