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Postcapitalist Economic Imagination

Dionysius Exiguus.

What will come after capitalism?

When the Roman Empire collapsed in the west in the 5th century after Christ (going by Dionysius Exiguus’s calendar), very little in the way of imagination was put forth as regards what would replace it. For the most part, the successor regimes were modeled on the old Germanic kingdoms, though in vastly different circumstances — since the successor kings ruled portions of the Roman Empire, they had to govern Roman subjects as well as those of their particular ethnic groups.

So there were at that time two different types of law in post-Roman entities such as the Frankish Kingdom, and the Germanic rules of kingly succession proved to be disastrous when applied to such new kingdoms, as one can see from a reading of Gregory of Tours‘ “History of the Franks.” Over the centuries, Gaul became Francia, which later became France, and post-Roman rule eventually became feudalism. But that was centuries later.

My point is this: when two such traditional societies came together, as with the collapse of the Roman Empire after its invasion by various Germanic groups, the changed circumstances of the post-Roman kingdoms did not result in any great bout of innovation. Rather, old traditions were readapted to new circumstances. Other old traditions, such as Roman architecture or Roman mass production, disappeared altogether, and some old traditions, such as print literacy or urban life, were continued on a much smaller scale because the post-Roman states stopped supporting them. (These last phenomena are cited by historians such as Bryan Ward-Perkins to support the notion that there really was a “Dark Ages.”) This might be what happens to capitalism when it collapses, although we may hope it doesn’t happen that way.

Much as the capitalists like to talk among themselves as if they were the founders of “innovation,” capitalism is really a traditional practice — the capitalist tradition is that of the exploitation of nature and of society as “free gifts” to capital, for the sake of commodity production in a “free market” with a set of established rules. The capitalist system also relies upon other traditions such as economic growth and business profit for its well-being.

What are the alternative options? The most paranoid defenders of the system like to talk in terms of “omigod the Soviet Union,” though it’s safe to say that authoritarian rule by Stalinists suggests only one of a great number of economic possibilities. At any rate, does anyone today still believe that anything like the Soviet Union is still possible in the age of the Internet?

In the future, then, we could have some version of a gift economy taking place somewhere on planet Earth, or perhaps a barter economy, or perhaps also some version of online feudalism in which people would apply online to be vassals to the corporate lords of their choosing. As for money, the current system, in which banks create money, hardly exhausts the realm of creative options — much of that is discussed in Hutchinson, Mellor, and Olsen’s “The Politics of Money,” which highlights the old Fabian notion of “social credit,” among numerous other options.

The more systematic, librarian-type, creatives among us like to talk of stuff like participatory economics, or “parecon” — Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel spent a lot of time thinking up an alternative economic system which would “involve the participation of all persons in decision-making on issues in proportion to the impact such decisions have on their lives.” The ethnographers, grounded in real-life human practices, like to study stuff in this regard like the “misiones” programs in Venezuela or maybe what the Zapatistas are doing, or maybe the Mondragon cooperatives.

The one prerequisite for all of these alternative economic options, however, is that we have power over our lives — and such power will not be provided to us by the capitalist system. We need to go out and seize such power for ourselves. The power we’ll need will be power to make economic decisions — how money is to be printed, how its value will be respected, how production decisions will be made, and so on. Arguably, then, having such power will count as the ultimate economic security in light of the possibility that the capitalist system might not last forever.

So what would possibly make the capitalist system collapse, and would thus create the impetus for the creation of a new economy?

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