The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear – Antonio Gramsci
Recent events can seem scary, vapid, or just plain bewildering – particularly for those of us who skate on the ice-thin surface of reductionist indifference. Ultimately it comes down to personal preferences. We can tune in to the mainstream discourse – humdrum but uncomplicated – or be equally deceived by what is on offer from alternative sources. Legitimate or otherwise, official or not, in the final analysis most information is a filtered impression of partial truths.
After commercial factors are taken into account, the bias of most corporate media is political, casually shaped by history and habits. Editorial commentaries are crafted around an implicit doctrine. Explicit headlines accompanying carefully framed images, brashly declare everything you need to know about the latest scandal, bomb scare, or celebrities behaving badly. It is not crucial that we think too hard. In fact it is best we do not. The whole thing is packaged to keep us captivated, comforted, and amused.
Social media can be marginally more seditious in that all manner of conflicting reports, opinions and hot air are circulating. This, too, is to be expected, given that social networks like Facebook or Twitter are shaped by congruent communities engaged in a manic reification of each other’s opinions, often in a style the authors hope will ensure their content goes viral.
While the corporate media runs the risk of boring us with mind-numbing predictability, social media keeps us aroused with a mixture of rant, froth and an occasional yelp of anguish.
There are always important pointers should we care to probe more deeply. Seeking the veracity of a statement by verifying its source, triangulating data, or figuring out embedded codes within diverse belief systems, is not for the faint of heart. But it can be well worth the effort if, by doing so, we are able to comprehend what is going on in our collective ecology of mind and use that to anticipate future events.
As a foresight practitioner I try not to make too many predictions. I am more concerned with making sense of the present. But rarely does an event occur out of the blue. There is always a context shaping incidents. Indeed the backstory is often more informative than eddies on the surface of our awareness. In the context of our geopolitical world-system the past few months have been particularly turbulent. Yet enlightening as new patterns develop that complicate long-established international relationships.
A sociopath, racist and adjudged liar has been elected President of a divided America, with a friendly nudge from Russian hackers. Although it is far too premature to observe an accelerated unravelling of the world order, and the web of sensitive international relations that maintains the illusion of stability, it is highly likely that the appointment of Donald Trump, and the gang of billionaires and bullies he is now appointing to his cabinet, will drastically alter US foreign policy. It could also mark a further decline in the degrading of US political hegemony.
America’s partial withdrawal from the world stage will create ambiguity. Retreat may not be such a bad thing in the medium term. A wilting of an overly-intrusive US culture could be welcome in many parts of the world. But no one is about to fill the potential financial and military void that would inevitably follow.
Russia has its own economic problems. Chinese investments in Asia, Africa and Latin America are boosting the PRC’s influence in some countries – giving China an exceptional opportunity to expand its network of regional trade ties. But the Politburo is preoccupied with events at home. In order to maintain their grip on power the elite’s first priority must be to ensure that the country continues to modernise. A leadership transition scheduled for the latter half of 2017 may add to the potential nervousness.
In Europe the situation is not much different. Ultra right-wing fundamentalists like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Siv Jensen, Heinz-Christian Strache and Francois Fillon have nationalistic designs on wresting power away from Brussels – this in stark contrast to Iceland’s voters who are rallying around a radical, technology-focused, left-wing party that champions political transparency. The austerity measures imposed on Greece have become an intergenerational catastrophe – destroying pensions, dismantling essential services, and putting infrastructure projects on hold. A reconstructed fascism hints at future hurdles in the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey and possibly elsewhere. Italy is in chaos once again and should France decide to leave the EU, disintegration of the European experiment is virtually assured. Meanwhile the moral outrage shown by a largely disregarded blue-collar workforce in Britain, has sent shudders across Europe, spawning apprehension in Westminster and far beyond.
Across Asia the situation is relatively stable – but that is no reason for complacency. Pakistan and India seem determined to continue their niggling skirmishes over Kashmir. North Korea’s erratic leadership could spark a conflict with the South at any time. Citizens in the Philippines are only just starting to comprehend what life will really be like under an autocratic thug like Rodrigo Duterte. Thailand, having lost its revered God-King, awaits an uncertain future and the likelihood of further political instability, while Japan is still struggling to adequately address a lengthy malaise caused by decreasing worker productivity, and an ageing population.
Most territories in the Middle East remain prey to the West’s protracted desire for oil, coupled with an arrogant assumption that some form of democratic order must be imposed in order to guarantee their supply. Israel is forever distracted by issues of sovereignty and its paranoid relations with Palestine. Saudi Arabia and Qatar remain the most prolific sponsors of Islamist terrorism. While, for the time being, practically the entire continent of Africa is regarded as superfluous – a bit player on the world stage.
Patterns & Consequences
Some of the patterns arising from these evolving geopolitical conditions are worrying. They point to undercurrents in our society that should concern us all. Unfortunately many of those who should take notice are blind to the consequences and not at all interested in exploring the underlying causes. They airbrush them out of their version of the “big” picture.
From the perspective of a single individual, organisation or state there is probably not too much to get excited about. People still have jobs to go to. Investors can still trade and create wealth. Governments will always have the occasional diplomatic spat over resources and territories. Poverty, inequity and injustice still exist. But that’s life. Statistically speaking the trends are all positive. From the viewpoint of the human family, however, there are problems. And a significant number of these can be traced to basic flaws in the source operating model – the civilisational worldview – that manifests as our present day world-system.
I have spoken about the problem of unregulated competition in this regard many times. Another key tenet, nested securely in the bosom of this deep-rooted belief system, is the notion of sovereignty. We generally translate this to mean that any physical or intellectual asset, such as land, an invention, piece of code, capital, opera, or even seeds, for example, can be owned by one (or more) individuals, to the exclusion of others. Owners control access to, and use of, these assets through constitutions, patents, copyright, and various other forms of legal protection. Nestle’s recent claim that it should be able to own the rights to the world’s drinking water is an example of how this principle can so easily lead to outrageous, if logically consistent, assertions.
The origin of this interpretation of sovereignty can be traced back to the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. This is the theory that monarchs derive their authority from God rather than their subjects, from which it follows that rebellion is the worst of political crimes. This is the basis of L’ese Majeste laws in countries like Thailand, which make it illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent.
Acceptance of this as a secular principle applied universally has led to numerous contradictions and compromises. At the geopolitical level it has been the primary cause of schism and conflict for the past 500 years. Untold laws have been crafted by different parliaments around the world to justify and safeguard their singular interests – from trade agreements, defense, security and surveillance, to border protection and the issuing of national identity cards, for example.
In all likelihood we will eventually broaden this narrow concept of an individual’s entitlement to own assets, with an alternative scheme which construes sovereignty as our collective entitlement to share resources. But for the time being we are dealing with the knock-on effects of false propositions like competition, scarcity and sovereignty. And it is beginning to look ugly.
Under the Surface
Contempt by the privileged for the waves of national populism breaking on the shores of democracy is being countered by a flourish of anti-elitist discourse. Fake news and propaganda – coalescing from alternative versions of a myriad half-truths, misinformation and lies – is given as much credence as officially-endorsed interpretations of the facts in the mirror-maze that is social media. The absence of any real resolve from world leaders to enact laws that curb corruption, conflict, and pollution has become a festering wound. Even the self-satisfied nature of the Paris Climate talks has turned foetid as any hope for substantial progress recedes due to the lack of a binding enforcement mechanism.
Around the world lobbying and advocacy are both drifting to the conservative side of the political spectrum – fostering anti-establishment parties. These are becoming highly proficient at coordinating disgruntled citizens who, reliant on public services, are demanding adequate protection from global markets and discriminatory trade agreements. Globalisation as currently structured, and the lingering quest for unfettered growth, have brought the echo chamber of neoliberal economics into further disrepute.
Such disturbances mean little to the private sector. The large institutional and lending banks remain relatively untouched by political events. Technology giants, fashion houses and global brands still get away with exploiting our addiction to novelties and accessories, intended to incite envy but redolent of a widespread discontent. For it turns out we are unhappy consumers. Preoccupied with possessions, and the social image we hope they project, we are caught up in an exhausting real-life game of trivial pursuit. Corporations, indifferent to our predicament, continue on their merry way, stuffing money into the pockets of remote owners, while utilising the cult of compliant celebrity to market an array of bland products we do not actually need, and that will almost certainly add to our unhappiness once the spending spree subsides.
Probing below the surface at some of these correlations point to any number of challenging social questions. Is all of this a sign that we have consigned our species to an indigent, choleric future, for example? Is it the eerie calm before a tsunami of change sweeps away the deep-rooted corruption that erodes our most life-critical social, political, industrial and economic systems? Systems that are no longer working as originally intended, work for the benefit of a few or, no longer fit for purpose, are collapsing under the yoke of a global population exceeding seven billion people? Will populist fury continue to see the devolution of authority away from the nation state, and international enterprises like the UN and NATO, toward cities and local representatives? If so, how likely is this to stall the indispensable global cooperation needed to tackle climate adaptation and the refugee emergency?
And if the pace of technological change continues to threaten the competence of governments to do anything more than patch up the present, will an ever-growing number of critical decisions with long-term implications be taken by corporations, hackers, interest groups and social networks? Or are these dynamics just the mess we will to navigate in order to transition from one kind of society to the next? One in which the false propositions that have congealed into a dispassionate and harsh world-system can be reinvented in order that the world works better for everyone?
Societal transitions have never been easy. Whether evolutionary or revolutionary, social or political, technological or philosophical, disruption to established patterns is an inevitable corollary of change. Our modern inclination to embellish and sanitise history, and to enshrine a limited repertoire of myths accentuating linear progress, within an equally limited capitalist credo, does not help. In fact we have seen how it can lead us astray and distort our intentions, bringing unwelcome delays to the realisation of vital ideas, and dumping complex problems on defective operational routines and methods.
When bemoaning recent horrors it is so easy to forget that present-day crises are neoteric expressions of a prolonged series of disturbances that have been tearing at the fabric of society for a good part of the past 250 years. This dynamic is civilisation’s curse. Some would say it is integral to the human condition. During this period international and civic turmoil, brutal colonialism, racism, and genocide have been the norm – as has been the regrettable tendency to frame every issue in the most basic of binary terms – yet another regrettable outcome derived from the use of sovereignty and competition as universally agreed organising principles.
A New Normality
So what of economics and its future? In a world increasingly defined by our inadequacies as much as by our ingenuity, public spending of the kind espoused by John Maynard Keynes is as inappropriate as Milton Friedman’s free market prescriptions. Essentially the globalisation of industrial capitalism, in which old forms of power were replaced by the promise of universal prosperity, has ensured that neither of these approaches, enacted in their purest sense, can ever be optimal. Establishment pledges of wealth and wellbeing, from both ideological extremes, have not been realised. Instead, massive disparities in power and wealth have led to anger, social exclusion, frustrated expectations, poverty and an alarming resurgence of nationalism.
Examining evidence accumulated over the past century from all around the world, noting particularly the inexplicable escalation of hubris, entitlement and defensiveness exhibited by the incumbent elite, including their increasingly unstable behaviour, an inability to think through the consequences of their decisions, habitual use of state brutality and a dumbed-down media to help achieve civic compliance, before placing all of that in the context of the history of sapiens on this planet, it is abundantly clear that our shared civilisational worldview is dystopian in the extreme.
The planetary emergencies facing us are similar to those faced by the crew of Apollo 13 – but on a much more massive scale. And this time the crew is not three astronauts – it is the entire human family inhabiting spaceship Earth. At this stage the causes of our predicament are probably inconsequential. So is the original mission. Systems needed to sustain life are failing. There is simply no time to blame others, nor can we stick rigidly to our original plans. The situation is perilous and it has escalated to a point where none of our rehearsed responses are effective. Now there is only one imperative. It is to jettison old assumptions and use our collective ingenuity to totally reconfigure how we can continue the journey and land safely. This is no longer just an engineering problem, for we are dealing with a multitude of intersecting beliefs, faiths and cultural conventions too.
What does this mean in practise? It means we need to confront the deficiencies of a derisory and toxic worldview. Outside of science fiction it means there is an absence of destiny narratives we can use to guide us. The adventures of the USS Enterprise are no longer sufficient to inspire us. It means an increasing number of our most life-critical systems and arrangements, including how we provision for the next generation and take better care of each other, are rapidly deteriorating, unable to cater for a population approaching 7.5 billion inhabitants. It means that our current socio-economic structures, political institutions, technological trajectories and methods of governance are all defective in some way. It means that what we do can no longer be measured by pre-established norms and indices. It means that many of the past assumptions, tenets and social codes, to which we still stubbornly cling, are not just incapable of helping us find a way out of the maze, but in many cases are making matters worse. It means we must purge our world-system of those constraints, irrespective of ideological slant, faith or moral justification, that originate in a worldview reinforcing partition, class, inequality, competition, individualism and conflict and that, as a consequence, benefits fewer and fewer people.
Cosmetic change is easy to espouse and enact. But that will not serve our purposes now. Reinvention is a more painful proposition, especially when it means starting with the global financial system.
Although it is clear that capitalism is in crisis, that it seems to reward the basest impulses rather than the finest, it is almost impossible to seriously contemplate the end of capitalism. Yet more and more people are talking about a post-capitalist society. What do they mean by that? Is it utopian to believe we are on the verge of a leap beyond capitalism? What signs could possibly indicate that the days of capitalism are numbered? And how would this supposed finale be marked?
German economist Wolfgang Streeck is absolutely clear:
Before capitalism will go to hell, it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.
Right from the dawn of printing, and the rise of the merchant classes in the 15th century, capitalism was always an improbable, highly flawed, framework. Yet it has survived many crises throughout its long history and the market economy continues to spread across the world. At the same time, there are few within my own circle who do not entertain the idea that capitalism is in crisis – possibly one that could prove to be terminal.
Perhaps we should expect as much. After all it is only a few years ago that the global economy tanked, almost taking the entire international banking system down with it. From that day to this, the structural bedrock of the system has remained unscathed. A reassembled shadow banking system is even bigger than it was in 2008. New rules demanding banks hold more reserves have been diluted and delayed. The insatiable greed of the industry is still intact.
In the absence of alternative models, the conditions for further financial crises are mustering. Real wages have fallen or remained stagnant in Japan, the southern Eurozone, the US and UK. Flushed with free money, the one per cent has become wealthier. Meanwhile, compensating strategies, from austerity on the one hand, to the pumping of massive investments into the markets on the other – are failing to fully resuscitate the unresponsive body.
The downfall of present-day capitalism is unlikely to be an impetuous revolution brought on by the proletariat, as forecast by Karl Marx, but a more bitter, potentially disorderly and prolonged affair. To some extent this collapse is being hastened by industrialists, explicitly the damage they have inflicted on the workforce needed to keep the system in balance.
The idea that capitalism might be modified in some way to ensure equality and social justice is utopian and tired. What remains eats away at the life force – at least until a viable metamorphosis can occur. But how can we claim that capitalism is dying? Where is the evidence? Like all great lies, there are several explanations. But the central truth is not hard to find.
Late-stage capitalism was a product of the industrial revolution. From the earliest years it was tied to (i) the consensual hallucination of democracy, (ii) the equally deluded notion of societal progress as a one-dimensional financial phenomenon, and (iii) the fossil fuel industry – unambiguously the capacity of coal, oil, and eventually gas, to provide the energy needed for the mass production of factory-based manufactures.
Capitalism was also the main ingredient in a wealth extraction architecture that benefitted only small numbers of people. In that sense the tension between the accumulation and concentration of wealth on the part of the capitalists, and the demand for the redistribution of wealth on the part of workers and their families, has always been an unresolved incongruity. Any number of predatory schemes were devised, and still persist, to protect the affluent – ranging from tax havens to dubious trade agreements and, more recently, austerity measures imposed on the poorest, most debt-ridden countries. The poor and disadvantaged remained so.
The basic formula of capitalism is simple and unseen: devices are used to continuously shift money from those who produce and buy goods to those who own the means of production. Although this served an initial purpose of growing markets and encouraging innovation, there are drawbacks to this formula – such as the constant need for compliant workers with cash to spend on purchasing the fruits of their labours. And yes, we now see that the need for continuous economic growth, driven by competitive behaviour, constructs a trap from which it is difficult to escape.
Ultimately, though, the system has become technically non-viable. It must inevitably collapse – unless it can find ways to transform each of the five following factors:
As previously explained, mainstream economics proceeds from a condition of scarcity. Indeed conventional business models use all manner of legal devices, such as copyright and trade marks, to ensure (i) that assets are owned, and (ii) that the availability of free information is suppressed.
The problem with this prescription is that while each manufactured object still has a production cost, the cost of reproduction is negligible and gradually falls towards zero. This trend towards zero marginal cost has meant there are far fewer profits to extract from industrial production.
Not only that, but the enormous amounts of information in circulation are corroding the ability of the market to accurately determine prices. Scarcity is destroying the price formation mechanism. That is because while markets are based on scarcity, information is not scarce. On the contrary it is abundant.
The orthodox defence against such events has been to form monopolies. Apple has famously done this with the music for puchase on iTunes. It is unlikely such monopolies can endure. By fabricating business models and valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, corporate monopolies are increasingly finding themselves at odds with one of the most basic of human needs. To share and use ideas freely.
Each wave of new technology brings diminishing returns. Logically then, the only way to prop up revenues is to find ways of keeping the technology scarce. This can be done by accelerating in-built obsolescence, for example, something the major brands and communications technology companies have been doing for decades, deploying deceitful marketing spin, or shifting wealth into the illusory world of speculative finance.
The latter is fraught with risk. Speculation leads to market crashes, financial collapse, and so-called structural readjustments. These trigger a spiral of debt, following which the most popular solution is applied austerity. This potentially catastrophic policy is not simply about months of spending cuts and deprivation. Austerity means salaries, social wages and living standards are all driven down, possibly for decades, until they correspond more closely with those of the middle classes in the emerging economies of China, India and Africa on the way up.
There are more unrelenting matters. As an economic resource, knowledge is displacing most forms of industrialised labour and processing. Innovation and creativity, the two most beneficial forms of knowledge in the world today, are now crucial factors for the valorisation of capital. Furthermore they are an unlimited resource. As such they are already giving rise to a new form of post-industrial capitalism years ago.
At first machines started doing the work previously undertaken by humans. Mechanisation replaced blue collar workers. Today smarter machines are increasingly doing tasks traditionally associated with management and the professions, thus eroding further the need for human labour. The next wave of artificially intelligent androids – presently stalled as our social infrastructure cannot abide the consequences – will hugely diminish the amount of both full-time and temporary work needed from human workers. Or at least that is the theory.
Because we have not invented any widely acceptable solutions to unemployment, nor indeed to the casualisation of the workforce, and human worth and dignity are still measured in terms of earning an income from paid work, two tracks become equally feasible. Firstly, we could simply design new or different tasks for humans to do. Current statistics actually illustrate that this has been our favoured course to date. Secondly, we could leave the majority of tasks to robots and enjoy more leisure time. In that case it is highly probable individual purchasing power would weaken, thus shrinking the market for many goods.
Clearly investigating alternative solutions, like a universal living wage for those without work, is therefore critical. Meanwhile various forms of knowledge commons foreshadow original, more equitable, forms of production and exchange. Because knowledge is neither scarce nor limited, abundance poses a real threat to traditional institutions and corporations. Once they have lost control over proprietary knowledge they will also lose both their competitive and comparative advantages.
Predictably, in defiance of its social nature and global access, died-in-the-wool industrialists and their attorneys persist in trying to exploit knowledge-based work through the one device they know best: privatisation. In time this too will fall. In a society where we can trade information and knowledge using substitute modes of value creation, including open source, peer production, and cooperative networks, for example, the production-commodity-money-consumption logic bolstering capitalism is increasingly obsolete. Indeed these ecosystems of free knowledge and thinking are a threat to all conventional power structures.
If the previous two factors alone were insufficient, an end-game where the most affluent one per cent of the world’s population own 50 per cent of its total wealth is simply unsustainable. Apart from the obvious moral dilemma there is also a massive utilisation issue. By and large the one per cent hoarde their wealth. Most of it was derived from owning industrial and corporate assets. They guard this wealth aggressively and it remains mostly inaccessible to anyone other than a tiny coterie of insiders.
In the past this extractive wealth has been a potent force, and the most powerful in the land still have a substantial store of it to spend. But nowadays a new kind of wealth is being created. This wealth is increasingly, though not quite yet, beyond private appropriation. But by capturing the moral high ground it possesses an almost unstoppable momentum. The new wealth – generated by many and shared by many – is an open, participatory, peer-driven undertaking.
To some extent it is still about new skills and business models – crowdfunding versus venture capital, for example. But other performance criteria, such as personal empathy, a sense of design, aesthetics, anticipatory foresight, intuition, flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurship, have surpassed the roles that formal knowledge, craft qualifications and vocational skills used to have. In other words a new moral compass is being applied to business and its development.
New business models and skills are only half the story. Conventional wisdom has shifted away from how best to accumulate wealth, towards generating impact via disruptions to the established order. In other words the power that came originally from traditional wealth is slipping away from individual owners and established investment opportunities. It is now focused on growing various forms of knowledge commons and the potential these have for leveraging massive social change.
Obviously there are tensions between these two kinds of authority – and not just in terms of their unfolding dynamics. How people think and feel about the new social economies – their right to engage, participate and benefit, together with an unflinching belief in radical transparency and shared accountability – are likely to be some of the defining features of the post-capitalist era.
A further impediment for contemporary capitalism, though infrequently considered as such, is the impact of climate change. Nature, as in the physical world of oceans and forests, has always been regarded as an extraneous factor in terms of neoliberal economics – unless or until it can be monetised. Economists have always regarded nature and its protection rather like religion or the arts – symbolic sideshows in comparison to the ‘real’ economy of manufactures, commerce and trade. Environmental destruction is still viewed in some quarters as an unfortunate, if inevitable, consequence of the need to produce more and more goods, so as to meet the growing demand from new customers in emerging economies. This craving accelerated exponentially during the latter part of the 20th century by way of mass advertising and the rapid expansion of access to global markets.
The Capitalist’s Paradox
Now we face an inherent contradiction. As previously inferred, late-stage industrial capitalism relies upon three interconnected factors: (i) the availability of an ever-expanding variety of material goods at low cost; (ii) the continuation of our insatiable desire to purchase more and more goods – animated by repetitive marketing spin as well as strategies like in-built obsolescence; and as a consequence (iii) the energy needed to manufacture and distribute these goods to the far-flung corners of the globe.
The first of these factors can be assured by various means. Theoretically it does not appear to be an insuperable problem. The second factor is slightly more conditional. For example, if we become in the least bit fatigued by the continuous advertising spin used to sell bland and homogenised products, and seek more uplifting ways to achieve happiness instead, the desire to own or to share could become a considerable problem for retailers.
But the third is a killer. Global warming is an aggregate of the way we each choose to live our lives – multiplied by the sheer number of humans inhabiting planet Earth. While we often use the population explosion as the main excuse for the burden we put on the environment, including changes in climate, the issue of lifestyle is of fundamental importance. Allow me to reiterate – this time in terms of cause and effect:
- Continued domination of a socio-economic world-system, shaped by the structure and ethos of capitalism, is contingent upon increasing affluence – reflected in the ability to access and acquire more and more material belongings – remaining a foundation motive for ordinary people achieving the lifestyle they most envy and covet
- To fulfil this desire there must be continuous growth in the number and variety of products available for people to purchase – along with competition to keep prices as low as possible, and the availability of human labour to make them
- In order to meet this massive and constant demand for new goods the industrial combustion of fossil fuels is then needed to provide the energy for manufacturing and transportation.
Note the contradiction. The fuels that provide the power source required for capitalism to function optimally are also responsible for the global heating that is now an existential emergency. Without fossil fuels, capitalism in its current form is doomed. It becomes obsolete by its own inherent logic.
Environmental destruction is as much of an economic crisis as a social one. We ignore it at our peril. Air, water and soil contamination, toxic waste, the decline in fish stocks, the extinction of entire species, rising ocean levels, and abnormal heating associated with greenhouse gas emissions, are causing disquiet as the entire world comes to a shuddering recognition: in today’s circumstances economic growth and development, driven by competition for scarce resources, is incompatible with human survival.
The Age of Postcapitalism
Towards the end of the 20th century, neoliberalism began to break with a 200-year tradition that had become entrenched within industrial capitalism: financial crises inevitably provoked technological innovations that benefitted everyone. Since the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan we have witnessed the containment of wages along with the smashing of the social power and resilience of the working class to help shape the political economy. The result is a predatory system programmed to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures on society.
Capitalism looks as forlorn a project today as did the millennial sects in the late 19th century. The democracy of riot squads, corrupt politicians, magnate-controlled media and the surveillance state looks as phoney and fragile as East Germany did 30 years ago. Millions of people are beginning to awaken to the fact they have been sold a fantasy at odds with what reality can deliver. Their response is one of anger and a determination to change things for the better.
The main incongruity today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. In the final analysis everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between the Cathedral and the Café, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of liberated being. So, to return to our original thesis, and assuming capitalism can not endure in its current guise, what should we expect in a postcapitalist society? What will be possible that is currently constrained? What kind of new relationships can we expect? And how will this shape human nature? Will it evolve into a form of universal intercourse between all members of the human family that many of us desire?
Among the various unknowns, one thing is very clear: differing modes of production have always been structured around distinctive propositions. In the past these uniquely advantaged or marginalised certain groups. Feudalism, for example, was predicated on tradition and a sense of duty. It favoured priests, the military and the aristocracy. But those who were marginalised under this system, such as lawyers and scientists, became the architects of the next wave of social transformation. Industrial capitalism was predicated on markets. It is exceedingly unlikely that a postcapitalist society, in which abundance is a precondition, will simply emerge as a modified form of today’s philosophy. Indeed it is entirely feasible that those marginalised or betrayed by capitalism, including women entrerpreneurs, the unemployed, intellectuals, the urban poor and internet nerds, will help expedite the transition into a postcapitalist era.
Naturally we cannot fully grasp what this society will actually be like as many unpredictable factors could come into play. Nor can we imagine the kind of human beings the new society might produce once economics is no longer as central to life.
Whatever criticisms can be placed at the door of present-day capitalism, and there are many, it did succeed in weaving together significant elements of human creativity, innovation, aspiration and expressions of progress in nurturing and sustaining its own inherent logic of acquisitive growth.
It is also fair to say that, until now, we have not been able to attenuate its more destructive aspects, nor find an expedient way to live when deprived of its irresistible vitality and power.
As a consequence, capitalism is unlikely to be forced into retirement any time soon. But eventually, hastened by a series of external shocks – including climate change, energy depletion, migration, and an aging population, the constraints within its own logic, and the coevolution of a more connected humanity – it will be brought to its knees by a more dynamic, virtuous, mutually-beneficial system.
The seeds of that new system already exist, although one must look long and hard to identify them. Barely visible in the niches and hollows of the markets, entire spheres of economic life are beginning to move at a new pulse and to different rhythms.
The spread of collaborative production, social economies, parallel and cyber currencies, alternative producers, spontaneous action groups, open source software, local exchange initiatives, volunteer enterprises, cooperatives, and diverse knowledge commons are all proliferating. Driven by shared information and an impulse to engage, they do not respond to the rules of the market and pay no attention whatsoever to managerial hierarchies. Instead they are giving rise to new forms of ownership, new forms of lending, and new legal contracts.
To conventional economics such pursuits hardly qualify as economic activity. Government taxation agencies, indeed, are still inclined to refer to them as hobbies. But that is the point. They exist because they trade, albeit tentatively, in the currencies of postcapitalism: free time, free stuff, and networked activity. As such they inherently undermine the status quo.
Eventually a postcapitalist society must break into the mainstream from this genesis, reconstructing an economy founded upon higher motives, values and behaviours, and information as a social good – to be shared freely, and quarantined from being owned, exploited or priced.
When that time comes, those of us left will wonder how we ever put up with the old paradigm for so long. We will be amazed that it took us decades to grasp that what flows naturally, leads to empathy and cooperation rather than envy and hostility, and assures human sufficiency as well as the health of the planetary ecosystem, is the most vital part of what it means to be human. Some call it empathy. Others wisdom. Me? I call it love.
I have drawn on the work of many scholars in the writing of this piece. I am particularly indebted to Michel Bauwens, Joe Brewer, Charles Eisenstein, Douglas Rushkoff, Michael McAllum, Wolfgang Streeck, Michael Ignatieff, Francis Fukuyama, Jose Ramos, Robert Reich, Elinor Ostrom, Paul Mason, Diane Coyle, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Romer, Ian Bremmer and Nassim Nicholas Taleb for their noteworthy understanding of current conditions – insights I have shamelessly utilised in fashioning the arguments in my essay.
 This failure is international: The Bank of International Settlements – the central banks’ central bank – warned a few months ago that the global economy seems unable to return to sustainable and balanced growth.