The state we are in
Since the early 1970s – and even then only for quite small spaces and for some people for some periods – it is difficult to portray capitalism as offering an optimistic future for humanity. Growth has been weak and unstable, there have been many economic crises, wages have been stagnant and/or people have been compelled to work harder, the environment has been badly damaged, and wealth has become increasingly concentrated. A great many intellectuals and politicians have become habituated into a worldview that reflects this historical positioning: dour, austere, fearful, and necessitarian. As a result, politics has tendentially become something like a combination of devices to discipline, administer, securitise, and deceive: a globalising expectations management.
This is underpinned by three powerful ideological coordinates. Firstly, that capitalism is the only way of life: others systems have been tried and have failed so there is no alternative; and the source of capitalism is ‘human nature’. Secondly, that capitalism can do better: there is a new strategy to make capitalism nicer, a new global regime to solve growth or stability crises, a set of goals or summits to make capitalism ‘work for the poor’. Thirdly, capitalism has a way to go yet. This third ideological prop is based in the argument that the world’s poorest places are not yet capitalist and that – although things looks pretty bleak in the ‘developed world’, the great mission of capitalism is to bring the world’s poor up to the same material levels enjoyed in developed countries.
These three propositions are ideological, even if garbed in the authority of statistics or the sciences of policy-making. Capitalism is not the only way of life: a generous interpretation of history is that it has been around for about 500 years. Capitalism might do better but it might also do worse and we have lived through a generation (or more if you are poor and your life expectancy is in the 50s) in which the trend has unequivocally been towards worse. Thirdly, the proposal that a deeper, more expansive and more integrated global capitalism can generate economic development in the underdeveloped world seems increasingly problematic.
The great historic promise of global capitalism to promote development in areas of mass poverty is a mainstay of its legitimacy: capitalism is not perfect but it can at least solve the global poverty problem. And, there is always some substance to this historic promise. The examples of China and India’s mass poverty reduction are often used to substantiate this argument. But, this promise seems increasingly slender for the following reasons.
The nature of the world economy has tended to become increasingly hostile to projects of national development. This is a result of the concentration of capital within a small number of firms who dominate and actively restrict competition from others. The monopolisation of technologies by these companies makes early industrialisation extremely difficult, even without considering the rise of a constraining international legal system of ‘intellectual property rights’ which serves to police the time-tested and honourable pirating of technologies, the preferential treatment of local firms over global ones, and the use of patronage to generate rapid accumulation. There is, of course, also the not insignificant matter of the zombie monoeconomics of neoliberalism in which all unorthodoxies in development strategy become a source of concern for major institutions and states who – remarkably – still believe that the closer you are to laissez-faire, the better things will be.
But, let us suppose that capitalism does still contain substantial development promise for the poorest and smallest economies with large percentages of extremely poor people. What kind of world are these countries developing into?
In broad brush, developed global capitalism looks like this.
- A relentless concentration of wealth (assets and income) in the hands of a tiny minority who do very little to boost growth, productivity, or general well-being. In fact, those societies most intensively dominated by capital seem now fixed into low growth trajectories.
- An associated concentration of productive capital within massive transnational corporations which dominate markets, collude, skew democratic processes (such as they were), and squeeze everyone below them in the food chain.
- A massive rise in finance which is again highly concentrated and based in an explosion of instability, speculation, and extremely high levels of debt/credit.
- The holding of millions of people into a condition of life defined by multiplex, low-income, and insecure livelihoods. This involves a combination of some of the following: small-scale farming, semi-formal or temporary wage work which pays below a minimum level for a family to live for a year, small-scale manufacture, and sexwork.
- An increase in unfree labour through indenture, work gangs, all manner of indebtedness, human trafficking, the massive rise in sexwork, and criminal networks.
- The increasing precariousness of wage work. Secure jobs replaced by temporary ones, zero-hours contracts, the rise of agency work, heavily disciplinary performance management, the rise in ‘homeworking at piece rates set at the discretion of capital, long-standing attacks on labour unions. These changes have affected workers across income brackets.
- The rise of a new ‘global middle class’ which is often seen as Exhibit Number One in the development optimism case for capitalism. But, this middle class rises just far enough to join a cohort of people who struggle for stability, permanently worry about money, and exist in a permanent condition of working extremely hard. Of course, some have achieved what one might call the ‘leisure and security’ lifestyle that the bourgeoisie constantly fantasises about and projects to the world through the media. But this is a small proportion of the ‘new middle classes’ that exist in China, India, parts of eastern Europe, South America and patches of Africa.
- Governments that are now hardwired to redistribute away from the poorest, weakest, and least powerful. This is regardless of party position or even severity of crisis.
In sum, capitalism offers the slenderest hope to developing countries to upgrade into a world of massive inequality, overwork, insecurity, and depleted politics. Some promise.
A future without capitalism
Surely, then, we should consider a future without capitalist. This is not about tweaking capitalism to encourage it to have a more ‘human face’. This is not something that can be achieved in the next election cycle or through the emergence of a new social movement in response to a specific crisis. Nor is it something that might emerge very soon. If it happens at all, I will not live to see it.
But, I can imagine it; in some ways quite easily. I can see no overwhelming reason why the social relations of work, political agency, creativity and co-operation could not be re-fashioned into an imperfect world vastly better than this one. And, before you consider accusing this futurology of utopianism https://grahamharrison.me/2015/10/14/utopia-mirage-dystopia-the-slender-hope-for-a-more-beautiful-future/, consider Blade Runner 2049. Like many films in this future-dystopia genre, there seems to be an odd cultural reflex in which the more dire the future the more convincing it seems to be. The craziest version of this is The Handmaid’s Tale which seems almost to be set in the near-present. Why not entertain some future-shocks in which the shock of the new is based in something better?
Here are some tenacious threads of hope.
The increasingly spatially complex and unstable nature of accumulation has destroyed one of the staples of modernity’s historiography. It is no longer possible to imagine a world in which The West is ahead and the rest of the world aspires to achieve ‘Westernness’. Western countries are fixed in slow growth, some countries grow a lot faster; Western countries have significant populations of extreme chronic poverty which create conditions of life no less dire than classes in other parts of the world; Western states have become increasingly indifferent to the life prospects of their citizens as other countries construct basic health insurance or provide basic income grants.
These trends make the world increasingly unified, not in some hippy-like idealist sense but in the sense that all of the social harms of capital outlined above are universalising. By 2049, it is likely that there will be no nationally-defined ‘good life’ that capitalist classes can showcase as the historic offer to those states that contain combinations of low growth, poverty, overwork, precarious work, and super-wealth. Without this promise capitalism’s legitimacy will evaporate and the possibilities for rebellion that spreads unevenly and unpredictably but robustly throughout regions of the world are high.
Technological advances enhance these possibilities. Sharing information, creating discussion, participating in debates about strategy, moving resources, co-ordinating subterfuge, growing liberation pedagogies… By 2049, all of these practices can possibly become truly global rather than the province of Western liberal communities as they are now.
Scientific communities have made incredible advances even in the last ten years, advances that are often received by politicians and mass media with a strange indifference and in some cases hostility. But, it is as plain as the nose on your face that these technologies create the conditions for an end to scarcity and hunger. Scientific research could also generate the technologies for a post-carbon energy infrastructure or create technologies significantly to mitigate climate change.
The ambitions of a humane science will always challenge the constraining mixture of bureaucracy and profit-seeking that defines the state-capitalist nexus of research funding in the present. As problems of malnutrition, climate change, and hydrocarbon availability increase, the capture of the knowledge and technologies by capital (typically with government support) will become increasingly indefensible, especially as the lifeworlds offered by scientific advance become increasingly exciting. Every film dystopia worth its name has floating police cars. Why not imagine a less bizarre scientific future in which everyone is well-fed and supplied, energy, thanks to the liberated and socially-engaged research of rigorous, lively, open-data science?
I am proposing a 2049 in which capitalism is on its way out as it offers not even the slenderest image of a decent life to anyone by the bunkered super-rich and the cabals of politicians and military generals that revolve around them. I am suggesting the complex and multiscalar conditions of live for everyone else will have become sufficiently common to create the possibility not of a single global revolution but a fertile ground for rebellions against capital that spread easily and open up as-yet-unknown potentials to reimagine the way we work, engage with decisions that affect lives, and the way we develop and use technologies.
And, if you want to laugh it up and go back to furrow-browed discussions about immanent genetic fascist patriarchy and one-generation-distant perma-smog cyber-cities, then good luck to you.