Anti-capitalism vs Post-capitalism

"Caging Humanity" by Don Davis

“Caging Humanity” by Don Davis

Enrique Lescure

Introduction

I would like to use this article as a continuation of my previous article, Reality? What Reality?

The subject however would be what differentiates an organisation that is moving towards a post-capitalist discourse, such as EOS, with organisations based around anti-capitalist views, to which we can count everything from Marxism-Leninism to the Alt-Globalization Movement and #Occupy.

Or put more eloquent: What is the difference between an outlook based on science and one rooted in emotional resentment.

What do we mean by Capitalism?

Capitalism, like all words that evoke emotions, has as many definitions as there are proponents or discontents. These definitions are not singular ideas framed around the concept, but are drawn from competing cosmologies which often are mutually hostile.

To take two extremes, we can look at the Market Libertarian position vs the Marxist definition.

The Market Libertarian definition, to which we can also count the Objectivist definition, is that capitalism is productive human action, free individuals that agree on whether they want to buy or sell products and services on a free market. Ideally, all markets should be free and unregulated, and this would produce – per the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo – the highest possible level of human well-being. Capitalism in short is individuals making free decisions. All cases of repression and poverty do not stem from inherent flaws in the market, but either from individual weakness (something which proponents of this worldview tend to be quiet about since that position would alienate potential followers), or (more usually) from regulations of the market.

The Marxist definition is that capitalism is a specific system of production, based around a hierarchical concentration of wealth and power. This system has succeeded similar systems in the past, such as Slavery and Feudalism. What separates Capitalism from Feudalism is that while Feudalism is centered around Land, Capitalism is centered around Capital – the concentration of possessions. The Capitalists are providing capital to start up companies, and strive to pay as little money as possible to the Labourers, who are those who are producing the actual value (see the Labour Theory of Value). Thus, the profit of the owner(s) represent (according to Marx) a theft of the productive potential of the labour force.

Capitalism will eventually, according to Marx and Engels, have so many contradictions that it will lead to an inevitable worker’s revolution and a system based on the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will develop into a classless society where all the means of production are owned collectively by the people.

It says itself that two so wildly divergent cosmologies would appear as monstrous before one another.

The Cosmology of the EOS

What is Capitalism, according to the EOS?

It is a form of socio-economic system built on the intrinsic need for exponential growth.

The goal is to maximise profits for capital owners, and is made possible by fractional reserve banking (sorry Austrians), which allows credit for investments and production that can grow the size of the economy. This leads to increased standards of living for most people, even though those who already have the most access to capital are those who benefit the most.

The problems with this system is that it relies on maximising exponential growth in a mostly closed economy, the planet Earth. This will eventually exhaust the planet’s ecology, unless the system invents ways to create abundance (which ironically also would make Capitalism obsolete). However, given how stark the situation currently looks, with the energy crisis, climate change, soil depletion, freshwater depletion and a mass extinction looming on the horizon, our best hope is to actively pursue ways to move away from exponential growth.

Why Post-capitalism is inevitable

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Everything is transitionary, and even if society today does not develop much in a year, you can safely be sure that society has changed dramatically during your life-time in comparison to how it looked when you were born, no matter what decade on the 20th or 21st centuries you were born in.

Moreover, humanity has existed as a species for 200.000 years. Agriculture was invented 12.000 years ago, and industrialism and modern capitalism co-evolved a little bit over 200 years ago, which is 0,1% of the course of the entire human history on Earth. To claim that Capitalism is a universal truth much like gravity and never will be replaced by another system is rather an emotional than a fact-based statement.

In fact, what we can say for certain is that Capitalism will be replaced within the next two centuries, and that there are three possible scenarios for how it can evolve into something else.

What is Post-capitalism?

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Post-capitalism is not a vague concept like Communism. In fact, it is even simpler.

Post-capitalism is whatever system of production and distribution that succeeds Capitalism. It is not intrinsically better than Capitalism, nor intrinsically worse. It is simply put a society which do not longer fulfill the criterion for Capitalism, namely exponential growth, either because it has found other ways to generate wealth and well-being, or because it has exhausted itself to the point that only survivalism is an option.

Since we – as a planetary organism – have followed the general trajectory of Limits to Growth, we can be sure that a lot of us would experience Post-capitalism firsthand during our lifetimes, which may – if we fail to take action – be an experience we would like to avoid.

There are three alternatives for the future, I would line them up with the least likely first, and then proceeding down to two feasible alternatives.

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I. Fusion power, asteroid mining and space colonisation solves all our problems, thanks to American and Chinese governments and mega-corporations. This leads to such an abundance that Capitalism is gradually replaced with Post-capitalism, either through institution of basic income and cooperation from progressive elites, or through a struggle from the masses to achieve that future. Eventually, this will lead to a post-monetary society.

Unlikely, not because we lack the capability to initiate those changes, but because the inherent unsustainability of the current system is so large, and these new techs are so underdeveloped that we would probably reach a collapse before they are profitable. When that happens, resources will be moved towards security rather than innovation, and we would end up in…

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II. A global ecological collapse, that will lead to a global socio-economic collapse and a collapse of living standards across the planet. This will lead to such a collapse that there will be a massive loss of complexity in society, as more people will have to focus on survival rather than producing economic, cultural, institutional or scientific value. In short, there will be a new dark age.

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III. A conscious transition towards a post-growth society. This would mean that we on all levels, as human beings, strive to establish sustainable relationships with our surroundings. On the micro-level, it could mean urban farming, recycling, seasteding and rewilding. These acts would however not be enough to counter the second scenario if we do not reverse monocultures, the dependency on fossil fuels and the institutions which exist today which are built upon the idea of limitless exponential growth. Eventually and if successful, these grassroot networks of conscious individuals and groups can form a global civilization of human creativity, which can achieve the first scenario.

So… when we in the Earth Organisation for Sustainability are evaluating the future, we can see three different types of Post-capitalism take hold. What is important for us is not the labels of a socio-economic system, but that the system in question fulfills the criteria of being able to create and distribute wealth while not destroying the foundations of that wealth, our beautiful planet.

Post-capitalism vs Anti-capitalism

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While protests and direct action oftentimes are necessary in order to create the foundations for political change, we cannot let primitive emotional responses take over our approach. Anti-capitalism is per definition such a primitive emotional response, and oftentimes built not only on noble emotions such as compassion and solidarity with disenfranchised groups in society, but also on ressentiment and puritan moralism.

Ressentiment and puritan moralism are gateways to absolutism and totalitarianism, and are unacceptable deviations for a movement such as the EOS.

Of course, it is true as anti-capitalists claim that Capitalism in itself bears a responsibility for the situation we are in, as the current ecological crisis wouldn’t exist if not for the exponential growth system. But it is also true, as pro-capitalists say, that without Capitalism and Industrialism, we would live in feudal societies with very low standard of life and probably worse social conditions.

However, we don’t owe Capitalism to let it continue to exist only because it allowed an unprecedented standard of life in the western world during the 20th century.

Anti-capitalist attitudes are unproductive for a movement like the EOS, since we cannot preoccupy ourselves with real or perceived injustices. Instead we must move on to discussing how the transition to the unavoidable post-capitalistic society should work out, and how we all humans would want that society to provide for, and what it can provide for.

Ultimately, a large role will have to be played by progressive-minded capitalists who have realised that we are moving towards an abyss. These brave individuals, who have realised that we are moving towards an ecological collapse, are a huge asset for the future, because their influence can be used to a great extent to assist with the transition.

Summary

Post-capitalism is inevitable, but it is up to us all to steer the process in such a manner that we don’t end up in a situation that no one in their right mind would want.

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6 Comments

  1. John Nilsson said,

    November 2, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    While I agree with the general sentiment of the text, it leaved me with some questions.

    None of your three definitions of capitalism seems to align with my own definition (which is a bit vague, admittedly). In my mind the relationship between free market economy, and capitalism, revolves around the arrangement of capital allocation.

    It seems sensible to think that a free market economy ultimately is a system of capital allocation striving towards it’s most productive use (for some fitness function determining productivity).

    Capitalism is an arrangement where in the free market is presented with a system of private property rights such that capital is traded between actors on the free market allowing property holders to extract rent profits from their property allocation.

    From this I cannot conclude that exponential growth is a necessary part of the definition, nor a necessary consequence. The same goes for fractional reserve banking, I cannot see how it is a necessary part of, or consequence of, capitalism as such.

    It seems plausible that fractional reserve banking, can be part of a system of effects ultimately leading to a necessary exponential growth but I don’t see how it follows from the definition.

    I tend to see a free market economy as an optimizer of capital allocation, relying on two conditions: 1) You agree with the fitness function it is optimizing for, 2) All externalities are accounted for.
    1) Tends to fail because economically effective does not necessarily equal morally desirable.
    2) Fails, most obviously, because the ecological impact so far is not part of the cost equation for production. There is also an interesting failure mode in which the costs and benefit of private property are not distributed fairly. This, follow directly from my definition of capialism, by extracting rent from private property rights an unfair distribution of costs and benefits creates a rent distribution from non-owners to owners.

    Thus, from my definition, a post capitalistic system could still retain a free market distribution of capital, it only has to redefine private property. As for avoiding scenario II above, it seems possible to do even while retaining capitalism as it is, as long as we make sure to eliminate externatlities regarding ecological impact.

    Also, a comment regarding emotion vs science: Emotions can be seen as reaction to current realities in regards to current needs. As such, aren’t they the first step towards curiosity in finding a scientific basis towards addressing conflicts, or retain alignments?

    I have an emotional reaction against wage labor as a phenomenon. It seems to me to be fundamentally broken in that it creates relationship between humans in which actions and motivations can be reduced to just an economic transaction. I have a need to have my contributions to any enterprise be respected as far more than just economic transactions, which does not seem to be met in such an arrangement. As a consequence I think the whole institution should be viewed with suspicion, but currently lack any scientific input to this feeling.

    Should I suppress this feeling because it lacks scientific rigor?

    • Eos Umeå said,

      November 2, 2014 at 2:10 pm

      Firstly, welcome to the EOS Horizon 🙂

      To answer your question. I do not believe that humans should be emotionless androids who only work according to science and reason. However, when political movements are formed around negative emotional sentiments, I believe it can damage the interests of the group members.

      Capitalism is a form of market economy, but not all market economies are capitalistic. An example of a non-capitalist market economy would be a village or town with only family businesses with no wage employees and no capital holders, or with cooperations. Also, the medieval guild system was a (deflationary) market economy.

      However, capitalism tend to turn all economies capitalistic when it touches them.

      The position of the EOS remains that we cannot have a system which necessitates the destruction of the biosphere, and that we need to move towards a constructive form of post-capitalism.

  2. John Nilsson said,

    November 2, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Capitalism seems to be self serving, agreed. The capitalist naturally does what ever possible to modify the system to further optimize towards the capitalists benefit. As the accumulation of capital progress, the power to modify the system increases.

    I’m still not convinced that the power of free market capital allocations has to be abandoned because of this though.

    What if we addressed the problem of externalities and rent seeking thusly: Create an institution, or transform the existing central banks to such an institution, acting as the sole rent seeking actor on the market. This institution would allocate capital to private actors in exchange for rent. All actors aiming for activities with ecological impact, or requirement of capital, would have to rent those rights, from this institution.

    This way the only direction of rent distribution, and political power associated with this, is towards this institution. To avoid the inevitable corruption of this institution it should not be allowed to do anything with this income besides distributing it evenly to all citizens.

    • Eos Umeå said,

      November 2, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      I have never implied that free market allocations have to be abolished. Your proposal to some extents sounds like the proposed Energy Accounting system that EOS has developed on. There is an article on this blog titled “Energy Accounting”. 🙂

  3. November 2, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    As you correctly state, capitalism is many things to many people. David Harvey has written yet another book on “the Crisis of Capitalism This Time Around”. In “Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” (2014) Harvey goes into detail about the contradictions he classifies as foundational, moving or dangerous. Readers who want to know what these are, are encouraged to read the book. Here, I’d like to quote first from his preface, and then from his conclusion.

    “It is not only the capitalist elites and their intellectual and academic acolytes who seem incapable of making any radical break with their past or defining a viable exit from the grumbling crisis of low growth, stagnation, high unemployment and the loss of state sovereignty to the power of bondholders. The forces of the traditional left (political parties and trade unions) are plainly incapable of mounting any solid opposition to the power of capital. They have been beaten down by thirty years of ideological and political assault from the right, while democratic socialism has been discredited. The stigmatised collapse of actually existing communism and the ‘death of Marxism’ after 1989 made matters worse. What remains of the radical left now operates largely outside of any institutional or organised oppositional channels, in the hope that small-scale actions and local activism can ultimately add up to some kin of satisfactory macro alternative. This left, which strangely echoes a libertarian and even neoliberal ethic of anti-statism, is nurtured intellectually by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and all those who have reassembled postmodern fragmentations under the banner of a largely incomprehensible post-structuralism that favours identity politics and eschews class analysis. Autonomist, anarchist and localist perspectives and actions are everywhere in evidence. But to the degree that this left seeks to change the world without taking power, so an increasingly consolidated plutocratic capitalist class remains unchallenged in its ability to dominate the world without constraint. This new ruling class is aided by a security and surveillance state that is by no means loath to use its police power to quell all forms of dissent in the name of anti-terrorism.” pp xii-xiii

    “How shockingly easy it is to take the living conditions of the working classes, the marginalised and the unemployed in Lisbon, São Paulo and Jakarta and put them next to Engels’s classic 1844 description of “The Conditions of the Working Class in England” and find little substantive difference.

    Oligarchic capitalist class privilege and power are taking the world in a similar direction almost everywhere. Political power backed by intensifying surveillance, policing and militarised violence is being used to attack the well-being of whole populations deemed expendable and disposable. We are daily witnessing the systematic dehumanisation of disposable people. Ruthless oligarchic power is now being exercised through a totalitarian democracy directed to immediately disrupt, fragment and suppress any coherent anti-wealth political movement (such as Occupy). The arrogance and disdain with which the affluent now view those less fortunate than themselves, even when (particularly when) vying with each other behind closed doors to prove who can be the most charitable of them all, are notable facts of our present condition. The ’empathy gap’ between the oligarchy and the rest is immense and increasing. The oligarchs mistake superior income for superior human worth and their economic success as evidence of their superior knowledge of the world (rather than their superior command over accounting tricks and legal niceties). They do not know how to listen to the plight f the world because they cannot and wilfully will not confront their role in the construction of that plight….

    It is in a political climate such as this that the violent and unpredictable eruptions that are occurring all around the world on an episodic basis (from Turkey and Egypt to Brazil and Sweden in 2013 alone) look more and more like the prior tremors for a coming earthquake that will make the post-colonial revolutionary struggles f the 1960s look like child’s play. If there is an end to capital, then this is surely from where it will come and its immediate consequences are unlike to prove happy for anyone. This is what Fanon so clearly teaches.

    The only hope is that the mass of humanity will see the danger before the rot goes too far and the human and environmental damage becomes too great to repair. In the face of what Pope Francis rightly dubs ‘the globalisation of indifference’, the global masses must, as Fanon so neatly puts it, ‘first decide to wake up, put on their thinking caps and stop playing the irresponsible game of Sleeping Beauty’. If Sleeping Beauty awakes in time, then we might be in for a more fairy-tale-like ending”.” pp 292-293.

    The reference to Frantz Fanon is to “The Wretched of the Earth”.

    • Eos Umeå said,

      November 3, 2014 at 11:32 am

      I would not classify #Occupy as a “coherent political alternative”. The problem is that political power naturally is centralising and perpetuating hierarchies. Thus, rather than the elites being overthrown, any shift would rather see new elites put at the centre of the information nexus.

      If we truly want to help the planet, we need to build an alliance between the masses, the technical class and those parts of the elite we an persuade that there needs to be a profound break with the old order.

      We must be broad, not narrow.


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