Thinking about Post-Capitalism
It’s an elusive concept. As many have by now pointed out, for many people it’s easier to imagine the end of the planet than the end of capitalism. The success of neoliberalism since the mid-1970s at colonizing political imagination is remarkable to say the least. Still, as the writings I examined in the previous entry and the new book by the excellent journalist and historian Paul Mason all demonstrate, new ideas are percolating, and the end of capitalism is inevitable, even if we’re pretty unclear on what comes next.
Curiously I am sitting in Santiago, Chile writing this but not long ago I was able to visit a place where a strange version of post-capitalism is still trying to exist. In Cuba housing is nearly completely decommodified (no one pays rent and until quite recently no one could buy or sell their homes, only trade them straight up), medical care is completely decommodified, and education is too. (Here in Chile a massive student movement helped propel President Bachelet back into power—a centrist social democrat, somewhat left by post-dictatorship Chilean standards—promising to make public higher education free and available to all.) Funny that Obama went to Cuba to promote trade at a moment when so much of the world economy is sputtering at best, and teetering on the brink of another great unraveling. Fidel Castro published an open letter repudiating Obama’s “happy face” call to forget the past and focus on the future. This willful amnesia is a quintessentially American quality that has served Obama very well during his presidency. He has repeatedly insisted on looking forward in order to reinforce a culture of complete impunity for war criminals and financial criminals and one must assume, assuring his own financial well-being long after his presidency.
Attempting to untangle the dark history of the Castros’ “communism” from a more radical point of view has been done elsewhere, but seeing the results in 2016 had the effect of peeling back layers of forgotten history. In his amazing novel The Man Who Loved Dogs, Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura whips back and forth between Cuba in the 1970s, 1980s, the hungry Special Period of the early 1990s, and into the 2000s, juxtaposing it all to the story of Trotsky in exile, first in Siberia, then on an island in the Bosporus Straits in Turkey, then Norway, before finally arriving to Coyoacan in Mexico. In the novel the Stalinists of the Spanish Communist Party are portrayed as fanatical zealots who destroy the Republican cause from within and select Ramon Mercader to be specially trained as Trotsky’s assassin. The man who loves dogs could be seen as Trotsky, but it becomes clear that it is Mercader himself who as an elderly dying exile on a Cuban beach (after serving 20 years in a Mexican jail and another decade in an upscale apartment in Moscow as a “hero of the revolution” for his sordid deed) slowly recounts his story to the disillusioned and demoralized Cuban writer who tells the story within the story. It’s an amazing book, serving as an allegory on the failure of 20th century revolutions in general, and as an exemplary tale of fear, betrayal, fanaticism, obedience, and self-loathing which turn out to be at the heart of much of the Communist movement of the 20th century, dominated by the insanity of Stalin, and later Mao, and even the Castro brothers who fully embraced the Stalinist police state model.
So post-capitalism! Turns out the Stalinists weren’t capable of bringing down capitalism and only managed to create strange pockets of police state corporatism, a rather worse outcome among dozens of possibilities one might imagine. Nowadays, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the full integration of China into the world capitalist system have left very few places outside the orbit of markets and money. North Korea perhaps, though it is hardly a beacon of alternativism and inspiration! Cuba on the other hand is at an interesting juncture, and could possibly change in ways that do inspire and provoke beyond its own borders. But lessening the grip of the state, not to market forces so much as to the initiatives and activities of its own citizenry, is an essential step. After 60 years of a one-party state it may be difficult for most Cubans to take independent action. The recent years’ opening to allow people to rent rooms, start small restaurants, etc., has led to a boom in tourism that the country’s infrastructure (transportation especially) can barely handle, and a lot of foreign investors wanting to get in for the expected take-off of hotels, condominiums, real estate, and so on. For Cubans, in spite of the decommodification of key elements of life, the monthly salary of a little over $20 does not suffice, and nearly everyone is trying to get a piece of the tourist action, where the convertible peso is used (e.g. a couple of taxi rides in Havana cost the same as a Cuban’s monthly salary!). Most people looking at Cuba today see a country on the road to a more complete integration into world economic activity and with it a further monetization of Cubans’ daily lives. It’s very hard to imagine a Stalinist state changing its DNA to allow for a radical confederation of workers coops to self-manage the complex transition to an unknown relationship to the world market. The most likely model is China, where the state is the final arbiter (and guarantor) of all economic investments and makes all the main decisions. Ultimately everyone works for the State, Inc., and the accumulation of capital is a key element in that process, depending on wage-labor as the primary social relationship.
Paul Mason’s earlier books on the history of the working class and the movements of 2011 respectively were both great, so I was excited to read his “Post-Capitalism.” A few months before it came out there was a flurry of dismissals that flew across my social media when people decided that Mason’s book was a techno-determinist puff piece in favor of info-tech. I assure you it is considerably more sophisticated and critical than that! His argument is one of a number of new efforts to reframe the political debates of our time and I welcome it. One can disagree for many reasons with various parts of his analysis, but overall I think he has made a compelling argument and I would include it in future discussions as a useful reference point. He summarizes his book’s argument on page 25:
… that an information economy may not be compatible with a market economy—or at least not one dominated and regulated by market forces primarily.
That, I will argue, is the root cause of the collapse, fibrillation and zombie state of neoliberalism. All the money created, all the velocity and momentum of finance built up during the last twenty-five years have to be set against the possibility that capitalism—a system based on markets, property ownership and exchange—cannot capture the ‘value’ generated by the new technology. In other words, it is increasingly evident that information goods conflict fundamentally with market mechanisms.
He relies on the work of the Soviet economist Kondratieff who theorized about recurrent 50-year waves in capitalism, with each period having an up and a down. I am in no position to gauge the accuracy of that analysis but Mason makes interesting use of it. He approaches neoliberalism more directly in class terms than a lot of other thinkers have done.
Neoliberalism was designed and implemented by visionary politicans: Pinochet in Chile, Thatcher and her ultra-conservative circle in Britain; Reagan and the Cold Warriors who brought him to power. They’d faced massive resistance from organized labor and they’d had enough. In response, these pioneers of neoliberalism drew a conclusion that shaped our age: that a modern economy cannot coexist with an organized working class. Consequently, they resolved to smash labor’s collective bargaining power, traditions, and social cohesion completely…
The general program of conservatism, and even fascism, had been to promote a different kind of solidarity that served to reinforce the interests of capital. But it was still solidarity. The neoliberals sought something different: atomization. Because today’s generation only sees the outcome of neoliberalism, it is easy to miss the fact that this goal—the destruction of labor’s bargaining power—was the essence of the entire project: it was a means to all other ends. Neoliberalism’s guiding principle is not free markets, nor fiscal discipline, nor sound money, nor privatization and offshoring—not even globalization. All these things were byproducts or weapons of its main endeavor: to remove organized labor from the equation. (p. 91)
Mason comes from a solid grounding in Marxist theory so it’s no surprise that he would frame neoliberalism in these terms. I think he’s spot-on to highlight the social atomization that neoliberalism produced as a deliberate alternative to the working class solidarities of left or right—either of which have tended to cause problems historically for the untrammeled power of capital to have its way. With his roots in Marxist theory he brings forward a unique argument about our current period: he thinks the labor theory of value is the only explanatory framework for understanding what is happening in the global economy. The emergence of value-less commodities in the info-sphere is infecting the rest of the physical world with falling prices, and the capitalist system has only one response for this—monopolization and legal protections to enforce market logic where it is unsustainable due to a lack of scarcity.
Info-tech drives labor out of the production process, reduces the market price of commodities, destroys some profit models and produces a generation of consumers psychologically attuned to free stuff. (p. 131)
I spent a few years immersed in the debates of the late 1970s and early 1980s over whether or not the Labor Theory of Value was still extant. I generally agreed that it was, but eventually the thrill of Marxology waned and the usefulness of the theory in my daily life diminished too. Publishing Processed World during the 1980s we spent a lot of time focused on work and the experiences we were all having on the job and off during that first decade of full-on neoliberal restructuring of the economy. (Admittedly we didn’t fully understand what we were living through.) Insisting that people speak in terms of surplus value and the labor theory of value lost its importance in favor of less theoretical and more anecdotal ways of understanding the changing world. Along comes Paul Mason in 2016 to say that the breakdown of classical economics and monetarism—and their patent inability to explain or understand what is happening economically—has cleared the field for the Labor Theory to explain why capitalism seems to be approaching a possibly terminal crisis. If it’s true that profits are derived from surplus value, which in turn depends on the living labor component of any given commodity being paid less than the price it receives in the market, this helps explain why a world of infinitely reproducible digital “products” is eroding the logic of capital accumulation.
But people are still getting rich you say! Yes, but the underlying dynamics of world capitalism are in a period of crisis and have been since at least 2008 and probably a lot longer, depending on your frame of reference. Mason would argue that the crisis dates to the end of the last booming Kondratieff wave which crested in the early 1970s. Historically the downturns have been periods of social unrest as a diminishing surplus becomes the object of intense struggle among capitalists and between capitalists and their workers. The brutal suppression of working class movements, beginning with the mass slaughter and disappearances imposed by Pinochet in Chile in 1973 when he led a coup against the elected left-wing Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, gave the owners of society an extension, allowing them to continue their domination without having to concede anything to the working class.
The defeat of organized labor did not enable—as the neoliberals thought—a ‘new kind of capitalism’ but rather the extension of the fourth [Kondratieff] long wave on the basis of stagnant wage growth and atomization. Instead of being forced to innovate their way out of the crisis using technology, as during the late stage of all three previous [Kondratieff] cycles, the 1 percent simply imposed penury and atomization on the working class. (p. 93)
That period is apparently coming to an end. The massive financialization of the world economy, the radical expansion of all types of debt including eight years of “quantitative easing” in which central banks have been pouring cash into the coffers of big commercial banks across the planet, has not given rise to a new cycle of accumulation. Wars are growing hotter, a common reaction to the crisis in many countries, and none of the old tricks seem to be working. For Mason this is all evidence that the logic of this moment is inescapably post-capitalist. For sure it is possible to imagine a dark future of militarized police states—in many respects we are well on the way to that. But Mason is looking for a more optimistic outcome and in that regard he comes to some of the same conclusions I did when I wrote Nowtopia 8 years ago.
Non-market forms of production and exchange exploit the basic human tendency to collaborate—to exchange gifts of intangible value—which has always existed but at the margins of economic life. This is more than simply a rebalancing between public goods and private goods: it is a whole new and revolutionary thing. The proliferation of these non-market economic activities is making possible for a cooperative, socially just society to emerge. (p. 143)
Mason doesn’t rely on small initiatives in local areas as an “answer” because he’s in favor of globalization and complexity.
The most immediate objective is to save globalization by killing neoliberalism. A socialized banking system and a central bank attuned to sustainability could do this using fiat money—which, as we discussed in chapter 1, works as long as people believe in the credibility of the state… In the short term, the intention is not to reduce complexity—as the money fundamentalists want—nor simply to stabilize banking, but to promote the most complex form of capitalist finance compatible with progressing the economy towards high automation, low work and abundant cheap or free goods and services. (p. 282-3)
I am not convinced his argument has really solved the problem of scale in any meaningful way, since he has a fairly glib suggestion following his prognostication of what’s coming:
Once the Internet of Things is rolled out, we are at the real takeoff point of the information economy. From then on, the key principle is to create democratic social control over aggregated information, and to prevent its monopolization or misuse by states and corporations. (p. 268)
Democratic social control sounds good but what the hell is it? How would we approach that for complex systems? Especially world-spanning networks of power and money? Because Mason may believe in a post-capitalist world but he also thinks we can get there by some kind of slow transition building on seeds we plant in our everyday lives now. I agree with this to a point, but am pretty stumped about how these small-scale local practices translate into the new systems of democratic self-management that can handle whole megalopolises, vast systems of water and electricity and transportation and food, and move us beyond national frontiers while equalizing as much as possible a good life for all everywhere.
Meanwhile I love this suggestion for future planners and coordinators:
The strategic aim—shining in big letters from a PowerPoint projector in every public sector boardroom—would be to cheapen the cost of basic necessities, so that the total socially necessary labour time can fall and more stuff gets produced for free. (p. 278)
This corresponds pretty closely to what I think should be a program for municipal governance in every city now. Cities should strive to use their local budgets to make as much as possible free to the city’s inhabitants, from water to housing to communications and transportation. By radically lowering the cost of living in this way, a “boom” of public art, creativity and innovation will naturally follow since more and more people will be free to follow their own inclinations and spend their time as they see fit. Our current drive to overwork and poverty which is keeping most people on a self-perpetuating treadmill of overwork, anxiety, and empty consumerism as an inadequate compensation, has to stop. If there is a place for politics in our daily lives, and let’s hope there is (even if I’ve long disdained the charade of elections and hold the state in contempt), maybe it is in this kind of radical municipalism. The stakes are high and the other alternatives are darn bleak!
Enjoy the rest of these photos from Cuba: