Capitalism: Reformation or Revolution?

My conversation with Esther Park of Cienega Capital for my Smart & Soulful Money® podcast brought me more clarity and also opened my thinking to what’s possible. I hope it does something similar for you! A few of my takeaways from our conversation include a more grounded idea of change based on growing up through the cracks (spaces of possibility) and how powerful and transformative this type of change can be. Part of this is a “whole systems” perspective—the opposite of monoculture ways of thinking and implementing.

Also, there is so much power and opportunity stored away in charitable foundations and other structures like donor-advised funds. Opening the flow of these resources, in a way that is wise and inclusive, can mean critical transformation for addressing so many needs we have—from climate change to racial  equity to the many social needs of our day. We don’t have to be Rockefellers to be a part of creating (and incubating!) systemic changes. Each of us is in a place to explore innovative thinking and support  meaningful change within our sphere of influence.

Below is an excerpt of our discussion, though the full interview can be found at carriebvanwinkle.com/esther-park-cienega-capital.

Carrie VanWinkle: We talk about regenerative investments at Natural Investments, investing in ways that focus on what the business is doing and if the impact it’s having is regenerative in the systems it’s influencing, the people, and the planet. Is it nourishing or extractive?

The question about where we go from here has been on my mind recently—”reformation or revolution?” Some of the conversation claims that capitalism is irredeemable, that we have to figure something else out, that capitalism in any form will not be the answer to an economic system that is in service to people and the planet. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Esther Park: I struggle between the thought of reformation and revolution, because I think we need both. On the one hand, we’re trying to help farmers survive in this rigged system. We tell them, “Just do this one other thing. Mold yourself into this, because this is what the system wants.” In a way, in order to survive, we have to sit in the system and make these sorts of incremental reformations to make it a little bit better for us. At the same time, we can see that it’s wholesale not working and that we absolutely need the revolution, too, but that’s not going to happen overnight.

I live between the tension of those two things, but I also think that we need much more revolutionary thinking, particularly as it relates to our economy. I don’t think that capitalism needs to die or go away, but the way that we’ve been doing it needs to die and go away.

I don’t think it’s capitalism, per se, but it’s actually the complete unabated wealth accumulation that’s  allowed to happen under capitalism. We have this ethos in this country of “You’re allowed to go get as  much as you want at whoever’s expense, and that’s yours. You did a good job. You lifted yourself up by your bootstraps. You worked hard and that’s your reward.” No, that is not okay. I think we’ve already seen that. That’s what this country has been built on, and it’s not okay to keep doing that. At some point  in the last year, I decided that I don’t want to invest anymore in business models that make rich people richer. Why would I invest in something that further accumulates wealth at the expense of what’s happening on the land, at the expense of what’s happening to people?

I’m more interested in how we can have more community input and control over how investments are made, and how we can have more community benefit from those kinds of companies that we’re investing in. I recently invested in a company where they have what’s called a Native American override. Basically, in their documents, 51% of any profits have to go to the Native American shareholders of the company. Even if we, as non-native investors, comprise more than 50% of the company, we are still capped at 49% of any proceeds.

Whether it’s distributions, whether it’s the sale of the company, whatever it may be, if  there’s any financial benefit, the majority of it is going to go back to indigenous people. Why don’t we see that more often? There are things that we can create and innovate that will help start to flip the narrative of doing well by doing good. I think it’s actually really harmful, because there’s this idea that ”I can continue to accumulate lots of money at the expense of other communities while making myself feel like I’ve been doing a good job. And yet, I’m still making the vast proportionate share of the benefit.” I don’t see how that’s really good. We need to think more about our communities, how these investments affect those  communities, and how those communities then benefit from the investment.

I’m really starting to actively look for ways that we can continue to put more decision-making in the  hands of communities that we’re investing in, and also how can more of the proceeds, the profit, the financial benefit of these companies stay in those communities. How can that eventually become permanent? Those are the kinds of things that I’m thinking about and working on. I can’t say I have all the answers, but I’m definitely shying away from investments that are just simply for the accumulation of more wealth upon wealth because I don’t think that’s doing our society any good at this point.

CVW: It makes me think of the question that I like to hold for myself and that I encourage others to have, which is “What is enough and what is enough for me?” How does that translate into the decisions I’m making? In so many ways, it’s a good time for more people to be asking themselves.

EP: I think it’s also important to understand that question in the context of the society in which we live, because we live in a policy environment and in a country that does not properly care for its people.

CVW: …and culture.

EP: …and culture. We’ve lost a sense of community. I was really struck by a comment that was made by an indigenous fellow who said, “In our communities, the person with the greatest wealth is the one who gives the most away.” It’s a culture of giving everything that you have. People in those communities can feel free to do that because they know that their community is going to care for them. Even if they have no earthly possessions anymore, they know they’re going to be taken care of because they’re part of the community.

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Carrie Van Winkle

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