Postcapitalist economic imagination

Published online 3 October 2014.

What will come after capitalism?

When the Roman Empire collapsed in the west in the 5th century after Christ (going by Dionysius Exiguus’s calendar), very little in the way of imagination was put forth as regards what would replace it.  For the most part, the successor regimes were modeled on the old Germanic kingdoms, though in vastly different circumstances — since the successor kings ruled portions of the Roman Empire, they had to govern Roman subjects as well as those of their particular ethnic groups.

So there were at that time two different types of law in post-Roman entities such as the Frankish Kingdom, and the Germanic rules of kingly succession proved to be disastrous when applied to such new kingdoms, as one can see from a reading of Gregory of Tours‘ “History of the Franks.”  Over the centuries, Gaul became Francia, which later became France, and post-Roman rule eventually became feudalism.  But that was centuries later.

My point is this: when two such traditional societies came together, as with the collapse of the Roman Empire after its invasion by various Germanic groups, the changed circumstances of the post-Roman kingdoms did not result in any great bout of innovation.  Rather, old traditions were readapted to new circumstances.  Other old traditions, such as Roman architecture or Roman mass production, disappeared altogether, and some old traditions, such as print literacy or urban life, were continued on a much smaller scale because the post-Roman states stopped supporting them.  (These last phenomena are cited by historians such as Bryan Ward-Perkins to support the notion that there really was a “Dark Ages.”) This might be what happens to capitalism when it collapses, although we may hope it doesn’t happen that way.

Much as the capitalists like to talk among themselves as if they were the founders of “innovation,” capitalism is really a traditional practice — the capitalist tradition is that of the exploitation of nature and of society as “free gifts” to capital, for the sake of commodity production in a “free market” with a set of established rules.   The capitalist system also relies upon other traditions such as economic growth and business profit for its well-being.

What are the alternative options?  The most paranoid defenders of the system like to talk in terms of “omigod the Soviet Union,” though it’s safe to say that authoritarian rule by Stalinists suggests only one of a great number of economic possibilities.  At any rate, does anyone today still believe that anything like the Soviet Union is still possible in the age of the Internet?

In the future, then, we could have some version of a gift economy taking place somewhere on planet Earth, or perhaps a barter economy, or perhaps also some version of online feudalism in which people would apply online to be vassals to the corporate lords of their choosing.  As for money, the current system, in which banks create money, hardly exhausts the realm of creative options — much of that is discussed in Hutchinson, Mellor, and Olsen’s “The Politics of Money,” which highlights the old Fabian notion of “social credit,” among numerous other options.

The more systematic, librarian-type, creatives among us like to talk of stuff like participatory economics, or “parecon” — Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel spent a lot of time thinking up an alternative economic system which would “involve the participation of all persons in decision-making on issues in proportion to the impact such decisions have on their lives.”  The ethnographers, grounded in real-life human practices, like to study stuff in this regard like the “misiones” programs in Venezuela or maybe what the Zapatistas are doing, or maybe the Mondragon cooperatives.

The one prerequisite for all of these alternative economic options, however, is that we have power over our lives — and such power will not be provided to us by the capitalist system.  We need to go out and seize such power for ourselves.  The power we’ll need will be power to make economic decisions — how money is to be printed, how its value will be respected, how production decisions will be made, and so on.  Arguably, then, having such power will count as the ultimate economic security in light of the possibility that the capitalist system might not last forever.

So what would possibly make the capitalist system collapse, and would thus create the impetus for the creation of a new economy?  There are plenty of reasons — the most obvious one is that the global economy is a house of cards waiting to topple.  But, in the medium run, what will eventually get capitalism is climate change — as Naomi Klein suggests in her new book, through the voice of climatologist Lonnie G . Thompson, who speaks for his professional colleagues when he says: “virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” (p. 15)  No civilization, no capitalism.  So something must be done.

Remember that kewl “New Climate Economy” report telling us all that climate change mitigation and economic growth were totally awesome things that would be even more powerful if put together?  You know, the one that was advertised by Paul Krugman?  It wasn’t.  Sam Bliss:

Remember that the NCE report is about climate action not climate protection. That is, the report looks at economic benefits of climate-friendly investments, not at the economic realities of fixing the climate.

Just because talk of a “climate fix” makes a nice selling point for “clean energy” doesn’t mean the fix is actually going to happen, even if the “clean energy” sale is itself completed.  Bliss continues:

Lord Stern, the big-name economist on the study’s commission, already knows that the necessary deep emissions cuts can’t be made while growing the economy. In his well-known Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change from 2006, the limit for carbon reductions in the company of growth was set at 3 to 4 percent a year. He also acknowledges that, historically, emissions decreases of larger than 1 percent per year have coincided with periods of upheaval or recession — when, by definition, there is a negative growth rate.

So what Bliss is saying is that even the people who write these sales pitches know they have nothing to do with saving the climate, and that an honest rap (even according to the folks who write this stuff) would demand far more in the way of “degrowth” than is possible under the current system except under conditions of a recurrence of the Great Depression.  Why, then, did we spend so much time talking about Paul Krugman’s pronouncements on economic growth and abrupt climate change?

Let’s be clear, then.  What will save the human world-socety is not cheaper solar power under current conditions of capitalist growth, although cheaper solar power will help people get energy without using fossil fuels under any economic system.  There will be no technical quick fix.  This is true for the reasons I discussed in this diary:

1) “Alternative energy” is poised to remain a supplement to fossil-fuel energy.
2) As “alternative energy” technologies improve, so also do fossil-fuel extraction technologies.
3) Infrastructure conversion costs are too high, and late-capitalist government is not currently positioned to “foot the bill” for all of this.
4) Capitalism is still predatory, and alternative energy does not in itself make a sufficient technological revolution to keep the system expanding.
5) Solar power (at least) could be subversive of capitalist growth itself.

What puzzles me, then, in light of what I’ve been saying, and in light of what Sam Bliss said (above), is this: why are the alternative energy people, the climatologists, the nearly 400,000 who showed up in NYC for the climate march, and others who are concerned about the coming disaster so shy about talking, creatively and constructively and more often, about alternative economic arrangements?  We should all be using our creative faculties as if our lives depended upon them.


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