News and Interviews

The Lucky Seven interview with Tom Malleson

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Between the Lines Books' Fired Up series asks readers to think critically about social, cultural, and economic issues. The first instalment in the series is activist and professor Tom Malleson's Fired Up About Capitalismwhich questions the accepted belief that there is no workable alternative to free-market capitalism.

Examining the widening disparity between haves and have-nots under our current system, Fired Up About Capitalism intelligently questions where we are headed if we continue on our present path, and presents practical, realistic alternatives both for short- and long-term change. A timely, accessible read for anyone curious about the practical and social impact of economics, the book has been praised as "a 21st century manifesto of radical democracy from one of Canada’s most insightful activist-academics".

We talk to Tom today about Fired Up About Capitalism as part of our Lucky Seven interview series. He tells us about the legacy of Margaret Thatcher's TINA declaration, the two essential ingredients he requires in order to write, and shares some inspiring advice from Proust. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Tom Malleson:

I first started thinking about this project several years back. At the time I was completing my doctoral dissertation in political science – thinking and writing a lot about the state of the world, neoliberal capitalism, and whether any alternatives were possible. The Ivory Tower has good and bad aspects to it. On the one hand, I was discovering through my research that there were in fact many exciting new experiments with alternative kinds of political and economic structures all over the world – from worker cooperatives in Italy to participatory budgeting in Brazil to public banks in India. On the other hand, the academics who were writing about these issues were generally doing so in stuffy journals in thoroughly inaccessible language. I wanted to bring the Ivory Tower a little closer to the street. So I decided to mine the academic research for ideas about alternatives to capitalism, but then write about them in a way that would be exciting and accessible for regular people and particularly young people. That’s how Fired Up About Capitalism came to be.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

TM:

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, famously declared that “There Is No Alternative” to corporate capitalism. This became a slogan – TINA – which has seeped very deeply into public consciousness. It is basically the idea that no matter how dismal the failures of capitalism, no matter how dire the inequality or stark the poverty, nothing can be done. Therefore people should stop complaining. So the central theme of this book is to directly challenge and confront this idea. In fact, there are many alternatives. With enough knowledge about possible alternatives, and enough energy and goodwill to build them, a different kind of world, more just, fair, and sustainable, is very possible. This book shows a range of these possibilities. It doesn’t offer a blueprint or say that there is one and only one right answer, rather the aim is to show that a wide range of exciting possibilities do exist and are already being built in various places.

OB: 

Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

TM:

The book took about two years to write. It would’ve taken much longer, but I had just finished a 6-year PhD dissertation that provided much of the background research.

OB:

What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

TM:

For me, there are two essential ingredients to writing: absolute quiet and a hot cup of tea. I usually work in my office, with the door closed, often with headphones on playing white noise to drown out any distractions. The great struggle of my writing life is how to keep the tea hot enough….

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

TM:

Writing always comes in ebbs and flows. When I’m discouraged I take a break – trying to force it usually doesn’t work. I clear my head and don’t look at if for a few days. Then I try to chat the problem through with friends or colleagues. Getting a fresh perspective is essential because often the solution is right in front of you but you’re so deep into the nuances of the project that you can no longer see the forest for the trees.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

TM:

Great books appeal to different sides of us in their greatness. One of the amazing things that novels can do is to expand your sense of empathy of what it’s like to live other kinds of human lives. As a kid I remember reading Anne Frank’s diary, George Orwell’s 1984 and Homage to Catalonia, Zola’s Germinal, and Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. Those books produced a deep emotion – a profound sense of solidarity and empathy with the downtrodden. A feeling that the worst thing in the world is injustice. That is a feeling that has never left me. On the other hand, there have been many non-fiction books that have challenged my ideas and built my analysis – for example, David Schweickart’s After Capitalism. Great non-fiction books are ones that play more to the head than the heart, and end up shifting your intellectual paradigm so that you come to see the world in an entirely new way. Proust once said that the real voyage of discovery is not seeing new landscapes but in developing new eyes.

OB:

What are you working on now?

TM:

My latest project is a work in feminist theory, tentatively called “Towards a Caregiving Society,” where my co-author and I argue for a universal caregiving society – one in which caregiving work no longer falls disproportionately on women and people of colour, but is shared equitably among everyone. For this to happen, we need new gender norms to displace the conventional norms of male-breadwinners and female-caregivers. We also need new flexible workplaces to allow men and women to balance their work and caregiving lives. The aim of the book is to argue that we both desperately need to make such changes, and that making them would be both affordable and politically feasible.  

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Tom Malleson is Assistant Professor in the Social Justice and Peace Studies program at King’s University College at Western University. He is a long-time anti-authoritarian activist and organizer and has worked with migrant justice, anti-poverty, global justice, anti-war, and solidarity economy groups. He is co-editor of Whose Streets: The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest.

Related reading

Fired Up about Capitalism

There is no alternative to free-market capitalism. At least that’s what we’ve been told since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher first declared the debate over. Politicians daily declare it, journalists parrot it, talk show hosts acquiesce to it, rich people gloat about it, and regular people simply assume it.

Fired Up about Capitalism forcefully argues that this is nothing but a myth. Tom Malleson exposes the reality of contemporary capitalism–from the widening inequality between the 1% and the rest of society, to ecological devastation–and demonstrates that in fact there are many alternatives. By demonstrating a wide range of examples of alternatives from around the world, from the short-term and practical to the long-term and ambitious, Malleson shows that replacing contemporary capitalism is not pie-in-the-sky utopia, but is a real possibility as long as enough of us fight back against injustice and insist that a better world is possible.