Postcapitalism summarized

Originally published online 14 December 2011.

The core argument of my diaries has remained consistent over the years: the capitalist system as a whole has a finite lifespan on this planet, and we are at some point going to have to consider, deeply, what will replace it, without any great naivete about how we are going to bring back FDR or JFK or Honest Abe Lincoln or the Founding Fathers to run things.  So this is a diary about “postcapitalism,” and how I see it coming about.


1. There has been on planet Earth, since the 13th century at the latest (see e.g. Janet Abu-Lughod on the “13th-century Renaissance“), a world system, in which various and sundry cultures have interacted. At first, the world system had a number of different economic systems: feudalism, water-based empires, tribal systems, absolute monarchies and so on. But then, radically (and along with the expansion of trade with the European exploitation of the rest of the world in the 16th and 17th centuries), one dominant system emerged: capitalism.

2. Along with the development of capitalism came the creation of a capitalist set of “core nations” (and here we can, courtesy of Kees van der Pijl, establish a date and a place: the UK after the Glorious Revolution of 1688) which established conditions for the expansion of capitalism. With this Kees van der Pijl refers to the “Lockean heartland” — the philosophies of governance that one typically sees in the core nations of the capitalist system are largely versions of what one sees in the works of John Locke. In these philosophies, property is sacrosanct, there is usually some version of limited democracy and human rights to enlist and co-opt the public will, and conditions for business expansion are well-defined.

3. This, then, is what defines the capitalist world — not just “trade,” per se, but rather an entire system in which capital accumulation is the defining economic motive. “Accumulate, accumulate: that is Moses and the Prophets” — this is how Karl Marx defined the capitalist ethos in 1867, when he published Capital. Trade can exist without capitalism, then, and we can have whole economic systems in which trade is not a mechanism for the facilitation of capital accumulation. It also serves my purposes here to argue that trade is not the origin of capital accumulation — rather, under capitalism, capital accumulation is gotten through the accumulation of a surplus from wage labor — workers get paid a wage and owners make a profit off of the added value coming from the labor of whole congregations of workers. Once again, interested readers should look at volume 1 of Marx’s Capital for an explanation of how this comes about.

4. Capitalism puts the things of the world through what I call the cycle of commodities — from natural resources to raw materials to consumer products to trash. Recycling can only recreate raw materials, not natural resources (and definitely not nature per se), and is not always feasible or profitable. Thus there is a limit to how thoroughly the capitalist system as a whole can use up the world, before the world becomes a great mound of trash.

5. Capitalism generally expands, and the whole system is kept aloft, through the exploitation of physical frontiers. There is a world “out there,” outside of the core nations, which exists as a “free gift” for the capitalists, and profit is to be facilitated by the seizure, commodification, and sale of that “free gift.” Thus the core nations of the capitalist system exist with respect to a “periphery” (traditionally much of Asia, Latin America, and Africa) full of resources to be plundered. There are two movements of commodification here. a) The commodity stamp is placed on the resources of the periphery, as people were once made into “slaves” in Africa and shipped to the New World to work on plantations, and b) the resources of the periphery are turned into sites of capitalist production in their own right, much as Senegalese farmers are made into clients of Cargill and other huge agribusinesses in the current era. These two movements of commodification correspond to the two movements of imperialism — Imperialism I and Imperialism II as M. Shahid Alam calls them in Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, or “imperialism” and “corporate imperialism.” There will in all likelihood be no third movement of commodification.

6a. Along with the core nations and the nations of the periphery, history records the movement of what Kees van der Pijl calls “contender states.” The contender states (from Napoleonic France to Germany under the Kaiser and under Hitler to the Soviet Union to China under Mao) perform a sort of “mercantilistic semi-withdrawal” (Wallerstein’s words) from the world system in order to conduct an authoritarian forced-march “catch-up” in terms of industrialization. They did this largely in order to resist being part of the periphery, and thus mere objects for imperialism. Thus it makes no sense to me to argue that the Soviet Union (for instance) has some sort of “separate” economic system — the Soviet Union always existed in an expanding capitalist world system, and the behaviors of its leaders (from Stalin to Gorbachev) only made sense as reactions to that expanding capitalist world system.

6b. When I am talking about other economic systems than capitalism, then, I am talking about other periods of history than that period (1688-present) which is characterized by expanding capitalism within the world-system. Specifically, I am talking about a postcapitalist future. I do NOT have in mind the recreation of the Soviet Union, nor for that matter the Holy Roman Empire or Ming China or classical Athens or any other precapitalist formation. The future is not going to be like the past, and no national economy exists in isolation from the rest of the world.

7a. There is an inherent time limit to the longevity of the capitalist system. This time limit can be extended if the capitalist system changes its mode of exploitation. Generally speaking, though, there have been four distinct periods of the capitalist system, which I described here in my second diary for DailyKos.com:

Kees van der Pijl, for his part, imagines the history of capitalism to be divided up into four stages, corresponding (in my thinking) to four distinct periods of American history:
a) a period of agricultural capitalism or “extensive accumulation” (p. 63, same book), epitomized most directly by the Deep South before the Civil War, where “cotton was king” and a plantation aristocracy ruled the roost.
b) a period of industrial capitalism or “intensive accumulation,” epitomized by the era of the Robber Barons as described by Matthew Josephson in his book of that name. The ascendant industries of that era were “metals, oil, and engineering” (van der Pijl, p. 56). This period can be said to take off sometime after 1859, when the first profitable American oil well was created in Pennsylvania.
c) a period of consumer capitalism, when, after the trauma of the Great Depression, the capitalist class found itself obliged to create a consumer class, also known as the “American middle class.” This period reached its heyday in the thirty or so years after World War II. The ascendant industries of this era were “automobile, chemical, and electrical engineering” industries (56).
d) a period of neoliberalism, or what we might call the “Age of Finance Capital.” This is the period, vaguely, from the end of the 1970s to the present day. The ascendant industries of this period can be said to be “microelectronics/ telecom and biotechnology/ pharmaceutical” (57). In this period, capitalist discipline can be said to have invaded the genetic code of the natural organisms themselves; thus with genetic engineering, life itself has become a patented, malleable commodity. This period of capitalism is characterized by an increasing glut of capital, a global economy based on dollar hegemony (where “world trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy”) and an increasing tendency to crisis, which has three dimensions:
a) Ecological crisis, which can be seen most directly in global warming but is there in other ways as well,
b) Financial crisis, seen in the increasing instability of dollar hegemony, and
c) Political crisis, seen in the increasing instability of US attempts at world domination and the various revolts against neoliberalism (mostly evident in Europe and South America).

I do not think the world is going to experience a fifth period of capital accumulation. In arguing thusly, I follow the essays of Jason W. Moore — who argues that we are not entering any new era of cheap resources, and that the room for further global exploitation is rapidly being used up by the capitalist system. I discuss those ideas further in this diary which I wrote a short time ago.

7b. We are thus entering an “era of limits” — but not limits to the ability of human beings to explore the universe or to provide a good living for themselves and their communities. Rather, the “era of limits” applies to the ability of the capitalist system to exploit the world’s “cheapness” toward the ends of capital accumulation.

8. What will ultimately bring the system down might be the current financial crisis, or global warming or peak oil or just the general destruction of planet Earth’s ecosystems. But, generally, what we can expect is an accumulation of catastrophes.

9. What is to come after the capitalist system is in fact anyone’s guess. Thus Gopal Balakrishnan:

We are entering into a period of inconclusive struggles between a weakened capitalism and dispersed agencies of opposition, within delegitimated and insolvent political orders. The end of history could be thought to begin when no project of global scope is left standing, and a new kind of ‘worldlessness’ and drift begins.

This, then, is the task of the people as I see it — to define the coming period of history that has yet to be written. We are headed toward an interim period in which the reigning concepts will be “up for grabs.” In this interim period, I predict, the old formations will be busy dying whereas the new formations will struggle to establish any sort of footing. I argue, in this regard, that we ought to make it a priority to preserve the health and well-being of the bulk of human society — “the 99%” as the Occupy movement calls it — as opposed to some set notion that we can recreate the Golden Age of Capitalism (1948-1971) through a few minor reforms.

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