Postcapitalism as an everyday politics
In the decade that has followed the Global Financial Crisis, the term ‘postcapitalism’ is enjoying wide circulation in popular culture and political discourse, as well as academic settings. There is a growing recognition that business as usual cannot continue and an increasing interest in the idea that there are better ways of organising economies, politics and society.
The term ‘postcapitalism’ signals the possibility that capitalism, both as an economic and geopolitical organisational form, might soon end. Or perhaps even that it has already ended and we are just now becoming cognisant of its demise.
What is significant is that attachments to postcapitalism are occurring across the political spectrum. On the left, the seeds of possibility were sewn in the
early part of this century at the World Social Forum, as documented by Gerda Roelvink in Building Dignified Worlds. Here social and solidarity economy movements showcased experiments with non-capitalist forms of economic organisation of all sorts and at all scales.
At the other end of politics, the ‘right wing electoral mutiny’ from Brexit to Trump represents a rebuke to forms of capitalist globalisation that do not serve the interests of ordinary people. A kind of militant nationalism is on the rise, a ‘me first’ mentality that may or may not imperil the capitalist class, but will certainly make it harder to respond to the 21st century’s many social and ecological challenges.
As founder of Democracy at Work, Rick Wolff observes, this is the most exciting moment in two generations for those of us interested in a world beyond capitalism. However, given the volatile and reactionary political climate in many countries it is also an incredibly dangerous time. What this means is we need to take care in how we both understand and pursue the development of a postcapitalist politics.
If the GFC set the stage for this wider circulation of a postcapitalist imagination, and the hope for something better that sustains it, in our view it is the ecological consequences of what Will Steffen and colleagues name “the great acceleration” that compels us. Three generations of business as usual following WWII have caused life-imperilling damage to the biotic and abiotic systems critical to Earth's ecology. A new politics cannot ignore this challenge to survival.
Our feminist poststructuralist take on postcapitalism is wary of the apocalyptic tones of more recent conversations converging around the idea of postcapitalism. We juxtapose our everyday politics of postcapitalist praxis with the deferred action space of two recent visions of postcapitalism.
Militant nationalism is on the rise, a ‘me first’ mentality that may or may not imperil the capitalist class, but will certainly make it harder to respond to the 21st century’s many challenges.
Postcapitalism 1: The Bloated Corpse
Perhaps the most familiar vision of postcapitalism is a macro-economic analysis that sees the kind of global capitalism we associate with neoliberalism, coming to an end as a consequence of internal contradiction. The most apparent symptom of capitalism’s failure is the increase in inequality. This concern is not only prevalent in a series of recent publications (including Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century and Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited) but also features on the agenda of international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. The fear is that increasing inequality is slowing economic growth and unravelling the very basis of capitalism.
Wolfgang Streeck in his recent series of essays entitled How will Capitalism End? takes a decidedly dark view of the global economic situation. In his analyses we have already reached the limits to economic growth as the global economy is over-supplied by more than eighty industrialised countries, as well as very productive primary and tertiary sectors. Sluggish global growth, even in the context of economic recovery, means that we have little chance of integrating the bottom billions into the formal economy.
Streeck argues that attempts in the US and many other countries to manage this contradiction will exacerbate inequality. For example, Mr Trumps’s strategy of lowering corporate tax rates to attract or retain industry means the US will have fewer resources to pay for social entitlements. Citizens will have to ‘choose’ between
The fear is that increasing inequality is slowing economic growth and unravelling the very basis of capitalism.
permanent austerity, rising levels of public debt, or some combination of the two.
Like a contagion, this approach will likely spread. In Australia, Prime Minister Turnbull’s government has already signalled that it intends to follow suit. The irony, from Streeck’s perspective, is that public resources will dry up precisely in a context of growing demand. Most high income and many middle-income countries are already experiencing an increasing demand for services as rapidly ageing populations exit the labour force.
Finally, for Streeck new forms of automation will likely further reduce labour market participation as whole categories of employment are eliminated in the coming decade. In
All of humanity should benefit from the fruits of an automated utopia rather than just a few.
Streeck’s assessment, capitalism is not moribund, but dead. Its bloated corpse is like a giant dead whale that we are unable to shift out of the way in order to get to a different future.
Postcapitalism 2: A Fully Automated Luxury World
The technology that features in Streeck’s grim assessment is at the heart of the second vision of postcapitalism. In Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason sees the emergence of new forms of automation and new algorithm-fed forms of artificial intelligence not as a threat but as an opportunity that sets the stage for a fully automated luxury world. In Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams follow a similar line of reasoning and insist that the political task before us is one of figuring out how to accelerate the process of change being ushered in by this latest round of automation.
Like Mason, Srnicek and Williams see this as a prime political opportunity to revitalise a politics around universal basic income, the idea of a rightful share paid to each citizen as work in the formal sector disappears. This vision is compelled by the real-politik of the need to keep up present levels of consumption, and morally justified by the idea that all of humanity should benefit from the fruits of an automated
utopia rather than just a few.
Lest we think this is a work of speculative fiction, consider that James Ferguson’s Give a Man a Fish charts the rise of various forms of basic income in so called ‘developing’ countries – where distributions of the common wealth are seen both as more efficient than the development of northernhemisphere style welfare-states and as a political necessity in countries where there never has been and never will be anything close to full employment in the formal sector. Various developing countries from Brazil, to India, Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa have all trialled (and are rolling out) versions of basic income grants, as well as parts of the so-called developed world including Finland and Quebec Province in Canada.
Australia, like other developed countries, is spooked by predictions of an enormous shrinking in the size of the labour market in the coming decades. The now famous study, Australia’s Future Workforce, by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, predicts that in 10 to 20 years up to 40% of Australia’s current workforce could be replaced by automation.
In this vision, automation already occurring in areas such as agriculture, manufacturing and mining will spread into other sectors. Even white collar and professional jobs may not escape the chop as algorithm-fed bots ‘learn’ to write contracts, diagnose illness and treat conditions for consumers.
Two Apocalyptic Postcapitalisms
What these two postcapitalisms share is that they are located in a ‘not quite yet’ temporality. The changes they describe are just around the corner. This temporality is part of what gives them their affective-political charge. They lure us into a realm of possibility and radical change with the promise that if we can adequately anticipate their arrival and if we are prepared politically we might get the outcome we want – a basic income and a sky box view of luxury when it arrives.
This sense of expectancy cuts both ways. It’s entirely possible that the economy as we know it will continue to grow, the Dow will reach the vaunted 30,000 and enough of us will profit from this to keep things as they are. Or things could go much darker than anticipated – instead of a fully automated luxury world, all of us will be fitted with subcutaneous pagers that will buzz when there’s an opportunity on Airtasker or Taskrabbit to fetch a latte for a youngtech overlord.
Where does this leave us? In our view, a familiar place where we are, once again, “waiting for the revolution” as J.K. Gibson Graham put it more than twenty years ago – alternately hopeful, fearful, desperate, but most of all stuck in the same old place.
Postcapitalism 3: An Everyday Politics
A third vision of postcapitalism has been put forward by J.K. GibsonGraham, beginning with the publication of The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), followed a decade later by A
Or things could go much darker than anticipated – instead of a fully automated luxury world, all of us will be ﬁtted with subcutaneous pagers that will buzz when there’s an opportunity on Airtasker.
Postcapitalist Politics and more recently Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities with Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy. Fundamental to this understanding of postcapitalism are two interrelated propositions.
First, drawing on insights from particular strands of feminist and Marxian political economy, economic geography, sociology and anthropology, the economy is understood as a site of substantive difference. Every economy is a mix of paid and unpaid labour, market and non-market exchange, and capitalist and non-capitalist forms of economic organisation.
What follows from this world of economic difference is a second proposition: that capitalism’s continued dominance is partially a function of how we think about the economy. What Gibson-graham calls “capitalocentrism” is a process whereby currently existing economic difference is marginalised, rendered unintelligible by a perspective that insists on equating capitalism with economy.
What this enables is a different approach to thinking about what a postcapitalist politics might be – encapsulated in the concept of ‘community economy’. Community does not refer here to a particular scale of interaction or shared interests. It simply signals the recognition and foregrounding of our shared existence as a precondition for constructing an economy in which our own needs are balanced against the needs of others, including the needs of life-giving planetary ecologies.
If we no longer understand capitalism as a systematic-totality, then capitalist enterprises become one part of a diverse economic landscape, even potentially of community economies. Our current research project in Australia has driven this point home. The project uses an inductive approach to examine a dozen different Australian manufacturing enterprises that are demonstrating not just that there is a future for manufacturing in this country but that manufacturing can play a pivotal role in helping Australia respond to pressing social and ecological challenges.
The manufacturers were deliberately chosen to reflect differences within the sector in terms of their longevity, size, and organisational form – included in the sample are cooperatives and social enterprises, as well as ‘conventional’ capitalist firms that embrace a social or ecological ethic.
Our findings to date show that manufacturers of products ranging from mattresses to dairy products, carpets to chassis, are putting an ethic of care for others (both people and environment) at the centre of their operations. To some extent this is unsurprising for manufacturers that are social enterprises and cooperatives. However, in our sample there are examples of
Manufacturers of products ranging from mattresses to dairy products, carpets to chassis, are putting an ethic of care for others (both people and environment) at the centre of their operations.
capitalist manufacturers who share this ethic of care and are innovating with their employment practices and use of technology to address inequality and environmental disrepair.
In a diverse economy, no single enterprise type has a monopoly on care. The wellbeing of people and the planet is a matter of concern to which the diverse manufacturers are turning their renowned ability for problem-solving.
The innovations that result are not just limited to the single firm; what we find is that manufacturers are cooperating across enterprise types to develop strategies along the supply chain that multiply their impact and make it more difficult for other firms to operate in unjust and unsustainable ways.
The examples from our research are not limited to small-scale and local instances. The manufacturers are national and international in scale, and in some cases they are shifting how entire product lines are being produced, and in so doing are shifting presumed business ‘common sense’. In this way, postcapitalist manufacturing is becoming embedded in everyday practices and politics.
As much as anything, this postcapitalist present that is being practiced on shop-floors, testing chambers and meeting rooms, needs to be supported by a shift in thinking that divorces a vision of economy from that of a capitalist economy. While we don’t discount the importance of shifts in the macroeconomy or technological change, for us the term postcapitalism signals a political opportunity to do economy differently, to create relationships, practices and institutions that prioritise care for both people and planet.
The end of capitalism is, in the first instance, the end of totalising understandings that conflate capitalism with economy as such. In other words, the end of unduly according to capitalism a coherence, purpose or trajectory. In turn this end is the beginning of a politics of ethical deliberation in which economies might be experimentally crafted and enacted at a variety of scales – perhaps especially those arrangements that might enable us to attend to wounded societies and damaged ecologies.
In our view, a postcapitalist politics does not require a pivotal event, an apocalyptic change or revolution – nor should we wait for one. Instead, what it does require is a willingness to engage in embodied and material experiments, a communication of efforts, and a willingness to learn from mistakes and to share our results in enacting postcapitalist worlds.
The end of capitalism is…the end of totalising understandings that conlate capitalism with economy.