Postcapitalism is likely to start from grim beginnings

Published online 11 November 2015.

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Image by Julian Povey (Creative Commons)

Some newbies responding to my diaries or comments approach my discussions of “postcapitalism” with the idea that I am projecting some sort of utopian fantasy into the future.  In fact, some of them think that my utopian fantasy is a dangerous one, raising the specter of omigod the Soviet Union! and such.  They think I am going to impose my future on them or something.

Actually I don’t assume anything at all, and if I’m assuming anything, it looks more like the future predicted by OPOL in his most recent diary than anything else.  Perhaps some magical technology will come along to save us all, but given that the promoters of new technologies repeatedly make claims that their technologies are like magic, I rather suspect that “new technologies” are often false hopes for the gullible.  When we start off with the idea that we are to advertise new technology with all sorts of inflated claims (“Alternative energy will save capitalism!” and so on), we are getting caught up in the general trend, described so articulately by G2Geek in this comment.  Here, G2Geek refers to recently proposed expansions of intellectual property law, but the trend applies generally to all aspects of late-capitalist life:

This is the logical outcome of two trends:

One, growthist economics on a finite planet.  If economic growth can’t occur in the consumption of finite resources including waste sinks (e.g. CO2 into the atmosphere), but growth “must” continue in order for capitalism to even exist, then growth “will” find other avenues, such as “immaterial goods” (“intellectual property”).

Two, the relentless drive for monetization of any and all aspects of life that can be observed or measured in any way, as a means of obtaining “growth” in profits.

The trend to which G2Geek refers is what Jason W. Moore calls “capitalization.”  The idea behind capitalization is that the world is to be turned into a profit-making machine for those with property or money.

Earlier periods of capitalist history relate the horrors of another, prior process that Moore calls “appropriation.”  Most of capitalist history is a history of appropriation, of Europe’s conquest of the world, of the expansion of capitalism throughout the world, and of the imposition of the commodity stamp upon the world.  This commodity stamp involved, for instance, a massive revival of slavery, as well as the extermination of native peoples.  And so when we talk about the Texas school board imposing ridiculous standards upon history textbooks, we are talking about an attempt to sanitize the history of appropriation.  For most of capitalist history appropriation has been nasty and brutal.

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Slave auction advertising (Wikimedia Commons)

In Sven Beckert’s history of cotton titled Empire of Cotton the period of capitalist expansion is referred to as “war capitalism,” and in this period capitalism had a dual nature.  It was divided between a core in which nice business practices were followed, and a frontier in which appropriation had the character of brute conquest.  Beckert:

  War capitalism relied on the capacity of rich and powerful Europeans to divide the world into an “inside” and an “outside.”  The “inside” encompassed the laws, institutions, and customs of the mother country, where state-enforced order ruled.  The “outside, by contrast, was characterized by imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples, theft of their resources, enslavement, and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states. (p. 36)

Apologists like to imagine that we can have a capitalist core without a capitalist frontier, that capitalism can be made all nice and sweet-scented and that it can continue without planetary plunder.  Such arguments might seem pleasing from time to time to privileged people isolated in the life of the core nations, while at the same time one occasionally sees glimpses of the world outside, as for instance when Whole Foods has to promise to stop selling foods made with prison labor.

And then you have the apologist arguments which attempt to “parse out” capitalism, as if it were synonymous with “freedom” and as if it (capitalism) were really some pure state of being in which there was no government intervention in the economy.  All of those other forms of capitalism, which in fact attempt to appropriate and capitalize the world, are not “really capitalism” because they involve government intervention.  It’s not very useful to see the world this way.  The “even so-called Communism was really capitalism” perspective makes the most sense when we try to see capitalism over the longer term of history.

To be sure, Moore’s history points to the late 1970s or early 1980s as the time of “peak appropriation,” a time in which the appropriation of the world under capitalism had expanded as far as it could expand, and would decline in its yearly expansion from year to year after that.  The history of profit-making from that point appears to be more and more extensively dependent upon (further) capitalization — the creation of new profitmaking machines (often with government collusion) out of old, already-appropriated, material.  Capitalization is what motivates the privatization of the public schools and the mandate penalty within the ACA, for instance.

The problem with having a history of capitalization to go along with a history of appropriation, however, is that the world can only be capitalized so far before it is thrust into a state of exhaustion.  Technological opportunities will, indeed, mean more profit-making opportunities.  But we do not live in the late 19th century anymore, so there is no great frontier populated by mere native people to exploit, nor is there some fabulous world of oil extraction or train travel awaiting us in the future.  Nor do we live in the 1960s anymore, so there is no future of cheap food via the Green Revolution, or increasing global integration of the world’s national economies and cheap labor reserves (aided, of course, by air and sea travel, and fueled by cheap oil), to anticipate.  Capitalism’s “new frontiers” today appear to be more hype than reality, accompanied by the bone-picking of already depleted carcasses by capitalist buzzards.

Capitalism, then, wears out the world, and technological innovation can only extend the process so far before the world becomes totally worn-out.

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Tar sands mining (Creative Commons image by Howl Arts Collective)

That’s the new “paradise” which advocates of postcapitalism anticipate, then.  The decline of the capitalist system will be accompanied by intensifying crisis, as we enter the final days of sub-400 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide.  What did Gopal Balakrishnan anticipate back in ‘09?

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 would conform to Hegel’s suspicion that at this spiritual terminus, the past would be known, but that a singular future might cease to be a relevant category. In the absence of organized political projects to build new forms of autonomous life, the ongoing crisis will be stalked by ecological fatalities that will not be evaded by faltering growth.

It still seems as if he’s correct — for as for the most prominent process of “saving the climate” (given that climate change is the most prominent manifestation of the ecological crisis shaking the world), the Paris negotiations due to take place at the end of this month, Brian Tokar has this to say:

For much of the past year, the main discussion among activists in Europe has not been about whether or not the Paris negotiations will succeed. Instead, the debate has largely focused on whether to give the negotiations any credence at all, or whether it’s time to view the entire UNFCCC process as thoroughly corrupted and hopelessly beholden to fossil fuel corporations and the interests of global capital.

The capitalists, then, are going to save neither themselves nor the world with all the power they’ve got, and so what we can expect from the future is a further intensification of crisis.  When will the whole system break down?  Nobody knows, and moreover nobody knows what will be left of the world when it does break down.

To add to that, nobody knows what will take capitalism’s place.  The future is not planned out.  We might expect that the end of capitalism will free us from the daily necessity of “earning a living” to actually spend time mitigating the ecological crisis, including the climate crisis.  Or maybe the governments of the future will require us to do that work.

We can, in summary, expect that the struggle to possess and expand that evanescent power to be gained by the mechanical exploitation of the world will at some point end.  Taking the place of this struggle, which has been the hallmark of the capitalist system over its 500-year history, will be a new return to relevance — to the human and extra-human life that really matters.  What it will look like?  Who knows.

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