Teaching Capitalism: a professor reviews “Capitalism Must Die!”
by Gary Potter,
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University
April 16, 2015
Almost every semester I teach an undergraduate or graduate course in criminological theory. At best I can devote three weeks to radical, critical and feminist criminology because of the plethora of other lesser theories in the discipline. It is almost absurd to suggest that I can, even superficially cover the 1,152 pages of Marx’s Das Kapital and the 912 pages of The Grundrisse (Penguin Books editions) in an hour or two. The truth is that I am in my 30th year of trying to read and understand The Grundrisse myself. Even if I had a full semester devoted to a critique of capitalism trying to make the esoteric concepts and ideas relevant to students, particularly undergraduates, is an insurmountable task. Well, at last help has arrived!
Stephanie McMillan has produced a 244 page book of texts and cartoons titled Capitalism Must Die! What It is, Why It Sucks, and How to Crush It which makes the complex and indecipherable easy to understand. Available here: http://stephaniemcmillan.org/shop
In Part 1, Ms. McMillan explains in easy to read text and with wonderful illustrations how capitalism works and why it must constantly and rapaciously grow through exploitation. In Part 2 she offers ideas on how we might organize to confront this ruthless system of global exploitation.
But it is not so much the content of the book as its style which makes this an invaluable pedagogical resource. First of all it is written in clear, concise, everyday language, not the obfuscating style of economic and sociological treatises. Second, she explains her text with wonderful cartoons organized around a cast of recurring characters: the capitalist/corporate/banker ogres; the self-important, smug, empty-headed, and usually inherited privileged consumers repeating every hegemonic lie they can manage to remember; and finally our hero, the patient, understanding, acerbic revolutionary rabbit named “Bunnista.” The text is simple and straightforward and so are the line-drawing cartoons. Ms. McMillan warns us that: “Theoretical clarity for its own sake is pointless intellectualism; instead, it should be a guide for action.”
McMillan patiently introduces all the key concepts of Marxian analysis. She gently explains that despite the constant hegemonic appeal to the “middle class” that we are not all middle class. We in fact do work for others who exploit workers and consumers as well. She lays out the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, the fact that infinite growth which capitalism requires is not possible in a finite world. Her explanation of commodities is both funny and precise. McMillan lays out the ways capitalism is killing the planet through water shortages and environmental devastation. And she warns of one of the most dangerous capitalist trends, the inevitable march toward fascism.
In the second part of the book McMillan introduces the basic concepts of organizing for substantial change to the social structure. She discusses the role of labor, the need for strategy and a “political line” and the role of agitation. She also warns against reformist tendencies, collaboration with NGOs and power grabs in her chapter on “Traps, Pitfalls and Dead-Ends.” In the end Stephanie McMillan sums up our alternative futures. “It will probably have to restructure itself and it could become fascism or it could lead to a civil war between the representatives of different factions of capital or some horrible things that don’t actually improve anything,” she said in the interview. “Or we can organize and get rid of them.”
Stephanie McMillan won the 2012 RFK Journalism Award. She has authored six other books including The Beginning of the American Fall, published by Seven Stories Press. Her cartoons have appeared in myriad locations including the Los Angeles Times, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Capitalism Must Die! What It is, Why It Sucks, and How to Crush It is a brilliant introductory text, written in a cogent manner and illustrated beautifully and with great humor. It is a work that should be considered for courses on theory, mass media, globalization and social justice. Of course, with that said, it is not a text at all, and that is its greatest strength.