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Imagining post-capitalism


1) The meaning of it all

The information we humans have accumulated as regards the origins of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day, leads to an important conclusion: the appearance of human beings in the universe was itself an event of very low probability, and that we ought to be amazed that it happened at all. OPOL’s most recent diary expresses the gist of this. There still had to be an enormous number of universes in a multiverse if even one of these universes was to generate the possibility of life (never mind the possibility that WE could come into being). The Anthropic Principle explains this much: of all of the universes which exist, this one has life, and moreover intelligent life (life capable of understanding an Anthropic Principle), and so this explains a number of important aspects of our universe, especially as regards its physical and chemical attributes. Things are the way they are because if they were otherwise there would be no "us" to observe them being this way.

And then there is also the vast unlikelihood of the glorious civilizations which our planet’s human life has created. First off, natural catastrophes (such as the one which wiped out the dinosaurs) cleared the ecological path for the development of mammalian life, and thus ultimately for our existence as a human species. Kenneth D. Rose’s classic The Beginning of the Age of Mammals is telling in this regard: this book suggests that the only currently-existing mammals which resemble those which existed before the Age of Mammals are the platypuses. Thus the mammals which appear today can largely be considered to be a byproduct of that extinction, which cleared the ground for the vast array of mammals which existed in the current era, all the way up to the point where human beings started pushing them into extinction. Moreover, the genetic uniformity of the human race when compared with that of other species is perhaps due to common human ancestry (as well as a rather brutal process of selection which ostensibly did away with the other genetic variants). The genetic uniformity of the human species stands as one of the many puzzles of how the human species could have developed into what it has become from processes of natural selection: the bizarre character of our intelligence, our opposable thumbs, binocular vision, bipedal gait, extended childhood maturation process, our development of spoken language, all of which support our existence as a species whose survival is owed to our versatility and social complexity rather than to the adaptation to specific ecological niches (as attributed to other species) in the manner loosely described in The Origin of Species. We should, in short, be amazed we’re here, because (given the patterns of the rest of the universe) we look an awful lot like an anomaly.

Even from the development of human society, formidable odds existed against our developing the technologies we did, and (on a universe-wide level) against our appearance upon a planet with the enormous fossil fuel reserves which currently power our civilization. It is no wonder that the SETI projects haven’t found anything so far. Of course, the various SETI projects are best equipped to contact non-human civilizations which have invented (at least) radio, so there’s already a very high standard. In all likelihood, we aren’t alone, but from here we sure look unique.

That having been said, it sure looks like we are really about to "blow it," from our pinnacle of high anomaly. Go back and read OPOL’s diary again: he feels that sense in which we are about to "blow it," albeit a bit too pessimistically. We are about to "blow it" because, if we really wanted to, we could solve all of the world’s problems: hunger, unemployment, war, species extinction, resource crisis, and so on, but we don’t.

In fact, we could deal with all of these problems in a few short years, but we don’t. And we don’t, because we’re too busy playing the Capitalist Game. Money, property, that’s what counts — but money and property are merely the most efficient containers of what the anthropologists call "status," the sense in which (to quote George Orwell’s Animal Farm) all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others. We will probably all die defending the status system.

So what is the Capitalist Game? In ancient times, before the propaganda about "post-industrial society," people knew far better than they do now about the dependency of political power upon productive power. The empires of old (Hellenistic, Roman, Arabic etc.) knew that their power over the world rested upon what the world produced, for without production neither the tax base nor the empire’s coffers could be used to buy anything. Even without money the peasants at the periphery could be forced to pay "in kind" to contribute to the greater glory of empires.

The Capitalist Game plays the same game as the empires once did, only far more efficiently. Its essence as capitalism rests upon a system in which production is (largely) guided by wage labor, and in which the exploitation of that wage labor (through control of the surplus) creates an elite "owning class," you know, those 793 billionaires and perhaps also those 10 million millionaires who sit atop the global wealth pyramid.

The Capitalist Game, then, is far more efficient than the Feudalist Game, which directly appropriated peasant production in order to finance a destructive warrior class ("knights"). This explains its dominance in the current era. There is, nonetheless, this sense in which the beneficiaries of the Capitalist Game are still an "old regime," as anthropologist Keith Hart describes it. Hart’s essay "World society as an old regime," pp. 22-36 of Shore and Nugent’s Elite Culture: Anthropological Perspectives brings out this sense, especially where he argues the point as such:

Ours is a corrupt ancien regime that must soon find a new democratic revolution, if human intervention in the life of this planet is not to end in catastrophe. (p. 29)

The system is out of control. There are plenty of signs of this: from out-of-control abrupt climate change to the pwnership of government by Wall Street to the general collapse before pharmaceutical interests in the matter of "health care reform." Witness the most recent statements of the director of the IMF: printing lots of money isn’t enough, we need a new currency to solidify inequality and to preserve the injustice of the current order.

In its daily operation, moreover, the whole system has gotten to the point where most of the important commodities are now produced on speeded-up assembly lines, in which the world outside of the assembly line must be standardized to fit the assembly line itself. Watch the movie Food, Inc., and then reflect upon this concept. The system has created a world which must fit the assembly line, and which will be thrown away when it no longer fits the assembly line’s standards

What I’m asking people to do, here, then, is to imagine a post-capitalism, a world in which the structural flaws in the existing system actually "become due," and the ancien regime collapses. Now, there will doubtless be considerable loss of life due to the catastrophic nature of the event and the general failure to prepare, but this isn’t what I’m asking you to imagine — we already have plenty of that every day, now, for natural as well as for un-natural events. I’m asking that we attempt to imagine the (post-capitalist) society which emerges afterward.

My more general suggestion, then, is that we continue the anomaly that the human race has been — but that, hopefully, future generations of the human race will be given the opportunity to take good care of the anomaly that is us, rather than squandering everything on the status games we currently play.

2) this is not a socialist tract

A number of my most recent “critics” (if they dare deserve such a label) have put me on the spot as a supporter of “socialism,” and asked me questions such as, “name a successful socialist nation.” To pursue such a line of reasoning is to miss the point, the point I’ve been making against the capitalist system since I started writing here over three years ago. My point is not to appeal to some past model of governance, as if we could improve the future by looking to something that happened centuries ago and by trying to make it permanent. The old regime does that, now, anyway. I am not trying to re-start the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China under Mao. Nor, for that matter, am I interested in recreating the United States of any previous era, or the Roman Empire under Trajan, or the British Empire of the late 19th century.

Nor am I terribly fond of the term “socialism.” “Socialism” is a word which means rather distinct things to those who use it, but since such people disagree on what “socialism” really is, it’s not such a distinct word after all. Thus it has the disadvantage of being perfectly clear to its users, but not at all clear to its audiences. “Socialism,” depending upon who uses the word, could mean the Soviet Union, or the ideal worker-controlled society, or mere government intervention into the economy — and each user would insist that her or his definition is the one and only true use of the word “socialism.”

Instead, then, I use the term “post-capitalism.” "Post-capitalism" is a vague term (who knows what will happen after capitalism, anyway?), but it’s intentionally vague, so that its contents can be filled with the human imagination.

Such a system has a momentum of its own, in which the deal-making (and the assembly lines) tend to expand until the whole system encounters a countervailing force. The contention offered here is that the exhaustion of the Earth’s ecosystems will be the countervailing force which will force the capitalist system permanently off-track.

The point of this essay, then, is not to enlist everyone in some utopian socialist design. Rather, it is to invite you to imagine a future in which the capitalist system has been publicly understood as the hindrance to long-term survival that it is, and in which you are building a non-capitalist future for yourself and for yours. How do you see it?

3) the big fish eat the little ones

There has been significant consolidation throughout capitalist industry in the last four decades of business. When I was getting a Ph.D. in Communication we learned about how 120 mass media corporations merged into maybe half a dozen giant entities over the past three decades. Food, Inc., reveals the same process going on with America’s food producers ("farmers" is now too dignified a word). This isn’t just coincidence – it’s an effect of how the game is played. The end-point of industry consolidation is a sort of debt-peonage for the public – the customer must pay, because there’s no other business, but since the customer’s claim to real participation in the system has become an unnecessary hindrance to profits, he/she must go into debt peonage to the corporations. The customer’s habitat (the landscape on which she/ he lives), meanwhile, is turned into a technological assembly-line for the creation of “product,” thus to justify the extension of corporation domination over the whole of the world.

4) technical quick-fixes won’t save us from technical quick-fixes

The most obvious place to look when attempting to save capitalism from its inevitable end is in the power of technical innovation. Somehow it is imagined that capitalists will use technology wisely, and save the world which they themselves have so very nearly brought to ruin. Technological innovation is obvious simply because the momentum of the system itself generates technologies – businesses typically attempt to save money on labor costs by investing in labor-saving technologies, and so the momentum of capitalist society is also a technological momentum.

For technology to be portrayed as a believable savior of planet Earth’s ecosystems, the “metabolic rift” between society and nature must be simplified somewhat, and arbitrary assumptions have to be made about the social uses of technology. Abrupt climate change is the classic example of this. The defenders of capitalism imagine that the numerous environmental problems besetting planet Earth – from the tragedy of the oceans to the species-extinction rate – can be reduced to one problem, abrupt climate change, and that this one problem can be solved through investment in “alternative energy,” ignoring the distinct possibility that “alternative energy” investment will merely supplement, and not replace, our destructive fossil fuel habits.

Since this method is likely to produce “solutions” of dubious quality, the pursuit of a solution to abrupt climate change then typically proceeds to the plea before governments to “do something” about abrupt climate change. This is also a problematic way of proceeding. Governments in this era are, by necessity, dedicated to preservation of “the economy,” which in turn clings to the corporate rate of profit, which will not stay large without constant infusions of cheap energy.

Most of the real solution to ecological problems, then, is in imagining a different social system, in which human efforts are actually directed toward solving ecological problems rather than in creating new problems to replace the old ones.

5) Democracy versus capitalism: you get to vote, but what is it worth?

The historical background for this is revealed in an old book by Ellen Meiksins Wood: Democracy Against Capitalism. In it, Wood details how the architects of modern democracy pushed economic affairs out of the realm of democratic arbitration. Sure, we have “capitalist democracy,” here, but the question Wood wishes to foreground is one of what social decisions are amenable to democracy, and which ones are amenable to capitalism. As Kees van der Pijl pointed out a decade ago, your vote merely selects members of the political class, who will routinely guard the neoliberal state. Salvation, then, is no longer to be found within the system.

Clearly, then, democratic safeguards will have to preserve something of people-power against the monolithic powers who print the money, pay the cops, and establish the "free-speech zones" outside of which the First Amendment is an irrelevance. This is where your imaginings of post-capitalism come into play. Try to make it Supreme Court-proof, at least.

6) “Small business” can be the norm under post-capitalism

One of the more interesting inventions of the “socialists” of the last century (in this case I am talking about Fabian socialists, from the UK) is “social credit.” Social credit comes as a partial answer to the question: how can we have money without having exploitation? Money, of course, is a facilitator of exploitation under capitalism: it’s the means by which the rich get richer in a scene where the poor merely have babies.

The best explanation of social credit to my knowledge is that given by Frances Hutchinson, Mary Mellor, and Wendy Olsen in their book The Politics of Money. Social credit works as follows: the workers, who run the government through direct democracy, also issue the money and back it with their own labors. Two reasons are given for the issuance of money: 1) consumer credits, which are given to assure everyone in the society a decent living, and 2) producer credits, which compensate new businesses for start-up costs, so that such costs are not passed onto consumers. The advantage of social credit is that the power behind money stays in the hands of the people as a whole.

Social credit could conceivably be part of a “slowed-down” society in which production was in the hands of communes, small businesses, and other local ventures, in an economy which did not exceed the natural world in its “rate of production.” Such an economy is suggested in the late Teresa Brennan’s volume Globalization and its Terrors. Brennan’s utopian ideal is given in a slogan she calls the “Prime Directive”: “We shall not use up nature and humankind at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves and be replenished.” How this rate is to be calculated is, of course, open to question — but once it is made a part of everyday action, it will be calculated — that’s the important thing to assure.

7) How it will happen

The neoliberals can always point to “democracy” as the pretext for their domination of government in the service of malignant capitalism, the popular will is likely to be thwarted for some time. In the meantime things are likely to get worse.

The optimists among us may point to demand placed upon government, that it come up with solutions to the pressing problems facing America today. The response from government, however, is a mere matter of public relations. We may be able to scrape off a few crumbs from the table out of this process, hopefully enough for continued subsistence.

The catch, then, is that when real solutions are most needed in America today, government can only offer public relations efforts. This leaves the obligation of real social change up to the people as a whole.

To a certain extent, certain populations within the world as a whole are trying to “check out” of the capitalist system on a personal level. We’ve quit the consumer society, we’ve stopped being go-getters at work, we’ve organized to create some autonomy in our lives against the corporations and their all-powerful “free market” which exists as a daily reminder of how worthless we are when made to compete with out-of-control assembly lines. If we are Americans, moreover, “the market" is now starting to thrown us out. Our homes are mere real-estate, collapsing in value faster than our mortgage payments, our jobs are more cheaply done elsewhere in the world, our money declining in value, our health insurance unaffordable.

History is not created by theorists, nor by futuristic science-fiction writers, but by living, breathing people. Thus it is up to you to create the post-capitalism of the future. The words “revolution” and “utopia” are too vague to capture the spirit in which the real-life future will be created. The Russian Revolution was a coup d’etat, the American Revolution was a civil war. Perhaps the breakup of the corporate world in which we live will resemble the breakup of the Soviet Union. Who is to say? At any rate, nothing good will come of waiting. We must make the future.

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984