Pre-empt­ing Apoc­a­lypse?

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.


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