What comes After: Imagined futures of postcapitalism

 Author: Hestia Delibas

The socio-economic relations of today’s world might seem universal. The mode of production of capitalism and all the social relations that come with it, from the class structure of society to the distribution of capital seems like the natural order of things, the only way of existing in the world. It is no surprise that upon realising that capitalism was not common just a few hundred years ago, that the world functioned under another logic of production and distribution, that the market with its laws did not look like today, some might react with shock or denial.  It is not unheard of the fact that some tried to explain the universality of the market by arguing that the colonies and cities created in the ancient times were functioning under the same logic of a mercantile capitalism.

One of the many insights of Marx’s work was the existence of the different  modes of production that characterized a period of time, which were in a succession from one to another, from the primitive communitarian society to the ancient society, that was based on relations of ownership and slavery, to the feudal society, that had at its core relations of servitude and obligation to the latest mode of production, capitalism, characterized by markets, and class conflict created by the unequal distribution of capital between the classes. (see Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engles) The fact that these modes of production are in succession, and the fact that capitalism has not always been the order of things, creates the inevitable conclusion that it will indeed finish, by being replaced with another mode of production. Marx anticipated that the internal struggles created by the class conflict will inevitably create a crisis that would lead to the fall of capitalism and the transition to communism.

There was a time when it seemed that capitalism was starting to collapse. During the 20th century, capitalism was being challenged by the new regimes that were professing the beginning of a new world system. But at the end of the century, the Soviet bloc collapsed, leaving capitalism as seemingly the only viable economic arrangement. Instead of ending as many anticipated, it survived by adapting and ever-changing. The rise of neoliberalism which brought deregulation of markets, increased privatization and massive labour migration gave the impression that the capitalist system was just too powerful to ever change it, so many leftists shifted their focus from revolution to reform, from class driven action to identity politics. (Eagleton, 2011:6)

The aim of this essay is to inquire ways of imagining a post-capitalist world, more precisely how this transition can be put in motion, what a different mode of production would look like and how would it be to live in such a world. The questions addressed are of course quite vast, and giving a concrete answer is beyond the possibility of this essay to say the least. Still, I consider that having this exercise of imagination can be beneficial by opening up the possibility of envisioning a different mode of organizing the economic relations and the way we perceive our role and purpose in relation to each other and to non-human beings. I will first evaluate the state of today’s world, by referring to the contradictions created in capitalism and the results that these contradictions caused: mainly social inequality and the ecological crisis, driven by the ever-expanding logic of capitalism. I will then present briefly some of the visions of what a post-capitalist world could look like.

Capitalism as an economic system is responsible for the creation of a lot of wealth and this is due to its internal logic of accumulation and expansion. The main point of action for the capitalist is the extraction of a surplus, the profit, and historically, capitalism proved to be a veritable force that delivered abundance, by improving and making the process of production more and more efficient, and thus more and more profitable. Under capitalism, everything can be commodified, everything can be transformed from use value to exchange value. The basic principles of capitalism are the private ownership of the means of production, the extraction of surplus value, or profit from labour force and the existence of free markets.  The free market is considered, through its mechanisms, capable of redirecting resources in the most equitable and most efficient way. Yet, inherent to the logic of the market is the principle of competition. If on the one hand competition fosters innovation, on the other hand, competition requires the category of those who lose.

And here we arrive at the main problem created by capitalism. In spite of all the wealth and abundance that it has created, it is also responsible for growing inequality between the rich and the poor. Through its internal logic, capitalism concentrates all that wealth in the hands of a few winners, while leaving the grand majority in a deplorable state. The rising cost of living creates a class that becomes poorer and more vulnerable, making a decent way of living a distant dream for many. Homelessness, exploitation, overwork, ghettoizing, increasing debt and poverty risk are some of the realities created by the same system that created enormous wealth for another category of people.

Financial crises (as David Harvey has shown in his book The Enigma of  Capital and the Crisis of capitalism) are imminent in capitalism and they happened regularly. Besides the chaos that these crisis create, the biggest problem is that, inevitably, financial crises affects the poorest of the people, that are the most vulnerable to this kind of economic events. The last economic crisis was a major cause of instability that meant for a large sector of the population, unemployment, poverty, accumulation of debt, lower standards of living.  (Mason, 2015 :24)

Another issue created by the capitalist system and that has increased in urgency in the last decades is the imminent ecological catastrophe. The need for accumulation and consumption increases, while the resources are diminishing. The CO2 emissions, the deforestation and heavy industrialisation have caused a chain reaction that has devastating results for the entire planet, endangering many of the species of plants and animals, not to mention the human species.  According to the IPCC report, the global average temperatures are getting higher, and the anthropogenic activities are the main cause for it. More than that, if the warming of the atmosphere is not contained, the changes might be so drastic, that a return to normality might not be possible (De Angelis, 2017:70). Water shortages, extreme weather phenomena like hurricanes or tsunami, diminishing Arctic ice and rising sea levels are becoming worrying realities that more people begin to acknowledge and that will increase even more in the future in intensity. Even so, there are still some willing to deny these realities, especially when the policies that are proposed to intervene for stopping climate change are hurting their business.

And here we arrive at the core of the problem. The measures that need to be taken, have to be drastic and need to be made urgent because the alternative is a disaster of a global scale. Any change that can accommodate the market and can facilitate the extortion of profit is not enough. In 200 years of industrialisation, humankind through its activities has increased the temperature levels with 1.1 degrees Celsius. A change of  3-4 degrees Celsius will cause the climate to change so profoundly that there will be no way back. In order to preserve the planet and ultimately ourselves, we need to rethink the entire system that has been the main cause of this disaster.  (IPCC 1.5 SPM 2018 Report) Capitalism has as its main logic the extraction of profit, producing more and more, at the expense of other humans or non-humans which makes it incompatible with the idea of ecology and protective action towards the environment. ultimately capitalism is driven by eternal growth, which is the result of the never ending chase for profit extraction through exploitation of labour as well as natural resources. But there cannot be infinite growth on a finite planet, with finite resources, which only means that “green capitalism” is a contradiction in itself and cannot work.

Having all this in mind, it is but natural to feel pretty grim about our future. It might seem like as Fredric Jameson  said, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. Nonetheless, as argued above, continuing on the same path is not a viable option, especially considering the imminent ecological crisis that we are dealing with. So we must start to think of new ways of imagining our economy, new ways of envisioning how we can live together without destroying our planet.

The first radical alternative to capital that we’ll discuss is the commons which are presented by Massimo De Angelis in his book Omnia Sunt Communia, where he develops a framework for analyzing the commons. Commons are seen by De Angelis  as social systems that can be base for bottom-up movements which can grow and trigger      social changes. In his book, De Angelis sees the commons not as a separate category from the state and the capital, but as a day to day practice, always in the making, a process that requires action. He envisions the commons as having three main pillars on which they are build:  resources or commonwealth; commoners willing to share and pool; and commoning (De Angelis,2017:88). Commons can be a system build to contest the capital way of reproducing itself, by offering a viable alternative, but having different goals and practices. He also argues that commoning as a practice is common, was and still is a reality for many human communities. But what we need to do is decide on using this practice consciously in order to create grassroots movements (or common movements).

Using common as a model for transition to a postcapitalist society is also argued by Mason in his book “Postcapitalism, a Guide to our Future”, where he proposed a large set of actions that can be taken in order to get to a postcapitalist society. One example of such action is the incentive for collective forms of organisation from the state, arguing that collectively organised companies often fail due to the fact that they suffer from uneven power-relationships. He gives an example of the Mondragon the worker cooperative business based in Spain, which is working because they can rely on support from the local savings banks and have complex structure which allow them to deploy workers between different sectors. More than that, in time of crisis, they don’t rely lay-offs but on taking pay cuts, with a higher percent between the management stuff.   The transition to a post-capitalist world can be put in motion by fostering a collaborative form of production or consumption, with clear social outcomes.  (Mason, 2015 :241)

Another perspective on how to achieve a postcapitalism future cames from J.K. Gibson-Graham who wrote “Postcapitalist politics” a very ambitious work on how to reconstitute      the economy through ethical practices of coexistence that recognize the commonality of being. The authors propose the concept of community economy, which represents not so much an economic model but rather a practice of co-existing and being in interdependence. According to the authors, there are four coordinates for organising a being in common economy, which are: what is necessary to personal and social survival, how social surplus is appropriated and distributed, whether and how social surplus is to be produced and consumed and related questions about personal consumption and how a commons is produced and sustained (Gibson-Graham, 2006: 88).

Gibson-Graham’s introduce the concept of capitalocentrism, which  the idea that capitalism is very often considered the norm, being viewed as  “the quintessential economic form” (Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996, 7). The term is parallel to the concept of phallocentrism which describes the way in which, for patriarchal societies, the male experience represents the norm while the female experience is encapsulated in a generic form of the other. Following this feminist critique of patriarchal society, the concept of capitalocentrism challenges this assumption that capitalism is the only viable economical arrangement, and it opens the possibility of alternative economical arrangements which can be based on more ethical decisions as well as particularities of local communities, and their values and aspirations. (McKinnon and all,2018:3) The Diverse economy framework allows for a rethinking of the system as more than one or two predefined economical systems but as a multitude of arrangements that can be exploited and applied, different from capitalism (gift economies, communal enterprises, co-op, etc).

In this paper I tried to argue that it is possible to imagine alternative ways of organising the economy. The idea that capitalism is the only viable system is not historically accurate and is not as we discussed even feasible in the future. Even though capitalism creates wealth it does so by producing a lot of inequality. More than that, the imminent ecological disaster driven by      massive industrialisation and overconsumption means that unless we change our way of existing in relation to the environment we are doomed to extinction. Capitalism is not compatible with the idea of living ecologically, having as the main goal      producing and consuming more and more.

The visions proposed for a post-capitalist future are many and are diverse. More than that, the alternatives already exist, only they are in an incipient phase. The idea that a new economic system cannot be built inside the old one should be challenged. It is possible to imagine and build different economic relations that are more sustainable and fair. As Mason said, “     the enormity of the external shocks means some of the actions we take will have to be immediate, centralized and drastic.”  (Mason, 2015 :223)

 

References

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  • Gibson-Graham, J.K. (1996). The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
  • Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006). A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Harvey, D. (2010, August). The enigma of capital and the crisis this time. In American Sociological Association Meetings, Atlanta, August (Vol. 16).
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  • Roelvink, G., Gibson, K., & Graham, J. (2009). A postcapitalist politics of dwelling: Ecological humanities and community economies in conversation.

Image by Luc Schuiten, source: https://www.vegetalcity.net

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